The candle

Tonight, again, I light the yartzeit candle. For 11 years, on the 5th of Kislev, I remember you. The cruel twist is that I don’t need to light a candle to remember you. You’re in every dish I cook, every day when I wear a piece of your jewelry, or every time I express my love to our family. I love you forever, MOM. I miss you.

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The Longing for Normal: Coping with Ambiguous Loss

We keep saying it over and over again. “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” We have such high hopes for normal. We will take that trip to Europe we planned, or have our grandchildren sleep over. We will have that big birthday party with all our or go back to pick our own produce at the grocery store. We will leave the job that we hate and jump into something new or we will go back to the office five days a week or not. We’ll go to a UT football game or not feel afraid every day our kids go off to school. There is so much we long for. 

In a recent Washington Post article, Amanda Uhle wrote about what was happening around her home in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan football stadium. In January the 100,000 seat stadium was a mass vaccination clinic and now, nine months later it was the site of an in-person football game, masks and vaccinations encouraged but not required. The forthcoming game could turn into a super spreader event, or it could not.[i] She wrote, “I knew that that crowded game might be bad for everyone who attended — and, most likely, for those of us who merely live in the region, too. And yet in the lead up to the gathering, I couldn’t help but thrill a little at the fact that it was happening at all. It’s a story about the world being normal again, and the glory of autumn afternoons in the stands.”[ii]

We all long for things to be as they were before March 2020, for what was normal. And now brace yourself because I have some news. The only place that to find normal is a setting on our washing machine or dishwasher. Normal just doesn’t exist. And still we long for it because we struggle with ambiguity, with the uncertainty that has marked the last 18 months of our lives. While this may sound trite, the reality is that there is no going back, there will be no return to normal.

We are living with ambiguous losses. Ambiguous loss is one that occurs without closure or clear understanding. It leaves us searching for answers, thereby complicating the grieving process. Dr. Pauline Boss coined this term in the 1970s.[iii] Her research centered around immigration, addiction, divorce, and aging parents. Ambiguous loss, she found, occured around more catastrophic events, such as war, genocide, slavery, holocaust, natural disasters, or catastrophic illnesses or head injuries.[iv] Ambiguous losses cause frozen grief. 

The experience of ambiguous loss presents itself like this: first, because loss is confusing, people are baffled or immobilized and struggle to make sense of the situation. Second, uncertainty “prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss.”[v] Third, “people are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss.”[vi] Fourth, “the absurdity of ambiguous loss reminds people that life is not always rational and just…”[vii] Finally, ambiguous loss is a loss that goes on and on, those who experience it become physically and emotionally exhausted from relentless uncertainty.

Sound familiar?

This is a description for so many of us now or at any point in the recent past. As a people we have gone through this before. In the book of Numbers, our Israelite ancestors get fed up with the uncertainty of the future in the unknown of the wilderness the promise of the Land of Israel. We read in parashat Beha’alotecha that the Israelites became complainers, they yearn for the life they knew before. The abundance of food in Egypt. That’s right, Egypt, the place where they were enslaved is what they desire. The familiar, the known, slavery, seemed better than the uncertainty of what lay before them on the journey to the Land of Israel. The dramatic shift from slavery to freedom, including the trials and tribulations of the wilderness, was not without difficulties. Part of our collective memory as a Jewish people also holds in it ambiguous loss, too.

One of the ways to manage ambiguous loss is with ritual. Rituals provide closure, they give hope, and they enable us to move forward. Yom Kippur comes at just the right time. Yom Kippur, its rituals and liturgy, provide us with the opportunity to confront what was and prepare for what will be. This Day of Atonement cannot cure our ambiguous loss, that isn’t possible. It does provide us with the chance to use ritual to recalibrate our hearts, minds, and spirits to cope with our ambiguous loss, to name it and to move forward. It is an opportunity for us to wipe our slate clean and to enter into this new year with a sense of hope and possibility. 

There are the rituals to ready us for Yom Kippur. Those who are able to fast from food and drink, refrain from anointing ourselves, wearing leather soled shoes and dress in white as a symbol of a humble and contrite hearts. These acts are a means of enabling us to focus on our words of prayer and to concentrate on the health of our souls as we do the communal work of repentance. 

The liturgy of Kol Nidre nullified any promises or vows that we made last year. We were released from all the things we said that we would do and did not accomplish, and we have been forgiven as the verses say following the melody of Kol Nidre, “vayomer Adonai selachti kidvarecha,” ‘And God said, ‘I have forgiven as you have asked.”[viii]We will repeat similar phrases throughout the day today because, even if we are in the midst of the work, God is ready to forgive us, we come together today to ask.

Rabbi Peter Tarlow taught:

Yom Kippur is in many ways the essence of Judaism. Perhaps no holy day better than Yom Kippur symbolizes Judaism’s belief that there can be no intermediary between God and each of us.[ix]

Today we stand before God.

Later, for the first time this Jewish year, pray the words of Yizkor, the memorial prayers for the dead. Yizkor is our opportunity to remember those we have lost. More than 4.5 million people have died from Covid-19 around the world. More than 60,000 have died in Texas. Those numbers are almost unimaginable. And for those of us who lost someone we knew, someone we loved to Covid, Yizkor is there to help us to honor them and to open the crevices of our hearts that we’ve closed off to allow their memories to enter. This year Yizkor will also provide us the space to acknowledge additional losses. That we couldn’t get there in time. That we missed family gatherings. The ritual of Yizkor reminds us of the imperative to remember. 

