A teacher of mine in rabbinical school once commented to me disparagingly about the word “spirituality”. “Spirituality is not our word”, he said, “Kedusha, holiness, is our word!” He was a great teacher and a great leader in the Reform movement, and I’m going to disagree with him. Kedusha, holiness, comes from a general sense of separateness and setting apart. “Spirit”, on the other hand, comes from the Latin “spiarare” which means “breathe”. In other words, to be “spiritual” is to breathe, not just involuntarily, but purposefully and mindfully, leading to purposeful and mindful action in the world.

In January, as part of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I, accompanied by many Beth Shir Shalom members, traveled to Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, one of our spiritual partners. I say “traveled to Macedonia” because, let’s face it, despite that it’s 2016 – there is, sadly, more than miles that separate our congregations. We may have some things in common “spiritually” but we live in very different cities.

As I spoke at church that morning I reminisced about the summer before when I marched for a day with the NAACP in Athens, Georgia, one day of many weeks in a march from Selma leading ultimately to Washington, D.C. I remembered that from time to time on that march we would shout out to encourage each other and to tell onlookers what we were doing, “This is what America looks like! This is what equality looks like! This is what freedom looks like! This is what justice looks like!”

If it’s hard to believe that such an America, such a world of equality and freedom and justice is possible, we won’t be the first people to express cynicism and doubt about America.

That Sunday, I was honored, as I always am, to speak from the Macedonia pulpit. I spoke about the Jewish people trapped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds. They, too, expressed cynicism and doubt. They said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us this way…? Didn’t we tell you …, ‘Leave us alone, so that we may serve the Egyptians?’ It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than die in the wilderness.” They just were liberated from Egypt after four-hundred years and they were already k’vetching? They accuse Moses of purposefully taking them out into the desert to die, saying they prefer slavery to freedom!

Moses, apparently complains to God, to which God responds, “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel that they go forward; and lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.” The people, quite rationally but with some hyperbole, express their concerns about their ominous situation, either drowning in the Sea of Reeds or being killed by the Egyptians. In turn, Moses steps aside to ask God for help. God says, “Go help yourself! Stretch out your hands and hold up your walking stick. See what happens.” Now let’s imagine that we are the Jewish people looking at Moses as he stretches out his hands over the water and…nothing happens, not right away anyway. He’s standing there with his arms outstretched over the sea, holding fast to his “miracle” staff which doesn’t seem to be making any miracles at the moment. And we, the Jewish people, what do we do?

There’s a rabbinic notion that all the miracles that would ever occur aren’t really miracles at all because they were woven into the fabric of the Universe just as the Sun set on the sixth day of Creation. Each of them “sits” there frozen in the fabric of time and space waiting for the perfect conditions for them to release themselves and impact history and society. And what are those “perfect conditions” under which these seeming “miracles” take place? It’s when we stop believing in or hoping for miracles. It’s when we do something. The rabbis imagine that in that moment between Moses raising his hands and the sea splitting open, a man named Nachshon with presumably others following, walked into the water to their nostrils. That’s when the sea split!

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We do not have faith in deeds. We attain faith through deeds – Deeds, not just thoughts or intentions.” So did Nachshon believe in what Moses was doing, standing there holding out his hands? Nachshon and his followers realized that this was a moment to act – not out of faith, but to leap toward faith. Faith in God? Maybe. Faith in Moses? Perhaps. Faith in miracles? Not obviously. But they did have faith in themselves to be active participants in making and changing history.

Moses must have looked crazy standing there with his hands over the water! He was waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled. It wasn’t God but rather Nachshon and a group of others who breathed a breath of courage and hope and, in an act of great spirituality, walked into the water.

One Shabbat in early July, Toby said to me, “We have to go to church tomorrow.”  That “tomorrow” was the Sunday after unarmed black men were shot and killed in Minnesota and Louisiana and white police officers were killed in Dallas. Toby, as usual, was right. We had to go to church.

As we took our places in the pews and waited the words of the poet, C. P. Cavafy, in his poem “The Great Yes” spoke to the moment:

For some people the day comes

when they have to declare the great Yes

or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes

ready within him…

On that sad morning, using few words, Pastor Shane Scott, like Nachson stepping into the water, stepped down from the pulpit and split the sea of silence and asked his congregation to do something. Quietly, he asked all the young men in the congregation to stand up so we could see these wonderful human beings who, in some eyes in the larger world, are immediately deemed to be suspicious because of the color of their skin. Pastor Scott asked them to come forward to where he was standing. Then the pastor asked all the older men of the congregation to stand and come forward and surround the younger men. Finally, Pastor Scott asked everyone in the congregation to rise and stretch out our hands over this gathering of the men of their community. We did. I thought of Moses with my arms and hands outstretched. Then the miracle happened. After saying some words of encouragement and prayers for protection for these black men of the Macedonia community, Pastor Scott asked his musicians to begin playing a contemporary Gospel song to which I’d been introduced there some years before. We sang:

“I need you

You need me

We’re all a part of God’s body

Stand with me…

You are important to me

I need you to survive” © Hezekiah Walker

That’s it. THAT is the miracle – the Great Yes, that in order to keep these young men from being vulnerable to the fate that too many African-American men (and women) have met, unarmed, innocent people, they need everyone’s pledge that we are there for them to help them to be safe. Those young men need every one of us to help them survive. This is not “their” problem. It’s our problem. They need us all to survive. Especially Jews, because we’ve known what it’s like to have members of our community killed simply because they are Jews. In France they still know it. Israelis still know it. Because we have that history and the present and that awareness, it is incumbent upon us all the more to be part of the net of protection for young black men and women and to be part of the change that needs to happen. Racism isn’t over and Dr. King’s dream is still just that, a dream. Once each year our congregations look like what the messiah time will look like. That’s not enough. We’re each a tiny part of that messiah time and it can’t be built without the active participation of each one of us.

We can’t stand like Moses waiting for the miracle. We have to be like Nachson; we have to be the miracle. We can’t go back to some imagined great America or a better civilization. It doesn’t exist. We have to build that America and that world. We have to be like Nachson, we have to vote with our feet in the water. We need to address the clear unequal financial and educational opportunities that exist in this city and this country.  We need to do something about the unfair judicial system and prison system. We need to get honest about our innate biases. This election day, we need to  elect ourselves. Like Macedonia and Beth Shir Shalom coming together once a year, voting day is not enough. There are many more seas to cross and to cross them we must believe that we are the Great Yes. We are the breath of a better tomorrow. We are the miracles. There aren’t any others.



Like all of us, I do my best to learn from everyone and every experience. Every morning, when I say the blessing for studying Torah, I think to myself that torah is everywhere, if I’m open to it. In that way, I’ve learned torah from many of you here and I am deeply grateful for it. Still, I have to say that what I cherish the most is what I’ve learned from kids. I’ve heard many, many kids say many, many insightful things over the years that have touched me deeply and I honor them all. I’m only picking out one now because, in many ways, it embodies the rest.

When the kids from JELLI gather with me on a Sunday morning for t’fillah, a learning service designed to give them not only some practice with our prayers, but also a time to explore their meaning and purpose, I ask many questions. After asking questions about God all year from every perspective I could, I received the response I didn’t know I was waiting for. It turned out to be a question! One of our students, Nate Jaffa, asked, “So, do you mean God’s a verb?” I almost jumped out of my skin on the spot. “Yes! Yes!” I said, “That’s exactly what I mean!” I could have said, “My work here is done!” But now, there’s another question: “What could it mean that God is a verb?!” I can’t wait for some of the questions that follow that one!

As Jews, we treasure questions. On my first day with my beloved first-year rabbinical school teacher, Cantor Avram Alkai, he told our class that our JOB was to ask questions and that there were no bad ones. Judaism engenders questions. The Bible is filled with questions, many of them rhetorical. One of the most famous scenes with the first humans in the Garden of Eden is when, after they have eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are hiding, God asks them, “Ayekah, where are you?”, as if God didn’t know! Again famously, in the book of Job, when he questions the steep decline of the circumstances of his life and God’s role in that decline, God asks Job two chapters of questions beginning with, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The great commentator Rabbi Isaac Abravanel always began his comments with questions, upwards of forty of them!

Questions are central to the ways in which I teach and central to the way in which we teach in our education program that we call JELLI, the Jewish Experiential Living and Learning Initiative. Under the wonderful direction of Elana Mabashov, who has now returned to us as our Education Director with her great passion for teaching, individual care for our kids and her incredible smile,  JELLI is back and better than ever. This year, we’ve added to Elana’s electric presence, the talents, wisdom and experience of one of the top Reform educators in the country, Rabbi Laura Novak Weiner, to serve as our consultant. Laura is helping us turn the JELLI dream into the JELLI reality. JELLI is living up to its name and its mission – to create literate American, progressive, Reform Jews. We create that literacy and progressive attitude by asking and stimulating questions.

The Pew Report of a couple of years ago, entitled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, paints a complex and often self-contradictory picture of American, non-Orthodox Judaism. Here are a few major points:

  • The overwhelming proportion of Jews (94%) say that they are proud to be Jewish.
  • The American Jewish population turns out to be larger than expected: 6.8 million rather than previous estimates of 6 million or less.
  • Most (61%) Jews who intermarry are raising their children as “Jewish or partly Jewish”.
  • Overwhelming numbers of American Jews of all ages rate working for justice and equality as well as leading an ethical and moral life as essential aspects of their Jewish identity
  • While American Jews say they proud to be Jewish, the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America: one in five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.

There are easy, “safe”, knee-jerk responses to these challenges like…PANIC! “Quick! Indoctrinate the kids and shove as much tradition down their throats as possible!” Seems like Jews have been experiencing this sense of panic for a long time! Some of us bore the brunt of such attitudes as we were growing up.

We don’t indoctrinate. We don’t shove Judaism at unwilling or unsuspecting young recipients. We won’t do that. I’d rather motivate our kids to ask good questions, questions that they would no doubt ask later about Judaism if we didn’t entertain them now. The difference would be that later, with no one around to tell them that Judaism not only welcomes their questions, but has been asking similar ones for several millennia, they would probably become frustrated and cynical and reject Judaism altogether.

