Gut yuntif, pontiff(s)!

Kol Nidrei, 2015-5776

“May the words of my mouth be aligned with the meditations of my heart. May I say what I mean, and mean what I say. And may these words be what You want me to say, Source of Life, Rock, Redeemer.”

On Sunday morning, I had the honor (along with Margarita Suarez) of accompanying a group of our tenth-graders to Immaculate Heart Catholic Church. Our visit kicked off a series of field trips to houses of worship. Over the coming weeks, our students will have opportunities to observe and engage with a few different varieties of Christianity as well as with the Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh communities. I love that we do this sort of visiting; it’s so very important.

Our students were impressed that this week’s intercessory prayers included the hope that Jews and Muslims would have fruitful celebrations of their holidays, Yom Kippur and Eid al Adcha. Father Chris also invoked God’s will that we Jews and our Muslim neighbors would continue to grow deeper in our respective faiths. And so, in that same spirit of interfaith well-wishing, allow me to join many in the American Jewish community in welcoming Pope Francis to our country. The timing of his arrival just a few hours ago couldn’t have been more perfect, as it allows us to offer him the traditional holiday greeting: “Gut yontif, pontiff!”

It’s old. It’s cute, but it’s old. And believe me, you can get that kind of humor in any synagogue in the world tonight. At Judea Reform, we aim a bit higher. And since your Rabbi had a few idle minutes in the carpool line yesterday, waiting for his son to emerge from school, we’re going to go the extra mile with an original composition, a poem in honor of

a wildly popular pontiff
who’s up in DC over yontif.
A fine Holy See
against bad policy
the planet is bearing the brunt of.

My children will tell you that I just cannot resist the opportunity to share a groaner like that one. They’ve learned to recognize them coming a mile away, and to react accordingly, by imploring me to stop…and when that fails, by leaving. And they’ll also tell you that the only thing worse than a really bad “dad joke” is when that dad joke turns into a history lesson, or God forbid, a sermon.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word pontiff comes to us from the Old French pontif. Prior to that, it existed in Latin, as pontifex. But a pontifex wasn’t a pope; he was simply a priest. The fuller term for Francis and his papal predecessors is Pontifex Maximus. As you might expect, that’s what what you find in the ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, corresponding to Kohen Gadol, or “High Priest.” Pontifex Maximus.

Now, here’s what’s fun and interesting: by the time the Bible was translated into Latin, pontifex did indeed mean “priest.” But its etymology suggests an earlier, primary meaning of “bridge builder.” Why the word for “bridge builder” came to mean “priest” is an open question: some say that the Tiber River functioned as a god in the ancient Roman religion, and the one who “tamed” it by building bridges across was seen in a special light. Others opt for a more metaphorical reading: the job of the pontifex was to build a bridge between the people and their God.

I like that second take on pontifex, which seems to be in accord with our understanding of what the descendants of Aaron, the kohanim, did for our ancestors: they served as a bridge between the laity of Israel and the Holy Blessed One. By facilitating the sacrifices (which are called korbanot in Hebrew, from the word meaning “to bring close”) they shortened the distance between people and God.

And now? We are no longer a people with priests…at least not in the ancient sense. Two thousand years ago, the sacrificial system that was the priests’ livelihood was replaced by prayer, leaving them with the first aliyah on shabbes morning, and not much else. Reform Judaism came along two hundred ago, or so, and in a bold move toward Jewish egalitarianism, did away with even that honor. Now, lest I offend the fourteen Cohens, Kahns, or Katzes on our synagogue rolls, let me be clear: to be a kohen in the twenty-first century is to cherish one’s ancestry, the fact of one’s descent from a line of servant-leaders, and that’s not nothing.

But if genealogical claims to priestly status carry less practical meaning than they once did, our obligation to be a priestly people — all of us! — has never been more important. And that is our obligation, and our aspiration. I have in mind that beautiful passage in the book of Exodus (19:4-6a), just before the Ten Commandments are given, when Moses relays God’s charge to the people. God says:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

At our very best, when we’re faithful to our values, to our covenant, then we are transformed from a people with priests to a people of priests.