And at the end of our day together, we will gather for Neilah, the concluding service. Though the work of prayer is exhilarating, it is also exhausting. Neilah is exuberant. When we get there together, you will notice there is an excitement, an enthusiasm even in the hope for tomorrow. There will be a new normal, one that we face together as a community. When Neilah concludes and the final blast of the shofar is sounded we will metaphorically close the gates. What was in the past is just that, in the past. When those gates close we can move into the future refreshed and renewed. And just to make certain, we will also do the ritual of havdalah, the ritual of separation, splitting the holy from the regular, a holy day from Thursday.  

Yom Kippur is our day to release ourselves from what was, to name our fears, our sins, and our hopes, and to prepare our hearts to enter this new year. May this be the year we stretch our tolerance for ambiguity for there is no going back. Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.


[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/09/07/pandemic-magical-thinking-illogic-emotions/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: learning to live with unresolved grief. Harvard University Press.

[iv] https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/

[v] Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: learning to live with unresolved grief. Harvard University Press. P. 7.

[vi] Ibid. p. 8. 

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Mishkan HaNefesh Yom Kippur, p. 20.

[ix] Tarlow, P. (2005). In Yom Kippur readings: Inspiration, information, contemplation. Edited by Elkins, D. P. p. 27.

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Make the new holy

My sermon tonight is in the form of a letter to a guiding light of the Jewish people.

1 Tishrei 5782/6 September 2021

Dear Rav Avraham Yisrael haCohen Kook,

         Shanah tovah, Happy new year. Our High Holy day theme at Temple Beth Shalom used one of your quotes to frame our High Holy Day experiences, hayashan yitcadesh v’hehechadash yitkadesh, the old shall be renewed and the new shall be made holy. You wrote these words in a letter to Moshe Zeidel in 1908.[i]

     My clergy colleagues and I selected your quote because our world is in month 19 of a global pandemic and as we thought carefully about who we are, where we have been this past year, and where we want to be your words felt right. You remind us of the importance of Judaism and its depth and breadth. You also encourage us to take hold of the opportunity that the present and future offer to innovate and to make holy. With a passing glance this could almost seem to be about our Reform Judaism, you likely would not have intended it that way. However, you were a radical, and your writings and life have much to teach us.

         Let me back up just a little.

         You, Rav Kook were born in 1865 in Griva, Latvia.[ii] As a child you were identified as an iluy, a rabbinic wunderkind, who could memorize Talmudic passages with ease and impressed elders with your memory.[iii] From a young age God’s light shone through you.Your formal learning took place in Lithuania at the great Volozhin Yeshiva, where you were known as a prodigy. That yeshiva produced other notable alumni include Haim Nachman Bialik, the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry, Yisrael Salanter the founder of the Mussar movement, and Chaim Soloveitchik, the great Talmudist, among many other. Volozhin was the equivalent to the Ivy League in elite Yeshiva learning, in part because of the focus on a university-like environment for Talmud study. You were not only a student of the traditional texts of Judaism though, you also read and knew the great Western philosophers and your work included responses to their principle arguments. While always a pious traditional observant Jew, you did not live in an isolated world of study alone. You were a rabbi of the community. At 23, you had your first rabbinic appointment where you served the people, teaching, preaching, offering pastoral care, and always learning and writing. You utilized the burgeoning tradition of the creation and contribution to journals to share knowledge. However, you could only remain in a small town for so long. You ended up in Boisk, Lativa until an offer you could not refuse came your way.

         In 1902, Yoel Moshe Solomon traveled to Europe find a new chief rabbi for the city of Jaffa, the ancient seaport town that was becoming the urban center of new Jewish settlements in Palestine. Upon meeting, Solomon was taken with you and you were hired for the job. The journey to Israel was long. Your family traveled from Boisk to Riga, to Dvisk, Vilna, Odessa, Istanbul, Beirut and finally, Jaffa. When you came ashore after a long journey, you kissed the ground of the Land of Israel, just as other Jews did before you and continued to do after you. We’ve all seen photos of that happening and maybe have even done it ourselves.

     The entourage who met you on that pier took you via carriage to your new home in Neve Tzedek. But life in Jaffa at the turn of the 20th century was not always so easy. Having nothing to do with the political environment you were thrust into, you had a lot of work. On Shabbat you spoke at the local synagogue in fluid Hebrew, not Yiddish. You made the rounds of the organizations and communities you were expected to serve, led the local beit din, answered halakhic questions, helped charities and welfare institutions, presided at civic ceremonies, and received visiting dignitaries. You quickly became known for giving away all of your own household possessions to help those in need and co-signed pauper’s loans so frequently your family had to convince the local loan society your signature was no longer valid. Whether you liked it or not, you were under the watch of what was known as the Old Yishuv, the pious primarily Lithuanian and Hungarian rabbis who ran religious institutional life in Palestine who were strict and unwelcoming to newcomers. The New Yishuv that you served was growing in the Galilee and around Jaffa. The immigrants were significantly more diverse in their political outlooks and religiosity. Though predominantly Yiddish speaking, they were eager to build a Hebrew culture. You were a bit of an outlier. Trapped between the Old Yishuv and the new. As a reformer and a pious Jew you increasingly pushed the buttons of everyone.

