Juneteenth 2020: Introducing Rev. Dr. Stephen W. Pogue, Pastor, Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church, Mt. Vernon, NY

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Juneteenth.

There’s a song on the new Bob Dylan album—and I mean new, as in released today—called “Crossing the Rubicon,” in which Dylan invokes the old phrase attributed to Caesar, who, in the year 49 BCE, upon crossing the river Rubicon which separated Italy from Gaul, committed to a course of action from which there was no turning back — and which led to a war against rival Pompey and the Roman Senate.

Crossing the Rubicon.  No turning back.  We have reached such a Rubicon moment in American life—indeed, multiple such crossings from which there will be no turning back.  Whatever comes next after this terrible global pandemic will not be the same as what came before.

And whatever must come next in our country’s unfolding saga of justice denied and opportunity withheld, when it comes to our relationship with Black Americans and all American communities of color—whatever must come next cannot be a turning back to the way things were before, the way things have too often been.

And, it so happens, as my colleague and friend Rabbi Noah Farkas, who serves the congregation of Valley Beth Shalom in the LA suburbs, points out, “[i]n this week’s Torah portion Shlach Lecha, the Israelites have reached their point of no return” (emphasis added).  

Moses sends out 12 spies, one for each tribe of Israel, to scout out the land that God has promised them.  Fully ten of twelve return impressed with the lush landscape and natural resources but frightened to death of the so-called “giants” who live in the land, whom, they fear, will eat the Israelites for lunch.  And so these disheartened spies lead a campaign to demoralize the rest of the Israelites.  Their campaign slogan is, “Let’s go back to Egypt.”

But they’ve already reached their Crossing the Rubicon moment.  Once the Israelites taste the fruit of the promised land, there is no going back to Egypt.  No going back to bondage, oppression, the invisibility of the Israelites’ lives under Pharaoh.  No, there is only going forward.  

My friends, for us, now, especially, there is no going back.  No going back to the Egypt of denial and defensiveness when we talk about race in America.  In recognition of the urgency of this Rubicon moment, we have reached out to our community partners in the interest of listening, learning, partnering, and shouldering together both the pain and the responsibility to face our fears and move forward together.

The congregation of Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church in Mount Vernon, and its pastor, our friend, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Pogue, have stood with WRT, and we with them, in times of joy and sorrow.  When, five years ago this week, a white supremacist committed mass murder in the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, our congregations stood in solidarity.  When, almost two years ago, a white supremacist murdered Jews in prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Dr. Pogue and our Greater Centennial friends were there for us.  

Today, this Juneteenth, must not just be a moment for pledging solidarity, not just a moment to affirm that Black Lives Matter, but also, this must be a time for our WRT community to listen to the voices of our neighbors and heed the demands that our respective faith traditions—and that our common God of justice and mercy—now ask of us. 

It is, as always, a distinct pleasure for me to introduce my friend and yours, Rev. Stephen Pogue.

When the World is Burning

A Sermon in Response to the Murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd

Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York

Friday, June 5, 2020

A true story:

Seventeen years ago, just days after beginning my new job as the Associate Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple, I was invited to participate in a conversion ceremony.  It takes three rabbis to make one Jew.  That is to say, a Beit Din, a rabbinical court, a panel of three duly ordained rabbis is convened to authorize a conversion to Judaism, so I joined my WRT colleagues, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl (and our soon-to-be-official Jew) at the local mikveh, the ritual bath, at Temple Israel Center in White Plains.  

I was walking back to my car when I noticed a plume of dark smoke streaming from a nearby house.  Rick and Angela immediately identified the burning building as our neighboring congregation, Bet Am Shalom, which, by the way, is just a few blocks from where Kelly and I presently live.

We rushed to the adjacent parking lot and met the firefighters, police officers, Rabbi Les Bronstein, Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller, and Bet Am Shalom congregants managing the evacuation.  Moments after the fire had been extinguished, but before an all-clear had been issued to re-enter the building, some of my colleagues approached an officer and rushed into the smoldering synagogue with hospital stretchers, emerging minutes later with the miraculously undamaged Torah scrolls that they had rescued from the sanctuary.

In that moment, I felt deeply connected not only to our local rabbis and cantors, to our neighboring synagogues, and to these sacred scrolls that had been saved from danger, but also to Abraham, father-figure of our faith.  A midrash, a Rabbinic legend, about Abraham, goes like this:

An ordinary man is going about his business, traveling from one place to another, when he notices a building all in flames.  This man, Abraham by name, exclaims, “Why is no one doing anything?  How can it be that there is no one to look after this place?”  Suddenly, a voice calls out from the highest balcony—itself almost engulfed in the inferno—saying, “I am the owner.”  At that moment, the story goes, God—the “owner of the building,” so to speak, the One whose world is on fire—selects Abraham to be the father to a multitude of nations, and to lead them from the darkness of superstition into the light of faith (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 39:1).

Why Abraham?  What special qualities did our ancestor possess that merited his divine election?  In other words, what did God see in him?  

The answer, according to this parable, is twofold:  first, that Abraham walks with eyes open, that he pays attention, that he notices the fire; but also, that Abraham wonders aloud why this is happening, why is no one else paying attention, why is no one doing anything; and then he demands a response.  What makes Abraham special is that he sees things not only for what they are, but for the way they ought to be, and then roars out his objection.  

Abraham’s journey begins, that is to say, in an act of holy protest.

The world is an inferno.  Who shall we be, in this moment?  How shall we respond?

When I was a kid, we learned that the response to a fire is “stop, drop, and roll”—not, “run into the inferno.”  We practiced this maneuver on the floor of the cafeteria of Parkway Manor Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  I was pretty good at the “stop” and “drop” parts, less coordinated around the “roll” — I usually ended up careening all 44 pounds of my first-grade body straight into Brian Chu’s kidneys.   

And yet, this is no time to stop, drop, and roll away from the fire.  

I am not talking, by the way, about that small percentage of lawbreakers who have seized upon this historic moment by breaking into stores, vandalizing buildings, or setting cars ablaze.  The actions of this small and misanthropic few diminish, disgrace, and distract from a vital and just cause.  We condemn them.  There is no holiness in havoc.  

But they are not the story, despite what some media choose to portray.

No, the fire of which I speak is a flame of righteous anger over a centuries-old legacy of American racism that continues to treat Black lives as less valuable than White lives, that continues to treat Black bodies as expendable, that continues to confer disadvantage on communities of color, adversely affecting access to quality education, professional mobility, and equal treatment under the law.

An admirably principled and forthright figure you may have encountered in this week’s news, Marianne Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, speaks for so many of us religious leaders who cherish the Bible, who study the Bible every day, and who find in the Bible a wellspring of wisdom acutely suited to this moment. 

“Scripture is clear,” she says:  “Justice, which is the societal expression of love, matters most to God. Justice is also what is most important to those who are exercising their right to peaceful protest. They are expressing what we all know to be true:  It’s past time to fix a law that allows police officers and vigilantes to go unpunished for crimes against people of color. It’s past time to correct the gross disparities in health care that Covid-19 has revealed.  It’s past time to change economic and educational systems that privilege white people (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/opinion/trump-st-johns-church-protests.html).

Racism finds expression not only in vile words and violent abuse.  Such overt racism is grossly offensive, deserving of censure.  But that kind of racism is, truth be told, the easier kind to address. 

The hard racism to extirpate is covert: the racism that insidiously burrows into the fine print of policy and the distribution of resources, into how wealth is accumulated and inherited, in the infrastructure of our cities and the all-too-intentional placement of highways and factories.  If you want to confront racism, first you have to see the building burning.  

In early March—it might as well have been a lifetime ago—Rabbi Levy and I traveled with 63 WRT members, eighth graders and their parents, to the American South.  We marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  We got up close with a history-making bus ride at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery.  We prayed at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was baptized, where he preached, and where he was eulogized.  And, most heartrendingly—at least for me—we visited the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.  

Founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and the author of Just Mercy, which last year was turned into a compelling biopic movie of the same name, the Equal Justice Initiative provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. 