A kingdom of priests. That’s the vision so many of us have for our community. It’s what led us to step forward last week and take action in response to the Rosh Hashanah morning sermon. I mention that sermon in part to remind you that it’s not too late to indicate your willingness to join in one or more of those initiatives. The “Spiritual Pledge” to serve one another through our Caring Community Committee, the sign-up for Durham CAN and Orange County Justice United, and the action sheet related to alleviating the refugee crisis in Syria are all still available around the building. A kingdom of priests serves in those ways, for sure.

But not only in those ways. There are so many other ways our hands can reach out. As they priests of old reached out in blessing to the marginalized, even leaving the camp to be with people who needed to feel loved and included, so can we.

Tonight, I want to lift up one of those ways of extending our hands in blessing. It is our congregation’s participation in Durham’s Pride Parade this coming Saturday.

Ironic, no? A sermon using the metaphor of the priest to promote our participation in Pride? After all, it is the ancient priests who are most responsible for those biblical passages that have been used to uphold more “traditional” ways of thinking about gender and sexuality. The priests, whose spirituality was grounded in maintaining order and upholding rigid societal norms, who reveled in making lists of permitted and forbidden things….surely it is chutzpahdik of the rabbi to invoke the priests in order to bring folks out to Pride!

Maybe not. A true story: in 2009, the El Paso City Council made an adjustment to its employee manual and its operating budget, in order to extend health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of city employees, without regard to gender. Any recognized domestic partnership (this was determined by looking at joint ownership of property, bank accounts, and other things) would be the trigger to allow a spouse or partner to buy into the city’s health plan. Conservative Christians went ballistic, organized a group around the banner of “Traditional Family Values,” and began attending City Hall meetings, filling the public agenda with speech after speech. A few weeks in, yours truly arrived.

Upon walking into the chamber, I was warmly greeted by a fellow member of the clergy, an affable guy whom I genuinely liked, even though we disagreed on nearly everything. He was gushing as he grabbed my hand. “Rabbi, I just knew our Jewish brothers and sisters would show up to defend the Old Testament.”

“Actually, I’m here to speak in favor of the policy.”

“But Rabbi…what about….don’t you read….doesn’t it say….?”

I responded calmly, but firmly: “Yes, it does. But my faith isn’t only grounded in ancient text books. It’s grounded in contemporary text people as well. I have friends who are gay, and who are married with loving families. Don and Evan, a Rabbi and and Cantor couple. Julie, whose composed so much of the music we sing in my synagogue, and her wife Mary. They are my texts in this instance. And I’d like to think that the same priests who left us with the book of Leviticus and all of its lists would — if they lived today — recognize that theirs was not the last, and certainly not the best, word on the subject.”

I didn’t change his mind. He stayed on the other side of the issue, though he never really seemed to have the heart for the fight in the way some of his colleagues did. And over time, the will of the people was made clear. The Traditional Family Values Coalition lost their battle with Council. They failed in their effort to recall the mayor and the council members who stood for equality and dignity. They ran candidates against those leaders, and again, they lost in every instance. I was so proud of my city, every step of the way.

That was over five years ago, when equal marriage was but a pipe dream in so much of the nation. And now, to think that equal marriage has won the day and is the law of the land, even in places like Texas and North Carolina…there’s so much to celebrate.

And, there’s still so much to do. Employment non-discrimination is not yet the law of the land, and there are far too many places in our nation where it is perfectly legal to fire people because of their sexual orientation or their gender expression or identity. And even where the laws have changed, too many hearts have not. It is still unacceptably dangerous to be a gay or transgender kid in our society. It is still in some cases unacceptably complicated to be legally named parent of one’s own child. This kingdom of priests has work to do, building the bridges that will bring the whole world home.

