Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Posted at 09:20 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Elul, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Middot, Midrash, Prayer, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Speech Ethics, Spirituality, Synagogue, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Theology, Torah, Tov! Podcast, USA, Yamim Noraim | Permalink | Comments (0)
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
Posted at 04:37 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Hope, Justice, Leadership, Middot, Patience, Ritual, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is the D'var Torah I gave in the synagogue on Saturday morning, March 12, for Parashat Vayikra.
Most years I trot out the T-shirt about the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar in March. You know it’s a kind of new year when spring training begins for major league baseball, usually around Purim, and it’s fortuitous that this was the week that the owners and players resolved their labor dispute and opened spring training! This Shabbat marks an actual new year in the Jewish calendar too. In Torah time, the start of the book of Vayikra picks up where Shmot left off, on the first of Nissan in the year after the Exodus. And as it happens, Parashat Vayikra was our first pandemic parasha two years ago, the first Shabbat when it was just me and the Sefer Torah on the bimah and everyone else on a screen.
I looked back on what I said two years ago on that Shabbat, and one year ago when this parasha came around, the first parasha of the second year when the vaccines were rolling out gradually and before Delta and Omicron. Vayikra is not an easy parasha or an easy book (i.e. Leviticus as a whole), but it has opened to me in new ways these past two years.
I have been struck by the wide, blank space in the scroll between the end of Sefer Shmot (Exodus) and the start of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus). I’ve been struck by the cloud that engulfs the mishkan, the sanctuary -- which last week looked like the certain presence of the Divine Shechinah, the palpable close presence, and this week Moshe doesn’t quite know. I’ve been struck by the tiny letter alef at the end of the first word of the book, and by the offerings the Torah describes, the korbanot, which are translated as sacrifices but come from the word for closeness and coming close.
A blank space, a cloud, a small quite letter, a list of types of closeness-offerings.
The blank is a pause between a year of revolution and tumult and reconstituting, and recovering and repurposing things to make something sacred in the center -- and the next year.
The cloud around the mishkan is somehow both a good sign and a question mark. Last year I called it "cloudy with a chance of Torah." Is there some more Torah to guide us right now? Are we ready to go get it and hear it and use it?
The small letter alef, silent by itself but the letter that could unleash the flow of all the letters, all the names of the Divine and all the good words that can flow out into the world. The alef is the first letter of Anochi, I -- the I of I am Yah your God who brought you out of slavery, the sound of that voice speaking specially to each of us in the way we need; the I of I, of each of us as agents in the world, fully capable of being active builders and fixers, mirroring the Divine Anochi.
What if that letter is too small, what I am teetering on disappearing, what if the Divine voice is. The small alef yearns to be reinflated and reconstituted -- and it is as the book of Vayikra unfolds.
How does that happen? Not all at once. It happens through the korbanot, the closeness-offerings.
In the entire book of Leviticus, the people move not an inch forward toward the promised land, after they moved so far out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) in the book of Shmot (Exodus). That drives me a crazy, I said a year ago. Come on, if there were ever a need to see a promised land and get to a new place it’s now. If there were ever a need to take this Torah out for a spin, it’s now!
But although the people don’t move forward, they do move. They move by means of the specific korbanot. They move toward the center, and back to their tents. They move toward their leaders, and away, and toward each other, and toward those giving birth or those who have died. They reconstitute the alef and reinflate it by moving in specific ways.
The offerings we learn about are the olah, the completely burnt offering -- reflecting the feeling of burnout or the frustration toward things we wish we could destroy completely. The todah, the gratitude offering. The shlamim, the offering of wellbeing and wholeness. The chattat, the offering in response to falling short, to guilt and shame -- one person, a leader, a whole community.
These are the basic emotions of the start of the new year both in the Torah and for us, after a year of tumult and revolution and making new things out of our things
Vayikra says you can’t get to the promised land without perceiving these emotional responses, and moving in response to them. You have to use them as occasions to learn how not just to go somewhere new, but to get closer to each other and close to the center that holds us together. To make the cloud less cloudy and more Torah.
So I come close today to you and to this sanctuary with my own olah offering, reflecting on the ways I have been burnt out for a time during this past year and two years. I come close today with my todah, my gratitude offering, close to you and to this sanctuary of many sanctuaries. I am thankful for you who have come, today or many times, to hear my prayers and acknowledge them even when we’re not in the same room, to sing with me even when I can’t hear you or hardly can. Thankful to my family, for staying together and being good to each other -- and to the Divine for the chen, the unearned grace of having that in in my life. Thankful to everyone who has kept this community going, creatively and with whatever gift you could use to build a sacred place in a new way and specifically by your chesed, your caring for someone. Thankful to colleagues and lay leaders in the Temple, and the six clergy people in town I’ve come to rely on and have become closer to, who have helped me grow in my voice; thankful to rabbis and other colleagues around the country willing to become new partners.
