Judaism & its Leadership at an Inflection Point

Sermon for Parashat Emor | Chai Society Shabbat at Westchester Reform Temple, May 5, 2023

Our annual Chai Society Shabbat, at which we bless our congregants of longest vintage (pro tip: never say “oldest congregants”), and induct the newest “class” of those who have affiliated for 18 years, prompts me to take us on a walk down memory lane.  

This year we look back to 2005, when our newest Chai Society members joined the synagogue. At that point, at the age of 32, I had served for two years as WRT’s associate rabbi, working alongside Senior Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Cantor Stephen Merkel of blessed memory, and Rabbi-Cantor Angela Buchdahl.  Rabbi Jack Stern and Cantor Joe Boardman, now both of blessed memory, lent their friendship, guidance, and support.

Times have certainly changed.  Among other distinctions, I am now not only the oldest, but also the tallest member of the WRT clergy.  

Don’t get too excited.  I am soon to be eclipsed by Isaac, who joins our team full-time on July 1st.  (I will enjoy lording my temporary and not particularly impressive stature over my colleagues for as long as I can, thank you very much).

But back to 2005.  Major headlines included the 2nd inauguration of President George W. Bush, the death of Pope John Paul and election of his successor, Benedict XVI, the terrorist bombings of the London Underground, the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, and Hurricane Katrina.

Amid all these, one minor headline also caught my eye.  From the April 2nd, 2005 edition of the Washington Post, it says: “For a Big Conservative Synagogue, a New Style of Rabbi,” and the article goes on to declare that, with the hiring of Francine Green Roston, age 36, “A New Jersey synagogue [Congregation Beth El in South Orange] has secured a small place in Jewish history, becoming the first Conservative temple anywhere with more than 500 families to hire a female rabbi since the denomination began ordaining women in 1985….”

The same year, the Conservative Movement was roiled by a debate about whether or not to ordain gay and lesbian clergy, a decision that they reached in the affirmative the following year.  Given WRT’s own long history of hiring diverse clergy, including clergy who are women, who are gay, and who are Jews of color, it might surprise you to learn that just 18 years ago such matters even made the news; it might also surprise you to learn that the Conservative Movement was not really all that far behind our own Reform Movement, which ordained women beginning in 1972, started admitting openly gay clergy to Hebrew Union College only in 1989, and which hired the first woman to lead a major metropolitan congregation, Rabbi Laura Geller at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in 1994: less than 30 years ago.

In other words, the rabbinate, and, at the same time, the cantorate, have been changing rapidly and relatively recently.  And gender, sexual orientation, and skin color are only a few of the lenses through which to observe and explore this phenomenon.  Many other changes—less overt, perhaps, but no less significant—have also transformed the role, definition, and expectations of Jewish clergy, at least in the non-Orthodox world.

The images of cantors and rabbis that I carried into my rabbinate came, as expected, from childhood, growing up at a Reform congregation in Allentown, Pennsylvania:  Cantor David Green, portly and jovial, with a bushy black beard and glasses with Coke-bottle-thick lenses and a magnificent baritone voice, who, when I was 10, took me under his wing to study trope, Torah and Haftarah cantillation, and, later, cantorial nusach; Rabbi Herb Brockman, also lushly bearded, who spoke with passion and eloquence and who blessed the congregation at the end of the service with a formal benediction, hands extended in the sign of the Kohen: “May the Lord bless you and keep you….”

They wore black robes and stood on a high bimah and we listened politely and raptly to the organ and a choir who sang from a loft, heard but never seen.  It was all very impressive.  

When I was a teenager, we also affiliated at a Conservative shul in nearby Bethlehem, where I learned to davven Shacharit on Shabbat mornings, to refine my skills in leyning Torah, and to tutor students for Bar and Bat Mitzvah (a gig that proved to be a whole lot more lucrative than my first after-school job as a Customer Service Representative at Blockbuster Video).

Blockbuster Video:  now there’s a sign of how times have changed.

In a world where you can stream services online (and, hi, we appreciate that you’re joining us out there), thank goodness synagogues like ours have not become the Blockbuster Videos of Judaism.  

We have not resisted change, but, rather, have found meaningful ways to adapt to the relentless march–more like sprint–of technological advancement.  After all, as I often remind us, here at WRT, Reform is our middle name, and our embrace of innovation has long distinguished us as a congregation on the vanguard of Jewish life in America.

