Soon & In Our Days

Over the past few months, it has felt like my email in-box, my face-book page, and all of the Jewish newspapers I subscribe to, are full of headlines about whether or not peace in Israel is possible. As if it’s a new question.

It’s impossible to read every single article that I come across, and truth be told, there are many days that I find myself sighing heavily and even rolling my eyes. How many times can we hear the same promises & platitudes? How many times can we be hopeful and then disappointed?

I remember very clearly, one of my earliest conversations with my parents about the conflict in Israel. We were standing in the hallway of my grandparent’s apartment, and I don’t think I could have been much older than 4 or 5. I believe we were hosting my dad’s friend Ron, a representative of Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava Valley, who used to travel around North America speaking about the kibbutz, and about his dream for peace with his neighbors.

But when will they get peace?” I asked the grown-ups, next week? Next year?” I remember the looks that exchanged between my parents and Ron, and how sad my father looked. Probably not, Em.” he said. It might happen one day, but it could be a really long time before it does.”

I remember wondering why he was being so uncharacteristically negative. I wasn’t one to give up on anything, and I declared, with childish cheekiness, that I thought they were wrong. I was certain I would live to see peace happen.

And as a teenager, my excitement and certainty about this grew when Yitzhak Rabbin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, and when Israel made peace with Jordan. Certainly we were almost there! I could taste peace in the air.

But then Yikzhak Rabbin was assassinated and it all seemed to go downhill. In college I shook my head sadly over the headlines about the 2nd Intifada and by the time the buses stopped blowing up and the “security fence” was in place, and I could see from the window of my Jerusalem apartment that the “fence” was really a big concrete Berlin-essqe wall, I had lost the certainty I had once had.

Would they ever have peace? I wasn’t so sure anymore.

I didn’t have to look in a mirror to know that my face now reflected that of my dad, all those years ago. Disappointed. Sad. Discouraged.

Jewish tradition has a saying, “May it come soon and in our days.” An expression of hope that we will live to see the thing we desire. But I often wonder if I will live to see peace in Israel, and there are many days when I worry that I won’t, and days when, even more so, I fear that I might see the very opposite – Israel fallen once more.

God forbid.

But on other days, the excitement of the headlines is contagious and I can’t help feeling a tiny tingle of hope. Maybe peace is possible. Just. Maybe.

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry said the following words: I believe that if you indeed care about Israel…If you care about its security, if you care about its future, if you care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations for self-determination…(then) we need to believe that PEACE IS POSSIBLE and WE ALL NEED TO ACT ON THAT BELIEF.”

It’s such a profound statement. I’m going to repeat it.

“…if you indeed care about Israel…If you care about its security, if you care about its future, if you care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations for self-determination…(then) we need to believe that PEACE IS POSSIBLE and WE ALL NEED TO ACT ON THAT BELIEF.”

Well, let’s see.

Do I care about Israel? Yes. Do I care about its security and about its future? Yes. Do I care about Palestinians achieving their legitimate aspirations for self-determination? Yes.

So then I need to stop the deep sighs and the eye rolling. I must believe that peace is possible and I must act on that belief.

So, as a first step – a first act – let me share with you some of the recent headlines and discussions that have rekindled my hope.

First of all, I believe that we are currently in good hands. I hadn’t known that John Kerry had Jewish roots until I read a recent article in The Times of Israel.

The article begins: US Secretary of State John Kerry says his feelings toward Israel changed 10 years ago, after he found out that that he had Jewish grandparents. It’s a connection that’s deep (he said). I lost a great-uncle in the Holocaust and a great-aunt. I never knew that until then. to understand that you are biologically and personally connected to that, is very moving,”

Israel itself has a special connection to me, (he continued) not just because of that personal, now-known connection, but more importantly because of the amazing journey of the Jewish people…”

I don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring that the person overseeing the current peace talks has Jewish blood in his veins; has a personal connection and thus, one hopes, a vested interest (and not just a political one). Surely, no politician is perfect, and no one person has all the solutions to problems that are decades, if not millennia old, but I think the Peace Talks have been in the hands of “strangers” for too long. Kerry is family (in a way). And we have to hope that counts for something.

In the same article, Kerry describes his perspective of the huge task he has undertaken: I think my job is to try to help create a situation where the realities of the agreement are such that it’s not such a leap of faith. I don’t want this to be a leap of faith. I want this to be a leap of reason. A leap of rationality and of choice, based on a very understandable and tangible set of guaranties about security and other things.” If that could be achieved, Kerry continued, then we take some of the emotion away…even though it will be for some always a huge emotion…I know all of that. But I also know that over 70 percent of the people of Israel believe in a two-state solution.”

This is another of those headlines that gives me hope.\

Yesterday, The Times of Israel reported: Poll: Three Quarters of Israeli Jews Would Accept A Peace Deal”

A survey, commissioned by the non-profit Israeli Peace Initiative, was conducted earlier this month with a representative sample of 500 Hebrew-speaking Israelis. The poll indicated that a large majority of the country’s Jews hold hawkish views regarding the peace process” but would be willing to accept a deal if they understood what Israel stands to gain. Even better, more than 60 percent of respondents said that they would likely support a regional peace treaty even before any components of it were discussed. This represents a statistically significant increase over the findings in other surveys conducted over the past few months,” the article quotes the authors of the survey as saying.

The significance of this poll shows that although Israelis indeed hold right-wing views and don’t believe the Palestinian rhetoric, they are still willing to accept a far-reaching deal (if presented properly to them) and they will support Bibi Netanyahu if he does make, as the article puts it, “such a heroic decision”.

This is cause for, at the very least, tentative optimism. Israeli public opinion is an important factor in Israel’s leaders being truly motivated to negotiate for peace. No matter how hard the U.S. pushes, or how connected John Kerry feels to the Jewish people, if the leaders of Israel aren’t truly bought-in to working toward peace, and aren’t willing to make sacrifices to that end, then there’s a lot less to be hopeful about.

There has also been much press this week about German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s visit to Israel this past Monday. Chancellor Merkel told reporters, We have come here with almost the whole of our new government, and we wanted to show you (Israel) in this way that this is indeed a very strong friendship.” The visit kicked off preparations for the celebration of fifty years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, which began on May 12, 1965.

Let’s be honest: Germany has a vested interest in supporting Israel.  It’s a big part of their rebranding, post-WWII and post-the Berlin Wall. When I was in rabbinical school, I went on a trip called Germany Up Close, a trip that is highly-subsidized by both the Israeli and German governments, with the goal of bringing Jews to experience “the new Germany.” It was a propaganda trip to be sure. But it was a really powerful experience too. And there were many incredibly interesting moments.

One such moment took place on our visit to the Reichstag building, an admittedly uncomfortable experience, at first, for us Jews. It is daunting to walk up to that building and feel safe.
But we were greeted warmly, and even better, we were treated to some very frank honesty by a representative from the office of foreign relations.
Look,” he said, Germany is the best friend of Israel and America right now. We’re such good friends that, in the UN, Germany always votes with Israel and America, no matter what the issue!”

He was so proud to inform us of this, and I found myself wondering whether Germany even thinks about these votes, or just raises her hand along with her new BFFs, like any teenage girl just trying to fit in and fly under the rader; just trying to make nice with the popular girls.

But whatever we think of Germany’s motivations for supporting Israel, the fact is, Israel is in need of support that comes from within Europe.  It doesn’t have enough of it, and so a little goes a long way.

During Monday’s visit, Merkel and Netanyahu discussed, among other things, the peace process, in advance of the expected publication of Secretary Kerry’s framework document for negotiations, that are expected to be shared in April.  Chancellor Merkel said that she could not comment on what the framework agreement could or should look like, but that she could comment on what the end result would need to be. She stated that mutual recognition would need to be part of any framework agreement, as well as serious concern for Israel’s physical security.  She also addressed the issue of the settlements, saying,: the settlement issue fills us with concern…We do not always see eye to eye [with Israel] on this issue, and I hope that we can overcome these difficulties and that there will be no obstacles to the two-state solution.”

So, even Germany won’t do just anything the popular girl tells her to. And undoubtedly, Israel is in need of friends who will lovingly stand up to her. That she has such a friend gives me hope. It’s progress. It’s another thing to be optimistic about.

Look, even just the fact that Israel and the Palestinians have come back to the table is something to acknowledge as positive progress.

On the website of the2campaign, a campaign that answers Kerry’s challenge to rally a “great constituency for peace”, I found the following statement: For the first time in 5 years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are sitting down together. They’re working behind closed doors to craft the agreement central to our shared vision: two states for two peoples. While the details may be complex and the choices ahead difficult, the issues are clear, and it’s time for those who support a two-state resolution to this conflict to stand up and say so.” Supporting the2Campaign is another action I have taken to reaffirm my belief that peace is possible. Their website describes how Kerry has turned to the Jewish community to enlist our support, because he recognizes that “no one has a stronger voice” when it comes to Israel. Most in the organized Jewish community are now on record,” it claims, supporting a two-state solution and have applauded Secretary Kerry’s efforts. However, too many are then quick to list the reasons why an agreement isn’t possible.”

The 2 Campaign is a concerted effort across the country, employing a major multimedia effort, including a national petition, educational outreach, and major events in key American cities, all designed to convey to the US Secretary of State that he has the support of the American Jewish community and beyond in pushing negotiations forward, especially in the most difficult moments. Because achieving a two-state solution is in the American, Israeli and Palestinian national interest.”

By participating in this campaign, we can demonstrate the resolve of pro-Israel Americans to see a two-state solution reached. We can show policymakers and political leaders that we support US leadership in helping the parties make the difficult, but necessary choices with regard to Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security.

But most importantly, by participating in this campaign, we can respond to Kerry’s challenge: we must believe that peace is possible and we must act on that belief.

If the2campaign isn’t the organization for you, because you’re not a supporter of a two-state-solution or because you don’t believe that Palestinian aspirations for self-determination are legitimate, than I encourage you to seek out the method of peace that you think is most likely to be successful, and to support those efforts instead.

But don’t not believe in peace. And don’t not care about Israel, and about Israel’s future and security. Don’t sigh heavily. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t be discouraged.

We all have days and moments, maybe even years, when it seems an impossible dream, but as Herzl said, im tirtzu ein zo agadah, if you will it, it is no dream.”

We need to push past our moments of hopelessness, and turn our faces Eastward, and connect with our childish innocence, and more importantly, with our faith.

The psalmists teach us to “seek peace and pursue it”. Our tradition obligates us to act for peace, to pray for peace, to believe that peace is possible.

May it be soon and in our days.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.


And May We Begin With The Trees

It’s no secret.

Anyone who’s ever read Shel Silverstein can tell you.
Trees give.
They give us shade and fruit and wood and oxygen.
They give us lovely places to rest.
They give us shelter. They give us life.
Trees give.

I recently learned about the phenomenon of tree-hugging.

It turns out that hugging trees is good for you.
And if the idea of hugging a tree makes you a little uncomfortable, rest easy – because you don’t have to hug them to derive benefits.
You don’t even have to touch a tree!
Just being in its vicinity can positively effect your health.

In a recently published book called Blinded by Science, author Matthew Silverstone explains scientifically that the vibrational properties of trees can improve many brain-related health issues, such as concentration levels, reaction times, depression, stress, and other forms of mental illness. Trees may even be able to alleviate headaches!

A major public health report has affirmed the association between green spaces and mental health, concluding that, “access to nature can significantly contribute to our mental capital and wellbeing.”

Studies also show that children who interact with plants and trees demonstrate significant psychological and physiological improvements in their health and well-being. Specifically, they function better cognitively and emotionally.

Although the term “vibrational properties” sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple: everything vibrates, and different vibrations can affect biology. Thus, when you touch a tree, or spend time in close proximity to one, it’s rate of vibration, which differs from your own, can affect you in positive ways.

It’s pretty fascinating. But what’s even more fascinating is that what science is just now proving, religions have known for thousands of years.

In Jewish tradition, a tree is one of the most potent symbols. Trees symbolize a bridge between heaven and earth and they also symbolize Torah, as well as human beings and God’s Divine structure.

According to Midrash, trees are sentient, meaning they have awareness and can perceive or sense what is happening around them.
That may seem pretty “unscientific”, but then again, the trees in the Garden of Eden were said to have had healing powers, and as we just heard, science has proven that to be plausible.

Whether or not we go so far as Midrash in our thinking about trees, it is clear that trees are more than just symbols of power.
Trees have power.
Trees have transformative power.
They make us feel better!

Even the first humans sensed this.
Adam and Eve were drawn to the Tree of Knowledge – drawn to it’s transformative power – long before humanity had the ability to explain why scientifically.

“Once upon a time,” Rabbi Daniel Swarz writes in an article about Judaism and nature, “we knew less about the natural world than we do today. Much less. But we understood that world better, much better, for we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.”

Rabbi Swarz reminds his readers that the Bible is a story about, “people who cared about and knew intimately the land around them.
That knowledge,” he writes, “is richly, even lavishly, reflected in the language of the prophets and psalmists, in the poetry of the Song of Songs and Job.”

For example, when Isaiah compares Israel to a terebinth oak in the fall, his audience could immediately appreciate the double-edged nature of his metaphor, for while the terebinth is at its most glorious just before all its leaves drop away, it is also one of the hardiest of trees and can even re-sprout from a stump.

But to our modern ears, distanced as we are from the natural world, the metaphor is lost. Most of us aren’t intimately familiar
with the characteristics of the terebith oak, or of any other tree for that mater. We live among trees, if we’re lucky, but how many of us take the time to really learn about them? And how many of us stop to notice whether or not we feel differently around them?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in 18th century Eastern Europe, knew that he felt differently when surrounded by trees and nature.
He wrote this now famous prayer:

Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awaken at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing thing, which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my hands to You in worship…

Rabbi Nachman knew the transformative power of the trees.
They transformed him,
they transformed his ability to pray and connect with God,
and they transformed the prayers themselves.

“May all the foliage of the field…send the powers of their life into my words of prayer.”

Knowing what science has now confirmed, about the benefits of trees to our mental health, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Rabbi Nachman, a great teacher, scholar, and spiritual seeker, struggled with mental illness throughout his life. At an early age he was marked by an exaggerated sense of sin and morbidity, and he was subject to rapid mood swings and bouts of paranoia.

But under the trees, it seems, he felt better.

How many of our daily aches and pains,
how many of our daily sorrows and woes,
how much of our unhappiness,
could be cured by spending a little more time around trees.

Rabbi Swartz writes: “Most have us have wandered far from our earlier understanding, (and) our long-ago intimacy (with nature). We take for granted what our ancestors could not, dared not, take for granted; we have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons…”

Our Torah, our very own Tree of Life, urges us to care for trees, to learn from them and to tend to them. In a war, we can destroy just about everything BUT fruit trees, and even if the Messiah himself arrives, should we be in the middle of planting a tree, we must finish planting before going to greet him. That’s how important trees are.

Adam and Eve knew it.
Our psalmists and sages knew it.
Rabbi Nachman most certainly knew it.
Children know it.
Maybe you knew it, once.

Rabbi Swarz questions whether, “our modern sophistication can be married to the ancient intimacy (he describes); whether we can move from our discord with nature to an informed harmony with this, God’s universe.”

If we can, it begins with hugging trees.

Yesterday was Tu B’Shvat: The New Year or Birthday of the Trees.
“Jewish Arbor Day”, if you will.

I celebrated it by going out and hugging a tree, and I’m not gonna lie, it felt pretty good!

If you haven’t hugged a tree lately (or ever) then I suggest you find one and give it a try.
If someone sees you, you can tell them your Rabbi told you to do it.

May each of us, on this Shabbat,
the Shabbat of the Trees,
refuse to be complacent in accepting the ills and sorrows of our lives;
May we seek out ancient and modern cures alike;
And may we begin with the trees.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.


For the Honey & the Bee-Sting

One winter day in Plattsburgh, NY, as I was driving and listening to an audio-book, a line of text caught my attention.

The book was called “The Dove Keepers” by Alice Hoffman. It’s a fictional account of a group of women who survive the Roman sack of Jerusalem, and come to live with the rebels on the mountain called Masada.

The line that caught my attention was this: “our lives our shaped by our sorrows.” 

At first, I found myself agreeing. I could look back at my own life and easily trace how it has been affected by various losses, broken hearts and disappointments. Even though I believe that suffering can often (but not always) have value, and that the heard-knocks in life make us stronger, I couldn’t help thinking back on the different low points in my personal history and seeing the shape that my life has taken accordingly.

I found myself nodding my head along as I thought it over.

Our lives are shaped by our sorrows.

But over the next few days I found myself mulling over it. Even though I had agreed with it initially, something was gnawing at me. I felt like I was missing something. When I sat down to read through the portion of the week, B’shalach, which is also this week’s parasha, I began to see things differently.

It is within Parashat B’shalach that the Israelites are finally set free.

Pharaoh let’s them go, then chases them down. The sea parts. God ‘s mighty hand is stretched out. The Israelites cross to freedom. They praise God. They experience the miracles of water coming from rocks and of manna falling from the sky.

It is a high point in our history.

Actually, it is THE high point in our history.

In Plattsburgh, one of my rabbinic responsibilities was to teach the Introduction to Judaism course at the college. Since there’s a lot of Judaism to fit into just one semester, only one class was able to be devoted to Jewish history. It’s a lot to fit into three hours, so we only focused on the most important moments; the moments that have shaped the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.

Often, when we study Judaism’s history, it can seem like the defining for our people was the destruction of the Second Temple. After all, that event transitioned us from a sacrificial cult –tied to one special location – to a religion of prayer and mitzvot, that can be adhered to in any place, at any time.

If we determine that the destruction of the Temple was the defining moment in Jewish History, we can agree that “our lives are shaped by our sorrows.”

After all, much of Rabbinic Judaism centers around mourning the Temple and preparing for a time when it can be rebuilt. But Parashat B’shalach reminds us that there’s more to it.

When I teach the important moments in Jewish history – at SUNY Plattsburgh or anywhere else – I don’t start with the destruction of the Second Temple. I start with The Exodus.

In the textbook I used with my college students, our textbook referred to the episode of the Exodus as “the Redemptive Event of the Jewish People”. I asked my students what they thought that meant. At first, they didn’t answer, unsure of how to define a redemptive event.

So I asked them: What was the Redemptive Event in the history of African Americans? 

“The Emancipation Proclamation!” one student called out. “The Civil Rights Movement!” another ventured. 


And just as those moments forever changed the history of African Americans, so too did the Exodus forever alter the Children of Israel. 

Even though much of Jewish tradition is shaped by our sorrows, much of it is also shaped by our triumphs. Chanukah, which we celebrated a few months ago, and Purim, which is a few months ahead, are both celebratory in nature, as is Passover.

So it’s not all bad.

Our religion is not only shaped by our sorrows. And if Judaism isn’t just shaped by its sorrows, then it stands to reason our lives aren’t either.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the power in the message of how our religion is structured.

I thought about how Orthodox Judaism, which so often dwells on the sorrows of our people, is one of the smallest Jewish denominations, even though they have many more children than liberal and secular Jews. 

I also thought about how Passover is the one holiday that secular and disaffiliated Jews are most likely to celebrate. The message of freedom and hope is so much stronger – so much more attractive – than the message of grief and mourning.

Our lives can’t just be shaped by our sorrows, any more than our religion could.

If Judaism was only a sad, dark religion, it would not have survived until today…But at the same time, it also would not have survived just based on its celebrations.

I once had a conversation with a non-practicing Jew who told me that even though he felt strongly that religion was the cause of many problems in the world, he couldn’t completely eschew his Jewish identity.

 “I don’t really understand why,” he said, “but I always come back to the idea that so many people died for the sake of their Judaism. There must be something important about it. Who am I to renounce what so many of my ancestors died for?”

In our parsha, God brings the Israelites into freedom, only to begin immediately pelting them with hardship. At first, there is no food or water. Then they are attacked by Amalekites. “Why would God bring us into the desert to die?” They ask Moses.  

Moses doesn’t answer them, but the history of the Jewish people speaks for itself: Our suffering makes the miracles all the more profound. Our suffering makes our victories – few and far between though they may be – all the more sweet.

Judaism is shaped by our sorrows and our blessings. So too, our lives.  

May each of us this week, recognize the joys and pains that shape our lives, and may we be wise enough to thank God for them both.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. 

Not All Superheroes Wear Capes

This is one of the scariest sermons I’ve ever written.
It also might be the one I was most excited to give.

A few weeks ago, when Nelson Mandela died, it seemed a no-brainer that my sermon tonight, for “Just Shabbat” would be about him.
But then Superman Sam died, and everything changed.

There will be a time to talk about Mandela – anniversaries of his death and of his deeds. I promise that I will give that sermon one day. But sometimes the important things that people have done in the past have to take a backseat to the important things people are doing right now. And right now, 72 of my colleagues and I are raising money to fight childhood cancer.

If we reach our fundraising goals, we will shave our heads.

It’s called 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave – it was originally supposed to be only 36 rabbis, but we’ve been inspiring one another and the number has grown. There are also rabbinical students and relatives participating.

Your obvious question at this point: You’re going to shave your head???Why on earth would you do that?

