God appeared on New Year’s Eve

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year. 

Tonight is unusual – the last time Kabbalat Shabbat and New Year’s Eve occurred together was in 2011. 

Ezra Furman, a Jewish musician, said it best in a tweet. They wrote:

I like having both too. 

I would like to take a few minutes now to connect this week’s Torah portion to being on the cusp of a secular new year. That is, as time moves forward, how are we living into our foundational stories? And what does this week’s story reveal to us about building a future for ourselves, individually and collectively?

This week’s Torah portion, Va’era

This week’s Torah portion, Va’era, begins with the revelation of God’s True Name. 

God’s True Name is spelled yud, hay, vav, hay. In scholarly circles The Name is described as the Tetragrammaton, which simply means the four-letter word.

As Jews, we traditionally never pronounce The Name and cover it up with the word Adonai, which means “my Lord.” Adonai is most often translated as “Lord.” 

Claiming that God’s Most Essential Name is “Lord” has, unfortunately, left many of us disconnected from the Source of Life. It is a pious cover for revelation. A way to indicate God rules over us. The word “Lord” denies individual choice and freedom.

Rather than using “Lord” as the English translation of Y H V H, I will say “HaShem,” which simply means “The Name.” For me, HaShem is more forceful than Adonai.

God Appears Differently to Moses

The portion begins with God explaining to Moses the difference between The Name and how God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It reads:

God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am HaShem. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name HaShem.”

Va’era is the first word of the second sentence – it means, “I appeared.” What does it mean that God appeared one way to earlier generations and differently to Moses?

Moses as the Pinnacle of Revelation

Traditionally, Judaism understands Moses as the pinnacle, the height, of human interaction with God. Moses knew God more intimately than any human before him or since him. This is why Judaism constantly connects innovation with Moses, claiming that all was revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

(Be sure to join us in three weeks, on January 22, for more regarding the revelation at Mt. Sinai.) 

Does Revelation Evolve Over Time?

But, if Moses experienced God more fully than previous generations, why should we believe that our understanding of the Divine ended on Mt. Sinai? Personally, I see this Torah portion as a proof text for the ongoing revelation of God.

What I mean is that human understanding of the nature of reality and the nature of God deepens over time. Our relationships, with each other and with God, are more complex than any previous generation.

The Jewish tradition is a roadmap for our journey. Neither humanity nor God stopped evolving on Mt. Sinai.

God Appears to Pharaoh Through Moses and Aaron

Following the revelation of God’s True Name, the Torah portion continues with Moses and Aaron taking up the mantle of leadership. God says to Moses: “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.” 

God explains the purpose of the ten plagues, saying: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. …And the Egyptians shall know that I am HaShem, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” 

Leaders Guide Us Towards Our Best Selves

The Israelites needed Moses and Aaron to guide them out of Egypt. Leaders help us see the possibility of a future better than today. The process takes time and commitment. We have to trust our leaders in order to be transformed by their insights.

Like Moses and Aaron, modern leaders of the Jewish people remind us that it is possible to hear the call of freedom. Leaders guide us on the journey. It is within our power to overcome adversity and to revel in deep joy, love, and gratitude.

We can choose to strive towards our best selves. We can choose leaders who help us remember our deepest truths, and to break free of our bondage.

Choosing Joy This New Year’s Eve

Yes, our lives have been altered by this pandemic in ways that we could never have imagined a few short years ago. Yet, we continue to have this community to support us along the way. Every week, we have the opportunity to join together – appreciating our common humanity, taking time to live into the deepest part of ourselves, and connect to our Cosmic Companion.

God is More Abstract than How God Appears in the Bible

We do not need a burning bush or a magic rod to connect us with HaShem. We have the souls around us and the Soul of the Universe to hold us on our journey through time. 

A Prayer for God’s Appearance in 2022

As Temple Beth David steps forward into 2022, may we remember that God appears whenever we hold space for the people around us.  

God appears when we comfort mourners.

God appears when we pray for the sick.

God appears when we doubt God’s presence. 

God appears when we express gratitude for our food and our drinks.

God appears when we revel in the growth of our children. 

God appears when we choose to create space for holiness. 

When we acknowledge Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, God appears. 

May God appear to you this Shabbat. May you experience joyfulness and hope as we welcome a new secular year and the unfolding future of our beloved community. Shabbat Shalom.

Living as a Jew in December, Vayechi 5782

This week, our portion is named “Vayechi,” which means “he lived.” I’d like to take a few moments to discuss how this verb is formed, because it sheds light on the internal perspective of our Bible. Often, a verb in the Bible begins with a vav. This can indicate a conjunction – that’s a fancy word to include “and,” “but,” “however.” On the other hand, it can be a “reversing vav.” So, yichi without the vav indicates an ongoing action, or an action that will take place in the future. With the vav, we know that it was an ongoing action in the past. This is the brilliance of the Biblical mind. Their concept of time was not the same as our concept. Their verbs, their actions, are not in the past, present, or future. Rather, actions are completed, they are occurring now, or they may occur in the future. The stream of time in Biblical Hebrew is more fluid than the finite breaks of modern grammar.

