Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life

It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.

It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.

But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.

How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?

Continue reading


Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

Continue reading

Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation

In 1940, at the age of eight, a young boy named Russell Moses was forcibly removed from his home. Ripped away from all that he knew, he was relocated by the government to one of many re-education schools. The government stripped him of his identity and gave him a number that was sewn onto his clothes.

Robbed of his name, forbidden to speak his native language, subject to harsh physical punishment, and deprived of love, Russel suffered enormously.

Born in 1932, Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River, an indigenous Canadian territory in what is now the province of Ontario. The story of his life – like many of the indigenous peoples of this continent – is one that includes discrimination, poverty, and tragedy.[1]

Russell’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. Each similarly unconscionable, each more tragic than the last. They are uncomfortable truths that many would rather ignore than dredge up. We tell ourselves that we have evolved, that we are better, that these injustices are a thing of the past. Such attitudes ensured that until recently, most of these stories had never seen the light of day.

Continue reading

Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile



Credit: Come from Away

The town of Gander, Newfoundland is one of the most remote towns in all of North America. Built in the late 1930s as an airport town linking North America and Europe, it is found on the northeast tip of Canada, surrounded by trees and rocks; rivers, an abundance of wildlife, and the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Gander’s population is remote, but diverse. The people who live there are mostly government, health care, and education workers. Their municipal website has an online complaint box, where answers are promised within a day. It is about as far away from my home New York City, as you can get.

On September 11, 2001, thirty-nine wide-body airplanes made emergency landings at Gander International Airport, as the world changed forever. Nearly 6,600 people were stranded there for a week, in a town whose population at the time was around 9,000.

The story of Gander, and the 6,600 unexpected visitors who inundated the town, is being told in a new Broadway show, Come from Away, which I had the privilege of seeing this past week. The play captures the depth of emotions from that bittersweet time, as a town opened its arms and doors to thousands of anxious individuals. In a time when we are surrounded by talk of closing borders and building walls, the show tells a story of acceptance, and welcoming diverse people from all over the world.

Filled with joyful and stirring chords of Newfoundland Celtic rock, Come from Away explores some of the deeper questions of our lives: what happens to us when we’re forced away from home? How does our sense of home change, when we welcome others into it? Why are some of the most transformational moments in our lives those that take place in these in-between places?

Continue reading

Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon at the link below (begins around 49:30).



I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.

My father was a wandering, oppressed, renegade, refugee • Parashat Ki Tavo


D’var Torah I delivered this past Shabbat at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY.

Perhaps you’ve seen a recent humour piece in the New Yorker, entitled, “No, I’m from New York.” If you have ever lived in New York City, or really have even just spent time there, I think that you will appreciate its sardonic depiction of life in the so-called greatest city in the world, through the eyes of an ex-New Yorker who has moved to Los Angeles:

“A two-bedroom house with a front yard and a back yard? Psh. What do you need all that space for? Yoga? I’m from New York. I once paid… five thousand dollars a month to live in the garbage chute of a postwar luxury condominium on First Avenue. It’s important to live in terrible places when you’re young. A postwar! On First Avenue! That’s how you build character. All of this ‘actual house’ business makes you soft… Move back to New York? Come on. I’m from New York. I’m not going back there.”

Like this New Yorker-cum-Los Angelean, I come from another place – born in Toronto, lived in Montreal, before landing in New York, with a pit-stop in Jerusalem along the way.

I have lived in New York City for 8 years, and have come to call that great city home. At the same time, I maintain my Canadian identity with pride. It is an inextricable part of me. And so I am of two worlds – every day, I feel the magnetic tug towards my own true north – a reminder of my identity as one who left home.

To be sure, it is often when we go somewhere away from the place we call home, that we gain a stronger appreciation for the very things that make “home” — “home.”

Sometimes the differences between my two homes are subtle. We Canadians and Americans share a language and many cultural influences. Sometimes the differences are more noticeable, as they are for the garbage-chute-dwelling New Yorker who moved to Los Angeles and discovered the wonder that is a front yard.

I am not the only one to have had such an experience. We are, after all, blessed to live in an age of great mobility. But the experience is mine, and part and parcel of how I see myself. I share it with you this evening not only as an introduction, but because I believe that it is an experience that we all are meant to share.

Continue reading

Parashat Va’etchanan: Enduring and Faring Well in Israel

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this Shabbat at Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following words in one of his most famous poems, Tourists:

…Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I must confess that when visiting new places, tourist attractions and cultural sites are not enough for me. I have taken a cue from Amichai’s impassioned charge in his poem. When traveling, I’m not content with the Disney World version of a place. I always feel as though I am missing out on something if I don’t get to peel back the layers of a society and try to understand the people I am seeing all around me. What are their values? What is the dominant public culture? What kind of government is chosen or enforced? How do people relate to each other? 

I’ve often also thought to myself: What would someone visiting Canada think are the guiding principles of our country? Earlier this summer, in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging time spent in Israel, I thought the same question: What would someone visiting Israel right now think are the guiding principles of the country?

As it happens – perhaps unsurprisingly – our own textual tradition has much to say about the guidelines and mores of establishing a functioning society. In the case of our ancestors the Israelites, these rules were remarkably detailed and covered all aspects of daily life. This Shabbat as we read parashat va’etchanan, we again encounter what is the most well known example of these rules – the aseret hadibrot – the Ten Commandments.

Now the idea of a societal legal code was not something new at the time of the Torah’s commandments. Certainly, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were already quite familiar with legal documents, including the idea of protecting such rights as human life, personal property, and familial relations. What was unique about our text – the text that would become the cornerstone of Jewish society and the foundation of much of Western Civilization – is that it framed a legal text in terms of a covenant with God. For us, establishing a moral, legal society is itself an expression of God’s will.

This Shabbat, I want to examine what I think is a unique and often overlooked aspect of our Ten Commandments, and God’s will within it. The fifth commandment reads:

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

“Honour your father and your mother, as Adonai your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (D’varim 5:16)

This is the only commandment that specifically includes a justification or added benefit for the performance of the duty – we are to honour our parents, so that we may have a prosperous existence in the Land of Israel.

Now this is peculiar to many – why is this the only mitzvah to have a benefit attached? Aren’t they all fairly important? And why is this the benefit that is included. Why not “Honour your father and your mother so that you may have all your needs met”? or “…so that you may live a safe and healthy life”? Moreover, why is this particular mitzvah the one to receive the benefit? Would it not be more appropriate, perhaps, for this benefit to be included in the commandment more connected to our ritual observance of Shabbat? Or why not attach such a benefit to belief in God’s eternal singularity?

This commandment pushes us to consider: what is relevant about the attached benefit being related to the Land of Israel? This mitzvah beckons us to ask: what is the connection between honouring our parents, and enduring and thriving in the land?


I believe that here we find one of the Torah’s most salient examples of what kind of people we are meant to be. In this one commandment, a direct line is drawn between our moral behaviour and our very existence. Our Torah is made up of a very long journey to reach the Promised Land, and here we are told that our time in the Land is dependent upon the performance of one singular mitzvah. Not belief in God; not observance of Shabbat or kashrut; not the Holiness Code’s laws of ritual impurity. Our life in the Land of Israel is indeed predicated upon our fulfillment of this mitzvah – upon our honouring of our parents.

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to honour one’s human parents is compared to honoring God, and the Talmud teaches that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. (BT Kiddushin 31)

According to the prophet Malachi, God is the very one who makes this analogy!