We need your help to support this kind of Jewish learning experience. Elana only works a few hours and week and Rabbi Laura is very much an outside consultant. I know that JELLI does, can and will make a significant contribution to the future of a thinking, organic, exploratory, exciting, individually validating, process and project focused and joy-filled Judaism. Elana and Rabbi Laura are doing wonderfully, but I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to have them even a few more hours a week. I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to have more special programs like the Kosher Chocolate Factory and the Jewish Cooking Workshop and the Drumming Workshop. I wish we had a little more a JELLI budget to fix up our classrooms so that they could really flip from a preschool room to a room, an entire room, that’s fit for older children. I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to afford musical performances, plays and a guest Torah scribe for our kids!

Some of you are thinking, “I’ve figured out a reason why I don’t have to do this! I don’t have kids in JELLI! My kids are too young or too old so this isn’t relevant for me.” “I don’t even have kids at all!” “I’m not even a member of this community!” Now that we have all those smart reasons out of the way, let me say why we should do this. If you believe that Judaism and Jewish values and Jewish perspective and the Jewish sense of moral imperative is in any small way relevant now and will be in the future, then you should help support our JELLI program. If you believe that it’s not just happenstance that the Civil Rights Act was largely drafted on the tables of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, then you should support our JELLI program and the Reform Movement’s curriculum we mix into our approach. If you believe that kids grow into empowered, change-making adults when their questions are encouraged rather than ignored or discarded, then you should support this open, daring, provocative and creative way of teaching and learning we call JELLI. If you’ve had a positive experience at these High Holy Days, it’s because of the Beth Shir Shalom way of expressing our Jewishness and our humanity and we give our kids the same experience through JELLI every Sunday morning.

Of course, we’ll take any contribution to the future of Judaism you think is your fair share and…I’d like to make a more specific plea. We call it “Chai” and “Double-chai” giving. Here’s how it works: this drive, this campaign to raise money for JELLI, and it REALLY will go to JELLI – all of it – starts now and will end on the first night of Chanukah. That means we have a bit more than three months to gather your donations, donations that will not just enhance but bring great new possibilities to JELLI. If you can contribute $60 in each of the next three months, you will make a “Chai” donation, 180 being 10 times 18 and 18 being the numerical value of the letters in the Hebrew word “chai”, which means life. If you are able to contribute $120 per month that will be a double-chai contribution. Again, while our campaign will create its foundation from those chai and double chai gifts, whatever you can contribute will be accepted – gratefully

Let me leave you with some questions and some answers. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the rabbi known as Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise? One who learns from all…Who is strong? One who manages oneself. Who is rich? One who takes nothing for granted. Who is honorable? One who honors others.” So, be wise and learn from all, especially children. Be strong and help Jewish children be strong enough to take Judaism into the future. Be rich, and don’t assume that someone else will take the whole task of ensuring Judaism for another generation. Be honorable and honor these kids. Amen.

“Lashon haRah – The Evil Tongue” – Rosh haShanah morning 5777/2016

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”

In 1985, I was invited to a meeting between local rabbis and African-American ministers and pastors at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum, a great, progressive activist who always had his finger on the pulse of what needed society’s attention. Looking back at the list of prominent figures from both the Black and Jewish communities who attended that gathering, it’s kind of a miracle that a young rabbi, barely five years into his career, made the roll call. I felt honored and humbled to have had that experience and still feel so today.

Mr. Sheinbaum brought us all together to talk about the impending appearance by Minister Louis Farrakhan in Los Angeles. He was to speak at the Los Angeles Forum before an estimated 18,000 people. As it still is with Beth Shir Shalom and Macedonia Baptist Church today, in wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, many Jewish congregations were, by the mid-1980s, long-partnered together with African-American churches of various denomination. Many pairs of those Jewish and Black clergy were in the room that day. The rabbis came with one basic question: “Why hadn’t their African-American colleagues said anything to denounce, if not Minister Farrakhan entirely, at least some of his more controversial, derogatory, hurtful and provocative statements, especially about Jews and Judaism? In particular, why hadn’t the pastors discouraged their congregants from attending Minister Farrakhan’s presentation?”

What we received in response was certainly not what I, and I don’t believe most of my rabbinic colleagues, expected. The pastors and ministers said that the Black voice had been stifled since the beginnings of slavery in the pre-colonies and that now was vital to hear every Black opinion and perspective, both to compensate for all that suppression as well as to guarantee the freedom of Black expression in the future. They maintained that no matter how controversial, inflammatory, provocative, or even hateful, everyone must be heard.