Well, I’ll tell you.

In some ways, it started with Superman Sam.
But in some ways, it also started years ago.
With Jonah Dreskin and with a tragic loss of my own.

Jonah Dreskin was the son of two very special people – Rabbi Billy Dreskin and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. They are angels. They touch and inspire countless people. They do wonderful things for the Jewish People, the Reform Movement, their own community, the world… but that didn’t protect them from losing their son.

The world doesn’t work that way. No matter what we tell ourselves, there comes a day when we realize it’s not true. And for me, that was the day Jonah Dreskin died. I was already tremendously worn down from my own personal loss and grief that year and by that point I was mostly numb. But the news about Jonah shocked me back into the “awareness of the unfairness” as I call it – what we spend most of our lives trying to hide from but rarely ever do.

The unfairness of the Dreskins – two of the best people I know – losing their son, shocked the breath out of me. I literally crumpled to the floor from the edge of my bed, where I had been sitting when I read news.
“Where are you God?!?” I cried out.
And I wept.

It was a very dark time for me, as I struggled with the theology of loss and with my personal relationship with God.
But I’ve already given that sermon. If you missed it, I’d be happy to forward you a copy of it so that you can catch up.

In any case, what I remember most about that time is feeling helpless. There was no mobilizing or fundraising
around Jonah’s death at first (although there is now a foundation, to which I donate annually), and there was no fundraising around the cause relating to my own loss at the time either. And even if their had been,
I was a poor, exhausted and grief-stricken rabbinical student who barely had enough money or energy to stay in school and make it through each day, let alone mobilize for a cause.

There’s a time to weep and a time to act.

Superman Sam was also the son of two wonderful leaders of the Jewish people. Two rabbis – Phyllis and Michael Sommer.
On December 14th, while so many of us in the Reform Movement were sleeping after an inspiring and joyous Erev Shabbat at the URJ Biennial, Sam lost his battle with AML – Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

Sam had been diagnosed in June of 2012 and in November of the same year he completed treatment and was declared in remission.
But at the end of March 2013 he relapsed and although he received a bone marrow transplant last August, the fatal leukemia returned, and the end came brutally fast.

Sam wanted to be famous.

When Sam was first diagnosed, his mom began a blog, called Superman Sam, and asked friends and family to help Sam know how many people were rooting for him by sending in photos of themselves in clothing with superhero logos, to be hung on Sam’s wall.

I sent them a picture of Manny, wearing a shirt that says, “not all Superheroes wear capes.” In the picture, Manny is looking both adorable and a little sad, as if, in his doggy-wisdom, he knew just the right tone to set. Sam too, in the photos on his mother’s blog, looks both adorable and a little sad.

Although I don’t know the Sommer’s very well, and am pretty sure I never met Sam, Phyllis’ blog – reposted by so many of my rabbi friends, caught my attention, and I read along with anxiousness, and then joy, and then sorrow, as their story went from fear to relief
and then to unbearable anguish.

In the past few weeks, Phyllis has bravely recounted telling 8 year old Sam that he was going to die; she has described their last attempts to give Sam some of his wishes by dropping everything to travel as a family to Israel and then to Disney Land; she has recorded Sam’s final conversations, final minutes; and then this morning she recounted his funeral and the shiva.

I don’t know how she holds it together to write.
But I know that if she can do that, then I have to do something too.

Sam’s death echoes for me in the hollow place in my heart left by the day that Jonah Dreskin died.
Hopelessness in the face of unfair and unbearable loss.

But this time I’m not crippled by my own grief, by my struggles to get through each day, or by my own financial burdens.

This time I can do something.
And this time I will.

So I’m going to try to raise $5000 for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, who will invest every dollar raised into “the best possible childhood cancer research”. And if I reach my fundraising goal, then I am going to shave my head.

If this seems radical to you, know that part of me feels that way too. I have never done anything like this before, which in-and-of-itself is reason enough. Rabbis should be out there doing stuff like this all the time. I firmly believe that but I haven’t been walking-the-walk.
So it’s time.

Also, know that there are 20 or so other women who are Shaving for the Brave, including Sam’s mom Phyllis and Aunt Anne. Phyllis alone, has raised almost 35,000 dollars.

You should also know that when women rabbis started to sign up, I groaned inwardly. “Oh no!” I thought, “now everyone will expect me to do this, and I can’t!
I can’t shave my head!
I’m not embarrassed to be that vain!”

Except that as soon as I finished thinking it, I was embarrassed.

Even though no one heard me.
Even though there are lots of other women rabbis that are not signing up.
I heard me.
And I cringed.

I cringed because along with Phyllis’ blog, I have been reading the blog of my friend’s cousin, Stephanie Herzog, who went to school with my brother when they were young. Stephanie, who is in her late 20’s, has been battling a rare and aggressive kind of Breast cancer. She’s winning right now, thank God, but her blog has been raw and brutally honest all through the scariest and most hopeful parts of her journey.

Stephanie didn’t have a choice about losing her hair and it seemed like it was one of the hardest parts for her (although she bravely posted pictures and she looked beautiful). How can I let a little vanity prevent me from helping when the victims of what I’m trying to prevent don’t get a choice? Sam didn’t get a choice about losing his hair either.
Or about losing his life.

There’s no vanity when it comes to cancer.
Stephanie will be the first to tell you, and I’m sure Sam would have agreed.

Vanity and fear are terrible reasons to do nothing when something can be done. We can’t save Superman Sam but we can try to save children like him. We can’t save Phyllis and Michael and Sam’s three siblings from the terrible loss they are experiencing and will experience every day of their lives, but we can try to prevent other families from having to go through it.

So that’s why.
For the Sommers.
For Stephanie.
For Jonah Dreskin.
For my own loss,
and for the rabbi that I want to be for all of you.
That’s why.

The total goal set by 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave event was $180,000, and today, one week after Sam died, we passed that goal! By March 31st, the fundraising deadline, we will have far surpassed it. I hope you will help us.


On this Shabbat may each of us pick one fear we have, one fear that holds us back from reaching out to help someone else;
On this Shabbat – Shabbat Sh’mot, the Shabbat of Names – may we name that fear, and face it, and then reach out in spite of it.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.
May it be God’s will.



Love Songs

This summer, in Provincetown, I rediscovered an old friend. Her name is Holly Near.

My parents are pretty typical examples of those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and since our family car trips when my brother and I were growing up predated ipods, ipads, hand-held video games and mini-vans with DVD players (we were still watching VHS back then), the hours were filled singing along to the folk music of my parents’ generation: James Taylor, Joni Mitchel, Carol King, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul and Mary Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a somewhat lesser-known artist (at least to those of my generation) named Holly Near.

 A quick Google-search of Holly Near will tell you that a “significant arena of (her music & activism) is the LGBTQ community. Her interest (in this cause) was both personal and political. She was one of the first celebrities to discuss her sexual orientation during a pioneering 1976 interview with People magazine.”

The songs on the CD that my family owned, entitled “Imagine My Surprise”, are mostly songs about women: strong, empowered women; women facing oppression; and most of all, women loving women.

But as a young girl in the 80’s, belting out the lyrics, I didn’t have any real comprehension of the significance of Holly’s music or the barriers she had begun to break down with her music only a decade before.