Still, change, even when necessary, is rarely easy, and I know that I speak for innumerable colleagues as well when I confess that the changes in the rabbinate and cantorate of the last couple of decades (at least in the non-Orthodox world) have oftentimes knocked us off our keel.  Many of us Reform clergy shed the robe, lowered the bimah, sold the organ, brought the choir out from the loft, picked up a guitar, and hired a world-famous jazz pianist to lift our voices and our spirits.

And that’s just what happened in this room; everywhere else, our work and our role has also changed.  My first rabbinic mentor, Les Gutterman, at my first pulpit, Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island, where I served as Assistant Rabbi from 2000-2003, received handwritten pink telephone call memos from an assistant he called his secretary, who also took dictation for his sermons and newspaper articles.  In contrast, I was the first rabbi to sign up for Facebook and to use it as a workplace communications tool for reaching high school and college students who had grown up at WRT.

In those days (and yes, it sounds funny even to me to refer to the the year 2000 as “those days,” but, still, “those days” applies), the rabbi was perceived to stand not only above the congregation, but also, in significant ways, above the cantor, with highly differentiated roles and responsibilities:  cantor sings, rabbi preaches.  

And even if this public perception failed to capture the nuanced behind-the-scenes reality of rabbis, cantors, and other leaders, both lay and professional, working together, it nevertheless contained a kernel of truth.  

But that was then and this is now, and cantors today are not merely invested, but ordained with the authority to lead communities alongside rabbis.  Here at WRT, for instance, all of our rabbis and cantors not only lead worship and teach, but also preach, conduct weddings and b’nei mitzvah, namings and funerals, counsel congregants and represent our congregation in local and national leadership positions.  

Just this year, Cantor Kleinman represented WRT at the National Council of AIPAC in Washington, DC, and was recently elected to the Board of the American Conference of Cantors.  

Each week she joins me, the temple president, and Executive Director at our leadership conference and participates actively in temple Board and Executive Committee Meetings.  When I took sabbatical, Cantor Kleinman served as our senior spiritual leader, managing the clergy team and many of the day-to-day decisions for WRT.  

Even as rabbis and cantors have, at least in congregations like ours, begun to share the responsibilities of leadership, we have all seen our perception in the Jewish community shift as well.  Over the last couple of decades, rabbis and cantors have become radically more accessible to the community.  And as we have come down off the bimah—literally and figuratively—congregants have come to know their clergy as human beings, with all the wonderful and beautiful qualities that come with human relationships, as well as the disillusionment that often accompanies the recognition of another’s humanity, with all our flaws and frailty.

In the Jewish tradition, clergy, that is to say, spiritual leaders, today’s rabbis and cantors, sometimes collectively go by the nickname כלי קודש, k’lei kodesh, which means “instruments of holiness.”  

Originally the term applied, in a literal sense, to the vessels used in the ancient Temple–the utensils used by the Kohen, the Israelite Priest, in the sacrificial service; it also applies to things like kiddush cups and Shabbat candlesticks and Seder plates and all sorts of other Judaica you have in your home.  But idiomatically, k’lei kodesh, “Instruments of Holiness,” refers to those who serve as Jewish spiritual leaders.

The original k’lei kodesh, the Kohanim or Priests, were subject to Biblical regulations and restrictions that defined and maintained their status as instruments of holiness.  They were to be kept from ritual contamination and, on account of this, could not even mourn their dead relatives, death being a primary source of ritual impurity.  To this day, as many of you are surely aware, a Jew who derives from priestly lineage, a Kohen, may refuse to enter a cemetery, even to bury a parent.  These restrictions designed to maintain priestly holiness comprise the several opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Emor.  

Another way of protecting the holy status of the Kohen was by restricting his selection of a wife to a virgin bride from among the Israelite nation—divorcees, widows, harlots, or non-Jews need not apply.

Lest you think that public scrutiny over whom the k’lei kodesh may marry is but an arcane relic of an ancient cult, I would draw your attention to a debate that has, from time to time, garnered public attention, including over the past several months and years.  

For as long as anyone can remember, Hebrew Union College–our seminary, the training ground for Reform k’lei kodesh and other Jewish professionals–has restricted its admission for the rabbinical and cantorial programs based on the religious identity of a candidate’s spouse or significant other.  