      This year, 5782 is a good reminder of just how radical you could be. This Jewish year, a year divisible by 7, is a shemita year, a sabbatical year. As instructed in Torah, this is a year that the land is to lie fallow.[iv] In your day in Palestine the sabbatical year posed a challenge. Previously, in 1889 the Lithuanian rabbinic authorities ruled that agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel could sell their lands to non-Jews and continue to work them for the sabbatical year. Just 14 years later the Jewish population of the Land of Israel was different, more out-and-out modernists, secularists, and socialists were part of the second Aliyah. Maintaining the sabbatical year according to previous rabbinic interpretations would mean financial ruin for the New Yishuv. In your volume, Shabbat Ha-Aretz, Sabbath of the Land, you upended all of Maimonides’ extensive rulings for the sabbatical year. You took the laws and reinterpreted them for the dawn of the 20th century, not the 12th century of Maimonides. You completely rewrote the rules for shemita because you were living in your time and had the knowledge of what Jewish law could be. You tore apart the ancient rules in order to apply them to modernity and to building a nation. You were an innovator and creator and Jewish law was your muse. Your argument was this. Since most Jews did not live in the biblical land of Israel any biblical prohibitions were not enforceable, the interpretation of the shemita laws were not Biblical imperatives but rabbinic, meaning they were a second-order obligation. Second-order obligations are often overruled by the precedence of the first-order biblical law, for the Jews to live in the Land of Israel. And in order for Jews to live successfully they could not adhere to the laws of shemitah without incurring socioeconomic injury. You were very clear, you desired for everyone to observe the laws of the sabbatical year so your ruling did not relax everything. Your radical reform was focused on your vested interest in the Jewish future in Israel.[v]You could see that future and understood the importance of Jewish law needed to it to thrive. For this decision, you were raked over the coals by other rabbis with different opinions and it crystalized your place with the New Yishuv who would become nation builders who were grateful for you and your belief in Zionism.

          Rav Kook, in this way you embodied your teaching about making the new holy. You were able to authentically translate Jewish law for the time in which you found yourself without sacrificing anything from the power and force of the past. My world in 5782 in the United States is a world you could not even begin to imagine.

         As Reform Jews, my congregation and I do not live with strict adherence to Jewish law like you did. We use Jewish law and tradition to inform our choices while living fully in the 21st world. And we are fortunate that our community is comprised of a diversity of people. The Pew Research Center produced their report of Jewish Americans in 2020 this year. We now know that there are approximately,[vi] 7.5 million Jews, including children living in the United States today.[vii] 1.7% of these Jews identify with the Jewish religion and 0.6% state they are Jews of no religion. The Reform movement that my congregation and I are members of is still the largest movement of Judaism in America. But. Yes there is a but. The largest segment of Reform Jews are 65 and older. Only 29% of Jews 18-29 identify as Reform. Among 18-29 year olds, Orthodox Judaism is the largest denomination but the largest segment in the 18-29 year old group are the 41% of young adults who identify with no particular religion. Our Jewish community is changing and this will impact the Jewish future.

         Rav Kook, I believe that our strength is in our diversity. As the old Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism slogan used to say, “there is more than one way to be Jewish.” Remember your experience with Ben Yehuda?

         Yehuda Mirsky retells in his book about you:

         A little less than a year after you arrived Jaffa, you took your first sally into the emerging culture wars, opening the seams that would be navigated for decades to come. The crux was a heated exchange with Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, the former yeshiva student and renegade intellectual who likely did more than anyone else to resurrect Hebrew as a spoken language. Born Eliezer Perlman in 1858, Ben-Yehudah became a radical secularist and an equally radical cultural and linguistic nationalist. He moved to Jerusalem in 1881, and by 1905 he had founded several newspapers and associations for the advancement of Hebrew, initiated a massive, multivolume historical dictionary of the Hebrew language, and antagonized the traditional religious establishment for decades.[viii]

         The debate of the day was whether the Zionist dream could be actualized in Uganda instead of the biblical Land of Israel. Ben Yehuda was accused of not caring about Jewish history because he publicly was considering support for a Jewish state outside of the Land of Israel. You Rav Kook took no position on the Uganda plan, instead stating that there were good ideas on both sides of the debate, and it seems your attempt to explain yourself in Ben Yehuda’s newspaper drew scorn from both sides, your clerical peers and the “heretical” young. Perhaps you were actually successful as, you managed to write a treatise “celebrating both camps’ commitments to tradition and change, in terms that made obvious sense to neither.[ix]

         Rav Kook, I do not know of a rabbi today who could claim to possess your breadth of knowledge. However, I do know that I strive to be a rabbi who uses the teachings of our tradition to invite constructive and productive discourse. Sadly, my congregation and I are living in a time of near paralysis. The “left” and the “right” on any issue are seemingly incapable of entering into a respectful exchange of ideas, instead all sides seem to scream into echo chambers. Instead of listening to someone with whom we disagree we create more noise in an attempt to drown them and their differing ideas out.

         And yet, our tradition teaches us the value of an exchange of ideas. The pages of the Talmud contain not only the majority opinion but those of the minority, too. Knowledge and meaning can be derived from a multiplicity of sources. Your teaching and your life, Rav Kook, serve for us as a reminder of this tenet of our tradition. It is ancient and it is renewed in ways for the times in which we find ourselves.

         Rav Kook you taught:

Every person must know and understand that deep within them a candle burns, and their candle is unlike the candle of any other. There is no person without a candle. Every person must know and understand that it is upon them to toil and reveal the light of their candle for others. They must kindle them into a great torch that will illuminate the entire world. 

         On this first evening of this brand new year may we take your teachings and use them to light up each precious soul and in turn brighten our world. May the wisdom of our Jewish tradition inspire us to learning, to justice, and to peacemaking. May the new ideas, the new interpretations, and the new opportunities to build the Jewish community of our present and future be sanctified. Hayashan yitchadesh v’hechadash yitkadesh, the old shall be renewed and the new shall be made holy. Shanah tovah u’mtukah, Happy and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

[i] Mirsky, Y. (2014). Rav Kook: Mystic in a time of revolution. Yale University Press.