(The film Just Mercy has been made available for free online, for this month of June. Watch it here: https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/just-mercy)

The Equal Justice Initiative challenges the death penalty, excessive punishment, and helps formerly incarcerated people return to lives of purpose and productivity.  We toured the EJI’s museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public just two years ago.  It is America’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. 

📷 : Jonathan Blake

Set on a six-acre site, the memorial features over 800 steel monuments engraved with the names of racial lynching victims, one massive column for each county where a lynching took place.  There are more than 4,400 names.  Like visiting Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem, or the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, you leave such a place transformed—not just aghast at the horror of it all, but awakened, aware that you share in a terrible legacy; you inherit a profound responsibility; you cannot just go back to “business as usual”; you may not control history, but you must exercise what agency you have over future destiny.  

The poet Rilke described such a moment of transformation:  “…[H]ere,” he wrote, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life” (“Archaic Torso of Apollo,” 1908, translated by Stephen Mitchell).

“You must change your life.”  

That is the message embedded in this American moment.  

Before today, we could walk along and not even notice the palace going up in flames.  We could glide along, silent among the passers-by.  

Today we must be Abraham.  

These are tremendous times, terrible times, transformational times, times that demand courage, not complacency; sacrifice, not smugness; curiosity, not close-mindedness. 

This is no time to stop, drop, and roll ourselves away from the flames.

Fortunately, it turns out that “Stop, Drop, and Roll” is not what they teach kids nowadays.  Today, the concept we want children to internalize is this:  if there’s a fire in your house, you should get yourself to a designated meeting place and wait for your family there.

And so, here we are, tonight.  We are at our designated meeting place—it’s called Shabbat—and we are among family.  

Tonight, we take comfort and shelter in one another.  But we will not hide from the fire.  Judaism exists in order to model a more perfect world.  It demands that we not hunker down in fear of what is, but rather, challenge ourselves and our world to become what it ought to be.

Today, with our WRT family, our Jewish family.  Our nuclear family, as it were.  Tomorrow, with our extended family—the human family.  

Because we can’t do this work alone.  If this crazy time—mass demonstrations colliding with a mass pandemic—has anything to teach us, let it be how deeply and inextricably interconnected we are, and must remain.

Tonight, this Shabbat, with our WRT family.  Tomorrow, with the family of humankind, each soul an image of God, each life a divine flame.

Shavuot-Confirmation 5780

The Angle of Your Tent, and Why it Matters

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, NY

Confirmation Class of 5780!

Well.  This is weird. 

Let me begin my remarks this morning by acknowledging that I am fully aware that you’ve been texting each other and using the Zoom Private Chat feature this whole time, just outside the view of the camera. 

To which I say, just remember what the Torah says:  Two can play at that game. What, you think your rabbis and cantors haven’t been doing the same exact thing?

Anyway.  Let me share with you an interesting observation about Zoom, derived from from the Babylonian Talmud. 

The Talmud mentions that, when they camped in the wilderness, the Israelites positioned their tents at an angle so that people couldn’t look into their neighbors’ homes.  

I wonder what would’ve happened if they had Zoom. 

Because on Zoom, it doesn’t matter what angle your house sits at.  Everybody is checking out everybody else’s homes.  All of a sudden, our placid, friendly neighborhood has become a bastion of voyeurism, all thanks to Zoom.   

Come on.  Admit it.  You’ve all done it.  You’re probably doing it right now. 

Like, you’re on a Zoom with friends…. And you just can’t help yourself.  You start looking around their bedrooms, like, whoa, what do they have that I haven’t got? 

Or, maybe, you’re putting up a virtual screen, so other people can’t look into your room, because you just know they’re checking out your room, too….  Right? 

So, that’s a thing we’ve all been doing.  

Which takes us to a line in this morning’s Torah portion, which Sam Medvinsky so beautifullychanted:

Exodus 20:14

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his servant, whether male or female, nor his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

That’s the 10th commandment.  The last commandment.  And also, I think, the weirdest commandment, because it’s the only one that tells you what to feel or not to feel, and not what to do or not to do.  

At the same time, it may also be the most relatable commandment, the one most in touch with the human psyche.  I mean, most people I know don’t ordinarily contend with the temptation to steal or to murder, but they do have to contend with the 10th Commandment, the one that says, “You shall not covet.”

Confirmation Class of 5780, you can all relate to the 10th Commandment. 

Well, the starting part and the ending part of it, anyway.  You guys do have houses, but no servants, wives, or donkeys.  At least not yet.  So, let’s just abbreviate the Tenth Commandment as, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” dot dot dot, “Or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  That, I think, we can all wrap our heads around.

But what is this commandment really about? 

First, what the 10th commandment is NOT about:

It’s not about craving.  Everyone has cravings, just naturally.  “I want a pizza.”  Just wanting something is not a problem in and of itself. 

Nor is the commandment about wanting what “everybody else” has, or seems to have, something akin to “FOMO,” Fear Of Missing Out:  “Wow, everyone else in this restaurant already seems to have gotten their pizza; I really want my pizza.”  Also, totally fine.  Normal.  Natural.  Understandable. 

No, what the 10th commandment is trying to say, is that David Appel can’t just say, “I want, specifically, Audrey Gendel’s pizza.  Maybe I should take it.”

This is a very specific kind of craving – wanting what does not belong to you, what you have no right to. 

You can want any pizza on the menu, but Audrey also has a right to enjoy her pizza without looking over her shoulder the entire time she’s eating it, worrying about what David is up to. 

Acknowledging all of this, I want to add here my own conclusion that there’s no comprehensive way for us not to want what others may have.  It’s pretty natural, pretty widespread, pretty human nature-ish.  You can’t just stop your heart from wanting what it wants. 

We may never be able to suppress these urges, these desires, at least not entirely, at least not forever.  I think that they may have put this commandment last of Ten because they knew it was the most likely to be broken. 

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done, that we are all hopelessly burdened by our own human frailty.  It is true that desire, craving—even that which belongs to our neighbors—exists everywhere, and yes, it exists very much here in our community, or so I am led to believe.   

But there also exists a counteracting force that we can actively bring into our lives. It’s called Gratitude. Contrary to what you may think, Gratitude is not inborn; it is learned.  Gratitude is not a feeling; it’s a practice. 

Back, for a moment, to those Israelite tents, each one pitched at an angle, so that neighbors could not see into each others’ homes:

The passage in the Torah from which this observation derives is one with which you may or may not be familiar.  

In the Book of Numbers, an enemy king summons a sorcerer named Bil’am to curse the Israelites.  Bil’am shows up for the job, stations himself on a hilltop, along with his sinister employer, gets ready to curse the Israelites who are encamped down at the base of the hill, gazes down on their tents, and, unexpectedly, and much to his employer’s chagrin, his curse comes out as a blessing—one of the most famous blessings in Jewish tradition. מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל, says the seer.  “How good are these tents of Jacob, these dwelling places of Israel!”  

What made these Jewish tents “good,” says the Talmud, is that the sorcerer immediately recognized, from the angle of the tents, that nobody was looking into anyone else’s tent.  

When we don’t care all that much about looking into our neighbor’s tents, when we stop caring, that’s exactly when we are able to say, “Ma Tovu” about our our own tents.  

And, vice-versa:  If we remember to look around our own tents and acknowledge what makes them “good,” we stop caring about what’s in everyone else’s tent—even if just for a few moments.  The two concepts go hand-in-hand:  Gratitude for what I have; not coveting what my neighbor has.      

Confirmation Class of 5780:  none of us denies that this milestone moment comes laden with accumulated losses.  We had hoped to celebrate Confirmation in Westchester Reform Temple’s beautiful sanctuary, with the whole class singing in unison, accompanied by piano and guitar, wearing robes, carrying flowers, standing side-by-side, enjoying a sumptuous luncheon together afterwards.  We had hoped to remove a Torah scroll from our holy Ark and chant the ancient words from its timeworn parchment.  

You had hopes, too:  of in-person classes at temple and at school, of athletic play and competition, of chorus and band and drama club, of happy milestones with family and friends, of big Passover Seders and Memorial Day Cookouts and end-of-year parties.  I do understand how loss upon loss contributes to longing upon longing, longing for what might have been, longing for what we wish we had that we do not have.   

