Blame it on a Simple Twist of Fate

Sermon for Shabbat Vayeshev 5782

Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, November 26, 2021

Did you know that one of the pivotal characters in the Torah is an unnamed man standing in a field in the middle of nowhere?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that Joseph, at his father Jacob’s behest, has gone in search of his brothers who have headed off to the north country to tend their flocks.  As he ambles around the countryside, “​​וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ”:  an anonymous man happens upon Joseph, and asks him, “What are you looking for?”  Joseph answers, “I’m looking for my brothers.  Can you tell me where they are shepherding?”  Indeed he can.  The man points the way to the territory of Dotan where Joseph encounters his brothers and the real story begins (Gen. 37:12-17).

Now imagine how it might have gone had Joseph not encountered the stranger in the field:  no run-in with his brothers; no colored coat torn from his body and dipped in goat’s blood to fake his death; no pit of terror out of which Joseph was dragged, chained, and sold into slavery; no bereaved father; no voyage to Egypt; no help for the beleaguered Egyptians; no safety, survival, or salvation for the starving Israelites, including Joseph’s own family; no Israelite migration to Egypt; no Moses; no Exodus; no Sinai; no Torah; no Promised Land, no Jewish People.

The identity of the man who helped Joseph intrigued the Rabbis.  RaSHI insists that he is in fact the angel Gabriel, directing the action as God’s proxy, steering the course of Jewish history from the sidelines (RaSHI to Gen. 37:15).  

RaSHI’s contemporary, Ibn Ezra, said just the opposite:  he’s just a passerby, no more, no less; an ordinary person with ordinary information to share (Ibn Ezra, ad loc).  

It is Nachmanides, the 13th Century Spanish Sage also known as the RaMBaN, who harmonizes the two differing commentators with this resolution:

“The Holy One of Blessing sent Joseph an unwitting guide in order to bring him to his brothers.  That is why the Rabbis said that the man was an angel, in order to teach us that these events were not meaningless, but that God’s will shall prevail” (RaMBaN, ad loc). 

In other words, here we have an ordinary man unwittingly fulfilling God’s plan.

This interpretation is consistent with one Jewish view that angels are not divine beings with halos and wings, but rather human beings carrying out some greater design, even unbeknownst to themselves.  As it turns out, the Hebrew word for angel, “mal’ach,” is the same word for a human messenger.

Still, the fact that an unnamed man in the middle of a field has attracted such Rabbinic attention suggests that Jewish tradition is reluctant to chalk up events of significance to random chance.  There must be a reason for everything, right?   

In Yiddish, we have this wonderful word, bashert, that we use when something (or, more to the point, someone) is “meant to be.”  The word comes from a German root meaning “predestined, fated,” but is usually applied to one’s so-called “soulmate.”  

If I am guilty of any rabbinic misdemeanors, surely among them would be the overuse of this word, particularly when I stand with brides and grooms under the chuppah.  Who wouldn’t love hearing their rabbi affirm that each is the other’s bashert, that the connection between them must be more than merely coincidental? or, at least affirmative of what Einstein once said, that “a coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.”  

Now, if I’m being honest—with myself and with you—I will confess that I’m distrustful of this whole idea of “soulmates,” of “meant to be,” of bashert.  Not just in romance, but in life.   

Still, the idea exerts a strong psychic pull.

Because we are human, we naturally seek, and—lo and behold—perceive patterns, in almost everything life throws our way, even (maybe especially) in the stuff that is totally random.  

The Greeks saw heroes and monsters, sagas, dreams, and oracles in the arrangement of the stars and the planets.  Once you have seen Orion’s belt, you cannot un-see it, even though those three stars all in a row are actually hundreds of light years apart from one another and appear to line up only from our perspective here on earth.   

In psychology, “pattern recognition” describes those thought processes that match information from a stimulus, some external phenomenon, with information retrieved from our memory.  In other words, our brains are particularly good at processing newly received information in connection with information we’ve already stored upstairs.  The ability to recognize patterns is what allows us to predict and expect what may be coming and is therefore evolutionarily adaptive.

The problem is, we humans do pattern recognition so well, so intuitively, so unconsciously, that we tend to perceive patterns—what we think of as “design” or even “meaning”—in that which may be, at the end of the day, totally random:  just, you know, things happening, for no reason whatsoever.  

So much of life, and how we apprehend life, hangs on things that just happen, things that have no intrinsic meaning.  

Speaking of things with no intrinsic meaning.  Last Friday, President Biden did what Presidents do around this time of year, by officially pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey… two turkeys, actually, one named Peanut Butter and the other, Jelly, in a speech replete with good humor and bad puns. 

(“Yes,” he said, referring to the birds’ vaccination status, “instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.”)

Eventually Biden made his way to a solemn coda, speaking of tables “full of grace and gratitude for everyone who made it possible.”  And, he said, “we also keep in our hearts those who… have lost so much, those who will have empty seats at their tables this year because of the virus or another cruel twist of fate or accident.”

“We pray for them to find the strength in sorrow and purpose in pain.”

This, we well know, is one of the areas where Biden’s leadership is most compelling, because it is his lived Torah, his story, the story of a man who has buried a wife and daughter killed in a car accident and a son who died at age forty-six of brain cancer.

The President knows that of which he speaks when he acknowledges how a “cruel twist of fate” (or what the machzor, the High Holiday Prayer Book, calls “ro’a ha-g’zerah, ‘the evil decree’) can rip apart your life in an instant, with no forewarning, leaving a ragged wound where once we held another in our arms, where once we enjoyed health or mobility, where once we drew vitality from all our friends and all our faculties.  Where once we were whole, now there is only a hole.  And there is often nothing that we human beings—we who see patterns in everything—can do, to predict it, avert it, undo it.   

“Blame it on a simple twist of fate,” Bob Dylan memorably sang, in the song whose title, “Simple Twist of Fate,” completes each of the six stanzas, narrating a romantic encounter between two strangers that turns out not to be “meant to be.”  

By chance they meet in darkness, and she departs in darkness, while he is left with an “emptiness inside to which he just could not relate / brought on by a simple twist of fate.”

And yet, in the face of what a friend of mine calls “the monumental indifference of Nature,” we human beings are consigned to our human nature, which is to be meaning-makers.  Moreover, Judaism affirms order, goodness, joy, purpose, and blessing, even in a world whose randomness and errant cruelty are discernable by anyone who is paying attention.  

We Jews are not nihilists; we are, more aptly, existentialists.  

The nihilist says: “all is random; all is meaningless; there can be no right or wrong, good or bad, up or down, so do whatever you like.”  The existentialist says, “there may be no intrinsic meaning in events; but if indeed all is random, then we must figure out how to make life meaningful and good—starting with the ability to define and discover the good in our lives and in the world.”

There is no blueprint for each human life, no plan for what might befall us on any given day.  A random guy standing in a field set the course of Jewish history in motion.  Each of us is shaped as much by our intentional choices as we are by what Hamlet calls “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  Life isn’t meaningful or meaningless.   We decide what meaning to give it.   

So give thanks, this first day after Thanksgiving, for what good we have, and, even more, for what good we can do; for what blessings we have, and, even more, for what blessings we can give, in a reeling world that so often turns on a simple twist of fate.

May You Stay Forever Young – Shabbat Vayetze 5782

November 12, 2021

Every year around this time, when the leaves are turning and falling in their downward dance of death, I find myself meditating on the theme of getting older. And these thoughts make me sigh. Especially when, as happened, yet again, at a wedding last Saturday night, three separate individuals came up to me, and mentioned that, in their opinion, I did not look old enough to be a rabbi.  

Looking “too young” is, of course, the textbook definition of a “good problem to have,” and it’s one to which I am so long accustomed that it hardly registers anymore.  After conducting my first ever Bar Mitzvah as a rabbi, twenty-one years ago, at Temple Beth-El in Providence, when I actually was a baby rabbi, I stopped by the reception in the social hall, still wearing my tallit and the somber black clerical robe which is the custom of that congregation, ordered a glass of wine, and was promptly carded by the bartender.  

I cannot be sure whether the source of this seemingly perennial issue in my life should be attributed to good luck, good genes, good habits, or some combination thereof, but I have come to regard it as a blessing and not a curse.  

And whenever I hear Bob Dylan sing these words:

May God bless and keep you always / May your wishes all come true / May you always do for others / And let others do for you / May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every young / And may you stay / Forever young

I think to myself, “Bob, my good friend, I’ve got you covered.”

“Forever Young” may well be the most explicitly Biblical song in all of the Torah of Bob, beginning as it does with an echo of the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction from the Book of Numbers1, and including the image of a ladder to the stars, which comes from the first verses of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃ 

Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran.

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ 

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃ 

He dreamed: suddenly there was a ladder stationed on the ground with its top reaching heavenward, and God’s angels going up and down on it!

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ 

Then suddenly Adonai was standing beside him, saying, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.  The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring.”

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ 

“Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and the east, the north and the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.”

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֙יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ׃ 

“See, I am with you.  I will guard you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃ 

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Adonai is in this place, and I did not know it!”

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ 

Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this, the gateway to heaven.”2

Forty-eight years ago this month, in November 1973, when I was, in fact, young, just two months old, Dylan recorded “Forever Young” for another Jakob, his four-year old son, and it ended up on the 1974 album Planet Waves.  

Like the ladder it references, the song’s journey is long and storied; my favorite anecdote is that Howard Cosell recited its lyrics on air when Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight crown for the third time, in September 1978, declaiming, as only Howard Cosell could:

“May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift,” and so on.  

Meanwhile, I’ve been combing the Jewish tradition for some applicable wisdom on how to stay forever young.  In the course of my research, I encountered the famous controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins.  You may have heard it said that in Judaism, a fetus is not considered viable until after it graduates from medical school.  

Embedded in this old joke is a deeper truth about the pain of growing up and the desire to keep our children “forever young.”  Many in our congregation over the last year have shared with me how sweet it felt, at the height of the pandemic, to turn their home into a compound for their grown children to come back home and camp out for weeks or even months, often with significant others and spouses and young children of their own in tow.  Lighting in a bottle, it was—a time that felt, even if only for an instant, like the old days, before the kids became grown-ups, with grown-up-sized responsibilities and problems.  

But even in these strange circumstances which have warped our perception of time, which have blurred the boundaries between home and office, between family nuclear and extended, a time did come for the fantasy to end.  Offices and schools reopened, travel resumed, renovations reached completion, and homes that started out feeling spacious began to feel cramped.  

Robert Frost put it this way:  “Nothing gold can stay.”2

From the moment they cut the umbilical cord, we are teaching our children to grow up.  The trauma of birth affects both parent and child, simultaneously but perhaps not equally.  Abruptly or gradually, both must figure out how to belong to each other without being the owner or the owned.  

All of growing up is figuring out how to be a person in the world—independent, in a sense, yet forever craving connection, relationship, love, attachment.  As a friend of mine brilliantly and succinctly puts it:  “It’s not easy being a person.”

Someone once asked playwright George Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.

“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”—a quip that has come down to us in condensed form as “Youth is wasted on the young.”  And perhaps it is so, because we seem to appreciate our youth only when it has fled.  It should come as no surprise that so many of us grown-ups spend so much of our time and psychic energy and money chasing fountains of youth.  

My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein who works in Los Angeles (where this tendency is particularly conspicuous) says, “Think of all that’s sold to us with the promise of making us look younger and feel younger. Younger is better. Ever see anything offered to make you look older in just minutes a day? (Yes, children.)”

“…No matter how cheery and bright and clever those ads for Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, we can read the subtext:  At this age you can’t do what once came so naturally.  Not without strong medicinal intervention.”3

The allure to stay forever young keeps hair colorists, plastic surgeons, and sports car dealers gainfully employed.  And yet, most of us understand that none of these will keep us vital on the inside, at the soul-level, where it really counts.

And that, I think, is what Dylan may have had in mind when he sang, 

May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / And may you stay / Forever young

Dylan is not praying for the impossible—to remain wrinkle-free, with shiny hair and sturdy bones (I mean, have you seen the man lately?)—so much as he is inviting us to consider a life of spiritual vitality, a soul that remains youthful even as the years go by.  

Judaism proposes a means which this can be achieved, a way to “stay forever young,” at least spiritually speaking, even when we are chronologically or biologically old.  

It’s a simple thing, really.  We must retain the capacity to dream, especially as we age.  

Beginning this week with Jacob, dreaming emerges as a Biblical leitmotif, moving the Jewish story forward:  Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the heavens, with angels going up and down, brings him powerfully into relationship with God for the first time in his life, a relationship that will persist, even though it goes through many stages and changes, for the rest of his life.  