This perspective also helps us understand the internal purpose of the narrative we are completing this week. For Israelites, there was never a need to record Exactly What Happened. That concept of history is not part of the BIble. Rather, each story is meant to help us deepen our understanding of our present moment and our connection to our spiritual community. 

The weekly Torah portion, VaYechi

With this background in mind, please listen to the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion.

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵֽי־יַעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃

Why do we need to know that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt, in Eretz Mitzrayim? What does it mean to live? And why did our forefather’s life end in Egypt rather than in the Holy Land?

Mitzrayim: the narrow place, the place of constraint

Here’s where the Jewish mind and a strict understanding of Hebrew grammar differ. The folk etymology of the word Mitzrayim connects it to Maytzarim, which means “distress” or “constraints.” This is why you may hear me describe Egypt as the narrow place within us. Whether or not the two Hebrew words are actually connected, the Jewish mind has built on the similarity between the words to build worlds of meaning into our text.

So Jacob lived in the narrow place before he died. He didn’t have the hero’s journey of going through difficulty early in life and then experiencing complete peace before dying. Instead, he left the promised land and saw his family prosper in exile.

Jacob experienced a taste of our lives. For the most part, being Jewish in America, in this part of the diaspora, is not a cause of tsuris. Our daily lives are not filled with aggravation or chas v’shalom, fear, because of our Jewish identities.

Reflecting on December as a Jew

And yet, December in particular can be a time of increased awareness of our difference from mainstream American society. I want to be clear that I do not harbor any ill will towards Temple Beth David families who choose to celebrate Christmas. Rather, I am reflecting on what the season has meant for me, as an individual and as a mother.

My family doesn’t celebrate Christmas and helping our kids navigate this season has been a growth opportunity for me as a parent and as a spiritual leader.

I experience tension during this season. On the one hand, I am patriotic and love my neighbors. On the other hand, I am choosing to stand aside from the Christmas celebrations.

For our family, Santa Claus has loomed large over the past week, as Santa and Mrs. Claus visited our children’s public school on Wednesday. This tension, between deep gratitude for the fullness of our lives, and acknowledging that we live in the Diaspora, is reflected in the way Jacob’s life ended in physical security, though spiritually disconnected from our people’s homeland.

We must choose to fully live in each moment. Life is not always easy. Holding onto our separate identity as Jews can be difficult. Yet, ultimately, it is the most soul-nourishing gift we can give to ourselves and to our children.

Back to the Torah: blessing our children

Let’s return to the first sentence from our Torah portion.

Jacob lived 17 years in Egypt. The Midrash points out that he lived in Egypt for as long as Joseph lived with his family before being sold into slavery by his brothers. Before he dies, Jacob blesses his male offspring. He begins by blessing the children of Joseph. Jacob provides a larger blessing to the younger child, Ephraim, than he does to the older child, Menasheh. And it is from his words that the practice began to bless Jewish children at the beginning of Shabbat. Traditionally, we tell our boys “may God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” We tell our girls, “may God make you like Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” What does it mean to bless our children?

That was the first question I was asked when I started rabbinical school. In truth, I dropped the class. I realized I could not wrestle with questions about Jewish practice until I started being more diligent in doing Jewish. So, I started to bless my children on Friday nights.

First, we light Shabbat candles. Then, we bless our children. After invoking our ancestors, Ephraim and Menasheh, we chant the priestly blessing. Next, we sing Shalom Aleichem, to welcome angels into our Shabbat experience. We conclude the sanctification of Shabbat with the Kiddush that Cantor Orly chanted for us this evening.

Blessing other people is an act of faith

Blessing other people is an act of faith. It is our opportunity to humbly open ourselves up to the unknown. For me, it is an opportunity to invite God into our lives. We pray that each of our children are able to truly live into the deepest part of themselves and to become who they are meant to be. I am not literally asking my kids to become the leaders of tribes, with my younger son outshining my older son. Rather, I am hoping that they will live into their Jewish souls and become the fullest version of themselves.

Our weekly blessing is a reminder that each child is a vessel of holy light. The souls we are blessed to know are shadows of the Divine. This is what it means to believe that we are all B’tzelem Elohim, we are all made in the image of God. 

Embrace how we each reflect the Divine

Welcoming Shabbat is not just a time to bless children. It is also a time to kvell about all of our family members. This is why a traditional prayer book includes the Eshet Chayil passage from Proverbs 31 as part of the Friday night at-home rituals. Eshet Chayil means “a woman of strength.” We are proud of how strong our family members are. We appreciate the unique gifts each member of our community brings to this world. The ability to make a living matters. Friendships matter. Our dedication to our community matters. Each of us matters in the deepest sense of the word. We are each shadows of the Divine. We each have the opportunity to bring light into the world and to truly live. May we each embrace our journey and allow ourselves the opportunity to sink into our deepest selves. 

