Promises We Make – Parshat Noach 5783

As the parent of children who seem to have steel-trap memories, I have learned to be very careful about the kind of promises I make. They’ll remember that one time, six months ago when summer was a distant wish, that I promised we’d go tubing, and suddenly they’re asking me when that will happen or how come it didn’t happen and why I don’t keep my promises. Oy. 

On the one hand, I probably made that promise in a spur-of-the-moment attempt to try and move us forward from whatever tantrum or heartbreak we were in the midst of. On the other hand, I probably should’ve thought it through just a tiny bit more to make sure that promise was something we could actually fulfill.

This balancing act of expectations and being held accountable is as old as humankind, and it’s particularly noticeable in the Torah this week. This week we read Parshat Noach, the story of NoahThis second section of text in the Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, Noah saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel, we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly moves us through the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our history takes off.

As God walks Noah and his family out of the destructive flood, a rainbow serves as God’s promise that “water will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”  Beyond this, the rainbow is meant to signify an ongoing commitment to the covenant for all time that we go through this world with God, not apart from. And yet, just a few verses later the whole of “flesh” builds a tower to the heavens that enrages God, but God has to hold true to this promise if they are to maintain any sense of trust going forward.  

The promise of “never again” is much more serious than mine of a water park adventure, and yet both put the weight of follow-through on our words and actions in the future.  Promises are made more challenging than necessary if we’re not cognizant of all the possible ramifications.

What Parshat Noach teaches us is that as difficult as they may be to keep sometimes, promises do more than guarantee an outcome for one party. The promises we make hold us accountable and remind us that words matter. 

God Blessed Them – Parshat Bereshit 5783

For the past two years, I’ve taught a weekly Torah exploration class. While similar Parshat HaShavuah (weekly Torah study) classes will often focus on one or two central moments in the text, I chose for this series to be an overview, where we read the whole section and react and reflect on its entirety. One thing I have loved about this approach is it meant that I never knew what would come up from week to week, and every discussion encouraged me to question and view the text through multiple lenses. Truth be told, this has been my favorite hour each week. 

In particular, what has struck me is that each time we read the Torah anew, there are new questions, frustrations, and appreciations that present themselves. For example, in both years of the class the participants zeroed in on the beginning of the Torah as a model that was repeated throughout the rest of the text, yet also one that was no doubt told from a specific and biased perspective. What led us here? The beginning is a good place to start. 

This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed by the story of creation, including the time and care God put into creating each day and making it exactly as God wanted. We learn about the first people and their experience in the Garden of Eden, especially how they learned to build, grow, and be together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel and the first sibling rivalry gone terribly awry, and we get a taste of some very real consequences caused by human actions. Thus begins the idea of God as the parent, creating life and making sure everything has its own place.

In chapter 1, verses 27-28, the narrative provides details that feel both informative and at the same time part of a very specific agenda. “So God created Mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

Hebrew, like many languages, is a gendered language that has long struggled with the non-binary, which makes it all the more interesting and alarming that creation was clearly binary and non-binary. Male and female are mentioned, but so is a version of they/them. We typically interpret “them” in the Torah as a plural binary pronoun, but what if God was addressing each human individual as they/them? What if Hebrew was non-gendered? What if the Torah had purposefully adopted this notion of non-binary and run with it? What if our tradition was not subsequently based on women being subservient or “help-meet” to men, but instead built on this duplicity of human nature to be both hunter and caregiver, explorer and rule follower? 

“What if” questions are a fascinating, but mostly fruitless endeavor to reimagine the past in a way that changes the shape of our present. But I can’t help being intrigued by a “what if” that asks us to imagine a world without binary, in any sense of the term. After all, we are created in God’s (nonbinary) image, and we should all be celebrated as the human beings we were intended and blessed by God and the angels to be. 

The Good Old Days – Yom Kippur 5783

This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur, October 5, 2022. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

January 27, 1973. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords officially ends U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The fighting that had lasted almost 20 years by that point didn’t end, it carried on for a few more years as United States troops withdrew.

Skip ahead to that fall. October, 1973. Forty-nine years ago right now, in fact. Egyptian and Syrian forces attack Israeli forces on Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur War.

