Posts Tagged ‘Jewish’

A New King Arose Who Did Not Know Joseph

This was sermon for Parshat Sheimot (Delivered via Zoom 12/24/21)

         In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we read that “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.”  Because he did not know, learn or remember history – he lived in fear of a nation that meant him no harm.  Because he lived in fear – he resorted to violence and murder.  He enslaved a people – killed its male children, and led his nation down a path that gave rise to misery and heartbreak for both his people and ours.  

         Right at this moment that begins the epic tale of our people’s history, the Torah teaches us the importance of grounding ourselves in an understanding of our nation’s story – if we do not learn it, we will mistake ancient allies for enemies – brothers for adversaries.  But it’s not just about learning, but rather about knowing – deeply understanding.  It does not say a new king arose who had not heard of Joseph – but rather a new king arose who did not KNOW him.

         I have been studying and rereading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s, wonderful book, “Einstein and the Rabbi,” in preparation for teaching a class on it.  In the chapter, “Finding the Me Within Me,” she says, “There is something that your soul knows that you’ve forgotten.”  Actually I think there are universes that my soul knows that I’ve forgotten – bits of family and communal history contained within stories I didn’t listen to closely enough; burning-bush-sized reservoirs of soul knowledge that I didn’t stop to look at and thus do not see or know.  

But what do we do with this?  If we’ve forgotten something – it is gone.  Its knowledge no longer does us any good.    No – in order for it to benefit us – we must RE-Member it.  To dismember is to take something apart into its component pieces – we must do the opposite – we seek out the component pieces, search for them, study them, put back together our personal, family, and community histories and RE-member them in our minds.  We can then begin to figure out some of what our souls know, but had forgotten.

         The book of Exodus takes us annually on this journey – the creation of our peoplehood, and in the spiral of its yearly retelling we have the opportunity to REMEMBER what it meant to be slaves in Egypt, to be freed, to wander in the dessert of the unknown and ultimately to make it to Sinai (only to complain once there about how much better we had it before).  Our souls’ journey as Jews is to keep RE-membering.  To redraw our lives and our history again and again until it makes more and more sense to us.  Until we begin to see more than just our outlines in the story, but how we are living it still, and how it is continuing to bring meaning to our lives.

         How many burning bushes were in our path that we neglected to stop and gaze at and thus missed?  How many times were we enslaved to ideas or goals that no longer suit us?  How often were we floating aimlessly in a Nile of disengagement.  But this week’s parashah stands to remind our souls to cry out, “Let My People Go.”  Our personal, communal, and spiritual freedom is in front of us always.  We, unlike Pharoah, do remember Joseph.  We also remember Pharoah.  We remember slavery and we remember freedom.  We remember feeling slow of tongue and too afraid to speak – and we remember actions that spoke far louder than words could.  

         As we begin to reembark on our peoples’ foundational journey, I pray that we will connect to it in ways that help us to recall the things our souls have long forgotten.  I pray that it will lead us to better awareness, connection, and unity with our own souls and with the soul of our people.


Watching From the Pews

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for me. I made it through the holidays fine, but came down with a nasty case of laryngitis, which progressed into fever, infection, and a week of misery shortly after Yom Kippur. The doctor put me on a Z-pack and a heavy dose of prednisone and promised me that I would have a voice for the B’not Mitzvah the following Saturday. Ahh…. the best plans…

Friday night came around and the voice was not there. I went to synagogue and sat in the pews while two wonderful congregants, Libby Tulin and Hilary Schwartz, lead the congregation in song. These two wonderful members of my choir often substitute for me when I am on vacation, but I had never had the opportunity to watch them do it. It was extraordinary.

As I sat, voiceless, in the pews, Hilary and Libby sang, harmonized, smiled, and prayed. The community joined with them and I felt like I was seeing my shul from a wonderful new perspective. How blessed I am to have such a capable, talented community by my side!

Saturday morning came and I remained silent. The Rabbi’s wife, Naomi Adler, CEO of United Way of Westchester and Putnam, came to the bima with me and she and the two Bat Mitzvah girls lead the service along with Rabbi Beal. I was there purely for moral support. It was a beautiful service. Naomi’s voice is as lovely as her soul. I prayed silently, but rejoiced in the beauty of the day.

My speaking voice came back in time to teach Hebrew school on Tuesday night, and it will be there, although quite weak, for Simchat Torah. As difficult as it was for me to step aside and let others do the singing, it was a blessing too. I am surrounded by love and talent.

Leaders often think that the world will fall apart if they cannot step up to the plate. I am glad to say that the world kept turning, services continued, two young women became Bat Mitzvah. I look forward to joining my voice once again with this fabulous community in joyous and heartfelt prayer.

Two Things to Get You in That Rosh Hashanah Mood

Hi all! I wanted to share two things with you to put you in a Rosh Hashanah mood for tonight. The first is in the catagory, “Wisdom of My Students.” I assign my students thirteen mitzvot to do in preparation for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. One of these is to read something Jewish (a book, an article, a website) and write a few paragraphs about what they learned.

