Thursday, October 29, 2020

Following in Our Father's Footsteps

Although the reading of the Torah in public dates back to Ezra and the fifth century BCE (and traditional authorities say, Moses), the weekly division of the Torah into fifty-four portions hearkens to Babylonian times, approximately 1500 years ago. And so, we conclude last week’s portion with the words, “The days of Terah (Abraham’s father) came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:32)

We begin this week with the verse: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) For thousands of years, we have read these sentences a week apart, and have therefore seen them as disconnected.

The rabbis plant the question in our hearts by this division. Why was Abraham called? And they have an answer ready-made. They offer countless stories about Abraham’s character explaining why God called him. I would imagine in synagogues throughout the world rabbis will begin their weekly discourses describing the story about young Abraham working in his father’s idol shop.

This all too familiar rabbinic midrash in which Abraham destroys all but one idol and then blames the destruction on the remaining idol seeks to offer a reason why God called Abraham seemingly out of nowhere. The rabbis see in Abraham the first monotheist who on his own recognized that there must be one God who created the world and moves history rather than a multitude of idols for each and every occasion.

But this out of nowhere understanding of the call is dependent on the division of the Torah into our portions and the dividing line between Parashat Noach and Lech Lecha being drawn between the end of chapter of eleven and the beginning of twelve. By drawing the line in this way, the rabbis add an exclamation point to their understanding of Abraham. They draw an arrow to the theology they wish to teach. They imply that the story moves because of Abraham’s vision. God is one, they exclaim.

Such is the power of the editor’s hand. If we read these verses as connected, however, we gain an additional understanding of Abraham’s actions. The Torah relates: “Terah took his son Abraham and his daughter-in-law Sarah and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.” (Genesis 11:31)

Why did Terah take his family on this journey? Why did he set out to what would soon be called the Promised Land?

Perhaps the answer is discovered in the prior verse: “Now Sarah was barren; she had no child.” Could it be as simple as a father saying to his son, “You and your wife are despondent. We need a change of scenery.” Does the story move from one chapter to another because of a father’s love rather than God’s command?

Then again perhaps the answer is even more plain. Abraham’s family were wanderers. They travel from place to place. Their home was wherever they camped for the night. The land of Canaan was not a promise (yet) but another destination in a long list of waypoints.

This week we open our Torah and think that Abraham was not heading toward the Promised Land until God called to him. This is in fact not the case. He was already heading towards the land of Canaan. He was stopped in his tracks by father’s death in Haran. And then, like most dutiful sons, he picks up the journey where his father left it and sets out to where his father intended.

And now I am left with even more questions. By setting out for the land of Canaan is Abraham honoring his father or God? Was Abraham honoring his father and continuing the journey already mapped out or fulfilling God’s command and living up to an even greater ideal? Does the distinction matter?

The competing voices of God and parents is a tension throughout Abraham’s life. Later God commands Abraham to sacrifice his promised son. Which is the more important: honoring parents or living up to an ideal? Isaac, the promised son, goes willingly, honoring his father. Abraham goes willingly as well, honoring the ideal. Can we synthesize the two? Can this tension ever be resolved?

I am left to wonder.

God’s call to Abraham is not so much about spurring our forefather Abraham to leave his father’s house and his native land but instead about sanctifying a journey already mapped out. It is also about elevating one place over another. It is there, in the land of Canaan, where we best discover God’s call.

And how does Abraham respond?

He stays there—in the Promised Land—for a while and will of course later return (as will we) but for now keeps on walking. “And Abraham journeyed by stages to the Negev.” (Genesis 12:9)

Perhaps he is first and foremost his father’s son. He will always be a wanderer.

The imprint of parents remains as an everlasting inheritance.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Walking and Sauntering

Henry David Thoreau in his seminal essay, "Walking" idealizes going for a walk in the woods. The purpose of such an endeavor is not to reach a destination but instead to be at one with nature. He recommends these walks should be at least four hours long. We should saunter through nature.

Sauntering, he explains, is derived from the Middle Ages when people wandered about the Europe, asking for charity, in their quest to journey to "a la SainteTerre," the Holy Land. He writes:

This is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.... For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land.