From the website of HUC:  

The Reform movement and HUC-JIR share a proud record of reaching out to all who seek to develop their Jewish identity with love and acceptance. Even as our students actively engage in this important work, as rabbis or cantors, we expect them to model a firm and lasting commitment to the Jewish home and the Jewish future through the choices they make in their own family lives. We celebrate the contribution of people of all faiths toward building and sustaining loving Jewish homes, and yet we believe that rabbis and cantors should exemplify a distinct standard of Jewish continuity. Therefore, HUC-JIR will only admit, graduate or ordain candidates who, if in a committed long-term relationship, are in such a relationship with a Jewish partner. It is important that candidates for our program be aware of this policy at the point of application. We encourage you to speak with an admissions director if you have questions or concerns.

To say the least, students have indeed expressed questions and concerns over the last many years and presently the leadership of the seminary is weighing a possible change in policy, yet to be announced.  

Recent decisions by both the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philly and Hebrew College (not to be confused with Hebrew Union College), a trans-denominational Jewish seminary in Boston, to admit candidates in marriages or serious relationships with non-Jewish partners, have accelerated and amplified the debate within Reform Jewish circles about HUC’s own restrictive policy.  

I will not opine here about how I think the decision should go, because I do not wish to exert undue influence on your ability to think through the issue; I will go so far as to say that the fact that this long-standing policy is up for reconsideration is itself another sign of the times, a sign of the changing role of k’lei kodesh, another indicator that Jewish society is grappling with how much its clergy should mirror the Jewish practices and family norms of the people we serve, or should adhere to different (that is, more stringent) standards, the same way the Kohen and the expectations surrounding his choices were different than for those of an ordinary Israelite.  

It’s also a sign of the times that, a little over a month ago, New York passed a law, sixteen years in the making, that authorizes any person to solemnize weddings for one day–a shift in the longstanding state law requiring that only duly ordained clergy or permitted government officials preside over weddings.  

As a result, the rabbis and cantors of WRT might expect to conduct fewer weddings over the coming years, as more and more couples ask friends to officiate and the unique role of k’lei kodesh, at least here in New York, is, as a consequence, diminished.  

A few concluding reflections.  This Shabbat is, for me, bookended by two celebrations.  Just yesterday, I attended the graduation ceremonies of the Hebrew Union College at Temple Emanu-El, that great Reform Jewish cathedral at 65th and 5th, at which degrees were presented to many of my closest friends and colleagues who were ordained in 1998 and who are receiving an honorary 25-year D.D., which stands for “Doctor of Divinity,” but about which the inside joke is that it stands for “doctor of durability” or even, “didn’t die.”  

These friends include Rabbi Ken Chasen whom I met in rabbinical school back in 1996, Rabbi Laurie Katz Braun, who happened to grow up on the same block as me, and Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Community Synagogue of Rye: all of whom served WRT “back in the day,” all of whom have toiled in a milieu of Jewish professional service that is changing faster than any of us ever imagined.  

And on Sunday morning, the clergy team of WRT will all go back to Emanu-El to witness and celebrate the Ordination of the new class of Reform k’lei kodesh, including our own Isaac Sonett-Assor who will be called to the bimah to be ordained Cantor (considerably later in the morning than he would have, had he not hyphenated his name when he got married, but what can you do).

These newly minted spiritual leaders face challenges and opportunities that we have only just begun to contemplate.  As Israeli historian, philosopher, and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari wrote just this week in The Economist:  

What will happen to the course of history when ai takes over culture, and begins producing stories, melodies, laws and religions? Previous tools like the printing press and radio helped spread the cultural ideas of humans, but they never created new cultural ideas of their own. ai is fundamentally different. ai can create completely new ideas, completely new culture.

And so this Shabbat, at least for me, stands between two windows: one that allows us to appreciate the veteran k’lei kodesh who have adeptly navigated these challenges and changes in Jewish life, and one that allows us to look ahead with joy, excitement, wonder, and yes, a great deal of uncertainty, at the needs and priorities of the Jewish community and its k’lei kodesh in the decades to come.  

In order to succeed, both those of us of longer vintage and those for whom Jewish professional service is still an open vista will need to lean into the enduring relevance of Judaism, our unique value proposition, our undying message and mission:  to bring holiness into a mundane, often vulgar, world; to transform lives with purpose and vigor; to heal the brokenness in hearts and homes and communities; to live beyond ourselves; to teach and model Torah in a world deprived of its sustaining wisdom; and above all, to affirm God in a godless era.

