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Showing posts from September, 2010

Simhat Torah Message

As we near the conclusion of our Fall holidays I have been reflecting on the meaning of these days.  Yom Kippur still lingers in my thoughts.  But after enjoying meals in my sukkah and looking forward to dancing with the Torah scrolls, Yom Kippur appears to stand in stark contrast to these other days and for that matter, all Jewish holidays. Do you remember the 7 Up commercials?  “It’s 7 Up.  It’s the Uncola.” I have been thinking about these commercials as I reflect on the meaning of Yom Kippur.  In truth, it is the un-Jewish Jewish holiday.  Think about it.  There is no food.  There is no kiddush blessing over the wine.  You can’t drink.  You can’t eat.  You beat yourself on the chest.  Granted, honest self-reflection is a good thing.  It does indeed make us better, but only if we do the hard work of correcting our failings.  Nonetheless the day seems so un-Jewish. Perhaps some might think it blasphemous for a rabbi to say such things about the Sabbath of Sabbaths an


Bereshit   The following is my submission for Mekor Chaim: Bereshit and was published by the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet. I am not sure if rabbis are supposed to have favorite rituals. We are, I am told, supposed to promote all. Nonetheless mine is havdalah. It is beautiful in its simplicity. It touches all the senses. There is the taste of sweet wine, the smell of fragrant spices and the light of the braided candle. It is also because of its meaning, encapsulated in its closing blessing, that I adore this ritual. “Blessed are You Adonai our God who separates sacred from ordinary, light from darkness…” Its meaning echoes this week’s creation story. “God separated the light from the darkness…” In Genesis 1 God not only creates by word, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” but also by separating, by the act of havdalah. By making distinctions we imitate God and create. It is by this act that we create Shabbat holiness. Some argue that Shabbat exists

Sukkot Message

After the loftiness of the High Holidays we return to the earthliness of Sukkot.  The origins of Sukkot are rooted in both land and history.  In ancient times the Jewish people were farmers.  In order to facilitate the gathering of the fall harvest they built huts in their fields where they lived for the week long harvest.  According to the Torah the historical significance of this holiday is that the Israelites lived in these booths during their wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. Given that we are not farmers, we of course emphasize the historical meaning of this holiday.  Just as Passover celebrates going free from Egypt and Shavuot the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Sukkot represents the wandering from slavery to sovereignty.  Wandering is the core meaning of this holiday.  Searching for our home is symbolized in this temporary structure. In order to capture this quality the tradition dictated exacting requirements for the roof.  You must for example be able

Sukkah vs. Sukkah

Sukkah vs. Sukkah The holiday of Sukkot begins tomorrow evening.  I will build, or better put together, my prefabricated sukkah.  No hammers or nails are required.  I need only thumb tighten the screws, wrap a canvas tarp around the sides and then throw the bound bamboo skhach over the roof.  My sukkah fits the requirements and fulfills the tradition's demands.  This is why I found this New York Magazine article and exhibit so intriguing.  The exhibit's sukkot are designed by contemporary architects and designers and not only conform to halakhic demands but also interpret the holiday in creative ways.  My vote is for the below Sukkah of the Signs. This sukkah emphasizes the message of homelessness embedded in the holiday.    The power of Sukkot is to remind us of the temporary quality of life.  The requirements of the roofing, skhach, guarantee that the sukkah is of a temporary and impermanent quality.  Our homes may feel permanent but in fact everything is temporary and c

Op-Ed Contributor - Yom Kippur at Sea -

Op-Ed Contributor - Yom Kippur at Sea - This Op-Ed about a Jewish lobsterman brings back a wonderful memory.  It was decades ago, before I kept kosher and before I refrained from eating lobster.  Although many years have passed since I made this change, I still love the taste of lobster and so I continue to follow the midrash's advice: "Do not say I hate the taste of pork (read here: lobster).  Say instead, 'I love the taste of it, but God's Torah forbids me from eating it.'"  I had just completed an Outward Bound survival course off the coast of Maine.  I promised my family and especially my grandfather that I would return home with fresh Maine lobster.  We would then share the lobsters and have a grand feast upon my return.  Many had worries about this trip and the wisdom of spending good money to be hungry and cold for weeks and be alone on a island for days.  I packed one blank check for this important purpose.  "Papa will be so happy whe

Yom Kippur Message

As we prepare for this day of fasting and introspection I would like to explore one of Yom Kippur’s central exercises: reciting the Viddui, the confession of sin. There are two points to highlight about this ritual and its words. 1. The sins delineated are normal, everyday sins.  The vast majority of those that make the list have to do with the misuse of words and in particular lashon hara, gossip.  The suggestion is that everyone misuses, and at times abuses, words.  We sometimes speak with angry tones to those we most love.  Other times we recall an embarrassing story about others to elicit laughter.  Everyone stands guilty of these sins.  The larger point is that everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone misses the mark. We pray: Our God, God of our mothers and fathers, grant that our prayers reach You.  Do not be deaf to our pleas, for we are not so arrogant and still-necked as to say before You, our God and God of all ages, we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do