His son Joseph is the Bible’s great dreamer and dream-interpreter, capable of translating dreams into actions that will save lives and shape the destiny of the Jewish People.  The Book of Daniel is largely a record of symbolic dreams foretelling the fate of empires.  And many Biblical Prophets encountered God through dreams and visions, and transformed these experiences into the ethical wisdom that would give Judaism its eternally relevant voice in shaping a just and humane world. 

I’m sure many of you have read the fascinating cover piece from this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, which is all about dreams.  At the center of the article lies an exploration of the pandemic which seems to have inspired, across the globe, a surge in vivid and provocative dreams possibly linked to the jarring experience we have been sharing.  

Long before Covid, Deirdre Barrett, the scientist of dreams profiled in the article, noted that dreams have long been associated with creativity.  Dreams were credited as the direct origin of, to name a few examples, Jasper Johns’s painting “Flag,” the author E.B. White’s character Stuart Little, the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Beatles song “Yesterday,” the first ironclad battleship, the scientific breakthrough that earned researchers the 1936 Nobel Prize in Medicine and—though this one may be apocryphal—the structure of the periodic table.4

The Prophet Joel describes the spirit of God entering humanity by promising that “the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions”5, a verse tunefully enshrined by Debbie Friedman of blessed memory.  

In other words, our dreams are a way of keeping God alive within us:  the uniquely human spark of creativity, the uniquely human capacity for hope and possibility, the ability to imagine, to visualize a future of the way things could be, the way things ought to be (instead of the way they are).  

In this country, we still speak of the “American Dream,” although lately it usually comes up in the negative:  dream interrupted, a broken dream, a dream that is no longer a dream (much less a reality), and, perennially for many, less a dream and more a nightmare.  

Aware of all of this, I still find inspiration in those who are keeping the dream alive.  

On Halloween, our new favorite ice cream parlor, Ice Cream Social on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, was offering a free scoop for anyone who showed up in costume.  

So I drove straight there from a wedding and met Kelly who had brought a bag of goofy hats and masks and accessories and two cherished friends, Mariam and Achta Ali-Khamis, the refugee sisters who arrived in the US in 2018 with WRT’s initiative and assistance and who have been steadily climbing the ladder, one rung at a time, ever since, and who live near the ice cream parlor.  

I cannot fathom the trauma that Achta and Mariam endured in their brutally wartorn home country, the Central African Republic, or the subsequent five years in a refugee encampment in neighboring Chad, much less the strength of will required to come to America knowing no one, not speaking the language, leaving behind a family including an aging mother, siblings and nieces and nephews, as Black Muslim refugees.  And then to come here and after less than two years to have life paralyzed by Covid—I stand in awe. 

And yet here they are, speaking English beautifully, employed and advancing in work, financially independent, currently pursuing better employment and housing of their own initiative.  

Yes, they are climbing with their own hard work and determination; but without the capacity to dream, the whole enterprise crumbles.  

And if Mariam and Achta can “build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,” why not we?  Who made it a rule that at some point in life, the responsible thing to do, the grown-up thing to do, is to tuck our imaginations away in some unattended drawer, to lay our dreams to rest?  

And so here we are tonight, to do what we do on Shabbat, which is, to pray.  Let our prayers never become a rote exercise in repeating Hebrew words.  Prayers are dreams given voice.  Remember what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, that “to pray is to dream in league with God.”6  

Every time we open our mouths in prayer, let it be with dreams of a life filled with joy, with purpose, and with transformative potential—for ourselves and for the world.  

When we pray, let it be because we still remember how to dream.  

And if you can do that, I promise you, you may indeed stay

forever young.


  1. Numbers 6:22-27.
  2. Genesis 28:10-17.
  3. Written in 1923. Now in the public domain.
  4. “The Wisdom of Jewish Adulthood,” as posted at https://www.vbs.org/worship/meet-our-clergy/rabbi-ed-feinstein/sermons?post_id=1021118
  5. Paraphrasing from “Did Covid Change How We Dream?” New York Times Magazine, Sunday, November 7, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/03/magazine/pandemic-dreams.html
  6. Joel 2:28.
  7. As quoted in the anthology I Asked for Wonder (1983).

IT’S ALL OVER NOW: Reflections for the Last Shabbat of 5781

A note to my readers:

I sketched this D’var Torah for Shabbat services on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, September 3, 2021, and extemporaneously delivered remarks that resemble those presented below. Recently (in November 2021), I went back and reconstructed the following message from my original notes.

– JEB

Shabbat Shalom and a very happy Labor Day weekend to all.

We gather here tonight on the cusp of a new Jewish year. Rosh Ha-Shanah begins on Monday evening and therefore this is the last Sabbath of the year 5781.  At this Season of Awe, we are charged by our tradition to consider deeply what we want to change—in our lives, in our souls, in our patterns of behavior (call them “habits”), in our relationships, in our communities and in our world. 

To quote our siddur:  “This is the hour of change.”1  

I’ve heard it said that “Everything is always evolving, thus, by definition, everything is always changing.  Yet many of us resist change.  We prefer the comfort of the status quo and get distressed when things meet their natural end” (attributed to Thom Knoles).

Everything is always evolving, always changing—like it or not.  This is a basic fact, a natural law of existence. 

The Vedas are an ancient body of wisdom (indeed, the oldest of the Hindu Scriptures) that are intended to provide a human interpretation of so-called “natural law.”

These texts invite the reader, the one who contemplates their teachings, to recognize all aspects of the evolutionary process:  creation, maintenance, and destruction… and to do so not reluctantly but with reverence. 

It is taught that “understanding the role of all three [aspects], and the interdependence of all three, is essential to living a carefree, yet practical and evolutionary life” (Knoles).  We need to honor the role of creation, maintenance, and destruction in our own journeys of spiritual evolution, of human progress, our own journeys of life in which all three forces will, in ways both seen and unseen by us, operate and interact.2

Consider the first vector or operator, that of creation.  Creation is the theme we most commonly associate with Rosh Ha-Shanah, with this time of year.  It’s probably the easiest for us to wrap our heads and hearts around.  Our Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy is replete with images of pregnancy and giving birth. We sing Hayom Harat Olam, “today the world is born anew”; alternatively translated, “Today all of existence is pregnant with possibility.”  Some even say that the sound of the shofar evokes a baby wailing as it is being born.

Now consider the middle vector or operator, the function of maintenance.  There is more than one reason that we naturally resist change.  One is because we prefer the comfort of the status quo.  I think most of us, in contemplating our lives, are naturally inclined toward an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Things are good… enough.  Why upset the apple cart?  We also resist change because, as has been said, we “get distressed when things meet their natural end” (Knoles).  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And yet, there can be no evolution—of the self, of the soul, of the society, of the world—without “breaking” some stuff.  Without destruction.  Or, at the very least, without acknowledging that there comes a time when a thing, a life, a process, a relationship, may have outlived its useful function (in its current form) and so must end that incarnation in order for something new to be created.  Ask your friend the caterpillar about this.

And if Rosh Ha-Shanah is the “creation” holiday, then surely Yom Kippur is the “destruction” holiday: the observance on the Jewish calendar that invites us to consider what we need to let go, to give up, to allow to be put to rest forever, in order for us to evolve.  It is often pointed out that all of Yom Kippur is an emulation of death, a rehearsal for death of sorts:  we wear white, like the traditional Jewish burial shrouds or takhrikhin; we empty the holy ark of its Torah scrolls so that it becomes an empty box.  (It bears noting that the word for “ark” in Hebrew is aron which is the same word used for a casket.)  We take in no food or drink; we eschew all forms of material comfort; we do not procreate.  We beat our chests over the heart as if trying to perform CPR on a soul that has become spiritually deadened.  

With that in mind, I thought it would make sense on this Shabbat that anticipates the Yamim Nora’im, the Jewish season of awe, to spend some time contemplating how destruction functions in the process of spiritual evolution, how we can embrace destruction as a necessary component of our human and Jewish journeys, and to encounter the destruction operator when it shows up in our lives as an important (if not always immediately welcome) presence.  That will be our focus for tonight, and our homework for the coming Days of Awe.

When I speak of “destruction” in this context, I must emphasize that we are not necessarily talking about violence or wreckage (although we might be).  Another way to think about destruction in the evolutionary cycle is when things reach their natural or logical end, and, without this ending, evolution will be inhibited rather than encouraged.

Kelly gave me a great analogy here. The main function of a fingernail, she pointed out, is, of course, to protect the fingertip.  It can even be used, if it’s long enough, as a weapon or tool or to pick the strings of a guitar or harp and make beautiful music.  Evolutionarily speaking (and I mean this in the Darwinian sense), fingernails are amazing developments.  

But, at a certain point, a fingernail will outgrow its usefulness.  Not only will it become unsightly, it will also become unwieldy, impractical, hard to maintain, more of a hazard than a help.

At that point, it’s time to trim back, to cut, to prune, to destroy.

I think of how we do our best work at WRT.  Each year our staff and volunteer leaders invest a ton of energy in brainstorming—an act of creation itself—around the question, “What shall we create?  What will we build this year?  What new programs, initiatives, engagements can we actualize?” 

Much harder, though, are the conversations around, “What will we destroy?  What should we get rid of?  What has outlived its usefulness?” Many of us dislike this part of the conversation so much that we use a euphemism instead of destroy:  “What programs are we willing to sunset this year?” invoking something conventionally beautiful instead of something dead, defunct, destroyed.

Other analogies grow from the agricultural realm.  The gardeners among us may appreciate that if you prune back a flowering shrub, it will call forth more blossoms.

Ancient societies, including that of the Israelites, mandated years when the land would lie fallow, and no planting, no new creation of produce, was permitted.  The practice encourages new and better growth as a result, but only after refraining from planting and harvesting.  Such idle years are called shemitta, meaning fallow or inactive, and traditional Jewish communities to this day keep track of a seven-year cycle of shemitta years.3  It just so happens that the coming Jewish year, 5782, is a shemitta year, so it seems all the more apt for us to focus now, of all times, on the destruction operator.  

Even the coming Labor Day holiday, and, for that matter, the whole point of every Shabbat, comments powerfully on the notion that we can’t spend every waking moment of our lives working, doing, making, creating.  Periodically, we need to allocate time and space for maintenance and even destruction, at least in the sense of a reset.

Two texts illustrate all of these points.  The first is from the Torah and the second, of course, is from the Torah of Bob.  

The first text comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim

Before they go on without him to the Promised Land, Moses warns the Israelites:

You know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt, and how we passed through the midst of those nations that you traversed.  You have seen the detestable objects, the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold, that they keep.

Even now, perhaps there is among you some man or a woman, some clan or a tribe, whose heart is turning away from Adonai our God, to go and worship the gods of those nations.  Perhaps there is among you a root sprouting poison weed and wormwood.

When such a one hears the words of this warning, that person may fancy him or herself immune, thinking, “I shall be safe, even though I follow my own willful heart”—which would be utterly ruinous.4

Adonai will never forgive such a person.  Rather will Divine anger and passion rage against that person until every warning recorded in this Book comes to pass, and Adonai blots out that one’s name from under heaven.5

Whoa.  It’s a real showstopper, this final warning from Moses to the people about the seduction of idolatry and the destruction that awaits anyone who strays.  But notice that the seduction of idolatry is rooted, specifically, in nostalgia for the past, for what the people knew in Egypt, in the old days, the days of slavery.  The old status quo.  

God demands an utter rejection of what the people knew.  Time and again the Torah warns the people not to turn back to Egypt, not to give into the pull to stick with what was familiar and, even—though brutal for the Israelite slaves—in a weird but relatable way, what was comforting.  

Time and again the Torah demands that the Israelites not just turn away from idolatry, from the old ways and the old gods, but that they smash the idols into dust, burn the foreign shrines, utterly destroy all the old forms and places of worship. 

Only after welcoming the destruction operator can the people spiritually evolve.  Note well that we are approaching the very end of the scroll.  Soon Moses will exit the stage.  He knows he is about to die.  This is his last chance to help his people change and grow and move forward, to evolve.  And it can come about only with a measure of destruction.

The second text is the song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a beautiful and enigmatic song from 1965 that is also, significantly, the last song on the album Bringing it All Back Home, which itself marks a dramatic transition from, or, more aptly, a sharp break with, Dylan’s acoustic folksinger identity, and introduces the listener to a new Dylan, the electric Dylan, the rock-and-roll Dylan.  

