I am the Shepherd

Sometimes, when I’m doing somber-rabbi-tasks, I hear the following words in my head as my rabbi-self and my geek-self collide:

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death… I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor… for this night and all the nights to come.”

Somewhere there is probably a Biblical or Talmudic quote that is more appropriate. Or maybe I should write my own version of George R.R. Martin’s Oath of the Men of the Night’s Watch; an oath for rabbis:

I am the shepherd who walks behind the family. I am the prophet who says what no one wants to hear. I am the priest who leads the rites. …

It’s a work in progress…

It is a comforting mantra nonetheless.


If Torah was a Person

Every week, I am amazed at how Torah always seems to be right where we need it to be. Even though we are held to a weekly reading and don’t get to pick and choose the passages we need to hear at any given moment, often we get the passage we need to hear anyway, and this never ceases to thrill me. This week, the weird way in which we sometimes have double-portions (a thing that usually annoys me because I don’t like having to skip or choose or condense so much into one teaching) allowed us to jump ahead to K’doshim in a week that has felt anything other than holy. We needed some extra holiness this Shabbat and there it was – permission to jump past Acharei Mot and focus a little extra k’dusha, a little extra holiness into our lives.

The Torah seems to know just what we need. And Thank God.

But if the Torah was a person, this week would have been the portion commanding us to wipe out the memory of Amalek. If the Torah were a person, it might want to focus us on anger and vengeance and retribution. If the Torah was a person, it might not know how to put holiness first; it might be mired in its own sense of grief and loss and anger and pain. If the Torah were a person we might not have been able to have the beautiful conversations we had at Torah Study this morning and during services. We might not have been able to wrestle with the words of the Haftarah, which led us to discuss how the Philistines can be our enemies but can also be human and have their own relationship with God. I am a person – I would never have found it in me to lead this conversation if Torah hadn’t led me there. I am grateful that Torah called out to me and grateful that my rabbi-ears are attuned and were able to hear what my heart might otherwise not have been able to hear. The beauty of Torah. The miracle of Torah. I don’t know how to stop being grateful. I don’t want to ever stop being grateful.

I am a person in a community of persons. Thank God Torah is not a person or we might get lost. “It’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” So true! So true!

If Torah was a person we might never think to put holiness first; we might forget to be gentle with one another; we might forget to be patient, or compassionate or forgiving.

Thank you God, for the gift of Torah. Please help me – and all of us – to live in according to its words and its wisdom.

Kein Yehi Ratzon – May it be Your Will

My Sermon from Friday (lest we forget what today was SUPPOSED to be about!)

As some of you may know, I struggle with self-identifying as a feminist.

I prefer to self-identify as an equal-ist, since, as I told my cousin who is a Women’s Studies professor, I don’t only believe in equal rights for women, I believe in equal rights for everyone.

She smiled, looked me right in the eye and said, “You know, you sound just like a feminist!”


But regardless of whether or not the shoe fits, I am certainly grateful to have been able to pursue my career without being told I was limited by my gender and I am proud to support the fight for women’s rights at times and places where they are still, somehow, up for debate. Because even though I’ve never felt oppressed as a woman, and rarely have I felt marginalized as one, there are places and there are times where it’s clear that the fight for women’s equality is, sadly, still ongoing.

Which is why I felt a bit conflicted this week, when I found myself explaining to a group of young Jewish adults the difference between a sexist system and a patriarchal system.

I had been invited to speak to a group of young Jewish professionals through an entry-level Youth Leadership Division program run by CJP (called LEADS). It was an “Ask the Rabbi” session, and one of the women in the group (we’ll call her Jennifer)  described traditional Judaism as “sexist”.

I found myself pushing back.

“Perhaps we could use the word “patriarchal” instead of the word “sexist”, I suggested.”

She tilted her head thoughtfully. “I’d like to know more about that,” she said.

And so it was that I found myself, somewhat bizarrely, putting forth the argument that modern Orthodox women have, time and again, put to me: that having separate gender roles in Judaism is not inherently sexist; that the male rabbis who engineered Rabbinic Judaism a little less than 2000 years ago couldn’t have envisioned a society where women could claim equal rights – or would even want to!; that our liberal, democratic, equality-driven worldview was something of which they could not really have even conceived.