While it’s true that her music was probably the first awareness I had of non-heterosexual relationships, I was lucky to have parents who lovingly explained to me that sometimes men love men, and sometimes women love women, and that, really, anyone can love anyone and that’s okay.

Just like my parents told me that being a woman and being a Jew no longer meant that I couldn’t pursue any dream I had. Just like they told me that a person’s skin color or ethnicity or religion doesn’t matter.

 I was raised on the rhetoric of equality and it was decades more before I began to realize that when my parents said that these kinds of things didn’t matter, what they really meant to say was that these things shouldn’t matter. Because of course, all too often, all too sadly, they still do.

But back then I was an awkward kid with a loud voice and a love for the folk music of my parent’s generation – even if I didn’t really understand it. So I happily belted along to Holly Near’s lyrics, unaware that they were any different than anyone else’s.

I identified strongly with the songs about women who were oppressed or bullied, and when I sang out: “I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother’s daughter and you can’t just take my dreams away – not with me watching,” the words flowed from my heart –a heart that knew about bullying all too well – and with my mind that,looking back now, I suspect unconsciously connected these words to the words of my families other beloved musical genre – Jewish folk music.

Holly singing “you can’t take my dreams away” was just like Debbie Friedman’s musical rendition of Theodore Hertz’s famous line: Im tirtzu ain so agadah – if you will it, it is no dream – wasn’t it?

But somewhere along the line, we lost Holly Near’s CD. Countless times, I combed through the house, looking for it to upload to my itunes playlist. Countless times I searched itunes to download it directly. But alas – the CD was nowhere to be found and itunes didn’t carry that particular CD (or much of her music at all for that matter) and so Holly’s music slowly faded from my mind.

Flash forward to this summer, where I found myself driving down a Las Vegas suburban street with my three cousins. Sydney is a 17 year old gorgeous teen-aged girl who grew up in California’s OC; Asher is a 21 year old, Orthodox, yeshiva-kid-turned-Israeli-soldier, and Elli is a 26 year old, rambunctious, outspoken, tattoo-covered vegan who is studying to be a midwife. And I’m a rabbi. So we make a pretty interesting crowd.

Despite our vast differences, our love for one another is deep and being together during those difficult weeks was a tremendous blessing. We did have some difficulty agreeing on what radio station to listen to in the car however.

That is, until we discovered Macklemore’s song, Same Love, which seemed to be on the radio every 5 minutes this summer (in case you didn’t notice).

Macklemore is a straight, white rapper, and Same Love is his commentary on the fight for marriage equality and on the irony of the Hip Hop world using the word “gay” as a derivative since it is, in itself, a culture that, as he puts it is, “founded in oppression”.

What a Jewish song! I thought, (although likely, I was the only one in the car thinking that particular thought).

Jewish, because we too concern ourselves with oppression everywhere – not just Jewish oppression – because we too, are a people “founded in oppression”.

So when Macklemore raps about how even though he himself is not gay, the cause of marriage equality is a cause worth fighting for, and when he states: “It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!” I found that tears had come to my eyes.

How refreshing for a contemporary artist to promote love and not hate.

It seemed revolutionary, which, of course, it isn’t. Maybe it’s sadly all too unusual as of late, but wasn’t I raised on the socially conscious folk music of the 60’s & 70’s? It certainly wasn’t unusual then. But by then, on that Las Vegas street, I had forgotten all about Holly Near.

Until a few weeks later, in Provincetown, where my mother and I got some pretty strange looks as we crowed with joy, having stumbled on a copy of Holly Near’s greatest hits, including all the songs from our long-lost Imagine My Surprise CD. We could barely contain ourselves as we bounded over to the counter to pay for it, and it was all we could do not to rush back to the car and play it immediately!

When we finally, hours later, made it back to the car and began to listen – I discovered Holly Near anew. No longer a child, I was now fully aware of the meanings and significance of her music, and I found myself, for the second time that month, moved to tears by an artist singing about the struggle for a person’s right to love anyone they want to.

Only weeks before, Marriage Equality had become a Federal reality. How far we have come!

How far we have yet to go.

After all, if Macklemore’s message profoundly silences a car full of diverse young adults in 2013, some 40 years after Holly Near began sharing the same message, then the problem is most certainly not solved.

And that’s because the problem isn’t gay rights. The problem, as Macklemore so strongly emphasizes, is human rights  – for all. Winning one battle does not entitle us to declare the war at an end. “No freedom till we’re equal” Macklemore declares. And he’s right.

And so was Holly, who writes on the cover notes of the album we discovered, entitled “Simply Love”, that she and other women musicians of her era, “made music in the face of homophobia, racism, misogyny, poverty, war and patriarchy.” What I had sensed, but not been old enough to fully understand as a child was true. Holly’s music was not “Lesbian music” it was Civil Rights music; it was Equal Rights music. As is the music and so much of the liturgy of Judaism. Long before the 60’s and 70’s – before Civil Rights and Women’s Rights and Gay Rights – Jews were singing about freedom and praying about freedom and fighting, when they could, for freedom. Mi Chamocha Ba-eilim Adoni – what is this prayer, if not a daily liturgical reminder of the moment of our own freedom?

During the past week or so, I have shared with you how important it is to have a cause that you stand up for, and I talked about how Judaism is my cause, and should be the cause for all of us, because it’s values are at the root of all the things we care about and fight for.

But what I have so far neglected to say, and what I sometimes forget, is that just as we can’t exclude Judaism for the sake of our other causes, neither can we neglect other causes when we are mired in Jewish causes.

This year, I happily watched and cheered and supported many of my rabbinic peers as they fought the good fight. My friend, Rabbi Melissa Simon, who is a proud Lesbian and social activist, was on the front lines of the fight for marriage equality in Minnesota. All year I read about her achievements and “liked” her Facebook posts and told her I was proud of the work she was doing.

And I didn’t get involved because marriage equality was already a reality in New York and Massachusetts, the states where I’ve been a rabbi these past 3 years, and because I’m not a Lesbian, and because I think of Judaism as my cause and it takes up all of my time. . .

Which is exactly the reverse argument of what so many of you say, about being too busy to commit to Judaism because of all of your other important commitments.

I am guilty too. We all have some work to do I guess.

But Holly Near’s music – rediscovered and finally truly understood – sparked something in me. If she had only sung about women loving women – the cause of her own heart, her impact on the world would have been so much less profound. And if Macklemore had abstained from his important message because he’s white and straight and therefore shouldn’t reprimand the black community for being apathetic (or worse) to the gay community …Well, I think the loss would have been immeasurable.

We cannot stand up for only one cause and count ourselves among the righteous. We all have to figure out how to balance the causes of our hearts with other important causes – causes that we cannot responsibly abstain from supporting.

I will work harder at this. I hope you will too.

And I hope that this year we will all find times to belt out the words of justice – be they spoken or sung; be they poetic or liturgical; be they in Hebrew or English or any other language; be they Hip Hop or folk or another genre; Let us sing out these love songs – Macklemore’s Same Love, Holly’s Simply Love – Debbie’s Ahavat Olam – a song about God’s love! – because all songs for justice are love songs, if you really think about it.