The song, which is full of destructive, even apocalyptic imagery, begins like this:

You must leave now

Take what you need you think will last

But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun

Crying like a fire in the sun

As if preaching to himself, Dylan embraces the destruction operator and emerges an artist transformed:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you,

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

Strike another match, go start anew

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.6

 

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Mishkan T’filah, 149.
  2. In the Vedas, each of these forces or operators is assigned a corresponding deity. Creation corresponds to Brahman, Maintenance to Vishnu, and Destruction to Shiva.
  3. See Leviticus 25:3-6, Deuteronomy 15:1-2.
  4. Literally, “to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” This sort of literary antithesis is a common rhetorical feature of the Book of Deuteronomy.
  5. Deuteronomy 29:15-19.
  6. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music.

Shabbat Noach 5782: A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

I recently started the new Apple TV+ series Foundation, based on the classic Isaac Asimov sci-fi books of the same name.  When I was a kid of around Bar Mitzvah age, summering for a few weeks on Long Beach Island with my family, an old dog-eared copy of the original Foundation Trilogy became my constant companion, and hours on the beach were whiled away poring over Asimov’s vision of human civilization some 20,000 years in the future, in which genius mathematician Hari Seldon issues a shattering prophecy:

The Empire that for centuries has held the disparate realms and peoples of the galaxy in what its official spokespersons would call “peace and stability” (and what its growing legions of detractors would describe as tyranny) will crumble and fall, ushering in a period of chaos and bloodshed anticipated to last 30,000 years.  Given this grim prediction, humanity’s best hope is to preserve the choicest products of our ingenuity, insight and wisdom by creating a “Foundation” that will allow humankind to rebuild a new and better civilization out of the ashes of the old.  

Hari Seldon, the enigmatic figure behind this prophecy and proposed project, has developed a new field of science called “psychohistory,” whose core premise is that, given enough data, the future of vast populations can be accurately predicted.    

At the time Asimov first published in short story form the works that would become Foundation, the year was 1942 and Asimov was a stocky 21-year old Jewish kid with a pronounced New York accent studying at Seth Low Junior College, the downtown Brooklyn branch of Columbia University.  He would go on to become the most influential science fiction writer of his generation, his visionary prose sparking the imaginations of luminaries like George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry of Star Wars and Star Trek fame, respectively.  

And, like the best of the sci-fi genre, of which I am, as you now can tell, a fan, what makes Asimov’s stories especially compelling are not the hi-tech gadgets and sentient robots and alien races and faraway planets but the timeless human dramas and all-too relevant moral dilemmas that fuel them.  And, big ideas like this:  access to massive amounts of data will yield conclusions indistinguishable from prophecy.  

There is, I would submit, no sci-fi story more timely than Foundation, which makes this much clear:  we ignore what science has to say at our own peril.

During last winter’s sabbatical, I attended an online panel discussion hosted by my friend, colleague, and chavruta study partner, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn.  Rabbi Rosenn is the founder and CEO of the start-up organization Dayenu:  A Jewish Call to Climate Action, whose mission, in her words, is “[t]o secure a just, livable and sustainable world for all people for generations to come by building a multi-generational Jewish movement that confronts the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action.”

She moderated a conversation with Bill McKibben, the educator, environmentalist, and author (most recently) of a disturbing book—and I mean “disturbing” in the best way possible, as in, “disruptive,” something that provokes new ways of thinking—called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?  It is rooted entirely in science and not at all in fiction. 

Ten years ago,” McKibben began, “Exxon was the biggest company on earth.  Today, it’s not even the biggest energy company.” 

“We are now midway through a sixty-year arc,” he continued, “between the first recognition of the climate crisis and the year 2050, when we must be off of fossil fuels.  We squandered the first twenty years,” he added, to sobering effect.  “Only in the last ten years have we seen the emergence of a serious, large-scale climate movement.  What we need now is rapid change.”  

From this opening salvo, McKibben went on to frame the role of large corporations, global banks (Chase Bank, for instance, is the world’s largest financier of oil), industrialized agriculture (which accounts for 18% of the world’s carbon emissions, much of it from livestock), and grassroots activism in bringing about this rapid change.

“Defeating Communism and Fascism were the existential challenges of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations,” he concluded, “and ours is climate change, which we have to approach with the same existential seriousness.”

We continue to grapple with the far-reaching consequences of a life-changing, world-altering pandemic.  Even as so much of the world (and our country) continues to suffer the acute ravages of Covid-19, the scientists among us have begun to coalesce around a consensus that defeating the pandemic may be a very long game indeed, and that the disease is already well on its way to becoming endemic, meaning, consistently present, but limited to particular regions (whereas pandemics are defined by a disease’s exponential growth rate and spread over a wide area).  Malaria—which came up in this morning’s news, as scientists have just announced a forthcoming vaccine to treat, and perhaps eradicate, this dreaded plague—is one good example of an endemic disease, frequently cropping up in certain countries and regions, and whose spread has become more or less predictable.  

So we are likely to experience regional and/or seasonal outbreaks of Covid for quite some time to come, and, of course, unvaccinated populations, and people who live in poverty, many of them in communities of color, will bear the brunt of the ongoing toll.  

As I see it, the pandemic has shone a stark spotlight on how poorly we are prepared—as a nation, as a global community, as a human species—to confront global crises.  We are failing to do the hard work of change now and instead continue to place disproportionate hopes, dreams, prayers, and resources on the emergence of technological “magic bullets” — such as the coronavirus vaccines which, while safe and effective, are nonetheless not infallibly protective, nor are they as widespread as they’d need to be in order to confer immunity more successfully.

The mindset and course of action we have adopted in response to Covid will not work in facing down the existential challenge of climate change.  

Let me be clear, and this is the moral thesis of my argument:  We cannot accept the death of millions of God’s children as a routine price of doing business in the 21st century.  If we emerge from the pandemic unchanged in fundamental ways—as human beings, as a society, as a global community, as a Jewish community—we will have failed, and we will fail and fail again in meeting the even harder challenges on the horizon.

There is a midrash recounted about Noah, the namesake of this week’s famously waterlogged Torah portion.  It comes from a collection of Spanish manuscripts from the Middle Ages called the Zohar Chadash.  

It is written that when Noah emerged from the ark, he saw a world destroyed, and began to weep.  He said to the Holy One, ‘What have you done?  Why have You destroyed Your world?’  And God replied, ‘Now you ask?  When I said to you, “The end of all living things is nigh,” you went into the Beit Midrash, the study-house, and did nothing to rectify your generation’” (Zohar Chadash, Noach, 28:1).

We cannot run away from the climate crisis.  It does not loom ahead of us; it has already come upon us.  We cannot fix what ails us from within the walls of the Beit Midrash.  We have to get out into the public arena.  We certainly will not arrive at any meaningful action by way of endless debates with our ideological opponents from polarized political corners, saturated as we are in the blather of warring cable pundits and what passes for information on social media.  

We have to organize today.  We have to persuade our elected officials that their constituents demand bold legislation and visionary policy.  Over the next two decades, our voices will either pull our imperiled global civilization back from the brink, or race our way to a planet so overheated, an atmosphere so suffocated by carbon pollution, that today’s wildfires and hurricanes will look like child’s play; in which the next tens of millions of refugees will be fleeing not only blood-soaked conflict zones but also ravaged coastlines and once-lush pastures desiccated into uninhabitable deserts.  

One way to make our voices heard is to log on to the website of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, dayenu.org, and get involved, right now.

In smaller but still dramatic ways we can also model environmental responsibility in our homes and communities.  If you live in Scarsdale and have not yet begun recycling your food scraps in our Village-wide composting program, you are already the better part of ten years behind the curve.  I say this not to shame us but to motivate us.  With no judgment whatsoever—I promise—all you need to do is email me and I will put you in touch with WRT’s Zero Waste volunteers who will show you how easy it is to soften your environmental impact.  

In 1962, when the Beatles were still singing, “Love, love me do/you know I love you/I’ll always be true/so please love me do,” Bob Dylan was singing:

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?

I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty

Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison

Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden

Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten

Where black is the color, where none is the number

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it

And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’

But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

When pressed to explain these apocalyptic visions, Dylan, as usual, would be cagey about his meaning, allowing us listeners to formulate our own conclusions—the way poets often do.  It has been said that his “hard rain” was the specter of nuclear fallout; Dylan premiered the song one month before (!) President Kennedy addressed the nation about a buildup of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

But Dylan’s words have an uncanny way of outliving their original context, and our relationship with them evolves as well—the way poetry often does.  

From Noah’s time to our time, some words have the power to cut through the blaring white noise of a world in turmoil and say exactly what needs to be heard:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it

And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’

But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Everything is Broken – Yom Kippur 5782

Of all of Bob Dylan’s songs, the one that I think best captures what Judaism is all about is “Everything is Broken,” from his 1989 album Oh Mercy.  It goes like this:

Broken lines, broken strings,

Broken threads, broken springs,

Broken idols, broken heads,

People sleeping in broken beds

Ain’t no use jiving

Ain’t no use joking

Everything is broken1

Seth Rogovoy, author of the excellent book, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet describes “Everything is Broken” as “swamp rock meets Lurianic Kabbalah,”2 referring to that influential strain of 16th-century Jewish mysticism developed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, who re-imagined the Jewish doctrines of Creation, God’s role in the world, and the relationship between humankind and God.  His postulates continue to shape Jewish thought to this day.

Born in Jerusalem in 1534, and raised by a rich uncle from Cairo after his father died, young Isaac Luria showed early promise as a student of rabbinic literature.  Before long, Luria began to dabble in mysticism—the secret wisdom that spiritual seekers consult as they yearn to experience God—and immersed himself in studying the Zohar, the 13th century cornerstone of the Jewish mystical canon.  

It is even believed that Luria may have secluded himself in private meditation for seven years in a cottage on the banks of the Nile.  Returning to Eretz Yizrael in 1569, Luria migrated to the mountaintop city of Tzefat and filled a vacancy as the Jewish community’s chief teacher and spiritual guide.   

Although Luria himself wrote next to nothing, and died at age 38, he still managed to transmit his ideas through lectures to a dozen or so disciples, who in turn taught them to their select disciples, and so on.

Put simply, Lurianic Kabbalah starts with the premise that “everything is broken” and argues outward from there.  It is significant that Luria’s ideas entered Jewish thought a little over 75 years—or about three generations—after the greatest trauma in Jewish history since the destruction of the ancient temple:  the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. 

Luria and his followers devised a spiritual ideology that responded directly to the suffering of Jewish people at the time.  Luria’s premise, that “brokenness” is baked into the fabric of existence, centered hardship, tragedy, pain, and evil in the world—an evil made manifest to the hundreds of thousands of Jews forced, under the eye of the Inquisition, to convert to Christianity at swordpoint, or who were killed on the spot, or driven, with little more than the clothes on their backs, into permanent exile.  

Ultimately, Rabbi Luria’s revolutionary vision of Creation serves to explain the prevalence of human suffering, and also points the way to how we live so as to affirm the potential—despite the brokenness around us and within us—for goodness, meaning, and for God’s loving presence to enter our lives and enter the world.  

I assume that Luria’s teachings are best known to us through the term Tikkun Olam, the “repair of the world,” the word “repair” implying that the world is broken.  Since the Holocaust, Tikkun Olam has grown to become a prominent theme in Jewish life, particularly in Reform Judaism, where it is associated with social action and social justice.  

But for Luria, Tikkun Olam happens at the cosmic level, affecting all time and space.   

Luria’s core teaching—and this is a metaphor for all of existence, so bear with me—goes like this:  

In the beginning, everything was God; there was (and is) nothing that is not God.  

And yet, in order to allow for Creation, God had to perform an act of self-contraction.  If you’ve ever sucked in your lungs in order to let someone else pass by you in a narrow corridor (as I admit to having done several times, especially during Covid), that’s the idea.  

Or there’s the lovely metaphor offered by Anna Calamaro, a Reform rabbi-in-training who is also a doula, assisting women in pregnancy and childbirth and infusing their journeys with Jewish spirituality.  She observes that the Kabbalistic term for divine contraction is “tzimtzum,”  a word that “conjures images of women having contractions as they give birth….  [C]ontractions prepare us for more.”3  God contracted a part of the Eternal Being in order to make room for all that was yet to be, in order to give birth.  So the Creation of the world was not only positive; it was also negative:  in creating the world, something of God contracted, went into exile.  