The Jewish response was rooted in history as well. We agreed that the freedom of speech is a precious American democratic value that needs to be protected. We acknowledged that we, Jews, have certainly benefited from it. We also acknowledged the bitter truth that the African-American perspective, a unique expression because of their legacy of being the only people in our complex and variegated American mix who did not come here of their own free will, had been silenced and/or unheard far too long. Yet, we told them, we, as a Jewish people have personal experience with, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, “lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” and the consequences of those words being heard by thousands of people. We rabbis were appropriately wary of Rev. Farrakhan and his message. He was on record accusing the Jewish people on a regular basis of “rewriting the Bible to depict themselves as God’s chosen people” (New York Times, 6/29/1984) and an infamous sermon in which he said, “that nation called Israel never has had any peace …and she will never have any peace because there can be no peace structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit and using the name of God to shield your gutter religion under His holy and righteous name”. More than messages like that themselves, history has demonstrated to the Jewish people that it is the recipients of that message and the technology enabling its promulgation that are the real concern.  Jews know that the medium is at least as much the message as the message is itself.

Perhaps that is why, from ancient times, Judaism not only identified Lashon haRah, the evil tongue, as a major transgression but has also compiled a compendium of laws and philosophical reflections on evil speech.

In his book on Lashon haRah, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim, an influential rabbi of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notes that, in rabbinic tradition, there are 248 organs and 356 tendons in the human body, each one being a physical “cloak” for the spiritual organ or tendon that lies within and that each of these corresponds to one of the 248 positive mitzvot and the 365 negative mitzvot, that comprise the 613 commandments. The Chofetz Chayim adds to this rabbinic-given that when a commandment is trespassed, it disables the corresponding organ or tendon from functioning in the world-to-come. In relationship to Lashon haRah, evil, slanderous speech, it means that a person is condemned to being a deaf-mute for eternity, since s/he both heard and relayed Lashon haRah.

Of, course, we are all susceptible to engaging in Lashon haRah. That susceptibility in Jewish tradition even has a name! It’s called the Yetzer haRah, the inclination to do evil. The Yetzer haRah, is counterbalanced by the Yetzer haTov, the inclination to do good. The evil inclination is not a force that acts independently from the Energy-of-All-Things. It is part of that energy, a constant presence in our lives. As the Chofetz Chayim says, “The general rule is that a man or woman will spend his/her entire life struggling against [the] Evil Inclination…That rule is the intent of Our Sages’ teaching that ‘a person should constantly urge [the] Yetzer haTov to contest [the] Yetzer haRah.’” Even more, the Chofetz Chayim hears a verse in Ecclesiastes (10:4) alluding to the struggle between the Good and Evil inclinations when it says, “If a ruler becomes incensed against you, do not leave your place (stand your ground) because patience appeases great offenses.”

Sometimes it is so hard to “not leave our place” to “stand our ground” when the provocations are constant and searing. Perhaps the most difficult situation in which to hold our ground against the Yetzer haRah and Lashon haRah is when group-speak takes over and those around us are disparaging others. It is not always the case that we are caught up in the energy of the group but rather that we feel we would risk too much by speaking up and countering negativity, insults, generalizations, stereotyping and bigotry. So we stay silent. And when we do, we don’t need to wait for any World-Yet-to-Come to be deaf and mute. We, in this world, are the cause of our own disabilities.

I worry about this country and this world in which people feel such abandon and recklessness with what they say, in public, in private, in emails, on reality TV and more. I once heard that language is the true human art-form. Every time the tone of our national discourse allows a hostile `and violent manner of speech, including simplistic categorization by gender, ethnic group, age, country of origin, sexual reality and brutalization by insults, threats and generalizations, it is as though great paintings, sculpture and music have been destroyed.

Rev. Louis Farrakhan may not have the soapbox he once did, but others do. As part of their manifesto, Black Lives Matter has the following statement, “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” Words matter. Jews don’t use the word “genocide” lightly and whereas I’m one of the first to say that Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, be they Israeli citizens or living in under Israeli Occupation, is often cruel, passively and actively violent and dismissive of Palestinian’s undeniable grievances, national aspirations and their basic human rights, nothing in those policies is tantamount to “genocide”. Words matter. Especially in light of recent events, and certainly related to the long history of ignoring the limitations on African-American social, economic and educational mobility, opportunity and access – Black Lives really matter. Palestinian lives really matter but not at the expense of Jewish lives, Israeli lives. This is the Farrakhan approach all over again. Palestinian and Black Lives Matter only if All Lives Matter. Otherwise, this tired old world stays the same. Why is reverse racism or deflective racism any different than any racism? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“Racism is worse than idolatry…Few of us realize that racism is humanity’s gravest threat to humanity, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

George Orwell prophesied: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Corruption of thought may well be the most disastrous consequence of the degradation of the way in which we allow people to speak, from the top down and from the bottom up. At what point are we going to “stand our ground” against the Evil Inclination and the Evil Tongue? At what point will we realize that we are all responsible when any one of us, whether we agree or disagree with what that person says or not, speaks in a manner that belittles or demeans others? If we say and/or do nothing to countermand either what that person said or the way in which she or he said it, it is as if we ourselves let loose the damaging words and the consequences thereof. As Maya Angelou warns:

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”

The Chofetz Chayim, who made the battle against the Evil Tongue so much of his work, received his nom de plume aptly. Psalm 134 asks: Mi ha-ish hechafetz chayyim, ohev yomim lirot tov? “Who is the Chofetz Chayim, the one that has a passion for Life, loving every day, seeing the Good?” The Psalmist answers: “The one who guards his/her tongue from speaking evil and her/his lips from speaking deceit. Who turns away from malicious action and does good. Who (not merely) seeks peace but pursues it.” That shouldn’t only be a wise rabbi from over a century ago, it should be us, as individuals and a nation and as a world culture, from Presidential candidates to those who vote for them – from now through November 8th and beyond.

