Our Tradition (BT Sotah 14a) records the teaching of Rabbi Chamma, the son of Rabbi Chaninah on the verse from the book of Deuteronomy (13:5), “Follow Adonai your God, revere God, keep the commandments and obey God’s voice; this is how to serve God and hold fast to the divine.” Rabbi Chamma quotes the verse and then asks the question, “what does it mean to follow God? Can a human being actually follow the Divine Presence?” His answer is that “follow” is a metaphor for “emulate.” Read the text, and see what God does in its stories. Then, go out and do those things. Continue reading
My January/February JRC Bulletin Message…
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)
For me, it’s that verse that most accurately describes the Jewish mission. To empathize with the marginalized, and to turn our empathy into action, is what we’re all about. Our texts, our holidays, our daily prayers….all of the particularly Jewish things about being Jewish point us toward that universal truth. Calling out oppression when we see it and standing with the oppressed against their tormentors: this is what it means to be a Jew. Continue reading
My installation remarks from Friday night, December 11. I had no idea, when I decided to craft these remarks around the seasons, and to teach about impermanence by looking to the trees, that our Religious School had created a huppah in my honor that teaches the very same thing, in the same way. It was presented to the congregation as part of Sunday Morning’s Installation.
Lots of folks have asked me, “Haven’t you been our Rabbi for quite some time? What changes on December 11?” And the answers are, “yes,” and “not much.” Certainly, some of the big transitional moments are already behind us. My election. Our first service together. Our first High Holidays. Other moments of transition are still out in the future. We haven’t yet celebrated Purim together, or Pesach, or Kabbalat Torah, or an Annual Meeting, to name but a few “firsts” that are still in the future. My colleague Barry Block has written about transition not really being finished until a rabbi has been in his or her position for two full years, and I’m inclined to believe him.
And yet, here we are, celebrating my “installation.” Lots of jokes about the similarities between rabbis and large appliances are just waiting to be made, but the truth be told, “install” is a verb that was applied to members of the clergy long before it was applied to washers and dryers. To “install” something is to put it in its stall. And clerics in the Middle Ages had semi-enclosed chairs called stalls in which they sat as a part of the choir. “Installation” was the act of getting into one’s stall for the first time. It is, essentially, the act of taking one’s seat, of settling in. Continue reading
“The tall, lanky dancer-turned-rabbi…”
It seems like every press mention of URJ President Rick Jacobs includes some version of those words. I’ve always found it a bit odd, and maybe somewhat patronizing, the way reporters focus on Rick’s physical traits. Perhaps I’m just jealous. After all, “the short, stocky rabbi who ran cross-country in high school before completely letting himself go in his 20s” doesn’t have the same ring (and fortunately, never shows up when people write about me). Continue reading
D’var Torah at Judea Reform, October 30, 2015…
The Jewish-Catholic dialogue that took place in synagogue growing up made a deep impression upon me. My Rabbi, Martin Silverman, modeled a deep public friendship with the local Bishop, Howard Hubbard, exchanging pulpits on a regular basis. It is probably thanks to them that I gravitated to such dialogue in my Rabbinate. Priests and Women Religious have been my study partners and co-teachers over the years, over many pulpit exchanges and visits to each other’s classrooms. I was entrusted by the Diocese of El Paso to teach the Jewish Scriptures to Deacon candidates. I had the great honor to travel to the University of Notre Dame to be a part of small working group on interfaith dialogue, at the invitation of the Rabbi to the Fighting Irish, Michael Signer (of blessed memory). I travelled there together with one of my ongoing study partners, a Franciscan priest named John Stowe who has since been elevated to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. I mention all of this not to name-drop but to give you a sense of why I feel compelled to speak tonight about Nostra Aetate.
In our time – nostra aetate – when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger…
With those words did Pope Paul VI begin his proclamation on the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate, “in our time.” The proclamation was issued fifty years ago, almost to the day, on October 28, 1965. This milestone anniversary affords us the opportunity to reflect on issues raised by Nostra Aetate in our time, an era in which it seems that, day by day, humanity is being pushed farther apart, and the ties between different peoples are becoming, if not weaker, certainly more strained and complicated. Continue reading
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
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
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
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
Earlier tonight, I had the honor of offering a d’var torah at my last Board of Trustees meeting at Temple Mount Sinai…
For the past several weeks, our Tuesday afternoon text study group has been focused on Pirkei Avot, a collection of ethical maxims compiled about 1800 years ago which, like so much in our ancient but ever-renewing tradition, remains relevant even now. Given that my mind has been in this book, I thought one of its teachings would make a good point of departure for my last d’var torah at a Temple Mount Sinai Board of Trustees meeting. I’ve chosen a passage from the second chapter (2:2), a teaching of Rabban Gamliel:
וכל העמלים עם הצבור, יהיו עמלים עימהם לשם שמים, שזכות אבותם מסייעתן וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם שכר הרבה כאלו עשיתם.
Those who toil with the community should toil for the sake of Heaven; for the merit of their ancestors shall aid them, and their righteousness shall endure forever. And you, [says G-d,] I shall credit you with great reward as if you have achieved it.