Shabbat shalom.

God appears, Vayeira 5782

The weekly Torah portion, Vayeira, includes Genesis 18:1-22:24. The first two verses are as follows:

The LORD appeared to him;“וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ ה֔
by the cashew trees [terebinths] of Mamreבְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א
he was sitting at the entrance of the tent וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל
as the day grew hotכְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם ׃
Looking up, he sawוַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא
and look, three menוְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים
standing near him.נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו
As soon as he saw them,וַיַּ֗רְא
he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them,וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל
bowing to the ground. וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃

The first sentence includes the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter proper name of God. Rather than writing out that holy Hebrew word, I replaced it with a ה״, indicating “HaShem” — “The Name” is the way this word is referred to when not praying or formally studying holy scripture. When praying or studying, Jews do not pronounce this name and replace it with the word “A’donai,” which is usually translated as “The LORD,” though it actually means “my Lord.” The word A’donai is often used as a name of God, even written in the Hebrew text using the letters of that word (as in the formula for a Jewish prayer). It can also be used to refer to human rulers. As my Hebrew professor, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, is fond of reminding us: context matters.

Recognizing the Presence of God

When we choose to see what is around us and within us, we have the opportunity to bring holiness into the world. Avraham Avinu, Abraham our forefather, felt the presence of God. He paused from his busy day to connect with God. The content of that conversation is not provided — instead, we swiftly move to Avraham interrupting that holy moment in order to greet strangers approaching his tent.

Getting wrapped up in myself

These two simple lines have torn me open in the last week, as I have wrestled with the implicit expectation within them. Perhaps, like me, you have heard that Judaism prioritizes welcoming the stranger. Yet, can you imagine interrupting your prayers in order to offer a stranger food and drink? When you are in the flow of creation, or in a rhythm at work — are you able to graciously stop yourself and joyfully welcome an interruption?

For much of my life, I prioritized becoming “the best me” I could be. I relentlessly pursued knowledge. I wanted to completely understand the world of work. So, when working as a secretary for a magazine, I religiously read Ad Age magazine. Then, when Twitter came along, I drank in the fire hose of information pouring through that medium.

I walled myself off from other people. Never intentionally. I listened to podcasts while walking with my kids. I read a book while waiting for a class to begin. These simple actions, which were full of good intentions, left me separated from the people surrounding me. Our current time of relative isolation woke me up to the ways in which I was already separated from the physical world.

Making space for God in the age of smartphones

So I choose to follow Avraham Avinu’s example. Whatever I am doing, it can wait. Choosing to be fully present to the people around me, deepens me. Experiencing a six year-old’s inner logic is a truly enlightening experience. You might notice that prayer is not my husband’s jam. Whereas, I’m happiest spending a full day, or a full week, immersed in prayer and study. Living into the beauty of traveling through life deeply connected to people unlike yourself can be soul-expanding. In addition to reflecting on Vayeira, I’ve been pondering how fast the last decade went by. Tomorrow is my tenth anniversary and yesterday was my son’s sixth birthday.

What does “God” mean?

I started by chanting the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Most of the time, Jewish sources claim that there are many barriers between human experience and God. This portion begins by declaring that God, using God’s unspeakable proper name, appeared before Avraham. Do you think God was more fully present in the world during the Bronze Age than today? Do we have the ability to sense God’s presence? Looking down at our phones, is it possible to sense spiritual shifts?

Define God to make religious experience possible

For a long time, these questions never occurred to me. Stories of our forefathers did not pierce my consciousness. The Bible felt unrelated to modern life. I avoided Jewish religious practice because I was certain that I did not believe in the judgmental God of the Bible.

Until adulthood, I did not know there are a multitude of ways to describe God from a Jewish perspective.

No single set of beliefs in Judaism

Jewish understandings of the world and God changed over time. Our civilizations were influenced by the people around us. Our intellectuals constantly communicated with Christian and Muslim scholars. Since Judaism began before the Christian idea of “religion,” we are not tied to a single set of beliefs. Instead, our culture defines us. What we do distinguishes us from other people.

Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to be an agnostic Jew. Or even an atheist Jew. My goal is not to convince you to believe like me. Rather, I hope that together we can make space for questions and disagreement. 

For me, I am constantly seeking more precise ways to understand God. Yes, I want a definition of what I believe. I also need a coherent set of descriptions of God in order to sink into prayer. God is likely to be spoken about in every Jewish prayer service. So what does all the God language in prayers mean? And how does the God in prayers relate to my lived experience?

Describing God allows us to sink in prayer

Let’s try to define God.  Do you see God as directly responding to prayers?