“On Hope” – Rosh haShanah Eve 2016/5777


“Once in the dream of a night I stood

Lone in the light of a magical wood,

Soul deep in visions that poppy like sprang;

And spirits of Truth were birds that sang.

And spirits of love were the stars that glowed,

And spirits of Peace were the streams that flowed

In that magical wood in the land of sleep…”

From “Song of Peace” by Sarojino Naidu, a late 19th and early 20th-century independence activist, feminist, poet-writer (called the “Nightingale of India”), First woman governor of an Indian state.


I’ve been working hard to sort out my dreams, goals and aspirations.  We often use these terms interchangeably, but I believe there are (sometimes) subtle differences.

“To what do we aspire?” and “To what do we dare dream as individuals and as a community?” are mighty questions.

According to my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, our tradition seems to tell us that at a certain point in life, we cease having visions and reduce our sights to mere dreams.  The prophet Joel tells us “Your old shall dream dreams, your youth shall see visions” (Joel 3:1)

Rabbi Hoffman teaches that visions are more powerful than dreams.  He wrote on his blog:

“Visionaries see promise beyond our present that the old dismiss as just a dream.  (The prophet) Joel calls visons chezyonot (the singular of which is chizayon). A chizayon, says the midrash, is one of ten names by which the holy spirit (Itself) is known.”

Rabbi Hoffman goes on to differentiate between this word for vision, chizayon, and another very similar word that also means vision, chazon, which he notes is sometimes used in a very negative sense, as is in an ominous premonition. Hoffman cites a medieval commentator Redak who says that versus a chizayon, a chazon “designates our failures, our sin, our historical nadirs.”

In our time, punctuated by criminal acts that terrorize, we vacillate between chazon and chizayon, between visions and dreams of a future bright with promise or a vision of desolation and chaos.  We turn on the TV and get advice from a “panel of experts” who pontificate about the world’s affairs.  They tell us whether we should be filled with hope or filled with fear.

For the prophet Joel, it was God who decided what kind of visions we should have.  In his most positive articulation, which I mentioned earlier, he uses three nouns, prophecy, dreams and visions, in parallel with one another to underscore how a better day will arrive.

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men shall see visions…”

In order to bring about that better day, we need them all; the divine inspiration of prophecy, the youthful exuberance and limitlessness of visions and the wisdom that produces dreams.

Prophecy, visions and dreams are powerful elements in ourselves, with their potential woven into everything around us. Still, I feel we need something more, something more immediate. We need something else; we need hope.

There are some wonderful approaches from our Torah that gives us perspective about hope. One is a commentary on the Torah portion called Netzavim which we read yesterday morning and will read again on Yom Kippur morning.

“I call heaven and earth to witness for you this day that I set before you life or death, blessing or curse.  Choose life, that you and your children might live,” (Deut. 30:19).

Even though it puts forth a portentous choice, the verse is seen as being ultimate positive. As the commentator Rashi asks:

“Why does Torah portion Netzavim occur just after [the 98 curses against the Jewish people that are listed] in the [last] Torah portion…? Because when Israel heard the 98 curses, they were dismayed [lit. their faces turned green or greenish-yellow] and they said: ‘Who can withstand these curses?’ Moses placated them and said ‘You are standing today; you have angered God [in the past] but you are still standing before God [and you have not been destroyed]!’

In other words, the message to our people is, you’ve screwed up, but even so, God hasn’t invoked those 98 curses yet! There’s still hope! We can hope things are going to be ok.

Still, we should always be aware that how those things play out is up to us, not God. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov comments on Deuteronomy 28:8, which begins with the phrase: “The Eternal will command the blessing upon you…” The phrase “upon you” in the translation is conveyed by the Hebrew word itcha/ אתך. Rabbi Menachem urges us a different translation:

“… [Do not read, ‘The Eternal will command the blessing upon you…’ Read instead] ‘Blessing takes effect only itcha/ אתך – [with you,] with your participation, when you have done everything you can do… It is not for you to sit with folded hands and hope for God’s blessing without your active participation…”

Despite our best efforts, we sometimes lose hope, dreams and visions.  And worse than losing hope, we find ourselves mired in pessimism, blame, tension and fear.  Rabbi Israel Salanter calls a lack of hope a health problem, a disease.  He says, “there is no sickness more dangerous than the loss of hope….”

Hope is “lost” for us, not in the sense that it is gone. If hope exists in the larger universe but no one is courageous enough to hold on to it, it is as if hope is not there at all

Fear is the greatest threat to hope. Fear is the easy way.  Fear defines divisions as to whom we can trust, whom we can and should hate, whom we should doubt, what we can do and not do.  Fear can define what we can try and what we should never even think of trying.  Boundaries and walls built on fears make the world safer and easier to understand for many of us.  Fear only allows us to know what we think we know and to stop the challenge of questioning.  Fear is effortless and simple.