And while I am troubled by the term crusade for it conjures negative connotations in my Jewish heart, I find his idealism deeply uplifting. Every walk is a religious quest, a pilgrimage, to a far-off destination, where insights, discoveries, and even revelations are found during the journey rather than at the moment of arrival.

God calls each of our heroes as they walk. Moses discovers God in a lowly bush as he is shepherding. God appears to stop him in his tracks. There is movement in these calls. The first words Abraham hears are: "Lech lecha-go forth." This week, we read "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6) What does the Torah mean by this walking?

The biblical commentator, Sforno, who lived in fifteenth century Italy, responds: "Noah walked in God's way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct them and if necessary, to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out." This is the typical Jewish answer.

Walking means to follow the Jewish path, to walk in the path of our ancestors. In fact, the Hebrew word for law, halachah, comes from the very same root as walking. It would be better to translate halachah as "walkway" for that is what the word implies.

The path is laid out before you. Follow it. Stay on the walkway. And this is how Jewish interpreters have long understood the phrase "walked with God."

The Hebrew verb is written in the reflexive. It therefore implies, walk with God and find yourself. This is exactly what our ancestors set out to do but our commentators failed to understand. Our biblical heroes forged a path for themselves while walking.

Back to Thoreau. The truth emerges on the walk. The revelation is discovered when you go for a walk. It does not have to be four hours, but you need to set out with no destination in mind and no route laid out. The meandering path through the woods, or the wilderness, can be an act of self-discovery, and perhaps it can even be an elucidation of inherited traditions. Then again nature offers revelation in what the eyes see, the ears hear and the nose smells-all while on the walk.

Henry David Thoreau concludes: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

Saunter towards truth.

Meander forward.



Friday, October 16, 2020

This Is Very Good; We Could Be Very Good

I have a life-long fascination with the Northern Lights. Their luminous beauty inspires me.  I have long wanted to travel to Iceland or Scandinavia, or even Alaska to see this winter spectacle. A bat mitzvah student recently reminded me that they are also called aurora borealis. She too is fascinated by them and wants to see them with her own eyes. She helped to rekindle my fascination with their beauty.

To my eyes, these lights appear as evidence of God’s handiwork.

“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1)

Then again scientists teach us that solar flares send microscopic particles hurtling toward the earth. These protons and electrons then bounce off the atmosphere and gather around the poles. These excited particles create energy that then produce the dazzling display of light with flashes of green and the occasional pink. This is the same principle that produces the colors in neon signs except in that case plugging the sign in an electric socket causes the electrons to bounce around the gas inside the tubes.

That is at least my rudimentary understanding of the science that causes this incredible natural phenomenon. I relish in the beauty of nature.

The awe-inspiring heavens stop us in our tracks. We marvel at the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky. We are unable to count the millions we can see. God agrees and shares my sense of awe. “And God saw that this was good.”

On the sixth day, after the creation of human beings, the Torah reports, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”

And yet we often fail to live up to “very good.” In fact, the remainder of the Torah is evidence of our failures to live up to God’s expectations. Not to give away next week’s story, but there is a flood. Why? Because people are flouting rules and the earth becomes filled with lawlessness. Soon after that is Sodom and Gomorrah. Then, Abraham nearly sacrifices his son. Very good? You decide. Moses gets angry—a lot. The Israelites complain—again a lot. They create a Golden Calf. That’s very bad and nowhere near very good.

The Torah is one example after another of people, heroes and villains alike, falling short. We could be very good, but time and again we are not. The concluding note of creation, that God found it very good, seems to be a set up. God saw that we can be very good. And the Torah then describes all the ways in which we are not—and perhaps points in the direction of how we can live up to the promise of very good.

But sometimes I don’t want to wade through all of the struggles and failures. And so, I look up to the heavens and behold the stars. Nature can serve as an antidote to human ills. Can the Northern Lights inspire us to do better?

Do they prompt us?  Even though we are often not very good, there is still plenty of time to do good. 

And God waits to say once again, “very good.”

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Torah Cannot Be Torah Without Us

It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)

Recited at the conclusion of the Torah reading service, these verses from Proverbs reinforce the centrality of Torah in Jewish life throughout the ages. They remind us that the Torah, the story of our people, is to be prized and revered.