My student, Levy Singleton, read the article “Wilderness Awakening” in the Fall 2010 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine. I need to read this article! Here is what she wrote:

Wilderness Awakening

Guest Post by Levy Singleton

“There is a Chasidic story about a boy who left the synagogue each morning during his daily prayers to go into the woods. One day his grandfather followed him and watched his grandson pray amid animals and trees. ‘Why do you go outside to pray,’ he asked. ‘When I am in nature, I feel closer to G-d,’ the boy replied. ‘Don’t you know that G-d is the same everywhere?’ ‘I know,’ said the boy, ‘but I’m not.’ In nature people often realize they’re part of something larger than themselves, the whole web of life.” – Rabbi Kevin Kleinman.

I believe, after reading this article, that when you’re in nature you are in a peaceful atmosphere in which you’re surrounded by G-d’s creations. When you are praying in the wild, you get the opportunity of using all of your senses, you can smell, hear, feel, and see what G-d created and how much power the beauty has on you is enlightening. It allows you time to clear your mind.

“In the city, with the noise of the marketplace, dust from the caravans, and friends saying hello, it’s possible that Moses didn’t notice G-d’s call.” – Rabbi Jamie Korngold. Our belief today is that G-d is everywhere, though for hundreds of years before we had the Torah our ancestors communicated with G-d on top of mountains. Why? Because they believed G-d lived in heaven, so mountain-tops would bring them closer to the realm of G-d. In a way they were right. Being outdoors does bring you closer to G-d, but not physically, spiritually. When you’re outdoors, you have a better relationship with G-d’s creations, making your bond with G-d stronger.


Can you believe that a 12 year old wrote that??

The other thing that I wanted to share with you was a bit of fun. While I was driving to the synagogue this morning, I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show. One of the guest speakers was talking about website called Wordle, which allows you to analyze writing by looking at the frequency of word use visually. The more often you use a word, the bigger it appears in the graphic that the site generates. Curiosity won me over, I had to see what my blog would look like. I think the result is a nice pre-Rosh Hashanah meditation:

Fear… or Awe!

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere/ fear (yirah) the Eternal One, your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One, your G-d, with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12). With this week’s parashah, Eikev, we are commanded to fear, or revere, or be in awe of G-d.  The Hebrew term, yirah, is a problematic one.  The two potential emotions that it suggests have very different connotations and suggest contradictory types of relationships with the Divine.

Fear:  Fear is one of our most basic, primal emotions.  We feel it from earliest childhood.  Fear is not a gentle and loving state.  It brings forth adrenaline, a fight or flight response, the need to be rescued or to escape.  We cannot be comforted by those things that frighten us.

Fear is not always bad, however.  The other side of fear is that it can keep us from engaging in dangerous behaviors.  It can inspire us to behave well, as a way to avoid punishment.  Still, the motivation of fear is self-centered and somewhat child-like.  It is couched in negativity.

Awe is a very different kind of emotion – a higher, more adult way of understanding the things around us.  Awe is about inspiration, beauty, the recognition that there are things in this world that are beyond human reach and understanding.  In some sense awe and fear are opposite sides of a coin.  Both are about the unknown, but one requires a greater depth of thought.  In order to feel awe, we have to appreciate and accept that we understand little.  Through that acceptance, we can avoid fear and embrace awe.

The High Holiday liturgy and music deal extensively with the concept of yirah, both as awe and as fear.  I am troubled by the liturgies and melodies that seek to convey and express fear.  To me, it is like those television shows that sell only sex.  Those pieces are calling out to our most primitive mind in the effort to reach out to our souls.  It’s easy.  It’s a cop out, and yet I am sure that the liturgists felt that the absolute necessity to touch people on the High Holy days makes that kind of (perhaps) cheap trick necessary.

The best example of this that I can think of is the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which includes the B’rosh Hashanah prayer.  The prayer begins by describing G-d as “nora v’ayom” – “awesome and full of dread.” The Brosh Hashanah prayer describes the great tragedies that can befall people.   In it, we consider who, in the coming year, will die by fire, hunger, thirst, flood, or devastation.  The prayer makes us ponder our mortality and by suggesting that we can “temper the severe decree” through acts of prayer, charity, and repentence, it invokes a sense of fear that we will not do enough, and that G-d will punish us.

If the text wasn’t frightening enough, the music certainly compounds the sense of dread.  Clearly the writers of this liturgy believed that this is what it took to keep the people from anarchy, murder and mayhem.  This is not a theology that most of us subscribe to and yet, I know that when I sing those words, I suddenly do believe them.  I cold chill goes through me almost every time.  The text and music have their desired affect on  me: yirah, but in the most negative sense of the word.

Do we really believe that G-d is the destructive force in the fire, the flood, the tragedy?  Isn’t G-d the Oseh Hashalom– the MAKER of piece?  Our liturgy says, “Baruch Omeir v’Oseh” – “Blessed is the One who speaks and it comes to be.”  G-d is a creative force.  G-d is in the firefighters, the relief workers, the people who run to donate blood, time, and money.  G-d is the spark in all of us that inspires us to help one another through difficult times.  Evil is the absence or denial of that spark.  Evil is in destruction, not creation.