The Torah tells us that in the beginning, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”4  In Luria’s version, Divine light began to flow from the now-contracted source, into the empty space, filling vessels God had made to contain the light; but the light proved too strong, the vessels too fragile, and they shattered.  The vessels and their light scattered across Creation.  Through the violence of the shattering, darkness and evil entered the world.  

Instead of light filling Creation from end to end, we now walk about a world mottled with light and dark, good and evil, the whole and the broken:  signs of God’s Presence sometimes evident, sometimes obscured, often hiding in plain sight. 

And here we are, a little more than 75 years—or about three generations—after the greatest trauma in Jewish history since the expulsion from Spain, that is, of course, the Shoah, and Luria’s vision still offers a powerful lens for understanding the world and our role in it:  to be God’s partners in the work of Tikkun, or repair.    

But Luria in fact spoke of two kinds of brokenness and thus two kinds of repair:  Tikkun Ha-Olam, the repair of the world outside us, and Tikkun Ha-Nefesh, the repair of the soul inside us.  The two are inextricably intertwined:  we cannot do one without affecting the other.  

After all, if, as Luria proposes, everything is the unfolding of Divinity, then Divinity exists both outside us and within us.  Even more, God’s presence is accessible to us not only through that which is beautiful and whole but also through all that is fractured and hurting.

Broken bodies, broken bones,

Broken voices on broken phones

Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin’

Everything is broken

What Dylan is driving at, what Luria means, is that not one of us is whole, none of us unbroken, in this battered and beat-up world.  

And yet we, human beings, unique among the wonders of Creation, retain a marvelous capacity to dream, to hope, to imagine—something better, for our world, for ourselves.  

Judaism capitalizes on this capacity in its insistence that history must move from degradation to exaltation5, misery to redemption; that moral progress is not only possible but essential; that what we experience as broken we also can mend; that we were put on this earth in order to leave it better.

The human ability to visualize perfection, and the Jewish demand to pursue perfection, is both a blessing and a curse.  

A blessing, in that it provides direction, purpose, forward motion; in that it insists that we not succumb to despair no matter how bleak the circumstances—and we Jews have known more than a few bleak circumstances.  

A curse, in that the pursuit of perfection depletes us, sets us up for unrealistic expectations, prevents us from accepting the brokenness of the world, and, especially, the brokenness within us, as innate features, as part of God’s design—the whole and the broken woven throughout the fabric of Creation like the primordial light threaded through the darkness.

“The Thai Buddhist master Ajahn Chah was so revered that when he died, about a million people came to pay their respect to his work and his legacy.  Even the Thai royal family came,” reports Anam Thubten, a Tibetan monk and one of Ajahn Chah’s many admirers.

“One time, when he was alive, somebody brought him a gift of an expensive antique cup.  It was supposed to have been made in China during the Ming dynasty.  He picked up the cup in front of everybody and said, ‘This cup is already broken.’  Because it is already broken, we can let go of our attachment to it in case someday it breaks, which it will.  At the same time, we can enjoy it, and we can enjoy drinking from it.”

“In many ways, everything is already broken.  We are all broken,” the monk concludes, before adding, with a wry smile, “unbroken too.”6  

This Zen paradox also lies at the heart of the Lurianic vision of the world and our place in it.  For the Buddhist, though, the way through the brokenness, the path to enlightenment, begins and ends with awareness and acceptance.  The idea is to let go of attachment.   

For the Jew, an additional challenge must be negotiated:  not only to see the brokenness without and within, not only to acknowledge and accept and affirm, but also to mend, to heal, to change.  For the Jew, our work in cultivating awareness of the brokenness in the world and, especially, the brokenness in our selves, in our souls, is the catalyst for change.  

Acknowledging our failings, accepting our limitations, affirming our soul-brokenness:  these are the first steps on the road to a more compassionate life, for ourselves and for the world.  

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chayim after his magnum opus, an influential work of Jewish ethical wisdom published in 1873, came to the same realization:  

“I set out to try to change the world, but I failed,” he said.  “So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too.  So I targeted the community in my hometown, but I achieved no greater success.   Then I gave… all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well.  Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”7 

Just days before going into lockdown, in March of 2020, Rabbi Levy and I traveled with our eighth grade students and parents to the Deep South on WRT’s annual Civil Rights Journey.  Stopping for a while in Montgomery, Alabama, we made a heartrending visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which is America’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, and African Americans humiliated by racial segregation. 

Set on a six-acre site, the memorial features over 800 steel monuments engraved with the names of lynching victims, one massive column for each county where a lynching took place.  There are more than 4,400 names.  Like visiting Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem, or the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, you leave such a place transformed—not just aghast but awake, aware that you share in a shameful legacy; that you have inherited a profound responsibility; that you cannot just go back to “business as usual.”  

The poet Rilke described such a moment of transformation:  “…[H]ere,” he wrote, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”8  

The work of addressing the world’s brokenness begins by seeing the brokenness within.  

It begins, “You must change your life.”  

Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed public interest lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative which houses the Museum and Memorial, has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

He observes:

I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human.  We all have our reasons.  Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity.9

This, my friends, is the most Yom Kippur message I know:  we are all broken people in a broken world. 

Not one of us gets through this life without being hurt—scarred, even—by living.  Not one of us has come through even these eighteen months without something getting broken along the way:  A plan.  A hope.  An agreement.  A friendship.  An engagement.  A heart.  A reputation for being patient with our families.  A sense of being in charge of our own lives.  

And if, on this Yom Kippur, you are saying a Yizkor memorial prayer for a person you have loved, and who has died, then you know:  that hurt never really goes away; the wound never really closes—not all the way, maybe not at all.  The brokenness just finds a way to become integrated into the complex whole that is you.  

Acknowledging our brokenness is not an invitation to self-flagellation.  Our brokenness does not make us “less than,” any more than God’s tzimtzum or self-contraction made God any less God.  

We are still worthy of love—from others, from God, and yes, perhaps most of all, from ourselves.

And to say we are all broken is also not to negate the innumerable signs of life and beauty and progress all around us, and within us.  

This world is so magnificent and so heartbreaking.  We live amid intermingled light and shadow, majesty and pain, and our souls are internal mirrors of this external reality.  

“We are all broken, unbroken too,” as the monk teaches.  

Our souls are like the blasts of the shofar:  Tekiah, which is what we call in music a “whole note,” followed immediately by three short notes interrupted by silence, called Shevarim, whose name literally means “broken,” followed by Teruah, a discharge of jagged staccato blasts, followed at last by Tekiah Gedolah, a great whole note, a great healing note.  

They say these shofar blasts were first sounded at Sinai.10  When Moses came down from the mountain—tablets of stone in his hand, words inscribed thereon by the very finger of God—so they say—before he could even share the good news with the Israelites, his eye caught sight of his people frolicking around a golden calf, bowing down and worshipping an unholy idol.  Enraged, Moses hurled the tablets to the ground where they shattered at the foot of the mountain.11

After the calamity subsided, Moses went back up the mountain, to try again, to earn a second chance for his people.  The Rabbis say that this happened on Yom Kippur, day of second chances.12  

And so Moses went up, and carved two tablets anew, and returned to his people, and the story of our Jewish journey went on.

But what became of the broken pieces?  After all, they were, still, holy writ—inscribed, as we have said, by the very finger of God.  Surely, Moses could not have just left them scattered on the ground?

The Rabbis then teach that Moses gathered up all the broken fragments and placed them in the Holy Ark, together with the whole tablets13, and there—if you choose to believe it—they remain, to this day:  the whole and the broken, side by side, all of the pieces holy.  

And how very much like the human soul is that holy Ark.  That vessel with its whole and broken pieces all jumbled together.  

And how very much like the world—this wonderful and worrisome world, with all its beauty and all its baseness, all its splendor and all its suffering, and all of it, the ever-unfolding mystery of God.

Endnotes

1.  © 1989 by Special Rider Music.

2.  “Bob Dylan’s 10 Most Jewish Songs,” Forward, May 24, 2020.  https://forward.com/culture/447127/bob-dylans-10-most-jewish-songs/

3.  “14 Days of Silence” (blog post), At The Well, https://www.atthewellproject.com/blog//14-days-of-silence.

4.  Genesis 1:3.

5.  See Mishnah, Pesahim 10:4, which rules that in relating the story of the Exodus on Passover, the narrator is required to “begin with degradation and end with exaltation” (“מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח”).  

6.  Anam Thubten, Choosing Compassion: How to be of Benefit in a World that Needs our Love.  Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2019.  p. 125.

7.  As quoted in Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar.  Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2008, p. 16.

8.  Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908), translated by Stephen Mitchell.  The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  New York: Random House, 1982. 

9.  Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption.  New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2014. p. 289.

10.  See Exodus 19:13, 19:16, 20:15.

11.  Exodus 32:19.

12.  See RaSHI to Exodus 32:1 and 33:11.

13.  Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 14b. cf. also Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 8b.

A Tale of Two Abrahams – Rosh Ha-Shanah 5782

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

Well Abe said, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

God said, “Out on Highway 61” ( Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited,” Highway 61 Revisited.  © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc., renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music).

Like most midrash, Bob Dylan’s version of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, takes some breathtaking liberties with the text, not least of which is to transpose the Akedah from Mount Moriah (now the Temple Mount in Jerusalem below which the Kotel, the Western Wall still stands) to Highway 61, the great American “Blues Highway” that runs north-south from the Duluth of Dylan’s childhood down through New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta.

But the real kicker is how, when God says to Abraham, “Kill me a son,” Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”

If only.  If only Abraham had said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”  

Abraham, like most Biblical figures, is a complicated fellow.  He exhibits a kind of split personality:  equal parts moral hero and militant zealot; prophet on the one hand, extremist on the other.  

Consider Abraham’s virtues:  God calls unto him, Lech Lecha, “Go forth,” and he leaves his home by the Persian Gulf to settle a land of promise, a Holy Land (Genesis 11:31-12:7).  He rescues Lot, his schlemazel of a nephew, first when he’s taken hostage in a Canaanite tribal war (Ibid, 14:1-17), and again, when Abraham advocates on behalf of the innocent in the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” Abraham demands (Ibid, 18:25).  He models Jewish hospitality, welcoming wayfarers to his tent, offering them food and drink, stooping before them to wash their feet (Ibid, 18:1-5).  He fathers a multitude of nations, progeny “as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand upon the seashore” (Ibid, 22:17).  In midrash he emerges the original iconoclast, smashing his father’s idols in the name of the one true God (See Bereshit Rabbah §38, and Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu, among others).

Taken together, Abraham becomes the paradigmatic moral hero of the Jewish tradition.  His legacy is embedded in Judaism’s demand for justice and compassion, humility and integrity.

Which is all well and good, unless you happen to be Abraham’s wife or child.  

Behind the closed door of his tent, Abraham comes across a different man—rough, intolerant, fanatical, even.  At the first sight of visitors, he barks orders at Sarah, “Quick!  Knead bread and bake cakes!” (Genesis 18:6).  He passes off his wife as his sister in the Egyptian court in order to save his own hide—all but giving his blessing to the Pharaoh and his lackeys to molest Sarah (Ibid, 12:10-20.  For a parallel narrative, see also Genesis 20:1-16.).  He casts out his son Ishmael, and the mother of his child, the concubine Hagar, to the wilderness, empty-handed save a loaf of bread and a skin of water (Ibid, 21:14).  

And today, Rosh Ha-Shanah, we meet once again this strange and strident Abraham, who hears a mysterious voice and willingly complies with its outrageous demand:  who gets up early in the morning so as not to wake Sarah, drags their sweet, sleepy boy out of bed, leaves the servants behind, journeys three days on foot, makes Isaac carry the firewood for his own sacrifice up the mountain, ties him to the altar, raises the knife without flinching, and refuses to lay it down until the angel of God implores:  “Abraham! Abraham!  Lay not your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22:1-12).

Imagine living with this Abraham.  After the Akedah, Abraham returns home alone; Sarah dies in the first verse of the next chapter, a broken woman with a broken heart; his castaway son Ishmael forever estranged; and Isaac, poor Isaac, fated to toil until the end of his days in the shadow of his father.  

But unlike his father, Isaac will have no great deeds associated with his name.  Isaac will be remembered, chiefly, for growing old and blind and—either willingly or unwittingly—participating in his son Jacob’s theft of a birthright and blessing owed to Esau, his twin brother and Isaac’s firstborn son (See Genesis Chapter 27).