Fear is NOT what our traditions teaches.  In the face of our history that has nearly constantly tried to persuade us otherwise, we are a people of hope. For Jews, hope is vision, chizayon. For Jews, hope is an active verb. Hope is always there. Hope can be our reality – if we will it.  Hope is waiting for us to ACT.

We challenge ourselves to see hope and act in all aspects of our lives.  We can see hope when we act to end the hunger and diseases that dominate the lives of millions, we see hope when we act to eliminate the easy access to weapons that enable one person to destroy many. We can see hope when we act so that religion isn’t prostituted as an instrument of hate. We can see hope when we act to keep our planet healthy. We can see hope when we act in ways that let one another know that we care about each other and ourselves.

Fear is limiting.  Hope, dreams and visions open us to the world and opens the world to us. Abraham Joshua Heschel said….

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

The poem with which I began, the words of a woman from India who lived in times and circumstances that did not exude hope, were words that came to her in a magical forest, in a dream, as she says, “in the land of sleep” and when she was awake, she made her words real.

My friends, it’s time for us to be awake, too, in the real world, and not asleep in a “magical wood”. Let’s wake up dream, create visions, and be amazed! Let us not give into the walls and boundaries that fear and fear mongers create. Let us climb out of doubt. Together and individually let us be hopefull, hope-filled, and hope-enabling. Now, November 8th and always…Amen.


The world has been grieving for too many days now. Orlando, Louisiana, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Turkey. And these are just the tragedies about which we know because the various news outlets deem them worthy enough for our attention. Of course, every day, 30 people die from gun violence in this country. Many die from cancer or other diseases long before what we might call a full life is over. Others die suddenly in the context of what we call a tragedy. And people starve to death all over the world while we throw away more food than we consume.

“ENOUGH!” we scream inside (maybe outwardly as well). Or in the words of the old Broadway musical, “Stop the World! I Want to Get Off!” But we can’t. We can’t get off the world and it won’t stop. What, then, can we do? How do we mitigate the negativity all around us (a negativity that we fear may be right on top of us at any moment?)?

Two possibilities come to mind. One is that when we walk down the street and someone is coming in the other direction, try to make eye contact with that person and say hello. We never know what might happen in the next moment and that passerby might be someone upon whom our life might depend or vice versa.

This past week, my wife suggested that we go to church – not just any church, Macedonia
Baptist in Watts, the sister church of our congregation. Pastor Shane Scott was amazingly honest and inspirational. He lifted us all up when all we could see was a downward spiral. Part of his honesty was to have all the young men in the congregation stand up and walk forward to the pulpit. He then asked all the older men to come forward and surround them. He told the rest of the congregation to rise “embrace” these young men, lifting up our hands, beseeching protection and blessing upon them. He asked the choir to sing a beautiful contemporary gospel piece called “I Need You to Survive”.  The song is sung from the standpoint of someone speaking to an anonymous “other”. It doesn’t matter who it is because when human beings act as horribly as we can or when the Universe produces it’s natural catastrophes, we need each other to survive, whomever that other might be. I need you to survive.

My other suggestion is to use the word “and” more than the word “but”. I find the word “and” to be much more hopeful, much more forward thinking. “But” stops us in our tracks. “And” pushes us forward. Hebrew has a nice indication of how “and” moves us into the future, into the inevitable unknown. In Hebrew the word “and” isn’t really a word at all. It’s a letter, the letter “vav” (ו ), and it’s always attached  to another word, attached moving onward. When the world is moving in many directions, it’s seems like we are, too, and we try to artificially “stop” the world with the word “but”. “And”, on the other hand, reminds us that there’s really only one direction to our lives and that’s forward. That’s where hope is possible. That’s where peace is possible. That’s where understanding and kindness are possible. We’d better get going to “and”. There’s much to be done, and only one direction to go to get there.

arrow on road

My Pastor’s Grateful for My Call and I Don’t Know What to Say


RNCD and Pastor Shane Scott 2015

My wonderful pastor, Shane Scott of Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, was grateful for my call this morning after two police shootings of two African-American men in two days. He even posted his gratitude on Facebook. I’d like to respond to him and I invite you to listen in.

“Shane, my brother, colleague and friend, I feel at such a loss. We have been together for many occasions. Our congregations have shared Dr. King’s birthday weekend in each other’s places of prayer, we have done social service projects together, we’ve offered words of teaching to each other’s communities. We have consulted one another and counseled one another in our common roles as clergy.

“I remember after the children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, you taught me and my community an important lesson: that your community experiences a “Sandy Hook” every week. When I heard that, I didn’t know what to say. And now, in the face of the events of the last two days, again, I don’t know what to say except perhaps to tell you this story that I presented to my congregation the year before last on Yom Kippur, our holiest day:

‘My wife’s best friend of twenty-eight years, Karen Smith Elstad, died this past December. Karen was an esteemed attorney and a revered professor of law and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. When she asked, “How are you?” she really wanted to know “I’m fine” wasn’t an answer for Karen; it was an invitation. She would also be able to offer follow-up questions and comments that helped you hone your answer. Still, after all of the give and take that followed “How are you?”, I never felt prodded or probed. Instead I felt like I’d had a wonderful experience with a true, caring friend.

