“We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon:” Parashat Vayikra

On Friday afternoon, I was at the Masjid Muhammad Mosque just a few blocks away from Sixth & I.

I was there with other members of the Jewish community, who we went in solidarity and out of profound sadness and anguish at the murderous attacks on mosques in New Zealand, which have left 49 precious souls dead.

I sat on the floor of the Mosque, listening as the Imam, Talib Shareef, taught about the prayers for the Muslim day of rest – the Jumu’ah. He shared that they are about remembering all of the forces that went into the creation of the world.

And I smiled, because Shabbat, for Jews, is the same: zecher l’ma’aseh v’reishit, we say in our Shabbat blessings: we rest in remembrance of the act of creation.

Why was this important, the Imam asked?

Because if you turn your thoughts to creation, and go far back enough – you get to this person, this idea, that we call Adam. Adam. The very name Judaism gives to all of humanity.

Our rabbis ask: why was all humanity born from just one person? So that nobody could say to their neighbour: my father, my mother is better than your father; your mother.

And if you go far back enough in creation, you get to one place. One moment in time. A big bang. Or a single sentence: “Let there be… us.”

And our rabbis ask: why was all of humanity created with the same dirt of the earth?
So that no person could say to another: I come from a place better than the place you come from.

We’re all made up of the same billion-year old stardust.Continue reading ““We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon:” Parashat Vayikra”

A Uniform that’s a Little Bit Inside-Out: Parashat Tetzaveh

When I was six-years-old, my parents signed me up to play softball. I already had a baseball bat and glove, but what I remember most is the first time I got a team jersey. I was so excited to put on that royal blue and red shirt. I got to show everyone that I played softball, and whose team I was on. (It was the Baskin Robins Blue Jays).

The truth is, I was probably more excited about wearing that jersey than I was about playing the game itself. I wasn’t… very good. My parents never miss the opportunity to joke: “oh sure, our son’s a rabbi… but you should have seen him tryto play in the outfield.”

But I loved wearing that uniform, even off the field. We love wearing our affiliations on our sleeves – broadcasting to the world a little part of our identity, and showing off whose team we’re on.

I’ve been thinking back on my history with baseball jerseys in light of what we read this week in the Torah.

Continue reading “A Uniform that’s a Little Bit Inside-Out: Parashat Tetzaveh”

Make Sure that You’re Not Signing on to the Quick Fix: Parashat Terumah


Based on research from my previous Parashat Terumah sermon, and updated with some new thoughts.

Valentine’s Day is upon us.

Maybe you wouldn’t expect the rabbi to talk about it on Shabbat. Especially given the hyper-commercial nature of the day, and the unfortunate antisemitism associated with St. Valentine. But I was thinking about it, because of all the angel imagery that seems to pop up on Valentine’s Day.

What is it about the power we humans have given to the idea of angels? For thousands of years, they have captured the attention of artists, writers, and religious figures. And Hallmark cards.

Turns out they also make a stunning appearance in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable tabernacle – the house of prayer known as the mishkan – that the Israelites carry through their wandering trip through the desert.

The Torah says: For the ark (just like our ark here), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two cherubs of gold.

These cherubs have long seized our imagination. What exactly are they?

To begin with, a cherub is not the chubby, angelic baby with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that when the Torah talks about cherubs, they are probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human: a sphinx.

Now I want to point out something that is entirely confusing to me. One of the foundational rules of the Torah is that we can’t make idols. But here, God tells the Israelites to carve these strange human/lion statues out of a solid piece of gold. And then to place that statue right inside the most holy of places!

Continue reading “Make Sure that You’re Not Signing on to the Quick Fix: Parashat Terumah”

A beacon of light in a moment of darkness: Parashat Veyechi

Like so many, I grew up with the ritual of having a parent turn on a nightlight before putting you to bed at night.

For me, the comforting warm glow of that tiny lightbulb was like a beacon of security; a reassurance that the dark night wasn’t just an empty void.

We don’t like the dark. It’s scary – filled with the unknown.

There’s certainly something evolutionary about this fear – for thousands of years, the night was filled with dangers, and something to be feared for good reason!

But dislike of the dark is not something limited to children or to our prehistoric ancestors.

I lived in New York City for ten years, where, come nightfall, any anxieties at the darkness are calmed by the millions of little points of light that spark on, without fail. Pitch black is not something familiar to New York.

At night, I could always look out my window and be reassured that someone was awake. Even if they were across the alleyway, I knew that I wasn’t alone. My existential dread was calmed by the warm, reassuring glow of my neighbour’s TV.

There’s something spiritually nourishing about nighttime in New York. It’s a reminder that we’re not alone in the world.