Into the Jewish People - by James Ponet

Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life Rabbi James Ponet, the Yale Hillel rabbi who officiated at the wedding ceremony of Chelsea Clinton, describes his personal religious journey and explores why he now officiates at interfaith weddings.  He concludes: My problem with intermarriage, I now realize, is based on legitimate fears about the survival of our people, period. But what if our people is in fact evolving into new forms of identity and observance? What if we are indeed generating new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world? What if Rabbi Donniel Hartman is right when he observes in his book The Boundaries of Judaism that “when the intermarriage act is in fact only … an expression of one’s choice as to partner and not of one’s personal religious and collective identity, the classification of intolerability is not warranted” and that “modernity and the choices it has engendered have created complex realities which we must take into account in our

Shabbat from Texting

I like this ad. At Rosh Hashanah services I noticed that the faces of a few congregants were glowing.  At first I thought it was because they were transformed by the prayer experience.  Praying together is indeed an inspiring experience!  Then I realized that their faces were reflecting the glow of their Blackberries, or was it their iPhones.  Our attachment to our mobile devices is all consuming.  We would do well to heed the Offlining campaign and leave our mobile devices at home on these holiest of days.  Check out for more information.  Let us use these days to look into the faces of our family and friends instead!

Rosh Hashanah Message

A Hasidic story. Reb Meir of Premishlan and Reb Yisreal of Ruzhin were the best of friends, yet no two people could be more different.  Reb Meir lived in great poverty.  He never allowed even a penny to spend the night in his house but would rush outside to give it to the poor.  Reb Yisrael, on the other hand, lived like a king. These two friends once met as each was preparing to take a journey.  Reb Meir was sitting on a simple cart drawn by one scrawny horse.  Reb Yisrael was housed on a rich lacquered coach pulled by four powerful stallions. Reb Yisrael walked over to the horse hitched to Reb Meir’s wagon.  With mock concern, he inspected the horse with great care.  Then he turned to his friend and with barely concealed humor said to him, “I always travel with four strong horses.  In this way, if my coach should become stuck in the mud they will be able to free it quickly.  I can see, however, that your horse seems barely able to carry you and your wagon on a dry

"Beasts of Burden"

I still remember the first day of school.  The excitement.  The pangs of nervousness.  My children return to high school tomorrow morning. Thanks to Peter De Seve of The New Yorker for reminding us what has changed in the interim.

Nitzavim-Vayelekh Sermon

…For parents the greatest worries are matters of life and death. For God’s Torah the greatest danger is idolatry. The idolatry of other nations was apparently very compelling. It stood in stark contrast to the religion of ancient Israel. Idolatry is about the concrete. You can hold the object of your worship in your hands. You can touch it. You can see it. Believing in one God is abstract. You cannot see God. You cannot touch God. In the Torah’s and the tradition’s eyes idols were everywhere and an everyday temptation. This is why they counseled us to make friends with the righteous and wise. This is why we warn our children, “Watch out for those other kids.” Is this warning effective for our children? Do they listen to such words? Perhaps instead we should honestly discuss with our children (and ourselves) what are the temptations that must be avoided. Let us give them specific names. Let us name those things which have too much power over our hearts. What are today’s idols? The m

If You Build It... | The New Republic

If You Build It... | The New Republic Yossi Klein Halevi's article about the proposed Islamic Center near ground zero is well reasoned and insightful. He writes: I am urging you [Imam Rauf] to rise to your moment of spiritual greatness. You have dedicated your life to helping Islam enter the American mainstream. In its current form, though, your project will have the opposite effect. The way to ease Islam into the American mainstream is in the company of its fellow Abrahamic faiths. The great obstacle to Islam’s reconciliation with the West is the adherence of even mainstream Muslims to a kind of medieval notion of interfaith relations. Muslim spokesmen often note how, during the Middle Ages, Islam provided protection for Christianity and Judaism. But that model—tolerance under Islamic rule—is inadequate for our time. The new interfaith theology affirms the spiritual legitimacy of all three Abrahamic faiths. Whether or not we accept one another’s faiths as theologically


Children often leave their homes accompanied by warnings from their parents.  “Don’t drink and drive.  Text me if your plans change.  Beware of strangers.  Don’t do drugs.  Watch out for those other kids.” This is God’s tone as well.  The people are nearing the moment when they will cross into the land of Israel.  God accompanies them to this door with warnings. “Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations; and you have seen the detestable things and the fetishes of wood and stone, silver and gold that they keep.  Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood.  When such a person hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart…’”  (Deuter