[ii] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/abraham-isaac-kook

[iii] Mirsky, Y. (2014). Rav Kook: Mystic in a time of revolution. Yale University Press.

[iv] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/what-is-shemita-the-sabbatical-year/

[v] All of this comes from the Mirsky book cited elsewhere.

[vi] https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[vii] Pew Research Center. Jewish Americans in 2020. May 11, 2021.

[viii] Mirsky, Y. (2014). Rav Kook: Mystic in a time of revolution. Yale University Press.

[ix] Ibid. p. 56.

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In the news

I feel very fortunate to contribute to two articles, one I wrote and one in which I was interviewed this week.

The Austin American-Statesman published “Chance to meet God anywhere as Jews prepare for the new year,” on Saturday.

Yesterday, I was interviewed by Yonat Shimron for an article, “Synagogues hoped to be in person this year. Now they’re not so sure,” which appeared in Religion News Service and The Washington Post.

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Holy Ground? – Shemot 5781

It has been a difficult few days. The abhorrent violence in our nation’s Capitol on Wednesday has left many scared, angry, and sleepless. Whatever our political leanings, the desecration through violence of the halls of Congress and the hate-filled, antisemitic, propaganda that ran amok in the streets around the center of our national government is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

On Wednesday the temple of our democracy was desecrated. The images we saw will not leave us any time soon and the trauma for our representatives to government, the people who work in those buildings will linger. What was, for our country, the holy space of justice and liberty needs a cleansing. And as I ruminated on what this might look like I did some research, perhaps the purification needs are much deeper than any events on Wednesday. 

The stone used to build the Capitol, Aquia Creek sandstone, was quarried, in part, by slaves. Enslaved laborers completed large sections of the construction, too.[i] Throughout the buildings that house our national government are statues of complex people whose memories we ought not venerate. And there has been a movement afoot over the last number of years to tell the whole story. In 2012 a commemorative marker was placed to honor the enslaved laborers who built the structure. Sojouner Truth, Rosa Parks, and Chief Standing Bear’s statues can be found throughout the grounds in a move to include the narratives of those who were too often silent. The terrorists who walked about the Capitol on Wednesday with Confederate flags are clinging to a vision of America from a time long gone, one that silences the stories and experiences of all Americans. The story of our democracy includes the narratives of the enslaved person, the immigrant, the African-American, the Native American, the Jew, and the women, each who worked tirelessly in order for our republic to thrive. The holy space of our democracy can be made holy again. 

This week in Torah we begin the book of Exodus we begin to learn how. For the first time we meet Moses and in the course of the narrative of his life, Moses meets God. Moses is herding the flock of his father-in-law in the wilderness when he encounters the burning bush, a plant on fire that was not being consumed by fire. And when God saw that Moses saw this, “God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘here I am.’ And God said, ‘come no closer here. Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.’”[ii] This awesome moment between Moses and God at the burning bush begins with the definition of space indicated by the request by God to Moses to remove his shoes. Shoes in this particular moment are an indicator of the profane, and when Moses removes them, he is preparing himself for the opportunity to know God in an encounter that will change the course of the Israelite people. We know the importance of space, whether made holy through divine encounter, or built to inspire eye through the wizardry of architecture and engineering. Sacred space can be built by the hands of people and it can be in the wild among God’s creations.

Just a few weeks ago that we recalled a desecration of space from a different era. When we celebrated Chanukah we remembered a time when our sacred Jewish space, the Temple in Jerusalem, was vandalized. Statues of Greek gods were placed, unkosher animals ran around the spaces that were once consecrated to our God. It was only after the Hasmonean victory, that the Maccabees were able to begin to clean the Temple. In doing so, they created a new holiday. The festivities, of course, were centered around lighting the menorah, the seven branched candelabra. In addition, “the Maccabees also marched around the Temple, singing hymns of praise and bearing lulavim and etrogim…”[iii] This celebration of rededication that we know as the festival of Chanukah provides pieces of a framework for reconsecration. 

We also know that we come from a religion that venerates time with ritual, not space. Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells the story:

At a synagogue service one Shabbat morning, a Torah scroll rolled off the table and fell to the floor. It was an accident, completely unintentional. Nevertheless, there was shocked silence for some moments. The Torah is sacred; the most sacred object of our faith. To see it fall to the floor was a desecration, a violation. It was then that the wise rabbi rose to bring us back together. The scroll, he explained, sacred as it may be, is a symbol. What is truly sacred are the words recorded within it and the community that gathers for learning. An atonement must be offered. And the best atonement, declared the rabbi, is a re-dedication of the community to the word, to the sacred task of learning and living Torah.[iv] 

As human beings we are often reliant upon symbols to help us understand and make holiness among us. Our Jewish tradition wisely teaches that it is the actions that we take, the study of Torah, words of prayer, the atonement, sharing of rituals, and preservation of sacred principles that are holy and make a space sacred. Whether they knew it or not, the re-dedication of the Houses of Congress began again on Wednesday. It started when people like Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey aided in cleaning up the building. And most certainly it was formalized when Representative Pelosi, Senator McConnell, and Vice President Pence moved forward with the certification of the votes of the Electoral College. In a process that happens every four years that I am reasonably confident has never received as much viewership, the election of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris was certified, and the voice of the people was preserved and the purification began. 

Wednesday, we pray, marked the beginning of a new era for our country. A time of dedication to the principles of our democracy that we share regardless of who we voted for in the election. And so we pray, A Prayer for Our Country[v]

Every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea. 

