Category Archives: Self

On the Song of the Sea, and “thoughts and prayers”

Here’s a nugget from the Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926), on the verse (Exodus 15:1), “Then Moses sang, and the Children of Israel…” Intrigued by Rashi’s observation that “it arose in their mind to sing,” he writes:

Everything we do starts as a thought. All actions begin with an intention. Furthermore, the measure of the mitzvot we perform is connected to the intention and passion we bring to them. It was nothing special that the Israelites sang at the shore of the sea. Indeed, they weren’t even singing, in the sense that it was a response to the holiness of the moment, and “Shekhinah spoke from within their throats.” Rather, this: that they sang demonstrated their great desire to offer up songs and praise to the Holy One, a desire that propelled them to the heights of prophecy, and to the singing of the Song of the Sea. That was what was special: that “it arose in their mind to sing” in the first place.

I love this teaching, and I’m disturbed by it. I love it because it reminds me of the value of setting my intention, again and again, as I go about my day. I’m disturbed because I’ve always learned and taught (Pirkei Avot 1:17), lo ha midrash ha’ikar, ele hama’aseh: “What’s essential is not the intention, but the action.” “Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed,” was drummed it my head, and I’m not prepared to jettison that notion for one that could be used to excuse bad behavior with an all-too-easy “Oh, but they meant well.”

The solution, I think, is this: our commandments are divided into two categories, the ritual and the ethical (bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachaveiro). It’s not a perfect division, of course, and figuring out where the ethics lies in a Jewish ritual, or how to uncover ritual in an ethical deed is a great exercise. But broadly speaking, the division holds, and it is the marker between the Shem Mishmuel’s teaching and the one from Pirkei Avot. For ritual commandments, it is indeed all in the intention; but when it comes to our actions in the interpersonal realm, even the most heartfelt “thoughts and prayers” are worthless, when not followed by deeds.



Last week we looked at Joseph’s question of his brothers, avichem hazaken, ha’odenu chai? Is the elderly father of whom you spoke still alive? And using a quirk of the sentence structure as the hook on which to hang our lesson, we talked about the difference between merely living and being truly alive. Our Tradition names that quality, that animating force that turns living into Life, chiyut. I suggested that when we cultivate an awareness of the chiyut around us and within us, we grow stronger, kinder, more loving, more grounded…we find peace within and generate peace all around. Continue reading

Od Avinu Chai

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in an interview granted around the time of his 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, said this about why he wrote in Yiddish, a language with an ever-shrinking pool of speakers and readers: “The language is ailing, yes. But in Jewish history, the distance between sickness and death can be a long, long time.”

So there’s dying, and then there’s dead. And on the flip side, there’s living, and there’s alive. This week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, includes a curious exchange between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 43:27-28) which viewed through the lens of our Tradition, illuminates this point. Hearing the words this year, I find myself reflecting on the question, “In what ways am I merely living, and in what ways am I truly alive? Continue reading

Where Empathy Ends, Justice Begins

Sermon for Parashat Kedoshim, Judea Reform Congregation.

I’ve been saying for several weeks now how much I appreciate the fact that the book of Leviticus extends the realm of religion to include the earthier parts of life. When we say “Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life,” the parshiot we’ve just concluded are, in part, what we have in mind. Torah lays claim to the way we eat, the way we heal, the way we encounter birth and death, and the way we interact with people whom we’ve harmed. It is a torat chayim, a path for life. All of it. 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

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

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

Counting our Days

My column for the upcoming May-June bulletin, posted now as we begin the counting. Today is One Day of the Omer.

For much of the period covered by this issue of our synagogue bulletin, Jews will be engaged in a practice called sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the sheaf.” Not a useful translation for conveying much meaning, I know. The practice is based on these verses from Torah:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Eternal One for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath…and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering– the day after the sabbath– you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week– fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal One (Lev 23:9-11;15-16).

While nearly two millennia have passed since the days when offerings of grain were our mode of worship, we still “count the omer,” memorializing the ancient practice.

Counting the omer is a reminder of our history, and it is much more. By counting the days from Pesach to Shavuot, we do a number of things.

First, counting links the two festivals together. Shavuot, which celebrates the giving and receiving of Torah, only makes sense in the context of our liberation from Egypt; our liberation can best be understood as setting down avdut, slavery, in order to enter a covenant of avodah, service. The Rabbis creatively played with the Hebrew word for “engraved” (as in the words on the tablets), charut, reading it as cheyrut, “freedom.” To their minds, freedom is not a free-for-all, but disciplined choice. Pesach and Shavuot: you can’t have one without the other.