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6)

But is God really just dangling a carrot in front of our faces with this commandment? Is life in Israel just a form of positive reinforcement to get us to observe mitzvot? I cannot believe this. I believe that we honour our mothers and fathers not in order to receive the reward of the Land of Israel; rather our sustainable existence in the Land of Israel is itself based upon our living a life of honouring. Our existence in Israel is based upon the creation of a just and moral society – one where we give honour to those who gave us life and raised us. As the performance of God’s mitzvot is an attempt to become closer to the Divine holiness, we can only truly thrive in the Land if we are ourselves as holy, as moral, and as just as we possibly may be.

One clue towards this idea is the location of this commandment itself. The first five are often understood as being בין אדם למקום (between a person and God), while the second five are בין אדם לחברו (between one person and another). But this one – the fifth Commandment – can be interpreted as belonging to both groups.

Our parasha this week asks us to consider – What are the guidelines and mores of establishing a thriving society? This remains a struggle for us today as much as it was for our Israelite ancestors. Every day, the modern State of Israel faces innumerable challenges in its efforts to be a moral, just, and hopefully a holy community. If our State of Israel is meant to be one where our people can long endure, where we can fare well, as we are clearly meant to do… it must be a society that continually strives to attain holiness; it must be a place that creates laws and legal codes in an attempt to bring about a more just and righteous existence. It must be a place where honour is given to each other – not merely out of hope for some divine reward, but because this is the path to creating a long enduring community.

I was considering these ideas yesterday while reading a poignant commentary by Israel’s prolific Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Writing about the ease with which Israelis optimistically tell each other “hakol b’seder” (everything is okay), he had this to say about Israel’s current state of affairs in its war against Hamas:

“Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.”

What are we to do? What is Israel to do? In an intriguing twist in the Torah, the earlier reading of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus only includes the line “that you may long endure on the land…” (Shemot 20:12), not yet receiving the idea in Deuteronomy that we “may long endure and fare well on the land.” Apparently there is a difference between mere endurance on one hand, and endurance coupled with faring well on the other.

I think this duality is at the heart of what Rabbi Hartman is writing about. Yes, Israel is blessed with the Iron Dome missile defence system, a powerful army, a strong democracy, and somehow an eternally optimistic people. Despite the dangers of war, we will long endure in the Land.

But can we endure without faring well? At what point do we begin to compromise so much that our endurance comes at the expense of our faring well? The progression of the Torah teaches us that endurance on its own is not good enough; we are meant not only to long endure, but to long endure and fare well.

Rabbi Hartman enjoins us to remember “the only way for [Israel] to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger.” I believe for us, in our observance of the violence in Israel and Gaza; in our viewing of local and international media; in our conversations on Facebook and Twitter; it is often far too easy to consider only the danger. Far too often, we are preoccupied only with Israel’s endurance. But hidden just beneath this surface in our parasha this week is the powerful reminder that endurance alone is insufficient. Endurance must be coupled with faring well. Likewise, combating danger on its own is insufficient. We must also be concerned with the perpetual embracing of our values.

The connection between a righteous existence in Israel and honouring ones parents goes one level deeper. What do we mean when we say honour? The Hebrew word כַּבֵּד (ka-bed) comes from the same shoresh (root) as the Hebrew word כַּבֵד (ka-ved), meaning “heavy.” The only difference is a dot in the second letter. Our duty is a heavy one, and we must treat it with the gravity it demands.

Israel – Medinat and Am (State and People) – must remember this. I pray that those making decisions in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv read this week’s parasha and are reminded of the heaviness of this duality. I pray that we, too, do not forget this powerful charge in our relationships with Israel. Yes, we should read and watch the news with a keen eye. We should share commentary and media online. We should dialogue with friends and colleagues. But our goals should not be limited to endurance. This Shabbat, may we now and always direct ourselves towards an existence in which we long endure, and in which we fare well with each other.

Shards of Memory

We Jews have a long memory.

There is a kabbalistic teaching that before we are born, we possess a complete memory of human existence. We have a full understanding and a full knowledge of the world. And once we are born, emerging into this world, this magical gift vanishes. From birth, we have forgotten everything, and must begin to remember everything.