The beginning of the Torah service, too, when the scroll is paraded through the congregation in a ritual known as hakafah offers us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of Torah – with kisses. As the Torah passes through the aisles, it is customary to reach out to touch it – with a hand, a prayer book, the corner of your tallit – and then to touch that object to your lips....

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Dancing in the Torah's Words

Given the growing controversy surrounding the celebration of the Jewish holidays in New York City’s Hasidic enclaves and our brethren’s apparent disregard of health directives, I joined with hundreds of other rabbis and signed a letter supporting the government’s efforts to do what is necessary to protect us from the Coronavirus. As I said on Yom Kippur, I believe Judaism is adamant that health takes precedence over the observance of holidays. And I remain disappointed, and disturbed, by my co-religionist’s response. 

That being said I am really going to miss our typical Simhat Torah celebration. I love it when we unroll the scroll around our sanctuary, and then get to journey from the last verses describing Moses’ death to the Torah’s first verses detailing the creation of the world. To be honest Simhat Torah is my favorite holiday. Not only does it represent that the exhausting set of Tishrei holidays are behind us, but it affirms that all my dancing is not only required but laudatory and even holy. 

Moreover, Simhat Torah represents what is central to my spiritual life, the study of Torah. It means that once again I will have the opportunity to discover something new in the words and verses of the Torah. I get to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs with new eyes. I can look at our going out from Egypt and our crossing the Sea of Reeds through lenses now colored by this year’s experiences. I wonder how for example six months, and counting, of social distancing and mask wearing will influence my thinking. I look forward to what new discoveries I might uncover in the Torah’s words. 

What new revelations will become illuminated as I unroll the scroll to these portions once again? 

This is Judaism’s central question. It reflects our principal faith statement. Read the Torah year in and year out. Examine its verses. Pore over its words. Meditate even on its letters. The Torah may appear not to change, but you have. And the fact that you have changed makes all the difference. 

That’s what makes the Torah new all over again. We are renewed, and even restored, by reading the same book with new eyes. The Torah becomes new each and every year because of our new eyes. 

I look forward to what new revelations might appear in the coming year.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Holiday Set List

The Hebrew month of Tishrei offers quite the set list! Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Sukkot. This holiday begins tomorrow evening and marks the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and living in these temporary shelters.

This month provides us with a record setting concert. Year after year it is the same. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Sukkot. Simhat Torah. There is an interesting tradition that even before breaking Yom Kippur’s fast, one is supposed to place the first board on the sukkah. Like the best of concerts there is no pause between songs. We move from the introspection of Yom Kippur to the rejoicing of Sukkot. The two holidays are bound to each other. The joy of Sukkot takes over.

The inwardness of Yom Kippur is transformed by the earthiness of Sukkot. We let go of our sins and wrongdoings. We turn to the world. Whereas Yom Kippur is all about prayer and repentance, Sukkot is about our everyday world. Its mandate is to celebrate our everyday blessings.

What is its most important mitzvah? Leishev basukkah—to live in the sukkah. We are commanded to eat our meals in the sukkah and even sleep in the sukkah. For one week our lives move from our beautiful homes to these temporary shelters. The sukkah must be temporary in its character. If it is too comfortable then it is not a sukkah. If it provides too much shelter, then it defeats the meaning of Sukkot.

Central to this definition of the sukkah is the schach, the roof. One must be able to see the stars through its lattice. So what does one do if it rains? What happens to living in the sukkah if the weather is uncomfortable? The rabbis are clear in their answer. Go inside! A temporary shelter cannot protect us from the rains. A temporary shelter should not protect us. Its fragility is part of its message.

Even more important than the sukkah’s temporary quality is the joy of the holiday. It is no fun to sleep outside in the rain. It is no fun to be eating outside during a late fall sukkot. One’s joy would be diminished. First and foremost, this day is about rejoicing. We rejoice in the gifts of this world. We celebrate the bounty of creation.

Living in these temporary shelters helps to remind us of these blessings. After a long day of fasting and praying, Sukkot comes to remind us of the blessings that surround us each and every day. Sitting outside in our sukkot, we look at the blessings of our homes. We relish the blessings of nature. We rejoice in fall breezes, the changing of the leaves and the full moon that will peer through the lattice tomorrow evening.