All this, too, is the heritage of Abraham:  a legacy of family trauma inflicted by a man intoxicated with grandiose visions while staggeringly inattentive to the anguish of the women and children who share his tent, a toxic narcissist whose actions reverberated through successive generations.  

I think of this Abraham—these two Abrahams, really—the tzadik on the one hand and the tyrant on the other, and how hard it is to reconcile the two—and I can’t help but observe how uncannily they resemble the Israel of today, a split-personality Israel, an Israel that inspires me on the one hand and vexes me on the other, an Israel that stirs in me great admiration, as well as grave concern.   

I share with you these thoughts about Israel at a fraught time.  Recall the violence that erupted in May:  a two-week period marked by protests and police riot control, thousands of rockets fired on Israel by Hamas, Israeli counterstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip, and, most alarmingly, violent attacks carried out by Arab rioters and Jewish mobs, with beatings and looting and arson and even outright murder in the streets of Acco and Ramle and Lod and Haifa where Jews and Arabs have lived peaceably, if uncomfortably, together, for generations.  

Recall the international outcry, the vast majority of it castigating Israel.  Recall the 24/7 news cycle that kept this story front and center while other headlines—like the May 16th terrorist bombing of a school in Kabul which claimed the lives of 90 and injured another 240, most of them girls between the ages of 11 and 15—barely registered.  

It’s been four months and I remain shaken, despondent, angry.

I’m not alone.

Six days into the conflict, we heard from a college student who had traveled to Israel in February 2018 with her high school senior class, and with Cantor Kleinman and me, as the culminating experience of WRT’s “Packing for College” program, a trip we plan to restore in the next year.  

“I am reaching out to express my deep concern for Israel,” she wrote, and “how I am… processing the… misinformation on my social media pages.”

Let me say here how heartened we are by college students writing to their rabbis and cantors, aware that a crisis in Israel is a matter of spiritual urgency for all Jews, wherever we are.  

You remind us why WRT exists:  to infuse lives with joy, purpose, and impact through the Jewish tradition, and to carry that tradition proudly forward.  I hope you, our students, know that WRT will always be there for you to help you navigate the complexities and opportunities of Jewish life, no matter how far you may go, no matter what paths you may take.

So this was, all in all, the kind of email that we clergy appreciate receiving.  Still, we find it alarming that so many of our young people are caught in the crossfire of a debate characterized by a surplus of moral outrage and a shortage of reason or understanding.  

This spring, our students were pummeled with a steady stream of social media, public demonstrations, and quads festooned with posters accusing Israel and Zionism of “Racism,” “Apartheid,” “Colonialism,” “Ethnic Cleansing,” and even “Genocide”—words that have become part and parcel of the daily conversation about the world’s only Jewish state.

In such an emotionally charged milieu, with such hysterical rhetoric framing the public conversation around Israel, is it any wonder that our students feel worried and confused?      

With a quarter of American Jews agreeing with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state”​​—appropriating the term once used to describe the racist and draconian South African regime in which a ten-percent minority of Whites ruled over a ninety-percent Black majority—and with nearly as many American Jews affirming that, quote, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,” and even as many as one in five under the age of forty declaring that “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist,” we should all feel worried and confused.  I know I do. (Statistics from “Jewish Americans in 2020,” Pew Research Center, May 11, 2020.)

The words I speak today are intended to reboot the conversation around Israel.  I am doubling down on my commitment to educate the Jewish community about the real Israel:  the real, messy, beleaguered, beautiful, bewildering, singular, Israel.  I am determined to do my part to demand an end to the delegitimization of the world’s only Jewish State.  I am determined that we embrace complexity and reject one-dimensional narratives about Israel—both reflexive demonization and reflexive defensiveness.  

We must understand there are, today, two Israels, which like the two Abrahams, coexist uncomfortably within the same body:  the Israel of moral greatness and the Israel of dangerous fanaticism.  

These past months have given me the opportunity to refine my thinking about Israel which has been honed through years of teaching the “Packing for College” course for our eleventh and twelfth graders and leading numerous trips to Israel for students, congregants, and rabbinic colleagues. (I have had the honor of serving as a rabbinic peer leader on multiple trips with the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), the educational arm of AIPAC.)

Those of you who have traveled to Israel with WRT know that we do not sugarcoat the reality on the ground, nor shy away from difficult conversations.  

On the one hand, you will encounter a country of pioneering possibility; a country that welcomes the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee; a country that has allowed the Jew not only to reclaim Jewish history but also to secure Jewish destiny; a country that has saved millions of Jewish refugees from peril and poverty, giving full citizenship to Black Jews from Ethiopia and Arabic-speaking Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa; a country that embraces the Jewish story, that clothes Jewish faith and observance, language and values, in the mantle of statehood; a “start-up nation” that leads the world in technological innovation; a humanitarian nation that rushes in when disaster strikes—for instance, sending rescue workers to Miami after this summer’s devastating condo collapse.  And you’ll meet a nation which has, in recent months, freely elected and installed a new unity government that has pledged to bolster Israel’s democratic norms, and which brings together voices from the left and the right—including Israel’s first Arab party to join such a coalition, and the first Reform Rabbi to sit in the Knesset—no small feat, these. 

And, on the other hand, you will encounter a country that continues to deny non-Orthodox Jews their full share of the rights and privileges—not only spiritual but legal—of living in the Jewish State.  You will encounter a country where women have to fight for their right to pray at the Kotel, to sit at the front of a public bus driving through religious neighborhoods, to live free from being barraged with obscenities or even spit on for wearing short sleeves; a nation lauded, among all Middle Eastern countries, for its inclusive attitudes toward the LGBTQ community and which still denies gay couples the right to marry, adopt, or bring a child into their families through surrogacy; a state that has eroded its democratic credibility by passing laws of dubious necessity that chauvinistically privilege Jewish culture and Hebrew language, while disregarding the cultural sensitivities of the more than one in five Israeli citizens who are not Jewish; a nation that has left tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in a state of limbo, perpetually ineligible for citizenship but unable to go back to the war-torn countries from which they have fled; a country that continues to encroach on Bedouin and Palestinian lands with ever-expanding development projects and settlements, further marginalizing and aggravating already underprivileged populations; a country that has empowered some of its most fanatical religious and ultra-nationalistic voices, in the name of national security, to the long-term detriment of security, much less peace.

About this Israel—the Israel that resembles the second Abraham, the Abraham whose religious fervor nearly led to the sacrifice of his own child—we must unflinchingly speak the truth, because we are Jews, and that’s what we do. The Torah regards it an act of love and a moral obligation to offer reproof when one’s fellow goes astray (Lev. 19:17).  We do not prevaricate.  We do not dismiss uncomfortable truths such as these: 

  • In the Israel of today, you are disproportionately likely to be racially profiled if you happen to be black or brown.  Over fifteen years ago, a new term entered the Israeli lexicon:  “DWA,” or “Driving While Arab.”  It means that minorities (including Jews with black and brown skin) are far more likely to be pulled over by police without any traffic violation.
  • In the Israel of today, thirty-six percent of Palestinian-Israeli citizens live below the poverty line.  While the figures are better for Palestinians living alongside Jews in mixed-population cities (such as those where violence erupted this spring), still, Israel’s minorities generally experience poor access to quality education, jobs, and social services, and continue to be underrepresented in political leadership.
  • In the Israel of today, extremists, cynical political officials, and wealthy patrons have co-opted the 54-year long military occupation of the West Bank for their own ideological purposes:  a grandiose vision of Jewish totalitarianism in the Biblical Holy Land.  What began as a necessity for Israel’s security has become a moral and political morass with no end in sight.

“But Rabbi,” I can hear some of you saying, “No country is perfect, including our own.  Many countries struggle with inequality, violence, poverty, entrenched racism—including our own.”  I agree.  

“And Rabbi,” others may say, “Palestinian leadership has proved feckless and corrupt, passing up every opportunity to make peace, preferring terror, preferring BDS, preferring griping to the United Nations, preferring the status of perpetual victims over negotiating a real solution that would ameliorate the misery of their people.”  Again, I agree.  

Yes:  there is much the Palestinians could and should do.  And that does not negate the fact that we are Jews, with a shared stake in the Jewish state, and our work is not done.

Even as Rosh Ha-Shanah forces our reckoning with the two Abrahams—one, a paragon of moral restraint, arguing before God to spare the innocent, the other, stubbornly clutching the knife above the throat of his child—so too may this Rosh Ha-Shanah bring about in us a reckoning with the reality of the two Israels.  

Dr. Brad Artson, a Conservative Rabbi and Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, frames the task before us this way:

When we teach about Israel, we can endeavor to tell the messy truth of a persecuted people searching for safety, going to a land full of meaning for the Jewish people, full of meaning for so many other peoples, and also full of human beings who didn’t ask for new neighbors.

When we vote, we can vote for leaders who won’t continue paying lip service to peace while funding violence. We can use our position as citizens of Israel’s biggest benefactor to push to regulate and redirect funds in equitable ways that promote a peaceful and just future.

When we pool our philanthropy and direct our giving, we can pay attention:  Is our tzedakah supporting those who build peace or those who sow hate and violence disguised in the name of justice and Jewish continuity?  Is it supporting those who plant trees with their neighbors or those who are planting over their neighbors’ homes? (Bradley S. Artson, “The Letter Some of My Rabbinical Students Wrote Shows a Lack of Empathy–With Jews,” Forward, May 19, 2021.  https://forward.com/scribe/469900/my-rabbinical-students-letter-shows-imbalance-and-a-lack-of-empathyfor/)

Ultimately, the task before us—“to tell the messy truth,” as Rabbi Artson artfully puts it—requires that we come to terms with Jewish power, and Israel’s power, specifically.  

The question is not, “How can Israel become a moral entity by relinquishing power?” but rather, “How can Israel exercise its significant power, morally?”

“There has always been an allure to powerlessness,” wrote Bret Stephens earlier this summer.  “It means freedom from the personal and political burdens of responsibility, the moral dilemmas of choice. In an age in which victimhood is often conflated with virtue, it has social cachet. To be powerless is to be pure. To be pure is to be innocent.”

But innocence comes at a price, one that has been particularly terrible for Jews. Nineteen centuries of expulsions, ostracism, massacres, blood libels, torture, and systemic discrimination led to Zionism, which was, very simply, a movement and demand for sovereign Jewish power in the Land of Israel….  That the State of Israel was born, raised, and remains under fire isn’t a sign of the failure of Zionism. It’s a reminder of its necessity. (Bret Stephens, “The Necessity of Jewish Power,” Sapir:  A Journal of Jewish Conversations, Volume 2, Summer 2021.  https://sapirjournal.org/power/2021/07/the-necessity-of-jewish-power/)

I believe in the necessity of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, the declaration that we deserve to live free from terror and violence in our national homeland.  

But I believe in more than just the necessity of Zionism.  I also believe in Zionism as a moral imperative that rectifies millennia of injustice and suffering.  

And therein lies the great moral dilemma of our time:  how to execute this imperative, morally? 

To do so requires both boldness and restraint.  It requires that we differentiate between empathy and moral clarity, that we acknowledge a Palestinian as a fellow child of God—indeed, a fellow child of Abraham—while doing everything in our power to ensure that no child of Israel is consigned to days and nights of terror, hunkered down in a bomb shelter.

Moral restraint does not mean standing idly by while Hamas indiscriminately fires rockets targeting kindergartens and kibbutzim, homes and hospitals.  Moral restraint does mean thinking twice before confronting Palestinian demonstrators with riot police, particularly during Ramadan, at the El Aqsa Mosque which Muslims venerate—as but one painful example from recent experience.  

Ultimately, the moral exercise of power rests on the ability to discern when it’s time to raise the knife and when it’s time to lower the knife.  

For this very reason does the Angel call out, Avraham! Avraham!, addressing both Abrahams in the moment of decision:  calling on Abraham to summon his own better angels, to embrace the Abraham of moral vision and reject the Abraham of intolerance, to put down the knife and redirect his gaze. 

Only then can Abraham see a different way forward—a ram in the thicket—God’s way of telling us never to give up hope in the possibility for a better future, no matter how bleak the current situation may seem.

God’s real presence in the story of the Akedah was never the voice in Abraham’s head to begin with.  God was there all along, in the shadows, off to the side, redirecting his perspective, calling to him:  Put down the knife and see things a different way.

To that end, I want us to see Israel with new eyes—up close and personal—whether for the first time or the fiftieth—by joining a congregational trip to Israel to celebrate WRT’s upcoming 70th anniversary year, in 2023 (that’s two years from now, or, in other words, sooner than you think).  We hope to travel to Israel with you, our WRT family, joining all ages and stages of life, together with our clergy team and gifted educators.  We hope to announce details in the coming months.  