There is much to be done in our time, the sort of hard work on which God smiles because it is done for the sake of the dignity and well-being of all God’s creatures. 

Together, let us work to preserve and make manifest the values upon which our democracy was founded. 

The task of all people of faith is to call governing authorities to fulfill God’s purpose of bringing about justice, mercy, and peace. 

Individually and as a nation, may we heed our obligations to each other as we navigate the tensions of building a just society. 

Rather than a politics of divisiveness, may we move our country toward a politics of empathy. 

May we use our power well so we do great things for all God’s creatures, all those made in God’s image who yearn for an equal place at America’s table. 

If we do all this, may grace and peace be ours in abundance. May we be a beacon and a blessing to the world. 

And let us say, Amen. 

Shabbat Shalom.


[i] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-01-07/mob-invades-capitol-symbol-of-democracy-troubled-history

[ii] Ex. 3:4-5.

[iii] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/286527.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[iv] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/A-Message-from-Rabbi-Ed-Feinstein–What-s-Sacred-.html?soid=1120967546000&aid=rDkEQga8u-M

[v] © Compiled and adapted by Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss from American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters.
By Eboo Patel, Jean Pierre Ruiz, Andrea Weiss, Susan Garrett, Carmen Nanko-Fernández, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Katharine Rhodes Henderson, M. Craig Barnes. Used with permission of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss. All rights reserved. 

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A blessing for 2021

As the sun sets and the first Shabbat of 2021 begins, and we read the final words of the book of Genesis. In this portion, Jacob blesses his children as he prepares for death. So, on this Shabbat I too offer this blessing for you, a blessing based upon the 12 Torah portions of Genesis for our future.

It is the beginning, bereshit! As we take the tohu v’vohu, the unformed and unknown of this new year may we be like You, God, and be creators of beauty, invention, and opportunity for us and our world. From breads to new technologies to needlework to literary breakthroughs, may our individual and collective creativity know no bounds!

Noah and his partner Na’amah were trapped on an ark with their families and a whole lot of animals until a dove returned to the ark with an olive branch. May we use the wisdom of Noah and the dove and emerge from our shelter in place only when the signs indicate it to be safe. May that time come quickly as the heroes among us, healthcare workers, scientists and truck drivers deliver our 21st century olive branch—vaccines. Let us know patience as we wait and steadfastness in our choice to maintain social distance, wear a mask, and be safe!

Lech l’cha, go forth, You said to Avram, and he became the first Jew. In 2021 may we each journey on our path of relationship with You, God. Some will call you Higher Power, others may know you as the Force of the Universe, for others metaphors of Parent, Ruler, or Nature will do. As we traverse life’s path and experience longing, questioning, anger, and comfort for You, may we find You in ways planned and unexpected this year and know that this expression is authentically Jewish.

In 2021 may we be pursuers of justice and seekers of righteousness. When Abraham learned of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah he asked challenging questions of You, O Eternal. May we be like Abraham and ask questions about justice and be relentless chasers of freedom. May the work of our hands enable us to bring equality and equity to our city, our state, our country and our world. As rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, will us to pursue to do this holy work because it is our sacred duty.

Parshat Chayei Sarah teaches the power of love and reconciliation. In this new year may the loving relationships that sustain us grow deeper roots and blossom. When appropriate, may the fractured relationships from our past find one form of reconciliation or another. May 2021 be the year that each of us, each created in Your image, show ourselves self-love. 

Oh the wonder and majesty and fragility of our bodies. Within Parshat Toldot contains the complete lifecycle, from birth to death. This year may we care for our bodies with sustaining nourishment, meaningful exercise, and gentle care. Let us appreciate the changes and sometimes challenges of aging and accept the wisdom of those who have walked this path before. May we appreciate the miracle of the life force that pulses through us and may we all know good health this year.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Vayeitze reminds us of the complexities and opportunities of family relationships. Permit those who long for a family to build one. May our families of origin and families of choice be blessed this year. Let each of us know relationships that sustain us and may our families know safety and Your overflowing blessings. 

Vayishlach teaches painful lessons about physical and psychological safety. In 2021 may the audible cries and silent screams be noticed to bring us protection. May those who call to you God as their Protector find access to interventions and help. 

2021 will be the year of big dreams. While Joseph’s dreams in Vayeishev might not be the model we follow, let us believe in potential. May the the possibilities for ourselves personally and professionally expand. Allow us to learn and grow in new educational pursuits to achieve our goals. Let our aspirations be limitless!

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams of plenty and famine and creates stability for Egypt. Dear God, let us have enough. Enough to meet our own needs to feel stable and enough to offer grace to others. Should we need help, may our earnest requests be met with compassion and gentleness. 

Tzur Chayeinu, Rock of our lives, may the day come this year when we can safely embrace those we know and love. When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers they embrace and kiss one another and weep tears of joy. O how we long to be together, to pray as a community, to sing in harmony, to kiss and hug our children and grandchildren, to appropriately demonstrate our affection for our friends, and share meals with the people who bring joy and meaning to our lives. Until that moment may we have patience and use our words to convey our emotions so that those embraces will be sweeter.

May 2021 be a year of blessing! Just as Jacob takes opportunity in Vayechi to bless his children may we remember to invoke your name and bless those we encounter. May we see the blessings in our lives and when they seem distant, may we draw them near. And so now on this Shabbat I offer these words of blessing from the Torah to each of you:

יְשִׂימְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה. 
יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹהִים כְּשָׂרָה, רִבְקָה, רָחֵל וְלֵאָה. 