Do you think our spiritual energy can help heal the people around us and the souls within us?

Does prayer help you connect with God?

What does the formula of Jewish prayers mean to you?

Our prayer formula begins:

בָּרוּךְ אָתָּה ה״ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם

“Baruch atah A’donai, E’loheinu melech ha’olam”

Traditionally, this is translated as: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe.” 

Those same Hebrew words can be understood as: “Source of Blessing are You, Ground of Being; Our God, Sovereign of spiritual reality.”

When we make space for alternative English translations of well-known Hebrew phrases, we open ourselves up to the worlds contained within each word. May we each find a word or phrase to meditate into this week, so that we can recognize when the Divine is appearing in our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

Go to yourself, Lech L’cha 5782

Several people at Temple Beth David let me know that my weekly d’var Torah does not have to follow the weekly Torah portion. I deeply appreciate the latitude this provides. On the other hand, the portion can be such a rich jumping off point for an important aspect of Judaism. Personally, there is nothing more important than sinking into the first lines of Parashat Lech L’cha. Genesis chapter 12 verses 1 and 2 are a synopsis of how I view Judaism.

This week, we step forward from understanding the purpose of humanity into understanding the purpose of the Jewish people. We begin with God’s call to Avram, the man who will become Avraham.

The first two verses of chapter 12, the beginning of our Torah portion read as follows:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The Ground of Being said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

I will make of you a great nation,

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you shall be a blessing.

We could speak for hours just on these two verses. Let us begin to unwrap this origin story by recognizing the emphasis placed on moving forward. Avram is told “lech l’cha,” which could be translated as “Go to yourself” or “Surely you shall go” or, as JPS states, “Go forth.” The first significant words in this portion are a command to begin a journey.

Perhaps, like Avraham, you have completely changed your surroundings during your life. Maybe where you’re living now is nowhere near where you were born and raised. Or perhaps you’ve taken a spiritual journey and have arrived at a completely new understanding of God. Maybe you’ve been on an emotional journey and have better insight into who you are and why you’re here. As Avraham teaches us, being willing to put aside all that you know and all that makes you comfortable is the first step towards a more expansive way of being. Going on that journey — making your ego smaller, while sinking into your deepest self — can be a way to be a blessing to the world. 

Let us also remember that this command to go, lech, is intricately connected to halacha. They share the same shoresh, which means that the same three-letter root connects the verb with the noun. Halacha  means “the way.” Lech is the command form of the word “go (on foot), walk, depart.” So, while we have come to understand halacha as an impenetrable set of behavioral rules, its origin is as an attempt to create a Jewish way of being. In fact, for centuries halacha  was not codified in a book, or described with certainty. Variations have always existed between communities. This is why so many progressive Jewish teachers consider themselves halachic Jews — they are not willing to cede the term to a particular sect of the Jewish people.

As modern seekers of community and meaning, we have the opportunity to forge our own way into the depths of the Jewish tradition. We can choose to hear the call of the Divine, to walk in the path of Avraham — to go away from what we know in order to become who we are meant to be. Avraham modeled kindness. Our next portion will begin with Avraham leaving a conversation with God in order to welcome strangers into his home. 

In this portion, several people are named by God. First, He names Hagar’s son, Ishmael. That name, Ishmael, means “God listens.” The Hebrew Bible recognizes that it was not right for Hagar and Ishmael to be treated poorly. The name is given when Hagar runs away from the camp after Sarai speaks badly about her. When God appears and names her son, she is convinced to return to the camp. Later, God says to Avram, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.” This is when God makes a particular covenant for Jews. He renames Avram as Avraham. The extra “hey” is a form of God’s name, to signify that God is always with Avraham. God instructs Avraham to circumcise himself, Ishmael, and all of the males in the tribe as a physical sign of the covenant. While giving the instructions, God renames Sarai, adding a “hey” to her name as well, and she becomes Sarah. 

Here in this portion is the pure description of why I choose Judaism. It is not because it is better than other ways of living. For me, Judaism is a coherent way of approaching life: as a member of a community dedicated to walking a path of goodness and truth. I am responsible for greeting people with kindness, even if they are interrupting me. It is up to me to become a blessing for my family and my community. And it is up to me to honor my foremother and live fully into my soul’s name. My name is Sarah bat Fayge Rivka v’Moshe, and like Sarah, my goal is to help the Jewish people walk the path of goodness and be a blessing to the world. 

Shabbat shalom.

Noah, The Ark, Judaism, the World 5782

Beautiful flower representing the regrowth of the world following the biblical flood in the Torah portion Noah.

Noah and the Flood

The Torah portions in Genesis feature many narratives. Most people have a memory of this portion, unlike some of the more technical passages later in the Bible.

A refresher video in case you’re new to the story:

BimBam also offers a source sheet, midrash (a parable that expands on the text in the Torah), and a lesson guide.