And then I moved to Washington D.C. This is a busy city, for sure. But at night… it’s quiet and dark. Sleep specialists might tell you that’s a good thing… but I know better.

My first night here, I had flashbacks to my childhood. Without the comfort of my neighbours’ lights, I had nostalgic pangs for my nightlight.

And don’t we all recognize this feeling, buried somewhere deep in our guts?

But of course, “It’s 2018,” you say! “We humans have harnessed the power of fire! We’ve discovered electricity, and invented the LED lightbulb, which won’t burn out, even after 100 years of continual use!”

To this, I say: you can be thirty-five years old, and then something goes bump in the dark, and your mind starts racing. We desperately want to be able to see, to look at things head-on with the power of our own eyes.

And here we are, on the longest, darkest night of the year.

It’s not a coincidence that so many cultures have festivals of light right at this time of year – we all have a desire to bring more light, more warmth into the world when it seems to be at its darkest. There’s an ancient wisdom to this.

We want to fill the darkness with light.

How can we do this?

Some wisdom from the Torah:

In this week’s parasha, we reach the end of the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph is wrapping up. Jacob, his father (who had thought Joseph was dead, and hadn’t seen him for years), sentimentally recounts the story of the death of his beloved wife, Joseph’s mother, Rachel.

There’s a powerful moment as Joseph brings his two children, Ephraim and Menasseh, to see their grandfather before he dies.

It’s bittersweet, filled with the poignant beauty of one generation passing the torch to another. But it’s darkly dramatic, confronting the reality of death and Jacob’s sorrow. And on top of this, Jacob is nearly blind – quite literally, living in the dark!

What does Jacob do, in this darkest of moments?

He can barely see his grandchildren – he has to ask Joseph who they are! But when Joseph tells him, Jacob says: “Bring them closer to me, so that I can bless them.” Jacob reaches out, embraces his grandchildren, kisses them, and offers them a blessing for their future.

In one of the darkest moments of his life, Jacob looks ahead to the future with gratitude and blessing. He says to Joseph: “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see my grandchildren, as well!”

Jacob offers a beacon of light in a moment of darkness.

Like our ancestors so long ago, we all have to make the long trek through the night at some point. Maybe it’s a literal darkness. Maybe it’s metaphoric.

How do we do it? One interpretation of this piece of Torah offers some brilliance: There’s something significant about Jacob embracing and kissing his grandchildren. This was no ordinary hug and kiss between family members.

Everyone wants to be seen, to be recognized. Remember – Jacob is nearly blind. Maybe his grandchildren would have mistaken his inability to see them as a sign that he didn’t love them as much.

So he draws them closer to convey his love.

We all have our limitations. Sometimes, it’s dark and we can’t see. But instead of hiding in the dark and recoiling away, Jacob reaches out with warmth, love and blessing.

When the night is long and dark – what do you do? You can hide, paralyzed by fear, or your own sense of inadequacy, or inabilities.

Or you can be the light for others.

And here’s the genius: Jacob’s inability to see light doesn’t diminish his ability to give light.He still has a warm embrace, and an open heart that wants to give blessing to others.

When surrounded by the darkness, each one of us still has the power to offer some of our own light and warmth.
The Talmud (Megillah 24b) tells a beautiful story:

One time, I was walking in the absolute darkness of night, and I saw a blind person who was walking through the dark, with a torch in his hand.

I asked him: “Why do you need this torch, if you are blind?”

He told me: “As long as this torch is in my hand, people can see me, and save me from the danger.”

The light that we offer in the darkness – even with all of the things that we are blind to – can offer warmth and direction to others, and indeed, it can save us, too.

What is the light you have to give?

Like Jacob, may you radiate it out to others, especially when the world seems at its darkest.

Resolutions vs. Rededications

One of my favourite things about Chanukah is its name. In Hebrew, the word means rededication. It’s a sign of one part of the holiday’s origin story: the ancient and holy Temple in Jerusalem had been pillaged and defiled by invading armies, who threatened the Jewish community with death should they not renounce their identity and become pagans. Yet despite the immense power imbalance, a comparatively small group of Jews was able to fend off the invaders.

After defending Jerusalem, the Jews re-entered the Temple, cleaned it, and rededicated it as a sacred Jewish space. It was a time of immense joy and celebration, as the Jewish community was able to observe their traditions without being persecuted.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like? A minority, despised for being different, able at last to rise above the hatred and divisiveness; its people able to express their identity freely without fear.

The ancient Jews rededicated their most sacred of spaces. And in doing so, they rededicated themselves to what was most important to them.

So what is it about this word that inspires me?