That Karen was African-American was background information and only rarely a topic of conversation. Of course it was there when she was discussing her work promoting of women of color in private practice and at Southwestern University School of Law, where she was a dean. There were a couple of other occasions when it came up, too.

Karen was over for dinner with some of our other friends and probably because of something that was extant in the news, we were talking about racial profiling. Karen, as on countless other occasions prior and thereafter, was the only African American present. And, as in all of those discussions, everyone who knew Karen was waiting for her insights, not because she was African-American but rather because she was Karen. I recall feeling that Karen was unusually silent during that particular conversation. Then again, Karen was often quiet during discussions. When Karen did speak, it was always insightful and usually offered a perspective that had not been present. So, the white, West LA mostly Jewish participants kept talking until, at one point Karen said, “Shut up! You have no idea what it’s like to be black and drive around this city!” From that point forward, the rest of us listened. Karen talked about the times that she’d been pulled over. Sitting there with someone we cared about deeply who recounted instances in which she was a victim of racial profiling, our prior comments were reduced to drivel.

When it comes to such discussions, I still feel that, as a white person, I need to just listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. As a Jew, I have similar experiences in my personal history and in my people’s history that lead to similar perspectives, but I really don’t know what it’s like.’

“So, Pastor Scott, I’m all ears. The period on the world’s timeline when my people were shot simply because of who we are is really, relative to all of Jewish history, not that long ago. Our memory of it is always urgent and always accompanied by the words: “Never again!” but it is happening again and it’s happening to you and your community, which, because we have and will share so much, is my community, too. As I said to you on the phone this morning, I am ready to stand, to march, to protest, to lobby, to boycott and to speak truth to power with you wherever and whenever you tell me you want me. I know that members of our Beth Shir Shalom community are ready to stand with you as well. Until then, know that my heart stands with yours and you’re welcome to lean on it any time.”

A Story about Elie Wiesel

I have a story about something Elie Wiesel said that I suppose only a select few might recall. This is because I had the rare opportunity to hear Mr. Wiesel speak when I was in college. After his lecture, which I’m sure was amazing and, sadly, most of its specifics I have long ago forgotten, many people came up to the podium to ask him some questions. One of those questions and its answer have challenged and inspired me for decades. A person asked, “Can you forgive those who perpetrated this evil upon you and your family?” Mr. Wiesel’s answer was immediate, well thought out, and obviously (to me)had been given before. He said, “Don’t ask me. I survived. Ask the dead.” It’s a stunning response for the non-Holocaust survivor that lets us know that the Holocaust has an intrinsic morality that only those who traveled its dark paths will ever truly understand.

Mr. Wiesel was 87 years old. Most of his contemporaries have either joined him in death or will soon. Then it is up to those of us who did not experience the Holocaust to teach and preserve its unique legacy. By “us” I mean all of us, Jew and non-Jew. The future of the Holocaust’s memory and meaning belong’s to all of us.

Wiesel was one of the first people to respond to the murder of hundreds of thousands by the Khmer Rouge. He marched along the Cambodian border saying, “This happened to me. I can’t let it happen here.”

These are huge shoes to fill. We have no choice but to be worthy of the task.

Feeling Mandated to Act

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As a Progressive Jew, my sense of commandment moves from the internal to the external. I spoke about that sense of commandment, that sense of mandate, when I delivered these words at the vigil for Orlando organized by me and my colleagues of the Santa Monica Area Interfaith Council:

In my tradition, we are told, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate, a commandment. If we translate it VERY literally, it’s a little more intense, “Do not STAND ON the blood of your friend.” For me this means, that if we DO stand idle while our neighbor bleeds, it is as if we are standing ON the blood of our neighbor. In standing idle, we think we are removing ourselves from the situation. The text tells us that by doing nothing, we actually take a step forward, CLOSER to our neighbor’s suffering, ON his/her blood, ON his or her pain and anguish.  In addition, by using the word “friend” in speaking about the one who bleeds, we are told that we cannot see a suffering person as anonymous, as nameless, as someone who can be ignored. When we approach this responsibility in the most encompassing, life-affirming way, I AM every person who was killed or injured in the Pulse Club in Orlando. I am their families and THEIR friends. We are all inextricably connected and no religious practice or identification, no sexual reality, no race or ethnic background can EVER separate us!

But…right now, in my individuated self, I am me and I’m not grieving. At this moment if I grieve, I’m standing idly ON my friend’s blood. So I won’t mourn.  I’ll be angry. I’ll be disgusted. I’m disgusted with assumptions of a gun culture in this country that some perceive as having been woven into the fabric of our nation from when the creation of the world first began! That is NOT so and we need to start screaming that to our Senators and our Congress people. Because we will NOT stand on the blood of our friends. We need to demand that those representatives actually READ the second amendment and recognize that its sole purpose was to protect state militias of the 1790 era. We will NOT stand idly by. We must say that for ANYONE in this country to own an ASSAULT rifle is not just illogical, it’s insane. DON’T stand idly by!

Now you may not be Jewish and you may think this may not be your commandment. Don’t worry, we still consider you obligated. We’re ALL obligated to pursue justice and, to do that, NOT ONE of is allowed to stand idly by. If you haven’t called Congress yet, call tomorrow morning. And then call them the next day and the next and the next. NEVER sit idle until we bring this country back to sanity. DON’T stand on your friend’s blood. Don’t stand idly by.

This Month Ramadan is Our “Bershert”

Maimonides said that “miraculous” events in world history are not miraculous at all because they were woven into the fabric of the universe at the beginning of this creation. Such awesome occurrences such as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (aka, the Red Sea) and the Ten Plagues were not abrogations of nature, but rather planned variances planted into nature so that at the right time, in the proper context, they would come into realization.

As a result, Maimonides did not “believe” in miracles. He did, however, grant that each of us will perceive certain experiences in our lives as miraculous, as beyond serendipitous and coincidental. I see a miracle in this year, when our Holy Festival of Shavuot (one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Sukkot and Pesach being the other two) arrives during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. The “miracle” is not the timing but rather the theme of each. Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Likewise, Ramadan is the month in which Quran was revealed to Mohammed. On what is known as Lailat al-Qadr (Night of Power or the Night of Destiny) the beginning of the Quran was given to Mohammed (the rest to be slowly revealed over the next twenty-three years). The revelation at Mt. Sinai, on the other hand, is seen in rabbinic tradition as including all “t”orah, purposely written with a lowercase “t” to indicate all of Jewish teaching and learning, from the Torah, to the rest of the Bible to the Mishnah to the Talmud to the Aggadah (literally, “telling” or story) and “even [to] the question a pupil asks his teacher” (Exodus Rabbah 47:1).

What makes a text “holy” for a people? Is it the text itself or is it the way in which people interact with it? Must it be seen as coming from a “holy source” or could it even be perceived as being written by human beings who were creating the stories and the laws with a “holy purpose”? Is only our Jewish text holy or can we appreciate, without adopting, the specialness and the poetry of other texts considered “holy” by other – could other texts, even secular texts, be considered part of “t”orah for us? The whole world is filled with “t”orah. That is the revelation I celebrate on Shavuot.

Timely Holiness

In this week’s installment of a wonderful series of Torah portion interpretations called “Israel in the Parasha (Parasha simply means weekly Torah portion)” [offered on the ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) website], my colleague, Neal Gold, lays out one deeply-rooted, traditional-based argument after another about why Israel’s treatment of African refugees is, as he says it, “nowhere near what we might consider the ‘Torah standard’.” In his commentary, Rabbi Gold spins off of a basic and oft quoted commandment from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, which includes the 19th chapter of Leviticus, sometimes called the “Holiness Code.” The mandate to which Rabbi Gold refers occurs, in basically the same form, no less than 36 times in the Torah (and, he he points out, some say 46 times). No other mitzvah (commandment) is repeated that much:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃
כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם
בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Rabbi Gold goes into much detail about how we should consider three main understandings of this text. The first of these is the word “stranger”, in Hebrew, ger. Then he discusses how we are commanded to do “no wrong” to the ger. Finally, Rabbi Gold teaches about what it mans to “love” the ger “as ourselves.” I encourage you to read Rabbi Gold’s full article. Even if you have some Torah study under your belt, you’ll learn a good deal. I did.

What I will say here is that the thrust of Rabbi Gold’s citations is, as I often say, that Judaism doesn’t trust people to be “nice.” Being hateful, vengeful, xenophobic and elitist is much easier. It’s easier to isolate the stranger, to blame the stranger for all that is going wrong around us, to fear the stranger and to dehumanize the stranger. This is an important instruction for the Israeli government when it comes to its inhumane treatment of African, and other, refugees and it’s an important ethical and moral demand for America as well.

Our mandate, our job, as Jewish Americans, is to insure that we and, in fact, every citizen in America, applies the same sense of commandment, the same passionate and compassionate attention, to the stranger in this land that Rabbi Gold feels must be expected in Israel, our people’s holy land. What is most disturbing about the current anti-immigrant, xenophobic, vitriolic and Machiavellian rhetoric from bully pulpits in America and in Israel is not that those who speak it believe it, it is the thousands who hear it also believe it and are ready to act upon it. That’s where we come in. Chapter 19 of Leviticus also teaches us: hocheach tohiach, הוכח תוכיח, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor (for doing wrong) for fear that his/her wrong doesn’t become yours!” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” For Israel’s free society and in our free society we must do all we can to civilize our actions and our discussion so that we do not “wrong the stranger”, insure and demand that those among whose roots are elsewhere are to us “as one of our citizens” and that we “love” and care for the stranger in the same way and to the same degree as we love and care for the native-born. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. For us, it’s always Passover.