So much Jewish wisdom traces back to this portion, at a deeper level than the simple story of the flood. Before we get there, a reminder: I don’t read the Hebrew Bible as history. The events described did not need to take place for me to describe the Bible as holy and worthy of my attention. As Dr. Martin Sweeney points out, at least three other well-documented flood myths arose in Mesopotamia. I imagine a catastrophic flood wiped out many communities and myths were created to make sense of the situation. This correlates with the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. Regardless of why this story exists, how can it help us live lives of deeper meaning?

An ark to save us

Noah builds an ark, teivah תֵּבָה, in Hebrew. This ark provides physical safety for Noah’s family and all of the animals who survived the flood.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, a central figure in the popularization of Jewish spirituality, reminds us that the Hebrew word for ark also means word. His meditation on this portion brings forward the worlds contained within each word we read, we speak, and we think. In the larger tradition of Torah portion commentary associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov, an entire separate book is built into the Noah section. Here is a taste of how he connects the ark with spiritual salvation:

Enter the ark! The Hebrew word for ark–teivah–also means a word. If we are beset with a flood of mundane concerns, we must enter the sacred words, so that when we pray, we enter within and attach ourselves to the very letters of our prayers. When we study, we must enter within and attach ourselves to the sacred letters of the Torah.

Portions of Light: Teachings from the holy Baal Shem Tov on Torah and Festivals, translated by Chayenu, p4.

From here, we could go into the breadth of Pillar of Prayer: Guidance in Contemplative Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life, from the Baal Shem Tov and his Circle.

Righteousness Throughout the World

Judaism often gets a bad rap for the particularism of our prayers. Traditionally, Jewish wisdom centered on the unique place of Jews in the meaning of the world. Let’s remember history — it was quite difficult to be Jewish. From the Romans destroying our homeland and renaming it Palestine, to Christian mobs murdering us en masse during their Crusades, to our legal second-class status throughout Christian Europe and Islamic caliphates, our leaders needed to assure us that despite the difficulty of remaining Jewish, it was extremely important to remain within the tribe.

Simultaneous with our wholehearted belief in the relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine, we have also recognized righteousness among other peoples. Early in rabbinic Judaism, we understood righteous gentiles. By observing the “Seven Noahide Commandments,” a non-Jewish person obtains righteousness and a place in the world-to-come.

The Talmud expands on the words in the Torah portion Noah.

The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot:

  1. The commandment to establish courts of judgment; 
  2. Prohibition against blessing, i.e., cursing, the name of God; 
  3. The prohibition of idol worship; 
  4. Prohibition against forbidden sexual relations; 
  5. The prohibition of bloodshed; 
  6. Prohibition of robbery; 
  7. The prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal.

Sanhedrin 56a:24 from Kevin Wolf’s Noahide Lawes Sefaria Source Sheet

Please remember: Judaism sees a unique need for Jews in the world. And we recognize and lift up the righteousness of non-Jews. This is why the Noahide commandments became short-hand for describing righteous gentiles.

Choosing an ark of words

What words should we cling to? Personally, I am working towards separating myself from my social media addiction. I choose to live into deep thinking. My goal: allowing space for reading books rather than posts.

Additionally, I recognize that my words can form an ark of salvation or a battering ram of destruction.

My tone of voice matters.

Will my sharp wit respond to factually inaccurate beliefs?

Shall I approach situations wholeheartedly?

Further reading

When you rise, B’ha-alot’kha 5781

On the 18 of Sivan 5781, which is May 29, 2021, we read the portion B’ha-alot’kha, “when you rise.” The beginning of the portion refers to rising to light the menorah. Below is a drash I was honored to share with the Temple Beth Israel Shabbat minyan.

The mouthful word B’ha-alot’kha

One thing is certain about Biblical Hebrew — it can certainly be a mouthful. Our portion is named for the first significant / distinct word in the parsha. This happens to be an infinitive construct with a pronoun suffix. I do not tell you this to wow you with my grammatical knowledge. Rather to commiserate that the word can easily get stuck in one’s mouth and sound like a jumble. The prefix, בְּ, means in or when. הַעֲלוֹת is the Hiphil form of the same root as aliyah, ascent, indicating a rise in spiritual state by returning to Israel. In Hiphil, this root means to rise, elevate, bring up.

And the final ךָ means “you” or “your.” If you remember nothing else, understand that biblical and liturgical Hebrew has words ending with the ךָ sound because the author is trying to speak directly to you. 

Like many American Jews, I learned how to read the Hebrew alphabet without knowing anything about what I was saying. So that revelation about possessive and direct object suffixes was revelatory. I recognize that the text was reaching out towards me with every final ךָ. This reminds me to keep reaching towards Jewish wisdom, across language barriers, time, and other distractions.

So how can we connect with this ancient narrative of wilderness perambulations?