“The system feels sexist to us today,” I explained, “but at the time it was first implemented, it was perfectly acceptable. The question is whether or not we should impose our contemporary worldviews and values on a different group of people at a different time in history”

The next day, I found myself reading an online commentary to this week’s Torah Portion, written by Loree Resnik, the Vice Chair of Financial Resources of ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America). Resnik was approaching the Torah portion in much the same way as I had approached my conversation with Jennifer.

This week’s parshah – Tazria-Metzorah – is often a challenge for Jewish women because it outlines rules for women who have just given birth – rules which rub our modern sensibilities the wrong way.

“Yes, I admit it.” Resnik writes, “I am a woman, the oldest of the baby boomers, who struggled and championed women’s rights in America. I think my adult children and their spouses might secretly like to ask me to “give it up already,” “chill” or however one says such things today. Still, I continue to struggle with women’s rights, what they mean to societal norms, and how they impact us both here in North America and, of course, in Israel….

I am compelled to examine this Parasha in the light of Israel today where the call for separation has slipped into segregation. For me, it simply cannot be that a Parasha that so often separates us physically, not spiritually,was meant to convey a message of segregation…Instead of reading the Parasha as enforcing separation, I see it as celebrating motherhood, as allowing the bonding of women to their daughters as they passed down an ancient heritage…”

Resnik is advocating a perspective that is often touted by Jewish feminists, contemporary Torah scholars and women rabbis as we try to smooth the rough edges of the Torah’s ruling that a woman who gives birth to a son is only impure for 7 days, but a woman who gives birth to a daughter is impure for twice as long.

And although I have often interpreted this portion in much the same way as Resnik, I recognize that there are those who are not convinced by this approach.

It just feels too imbalanced; too segregated; too patriarchal; too sexist.

Rabbi Jacobs, President of the URJ, wrote in another online commentary this week about how for too much of Jewish history Jewish women did not count. “Consider the opening of the Book of Exodus,” he writes, “’Eleh sh’mot b’nai Yisrael – These are the names of the children of Israel.’ The text then goes on to name only the male children of Israel…there is no mention of the female children of Israel. There definitelywere many female children of Israel who were there but the opening of Exodus doesn’t see fit to mention them. The Biblical text seems to be telling us that: “girls don’t matter.”

But Rabbi Jacobs continues his commentary by reminding his readers that a closer reading of Torah reveals a different message, “that the story of our liberation depends first and foremost upon strong, brave, God-fearing women. All of Jewish history would not have taken place had it not been for the women,” he writes. “Moses and so many others would never have lived if it hadn’t been for Shifra, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Batya.”

Jacobs is asserting that the role of women and the importance of women is not swept under the biblical rug although, admittedly, we often have to look a little harder to find it.

In Resnik’s commentary, though she does not view the segregation in the parsha as sexist, she does acknowledge that men and women are inherently different.

“Do I discount the differences between our genders?” she asks, “Never. The more we learn about the brain, about language usage and about emotional development, the more we learn that “Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus,” the more we know of these differences. Perhaps our ancient ancestors knew this too and looked for ways to strengthen our bonds to each other by enforcing our differences.”

Resnik goes on to relate her interpretation of Torah to the challenges of contemporary Israel.

“(But) as I look at Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel,” she writes, “I know that we have the most important of things in common. We are proud Jews. We love Israel and will always think of it as a beacon of light in a sometimes desperate world. And, I think, for most of us here and in Israel, whatever our bodily functions or our spiritual need for separation during illness or after childbirth, we need not be segregated on a bus. Separate on a bus is not equal. Wearing a tallit does not make that most beautiful spiritual garment unclean because it covers the graceful and delicate neck and shoulders of a woman nor does it turn the woman into something other than a woman.”

Resnik couldn’t be more correct.

But just like with our Torah portion, we can view Israel through different lenses.

Yes, the gender segregations in Israel fly in the face of the progress of the past few centuries; and yes, the fact that not all women in Israel can pray in the manner of their choosing is abhorrent to those who advocate not only for women’s rights but for equality in religious freedom as well.

But there is another side to Israel, as Resnik points out.