Many spend the waning days of December mulling over new resolutions for the coming year: “I want to stop eating fried food.” “I want to lose 25 pounds.” “I want to be more like someone else.” “I want to be less like someone else.” It can be exhausting. After all, we all know the success rate of new year’s resolutions, right?

The word “resolution,” it turns out (and forgive the grammar-nerd moment, here), comes from a Latin word which means “to loosen,” “to dissolve,” or “to release.” It’s quite literally the opposite of the idea of rededication!

Along comes Chanukah with a simple, yet counter-cultural, reminder: you don’t have to release yourself from who you are. You don’t have to obsess over dissolving yourself into someone new. That’s not to say that we can’t grow and change. But sometimes, what’s most important is to rededicate yourself to who you already are and what you already believe in. To clean out all the junk – either imposed by others or self-imposed –  that gets in the way and makes it difficult to be ourselves. Just like the Maccabees did in Jerusalem so long ago.

This year, as we head into the final month of 2018 and look forward to 2019, you can welcome Chanukah as an invitation to focus less on transforming yourself into someone else’s idea of who or what you should be, and more into returning to your strongest sense of self.

Wishing you a chag chanukah sameach – happy festival of rededication!

30 Days After Pittsburgh – Who are the Righteous Up-Standers?

I wonder if whoever wrote the expression, “May you Live in Interesting Times” had a prophetic window into today’s world. As we near the end of 2018, I can’t help but think about how it has certainly been an… interesting… year.

For many, interesting isn’t a strong enough word. It’s been a downright tough year for people who care about antisemitism, political civility, the success of the #MeToo movement, addressing the worldwide refugee crisis, and more. It seems as though we never have to look too far to find something that arouses frustration, anger, and fear. So often, these feelings add up to a sense of abject paralysis: what can we really say or do to make a difference?

I was considering this while reading this week’s Torah reading, Vayeshev. It features part of the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers – seething with hatred – gang up on him, plotting to kill him. Even though he is a blood relative, they think Joseph is different. They don’t see him as one of them. And out of malice and groupthink, they conspire to murder him.

It’s an 11-on-1 brawl, as Joseph is totally overpowered and overwhelmed. But in a moment of either patience, or sudden moral insight, or guilt, one of Joseph’s brothers – Reuven – rises up and speaks out against this act of violence. He’s not able to stop his brothers from the attack, but at the very least, he persuades them not to murder Joseph: “Throw him into a pit and leave him there, instead,” Reuven argues.

Reuven refuses to be an innocent bystander. We can argue whether or not his act of defiance went far enough, but at the very least, Reuven saw a potential injustice and acted to right it as best he could.

Reuven’s act should be a continual inspiration to us. “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved,” notes Rabbi Bradley Artson. So when faced with feelings of anger and fear, one of the ways we can restore a sense of calm and hope is to look for inspiration from those who refuse to be bystanders. 

Who answers the eternal call to get involved? Who are the righteous up-standers today?

I was moved to tears last month, when the Sixth & I sanctuary burst at the seams with over 1,200 members of our extended DC community who showed up to offer support to the Jewish community in the wake of the antisemitic Pittsburgh shooting. It was a bittersweet reminder – one we wish we didn’t need – that we are not alone in the fight for justice and peace.

And, of course, we should do more than just look for up-standers, we should be righteous up-standers ourselves. If you’re looking for a way to offer support in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, there are still numerous ways to help the victims, their families, and the wider community.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is addressing the trauma that many children are experiencing by providing age-appropriate books that address loss and grief, that focus on kindness and tolerance, and that remind children that we can still build a better world together.

    You can donate funds to support the purchase of these much-needed books.

  2. Donate funds directly to the Tree of Life Synagogue through the verified GoFundMe campaign.
  3. Donate to HIAS – an international nonprofit that works to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. Anti-Semitic gunman Robert Bowers negatively referenced the organization on his social media accounts prior to the massacre.
  4. Donate to the Jewish Federation Pittsburgh Solidarity Fund, which is collecting donations to fund psychological services, support for families, medical bills for all those involved, reconstruction, and security.
  5. Support and join the Anti-Defamation League in their work responding to anti-semitism, bigotry, and hate crimes in the United States.

Please join me in taking one of these steps to learn from the lessons of Reuven, Joseph, and their brothers. It may seem small, but – like Reuven – you can stand up for what is righteous and just. It’s a way you can reflect some hope and light into our shared world.

Wishing you a week of peace and inspiration.

Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779

Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Draco Malfoy – one of the antagonists in the Harry Potter series – is an elitist. He lacks compassion and empathy, revels in bullying, and – depending on where you stand in your reading of the books – he may have been an attempted murderer.