I come close today, to you and to this sanctuary of many sanctuaries, with my shlamim, my offering of wellbeing, because I am overall well, and strong and energetic about my own life at age 55 and my sense of purpose.
And I do come today, close to you and to this sanctuary, with my chattat, with my offering of guilt and shame, for missing the mark and falling short. For not keeping connecting with enough of you who are here and others I don’t see. For not growing our chesed (compassionate work) from responding to needs in the moment to more people knowing who needs more connection. For not taking enough opportunities to teach the Torah of pikkuach nefesh, of what life and death decisions require of us. For not doing enough to bring the Torah I know to you, that would have made us feel more empowered in a topsy-turvy world, because Torah has always made people strong and capable when the world seems out of control. For not starting every meeting, no matter the topic, with how are you, and has anybody spoken to so-and-so lately. For trying these things but not sticking with them when others questioned their value. Those are my chattat offerings.
Each of us has an olah, a todah, a shlamim, and a chattat to bring close -- an offering around burned out, so thankful, wholeness, and guilt. We need to take a beat and articulate these, and bring them close to someone else or to this community. Bring them as you pray in Musaf, the part of the service that recalls and substitutes for the ancient korbanot (Temple offerings). That’s what we need so we can start reenlarging the alef, the I, and reconstituting our center, and removing the cloud that obscures the voice that wants to help us move toward our next promised land.
On this second pandemic anniversary, we begin a new cycle of Torah with Parashat Vayikra and this introduction to korban, to closeness. Which is what we crave. Not just a physical closeness but a real closeness, a communal closeness, more even than we had before. Two years ago at this time, the charge came in these words from Rabbi Yosef Kanevsky, which are as wise and important now as they ever were:
"...the very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing. We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don't shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise..... Let's stay safe. And let's draw one another closer in a way that we've never done before.”
This is the D'var Torah I gave a year ago in our Torah reading cycle, March 20, 2021. It was by the Torah reading calendar the first reading of the second year of pandemic restrictions. I read it now and so much of how I'm reflecting is the same.
When we last checked in at the mishkan (the portable desert sanctuary), it was one year to the day after the first instructions had been given, way back in Egypt, for the meal of the night before the day of leaving. The last night of slavery, the night of the last and deadliest plague. Now one year later, next to Mt. Sinai, the people saw all these things they had brought in, repurposed and shown off in a new light. Colors and textures, gold and silver and wood, fabrics and skins – all this raw material, they saw what all of it had been fashioned into, and they watched as Moshe brought every piece into the center of the camp and assembled them into a whole. Something from all of them, their unity and their individualities represented by their gifts, in one place in one structure.
And then, on that one year anniversary, there was a moment. It was more than an instant – look in the Torah scroll, there is a wide white space to the end of the line, right after the Torah says Moshe finished the work. Just like the words from God’s first finishing, the pause between the end of Creation and the start of Shabbat, looking at the whole thing and saying tov m’od, very good.
And after that pause, who knows how long, a cloud suddenly engulfed the mishkan. It was a cloud of Shechinah, of God’s intense presence, the most-present, right-there presence of the Divine. And it was a cloud. And no one could see into the cloud. Not even Moshe. Not even when the Torah says the cloud encompassed the mishkan every day and a pillar of fire by night to lead the people ahead in their travels. Cloudy, with a chance of Torah. That was the first anniversary.
And again the Torah leaves a space. This time it’s a white space a few lines wide, between the end of Exodus and the start of Leviticus. Time to take a breath, maybe, after months of shlepping? A restful Shabbat? Who after all could wrap their head around such a year as they had had?
Now this week. There’s the mishkan, still there, brand new, and the cloud of guiding is still wrapped around this thing made up of the contributions of all of us, in the center drawing everyone’s attention, and it’s still obscure through a cloud – but now there’s a voice calling out, trying to be heard. What is it saying?
What do you think it would be saying, at the start of the thirteenth month in the midbar (wildnerness)? I have to tell you that the Torah this week has been pushing me around, pushing back on me, because a week ago I had an idea about what I wanted to say today. I told you I’d be talking about some of what I see ahead of us, in the time after the first year of the pandemic. But the Torah has been saying to me: You realize it’s still cloudy, even around this mishkan that is supposed to be guiding us ahead.
The Torah has been pinning me to the first word of the parasha, specifically the letter at the end of the first word. Vayikra means “God called”, but the last letter, the alef, is written small, like a superscript. It’s both higher than the other letters, calling attention to itself, and also smaller, like -- is it really there? Alef is the first letter of the alphabet, of course, and it’s the first letter and the first sound of the Ten Commandments, it’s the alef of Anochi – I am.
