You’ve Stayed Too Long on This Mountain

Sermon Delivered at Greater Centennial AME Zion Church

Mount Vernon, New York

Sunday, July 31, 2022 – 9:30 AM

Good morning, Greater Centennial family!  

To you, and to all of our Westchester Reform Temple family who join in this shared worship both here in church and online:  good morning and shalom!  What a joy it is for me to be welcomed back so warmly by your congregation, to share these words from the pulpit, to be surrounded by this loving and vibrant congregation and to share this altar with my friend, Rev. Stephen Pogue, and with your new Assistant to the Pastor, Rev. Kellie Wofford who officially begins tomorrow, so enjoy your last day of funemployment.  To the pastor, his wife, First Lady Iris, and the entire staff and congregation of Greater Centennial — Kelly and I are blessed to enjoy this sacred fellowship.  Recently (my) Kelly learned of a friend who passed, and she is singing at his funeral this morning in the city, so she sends her regrets and her blessings to all of you.

Now, back in June, the Pastor spoke at our congregation’s annual Juneteenth service.  Well, I say he spoke “at” the service, but actually he was phoning it in.  

I am not trying to dis your Pastor.  He put all of his heart and soul and might into his preaching as he always does.  He was just literally doing it by telephone because his flight from Atlanta back to New York had been canceled.  

A routine flight canceled for no apparent reason is, of course, the definition of “a very 2022 problem.”  And, with it came a very 2022 solution, one that required a little ingenuity and technology.  After two and a half years of worshiping over Zoom, live-streaming services over social media, figuring out how to get the Pastor’s voice from a telephone in Atlanta to a synagogue in Scarsdale proved relatively easy.  

What seems to be proving much harder, as we all know, is getting our lives and our churches and our synagogues back to what we think of as “normal.”  

Now, I don’t know about how things are with you, Greater Centennial, but it’s no secret that at Westchester Reform Temple and, surveys show, in houses of worship of every faith and every denomination, attendance is down… in some cases, way down.  People feel depressed, burned out, lethargic.  They’re apparently having a hard time getting their butts off their couches and into the pews. 

And I don’t know how things are going in your homes and in your hearts, Greater Centennial, but it’s no secret that, fifteen minutes up the road, and for that matter, wherever you go, people may put on a game face in public but many feel stuck, paralyzed, in a kind of limbo.  Spirits are down… in some cases, way down.

Fine time, then, for a spiritual kick in the pants, which comes courtesy of the Scripture reading that Jewish people all over the world encounter this week.  In the opening chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, verse six, it is written:

יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֵ֖ינוּ בְּחֹרֵ֣ב לֵאמֹ֑ר רַב־לָכֶ֥ם שֶׁ֖בֶת בָּהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃ 

The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed too long on this mountain.

Time to get up and move.  Move on from Sinai (the Bible’s other, more familiar, name for “Horeb”) and get back to the wilderness.  Onward to the Promised Land.  

You’ve stayed too long on this mountain.  Time to go forward.

Easier said than done.  Getting unstuck in life is usually not as easy as just rebooking a flight from Atlanta.

After all, the Israelites got stuck at Mount Sinai, of all places.  And this would be only their first time getting stuck on their way to the Promised Land.  Time again, we see the Israelites taking the proverbial two steps forward only to take another one or two or even three steps back.  Time and again, they seem moved by their mission to enter a land of milk and honey, promised on oath to their ancestors, only to get off-course, to lose their way, to lose their nerve, to lose their faith.  Time and again they seem to remember their destination only to forget their Divine Director, to remember their goal only to forget their God.  

God offers the people Ten Commandments; they want a golden calf instead.  Time to go back and try again.

God offers the people manna from heaven to sustain them in the desert; they want the taste of Egyptian delicacies (and apparently the slavery that came along with the menu) instead.  Time to go back and try again.

God offers the people the wise and inspired leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam; the people want the rebel Korach and his followers instead.  Time to go back and try again.

And on and on.

And so what should have been a journey of eleven days takes forty years.  

And in this way, I think we should find a lot that’s relatable about these Israelites, especially now, with all their stops and starts, all their remembering and forgetting, all their progress and all their backsliding.  

Because, how very much like we are they, and how very much like life is this.  And then throw in a Covid or two or three variants, and throw in a rapidly heating planet, and more deaths to gun violence than any American citizen can count, and a bitterly divided political climate that results in gridlock and nothing getting done for the good of the people, and, well, you end up stuck, don’t you?

One way of understanding the Israelites staying too long at Mount Sinai is that they simply got stuck there and forgot the way home.  For his part, maybe Moses found it a little too easy to stay up at the top of the mountain just hanging with God.  Speaking as a fellow leader of the Jewish people, I can confess that many days, if I could spend my time hanging with God, deep in meditation and private communion, on top of a mountain, instead of leading the Jewish people through a desert, well, you probably can guess where you’d find me.  

As for the people at the bottom of the mountain, well, it’s hard to move forward if our leaders remain stuck, and don’t we American citizens know a thing or two about that these days.

But still, the time came for all of them to hear, “You’ve stayed too long on this mountain.”  Time to move forward.  Time to get unstuck.  Time to remember the way home again.

The Sufi poet Rumi once said:  “What comes into being gets lost in being and drunkenly forgets its way home.”  In other words, periodic stuck-ness is a universal feature of life.  Psychologist, meditation teacher, and author Tara Brach observes, 

As part of the human journey, we each forget the vastness of our awareness and love and become increasingly identified with a limited body and mind.  Donning masks to hide the pain of unmet needs and to defend our vulnerability, we further narrow our sense of who we are.  We wear the disguise of “busy important person,” “angry victim,” “deficient person,” or “obsessed, addicted person.”  Sometimes it’s a depressed person.   Or anxious person.  Superior person.  Loser.  Most of us have a closetful of assumed personas.  They might help us survive some challenging times, but the problem is we become identified with our masks and we end up believing that these false images are who we really are.

I think we all can relate to this, can we not?   Hiding behind our personas?  Or, most aptly these days, becoming “identified with our masks?”

Now, for the sake of public health and safety, I am not advising throwing caution and face coverings to the wind.  But I am suggesting that for the past nearly thirty months, we’ve gotten stuck in a Covid-induced mentality, and that we’ve “stayed too long on this mountain.”  Time to move forward, even if “forward” means back into full engagement with the messiness, trauma, and chaos of the world.  Time to remember the way back home.

As we think back over the last 30 months, recall that the thing that first got many of us unstuck from the first phase of pandemic lockdown was the horrific murder of George Floyd and the public activism around his death that powerfully reminded the world a truth long forgotten, perhaps never understood in the first place: Black Lives Matter.  

If Covid taught us early on that our faith could in fact thrive in the home and not only in the church or the synagogue–what with our Zoom worship and virtual gatherings for Easter and Passover–then the killings of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and Daunte Wright, and so, so many others–reminded us that faith also needs to take to the streets.  God does not want us to find and practice our faith only “on the mountain.”  God needs us to take our faith off the mountain, down among the people, out into the wilderness, out into the world.  “You have stayed too long on this mountain.”  Time to move forward.  Time to remember the way home.

And we have to remember that whenever we get stuck in life, God is the Power that moves us forward.

Three weeks after Vladimir Putin began his brutal assault on Ukraine, in mid-March, I received an invitation to travel to Poland with seventeen other rabbis and thousands of pounds of humanitarian supplies, mostly medical relief, to aid the refugees, mostly women and children and the elderly, who, at this time, were streaming across the border into Poland, often at great personal peril, by train or on foot, at the rate of 150 refugees per minute, every minute of every hour of every day.  

I believe that my faith calls me to speak up on behalf of God’s most vulnerable children and that the tens of millions of human beings around the world who have no way back home, who have no home to go back to, are chief among these.  