Let me be explicit about something: all of this priest talk is not just a convenient rhetorical trope, a chance to play of the day’s headlines. No. I believe with every fiber of my being that if Aaron and his sons were alive today, those pursuers of peace, those bestowers of blessing, they’d be on our side, and they would march at Pride. I believe this despite the textual evidence, which is formidable. Because, whatever the the literary residue left to us of an uncompromising and zealous priesthood, there is simply no way that the Voice which said “love your neighbor as yourself” would take its stand with those who would enshrine bigotry into our Constitution, with those who would make our schools safe not for the underdogs but for their bullies. And so, to be mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests, is to get out of our comfortable tabernacle — yes, even on shabbes — and to stand with Pride. We’ll gather up at 11:30 on Saturday morning at the Jewish Federation’s table, on Duke’s East Campus, and we will march.

In this way, and in so many others, we shall live out our mission as a kingdom of priests, a nation of bridge builders. We will build bridges…

To each other, through our Caring Community;
To people of color, through our community organizing work;
To refugees looking for safe harbor amidst great storms;
To folks who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and who have spent far too long outside the camp;
To so many others who seek a way in or simply to know that the door is open and that they are welcome;

To all of them, we offer a bridge, in the form of our outstretched hands.

Our movement’s new prayer book says it this way:

The hands of the kohanim were a language in themselves.
Hands held out, with the palms facing up, indicate the desire to receive;
hands held up, with the palms facing down, indicate the desire to give.
So, when the kohanim lifted their hands to bless,
they did not wish to pray for themselves —
but only to bestow God’s bounty on the people.

Holy One, we strive to be a nation of priests,
our lives consecrated to holy work.
Help us to use our hands as instruments of divine service —
conduits of your goodness.
May blessings flow through us to our children, our friends,
and all those whose lives we touch.

In this new year, may each of us be a priest, a pontifex, a bridge builder. And may it be that when we gather next year, no matter where in the world Francis might be, this room full of bridge builders will offer each other that special greeting as only a nation of priests can do:

Have a wonderful yontif, you room full of pontiffs!

“Our Kids”


Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5776 – Judea Reform Congregation, Durham NC…

Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist best known for Bowling Alone, his book about the erosion of social capital, authored a new study earlier this year. It is called Our Kids. The title hearkens back to a time when, at least in the author’s recollection, the adults in the Ohio town of his youth saw all the kids in town as “our kids.” Putnam’s claim, buttressed with loads of data (as is his way), is that the sense of shared responsibility and community that once characterized our nation has deteriorated. In its place, a vast opportunity gap has opened up in America. Multiple generations of wildly disparate educational and economic attainment are firmly entrenched, and two children growing up today are likely to lead vastly different lives based largely on accidents of birth, like their zip code or the color of their skin. Our Kids tells a story that is bad, and getting worse. Continue reading

Inner and Outer Worlds are One

Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5776 – Judea Reform Congregation, Durham NC…

On her 1974 double live album, Miles of Aisles, Joni Mitchell introduces the singing of “Circle Game” with an observation about the nature of the performing arts. In her oh-so-groovy Laurel Canyon-inflected patter, she says to her audience,

that’s one thing that’s always, like uh, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. Like a painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on some wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he’s never, you know, nobody ever, y’know nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it. That was it.

Joni’s point was that people do call out to hear “Circle Game,” again and again. And in listening to it, and singing along, it remains new and fresh, each performance its own work of art.

I’ve often wondered if the sermon, as an art form, is more like a painting, or a song. Rabbis pour themselves into High Holiday sermons. Are these efforts best thought of as “one-and-dones,” if not hung on a wall then hung on a synagogue web site or a blog, frozen in time? Or can we sing them again and again? Continue reading

“My father was a wandering Aramean.”

“Ki Tavo. When you enter the Land. Not if, but when. Because you will enter the land.”

That is how our Rabbi and teacher, Rick Jacobs, introduced this week’s parashah to the hundreds of people gathered in Raleigh yesterday evening to demonstrate their support for robust protections of our right to vote. Rabbi Jacobs, the President of our Union for Reform Judaism, stood on the platform flanked by key leaders in the drive to protect and restore voting rights. In his arm was a Torah, the same Torah that has now traveled over seven hundred miles from Selma, Alabama to Raleigh’s northern suburbs, and which will ultimately cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Washington D.C. Every step of the way, it has been cradled by Reform Rabbis and our friends on the march. Leslie, who carried this scroll through the congregation tonight, spent three days earlier this week on the journey. We march as allies in solidarity with the NAACP, which organized the march and named it “America’s Journey for Justice.” Continue reading

Hadevarim Ha’eleh – These Words

Eleh hadevarim, the book begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke….” And this week, we read about hadevarim ha’eleh, “these words” which we are to set upon our hearts, teach to our children, speak of at home and on our way. Eleh hadevarim. Hadevarim Ha’eleh.