This Shabbat Zachor, we are enjoined to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us on our exodus from Egypt – how they ruthlessly attacked us from behind, targeting the weak and undefended. Our parasha ends with the striking commandment – lo tishkakh! Do not forget!

Yosef Yerushalmi, in his book Zakhor, writes that we are the only people on earth who elevated the act of remembering to a religious imperative. We are commanded constantly to remember this, remember that, don’t forget this, don’t forget that.

Joshua Foer, the journalist and 2006 USA Memory Champion, teaches that there is scientific research that reinforces the value of our Jewish idea. At the neurological level, the act of remembering involves re-actualizing. Every time we recall a memory, we are actively re-engaging that memory at the level of the neuron and re-contextualizing it ever so slightly in light of who we are in the present.

Foer draws attention to how we are commanded to re-engage with our Jewish memory in the present context of who we are today: We don’t just eat matzoh, we are commanded to have a conversation about what it means to eat matzoh. We don’t just put the Shema in mezuzot and in tefillin, we also put in the paragraph from V’ahavta, which reminds us to put these very words on our doorposts and in our tefillin.

“The instructions on how to remember are so holy that we have inextricably paired them with the line that we are supposed to be remembering.”

We don’t just remember what Amalek did, we read the reminder not to forget what Amalek did. In this way, we are ritualize the learning of why this evil was so bad, and the imperative to prevent this type of evil from ever occurring again.

At the same time as we ritualize and re-actualize our memories, remembrance becomes a way to prevent unwanted recurrence. Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches us that naiveté and amnesia always favor the aggressors. He focuses on the importance of Shabbat Zachor as an opportunity to prevent this naiveté and amnesia:

The Amalekites wanted to wipe out an entire people, memory and all; amnesia completes that undone job… [this is why] it is a special mitzvah to hear this Torah reading.

And yet, as Rabbi Greenberg notes, Zachor is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. Our modern, progressive thinking encourages us to forgive and forget, to move on and be happy.

But when memory – through re-actualizing and re-engaging – is directed towards the present and the future, it becomes upended, and radically transformed into something new. The innovation of Jewish memory – very much unlike other types of memory – is that it has never been about the past, rather it is about who we are now, and who we have the power to become.

Through the religio-biological examples of Joshua Foer, we learn that part of our obligation as Jews and as humans is to build up our minds, Just as it is our responsibility to gather up the kabbalistic shards of creation and return the world to completeness, it  is also our job to collect all of the shards of our memories.

Parashat Pekudei: Living with Integrity and Authenticity

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this week at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

A boy dreams of a mysterious treasure, hidden in a far-off land. He travels through the deserts of North Africa, in search of the enigma that has appeared to him in his sleep. Journeying with him is an old man, a keeper of ancient wisdom. Through his travels – as is the case in most stories of this type – he learns much about life and his place in the universe. Together on their quests, the boy and the old man are each in possession of stones bearing ancient magical powers. The old man’s stone has the power to turn lead into gold. The boy’s stones have the power to divine the will of God. These are the stories at the heart of Paolo Coehlo’s allegorical legend, The Alchemist.

The world of The Alchemist presents two types of stones that each offer a vision of how to succeed in life. One: search for gold. The other: search for God’s truth. In our own world, there often appears to be two similar approaches to success. One is to direct ourselves outwardly, and search for practical ways to succeed in life. We search for wealth, power, and success in our endeavors. The other is to direct ourselves inwardly, and search for spiritual, introspective success; the things that make us feel worthwhile and valued. It often seems that people swing heavily in one direction, and struggle with finding a connection between succeeding both inwardly and outwardly.

This week, in parashat Pekudei, there appears a symbol of the intersection between our inner and our outer selves. We read of the formation of the bigdei s’rad – the vestments for the Kohen Gadol. Shrouded in secrecy and mysticism, the vestments include the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones, along with the urim and tummim – stones of a mystical and prophetic nature. These are also the names that Coehlo gave to the prophetic stones in The Alchemist. Together, these priestly stones were powerful cultic objects that had the ability to divine the will of God.