It would have been entirely plausible and feasible, and certainly more convenient, to talk about the refugee crisis unfolding in front of our eyes from the comfort of my pulpit, to write an article for the local paper, to post a message on Facebook or a video on YouTube.  

But sometimes God reminds us when we’ve stayed too long on the mountain, when God needs us to take our faith with us out into the world, into the heart of human suffering, where God needs us the most.

If you can come down from the mountain of isolation; if you can do the work of cultivating awareness to hear God calling; if you can pay attention to how much the world needs you and the faith you can bring to change the way things are into the way they ought to be; if you can do all this, you might just feel yourself starting to get unstuck.

Let me suggest a simple action item–just one tiny, tentative step forward–that will allow us to put this into practice.  Our two congregations–WRT and Greater Centennial–are engaging together this summer in a Voter Registration Campaign sponsored by two larger organizations with which we proudly collaborate.  

The program, which consists of getting together in fellowship to write postcards to get out the vote for the critical upcoming election season, is sponsored by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s Every Vote, Every Voice initiative in partnership with the Center for Common Ground’s Reclaim Our Vote Campaign.  The Center for Common Ground is a non-partisan voting rights organization led by people of color, that works to engage under-represented voters.  

All volunteers are given instructions, a script, key information, voter addresses, and postcards. Having held our first successful event this past Wednesday morning, we will meet again in the social hall of Westchester Reform Temple on Wednesday evening, August 10, from 7:30 to 9:00 pm and again on Wednesday, August 24, from 11 am to 12:30 pm.  Masks are encouraged but not required and seating is set up for social distancing.  We will also accommodate outdoor seating if requested.  We hope you will attend, or, if you can’t make it, please consider donating postage stamps or request your own postcard kit for home.  This is a family friendly activity and all ages are welcome!  Flyers with all of this information can be found outside the sanctuary here at the church.

This is only one way we can start to get unstuck.  Each of us must find our own way forward.  Listen to what was written by Václav Havel, the poet, playwright, and political dissident who eventually became the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic.  He called this poem, “It Is I Who Must Begin.”

 It is I who must begin.

Once I begin, once I try —

here and now,

right where I am,

not excusing myself

by saying things

would be easier elsewhere,

without grand speeches and

ostentatious gestures,

but all the more persistently

— to live in harmony

with the “voice of Being,” as I

understand it within myself

— as soon as I begin that,

I suddenly discover,

to my surprise, that

I am neither the only one,

nor the first,

nor the most important one

to have set out

upon that road.

Whether all is really lost

or not depends entirely on

whether or not I am lost.

So my friends.  The moment has arrived.  God is calling you.  You’ve stayed too long on this mountain.  Time to begin.  Time to get unstuck.  Time to get up and move.  Time to head for the Promised Land.  Time to remember the way home.  

Upon the Mountain: Tribute to Rabbi Levy & Rabbi Reiser – Shabbat Behar 5782

Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, Friday, May 20, 2022

First of all, I want to thank you, WRT Family, for all the care and concern you have expressed during my recovery from Covid.  My blood/chicken soup level is now over the legal limit, and, more to the point, I’m testing negative.    

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Behar, means “on the mountain.”  Mountains figure prominently in Jewish tradition.  On Mount Sinai, God gives instruction.  On Mount Ararat, Noah’s Ark found its shore. On Mount Nebo, Moses breathed his last.  On Mount Tabor, Deborah vanquished the enemy.  On the slope of Mount Zion, David built his city;  On Mount Moriah, Abraham’s faith was tested and, later, the great Temple would arise, Jerusalem’s pride and pinnacle.  

Mountains symbolize great accomplishments and noble challenges, summits attained and new vistas revealed.

So it comes as no surprise that we are making a mountain out of a moment, as we pay tribute to Rabbis David Levy and Daniel Reiser who have served our congregation with such vigor and distinction:  not only climbing the mountain of professional attainment, but, much more, guiding us in our own Jewish journeys up the mountains of faith and learning, of lifecycle celebrations and commemorations.  

And if the last two years have felt especially steep and jagged, then let it be known that Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Reiser have been among our most dedicated and tireless sherpas, helping us all to carry the burden.

Each of our Associate Rabbis has distinguished himself over years of dedicated service to WRT, and, in so doing, each one has lived up to his own Biblical namesake, as I now observe in these remarks. 

Consider Rabbi Daniel Reiser, who has, in so many ways, been for our community like Daniel of the Bible.  

And who was Daniel of the Bible?

Well, he’s a bit of an enigma, to be honest.  

Was he a scholar?  A prophet?  A magician?  An iconoclast?  A charmer?  A charismatic leader?  He was all of these, and more; but above all, Daniel was a dreamer and a dream-interpreter.  He excels in understanding and explaining arcane symbols and codes.  Deciphering a mysterious script written by a ghostly hand at a feast, it is Daniel to whom we ascribe the original phrase, “The writing on the wall” (See Daniel, Chapter 5). 

Described as one of the handsome young Israelites (see Daniel, Chapter 1), Daniel comes of age during the reign of the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar.  In this time of turmoil for the Israelite people, he distinguishes himself for his wisdom and ability to navigate the perils and politics of the Babylonian court.  

Rabbi Reiser came to WRT in the spring of 2016, at a time of unprecedented turmoil and tension in our community, country, and world, and it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing ever since.  For six years he has exemplified all of Daniel’s best qualities:  perseverance in the face of challenges, equanimity of spirit even when put to the test, wisdom, savvy, and earnestness.  

Above all, Rabbi Reiser has shown himself a masterful interpreter of our sacred texts and traditions.  His leadership in adult education has brought us his insightful “Bible as Literature” class and established WRT as Westchester’s first site for the internationally esteemed Florence Melton School for Adult Jewish Learning.  He has led nuanced conversations on race and racism in a Jewish context, which requires not only a depth of factual knowledge but also intellectual and emotional sensitivity.  

To our families, youth, and teens, he has been a compassionate, fun, and engaging teacher and prayer-leader, unlocking for them Jewish spirituality and Torah study as relevant and enjoyable pursuits.  And his artful and humane preaching and pastoring has endeared him to our entire WRT community.  

We know that the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings will be richly blessed by all these qualities, and, especially, by their new rabbi’s gifts as a pastor, teacher, and interpreter of ancient wisdom.  

Daniel, may you continue to live up to all the best within your name, and continue to give a good name not only for yourself, but for your loving family, for the Jewish tradition, for God, Torah, and the People of Israel.  The congregation of Temple Beth Shalom is fortunate to welcome you this summer as their associate-successor rabbi, and we look forward to celebrating within the next two years when you are officially installed as that congregation’s new senior rabbi, becoming only its second senior rabbi in more than 50 years.  

Daniel, may you continue to reveal the mysteries and wonders of the Jewish tradition to our people and all whom you meet, inspiring them as you do.  

And now a few words about Rabbi Levy’s namesake.  Now, all of you Bible nerds can stop worrying:  I offer no ham-fisted comparison to King David, the boy warrior who slew the Philistine Goliath; the leaping dancer who embarrassed his wife by frolicking with the holy Ark in front of the Israelite throngs; or, God forbid, the power-drunk monarch who summoned Bathsheva to his chambers while plotting to have her husband killed in battle.  King David is a lot of things, but a paragon of rectitude is not one of them.

So, you can all relax, because it is not to a King that our David bears closest resemblance.  I refer, rather, to the Levi, the Biblical priest of the Israelite community, the one who was responsible for safeguarding all the holy laws, traditions, rituals, community gatherings, celebrations, bereavements, illnesses and recoveries.  

