Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 25, 2020

Goodbye 2020

2020 has been compared to many things. 

I’m willing to bet that many of our friends and family with Christmas trees have this ornament hanging on it. The reigning metaphor for 2020 became “Dumpster Fire.” I suppose it is appropriate because dumpsters are like bottomless pits of rotten and broken things, almost thirsty for the next horrible thing to be placed in its container.


There are also those who have crowned 2020 the longest year ever, and not just because February had a day added to it.


Or, if you have been pregnant, you are familiar with this yummy potion on the right – the Glucose Tolerance Test drink - which you have to chug in a matter of minutes, despite the fact that your stomach is full and the drink is disgusting. 2020 felt that way.


And then finally, there’s nothing more 2020 than an Amazon review – this one being particularly accurate.


There is something cathartic about these pop memes. They help us to laugh at the most bizarre and troubling year of most of our lives. We want to laugh at it, if we can, or honestly, we just want to leave it behind. With a vaccine coming, we begin to hope that we can just move on.


Yet as the year comes to an end, I’m beginning to rethink the urge to roll the 2020 dumpster fire into a dark corner of our emotional backyards. It does us no good to leave it full of junk, attracting cobwebs and mold. Because we all know…one day we’ll need to clean out the yard and when we do, we’ll be saddled with unhappy memories and the burden of finding a way to haul away the debris.


Here is where I think we need to become emotional environmentalists. I’ll explain: a few years ago, Woodlands cut our physical dumpster in half as we dedicated ourselves to better recycling and a concerted move to composting. It wasn’t an easy transition, it required lots of processing and planning by the Environmental Task Force and the Board of Trustees, but our temple and our planet was healthier for it in the end.


Indeed, some of 2020’s waste isn’t waste at all – we learned a lot about ourselves and the local, national and global realities we live in. 2020 can’t just be thrown out, instead, it should be composted. There are nutrients in this putrid refuse bin that can actually help us grow into stronger, more compassionate people in an improved world.


CNN Columnist Jane Greenway Carr calls 2020 a “great confessional…the year when Covid-19 cast America's longstanding sins of racial and economic inequality into newly harsh relief.” Her colleague Van Jones has called it a “great awakening…a cultural tsunami that is sweeping through media, the academy, houses of worship, Hollywood and even corporate board rooms. This new, building force may someday change the course of world history. In many ways, it already has.”


As we watched George Floyd take his last, strangled breath, we were finally able to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” 2020 declared it impossible to turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of BIPOC communities in America.


As the country shut down, we saw the rich stay rich and the poor thrust into financial uncertainty. 4 times as many women than men left the labor force in September. We are reminded, again, of how women shoulder the burden of work and home life while being undervalued in both areas. Experts agree that the progress women have made in the workforce over the last 20 years was basically decimated overnight by the pandemic’s exploitation of deep-seeded societal misogyny and inequality. 2020 practically screams at us: See it. Fix it.


All that said, we’ve learned some positive things about ourselves too. In a year when people would have stayed away from the voting booth, fearful for their health, our nation took major steps toward enfranchising voters with record breaking mail-in voting, early voting, and carefully organizing our polling stations to make it safe and possible for all to vote. And even when that democratic process subsequently was attacked, the checks and balances of our constitution stood strong.


Which leads me to the most important caveat of the evening: Many of us look forward to 2021 as a return to normalcy, a way back to our previous lives. Yet that is the most unfortunate thing we could do: revert back, relapse into old habits. A new year does not mean all our ills are cured. Flawed immigration systems, climate change, inequality…we have taken heed of these plagues and more in unprecedented ways, and not a one of them will disappear when Joe Biden takes office or when we’re all vaccinated. Perhaps the soil will once again become conducive to progress, but we cannot forget how toxic it is to start. We must shine the light of our great awakening into it in order to grow a better future.


There is a character in this week’s Torah portion who embodies this charge: Serah bat Asher.
Parshat Vayigash mentions Serah as Asher’s daughter, Jacob’s granddaughter, a contemporary of Joseph and present for the move from Canaan to Egypt. Yet, hundreds of years later in the book of Numbers, as Moses takes a census, Serah, the daughter of Asher, is listed as if she is there. The rabbis wonder how this can be?! Over the course of much midrash, they conclude that this Serah in Numbers is the same Serah who went down to Egypt in the book of Exodus. An Elijah-type figure, she transcends time and space to guide the Israelites in the right direction.


One such story is told when Serah turns up in the Beit Midrash – the study house - of 1st century sage Yochanan ben Zakkai. One of his students asks what it looked like when the Red Sea parted. Yochanan ben Zakkai tells his students that the walls of water looked like walls of sprouting bushes. Suddenly, a voice comes through an open window in the back of the beit midrash: "No. That's not right." All the students turn around and see an old lady peering through the window. "I am Serah bat Asher. I know what the walls looked like because I was there! They looked like mirrors, mirrors in which every person was reflected, so that it looked like the generations that came before and the generations that would come after.”


I find great power in Serah’s words. As the Israelites passed through the narrow straits to freedom, they would have caught a glimpse of themselves and be forced to reckon with what they saw. Who is this person? Who is this nation? Once enslaved to a tyrant; once enslaved to doubt, fear and tedium, could they imagine themselves as something more? Could they have the courage to see their past as a part of them and choose a brighter future for themselves and for their children?