On October 10, Spiro Agnew resigns as Vice President of the United States and pleads no contest to tax evasion.

November 17, 1973. That’s when President Nixon tells 400 Associated Press managing editors “I am not a crook.” Less than a year later, he will also resign.

The world was a mess in 1973, or so it seemed. It makes sense that by January of 1974, people yearned for a simpler time. Because in January, 1974, we got a little reminder of how great things used to be. They were the Cunninghams, and they lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1950s. Howard owned a hardware store, Marion was a stay-at-home mom – a phrase that hadn’t been invented yet – and their kids went to school and hung out with their friends. One of those friends became the most famous Jew to ever wear a leather jacket. And suddenly America could relive those happy days, and they were so happy that they lasted 11 seasons.

It’s funny to think that only 20 years separated the filming of Happy Days and the time it took place. It would be like having a TV show now that played on the nostalgia of the 2000s. Does anybody yearn for the 2000s?

But truly, the idea of going back to supposedly better times comes up all the time, in every era. Movies and TV shows romanticize it. Political parties politicize it. So why do we insist that things were better before?

This was heightened even more during peak Covid. How many times did you hear “when things are back to normal” or the phrase “pre-Covid”? You’ve probably heard it at least once just today. But I want to caution us that it can be dangerous to think in terms of going back. In real life, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance, and to go back in time implies going back and losing all of the knowledge we’ve gained since then.

Famously, there was a music teacher who suggested to her students that every time they ran through a particular piece, it should automatically sound slightly better than the time before, because the musicians were three minutes older and wiser than they were during the last run-through. We are now two and a half years older and wiser. When we play together, how will our music sound?

This is the season of teshuvah, of return, but instead of thinking about going back in search of what we’ve lost, I’d like us to imagine going forward with what we’ve gained. I invite you to take a breath, perhaps even close your eyes. Find yourself a center. It has been two long years since we’ve been able to be together, in this space for the High Holidays. Over the last two plus years, so much of our world has changed; some for the worse, but perhaps some for the better. Over these two years, we’ve longed for moments like “before.” Those pre-pandemic times when decisions to go to the grocery store or visit family members were not ones for which most of us had to weigh our health risks.

We missed seeing full, smiling faces, but we learned to better read each other’s eyes. If you closed your eyes, feel free to open them.

Our kehillah, like so many of you, has had to make some big decisions about how we were to return to the building and to in-person programs and services. We joke that we’ve pivoted so much we don’t remember which spot we started in. As a tap dancer in my younger days, they would teach us to pick a spot on the wall when we were doing a turn so that we could focus on it and not get dizzy. Ever since 2020, it has felt like there’s no spot to focus on, which means we’ve had a dizzying two years.

As we enter a new year, personally I find myself trying to balance the act of introspection that’s involved in looking back so that we can make teshuvah and improve ourselves in the coming year, along with trying not to get stuck in the past. I can’t change the past me, but I can change this me and make plans for the future.

This is what our Jewish calendar asks us to do too. Each year we read the Torah again from the beginning, the same story, a look back at our past, and our role as the carriers of this story, is to find meaning in it for our today and tomorrow. It’s misleading though, isn’t it? Because every time we put the Torah back in the ark, we sing “Etz chayim hi” (it is a tree of life) which ends with “chadesh yameinu kekedem.” Return us to the ways that were before, the days prior.

See? We can’t escape the “good old days.” It’s right there in our liturgy. Why? Where does it come from? This verse is a lamentation, literally, from Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. And the “good old days” are the time of the Temple. But when we sing this on Shabbat while we put the Torah away, are we really asking for animal sacrifice again? Just to be clear, I’m not. And I’m fairly certain the rabbis of old weren’t yearning to return to those days either. Well, some might have been, but there’s a reason it’s said and not acted on. It’s reflexive. Renew us. Return us to you, God. Return us to each other and to ourselves.

As much as Happy Days or The Wonder Years or Mad Men or any other period piece would have us believe, there’s no one time we all yearn for. What we yearn for is clarity of purpose, and sometimes in the foggy present, clarity of purpose is only possible when you look back and realize how you’ve been shaped by the time you’ve been given.