What is most important to understand in this moment is that even as the role of k’lei kodesh evolves, so do the Jewish people whom we serve.  Indeed, the evolution of one cannot be separated from the evolution of the other.  

Together we will ride the current of an accelerating river, the ever-changing and yet eternal river of Judaism, the river of God, Torah, and Israel.  



Sermon Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple

Yom Kippur Afternoon, October 5, 2022

The first emotion mentioned in the Torah—this will probably surprise you—comes six chapters in, well after the stories of the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and all their kin.  You might think we’d read about God’s joy in the wonders of creation, or the fear Adam and Eve felt upon their expulsion from Eden, Cain’s jealousy and rage which resulted in the murder of Abel, or Adam and Eve’s grief at the death of their son; but, no.  The first emotion in the Torah belongs to God:

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ

“And God regretted having created humankind on the earth,” a sentiment followed immediately by these words:

וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃

“And with a sorrowful heart, God said, “I will blot out humanity, which I created, from the face of the earth, along with all the beasts, and the creeping things, and the birds of the sky, for I regret making them at all.”1

Maybe it says something about God, regret coming first of all feelings.  I think it says more about us:  that the authors of the Torah so identified with the feeling of regret that they saw fit to ascribe this emotion first and foremost to God.  

For while it is true that the God of the Hebrew Bible is anthropomorphic—that is, described with human form and human features (eyes that see, a mouth that speaks, ears that hear, an outstretched arm and a mighty hand, and even, in one of my favorite Biblical expressions, a “nose that glows,” which is how the Torah describes God getting really angry)—it is even more true that the God of the Hebrew Bible is anthropopathic, meaning, described as having human feelings:  a God capable of feeling and acting on love and hate, sorrow and joy, jealousy and rage, disgust and yes, regret.   

There’s actually something comforting to me about this image of a God who expresses regret, and so early in the Torah, too.  For if God can second-guess having created the entire world; if God can say, “no, I really wish I hadn’t done that,” doesn’t that give us a little permission to live with regretting some of our own (considerably less consequential!) decisions?  

Especially on Yom Kippur, this God of regret speaks to me.  It won’t be God’s last time, either, by the way.  God delivers the Israelites from Egyptian slavery only to find them, time and again, to be unruly, uncooperative, unfaithful; and, more than once, God expresses regret in having freed the people in the first place.  

Again, it may say something about the Divine nature, that God can feel regret, wish things had gone differently, but it probably says more about us, that we would enshrine such natural and pervasive human feelings to the Divine.

Another tale from the Torah.   It’s a long and complicated story found in the Book of Numbers, complete with a talking donkey and possibly even a cyclops, but here’s the gist.  It features an unusually flawed protagonist, a Gentile sorcerer named Balaam.  His employer, a fellow named Balak, King of the Moabites, sworn enemy of the Israelite nation, has summoned Balaam to do his dirty work for him:  to curse the Israelites so that they will fall in battle. 

Balaam shows up for his unholy mission, but not before God gets to him and hijacks his ability to curse the Israelites, forcing him to bless them instead. “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth,” he confesses.  “When [God] blesses, I cannot reverse it.”  So Balaam stands on the hilltop, gazing down at the Israelite encampment, and instead of damning the people, he graces them with words  now enshrined in the prayer book, recited at every morning service.  “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael,” “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!”2  

While all this is happening, Balaam offers a candid aside.  Gazing at the Israelite encampment, he says, “If only I could die a righteous man.  If only my fate were like theirs!”3

How human of this fallen spellcaster, how poignant, for him to express regret like this.  How real, and how raw, for him to think, “I don’t want my epitaph to say, ‘Sorcerer and Charlatan.’  Let me die the death of the upright.  Let me redeem myself in righteousness before it’s too late.”  

Balaam is saying a prayer that from time to time probably crosses our own minds:  

Please, don’t let me die with regret.  Don’t let my frailties and failings define me.  Please let me go to my eternal rest feeling good about how I lived my life.  Let me share in the fate of the people I admire most, the ones whose names I bless.4  

And yet, we all carry regrets, even to the grave, because that too, is what it means to be human.  If God carries regret, why not we?

