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.
My D’var Torah from July 30, 2022 * 2 Av 5782
One of my favorite anecdotes about morning davvening (praying) comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Chanina went to shul one day. This was some 1700 years ago, give or take, and at the time there were no siddurim (written prayerbooks). People who led knew the outline of the service, and the theme for each short section and the specific language of the blessing to end each section – Creator of lights, Yotzer hame’orot; Redeemer of Israel, Ga’al Yisrael, etc. A few prayers had been written and were well-known but the leader, the shliach tzibbur, could compose or make up his own prayer on the section’s theme to get to the very few fixed words.
So Rabbi Chanina is in shul and this guy stands up to recite the Amidah, and he starts chanting: Ha’el ha’gadol ha’gibbor v’hanora, v’ha’adir v’ha’izuz v’ha’yarui he-chazak v’ha’amitz v’ha’vadai v’hanichbad. Now you don’t need to know what all the words mean to know that what this prayer leader is doing is adding on top of the familiar prayer more praise adjectives for God. Strong, and courageous, and certain, and honored, and and and….
Anyway, the leader finishes the Amidah and Rabbi Chanina says to him: “Nu, did you get them all? I mean did you use enough words to describe the Divine, you know, better than Moshe Rabbeinu did? Because we’re using Moshe’s own words when we say Ha’el ha’gadol etc. , and some words that other prophetic figures did, and if it weren’t for these ancestors we couldn’t use any words at all to talk about the Divine. But you, you kept on going, but what did you really do? It’s like if there were a king who was known for having so much gold, and a person praised him for how much silver he had.”
So first of all I love that in shul in the Babylonian Talmud, everyone’s a critic and everyone has an evaluation of services while they’re still happening.
But I think about this teaching anytime we get into discussions like last week’s Kiddush program about theology and the Divine. It was really wonderful and thoughtful, and I appreciated everyone’s honesty in the questions you have and the views you expressed. And it did not go unnoticed by your rabbi that the ways our siddur talks about God really do not land for the vast majority of you who were there – the big metaphors of “King” and “Lord”, the importance of praising the Divine as though this was needed on high somewhere.
I just want to say a few things to open this crack more, because a lot of the ideas that you reject about the Divine and that I do not hold either — we feel like we’re breaking something when we say it out loud. And I am really working ahead about the High Holy Days, to make sure that the metaphors we are using to aid us are indeed helpful and true in the moments we need them, and I am concerned that the liturgy as it is will not help us at all unless we do some pre-thinking about it before the holy days. I’m going to say a few things today, and I have started reaching out to the people in our congregation who have been our spiritual teachers because I think we should hear many voices the coming weeks — different voices about what the Divine means to us, what it means to stand in the presence of the Divine with kavvanah, with purpose. There are people here who teach this better and more clear than I do, and you should have a chance to learn from them on Shabbat and other times. If we just walk into Rosh Hashanah without thinking about them, the words of the machzor (prayerbook) will not have depth and will not open a door for us.
So for me, one of the biggest things is maybe a paradox. I do not think of the Divine as a being in some one place, a personality of some kind whom I can address who is completely separate from myself or from us. And at the same time, I find the experience of imagining myself in the presence of a power I had no say in choosing to be very important. Visualizing that, which I do not literally believe, does something important that I won’t give up.
So to the first part of that: I wonder a bit how all of this got started and created, but not knowing doesn’t really affect my day. I take now as a given; we are here and so is the universe. It is permeated with Divinity, and just as every atom and every charge in the universe is affected somehow by every other, so too every spiritual atom and spiritual electron is linked. The totality of it is the Divine; each part of it is; and also each thing made up of it – me and you, the tent and the concrete, the trees and the engines in our cars. We are all spiritual receivers and transmitters. We have that capacity whether we use it or not, and the invisible Divinity is everywhere just as much as the gravitational force we don’t see or the radio waves that are hitting us and going through us whether we choose to tune to them or not, to produce or amplify or play for someone else. That’s my operating picture. That’s where God is for me. And in a way I can’t tell you very well I think that these Divine sparks – atoms and charges – they carry goodness and wisdom and Torah. Like a circuit that can be completed or broken by us, we can tap this goodness, which is a renewable energy and is never consumed, like the burning bush. I and we didn’t create it, but it doesn’t travel unless we extend or complete the circuit.
So I don’t think God sends floods or plagues, or heals from cancer or doesn’t, or decides on 400 years of slavery in Egypt and then its end. I don’t think God is judging or decreeing. There isn’t someone else out there doing those things. Some of the evil and suffering that happens is the fault of humans, and some just a product of nature. That’s the world as created.
Part 2 is that for me it’s good to focus on a particular cluster or manifestation of that everywhere-Divinity, on a regular basis. The metaphor of malchut, of melech or “king”, is made up for me of power and lawgiving and a selection I had no part it. And I need a reminder that there are things outside of me and that won’t disappear when I can’t hold them up, with my incomplete goodness or my incomplete spiritual focus.
Sometimes I look up at the top of the Aron Kodesh (ark) or I look up toward the Ner Tamid (eternal light) or the open sky, because I want to feel smaller than I usually do, humbler, but still present, and aware that this small person is still at the center of my horizons.
Sometimes I talk intimately to the Divine I imagine gathered up that way, atoms and charges concentrated palpably in front of me, and I like to say exactly the words in the book, and to find myself in them. To connect to the thoughts of the many, many people who put them together and sounded them out initially, and the ones who have said them before for important reasons and occasions. I like to say their words, to run them through me, because just as the Divine was not made by me — I had no say in that but I am made up of Divine stuff — so too these words change and recreate me. They make me able to say certain things and they make me into the person who can make those words more real.