The stones and precious gems of the bigdei s’rad carried a great physical and figurative weight. Girded with the names of the twelve tribes emblazoned across his breastplate and on both of his shoulders, we can imagine the awesome sense of responsibility Aaron must have felt towards his clansmen. But for our priestly ancestors, the power of these words was not just figurative, and their weight was not just a matter of their physical mass. When the Israelites wanted to determine the will of God in matters that were beyond human comprehension, they consulted the stones of the priestly vestments. Through the engraved words, the High Priest the power to communicate with God and interpret God’s will.

Towards the end of The Alchemist, Coehlo writes:

God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand His spiritual teachings and the marvels of His wisdom… The world is only the visible aspect of God. And what alchemy does is bring spiritual perfection into contact with the material plane.”

We may not think of alchemy as the most Jewish of subjects, but perhaps a momentary lapse into near-paganism is not so inappropriate, given the cultic nature of the priestly garments. Coehlo suggests that the physical world is a visible reflection of the Divine – whom we cannot see – and that there are ways to bring our two worlds closer to one another. In the same way that our earthly world is meant to be a reflection of God’s domain, how can we make ourselves a reflection of God, upholding the charge that will come later in the Torah – קדושים תהיו – “you shall be holy”?

One answer, I believe, lies in the stones of Aaron’s priestly garments. The stones bearing the names of the twelve tribes are described as being “engraved like seals” – פתוחי חתם (Ex. 28:11, 21; 39:14, 30). The Re’em, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, a fifteenth century Greek-Ottoman Talmudist, argued that “the engraving is not of a seal, because a seal is not engraved, but that of the signet, which is made to seal letters” (Sefer ha-Mizrachi, Ex. 39). How is a signet engraved? For its messaged to be received, the text needs to be engraved backwards so that when it is stamped, it appears forwards. Rashi agrees, noting that the letters were engraved “inwardly” (Rashi Shemot 28:11). Our text appears to imply that on the Kohen Gadol’s powerful garments, the names of the twelve tribes were actually engraved backwards. What a peculiar site this must have been!

If this is so, and they were written backwards, for whom were they intended? Even Aaron would have had difficulty reading them, looking down upon his chest.  The words of these backwards-engraved stones would appear correctly only if impressed upon something else, or if viewed from within himself. The Rabbi Maharil Diskin, a leading biblical commentator of the nineteenth century, in an attempt to resolve this peculiarity, proposes that the engravings on the stones actually did appear in the right direction. In his view, something mystical and supernatural took place, such that the stones appeared to be engraved both inwardly – as the text suggests – and outwardly, in a way that could be perceived by all. His solution was that in truth, they faced inward and outward at the same time.

We are presented with these stones, very earthly objects hewn out of the rocky desert, yet clearly bearing heavenly, esoteric meaning. According to our teacher, Abraham ibn Ezra, these earthly stones function as mirrors for celestial rocks. A poet, exegetical genius, astronomer, and astrologist, ibn Ezra taught that the names of the Israelite tribes on the stones were symbolic of constellations, and that they mirrored the celestial equator – the imaginary dividing line of the zodiac. He believed that the priestly stones were an instrument corresponding to the arrangement of the heavens, and that when used properly, could even predict the future. He wrote that, mysteriously, “these things can only be grasped by the mind… They were divided in a way that could be perceived by the eye” (Ibn Ezra Shemot 28:6).

The division of the night sky into the zodiac is something that can only be understood by our minds – when we look up into the heavens, we do not actually see twelve distinct areas. For ibn Ezra, the priestly garments are tangible reminders of this important connection to the heavens. They hold up a mirror to the relationship between the “upper” and “lower” worlds; between who we are now, and who we have the potential to become in the future. Ibn Ezra is expressing the connection between the micro and the macro; between the inner and outer. In the same way, Judaism is a framework for connecting to something larger than ourselves. We don’t exist merely within our own selves; we connect ourselves intimately to a community around us.

