Monthly Archives: January 2012

Crying Out from the Mountaintop with Moshe and Martin

After hours of excruciating labor, the sweetest sound that can be heard is that of a crying baby.  That first cry lets us know that this new child has working lungs and can breathe.  But that cry doesn’t only represent physical health – it also symbolizes emotional sensitivity, the ability to connect, the desire to love and to be loved.  When we read this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Shemot – if we listen closely, we just might be able to hear this cry.  This is the cry that the midwives refused to turn their backs on, refused to silence, refused to discard.  This is the cry that demanded a response, propelling the midwives to ignore Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish boys.  This is the cry of humanity, of justice, of a better tomorrow.

This is only the first of a handful of cries in our portion.  The second comes from Moses, as he lies helpless in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter hears his sobs, and responds – feeling compassion for this small child.  It is this cry that wakes up a young woman, removing her from the cruel ways of her father’s home, and softening her heart.

And then there is the cry of Bnai Yisrael (the People Israel), yearning for God to help elevate them from their misery.  It is only after God hears these cries that God can respond.  And likewise, it is only after God cries out to Moses – saying “Moshe! Moshe!” at the burning bush – that Moses can respond to God, and be God’s partner in freeing the slaves.

I love that this Torah portion falls right before Martin Luther King Day.  A man who cried out for freedom and equality for all people, Dr. King articulated the necessity of the cry, and the urgency of the response.  Both Dr. King and our Torah portion remind us that we cannot simply sit back and allow injustice to flourish.  We must have the courage to cry out, from the top of our lungs, and from the top of a mountain.  And we must have the conviction to respond, listening  closely, making space for the small cries of those who are downtrodden, refusing to turn our backs on the pain, prejudice, and alienation that still exists in our very communities.

This Shabbat, as we read from the book of Exodus, may we commit to the tremendous task of making Dr. King’s dream a reality.

Posted on January 13, 2012

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Remembering Debbie… one year on

On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away.  While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance.  Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.

On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi.  When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited.  Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded).  When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain.  Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me.  One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.

Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way.  For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music.  In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others.  She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question.  She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.

During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us.  Now we sing it for her.

At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema.  I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives.  I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.

Posted on January 11, 2012

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An Israel Travelogue

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OK, I’m going to cheat this time out, and make today’s “Rabbis Without Borders” post a simple link. I’ve been blogging extensively during a twelve-day trip to Israel with my congregation, and hope that something of the character of the trip come through. Interested readers can explore the posts here:

My plan is to return in two weeks with a more analytical post, reflecting with a bit more distance on the trip.

Shalom from Jerusalem!


Posted on January 10, 2012

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Bet You Can’t Eat Just One!

Potato chips can be absolutely addicting. The marketing of processed foods in America has brilliantly caught us in our weakness for tasty, addictive foods.  Most of us have been there – when we really couldn’t eat just “one” of those crunchy, starchy, salty snacks.  And we live to regret it.

Starch, sugar and salt – all staples of the American diet, have attached themselves to us, as addictions and excess body fat.  The more sugar and starch we eat, the more we want it. And it is not just “junk food” — pasta and bread made of processed white flour, and cereals made of highly processed grains and lots of sugar have weakened our willpower. Low in nutrition, these “foods” fill us up but don’t feed us, leaving us wanting more, and more, and more.

The problems with the American food system are numerous, but the challenge to our health and well-being begins with our addiction to foods whose quantity and quality are not good for our bodies.

It’s a hard problem. It’s easy to say we should have willpower. Getting there is another thing.

I was raised in a 1960-70’s household that, like my peers’ homes, fully embraced the glory of processed foods. My mom was very petite, nicknamed “the bird” by my paternal grandmother because of the small portions she ate (defying my grandmother’s understanding.) But my dad, who had shot up to six feet tall in adolescence, never shed his teenage boy’s appetite. As a result, he packed on the weight until he was diagnosed with diabetes in early middle age. I got my father’s genes, never petite like my mom’s side, and always struggling with weight like my dad’s side. Of course, I didn’t realize how much the deck was stacked against me by the food choices that were regular in our household.

As a young adult I was drawn to Jewish observance, and kashrut in particular – the system of Jewish dietary laws. I sensed that a discipline of holiness would make a significant impact on my life. I gave up one food after another – Philly cheesesteaks, bacon, shrimp, and other treyfe (forbidden foods) that were a staple in my childhood home. As I did, I felt strengthened by the experience of the discipline. Eating became more thoughtful, more mindful, and more deliberate.

Along the way I learned that the experience of discipline that I enjoyed in keeping kosher helped me in my life in lots of ways.  Among them was a sharper sense of willpower.