One year later, in the desert, the Anochi, the I am, is not completely there, and it wants to be there, and also it’s all that is there. “I am not completely there, I’m not myself” – that’s something we could all be saying today. “I am all that’s here, I’ve been here for a year with no one but myself” – that’s also something we could all be saying. The capital-Alef Anochi, the Divine – also not always seeming like it’s here, and also realizing that we might not believe it’s been here the whole time. That is why the letter is small but also hanging down from the direction of heaven.
The commentaries say that even Moshe wasn’t sure what was calling out of the cloud that he knew from experience was the place where Divine instructions come from. Even Moshe wasn’t fully ready to be an Alef, an Anochi – to be an I, an agent, a divine emissary. Even Moshe didn’t believe that the midbar, the desert, could be a place of calling and guidance. Eventually he did – the midrashim notice that the same Hebrew letters spell midbar and m’dabber, desert and speaking – only when someone realizes they are as exposed as the desert can they hear the Torah, the guiding they need.
What I wanted the Torah to do in this parasha is to tell me that God gave Moshe one Shabbat off, and then helped him to see through the cloud into the mishkan, so God and Moshe could pick up where they had left off, which was God teaching Moshe the ins and outs of the Ten Commandments in more detail. That’s what I think I want to be talking about nowadays: what are the ethical challenges ahead of us in the coming months, while we are in this midbar that is definitely not the promised land, but is on the way there, and is an interesting and revealing place for us to live for a while.
But no, strangely there are no ethics for chapters and chapters in the Torah, and no travel either. It’s 18 chapters and six more weekly parashiyot until we get to ethics. There’s no travel, but there is movement. It’s the motion of korban – of people coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Why is that how the Torah starts year two after Egypt? And I, the rabbi and teacher, push back and says maybe they could learn the ethics first, so they’ll know what it means to be whole and to be wrong or right. Let God talk about the offerings to bring in response to that.
And the Torah says back: Maybe no Jon? How about first we work on enlarging the alef – on helping people come back into themselves, to becoming an I, an agent, who understand ourselves acting and not just buffeted by the forces beyond them. The midrash says this about the alef in the word Vayikra: if it gets so small that it disappears, you’re left with the word vayikker, which means not “God called” but “it just happened”. The only reality is being blown around by the desert winds. I get that. In some sense we’re just starting to feel like we’re wrestling back some control of our lives, and we’re looking toward a time when not everything will be defined by the pandemic or in terms of it. A time still in the midbar, but on the move.
We’ll get to know ourselves again, the Torah says to me, by experiencing fire and gratitude, and guilt and wellbeing, experience them as our own, as mine, as Anochi. And when you have one of those primary emotions, come closer to someone or to some thing. Wonder if that can lead you toward something or someone, even if it’s just out for a walk toward whatever seems sacred or special, whatever makes you feel like a mensch again, and walk back to your personal place. And do that again for a while. We’re not going to be moving forward in the same direction all together just yet.
In year one, the Torah says we built the mishkan out of inanimate objects, representing ourselves through static things, frozen things. In year two, what we see in the middle of the camp is different. We bring on our own schedules, and we bring what’s alive – the offerings were meat and flour, animals and growing grain – representing ourselves through living things, things that move, as we are beginning to move.
For a while, the Torah says here in Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Vayikra doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong; sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
I accept this as half the truth. I’m impatient for us to become Anochi again – to feel like people, to feel like the ones who hear divine teachings and respond and act them out.
This wasn’t the D’var Torah I was expecting to give today. Torah’s like that; it’s learning to be not just Anochi=who I think I am, but what I think the Divine might be telling me to say when that’s different from where I started.
There is a mishkan, calling out teachings as the second year starts. It knows that it’s in a cloud but it knows we will eventually make out its sounds. And we are here, alefs -- feeling some days small and silent, some days larger and more divine. We are here, moving not forward together just yet, but every day each of us back and forth with korbanot (closeness-offerings), experimenting in our own ways with closeness, to one thing at a time, to one another -- and eventually closer to the Torah of this new year in the desert.
I wrote this midrash on the 5th of Sheva 5782 (January 8, 2022) as my Dvar Torah for Parashat Bo, and in particular chapters 11-12 of Exodus, which introduce and lead into and through the last of the ten plagues in Egypt. I was thinking about issues of collective accountability and responsibility, which are the ethical and spiritual dilemmas of the plague narrative. And I was thinking about how to tie this part of the Torah to everything going on right now, the pandemic and politics. This is what emerged. I could have written more and better, but was working on a deadline and also wanted to keep this particular version to less than 15 minutes (it's about 13m30s). It's a bit clunky in all kinds of ways, but it is certainly better than the expository Dvar Torah I had in mind. If anyone wants to take this and rework it, make it your own, you have my complete permission -- all I'd love is some reference to "from an idea by Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett."