God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. 

יְבָרֶכְךָ אֲדֹנָי וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר אֲדֹנָי פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. יִשָּׂא אֲדֹנָי פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

May God bless you and keep you. May God’s presence shine upon you. May God bring the blessing of peace for you and for our world.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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Shoulda, woulda, coulda: A sermon for Vayeitze

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

When I was growing up and would suffer a disappointment, losing a soccer game because an opposing player found the back of the net despite my efforts as goalie, not being cast in a role I wanted in a school performance or the solo for the upcoming choir concert, or not getting an invitation to a party of one kind or another, I can recall my mom of blessed memory saying to me, “shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Honestly, if I remember correctly this response from my mom infuriated me. In the moment of disappointment, I wanted company at my pity party and was not always ready to move onto the “what can I do better next time” conversation. However, as per usual with the gift of hindsight, my mom was teaching me an important lesson; disappointments will happen, it’s what we do with those setbacks or losses to guide us going forward where we grow. Even if I wasn’t ready to move on from the pity party, her urging always pushed me.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda, perhaps a mantra for those who know disappointment. A framing for growth mindset, in our current educational scholarship. In all the Hebrew Bible, there is no greater exemplar of this than Leah who we meet in this week’s Torah portion. We learn of Leah in Genesis 29:16 and 17: “Now Laban had two daughters; the elder was named Leah, and the younger was named Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and of face.” The portion continues with the deception of Jacob as Leah becomes his wife in the place of Rachel and in the morning as Jacob awakens surprised to find her as his wife. Leah is a pawn in her father’s schemes and, we can only imagine her disappointment as the text reveals that Jacob “loved Rachel … so much more than Leah.”[i] The truth is that we don’t have all that much information about Leah when we first meet her. We know she is not the favored wife, and the text intimates that she was loved, just not as much as her sister. Rabbi Shai Held asks us to:

imagine Leah’s predicament, and her humiliation. She is older and less physically attractive than her sister. While Rachel presumably has suitors, Leah remains alone, with no sense that this situation is likely to end happily, or soon. Perhaps her father thinks he is doing his elder daughter a favor, protecting her honor by deceiving Jacob into marrying her. Perhaps Leah herself harbors the fantasy that Jacob will learn to love and appreciate her. Imagine her feeling, when, on the morning after her wedding, her husband’s only response to discovering that she, rather than her sister, is his wife is an excruciating mix of outrage and disappointment.[ii]

Leah’s pain does not go unnoticed though. God sees that she is not favored and opens her womb.[iii] And it is in the naming of her sons that we begin to see Leah’s acceptance of the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” in her own life as she bares children in rapid succession. Her first son is named Reuven, Leah names him thus because “God has seen my plight, yes, now my husband will love me.” [iv] Shimon is born next, and Leah grants his name noting that “God heard that I am despised and has given me this one too.”[v] Without giving up hope, Leah’s third son is named Levi for she prays, “my husband will be attached to me.”[vi] But then something inexplicable happens. The text provides us with no hints, however, when Leah’s fourth son is born, she names him Judah, Yehudah, because “this time I give thanks to God,” she explains.[vii] Leah managed to move through her frustration to a place of gratitude. It is not that a magic wand of gladness was moved over her, something fundamentally changed about her perspective in the midst of pregnancies and child rearing. We can imagine a thousand reasons for this change, yet the Torah does not provide us with the reasoning. We can only know that Leah knew disappointment and through her pain she found the capacity to feel grateful even amid her sorrows.

It is taught in the Talmud about Leah that “she was the first person in the history of the world who ever expressed gratitude to God.”[viii] Leah teaches us that disappointment does not impede gratitude, nor does gratitude prevent the possibility for disappointment. As Rabbi Held teaches, “Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other but rather makes space—indeed seeks to teach us to make space—for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness.”[ix]

On the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, a weekend unlike any that we’ve experienced before, there can be no better message. We have known disappointment this week because our plans needed modification in the interest of health as this pandemic rages. How can we take our disappointment and feel all the feelings while also making space for gratitude and blessing? My colleague Michelle Shapiro-Abraham penned a poem for Rosh Hashanah that also fits perfectly for this weekend. She wrote:

Shards of Glass: A Poem for the New Year

A friend once told me
that we smash a glass at a wedding
to bring a bit of sadness into a joyous moment; so that
we know how to bring a bit of joy into the sad ones
I come from sturdy stock who know how to keep our sorrow on our fingertips
So our feet are free to dance
My people have celebrated New Years when the food is old and stale
And Freedom when none is in sight
My people leave the house of mourning to celebrate the Sabbath
And my people find a 100 blessings a day even
when the days are thick with smoke
And you can barely find yourself in the darkness

Remind my tired soul, I beg You
My kitchen is far too clean and the china is still in the basement
Remind me how to stop the mourning
for tables that don’t need extensions
quiet synagogues with no children to be shushed
For lives lost along the way
Help me to shake the sadness to my fingertips
and free my feet to dance across the family room floor
Let me embrace my blessings
Let me drink deep of gratitude for all I have
Let me shake off this foolish melancholy
and help me find the broom so I can sweep away
the tiny shards of glass left alone under the wedding canopy[x]

Shoulda, woulda, coulda, my Jewish mother’s attempt at finding the space for the disappointment and the blessing. May there be space for these and all of the other emotions this Shabbat and even in their complexity, may we find the blessing. Ken y’hi ratzon.