Ultimately, I have come to eat a restricted diet based on nutrition and health, and kashrut. I find it very empowering. It doesn’t hurt that it is reinforced by how great it feels to be healthy.

I was thinking of this when I recently heard an interview on WNYC, the New York public radio station. The subject was “willpower,” talking about the annual ritual of January New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them.  The guest was Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister made this essential point: willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The more you exercise willpower, the easier it is to have self-control with all aspects of life.

Avoiding addictive processed foods helps. But the real trick to health and empowerment, is the regular exercise of willpower. One step at a time, and it is within our reach.

This, after all, was the wisdom of Jewish sages who gave us the disciplines of Jewish law. They understood that the “greatest human strength” of willpower is what helps us to fully access our human potential.  It is an empowerment that animates the Divine spark within us.

(Image from:, via Google Images)

Posted on January 9, 2012

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The Holiness of Vacation

Every Thursday afternoon at my yeshiva college in Queens my Gemara rebbe (teacher of Talmud) would offer a short thought on the weekly Torah portion. These were usually filled with personal anecdotes from his life or dilemmas he helped students address in previous decades. There was one particular Thursday afternoon message that has remained with me from all those years ago and remains particularly relevant for our society.

It was the Thursday afternoon before winter vacation (or bein hazmanim as we called it in yeshiva) and many of us were anxious about the upcoming time away. Life in yeshiva is very structured and very busy. Every moment in the walls of the beit hamidrash, the study hall is spent delving into the complexities and intricacies of God’s revealed Law. How could we depart from that and enter the serenity and quiet of vacation? So it was on that Thursday afternoon that the rebbe got up and took a breath, making eye contact with each one of us, and said “vacation is kadosh,” vacation is holy.

To invest time in our own well-being and our mental, physical and spiritual health is to also be engaged in a sacred task. The Torah itself in Deuteronomy 4:15 enjoins us to guard ourselves exceedingly. We are commanded to not neglect our own health even when engaged in the most important work.

Americans on average work around 50% more than their European counterparts. We put in longer daily hours, take less vacation and retire later than much of the rest of the Western world. It is also true that so much of what we do is vital for the economy, for our local communities, for our families and for ourselves and yet for it, and for us, to be sustainable we have to learn how to take some time to rejuvenate and recharge. When discussing the Shabbat the Torah charges us to work thereby investing our work with sanctity – “six days you shall work,” but the Torah also commands rests and invests that with sanctity as well.

As I write this I am heeding my rebbe’s advice and my family and I are on vacation. I look forward returning to my work renewed and reinvigorated and my tefillah, my prayer is that more of us heed the call of the Torah to invest in ourselves and come to see the holiness of vacation.

Posted on January 6, 2012

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Exile, Authenticity and Truth

There is an oft quoted description of Torah being a combination of black fire and white fire and, perhaps surprisingly, the white fire is holier than the black fire.  The black fire represents the letters of the Torah scroll and the white fire is the parchments upon which it is written. Meaning is derived from not only the letters and the words, but the spaces in between, the gaps between words, the interpretive possibilities the Text leaves open for us, the “seventy faces of the Torah.”  While many may correctly debate the boundaries of possible interpretation, the tradition is rich with multiple viewpoints on just about everything.

In a certain twist, the Torah portion for this week, Parashat V’yechi, begins without the white fire, the usual open space between the conclusion of the previous week’s portion and the beginning of the new one. This anomaly also calls for interpretation and the Biblical commentator Rashi suggests that this lack of open space, this closure, alludes to the dimming and closing of the hearts and minds of the Israelites in Egypt as they began to become slaves to Pharaoh and lose their freedom.

The great Hasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, points out that the actual slavery did not begin until some years later after the passing of all of Jacob’s children. He suggests that with Jacob’s death they suffered a deep spiritual loss, a loss of inner spiritual authenticity, of which they were not even aware. They became closed to their inner spiritual truth and this was the beginning of slavery and exile for the Israelites. They were not even aware of this closing. This inner spiritual loss is the true meaning of exile.

My friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson runs an exciting project for Hillel called “Ask Big Questions.”  One of these reflective questions is “Where is home?”  It is not really a question of geography, although one’s answer can certainly include certain geographical space.  George Steiner, in a beautiful (and somewhat anti-Zionist) essay, Our Homeland, the Text (1985) asserts that home is the “…the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practices in Judaism are ontologically and historically at the heart of Jewish identity.”  There is no question that I feel most at home in that textual fabric.