The other side of the yirah coin is awe, that sense of wonder in the contemplation of that aspect of G-d that is beyond knowing, the ein sof. When we ponder how small humans are compared to the Earth, how small the earth is compared to the sun, how small the sun compared to the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.  We are a tiny, insignificant speck.  The psalmist writes, “what are we, that you are mindful of us?”   This is awe.  Awe is in the realization that even in being so minuscule, G-d is indeed “mindful” of us.

The music of the High holy days expresses this aspect of yirah as well.  We hear it in the Mah Tovu with which we open our Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Beth Torah- the setting by Lewandowski.  “How good it is,” we sing with wonder as G-d’s presence fills us with awe through this glorious melody.

Yirah as awe is such a wonderful way to experience the Divine.  We feel it in a beautiful sunrise and a baby’s smile.  Awe is full of positive feelings, but it is much harder to access than fear.  This is part of what makes it such a treat when it happens.

The mystics teach us that there are many aspects to G-d’s presence.  They illustrate this in a structure that looks like a ladder or tree.  At the top is the unknowable ein sof, also called the keter, or crown.  Ein sof means without end.  This is the most mysterious aspect of the Divine.  At the bottom of the ladder is shechinah, the feminine aspect of G-d.  This is essentially G-d as we experience G-d on earth.  What a gift that is.  G-d is at the same time a completely esoteric being beyond all understanding, AND a presence that we can feel and relate to in our everyday life.

Thank G-d for that!  There is yirah, as awe or (hopefully not as) fear – those glimpses of the Ein Sof that take our breath away.  And then there is a more accessible experience of the Shechinah.

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One, your G-d demand of you? Only this: to have yirah for the Eternal your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One your G-d with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Crafting Spiritually

Good news!  TBT will be holding a fabulous cabaret night with music and food this Saturday night.  More good news: I will be leading Havdallah to lead us into the festivities.  Even more good news: We don’t have enough spice boxes for every table to have one.  If we pass around a single spice box, it will never reach every table before we finish the ceremony.  So it occurs to me that this is yet another perfect opportunity for some creative spiritual crafting.

The tradition is that on the Sabbath we gain an extra soul.  As we say farewell to the Sabbath and our extra soul, we smell spices in order to give us a measure of comfort, to bring some of the spice of Shabbat into our week, and to wake us gently into our weekly responsibilities.

There are a lot of beautiful Havdallah sets that one can purchase to beautify the mitzvah of separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week, but I think that crafting this one piece of the Havdallah set and putting one on each table for our guests to use will help others think of ways to bring their own creativity into ritual.

May your Shabbat be filled with spice and may you carry that spice into a beautiful week to come!

Knitting as a Spiritual Practice

I have enjoyed yarn crafts for almost my entire life.  For the past several years, I have become a passionate and dedicated knitter.  Knitting keeps me calm in stressful meetings; it helps me stay focused on what is happening; it relaxes me after a difficult day.  Knitting inspires my creativity as I think about color, design, and texture in the hopes of creating new and beautiful things.  But knitting is, for me, also a deeply spiritual practice.

When we knit we take something that is almost useless and turn it into something appealing and functional.  The practice of knitting teaches patience.  The finished object that I see in my mind’s eye is months from completion, yet stitch by stitch it gets closer.  When facing a task in life that seems daunting, I remember the baby blanket that I crocheted for by niece.  It was months of the same stitch in the same yarn.  At first it looked so incredibly bland and boring.  But when it was complete, oh when it was complete it was a work of art and, more importantly, it kept her warm in her first fragile months of life in the NICU and when she finally got to go home.

Knitting also helps us learn the skill of when to give up and let go, and when it is worthwhile to go back and fix.  I always loved the idea that Native Americans believe that a work of craft (usually beading, I believe) should have one error in it, a place for the spirit to move in and out of the art.  I use this idea to allow me to let small mistakes go and become a part of the design, a piece of what makes the knitted object unique and handmade, as opposed to sterile and stamped out.  This is an important lesson in the art of life, as well.  It makes me wonder if the reason that humans are so imperfect, even though we are made in the image of G-d, is that it is our imperfection that made us G-d’s special hand-crafted art-work.

A big error in our art should not be let go, however.  Sometimes it is worth the effort to rip back a lot of rows of knitting to fix a large and glaring mistake.  (Knitters call this “frogging” because you “riiiiiip it, riiiiiip it!”)  Frogging can be a heart-wrenching activity.  You watch the hours of loving work unravel in a kinked mess of yarn.  What may have taken weeks to create comes out in minutes.  Yet, without being willing to let it go, the finished object may not have fit, may not have been functional, may not have been beautiful.  A glaring mistake in life can be even more difficult to undo.  Addictions, for example, can take years to recover from, but the recovery is still a painful necessity in order to be able to move on and make something beautiful out of life.

Knitting helps us envision a future more idyllic and more complete than the present.  It is like the prayers at the end of the worship service.  “May the time not be distant, O G-d when…”  As long as we can see that perfect future when nations live at peace, we can work towards making it a reality.  I’m casting on for that future right now.