Like many other Jewish-American families, we do Chinese food and a movie on Christmas day. This year the movie we saw was “Selma”, about the voting rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery in 1965. The film does a marvelous job of portraying the wrenching discussions and decisions that had to be made in order to orchestrate that march not only between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson, but also within the Civil Rights movement itself. Especially now that key provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been gutted it is important to see this film so that we all become part of the movement to restore those provisions.

As some who are reading this may know, I have a Selma marcher in my own family. My wife’s father, Leonard Comess, flew with one of his rabbis, Rabbi Sandy Ragins, and many other rabbis to join the march. It is a proud memory for my wife and children and I consider myself fortunate that Lenny Comess became a father for me, too. We thought a great deal about our father and grandfather as we watched the film. Thanks to Lenny’s recollections of his journey, we knew how real the struggle was and the courage it took for people to choose to participate. Lenny once told me that the most frightening part of the trip was the taxi ride back to the airport. The cab driver was unabashedly opposed to Blacks attaining equal rights and was unrestrained in expressing his opinions about the Civil Rights Movement overall and the Selma to Montgomery March in particular. Lenny was the only passenger in the car and, completely atypically, did not engage with the driver. He just shook us head and mumbled, “Uh huh”. I thought about Lenny in that cab in particular during the scene in the film in which white ministers (between the second aborted attempt and the march itself) were attacked with clubs by Ku Klux Klansmen. “The worst injured was James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston. Selma’s public hospital refused to treat Rev. Reeb, who had to be taken to Birmingham’s University Hospital, two hours away. Reeb died on Thursday, March 11 at University Hospital with his wife by his side.” (Wikipedia Article).

When my kids were young, I wrote them a song to honor their grandfather’s values and courage. A few weeks before he died, Lenny was in the recording studio with me and a group of incredible singers. Helen Nightengale and Dana Ross created a great video documenting the day. You can WATCH AND LISTEN HERE.


When is an event in our lives a miracle? We mostly refer to miracles after they happen! Not to say that sometimes we wish for a miracle (“It would be a miracle if that happened!”). Because of what I do, I often most often experience people wishing/praying/hoping for a miracle in hospitals, either for themselves or for a desperately ill loved one. The wish is made to God with the expectation that the miracle will come from God. The problem with those kinds of wishes/prayers/hopes is in the aftermath. Clearly, if things work out for the better, people often say “Thank God!” for the granting of the miracle. What happens if the miracle doesn’t happen. What do we say to or about God then? Did God deny the miracle? Does God actually make choices about which miracles to grant or reject?

Maimonides, Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (12th century) had a deeper and, I believe, ultimately more meaningful approach to miracles. Miracles, he said, are not a suspension of what is normally possible. Miracles can only be used to demonstrate what is possible. For Rambam, miracles were all pre-programmed and pre-determined into the fabric of the universe at the time of creation. In the end, Maimonides concludes that there are no miracles, only what we perceive to be miraculous.

Miracles, then, are not something we pray for or hope for or wish for or make manifest through a lucky shirt or hat or in some other way cajole out of the fabric of the universe (like the currently running car commercial in which a man ogles a new car, spies a sidewalk Santa, does a series of favors for the Santa and “miraculously” the new car appears in his driveway). To be certain, a new car in the driveway would certainly be miraculous, but so are puppies and spiders and trees and courage and hope and challenges and disappointments and sadness and cloudy days and rainbows.

For me, the miracle of Chanukah is not the small flask of oil that lasted for eight days in the newly rededicated Temple. The miracle was that some people tried something that, to any reasoned way of thinking, appeared impossible. So the next time you try something “on a wing and a prayer” celebrate your imaginative positive outlook that enable you to try it in the first place! And celebrate the same in your children and grandchildren!