The Biblical Levi or priest-servant was all of these things; but above all, he was a sacred caretaker for the Israelite community.  It was the Levi who made sure that the offerings were properly prepared and presented.  It was the Levi who organized the ritual life for the entire Israelite people, making sure that a system of norms and standards could be followed for religious life across all the tribes and their territories.  It was the Levi who ministered to the young and the old, the sick and the frail, and who also oversaw the proper assembly and disassembly of the Tabernacle, the wilderness tent where the people encountered God.

For the last ten years, our Levi, our Rabbi Levy, has been involved in almost everything that happens at WRT.  His attention to detail impressed us from the very first.  

When, in January 2012, I traveled to Cincinnati with WRT past president Amy Lemle and then-president Lisa Messinger to interview rabbinical candidates, David set an almost impossibly high bar for every other applicant because he showed up already versed in every aspect of WRT’s history, mission, and calendar and could ask us questions about programs he had noted on our website that I didn’t even know existed.  The three of us were knocked out.  

In 2015, our temple president Helene Gray and I initiated a Strategic Vision Process for Religious Education at WRT.  Over the next two years, we collaborated with a team of lay volunteers and professional staff to re-imagine our religious school.  Out of this process emerged a groundbreaking Jewish Learning Lab.  And after an exhaustive search to identify a gifted educator to lead the Lab, we asked Rabbi Levy.  

At first accepting the role in an interim capacity, he has now directed our JLL for six years, along the way earning recognition by the Jewish Education Project as one of their “Young Pioneers Award” recipients for the year 2018.  

Whenever confronted with an opportunity or challenge, Rabbi Levy has said, Hineni.  “Here I am.  Put me in.” 

For every hour you have encountered Rabbi Levy–on a bimah, in a classroom, under a chuppah, at a staff meeting–he has invested countless hours in preparing.  He’s been my right arm, anticipating needs and proactively addressing them.  He’s the one with a podcast recommendation for every day of the week; he’s listened to all of them, on double-speed, to maximize his data intake.  He’s the one who comes up with workplace efficiencies like “staff redundancy protocol.”  (Ask him about that at the Oneg; he has a lot to say on the matter!)  

Rabbi Levy has been our institutional memory:  the one who remembers the child who broke her arm three years ago; the one who remembers the clergy Zoom password (the new one, after we had to change it because I messed up the old one by trying to log in with the wrong password too many times and forgetting the answer to the security question); he’s the one who remembers Yahrzeits and anniversaries of B’nei Mitzvah; who remembers the layout for Sukkah slam and which cantors and rabbis need to be at which services for the High Holidays.  

He has, directly and indirectly, guided every student from Kindergarten to 12th grade in their journeys of Jewish education, transforming our Religious School into a vibrant Jewish Learning Lab and earning much-deserved recognition beyond the walls of WRT for his innovations in Jewish education and youth engagement, including WRT’s groundbreaking partnership with BBYO. And our kids love, respect, and trust Rabbi Levy because he will never talk down to them and will never be inauthentic. 

And above all, like the Levi of the Bible, David is a quintessential mensch, whose deeds exceed his speech and whose speech and deeds exemplify integrity and sincerity.  

The last two years have been difficult, and we are grateful that our Levi has put WRT first, as he always has, even while fully devoted to his family.  In this time of transition, we wish Rabbi Levy godspeed in his next engagement as the rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, Connecticut, a post that he will hold for the coming year.  We know that any community, any congregation, that comes to know Rabbi Levy and to experience his leadership will be held with compassion, care, kindness, and fidelity.  We have been honored and blessed to call you our rabbi, and our Levi.

Thank you, Rabbi Reiser and Rabbi Levy–Daniel and David–for carrying us up the mountain, lifting us higher in times of joy and soothing us in our most trying hours.  

May each of you continue to climb the Sinai of a rabbinate that brings you spiritual satisfaction, health, and healing for the spiritual cuts and bruises you have sustained in the course of your time with us.  May your next chapters be fulfilling, fruitful, and fun.  We look forward to encountering you as you continue to lead, teach, and inspire the Jewish people in moments both lofty and lowly.  

And on this Shabbat Behar, this Shabbat of summits attained, may God grant each of you, and your loved ones, the gift of a new vista, a new perspective, that will allow you to move forward with confidence and hope.

Amen, Shabbat Shalom

To Vax or Not to Vax? Sermon for Shavuot & Confirmation, 5782

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Confirmation Class of 5782!

Thank you for sharing your words with us this morning.  It’s now my turn to share a word with you.  Literally, one word.  

Wait, before you get too excited:  my remarks are more than one word.  

Let me explain.

Every November, the Oxford English Dictionary selects its “Word of the Year.”  In 2021, the OED chose the word “Vax,” spelled V-A-X (though two x’s are acceptable).

Your Confirmation year has seen spikes not only in Covid, but also in words related to vaccines and vaccination:  words like unvaxxed, double-vaxxed, anti-vaxxer, and my personal favorite, vaxinista.  

Given all this, “vax” makes perfect sense for “word of the year.” 

As a shorthand for “vaccine” or “vaccinate,” “vax” also comes with a fascinating backstory, one that you’ll be happy to hear on an empty stomach.

The word “vaccine” comes from a Latin word for “cow,” vacca, similar to the French la vache, as in the immortal line, “Fetchez la vache!” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, meaning, “Fetch the cow!” of course.  

But what do vaccines have to do with cows?  The unappetizing true story goes like this:

As the 18th century was winding to a close, an English physician named Edward Jenner set about to determine whether there was any truth to an urban legend of his day: milkmaids who got cowpox… didn’t get smallpox. This was a big deal, because a case of cowpox would typically leave a person with a self-contained and localized ulcer or two, usually on a hand, while a case of smallpox would likely cause disfiguring scars at best and full-on death at worst.

In a process that likely would not get FDA approval today, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy (one James Phipps) with material [pus] taken from a milkmaid’s cowpox sores. (We warned you.) After the boy contracted and recovered from cowpox, Jenner went on to inoculate him with smallpox. The boy was, to our great relief, immune, and did not contract the disease. Jenner repeated this process with 22 more lucky folks and published his documentation of it all in 1798, in a slender volume called An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, using the Latin term that charmingly translates as “cow pustules.”

… [The word] “Vaccine” quickly came to be applied in English to the cowpox inoculum, and then broadened semantically to cover other kinds of inocula as well.

“Because of Jenner’s work,” our lexical researchers conclude, “the horrific scourge that was smallpox was eventually eradicated. It goes to show that science doesn’t have to be pretty to be pretty awesome, and neither does etymology” (From “Vaccine: The Word’s History Ain’t Pretty,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/vaccine-the-words-history-aint-pretty).

Now, I could just end here and let us all go have lunch, but in the interest of providing us with some time to recover from the linguistic shot in the arm I have just administered, I will endeavor to make sense of this, or at least, to make a point.

Since the time of Dr. Jenner to the present day, vaccines work by introducing an agent that prompts the body to recognize and fight specific pathogens.  That agent might be a virus, in a weakened, inactive, or modified state, or a piece of a virus, or, in the case of the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines that most of us have received, a specially configured agent teaches our cells to make a protein that mimics the one on the surface of the coronavirus. Once our body creates this protein, the immune system learns to recognize it as a target and gets ready to fight against the real virus when it comes along.  

The science evolves but the basic principle remains the same:  introduce an organic agent into the body that makes it harder for unwanted pathogens to harm us or kill us.  

Of course, Jenner’s original hypothesis holds true:  people who are infected—and who are lucky enough to recover—often develop some degree of natural immunity.  

As concerns Covid, according to most experts who study infectious disease, one likely trajectory seems to be that, over time—between vaccines and boosters and the natural immunity provided by infection and recovery—this no-longer-so-novel coronavirus will become a thing we adapt to live with, most of us coming down with Covid every few years or so.  That’s a best-case scenario, and one I certainly don’t relish, but it also beats a million dead Americans every two years. 

The hope is that the thing that used to kill and cause irreparable tissue damage will become something to get through and get over.  

