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)
This is based on what I said on Shabbat morning, August 27, 2022 at the start of the month of Elul. It was the day of a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf (blessing to a couple about to get married)!
Usually I think of Elul as a time of introspection before we get together in a big way on Rosh Hashanah. But the past few years I’ve been thinking that it would be great to start the month leading to the ten particularly intense days with a dance party, a disco party! First we should celebrate that we’ve gotten here -- we should look at each other and who’s in this together with us and going to help us look back and look ahead. And wow, this past year having been what it’s been and the year before that, we ABSOLUTELY should start it with a party. And my dream came true and I didn’t even realize it when we scheduled Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah celebration and when Rachel and Joel told me the date of their wedding. So this is how it should be. A new month, that little sliver of moonlight that says to the shade: You are going away, we’re going to make our own energy here and we’re going to gather our powers together so we can make a new year.
It's been quite a year, and we need more than the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do our reflecting and our redirecting and our rebooting – our teshuvah, our returning. The spiritual recalculating on the GPS of our hearts. I don’t even know if a month is enough.
The point isn’t to come to services on the holidays. The point is to figure out what we each need from the next 40 days (really it’s more like 52!) – and what of the many offerings of spirituality and learning can support each of us:
I’ll send you daily e-mails with thoughts and ways to gather for conversation or learning or spiritual practice. But the point isn’t to read the e-mails! It’s to use them. It’s really simple: Use this month and the next for you, for the better life you’ve been thinking about having or creating. Use it to figure out your piece of making the world better -- boy do we need that.
Say thank you as many times as possible, in a world that doesn’t do that enough and where there’s plenty you’re not happy about. You don’t have to decide if the world is more bad than good, or maybe you have decided there is more bad now -- but just find gratitude every day and express it, out loud, to someone or to your own ears. That will ripple out. No one can change only out of sadness and anger. Not unless you can connect it to someone you love whose suffering is what powers your anger, your sadness. Not unless you can find a lighthouse ahead for hope, powered by someone you deeply appreciate.
This time of year is serious, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That’s why it needs a party today, and at the end of the season on Simchat Torah we have another one! I am so happy we’re together, and thank you for listening to my prayers this first hour and saying Amen, even if you don’t know what all my prayers were. Thank you, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
So I hope you’ll tap into the energy of today, not just the energy of joy but of words of Torah in many forms, to help you launch into Elul and a month of individual reflection that’s good for you and good for us all when you do it.
We're deep into Season 3 of Tov!, my podcast about The Good Place and Jewish ideas related to teshuvah. You can find all the most recent episodes here, or type "Tov!" into your favorite podcast app.
Also, I have been logging in at 12:36pm Eastern time each weekday this Elul to teach and talk about some classic teaching about teshuvah, mostly Maimonides but other things maybe too. You can join here, or you can listen to the ones I've taped:
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
Check it out here or wherever you get podcasts!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
If you're a fan of "The Good Place" and at all connected to Jews or Judaism, try out my new podcast that I'm creating with a bunch of colleagues!
Tov! is on all the major podcast platforms, and it will be a fun and interesting way to explore some Jewish texts and ideas. Check out the website for episodes and show notes, or search for it in your app and try it out!
It's launching right as we begin Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year when we're all Eleanor Shellstrop, trying to improve our lives as though everything is in the balance.
Posted at 11:06 AM in Calendar, Education, Ethics, Foregiveness, Gossip, Harry Potter, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Lashon Hara, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Study, Talmud, Television, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, Web/Tech, Weblogs, Yamim Noraim, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
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.
I gave this D'var Torah on Saturday morning, January 23, on the Shabbat before Debbie Friedman's 10th yahrzeit.
On a Sunday night in early January 25 years ago, Laurie and I were living in Queens and there was a big Nor’easter brewing. Some of you may remember, it came all the way up here – it shut down New York City for several days. We had tickets to a concert at Carnegie Hall and decided to go anyway. This was before we had kids, but even so we wouldn’t usually go out late on a night before a work day. We got to our seats way up in who knows which balcony, and the performer came out on stage and said, “Welcome to Beth Carnegie!” And for the next couple of hours Debbie Friedman turned Carnegie Hall into a shul, into camp, into a Jewish revival. Debbie, zichronah liv’racha, is the composer and singer who gave us Misheberach, L'chi Lach, the ya-la-la-la-s of Havdalah, I Am a Latke – just for some examples. This coming week we will remember Debbie’s 10th yahrzeit.