The “big question” the Sefat Emet asks us is “Where is exile?”   It is an important question to keep in mind and challenge us as we so often feel at home in so many places and environments that welcome us and engage us.  It also compels us to ask that specifically in the places where we feel most comfortable are we remaining true to our inner spiritual truth.  Given all that has happened the past couple of weeks in Israel, this teaching can remind us that one can be in exile even at home when our inner core is hidden and our concern for external appearance governs our behavior.

Posted on January 5, 2012

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A Spiritual Approach to Jewish Education

“Who is the self that teaches?” asks the Quaker educator Parker J.Palmer in his book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.

As a rabbi and teacher, I teach many different subjects with students from preschool toddlers to lifelong learning adults. Admittedly, I am concerned with what I know and what I need to learn to present a coherent and well-formed lesson. I focus on curriculum and on values clarification. I am committed to sharpening my skills and techniques, my presentations and my mode of communication. I convey joy and passion. Yet, according to our ultimate educator, Dr. Palmer, I have only just begun the teacher’s journey.

The public discourse about Jewish education reform has given birth to many innovative and often highly creative solutions to the Hebrew afternoon school of the twenty first century. We have been rewriting curriculum, revising textbooks, and restructuring the very foundation of synagogue learning.

However, the Jewish community of educators and administrators have paid little attention to the heart and soul of good teaching: the teacher!

A teacher needs the support of educational institutions who can provide the environment
for spiritual growth that teachers need to develop the self that teaches.

Teachers need mentors who are dedicated to that teacher’s soul and spiritual development. Teachers need partners in the dance of teaching who will not only lead but will guide the young dancer in the movement towards their authentic self.

We in the Jewish community have been focused on “performance” and how we look
in the classroom, rather than creating a living classroom of integrity where teacher and
student are connected to the truth of their Jewish identity, where the personal and the
public come together and a new role model is revealed.

Are we creating the kind of community that is centered on the capacity for connectedness
among the students and the teachers and their parents? Are we creating relationships
that are truthful and whole, caring and candid?

“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber, and teaching is an endless meeting of the self
in every classroom we enter.

Perhaps it is time we had the courage to create communities of learning with teachers who are themselves creating an inner landscape of hope, heart and wholeness.

Posted on January 4, 2012

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Judgment Day: See you in “Bell”

Passing a billboard saying, “Return of Christ May 21st, 2011” in Los Angeles is very different than passing a billboard for the Red Bull Soapbox Race, also this past May 21st. The motto “Red Bull gives you wings” adds a practical dimension to the rapture. Alas, since the 21st was the Sabbath, and as an observant Jew, I did not attend either event.  As a rabbi, the billboards sponsored by Harold Camping, owner the Christian Family Radio Network were troubling. While I honestly celebrated their strong connection to God, I lament the distancing between those Christians who believe that that particular day was the rapture and the other 92% of Americans, including myself, who believe in God. I have Christian friends, and even Christian family. I am glad to have been invited to Christmas dinners, though I am told that they are even better if you eat the ham. The pork hurdle may soon be remedied as scientists at Holland’s Eindhoven University are growing pig organs from cells cultured in a Petri dish – I keep meaning to contact them with an eye toward winning the contract for Kashrut certification. Christmas ham aside, the basic ethos of Judaism and Christianity are so similar that we in America are comfortable with the term “Judeo-Christian values”. We get along wonderfully, lately anyhow, and especially in this country, it feels odd to be suddenly left out.

To be blunt, Jews and Christians differ on the matter of Jesus, and among some Christians, the issue of the rapture. To be sure, these are not small things, but as long as the rapture was some far off idea it was easy to ignore, but all of a sudden it’s upon us. When my Christian friends remind me that Jesus was Jewish, I swell with pride. Spielberg, Madoff, Bernanke, part of the trinity; we’re everywhere! Even though in my circles Mel Gibson is dismissed as an anti-Semite, I found The Passion of the Christ compelling, though I was conscious of being the only one in the theater wearing a yalmaka and likely the only one at my particular screening who understood the entirely Aramaic script (it’s true, Mel did make some words up!). In fact, I appreciate trying to be saved. As we say in this town, it’s an honor just to be considered. My attitude resembles a story I was once told about the German sociologist-theologian Martain Buber. He was speaking to a group of Jewish and Christian scholars. He said to one group, “You think the Messiah has come before and will return.” And to the other group he said, “And you believe that the Messiah has not yet come, but will arrive soon.” Addressing the whole crowd he said, “Let’s not argue. When the Messiah arrives, we’ll simply ask him if anything looks familiar.” Whether he really said that or if it’s an apocryphal story I cannot say, but Buber’s wait and see attitude works for me. Maybe that is the issue with the billboards: Some of us don’t like to be rushed. Could I have a couple of thousand more years, please?