At the same time, our losses require a context in which to understand them.  After all, little more than a few months ago, we never could have fathomed numbers like: 5 million confirmed infections, over 300,000 dead—100,000 of them, Americans—41 million unemployed.  I am sure that all over our country and our world there are people looking at their neighbor’s houses, as it were, coveting a hot meal, a warm bed, a now-absent loved one to care for them, a job to get up for in the morning.  

And so, Gratitude.  Gratitude as a discipline, not a feeling.  Gratitude as a daily practice, not a spontaneous experience.  Gratitude as something you do by yourself, for yourself, not the reflexive saying of “Thank You” when someone does something nice for you.  

May I suggest, Confirmation Class of 5780, bringing into your daily routines, a quiet moment for a prayer of gratitude?  Let me qualify the word “prayer.”  You don’t need to know any Hebrew; you don’t even need words.  You don’t need to believe in God; you don’t really need to “believe in” anything.  You just need to take a moment to get in touch with one thing in your life that you can acknowledge with a heart full of thanks.  

And let me qualify that, too:  not just a thing.  I mean statements like this:  

“Today I helped my little brother with his homework. I have the gift of knowledge that I can share with others.”

“Today I was able to help without being asked.  I live in a home, in a community, where by abilities, opinions, feelings, and contributions are valued.”

“Today I was in my back yard, and I noticed that I am connected to a vast ecosystem of living things.  Amazing!”  

And so on.

We all may just find that such a daily practice will make us so much the more aware of all the good in these, the tents of our People, so that we might proclaim, together:


“How good are these tents of Jacob, these dwelling places of Israel!”

May God bless you, Confirmation Class of 5780:  you, together with all the people who share your tent.  

And May God keep all of our tents safe and well until we can meet again, and embrace.

Mazal Tov and Chag Sameach!

The L.O.G. (Lox, Onions, Greens) Matzo Brei

This morning I conducted my first “Instagram Live” broadcast.  It featured me, alone in my kitchen, demo-ing how to make a savory Matzo Brei on the Sunday of Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach.  (Hilariously, my computer just autocorrected “Chol,” which means the intermediary days of a Festival, as opposed to “Chag,” the Festival Days themselves, which bookend the week, to “Cholesterol.”)FgRbZwnCQu6smpgC0QbOXA

A few nice folks who joined me Live have asked for the recipe.  So, here you go.  I didn’t really measure anything, so bear with me.

The L.O.G. (Lox, Onions, Greens) Matzo Brei by Jonathan Blake – Serves Four (4)

Cooking Time (including prep): 30 minutes

[Cooking Time for basic Matzo Brei (including prep):  5 minutes]


4 Sheets of Matzo (any type will do; if you’re using gluten-free, please plan to use less water to moisten the matzo)

Butter (3-4 TBSP) (You can substitute a neutral vegetable oil, like grape seed or safflower oil; I advise against olive oil for Matzo Brei, especially if you’re making a sweet (not savory) variation.  If you want to go super old-school, use schmaltz (chicken fat).

4 Eggs, whisked

2 medium onions, diced or thin-sliced

2 cups of chopped leafy greens (I used Swiss/Rainbow Chard; you can also use kale, spinach, arugula, or a mix)

1/4 lb. smoked salmon, chopped (I had on hand some cracked-black-pepper Nova)

Chopped herbs (e.g., chives, parsley) for garnish/finishing

Salt & Pepper to taste – go easy, throughout, if you’re using salty smoked salmon, which will flavor the dish.


Melt 1 TBSP butter in a nonstick skillet until it’s foaming and just staring to brown (don’t let it burn).

Add your onions and sauté until translucent, with browned edges – nice and caramelized is good.

Maybe a little salt & pepper here.

Add your greens and another 1 TBSP butter and sauté until completely wilted and maybe even a touch crispy, if you like that.

Remove the veggies from the pan, and set aside in a bowl.

Crumble 4 sheets of matzo in a separate bowl, into bite-sized pieces.  Don’t pulverize.  Just break it up.

SPRINKLE (do NOT douse) your matzo pieces with warm tap water, JUST ENOUGH to moisten the matzo.  DO NOT over-soak.  If it’s gluten-free matzo, even less.  You don’t want the matzo to disintegrate.  Use your hands to toss the matzo pieces around so that they’re all equally dampened.  Pour off any excess water.

Add your 4 whisked raw eggs to the matzo and toss/stir gently to incorporate completely.

Add another 1-1.5 TBSP butter to the skillet and set the heat to LOW.

When the butter is melted, add your matzo+egg mixture, gently spread throughout the pan, and let set for a couple of minutes.  When the butter is foaming along the edges of the Matzo Brei, use a spatula to toss the mixture around a bit – but go easy.  It’s like scrambling eggs the French way.  Low heat, slow & easy does it.

Incorporate your veggies and toss through.  Let cook for another minute.

Toss in the chopped lox and distribute evenly.  Cook for one more minute.  Don’t overcook, which will dry everything out.  Matzo Brei should be a bit moist (but not runny).  Maybe another dash of salt & pepper here.

Serve in bowls, or on plates, and finish with your chopped herbs.  Enjoy.

Chag Sameach, Mo’adim L’Simcha – Happy Passover!


To Be a Kohen in Our Time – SHABBAT TZAV 5780 – APRIL 3, 2020

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Pesach—which is just around the corner—is a time of questions.  At this juncture in the viral outbreak that has engulfed the globe, and which rages with particular ferocity right here in New York, we have more questions than answers:  

How long until the number of new infections reaches its peak and begins to subside? Will my loved ones remain safe?  How can I know who is telling us the truth? How badly will the pandemic damage the economy?  Is my job secure?  What will happen to my employees and those who depend on me?  What about my retirement prospects?  How will this crisis affect my children and grandchildren?  How many people will die before we bring the virus under control?   

These questions have no answers, at least no easy ones—just models and predictions, best-case-scenarios and worst-case scenarios.  

Still, what we might learn about ourselves, about the world, about what really matters, in this unforeseen and unwelcome turn of events, will surely provide ample material for reflection for a much time to come, and so I ask your forbearance as I muddle through along with you, doing my level best to make sense of life in this new reality, doing my best to teach Torah in a time unlike any other.  

And, at least for this teacher of Torah, one conclusion is already clear:  that we will never look at the Book of Leviticus the same way again.  

I confess that I, like many students of Torah, am guilty of not having given Leviticus its proper due, until now.  I confess that I, like many students of Torah, have furrowed my brow at its litanies of blood sacrifices; its arcane rituals incumbent on a Biblical Israelite community so far removed from us in space and time; its obsession with cataloguing every living thing and every conceivable experience as pure or impure, kosher or treyf, holy or profane.  I confess that, like many students of Torah, I have chuckled at its bizarre rulings and rituals, from the Yom Kippur tradition of casting the sins of the community upon the head of a hapless goat and then driving the poor animal off to die in the wilderness; or the disparities that Leviticus proposes for gender and sexuality:  without getting into too many details, that the Book basically favors men, and prefers for them to be straight; all of this and more has been met with an uncomfortable mixture of bewilderment and disdain.

Until now.  

Until now, when everything outside looks different and so the Torah looks different, too.  The words have not changed but we have changed.  The world has changed.  

Until now, when the word “plague” could not be spoken without a self-consciously Biblical appreciation for hyperbole—knowing how that word evokes blood and frogs and lice and any of the other nasty things we will mention at next week’s Seder.  

Until now, when the ideas of contagion, and purity, and enforced isolation, seemed abstract to all but epidemiologists who have always known that a microscopic virus could, in the worst of circumstances, decimate a civilization.  

Until now, when the notion of sacrifice no longer calls to mind the blood-soaked rituals of an archaic cult but rather the important, even life-saving measures that we might take now—the assertion that by giving something up, lives might be saved. 

Yet all of these comprise the core vocabulary of the Book of Leviticus.  Purity and impurity, contagion and quarantine, sacrifice and priestly dedication:  these are the building blocks of this Book.  