It’s Rosh Ha-Shanah.  A new day in a new year.  Our connection to Israel may be old as Abraham, but—with vision and commitment—we will create it and strengthen it anew.

Shanah tovah.    

LIKE A ROLLING STONE – REFLECTIONS ON BOB DYLAN’S 80th BIRTHDAY

MAY 28, 2021

Shabbat Beha’alotecha 5781

It begins with the drum shot heard ‘round the world: a mighty thwack, followed a split-second later by the reverb of the kick-drum, a one-two punch that Bruce Springsteen recalled this way in 1989, twenty-four years after Columbia Records released “Like a Rolling Stone”:

I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.

The door to my mind got kicked open, it must have been, around 1983—when, rifling through my parents’ vinyl—as I often did after school—I stopped on the one with the cover photo of the surly 24-year-old with the rat’s nest haircut.  I slipped the record from its well-worn cardboard sleeve, lifted the lid off the walnut cabinet on the old KLH, turned the volume up, unlatched the needle, and let it rip—

Wham!  What a sound.  After the drum shot comes this fantastic cacophony of organ and bass and electric guitar, and then that unmistakable adenoidal sneer, declaiming in a cadence that could only be described as mythical (I mean, it begins with “once upon a time,” for crying out loud):

Once upon a time

You dressed so fine

Threw the bums a dime

In your prime

Didn’t you?

And nothing would ever be the same again.

This Monday, Bob Dylan celebrated his 80th birthday.  It should be clear by now that I’m a fan.  Maybe not as big a fan as my buddy Rabbi Seth Limmer of Chicago Sinai Congregation, who, last Shabbat, delivered a sermon in celebration of Dylan’s milestone, in which he referenced the sixteen times he’s seen Dylan live, annotating each performance with extensive footnotes.  As for me, I’ve only seen the Man in concert a measly eight times, and I forget most of the details, which I think, by the way, may be a sign that you’ve really been at a Dylan concert.  

The other sign of really being at a Dylan concert is that you have no idea what he’s singing.  Limmer and I concur that the friends we’ve taken to see Dylan who have failed to appreciate the experience mainly share the same critique:  they can’t tell what song he’s playing.  And we both know people whose main complaint is that they don’t like his voice anymore, if they ever did in the first place.  But I’m with what Bob once said on this issue:  “I’m like Enrico Caruso… if you listen closely, I hit all the right notes.”  

The way I see it, the voice is a lot like anchovies.  Either you think they taste delicious or you don’t, but—and I don’t care what you say here—a salad isn’t a Caesar without them.

In any case:  Love him or hate him, I have publicly committed to celebrating Dylan’s 80th with a year’s worth of remarks on “The Torah of Bob,” so tonight, for the first such sermon in this cycle, let’s bring it all back home, back to

Once upon a time

You dressed so fine

Threw the bums a dime

In your prime

Didn’t you?

It’s important to understand that when “Like a Rolling Stone” came out, on July 20th, 1965, nothing in popular music had ever sounded like this.  

Columbia Records was unhappy with everything about it—starting with its six-minute length, which was more than double what passed for a pop song back then (but which, to Dylan’s credit as an editor of his own muse, began its life as what he described as “this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long”).  

They also hated its electrified sound. (At his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance just five days after the record came out, Dylan doubled down by plugging in and playing the second set extremely loud.)

And the record execs were none too thrilled with the song’s confrontational tone and message.  No one was used to hearing a song on the radio that so vindictively accused the listener.

Like this:

…nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street

And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it

Or this:

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

And this:

You used to laugh about

Everybody that was hangin’ out

Now you don’t talk so loud

Now you don’t seem so proud

About having to be scrounging for your next meal

And most definitely this:

How does it feel

How does it feel

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone?

The whole song is one long withering indictment, a verse-chorus-verse takedown of entitlement and privilege and the hypocrisy of the well-to-do, the ones who’ve “gone to the finest schools…,” all “drinkin’, thinkin’ that they’ve got it made / exchanging all precious gifts / But you’d better take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe,” Dylan heckles, his voice dripping with contempt.  

Even the so-called “protest songs” of Dylan’s early folk period never came close to this.  Long gone is “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind / the answer is blowing in the wind.”  No, now—Dylan seems to be shouting—the answer is blowing in your face, and you are most certainly not “my friend.” 

Where does a song like this come from?  How might we appreciate its power?

There’s a wonderful, disturbing, and truly bizarre episode in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha from the Book of Numbers, that sheds light on Dylan’s work, his art in general, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” specifically.

Let me set the scene.  While wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites periodically stop, make camp, and set up the Tent of Meeting where the leadership would encounter God and await direction.  

Moses has charged seventy elders of the community as his official “cabinet,” if you will, and God has even imbued these 70 officials with some of Moses’s own prophetic ability.  The Torah tells us that, even as Moses could communicate the very word of God to the people, so did God draw from the Divine spirit that rested upon Moses, and conferred it upon the elders.  When touched by the Divine ruach, God’s “wind” or “spirit,” the elders became prophets—like Moses, they could speak God-talk, or something like that, but they appear to have kept their mouths shut.

All of a sudden there’s a commotion in the Israelite camp.  A youth has discovered two men, apparently registered officials as well, who have not joined the official cabinet of elders-turned-prophets.  These two men, Eldad and Medad by name, begin to “speak in ecstasy”—they begin to issue forth prophecy.  

What exactly were they doing?  Speaking in tongues?  Channeling some kind of Divine message without Moses’s direct authorization, and outside the company of their recently commissioned comrades?  We will never know, but the young man who sees and hears them reacts with distress.  He runs to Moses and, out of breath, exclaims, “Eldad and Medad are acting like Prophets in the camp!”  And Joshua, Moses’s right-hand-man (and eventual successor), is so unnerved that he demands, “My lord Moses, lock them up!”

But Moses replies, “Why are you acting like such a zealot on my behalf?  If it were up to me, all the people would be prophets of God, with the Divine Spirit conferred upon them!” (Numbers 11:24-29)

There’s a conventional view of prophecy in the Jewish tradition, that God bestowed it upon a select group of Biblical folks—among them preeminent figures like Moses and Samuel and Elijah, as well as three “major prophets,” Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, twelve so-called “minor prophets,” including guys like Amos and Hosea and Malachi, and even a handful of prophetesses such as Miriam and Deborah—and then, after a time, specifically, after the destruction of the Temple in 586, followed by the Babylonian exile, prophecy ceased.  (It is probably no coincidence that prophecy is said to have ended at exactly the time that the religious officials in charge of the 2nd Temple, after the Exile, wanted to shore up their own authority as the official spokesmen for God.)  

Centuries later, the Rabbis, the Master Teachers of the Tradition, upheld this view—that prophecy declined and eventually ended—again, not inconveniently for the sake of their own religious authority.

I’m of the other view—the less conventional view—the view of Moses about those two fellas prophesying by themselves in the camp:  “Would that all the people were prophets, with the Divine Spirit upon them.”  I’m actually of the mind that any of us could be a Prophet, and most of us in fact are prophets, imbued with Divine spirit; it’s just that we don’t know it.  

This last point—our not knowing it—is where Bob Dylan may not be like most of us.  Now, to be clear, Dylan himself has never gone on record claiming to be a prophet.  But he’s never exactly denied the allegation, either.  In fact, on his most recent album, the brilliant Rough and Rowdy Ways, which came out last summer, fifty-five years after “Like a Rolling Stone,” he sings with a wink and a nod in exactly this direction.  

It’s a dirge-like blues called False Prophet and it starts like this:

Another day that don’t end – another ship going out

Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt

I know how it happened – I saw it begin

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in

And then he growls:

I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife

I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life

I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know

I go where only the lonely can go.

Okay, so he won’t cop to being a full-on Moses, but Dylan “ain’t no false prophet,” either.  

It’s not just this song.  And it’s not just “Like a Rolling Stone,” either, which, in its uncompromising, take-no-prisoners attitude, resembles nothing so much as the Biblical Prophets, who, more than fortune-tellers, were the great Social Critics of their time:  impugning the rich who ignored the poor while making a great show of their public piety and their gifts to the religious establishment; impugning the priests who preached God’s unity while indulging in idol worship; impugning the officials who broke faith with the Torah while clothing themselves in the mantle of Jewish authority.  Pardon the anachronism, but if that isn’t Dylan-esque, I don’t know what is.

You say that sometimes Dylan’s lyrics sound like surrealistic gibberish?  Same goes for the Prophets, as anyone who’s tried to learn a Haftarah portion will report.  When he set out to write “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan recalls that the song came to him as a blast of sound and fury.  “It wasn’t called anything,” he once said, “just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest.”  

And if that ain’t prophecy, I don’t know what it is.

Every other voice Dylan has taken on throughout his career of six decades also finds its echo in the Biblical Prophets.

There are the countless references to the Bible itself, warped and repurposed, but with the Biblical dialect intact – the “hard rain” of Noah’s Flood now visualized as nuclear fallout; Isaiah’s watchmen stationed “all along the watchtower”; “the first ones now will later be last”; “I can see the Master’s hand / in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”

There’s also the Questioning Prophet:  

“Something is happening here / and you don’t know what it is / do you, Mr. Jones?” 

And

“How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?”

There’s the Wounded Prophet, like the Biblical Hosea, ripping apart a faithless lover:  

“You just kind of wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

And there’s the Comforting Prophet, invoking the Biblical Jacob, no less:  

“May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / And may you stay / Forever young.”

My friends, there’s another word for Prophecy—when the Divine comes to touch a human being—and it’s called Inspiration, from the Latin “spiritus” meaning “spirit” or “breath.”

As Dylan puts it: “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.”

I believe we all have this ability, to open our heart to the world and let the world come in—to let God’s spirit enter our consciousness—to move us, guide us, transform us.

We all have the capacity for Inspiration: to receive the spirit, the muse, that “rhythm thing,” and to transform it into Art.

I agree with Moses: “Would that all the people were prophets, with the Divine Spirit upon them.”

Are you open to Inspiration?

How does it feel?

NEVER LOST, ONLY DELAYED

REMARKS FOR SHAVUOT – CONFIRMATION 5781

MONDAY, MAY 17, 2021

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Dear Confirmation Class of 5781,

I recently made my first trip into New York City after more than a year away on account of the pandemic. My old MetroCard had expired so I needed to get a new one. As I followed the prompts on the screen, the kiosk presented me with an existential question.

“What would you like to add?” the kiosk asked me.

It then gave me two choices:

Add Value Add Time

What kind of magical machine is this?  I wondered.  Does it know I’m a rabbi?  Does it know I think about these kinds of questions all the time?

I’m sure you’ve been thinking about these kinds of questions too. What would you like to add? I’m sure most of us would happily hit the “Add Time” button if we knew it could bring back all the moments we’ve lost. All the missed classes, the summer camp that never materialized, the cancelled parties and family get-togethers, the empty seats at the Passover Seders. Even today, when we are so grateful to gather in intimate numbers, in person, here in our cherished WRT sanctuary—we feel these losses; we know that Zoom anything is no substitute for the Real Thing.

And these losses–it must be added–seem small, compared to the lost lives, the lost jobs, the lost relationships, the lost hugs and kisses, the lost joy.  Cumulatively, the losses are simply staggering.

Perhaps you’ve heard references to what parents and teachers and mental health professionals are now calling the “Lost Year.” Adolescents, they say, have fared particularly poorly during the pandemic.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that “the proportion of emergency room visits that were mental health-related for 12 to 17 year olds increased by 31 percent from April to October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.” 

“And there’s no question,” the New York Times notes, “that witnessing their loneliness, difficulties with online learning and seemingly endless hours on social media has been enormously stressful” — not just for the kids, but also “for the adults who care about them the most.”

Students, parents, loved ones, and friends:  We see you.  We care about you.  We share your sense of loss, bewilderment, and worry—worry about damage already inflicted, and worry about the long road ahead that will lead us to whatever “new normal” emerges on the other side of Covid.  

These are extraordinary times that demand extraordinary resilience, courage, and hope.  Above all, these accumulated losses require that each of us might summon a spirit of Confirmation, and I mean that literally:  that we might confirm, each in our own hearts, that we must accept what we cannot change, and yet also confirm what our Jewish tradition teaches us to believe: that each one of us can change the world.

