The Silent Journey

When God called Abraham to
Abraham was silent.
He was also silent when God told him
to take his son up a mountain
and sacrifice him there.

I think I get it now.

We question Abraham’s silence
during these trials
because so often he is chatty with God.
He has so much to say.
He is unafraid to challenge.

But these journey’s render him mute
and I as well.

I have no words on the eve of my own Exodus.
I have spent them all on goodbyes.
I used them up trying to explain the inexplicable.
“This is crazy!” they probably said to Abe as well.
I wonder how long he tried to explain it before he gave up.

And frankly, I’m too tired to think of words,
even words of prayer,
even wails of lamentation.
All of that came before.
Now, I am just tired.
Now, my heart is heavy.

I’ll bet Abraham was tired too.
I’ll bet his leaving was also abrupt and hurried.
God is more fearsome than even the U.S. government
after all.

But anyway.

I understand his silence.
It mirrors my own.
I don’t want to speak.
Not even to God.
Not now.

Now I just want to begin.
To move my tired feet forward
step by step
toward whatever I am being sent to.
A place neither familiar nor foreign.
Home and Not-Home.
Ancient and New.

It is Sukkot and I am wandering
between places
between homes
neither here nor there.
Everything is in boxes.
Everything is temporary.

Were they silent too,
as they left home to go home?

And did they know what I am learning:
That home is not a place you leave
or journey toward
or arrive at;
Home is what you carry in your heart.
The people
The animals
The memories
The lessons

Empty mouth. Full Heart.

And away we go.


6 Elul: Know & Console

Studying about the 6th day of Elul in 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobson, I am struck, once again, at the brilliance of the structure of Jewish time.

Jacobson reminds me that this first week of Elul is the fourth week in the Seven Weeks of Consolation that began after Tisha B’Av. Jacobson teaches the midrashic explanation of the progression of these seven weeks as a dialogue between us and God.

Week One: God sends the prophets to console the people after the destruction of the temple. (“‘Be conforted, be comforted, my people,’ says your God” – Isaiah 40:1)

Week Two: The people ask why God is sending comfort through the prophets instead of comforting them directly. (“And Zion said: God has forsaken me; my God has forgotten me” – Isaiah 49:14)

Week Three: The prophets tell God that the people are not comforted. (“O afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one…” – Isaiah 54:11)

Week Four: (this first week of Elul) God begins comforting the people directly. (“It is I, I am The One Who comforts you…” – Isaiah 51:12)

Week Five: God’s consolation intensifies (“Sing out, O barren one, who has not given birth, break out into glad song and be jubilant…” – Isaiah 54:1)

Week Six: God’s consolation becomes more powerful and profound. (“Arise! Shine! For your light has arrived and the glory of God has shined upon you.” – Isaiah 60:1)

Week Seven: The people rejoice in God’s consolation (“I will rejoice intensely with God, my soul shall exult with my God…” – Isaiah 61:10)

Jacobson teaches that the reason God does not console the people from the beginning is to remind us that we have the power to console one another. “One vulnerable person can console another,” Jacobson writes, “It is a great gift that one person can give to antoher.”

And once we are consoled, we are then ready for the renewal and rebirth that comes with the New Year.

Jewish time, the wisdom of the rabbis in structuring it in such a way and framed by such texts – it is nothing short of brilliant.

Most people are not easily comforted. Most painful situations are ones that require comfort over time. Someone who tells you they’re sorry for what you’re going through but does not check in to see how you are doing a week or a month later has probably failed to comfort you. I know that I have a hard time accepting comfort and that I am not always as generous as I could be in seeking out opportunities to offer comfort to others. It is on my list of things to work on in the coming year.

At the same time, I am immensely grateful for those who know how to comfort me, those who remember to check in on me, and those who allow me to comfort them in their times of suffering. Jacobson is so right, it is a gift we give each other. I will endeavor to remember that. I will continue to teach it in his name.

Pulling ourselves out of grief takes time. The period of mourning that preceded Tisha B’Av, where we allow ourselves to descend into sorrow – that’s only a few weeks. It takes longer to come through to the other side; to comfort and be comforted. Seven weeks, with the hope of renewal at the end of it – a light shining, beckoning us to work through the pain and believe in our ability to work for a better next time around.

I’ll be honest. Today I had a hard time feeling optimistic about the future. Luckily, it’s only Week Four. I have a few more weeks to get my head in the game; to find strength in the comfort of friends, family and community, and to find strength in my ability to comfort others in turn.

It is Week Four.
Jacobson says that I can expect God to begin comforting me directly.
It is Shabbat.
If I can open myself to experiencing God’s comfort, what better day to start?