I never experience my words as praise of a God “out there”, watching from afar to see what I am saying. I experience my words helping to connect the circuit, making the universe worthy of these praises, reminding me that my intentions help make the words in the siddur true when they don’t seem true in the daily news. Sometimes I’m consciously reconnecting myself to the grid, completing the circuit running through me. Sometimes I’m just noticing that there is more spiritual energy flowing than I remembered since yesterday. Sometimes it’s just cathartic to ask for things, in a chant out loud, speaking directly to the “king” who graces me with an interview. Sometimes it’s good to hear myself say the hopes and yearnings and thank-you’s out loud that I don’t otherwise say to people (but ought to more). Sometimes it’s helpful to let myself ask for things — for help for me, for a better world for you.
It helps me to approach my praying this way, with this kind of cinematography. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t believe my picture is actually there. At least, I do not anymore experience it as any contradiction. In the Kabbalah, the idea of “king” is split in two. If you look at the diagram of the ten sefirot, the ten phase-states of divine energy flowing toward our spiritual consciousness, the farthest away is called Keter, the crown; and the closest is called Malchut or royalty, sovereignty, and is identified with us, with the people of Israel. I like that the Kabbalists are messing with the king metaphor, to make it both so far away and so close by simultaneously.
That’s where I will leave it today. We are in the period leading toward Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two ancient Temples, and then toward Yom Kippur which recalls when we all were united with each other and the Divine name at the Temple in its glory. This is a time of year to experience the breaking of the circuit, the incompleteness of the Divine name, the breaking of ideas that have led us to inner destructions – the Jewish calendar wants us to do that, to see what’s not whole in our theology and to break what needs to be broken. As Rabbi Chanina reminded us in the Talmud, we don’t have to use words about God that don’t do the job, just to look good to others.
If the teachings you think you have heard from Judaism about the Divine cannot hold, let them break. Break them yourself. You will not hurt God; you will not hurt the shul or me, and you will not destroy Judaism or the world. Some of our old names and ideas for God, they are like building materials that are obsolete, or wires frayed from a lot of good use. But we have better stuff with which to understand and imagine and connect to the Divine. Some of it is brand new and some of it has been in spiritual storage for whatever reason. I’m grateful for the many teachers in our community who will help us find it all and take it out and learn how to use it, so we can build sturdy and electric for the new year.
This is another take on something I've written and spoken about before, how and why I chose to stay in America because of my engagement with quintessential American themes of freedom and individuality. I spoke about this last Shabbat, in anticipation of Independence Day 2022. It's published here at the Times of Israel.
Posted at 07:27 PM in #integratingamerica, Calendar, Community Relations, Conservative Judaism, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Exodus, Freedom, History, Holidays, Inclusion, Jewish Education, Justice, Study, Synagogue, Talmud, Tikkun Olam, Tov! Podcast, Tzedakah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This was the D'var Torah I gave for Parashat B’haalotcha on June 18, 2022.
I always look forward to Parashat B’haalotcha because it’s the start of the frisky Torah, the Torah of complaining. It’s the beginning of the Torah’s textbook on group dynamics once the community of Israel starts moving out from Sinai toward the promised land. It’s easy to see our groups in these next few Torah readings. That’s the lens I usually bring. But I was thinking particularly this week about Pride Month, and I had said that I’d speak related to that on this Shabbat, since I plan to be away next week. And from some Torah e-mails I subscribe to and podcasts and such, about four times I found myself face-to-face with this from the parasha:
It was the first anniversary of the Exodus and Moshe instructed the people to observe Pesach and to offer the Pesach sacrifice. Then this (Numbers 9:6-8):
וַיְהִ֣י אֲנָשִׁ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר הָי֤וּ טְמֵאִים֙ לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֔ם
וְלֹא־יָֽכְל֥וּ לַֽעֲשֹׂת־הַפֶּ֖סַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא
וַֽיִּקְרְב֞וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְלִפְנֵ֥י אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:
וַ֠יֹּֽאמְר֠וּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָהֵ֨מָּה֙ אֵלָ֔יו
אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם
לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜יב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן יְיָ֙ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
ויֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֑ה עִמְד֣וּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָ֔ה מַה־יְּצַוֶּ֥ה יְיָ֖ לָכֶֽם:
"There were people who were ta’meh [usually translated “impure” but we’ll get back to that] -- ta’meh for the human soul." And they were not able to do the Pesach on that day. So they came up close in front of Moshe and in front of Aharon on that day. And these people say to him: We are ta’meh for the human soul. Why are we held back, why are we subtracted, from bring close the close-up offering of the Divine in its time among the Children of Yisrael? And Moshe said to them: Stand, and I will hear what the Divine will command for you."
Lamah ni’gara. Why are we subtracted. Why are we not included.
We, who are in a state of tum’ah for life of a person. This requires some elaboration. At first blush this group seem to be held away from the Sanctuary because they had recently been in contact with a dead body and need to go through a purification ritual and the passage of a certain amount of time.
Tradition broadens the interpretation to all matters of tohora and tum’ah, which are usually translated as “purity” and “impurity.” Better to understand them, however, in terms of our embodied human experience and our attraction to the Divine.
Tum’ah and tohora are all about cycles and blood and child-birth and intimacy. These are intensely spiritual and we experience them through our bodies, our gender, our sexuality, our relationships. How is it, they ask Moshe, that these would take us away from Pesach. Why should we be the ones deprived of the Pesach offering -- the offering of freedom, the sacrifice whose blood is compared to the blood of the covenant. How could our embodied experience cause us to be held back from the Divine Sanctuary, the holiest place.