We breathe a sigh of relief after the exhaustion of beating our chest and examining our ways. The moon brightens the evening. We sing and laugh as we gather around the table in our sukkah. We rejoice!

The set list continues next week with Simhat Torah…

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Look in the Mirror: We Can Do Better!

My sermon "The Need for Soul Searching" from Yom Kippur evening also appears in The Times of Israel. 

The glass mirror before which we spend a good deal of our time as we prepare to venture out into the world or these days, present ourselves on Zoom, was invented in the early 1300’s. Prior to this people polished precious metals that only gave them an inkling of how they appeared to others. Imagine looking at your reflection in the waters of a lake. This gives you a rough approximation of how you might appear in ancient mirrors. Glass mirrors by contrast offer an accurate measure of how others see us. We stand before the mirror and ask ourselves if our grey hairs are showing or the outfit we are wearing is flattering to our figures or prior to that Zoom call, do we have any food stuck in between our teeth.

I have been thinking about mirrors and the technological leap they represent. Seeing ourselves more accurately, being able to hold a mirror so close to our faces that we can glimpse even our pores, helped to give rise first to an explosion of portrait painting and now to a heightened sense of individual rights. For our ancient rabbis, from whom we draw inspiration and wisdom, the mirror was not like our mirror. It was only an approximation of our appearance. And so, they saw our reflection more in how we behaved toward others rather than how we looked. For them the mirror was not about appearance but instead about how we acted. Our hands, when doing good, became a reflection of the divine image with which each of us is created.

And so, during this season of repentance, I wish to look into their mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Yom Kippur is devoted to heshbon hanefesh, self-examination and soul searching. This fundamental Jewish value is central to strengthening our souls. As difficult as it is, this soul searching, and self-examination offers needed medicine for this difficult and trying year. We stand before God and admit our errors. We make amends for our wrongs. We say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…. We are guilty.” We beat our chests and proclaim, “We have gone astray.” Although I have done plenty of wrongs and you have also committed errors, we never say it like that. It is always, we. “Al cheyt shechatanu… for the sin we have sinned.” And so, on this day soul searching is not an individual undertaking as much as it is a communal confession. How can we do better? What must we change?

The Need for Perserving Life

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.

Part 3 in our return to Jewish values series. Preserving life—pikuach nefesh.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement which emphasizes personal ethics and the importance of refining one’s character, was a leading thinker in nineteenth century Lithuania. Beginning in 1846, the world faced a cholera pandemic that spanned nearly fifteen years. He was still a young scholar at the time, when the epidemic first reached Vilna. He decided to focus all of his energies on saving lives. He argued, and as Judaism teaches, pikuach nefesh—the preserving of life—takes precedence over all other commandments, most especially ritual observances. He enlisted his students to help care for the sick. He rented a building that served as a makeshift hospital for 1500 people. He became enraged when his fellow rabbis argued that Shabbat and holiday observances should take precedence over health measures.

He publicly declared that everyone should listen to doctors first and foremost.  When physicians advised people that they should not fast on Yom Kippur because that might weaken them and make them more susceptible to disease, Rabbi Salanter did the most dramatic thing of all. He issued a ruling that said every Jew should eat on Yom Kippur. He did not stop there. Afraid that people would not heed his advice, he traveled from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, with wine and cake in hand, recited the kiddush and then ate in front of everyone. Some reports suggest that Salanter did not leave each synagogue until he was sure everyone had also eaten.

And so, this year’s decision to hold services online and not in person was easy. Of course, it was emotionally difficult. We miss each other. We miss being together. But from the perspective of Jewish law and the guidance it affords, the decision was easy. Health takes precedence. I am even tempted to take out a pastrami sandwich and eat it on this Yom Kippur to add an exclamation point to this teaching. Health is first and foremost.

