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Answering the Unexpected

Seemingly out of nowhere God calls Abraham, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12) We are left to wonder why Abraham? What is it about his character that made God choose him? The rabbis of course spin many stories to explain this. The most famous of which is the tale about the time young Abraham was working in his father idol shop. Abraham smashes all the idols except one and then when his father confronts him, he blames the single idol. His father screams, “That is ridiculous! An idol can’t destroy other idols.” And Abraham says, “Exactly!” He reasons that a statue of wood and stone cannot be responsible for our lives. In that moment Abraham begins to realize that there is only one God who moves heaven and earth. Moses Maimonides offers a similar insight. He suggests that Abraham looks to the stars and realizes that they should not be objects of our worship. He understands that there is an
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Walking with Others, Walking with God

What does it mean to walk with others? Moshe Cordervero, one of the greatest Jewish mystics, who lived in sixteenth century Safed, offered this advice. Go for long walks with friends. He and his friend, and fellow mystic, and brother-in-law, Shlomo Alkabetz, who authored one of our favorite Friday night prayers, Lecha Dodi, would go on walks in the fields surrounding Safed. Their goal was to see where their friendship led them. What truths could they uncover as they walked? Cordevero offered this counsel: “One should desire the best for friends, view their good fortune favorably and cherish friends’ honor as your own.” What they discussed on those walks were recorded in a book called the “Book of Wanderings.” Go on an undetermined path with a friend. Go get lost with a friend. Wander together and there you can be found. There you might discover some truth. He offered practical suggestions about his spiritual practice. 1.Always walk with a friend. And 2. Only discuss matters of gre

Grasping the Divine Image

This week we begin the Torah reading anew. We begin with the opening chapters of Genesis. We join with others so that we might uncover new, and yet undiscovered, understandings in these ancient words. And we notice there are two creation stories. In the first chapter God creates human beings from the earth. The name Adam comes from the Hebrew adamah, meaning earth. Furthermore, humanity is created in God’s image from the outset. This image is a matter of divine will. It is given to humanity by God’s hand. The Torah reports: “And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God, God created adam, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1) Man and woman are created simultaneously. The rabbis suggest that adam was an androgynous human with both male and female traits. God then divided this figure into two and fashioned male and female. In the second creation account, man is created first and the woman from his rib. This is perhaps the more familiar account and has for centuries l

Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Strangers

The holiday of Sukkot is an agricultural festival. In ancient times we built temporary shelters so that we could spend our days out in the field harvesting the Fall crops. The Torah also suggests that we lived in these booths during our wanderings in the wilderness and they therefore remind us of our journey from freedom (Passover) to revelation (Shavuot). Rabbi Akiva believed that these temporary booths symbolized God’s protective shelter over us. For one week we are commanded to eat, and even sleep, in the sukkah. The sukkah should never be built so well that it keeps out rain. In fact, one is supposed to be able to see the stars through its roof. The sukkah’s temporary quality reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Spending time in the sukkah helps to reconnect us to nature. Sleeping in the sukkah teaching us gratitude for the beautiful homes in which we live. We are to invite guests into our sukkah and share our meals with them. The tradition suggests that everyone who is fort

Get Angry, Be Joyful

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.  We require the emotions of anger and joy to face life's uncertainties.       A Hasidic story. When the seer of Lublin was a child, he lived near a forest. Almost every day the young boy ventured off into the woods by himself. His father, who was basically a tolerant and understanding man, didn’t want to interfere with his son’s daily excursions, but to be honest, he was concerned. He knew all too well that the forests near their home could be dangerous. One day the father pulled his son aside and said, “I notice that every day you go off by yourself into the forest.” He continued, “I don’t want to forbid you from going there, but I want you to know that I am worried about your safety.” The father added, “Why is it that you go there, and what is it that you are doing there?” The boy responded, “I go into the forest to find God.” His father was deeply moved by his son’s spirituality. “That’s beautiful my son,” he said. “A

Embracing Change

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening in which I argue that only change will ensure the Jewish people's survival. Let me tell you about our people’s survival. It is captured by a story from nearly 2,000 years ago. It involves the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, the most catastrophic event the Jewish people ever experienced, until the twentieth century’s Holocaust. It is the story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Yohanan was secreted out of town by his students. They carried him to the Roman general’s camp in a coffin. There he negotiated with Vespasian that Yavneh be spared so that a rabbinic academy could be established there. Why did he need to sneak out of Jerusalem? Because his Jewish compatriots might very well have killed him. So divided were the Jewish people during those years that he feared for his life. He was a known critic of the Sadducees who stubbornly held fast to the ritu

Zoom Stories

What follows is the meditation I offered at this year's Yom Kippur Yizkor service reflecting what I learned at Zoom shiva.   This year was a difficult year. Our congregation suffered many losses and far more than past years. This year was also a strange year. We observed shiva more often than not on Zoom. Because of this there was a regular shiva minyan in my home for months on end. And yet, even though I sat by myself in my study I strangely, and perhaps even miraculously, felt surrounded by hundreds of people. There, we huddled together on my laptop screen, all trying to bring a measure of comfort to grieving friends. This was not the shiva I had come to know in my thirty years of being called rabbi. In the past this is what I instead observed. More often than not people would arrive and find their way to the kitchen. They would exchange sometimes uncomfortable “Hello’s” and “It’s so sad.” They would talk about the weather’s latest storm or the maddening traffic, or a