“We take pride in the real Israel that is universally known,” she declares, “the Israel that elected Golda Meir, the Israel that understood the need for quality child care for women who worked on the kibbutzim, the Israel where men and women were partners in helping to settle the land, as well as partners in defending our home….”

And today, we can add to this list the Israel where a democratic, secular judicial system enabled a female judge to rule yesterday that the 5 women arrested for praying at the Kotel (with 295 other women) were not doing anything wrong.

Judge Sharon Larry Bavly, after seeing all the evidence, dismissed the charges of the police officers. In a groundbreaking decision, she declared that the Women of the Wall were not disturbing the public order with their prayers but rather, that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer!

This is an Israel we can be proud of.

This is an Israel we can celebrate with full hearts when Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day – arrives this coming week.

This is an Israel we can pray will be the rule rather than the exception.

May the coming year bring about more and more moments where Israel, Judaism and Torah are redeemed from those who would manipulate an patriarchal system and use it to impose sexist regulations.

May the Israel of the future be the Israel of our dreams and may we never doubt that Torah, at it’s heart, is a document that promotes justice, tolerance, and equality.


Kein Yehi Ratzon, May it be God’s Will.

Gei Tzal Mavet: Emerging from Grief’s Shadow

Post #2 on a day that necessitates writing and reflection.

This post started in my head on Saturday night. I’ll write it when I get back home from NY, I thought. I don’t have time to get it all out right now, I thought.

This post will end very differently than it would have if I had written it on Saturday night. Or on Sunday. Or first thing Monday morning.



On Saturday night I was at the 4th Annual Jonah Macabee Concert. This is not a Hanukah concert. It’s a concert in memory of Jonah Macabee Dreskin, who was the son of Rabbi Billy & Cantor Ellen Dreskin. I didn’t know Jonah very well but  I love his parents dearly.

Jonah died four years ago. He died during the worst year of my life. During my own personal tragedy and loss. It was toward the end of that year though, and I had spent so much time and effort wrestling with theology and trying to find my way back from giving God the silent treatment. I was so tired at being angry at God by then. I had stopped questioning my own loss – having found no meaningful answers – and I had settled into a quiet resentment of God and of anyone who was happy or hopeful or in love (especially people who were in love). I was lost in a vortex of pain and misery but I had also figured out how to function on a day-to-day basis and to convince myself (and others) that I was (or was going to be) okay.

And then Jonah died and all the fragile coping mechanisms fell right apart. It was an epic fail.

I don’t remember who told me about Jonah or if I read about it or if someone called. I remember that the world turned red. That it was like all the alarms went off inside me as whatever was left of my heart broke apart. The cauldron of agony boiled over and what I remember – in technicolor clarity – is falling from the floor to my knees and wailing and railing  at God.

“Where are you?!?!” I screamed. “Where are you?!?!”


I will never forget the day Jonah died. I wasn’t able to be mad at my own grief anymore but boy was I furious for the tragedy that had befallen the Dreskin family! I might not have felt that I merited Divine protection from the randomness of inexplicable loss but surely the Dreskins – two of God’s servants – two of the nicest, best, most kind and loving people – two people who had inspired and taught and loved me and so many (so many!) others… surely something like this couldn’t – SHOULDN’T – happen to them!

Whatever sense of reason I had been able to cling to during that year, I lost on the day that Jonah died. For an hour, maybe two – there was no God; there was no reason; there was no redemption. There was only grief and questions and emptiness where there had once been faith and hope and love.

I don’t know how long I lay sobbing on the floor. I don’t know if God or any one else heard my rantings that day (although I suspect that both God and my roommate heard all too much). I don’t remember how I mustered the strength to get back up. To scrape myself and my faith up off the floor and keep going. I don’t remember, although I suspect a hot shower was involved. I must have managed it though because here I am.

Four years later.

This memory – like so many others from that year – left me for a while (a survival skill I’m sure) and found me again on Saturday night at the 4th Annual Jonah Macabee concert.

Four years? I thought. Really?

I can’t count backwards to my own loss. I track it by the simultaneous loss of Jonah. If Jonah’s been gone for 4 years than that’s how long it’s been for me too.