If you are not among the legions of those who have read or watched the Harry Potter canon, bear with me for a moment, as I paint a scene of Draco Malfoy’s malevolence. And if you know the series by heart, pay attention, because you might discover something new, like I recently did.

There’s this moment from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite of the books:

While Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, are waiting in line for dinner, Draco Malfoy parades in. He’s obnoxiously reading aloud a newspaper article highly critical of Ron’s father. And then he fires off a crude insult about Ron’s mother’s weight.

Harry comes to Ron’s defense. He takes a pot-shot of his own at Draco’s mother.

And this is when Draco Malfoy casts a spell aimed at Harry, while his back is turned.

Like I said, Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Nearby, one of their teachers, Mad-Eye Moody, has been watching. Not wanting Harry to get shot in the back, he casts his own defensive spell, turning Draco into a ferret. With magic, he torments the Malfoy ferret, tossing him around from floor to ceiling.

And this is when the calm, yet stern Professor McGonagall shows up. She puts an end to the draconian punishment. And with her trademark stoicism, she informs Mad-Eye Moody that this is not how they punish students.


This is from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, and by now, our brewing anger and disdain for Malfoy has reached a boiling point. We’ve spent three and a half books learning of his cruelty toward Harry, and yet he never gets judged or punished. We feel morally justified in our anger toward him – just like Harry and Mad-Eye. Which is why it’s so satisfying to us when Draco is turned into a ferret.

But while a commitment to morals is one thing, resorting to outrageous and divisive acts in its name is another thing entirely.

I’ve been re-watching and re-reading the entire Harry Potter canon. It started off as pure entertainment, but the last time I read the first book, it was half a lifetime ago. Today, I’m struck by how remarkably they touch on some of the very challenges we confront every day: Fear of the stranger. Divisiveness. Unease at public dissent. Moral outrage.Continue reading “Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779”

Spiritual Jet Lag | Kol Nidre 5779

It was 3:00 AM, and I was in a hotel room in Azerbaijan, lying awake. I was on the first night of a trip through Central Asia, jet-lagged, and disoriented. I groped around the room, looking for the alarm clock. I was so frustrated. Eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, my body thought that now would be a good time to get things going for the day. Somehow, I had convinced my body to fall asleep a few hours earlier, but jet lag is among the most powerful of forces. Despite my will, it would not be tamed after just one night. While my mind craved sleep, my body was busy making other plans. All I could do was lie in bed and – since it was evening on the East Coast – play HQ on my iPhone.

Jet lag is a vicious, vicious fiend.Continue reading “Spiritual Jet Lag | Kol Nidre 5779”

If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah

Last week, this Forward article by Bethany Mandel popped up in my feeds: Please Leave Politics Out Of Your High Holiday Sermons.

Some version of it appears every year. Different author. Same message. Everyone quibbles about it.

Now there’s a twitter poll asking rabbis what they think.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when a community member said to me, with just a *tinge* of sarcasm: “Well, if you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah.”

The Torah *is* a political document. The Tanakh *most definitely* is a political document. The Talmud is seeping with political wisdom.

If you don’t read the Torah and think about our responsibilities to the immigrants and refugees in our midst; if you don’t read the Tanakh and think about our fundamental religious obligations to lift up the most vulnerable; if you don’t read the Talmud and think about how to engage in civil discourse… then you’re missing some of the most fundamental messages of these texts.

Continue reading “If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah”

“Love your Neighbour as Yourself.” But not all Neighbours are Loveable… | Rosh Hashanah Shacharit 5779

A little over a year ago, we watched, horrified, as torch-wielding Neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, including “Jews will not replace us!” Since then, white supremacist violence has raged in ways most of us never thought we would see again in our lifetimes.

And then white supremacists told us they would march again, this time through the streets of our city. Though outnumbered, the hate was palpable.

I must admit that it feels almost absurd to give a sermon or try to teach Torah about white supremacy. For one – you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that Nazis are evil. And even more so, isn’t our time better spent mobilizing in response?

When this hatred rises, there have been, and will continue to be counter-protests, and teach-ins, and vigils. We will stand up for a vision of a world that affirms that humanity was created out of one being – adam harishon – the first human – so that no person could ever say: “my ancestors are better than yours.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

We will stand up for a vision of the world that says humanity was created out of the dust from every corner of the earth, so that no person could ever say: “the place I come from is better than the place you come from.” (Rashi on Gen. 2:7; Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer 11)

Hate will be confronted with love.

There will be a lot of love.

But there’s still a lot of hate.

What do we do with it?Continue reading ““Love your Neighbour as Yourself.” But not all Neighbours are Loveable… | Rosh Hashanah Shacharit 5779″