Focus on the triennial reading, the middle third

One way to provide focus for an explanation of this week’s parsha is to focus on the triennial cycle reading. Each portion takes a significant amount of time to chant aloud. So, we have a tradition of reading ⅓ of each portion for three years. We are in the second year of that cycle, meaning that many communities are reading the second-third of each portion this year. For B’ha-alot’kha, this correlates to chapter 9, verse 15 through chapter 10, verse 34. Beginning with the cloud of HaShem covering the tabernacle. Moving forward through HaShem’s cloud surrounding us by day, as we journeyed from the camp. 

Cloud of the Divine journeying before us

It is easy for us to find ourselves completely separated from this narrative. After all, when was the last time you saw the cloud of the Divine journeying before you?

Our tradition challenges us to sort out how we see ourselves immersed in this desert journey. How are we connected to the Jewish people and how are we connected to the Divine? What does it mean to be guided by HaShem? Do you believe in Divine providence? Does HaShem perceives every action that will be taken by humans and allows it to occur? If you do not believe in Divine omnipotence, all-powerful nature, and omniscience, all-knowing foresight can the Divine be sovereign?

If we accept our place in a kingdom of priests, what lamp are we rising to light each day? How are we proclaiming our place amongst HaShem’s people?

Halakha, The Way of Judaism

For me, the brilliance of Judaism is that we do not require our kahal, our community, to be in perfect alignment on the nature of the Divine. Our starting point: fundamentally, HaShem is beyond human comprehension. Thus, we seek to emulate God more than we seek to claim to know the nature of the Divine. How do we emulate HaShem?

Halakha means The Way. Fundamentally, it is The Way to bring Divine Light into every human act. We are all wont to forget The Way. So, we have some unique tricks to remind ourselves not to stray towards our baser inclinations.  First, the fringes on our four-cornered garment. Fewer people wear four-cornered garments, and many who do choose to tuck their fringes into pockets. We also developed the habit of wearing a yarmulke when praying. Some choose to wear it at all times when practical. All of these elements work together to allow HaShem’s Spirit to infuse our thoughts and actions. 

The final sentence of our triennial reading resonates deeply with me. So much of life is beginning to open up again, including in-person davennen with Temple Beth Israel. As we journey from our camps of safety in our homes, how can we remember that HaShem precedes us? What concrete ways can we remind ourselves and those around us that Truth and Goodness light the way on our personal and communal journeys? How can we alight within ourselves the desire to be near the Divine each day?

Focusing on humility, avanah

The Mussar Torah Commentary, published by the Reform Movement’s CCAR Press, suggests that we focus on avanah, the trait of humility. This is not irrational piety. Rather, as Maimonides suggests, it is the middle point between self-abasement and arrogance. Alan Morinis further defines this attribute in his book, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. He says: “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others” (49).

I choose to see avanah as a dual command. First, to acknowledge my ego and my proper place in the landscape of human interaction. In my life, when I perceive myself as not having power, I over-extend my presence to compensate for feeling under-appreciated. Simultaneously, I must be constantly aware of the souls around me. Particularly, their need to be seen individually and completely. Acknowledging the healthy space that I inhabit and the holy space I defer to others is the cornerstone. With avanah, I humbly begin to rise towards acknowledging the light of HaShem.

Thus, on a daily basis, I attempt to rise to light my way towards alignment with HaShem. I take stock of myself and stop the internal chatter long enough to see and elevate the souls around me. With avanah we can adjust our sight to catch a glimpse of the cloud of HaShem traveling before us each day.

Shabbat Shalom.


Image by Reijo Telaranta via Pixabay.

Flow of Divine Presence, 43 Days Omer 5781

Today is forty-three days, which is six weeks and one day of the Omer in the year 5781. חסד שבשכינה, Chesed ShebeShechinah. Flow of Divine Presence. May Her Presence flow through you, filling you with certainty and peace.

The cornerstone of many Jewish lives is not Emunah, Faith. We connect firmly with our people, even when our certainty in the Divine wobbles or shatters. This meditation through the Omer is my attempt to make the reality of the Divine clearly present in the vicissitudes of my life. May the Presence of The One open you to depths of your soul, as She has opened me to the possibilities of my life.

Suckling the Divine honey from the crag

Psalm translations often mute the physicality of Hebrew verbs. In Deuteronomy 32:13 the music comes alive, if we focus solely on the actual meaning of Hebrew verbs.

וַיֵּנִקֵ֤הֽוּ דְבַשׁ֙ מִסֶּ֔לַע וְשֶׁ֖מֶן מֵחַלְמִ֥ישׁ צֽוּר׃

As Robert Alter translates:

He suckled him honey from the crag

and oil from the flinty stone.