So in the words of Holly Near:

“You bet I sing love songs / Songs that carry me along / Through fearful times and tender times / Songs of mother-love / Songs of my lover’s love / Singing the songs of loving myself”

This year may we love ourselves and others enough to carve out the time to perfect the broken world around us.

“No Freedom ‘till we’re equal.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Standing Up For Judaism

This sermon is dedicated to Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z”l), whose passionate and devastatingly brutal words inspired and shamed me into a courage to confront – successfully – my congregation, with this important message. He didn’t know me, but I like to think he’d be proud.


On Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you my discovery of the television show Doomsday Preppers, and I suggested that in order to be preparing ourselves for the days and years ahead we needed to have an acute awareness of what it is that we stand for.

 I talked about my Great Aunt Bryna’s devotion to her chosen causes, and I also mentioned that Doomsday-prepping is not altogether unlike preparing for Yom Kippur, with the doom-and-gloom liturgy we have come to expect, and, perhaps dread.

 Not all that long ago, the language of gloom-and-doom was not relegated to the words in our prayer books. Rabbis, less than a century ago, felt comfortable and confident, shouting down their disappointment at their congregants and sharing their predictions of a gloomy Jewish future.

 Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z”l) was one such Doomsday Prepper. He was formidable and foreboding. On the High Holidays, in 1961, Rabbi Lipman shared the following words with his community At Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.

After discussing how the music of Kol Nidrei is found by many to be deeply moving, he shared his concern about what happens after the music fades, saying:

 “It is good that something Jewish can stir you deeply once each year. It is good that, for these few moments each year…that all this can bring tears to your eyes, that something can break through the protective shell you have built around your souls and make you, for these few moments each year, unhyphenated Jews, undiluted Jews, total Jews.

But it is also too bad.

 It is tragic and frustrating that the impact of these few soul-stirring moments must inevitably be dissipated, rapidly dissipated.

 It is tragic for you as individuals, it is tragic for the future of the Jewish people as well.

 It is tragic for you because you return so fast to your surface-centered, thing-centered, bland-leading-the bland American way of life. You miss so much joy and life by doing so!

 It is tragic for the future of the Jewish people because Judaism and our people require more for survival.”

 His words, not mine.

And he didn’t leave it at that, either. In 1972, he was still railing:

“For the majority of this congregation,” he said, to the assembled group of D.C. lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, “adults and children alike, for the majority of American Jews I know,” he continued – “being Jewish is not very important.

 Being Jewish is not important enough to most of the members of this congregation for you to have any level of involvement in the Jewish community, in the life of the Jewish people – beyond paying dues, beyond making a contribution to the UJA…Being Jewish is not important enough to most of you for you to invest any of your time in Jewish communal institutions, to invest any emotion, to invest any of your amazing talents. Most of you…have no meaningful Jewish communal activities as part of your routine, of your expansion of yourselves beyond work and family and pleasure. You do not by your affiliations and your actions speak Jewishness to a world which needs it. You do not make Jewishness important – not to yourselves, not to others, not to your children. Being Jewish is not important enough to most (of you) to consider it part of your business to learn about Jewishness, about Judaism, about the Jewish people…(or)…to claim any significant amount of your time at home. Aside from Chanukah candles and a seder, your homes remain bare of Jewish observances.”

He goes on and on like this. What Chutzpah!

Most rabbis today know that this isn’t the most effective way to argue for religious adherence and commitment. And of course, it goes without saying, that this community demonstrates a higher degree of commitment, and seems to value Judaism more than the congregation of twice-a-year-Jews to which Rabbi Lipman was speaking.

And yet, we can understand where he was coming from.

More than 40 years later, these words ring far too true and I suspect  many rabbis today read Rabbi Lipman’s sermon with the same sense of awe that I did, when I first discovered it.

It was a different time, to be sure.

Today, as my colleague Rabbi Larry Freedman points out, “Our society is consumer oriented, fee for service, (and) Reform synagogues, (sadly, all too often) echo society.  Our synagogue structures are based on a membership model where we assume you’ll join, assume you’ll pay and assume you’ll be happy.   And,” he quips, “if you’re not happy, you should show up more and (then) you’ll be happy,”

But of course, as Rabbi Freedman knows,that’s a limited, narrow-minded, and unfair perspective, and it has been proven unsuccessful. People are voting with their feet, and rightly so.

Today’s liberal Jews expect Judaism – and Jewish communities and organizations by extension – to offer them something of value before they’ll commit to it.

Now, whether or not you believe as Rabbi Freedman does, and as I do, that Judaism can “inspire the mind and lift the soul,” it is now the synagogue’s job  – our job, my job – to change and adapt to the expectations of today’s liberal Jews and to come up with a model that doesn’t assume anything but positions itself as a place of value.

The reality is that if Temple Beth David doesn’t give us something that enriches our lives then we will all have difficulty justifying a commitment of our time and financial resources – because in a consumer society, if it doesn’t bring benefit, if it doesn’t add value, then why would we spend money on it?

I say “we” and not “you” because outside of the Jewish community, I can be accused of the same kind of thinking.

It’s societal. It’s generational. It’s contagious.

And so if we feel that Judaism needs to offer us something of value before we will care and invest and commit to Judaism in return then I say, “fair enough”, but I also want to call our attention to the fact that Judaism has already offered us something of value: our VALUES.

When I spoke about my Aunt Bryna on Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you that she committed her whole life to her chosen causes. But Bryna was also deeply devoted to the Jewish community and to Jewish causes. She understood that her commitment to women’s equality and social justice, were core Jewish values going all the way back to Torah. And so the daily commitments she made to the causes of her heart did not come at the expense or exclusion of an equally deep commitment to Judaism itself.

All too often I am challenged by those who suggest that universal values and Jewish values are the same, and so if they are dedicating their time and money to a cause or charity outside of the Jewish community they are somehow absolved of a commitment to the Jewish community.

Not so.

Or rather, the first assertion is somewhat close to the truth but the second is altogether misguided.

In an explanation of Jewish practice published by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, there is a list of Jewish attitudes, beliefs and values. The list includes:

Love; humility; environmentalism; gratitude; intention; menchlechite; commitment to community; working to free those who are enslaved and oppressed; serving our societies in order to contribute to their welfare; avoiding wastefulness; valuing health and wellness and protecting our bodies; not wasting time; keeping the commitments we make to both God and fellow human beings; remembering that every human being is created in the image of God; pursuing peace; pursuing a relationship with God and/or spiritual experiences; Respecting and valuing Diversity; speaking and seeking truth; having a relationship with the Land of Israel; caring for one another; valuing human dignity; prioritizing the unity and survival of the Jewish people; valuing rest and renewal; having compassion; creating peace in the home; guarding our speech; celebrating with joy; improving the world; (and) pursuing social justice.

Now, I’m going to channel Rabbi Lipman for a moment and show a little chutzpadik by saying that if the majority of these values are not your values, than I can certainly understand why participating in the Jewish community is not a high priority for you.

 But if these values are our values (and I certainly hope that they are), then I cannot understand how any of us can say or suggest or think that Judaism hasn’t already offered us something meaningful; and if so, then I cannot understand how any of us can excuse placing Judaism low on our priority lists.