This penultimate hour of the Day of Atonement, this Yizkor hour, is heavy with feeling.  Not only because we come to this place and this moment with all our stored-up memories and love—all the sorrow that never really goes away, but just finds a sturdier container within us to hold it—but also because we come here with our regrets.  

How could we not?  It is true that grief is another form of love; and it is true that the love we shared with our dear ones—a wife, a mother, a father, a husband, a grandparent, a friend, a teacher, a sibling, a child—was never destined to last.  But it is also true that our love, like all things human, was not devoid of flaws, was not perfect.  It was, and is, a love tinged with regret.

A rabbi I met only once, Sam Karff, was one of the elder statesmen of the Reform Movement and a friend of WRT’s own Rabbi Jack Stern, z’l.  Sam died two years ago.  Contemplating his own mother’s death, he wrote:  “It was not a perfect goodbye which only highlighted that—for all our precious bonding—ours was not a perfect relationship.  There are none.”

Hence this Yizkor time together, and on Yom Kippur no less, day of forgiveness.  Because today we seek not only forgiveness for the living among us, but forgiveness for our dead as well.  

They hurt us sometimes by what they did or said, or what they failed to do or say.  They hurt us by leaving us here alone, alone to negotiate our grief and wounds and memories; they left us alone with our regrets.  Unfinished business, unspoken words, hopes unmet and dreams unfulfilled.  

Come to think of it, we need forgiveness for ourselves, for all that we regret, too.  And so we have this Yizkor time, for remembrance, for letting go of regret, this time, an hour before the gates are closed, for picking ourselves back up in order to move forward with renewed hope, into the new year.

When Stephen Sondheim died the day after Thanksgiving last year, you could count me among the legions of fans and admirers who greeted the occasion with mourning, albeit with only one regret, that I never met him.  (He was on the short list of “people I’d love to have dinner with before I die.”)  

But, speaking of regret—outside of the Torah itself, I don’t think any writer in any genre ever gave better voice to this feeling.  “Send in the Clowns” is a masterclass in regret.  There are many others.  Regret provides the emotional through-line of entire Sondheim musicals:  Follies and Merrily We Roll Along come to mind. 

And then there’s Company, which many of you saw on Broadway this past year in a bold gender-inverted staging that Kelly and I saw in London back in 2019.  Company does something unexpected, at least in Sondheim:  it suggests a way to move forward in life and not languish in regret. 

Company ends with a song called “Being Alive.”  It’s sung by the protagonist, Bobby, a 35-year old bachelor (or bachelorette, in the newest production) who “realizes that being a lone wolf isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”  In the song, Bobby “declares that he wants to take the chance, be afraid, get his heart broken—or whatever happens when you decide to love and be loved,” as a reviewer from the Washington Times once described it.

Sondheim actually tried two other songs to close out the show before (reluctantly) settling on “Being Alive,” which moves away from cynicism, toward hope, away from regret, toward renewal. Regret, the song teaches, is no reason to keep us from living most fully.  

In the opening stanza, love is just 

Someone to hold you too close

Someone to hurt you too deep

Someone to sit in your chair

And ruin your sleep

By the end, Bobby is pleading:

Somebody crowd me with love

Somebody force me to care

Somebody let me come through

I’ll always be there

As frightened as you

To help us survive

Being alive

Death is the price we pay for being alive, and mourning is the price we pay for loving another person deeply, flaws and all.  

Being alive means acknowledging our failings and theirs, the things that hurt us and frighten us.  

Being alive means accepting that to be human is to live with regret.  

Being alive means choosing to live, and to love, despite it all, to move forward, come what may. 

May God’s compassionate embrace enfold our loved ones who have died.  

May God’s eternal presence comfort us in our hour of need.  

And may God’s abiding love move us to give thanks for being alive.


1 Genesis 6:6-7.

2 Numbers 24:5.

3 Numbers 23:10.

4 Special thanks to my teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (recently retired), for his insight into the theme of regret in this Biblical narrative.


Sermon delivered at Westchester Reform Temple

Yom Kippur Morning, 5783 / October 5, 2022

The smallest known image created by the prolific poet, illustrator, and engraver William Blake (no relation) is an etching measuring two by two-and-a-half inches—smaller than a Post-It™ note—that Blake created for a children’s book called The Gates of Paradise.  