We aren’t complaining to you, Moshe, like the others who kvetch about the desert food or challenge your leadership. We’re not complaining about you or your religion or your rituals or your teachings. On the contrary, we want in. We want it all, b’moado b’toch b’nai Yisrael -- at its proper time, in the midst of all the community of Yisrael. Lamah ni’gara. Why should we be substracted. Why should we not be included.
I think we can see something even in their phrasing -- "we are tam’eh to the soul of a person". Move from seeing us as “impure”, toward seeing us as “the soul of a person.”
Moshe according to one commentary says to them: I am over the moon that you asked this question of me, and that you want this question asked of the Divine. And I too want to hear what the Divine has to say.
And the answer that came back at the time of our ancestors is what we call Pesach Sheni, a second Pesach. The message they understood, as recorded in the Torah written at that time, is that one month later, anyone who was ta’meh come and do the Pesach offering one month later, exactly as would have been done at its scheduled time. Not only they, but anyone who was on a journey too far away or someone who is a ger, a person within the community but who has not yet become a full citizen of the community. Each of you can do Pesach Sheni. This is how you will be included.
The Talmud says that being distant doesn’t mean just far, far away. Even someone who at the time of Pesach is just a step outside the area of the Temple where the sacrifice is done is far enough away for Pesach Sheni. If you’re not quite inside, physically. If you’re not let in, or don’t feel let in by the community, or if you’re not quite ready to come in fully -- you still are entitled to Pesach, to the celebration of the covenant.
I have been mulling over whether this Pesach Sheni is the answer to the question lama ni’gara, why are we not included. Part of me hears this as a bit of separate but equal, or as still “we” insiders who celebrate Pesach together on time and you others who will include with us.
So many of our people who are lesbian or gay or bisexual, transgender or intersex or nonbinary or queer, or any truer description that I still strain to know and understand -- so many have asked nothing more or less than to be b’toch b’nai Yisrael, to be part of the community of Israel full stop. Not to have to frame the matter in terms of lama ni’gara, why are we not included, how can we be included. To have to ask that way means we still are incomplete.
And the Torah recognizes this, because at the end of the teaching of Pesach Sheni the Torah says: chukkah achat yih’yeh lachem. One law there will be for all of you. As if to say -- Whatever you have just read, it is not one Torah for all of us yet. There is work yet to do. Keep working on it, now and in future generations.
This Pesach Sheni is a step forward, a step of inclusion, and it is not the final answer. Somehow, our Sanctuary needs to be spacious enough for all our people, for people who experience in all different ways love and intimacy and longing and connection. Who in all different ways understand ourselves as the image of God in our bodies and genders and sexualities and gender identities. Where no one of those is the norm that others have to be compared to and have to ask to be included around, or justified in terms of.
That part of the Torah reading spoke about people coming close, toward the Sanctuary where the altar and the Ark were. A bit later in the parasha, we read how the Ark with the tablets of the covenant would go out into battle with the people, and then come to rest when battle would pause or end.
The Talmud teaches that the biblical ark had both the broken tablets that Moshe had shattered after the Golden Calf, and the new set of whole tablets Moshe had carved on the mountain. Rabbi Yehudah ben Lakish taught that the whole tablets would stay back in the Holy of Holies, while the broken tablets would go out into battle.
It is so important for Torah to go out with us, as we battle to defend the lives of transgender youth, and all LGBTQ+ young people. As we battle for the rights and reputations of caring adults in schools who listen to them and try to be their mentors and advocates. As we battle against those trying to pit parents against teachers. It is so important for us to carry our religion into this battle, because others battle with theirs and claim to speak for God. So we have to speak in the name of our covenant as well.
It is so important as we do so to recognize that we are marching with broken tablets. That our own Judaism is not yet whole, we have not finished doing teshuvah for the ways we have not seen, for the times we have not stood by queer people of all ages and their family members. We have to carry honestly the broken hearts of our own community, the mourning over opportunities to do better and care better that we missed over the decades. When we work on matters of justice and safety and wellbeing for LGBTQ+ people in our lives, when we battle, we have to hold close the broken times, and our own brokenheartedness about times in the past we’ve each fallen short and our community and Judaism have fallen short.
It is so important to think about the ways the traditions of our past need to be creatively broken and rebuilt. The Talmud in one place praises Moshe for breaking the tablets. Because anything we have written down no matter how inspired is incomplete and could be used to shut down our vision, to say that this much progress is all we need. We need to challenge ourselves to see more like the Divine sees, to see every expression of human love and connection as an image of Divine ahavah v’chesed (love).
The broken tablets go out into battle, because it’s by fighting out of Divine love that we learn how to repair them. It’s by going out and learning from other communities that are full of love, religious and secular communities, that we find the light that helps us see better what is hidden in the crevices of the covenant we already have. It’s by going out with our tablets that we bring them and bring ourselves, who have in the past wondered if our covenant was at war with them. To them, we bring what is broken and ask to work together to refashion them and refashion ourselves together.
Our movement of Conservative Judaism has been confronting our brokenness over sexual orientation and gender identity for the past three decades. Every since possibly the lowest point our movement has ever touched in 1992, when I was a rabbinical student and watched the shameful deliberations on stage in the Seminary auditorium -- which slammed the door on lesbian and gay Jews seeking to live openly in our communities. To fifteen years ago last winter, when our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards made it possible for gay and lesbian Jews to become our rabbis, to have intimacy,to marry.