To be fair, the billboards did not just alienate rabbis, or even just Jews. The and the folks represent only a small fraction of Evangelicals. So it is likely that all the Atheists, Muslims, Buddhist, Catholics, Mormons, other Non-Evangelical Christians, and even the majority of Evangelicals who themselves distrusted the May 21st prediction of the rapture likewise have trouble with the billboards. Even Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, which depicts the rapture and subsequent period of judgment over twelve volumes, calls Camping’s prediction “ bizarre,” “dangerous,” and “100% wrong.”

To be fair, I felt exactly the same way when a fringe group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem took to the streets in yellow stars reminiscent of the Holocaust, protest against the secular government: “An organizer of Saturday’s protest in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood told Israeli television that the actions of the authorities were like a “spiritual holocaust” (New York Times: 1/1/12).  The volume of the fringes of religion still sound the loudest, but they don’t speak for the rest of us.  They just make it embarrassing to be religious at all.

According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, Evangelicals represent between 30-35% of Americans (perhaps as many as 100 million worldwide). What percent give credence to the May 21st prediction?

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived , by Pastor Rob Bell

I am not sure, but selfishly I am excited by the seismic shift represented by another Evangelical, Pastor Rob Bell, the author of the new book “Love Wins”. One might say that Pastor Bell’s view is more Jewish than Camping’s. If Bell is right, God’s compassion is so great that He will not punish me for my particular way of believing in God. From this perspective, my being Jewish could be seen as a forgivable and honest mistake. Between these two Evangelical positions I selfishly much prefer Bell’s “love conquers all ” to Camping’s “hell on earth.” Faith that divides and chooses among us instead of uniting us has the potential to upset the pluralistic religious support we share, and in my view and in Bell’s, it is at odds with the ultimate teaching of God’s grace and love.  Not to tell Evangelicals how to go about their business, but Pastor Bell’s approach. Why? Compared to hell, love is cooler.

The Judgment Day billboards had little impact on me, nor, my guess is, on the majority of those who drove by them.  More people were excited about the soapbox race than concerned about about Judgment Day. I actually had to explain to people that the billboards are religious in nature and not promotional material for a remake of an awful Mario Van Peebles movie. Such is life in Hollywood. We are living in an age and place in which religions are so weak that they resemble entertainment.

The singer-songwriter Michael Franti says that, “God is too big for just one religion.”  There is a Hassidic Tale that teaches that the Shechinah, God’s presence on Earth, needs to be rescued from the hands of those who claim to honor her.   I think the moderate religious people of the diverse faiths of America need each other more than some can accept.  It may take a collective approach to save God from those who lay claim to God the loudest.


Posted on January 3, 2012

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Dream Big

Happy New Year Everyone! I have spent a good part of the weekend reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I am fascinated by the various themes he highlights in Steve Job’s life. Before reading the book, I knew that Jobs was a visionary, but his gift for pushing himself and others to accomplish new creative feats is extraordinary. As Isaacson says, “Jobs lived at the intersection of the humanities and technology.” He was able to blend technological know how and beautiful design principles in a way no one else has been able to achieve. He succeeded partly by pulling people into his “reality distortion field.” He saw the world as he saw it, and refused to see it through anyone else’s eyes. This ability both drove others crazy, and inspired them to achieve the impossible.

The dawn of a new year is the perfect time for all of us to think about our own “reality distortion fields.” What do you envision for yourself in the next year? To borrow a phrase from an Apple advertisement, “Think Different.”Challenge yourself to dream the impossible, to push the edges of your own imagination. What do you want out of your life and how are you going to get it? We are all very good at making and breaking our New Year’s resolutions. So this year, don’t resolve anything. Do not make a vow you cannot keep, but do dream.

Dreams are what push us to lead meaningful lives. In order to accomplish something you must first dream it, visualize yourself doing it. In the Bible Jacob dreamt about reconciling with his brother Esau, and not only reestablished his relationship with his brother but brought himself closer to God as well. Josef saved himself from imprisonment by interpreting Pharos dreams. By being open to using his mind to look at the world differently, Josef was able to understand the visions in Pharos dreams better than anyone else. His ability to “think different” freed him from jail and set him up for a prosperous life.
Jobs dreamt of changing the world, and he did.

What is your dream and how can you follow it? Identify your passions, be yourself, and follow your own instincts.

May this New Year inspire you to dream big. And may you find the right path to making your dreams come true!

Posted on January 2, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy