6 Elul: Know & Console

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scenes from Sci-Tech: Moments of Jewish Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

Anyone else want to weigh in on that one?


Day 4: The Upside of Sorrow (Tammuz 21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are clouds. There are silver-linings.

Some days we can’t see beyond the clouds.

Other days, the silver-linings shine bright.

Day 2: Resignation

Greif is (often but not always) preceded by either shock, or resignation.

When it’s a new grief, a new loss, shock is what paves the way – surprise over losing something precious. Then the implications of the loss begin to set in (and thus the grief).

But when we are mourning something anew, mourning it again, or mourning something similar to what we’ve mourned before, resignation is what announces that grief is on the way. A melancholy sets in. Oh this. Yes. I know this. I know what’s coming and it’s not going to be fun.

We feel a space open up inside us where once something else was. And at first, it’s just an awareness of the emptyness. Oh yes. I no longer have what I once had. I will soon feel something more sharp than emptiness. All the feels are heading my way.

We brace ourselves; resign ourselves; take a deep breath and sink a little deeper down.

Sometimes, if it’s not a new loss or a tragic loss, we can push through the resignation – maybe even delay the sharper sting of grief for a while. But on the 18th of Tammuz, day 2 of our 3 weeks of obligatory mourning, the resignation is as inevitable as the rest of it. Oh yes. These three weeks have begun. And they won’t be the best three weeks. They will be hard and sad and dark weeks. And then they will be over.

Deep breath. Another step down on the intentional spiral toward Sheol. We are not there yet. Not quite in the depths of The Pit. But we sense it on the horrizon. We feel its chill, its darkness, creeping towards us. And we hunch ourselves against the despair we know is soon to envelope us, and sigh. It’s coming. Soon it will be here. The titlewave of grief. And we will ride it and survive it as we have always done.

I feel the heaviness descending.

I can only pray that, like wightlifting, these burdens will bring me a renewed spiritual strength. As I take another step down.

He Maketh Me Lie Down in Green Pastures

I only ever read Psalm 23 during funerals and shiva minyanim, and sometimes on a hospital visit or at a deathbed. When I am experiencing my own moments of turmoil, there are other Psalms that I reach for – those who sew in tears will reap in joy, joy comes in the morning, my mourning will be turned to dancing – basically anything Debbie Friedman ever set to music. But the 23rd Psalm is one that I only reach for as a Rabbi. It’s for others. It’s for the masses. It’s comforting because it’s familiar.

But I wonder how many of us ever really think about the words themselves. We murmur it. Relaxing into it like an old friend. And we wait for the line – yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and we emphasize it. That’s what it’s all about, right? God, is with us in our darkest moments. God is walking next to us through whatever terrible valley we find ourselves wandering. It implies that God will help us out of the valley as well.
But what about the rest of it?

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to the earlier lines. God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul.

What’s that all about?

Aren’t green pastures and still waters places we’d want to be voluntarily? Why must we be made to walk there? Why must we be led?

Last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the merits of being forced to pray in moments when prayer is uncomfortable – maybe even infuriating. It felt like Prayer was the green pasture, and the still water – a peaceful place where I wasn’t sure I deserved to be. Or maybe I didn’t feel God deserved it. But when God led me to prayer and made me participate, I found that I was grateful. That the place I was avoiding, thinking it would be a painful place, turned out to be a welcome respite. A green pasture. Still waters.

He maketh me lie down

Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us. We are over-tired children whose parents must force them: Go to bed!. We fight it. We cry. We scream. And in the end, a good night’s sleep was just what we needed, and even if we don’t know how to express it – even if we don’t recognize it – we are grateful.

He maketh me lie down

Is it even a good translation? I look it up. The Hebrew used in the verse –yarbitzeini – is from the verb l’harbitz, which means “to hit” or “to strike”. But wait a minute. That can’t be right? He strikes me in green pastures? He strikes me down in green pastures? Surely that can’t be it! Even if I’m a cranky baby who needs to go to bed, my parental diety certainly wouldn’t slam me down into my crib!

A quick call to a respected friend and colleague reminds me that there is parallelism in the Psalms. The Lord is my shepherd.  Shepherd. Shepherds use sticks to guide their flocks. They hit them (gently) to direct them where they need to go – to the green pastures; to the still waters. The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep. In my darkest moments, I don’t know how to take care of myself. I can’t see through the pain of the moment to know where I need to be. I can’t find the green pastures. I can’t find the still waters. So God shepherds me there – to the pastures and waters, so that my soul can be restored.

In the Vally of the Shadow of Death – or in any of the spiritual valleys we find ourselves in during our lives (opposite the spiritual peaks) – in those places we have no control. We are at the mercy of fate and grief and anger and fear and loss and hope. And so we cry out for a shepherd to guide us through it – even to prod us along if necessary – until we’re feeling more in control; back on our feet. Until we can smell the fresh water for ourselves and find our own way out of the valley and into the pasture.

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for He is with me. His rod and his staff they comfort me.

They comfort me.

Some days we are the shepherd. We reach for the words that will comfort another. We offer outstretched arms and advice and a friendly listening ear. We bring food. We give hugs. Some days we are the Shepard.

And some days we are the sheep.

And when we are, a little prayer that some shepherd will come along to guide us through makes absolute, perfect sense.

I think I’ll read Psalm 23 more often.

We Can Be The Holiness

A funny thing happened this past Friday night when I was praying in front of the Ark.

It was during the Barchu, which is the first time in the service when I face the Ark, or the Aron HaKodesh. As we were singing the yai lai’s, I couldn’t figure out why it seemed so dark. Did we forget to turn on the lights above the Ark? I looked up. No, they were on, as was the Neir Tamid, the Eternal (except when the bulb is out) Light.

And then I realized that the High Holiday parochet (curtain) had been taken down and replaced with the regular one. The High Holiday parochet is white and translucent. The light in the Ark shines through it and the Torahs can be seen. The regular parochet is also beautiful but is heavy and opaque. After a month of standing in front of the High Holiday parochet, the darkness I was feeling was a result of no longer bathing in the light of the Ark and the Torahs while I prayed.

As soon as I realized that, I felt a sense of loss. I felt shut out from that special and holy place. And I found myself thinking about the Cohein Gadol, the High Priest in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, who was only allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctum of the Temple – once a year on Yom Kippur. This is how the Cohein Gadol must have felt after Yom Kippur, I thought. After being allowed into sacred space, there is a sense of sorrow in having to be distanced from it again. The Cohein Gadol would have had to wait a whole year before feeling connected to that most sacred of spaces again, just as I will have to wait a whole year before I can pray in the light of the Ark again, and be able to see the Torah scrolls without pulling back the parochet. On the High Holidays, it feels like I, too, am able to enter the Holy of Holies – that the whole community is able to, in a sense, since all of us can see into the Ark in a way we normally cannot.

As I swayed to the rhythm of the Bar’chu – the Call to Worship – and thought about all of this, I wondered: How can we keep that special feeling of holiness with us throughout the yearIf we can’t be inside the Holy of Holies, how can we keep the feeling of that sacred place inside of ourselves?

The cycle of the year takes us away from the sanctity of the High Holidays and then brings us back again, but each day should have elements of holiness, even if they are not “Holy Days”. Each moment our lives should be infused with holiness. We need to be able to carry sacredness in our own inner sanctums, and not wait for Yom Kippur to return to us again before feeling connected to God and to one another.

As my lips spoke the ancient words of prayer I was reminded that I was speaking holy words, enacting holy choreography, singing holy music, and leading a sacred community through sacred rituals. Every time we pray, every time we stand together before the Ark, we are engaging in holiness. We don’t have to be inside the inner sanctum to know it is there. We don’t have to wait for the lights to shine through.

We can shine our own lights out for others. We can be the holiness we need.

“Good Rabbi”, “Bad Rabbi”

Lately, sadly, there has been cause in my neck of the words for people to bandy about the phrases “bad rabbi” and “good rabbi”.