Even then, we only as a movement could talk about the G and the L. We have been trying to catch up since then, including in our shul and including myself. It’s not only ritual and rabbinical status, but relationships and love and intentionality in every realm. From changing the nomenclature on our membership forms to listening to young people we educate to changing our assumptions about people we meet of any age. I am still learning the language, carrying broken tablets, figuring out which ones to break still and refashion. I am proud, and more than that I am grateful, that we have lay leaders who have taken the intiative to make sure we have a Pride Shabbat as a matter of course, and that this year for the first time we will march and have a table at our city’s Pride Festival next weekend. What a way to carry the ark of our covenant where it needs to be seen, where its power is so needed.
I try to look at my own kids with wonder and openness, and to wait for them each to tell me I’m queer or straight, rather than make assumptions. And indeed I try to look at each of you that way too, not to assume what I don’t know.
Each of us carries Divine love, for us, and through us for others. Each of us, young and old, has our own way, spiritual and embodied all at once, to love and connect, to yearn and commit. We are all in the center. We are all part of the same covenant at the same time. We are all blessed.
Posted at 04:52 PM in B'haalotcha, Conservative Judaism, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, GLBT, Inclusion, Jewish Education, Justice, LGBTQ+, Parashat Hashavua, Synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (1)
This was my D'var Torah on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 29, on Parashat Mishpatim.
When I was trying to decide whether to apply to rabbinical school, as a senior in college, I gave myself an ultimatum: I would not apply until I was putting on tefillin every day. Tefilllin are basically mezuzas but for the body -- leather boxes with small scrolls of Torah text inside, attached to straps, that we place and wrap around one arm and the forehead in the morning when it’s not Shabbat.
Tefillin is a practice that is distinctively Jewish, and distinct even among Jewish practices. If mezuzas are uniquely Jewish, tefillin is even beyond that. It’s unusual and not a lot of Jews do it outside of Orthodox environments. It just felt weird to me, and I was having trouble making it a regular personal practice. Even after a full year in Israel at the Seminary, going to minyan regularly in the morning for the first time in my life, putting on tefillin there -- still, doing it on my own, I couldn’t get there.
And I had made that my test for myself about my identity as a Jew obligated to halacha, to traditional Jewish law as a duty. I was already quite strict about Shabbat; for some reason that was no problem. But tefillin became for me a litmus test of my self-image and my right to present myself as a future Conservative rabbi. I wonder what your thing is, the Jewish practice or ritual or words that seems like you’re supposed to buy but it’s hard for you?
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate tefillin and the symbolism and ideas behind it -- still it remained at arm’s length, hard to wrap on my actual arm. But I really wanted to go to JTS (well, I really wanted to be finished going to JTS), so it was quite the cognitive and spiritual dissonance. I called the dean’s office to schedule my preliminary interview with one of the team, and something about just that interaction spooked me. I found some excuse to cancel so I could reschedule with the dean himself, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, whom I had met a few times. I thought if I talked to him and told him where I was, he’d respond in the right way, whatever that would be.
There is a phrase in the parasha this morning that comes to mind about this, and it’s a favorite when it comes to questions of Jewish observance. We quote: na’aseh v’nishma. We will do and we will hear. It’s usually explained as first you commit to a mitzvah, then you learn more about what you’re doing. You might think the other way makes more sense, study something before you commit to it -- but no, na’aseh v’nishma. Take a leap of faith first. The midrash praises B’nai Yisrael for taking that leap of faith at Mt. Sinai, saying na’aseh v’nishma knowing that compared to everything else they knew before, Torah would be weird to them a lot of the time. It would be like tefillin everywhere.
With a lot of other things in my Jewish path, like Shabbat and kashrut, I did a lot of na’aseh v’nishma that way. But it didn’t work for me with tefillin. I’ll pick up the tefillin story in Rabbi Tucker’s office -- but first we need to reexamine na’aseh v’nishma.
Here’s the context for the phrase. Before the Ten Commandments, Moshe brings God’s offer of a covenant in a general sense, and all the people say: What God has said so far about that, we will do. Na’aseh. Then they hear the Ten Commandments directly from God, and Moshe gets all of the mishpatim, the first big set of very detailed laws, and he tells them the law out loud, and the people say: All the words that Adonai has spoken we will do. Na’aseh.
Then after that Moshe sets up a big sacrificial meal and a ritual with blood, and Moshe reads the laws again to them out of the Book of the Covenant, as though to say: Do you really mean it? And they say: Everything that Adonai has spoken, we will do and we will hear -- na’aseh v’nishma. Then Moshe sprinkles blood over all of them, just to make sure, and says: All right, this is really a covenant now.
That’s where na’aseh v’nishma is in the Torah. So, a couple of things. First, tefillin seems a little less weird in comparison to sprinkling blood on absolutely everyone. Second, it’s clear that na’aseh v’nishma was not a right-off-the-bat leap of faith, like sure we’ll do this and we can talk about it more as we go along. It took three tries just to get to na’aseh v’nishma. A lot of repeating of the people’s commitment, and of course forty days later it didn’t matter anyway, because -- Golden Calf.
So I want to offer a slightly different way of looking at na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will listen. I want to look at this through a lens from a modern rav named Tina Fey, master teacher of comedy improvisation. Na’aseh v’nishma: Meet the Rule of Yes-And.
In improv, you’ve got two or more people creating a scene together, and one person starts. Maybe that person -- call them Moshe if you want -- makes up a premise in their head or maybe it comes from the audience.