Sabba and Savta are Hebrew/Aramaic for grandma and grandpa, which is a bit anachronistic. Rechavia is the name of one of Moshe's grandsons, reference once in the Torah as having many children. I had never known his name, much less thought about him, until I needed another character for this midrash.
Here's a video of me reading it (recorded not on Shabbat), and my text follows.
Rechavia was standing in the doorway of his grandfather Moshe’s home. It was night time in Goshen, and quiet -- more quiet than usual for a night with a moon that was almost full. Even in the worst of slavery, bright spring nights were when children wandered the alleys of Goshen with their littlest lambs and sang songs -- Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh? Poh, Poh, Hayom Yavo. Rechavia was forty when he had to learn these songs for the first time for his grandchildren, starting a year ago when Sabba Moshe announced that the whole family was leaving Midyan and going to Goshen to rescue their people. Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh -- it was a kids’ song about Yosef’s bones and the secret code that would lead back to them, on the day Hashem would come out of hiding and lead them out of Egypt -- Poh Poh Yavo Hayom; here, here, it’s coming today.
But no singing tonight. Going out was not safe, not a day before everyone would be slaughtering the sheep or goat they were keeping, and every home would be in danger, Egyptian and Israelite, from the plague of death that Sabba had announced two weeks before. Rechavia was full of thoughts, but his house was full of kids, twelve of them! So he snuck out to go see the one person who was always willing to talk with him. Or, brood with him.
Sabba? Rechavia called out again, quietly on this quiet night, but in his firm voice. For a few seconds Rechavia stood by himself in the entrance, a hand on each doorpost. His right hand could feel a spot that was smoother than the rest, it was about a third of the way down from the lintel. He knew his Sabba had smoothed it, probably stood there for an hour each day since the new moon, contemplating this spot where the blood would be tomorrow, which later they would all remember by putting a scroll of Torah in such a place in their desert tents and their eventual homes.
Savta Tzippora saw him standing there. Rechavia, what are you doing here?
I’m looking for Sabba. I wanted to ta.... I think he wants to talk.
You think he wants to talk? No, Sabba is all talked out. To me, to you, to Pharaoh. He just wants to be out of here. He’s hardly said a word the past week. That’s not true, I heard him the other day muttering -- keep the lamb from the tenth day until the fourteenth day and then slaughter it, why five days’ waiting inside? Wouldn’t two or three have been enough? Oh well, once a shepherd, always a shepherd, your Sabba. And me too, I’m named for the birds after all. And you Rechavia -- your name means wide open space. Look at you, standing in that cramped doorway of all places, what kind of a place for a man with such a name?
Rechavia tapped his hand. I like the doorway. I like to look in, and out. It’s important what we do in here, what we say inside. It’s all perfectly clear when we can talk ,and ask all our questions, and address all points of view. Everything makes sense. Everyone knows what they’re accountable for. If only that were good enough, to get it right in here. But we’re connected to what’s going on out there. The other families in Goshen, the homes in the rest of Egypt. I wish I could be in all of their conversations and not have to wonder what they’re thinking and planning.... When I’m out I need to come in and when I’m in I need to go out. So, I like standing in the doorway.
Rechavia closed his lips and bobbed his head, down once and back. End of speech. Then he tilted his head, gave a little shrug. Tzippora smiled at him.
Ah, this is why you are such a blessing to us, Rechavia, she said. Sometimes I think your Sabba is still trapped in that little box his mother saved him in, even when we was roaming the hills in Midian with my father’s sheep for all those years.
I can see you need to talk and so does your Sabba. Go out and find him. He also couldn’t stay inside tonight. I’d have gone out with him, but someone had to watch this lamb, Hashem forbid she escapes! How would it look if this was the one house without blood on our doorpost and lintel tomorrow. I saw him go out and head left, just after sunset. Stay safe, Rechavia. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia blew her a kiss, turned around, held his hand one more second on the smooth of the doorpost -- then out and to the left. It wasn’t hard to find Sabba Moshe, at the end of their alley on a small hill looking out toward the Nile.
Oh, Rechavia! You shouldn’t be out. I shouldn’t be out. Ha -- of course we all should be out! I can’t wait until we are out, tomorrow night finally.
But something tells me Sabba you’re not quite ready.
.... No, I’m ready. But I just keep asking myself: Does it have to be like this? Is this how we get our freedom -- someone in every one of their homes dies? Someone in Goshen forgets and maybe one of us dies too?
I know Sabba. I’ve been thinking about that too. I don’t know many Egyptians -- we’ve only been here the year. I know the taskmasters but it’s hard to believe that’s all they are.
Moshe gestured toward the Nile -- the shimmer of the moon over the wide waters. See Rechavia, right below the hill here, that’s where my Imma put me in the water, in a basket. And just over there is where Pharaoh’s daughter found me, and it wasn’t just her but the girls with her. You’ve heard the story. They decided together to save me. They knew it was right. They knew it together.