 Yes, many of these seem to be universal values but, without giving a long history lesson on the evolution of world-religions and Western values, if these are universal values today, they are so BECAUSE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, or at the very least, because of the Five Books of Moses, the Bible, the Old Testament – whatever name you know it by – it is this book – our Torah! – that brought these values into universal appreciation.

If these are your values, you should connect yourself with pride to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion because we have been the messengers of universal values to the world for millennia.

You see, what makes the Torah and Judaism special is that they are more than just a belief in a higher power they are about what we do and how we treat each other.

This is something worth being proud of.

This is something worth committing to.

This is something worth standing up for.

Recently, a number of Reform rabbis discussed the difference between the consumer model I spoke about earlier compared to a model of relationship. 

 One Rabbi said, “in a consumer culture we are defined by what we have, but in a relationship culture what we have is defined by the moments we’ve shared with others.” 

 Another rabbi wrote this:  “Consumer culture: we use things up and throw things out.  Relationship culture: we fill one another up and build lasting memories.”

And another take:  “In a consumer culture, we look at individuals as commodities to be acquired. In a relationship culture, we respond to the other’s dignity and humanity.”

And finally:  “In a consumer culture we focus on what we can get. In a relationship culture we focus on what we can give.”

I am proud to share with you, in case you are not already aware, that Temple Beth David is working hard to instill and maintain for ourselves a culture of relationship. We value people, not proceeds. We work hard to make participation affordable – often at our own expense – and we strive to be welcoming and accessible to all.

 If Rabbi Lipman had met this community, I know he would have been more optimistic about the future of Judaism. But I also know that he would have been quick to point out that our successes do not excuse us from reaching even higher, from committing even more of ourselves, from viewing Judaism as the root of the values we stand up for, and therefore worthy of being stood up for as well.

And Rabbi Lipman would have cautioned us not to let our guards down. We still need to channel the Doomsday Preppers. We still need to arm ourselves with what we need and what the world needs in order to facilitate a successful future.

And for my two cents,  I firmly believe that what we need is Torah.

We need to be stockpiling Torah.

Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz writes, “I am optimistic about Judaism’s future, despite the persistence of ignorance and apathy because Judaism offers a richness of values, sacred texts, and tools to transform the mundane into sacred moments.”

 If we stockpile Torah, If we arm ourselves with the richness of Judaism’s values, texts and traditions, then our lives will be infused with meaning, and we will be more than prepared for whatever lays ahead.

The ancient Israelites understood that to get something they had to give something, and what they gave were the animals they sacrificed. These animals had to be blemish-free – an incredibly difficult thing to find. As Rabbi Freedman writes, “Imagine how hard it must have been…Just try to pick out an animal from your herd that hasn’t gotten a few thorn scratches. How about an animal that never tripped (or) was on the losing end of a head-butt…” Animals destined for sacrifice had to have been carefully selected and tended to with an overly watchful eye – segregated from the herd, gently guided away from danger, fretted and watched over at all times of day and night.

“To bring that animal to Jerusalem for an offering,”  Rabbi Freedman writes,  “must have been a very powerful gesture. This wasn’t just some animal. This was personal. The animal represented years of preparation. When you offered this animal up to God, You were offering a piece of yourself, your sweat and tears.”

I am going to borrow Rabbi Freedman’s metaphor, and encourage you, this year, “to bring your own well-cared-for goat – and by goat, I mean sacrifice.”

In return for the value that Judaism and this community have to offer, I am asking you to give up just a little of what is precious to you, and these days what is most precious to most of us (aside from our loved ones), is time.

If you can’t make the time to be here, you will miss out on the chance to stockpile Torah for yourself, and to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.

I know that it’s challenging but I firmly believe that it’s worth it.

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do what I do.

I wouldn’t stand up here today.

I wouldn’t stand up for Judaism each and every day of my life.

Judaism is my chosen cause. I am arguing, with every fiber of my strength – with the memory of my Aunt Bryna and the chutzpah of Rabbi Lipman as guides – I am arguing that Judaism should be your chosen cause too.

You cannot survive without it. And it cannot survive without you.

This year, may we hold to the commitments we make in our hearts during moments of passion and inspiration;

May we keep to them long after the stirring music of Kol Nidrei has faded.

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




Near the Jaffa Gate, inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, there is an ancient block of stone.
It sits in a very busy place, and most people rush by without really noticing it. But if you stop and look closely at it, you can see, carved on that stone, the letters LEG X.

It is a relic of Titus’ Tenth Roman Legion, the legion which destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple almost two thousand years ago.

Recently, something quite interesting has happened to that block of Roman stone. It has been recycled. It now serves as the base for a perfectly ordinary street lamp.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in teaching about this new, yet ancient, lamp-stand, observes: “Giving light:
a strange renewal of the old Menorah. And a strange reversal of the Arch of Titus: where the Arch turned the light from the Menorah into stone (by depicting an engraved image of the capture of the Menorah on its side), this street lamp turns (a) stone (of Titus’) back into light.”

Judaism is filled with clever teachings and metaphors about renewal. This day, Rosh Hashanah,
the beginning of the year, is often filled with references, teachings and discussion about forgiveness. Its proximity to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, necessitates that our attention be grounded in the work of repentance, preparing ourselves and our souls for that holiest of days.

But Rosh Hashannah is not just about repentance and forgiveness.

Lest you are in doubt, look no further than your Twitter feed – or, if you’re not into that sort of thing,
the Twitter feed of someone who is. In the Twitter community, or the “Twitterverse” as it’s more commonly known, one can organize Tweets thematically with the use of a hash-tag.

For example, when tweeting about their jobs, Rabbis will often conclude their tweet with #whatrabbisdo. Then, if one were to do a search within Twitter, using that hash-tag, one would come up with a list of all the tweets that used it, and thus an interesting study on what rabbis do,
or more accurately, what rabbis tweet about doing.

A recent phenomenon comes under the hash-tag “PopCultureElul”, which is like a game that Jews in the Twitterverse play with one another by quoting pop culture references (usually lyrics from contemporary songs) that relate to the month of Elul (we also have PopCulturePurim, PopCulturePesach, PopCultureChanukah, and so on).

A recent Twitter search of PopCultureElul brings up quotes from Bob Dylan (“You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone”), the Indigo Girls (“the sweetest part is acting after making a decision”), Philip Phillips (“If you get lost, you can always be found, just know you’re not alone”), Mumford & Sons (“Awake my soul”), the Broadway Musicals Wicked (“Some things I cannot change, but ‘til I try I’ll never know”) and Les Mis (“To love another person is to see the face of God”) – Even the Hokey Pokey gets a mention, since “You put your whole self in and you shake it all about”.

Interestingly enough, these quotes focus less on ideas of repentance and forgiveness, and relate more strongly to the theme of renewal.

Really, Rosh Hashanah is about all of these things.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes, “(This is) the beginning of a new year. We have examined our deeds,
made amends, and been renewed. But recovery and spiritual renewal do not come quickly or easily.
Repentance, teshuvah, is hard work. That’s really why when we finally – after the long hot summer – get to Rosh Hashannah we call it a New Year, because through honest repentance we are given the opportunity to begin life anew and get a fresh start on the year, and our lives…”

The Gaon of Vilna taught us: “Each day should be a new experience Each day we have the opportunity of a fresh start. A person who has made teshuvah is like a newborn child.”