The fact that the Book of Leviticus seeks to classify the chaos of human existence into neat categories, delineated by clear boundaries—again, pure and impure, kosher and treyf, permitted and forbidden, holy and profane—says a lot about Jews and Judaism.

It certainly portends this moment.  When confronting a person with an ailment, the Kohen, the Levitical priest, would do something that resonates eerily with our time.  In dealing with a novel condition, the holiest, most life-saving work a priest could do would be to quarantine the symptomatic person for a week or more, until a diagnosis could be confirmed—and then have the patient ritually bathed before re-entry to the community.  In the absence of a cure:  isolation, rest and fluids—that’s the prescription.

The priest had no particular skill or training in medicine.  He was no shaman, no miracle-worker.  And yet, in the Book of Leviticus, the priest presides over the public health.  The tools at his disposal are rudimentary:  visual diagnosis, quarantine, scrupulous personal hygiene.  What the Kohen could bring to this often thankless and undoubtedly risky work was a human touch, a compassionate presence, a sacred responsibility to the suffering.

The priest also oversaw the sacrifices of the Israelite community—categorizing and accepting their freewill and mandated offerings, their gifts great and small, from rich and poor alike—that is, overseeing the social welfare system and the basic guarantee that the spiritual life of the Israelite community and especially its core institution, the temple, would remain ever vital.  

If you don’t see where I’m going with this, let me spell it out plainly:  we are now the priests, we the Kohanim.  The Book of Exodus charges us:  “You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  We.  Not just some elite class of religious officials.  All of us.  

We must now embody a sense of priestly responsibility to the public health, and a priestly orientation toward sacrifice—quite likely more, at this moment, than ever before in our lives.  We must each give of ourselves, distancing our physical presence when we most crave to be with the people we cherish.  (Here’s one way of thinking that I’ve found helpful:  we have never been asked to do so little in order to do so much:  by just sitting at home, we literally save lives.)

Let’s sacrifice for the greater good.  Let’s give of our time to call the people in our congregation and offer our support.  Let’s give of our financial resources to support the people in our congregation who need our help; and, let me even say here, let’s keep in mind the needs of our temple as we consider where we can make sacrifices, great or small, in time and in resources and in love, in order to keep our spiritual home vital through and after this crisis has passed.  

Let each of us become a priestly vehicle for the kind of sacrifices that Americans have not been asked to make in more than two generations.

On the front lines of this crisis we find heroes who embody all the noblest qualities of the Levitical priest:  the courage to meet the afflicted with compassion, the generosity to sacrifice of one’s self to serve those in greatest need.  And they are doing so under extraordinarily stressful and strained conditions.  Our healthcare workers are true Kohanim—they who bless and heal through their presence as much as through their wisdom and expertise.  

In anticipation of tonight’s service, WRT reached out to those congregants who serve in the healthcare sector.  Tonight we gather together as one community to say thank you, to bless you, even as you bless others.  Thank you for your service and thank you for your sacrifice.

If you, or someone in your circle of family or friendship, is performing the essential work of attending to the sick and their concerned loved ones, and you feel so moved to stand in your home, we feel honored to share with you this prayer by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen:

Prayer for the Healers

Adapted from Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen

May the One who blessed our ancestors
Bless all those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick
Physicians and nurses and orderlies
Technicians and home health aides
EMTs and pharmacists
Hospital social workers and respiratory therapists
And all our other frontline healthcare workers who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,
To tend to those they have sworn to help.
Bless them in their coming home and bless them in their going out.
Ease their fear. Sustain them.
Source of all breath, healer of all beings,
Protect them and restore their hope.
Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;
Keep them in health, that they may bring healing.
Help them know again a time when they can breathe without fear.
Bless the sacred work of their hands.
May this plague pass from among us, speedily and in our days.

And let us say:  Amen.

A Plea from a Member of WRT’s Medical Community, on the Front Lines of the Covid-19 Pandemic

“Please, Rabbi, just tell people this is real and it is nothing short of a horrifying war that I and my colleagues are fighting it in every way we possibly can.

But the more fight we put into it, the more risk we each personally take because we don’t have what we need, and the more patients come.  We feel powerless and are practicing medicine we never thought we would have to.

The best we can often do is hold a patient’s hand for the minute they pass, as they lie there alone.  Maybe we can ask about a family member we can call before they die.  Acknowledge them by saying their name aloud, and keeping silent for 5 seconds before moving on to the next patient.

When the patient in the next bed dies you see the terror in the roommate’s eyes.  They know they’re next, and we do too.  Many of these patients have never been sick before, or even ever in a hospital before.

Please tell people to stay home and really socially distance when they must go out.  REALLY.  And get everyone else to do the same.  My children get it, but I think many don’t.  Please help congregants understand, and spread the word.  We don’t have the weapons we need to fight this war now (for ourselves AND our patients’ safety) and the apex is still coming.  I don’t want to practice medicine like this ever again.

I just keep thinking every day that I have died and this is some surreal place I am in.  Or a fleeting nightmare.  But it’s not, and I know that.

Best wishes for your health and safety, and for all at WRT.”



Shabbat Shalom and welcome once again to our WRT Shabbat Live-Stream!  It’s good to be with you, even virtually.  I hope you are safe and healthy and negotiating this challenge with as much hope and equanimity of spirit as you can muster.

Tonight we complete the Book of Exodus.  For the last several weeks, we have been wandering in the wilderness, seeking shelter from the unknown.  That, at least, is what our recent Torah portions have been telling us.

The major project undertaken by the Israelite community over these consecutive Torah portions is the building of a communal Mishkan or sacred dwelling place, sometimes also called an Ohel Mo’ed or Tent of Meeting — that portable sanctuary in the wilderness where God would dwell among the Israelites on their journeys

It is ironic that our portion speaks of a communal, public gathering space at a time when public gatherings are off-limits, when they carry grave risks, when each of us is doing our part, our communal responsibility not to gather, not to worship together, not to come to our beautiful sanctuary to pray and sing and take shelter, and find comfort in the presence of our community.

The Torah recognizes that we need such spaces; that to be deprived of them is to feel isolated, even removed from the very presence of God who dwells among the people when we come together for a holy purpose

But, still, we are doing what we must, and it is heartening that we can utilize some technological innovations to bring us together in virtual space even when we can’t convene in real space.

And, although the Torah emphasizes, in elaborate detail, all the physical elements of the Mishkan — its specific measurements, down to the very last cubit; its fabric curtains and wooden supports; its metal clasps and woven ornamentation; its copper vessels and the golden Ark of the Covenant at the heart of the structure… even, with all of this, if we read carefully, we can learn that the physical structure was not the essence of the Mishkan.

We can all certainly relate.  Here I stand, in our beautiful sanctuary…. But, as lovely and warm and inspiring as our building is—and it is—the building itself is not what makes WRT our spiritual home, our tent of meeting, our place for encountering the community and the Divine.  

If we pay attention to what the Torah tells us about the Tabernacle, we learn that it is, rather, three other noteworthy aspects of the Mishkan that truly define the project as sacred and its purpose, Divine.

First, the Torah makes clear that contributing to, and constructing, and furnishing, and finishing the tent is a project shared among the entire community.  Moses may direct the work, but every person is invited to donate precious resources toward the Mishkan — and “whosoever’s heart was moved,” the Torah says, gave, and supported, and sustained this project.  I know from my years serving WRT that what makes our Mishkan special is so much more than our beautiful campus—it’s the way in which so many of your hearts and souls have given generously in supporting our mission.  We need you, and we need each other, now more than ever.  I want to say thank you to everyone who has asked how to reach out and sustain the community.  I want to say thank you to everyone who has placed a loving phone call, text, or email, checking in on a friend, a relative, a fellow congregant.  It is this shared communal commitment that makes our tent holy.  Starting earlier this week, and continuing for as long as our campus will remain closed for public gatherings, we will continue to share with our congregational community ideas for supporting the members of our extended community, whether that’s through a contribution to Feeding Westchester, our local Food Bank, or the temple’s own Hungry and Homeless Fund, which will provide for people in our community hit hard by the pandemic, or through virtual outreach.  Each of us can give of ourselves in bringing a little bit of hope at this anxious time, a little bit of light in the darkness.