And Rechavia, so many hated us, or went along. I never knew until I turned thirteen. But from the start I always judged them one by one. You know this, I taught you about this when you were little.
That’s right Sabba. When you killed the Egyptian it was one man, threatening the life of another. You made me repeat it: No one shall die for the sins of his father, but only for his own sin.
Yes Rechavia. So why not that way tomorrow? Why can’t Hashem just punish the homes of the taskmasters, or the magicians advising Pharoah, and the king himself? I ask Hashem. I ask the one known to Avraham, and I get no answer.
Sabba, do you remember the day I turned thirteen? You said: Today you come out to the sheep with me, just like your father and uncle when they were your age. You said: I want you to watch carefully and understand. Sometimes a sheep runs away, and even if you can’t remember ever noticing a special streak of color in their wool, you know it is this one sheep, this particular sheep, whom you love and you do anything to bring it back. Then there are other times, when the sheep move together to water or pasture, it’s so miraculous-- how they change the shape of the flock to grip the hills so no one falls, protecting and nurturing each other, and in those moments there is no such thing as a single sheep, there is only a flock. In those moments no one sheep would ever consider running away. And a shepherd learns to know ahead of time the moment just before a flock becomes sheep or sheep become a flock again.
That is what you taught me Sabba. I think this is why Hashem chose you. You always knew long before the moment a flock turns into sheep and long before the moment sheep become a flock. All I ever wanted was to know this as you do.
But Rechavia, tonight I am having trouble with the difference. I know the Egyptians are like a flock of evil sheep -- they lose themselves as they oppress us, they are responsible together. They won’t save each other’s lives let alone ours. We gave them so many chances to run away and I, I myself would have taken any of them in, even if I couldn’t have recognized a single streak in them from before. None of them did. They are responsible, every one of them. So why am I still troubled? Why do I sit like a shepherd on a hill under the moon and look at them still?
The other night, Rechavia, I dreamed of a day I am even older, and we are far along out of this place, and our people are thirsty and I help them find water. And all of a sudden I am sitting right here looking down at this Nile and I am seeing the girls lifting a baby up out of a basket -- and then I hear their cries at the death of their firstborn. In the dream it is too much for me, and I shriek and lash out with this staff and then everything disappears.
Rechavia looked out toward the Nile for a long moment. Then he gestured with his head back, toward the houses, and said: Come on. I have something to show you. They stood up and Rechavia led them back to Moshe’s home.
Rechavia stood in the door frame, felt the smooth part of the post on his right, then moved inside and said: Sabba, stand here. Stand here, and feel this right here.
Moshe took his spot, and Rechavia held his hand and placed it so it touched the part that Moshe had made smooth.
I like the doorway, Rechavia said. What happens inside is important. We talk in here about all the things you asked outside. Who is responsible, for their own actions and for the actions of their nation or their friends, when are you responsible for your own sins and when for the sins of your fathers, and we address all points of view. We decide in here how we will act if this is the truth or if that is the truth. In here, we figure out how to hold each other accountable.
Now Sabba, keep your hand where it is, and turn around. Moshe turned carefully, holding his hand against the doorpost and looking out.
We look outside, Rechavia said, and we hope that inside other doorways it’s the same as in here. But we know it’s not. Not in too many Egyptians homes, and not even in all Israelite homes. It’s all right to wish that other homes would be like ours. When they aren’t, people die. The wrong people are punished.
If we only look out, all we will see is that the wrong people die, how they are all responsible and they are never accountable. We’ll think that is all there is. So each time we look out, we have to look back in here.
Sabba, we have to stand right here, and look both ways. How did you tell it to me once -- when you are sitting in your home and when you are out on your way. A doorpost that shows blood, a doorpost with Hashem.
It was midnight now. Moshe held his arms against the posts. How did you know, Rechavia, that I have been standing here an hour every day since the new moon, feeling this spot over and over, trying to smooth what won’t ever be smooth enough.
He looked at Tzippora, with her hand on the lamb. Moshe thought: Today each of us is a precious lamb, and I do know the moment in twenty-four hours exactly when we will become a flock, losing ourselves as we protect each other on the way out of here.
You know, said Sabba Moshe, I still have my sources still down the Nile. There are Egyptians who today want to come with us, and I have heard that on their doorposts they put up a sign, in our own language as a code to find each other: V’erev rav alah itam. I sent them a message today -- take down the note and put up blood instead and meet us tomorrow after midnight.
Maybe it’s the grandchildren of the women who fished you out, Sabba.
Do you think their homes will be spared from the plague?
I hope they will, Rechavia. When we talk of these things in the future, to your grandchildren -- that’s how we should want them to remember it. It was good to talk, Rechavia. I needed to talk before we left.