Oh how I wish there were no such things; that we could live in a world where there were just rabbis who do or do not live up to their potential.

And I’ll admit, I’ve used the term “bad rabbi” in the past, usually describing a rabbi who’s making the rest of us look bad by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or brandishing their ego about, or – dare I say it? – officiating at weddings or signing-off on conversions with absolutely no “prerequisites” (read “integrity”). Sadly, sometimes it’s much more serious than that. But still. Even then. Even now. The words “Bad Rabbi” leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Surely nothing is that black and white.

In any case.

Before ordination, as part of HUC’s infamous placement program, I was instructed to write a Rabbinic Vision Statement. It didn’t help me so much back then, as I had no real concept of what it meant to actually BE a rabbi or lead a community. But I digress. The statement did help to guide me in my first few years, and as I prepared to leave my first job and apply for my second, it got edited (infused with a healthy dose of reality), although in large part it remains the same as it was when first written.

When I want to remind myself of what I think it means to be a “Good Rabbi”, or better yet, when I want to remind myself of the standard I set for myself, I re-read this statement and it reroots me or reorients me or realigns my focus. Something.

In truth, it’s not actually about what kind of rabbi I endeavor to be, it’s about what kind of person I endeavor to be. The two are inseparable. If I achieve one, the other follows.

Anyway. I’ve never posted it here and now seemed like a good time.



No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel…for you have struggled with God (yisra-El) and with human beings, and you have prevailed. (Gen. 37:29)

Our movement’s most recent Torah commentary teaches that the original meaning of “Israel” is difficult to concisely define. It can be construed as “he struggles with God,” or “God struggles,” or “God rules,” or “his struggle is mighty,” and more. Our commentary also teaches us that, “a name change often signifies a change in character”. This change of character not only redefined Jacob, it predefined what our nature as a people would be – a people who struggle with God; a people who witness God’s struggle; a people who are contracted through a brit (covenant) to consider God’s rules; a people who, over the course of history, would struggle mightily; and more.

My understanding of the Jewish People’s purpose and of my own role as a Jew in the world is deeply rooted in this teaching. I believe that we as a people (and thus I as an individual) are meant to struggle – for meaning (Emet), for self-betterment (Shleimut), and for the betterment of the world in which we live (Tikkun Olam). Jewish tradition teaches us that everything stands on three pillars – God, Torah, and The People of Israel. Indeed, each of these pillars is necessary to the struggles for emet, shleimut, and tikkun olam.

The search for meaning is bound up in our awareness of and our struggles against limitation. It often seems a tragic irony that humanity is simultaneously advanced and restricted; that being able to comprehend our potential, we are also painfully aware of what we cannot do. If this is the curse, than I believe the blessing can be found in the simple fact that we are not alone – that together we improve our odds, increase our resources, maximize our potential and provide for one another. I believe that God made a choice to give us awareness, to give us freewill (thereby limiting God’s own power to be directly involved), and to give us one another.

Based on experiences in my own life, and on my observations of the lives of others, it seems to me that while God chooses not to directly act in our world we have the power and the potential to act on God’s behalf. We have the ability to choose right from wrong, to reach out and help one another, and to use the Torah that God has given us as a guide for when and how to do so. When we act to our full potential, we actualize God in our world.  When we don’t, God is silenced.

Thus we, The People of Israel, are responsible for enacting and activating God in both our daily interactions and in the world at large. If God is to take care of our world, we must take care of our world; if God is to protect us than we must protect ourselves and one another; and if God is to be present for us, we must each be present for others. I have seen for myself how, with the support of others, and a faith that there is meaning even when it escapes us, we are able to push ourselves beyond our wildest imaginings – when we discover that we are not alone, we discover a strength we did not know we had.

This understanding has the potential to inform all of our actions and interactions. If I truly believe that I am not only created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), but even more so, that I act on God’s behalf in all that I do, I hopefully – on my best days – feel the weight of that duty motivating me and encouraging me to be the best person I can be – to treat myself and others as well as possible, and to do what I can to make the world a better place.