Tonight is the last night of Chanukah; our Chanukiot will be blazing with all candles the message of miracles that we make rather than wrest from something or somewhere. Celebrate the miraculous! Celebrate yourself and everything and everyone around you as miraculous. The potential for miracles in our world is as broad and as long as our choice to see them and enable them- if we will!

Spread the light! Spread the miracles!



The First Night of Chanukah – Let Freedom Ring!

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Chanukah is not only important because of it’s calendrical closeness to Christmas. Chanukah is important because it has some authentic themes of it’s own and we should make a concerted effort to incorporate into our Chanukah celebration.

This first night of Chanukah let’s focus on freedom. It is clear from recent events in America that freedom is not equally manifest for all of us – black men, especially,young black men, in particular. I was at a peaceful protest, prayer vigil and “die in” yesterday afternoon with my several fellow rabbis and many of my African-American clergy colleagues. The gathering was, as promised, peaceful, prayerful and we did, indeed, stage a “die in” to commemorate all the black men who have recently died as a result of police violence. One would think that the words “police” and “violence” don’t belong together. Sadly, for the African-American community these words are not oxymoronic; they are apt to their experience.

As part of the vigil a first person account was told by a black teenager. His story was not what I expected. He told us of a day when he was being driven somewhere by his mother and she was pulled over for some minor infraction about her car. As the police approached she yelled at him to get his hands up on the dashboard, to not move and to not say a word. After she was allowed to go on her way, his mother cried as she drove. Her son asked her why she yelled at him. She said, “Because I love you so much, more than anyone in the world!” I never had to worry about my son that way and I never will. Police Violence is real for the African-American community.

For us, as Jews, we have known so many times in our history when our freedom was taken away. And now, so long as someone in the world isn’t free, Jews are not free. We have a responsibility to stand side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in the African-American community, to pray with them and to struggle with them so that they can walk and drive and live in our cities without fear from those who are sworn to protect them. There were times when we were convincing others that Jewish lives matter. Today, we join with African-Americans to shout, “Black Lives Matter!”

So, tonight, light the first candle for freedom – all of our freedom.

And check out this wonderful list of “12 Things White People Can Actually Do After the Ferguson Decision“.

 With Rabbi Aryeh Cohen and Rev. Norman Copeland

With Rabbi Aryeh Cohen and Rev. Norman Copeland at the vigil

It’s Raining. It’s Pouring. It’s Beautiful!

I’ve lived in California long enough to have a negative reaction to rain – this, despite the fact that we are in one of the worst droughts on record. I must admit that Californians, especially Southern Californians, are spoiled – REALLY spoiled. We’re not used to any kind of significant “weather”.

So, after a day and an evening of constant wet stuff falling from the sky, I took our dog, Siggy (see below), for a walk this morning. It has become my custom to say some morning prayers as I begin these walks, acknowledging and giving thanks for another day. I always find inspiration for my prayers looking skyward. This morning, however, I paused for a moment because rather than the usual California blue and/or multicolored early morning hues, everywhere I gazed all I could see was gray. It didn’t take more than a second for me to understand that this kind of wet, gray presence is also a day. I teach this notion all the time but it had been a a long time since I put it into practice.

So, I recited, “Modeh Ani”, the first words that are to be on the lips of a Jew every morning. I filled myself with the major metaphor of the prayer, that to awaken is to feel as if one’s soul is breathed back in. After taking in that breath, I breathed out my gratitude. Next, I said the words of the Yotzer, all about light, which was muted this morning because of the cloud cover, but there was no doubting it was a new day:

A New Day:

  • Flowing with potential
  • Ripe with creative possibilities
  • Opening and embracing all
  • An infinite series of precious moments waiting to be made holy
  • Experiences and understanding around each corner

Finally, I said the words of the Shema, ending, as I always do, with the words, “Everything is One”. Because, Everything IS One! Each of us is a part, an essential part, a purposeful part, a useful part, a meaningful part of something much larger. “The Everything” is vital to us. We are vital to “the Everything”.

Siggy and Me

Siggy and Me