Not talk, said Rechavia. Teach. You just needed to teach. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia walked out, under the almost full moon. And without realizing it, he was humming a child’s song, peh peh Hashem ayeh, about the secret hiding place of Yosef’s bones and the day coming when Hashem would no longer hide but redeem them, and if not everyone in Egypt at least many more would be free tomorrow -- poh poh, yavo hayom.
I've been wanting to get this down for weeks.... I’ve been very affected since March by Torah time – by how the cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue has mapped onto our experience of the pandemic since its one-year anniversary.
The first anniversary of the formal declaration of the pandemic and the massive shut-downs coincided with Jews’ reading the end of the book of Exodus and the start of the book of Leviticus. The Torah itself says that one year passed between the instructions Moshe received for the night of the Exodus, and the final assembly of the mishkan, the desert Sanctuary that would be a focal point for the Divine Presence. During that year in the Torah there had been war and thirst, a complete reorientation of the food distribution system to adjust to (i.e. manna), the new laws and covenant at Mt. Sinai, the in-fighting around the Golden Calf. Then finally a process of calming and reconciliation, and a collective project of building the “tabernacle.” Everyone gave something unique, with its own texture or color, from their life of that year – to be repurposed into a symbol of their unity. When the mishkan was finally assembled, the Divine Presence visibly infused it, with the cloud and fire that was going to lead the people ahead toward their new land and their new life.
That was what we read more or less on the first anniversary of the shut-down, as we were entering a new phase too – the ramping up of Covid-19 vaccination. I expected a turn toward dealing with the new ethical challenges of moving forward, the project of reconnecting and rebuilding a reality better than the one pre-pandemic.
But Leviticus opens with a cloud around the mishkan, and Moshe himself hesitating to approach it to hear these kinds of teachings. The cloud and fire do not in fact move forward. Something is not – was not ready.
Leviticus, the book that was the backdrop of our spring, is not actually a book of moving forward in the desert. And it’s not directly a book of society and ethical teaching, at least not for the first eighty percent or so. Leviticus does open with travel – but it does open with movement. It’s the motion of individuals coming one by one mostly, in a process the Torah calls korban or coming-closer, with offerings. People coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Something got my attention in March, when I looked at the Torah and realized that it was telling me not to expect people to be ready to plunge ahead. Especially I shouldn’t expect people to be ready to engage in discussion about ethics and society fully just yet.
For a while, the Torah says n Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Leviticus doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong, sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
The commentaries on the opening verse of Leviticus focus on the last letter of its first word Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the last letter alef is written as a small superscript. That alef has two dimensions. Its presence or absence changes the word from calling to happenstance. The letter alef signifies ani or anochi, “I” – which can stand for the ego in a strong sense or the Divine, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus opens with a cloud around the tabernacle and a spiritual teetering between calling and being just tossed around, between a sense of our own “I” and not having it. Reclaiming what “I” feel like, who “I” am, is what a lot of us were doing as the pandemic hit its first year and we contemplated the next phase ahead. We were, and surely still are, disoriented. Leviticus gives that spiritual state a name and a picture and a pacing.
That was most of Leviticus, and it turned out to be not just accurate but for me soothing.
By the time the book of Leviticus turned to its code of ethics in chapter 19, and its social vision in chapter 25, things had in fact changed around us quite profoundly. The accelerating progress of vaccination in many places led just at this time to the CDC’s revision of its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people. It was time to open the book of Numbers – the book of the march forward, the organization of people toward the battle for the new land, and the conflicts and delays along the way. But at least it’s the book of moving together, even if together is starting and stopping, and quarreling among ourselves.
Leviticus and Numbers share the perception that not everyone is spiritually ready to move in the same direction at the same time. But at some point, there is something you could call movement of the group, catalyzed by leaders or critical mass. Numbers acknowledges that deciding to move is hardly all there is. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to grind to a halt. In the Torah, these include questioning leaders and their motivations; people getting focused on immediate ease vs. longer-term goals; issues of justice and inclusion; people defining the end of the road in different ways. This last particularly struck me when we read about the tribes of Reuven and Gad who wanted not to go all the way to the new land with the other tribes, but settle where they were. To declare the journey and the fight were over. They and Moshe had it out, and eventually figured out a way for the tribes to work on setting up the common future together, even though tribe by tribe they would separate and live differently both economically and culturally. We should be so fortunate. In Numbers, some 38 years pass and if you read the book you can’t see where they went.