But there I was, sitting there, a fully functioning person (rabbi even!); successful and peaceful and happy and whole again (well…almost whole). Grief doesn’t dog my heels anymore.

I’ve stepped out of the shadow of grief. I realized. I no longer wander b’gei tzal mavet – in the  Valley of the Shadow of Death. I have emerged. 

And I look over at the Dreskins and I hope – I hope – that they are finding their way out too.

It’s a strange thing: no matter how many other people are wandering around in that dark and horrid valley at the same time as you, your grief blinds you to one another and you can’t take comfort in being in there together. Not really. Did they know I was in their with them – probably not. My loss – while profoundly devastating for me – was incomparable to the loss of a son and a brother. But I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered. I wasn’t comforted by knowing they were lost in that valley with me. If anything, it made The Valley all the more unbearable.

But The Valley is not endless. The Psalmist knew it when they wrote the Psalms thanking God for bringing them out of She’ol – The Pit. The Valley. Time heals (at least some of the pain) and your eyes adjust to the dark and the people who love you call to you and they throw you a rope and they pull you and your drag yourself and eventually – eventually – you’re out.

I’m out. I’m so so so glad to be out (although I know that the grief goes with you, stays with you, quietly, always). But I’m out. And at the 5th Annual Jonah Macabee Concert, The Valley will be even farther in my rear-view mirror. Thank God. Thank God.

But here’s the addendum – the part that wouldn’t have been if I had had time to write on Saturday night, or Sunday, or early Monday morning: There will always be something new to grieve. That’s life. So the 5th Annual Jonah Dreskin Concert will also coincide with the 1st year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings. The Valley is never so far away.

And it’s a different kind of walk we walk through The Valley, when we walk it as a community in mourning. We are far more aware of each other. We can feel each other. We can inspire each other. We can reach out to those who lost the most and hope that they can hear us in their darkness. I am out of The Valley and right back in again. But this time I am trying to light the way and lead others through. And maybe I wouldn’t know how to do that as well if I hadn’t had to survive The Valley four years ago.

Another silver lining that doesn’t justify the means.

And yet, here we are.

Baruch Dayan Emet. We grieve. We cry out. We praise.

We walk until we see the light ahead.


That Minty, Fresh-from-the-Mikvah Feeling: A Eulogy for Yesterday Morning

I have two kinds of shampoo in my shower.
One smells like mint and the other smells like berries. This morning I reached for the minty one. It smells cleaner and I want to scrub yesterday away.

Evil leaves a residue and Boston is sticky with it this morning.

I want to dunk us all in the mikvah – all of Boston; all those scared and angry and grieving souls – I want to dunk the whole world in the mikvah.

As if evil could be washed away. Or even just to give us all that moment of renewal and rebirth; that feeling of control over our lives and our choices.

Yesterday I was a New Yorker and I became a Bostonian all in one jumbled, crazy, painful, sad day.

I didn’t live in NY when 9/11 occurred. I was in Canada (dare I say a place which is still safe from this kind of madness?). I was glued to my couch and my TV screen. I was trying to come to grips with a new world reality. We all were.

But even though I wasn’t in NY that day, you can’t live there for five years and not be intimately familiar with the after-effects of acts of terror (never mind that I lived in Jerusalem for a year!). New Yorkers know. Israelis know. People in London and Barcelona know. People in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria know. And now Bostonians will know. There is no going back to the security of BEFORE. We will never be as innocent. We will never feel as safe. We will never really understand how something like this could happen HERE (as opposed to THERE); to US (as opposed to THEM). Whatever peace and serenity we felt yesterday morning – BEFORE – is gone. There is no going back.

And New Yorkers and Israelis will teach us about security and about resilience and about looking out for one another. There will be stories of hope and of helping and of bravery and selflessness. We will become more vigilant. We will say we are stronger for having gone through this…

Today on NPR a doctor from a Boston hospital said, “I don’t think Bostonians will be deterred by terror. We will be motivated by it.” As if that were a good thing. Like those who argue for tough love. Or justify abuse. As if we should thank those who perpetuate acts of violence and terror for making us stronger. I know that’s not what this doctor meant but it makes me so angry! I don’t want to be stronger! I don’t want to be resilient! We shouldn’t have to be and I will not be thankful for it!