Similarly, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner teaches that, “With the New Year, we have a chance for newness within or hearts, a newness that can change the course of our lives.”

But it isn’t only on Rosh Hashanah that Jews think about and pray for renewal. In fact, whether you are aware of it or not, each time you come to temple and participate in worship services, you sing or read or listen along to the G’vurot. Over the course of this year, you may have noticed this prayer more than usual – it’s the one where there are bracketed words in the Hebrew; the one where sometimes Howard sings one word and I sing another.

Maybe you have found this to be confusing. Maybe you even thought one of us was making a mistake! But the truth is, like with most of what we do during our Jewish prayer service, there is a reason for there being two different words that can be said during this prayer.

This prayer, the G’vurot, acknowledges God’s divine power. G’vurot in Hebrew, means great or mighty. The prayer emphasizes how God is so great that God able not only to take life but to restore it – by setting captive people free; by restoring health to those who are ill, and – according to the original, traditional version of the prayer – by restoring life to the dead.

We often think of resurrection as a Christian notion. Many liberal Jews, when asked, might even say it’s a very un-Jewish idea. But the truth is that techyat hameitim, the Jewish belief in resurrection has been around for centuries, if not longer.

If we go all the way back to the time of the Ancient Israelites though, we find that the Torah has very little to say about notions of resurrection or life after death. However, as our religion evolved, our Rabbis and Sages devised clearer answers to the question of what happens to us after we die. According to the traditional rabbinic understanding, we are taught that at the time of death, the soul separates from the body and journeys to God, while the body returns to the dust of the earth. After the End of Days, we are taught, the body and soul will be reunited and individual human beings will be reconstituted as during their time on earth, in order to stand before God’s judgment.

This is an idea that contemporary Judaism focuses very little attention, if any, on. But until the early 19th century, this is what all Jews believed!

But as Jews emerged from the ghettos into the Enlightenment, they found their traditional ideas
increasingly challenged by modern science, and time-honored doctrines were replaced with more secular, liberal, rational, and universal ideas.

Judaism, like everything else in early modernity, was subjected to scholarly criteria, and the belief in bodily resurrection slowly gave way, in non-traditional circles, to a belief in spiritual immortality, the idea that the physical body dies, never to be restored, but the soul lives on forever.

In 1885, Reform Judaism formally rejected belief in resurrection, declaring that it, “has no religious foundation.” Throughout the Classical and modern periods of Reform Judaism, many argued in favor of these innovations. Understandably!

After all, for modernists and post-modernists (that’s us), belief in bodily resurrection is almost impossible. Everything we are taught about the physical world flies in the face of the belief that Maimonides included in his Thirteen Principles of Faith – the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
And even though the traditional words of the G’vurot teach us that nothing is impossible for God,
who is all powerful, to accomplish, our modern and post-modern sensibilities leave us, at the very least, with an ongoing paradox.

Maybe God can resurrect the dead, but the Laws of Physics teach us that whether or not God can, it seems pretty clear that God doesn’t, and it is hard for us to image that one day God might.

Even for those who are willing to suspend disbelief, it’s still an incredibly uncomfortable notion.

More than that, Rabbi Richard Levy explains that techiyat hameitim, the doctrine of resurrection, not only violates our understanding of the natural and irreversible process of decay and disintegration of the body, but psychologically, “it impedes what is perhaps the most important part of grief-work, accepting the finality of a loved one’s death and resisting fantasies about the person’s return.”

All of which leaves us with a prayer- the G’vurot – that means less and less to us the more we understand its traditional wording. If we don’t believe that God can or will resurrect the dead, then how can we rise each week and declare, “Great is your eternal might O Lord Our God, you give life to the dead in your great mercy”?

Well…we don’t. Or at least, for the past 200 years or so we – Reform Jews – did not.

Classical Reform prayer books, from the 19th century on, replaced the G’vurot’s image of physical resurrection of the dead with a more generalized imagery. Instead of saying mechayei ha’meitim, the One who gives life to the dead, we declared God to be mechayei haKol, the One who gives life to all.

It seemed like a good solution, and it lasted through many revisions of liberal Jewish liturgy. However with the creation of our most recent Siddur, Mishkan T’fillah, another revision, or rather, a reversal, was introduced.

The rabbis who worked on the new Siddur felt that the traditional wording, mechayei ha’meitim, could be reintroduced to Reform Jews, not as a way of encouraging us to reconsider a belief in physical resurrection, but as a metaphor for rebirth and renewal.

Two verses from Talmud are cited in our Siddur to affirm the idea that these words can be used metaphorically. In both cases, the verse from G’vurot is recommended to be said at a time of renewal – in the first case, when greeting a friend after a lapse of seeing the person for twelve or more months, and in the second case, as a verse which can be recited upon awakening from sleep.

Using these sources as a guide, we can see the traditional language of the G’vurot as symbolic. We can declare God to be the One who gives life to the dead, not because we believe we will one day rise from the grave, but because we experience moments in our lives where we feel the revival of our spirits, our energy, or our health.

Imagine how powerful it might be to say these words after recovering from a period of illness or depression, where one feels close to death and then returns to life.

And so we find in the new Siddur, both the traditional and Classical Reform wordings, so that contemporary Reform Jews can choose the language they are most comfortable with. Thus, Howard, our esteemed Cantorial soloist chants the prayer using the Reform language of mechayei hakol, and I chant the prayer using the traditional language, mechayei hameitim – understanding it to be a symbolic and not literal resurrection that God bestows upon me, each time I am healed; each time I wake; each time my spirit is revived.

Regardless of which language you choose (and you need not worry about fitting it into the melody –
both options work!), you will likely agree with Conservative theologian Elliot Dorff who writes, “Most (liberal) Jews prefer to interpret “life after death” as living on (through) the influence that they have on others, possibly through their children…Even those who doubt that God’s power extends to restoring life to the dead can appreciate the assertion here that God is manifest in the many things that transcend our understanding and control.”

Thus the words of the G’vurot can also be a weekly reminder to us that our lives will continue on through those we love even when we are no longer physically living among them.

At this time of year, as we contemplate our past behavior and ruminate on our goals for self-betterment, the G’vurot acts as a motivational prayer as well. If we are to live-on through those who remember us, we must strive to live lives worth remembering.

It’s never too late.

Even if we have spent our whole lives as an unnoticed block of stone, we can recycle ourselves into something useful; Something needed; Something that makes a difference.

I can’t tell you how to do this. For each of you, it will be different. But I can tell you that it probably won’t be easy. And I can tell you that it will be well worth it.

Atah Gibor L’olam Adonai: Great are you, O God, who revives the dead; Who can turn stone into light; Who provides for us, each year, a chance to consider how to recycle ourselves,
renew ourselves and revive ourselves.

And who has granted us Torah, and one another, so that we never have to do that difficult work alone.

This year may we be inspired by the vision of renewal – by the vision of ancient stone becoming new light. May we seek out the parts of us that have been turned to stone for too long, and may we begin to seek out the light within.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.