Published in 1793, it contains 18 images, each with a short caption.  This particular image depicts a small, faceless figure standing at the bottom of an immense ladder that stretches up into a starry sky, leaning against the crook of a crescent moon.  

As the figure (a child?) attempts to mount the first rung of the ladder, craning his neck toward the celestial object of his desire, a faceless couple (the parents?) can be seen, standing off to the side, at a distance, clutching each other.

At the bottom, in bold lettering, is the caption:  “I want!  I want!”

And if there is any depiction of the human condition better than this, I am not familiar with it.  

At one time or another—maybe most of the time—we are all that faceless child, reaching for the moon, grasping for what we cannot have, staring stubbornly heavenward while our feet never get off the ground.  

“I want!  I want!”  

Or, maybe we are the anxious couple, standing helplessly off to the side, and all we can do is hold each other as we watch someone we care about want and want, and still not have.

The Rabbis taught:  .איזה הוא עשיר? השמח בחלקו  “Who is rich?  One who is happy with one’s portion.”1 Such a noble aspiration; so difficult to attain.  

At best, we are like the angels going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s dream, hovering between contentment and complaint: one minute over the moon, the next, jolted back down to earth.  

It could well be that happiness, fulfillment, that thing we’re after (whatever “that thing” may be:  to feel loved, to feel seen, to feel understood, to feel valued, to be of service, to have good health, to have better grades, to have a fitter body, to have what my neighbors have, or what I think they must have, to have our loved ones know satisfaction and success and love and good health, oh, and by the way, could my daughter please just meet a nice Jewish boy?—that whatever we’re after, even when we attain a piece of it, even when we do grasp a corner of the moon—that, even then, the happiness such attainment confers proves ephemeral, and sure enough, sooner or later, we lose our grip and wind up right back at: 

“I want!  I want!”  

Satisfaction is rare.  Want is universal.  

Perhaps my perspective has been unduly shaped by Covid and our turbulent state of public affairs.  It seems more likely that Covid and the prickly present moment have combined to amplify our already disconsolate state of mind, but cannot be blamed for its root cause, which is—simply put—the human condition.  

That is to say:  we do not suffer because of pandemic disease or high inflation or climate change or partisan rancor, but because we are human.2

Like generations of readers, I take solace in the words of the twenty-third Psalm which begins, יי רעי לא אחסר, Adonai ro’i, lo echsar:  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” and which includes some of the most indelible images of tranquility and contentment in all literature:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” 

And “My cup runneth over.

But all is summarized by the two Hebrew words which lay out the theme of the poem, לא אחסר, lo echsar, “I shall not want,” or, more faithfully translated, “I lack nothing.”  

Another way to define suffering, then, is the perception of lack, and another way to define happiness is—permit me an awkward phrase—the lack of lack:  when, even momentarily, we do not want, have nothing to want, and, when we look over our lives and our world, despite all the dross and all the mess, we nevertheless can say:  “my cup runneth over.” 

In these words we also find a framework for understanding how God shows up in our lives:  as the tranquility, joy, contentment, that we experience when we “want for nothing.”  

“I want!  I want!” is the root of so much suffering.  Such a mindset—obsessed with lack, hellbent on acquisition—can be seen at its pathological extreme in, say, Vladimir Putin, who must be one of the most miserable men on the planet, despite his inordinate power, wealth, and privilege.   

Such an example, while useful for illustrating the concept, is grotesque.  We are not like that man.  Still, let’s consider, on this Yom Kippur morning, this day of introspection, how the gnawing feeling of “I want!  I want!” lodges within each of us, how it shapes our lives, drives our ambitions, and perpetuates our suffering.  

Happiness strikes me as fundamental to life, or at least to a life well lived.  Jefferson put the pursuit of it, alongside life and liberty, as an “unalienable right.”  But notice that he did not view happiness itself as a right, only the pursuit of happiness: the implication being that its attainment is far from guaranteed, and that each of us must seek and find it for ourselves. 

Any number of factors may contribute to our happiness—factors like wealth or prosperity, health and physical wellbeing, friendship, companionship, and love, attainment and achievement—but none of these factors necessarily guarantees it.  

Our material situation affects our happiness, and financial resources can improve our quality of life, our comfort or convenience, the opportunities available to us, the security of our families; but surely we know people who are rich in dollars but poor in happiness. 