This week’s parasha presents us with an eminently important question: “how do we live our lives with integrity and authenticity both inwardly and outwardly?” The priestly vestments – a seemingly anachronistic instrument for our contemporary, anti-caste sensibilities – offer a model of how to exist in relationship to God and to those around us. Just as the Maharil Diskin suggested that the stones of the vestments appeared the same facing outwards as inwards, we are meant to live our lives in such a way that we appear the same facing in towards ourselves, and out towards the world. In this way, we can bring about a truly divine existence and mirror God’s holiness.

Yet there is a tension in this idea. Often, the image we broadcast to the world is not that which is emblazoned within our hearts. At times we are victims of what the ancient Greeks called akrasia – knowing best but doing worst. At others, we present ourselves in ways that betray our innermost selves. Indeed, the very word for clothes – beged, comes from the same shoresh as the word for betrayal – b’gidah. The relationship between vestments, and our inner selves is echoed in the Talmud: Rabbi Inyani bar Sason says that the Torah includes the laws for the priestly vestments and the laws for the sacrifices so close to each other, in order to draw the connection between our physical behavior and our spiritual purity (BT Zevakhim 88b).

Rabbi Hanina taught that the various accoutrements of the vestments are actually able to atone for impure thoughts, arrogance, brazenness, slander, neglect of civil laws, and idolatry (BT Zevakhim 88b). Now the notion that we should be honest and just in whom we present ourselves to be is a deceptively simple idea, perhaps even an obvious one. Yet it is one which often remains unaddressed. In many ways, searching for the answer to this question is at the heart of our journey as future k’lei kodesh.

Earlier on his journey through the desert, the boy in the Alchemist was accompanied by an Englishman who was himself in search of the titular character. Pondering the meaning of the urim and tummim, the boy struck up a conversation with the man:

Why do they make things so complicated?” The Englishman responded: “So that those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand… It’s only those who are persistent, and willing to study things deeply, who achieve… That’s why I’m here in the middle of the desert.”

Our heritage is born out of the desert, out of mysteries, and out of the quest to bring ourselves closer to the ideal of who we can be. This is the quest to get closer to God, to become the mamlekhet kohanim that we are meant to be. If we are persistent; if we look beyond the words that occasionally appear backwards; if we are willing to look at ourselves deeply, reject betrayal, and portray ourselves outwardly as we are inwardly; then we will have the ability to become mirrors of the Divine.

This week, as we conclude Sefer Shemot, may we go from strength to strength on this journey.

Parashat Vayishlach: Searching for the Vanished Jacob

This is the sermon that I delivered this Shabbat at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. It was my first of the year, and my first official d’var torah at Rabbinical School.

“Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽”

Thirteen years ago, late in the afternoon of a cool autumn day, I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend. A large group of teenagers approached us, asking if they could borrow some money. All that was in my pocket was an empty wallet and bus tickets. I said I didn’t have any cash. “Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽” Within seconds, my friend was on the ground, being kicked and beaten, and I was running for help from nearby strangers.

In the aftermath, there were some who thought it unbelievable that I ran, instead of staying to defend my friend. At times, I had my own guilt about the situation. But I was reassured that my reaction was the normal, human response to the situation, and very well could have saved us from more harm.

In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon, an American Physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight response,” to describe the physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events or threats to survival. This is our body’s way of protecting us when it senses danger. We give ourselves over to something more powerful than our consciousness to hopefully emerge safely.

This Shabbat, we read: “לו וַיֵּצֶר ,מְאֹד יַעֲקֹב וַיִּירָא – Jacob was greatly frightened and anxious”[1] and “לְבַדּו יַעֲקֹב וַיִּוָּתֵר – And Jacob was alone.”[2]

Confronted with an approaching force of 400 men sent by Esau who had vowed to kill him,[3] what does Jacob do? He splits his camp in two to protect his family,[4] sends envoys to Esau,[5] and prays to God for protection.[6] He doesn’t flee, nor does he prepare to fight. Perhaps, Jacob isn’t the wisest person.