What is true of viruses and vaccines is also true of damage to the human psyche, of injuries to the human soul, and how we figure out how to adapt and recover and move on.  

Early or late, life will show itself mercilessly indifferent to your feelings.  Nature will show itself monumentally indifferent to your sense of fairness, your own hopes and aspirations.  In the wake of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde and Tulsa, and in Philadelphia just last night, what further evidence do we need for the prevalence of random violence, evil, and chaos?  What greater proof do we need that, so far as human suffering is concerned, there is no upper limit? 

The brilliant Austrian physician Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned in four Nazi death camps in the space of four years, exemplified this axiom.  His wife was murdered by the Nazis in Bergen-Belsen, his father in Terezin, and his mother and brother in Auschwitz.  Frankl, miraculously, survived.

Following the war, Frankl happily remarried, had a child and a distinguished career in psychiatry, published 39 books, received numerous awards for his contributions to science and the humanities, and lived to the age of 92.

Some people, confronted with ultimates of brutality, develop a kind of “immune response.”  Reflexively or by choice, they inoculate themselves against feeling pain.  They survive by desensitizing themselves, immunizing themselves against further psychic injury.  When they next encounter a harmful agent—in the form of a loss, a betrayal, or a source of physical or mental agony, they may respond in a number of different ways that expose how their suffering has shaped them.

They may require treatment for PTSD for the rest of their lives.  They may shut down emotionally, or retreat into a prison of self-pity.  Or, they may self-medicate, soothing themselves and seeking solace in alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or any number of diversions that can become distractions that can become full-on dependencies.  

They may continue to survive, but at a terrible cost:  their bodies will live on, but their souls—by which I mean their capacity for empathy—will have died.

Frankl seems to have achieved the opposite.  Frankl resisted the tendency to turn inward by intentionally orienting himself outward, toward others in need.  

In reflecting on having survived his own unfathomable traumas, Frankl went on to publish his magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he famously wrote:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  

Watching you, our students, grow from childhood to adulthood over the course of years; watching you take your halting first steps into a new age of Jewish maturity at B’nei Mitzvah and, from there, to reflect on, and refine, your Jewish identities in the year of Confirmation; watching you take your Jewish identities and construct lives of meaning and purpose, of empathy and commitment, of hope and possibility through High School graduation and well beyond—these are among the greatest privileges of my rabbinate.  

And to have watched many of you grow up here at WRT to arrive at this bimah, on this bright and beautiful morning, fills me with the hope that the Jewish tradition is in very good hands, and that the human family will be enriched and blessed by all that you will bring to its betterment in years to come.  

And yet, each of us acknowledges how much you have endured this year, these two years, and more:  how each new wave of pestilence has stolen from you a share of freedom and human connection; how some of you have witnessed illness ravaging a loved one; how each mass shooting has piled up another stratum of horror and sadness, of rage and despair; how each advancing year of no real action on climate change brings us closer to a terrifying abyss; how the chaos of all-out war in Ukraine has undermined our confidence in the stable Western democratic order that most of us have long taken for granted; how each new psychic injury that has pummeled you and your entire generation—even here, in the relative peace and prosperity of America, even now, in 2022—has proved profoundly destabilizing.

We would not blame you, Confirmation Class of 5782, if you were to vax yourselves against it all, become numb to it all, give up on any hope in your ability to do much more than protect yourself against future injury.  

But I hope you won’t. 

At the risk of making you lose your appetites all over again, I want to conclude with a few words about a favorite verse from the Torah.  In Deuteronomy chapter 10, verse 16, Moses adjures the people of Israel to “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and be stiff-necked no more.”  

In this mixed and mangled anatomical metaphor, the Torah speaks with uncanny insight to the challenge of this moment.

The Israelites have wandered for forty years in the wilderness.  They have seen disease and bloodshed, idolatry and rebellion, thirst and starvation, plague and poverty.  Tens if not hundreds of thousands have turned to dust, their carcasses left as silent witnesses to the ravages which only the lucky have withstood to tell the tale.

And what Moses wants most from his people, before they leave this godforsaken place to enter a land of promise, is that they cut away the accumulated dead tissue around their hearts—that they un-inoculate themselves to suffering, that they become people of empathy, word that literally means “to feel alongside,” that they become people of compassion, a word that literally means “to be with the suffering of another person.”  

Confirmation class of 5782:

Even as we pray that you will become emotionally resilient people, people whose strength of character will prepare you for the wilderness of life, in all its hardness and all its hurt, please—we beg you—do not vax yourself against the suffering of others.  Do not vax yourself from feeling the world’s pain, fully and deeply and intimately.  

Allow it, rather, to course through your veins.  Let it move you to respond, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.  

And when you do reach out with empathy for those whose suffering is greater than yours—for there will always be someone who needs your compassion—you will give them God’s own love, God’s own blessing.  

Amen.

“To Dance Beneath the Diamond Sky”

Sermon Delivered for Shabbat Emor 5782 – May 13, 2022

“Chai Society Shabbat” – Classes of 2021 & 2022

First, let me convey how sorry I am not to be able to join you in person for this meaningful and joyful Shabbat.  I guess I was wrong, after all this time, about a “rabbinical forcefield” that protects one from getting Covid.  So, I’m at home recovering with symptoms that are unpleasant but not more than that.  Thank you for your understanding.  

I want to emphasize, having tested Covid-positive yesterday, on the same day that our country memorialized the one million Americans claimed by Covid, that I regard myself as one of the lucky ones.  

I therefore ask that you direct your concern and caring not to your rabbi but to your fellow countrymen and a hurting global community.  Not everyone has been so fortunate as I, to accept vaccines and boosters, and thereby to avoid and mitigate the worst that this disease has inflicted on us.  So if you must reach out with concern, find others who have suffered loss and direct your love and compassion toward them.  On this Chai Society Shabbat, let’s remember that Chai–life–is a precious blessing from the Creator that we must safeguard with our lives.

And now, please join me on a trip down memory lane:

My first day of Hebrew school was an exercise in bewilderment.  I was a fourth grader at Congregation Keneseth Israel, KI, in Allentown Pennsylvania, and had been enrolled in Sunday morning religious school since kindergarten (having graduated with honors from the nursery school of the JCC of the Lehigh Valley).  

But now it was every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, 4 to 6.  It was early September and it was hot and there was no A/C at KI.  Our teacher, P’nina Avitzur, brusquely marched into class, as only an Israeli Hebrew School teacher could, and proceeded to take chalk and fill the entire blackboard with a single Hebrew letter:  א.

Aleph.

“It has no sound,” Mrs. Avitzur explained.  

Aleph.  

What kind of a deranged letter was this?  It was, literally, unsound.  

“That’s stupid,” replied Chad Obenski, who, among other 4th Grade Hebrew school shenanigans, managed to dislocate my finger in a case of what happens when you combine too much sugar after school with those old-school sliding wood wall panels that separated classrooms.   

“It takes the sound of whatever vowel you put under it or next to it,” said Mrs. Avitzur.  

This did nothing to clarify matters.  Wait, vowels aren’t letters?  No, the vowels are little lines and dots that we use to pronounce the words.  “But we Israelis don’t need them,” she bragged.  

None of this made any sense.  

So, back to Aleph.  A letter that makes no sound but which is the first and therefore most important letter of the Aleph-Bet.  It is the Aleph of “Adonai,” the name of God, and of “Anochi,” the Divine first-person pronoun “I” that begins the ten commandments:  “I am Adonai your God,” “Anochi Adonai Elohecha,” three words that begin with Aleph.

Even in glory, Aleph stays silent.