Tina Fey writes [in her book Bossypants]: The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES... This means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You [insert word I can’t say in shul]!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Rabbi Jon’s commentary: This first back-and-forth agreement, preliminary and not completely formed, is Na’aseh. We’re going to be in this scene together and create from here together.
Back to Tina: The second rule of improvisation is YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures”, or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
[Still Tina:] To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute... [and] MAKE STATEMENTS; Don’t ask questions all the time. ...Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents...I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup...
Thanks Tina. I say that the ideas of YES-AND, and THERE ARE NO MISTAKES ONLY OPPORTUNITIES, that’s v’nishma. I’ll agree to what you start with, and then we will agree on a next thing, and we will each keep listening, accepting what the other person brings and then building on that.
The “Yes-and” dynamic is a covenant. It begins and deepens a bond between two people that generates and solidifies the obligations between them around something specific they both are invested in up to a point. Both parties are the do-er, the listener, the responder -- and hopefully the scene keeps going.
So let’s apply this back to me and my tefillin, and then to Beth Abraham.
I flew down to New York for my preliminary interview and told Rabbi Tucker the truth about me and tefillin. He didn’t say no, you can’t be a rabbi. He didn’t even do the first kind of na’aseh v’nishma -- Well, Jon, what about just putting on tefillin for a few weeks, seeing how it affects you, and call me back after that? Instead he did this other version of na’aseh v’nishma. Yes-and. He accepted where I was. He didn’t argue with me. I remember him saying: What about thinking about it this way. Have you thought about it that way. How about it’s not an external commandment. It’s not for God, it’s for you, because it helps you think about your day ahead or the actions from your arm or your head. He made a number of suggestions, and then he left the ball in my court, to continue to apply if I wanted to.
Obviously I did. My final interview was kind of improv-y in a crazy way; that’s a whole other story. But tefillin became part of a much longer and wider yes-and for me about prayer and spirituality, and part of a process of finding a theology very different from the one I thought I needed. I gave up the idea of God and me divided by certain laws standing on two sides of an unbridgeable river. I became a rabbi who wasn’t putting on tefillin regularly, and maybe five years ago or so, only then, did I begin putting on tefillin nearly every day. Though it might well not have turned out that way. Part of that same story is that I’ve become part of Laura’s meditation groups, and believe me that was even more unlikely for me than putting on tefillin. Now I’m working on b’rachot over the food I eat; that’s a next part of this particular scene.
I’m grateful for Rabbi Tucker, who had no idea what our first yes-and would set in motion between the two of us and also beyond the Seminary. My own practice of laying tefillin is very much this other na’aseh v’nishma -- the way of yes-and, patient agreement, moving from deficiency in my own eyes to spiritual opportunity.
And that is every bit a covenant. And I think for many, many things, Beth Abraham should strive for covenant among ourselves in that kind of na’aseh v’nishma spirit, the yes-and-spirit.
People might come to us with a Jewish statement – a desire, an idea, an act. A way to approach a ritual or Shabbat or a Bat or Bar Mitzvah that might strike us as out of left field at first. Because of not knowing Hebrew, or not accepting traditional God-language, or feeling out of place in a traditional service, or being steeped in something exciting and spiritual from the outside. Our job would be to respond “Yes, and…” Acceptance -- but not just yes-full-stop, and the scene ends awkwardly. Out of yes comes yes-and. Out of acceptance and curiosity we would contribute the next idea, another step, an offer to explore together. I, we, the traditions we have, are part of the scene. Not whatever you say we can do, but let’s see what we can say together. Something to interpret, ask questions about, and respond to. We build a covenant, and then we enrich it and deepen it.
Sometimes the traditional na’aseh v’nishma is the right approach-- try this and see where it leads. But for me, this new frame of na’aseh-v’nishma-meets-yes-and helps show the Jewish world here as a place full of opportunities, not a place of Jewish deficiency. I want to flesh this out with you and all our leadership as a fundamental approach and an attitude of positivity and curiosity toward everyone in our community.
No is a powerful thing to say. Yes can be surprisingly powerful, and welcoming. But yes-and is even more powerful -- it’s acceptance and trust, and curiosity. It’s eagerness to go into the unknown and create something Jewish together. That is the leap of faith we need these days. Not just one person’s leap toward something the shul has defined previously, but a leap together. A leap toward each other, and together toward something purposeful and joyful. Na’aseh v’nishma, let’s leap together to do something Jewish, and keep listening for what we can do together next.
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 was my D'var Torah on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Shabbat Ha-Chodesh is the name for the Shabbat that precedes the start of the month when Pesach occurs. These are some of my reflections on the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic; one piece can hardly say it all.
Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, this day in the Jewish calendar, is a set of bookends for both a year in the Torah narrative, and a year in our lives. The parasha (Torah reading) concludes with the final touches on the setup of the temporary, portable Sanctuary -- exactly one year to the day from when Moshe and Aharon were given the instructions for the night they would all leave Egypt. And it was this same Shabbat Hachodesh one year ago that was our first Zoom Shabbat service, with almost all the congregation at home and a minyan of us here celebrating Madeline Lee’s Bat Mitzvah. We have been once through the Torah since our last regular Shabbat service.
What a year was that first year in the Torah – begun in slavery; between the plagues, of darkness and death; then the hurried preparations for the first days of a new life; crossing that Sea; a whole lot of new teachings to take in. Failing at first, badly, with the Golden Calf. Then building the mishkan, the spiritual center, out of everything valuable the people had -- everything valuable they might not even have realized they had -- putting something holy in the center of their camp amidst all the fear and emptiness of the midbar, the desert.