Moses Maimonides, the great medieval thinker—he wrote books of philosophy and law— illustrated this point in a different manner. He was also by the way a physician. If, on Yom Kippur, someone says, “I am too sick to fast,” and doctors examine the person and determine, “It’s all in his head. She is healthy enough to fast,” and the person still proclaims, “I am too sick to fast. I must eat,” ignore the doctors and listen to the person. He rules, it is better to err on the side of caution. It is better to be extra careful when determining matters of health. The observance of the holiday takes second place to health. Pikuach nefesh wins.

I could offer plenty more examples from our tradition, of instances where Judaism says in effect, “Break Shabbat for the sake of saving life.” Judaism is crystal clear about this despite how some Jews presently behave.

The tradition goes even further. We are commanded not simply to choose our health over the demands of Jewish ritual, but to care for others. The Torah states: “Lo taamod al dam reacha.” This is usually translated as “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” Judaism understands this verse, as well as others, to mean that we have an obligation to save someone’s life. Do not stand idly by. We are not allowed to walk by when we see someone in danger. Do not look away when someone’s health is in jeopardy. We have to try to help. We have to at least call EMS. We are not allowed to say, “It’s not my problem. Or, it’s not my business.” The health and safety of others is very much our business and our mitzvah. To be even more dramatic, if you see someone struggling to swim and in danger of drowning, you cannot say, “I don’t know how to swim. Or, I don’t know her. Or, he should not have been swimming in the first place. Or, they are not Jewish.” Instead we are commanded to ask, “What can I do to help?” It is as simple as that. You have to help save a life. You have to help preserve life.

One of the things that is most striking about our response to our current pandemic is the newfound realization that our health is dependent on the health of others. If the person standing next to me in the supermarket cannot afford to get proper health care, then my health is impacted. If people standing next to me at the gym decide that the rules of social distancing are too cumbersome and limiting for them, then my health might be put at risk. If people sitting to my right and my left at the restaurant now seating 25% of its occupancy feel that the rules about wearing masks are some infringement on their individual liberties, then my health is potentially endangered. Never have we had such a glaring example that even though I may have access to the best doctors, and I may follow all of the state’s guidelines, my health and well-being is tied to everyone else’s health. Rich and poor, law abiding and law evading, are bound to one another in one single family of people.

Lo taamod al dam reacha—you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. We are commanded to care for others. The health of every human beings must become each and everyone’s concern. Our individual soul’s heath is dependent on the health of other souls. The pandemic should offer us a great unifying cry rather than divide us into class and sects, New Yorkers and Texans. We are in this together, whether we recognize it or not. And we are in this for some time. And so, we must exercise resolve. Don’t let your guard down. Why? Because other people’s lives are in your hands. Wearing masks when you are in situations in which you are going to bump into others—whether they be family, friends, or strangers, staying home if you have a fever, not congregating in large groups is about the health and safety of everyone. My health, your health is the community’s responsibility. This is our God-given duty.

Part of the reason why we are so divided is that we are not all doctors like Maimonides or trusting of experts like Salanter. Scientists and physicians should be taking the lead. Listen to the scientific consensus. The bubbe meises to which some of our brethren cling (look no farther than Brooklyn) will not help to lift us up out of this plague. Lo taamod al dam reacha! Care for one another as if your own life depended on it. Why? Because it is what Judaism demands of you. And because your life actually does depend on it. The Talmud teaches: “If you save a life, you have saved an entire world. If you destroy a life, you have destroyed an entire world.” Every person, every human being, is an entire world. And we are each responsible for these many, many worlds.

The Torah’s holiness code from which that verse about standing by the blood of your neighbor is taken, opens with the following words: “You shall be holy.” And then it goes on to offer a lengthy list of ethical commands. There are the obvious: “Do not steal.” And the not so obvious: “Leave the gleanings of your field for the poor and the stranger.” It is fascinating that the holiness code is by and large defined by ethical precepts and not ritual commandments. Holiness is first and foremost derived from how we treat each other. For years, I thought the concluding verse: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance and honest weights” offered a simple message. If you go to fill up your car with gas you have to trust that a gallon is a gallon. That sticker on the gas pump emblazoned with the official seal of New York State’s Weight and Measures department means more than we think. It signifies an objective truth.