Secondly, I would invite us to note the verse in which God commands Moses to build the Tabernacle.  In this instruction, God describes the blueprint for the Tabernacle as a pattern, the Hebrew word tavnit.  A Midrash imagines that when God showed Moses the pattern for the Tabernacle, an image of the structure appeared before the prophet as a constellation of multicolored fire, almost like a hologram.  Moses balked and said, “Where on earth am I going to get multicolored fire to build this thing?”  To which God responded, “No, Moses!  I have my materials; you’ll use yours.”  

In this lesson, I think, the Rabbis are suggesting that we, human beings, have to do our best, with our earthly materials, to emulate the pattern that God has in mind for the world.  So, we can’t gather in our usual Tabernacle, in all its physical beauty, its wood and glass and fabric; instead, we have to follow the pattern by creating new ways of praying together — like this one.  In virtual space, we create a pattern of the Tabernacle.  We may not be able to replicate the look of WRT in our living rooms.  But we can replicate, to the best of our ability, the feel of WRT, in our shared yearnings, in the pattern of our prayer, in our common hopes and dreams, in our shared will to overcome whatever challenge has been placed before us.

And finally, we should note well that when God invites the Israelites to build a Mishkan, a Tent of Meeting, it does not actually promise that, upon its completion, God will reside there.  We do not, we cannot, build earthly structures that can contain God.  What the Torah does promise is that if we build a Tabernacle after a Godly pattern, then God will dwell among them—among the people.  

So where is God?  Here in this sanctuary with me?  Maybe, but certainly not exclusively.  In fact, I need to tell you, it’s lonely in here, and I miss you.  What I do feel is that God is among us tonight, among the people – with you, with all of us.  God is among the infected in hospital beds, and among the quietly heroic doctors and nurses who are caring for them.  God is among all those public health workers, scientists, and servants of the common good who are promoting a rigorous protocol to mitigate the spread of the disease; who are researching a vaccine and treatments to alleviate the damage; who are communicating honestly and without sensationalism about our responsibility to save and protect life as one human family, all in the same boat together. 

V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, says God:  “Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” – among the people, among us.  

Dwell, O God, among us now, as we each seek shelter in our own Tabernacles of home and health and hope.  Dwell with us, with our community, with all who need you most, in our time of shared need.  

Let us say the words that are shared whenever a Book of Torah is completed.  Now, as we finish the Book of Exodus, we say — Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazeik:  Be strong, be strong, and, together, we will give strength to one another. 



Jewish Humor Video Playlist, 1990-2020

Hi everyone,

Here’s the playlist for the 3rd and final session of my winter Jewish Humor class.  I figured it was worth putting online, especially with many of us looking for a smile or two in these difficult hours.

Please stay safe and well – and keep in touch.




Jerry Seinfeld (1989 – 1998)

Anti-Dentite:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3S4Rp8t1jA

George Hates the Jews:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-6UwDP23s4

Jewish Food:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6b7li06J4MQ

Yada Yada Yada: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CKyWu87W78

Babka:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i78azsi7M94

Soup Nazi:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jSTiKHOFEI

Garry Shandling/The Larry Sanders Show (1992 – 1998)

“Hey Now” – with Jeffrey Tambor – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AdHpQW-pEs

Larry David/Curb Your Enthusiasm – 

Palestinian Chicken Place – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Co_BhTxgWys

Survivor – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pd4b059yNNo

Montage – Curb’s Guide to Being Jewish – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huWsKN1Vtmo

With Richard Lewis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sikDNoqhE0

Larry David Accepts the Laurel Award: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nz0JzbwXz9Q

As Bernie Sanders: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwZfEVc6Hj8

See full clip starting at 5:50 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfmwGAd1L-o

Adam Sandler

Chanukah Song:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX5Z-HpHH9g&feature=youtu.be

The Zohan:  Hummus – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB4o32RRLvQ

On Howard Stern chanting Torah blessings (this is amazing) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcPRP-8mHi0

(Stern has called himself “King of All Media” since 1992; his biographical film “Private Parts” is from 1997.)

The Simpsons

FYI, … “[H]alf the show’s writers are Jewish as are three of the main voice actors — Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson), Hank Azaria (Moe Szyslak, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Duffman) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner).  “The place is sort of like a kibbutz, only more Jewish,” he said, throwing out one-liners that would have made Henny Youngman proud.  Reiss showed clips of a few Jewish moments in the show, including the backstory of Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, better known as Krusty the Clown, the son of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. The rabbi was voiced by Jackie Mason; Reiss described him as one of his favorites among the 800 or so guest stars the show has featured.  There also are several recurring characters in the show who are portrayed as Jewish, including Duffman, Superintendent Chalmers, Dolph Starbeam and a nursing home resident simply known as Old Jewish Man” (from https://www.jewishexponent.com/2019/03/20/simpsons-writer-reveals-shows-jewish-bona-fides/)

Krusty the self-hating Jew – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0bdyVnq0eY


The Coen Brothers

A Serious Man – The Junior Rabbi – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkq-Fd9TU8k

A Serious Man – The Goy’s Teeth – https://vimeo.com/104193227

A Serious Man – Opening Scene (Yiddish) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFpn3Cv2CE4

The Rabbi is Busy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQQsBjOrNMY

(Start film at 9:00)

Andy Samberg – 

With Ben Stiller as Jewish Willy Wonka: https://www.aish.com/j/jt/Jtube-Saturday-Night-Live-Jewish-Willy-Wonka.html

As Moishe Samberg With Cornelius Timberlake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9N9kMD7qCk

Sarah Silverman

Being Jewish vs. Being Black – http://www.cc.com/video-clips/m1y05b/the-sarah-silverman-program-being-jewish

On Piers Morgan, The World Hates Jews – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvxOUvMn9QM

On the Holocaust: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8z5wBwY5Zw

Hitler Goes to Heaven – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7pOjYtx0Yg

Amy Schumer

On Being Jewish: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/ms6jap/comedy-central-presents-amy-jewmer

On Radio Show: https://www.jta.org/jewniverse/2016/how-amy-schumers-bat-mitzvah-disaster-inspired-her-comedy-career

Tiffany Haddish – on Fallon


Detour:  The Canadians

Rick Moranis

Eugene Levy (and now his son Dan Levy, Schitt’s Creek)

Lorne Michael

Seth Rogen on Thanksgiving – https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=10154715986053851

“The Night Before” Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOBdxkhJvHQ

Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Seth Rogen Rap Battle: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6io40q

Harold Ramis (SCTV, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day)


Jon Stewart

On Israel:  http://www.cc.com/video-clips/ckzvqn/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-hebrew-nationalist

JAP Battlehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TQmo5TvZQY

Jack Black

Jack Black talks about being Jewish – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFvIqXHarjo

Sacha Baron Cohen

On comedy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvBzoN3tSYU

Throw the Jew Down the Well – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKphIxuPiEE

The Running of the Jew – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0ZJY5I-c2c

Borat – Self Defense: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_GOmXt-DKg

Ali G. On Religion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBJwg2-wX0w

Bruno Makes Peace in the Middle East – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYZ0OhwpGWU

Behind the Scenes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZheYqoKtt60

On Jimmy Kimmel, Borat does Election Tampering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5xLNypFrV4

Erran Morad – Who is America? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biQtnmiA7T4

Rain Pryor – 

Fried Chicken & Latkes – https://www.biography.com/video/rain-pryor-fried-chicken-and-latkes-15040067649

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6XJeFEZT3U&list=PLX3hf66ICYrU1nIHTXDEHDSI27L4u8BN9&index=67

Yidlife Crisis feat. Rabbi Lisa Grushcowhttps://www.yidlifecrisis.com/whatsnu


This is my play list for the second night of “What Makes Jewish Humor Funny?  What Makes it Jewish?” – an overview of American Jewish Comedy (TV/FILM) from The Marx Brothers to “When Harry Met Sally.”