Generations of Jewish kids who learned Aleph on day one of Hebrew school may be surprised to learn that the current methodology is different.  Most modern curricula start with Shin, and proceed out of order, teaching Shin, Bet, and Tav, the last letter of the Aleph-Bet–letters that will be more familiar to children who already know works like Shabbat (Shin-Bet-Tav) or ShalomShin-Lamed-Mem.  Kids pick up these letters quickly and you don’t have to get them to wrap their heads around a letter that makes no sound.  An unsound letter.  A letter that hides in plain sight.  

Aleph.  

There is a silent Aleph hiding not at the beginning, but at the end, of an important word that pops up in this week’s Torah reading from Parashat Emor and, especially, throughout the Book we read at this time of year, Leviticus.  

That word is chet (חטא) which is usually translated “sin” and which actually comes from archery where it means “to miss the target.”  Chet, spelled Chet-Tet-Aleph.  Chapter 22 of Leviticus explains the roles and responsibilities of the Kohanim, the Biblical Priests.  “The priests,” verse 9 comments, “should perform My service,” meaning service of or for God, “in such a way that they do not incur Chet,” so that they do not “sin,” miss the mark.  

When it comes to how we serve God, it seems to say, it’s important to pay attention to all the details, it’s important not to “miss the mark,” chet, with an Aleph hiding in plain sight at the end of the word, but with no vowel attached to it at all, keeping the Aleph silent, which is, of course, its natural state.

During my sabbatical studies, I was introduced to the writing of Rabbi Moshe Chayim Efrayim who hailed from Sudilkov, one of the most important Jewish communities of Western Ukraine, exactly halfway between Kyiv and Lviv.  Rabbi Moshe Chayim Efrayim of Sudlikov was born in 1737 into the home of his maternal grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and lived with him until the age of twelve. His magnum opus, called the Degel Machaneh Efrayim, is a rich source for the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, the vast majority of which were transmitted orally, from grandfather to grandson.  As such, the Degel remains an essential gateway into the mystical thought of the early Hasidim.  

Looking at the word chet in this verse, and seeking to penetrate the mystery of the silent aleph, he writes:

“There is a very deep pathway here….  I heard from my master and grandfather that [God], the Master of the Universe, [whom we call the Alupho shel Olam, or the “Aleph of the World”] is hiding inside of  sin (the word chet).

What [my grandfather, the Ba’al Shem] means is that the Aleph is not revealed or discernable in speech; it is [swallowed up] at the very end of the word.  

And to comprehend this, [we must understand] that when we commit a transgression (God forbid), the awareness [of God] abandons us….  And in that moment, we certainly imagine that God has left the world and is not paying attention.  

…But this is a total falsehood, because God’s attention is always present, [even in sin, even when we ‘miss the mark’].

The Holy Blessed One is in fact right there, [in front of us, in our transgression]; but God remains in a state of great concealment and hiddenness.”

Here’s the basic idea.  God, the Omnipresent One, is just that:  all-present, always present, even when concealed or silent like the Aleph.    God is present not only in the synagogue, in the soaring Kedusha of the morning prayers, in the mountaintop vista and the Pacific sunset, in the birth of a healthy baby and in the final breath of a great-grandparent taking gentle leave of the world–the moments that inspire awe, connection, what we call the numinous: that pull back the curtain of mundane experience to reveal something of the divine mystery animating existence.  

This must be what Blake meant–not the rabbi but the poet–when he wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

Or maybe even what Dylan was alluding to in the phantasmagorical imagery of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” where the invitation “play a song for me” opens up a doorway to cosmic revelation:

And take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind

Down the foggy ruins of time

Far past the frozen leaves

The haunted frightened trees

Out to the windy beach

Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky

With one hand waving free

Silhouetted by the sea

Circled by the circus sands

With all memory and fate

Driven deep beneath the waves

Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Yes, says Blake; yes, says Dylan:  the Omnipresent is always present. 

And also, the Degel teaches, for God to be truly Omnipresent means, present  in the moments that do not strike us as inspiring or uplifting or even particularly mysterious:  in the drycleaning and the haircuts, the dishwashing and the diaper changes, the watercooler conversations and Zoom meetings, the argument with your spouse or parent or child, when the internet goes down and the basement floods, and, oy, I could go on but I won’t.

And, perhaps strangest but truest of all–even when we miss the mark. When we transgress, when we sin.  There, too, hides the Aleph: silent, perhaps; swallowed up at the end of the word, the littlest portion of the deed, perhaps; but there, all along, nonetheless.  

How so?

When we miss the mark, the Degel teaches, we do so because we failed to acknowledge God’s presence in the world and within us.  We transgress precisely because we fail to see how our deeds, our choices (both good and bad), are not isolated events, but have cosmic aftershocks, like a stone thrown into a pond, rippling outward toward eternity.  

And, therefore, every deed, including every misdeed, presents an opportunity to self-reflect and cultivate mindful awareness of our connection to the Omnipresent One, Alupho shel Olam, the Aleph of the World.  

As a coda to these musings, I observe here, on this special Chai Society Shabbat, where we finally gather in person again to honor members of WRT who have affiliated for 18 years and more, and to welcome members of the Chai Society classes of 2021 and 2022, that tonight is also the night when Kelly and I are officially inducted, having arrived in the summer of 2003 to be embraced so warmly by this holy community.  (Our official welcome to the club, as with so many of you, has been deferred until now on account of Covid.)  Kelly joins me in sharing our love and gratitude.  She’s performing tonight as Irene Molloy in the opening of Hello, Dolly! at the prestigious Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, grateful to be back in front of a live audience after a more than 2-year hiatus.  

Throughout these now nearly nineteen years of our participation in the life of WRT, and especially in hindsight, looking back over them, the Omnipresent One has, true to the Degel’s word, revealed something of the Divine to me, to us, time and time again:

  • Under the chuppah and at at the grave;
  • In simcha and in sorrow,
  • On the bimah and the bagel brunch,
  • Naming babies and saying deathbed prayers,
  • On Shabbat and Holidays,
  • Or just a regular Wednesday night, learning with our teens,
  • Bringing refugees from peril to safety;
  • And charting a course to reach one another in lockdown,
  • And find holiness even over broadband

And,

It should be added:

  • When I haven’t been my best:
  • When I’ve been stressed out or pressed for time;
  • When I’ve forgotten to make the call or failed to schedule the visit,
  • Lost my patience,
  • Said something I wish I hadn’t said,
  • Or didn’t say the thing I could have,
  • And you told me that I had missed the mark–
    • In these moments, too, you helped me become more aware of the Omnipresent One,
    • Who conceals something of Divinity in every encounter and every deed, good and bad and in between,
    • Even in every letter
    • Even in the Aleph, which always comes first, and makes no sound. 

Shabbat Shalom

For Ukraine

Yehuda Amichai:  I, May I Rest in Peace

אֲנִי עָלָיו הָשָׁלוֹםיהודה עמיחי


אֲנִי, עָלָיו הָשָׁלוֹם, אֲנִי הַחַי אוֹמֵר עָלַי הָשָׁלוֹם
אֲנִי רוֹצֶה שָׁלוֹם כְּבָר עַכְשָׁיו בְּעוֹדֶנִּי חַי.
אֲנִי לֹא רוֹצֶה לְחַכּוֹת כְּמוֹ אוֹתוֹ הֶחָסִיד שׁבִּקֵשׁ רֶגֶל אַחַת
מִכִּסֵּא הַזָּהָב בְּגַן עֵדֶן. אֲנִי רוֹצֶה כִּסֵּא אַרְבַּע רַגְלַיִם
כָּאן. כִּסֵּא עֵץ פָּשׁוּט. אֲנִי רוֹצֶה שָׁלוֹם עָלַי עַכְשָׁיו.
חַיַּי עָבְרוּ עָלַי בְּמִלְחָמוֹת מִכָּל הַמִּינִים: קְרָבוֹת חוּץ
וּקְרָבוֹת בִּפְנִים, קְרָבוֹת פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים וְהַפָּנִים
הָיוּ תָּמִיד הַפָּנִים שֶׁלִּי, פְּנֵי אוֹהֵב וּפְנֵי אוֹיֵב.
מִלְחָמוֹת בְּנֶשֶׁק יָשָׁן, מַקֵּל, אֶבֶן, גַּרְזֶן פָּגוּם, מִילִים
סַכִּין קֵהָה וְקוֹרַעַת, אַהֲבָה וְשִׂנְאָה
וּמִלְחָמוֹת בְּנֶשֶׁק חָדִישׁ, מִקְלָע, טִיל,
מִילִים, מוֹקֵשׁ מִתְפּוֹצֵץ, אַהֲבָה וְשִׂנְאָה.
אֲנִי לֹא רוֹצֶה לְקַיֵּם אֶת נְבוּאַת הוֹרַי שְׁהַחַיִּים הֵם מִלְחָמָה
אֲנִי רוֹצֶה שָׁלוֹם בְּכָל גוּפִי וּבְּכָל נַפְשִׁי. עָלַי הָשָׁלוֹם.