Next, counting reinforces a sense of forward motion from one holiday to the next. I wrote two months ago about the broad sweep of this holiday season, beginning at Purim and ending with Shavuot. From Pesach to Shavuot, that sweep is explicit: “One….two….three…” Along the way we encounter the seventh day of Pesach, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the State of Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, and an ancient festival that falls on day thirty-three.

In my experience, the period of the sefirah is, most of all, an opportunity to cultivate awareness. Each night as dusk falls (or, if we’re regular davveners, as part of the evening service), we stop and take notice of the passage of time. We recite a blessing, and take note of the number of days that have passed since Pesach. If the omer period is about linking the festivals and propelling us forward, the moment of counting is about slowing us down. “Teach us to number our days; let us cultivate hearts of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Remembering Amalek…and Remembering to Return

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…

The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all. Continue reading

The sea, the sky, the Throne of Glory

Posting a Shelach Lecha commentary in February? That’s odd! But one way of working with the sadness that accompanies the news that the tallit which was the inspiration for this d’var torah seems to have gone missing. I’m bummed about losing an item that I’d grown pretty attached to over several retreats and lots of sweet mornings in between…and absolutely aware that it’s totally replaceable. 

*     *      *

As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poem, “This World,” takes its readers on a tour of natural phenomena (as so many of her poems do). It invites them to notice just how extraordinary the seemingly everyday really is. Tulips, peonies, birds, aspens, even stones, all bear witness to the world’s complexity (what the poem deems its “fanciness.”). And all poems, however ordinarily they might begin, ultimately find the morning sun glimmering everything (Why I Wake Early, p. 27).

Sometimes, we can look at something which is, at first glance, nothing special, but see in it something deeper and more meaningful. This is what’s behind the ritual of tzitzit, the fringes which are prescribed for our garments near the end of this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha:

YHWH said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; see it and remember all the commandments of YHWH and do them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I YHWH am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God:I, YHWH your God(Num 15:37-41).

For the Sages (BT Menachot 43b), the progression of actions occasioned by the presence of the tzitzit was central: “Seeing leads to remembering, and remembering leads to doing.” Just having the fringes in one’s field of view is beneficial. When we see them, we remember.

But remember what? That’s where the blue comes in. From the same page of Talmud: “It is taught that Rabbi Meir said, ‘Why is blue different from all other colors? Because it is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky, like the Throne of Glory.'” Just as the fact of the tzitzit sets in motion a process (see=>remember=>do), so does the particular quality of the tzitzit set in motion of chain of awareness (sea=>sky=>Throne of Glory).

And isn’t that mindfulness? Noticing the very fact of something, inquiring into its nature and quality, and paying attention to what arises in the wake of the noticing and inquiry? Ultimately, when we’re at our best, the noticing and remembering lead us to act in ways that bring more compassion into the world, and to alleviate suffering.

I have a small, well-worn stone that I keep close at hand. It comes from the shoreline by Nahal Achziv, in northern Israel. When I see it, I remember so much. I remember picking it up on the last day of my 2007 summer sabbatical. I remember how connected I felt to my family in that moment, as my three young children combed the beach for smooth stones and shells while my wife and I stood at the water’s edge, reflecting on the months we’d spent living in Israel. And I remember the blueness of the water, and of the sky. It was a moment of wholeness and blessing. And all it takes to return there is a look at that stone, or the feel of it between my fingers.

Perhaps it’s not for nothing that a memento of the Achziv shoreline prompts those associations and memories. Literary sleuthing and archeological research alike point to Israel’s northernmost coast as the likely habitat of the chilazon, the animal from which the blue dye was extracted in Talmudic times. Experts identify the chilazon as the murex trunculus snail, and evidence of robust dyeing operations along the northern coast are an important piece of puzzle. Today, convinced by the evidence that we have the right source and the right formula, many talit-wearers are bringing the blue fringe back.

For some of us who wear tekhelet, the blue string serves as a powerful mindfulness tool. I began wearing tekhelet a few years ago, and have found that it adds great meaning to my practice. I’ve spent the last few weeks watching with pride as my oldest child (who collected shells and stones at Achziv all those years ago) designed and created her own tallit in honor of her Confirmation. Her tzitzit arrived from Israel yesterday, and she’ll tie them during the week of Shelach Lecha. May they serve her well.

A stone on the beach. A thread of blue string. Stars in the sky. A breath, rising and falling. Wherever our attention rests, careful investigation of what arises can yield happy results. As I sit, and pray, during the week of Shelach Lecha, may my seeing lead to remembering, and my remembering lead to action. May I find the morning sun glimmering all that I meet.

May it be so for me, for you, and for all of us.