  1. Horse Feathers – “Swordfish” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySqec8WrEQQ&feature=youtu.be
  2. Duck Soup – “Mirror Scene” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKTT-sy0aLg&feature=youtu.be
  3. Duck Soup – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSabiG8q8-k
  4. Duck Soup – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSsUoxlSADk
  5. Duck Soup – “These are my Spies” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNSNLXNnx-o
  6. 3) “Night in Casablanca” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lHaAjGgFiQ

THE THREE STOOGES: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pppdIfrB4ag

The act originally featured Moe Howard (born Harry [Moshe] Moses Horwitz), brother Shemp Howard (born [Shmuel] Samuel Horwitz, and longtime friend Larry Fine (born Louis [Levi] Feinberg). Shemp was later replaced by brother Curly Howard (born Jerome Lester [Yehudah-Leib] Horwitz) in 1933. When Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined. 

JERRY LEWIS (Joseph Levitch): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cquo5UhCf8k

SID CAESAR (Isaac Sidney Caesar (family name Ziser) / YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS:  

Clock:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0SG4YhiuYU&feature=youtu.be (written by Danny and Neil Simon!)

“Gallipacci” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OW7GoIl0T8&feature=youtu.be (Start at 7:34)

Argument to Beethoven’s 5th: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QSvGnDd4m4

VICTOR BORGE:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMVatrCsz0Y

DANNY KAYE (David Daniel Kaminsky): “Accents” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4FjoCh2-QE

PETER SELLERS – Inspector Clouseau – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HMSnfeNf8c

Dr. Strangelove – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZct-itCwPE

MYRON COHEN https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiOk3vmuhOE

HENNY  YOUNGMAN (Henry Yungman)On Ed Sullivan:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm9ZDn2lzKo

JACK BENNY (Benjamin Kubelsky) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-5QJ4ATl_U

MILTON BERLE (Mendel Berlinger) –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–c4bGfOtrI

GEORGE BURNS (Nathan Birnbaum) – Roasting Jimmy Stewart – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vp7G1Q5fbOA

BUDDY HACKETT (Leonard Hacker)A Guy Goes to the Doctor – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFv-Py_S1YU

JOAN RIVERS (Joan Alexandra Molinsky): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpPCFoXXhF0


DON RICKLES: Roasting Reagan – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZblPwNLH6hg

Roasting Jack Klugman – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySrIPGr6oSU

ALAN KING (Alan Kniberg) Classic bit on Letterman – Start at 1:08 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83yyMAdbrpE

RODNEY DANGERFIELD (Jacob Rodney Cohen) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2gw-asbBIM


I Hate You:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeTvtcbjvG0

Interfaith Dating:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H–kLKTGzaQ

Insurance Policy on my Life:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0oRFtgrEII

Elaine May (Elaine Berlin) & Mike Nichols – “Mother & Son” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKL1tNv__kU

JACKIE MASON (Yacov Moshe Maza)“Psychiatrist” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3ZDslOxPhI

JACK KLUGMAN & TONY RANDALL (Aryeh Leonard Rosenberg): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMy8e5ioYCo&feature=youtu.be


“Catholic” – Hannah & Her Sisters – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4use18Z9Lc

“Nazis” – Manhattan – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCb2Le3wtIk

“A Bigot but for the Left” – Annie Hall   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soczkiJea0Y

“Easter Dinner” – Annie Hall –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYY9Epog0rs

Opening Scene – Annie Hall – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsHwIBR6ivA

BILLY CRYSTAL – “When Harry Met Sally” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJz1f8hPRGc

GILDA RADNER – SNL, “Jewess Jeans” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZ1Z5TIx4wI

SNL, “Rosanne Rosannadanna” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k59d-xMvooA

LENNY BRUCE (Leonard Alfred Schneider) – “Jewish and Goyish”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uD6Oi2kySSU&feature=youtu.be

ANDY KAUFMAN: “The Fonz Look-Alike” w/ Dick Van Dyke – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddP9PbBLroQ (start at 2:36)


“The 2000 Year Old Man” w/ Carl Reiner – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI7wDpBRqjo

“Put the Candle Back,” Young Frankenstein – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ktmN0wvHQs

Marty Feldman & Gene Wilder – “Frankenstein and Igor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Pr36CANB04&list=RDQuHw5ivCs1A&index=4

Blazing Saddles – “Yiddish Indian” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wvc1I6jsPUo

High Anxiety – Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUhYqsibWhM

“The Schwartz,” Spaceballs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnXKE0nfAjI

“Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPXHRX8Q2hs

Hearing the Call, Seeing the Flame

Shemot 5780:  Installation of Rabbi Alexis Berk, Temple Solel, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California

What does it mean to be called to spiritual leadership?

You might suppose that we rabbis and cantors would have this question all figured out.  

You’d be wrong.  

Twenty years ago this June, when Alexis and I presented ourselves for rabbinical ordination in Cincinnati, Ohio—she, just two minutes before me, “Berk” before “Blake”… and “Buchdahl” would have been next, had she come to the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, like she was supposed to, instead of running off to New York to become a cantor AND a rabbi, the show-off—twenty years ago, Alexis and Angela and I probably thought we had it all figured out, too, what it means to be called to spiritual leadership.  

After all:

We love Judaism; we love learning and teaching Torah, leading and participating in prayer, Jewish music and culture, holidays and rituals.  We love Shabbat.  We love public speaking even when you do not love that we love public speaking.  We love the Jewish people—quirks and all.  We love the non-Jewish people who find their way into our synagogues and homes.  We love a good Talmudic debate.  We love questions more than we crave answers.  Alexis especially – Rabbi Berk loves questions.  You should ask her about that, sometime.

But, you know, time goes by, and all the reasons that impel a person to choose this path, to choose, willingly, to lead a congregation, to put up with the long hours and more than a few kvetches (one of those aforementioned quirks of the Jewish people), begin to grow hazy.  You get consumed in the day-to-day.  You realize that it’s not all holy moments, the weddings and B’nei Mitzvah, the solemn rites of passage, the sacred encounters at hospital bedsides, or by the grave, to give comfort in moments of need.  It’s also board meetings and budgets, the mom who can’t abide her kid’s Bar Mitzvah date; it’s Rosh Ha-Shanah falling on your birthday and Shavuot on your anniversary and a Bat Mitzvah on your kid’s dance recital, and, well….  

Well, the flame that used to burn bright and clear as a noonday sun, begins to flicker, maybe even fade.  And that’s when you really need to pay attention and figure out what it means to be called to spiritual leadership—again and again—so that, twenty years into your rabbinate or cantorate, thirty years, forty, maybe even more, you can still hear the call.

And so it is that Rabbi Alexis Berk has been called to Temple Solel, called to serve as your spiritual leader.  Yes, there was a process—a thorough process.  To your rabbinic search committee, let me say:  Excellent, excellent choice.  

And yes, there’s the allure of the location; arriving here in the middle of January makes me question the sanity of living in New York altogether.  And yes, there’s the fact that Temple Solel is a special congregation; I know you’ve already figured this out, but Rabbi Berk is the kind of spiritual leader who could have gone anywhere—including Anywhere, San Diego—but she’s here because you are here.  And yes, there’s a contract, with a salary, and benefits—but, let’s face it, you don’t become a rabbi or cantor for the money (not even Angela, who’s both a rabbi and a cantor.  Well, maybe Angela).  No, there still has to be a calling—you still have to see the flame.

And that does take us to this week’s Torah portion—of course.

It’s Parashat Shemot—the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus—that we read this week, the story of Moses’s own calling to spiritual leadership.  And who better to answer our question, who better to consult on the meaning of the call than the one we call Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, Our Rabbi?  

 וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה׃

 וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃

 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה׃

 וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

 וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

Moses was out shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian.  He drove the sheep out into the wilderness, until he came up on the Mountain of God, at Horeb [also called Sinai].  A messenger of Adonai appeared unto him in flames of fire from within the bush; he looked, and, what do you know? The bush was burning with fire but the bush was not consumed.  Moses said to himself, “I should turn aside to see this wondrous sight—why is the bush not burning up?  When Adonai observed that he had turned aside to look, God called out unto him from within the bush, saying, “Moses, Moses!”  And Moses answered Hineni, here I am.  And God said, “Come no closer; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

Pretty much everything you need to know about what it means to be called to spiritual leadership appears within this passage.  Let me highlight three, each of which is embodied by the person we now call Rabbeinu, our Rabbi, Alexis Berk, who has been called to lead this holy congregation. 