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5 Elul: Accept

that this year probably won’t go as expected;
that your family won’t suddenly be less disfunctional;
that true change –
requires hard work and not just best intentions.

that you cannot go back;
that you don’t get a re-do;
that you can only move forward and
that you might do better next time a similar set of circumstances
present themselves.

that not everyone who hurt you will appologize;
that not everyone you’ve hurt has told you that you hurt them;
that some of them will appologize and then hurt you again
and that you will likely do the same.

Accept your humanity
and theirs.

that this year may be your last;
that you need to treat it as if it were;
with humility and courage and realistic expectations.
that this year may not be your last;
that you won’t get it right either way;
that you will make some old mistakes and some new ones.

Accept who you are.
Then keep bettering yourself.
And then
that you will still be you
and still need more bettering

1 Elul

Breathe in.
A new beginning is on the horrizon,
fast approaching,
ready or not.

Breathe out.
It is okay to be anxious.
There is much that is unknown.
It is okay to question:
Will you make it through?

Breathe in.
Elul tells us it’s time to prepare;
brace yourself;
pace yourself;
steady and ready yourself;
A new beginning is coming.
Time is running out.

Breathe out.
This is not the first year,
the first change,
the first time
you’ve had to start over.
Make your lists;
you know how this goes.

You can be ready.
You can make it through.
You know the steps.
You know the tune.
You can do this.

Elul doesn’t mean to terrify us,
just to warn us:
This time is coming to a close.
A new time is heading our way.
Move toward it.
Embrace it.
What choice do you have?


Why I’m Going: As I Prepare to March

What bothered me most about last years cinematic representation of the march from Selma to Montgomery was the absence of the rabbis.

During the Civil Right’s movement, as you know, prominent Reform and Conservative rabbis became public civil rights activists, speaking out to their congregations, marching with Rev. Dr. King, and getting arrested at demonstrations (sometimes to the disapproval of their congregants and/or denominational leadership). Among the most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose photo marching arm in arm with King in Selma in 1965 has become an iconic image of Jewish civil rights activism, and whose description of that march as “praying with my legs” is often quoted by Jewish activists.

In the movie however, as I’ve mentioned in the past, there is no Heschel standing next to Dr. King, although there was a quick flash of a kippah in the crowd. This bothers me for two reasons. To begin with, the way that Heschel and other rabbis put themselves literally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement has had a deep impact on my own Jewish identity and my understanding of Judaism’s call to fight for a just world, not only for ourselves but for everyone. I didn’t just feel like Heschel and the other rabbis were missing from the story, I felt that I was missing from the story.

The second reason their absence bothered me, is that it seemed like a wasted opportunity in terms of educating today’s youth about the role of Reform Jews in the Civil Right’s Movement. These days especially, as we find ourselves facing renewed fears of increased or visible Antisemitism in the world around us, it seems all the more important to take advantage of a little good PR when we can get it, and to find ways to teach others about the good we do in the world. It makes me sad to think that there may be young people today who don’t realize that a large part of what it means to be Jewish is to fight for the rights of others, and that indeed, Jews have done this in marked ways in the past, and in prominent moments in America’s history especially.

The Reform Movement has publicly supported civil rights since the beginning of the 20th century, first coming out against lynching in 1899 and passing resolutions throughout the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), asserting their commitment to civil rights and racial justice. I was surprised to learn recently however, that Civil Rights activism was often more complicated for rabbis in the South than for their northern counterparts. Southern rabbis generally supported racial equality in principle, but were concerned about the practical implications of taking a public stand against segregation and for civil rights. A rabbi’s public support of civil rights, it was feared, might strengthen the segregationists’ claim that Jews threatened the southern way of life, and could put the Jewish community in economic and physical danger.

Jews in the South were facing discrimination of their own, with several communities experiencing the boycott of Jewish businesses and sadly, some synagogue bombings as well. Thus, the social position of Jews in the south was precarious –they were accepted as part of the social fabric of “White America”, but they were also seen as different. They had to work hard to fit in, and many Jews were reluctant to take action that would set them apart from the other white community leaders. They felt they needed to assure their own equality and security first. And some even went so far as to call segregation a “Christian problem”, punting the issue over to their Christian colleagues.

Although I cannot know what it is like to be a rabbi in such a time and place, I was saddened and disturbed to learn about this. Even though I can imagine someone making a similar claim today – that now is a time to lay low and not call extra attention to ourselves – I, personally,  would much rather stand up and demonstrate what Judaism is all about as a way to push back against Antisemitism, than bury my head in the sand and hope the storm passes. Racism or inequality of any kind is not a Christian problem. It is also not a political problem. It is an American problem, a human problem, and, I deeply believe, a Jewish problem.
Which is why, when the call came late last month, I was quick to answer.

The NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, an historic 860-mile march from Selma to Washington D.C. In response, the Reform Movement, in keeping with our long history of involvement, partnership and collaboration with the NAACP, has quickly mobilized rabbis from around the country to participate so that our presence and support will not only be felt throughout the march, but will be visible on each day, as rabbis will take turns carrying a Torah scroll throughout the 40 day journey. Even though the call for action came at short notice, and even though the last days of the march lead right into Rosh Hashanah, 150 rabbis have already signed up to participate and more are joining every day. Each morning of the march, 2-3 rabbis will receive the Torah from the rabbis who marched the day before and will carry it forward, thus carrying the Jewish values that compel us to stand with our neighbors and fight for racial justice and equality.

I am incredibly proud to share that on August 12, this Wednesday, I will receive the Torah with two other rabbis and will carry it through an area of Georgia near Atlanta, participating with my own hands, feet and heart, in this historic event.

This 40 day march, this Journey for Justice, is focused on racial and structural inequality. Together we will be marching under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter”. The march is a peaceful protest advocating for economic and educational equity, voter rights, reform to the criminal justice system, and an end to racial profiling and police brutality. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of legislation designed to protect voting rights and prohibit discriminatory voting practices. And yet, despite this historic anniversary, there is still much work to be done as we continue to see racial disparities all across the nation, from the streets to the voting booths.

As we mourn the death of Michael Brown, just about a year ago today, we recognize that marching will not bring him back, but we hope it may be one step in ending the cycle of brutality in our country that has taken his and so many other lives. These steps we are taking – 40 days of steps; 860 miles of steps – are important steps toward acknowledging the humanity, dignity and equality of all Americans. Hopefully they will be just the first of many more steps to come.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint partnership of URJ’s Religious Action Center and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, sent out this statement just last week:

Why do we march?

We march because we say enough. Enough of the tragedies. Enough of the subtle and overt racism. Enough of standing by. We march not only in the name of those whose deaths woke up our nation’s consciousness, but for the millions of others whose loss of life, loss of home, and loss of dignity never made a headline. Our hearts break for the world as it is–parched by oppression–constant, crushing, and unacceptable. We remember the slavery and oppression that bloodied our own past even as we recognize the privilege into which many of us were born. We, therefore, march arm-in-arm with other people of faith in our humble attempt to live up to our tradition’s demand to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, equality, and freedom. We feel called by our God, our tradition and our consciences to march. At the same time, we know that simply marching in this remarkable forty-day Journey to Justice is not enough. We march for the forty-first day, the one-hundred and twentieth (day), and the years and generations to come. We march, as our ancestors taught us, to get from Egypt—the world as it is, filled with injustice—to the Promised Land. We march toward a vision of this land’s promise: our world redeemed, overflowing with chesed, tzedek, umishpat—compassion, justice and righteousness. 

On Wednesday, I will be marching with this vision at the front of my mind and my heart. On that day, I will be marching in the name of those Southern rabbis who did take action even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, like Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, MS, who survived the bombing of his synagogue and home, as well as an attempted removal by some of his own congregants who did not agree with his public stances on civil rights issues; I will be marching in the name of Rabbi Heschel, along with Rabbis William G Braude, Saul Leeman, and Nathan Rosen, who came to Alabama to march with Dr. King; and I will be marching in the name of the 17 rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine in 1964 (some of whom became my teachers at rabbinical school 40 years later).

In a joint letter entitled “Why We Went”, those 17 rabbis wrote, “Each of us has, in this experience, become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become. . .We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.”

I too, am looking forward to Wednesday as a day when I will become a little more the person and a bit more the rabbi I have always hoped to be but have not yet been able to become. I too hope to learn more about myself and my God through physically and personally acting for what I believe in.

I march for equality; I march to maintain the history of Jewish involvement in Civil Rights that I care so deeply about; I march for myself that I may practice what I preach; and I march for you, my community, in the hopes that you might join me on this march, or on some march in the future; that you might follow my example and take up the call for justice; and that you might see our contemporary issues of equality and justice not as political issues, but as Jewish issues, and engage with them for the sake of Torah and the betterment of our world.

May each of us march on proudly; May our world be healed one step at a time.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Scenes from Sci-Tech: Moments of Jewish Learning

It is Thursday evening and we are in a building called French. We are seven 10th graders (7 boys, 3 girls), 1 counselor, 2 members of the leadership and 1 rabbi. The title of the program is Hineni: Now What? I had nothing to do with the name of this program. It wasn’t my idea at all. Here at Sci Teach, the faculty are rarely the driving force behind the integration of Jewish learning and camp. It’s quite incredible actually; the staff and leadership, following Director Greg Kellner’s lead, see Jewish learning as inseparable from the rest of camp life. They take the initiative to speak about and model the Jewish values of camp, along with a  healthy and unusually high dose of menschlechite while the faculty look on with pride and stand ready to jump in with resources and teachings as needed.

