Dislocation. Alienation. Subjugation. Humiliation. These are not our way…they are Pharaoh’s.

Judea Reform Congregation D’var Torah, Parashat Va’era, 5777/January 27, 2017 (the day an executive order slammed the door on refugees). 

I had a tremendous privilege this morning, to represent our Jewish tradition at a rally in downtown Durham focused on our country’s policies with respect to immigrants and refugees. Following nearly a dozen people who have sought and found refuge in America through various avenues, and who now live in fear about their own status or that of family members, I spoke about the ways in which both Torah’s teaching and my own people’s history compel me to stand up for the immigrant and the refugee. Though time constraints didn’t allow me to  teach from the parasha this morning, there is a lesson embedded within it that speaks directly to this moment.

It is based on Exodus 6:6-8, in which God tells Moses to

“[s]ay, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Eternal One. I will bring you out from the labors of the Egyptians and free you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal One, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal One.'”

These verses are sometimes referred to as the “blueprint for deliverance.” God promises Moses that the Israelites would make their way from Egyptian servitude and degradation to freedom and exaltation, and that they would ultimately come home again. Four verbs appearing in quick succession in the first verse lay out the program, and have gained an additional significance in Jewish practice as the source of our four cups at the Pesach Seder. vehotzeiti. vehitzalti. vega’alti. velakachti. “I will bring you out.” “I will free you.” “I will redeem you.” “I will take you.”

A brilliant commentary of the Kli Yakar paints an incredibly rich picture of this program, and of what it might have felt like to live it as an Israelite in those days. He develops the lesson by hearkening back to God’s words to Abraham (Gen 15:13), “Know well your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years,” and recognizing similarities between that verse and the one in Exodus. Listen to the words spoken to Abraham again: “Strangers.” “Not theirs.” “Enslaved.” “Oppressed.”

As he sees it, first comes dislocation, and the accompanying alienation. Abraham’s descendants are geographically removed from their home in Eretz Yisrael, and a byproduct of that move is a feeling of distance from God’s presence, a richuk hashekhinah. Dislocated and alienated, they are ripe for subjugation, no longer existing economically free. Finally, having lost their actual home, their sense of home, and their capacity to earn a living, it is but a short step to the oppression and humiliation that often lands on society’s have-nots.

So God lays it out for Abraham way back at the beginning, and then tells Moses just how the undoing of this state of affairs will happen: in reverse. “I will bring you out from beneath the oppressive burden…” First, stop the humiliation, the beatings and the persecution. “Next, I will save you from slavery to them…” Economic security comes next. “I will redeem you with an outstretched hand…” That is to say, I will lift you out of the geographical dislocation, bringing you home. Finally, “I will take you to me…” Using language from the realm of marriage, God promises that the geographical homecoming will be accompanied by the end of that spiritual alienation, a People and their God joined together again.

This morning I stood side-by-side with people who have left everything in order to stay alive amidst war, privation, and persecution. They look to this land, to our community, for a sense of home, a sense of belonging, a chance to make a living, and, it should go without saying, the opportunity to live free of the oppression and persecution that led them here in the first place. America has frequently lived up to its self-image as a place of refuge and freedom. Frequently enough that a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo can say to a crowd in downtown Durham on a chilly morning, with no irony or pessimism, “I wanted to come here because we know America is the place where it doesn’t matter what color you are.”

But we know that we have frequently missed the mark. We Jews know it all too well, having had the doors – American doors –  closed in our face as Nazism engulfed Europe. Now is a moment of reckoning. Whose side are we on? God’s, or Pharaoh’s?

I am not being hyperbolic, nor am I being overly simplistic. These are the facts. The executive order putting a pause of one hundred twenty days on refugee resettlement will destroy families, livelihoods, and lives. As we sit in our sanctuary, refugees have sold everything they own and given up their homes in transit camps where they’ve stayed for years. They’ve done this because their numbers have come up. They’ve been vetted, extremely, and have passed the security and medical clearances that allow them to board a plane for America.

What happens to them in the aftermath of an executive order? Their medical and security clearances will expire during the “pause.” They will go back to a camp that no longer has a place for them, having given up their possessions in advance of the trip. And they will wait…and wait…and wait.