The ends don’t justify the means. NOTHING can justify these kinds of acts. Not even the silver lining.

But of course, anger leads to anger. It’s not helpful. It’s not productive. It’s not really rabbinic.

We will rise above this. Like New Yorkers. Like Israelis. Like – hopefully – Iraqis and Syrians one day will. We will seek out community with others. We will seek out compassion within ourselves. We will find comfort in the words of our traditions and in the arms of our loved ones. (Ah yes, now I’m sounding more like a rabbi!). But I know it’s true. Even if we shouldn’t have to. We will.

My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Tamar Grimm, a far more authentic Bostonian than I (although I live here now and she does not), shared these thoughts on her blog:

The good news is that those of us not driven to inflict violence on other people have a strong inclination to help others and care for others — especially in times of crisis…

Positive thinking and looking for hope in times where it seems sparse help us endure these difficult experiences.  As a religious leader I feel all the more compelled to highlight the positive, but not necessarily for the        reasons you might expect.  It’s not about restoring faith in G-d.  Those who reject organized religion because it requires that you either ignore the problem of evil or make excuses for G-d in the face of its existence — I hear you!  I’m not interested in religion as a theological explanation for the suffering in our world.  Nor am I particularly interested in blaming G-d for it.  My kind of religion is about instilling the values of selflessness, generosity, and loving-kindness on each successive generation…

I often temporarily lose faith in the goodness of people when someone commits a horrific act such as this one.  It’s so incredibly awful.  I question how anyone could do such a thing.  Yet, the evil are few, while the good are numerous.  We do not live in Noah’s time of utter chaos and violence.  We live in a time, thankfully, where in the face of crisis and tragedy, people come forward to rescue, heal, and protect each other.  They reach out, showing generosity and kindness, caring and concern.  This cannot be underestimated.  Believe in G-d or don’t, but believe in humanity.  I believe we are the world’s best hope.

Tamar and I and rabbis and clergy all over Boston and America and the world will struggle along with one another, and with you – our communities – and with God, and with those who perpetuate evil in our world. We will struggle to understand, to contextualize, to comfort, to pull light out of the darkness and hold it up high to shine brightly for people to follow. We will inspire and be inspired. We will learn and teach. We will march on. Together. Each of us writing our own chapters and our own prayers.

Rabbi Joe Black in Colorado wrote a prayer with which I will end this post (there will likely be others today. It’s a day for writing to be sure!):

A Prayer in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Our God who dwells in the highest heights and in the souls of our feet:
We find You in the passion of those who delight in testing and celebrating the power of their bodies:
·    The runners who push themselves to find new challenges in the rhythm of the road and the camaraderie of the race;
·    The doctors, medics, police, fire fighters and bystanders whose dedication to humanity drives them to run into the fray – towards the bruised and bloodied bodies in the streets.

On this day of destruction, we need to remember that the race is not for the swift[i]; there is no finish line for those who seek a better world.
Neither bombs, nor blood, not death, nor destruction can deter us from running, O God.
We run to You.
We run towards a vision of perfection that is always in our sights.
We run determined to never allow hatred to obscure Your presence.
We run to build a better world.
Be with those who have lost loved ones on this tragic day.
Send comfort and healing to the injured and the maimed.
Heal them – heal us all – body and soul – as we strive to find You.
Give us hope.
Help us to use our arms, our legs, our breath, our determination to unite in a common purpose.
In our grief may we find the strength to keep on running.



The Crisis Narrative (Sadly) Lives On

This past winter, I spent five lovely Monday nights teaching a group of my congregants the first half of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage course. One of the more interesting discussions we had was about the age-old Crisis Narrative (i.e. “everyone is out to kill the Jews so we need Israel in order to be safe”) and our desire to participate in the creation of a new, values-based narrative (i.e. “Israel is a place where the values of Torah could be applied to a 20th century, democratic nation”). I was inspired by how strongly the group responded to the idea of the new narrative and how ready they were to let go of the old.

Jews are safer than they’ve been in 2000 (or so) years. It’s time to move on.

Or is it?