[i] Gen. 29:30

[ii] Held, S. (2017). The heart of Torah, volume 1. Philadelphia: Jewish publication society. P. 60,

[iii] Gen. 29:31

[iv] Gen. 29:32

[v] Gen. 29:33.

[vi] Gen. 29:34

[vii] Gen. 29:35.

[viii] Held, p. 63 citing BT Berakhot 7b.

[ix] Held, p. 63.

[x] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/shards-glass-poem-new-year?fbclid=IwAR116OAHNI8ovYGFosQKtmnM-Z4dqMQyVthi9LBzNHnw4GwCsebrUAX50zs

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10 years

Shabbat candles, yartzeit candle, kiddush cup, and challah ready for Shabbat.

Tonight, the 5th day of Kislev, I will light a yartzeit candle before we kindle the Shabbat candles to mark my mom’s yartzeit. 10 years ago according to the Hebrew calendar, my mom died. (Thanks to my amazing wife for the new yartzeit candle holder that we will use tonight for the first time and will continue to use to remember those we’ve loved and lost on their yartzeit and holy days).

I am struggling to wrap my head around the fact that 10 years have passed, a lifetime and an instant. My mom loved to sing and make music. She had an incredible smile and a generous heart. She was an incredible cook and I cannot think of one item that she ever baked, cookies and cakes were store bought or made by someone else in Jane’s house. She loved my dad, my sister, and me fiercely. Jane loved a party. She would hate Covid and would want you to wear a mask so eventually she could go back to travel, gathering with family and friends, and singing together. She was a talented knitter, an occasional reader, and she subscribed to People magazine. Jane always had fabulous nails, often painted red. She liked original chapstick. She liked the dress code “funky casual” and we liked to hold pinkies when we walked together. I am so grateful for the memories big and small.

I miss her.

Tell the people you love how you feel.

Mom, I love you and I always will.

Shabbat Shalom.

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To Pray for Healing is to be Human

Here is a recording of my Rosh Hashanah sermon.

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To Pray for Healing is to be Human

 

Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon delivered to the beautiful souls of Temple Beth Shalom, Austin.

Once upon a time, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba were strolling in the streets of Jerusalem. They noticed someone who was visibly ill and they went up to him. The sick person said, “my teachers, please, rabbis, how can I be healed?” They gave him some advice on how to get better. The sick person asked them, “who made me sick?” They replied, “the Holy One of Blessing.” The sick man responded, “God made me sick? And you have the cure? You are out of your league.”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael asked him, “what is your occupation?” The sick man answered, “I’m a farmer, here is my sickle.” The rabbis asked him, “who created the vineyard?” “The Holy One of Blessing,” the sick man answered. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “You created the vineyard? God created vineyard and you take from it.”

The man with illness said, “did you not see the sickle in my hand? If I did not plow, sow, fertilize, and weed, nothing would sprout.”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “Foolish man!… Just as if one does not weed, fertilize, and plow, the trees will not produce fruit, and if fruit is produced and is not watered or fertilized, it will not live but die, so with the human body. Drugs and medicines are the fertilizer, and the physician is the tiller of the soil.[i]

Since the dawn of time, including the time of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael the 2nd century of the common era, healing and the healing arts have been part of life. Perhaps it is innate in the biology of our species to heal ailments, and maybe even more significantly, to help another human being to return to health if that is possible.

Illness and disease have been and remain a part of life. Ailments big and small, chronic, fatal, and short-term are part of the reality of being a human. Widespread contagions are nothing new, our world has known epidemics before: in the year 430 B.C.E., not long after a war between Athens and Sparta, Athens was ravaged by an epidemic.[ii] The Black Death of the 14th century was estimated to have killed half the population of Europe as the disease ravaged Europe and Asia.[iii] We’ve started to learn more about the Spanish Flu that afflicted the world just as the first World War ended, and in more recent history we can recall H1N1 Swine Flu, polio, Ebola, and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. We now add Covid-19 to this list and this pandemic is weighing on our hearts, minds, and spirits, as we celebrate and mark this new year.

Covid-19 has forced us to change our lives in so many ways. We don’t leave our houses without masks, who knows when we might shake someone’s hand when we meet them for the first time, and I don’t know about you, but I am acutely aware of six feet of distance when I am making necessary supply runs or taking a walk in my neighborhood. We have also been reminded of the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, more people are observing Shabbat mark time, and adults are flocking to online learning opportunities, especially Jewish content, in droves. Jewish tradition also offers us the wisdom of praying for healing.

As long as there has been illness, Jews have prayed for healing. Rabbi Dr. William Cutter teaches in his book Healing and the Jewish Imagination, “It is certain that our bodies do not last forever, and that they can’t even do everything we want during their physical lifetime. This condition makes life difficult and interesting, and it is a condition that has created much of the search for healing in Jewish tradition.”[iv]

Judaism has long engaged in all aspects of healing, from strange remedies described in the Talmud to prayers for healing. It is Moses who utters a healing blessing for his sister Miriam when he utters, “el na r’fa na la,” “God, pray, heal her, pray,”[v] in the book of Numbers. We know that in addition to being one of the greatest writers on Jewish law and philosophy, Maimonides was the court physician to sultan Saladin.[vi] And there are at least 20 mediocre to terrible jokes I could tell about a parent who wishes for their child to become a doctor or marry a doctor.