At Beth Carnegie in 1996 Debbie had on stage her sign language interpreter EJ Cohen, who lives in New Hampshire and who I met years later up here. Were any of you there by chance? After it was over, Laurie and I went to the backstage door. The snow was already really coming down but we wanted to say hi to Debbie before she left, the way you’d go out to try to get an autograph from a Broadway star.
We wanted to talk to her because the Savetts have a connection to Debbie Friedman’s family that may be unique, as surely we are the only two Jewish families who have settled in both Utica, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota. Debbie was an alum of my alma mater, Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul -- Debbie and Jack Morris, major league pitcher (they would have just missed each other there).
Growing up, Debbie was involved in the youth program at Mt. Zion, the large Reform congregation in St. Paul whose legacy includes Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Reform movement chumash. In the mid-1960s Mt. Zion started encouraging kids to go to Jewish summer camp at Olin Sang Ruby in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and before twelfth grade Debbie went back to New York State in the summer to the NFTY Song and Dance Leaders Institute at Kutz Camp. The next year, right out of high school, Debbie was in Israel on Kibbutz; she was leading music for Mt. Zion’s youth group and religious school; she was regional and national songleader for NFTY; and she was back at Kutz on the staff of the Song Leader Institute.
Cantor Jeff Klepper, composer of our Shalom Rav melody, met Debbie that summer of ’69. He was 15 and remembers a charismatic musician, age 19 and about the same size as her 12-string Martin guitar. He says that Debbie was already a celebrity at camp that summer and the best song leader on the staff, the most effective teacher.
This was the time in her life when Debbie was beginning to compose. She didn’t formally study music; she never learned to read music, but she was a sponge for all kinds of songs, particularly folk music both American and Israeli. You can hear Peter, Paul and Mary in a lot of Debbie’s early music, and later Peter Yarrow himself got to know her and said that Debbie was like Mary.
The Savetts always got Debbie’s early vinyl hot off the press, and her records became part of our Friday night ritual at home. We would eat our Shabbat dinner, and sing out the songbooks we pilfered from Herzl Camp, where Dad was the doctor for a week during the summer and we’d get to eat with camp and absorb songs and ruach. I was just in elementary school when these traditions began. After dinner we’d go into the den and put on a Debbie album. The first one, Sing Unto God, was basically a whole Friday night service. She recorded it with the high school chorus from our alma mater as her backup singers. They helped her debut the songs in a presentation at Mt. Zion. That album contained among pieces her quickly-famous Sh’ma.
I don’t remember really meeting Debbie as a young kid that much. She was more than 15 years older than me and I knew she was a big deal. I remember stopping by the Friedman home from time to time with my parents, and seeing her parents Frieda and Gabe and her sister Cheryl. When I would go to camp and we would sing Debbie's first Mi Chamocha or Im Tirtzu, I always felt a little less homesick.
Debbie did something within her first few years of creating that no one else had done before. She bridged camp and Temple. She made the same music the music of both. She wasn’t the first to set traditional Jewish words in a pop or folk style. This was just a few years after Tom Lehrer had already made fun of the 1960s attempts to make worship hip and young in his song “The Vatican Rag.”
But Debbie was the first to make that music work on the bimah. I remember going to Mt. Zion from time to time and hearing there the melodies I knew from our living room, and the music worked even in a Sanctuary that was cavernous, with the very formal cantor and the robes and the bimah up high and the organ. I’m sure being a home-town talent made a difference, but it wasn’t just in Minnesota that her music was catching on. And remember that Debbie started doing this as a woman at a time when the Hebrew Union College had still not ordained a female rabbi or cantor.