Why is this the last word of the holiness code? Why does the most well-known chapter of the Torah detailing this litany of ethical precepts, one found in the exact center of our holy scriptures end with something so seemingly mundane? For years the explanation alluded me. And then, recently, it occurred to me like a revelation. It’s almost as if the holiness code likewise has that sticker appended to its conclusion. If we cannot agree on what a gallon is then everything begins to unravel. In our own age, the meaning of this verse has become glaringly apparent. Society is built on trust. There have to be objective measures upon which we all agree. I can’t tell you how to accurately determine if a gallon of gasoline is exactly a gallon, but I trust that someone who knows how to is doing exactly that.

And this points us toward a way out of our current crisis and how we might find ourselves sooner rather than later on the other side of this pandemic or at the very least more unified in our collective response to the virus. Listen to experts. Sure, doctors don’t always agree with each other. And the world’s experts have been stumped by the Coronavirus. Sure, even the most brilliant and experienced scientists are discovering something new about this virus every day and revising their understanding on a regular basis. But you have to trust the scientists, or we are never going to get through this. Like everyone else I have read far more about viruses than I ever wanted to, but my new-found knowledge does not make me equal to the expert who has spent a lifetime devoted to studying these microscopic organisms. Read Facebook posts less and follow the CDC guidelines more. Some might claim that the CDC has become politicized and that it has changed its mind about wearing masks or the transmissibility of the virus, but we disavow science to our own peril. Of course, scientists revise their understanding as they learn more. Yes, they even change their minds. But the Torah proclaims: “You shall have an honest balance and honest weights.” And that means follow objective wisdom. Listen to the scientific consensus.

The glue holding that sticker to the pump is losing its grip. I am watching—and this sometimes frightens me more than the virus itself—as this sticker gets peeled off bit by bit. The only way to get out of this is by trusting experts. Scientists are going to make mistakes just like every other human being. But listen to the counsel of our tradition. Follow doctors’ advice. Run after Rabbi Israel Salanter’s example.

But that’s not the whole story. Over the course of the past six months, people have said, more often than I can count, “As long as you have your health.” And at the beginning of the pandemic I heard in this cliché an affirmation of the Jewish dictum of pikuach nefesh. You must do everything, and anything, to preserve life. Health takes precedence over Shabbat. Health is more important even than Yom Kippur. But as the pandemic grew longer, and as the weeks became months, I began to hear a question mark at the end of this phrase. “As long as you have your health?” people began to ask and then later some even started to add, “As long as you have your health. Isn’t that right, rabbi?” And those questions left me wondering. Maybe that’s not all there is to it. Of course, if one is faced with debilitating pain, little else matters, but there is more to life than easily and effortlessly drawing a breath in and out of our lungs.

And this is why I admire Rabbi Salanter so much. He understood that there are two sides of the nefesh. Last night we explored what an honest accounting means, what true soul-searching entails, that this is how we refine our character and build a more ethical life. This morning we explored the physical health of the soul. The two are intertwined. Working out at the gym, guarding your health, must go hand in hand with caring for the spirit, for sustaining the inner life. And all of this must be done in the context of loving friends, and a caring community. Kehillah is the framework for exploring the soul and caring for the soul. As long as you have your health is only half the story.

You need to take care of the spirit as well and that does not just mean the difficult soul-searching I spoke about. We need to restore and strengthen our spirits. We need to bolster our faith. On Shabbat, the tradition teaches us, we are given an additional soul, a neshamah yetirah. Yes, the Hebrew language provides us with an additional word for soul. Neshamah comes from the Hebrew meaning breath. On Shabbat some extra spirit is breathed into each of us just as it was when God breathed the breath of life into the first human beings. Our breath serves as a constant reminder of the physical and the spiritual. Our spiritual health is of equal importance to our physical health. This too is not an individual pursuit, but a communal responsibility. This is why Shabbat is celebrated with our community—even when it is virtual. We depend on others to uplift us with our shared prayers and songs. This is why the Shabbat table is the quintessential Jewish space. It is not the synagogue that is central but the table around which you now gather that sustains us and feeds the soul.

We breath in that spirit of Shabbat. We gain strength from our community. We search within and explore how we can do better. We search without and discover how we must protect others and safeguard their health as well as our own. We are reminded again and again, most especially during these difficult and most trying of years, that we are sustained by the very same values that have nurtured our people for centuries. Pikuach nefesh—preserving life. Heshbon hanefesh—soul searching. And kehillah—community. Hold on to these values. Double down on committing to them. Gain strength from them. They will help us to surmount any and all challenges.