We can forgive Jacob for not being familiar with the body’s Autonomic Nervous System, but how are we to understand his reaction to his fear and loneliness? This isn’t just a frightening situation that confronts Jacob; it is a dilemma of existential proportions. And there is a significant difference between fear and existential dread. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches:

A [moral] dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. [But] these questions have answers. There is a right course of action and a wrong one… A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer… A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life… Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas… we may be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress.[7]

Certainly, there are moral complexities confronting Jacob. He is faced with a potentially violent standoff against Esau, yet he wants to reconcile and make peace with his brother. Rashi teaches that the Torah says Jacob was both frightened and anxious to evoke the dread that Jacob must be feeling: frightened that he might be killed, and anxious that he might have to kill others.[8] Rabbi Jacob bar Idi, an Amoraic sage, elucidates this dilemma, noting that in his stunning vision of the ladder, Jacob was promised by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the sand in the sea,[9] but now he faces potential death and the destruction of that promise.[10]

How does Jacob reconcile this existential dilemma?

We read that as part of Jacob’s peace overtures, he sends messengers to Esau with messages of reconciliation. But the Torah’s word for messengers – מלאכים – may also be read as “angels”. The Rambam suggests that as angels are non-corporeal beings, they can be understood more broadly to refer to other non-corporeal phenomena, such as human intelligence and intellect.[11] The very name of this parasha, וישלח (and he dispatched / and he sent out), conveys the idea that when assessing and dealing with a potentially life-altering challenge, we must dispatch our own “non-corporeal” beings – such as intelligence and intellect.

Defying an instinctual fight or flight reaction, Jacob hatches an ingenious plan. Hopeful that peace will be reached, he is also pragmatic and protects his family – and through them, the realization of God’s promise. Jacob’s actions are a model of how to avoid reactionary extremism, and use our intellect to overcome existential dilemmas.

We know that Jacob’s life is one of great struggle. Many look up to him as a leader and father, but he is a complex man who spends much of his life searching for things seemingly out of his grasp. To be sure, struggle is something that is baked into Jacob’s essence from his time in Rebecca’s womb. He physically struggles with his brother even before they are born. He struggles for a birthright. For his father’s love. For a wife. With an angel of God. He struggles for his distant son. Jacob is not a comfortable man.

Rabbi Levi Lauer, Director of the Israeli human rights organization, Atzum, teaches us that in fact, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.”[12] While too much fear, struggle, and discomfort may be debilitating, these can also be forces of good when they keep us safe, when they expand our horizons, and when they open the doors to new journeys, as in Jacob’s story.

Jacob’s story is not the first in the Tanakh of a volatile, discomforting conflict between brothers. Nor is it the last. But his is one which offers a compelling vision of how to reconcile an existential dilemma of two competing truths. When the lines between good and evil are not black and white, Jacob forges a pragmatic, centrist path that avoids both idealistic naiveté as well as a hard-line, extremist reaction. His is a solution that results in life renewed.

We should know that this centrist approach has deep roots in Jewish spirituality. The kabbalistic teaching of tikkun olam is not merely a social-justice, “feel good” philosophy. It is an expansive cosmology, which teaches that at the beginning of creation, the world was in a spiritual state of chaos, called Tohu. This state of existence was full of Divine light and energy, but lacked balance and order, and ultimately collapsed in on itself in a cosmic shattering. But this collapse was part of a Divine order so that our universe could be rebuilt through humanity’s fixing of this shattering – through tikkun.