My teshuvah is not about returning to some other time or some other me. It’s about returning to that spot on the wall. My focus. The things that fulfill me, that make me . . . me. And I hope the same for you. Chadesh yameinu kekedem. Renew our days, not of old, but of now, for another year, so that we may continue to find the truest versions of ourselves. G’mar chatimah tovah.

Finding Meaning – Parshat Ha’azinu 5783

I write this d’var Torah acknowledging that with its completion, I have written a d’var Torah every week for 12 years straight. That’s a lot of digging in, finding meaning, extrapolating relevance and, lest I forget, editing by my amazing editor, my Rabbi Consort, Duncan Gilman. I’m often asked about my process for writing these weekly columns, and it’s a little embarrassing to reveal that I write them a year ahead of time. That way, I’m never without something to say, and I always have at least a basic structure to work from, should the world go awry, which it almost always does.

As I’ve written about so many weekly portions, and they’ve all appeared in print, it also means I have to check to make sure I’m not repeating myself. Usually, it’s easy enough to take the same topic and explain it in a different way, but sometimes I’m at a loss. Occasionally I only want to talk about one specific moment in the Torah portion, and while repetition isn’t necessarily bad, it feels risky to repeat myself on my blog and the Neveh Shalom website.

The good news for me is that this week’s Torah portion has a reminder about finding connection to its own words, and it’s helpful advice to live by too. This week we read the penultimate Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu, which has the special honor of being the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning. Parshat Ha’azinu is a poem which warns against the negative behavior of the Israelites and explains the blessings that will befall them with the good behavior they are certainly capable of. The text ends with Moses ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

At a point in this week’s Torah portion, Moses shares that the Torah is “not an empty thing from you.” That is to say, if the Torah is lacking in meaning, it’s not because the meaning isn’t there, but because you might not have found the connection yet. It is simultaneously the worst advice I want to hear on days when I struggle with what to make of our tradition, and at the same time, the most helpful reminder that there are always moments, words, sounds, phrases that will have meaning for me. 

I find it fascinating that towards the end of the entire Torah we get this reminder to look closer, deeper, broader into the text to find meaning. The answer is it’s always there, we just have to open our hearts and minds to find it. As someone who writes every week, I often struggle with this, and yet Moses and God are right – the knowledge is there, I just need to open myself to hold a new perspective.

Ha’azinu translates to “and we listened.” May we open our ears to listen to one another, our hearts to hear anew, our minds to connect to something new and meaningful for us in the new year.

Context is Key – Rosh Hashanah 5783

As we prepare for Yom Kippur, enjoy the audio recording and text from my Rosh Hashanah sermon, delivered on September 26, 2022.

Let’s play a game. There’s a table in front of me, and on it I have eggs, flour, sugar, oil, and salt. What am I making?

Let’s add chocolate chips to the list; now what would you think?

Ok, what if I swapped out the chocolate chips for yeast?

What would I be making if cheese was an ingredient?

Apples?

Poppyseeds?

Now that we’re all hungry, I’m sure you’re relieved this isn’t a Yom Kippur sermon. The ingredients for so many culinary treats begin the same way, and yet, based on the time of year or an added ingredient, the end product could be completely different. Similar ingredients, different result.

Keeping with our food analogy for just another minute, have you ever noticed that you can make the same dish a thousand times, and even though most of the time it comes out perfect, once in a while it just doesn’t quite get there? When I bake challah, I use the same recipe every time, but some weeks I need to add more flour, other weeks a little less, based on the humidity. 

We have routines for our meals at home too. We tend to stick to the same basic weekly menu, and by “we” I mean my children. The repetition helps them feel secure, and the routine gives them space to worry about other parts of their days and weeks. Plus, it takes some of the stress off of us, knowing these meals are fairly reliable.

What are your routines? Maybe you can think of  a few. In the thick of Covid, many of you witnessed me walking outside during a Zoom meeting. The question I’m usually asked is where I’m walking, and the answer is I do loops around my neighborhood. It’s kind of like a big track, so I walk in circles, some days 10 miles, some 20, but this loop is my routine. It’s easy to do because I know the route so well that I can focus on the meeting instead of worrying about crossing the street or getting lost. I know where each crack in the sidewalk is so I don’t trip, which means I can actually be more present in the meeting than I could have been otherwise. 