First—the passage is overpopulated with one Hebrew verb, the word Ro’eh.  When spelled with an Aleph in the middle of the word, Ro’eh means to see.  First, Moses sees the messenger of God speaking out of the middle of the bush.  Then, Moses sees that the bush is burning but not consumed.  Then Moses determines to turn aside and see more closely the phenomenon he describes as a “wondrous sight,” using the same root word.  Then God sees that Moses has turned aside to see.  All in all, that’s six iterations of the word “to see” in the space of four verses, not to mention the pun at the top of the passage, when Moses is out shepherding, in Hebrew, the homonym Ro’eh, but spelled with an Ayin instead of an Aleph.  

Shepherding a flock does require a good deal of seeing, after all.  One must look carefully after all one’s members—and be willing to journey out into the wilderness after the ones that go astray.  The rabbi has to look deeply and gently at each person in order to understand his and her uniqueness, his and her innermost humanity.  

The Rabbi is, indeed, expected to be a seer, of sorts.  Not a prophet, to be sure, but a person possessed of vision and clarity of insight.  We invite such leaders into our congregations not to preserve the status quo but to move us forward.  We trust such leaders to see, or, better, to envision, our destinations even when we cannot see what lies on the horizon.  

And the Rabbi is expected to be a good overseer too, one who can guide and inspire not only her congregation but also her clergy colleagues and staff, to help bring that vision to reality.  

In all these ways and more, you have called upon a great seer to lead Temple Solel.  Rabbi Berk possesses vision—both clear-sightedness and farsightedness, an ability to discern and articulate destiny and purpose.  She knows how to move her community forward, as her last decade of exemplary leadership of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans will attest.  She is observant.  I don’t mean Jewishly observant, although in all the ways that count, she’s that too, in her deeply, authentically, beautifully Reform Jewishly observant way.  I mean, even more, that she observes keenly.  She sees the needs and feelings of others.  She is observant of her surroundings, observant of herself—that is to say, profoundly self-aware.  

The Rabbis observe in the Midrash—those volumes of commentary and story-making on the Torah—that it was Moses’s own observance—his own capacity to stop and look and take note, and really see what was going on with that bush—that prompted God to call him to leadership in the first place.  How long does it take to stare at a burning bush before one notices that it’s not burning up? the Rabbis asked.  How many of us would run in the other direction, go back to chasing that wayward sheep, call the fire department—anything but stay right there, in that place, in that moment, until the ordinary sight revealed itself to be extraordinary?  Let us then celebrate the vision and insight and deep seeing that you have brought to the leadership of your congregation.  

And, while we’re at it, let us resolve to be patient and observant, too, as we invite Alexis to take the time she needs to get to know Solel—to see us, really, truly, and deeply, even as we take the time to see her in all her dimensionality before we think we have her all figured out.  Because, and I speak from experience, she’s a person of many, many layers.  

Which takes us to the second feature of the call to spiritual leadership that we might observe in a close reading of our passage.

“Take off your sandals,” God instructs, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  After seeing, the next step is to take off one’s shoes.  And that is, well, let’s just name it, a bit weird.  And, possibly, depending on where those shoes have been, even a bit stinky.  

Is God inviting Moses to a yoga class, or a Japanese restaurant, or a walk on the beach?  Alexis likes all of those things, and the abundance of all three in San Diego is surely appealing to her, but there has to be more to this whole “take off your sandals” thing.  

Watch closely how Rabbi Berk conducts herself and you will begin to understand its meaning.  For the call to spiritual leadership requires that the rabbi does not elevate herself above her people.  The shoes have to come off in order to see eye-to-eye.  Yes, yes, before you pipe up—I know that Rabbi Berk does not actually need to make herself shorter in order to see you.  It’s a metaphor—a sign of humility.  Alexis knows before whom she stands.  She will never elevate herself above you.  She will never pretend to know more than you when she doesn’t.  And when she does know more than you, as when she’s teaching (and she is such a gifted teacher), she will never make you feel stupid or inadequate.   She will always make it clear how much your questions, your presence as a learner, your own insights into the text or the tradition matter, how much they add to her own understanding.  

And, as much as she knows that she has come to serve you, and not the other way around, her shoes are also always off when it comes to her service of God, above all, above all else.  Rabbi Berk gets that, wherever we walk, it is always holy ground—that there is no experience, no place, no encounter, devoid of the possibility of holiness, of spiritual elevation.  

Which takes us to the third and final element about the call to spiritual leadership—the part that comes after this passage, when Moses goes back down the mountain.  

Perhaps you have heard about one Mrs. Lenore Berkowitz, who at the age of 80 resolved to go see the guru.  Her friends all thought she was crazy!  Go all the way across the world, to Tibet, to see the guru, who sat all day on a high mountain in the lotus position, eyes serenely closed in contemplative silence?  What could the guru offer that she couldn’t find in shul?  Nevertheless she booked her flight and packed her bag and left.  As the sherpa guided her frail steps up the mountain, they warned her that every pilgrim would have only three words to speak to the guru before he would dispense his wisdom.  Up the steep trail she trekked until finally she stood before the guru.  “Remember, just three words,” said the sherpa.  Mrs. Berkowitz nodded.  Leaning close to the guru she said:  

“Sheldon, come home!”   

We should all be suspicious any so-called guru who never comes down off the mountain.  The call to spiritual leadership always sends us back to the people.  The people who are at the foot of the mountain.  You have called this rabbi and her beautiful family, Bob, Ari, and Seth—back home—to the place she has always belonged.  

And not just because Alexis has been in a lifelong love affair with Southern California.  

More than any rabbi I have ever met, Alexis believes that her calling has brought her into a binding covenant with the people.  We met in our first year of rabbinical school, twenty-five years ago, when she sat next to me in Ulpan, which is Hebrew school for grownups.  In know what you’re thinking—Berk before Blake—but this was before she was Berk, back when she was Alexis Gerber, like the baby food, only less mushy.  Over twenty five years, your Rabbi has demonstrated time and again to me and Kelly her wisdom, compassion, good nature, humor, and the kind of friendship that endures through thick and thin.   

She moved me to change my own position on officiation at interfaith weddings, explaining, simply and profoundly, that a rabbi belongs with his or her people in all the moments of their lives, in all their choices, and can help any couple, any family, affirm its covenant with the Jewish tradition, especially when others might abandon them.  

When it comes to pursuing a more just and equitable society, Rabbi Berk will walk among her people.  When teaching, she will learn alongside you.  When leading prayer, she prays with you.  When preaching, she speaks not from the lofty perch but from the lived experience of our shared human journey—from the awareness that we are all stumbling through this wilderness together, this wilderness called life.  If she says something from the bimah that stirs your curiosity, or discomfort, or tears, or rage, or a laugh—and she will—please, do yourself a favor, and make an appointment to see her.  I promise you, it’ll be one of the best conversations you’ll ever have.  

And there will be tea.

The word for flame in the Jewish tradition is lahav.  The word also turns up inside the Hebrew word Hitlahavut, meaning “enthusiasm” (or enzusiazm as our Ulpan teacher Chanah Shafir would have said).  

We wish you and your new rabbi hitlahavut in your shared calling.  May the flame of inspiration, compassion, justice, joy, and learning burn brightly within her and within the collective heart of this congregation.  To echo a favorite prayer from our Siddur:

“Help us to see wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.  And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”   

Shabbat Shalom!


End-of-Year Favorite Music List (2019)

It’s here! Favorite Music of 2019, ranked 50-1 by album. What a spectacular year for music this was. I know it’s not technically the end of the decade (that’ll happen December 31, 2020), but this year feels like we’re going out on a high note indeed.
50. Thom Yorke, Anima
49. Josh Ritter, Fever Breaks
48. The Highwomen (self-titled)
47. Dori Freeman, Every Single Star
46. Charlie Marie (self-titled)
45. Bedouine, Bird Songs of a Killjoy
44. Karen O & Danger Mouse, Lux Prima
43. A Winged Victory For the Sullen, The Undivided Five
42. Lankum, The Livelong Day
41. Caroline Polachek, Pang
40. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County
39. Pernice Brothers, Spread the Feeling
38. Dykeritz, Madrigals
37. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
36. Clairo, Immunity
35. Allison Moorer, Blood
34. Federale, No Justice
33. Fink, Bloom
32. The New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
31. Calexico + Iron & Wine, Years to Burn
30. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
29. Aldous Harding, Designer
28. Joe Henry, The Gospel of Water
27. Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
26. Jessica Pratt, Quiet Signs
25. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
24. Elbow, Giants of All Sizes
23. John Paul White, The Hurting Kind
22. Mike and the Moonpies, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold
21. Kalie Shorr, Open Book
20. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Later
19. (Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar
18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen
17. Caroline Spence, Mint Condition
16. Wilco, Ode to Joy
15. Purple Mountains (self-titled)
14. Emily Scott Robinson, Traveling Mercies
13. Jay Som, Anak Ko
12. Brittany Howard, Jaime
11. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
Top Ten
10. Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
I haven’t enjoyed a power-pop album this much since Fountain of Wayne’s perfect opus, Welcome Interstate Managers back in 2005. It’s in that echelon: a band hitting its stride, armed with supreme confidence and a vault of sticky hooks. (For similar fare, check out No. 39 on this year’s list.)
9. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
I have not taken much pleasure in a Springsteen album since the 80’s – until now. Western Stars offers a tightly connected suite of sweeping, cinematic arrangements mated to some of his sharpest and most poignant storytelling, where we meet a cast of drifters, dreamers, and ordinary Joes moving forward against the bruises and setbacks life has handed them. A fantastic late-career offering that suggests that the creative well runs deep and strong as ever. It’s also one of two album covers in this year’s top to feature a nice photo of a horse. (The other is Love and Revelation, No. 7 below.)
8. Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
It’s like Astral Weeks, only not so astral — just “weeks.”  Ordinary Weeks.  Brilliantly constructed across four sides (as in vinyl; it all fits on a single CD), Callahan offers musings and oblique meditations on writer’s block (this is his first album in six years, during which time he got married and had a child, which apparently conspired against his creativity); how it “feels good to be writing again”; the often overlooked, mundane grace of domestic life; the meaning of true love; and, on the last “side,” the inevitable shadow of mortality and finality. Not a word is wasted, not a guitar flourish or percussive chatter out of place. There are so many quotable lines, it’s hard to pick just one. Consider: “Angela, whoa Angela, like motel curtains, we never really met.” Shepherd is another Callahan high-water mark in a career full of them. It is, easily, his happiest album — he sounds serene, not somber; pensive, not resigned—everything, even a final, birdseye view of a graveyard, is shot through with hope. And couldn’t we all use a little of that now?
7. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation
Over the Rhine is the band that anyone who knows me knows I’ve been evangelizing about for the last 23 years – ever since I first heard them play in a tiny coffeeshop/hangout in Downtown Cincinnati, Kaldi’s. (Alas, Kaldi’s is no more.) Since then, the husband and wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have gotten only better and wiser, in their song-craft, their lyrics, and especially their music-making together. Kelly and I spent Memorial Day weekend this year on their property, Nowhere Farm, about an hour outside Cincinnati, for the Nowhere Else mini-festival that they’ve been curating under a big tent on their lawn for the past 3 or 4 years. Love and Revelation, their latest set, is a lean and lovely collection of 11 songs, the best writing they’ve done this decade, and possibly since their masterpiece double album “Ohio” (2003) (off of which they played a few tracks in concert this spring. Here’s a link to tickets to the Festival in 2020, if you want to join Kelly and me on the farm – we’d love to see you!
6. Big Thief, U.F.O.F. & Two Hands
I know, it’s really not fair to put both of these albums down on a single line, but I needed to include both. Although U.F.O.F. dropped in May and Two Hands in October, it seems as if the two function together as a proper double album, the first more hushed, intimate, and delicately constructed; the latter more rough, more aggressive, less meticulous—but, equally devastating in their lyrical focus and musical intensity. Compare the searing “Not” from Two Hands to the pastoral “Cattails” from U.F.O.F. and despite the obvious differences in instrumentation, tone, and content (the first is about how, in the words of a Genius (the website) reviewer, “to negate a thing is also to posit that very thing, making vivid, alluring, even present, the elements or events that are to be cancelled or set aside” (S/he’s a smart reviewer.); the second is a tender promise to a loved one who is dying), what you get from the two side-by-side is their commonality, how they share Big Thief’s overarching commitment to remind us at all times that (and here I’m quoting PItchfork’s wonderful review of Two Hands) “intimacy isn’t just about the comfort we bring to each other but also the proximity to our sickness and pain, blood and guts.” In most other years, this could easily have been a Number One on my list; it’s just that 2019 was too darn good.
5. Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka
I’ve heard this album described variously as R&B, Soul, and something I’ve never heard of before, called Psych-Soul, which seems to fit best. It certainly shares DNA with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, minus the raw political edge and explicitly accusatory tone. You’ll still pick up a searching quality to Kiwanuka’s writing, which touches on brutality inflicted communities of color (“Hero”), the anxiety of unmoored isolation (“Solid Ground”), and the quest for love, truth, and faith in a world that would deny them all. And there’s that yearning, burnished, smoky voice.
4. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!
….In which all of Lana Del Rey’s thematic fetishes coalesce around a pungent vision of America (Los Angeles stands for America in the Del Rey lexicon) and the corrupted American Dream: the potent allure of beaches and summertime, high-gloss cars and celebs, man-children and fake dolls, drugs and alcohol, romance and capitalism, with a sickly sweet smell of decay just beneath its surface. It’s all wrapped in a strong set of piano ballads and vintage Laurel Canyon arrangements. It has every bit the feel of one of those classic Seventies AM radio records. Producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff nails the texture. It even has something no one every thought we’d need: a Sublime cover song. All this, and one of the greatest opening lines of a pop album — ever. Which makes me wonder: what are the best opening album lines of all time? I’d put a vote in for: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying…”). Or Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”) Or Simon & Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence (“Hello darkness, my old friend…”). Or Steely Dan, Aja (“In the corner of my eye / I saw you in Rudy’s / You were very high…”). Or literally any album opener by Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello. We’ll play this game some time.
3. FKA Twigs, Magdalene
Prepare to be gobsmacked by Twigs’ second proper full-length. As the title suggests, the British singer/dancer’s album explores the intersection of the sacred and the profane, the madonna- and whore- archetypes. Somewhere I read a listener’s appraisal of Magdalene as the 2010’s answer to Bjork’s landmark Homogenic (1997), and the comparison works. You’ll also hear shades of Kate Bush, James Blake, ARCA, Nicolas Jaar…. The videos are absolutely mind-blowing.  (Check out the video for “Cellophane” to understand how twigs deploys madonna/whore images.)
2. Better Oblivion Community Center (self-titled)
Here’s an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Indie-folk godfather Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos), who has about a zillion albums to his credit, and relative newcomer Phoebe Bridgers, who has one, teamed up to write this album together – and it’s a little gem. Every song is a self-contained a diary, coalescing as a deeply affecting whole around a shared gaze on mortality, a mordant sense of humor, and a commitment to tunefulness rarely heard among indie artists these days. I hope they keep this project going—I like it better than just about anything Oberst has done as a solo artist. It’s clear that Bridgers has become a muse most suitable to his prodigious gifts, and a hell of a songwriter in her own right. Save for one album (see No. 1, below), no set of songs got more in my head in 2019 than this.
1. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
Stone. Cold. Classic. Since its release in early April, Natalie Merling’s new album (she records as Weyes (rhymes with “Wise”) Blood) didn’t leave regular rotation. Think of Enya crossed with the Carpenters, but with the songwriting scope of a Jackson Browne. In fact, Titanic Rising reminds me of no other album such as Browne’s gorgeous, plaintive Late for the Sky (1974), for the dramatic expansiveness of the writing, the lush orchestration, the interconnected motifs among the songs (water, water everywhere), and the emotional sweep of the album as a whole. In all, a modern masterpiece.