But which “words” are the ones that Moses really “spoke?” Which words are the ones that we need to set upon our hearts, write on our doorposts, and bind to our arms? Several answers come to mind:

  • Maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers to the entire book of Deuteronomy. It is called sefer hadevarim, after all.
  • Maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers not to the whole book, but just to the brief section being spoken by Moses right in that moment. “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is One! Love YHWH your God with all your heart, and your soul, and your might. And now, set these words upon your heart….”
  • Or maybe hadevarim ha’eleh refers to a certain set of devarim, “utterances”Ten, to be precise — which Moses had just reviewed for the people in an earlier chapter.

Whatever the answer, it’s not an idle question. Which words we ascribe to Moses, and through him to God, matter. Which words we choose to set upon our hearts matters greatly. And the ones we choose to teach to our children…could anything matter more? Continue reading

Saving Lives, Saving Worlds: In Memory of Amer Mahmood

My message at the vigil remembering Amer Mahmood, who was murdered overnight on July 4, 2015, while working at a Durham JoyMart. Proud to be associated with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

My Tradition teaches me that “whoever destroys a life, destroys a world; and whoever saves a life, saves a world.” I stand here today in solidarity with Amer Mahmood’s family, his friends, and with all in my new community who deplore the destruction of this life. A husband, a father, a provider, working late at night over a holiday weekend, killed in yet another in a long, sad list of violent crimes. A life destroyed; a world destroyed. Continue reading

Some Words about Words

D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, July 17, 2015

Adonai S’fatai Tiftach….Ufi Yagid t’hilatecha. O Source of Life and Breath, open up my lips; let my mouth declare Your praise.

With those words, our tradition teaches, King David asked for the wisdom to find the right words as he poured out his heart in devotion and repentance. They found their way into our prayerbook, as a prelude to the most important section of the service, the section called amidah, “standing,” or just hatefilah, “the prayer.” Adonai, open my lips. Let my words be inspired by Your teaching, by Your Presence. Let that which I say not be about me, but about You.

Adonai S’fatai Tiftach is a good place to start these words of mine, words rooted in the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Matot. My words tonight are words about words. Continue reading

Mah Tovu Ohalecha! On Windows, and Pews

First d’var torah at Judea Reform Congregation – July 3, 2015….

These windows, and these pews….they blew my mind when I first walked into this sacred space in November of last year. One doesn’t want to get too far ahead of oneself during the interview process, but I found myself imagining what it would be like to pray in such an open and welcoming space, where the pews are curved to bring worshippers face to face, and the world makes its presence felt with an abundance of natural light. Months have passed since that November day, and things worked out just as I’d dreamed. I know the answer now: It feels great. Continue reading


Bittersweet. That’s the word many of us have been using around Temple for the last weeks and months. It’s a great word, dating to the fourteenth century. At first it referred only to a type of apple, low in acids and high in tannins. But over time, “bittersweet” came to describe an emotion that mimics the experience of eating such an apple, where the initial smile is quickly followed by a lip-puckering, teeth-licking smack. Continue reading

Rodef Shalom

Shalom, means “peace,” yes, but even more. Shalom means “harmony.” Shalom means “wholeness.” I want to speak about shalom tonight, and about what it means to love it and to pursue it. I love that Temple Mount Sinai chose Rodef Shalom, “Pursuer of Peace,” as the name of the award it bestows on special occasions. I thought it might be fun, and interesting, to explore the roots of that idea. And, as has become my way especially in the last several years, I thought to do so through the lens of Jewish mysticism, as we learn from the words of a modern-day Hasidic master known as the Netivot Shalom. Continue reading