So there we were, in French, heading into a program that one of our fabulous leadership staff had thought of; a program that would give our eldest campers a chance to explore their questions about growing up, their fears about the future, all within the context of where Judaism fits into those conversations post-B’nai Mitzvah. Hineini means not just “I am here” but “I am fully present”. And the campers definitely were. Using a website that allowed the campers to answer questions honestly and annonimously, we were able to engage them in a deep, powerful and meaningful discussion about their questions. Slowly they began to open up to one another and to us. It was incredible to see them taking the conversation seriously and supporting one another’s questions about and hopes for the future.

I sat quietly through most of the program. Devon and Brett, the leadership in charge of the program, are Jewish educators and full-blown mensches in their own right. It was beautiful to hear them reassuring their campers about the future, sharing their wisdom about how to find happiness and love-of-self, and steering the conversation smoothly from anxiety about the future to excitement about the future.

My favorite moments were hear the campers talk about how URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, this sacred Jewish camp,  is special to them because it’s a place where they feel comfortable asking questions they might not be able to ask anywhere else. They know they will not be laughed at. They know someone will be able to relate. And they know they will get answers. It was incredible to hear them share this with us and it was a beautiful lead-in for Brett, Devon and I to remind them that in addition to nurturing their physical and emotional selves, camp is one of many Jewish communities that can give them a place to nurture their spiritual selves (this being Sci-Tech, we called it their “spiritual IQs”. Of course).  The campers nodded thoughtfully. This was something they already knew; something camp had already opened them up to; something they will hopefully remember when they are back out in the “real world”, looking for a place to bring their spiritual questions and nurture their “spiritual IQs”.

Flash forward to Saturday and I am teaching my Shabbat “Shelective”. There are 13 campers ranging in age who have chosen “Stump the Rabbi” over a variety of other Shabbat elective options including nature walks, international charossetmaking, and “Aliens, A.I., and The Big Questions”. Along with 2 counselors, we sit in a circle in one of the science labs (at this camp, there is no better setting for the deep theological questions about to be asked and considered). Although the class was called “Stump the Rabbi”, most of the campers were not there to trip me up. From the youngest child in the room to the oldest, each came with a serious and well-thought-out question, and each participated with seriousness and thoughtfulness as they assisted me in trying to answer one another’s question. We discussed the intersection of God and science, creationism vs. evolution, Jewish views of the afterlife, why God chose the specific geographic location of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people to have, where Adam and Eve (Chava) got their names, and questions about some of our prayer rituals and choreography. Until the very last question, we were able to answer one another’s questions. No one was stumped. It was a fantastic way to spend a Shabbat morning. Serious questioning and discussion. We might even have had a little fun!

And then, the inevitable: “Rabbi, what is the meaning of life.”

. . .

Anyone else want to weigh in on that one?


Day 4: The Upside of Sorrow (Tammuz 21)

Morris Adler writes, in A Modern Treasury of Jewish Thought (ed. Sidney Greenberg):

Our sorrow can bring understanding as well as pain, breadth as well as the contradiction that comes with pain. Out of love and sorrow can come a compassion that endures. The needs of others hitherto unnoticed, the anxieties of neighbors never before realized, now come into the ken of our experience, for our sorrow has opened our life to the needs of others. A bereavement that brings us into the lives of our fellowmen writes a fitting epilogue to a love that had taught us kindliness, and forbearance and had given us so much joy.

Sorrow can enlarge the domain in our life, so that we may now understand the trivialty of the things many pursue. We havve had in our hands a noble and refined measure for judging the events and objects we daily see. What is important is not luxury but love; not wealth but wisdom; not gold but goodness . . .

Our sorrow may so clear our vision . . . [and] out of that vision will come a sense of obligation. A duty, solemn, sacred and significant, rests upon us. To spread the love we have known to others. To share the joy which has been ours. To ease the pains which man’s thoughtlessness or malice inflicts. We have a task to perform. There is work to be done and in work there is consolation.

Out of love may come sorrow. But out of sorrow can come light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others will come light for ourselves – the light of solice, of strength, of transfiguring and consecrating purpose.

Sorrow is not always keenly felt. Sometimes it simply lies beneath the surface while we go about our daily lives. We can feel it, beneath, if we reach for it, but it is not crippling. We can get up in the morning and almost forget that it’s there. Almost.

Living with grief this way, for three weeks, for a month, for a year, for years… no one would say it was preferable. No one would wish it upon themselves. But there are upsides to sorrow – the ones Adler describes and more. I know the pain in my own life has made me better able to bear witness to the pain of others. I know grief has made me more empathetic.

There are clouds. There are silver-linings.

Some days we can’t see beyond the clouds.

Other days, the silver-linings shine bright.