Serach’s insight teaches me that 2021 will not spring up like a budding bush out of untouched soil. Our growth and blossoming will come with an honest reckoning of what and who we are and then finding the courage to trudge forward toward something better.


Because have you noticed how often we mention Egypt in our prayers? We Jews never forget the hard times. We know there is a message in our suffering. Care for the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt. Remember how God brought you out with a mighty hand. Remember these not just for the glory of God, but for the assertion that evoking the lessons of trying times helps us to build stronger, more compassionate societies of the future.


Viktor Frankl said “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 2020 was inflicted upon us. 2021 can be the year we unleash the greatest change yet, not by ignoring this most terrible year, but by learning from it.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Hanukkah Chutzpah

I thought we had enough Hanukkah children’s books in our house, but I was wrong. A book showed up this month that did what children’s books do best: look like an innocent tale on the outside but sucker punch you in the gut by the end.


It’s called Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. This story reads like a vintage Hasidic tale, but it
was actually written in 1989 by Eric Kimmel. Its protagonist, Herschel of Ostropol IS a character from traditional Yiddish literature, though. He’s a trickster who has a habit of exposing hypocrisy and inequality. For example, the story is told:

During a holiday feast, Hershel once sat across from a self-absorbed rich man who made derogatory remarks about Hershel’s eating habits.

“What separates you from a pig, is what I’d like to know,” the man said derisively.

“The table,” Hershel replied.


So in Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Herschel shows up to a village on the eve of Hanukkah. The town is dark and cold, not a single candle is lit. The villagers explain that a pack of goblins haunt the old synagogue on the hill. They blow out the villagers’ candles and throw their latkes on the floor. The rabbi adds that the only way to get rid of the goblins is to spend the eight days of Hanukkah in the synagogue, light the menorah each night and avoid the goblins’ mischief. Then, on the 8th night, if you’ve even made it that far, the King of the Goblins himself has to light the menorah.


Herschel isn’t scared. He takes up residence in the haunted synagogue. Night after night, the goblins show up. Each goblin is more grotesque terrifying than the last. Yet, night after night, Herschel outwits the goblins, besting them into lighting the candles.


On the 7th night, though, no goblin comes. Herschel, starting to doze off, suddenly hears a horrible noise, a voice that sounds like the cracking of bones. “Happy Hanukkah, Herschel of Ostropol! It is I…the King of the Goblins.” “Aren’t you early?” Herschel asks. “Oh, I’m not there….yet,” the King of the Goblins replies. “But I’m coming tomorrow to teach you how scary us goblins can be!” The voice rises to a hurricane roar and rips the shingles from the synagogue roof, shattering the windows. The Hanukkah candles reel in the savage blast, but do not go out.


The next night, the King of the Goblins arrives. Herschel, petrified, puts on a brave face, greets him with his trademark snark. As the King of the Goblins demands that Herschel acknowledge how scary and threatening he is, Herschel complains that he can’t see…it’s too dark in the synagogue. Herschel asks the King of the Goblins to light the candles by the entry way so that Herschel can see the goblin’s horrendousness better. The King of the Goblins, in his arrogance, lights the candles one by one until Herschel points out that the candles the King just lit were those of the menorah. The King of the Goblins, horrified, roars in fury. The earth trembles and a mighty wind comes. It rips off the synagogue roof and blows down the walls. The wood scatters like matchsticks. The menorah’s flames spin, but the fire stays strong. As the wind dies down, the night is still. The walls, floor, roof, even the foundation stones of the synagogue have vanished. Yet the menorah remains on a humble table, standing tall and bright in the winter snow. Hershel waits until the last candle burns out and he returns to the village, where the windows are alight with menorahs and Hanukkah joy.      


I felt chills the first time I read the story. I thought to myself: this is more than a fable, more than a fantastical Hanukkah tale. THIS is the story of the Jewish people.


In every age, there are hideous, harassing forces that try to snuff out the light of our people – the goblins of anti-semitism - greed, power and jealousy. As I read of the flying shingles and broken glass, I thought of the pograms, the inquisition, the mischief and the mayhem, the small and large aggressions our ancestors faced ever since they first uttered words of Torah.


As the walls splintered and the roof divided from the old synagogue, I thought of the Holocaust, destroying half of worldwide Jewry. How empires, hordes and mobs have come in every generation to prove to us Jews how powerful and superior they are, hell bent on proving some grotesque, perverted point.


But then I turn my attention to the Hanukkah candles, which persist despite the many attempts to spit them out, or prevent them from being lit altogether. It’s significant that the walls of the synagogue in Herschel’s story disappear completely, revealing the menorah bare but bright.


Isn’t this what it was like for the Maccabees: their house of worship defiled and disgraced? Having fought the war against tyranny, they reclaim their holy space, but it can never actually be the same.


Imagine it what it must have been like: to have won the war but still have the task of rebuilding? Imagine how fatigued they must have been. Yet somehow they found the courage to rebuild and to rededicate their temple, allowing the Jewish story to begin a new chapter.


Friends, I’ll let you in on the true miracle of Hanukkah. It’s not that the oil lasted 8 days for the Maccabees, but that it’s lasted 2,000 years for the rest of us. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the Temple and our synagogues can be burned, ransacked and even destroyed but that the light of Torah and the glowing heart of Jewry still remains.