What a year has been this past year of Covid-19.
This morning I want to look back a bit, and next Shabbat to look ahead a bit. I’ll talk from the point of view of us as a whole, but this year hasn’t been the same for each of us and one person can’t presume to tell the story of everyone. People in our community have died of Covid-19, have been sick, have lost family members – at least a tenth of the households in our membership have had someone in their family who has died or been sick, and many more of us have lost friends to the disease. I haven’t asked everyone if they want their loved ones’ names said out loud, but I can say that the first person in our congregation who died from Covid-19 was Joshua Stern, Diana and David’s son, Jessica’s brother, who died during Pesach last year. For many months, the only times that members of the shul would actually see each other officially was at funerals.
Another tenth at least of our congregation has at one point of another lost jobs or hours or income this year because of the pandemic, or had retirement or transition plans disrupted. And I don’t know how to describe the strain and pain this year has contained for so many people who live on their own, as one or two people; who have been confined in elder living communities or long-term care; who are children, and parents of children at home, and parents and grandparents and others separated from their families; who had already been dealing with other physical and emotional challenges and illnesses and family challenges, that are difficult in regular times and even more disrupted this past year.
We have built this past year a mishkan, many mishkenot, a set of holy places and practices, out of our own materials. We have discovered together what it is that we had on hand to build with, what we brought with us hastily into this year.
Most of all we have had mitzvahs. I make a point of noting, most Shabbatot at the start of services, the line we sing as we start, v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha – all the ways we have adapted to gathering and staying apart in repeated fulfillment of the mitzvah of “loving our neighbor as ourselves”. I say it out loud to remind us that in these hours on Saturday morning we are holding each other’s lives in our hands; we are holding the lives of the people who live around us, who we don’t know, as our own responsibility. And not just in services but throughout the days of our weeks.
Time has been so amorphous, and a lot of us have been trying recall exactly what the first days of these twelve months were like. For me, it revolved around Purim. On Monday morning, March 9 of last year, I went to Shirley’s apartment at Langdon Place and we recorded our second annual Esther rap. That night we gathered here, in smaller numbers than usual for the Megillah reading. I think we had food even -- we were trying at that time to have one person serve so we wouldn’t all be handling the same serving utensils -- and I remember wondering even then if the Megillah gathering was the right thing to do.
For most of the next few days, our team recreated the upcoming Purim carnival at least once a day. Let’s cancel the Kitah Zayin (7th Grade) pie- throwing booth, and let's also wipe down each ball and fishing stick between participants. No let’s use only disposable balls and sticks, and we’ll just hand out prizes for tickets and not let kids rummage through them. No, let’s not have any of the booths but we’ll just gather in a circle for some songs and have a costume parade.
No, we can’t do it at all. Probably fifteen hours of work just to decide to do nothing.
Let’s bring everyone mishloach manot (Purim baskets), very carefully -- and here, driver, are plastic gloves for you to wear and please put each box in a bag, contact-free, and say hello in person to everyone who answers their door and make sure to stand far enough away, and promise that we’ll see each other soon.
Everything was like that at the start – every decision not to do something took hours, before we even got to figuring out how to do the all-new things or the necessary regular things like shopping for food in a new way.
The day after we delivered mishloach manot in person and said L’hit’raot (“until we see each other”), we sent out a note to whole congregation that we would for the time being gather only online, starting that night, Monday, March 16. I took a bunch of screenshots of that minyan. 24 screens and regular phones all together, most of us named but some identified still by number or e-mail; we were still figuring out Zoom. I must have asked everyone to smile, because in one photo Stan is smiling and Larry is smiling, and Richard and Carol are smiling on different screens in the same home,, and Carlos and Joy and Jessica and Jerry and Laura and Gordon and Nancy and Elliot and Daniel are smiling. And Ira I think is smiling but you can’t really see in the dark of his room. Very quickly we added minyanim for Saturday and Sunday nights, and there hasn’t been a single day we haven’t had a minyan of ten. That Thursday was our first online Religious School class; our triumph was getting Rina Scharf online.
At our best we have been full of mitzvot. We’ve been building a capacity to check in with people by phone; we’ve connected people to resources and support, in personal conversations and what we can put up online. On the fly, we’ve had to figure out how to safely do bikkur cholim, to visit people who have been sick, and dying; how to gather safely for burial; how to comfort people during shiva. Without hugs and with masks; with iPhones streaming and Zooms instead of living rooms. All the extra burdens on those in mourning to stare into that screen at everyone all at once, rather than having people come up to you one by one. I worry about the pent-up and incomplete grief of our mourners.
I am so proud to be connected to the caregivers -- nurses and doctors and elder care and home care workers -- who from the start went into dangers known and unknown, and many of whom volunteer now on their off hours to give vaccines. I am so proud to see in the news and at local meetings members of this congregation who work in public health, in professional roles and on governing boards. I am so grateful to the teachers, and everyone who has had to or who has chosen to go to work in places with known or unknown risks.
In the daily life of Beth Abraham for a year, we have had online gatherings every day and often more than once a day. I believe we have saved at least one life through these gatherings, and we have made other lives more bearable.
So many of our members early on became mask makers. Some sewing by hand, some working for hours after their regular jobs, some converting their slowed-down businesses into mask manufacture, some joining up with calls to action from individual leaders or town organizations. Making masks for frontline workers, who were so short of them at the start. Masks for anyone they worried about, particularly older people but even for my family, so people could go shopping safely. Many of you did that work, to help bridge the weeks it took for an entire industry to get up and running.