And that is why we come here today.  I recognize that one Confirmation service—and what a beautiful and meaningful act of devotion you have made this service, Confirmation Class of 5781—cannot make up for all the lost time.  If none of us were ever again to hear the phrases “hybrid learning” or “social distancing” or even “new normal,” which I used about one minute ago—let alone have to live with their meaning—I’m sure we could all be perfectly content.

But as we all know, there is no “Add Time” button on the Great Kiosk of Life.   There’s no way to “Add Time” to our fleeting days.  

All we can do is select the other option:  “Add Value.”

Let me explain what this means, first with a Jewish text, and then with a little story.  Yes, first a Jewish text.  What?  You thought this whole sermon would be about four words on the screen of a MetroCard Kiosk?  So, yes, a Jewish text.  This one, specifically, about the holiday of Shavuot that we are presently celebrating and to which our Reform Jewish observance links its time-honored ritual of Confirmation.

So, Shavuot is a holiday with a bit of an identity crisis.  Nowadays most of us associate Shavuot with what we call in Hebrew Matan Torah, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.  On this holiday we renew our relationship with Torah; as a case in point, when the holiday began, last night, WRT joined with seven other local congregations for an online festival of Torah learning, including classes taught by our own Rabbi Levy and cantorial intern Isaac Sonett-Assor.  

But in Biblical times, our ancestors thought of this holiday in agricultural terms.  For fifty days following the onset of Passover, Israelite pilgrims would bring sheaves of barley—the first grain to ripen in the Spring—as a token of their devotion to God.  And then, on Shavuot itself, when they could harvest the next crop to ripen in its season, which is wheat, they would bring all the so-called “first fruits” of the land, filling up baskets with fresh Spring produce and loaves of fresh-baked bread, and would present them to the priest in charge of the temple rituals, while making a declaration of gratitude to God.  

The Torah says:  

….וּבְי֣וֹם הַבִּכּוּרִ֗ים בְּהַקְרִ֨יבְכֶ֜ם מִנְחָ֤ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה בְּשָׁבֻעֹ֖תֵיכֶ֑ם מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם

“On the day of First-Fruits, when you bring your offerings of new grain before God, on your observance of Shavuot, you should hold a sacred occasion…”(Numbers 28:26).  

So that was old-timey Shavuot.  Go gather your grain; go pluck your first-fruits; go fill your basket high; and go and offer it up.  You say you had a rough harvest this season?  Go gather the best of what you have to give, and offer it up.  You say you haven’t had enough time to let the crops really get lush and full, rich and sweet?  Go gather the best of what you have to give, and offer it up.  You say:  There are so many other people whose gifts are bigger and better than mine; what use are these?  Go gather the best of what you have to give, and offer it up.

This is the wisdom of Shavuot, the secret of the First-Fruits, which has also been the secret to this Confirmation year.  Confirmation class of 5781:  life handed you some lemons this year.  And you gathered them up, made the best of what you had, gave the best you had to give, and made some very tasty first-fruit lemonade for us all to savor on this Shavuot.  Whenever conditions permitted, you showed up with masks on and smiles behind them. (Yes, you can always still tell when someone is smiling behind the mask; it’s in the eyes.) 

This past fall—I’ll be the first to admit—I was pretty cranky heading into the so-called Confirmation “Retreat” that wasn’t:  for the first time in my 18 years serving WRT, we wouldn’t be jumping on a bus to our beloved URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington.  There would be no camp-style sleepover, no frosty morning walks by the lake, no early morning coffee runs with Rabbi Levy to fuel us up for a long day of sacred work and play.  We were “retreating” only as far as the back parking lot of Westchester Reform Temple for a bonfire and some individually wrapped, super safe S’mores, after a long day of bonding and learning and praying and singing (quietly singing, so as not to infect anyone).  

And guess who brought their first fruits, showing up with ruach (that’s Hebrew for “spirit”) and joy?  Confirmation Class, I am delighted that the only infectious thing you brought to our Retreat this year was a great attitude.  And you’ve just continued to bring it, and bring it again, even when the chips were down.  And you are most definitely bringing it tonight.

I am grateful to have learned from you, this year, a lesson that many of us struggle our whole lives to learn:  that we have no choice about what does or does not happen to us in life.  We do have a choice—we always have a choice—about how we shall respond.  Rather than ask “Why?” of life, we should ask, “Okay, life, now what must I do? Now who must I become?”  And we become our fullest selves when we keep showing up, keep bringing our first fruits, the best of ourselves, day after day after day, for fifty days and fifty years and so on for a lifetime.   

Because, you see, there is no “Add Time” button when it comes to life.  There is only the “Add Value” button.  And, let me share my personal view, that embracing and living your Judaism with dedication and eagerness is one—only one of many, but one—excellent way to add value to life.  

Now, I also promised you a little story so here it is.  A number of years ago my wife, Kelly, was performing a solo cabaret benefiting the Arizona Theatre Company.  She’s actually done a few performances there over the years and she always returns with wonderful stories and cherished memories.  

This one time, however, she also returned without something, and that was her luggage.  A snowstorm had diverted her flight from Phoenix through Chicago O’Hare and she made it back to New York but her checked bag did not.  So, she filled out a form and took a toll-free number and headed home empty-handed.  

In the days that followed, Kelly was assigned a case manager for her missing luggage, a gentleman whose accent gave him away as having come from the Indian subcontinent; we would not have been surprised to learn that he was speaking from a call center in Bangalore or Sri Lanka.  He was friendly, and he was lucky that Kelly is also friendly, as a general rule–even in situations like this, which I, as a general rule, am not.  

Days turned into weeks and the matter of the lost luggage became less an episode and more a saga.  Eventually, around three weeks after the flight, with still no sign of her Samsonite, Kelly said to her friendly case manager, “I think that at this point, we should just admit that the bag is lost.”  

“Madam,” said he, not skipping a beat, “I must ask you, please be patient, just a little longer.  Bags are never lost.  Only delayed.”

“But sir,” Kelly began—

“Madam,” he repeated, “Please be patient, just a little longer.  Bags are never lost, only delayed.”

This charming refrain did keep us—just barely—sane, while we waited it out.  This, of course, would not be the last time she called; indeed, the weekly call to our friendly case manager persisted for quite some time, inevitably concluding with a plea that began, “Madam, please be patient, just a little bit longer,” and which ended, “Bags are never lost, only delayed.”

(As an aside:  to this day, on the website of this airline, you can still find information pertaining to “delayed or damaged” bags, but nothing referencing bags that are “lost.”)

This story does have a happy ending.  After ten weeks, Kelly and her luggage were reunited.  The airline had finally located the bag… in Belgium.  

So, here, Confirmation Class of 5781, I want to share with you something I’ve learned both from this story and from this last year, which is that time is never lost… only delayed.

Behind us, we look back on a strange and trying year.  Hopes and dreams have been subverted and diverted.  Not lost.  Only delayed.  

Ahead of us, we have nothing but time:  time worth spending wisely and well, time worth spending making life better for ourselves, and especially, time spent making life better for the numberless lives in need of your help.  

Confirmation class of 5781, you have so much value to add to life.  

May God speed your steps and strengthen your resolve.  

And mazal tov. We’re proud of you.

Reflections on Israel

IYYUN FOR SHABBAT

DELIVERED MAY 14, 2021

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE, SCARSDALE, NY

Shabbat Shalom and welcome.  I want to begin these comments, intended to address the situation, and the escalating violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank with a little bit of what we call in Hebrew Hakarat Ha-Tov.  It’s a phrase that means “acknowledging the good,” and it’s a kind of spiritual discipline—to recognize that even in difficult circumstances, our Jewish tradition calls us to seek God and God’s blessing.  

So, first, let us acknowledge that today, exactly, marks the 73rd anniversary of independent Israeli statehood – that on May 14, 1948, in the late afternoon—also, just before Shabbat—Ben Gurion stood before an assembly of leaders and officials and proclaimed the birth of the State of Israel, a miraculous new reality for the Jewish People.  

Let us never take for granted that we are blessed to have an Israel, blessed to have a sovereign Jewish homeland.  This hasn’t always been the case.   History is replete with precarious times like these, when Jewish People feel endangered and vulnerable; but for most of Jewish history, we haven’t had an Israel, a place of refuge and safety for all Jews.  

The recently established fact of the Abraham Accords—marking the warming relations and thawing hostilities between Israel and a significant number of Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—is another blessing worth acknowledging and even celebrating.  The relationship between Israel and these Arab nations is surely being tested now, but it’s still holding strong, which is noteworthy and deserving of our gratitude.  In fact, earlier this week, an Iftar celebration of break-the-fast marking the end of Ramadan was held in Washington, DC, and Israelis, Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Morrocans all showed up at the table.   And even as the rockets fly from Gaza into Israel, and violence consumes the streets of towns and cities in Israel with mixed Arab and Jewish population, these countries continue to sit at the same table with Israel.  This represents a meaningful and positive shift in the balance of power in the region, and in Israel not feeling abandoned as it defends itself.

So that’s our Hakarat Ha-Tov, our recognition of the good.

Now for the hard stuff.  

  • We are allowed to be upset at the factors that led Israelis and Palestinians into this horrific situation, for which there is blame to be shared on both sides.  Indeed, I believe that Judaism’s insistence on acknowledging the humanity of the person who disagrees with you—even your sworn enemy—requires that we acknowledge that both Israelis and Palestinians, and especially leaders of both peoples, should be held accountable for moral failures that caused the current conflict to escalate, when it likely could have been tempered.
    • To wit, the dangers of fanaticism have been on full display leading up to, and during, the present exchange of rockets and military counterstrikes, and in the mob violence between fanatical groups of Jews and Arabs in some of Israel’s mixed-population towns.  Again, the dangers of religious and nationalistic extremism have been brought to the fore by both Israelis and Palestinians, and, to my outrage, by certain religious and political leaders of both.
    • Moreover, you’d have to lack a heart, you’d have to lack a soul, not to be moved by what’s happening both in the streets in Israel and on the ground in Gaza.  It is absolutely heart-wrenching.  Let us never dehumanize even our enemies by characterizing them as “collateral damage.”  God’s children in Gaza are hurt and suffering and too many already have been killed.  God’s children in Israel are hurt and suffering and too many already have been killed; and, what’s more, an entire population feels terrorized by the current onslaught.

Which takes me to my main point tonight:

Now that more than 2,000 rockets have been fired into sovereign Israeli territory — fired indiscriminately on Jews, Muslims, Christians, and on plenty of people who don’t care about religion, all of them, together, the citizens of Israel; now that Hamas has targeted Israeli homes, kibbutzim, schools, hospitals, densely populated cities, with Hamas’s singular, unchanging goal, which is to kill as many Israelis as possible, and to terrorize and traumatize those it cannot kill—then our calculus must change.  

Let me be perfectly clear.  You don’t fire thousands of rockets toward civilian targets—at Tel Aviv and Ashkelon and Jerusalem—if your goal is to seek justice for the provocations of Sheikh Jarrah or Al-Aqsa, much less if your goal is peace or two states for two peoples.  You don’t use foreign aid money that should have been spent on desperately needed humanitarian assistance toward the building up of an infrastructure of terror—building tunnels whose sole purpose is to convey militants into sovereign Israeli territory to carry out kidnappings and killings—if your objective is Palestinian self-determination and an end to the enterprise of settlements in the occupied West Bank, for example. We must remain clear-eyed and level-headed about what Hamas is after, which, as its own charter declares, is the destruction of the Jewish State.  And its rocket barrage can only be understood as a means toward that end.  Even if Hamas knows it cannot inflict a military defeat on Israel, it can demoralize a population, earn the sympathy of much of the world by calling attention to themselves as victims, portray Israel’s leaders as both callous and ineffectual, and, further, raise Hamas’s own stock among Palestinians, including in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority, their political rivals, are increasingly seen as weak and ineffectual. 

And as for Hamas, it’s important to realize that they have already “won” in terms of accomplishing their short-term objectives:

  • They’ve demonstrated that they have the ability to send rockets into Israel’s capital.
  • They’ve reasserted their own power and relevance, and underscored the irrelevance/weakness of Fatah (the Palestinian Authority, or PA).

So now, Israel sees its own need to re-assert its deterrence capabilities by degrading Hamas’s abilities to inflict further damage.

Let us acknowledge with appreciation, as well, that the Biden administration has been very strong in supporting and defending Israel in this campagin, against intense pressure both internationally and domestically.  Biden and his team have been pushing back on pressures for Israel to “stand down”; and we can expect for these pressures—whether from countries like Norway, or Tunisia, or the UN, or from within the left flank of the Democratic Party—to continue. 