And so, I conclude with a prayer. May the coming year indeed be a year of health, a year of spiritual renewal, a year of honest self-examination, and most of all, a year when we can return to wrapping our loving arms around one another. And, may that day be very soon. 

Yahrtzeit Candle Meditation

What follows is my Yom Kippur Yizkor service meditation.

I began these High Holidays with a meditation about blessings. Judaism has a blessing for everything. Whenever we eat—an apple or hallah, when we see the beauty of nature—the ocean or a rainbow, when we celebrate a holiday—Passover or Yom Kippur, when we light the candles on Shabbat, we say a blessing. When we say the words of our tradition, we awaken our consciousness and fill our hearts with gratitude. That is the purpose of the blessing. But there is one item for which we don’t say a blessing.

When lighting the yahrtzeit candle. One might think this is because we are not feeling very thankful in the moment. The pain of our loss still stings our hearts. Still, this cannot be the tradition’s thinking. At the moment when we are confronted by the death of a loved one, we say “Baruch dayan ha-emet—Blessed are You Adonai our God judge of truth.” So why would the tradition not prescribe a blessing for this candle? Why has a tradition that has words for everything and anything chosen none for that moment when we light the yahrtzeit memorial candle.

Perhaps it is because there are no perfect words to say at this moment. Silence is the only response. The tradition proclaims by its silence. Let memories fill the heart. Let tears stream down the cheek. I offer a poem

There are two tears.

There are the tears of pain.
These tears burn our cheeks when death stands before us, when the weight of the heartache and loss feel crushing. These are the tears of despair when we feel like we will never be able to live without our loved one. We look back at these tears and wonder how we ever summoned the strength to place a shovel of earth into our loved one’s grave.

Later the tears of memory begin
to roll down our cheeks.
These tears do not sting.
Instead they are sweet.
We find that we laugh and smile
when recalling stories of our father or mother,
husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter,
grandfather or grandmother.
These tears bring with them the memories of loved ones.
They hurt, but do not sting.
Their taste is not the salt of bitterness
but the sweetness of memory.

There will always be tears. 
Some will sting.
Others will be sweet.
These later tears will bring with them
memories,
stories,
images, pictures, words and
values.
We cry when we remember.

But we also gain strength from these tears.
We discover
our tears are no longer incapacitating, but
restoring
resuscitating.

Let silence speak.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Blessings for the New Year

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah evening.

People think that blessings happen to you. This is what I also always thought and believed. In fact, this is how I ordered my spiritual life. Blessings find you. They capture you at the unplanned, and unexpected, moments. For years I held on to this idea.

Leon Wieseltier, the writer and thinker, once wrote: “Serendipity is how the spirit is renewed.” He wrote those words years ago when bemoaning the closing of his beloved record store. He taught that we are losing the art of browsing. We no longer wander into a record store or a bookstore and discover something new and wonderful. I admit. It’s been years since I went to a bookstore—or even seen a record store—and found myself lost in the poetry section, sitting on the floor, trying to decide which of the many newly discovered poetry books I might purchase—or asking the record store employee which Blues CD he might recommend to add to my collection. Those serendipitous moments sustained my spirit. They renewed my soul.

It’s the casual meeting, the unplanned encounter that restores us. At least that is what I thought. That is how I believed it is best to approach a spiritual life. I gravitated toward the meeting that was unexpected. I gained more sustenance from the chance encounter. That casual discussion in the lobby of our synagogue or the random debate at the oneg renewed me; the new friend made when we were both on a delayed flight to Los Angeles. I marveled about that experience. An upended journey transformed into a blessing by this chance encounter.

But then in March all this came crashing to a halt. The unexpected, the unplanned, the unchoreographed, came to frightens us. The serendipitous bumping into a stranger no longer electrifies our spirit; it terrifies the soul. We rush past the chance meeting so as to minimize contact and avoid the potential for contagion. We no longer linger. We no longer meander through occasions. Life moved online....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.