And when the wheels start turning again, if they are lucky enough to get back to that airport, who will greet them when they land? The pause and the smaller numbers of refugees allowed once it’s lifted will mean a drastic and sudden decrease in funds for refugee resettlement agencies. Tireless workers doing it much more for love than for money will be out of work during this pause, and will need to find jobs elsewhere. Agencies like our local office of CWS will need months or years to rebuild the capacity lost in a matter of weeks. 

As the verse teaches it, when the end of the story is written, we shall come to know. When the end of the story is written, what will we have done? When the end of the story is written, what will we be able to tell our children? When the end of the story is written, with whom will we be standing?


Teachings on Inauguration Day 2017/Parashat Sh’mot 5777

Before the Reading

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opens one of his masterful collections of Torah commentaries with the following story, told about the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

“We must live with the times,” the Rebbe said.

The disciples, sitting around the table, eagerly awaiting the master’s words, were perplexed. “Live with the times? Isn’t that what the enemies of faith are always saying? The past is dead – long live the future? Surely we believe the opposite, that God’s word is eternal, that certain things do not change, that values and principles and laws are constant. To be a Jew is to be beyond time. What then does the Rebbe mean when he says, We must live with the times?”

“What I mean,” said the Rebbe, “is that we must live with the parashat hashavua, the weekly portion of the Torah.” Continue reading

Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham, Opening Blessing

Fundraising Breakfast at Judea Reform Congregation, October 26, 2016.

May we bless this city, still too violent, with peace.

May we bless this city with our hands,
hands reaching out to people coming home,
guiding them on their path of reconciliation.

May we bless this city with our hearts,
hearts bearing witness to each needless death,
Moving us from vigil to action.

May we bless this city with our eyes,
eyes open to the aggressions,
big and small, intentional and unconscious,
that arise from our own bias and that of others.

May we bless this city with our voices,
voices that demand an end to the school-to-prison pipeline
voices that insist upon meaningful criminal justice reform,
voices that shout from the rooftops, not one more gun death.

May our hands, our hearts, our eyes, and our voices
be the blessings we so badly need.


Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation. Continue reading


Kol Nidrei Night, 5777/October 11, 2016

I heard from several of you that the visual aids in last week’s sermons were the very best part, which I am choosing to take as a compliment. I thought I’d bring one into this evening’s sermon as well.

_images_uploads_album_Album_Cover_7It’s a copy of “This is Where I Live,” a 2016 release from Soul legend William Bell, and side one, track one provides us with a foundational text for this evening’s teaching. The song is called “The Three of Me,” and it begins with these words:


Last night I had a dream
and there were three of me.
There was the man I was, the man I am,
and the man I want to be.

I love that image. Life’s journey is one on which we can and do grow, and at a certain point that growth is so complete that we are essentially someone else. Furthermore, this feat can be accomplished multiple times in the course of one’s life. 

I find this observation about our capacity for growth and change all the more interesting in light of this fact: William Bell also wrote the iconic Albert King hit, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Maybe you’ve heard it: “Born under a bad sign. Been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

712XQGdJsrL._SL1428_Here’s that album cover, decorated with a variety of symbols representing chance, fate, and bad luck. Snake Eyes. A Black Cat. Friday the Thirteenth. Poison.

The two songs, penned more than fifty years apart by the same writer, offer two very different views of the human condition, don’t they? One celebrates our capacity to take charge of our destiny; the other bemoans our lot as hapless victims of circumstance. That divergence is memorable, and worth exploring. Let’s do so by connecting these two songs to a third, one which I hope is becoming familiar to you:

Min hametzar karati yah, anani bamerchav yah….

Continue reading

A Heart of Many Rooms

Min hameitzar karati Yah – Anani Bamerchav Yah.
I called to Yah in dire straits; Yah answered me from a spacious place.