At our best as a society scientists and technicians and engineers, and the companies and universities and labs that organize them, have been working nonstop on lifesaving discovery and creation and manufacture and distribution on a huge scale. At our best as a society, we reengineered a system for holding democratic elections, and cried out against continuing racial injustice even as we cried out about everything. At our best, our elected representatives to the Congress in a poisonous political environment worked several times to come to the aid of all of us in massive ways.
Here in the wilderness of New Hampshire, our shul built its new mishkan out of everything we had. We have our Betzalels and their teams-- our tech designers and operators, our Zoom supervisors, our people who know their way around a soundboard and a camera and networking equipment. We have our Aharons and other equivalents to the Kohanim and Levi’im, who organize and lead our services so we could do far more than go through the motions. These things we do, to interact and hear each other and see each other, to create a live service from so many locations -- it’s amazing and I’m proud that we’re toward the forefront. We have our Miryams, who provide inspiration and joy, every week through singing and over coffee and yarn, and cooking and Torah and Hebrew language for adults and for children.
We have been building a mishkan out of things we have. Our fabrics and threads and animals skins include our wires and plexiglass and donated monitors. And of course the money contributed toward this mishkan, the Temple itself. At a time of economic contraction, the synagogue has been stable and we just raised the most money from the Purim baskets we ever have. Incredibly, new people have joined the congregation since a year ago today.
And if I might say something about the Moshe’s, the rabbis. Not just me, but the rabbis of congregations all over North America and the clergy of Greater Nashua who have drawn so close to each other. A year ago, I thought that innovators in American Jewish life were leaving synagogue jobs or never even thinking of coming to work in shuls, all of them off starting their own ventures to do Jewish learning or spirituality. It turns out there are at least a few hundred of us, talking the same language and inventing the same things in parallel, sending around the concept papers and how-to guides, asking each other over and over what do our congregants need, how can we do more than just hold the line. I have personally met at least a dozen amazing colleagues through this grassroots work, people who you’ll never read about in the Times of Israel or the Forward, amazing partners and teachers. All of us know it’s not about the techniques, it’s not about preserving the shuls and our jobs -- it’s about taking care of you.
The pandemic has challenged the practice of Judaism and the reality of Jewish community. I haven’t been in a hospital or an assisted living place or a nursing home, or even inside a shiva home, in this past year. I made that decision with other clergy in town all at once. That was the hardest thing to decide a year ago, and holding back from you at hard times has been the most awful part of my year personally as a rabbi.
We decided, consciously, to change the character of our relationship to computers in the shul on Shabbat. It is absolutely the right decision but it doesn’t work for everyone. Our second or third Shabbat morning on Zoom something was wrong with the setup or people didn’t have the right link, and as I led services by myself I was also checking e-mails and texts from people right here on the bimah. Now we’ll decide what it means to integrate technology into Shabbat the way a previous generation integrated the automobile. Most of all in services, we just miss each others’ voices and spiritual energy.
I have joked occasionally that there is a warehouse somewhere full of all the gefilte fish and pastries that have not been eaten in our shul and other shuls for a year. There was an article a couple months ago in The Atlantic about the loss of Kiddush, the time after services. Actually the word “Kiddush” never appears in the article by Amanda Mull about the loss in our lives of the people we don’t have a good name for -- the relationships of standing around together after services or sitting at a table, deciding to talk for a minute or five or for an hour just on the spot. The conversations that aren’t prearranged but just happen, the intergenerational moments, the moments that breathe with volume and quiet, with interruptions and not just turn-taking, where people sit down and get up in the middle and come back later. A community is supposed to be a place where connections and conversations don’t only take place when they are scheduled or work-oriented or agenda-driven. The loss of Kiddush is profound, the loss of Shabbat dinners and Shabbat lunches and holy days together too.
As a symbol of some of these losses and challenges, I have stubbornly kept our Shabbat service different the past year in a few ways. I have held us back from some of the rituals of reading the Torah and Haftarah -- not only because you are not here and not only because it would not be safe yet to walk around with the Torah if you were. I've insisted on using the not-perfect aspects of Zoom. I’ve done this because our prayer experience itself needs to have some of the not-smoothness and the chaos of our lives, or it won’t be real. I know no one likes the moments when we try to be a minyan together singing or reciting something on Zoom. It doesn’t sound great, but the cacophany has to be here, in the mishkan, a brokenness we bring when we are before the Divine.
What a year since Shabbat Ha-Chodesh twelve months ago. We have brought everything we have to create the mishkan that is our lives; we have been building it for a year and we are still in the desert. I am so grateful for this Shabbat community that has stayed together. I miss you and worry about you. I want to sing with you and just linger with you, with no hurry to get out. I am grateful that you have wanted something for yourself on Shabbat morning, and wanted to be with others when this is not easy. That you have wanted to hear Torah from me, that you have wanted Shabbat to be still somehow a time of joy and a time of mutual support.
Let’s not forget of course that each of us has our own story of this year, and let’s not forget the losses that can never be recovered and especially the people who you have lost and we have lost together.
It is a whole year, an important year we are concluding. We are still in the midbar, still on our way, and may the mishkenot, the spiritual centers of every sort we have built help guide us on our desert journeys ahead -- just like the daytime cloud and the nighttime fire that began on the first day of the first month of the second year, and guided the people on their journeys and never went out. Baruch she-hecheyanu v’kiynmanu v’higiuyanu lazman hazeh – how blessed we are to be alive, to be kept alive, to have arrived at this time. Chazak chazak v’nitchazek -- may we each find strength and continue to give our strength to each other.
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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.