I, may I rest in peace – I, who am still living, say,
May I have peace in the rest of my life.
I want peace right now while I’m still alive.
I don’t want to wait like that pious man who wished for one leg
of the golden chair of Paradise, I want a four-legged chair
right here, a plain wooden chair. I want the rest of my peace now.
I have lived out my life in wars of every kind: battles without
and within, close combat, face-to- face, the faces always
my own, my lover-face, my enemy-face.
Wars with the old weapons — sticks and stones, blunt axe, words,
dull ripping knife, love and hate,
and wars with newfangled weapons — machine gun, missile,
words, land mines exploding, love and hate.
I don’t want to fulfill my parents’ prophecy that life is war.

I want peace with all my body and all my soul.
Rest me in peace.

From Open Closed Open, Copyright © 2000 by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

Every Grain of Sand

Shabbat Vayigash 5782

Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, December 10, 2021

If you haven’t been following the recent serial drama known as the weekly Torah portion, a recap is in order:

Joseph, the boy dreamer, has risen to an improbable position of power and prestige in Egypt.  There, as Pharaoh’s vice-regent, he oversees food distribution in a time of severe famine.

Joseph’s long-estranged brothers, who had sold him into slavery years before, now arrive as supplicants, begging for food.  They do not recognize the imposing figure with the long beard and royal garments and fluent command of Egyptian who now sits enthroned before them, but Joseph certainly recognizes them.  

Taking advantage of this twist of fate, Joseph devises a test of character for the brothers who had once so brutally mistreated him.  He demands that they go back to Canaan to fetch their youngest brother, Benjamin, the only source of comfort in their father’s life after losing Joseph.  What the mighty vizier intends to do with Benjamin at that point is anyone’s guess, but the risk of him coming to harm is significant.

Their father, Jacob, naturally, is horrified.  He fears the worst:  that history will repeat itself.

But the brothers are starving so back to Egypt they go, Benjamin in tow.  After much palace intrigue, including a trumped-up charge of theft, Joseph arrests young Benjamin, announcing that he will be sentenced to slavery.

With that as last week’s cliff-hanger, we now arrive at this week’s portion, Vayigash.  An older brother, Judah, steps forward to intervene on Benjamin’s behalf:  Take me instead, he pleads.  “I myself will be the boy’s guarantee.”  This is Judah’s defining moment, putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of Benjamin.  And it is this turn of events that moves Joseph to reveal his true identity:  אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י — Weeping, he exclaims, “I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3) 

Commenting on the Joseph story just two weeks ago, I highlighted the role that random chance–or, as Bob Dylan called it, “a simple twist of fate”–plays in this saga.  Indeed, like few other narratives in the Hebrew Bible, God seems to operate at a remove from the action.

For Joseph’s ancestors–Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah–God commands, God speaks, God appears in dreams and visions.  Like a marionettist, God pulls the strings.  God announces that Sarah will give birth in old age, sends Abraham up the mountain to sacrifice his son, appears to Jacob at a ladder and as a messenger who wrestles in the night.  

But up until this point in the Joseph story, God is, curiously, kept at arm’s length, moving the plot forward explicitly a total of three times:  once, when Joseph advances as chief steward in the house of the Egyptian army captain Potiphar, and the text reports, “Adonai was with Joseph, and he became a successful man” (Gen. 39:2) and again, after Joseph is arrested on a trumped-up rape accusation by Potiphar’s wife, and the text reports, twice in a row, that “God was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:21), enabling him to find favor with the chief jailer, earning his trust in order to supervise the other inmates.  

Then God disappears again, returning only when it comes time for Jacob to be reunited with his long-lost son.  God appears in a nighttime vision, directing the aging patriarch to journey down to Egypt.  

But as for Joseph, it bears mention that God does not speak to him directly, not once, keeping silent throughout the entire story, save for those brief third-person references to divine assistance in Potiphar’s house and in the jailhouse.

Except, God is actually all over the Joseph story, but only as seen through the eyes of Joseph.  

Everything that Joseph experiences–every “simple twist of fate”–Joseph himself describes not as random chance, but rather as the hand of God.  

Joseph’s uncanny ability to understand dreams?  “Surely God will interpret,” says the seer (Gen. 40:8).  When Pharaoh credits Joseph’s talent, he demurs:  “Not I!  It is God who looks after Pharaoh’s wellbeing” (Gen. 41:16).  Even Pharaoh agrees:  “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so wise and discerning as you” (Gen. 41:39).  

From Joseph’s perspective, “a simple twist of fate” has nothing to do with his fate; everything has come about by God’s design. 

By the time we reach this week’s parasha, nearly every line spoken by Joseph gives attribution to God.  When Joseph reveals his true identity, and the brothers tremble that he will now exact his revenge, Joseph assures them:

“Now, do not be distressed.  Don’t blame yourselves for selling me here; it was in order to save life that God sent me ahead of you.…  God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.  You see, it was not in fact you who sent me here, but God, who has made me like a father-figure to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, ruler over the whole land of Egypt.  So hurry back to my father and say to him:  ‘Thus says your son Joseph, “God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay’” (Gen. 45:5, 7-8).

In a near-Godless story, the hero is saturated in the awareness of God.  

If you’ve studied American history, then the name Roger Williams may be familiar.  Roger Williams was a minister and theologian who founded Providence Plantations, which became the Colony, and eventual State, of Rhode Island, where my parents reside and where fried calamari with hot peppers is the official State Appetizer.  (My dad enthuses over Rhode Island arcana and will appreciate this reference.) 

In any case, Roger Williams founded Providence Plantations after fleeing religious persecution from the Puritans in Massachusetts, and, in 1638, established the First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, a testament to his commitment to religious freedom.  He named his new home in honor of “God’s merciful Providence” which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven.  For Williams, his success was not his own; nor was it attributable to mere good fortune or fate.  It was Divine Providence.

Two centuries later, an influential English Baptist preacher named Charles Spurgeon would clarify the difference:  “Fate,” he said, “is blind; providence has eyes.  Fate is … just an arrow shot from a bow, that must fly onward, but hath no target. Not so, providence; providence is full of eyes.  There is a design in everything, and an end to be answered; all things are working together, and working together for good.”   

Often when people tell me that they “don’t believe in God,” my inclination is to respond, “Maybe God isn’t the issue.  Maybe you’re just using the wrong verb.”  God isn’t something you believe in or don’t believe in; God is a way of describing a perspective on your life and the meaning of events in our lives.  God is a way of framing how we understand what life hands us, how we experience our time on earth.  

Perhaps had an atheist founded Rhode Island, the capital city would have been called “Luck,” which happens to be a village in Wisconsin, population 1,227, and whose welcome sign declares, “You’re in Luck.”  Or, maybe it’d be called “Fate,” which happens to be a town in Texas about the same population as Scarsdale.  But, no, Roger Williams’ perspective on the events of his life, like Joseph’s, always ran through God.