At last night’s South Shore Yom Hashoah service, I found myself sighing inwardly when, after singing The Star Spangled Banner and HaTikvah, the service leader declared, “Israel is our ONLY hope that Jews might live in safety, and America is THE WORLD’S ONLY HOPE for bringing about world-wide peace and democracy!”

Crisis Narrative. I whispered inwardly. And the rhetoric of America as the world’s savior to boot!

It was a little much to stomach. This is passé. I thought. Even on Yom Hashoah, this is no longer the last declarative statement we need to be left with.

And then, this morning, I wake up to news coverage of yet another instance of hateful graffiti, seemingly intentionally tied to the Jewish calendar. Maybe it’s not so passé, I was sad to find myself thinking. Maybe there’s still some truth to that tired old crisis narrative. 

Sigh. What a shame.

So many Jews are ready to turn away from the pain of the past and work toward a brighter future but hateful people keep pulling us back!

Last night I felt proud and free and grateful and today my inner old-man-Jew (ask me about him sometime if you haven’t heard my stories about traveling to Germany) was tempted to think twice before plastering the bright yellow “NEVER FORGET” sticker on my clothing as we were instructed to do at last night’s service. Will Jews be targeted today? Will I be, if I’m too eager to self-identify as one? It was a fleeting thought. Followed quickly by a shake of the head and an extra loud thwack! as I thumped the sticker onto my shirt. My inner old-man-Jew couldn’t stop me from going to Germany and he’s certainly not going to turn me into a nervous nelly on Yom Hashoah. But it’s sad that there are people out there who allow him to continue to feed on the fear of reliving age-old Jewish history.

It’s so sad.

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu – May the One Who Blessed Our Ancestors bless us and those we live among with tolerance and understanding, so that by next year, we will have less and less reasons to cling to our crisis narrative, and more and more reasons to be able to realistically envision and promote a values-based narrative – for Israel, for America, for the world.


My Love Affair With The Omer Continues

For some reason, I’m particularly in-tune with the Omer count this year. Almost each day so far, the reading in my Omer App have struck a chord; as if they were written just for me.

But today’s Omer count takes the cake.

Here’s what my Omer App says:

“Day 11: Netzach She-be-Gevurah, Eternity within Restraint

When a dentist drills out a decayed tooth he is acting with netzach she-be-gevurah. In the short term it is painful, and requires strength, but in the long term it will prevent further pain. Netzach views the long term gain within the short term pain or loss.”

The Apps “Action Points” continue by proscribing the following: “If you are having a problem in a relationship do what need to be done no matter how uncomfortable it is for you. Look at the long term.”


“Give up something which is hazardous to your health. Cut down on smoking, coffee, red meat, whit four, sugar or anything else which is bad for you in the long term. Think Netzach!

This  basically sums up my self-imposed mission as of late. Over the past year or so, I’ve been distancing myself from unhealthy relationships – something the Rabbis taught about in Pirkei Avot among other places. Although stepping back from some of those relationships has been incredibly painful, what has enabled me to stay the course is the knowledge that ultimately, I was doing what was in my best interest; what would keep me healthiest and happiest in the long run. Whatever grief I feel at the losses is off-set by the hope and excitement I have about my future and by the energy-shift I feel in my life when I stop spending my emotional energy on those who don’t return the favor and make space for healthier relationships with those who truly care about (and take care of) me.

And then there’s the whole Weight Watchers adventure I’ve been on since New Year’s Day. 17 pounds and counting! Yesterday one of my congregants told me I was melting away (“like the Wicked Witch, except, you’re not wicked” she said)! And don’t get me wrong. There are morning when I’m tempted to trade in my Nutra-blast for a bowl of cereal (I MISS CEREAL) but whatever cravings I have – whatever feelings of loss I have over cereal or warm bread at restraunts or snacking without restraint – is offset every time I look in the mirror, and every time I think about the example I’m setting for my friends, family and community.

Netzach she-be-gevurah is not just a one-day-a-year thing for me. At least not this year. And maybe in years to come, Day 11 of the Omer Count will remind me of the time in my life when I worked hard to turn away from my unhealthy habits.

I’m proud of myself and I hope, when I look back on the Days 11 to come, that I will be able to reconnect with that sense of pride annually.