It’s hard to imagine more dire straits than those in which Abraham and Isaac found themselves in that moment before the angel intervened. Isaac bound on the altar, Abraham with the knife in hand, the task before him crystal-clear. “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as an offering.” Isaac, as our tradition has it, was a willing sacrifice, his single-minded commitment to the cause of obedience to God’s command a perfect match for his father’s. The fourteenth-century teacher Bachya ben Asher is representative: “At first, Isaac didn’t know that he was to be the sacrifice. But…we learn he was at peace with the matter. The two walked on together, with the same intent. One to slaughter, and the other to be slaughtered.”

*    *    *

This is a d’var torah about finding a shared purpose and walking together, even down difficult paths. It’s about friendship, and it’s about conflict. But the good kind of conflict. Yes, there’s a good kind of conflict. Let’s start there. Continue reading

From Narrow Places to Wide-open Spaces

מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ:

“I called on Yah in my distress;
Yah answered me with largesse.”

I love that verse; I love that melody. Thanks for singing it with me.

I love the singable translation, too. But I want to offer a few other possibilities, by way of helping us all come to a shared understanding of what the original Hebrew is trying to say. One contemporary translator, Pamela Greenberg, renders it this way: ”From a place of constriction, I called to you, and you answered with an expanse of heavenly presence.” Martin S. Cohen has, “From dire straits I called out to Yah, who answered me with the generosity of Yah.” I think my favorite might be that of Norman Fischer, whose Zen-inspired translation reads, “In my despair I called on you/And you answered me like the sky.” And of course, there’s the rendering from the passage we shared earlier in our service, Victor Frankl’s memorable recollection of that springtime day in 1945: Continue reading

An Open Letter to the Triangle Jewish Community

So sad to have to write a letter like this, and praying that our people can heal their divisions…

We, the undersigned rabbis serving in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, condemn the current campaign to vilify our colleagues, Rabbis Eric and Jennifer Solomon. We know them both to be true ohavei yisra’el (“lovers of Israel”). We deplore the tactics being deployed against them, which have no place in our communal discourse. We call upon the small group of people waging this campaign to cease their efforts immediately, and to apologize unequivocally.

This we know to be true: Eric and Jenny are deeply connected to the Jewish State, visiting frequently and instilling a love for our Land and People in their congregants and their own children. Eric is a graduate of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinical Leadership Initiative and Jenny is a Wexner Fellow; this places them solidly within the mainstream of American Jewish leadership. We also know them to be deeply committed to their vision for the State of Israel: a state where equality and pluralism are the norm, where justice is abundant, and where peace flourishes. They, like many American Jews and many Israelis, advocate for two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. And they, like many American Jews and many Israelis, deplore the continued military occupation as inconsonant with Jewish and Zionist values. Continue reading

Base fears or better angels: Levi Yitzchak on leadership (Chukat 5776)

It was a scary time in the life of the young nation. Political infighting was rampant. A demagogue posing as a populist rose up and attempted to grab power. Though sustained and sated like no nation before, the people still felt insecure. A faction lived on appeals to nostalgia…though the “good ole’ days” were anything but. A woefully understaffed and overworked judiciary was utterly incapable of dispensing justice. Foreign policy? Forget about it. Enemies were on the horizon, and the tasks that lay before this nation seemed to them to be far beyond their capacity. They felt small. They were afraid. Yes, it was a scary time..for Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

From Discernment to Action


 In 2013-14, I had the privilege of writing a year’s worth of Torah commentaries through the lens of Jewish Mindfulness for the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Every once in while, I’ve found that one of those commentaries seems to really speak to the moment. Below is my essay on Korach from 2014; at the end of an awful week, filled with so much heat and very little light…

Don’t just do something, sit there!

Sylvia Boorstein

I have a friend and mentor whose mantra for tough situations is this: “In the presence of strong emotions, do nothing.” As I understand it, my friend is not advocating for a fear-based paralysis, but for a clear-eyed, mindful response of the sort which usually comes only after other responses have been considered and (wisely) set aside.

His advice reminds me of the clever and wise title of our teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s book about mindfulness retreats, cited above. Through our practice, we hope to “awake…to the happiness of the uncomplicated moment,” as Sylvia has it (p. 3). “And yet habits and challenges lead us to suffer, and then to act out of our suffering in ways that bring more suffering… We complicate moments. Hardly anything happens without the mind spinning it up into an elaborate production.” Continue reading