As for me, in my role as rabbi, I have little interest in getting people to believe in God.  I do, however, have a vested interest in helping people locate God in the experiences of their lives, helping people find, or, more aptly, construct, meaning, from whatever life hands us.  The question is not, “do you believe in God?” but rather, “How might God be showing up in your life?”  

Is this just a matter of semantics?  Maybe, but also maybe not.  Consider:  have you ever had an experience that made you feel connected to something bigger than yourself?  In synagogue?  In a concert hall?  In the mountains?  In the ocean?  Looking out an airplane window?  In a hospital room?  Under the chuppah?  By a loved one’s grave?  Alone, in the dark?  With the one person who loves you and understands you better, perhaps, than you understand yourself?  I have.  Some people feel comfortable talking about these experiences as “God moments.”  

I do.

Joseph did.  

And, oh, of course, Bob Dylan does.

Like the Joseph saga, God is all over the words of Bob Dylan too, nowhere more than in the song “Every Grain of Sand,” which closes his 1981 Album Shot of Love and which I had the epic pleasure of hearing him sing, two nights in a row, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as the final song in his current tour’s setlist.  

For a fan, hearing Dylan sing “Every Grain of Sand” is kind of like having heard Leonard Cohen sing “Hallelujah” — it is more than a song; it’s a religious hymn.  Its lines echo Biblical verses, both our Testament (“Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break”) and the Christian Testament (“Then onward in my journey I come to understand/That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand,” directly quoting from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 10:30).)  

It also plays off of secular verse, albeit from other God-saturated writers, like William Blake whose poem “Auguries of Innocence” begins:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

Like the Biblical Joseph, Dylan surveys the events of his life, both the choices he has made (including the mistakes), and the things that have come to him through no choice of his own, and, looking back, all he sees is God:  

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand

In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

It is just as a Hasidic Master once said in the name of his teacher, the famous Maggid of Mezritch:

In everything that you perceive in the world, you will come to see only the Blessed One, whose powers animate everything, so much so, that you will eventually realize that even you are in fact nothing without the power of the Blessed One, who is giving you life even in this present moment, and that there is nothing else!

In other words:  Everything is God, ואין עוד (“ein od”), “and there is none else.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Favorite Albums of the Year, 2021

Hello all my friends,


It’s been another year of listening to music and rigorously cataloging all of the albums that I enjoyed. Some more than others, to be sure, but each of the 90+ (!!) recordings below is worth lending your ears. In all honesty, I was a bit skeptical that 2021 would produce enough worth hearing, based on a pretty sluggish start (supply chain issues, perhaps?), but by summer things started to come around, and it’s been a banner fall for new music. Most of these are available on streaming services and I’m happy to assemble a best-of end-of-year Spotify playlist for anyone who is interested.


Another couple of notes. First, I want you to know that while my musical tastes run toward the omnivorous, hip-hop is underrepresented on this list. That’s just a matter of personal taste and I am always willing to listen to anyone’s recommendations. But this is more of a “favorite” albums list rather than a “best” albums list. Secondly, I want to share that, despite the length of this list, and the extensive comments on my top ten choices (you have to scroll down pretty far to see that), most of my listening in 2021 was to classical music, and, as a corroborating point, the only print music publication to which I currently subscribe is Gramophone magazine, so there’s that.


Finally, a few honorable mentions: the focus of the 90 albums on my list below, and especially of the top ten, is on new music, so I don’t generally honor albums of covers (the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant album “Raise the Roof,” #59 below, which, I think, is mostly covers, is one notable exception), live albums, or EPs. With that in mind, here’s a few that made HONORABLE MENTION:


Jarvis Cocker, Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top (covers)

Patricia Barber, Clique (covers)

Samantha Crain, I Guess We Live Here Now (EP)

Frank Zappa, Zappa ‘88: The Last US Concerts (live)

Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version) (“covers,” in a matter of speaking)Fatma Said, El Nour (Classical, therefore “covers,” but AMAZING)

Bob Dylan, Springtime in New York (bootleg/live/etc.)

Wilco, Roadcase (3 live concerts in Port Chester from October 2014)

Radiohead, Kid AMnesia (the repackaged 2 albums from 2000-2001 with outtakes, etc.)

Beach House, Once Twice Melody (parts 1 & 2) (full album will be released in Februrary but half of it is already online, so check it out)

——

Ok, patient readers. Here’s the list.Happy New Year and stay safe out there.- JEB
90. Jon Batiste, We Are

89. Rose City Band, Earth Trip

88. Manic Street Preachers, The Ultra Vivid Lament

87. John Grant, Boy from Michigan

86. Tyler, The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost

85. Laura Mvula, Pink Noise

84. Daniel Lanois, Heavy Sun

83. Mogwai, As the Love Continues

82. Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun

81. Bedouine, Waysides
80. The Marías, CINEMA

79. Badbadnotgood, Signal From The Noise

78. Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade

77. Squid, Bright Green Field

76. Matthew E. White, K Bay

75. Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses

74. Aeon Station, Observatory

73. Charlie Marie, Ramble On

72. Valerie June, The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

71. Jane Weaver, Flocks
70. Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha

69. Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More

68. Sierra Ferrell, Long Time Coming

67. Vanishing Twin, Ookii Gekkou

66. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview of Phenomenal Nature

65. Felice Brothers, From Dream to Dust

64. Joan As Police Woman, The Solution is Restless

63. Amy Speace with The Orphan Brigade, There Used to Be Horses Here

62. The Black Keys, Delta Kream

61. Yasmin Williams, Underwood
60. Sarah Jarosz, Blue Heron Suite

59. Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raise the Roof

58. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg

57. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice

56. The Weather Station, Ignorance

55. The Coral, Coral Island

54. Dawn Richard, Second Line

53. Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa

52. David Crosby, For Free

51. Israel Nash, Topaz
50. James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds

49. Michael Mayo, Bones

48. Menahan Street Band, The Exciting Sounds of Menahan

47. Daniel Knox, Won’t You Take Me With You

46. Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend

45. Julie Doiron, I Thought of You

44. (2 albums) Andrew Marlin, Fable & Fire and The Witching Hour

43. Floating Points and Pharaoh Sanders, Promises

42. Deafheaven, Infinite Granite

41. Matt Berry, The Blue Elephant
40. CHVRCHES, Screen Violence

39. April March, In Cinerama (vinyl only 😢 )

38. Phoebe Hunt & Gatherers, Neither One of Us is Wrong

37. Marissa Nadler, The Path of the Clouds

36. Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days

35. Mal Devisa, Wisdom Teeth

34. Elbow, Flying Dream 1

33. Adele, 30

32. Richard Dawson & Circle, Henki

31. Macie Stewart, Mouth Full of Glass
30. Lucy Dacus, Home Video

29. Olivia Rodrigo, Sour

28. Daphne Gale, Nomadder

27. Low, Hey What

26. Miloš Karadaglić, The Moon and the Forest

25. Hans Zimmer, Dune (Original Soundtrack)

24. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

23. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo Deaugustine, A Beginner’s Mind

22. Imelda May, 11 Past the Hour

21. Yebba, Dawn
20. Sam Fender, Seventeen Going Under

19. Iron Maiden, Senjutsu

18. Houedia Hedfi, Fleuves de l’Âme

17. Entertainment, Death, Spirit of the Beehive

16. Mike and the Moonpies, One to Grow On

15. Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

14. Lindsey Buckingham (self-titled)

13. Ryley Walker, Course in Fable

12. Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take

11. Lord Huron, Long Lost

10. Béla Fleck, My Bluegrass Heart
I’m so glad I finally got around to listening to this sprawling collection of originals by the incomparable banjo doyen Fleck, and that hearing My Bluegrass Heart has now occasioned a down-the-rabbit-hole journey into his genre-defying back catalog. This latest offering completes a trilogy of bluegrass numbers that draw on the prodigious talents of best-in-field collaborators, recorded at almost generational intervals (Drive, 1987; The BlueGrass Sessions: Tales from The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2, 1999; and now My Bluegrass Heart). This time around, Fleck is joined by an all-star cast of musicians, including the 28-year-old flatpick guitar whiz Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, David Grisman, Sierra Hull, Jerry Douglas, Noam Pikelny, Edgar Meyer, and of course, the one mandolin king to rule them all, Chris Thile (Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek). As such this album is far and away the most important and pacesetting new bluegrass release in years, with compositions and virtuosic playing to exceed even the highest expectations of its luminary cast. Having said that, at first I found the compositions a bit cold and mathematical, even, in the vein of early Punch Brothers’ work, but as the album blazes its trail, a vibrant joy and warm glow emerges from these players who are clearly having the time of their lives, doing what they love.


9. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar (b. Mahamadou Souleyman) is a songwriter and musician based in Agadez, Niger, who is ethnically of the Tuareg tribal tradition (The Tuareg is a large Berber ethnic group that inhabits the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.) The musical traditions of the Tuareg are the stuff of legend, and Mdou Moctar is their Jimi Hendrix. He first came to attention through live recordings traded across a wide swath of the African continent via SIM cards, and broke into Western audiences around 2019 with his 4th album, Ilana: The Creator. Now American label Matador has picked him up and on Afrique Victime, he comes into full bloom with expressive songs laced with ripping guitar solos that are both virtuosic in their technique and gripping in their emotional force. The album is sung almost entirely in Moctar’s native Tamasheq language, though parts (including the name of the album and its title song) are sung in French. The heart of the album, title track “Afrique Victime,” is a searing protest song against colonialist violence that catalogs the sufferings and abuses perpetrated against his home continent.


8. Mood Valiant, Hiatus Kaiyote
Ten years after forming in Melbourne, Australia, progressive jazz-funk band Hiatus Kaiyote hits its high-water mark with its latest release, a brilliant set performed with verve and exacting musicianship (that never gets stuffy, formal, or in the way of the music). This is what we’d call a “musician’s musicians” kind of band, and it’s phenomenal to hear such players firing on all cylinders in an era that has TikTok-ified music into lame, lazy gruel.


7. Snail Mail, Valentine
More like, “bruised Valentine,” to be sure. Lindsey Jordan (age 22), the singer-songwriter and wickedly talented shredder who records as “Snail Mail” turns in her sophomore album to deserved acclaim. Incisive, intimate, and lacerating, “Valentine” is an archetypal breakup album for the 21st century, with a musical language that nods to its 90s influences but whose rock-solid comfort in its queer perspective marks it as of its own time and place.


6. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage
Let us assume that Nick Cave, gothic rock royalty, needs no introduction. His frequent collaborator Warren Ellis is Cave’s leading “Bad Seed,” artistic foil, multi-instrumentalist and Cave’s spiritually conjoined twin. Together they have “surprise released” this gem of an album, generated in the depths of isolation while the pandemic rampaged outside, and accompanied by a tour where the two of them took these mutant songs out on the road to share them with rapt audiences (I am told). With every recording, Cave’s mastery of language and feeling grows more apparent, and his willingness to meditate on the darkness at the heart of the human condition is brave and necessary. These are some really weird and wonderful songs that I can’t stop listening to.


5. Madlib, Sound Ancestors
Mind-blown moment: first hearing Madvillainy (2004), the legendary hip-hop collab between musically omnivorous crate-digger Madlib (producer) and MF Doom (rapper), the famously eccentric and reclusive artist who rarely appeared in public without his trademark metallic “Dr. Doom” mask and who, in a dramatic gesture of poetic irony, died on Halloween 2020. Madlib operates chiefly as a collaborator and usually has his hands on numerous projects at the same time; rare is the occasion for him to record under his own “name” (real name: Otis Jackson Jr.). And this album, too, is a collaboration, with Four Tet (Kieran Hebden, genius electronic music artist and producer), who arranged, edited and mastered the “songs” (more aptly, “sound collages,” my term) by his prolific counterpart. Permit me a bit of synesthesia but this album is as dank as a street in 2021 New York City’s Lower East Side smells. The result is an almost atavistic display of sampling prowess, where the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.


4. Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince
Arooj Aftab is a Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer, composer, and producer who has worked in the electronic music scene and who holds degrees in Music Production and Engineering and Jazz Composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I hate genre classifications altogether, but you’ll hear in her album “Vulture Prince” an immersive and expansive (headphones, please!) amalgam Jazz, dub, and what is best described as “Neo-Sufi” idioms. The album frames a journey from the despair of bereavement (her younger brother Maher died during the process of writing the album) to the beauty and sorrow of acceptance. The music, and the feeling it conveys, are both timeless and timely.


3. The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
With every successive album, Philly-based rockers The War on Drugs, whose lead voice and architect, Adam Granduciel, projects a heart-on-the sleeve kind of rock that evokes Springsteen and Mellencamp (and perhaps a more tuneful Dylan), have grown clearer and less cluttered in their songs. There’s still a motorik precision to what they’re doing, with elaborate, Krautrock-ish layers of guitar and synth coloring in between the lines, but on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” what stands out is the cleanness of melody and the epic build to grand choruses framing simple, yearning sentiments. Put this on in your car and drive toward the horizon.


2. Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren
Hands down, the most emotionally affecting songwriting I’ve heard all year. Country-Folk songstress Emily Scott Robinson fully comes into her own on this, her third full-length recording. Quoting from her press kit (yes, I’m cheating here, but these reviews take time!): “Colorado songwriter Emily Scott Robinson beckons to those who are lost, lonely, or learning the hard way with American Siren, her first album for Oh Boy Records. With hints of bluegrass, country, and folk, the eloquent collection shares her gift for storytelling through her pristine soprano and the perspective of her unconventional path into music.” The fact that Oh Boy Records picked up this artist is worth highlighting. (Again quoting): “Oh Boy Records is an independent record label located in Nashville, Tennessee. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the company was founded in 1981 by multiple Grammy Award winner, singer-songwriter, John Prine, and his manager and business partner, Al Bunetta. The label is run by the Prine family, and is the second oldest artist-run independent label in the U.S. The label continues to expand its catalog with a dedication to authentic voices, giving songwriters a platform to create art while speaking their truth.” Well, they could not have picked a better spiritual heir to the epic legacy of John Prine: an amazing storyteller, wise beyond her years, and every line speaks truth—whether autobiographical or invented.


1. Daniel Romano’s Outfit, Cobra Songs
It’s a joy for me to give the number one spot this year to an album that seems barely to have registered on the radar of the critical cognoscenti, an album so perfect that its omission from end-of-year best-of lists is, in a word, criminal. The fact that a talent as prodigious, with an output so prolific, as Daniel Romano, continues to toil away in obscurity is only one more indictment of the shameful state of our cultural affairs but so it goes. To the music: like fellow Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers (whom I had the robust pleasure of hearing in concert earlier this month, at Webster Hall in NYC, reprising their magnum opus Twin Cinema (2005) in its entirety as the first set of a top-to-bottom hair-raisingly good show), Romano is steeped in the power-pop tradition of the likes of The Zombies and Big Star, but with an astonishing range of other influences as well; check out his extensive back catalog and you’ll see that Romano’s first recordings recreate the classic “countrypolitan” sound with astonishing precision and panache, before stepping out in to more “Modern Sounds” like New Wave, punk, and… and, well, there’s really nothing Romano can’t do. Enjoy a 10/10 perfect album from a group that I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of. You’re welcome.

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.