It is striking that the verb of this verse occurs in its masculine form, implying that the male God nurses. Or perhaps this is an example of the Divine Feminine being subsumed by the singular male identity. In any event, the Song of Ha’Azinu, is a gorgeous declaration of Divine grace. May we each find the strength to reach towards the depths calling us.

A book to help suckle the depths of Torah

Previously today…

The Divine Presence in a pandemic, 5780 / 2020.

The Divine Mother nourishes us all, 5779 / 2019.

Allowing the Divine Presence a place in my life, 5778 / 2018.

Seeking the Divine Light within, 5777 / 2017.


Image by David Mark via Pixabay.

After Death…Holiness, 5781

I had the honor of giving a d’var Torah, thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, for Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock today. The names of the portions for today are Acharei Mot — Kedoshim. After Death — Holiness. I added subheadings to my reflection to help the reading process. May we continue to sink into being and strive towards holiness.

It seems quite incredible that two extremely important and idea-filled portions are combined this year. This is the same conundrum Yeshayahu Liebowitz faced when writing his pithy commentary, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven. Indeed, there is no way to work through the breadth of the narrative, so let us dispense with that idea at the outset.

Instead, let’s nestle into the name of this double portion: After Death, Holiness.

After the death of Aaron’s two sons

The text is referring to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons. Which actually happened in chapter 10 and we are now in chapter 16. Previously, their actions were described. Nadab and Abihu approached HaShem in the Holy of Holies unsanctioned and perished.

The connection between these names and our lived experience feels very concrete for me. There has been so much death in the world. Yet, we have struggled to find our way to holiness. Whether in the Bronze Age or the postModern age, our access to holiness is not a given.

Making sense of death today

Sometimes, our political leaders have stumbled in trying to parse meaning from those deaths. Recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for sacrificing his life for justice. Obviously, it would be far better if Mr. Floyd had lived through his encounter with the police, rather than being murdered. And he had no choice about being killed. This episode reminds me that no matter how advanced society becomes, we strive to make sense of death, to justify it and make it holy. Acknowledging the depth of tragedy in death can be hard. Protests against George Floyd’s death were an inflection point in the national conversation about policing and the conviction of his murderer furthered the walk towards justice. Just as Aaron’s sons did not have to do die to bring us towards holiness, George Floyd did not need to die to move us towards justice. 

Similarly, it seems difficult to fully empathize with those mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. So many people have died and so many people continue to die. Yet, what I see most often is anger about the changes made to communal life in order to protect public health. From the California gubernatorial recall to arguments about re-opening face-to-face learning to whether masks are necessary: our conversations are consumed by how this pandemic continues to affect the living. It seems impossible to truly hold space for the emptiness left by three million deaths worldwide, or the 570,000 deaths within the United States.

Moving towards holiness

So how, after all this death, do we dare assert space for holiness? I believe we need to take guidance from our Torah portions.

Here is my theory on the lesson of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons:

Attempting to connect with the Source of Life is truly potentially dangerous. I have known far too many people who were lured by the false sense of clarity gained from drugs, who chase a mystical high over the cliff with catastrophic consequences. We must allow ourselves to be guided on our search for holiness, so that we don’t lose ourselves to the pursuit. This is the purpose of the instructions for priests on Yom Kippur found in Acharei Mot and the holiness code of Kedoshim. Guidelines keep us safe. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming Aaron’s sons.

Holiness through Jewish technologies

We no longer have Temple sacrifice and priests. Instead, we have rabbinical Judaism and a multitude of opportunities to hold space for what is greater than ourselves. We can use the temple in time, Shabbat, to connect with eternal values. We build holy community in synagogue. Our communal prayer has the ability to deepen the holiness within us individually more completely than individual meditation. We weave the words chosen by our ancestors, thereby connecting our spiritual elevation with hundreds of generations before us. And reflecting on our own mortality, we can choose to break free of the habit of living and truly sink into the holiness of each moment.

Holiness is not an attribute that can be conquered or experienced continually. It is an ideal to aspire towards. Step by step, we can choose to align ourselves with holiness, to live towards emanating holiness through our demeanor, our words, and our actions. Our most obvious signposts to help us become vessels of holiness are prayer, kashrut, and Shabbat. Daily setting aside time to refocus on Divine connection and personal meaning. Consciously choosing what we put into our bodies, and verbally expressing gratitude for the gift of food. And delineating between regular time and sacred time. These are our technologies to walk towards holiness. 

27 Days of the Omer

Another Jewish path towards holiness is counting the Omer. Each day, one can reflect on a different aspect of the Sephirot and deepen one’s connection with the concepts that bring holiness into the material world. Today’s Omer count amplifies the Jewish path of holiness. Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבנצח, Yesod ShebeNetzach, Bonding within Eternity. We choose people to form deep community. We prioritize bonding on an emotional and spiritual level. And through our bonding, we touch the eternal.

Shabbat Shalom.


Image by Marion Wellmann via Pixabay.