One of the great surprises of the pandemic has been a new kind of sustained, intense collaboration among Jewish professionals based in synagogues.
Denominational networks, cohort programs such as those from the Center for Rabbinic Innovation, and sharing platforms like JEDLAB and eJewish Philanthropy are one part of the story. Something more bottom-up happened between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah as well, especially among professionals in synagogues across North America. “Dreaming Up High Holy Days 5781” began on Facebook not long after Pesach, and quickly almost 2,800 colleagues gathered there. In addition to a clearinghouse, it became a venue for creating together. Certain ideas shared and developed there quickly became almost the norm for synagogues on Rosh Hashanah – signing up for private time in Sanctuaries, outdoor mass Shofar gatherings. The Jew It At Home collaborative of forty-plus partners, mostly synagogues, has been bringing Jewish learning and experiences to participants all over the world every day.
If we had been there for each other for the difficult first months, and helped each other reengineer everything from scratch through these first collaborations – dayenu.
What if there could be more?
There is an opportunity now for collaboration that could be sustainable for professionals and institutions, and transformational both for institutions and the life of Jews in our synagogues. Not just temporarily during the pandemic – getting us through Purim and Pesach 2021 and the long transition back -- but once it is safe to be together entirely.
We know that collaboration can be both time-consuming and rewarding. Time-consuming: more e-blasts to set aside and sift through later (or not), more posts on social media to sift through, more webinars on offer. Rewarding: improving our own work, knowing we’re not alone, discovering new joys of colleagueship.
There is a world where we simply treat the new resources and colleagues we’ve discovered this year the way we have always treated programs, speakers, curricula, and denominational networks out there. Available when it’s convenient, ad hoc, supplemental to our core work.
But for some of us, again that’s not enough. Either we’ve been itching to reengineer our synagogues and our own professional lives for a long time, or the pandemic has urged that itch onto us. Pursuing collaborations at a more energetic level could be the key to the transformations we seek or have been advocating. Particularly for smaller or medium-sized congregations, but by no means limited to them.
Is this what you are looking for? You are if you believe these three statements:
What It Could Look Like
Imagine any of the following, among a group of anywhere from two to five synagogues.
1. Collaborations that synergize teachers or prayer leaders
A community ought to have more than one or two rabbis or main teachers. We could partner around adult learning or spiritual guidance, by sharing ourselves individually with each other’s synagogues, by team teaching, or by conducting our own chavrutot or Kolel in a “virtual fishbowl.” We could try workshopping Divrei Torah together.
For synagogues that are meeting for services online, we could have clergy swaps and teach regularly to each other’s communities. Or Synaplex-style offerings, where one of us leads the yoga service, one the Torah discussion, one the regular service. After the pandemic subsides, the technology exists for us to do this in different rooms in our existing facilities too; all it takes is a tablet or laptop and a monitor or projector to have some of the Synaplex led from a different place.
2. Collaborations that create critical mass or economies of scale
Some aspects of Jewish education, such as learning Hebrew, are hard to do when there are only so many qualified teachers and when small groups and schedules are so hard to coordinate. Hebrew skills are the ideal lab for online Jewish education. Language learning is not as inherently relational as other areas of meaning and values. A group of synagogues could collaborate not on an entire school, but on Hebrew learning, especially for those who don’t want to or can’t come in person.
We could invest in great teachers and create an academy with tutorials and small groups, learning for special needs, video and audio resources, credit for high school students, and adult Hebrew. In the past, online Hebrew classes have been too expensive for most synagogues to buy from the specialist providers. It’s time to do this on our own together, or in partnership from the ground up with an entity that has expertise and infrastructure and has wanted a wider base in congregations.
We could pool our resources to hire musicians, artists, scholars-in-residence or consultants. They could work with or teach groups across our collaborating communities. They could rotate through our communities when that becomes possible, or they could help us create virtual connections between our members.
Some aspects of existing synagogue life take staff and volunteer time out of proportion to what is needed, and often chew up our volunteers. There have been efforts to share back office functions in the past that haven’t taken off. What about sharing the treasury and bookkeeping functions of several synagogues?
3. Collaborations that create connections among people in separate communities
We talk about the global Jewish people. Now is an opportunity to build relationships, through small groups who share common interests or histories. Sustained groups for social purposes or mussar; groups that come together around a topic with a master teacher. Some of these are opportunities for efficiency as well – a particular synagogue might have two people interested in meditation or a book club, not enough for a group, but together we might have many.
Such collaboration does require extra work up front, and it would have to begin now as we plan and budget for 2021-2022. The first step is to find each other if anything in this paper makes sense to you. Then it’s a matter of clusters of us finding the first one or two specific things to try together, in groups of two to five congregations. We’ll be doing that at meetings coming up in the next two weeks.
One model might be the Jewish Emergent Network. For a while I’ve been shopping around what I’ve called with tongue in cheek the “Jewish Pareve Network”, among non-hip, non-urban, non-new synagogues. Yet pareve is not what I have in mind. Collaborating would mean committing to specific projects, giving the collaborative a tentative name, and budgeting existing dollars and staff time. Outside consultants yes, but very carefully – the partners need ownership and commitment. Seed money from outside yes, but very little – the model needs to sustain itself soon as a benefit to each partner organization. I would love to see independent Jewish musicians and artists as partners from the ground up and not just as contractors paid for specific services. The ethos, the work, the commitment, and the business model have to align and come from the grassroots.
So, are you intrigued? If so, sign up here for a group conversation and let’s see what’s next.
My appreciation to Ariel Moritz from the Center for Rabbinic Innovation for working with me to flesh out next steps together.