Repetition is the building block of Judaism. I’ll repeat – repetition is the building block of Judaism. See? It’s a combination of repetition and context that holds us together. You know the old joke that the essence of most Jewish holidays is “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat”? Or, as I like to say, “let’s help make sure everyone has food”? That’s the repetition part. The context is how you distinguish each holiday. You know it’s Rosh Hashanah if you’re eating apple cake, and you know it’s Hanukkah by the latkes. Purim by hamantaschen, Passover by matzah, and any number of fast days by the growling in your tummy, although maybe that’s every holiday when you’re sitting through the sermon. The repetition keeps us grounded, and using the context clues around us allows us to dig deeper into the meaning of the moment, the holiday, or the prayer.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, I’m feeling how different this year is from the last two years. For the first time since the High Holy Days of 2019, I’m in a room packed with people davening together. Not to take anything away from the wonderful Shabbat services that have been back in person, but these days of awe always feel different, and the last couple of years, very different. I was in the sanctuary alone, hearing only my own voice when I sang. But what I was singing was the same. Those prayers, the words I’ve said since I was old enough to sit through services (maybe), were the same ones that had always brought me to tears or brought me joy, but in those moments alone, they felt a little foreign. This year, surrounded by voices, feels like a one-eighty from the silence of the past. Same text, different context.

But again, that’s how Judaism works. There’s no Torah without interpretation. It’s called a tree of life not just because it provides for us, but also because it’s alive; it grows with us. That’s because context is key. So much of our lives and understanding of the world around us is about knowing the recent history of people, conversations, and events. And the Torah is very well aware of this.

Think about it this way: we read the Torah again and again each year, and yet each year the same words can strike us in a different way or teach us something we’d never thought about before. And for goodness sakes, the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, comes from Greek, literally meaning “second law” or “repetition of the law.” We haven’t even finished the Five Books of Moses before we start repeating ourselves. Why? 

We actually got a little hint of an answer recently. A few weeks ago we read Parshat Shoftim. Here’s a little bit from chapter 17, verses 8 and 9: “If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault – matters of dispute in your courts – you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time and present your problem.” 

It doesn’t just say, “report the crime.” It says go to “the magistrate in charge at the time.” As if to tell us, the time is important. The authority needs to know not only the law, but also its context in society at that time. Or this time right now. The Torah says only a judge living in today’s world can understand how to apply the law today.

Context. It’s always context. And the good news is you don’t have to wait for me or Rabbi Kosak or the wonderful Downstairs Minyan sermonizers to draw these parallels for you. There are some amazing resources out there that summarize the parshiyot, and finding a spark of connection to your life is actually easier than you might think.

Context isn’t just how we understand ancient Torah today, but how we understand each other. If what you’re going through resonates with me because it connects or relates to something in my life, you’re no longer a stranger. Speaking of the courts, I’m sure you remember literature’s great moral compass, Atticus Finch. Harper Lee gave his character these words: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” We can fill our lives with repetition, but we will not understand the Torah or each other without applying context. We have to live in our time, and that means we make tradition, ritual, and mitzvot meaningful and relevant all over again every year and every day.

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it over and over again for everything is in it.” By the way, how appropriate for a sermon about repetition to quote Rabbi Bag Bag, the rabbi with a name so nice he used it twice. Whether we’re talking about the repetition of reading Torah, or reciting the same prayers over and over again, it forces us to examine what’s there in a different way.

Some of you read my weekly d’rei Torah in the Friday email blast. Did you know I started these writings in 2006? That’s a full year before I even met Duncan. Not every single one has been commentary on the Torah portion, but for 16 years I’ve been relating my life to my faith. I can’t encourage this enough. Explore the weekly portion or a midrash or even just rewatch The Prince of Egypt. It’s pretty good. But find something that speaks to you, in your language. Sibling rivalry, leadership development, romance, gardening advice . . . there is nothing else like our text. There is nothing like our Torah. Perhaps we might rediscover our relationship with it, and with ourselves, in the coming year. Shanah tovah.