Jews pray for healing all the time in formal and informal ways. In the weekday Amidah there is a daily benediction for healing. We say, “refaeinu Adonai v’nirafe,” ‘Soften us up, O God, so that we may be able to receive healing.’ Open our hearts so that we can receive the gift of those who seek to heal. Help us to break down our own resistance to Your healing love!”[vii]

Then of course there is the Mi Shebeirach. Mi Shebeirach, “mi shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu” is a prayer form traditionally offered in the midst of the Torah service and is most versatile. It can be offered for the person doing the Aliyah blessing, for soldiers, and we know this prayer best as a blessing for healing. For many of us liberal Jews, it wasn’t until Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Drorah Setel wrote their iconic melody [in 1987] in response to the AIDS epedemic that this prayer became an essential part of our worship experiences.

As renowned historian Jonathan Sarna describes: this Mi Shebeirach prayer setting, “With a holistic view of humankind, this prayer asks for physical cure as well as spiritual healing – asking for blessing, compassion, restoration, and strength, within the community of others facing illness, of body and spirit…”[viii]

The Jewish healing movement, in some ways spearheaded by the Mi Shebeirach melody we all know and love, has transformed the way that we Jews pray. Take the example provided by Dr. Gila Silverman, an anthropologist did an ethnographic study in Tucson, Arizona to understand why nonreligious Jews pray and why they pray for healing by asking questions like, “what does prayer do?”[ix]

Silverman tells these stories:

In the early winter of 2014, I attended the monthly meeting of a support group for Jewish women with cancer… I was there to recruit women for my study on Jewish prayer and healing. In response to my inquiries, one woman told me, ‘I don’t pray.’ Another said, ‘I’m not religious at all.’ Several women told me, ‘We’re not sure we can help you.’ At the close of the meeting, the women all got up from their seats and stood in a circle at the side of the room, holding hands, shoulders and hips touching. Eyes closed they began to sing a modern version of the Mi Sherberach … by [Debbie Friedman].”[x]

Then:

As the song came to an end, the hands holding each other lingered a little longer. There were gentle squeezes, then a slow letting go, a shoulder rub, a hug, and a few small conversations, and then the women left to go on with their day. Afterward, I was chatting with one of the women. She told me that she doesn’t pray. ‘‘What about that?’’ I asked, referring to the closing with Mi Sheberach. There was a thoughtful pause. ‘‘Oh,’’ she said, ‘‘I love that. It’s my favorite part of the morning. I guess you’re right. That is prayer. I hadn’t thought of it that way.’’ Later, another woman, who describes her Judaism as peripheral to her life, saying that she is mostly an ethical Jew, but not at all a religious one, told me this: ‘‘When we’re all together, holding hands and swaying, when I hear the Mi Sheberach…something in me just responds. I guess it’s my Jewish genes! We have so much love for each other in the group, and we are just surrounded by that love right then. It’s so beautiful.”[xi]

Singing, “Mi shebeirach imoteinu…” truly praying the words of Mi Shebeirach is now a vital part of the prayer life for many people because this prayer gives us an outlet for our hopes and fears. As Silverman’s study elucidates, the practice of praying for healing also brings connection, comfort and strength, agency, and identity to the ill and those who are offering prayer. People find connection with their community as a whole and with specific individuals who they knew prayed on their behalf. Comfort is found when reciting the Mi Shebeirach as it provides “some sort of emotional relief, often expressed as ‘acceptance,’ … both for those saying it, and for those for whom it is said.”[xii] Prayer also serves as a vehicle for “agency in a time and place characterized by increasing biomedicalization and technoscientific innovations.”[xiii] Finally, the practice of singing Mi Shebeirach connects or reconnects Jews to their religious identity in new ways.

More than ever, in the midst of this pandemic and on the dawn of a new year we need blessings for healing. Individuals, congregations, communities, cities, nations, and our world are crying out for healing. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Eric Weiss writes:

All healing is a journey towards wholeness. Most of us know ourselves best when we are healthy and well. When we become ill, we are suddenly estranged from our familiar surroundings and often by ourselves. It is as if we are in a foreign terrain with no guide … Spiritual reflection – in prayer or ritual – is the form that allows us to link our history to our personal story. It is a glimpse into a moment of life that longs to be held, to find comfort, to strive toward wholeness.[xiv]

Healing comes in many forms. Maimonides taught that it is an obligation, religious duty for those with the skills to create healing. In his explanation of the verse, “and you shall restore it”[xv] Maimonides explicates that this includes the person’s body, “that if she saw him lost and she can save him, she must save him with his body or with her money or with her knowledge.”[xvi] Should we possess the knowledge or the capacity to heal the body or heal the spirit it is up to us to do it. If we can offer words, we must pray.

So on this Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat morning we pray: R’faeinu, our Healer, we cry out to You like our ancestors of old to bring Your healing blessings to those individuals in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. May those suffering with the Corona virus know wholeness and good health quickly. Continue to grant wisdom, compassion, and patience to the health care workers tirelessly working to aide, heal, and support all of those who are ill. May those who worry find small relief from their anxiety. May we all find wholeness, healing, renewal, and peace in this year 5781. Amen.

[i] Dorff, E.N. Matters of Life and Death: a Jewish approach to modern medical ethics. P. 28. I have edited this story from the version in the book slightly to appeal to a listening congregation.

[ii] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html. Accessed 09/09/2020.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Cutter, W. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 3.

[v] Num. 12:13.

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Maimonides

[vii] Green, A. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 55.

[viii] http://www.debbiefriedman.com/healing.

[ix] Silverman, “’I’ll say a Mi Sheberach for you’: Prayer, healing, and identity among liberal American Jews,” Contemporary Jewry 36(2)p. 173.

[x] Silverman, G., p. 170.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Silverman, 179.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Weiss, E. Mishkan Refuah ebook edition. CCAR Press. Location 153.

[xv] Deut. 22:2.

[xvi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3678790/

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