That’s more or less where we got in the Torah by early/mid-July. Now it’s time for Deuteronomy. What’s coming is preparation for the new year – the Jewish new year which starts this year in early September, as does the new school year. The new Torah year starts a few weeks later. Deuteronomy is about getting to the cusp of the new land, the future. It is a book of review of the teachings, going over them for the first time in a long time. At long last, Moshe gets to focus on the ethics and laws and teachings. He gets to talk about them, and also to remind people to continue to learn and study and talk about them from the moment they enter the new land. The time for putting that off – for delaying our ethical conversations, or pushing them to the side or to a small group of interested people – we’re being asked to consider that time over. To be fully human, ready to live, is also to be accountable ethically and intellectually and spiritually. That is what the Jewish new year is all about, and the intellectual explorations in Deuteronomy coincide in the Jewish year with weeks of spiritual introspection. And since this is hard any year, and especially this year, the rabbis of our tradition long ago paired Deuteronomy with (Second) Isaiah, with words of comfort and encouragement, with a welcome of people back to the Divine, back from exile toward home and each other.
I’m waiting to see how Deuteronomy maps onto the end of the summer. But I wanted to get this spiritual journal of the Torah cycle down now, because I am so grateful I had the Torah in this way these past few months. I’ve had more than the Torah’s specific teachings, each verse or each week – I’ve had this structure. It has helped pace me, and see the moment I’m in and some weeks ahead. I have always paid attention to the seasonal flow of the Torah readings, but this year I have seen in the Torah’s pacing through the desert so much I hadn’t seen before. I am grateful, and hope I’ll be attentive to the same things in the weeks and months ahead.
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These were my words of Torah at the start of Temple Beth Abraham's annual congregational meeting on June 15, 2021. Though they refer specifically to that occasion in places, I think the Torah here is apt for all of us as we reflect on the past fifteen months and the transitions we in, each in our own way. I shared a version of this as a Shabbat D'var Torah the prior weekend.
It was taught among our early rabbis:
Rabban Gamliel said:
One time I was going on a ship, and I saw another ship broken apart
And I was in pain because of a brilliant sage who was on it
– and who was it: Rabbi Akiva.
But when I went up onto dry land, he sat and discussed in front of me a matter of Jewish law, halacha.
I said to him: My son, who lifted you up from the sea?
He said to me: a plank [from a ship] happened to come to me, and every single wave that came over me, I nodded my head toward it.
This story from the Talmud is a Jewish version and elaboration of the saying that we’re not all the same boat but we are all in the same storm.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva experience a storm in very different ways. Rabban Gamliel was on a ship that was safe, even though it was tossed around, seeing other ships that are wrecked, and knowing some people have been lost, and some Torah in particular gone.
Rabbi Akiva was thrown from his ship, and the way he sees it, it’s only by fortune that he finds a plank to hold on to. He says that he nodded his head toward each wave as it came. Some interpret this to mean that he lowered his head, so the wave wouldn’t throw him off his board. Some say he nodded, to acknowledge the wave and its power much greater than any he had – a power to harm him or to bring him ultimately to the shore.
Rabban Gamliel is the one who tells the story. Rabbi Akiva, he says, starts discussing points of Jewish law, which is presumably what the two of them used to do on dry land before. But Rabban Gamliel stops him, and asks to hear his story. I think Rabban Gamliel was worried about his friend and student. Because Rabbi Akiva hadn’t been one just to sit and discuss the rules on their surface. He had been one of the most creative sages, an activist, a spiritual master -- and Rabban Gamliel fears that Akiva is not all there.
It’s a hard thing to ask after a storm, when someone seems to want to go back to business as before and pick up what you used to do together. It’s hard because when Gamliel says who saved you, Akiva says: It’s not a who. I got lucky. This plank came. He doesn’t say whether he thinks it was God. He tells a story of having to bow his head low and relives that.
There might be some resentment between the two rabbis, let’s be honest. Why did you have an easier time through the storm? Why did you worry about me and my ship from afar and not come by to help lift me up?
And yet Rabban Gamliel gets Rabbi Akiva to make a kind of Freudian slip in Hebrew. Akiva calls the plank of the broken ship a daf, which also means a page. A page in a book, a book of Torah, a folio of Talmud; a page in the story of a life; a page of our history together as Jews. A page came to me and saved me, and from that page I could turn toward the enormous wave and nod. Rabban Gamliel helps Rabbi Akiva perhaps begin to see that the story of the storm is not the only story. It’s not even the only storm. It’s certainly not the only trial in Akiva’s life, this Rabban Gamliel knows, and together perhaps they can start to tell a story of how each in their way arrived at the shore, and where that story fits into the dapim, the pages and planks that build the story of both their lives, and of their common life.
We have all been in a storm, and I’ll speak for myself, some days I feel like I’m walking onto the shore and other days I feel like I am still in the storm. I talk to people among you each day, who report being on a ship or a plank or on the shore. From the ship I have been fortunate to be on – a ship of my own family, a ship of community and colleagueship among local pastors and national rabbis – I have seen other ships broken apart, and not all of those ships left planks for people to hold onto. We in our Temple community have lost – people have died this past year and not only because of the pandemic. We have lost 5 people at least in our congregational families to COVID-19, and about ten percent of our households have had at least one person sick, and at least ten percent of our households have experienced the loss of a job or income since a year ago March. And so many other losses, of stability and friendship and connection and wellbeing.