But invariably, this is how this conflict will end—be it in a matter of days, weeks, or more:

Hamas will launch a final barrage of rockets and declare victory.

Israel will declare that it has also achieved “victory,” at least by accomplishing its military objectives—to degrade Hamas’s ability to inflict damage.  And perhaps when both parties are nearing that point, they’ll be open to a cease-fire, probably one proposed by a foreign ally and supported by the United States.

That much is clear enough.

But how things “end” here in the US is a different matter:

  • We may not be fighting “on the ground” with weapons, but we American Jews are most certainly part of a fight over the narrative.
    • This is a fight between people who want to blunt America’s support for Israel and people who want to bolster it.
      • The first sign of trouble in Congress is when we see our friends going quiet, or “hedging” their bets.  Observe Andrew Yang, who, earlier this week spoke out strongly in support of Israel, and then bowed to pressure to walk his comments back.
  • Political activism is something that each of us, members of WRT, people who care about Israel and who care about our civic engagement, can flex, individually and collectively.  We have elected officials who need to hear from us now.
    • On that subject, please remember that our goal—whatever our political leanings or affiliations—should never be to vilify members of the “other” political party, but rather to shore up support for a pro-Israel Congress and a pro-Israel approach to foreign policy from our elected officials.
  • And finally:  above all, we need to remind ourselves that EMPATHY can co-exist with MORAL CLARITY, but that the two are not interchangeable with each other.  Our hearts can break for every single one of the Palestinians who have been killed, maimed, and who are suffering, and yet we still are able to understand why Israel cannot, from a moral standpoint, tolerate indiscriminate rocket attacks aimed at terrorizing, traumatizing, injuring and killing its citizens.

My friends, I want to leave you with what we call in Hebrew a nechemta, a word of comfort for these harrowing hours.  The following meditation was composed by my dear friend Lisa Grushcow, Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in Montreal.  She says so much of what’s in my heart right now, and I am grateful to share her words with you.

Reflections on Israel by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Friends, my heart is heavy.

Nothing I say here could – or should – influence what is happening in Israel and Gaza.

What I can say is this:

For friends and family running to bomb shelters, I am praying for your safety.

For those who have no bomb shelters to run to, I am praying for your safety too.

For progressive Jews outside Israel, feeling dismayed at some of the Israeli government actions which helped spark this flame, and also feeling betrayed by the anti-Semitism they are seeing all around them, I hear you and am here for you.

For Jews of all political stripes, we hold our breath together for the land that we love, knowing our destinies are intertwined.

For Muslim dialogue partners and friends, I know we are probably getting our news from very different places, and feeling very different emotions.

Whatever those differences, our work of building bridges goes on. 

May this time, which is usually one of celebration for both our faiths, help us hold onto hope. 

I am not trying to cover all my bases, or say everything that could be said. But I am privileged to have a wide range of people in this space, and I am grateful for all of you, especially in times like these.

Be strong and of good courage, friends.

Why We Chai

SERMON:  CHAI SOCIETY SHABBAT 5781

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

APRIL 23, 2021 – SHABBAT ACHAREI MOT-KEDOSHIM

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Many ubiquitous Jewish practices have obscure origins.  Take, for instance, the eating of hamantaschen on Purim, a custom nowhere discussed in the Torah, Talmud, or even the Book of Esther.  Rather, it seems that hamantaschen’s association with Purim comes by way of a pun—and not a particularly good one at that—from the Medieval German cookies known as mohn-taschen, or poppy-pockets — mohn, poppyseed, and, taschen, pockets— which, I guess, kind of sounds like Haman-taschen, which, I guess, kind of sounds like it comes from the wicked Haman, or Haman.

Or take the custom of reciting your loved ones’ names on yahrzeit—the so-called “Kaddish list.”  Not only is this custom nowhere found in the classical literature, it even seems to have provoked the consternation of a great many Rabbis, some of whom, around the 10th Century, tried to outlaw communities from reading the names of their dead.  These Rabbis likened the practice to consulting the spirits of the dead, which the Torah directly outlaws as idolatry—in this week’s Torah portion, as a matter of fact (Leviticus 19:31). 

Only after much stern letter-writing, most of which went totally ignored, did the opposing Rabbis finally relent, conceding that naming our loved ones before Kaddish had become so popular and widespread that it was no longer a fringe custom but rather a mainstream Jewish practice.  And so it remains, a thousand years later.

And here’s one more for us to consider on this Chai Society Shabbat, which is the wearing of a chai medallion.  The word chai means “living” or “alive” (technically, not “life,” although that’s how it’s usually translated; “life” in Hebrew is the plural form, Chayim). On Chai Society Shabbat, WRT recognizes congregants who have affiliated with WRT for eighteen years or more and who are, despite it all, still very much alive—18 being the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, comprised of the letters Chet (the 8th letter in the aleph-bet) and Yod (the 10th letter in the aleph-bet).  

And this, as you well may know, is why Jews tend to give monetary gifts in denominations of eighteen.  But have you ever considered the custom of wearing a chai as a piece of jewelry?  Wearing a chai necklace is as Jewish as gefilte fish and rugelach (both of which also have obscure origins).  The prominent display of a chai around the neck has also become something of a kind of pop-culture shorthand for “overtly Jewish,” especially in Hollywood, where the larger the medallion, the more shiny the gold (always gold!), the more unbuttoned the lapel, and the more hirsute the torso of the wearer, the better, or so it seems.  

Canadian rapper Drake has shown off his Jewish pride by wearing a prominent chai during publicity shoots.  It has even spread beyond the Jewish People to include some celebrity chai-wearers who adopted the practice, perhaps, out of an emotional affinity for Judaism, or for good luck, or as a chutzpahdik fashion statement.  These include late-period Elvis Presley, who never met a piece of bling he didn’t like, and baseball Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew, who had a Jewish wife and kids but who never converted to Judaism himself.

In any case, nowhere in Torah, Talmud, or Midrash do we find any mention of wearing a chai.  The Forward’s resident linguistics columnist posits that wearing a chai as an amulet around the neck probably originated in the second half of the 20th century, out of a belief that the word chai confers upon the wearer some life-saving or protective benefit — that is to say, it’s a superstition.

Even the custom of venerating the word chai may be as recent as the 18th century, which, in Jewish-historical terms, is very recent, indeed. 

There’s a reason, however, that our tradition lionizes certain words and phrases, among them, chai, shalom,” and “Shema Yisrael,” as well as certain non-verbal symbols and images, like the Magen David (Star of David), the menorah, and even the hamsa which is a good-luck charm whose origins may go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia.  These utterances and images function as powerful reminders of what our religious tradition values:  whether the light of sacred service in the ancient temple (the menorah), or the value of simply being alive (the word chai).

As it turns out, the fascination with chai may originate in a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.  That verse, Leviticus chapter 18, verse 5, says:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ 

You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which a person shall live [Heb., “va-chai bahem”]. I am Adonai.

The straightforward, idiomatic meaning of these words seems clear enough:  You should “live by” the laws of God, where the words “live by” simply mean “to follow” or “observe.”  

But the Rabbis rarely stuck to straightforward, idiomatic readings of anything, and it is the specific use of the word chai, as in va-chai ba-hem, that a person should live by the rules of the Torah, that the Babylonian Talmud expounds as signifying that the laws of the Torah are specifically for the purpose of living, and not dying (Sanhedrin, 74).

The 18th Century Moroccan Rabbi fittingly known as the “Or Ha-Chayim,” meaning “The Light of Life,” after his popular commentary on the Torah, explains that the point of including the words “va-chai bahem,” “and live by them,” is that “if a Jew is forced to violate one of God’s commandments, better to violate such a commandment than to accept martyrdom.”  

With very few exceptions, it is always preferable for a Jew to save a life (his, hers, or someone else’s) than to accept death.  Judaism does not encourage us to become martyrs for our faith—a meaningful contrast to Christianity and Islam, both of which have prominent pro-martyrdom themes and sects running throughout their tradition and history.  Consider Jesus, the ultimate martyr for his faith, in one way of looking at things, and the central role that martyrdom plays in Christian art, iconography, literature, and belief and you will detect a stark contrast with Judaism, where, in general, martyrdom is frowned upon.  The Talmud goes on to say that a person may violate any and all of the mitzvot in order to save life, with the exception of murder, sexual crimes, and idolatry.  In general, Judaism prefers its faithful to live by their faith, not to die by it—va-chai bahem.   

Further, Judaism insists that our obligation to life almost always exceeds our obligation to law.  Take, for instance, our admonition notto fast on Yom Kippur if doing so may jeopardize one’s health.  And yet, every year, people unwisely choose to fast, even at great personal risk.  I assure you that Halakha, Jewish law, would prefer you full but alive to hungry but dead.  

Judaism is a tradition of life and its life-affirming commandments are for the living.  Judaism teaches that every day we are alive is a day to do mitzvot, a day to do a little good, a day to leave the world a little bit better.  Every day, that is, is an exercise in affirming and sustaining life. 

This year of pandemic living, this turbulent year of injustice and unrest, has, for me, underscored the relevancy of our verse, “va-chai bahem,” which conveys Judaism’s insistence on the preciousness of life and the priority of the Jewish obligation to safeguard it.

This is why, from a Jewish perspective, the threefold guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd strikes me as so significant.  

Above all, this verdict affirmed what Judaism has been saying all along:  that each life carries intrinsic, infinite worth; that each life is immeasurably precious in the eyes of God.  This same tradition proclaims in the Talmud that one who snuffs out the life of another has murdered a world entire, and that one who saves one life has saved the world entire (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 37a).  

When we affirm, as the Torah does in its very first chapter, that humankind is made in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27), it means that we are committed to the precept that Black lives matter as much as everyone else’s lives.  

When we affirm that humankind is made in the Divine image, it follows that to destroy the life of one is to desecrate the God of all.  It also follows that God’s image on earth can never be fully realized, our human potential never fulfilled, our uniquely American sins, wounds, and traumas originating in Black slavery never remedied, never healed, until we come to experience the justice that was rendered on Tuesday as the ordinary course of events in a world that puts chai at the center, in a world that venerates life, which urges every human being born to live, to thrive—not merely to exist but to live;   to elevate the act of living to an art; to infuse life with joy and purpose and transformative power.

Judaism does not espouse a laissez-faire attitude about matters of life and death.  

Judaism does not think that one Black man suffocated beneath the knee, and far too many other Black men and women, boys and girls, dead at the hands of law enforcement, is just a problem for Black people or communities of color.  Justice denied one is justice deprived all.  One life murdered is a world destroyed.

Judaism does not consider two million dead to Covid, more than half a million of them our fellow citizens, is an acceptable tradeoff for stubbornly insisting on “business as usual.”  These are extraordinary times that demand an extraordinary commitment to chai.

Judaism would also admonish us that it did not have to be this way; that it still does not have to be this way, with the dead and the dying piling up even as the vaccine stockpile gets used.  With still too many fellow citizens dying day by day in mass shootings even as our elected officials sit on their hands.  With still too many people who have reason to fear law enforcement more than to revere it, conditioned by experience to believe that the firearm intended to protect lives will instead rob them of theirs.  With still too many of these same people, many of them from communities of color, among the most likely to get sick, and suffer, and die, as the pandemic continues to rage.  

Judaism would, invite us, in every instance, to take the words va-chai bahem as if our lives depended on them, because they do.  

That beautiful chai around your neck may show off your Jewish pride, but it won’t save your life or anyone else’s.  If we really want to save lives, sustain lives, protect lives, there are things we can do right here and now:  

  • continue to follow public health guidelines;
  • fight for sensible legislation to curb mass gun violence;
  • stand up to make sure that the Chauvin verdict will not be the only one of its kind;
  • remember that this verdict provides accountability for a single crime, not justice for a battered population; much less a solution for a broken system;
  • give tzedakah, give food, give blood, give facts, give life-sustaining assistance to support the needy whose lives have become even more perilous during the pandemic; 
  • and please put the health and safety of others—particularly the nearly four out of five of your fellow citizens who are still unvaccinated—at the forefront of every consideration.

We may understandably give thanks to God for the so-called “gift” of life.  But every day we are alive, the responsibility to preserve, prolong, and promote what life is in our hands.  

As is written:  “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).  

Life is not only a gift from God.  Life is a choice that God charges us to keep choosing, steadfastly and unceasingly, for ourselves, for every other human being made in the divine image…

…this day, and every day.  Amen.