I think there are a few reasons Debbie was the one to pave the way of synthesis between camp and Temple, between stand-alone creativity and conventional prayer services. First of all, Debbie was like Mozart. She was a young prodigy, so soulful and so creative but in a tight frame that people could come to recognize and assimilate, that stretched them just the right amount. There’s something familiar across her many generative years. You can hear certain kinds of intervals over and over -- Oseh Shalom, the tears may fall but we’ll hear them call,v’im lo achshav, and the women dancing with their timbrels. Or the same thing in a slightly different mode -- While we’re here in Hebrew School, samekh ayin pay fay…. Oseh shalom – hear it? Those are bits of different kinds of songs from over a twenty year span, but there’s something threading through. She had a few patterns like that she reworked over and over. Each new Debbie album was like getting together with an old friend to catch up and then settling in to hear about her latest adventure in some new part of the world.
You don’t hear anything quite like Debbie’s signature vocal motifs in anyone else’s music, but still anyone can sing or lead a Debbie song. She doesn’t make you go up high to notes you can’t reach, or throw in a bridge that only one person in the group can do. Debbie had plenty of range in her voice, but she mostly sang to us in our range. And when she herself was in front of a group Debbie never did what a James Taylor or a Peter Yarrow does from time to time, vary up a familiar song to make this performance different from another. It was different because the moment was different and she was in the moment with your particular group. Maybe this time she’d sing faster or slower, maybe change the instrumentation, but she never made herself superior to you when she was singing to you or leading you. Not in a concert at a synagogue, or at a Reform movement convention or at CAJE, and not even at Carnegie Hall. Debbie’s songs and their experience were something she was giving to you, so they would belong to you. Her music sounds great if a great cantor sings it, if a choir sings it -- if you sing it.
Debbie packed a lot of Hebrew words into her music. This is the opposite of the niggun approach of repeating a few words, and it was a bit of a counterculture to the art of English in the New Union Prayerbook. She figured out how to make you want to know the Hebrew rather than be scared off by it. Her music was the spoonful of sugar; not sugary (or very occasionally) but more like honey with fragrances that get around the barriers your conscious brain might put up. She did plenty in English too, liturgical and educational – but she came to want to study the original texts and she would return again and again to certain words, like the Song of Songs or Mi Chamocha.
Debbie didn’t create new theological language, but she translated the new metaphors others were teaching and brilliantly made them hearable. While we rabbis began struggling with how to say “God of our forefathers and our foremothers” or “God of our ancestors”, Debbie came up with “Who blessed the ones before us.” She started out using the language of the traditional Reform prayerbook in all its gender-not-neutral formal English – “And Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart” – and eventually she went back and revised some of her own early songs in English. Her Renewal of Spirit album of healing prayers included many that address God very directly and traditionally as “You.” Don’t hide your face from me, I’m asking for your help. Instead of theology, just the real moment of prayer.
Debbie never made herself a celebrity or even a personality outside of her music. In public she taught and narrated through her concerts, and she loved the teaching process up close with musicians and students and in big groups, but she didn’t ask you to listen to a story of her personal experience as the price of connecting. I think it was only much later in her life that people outside her circle knew of the physical ailments she was struggling with. Laurie and I heard her in Atlanta about ten years after Carnegie Hall, in a synagogue just a few years before she died, and it was obvious she wasn’t herself but she didn’t talk about that. Debbie helped give voice to Jewish feminism and some of the spiritual revival from the 1990s onward, but she wasn’t an activist outside of the music itself. The most activist thing was the women’s Seder that her music has become so central to.
For the Jews of North America, Debbie Friedman stands where only Naomi Shemer, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and Ehud Manor stand.
For me the most important Debbie music is from her third album called Ani Ma’amin, put out in 1976. She created it as she was working with a group just out of high school at Camp Olin Sang Ruby, and the cover has a picture of Debbie sitting on rocks by a lake looking out. The Savett home probably listened to this one the most of all on Shabbat evenings through my junior and senior high years.
Debbie wrote on the jacket about the meaning of “I believe in the coming of the Messiah”, the gaps between dreams and visions and reality, but the music sounds like all the dreams are real and the visions have come to pass. We all mostly know Ani Ma’amin as a somber Shoah melody, but Debbie’s was the first melody I ever knew for this, and it’s entirely different.
That album’s interpretation of Shabbat is that the rest we need isn’t an escape, a break from a world too broken, but a transport to a world where everything true is just real, without effort. That’s what the album sounds like. A world where God’s Torah and love are just there on any given day and it’s no question they will always be – V’ahavatcha al tasir mimenu l’olamim, Baruch Atah Adonai, Ohev Amo Yisrael. And Your love will never move from us, not ever – Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves Your people Israel.