Good health may also contribute to happiness.  People experiencing chronic pain or discomfort have reason to feel discouraged, depleted, even depressed.  But surely we know people in peak physical condition who lack happiness; and surely we know people who are frail or sick and who nevertheless never cease to surprise us with their positive outlook and joyful way in the world.

Good friendships, meaningful relationships, often correlate with happiness.  The Torah speaks true when it says, “It is not good for a person to be alone.”2  Few forms of suffering are more painful (or more universal) than loneliness.  Companionship, friendship, partnership, love:  these add richness, beauty, and joy to life.  At the same time, we all know people who find contentment in their own company, as well as people who have deep and lasting relationships and who nevertheless are in an inner state of suffering.

We also often assume that achievement leads to fulfillment.  Explicitly and implicitly we teach our children the virtues of setting goals, achieving outcomes.  We emphasize advancing in school and employment, pursuing opportunities that often impel us to work harder in order to achieve more and better.  

So we work, and work, and work; we set goals and pursue them; we sometimes exceed even our own expectations as we make our way up the so-called ladder of success; and then, one day, many of us wake up realizing that, with every goal accomplished, we still feel an insatiable “I want, I want!” from deep within.  Attainment may provide a measure of satisfaction, but it rarely leads to lasting happiness.  It is certainly no antidote to suffering.

I wonder what would happen if we tried on a Yom Kippur mindset—and not just for today.  What would it feel like to stand before ourselves, our community, and God with only our mitzvot, our deeds, and our middot, our dispositions, and not our résumés, to speak for us?  Maybe we’d discover that, rather than deriving from some external condition, “happiness is an inside job.”  That happiness, the absence of suffering, the lack of lack, describes an inner state of being.   

We can shift our mindset to think of suffering as being in contention with what is, and happiness as what happens when we are not in contention with what is—even if it’s just a temporary reprieve, a momentary state of acceptance, the grace of “lo echsar,” that “I want for nothing.”

Throughout this holy season, it is customary in many Jewish communities to read each day from Psalm 27:  “Only one thing do I ask of God; this, my only request:  that I might dwell in God’s house all the days of my life.”  Its close cousin, Psalm 23, ends on a similar note: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” 

The house of God of which the Psalmist sings is not a real estate listing.  It has no physical address, no doors or rooms.  It is not to be found at the end of a ladder to the sky. It metaphorically describes a tranquil state of mind, an inner calm and equanimity.  To “dwell in the house of God” is to be at peace with what is, for our minds and hearts and souls to align in acceptance of our present state of being.

I find this poetic image of “dwelling in the house” of God a whole lot more relatable than the notion of “believing in” God.  For me, “faith” and “belief” are difficult words and difficult concepts.  My relationship with God does not emerge from what I believe, much less from the kind of absolute trust or belief conveyed by the word “faith.”  

My understanding of God, rather, emerges from what I have lived and what I have learned, what I have experienced and what others—what you—have taught me about your experiences.  

I am, therefore, rather inclined to talk about how we experience God, how God “shows up” in our lives, than about how we do or do not “believe” or “have faith” in God.  

For me, God shows up when I experience tranquility, contentment, connection, joy, and, above all, when I recognize—even for a moment—that I lack nothing.  When the incessant buzz of I want, I want! is quieted just enough for me to hear something deeper, a melody that has been playing all along, beneath the clamor:  I lack nothing. I may not have everything I want, but, at this moment, I have everything I need.  When we learn to distinguish between what we need and what we want, we begin to approach happiness.  

Over my sabbatical, I went back to Hebrew School, enrolling in an online ulpan, or immersive language class.  Among the many common expressions we learned is one of my new favorites.  In modern Hebrew, if you want to say, “I’m cool with that,” you say, השלמתי עם זה, hishlamti im zeh, the word “השלמתי” being a verb-form of shalom, meaning, “I am at peace with that,” or “I am whole, complete, fulfilled.”  I am in a state of shalom.  

When, looking over my life, I can say, השלמתי עם זה, I am at peace with this, I am content—even if for a moment—that is when I experience God, the God of the 23rd Psalm, the God of “I want for nothing,” the God who appears not as Avinu, Malkeinu, as Father, or King, or Judge; not the God who appears at Sinai, but, rather, who appears as Shepherd: the God beside the still waters, who restores my soul.  In those moments, I can say: “I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”  

Nothing more.  Not judging, not governing, not parenting, not recording or recounting.  Just “with me”—in the calm, lucid awareness of hishlamti im zeh, “I am at peace with this.”