Our ships and our planks and our pages – what you had, what you found, what you held onto or made into something, what you remembered as a source of hope -- so many of these the past fifteen months. And there have been waves aplenty, not only of disease but around national leadership and equality in our land. I see the waves that Rabbi Akiva nodded at, as representing his realization that in a storm you see what the truly profound forces are, what is deep and powerful. Or maybe you get a glimpse, you feel it – and you talk when you get back to land.
For us as a community, it’s important to realize that people experienced this storm differently, and also that plenty have not reached the shore yet. Let’s be generous with each other – don’t make assumptions, about where someone else is at, whether they are ready to come out or come here or give a handshake or a hug. We will continue to be a hybrid congregation, and work hard at doing that well. There are conversations to have about halacha, about matters of law and behavior; and there are the joys of conversations we so want to resume, with the people here we have missed. But somewhere too is the conversation that Rabban Gamliel invited Rabbi Akiva to have – about what you experienced, what was hard, what you learned, what gives you hope. It’s not healthy to leave those behind. It’s not what Sages do, to skip that entirely – and I look out and see so many wise people here. So I hope we each get the Rabban Gamliel we need, who will listen to our story, and for someone else who was Akiva this year, you might yourself be Gamliel.
The purpose of our community and our institution is to be the ship and the shore, and even the plank and the page, through times that are stormy and God willing less so. Tonight we look at the ship’s sturdy hull and soaring sails, and chart voyages and landfalls that lay ahead. May they be good and safe and joyful, for you and for all of us together.
This is the note I sent out to our congregation on Friday, March 26, 2021 as we get ready for Pesach to begin.
I have a short Pesach agenda to share with you below, but first: I realized a couple days ago how much I want Pesach this year to be like Chanukkah.
There's no way, at least for me, that everything meaningful is going to happen in the few hours of the two Seders. Chanukkah is something we anticipate, we prepare for, and it's not over all at once. We come back for something each day; we do something each day.
Actually that's been a theme of the Jewish year of 5781. I wanted to teach you to think not about just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but about the season of Elul and Tishrei. I put out a dozen daily teachings before and after Purim last month.
Truth be told, I've been having trouble planning my Seders this year. This year there's so much to reflect on through the lens of the Exodus story and rituals. So much to teach the next generation. And that's compounded by the disappointment of not being able to have Seders the way I love to yet again, and the complexity of orchestrating the usual conversation around my Seder tables at home and at the synagogue.
What unlocked me, finally, is realizing that Pesach is not just a day or two. The Seders can plant some spiritual spring seeds for each of us to tend and nurture during the whole week of Pesach. Here are my suggestions for the coming week:
1. Whatever you do for Seder this year is what you are supposed to be doing.
Whether you're Zooming, or gathering with a small group safely, or having a quiet meal and reading something meaningful to yourself, it will be special because you're able to do it.
If you'd like some help, our Pesach page is full of resources that literally lead you through a Seder, by audio or video, whether it's for half an hour or a couple of hours.
2. However you mark the Seder, keep in mind the people who are having Seders differently.
In Egypt on the night of the very first Pesach, people were separated into households or maybe ate with one other family. But they knew they were part of a whole nation doing that, and that they would see everyone else in the morning in a great march.
We are a community, and each of us is somewhere different on the long path to physical togetherness. Have other people and groups of us in your awareness, however you yourself are doing the Seder. We will one day march together, hopefully soon.
3. Learn and think this week about some nuance in the original story of the Exodus.
If you haven't done this in a while, take some time during the weekend or the week to read chapters 1-4 and 12 in the book of Exodus, the most important book in history. You will for sure find something that startles you -- about a character, a twist in the narrative, a motivation. You'll wonder why something is told in just this way. So much about our world and our own souls today is revealed in the wording on these verses.
4. Reflect on life during the pandemic in light of the metaphors and symbols of Pesach.
Remember when leavened products were hard to come by a year ago -- flour, pasta, bread? Each of the symbols of the Seder plate and many aspects of the Exodus narrative are a prompt to bore into some aspect of the pandemic experience. All you have to do is pick one of them and ask: how does this relate? How does this help me clarify something important in my life or my ethical philosophy?
5. Think about Exodus and something happening in the world now.
It’s been a remarkable year since last Pesach in terms of our awareness of issues of justice, oppression, freedom, and suffering. Who in the wider nation and world is profoundly in Egypt? Who in the world is most profoundly a Miryam or a Moshe right now?
* * * * *
Pesach is a great gift to us, and through us to our community and the world. The Seder nights whets our appetite with the Exodus story, and the week keeps us chewing on it.
Wishing you a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover festival,