Choosing to be Guided: Psalm 25, verses 12 and 13

Whoever the person who fears the Ground of Being,
God shall guide them on the path that they should choose.
Their essential self in goodness shall rest
and their seed shall inherit the land.

מִי-זֶה הָאִישׁ יְרֵא ה״
יוֹרֶנּוּ בְּדֶרֶךְ יִבְחָר
נַפְשׁוֹ בְּטוֹב תָּלִין
וְזַרעוֹ יִירַשׁ אָרֶץ

Gender neutrality clearly separates human from Divine

I could not figure out anything to write about this couplet. The original language is written about the man and his seed. Using male pronouns seems to conflate human volition with God’s direction. Does God guide the man on a path that God chooses? Or does God’s guidance allow the man to choose the correct path? Since the same pronoun is used for both verbs in verse 12b, either reading is correct.

Transforming the English into gender neutral terms for humans and their actions allowed me to meditate into the couplet. My body completely resisted and rejected the abundance of verbs conjugated in the third person male with third person male pronouns. 

Who chooses when God guides?

The breadth of psalm 25 implies that God guides and a person chooses correctly. But that implication is hard to provide and even harder for me to connect with. The couplet doesn’t begin with “the man,” rather it begins with mi-zeh. This phrase can be translated as “who is this” or “whoever” or “whose.” When looking mi-zeh up in my Evan-Shoshan Concordance, I found another example of the phrase that clarifies and confirms my suspicions on the original intent of this couplet.

Consider the use of mi-zeh in Lamentations 3.37:
מִי זֶה אָמַר וַתֶּהִי
אַ״דֹ״נַי לֹֹֹֹא צִוָּה
Whose decree was ever fulfilled,
Unless the Lord willed it? (JPS translation)

Free will vs determinism

Herein lies the crux of the biblical understanding of human autonomy: we have free will, and all of our choices are ordained by God. I do not personally agree with this theology. Free will has ultimate meaning to me: we can choose to allow the Ground of Being to lead us. We can also choose to willfully ignore Goodness. 

Following the Divine

When we choose to follow HaShem, our essential self is at rest. This is not to say we will always prosper; or that true believers never feel sadness, anger, or grief. Rather, we are able to flow with life’s ups and downs. We can ride the wave, rather than getting pummeled into the rocks.

For me, this is what it means to be guided by HaShem. Not that my life will be perfect, but that I will be able to respond to life with equanimity. I am constantly falling off this path. And so, I return, repent, and renew my alignment with Kindness and Truth.  

May we all have the will to follow the path of kindness and truth. 

Signposts on the journey

Heart of Psalm 25: Verse 11

לְמַעַו-שִׁמְךָ ה״

וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנִי כִּי רַב-הוּא

For the sake of Your name, Cause of Being:
May You forgive my willful and wayward acts, though they are plentiful.

The heart of the psalm: acknowledging my waywardness, requesting pardon

Benjamin Segal states: “The central verse (v.11) stands alone.” He explains that it is a prayer for forgiveness in the singular. The second half of the verse is used as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, which is unusual because sins are generally stated in the plural during our communal day of atonement. (Segal, p 115, 117)

Pandemic living and this season of joy

I have been so wayward during this holy season. It has been so difficult for me to stay rooted in joy. Throughout the pandemic, I have struggled to stay grounded and focused. Recently, I realized how much I miss being around other people. Past retreats I attended feel so much more meaningful in the rear view mirror.

My last time traveling was for the final week of the Davennen Leadership Training Institute in February, right before the shutdowns. DLTI supports creating meaningful prayer experiences for communities across the United States.

Last Sunday, I learned that a friend, Benjamin Telushkin, z”l, from DLTI passed away unexpectedly right before Sukkot. It is strange to bear such heartbreaking news to a community. Ben lived in NYC and our cohort is spread out across the country. So, I did not have the opportunity to have a socially distanced, in-person conversation with another grieving friend. Yet again, Zoom became our communal gathering space.

Benjamin Telushkin: embodiment of joy

It is quite easy for me to get stuck in my head, intellectualize my thoughts, rationalize my actions. In many ways, Ben was my opposite. He relished being Jewish, holding space for love to flow through him. With his wife Grace, he was creating a beautiful family.

Ben was also one of the first people I met on my way to DLTI. We both caught a ride from New York City to the Isabella Freedman Retreat center, sharing the journey with two other DLTI’ers. You never forget the first people you meet on your way to meeting 70+ new friends.

I pray Ben’s soul is released from the material world. May he ascend to the infinite with which he was constantly reaching towards. I pray his soul is able to continue its journey while also maintaining her connection with his wife and family.

Ben’s Gematria Poem:
Ipoem with the “I” in Uppercase

Resources for the Journey

“The Meaning of Life During COVID times” an interview on the study of happiness.


Image by Alexandru Manole from Pixabay