Come to think of it, there is no better metaphor for Hanukkah 2020: a menorah lit, with no walls around it. While I’m thankful that our beloved Woodlands building is standing and well-cared for, our community tonight gathers around the light of our chanukiyot, we gather in the shared experience of the holiday. No walls, just the light in our hearts coming together.


As the pandemic – a King of the Goblins in its own way - has blown through our homes, our public spaces and our lives, we have found ways to outsmart it, to challenge its hubris. Our medical professionals and researchers are heroic Herschels. Every person who puts on a mask helps keep another life from being snuffed out. We are battered, bruised and broken, but like our Maccabee forebearers, and like the Jews of the ages who followed them, we stand before the Hanukkah lights with a gutsy attitude; a boldness to defiantly defy the odds. You could call it Hanukkah Chutzpah.


This year, we need even more Hanukkah Chutzpah. At a time when we’re feeling trapped in our homes, bound by an invisible goblin who deals in fear and isolation, our community will continue to find one another. This year, every year, on every night of Hanukkah, we Jews light our menorahs together. We increase our light and our joy evening by evening, a physical manifestation of eternal Jewish incandescence…the spirit of our ancestors that calls out in every age: be bold, be kind, be brave.

Friday, October 23, 2020


If we were to make a list of the most famous stories from the Torah, the tale of Noah and his ark is likely to be in the top five. And while a deep dive into its well-expounded waters can feel trite, like a lot of Biblical stories, I’m experiencing it in a more visceral way this year.

It begins with the concept of feeling “emotionally flooded.” Every emotion is exaggerated these days. Each day, each week is an oxymoronic mix of monotony and uncertainty. There’s a deluge of important decisions. Even deciding to attend a small backyard gathering feels daunting. It feels like there are oceans between us and our loved ones. Our own, personal wooden arks of respite and safety – our homes, our personal time, etc. - feel isolating and tenuous at times. A recent article by Jacob Stern in the Atlantic summed it up well:

A pandemic, unlike an earthquake or a fire, is invisible, and that makes it all the more anxiety-inducing. “You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you just don’t know,” says Charles Benight, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who specializes in post-disaster recovery. “You look outside, and it seems fine”[but it’s not].

…From spatial uncertainty comes temporal uncertainty. If we can’t know where we are safe, then we can’t know when we are safe.

That ambiguity could make it harder for people to be resilient. “It’s sort of like running down a field to score a goal, and every 10 yards they move the goal,” Benight said. “You don’t know what you’re targeting.”

So let’s turn back again to Noah and his story. If ever Torah had a response to trauma, this week’s Torah portion is it.

Quick, what are two images you remember from the story? There are two symbols that most of us quickly conjure: first is the dove and second is the rainbow. Both of these symbols represent hope and resilience. The dove, of course, returns from its scouting mission once with nothing, then with the olive branch and then doesn’t return at all, having found a new life on dry land. It teaches us that rebuilding is a process, but we determinedly hold out hope that a time of peace can come our way.

Then there’s the rainbow – God’s own sign that no matter the tough times, we should always know that our relationship with God and our ability to weather the storm, always remains.

While these two images are encouraging, and Heaven knows we need that encouragement, there is another symbol that feels more manifest for me right now…that’s the altar’s fire.

Never heard of it? Well, we tend skip right to the rainbow when we tell Noah's story. But something happens right before the rainbow that bears a mention.

Noah, his family and the animals disembark from the ark, at which point Noah builds an altar and makes a burnt offering upon it. Burnt offerings serve many purposes in Torah – they can be expressions of petition, of guilt, or symbolic of an important moment in time. In the case of Noah’s offering, it seems to be one of thanksgiving, celebrating deliverance from a life-threatening danger. It’s a reminder that we still have much to be thankful for, even when it feels like the sky has been clouded over and the world is ending.

And we have to express this thankfulness, because the text tells us that Noah’s fire produces a pleasing odor, which eventually reaches God. Experiencing Noah’s thanks, encouraged that humans may actually learn to not take life for granted, God decides at that time to never again mess with the natural cycle and rhythms of life. God proclaims, “So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.” Certain things will always remain.

While life may feel topsy-turvy, and while we may have times that we feel like we’re living a shadow-world, coming to the brink of what we believe to be the very worst, Torah begs us to center – to look for signs of certainty and security. The sun went down this evening, it will rise again tomorrow. The leaves are sunsetting too… a fiery rainbow of reds, oranges and yellows…just like they’re supposed to at this time of year. And while we look ahead with nervousness to what I’m calling “COVID-winter,” the natural world around us begs us to take heart – assures us with the echo of God’s ancient promise – our lives have not been permanently uprooted and wind-tossed. There will be an end, we will rebuild.

So in the meantime, as we start to light our own fire pits and turn on our outdoor heaters, we must follow Noah and nature’s lead: we too must doggedly, determinedly carry on and persevere. The fire’s light shines upon the blessings we have discovered during this time: our ability to come together as a synagogue community even while physically apart, daily lunch and dinner with our loved ones when normally we may have gone a whole day without seeing each other, the new skills we’ve learned and shared, the creative muscles we’ve flexed. The Biblical flood was indeed a tragedy, a terrible time of death, regret and re-calibration. But we’ve been promised: these times are NOT that flood – and nor will there be one like that gain. There is no chosen one, no one ark of salvation during these times because each of us is a vessel – we may be waterlogged and battered – but we’re still afloat, and instead of just one, there are many of us out at sea, buoying one another, a catamaran of community, still seeking beauty in our wind-tossed world.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Battling our Goliath Problems - Yom Kippur Morning 5781/2020

Given the online format of services, this sermon was delivered in three parts. Part one was before the recitation of Unetaneh Tokef. Part two before Avinu Malkeinu. Part three was after the reading of the Cain/Abel Story and before the reading of Isaiah 57-58.

Part 1

Imagine the Biblical Goliath. A powerful Philistine, he’s 9 feet 9 inches fall, wearing heavy armor and wielding an assortment of top-of-the-line weapons: a bronze helmet, a mail coat, bronze shin-guards. He’s got a bronze javelin slung between his shoulders and a heavy spear with a head of iron in his giant hand. The first Book of Samuel describes Goliath as an unmatched, expert warrior, stepping out each day onto the battlefield, haughtily demanding the ancient Israelites send him an adversary who he will expeditiously defeat.

As the story goes, the Israelites are terror-stricken at the sight of him. Once...and a then again...the Israelites see Goliath and flee in horror. The Book of Samuel takes care to repeat the word that expresses their emotion: yirah - fear.

The mighty King David is only a young, ruddy-faced shepherd at this point in the story. But for his part, he’s not afraid. He’s strangely confident, actually. He comes before King Saul claiming that he can take on the giant. King Saul, eventually won over by David’s bravado, sends him to fight. The king places his own bronze helmet on David’s head, fastens his breastpiece to David’s chest, and hands over a sword. David, armed in the finest armor...can’t move. It doesn’t fit, it’s getting in his way. He sheds the protective gear and grabs a simple stick. From here we know the rest of the story: with just a slingshot and some moxie, David wins the day.

The well-known moral of the story is to believe in the underdog. If small, boyish David could take down an arrogant giant, we can certainly rise above our goliath problems. But Eli Wiesel, the famous philosopher and Holocaust survivor chooses to highlight a different detail in the story:

“David, on his way to fight Goliath, was given the king’s armor. For a battle this unequal, with life-and-death stakes, armor made sense. But David removed the armor, for it didn’t fit him. This image has stayed with me as a symbol of a key concept: that vulnerability is the greatest weapon if you are brave enough to use it.”

Throughout COVID times, the story of David and Goliath has moved me in a way it never used to. No longer a fairy tale with a trite moral, it painfully represents how we feel navigating our lives right now. It speaks to the pandemic and the way it has pummeled our sense of normalcy; how it has stolen our relational intimacy. It’s how we feel about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the shadow it casts on the November election, which feels more high-stakes than ever before.

Like our ancestors on the ancient battlefield, we are terror-stricken. We pray for a vaccine, we long for a political hero or an electoral sweep, whatever it will take to wipe out these colossal threats in one fell swoop.

But alas, like the generations before us, we still await King David’s descendent, the physical or metaphorical Messiah. No modern medicine or governmental turn over can change what we’ve really discovered during this time: a multi-front battle with our own fallibility and failures. There’s the realization that our bodies are frail; the recognition that our nation is structurally flawed. Yirah - fear - lurks and pounces as we feel powerless against these giant realities.

Yet Wiesel, a person who lived through the worst - a scary, unprecedented amalgam of all these afflictions - urges us in these most precarious times to embrace our vulnerability.

Consider King David. He was God’s anointed, yet he was not too unlike us. David performed almost every sin we’ll confess this morning - he lied and killed and lusted and cheated. Our sacred texts put his mortal flaws on display to serve as an example. Stripped to his physical and spiritual essence many times in his story, we watch as David applies his most authentic, basic strengths to face formidable foes, even when that foe is himself.

We too must strip to the bare, difficult truths of who we are and what we’ve done, individually and as a collective. The challenge is not to cower in fear of what we discover, but to instead tremble in awe: with nothing holding us back, imagine what we are capable of!

Yom Kippur is the day we strip to our spiritual essence in order to discover our authentic strengths. We recite “Unetakeh Tokeif” - a piyyut that throws our frailty and our cosmic insignificance in our faces. “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day because it is norah - fearful and full of awe.” The Day of Judgement, where God, and we, take note of our vulnerability.

R. Edward Feinstein is quoted in our machzor as saying, “[When it comes to the prayer’s questions,] the answer to “me.” Who will live and who will die? I will. Who at their end and who not at their end? Me. Like every human being...Fire, water, earthquake, plague? In my lifetime, I’ve been scorched and drowned, shaken and burdened, wandering and at rest, tranquil and troubled...This is the central truth of the High Holy Days...We are vulnerable and powerful at the same time.”

We can wield our vulnerability. Perhaps not as a weapon, as Wiesel posits, but as a tool. If we can tolerate the fear that shakes our bones, we eventually can steady ourselves enough to chart a creative course. Aware of our faults, frailty and doubts, might we finally begin to move toward the path of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah? Stripped of our distracting armor, the hubris of our modern technologies and demagogues, we can more freely turn the course of our lives, directing our hearts toward holiness.

Part 2

So what happens when we surrender our armor, make ourselves vulnerable and then the worst does come true? What happens when we face the harsh truths of a harsh environment, and we are in fact injured: physically or spiritually?

I ask this question, because all of us are wounded in some way right now. We have watched hundreds of thousands of Americans die by plague. One or more may have been your loved one. If you are a person of color or part of another marginalized community, you have the added trauma of assault after assault, of struggling to thrive in an oppressive environment. If you are a front line worker or teacher, if you are suddenly both a parent and a teacher right now, if you have lost your job, if you’ve lost your routines, your freedom of movement, whatever it may too are wounded. Some of us carry the trauma of our wounds like a weight. Some of us experience it like a live wire, lying quietly before you touch it and it jumps up hot again.

How do we muster the courage to face our goliath problems when we’re wounded, traumatized and exhausted?

Ariel Burger’s book Witness synthesizes what he learned as Eli Wiesel’s teaching assistant. In it, he remembers:

[One day in class, Wiesel told the following story:] “During the expulsion from Spain, a family escaped into Morocco, into the desert. They faced the blazing sun, hunger, and disease. The mother was the first to die. So the father dug a grave and said Kaddish - the prayer acknowledging God’s greatness even in the face of death - with his two children. Then the older child died. The father dug a grave and said Kaddish. Then his younger child died. The father dug yet another grave, and then he spoke to God. He said, “God, I know You want to test me, You want to see if I will lose my faith, if I will despair. I will not! In spite of You, and for You, I will not!” And he said Kaddish.

Wiesel let [the class] feel the silence the father might have felt, then he [commented], “God’s silence is an old problem. But the father in this tale has a new response: faith as protest, loyalty as an act of rebellion. This is what I call wounded faith.”

Wiesel went on: “Kierkegaard wrote that faith must be lost and found again. I replace the word lost with wounded. At one point in our life it must be wounded in order to be true. One Hasidic master said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ I believe that no faith is as whole as a wounded faith.”

There was a time when we thought all we were up against was fleeting. How many times have you said “2020 can’t get worse?” But then it does, and each of us continues to imbibe waves of grief, anger and fear. 

Our challenge this morning is to shed our expectations of the year 2020, as hard as it is to let them go.

The sound of the shofar, blasted at the end of this day, howls at us to shed the fantasy that what we were, what life was, was perfect. When we are told to “return” each year, it is never to what we were before. Instead, it is a call to return to an unguarded, primordial state - to the very beginning - to the potential of what we can be.

The Yom Kippur day is not here to scare us into submission. It’s here to make us alert, aware, compassionate, and responsible. For the injuries we caused, we atone. For the wounds we received, we pray to endure them.

And endure them we will. We can decide to thrive despite our injuries. We can carry our unease and pain as evidence of our will to live, our ability to grow and survive.

Burger, experiencing his own wounded faith, weighing heavy questions about God and life’s purpose, eventually had a realization: “Maybe it wasn’t true that faith and doubt were opposites. Maybe my questions actually emerged from faith and served to telegraph the immensity of the subconscious spaces that I had yet to fill with meaning. As I walked through my days, I felt my questions as a comet’s tail behind me, marking my crossing, illuminating rather than darkening the path before me.”

This conjures two images for me, one I like more than the other. The first: we could see hope as a torch in a cave, lighting our way inch by inch.

Yet it is easy for a small lantern to be dwarfed by the vast darkness around it. Instead, I’m compelled by Burger’s metaphor: seeing fear, anger, doubt and disappointment as a comet’s tail - evidence of your propulsion forward, peeling off as you fly forward into a starry unknown.

The heat of your anger, the turmoil of your fear and doubt, let it be your thrust.

On this day, we shed our emotional armor and stand vulnerable before the Holy One, not sure if we will be met with Avinu or Malkeinu. God is Avinu, our parent, the source of our life and light. God is also Malkeinu, the ruling body that operates outside the realm of our control.

Will the new year be a good year for us? Never before have I been so unsure and so scared of what the answer will be. But I do know, that despite the fear, I am filled with so much awe, and so much reverence for the lessons I’ve learned about my own failures, about our society’s failures, that I feel ready to shoot through the unknown, leaving a trail of insight - its dust and humility - sparkling behind me.

Part 3

These are the Days of Fear - Yamim haNoraim. Norah - terrified, fearful - just like the Israelites in Goliath’s presence, just like each of us at the close of 5780.

Yet, as R. Bachya Ibn Paquda said, “The fear of Heaven has two aspects: the fear of tribulations and Divine retribution, and the awe of God’s glory, majesty and awesome power.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer expands on Ibn Paquda, saying: “...there are two types of reverence of Heaven - the fear of future accountability and the awe of Divine majesty. However, it must be stressed that the two are not equal. It is clear that awe of God’s majesty is on a more exalted plane than the fear of future accountability.”

Cain served as a perfect example of the fear/awe dichotomy in our Torah portion this morning. Early in the story, when Cain and Abel both bring a gift to God and God favors Abel’s, God warns a grumbly Cain: “Would it not be better to rise above your anger and jealousy? Sin crouches like a beast at the door: you are what it craves; and yet - you can overcome it.” (Genesis 4:7)

Famously, he does not. Fear of Divine retribution is not enough to help Cain rise above his disappointment and he kills his brother. Yet, after the whole episode, when Cain realizes he may have banished God from his life, he can’t bear it: “Hidden from your presence, I am a homeless wanderer on earth,” he exclaims.