As we mark ten years without Debbie Friedman’s live voice, may we take to heart what she gave us to say every week: Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing. Debbie’s voice in our minds and on our recordings, and our voices singing what Debbie gave us -- may they always be a blessing.
This year I updated my usual re-post about Moshe and Yeshayahu, your "two personal spiritual assistants", and published it at the Times of Israel:
One way to experience Pesach (Passover) is: Two nights of Seder, followed by a week of matzah. Two nights of a unique happening – around a table, with people very familiar and/or new to you, part recitation and part roleplaying, with symbolic foods and special foods, detours for discussion, hopefully much singing. Then – a week of just figuring out how to eat.
In fact, Pesach is meant to be so much more expansive. A long, immersive experience of first-time freedom. The Seders are supposed to launch us into a week-long new year festival. We’re intended to continue to read and reflect on the meaning today of our people’s Exodus from Egypt. We’re meant to experience freedom as though these were our first free days and our first free steps.
The Seder scripts the very first steps, just as the Torah says our ancestors were guided step-by-step through the days leading up to and through the first Pesach. But part of freedom for them meant that they didn’t have a simple script for the next days, the first days as a free nation.
And it’s the same for us. It’s on us as Jews to define what those first days of freedom are going to be like. We have special food for the journey – matzah and other Kosher for-Passover things. What will we make out of our freedom?
In the Talmud, the sages Rav and Shmuel argue over what freedom essentially means. Shmuel says the story of the Exodus begins: “We were slaves in Egypt.” Rav says: “Long ago, our ancestors worshipped false gods.”
For Shmuel, the story culminates in the final escape from Pharaoh. For Rav, the story peaks when the Jews arrive at Mt. Sinai, to make a covenant and speak directly with God. Shmuel argues that the Exodus is primarily about physical and political oppression. So Pesach is a celebration of being freed from tyrants and tyrannies.
Rav argues that it’s about spiritual oppression, about being freed as well from the falsehoods of Egypt. So Pesach is about how we get ourselves to Mt. Sinai, how we decide to use our freedom.
This year, we need both a Shmuel perspective and a Rav perspective on our situation as Jews. We should use the whole of Pesach, not just the Seders, to reflect and learn about what it means to be free Jews today, and commit ourselves to some actions as a result.
In a Shmuel perspective, we need to reflect and learn about anti-Semitism, from the murders in Pittsburgh to the slanders of Rep. Omar. Here’s a book to read during Pesach, if not before: Anti-Semitism: Here and Now by Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt. Prof. Lipstadt is one of the most sought-out teachers and commentators on the matter. She is a Holocaust scholar, the central figure in a major trial in the U.K. about Holocaust denial, and someone up close to campus anti-Semitism from the left. Read her book or find her writings online.
And if you have been feeling paralyzed by reappearance of anti-Semitism in any or all of its forms – resolve to take some action. If you are within a group that needs to be called out, do that from the inside. If you can be an ambassador for Jews and Judaism, among people who might know very little, do that. Invite someone to services with you, or invite them to coffee with you and if you like with me.
In a Rav perspective, we should remember that true freedom has to be for something, toward something. Pick something new to learn about Judaism. Come to a class, engage with the weekly Torah reading online or with a study partner or with me. Get your own copy (or borrow a child’s copy!) of Rabbi Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values. While you are eating your matzah, resolve on a way you can strengthen our own Jewish community. In a joyful way, through Shabbat meals or at services or celebrations. Or when we need each other the next time you see an announcement about a house of mourning.
And as you take your first steps from Pesach toward Mt. Sinai, think about the next mitzvah that your soul is begging to focus on. It could be some aspect of tzedakah (giving) or lashon ha-ra (gossip). Maybe you even want to partner up with someone to do it together – create the next Beth Abraham tzedakah collective, or buddy up on a gossip management project and check in each week!
Whatever you do – don’t let Pesach just be about something that happened more than 3000 years ago. Don’t let the days after the Seder slip away without savoring the first moments of freedom and responsibility, without noticing that the way you’ll notice every crumb of matzah in the seat cushions!
Wishing all of you a Zissen (Sweet) and Kosher Pesach,