Rabbi Yanki Tauber teaches that “the Kabbalists see Jacob and Esau as the embodiment of this cosmic twinship.[13] Esau is the chaotic energy of Tohu, while Jacob represents the opportunity for tikkun. The challenge is to bring together these twins and the forces they represent. As Rabbi Tauber argues:

The struggle to achieve this synergy is the life-history of the biblical twins, and the essence of human history as a whole. Esau and Jacob emerge from the same womb (where they were already fighting), and the rest of their lives is defined by the effort to bring them back together.

The quest to unite Esau’s Tohu and Jacob’s tikkun continues today. On a daily basis, we are confronted with realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, this is a struggle based on an almost familial relationship. Israel – like Jacob – is faced with two competing truths. One the one hand, we long to heed the Psalmist’s call: “ורדפהו שלום בּקש” – seek peace and pursue it,[14] yet at the same time, Israel cannot be naïve about the threatening realities of life in this neighbourhood.

Can we turn to Jacob, the primordial political centrist, for some wisdom? Yossi Klein Halevi makes the case for such a paradigm. In a recent article, he writes:

I am looking for the vanished Israel. To be an Israeli is not like being a centrist in any other political context. There is nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. An Israeli centrist embraces two strong, diametrically opposed conclusions about the Palestinian problem. One is that a Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel, and the other is that a Palestinian state is an existential threat for Israel. That’s what it means to be an Israeli centrist… I see the emergence of a political center as an expression of Israeli maturity.”[15]

Klein Halevi’s moral charge is made all the more powerful when we read it keeping in mind Jacob’s other name. Klein Halevi isn’t just looking for the vanished Israel; he’s looking for the vanished Jacob, searching for a solution to a moral dilemma that stretches back thousands of years into the womb of our history as two peoples. Just as Jacob matured through his pragmatic, centrist approach to reconciling with Esau, Israel must mature through a similar paradigm.

There is a Chassidic teaching that Jacob’s name change to Israel marked this point of maturation from a childhood of struggle and strife to a more harmonious realization of his relationship with God. But this is also a mystery: even after he is named Israel, Jacob continues to be Jacob. The Torah continues to use his old name throughout the rest of his life.[16]

Leonard Fine, the preeminent MIT, Harvard and Brandeis professor, and profound Reform thinker, questions this peculiarity in the text: “How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to ‘Israel,’ continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?[17]

It is a simple truth, yet often forgotten: when we pray the Amidah, we refer to “Elohei Ya’akov,” not “Elohei Yisrael.” I believe this seeming inconsistency recognizes the profound truth that Jacob continues to struggle and wrestle, even after he is transformed into Israel.

This remains true for us in our day, as well. As residents of Jerusalem, we don’t have to search far for cases where it appears that Israel has forgotten itself and is acting like the old Jacob. But can we look inward as well, and see the same struggle in ourselves? Certainly, Jacob did. HUC Professor Norman Cohen suggests that Jacob “was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow,” and that these forces manifest together as the being with whom he wrestled.[18]

So let us learn from Jacob – from Israel – someone with whom we can identify. Someone whom, as Rabbi Sacks notes: “…we understand. We can feel his fear, understand his pain…[19]

We are all Jacob, struggling to find the holy space between the chaos of Tohu and the reconciliation of tikkun. When Jacob himself first finds that place, the Torah says “the sun shone on him.”[20] Rashi teaches poetically that this refers to the process of healing that was beginning to take place. So may we continue to search for the vanished Jacob, for his healing, and for the holy space between Tohu and tikkun.

[1] Gen. 32:8
[2] Gen. 32:25
[3] Gen. 32:7
[4] Gen. 32:8-9
[5] Gen. 32:14-22
[6] Gen. 32-12
[8] Based on Gen. R. 76:2
[9] Gen. 28: 14-15, 32:13
[10] BT Berakhot: 41
[11] Maimonides, Moses: Guide to the Perplexed (2:10)
[12] As quoted by Rabbi Avi Orlow:
[14] Ps. 34:15
[18] Cohen, Norman J.: Voices from Genesis. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998. Pp 125.
[20] Gen. 32:32