Having now seen the fault line between life and death in the eyes of his murdered brother, Cain saw God. He glimpsed the ineffable in the most extreme and perverted way. The awe of God’s majesty changes him more than fear ever could.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the Eternal.”

That is what Cain saw, and what Isaiah, the prophet of Yom Kippur morning, preaches. In the haftarah, Isaiah starts by reminding us to acknowledge our sins, our transgressions, our evil inclinations - just like God did with Cain. “Yes,” Isaiah affirms, “ask God the “right” way to live.” “But beware,” he warns, “fear of doing it wrong will not keep you from wrongdoing.” Cain lived in this baser realm of fear. Not until he grasped awe did he transform into a better person.

We are experiencing multiple pandemics these days. If we act upon them with fear of the consequences (political, financial or otherwise) we’re going to come up short. Fear leads us to giving into our lesser impulses. Yet if we act with awe - reverence for life and our legacy - we may achieve the expectations God has for us this day.

Scholar Susannah Heschel wrote back in June about a ritual called a shvartze chasene—a wedding in a cemetery. East European Jews have been known to organize these weddings when “cholera, typhus, influenza, and other epidemics would strike. A black chuppah (wedding canopy) was set up in the midst of the graves in the town’s cemetery, the rabbi performed the service, and the townspeople rejoiced and brought gifts of everything the new couple might need to set up a household. The shvartze chasene was also distinguished by the bride and groom: not an engaged couple in love, but two people chosen by town elders, often impoverished orphans, marginalized and neglected by society.”

These ceremonies are also known to have taken place in America during the 1918 Flu Epidemic as well as during the Holocaust. The ritual has little to do with magically trying to ease the plague at hand, although it appears that way at first. Instead, the shvartze chasene set its sights on the plague of fear, gripping the community. Heschel notes that “A wedding, a moment of joy, is held in a place of death and sorrow. A wedding is organized at a time when disease is hovering over every household. Why a shvartze chasene? Certainly, it is an effort of the community to do a good deed, an appeal to God to lift the epidemic. Perhaps it is intended to fool the forces of evil into thinking they have no power. Or perhaps it is a way to deceive one’s own emotions, rejoicing when the heart is filled with mourning.”

She continues:

“I’m not advocating a revival of the shvartze chasene but take a lesson: that all the rational advice of doctors, epidemiologists, and virologists is not sufficient. Racial terror and the terror of mass death are also epidemics needing our attention. There is one cure for the epidemic of fear: justice, the assurance that we live in a society rooted in moral values, that health is the concern of all, that everyone’s family is secure and will never be abandoned, but always cared for, and that all human beings are equally precious.”

Wise words indeed. If we could manifest this dream, and heed this most holy call to rightful action, “then shall your light burst through like the dawn” says Isaiah, “and your healing will sprout up with haste.” (58:8).

God of our ancestors, God of the wounded, the orphaned and the fearful, we have shed our armor this morning before you. You see our wounds, how our bodies tremble. Help lift our faces toward you, adjust our eyes to see even the faintest breaking of the dawn. And if still our retinas cannot distinguish it, may our small perception of your glory, our fleeting sense of your presence today be enough to propel us to better days. Then, in the words of your prophet, “righteousness shall march before you, the glory of God will be your rear guard. When you call, the Eternal will answer. When you cry, God will say, Here I am.”

Ken Yhi Ratzon.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Jerusalem Flowers

The year I lived in Jerusalem the winter was particularly cold
The mist descended gently from the 7 hills
And kissed the ground with weighty lips
Remaining low in the valley four months
Pesach cleaning swept the dampness from the corners of the kitchen
Brushed it out the front door where it dissolved in the sun
The water bubbles bursting with excitement
As they rose into the blue skies.
I hadn’t known it when I moved in,
But there was a thick rose patch that lined the walk to my front door
I didn’t notice stems or buds, just, one day, roses!
Their petals unrolled overnight
Exposing, unabashedly,
Open-palmed spirals of color
Tie-dyed whirls of springtime hallelujah.
Fanned out, sunsplashing,
the quiet gasp of resuscitation.
A triumphant return from the depths.
A surprising restoration of color to the soul.

Before Creation

Before Creation,

there was a dark, swirling void

messy and bleak,

the weight of its emptiness[1]

was planet crushing.


From this dark, isolated chasm,

a voice called out for recognition

and God’s spirit paused.


Like Joseph cries in the waterless pit,

and Jonah’s song from the belly of the fish.

Like the prayer deep in Hannah’s heart,

un-utterable but true,

a voice now calls out to you, Eternal One.


Pause again,

gaze upon the dark night vacuum,

the time before Creation.


Pregnant with possibility,

a soul, a whole universe,

is begging to be born.


Hover over the depths,

breathe life into them,

and once again declare,

“Let there be Light!”






[1] cf Sforno on Geneis 1:2,

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Shemini & Houdini

Harry Houdini was born in Budapest. His real name was Erik Weisz. His father was a rabbi. His career as a performance artist began at age 9, when he made his public debut as Ehrich, the Prince of the Air…his skill being on the trapeze. 

As his career blossomed, so did Erik, now Harry’s, bravado. He was a small man with huge daring.  At times he wasn’t as much a magician as he was a stunt man, dangling stories above crowds as he escaped straightjackets, or submerged himself in the water torture chamber.  He’d be handcuffed and stuffed into a milkcan, only to emerge cuff-less, arms open in triumph.

Now, while magicians notoriously do not reveal their secrets, any casual magic lover knows that behind every magic trick or stunt, there’s years of preparation. There’s a science to magic tricks; illusions to create, mechanisms to invent. Houdini was no exception. He would note that “my brain is the key that sets me free.” Indeed, most magicians regard their craft as an unrecognized branch of Science. The performance is the thing that makes it seem mystical.

Houdini famously died by a ruptured appendix. What caused its rupture has been long debated. You see, s couple of days prior to his death, Houdini had received five punches to his stomach. Why? Well, Houdini had recently boasted he could take any punch to the stomach. When a student questioned him on this and delivered the punches without warning, Houdini was injured. Houdini even admitted that had he been able to ready himself, he could have withstood the blow. Doctors are split on whether these punches could have caused his appendix to rupture, but they certainly didn’t help. In the end, despite all his death defying stunts, something as common as appendicitis and, possibly, a few punches to the stomach, are what took Houdini’s life.

Houdini came to mind as I read this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. The beginning of the portion is rather prescriptive. It’s a step by step account of how Aaron and his sons scrupulously follow Moses' instructions and offer burnt sacrifices to God. But then, something crazy happens.

After days and days of preparation, after verse after verse of clear and precise instruction, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, seemingly on a whim, grab their fire pans, create some sort of weird fire and offer it to God. The Hebrew is “aish zarah” and weird or alien fire.
God, who has a very precise Amazon wishlist, and does not believe in regifting, is not happy with the offering. Nadav and Avihu are zapped dead immediately.

The whole episode is puzzling and frightening; maddening and mystifying. Aaron their father, and the high priest, is dumbstruck, silenced by what happened. After a very loaded pause, he moves forward with his responsibilities.

You can read the commentary (there’s a lot of it) on what happened. The rabbis’ major hunch is that Nadav and Avihu might have been trained in the intricacies of the ritual, but they were not emotionally ready to take it on. The rabbis describe them as haughty and arrogant, anxious to be in the limelight and steal the spotlight from Moses and Aaron. The bold and rash behavior is what got the best of them.

Houdini’s story is a bit different. He knew the value of readiness, of checking your body, your mind and your circumstances before taking action. His demise (or at least, the incident that exposed his ailment) came from someone else, who’s brazenness drove them to reckless action. The guy who sucker punched Houdini did not know the value of readiness.

Despite a clinical sort of cause and effect, both stories - Houdini’s life story and Nadav and Avihu’s “alien fire” - are shrouded in a kind of mystical veil. Perhaps the eery sense that surrounds them is the knowledge that you can never be fully ready when it comes to experiencing the great mysteries of our existence.

By great mysteries of our existence, I mean all the biggies: love, death, disease, life itself. Our tradition hands all of these perplexities over to God. There is only so much we can know. There is only so much we can prepare for and understand. And while scientific knowledge increases era by era, only religion has been able to dig into the “whys” by trying to approach the Divine through prayer, ritual, and meditation.

The story of Nadav and Avihu cautions us to approach life’s great mysteries slowly. Check yourself with humility. Understand your fragility. Link up slowly, kind of like the hooks of a zipper coming together and then drawing apart.

This idea seems very important as we start to wonder about opening up our homes and our arms again. My impulse is to go running into life at full speed. But if this virus and our government’s response has taught us anything, it’s that impetuousness and a false bravado leads us into peril.  

In approaching this plague, in all its mystery, it behooves us to distance ourselves from the impulses of Nadav and Avihu, or Houdini’s assailant. Better to be like Aaron, the dumbfounded but duty-driven father who carries on despite the horror he witnesses. Aaron reminds me of those on the front lines: our doctors, essential workers, service people, who approach with humility and caution, yet still have the courage to approach. When it comes time to emerge, which I, like you, want to do so, so badly, we must do it in the right way. And that way will take patience.

Harry Houdini said, “I am a great admirer of mystery and magic. Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” The magician’s job is to mirror and emulate the mysterious way in which existence breathes. It’s all illusion.

The Jew’s job, though, is to approach the unfathomable, Divine rhythm of life and try to sing with it. Sometimes we’re on tune, sometimes we simply seek the harmony. But the Jew is humble, aware of our human limitations – an awareness that brings us patience, discernment, and, one day, we pray, reprieve.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Elijah, COVID-19 and Patience

Abby Pitkowsky, a wonderful educator over at the Jewish Education Project, offered some perspective about Jews and social distancing. Traditional stories reveal that we’re pretty good at it. A few gems from her top ten list...

- First, Noah – the one with the ark. He and his family self-quarantined for 40 days and nights on the ark in order to distance themselves from the injustices and cruelty that had ravaged humanity.

- Shimon bar Yochai, the great sage of the 2nd century, hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, during which time he amassed incredible knowledge and mystical insight, eventually authoring the Zohar.

- The Jews of Masada, who intentionally sheltered in place on top of Masada for one year in order to assert their dignity as Jews.

- Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist and later, Israeli politician, who sat in solitary confinement for more than 400 days during his imprisonment by the Soviet Union for protesting oppression there. 

She also brings up Elijah the Prophet.

We all know Elijah’s name pretty well. He pops up in all kinds of Hasidic stories. There’s a whole song about him at the end of Havdalah; a chair for him at every bris. He’s also got a rather large cameo on Passover. All that said, you might not know very much about him. Here’s a digest:

Elijah the prophet was a Tishbite from the region of Gilead (hence, Eliyahu haNavi, Eliyahu ha-Tishbi, Eliyahu ha-Giladi). 

He performs miracles like converting a handful of meal and a little oil into an endless supply and bringing a dead child back to life (An impressive start to his career).
He takes on evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel who had introduced the pagan cult of Baal…something that’s a pretty big no-no in Judaism.

Notably, Elijah travels alone for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, aka Mt. Sinai, where Moses had received the Ten Commandments. This is where we start to see some interesting paralleling with Moses, who spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain. Interestingly, Elijah is the only person described in the Bible as ever having returned to Horeb.

Much transpires after this, but the end of Elijah’s life is the most amazing. After one last prophecy, Elijah senses that his end is near. He, his successor Elisha, and his disciples travel to the river Jordan, where Elijah divides the waters by hitting them with his mantle. The group then crosses over on dry ground…also sounding pretty familiar. They go on walking and talking when suddenly a flaming chariot with fiery horses appears and carries Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Thus Elijah is one of two people in the Bible who is taken to heaven alive – he never died! Quite the dramatic ending.

So the natural next question is why then do we look forward to the time when Elijah will come back to earth? And what does it have to do with the “final redemption” we often hear about?

Well, we partially have this week’s haftarah to thank for the idea. It’s a special haftarah reading for Shabbat HaGadol, the great Sabbath before Passover. The prophet Malachi, the last of the prophets, proclaims: “Lo! God will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Eternal. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that when God comes, God will no strike the whole land with utter destruction. Lo, God will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Eternal.”

Elijah is not the Messiah, the person or being that will come usher in the peaceful and perfect World to Come. Instead, he is the one who will come to tell us to get ready. Get your affairs in order, right the wrongs in your relationships and buckle up! If you don’t, when judgement comes, you’ll be on the wrong side of history.

This is why he mirrors Moses. Moses shepherded the Jews through the first redemption, escape from the narrow bondage of Egyptian slavery. Elijah will shepherd us through the final redemption, escaping the pain and suffering of our broken world.

So every Passover, we heed Malachi’s words. We set a cup for Elijah, we open the door, we say “next year in Jerusalem!” and we braced ourselves for his heralding the coming of the Messiah, the end-of-days redeemer.

We’ve done this for almost 2000 years. Year after year, we’ve hurried up and waited.

Elijah isn’t the only part of Passover with this “hold on, it’s coming!” mentality. It took 200 years for God to hear the cries of the Israelites and to bring them out of slavery. It took suffering through 10 long plagues before history could move forward. Or just think about that “I can’t wait anymore” feeling you have on day 5 of Passover…your stomach is heavy but you’re hungry, you can’t wait for some leavened bread.

Passover models patience. It says get your affairs in order. Clean your house, re-enact our people’s past, meditate on the present – find the injustices that still plague our world and then look forward to the future. Elijah didn’t come yet? Try again next year!

This patience is particularly hard to access at this moment in our lives. We’ve been told to hurry up - separate, hunker down, sit in your house wait for word it is safe to leave again. We look Andrew Cuomo and NIH directors and major hospitals to be our Elijahs, to tell us the end is near. Yet unfortunately, week after week we’re in the same uncertain holding pattern.

Frankly, we’re pretty fatigued from waiting– that is waiting to be redeemed from COVID and waiting for the ultimate redemption – both days when all of humanity will be re-united in peace and prosperity.

In fact, the early Reformers hit their breaking point with waiting well before us. In the early 19th century, they went so far to decide that all this gearing up for an “end of days redeemer” was superstitious and anti-intellectual.

Reform Judaism saw the prophets’ promise of Elijah’s return as metaphorical, an ancient prophetic message echoing from the past and informing our lives today.

We leave a chair, we place a cup, and we say a prayer for Elijah as a physical reminder of our own obligation to get on with redemption.

When we show up for our loved ones, for our planet, for our fellow Jews, for our fellow humans, the messianic age will be near. The more we deliver our most moral and ethical selves to one another, the closer we are to the ultimate deliverance: when the great unity of God’s essence will be known to all.

Alana Newhouse, the editor in chief of Tablet Magazine put it best: God will come to help when God comes to help; the question is what we do between now and then.

In fact, we need not wait another instant. Each of us can be Elijah, the heralder of a new age. Heck, he never died. He could be among us right now.

Here’s a challenge for Wednesday night: When you open the door, imagine Elijah has already walked in. Turns out YOU are Elijah. You are the one here to announce the coming of the messianic age. What might you say? What affairs need to be put in order to tip the cosmic scales?

Challenge yourself to think past the coronavirus. That redemption will come. What redemption will we still need 5 months, one year from now?

Think about Noah – who was traumatized after his isolation and had trouble picking up the pieces of his life. Who will need help in restoring their mental wellness?

Think about Shimon bar Yochai – who withdrew from the world and came out wiser…yet was ultimately disappointed when he saw peoples’ continued ignorance. What injustices are still lingering behind the blinders of the current epidemic that we will need to get back to fixing?

This year, when we pronounce “Next Year in Jerusalem” may it not be a complacent utterance, a continuation of our patient waiting. Instead, may it be an expression of our hope and our commitment to being builders of the messianic dream.