In preparing these remarks, I turned to Bible and Midrash, to philosophers medieval and modern, seeking inspiration in sources as disparate as the Hasidic Rabbis and the Dalai Lama.

But I found no better teachers than my twin nephew and niece, Jacob and Shirah, who will turn eleven later this month.

Jakey and Shirah are my sister Rebecca’s younger kids.  She also has Samson, who celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah over Labor Day weekend.  Samson is what we call neurotypical.  Shirah and Jakey were born with cerebral palsy.  

Cerebral palsy, or CP, is the most common childhood motor disability, affecting somewhere between one and four children out of every 1,000.  It is believed to be caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects the control of one’s muscles.  While CP always affects one’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture, the diagnosis actually encompasses a wide spectrum of disorders.  Many children with CP will learn to walk, talk, attend mainstream schools, and go on to lead lives that most of us would think of as “normal.”  

When Jakey and Shirah were very little, we would dream that one day, they too would grow up with such abilities and opportunities.  But here they are, almost eleven, and they cannot walk on their own; they get around in wheelchairs pushed by others.  They cannot speak (with words, that is); they cannot feed or dress or toilet themselves.  

Because of their growing needs as they approach adolescence, and following extensive and, at times, agonizing considerations and conversations, our family helped Jakey and Shirah to move, this summer, to a residential community upstate that provides extensive services to people with developmental disabilities.

By all accounts, they are happy there, and, no surprise, the amazing staff of caretakers, educators, and therapeutic professionals all fell in love with them instantly.

I am, truth be told, hard-pressed to think of a time when these two children haven’t been content.  Sure, they have their moments.  Jakey gets anxious meeting new people, and Shirah, who likes to be the center of attention, makes it known when she is not getting enough.  

But, so far as I can tell, Jakey and Shirah might be two of the happiest people I know.  They love music and stuffed animals.  They love french fries and pizza and afternoons at the pool.  They love hugs and silliness.  Shirah, in particular, loves it when Aunt Kelly sings to her.  They have a big brother who adores them and loves playing with them.  My sister, together with Jakey and Shirah’s father, their stepfather, and Grammy and Poppy (my parents) have all been wellsprings of boundless support, love, and connection.

And they have in each other a best friend, playmate, and constant companion.  You’ll often find them just giggling or holding hands.    

Still, many people see only what Jakey and Shirah lack, and miss seeing what they have.  They miss seeing how much delight they have and bring to others.  Internally resourced happiness, without dilution or complication.  A rare and precious kind of shalom.

And, I think, the reason they are so happy, and have so much to teach us about happiness, is because, unlike most of us, they perceive no lack in their lives.  Nothing is missing, from their point of view.  

Without words, but with their innermost being, I imagine that Jakey and Shirah are telling us, lo echsar, “I want for nothing.”  I have food and clothing, a warm bed and a safe home.  I have a family that loves me and people who care for my every need.  I have my best friend by my side.  If I don’t feel good, or if I’m hungry, or if I’m scared, or confused, or lonely, and I just raise my voice—my distress will be over in a matter of moments.  If I do suffer, I need not suffer long.  I have all I need.  

They remind us that there’s another way to translate lo echsar, which is, “I am not lacking.”  I am enough.  God does not need me to be anyone other than who I am.  

And is there any more Yom Kippur teaching than this?  

So let us pray:  

With Divine love to shepherd us, may we be at peace with who we are, and want for nothing.

May we wake each day to apprehend and appreciate green pastures, tranquil waters, a soul that feels restored.

When we walk through life’s darkest valleys, even in the shadow of death, may we feel unafraid, safe, at peace, for the Holy One is with us.

May we move forward through whatever life offers us, guided by the comfort of a caring hand.

Even in the presence of those who hurt us or harass us, may we be content with what has been placed upon our table.

May we hold our heads high, and when we lift our cups, filled with the mixed wine of life, may we drink deeply from an overflow of the sweet stuff.

May we walk in awareness of the love and goodness that follows us all the days of our lives.

And may every place we dwell be the house of God.


1 Pirkei Avot 4:1.

2 Kelly pointed out to me that “Life is suffering,” or “the existence of suffering,” is the first of the so-called “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism.

3 Genesis 2:18.