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)
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.
Back with another episode of Tov! Had the usual blast recording, this time with my colleague and old friend Daniel Kirzane. If you're liking the podcast please tell other people about it, or subscribe on one of the podcast apps and give a great rating! Thanks!
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.
I wrote and posted this a few years ago about this week's Torah reading -- one of my favorite things I've written. Hardly original, but still good!
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
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 was my opening invocation for the annual Southern NH Outreach for Black Unity Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast on January 21, 2019.
I am so honored to be invited to join you for some opening words today. My name is Jon Spira-Savett, and I serve as rabbi for the Jewish community in our area through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua. I’m a member of the executive board of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council and one of its recent past presidents, and it’s because of that network that I have met many of you.
Rev. King is one of my own most important religious teachers. I call him Rev. King because though he was Dr. King, a scholar and theologian, he was a pastor and a preacher and a teacher, for his own communities and for my community, the Jewish community of America.
Rev. King’s voice in our nation, and his many visits to synagogues and rabbinic conventions, inspired and mobilized people in the Jewish community, from college students to older rabbis. He inspired many in the Jewish community to march with him in Alabama, to travel down to Mississippi in that Freedom Summer, to work the pressure points in Congress for civil rights. There is even a story of a rabbi or two running into a Midwestern Senator at the airport in 1964, just by chance, quote-unquote, having been tipped off about where to find a man trying to hide out and to remind him there was no hiding from a vote for justice.
And the last interview of Rev. King’s life took place at the national convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, just ten days before he was taken from all of us. There Rev. King spoke a verse from the prophet Amos that you have heard from him many times: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
and righteousness like a mighty
Rev. King had preached those words in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and he had written them to send to religious leaders from his cell in Birmingham Jail, and he would preach these words of Amos again the night before he was killed, in Memphis. In front of the rabbis Rev. King didn’t preach them, he said them soberly, as quiet as he had ever said them, as he was in a tough time – let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
What was it about these particular words from Amos? I could read you fifty other equally beautiful verses about the virtue of justice, the glory of righteousness. But these words.
First of all, Rev. King was saying that justice is a power as natural as gravity, which just pulls the water down from the mountains into any place that is not already raised high. Justice is built in; it’s the hardware of our system. Just as gravity can take something small, and the longer it moves down, the more force it gathers, the harder it is to stop – so too justice can take any single person, any group no matter how small, and make them unstoppable.
In the verses before this one, Amos was talking about the so-called power of oppressors, all the work they have to do to twist justice, to feast on bribes, to take what they have not earned, to look away from the poor and drive them out of their community. The hard work it takes to look so pious and religious, when you are complicit in so much injustice.
Amos is saying: That so-called power -- that’s what’s unnatural. That kind of power is a wearying power, a power that spends itself and takes us constantly away from the Divine and from one another.
So why does that power seem so real? Because the verse from Amos really says that justice swells like waters -- like a rolling wave at the edge of the sea, like the piling up of the waters at the bottom of a waterfall – and behind that surge is an emptiness, an undertow, until the next wave. A depression where the so-called power of the so-called powerful can slip in.
So when Rev. King spoke about justice rolling down like waters, he meant that we have to get down from up high where we see things so clearly but we are smaller than we could be, and we have to roll together and make ourselves more powerful. We have to plunge down together so we can surge together, and we have to keep grouping up and keep on coming, to leave no time after one wave of justice until another, no lull that makes it easier for the other so-called power to just slide in there. When I said yes that I would presume to stand in front of you and say some words, it is because I wanted to tell you that I am tired of being a small wave and seeing small waves, and I want to be with you and roll and surge together. Let justice roll down like waters.
And as for the mighty stream, there is only other place in the Hebrew Bible where that particular phrase occurs and it will knock you out. It’s in a remarkable law in the book of Deuteronomy that happened to be the text at my Bar Mitzvah, so I’ve never forgotten it.
Deuteronomy talks about the case of a dead body found in a field between towns, and no one knows who is responsible. The elders of each of the surrounding towns are required to measure from the body to the edge of their town. Whichever town is closest, the elders of that town have to take a pure young calf, one that has never pulled a yoke, and bring it to a mighty stream that has never been worked or tilled – a stream that is mighty only during the rainy season, when it gushes with water from the heavens that overflows onto terraces and fields, and the rest of the time is just the memory of a mighty stream, or the hope for one to come.
And there the elders wash their hands and sacrifice the calf, and they lead a call and response. The later rabbis of my tradition say the gist of what they say, back and forth to each other, is this: We, the leaders of the town closest to here, we swear that this man did not pass through our town without anyone noticing. We swear that in our town it’s not possible that no one offered him a place to stay, or a meal to eat, or protection when he was ready to leave and go out into the dangerous world. For if we had failed in any of those ways, then it would be as if we had killed him ourselves, and his blood would be on our hands.
This particular mighty stream was hiding in the background every time Rev. King preached from Amos. It’s the stream where the elders of the city go down together to ask: Have we been responsible for every person, every single person – or have we washed our hands and just pretended that our righteousness is flowing like a mighty stream?
Have we been responsible for every person we don’t know personally, but we know she is here, he is here, yet still isolated from the rest of us, and we let that be all right?
Have we been responsible for education in every school, have we been responsible for dignified housing in every neighborhood, have we made it clear that no one can be bullied or harassed by another kid or by someone in authority because of how they look or how they speak, or where they were born, or who and how they love?
Have we been responsible not just to run after problems righteously, but to build the community that can sustain and love every person who passes our way?
Maybe we are the elders who ought to go down to the river, to the mighty stream that runs just a few hundred feet from here, maybe every year right around Martin Luther King Day, and see who else is there and ask these questions.
I believe Rev. King would say to us that the very same stream, the same place, can be a place of sorrow, or it can be flowing mightily with righteousness. All it takes is for us to be those leaders who gather there, who between us blend the wisdom of elders who have seen it all, the sweep of history and the big picture, with the freshness that comes from seeing people one at a time in dark corners. The mighty stream is a place for leaders who come for rituals that rivet us, and words that drive us, with measuring sticks of analysis and loving eyes. The mighty stream is a place for all of us, and not just on this one day a year.
Let justice roll down, like waters
and righteousness, like a mighty
These are words to hear preached in hope; and these are words to say soberly in difficult times. There is a hydropower in justice, and it is time for us to generate it together, to harness our power together.
Holy One of love and mystery, known to us by many names, or by no name at all – we pray that we will be blessed by the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught us how to be sisters and brothers, to be colleagues and teachers for each other in justice and righteousness, to be the leaders we need with each other and for each other. Amen.
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: