Meaning to the Mundane – Parshat Ha’azinu 5778


Are certain moments objectively meaningful, or are we responsible for assigning all meaning? There are plenty of events we call “life changing,” the ones that rock you to your core. Moments like the birth a child, the loss of a loved one, a great success in life – these are typically the ones that leave us forever changed in some way. Moments like changing the sheets on your bed, picking a place to eat lunch, finishing a particularly good book – these moments aren’t typically thought of as meaningful, nor do they usually add depth or beauty to our lives. But are moments really meaningful or not meaningful? Black and white? Or do we place meaning ourselves? Consider moments that seem ordinary, ones you engage in every day, but still contain a moment of magic like tucking in your child at night, a quiet conversation with a loved one, or a beautiful walk on a gorgeous day. These are moments that can take you by surprise; suddenly their ordinary nature isn’t so ordinary at all.

As we come to the end of the Torah, we find ourselves reading about massive miracles and life changing experiences of the Israelites at the same time that we’re reading about the mundane experience of simply plodding through life. For the Israelites, seeing God’s miracles, which happened so often for them along their journey, became a bit meaningless. Miracles, as strange as it sounds, became mundane and something they expected to happen. For us reading about it now, without grand acts of God taking place regularly in our lives, “miracles” are anything but mundane.

This past week we read the penultimate Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu. It’s the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning, and it’s actually structured as a poem explaining the pitfalls of negative behavior and the blessings of good behavior. The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain and into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah serves as a 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).

In one of the final lines of the text we read that the Torah is “not an empty thing from you.” In other words if the Torah appears to be meaningless, empty, or unclear, it is not the Torah’s fault, but your own inability to make meaning out of the text (or out of a moment). The final lines of the Torah remind us that it is our task to add meaning to our lives, and that is the purpose of Torah in a nutshell: adding meaning and purpose to what otherwise might be mundane.


New Year’s Reinventions


Susan Nanus entered rabbinical school when she was 54 years old. Now 67, Rabbi Nanus is a member of the clergy team at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a thriving center of Jewish life (and of historical note, the first synagogue in Los Angeles). You might not have heard the name Susan Nanus before, but you might be familiar with the work she did in her previous career. In her late 20s, after graduating Yale Drama School, Susan started earning a living as a playwright and screenwriter. She went on to have a successful 30-year writing career, which included award-winning TV movies and plays on Broadway.

Throughout those decades of her first life, Susan was actively involved in the Jewish community, working part time in Jewish education. But it wasn’t until much later in life that Judaism inspired her to go in a completely new direction and reinvent herself as a rabbi.

I have transition and reinvention on my mind as we enter the High Holy Days. A new year brings with it an interesting mix of feelings. There’s the comfort of the yearly cycle, knowing we can expect familiar traditions, familiar change of seasons, and familiar annual events. At the same time, there’s a sense of rejuvenation that suggests anything is possible when we start fresh. How will you reinvent yourself in the new year?

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we are responsible for our choices in life and that the proper path is to follow the rules and be good people (and to repent when we’re not). Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. At the heart of these Torah portions is the transition – the reinvention – of Moshe from current leader to former leader.

In chapter 31, verse 2 of Deuteronomy we read, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” Although this transition may have been on his mind for quite some time, this is the moment when Moshe reveals that he is ready to help the change in leadership occur. It’s the kind of transfer of power we should aspire to; Moshe knows the time has come, and his acknowledgement of that sends a strong, levelheaded message. The self-awareness to understand when you’ve done all you can do means you’re putting the needs of your people ahead of your own. This is the model for leadership, and this is the model for transition.

It is challenging to let go, and yet even Moshe, who led the Israelites to redemption, was able to recognize when it was time to step down. Nitzavim and Vayelech remind us that change is necessary, but our High Holy Days remind us that change can be just the beginning. Shabbat shalom.

Faking a Mitzvah – Parshat Ki Tavo 5777


The best bar and bat mitzvah speeches are the ones where the student clearly owns the information, and the speech is delivered with feeling and with meaning. One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate is helping bar and bat mitzvah students with these speeches. I love the process of facilitating their discovery of the text, picking it apart to find something personally meaningful to them in even the strangest of Torah laws. When we start working on a speech, the student might not really connect to the meaning of the text on its surface. Eventually we start to talk about underlying themes and ideas, and slowly the words start to come together.

What I try to convey is that there’s a difference between what the students think I want to hear from them and their own, personal insight into the material. There’s no doubt that the more passionate we are about a cause or idea, the more likely we are to put in hard work, really living and embodying those beliefs.

The same is true with Torah. This week we read from Parshat Ki Tavo, which includes the final narrative of the Israelites preparing for their entry into the Land of Israel. We find out about the gifts the Israelites are to bring to the Beit HaMikdash and the blessings and curses bestowed on the land and on those who observe the Torah and God’s commandments. The parshah begins and ends with the requirement to recognize and give gratitude for the good that comes to us.

In chapter 26, verse 13 we are in the middle of learning about the tithing required of the Israelites. As they stood before God they were required to make a declaration of how and why they were tithing. Part of that avowal is stating, “I have not neglected any of your commandments.” The S’fat Emet interprets this to mean that the individual has not performed any of these mitzvot mindlessly, perfunctorily, or without feeling. The actions taken to perform mitzvot shouldn’t be done automatically or by rote. Each one should have intention and purpose behind it.

When we are fully invested and dedicated, that is when we’re truly giving and participating in community. In Judaism, as in our lives, we should “do it with feeling.” A bar mitzvah isn’t just about the party or turning a certain age, it is about identifying and investing in the future of your relationship with God. It’s not just about keeping tradition, but about believing you are a part of that tradition.

Over Troubled Water – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5777


I’m sure you’ve shared my shock and horror watching the images of the devastation Hurricane Harvey has wrought on Houston, Texas and surrounding areas in the Gulf. News broadcasts and photos on the Internet bring both a sense of intimacy, as if it were happening in our own backyard, and distance, as we struggle with not knowing exactly how or when to offer help from so far away.

There’s a visceral, emotional component to natural disasters, not only for those suffering firsthand in the path of the destruction, but also for those witnessing the event from the outside. It comes from a natural desire to want to help and lend a hand, and it manifests itself in many different scenarios. Do you fight for the underdog? Do you like to support small businesses partly because they’re small? And is your heart moved to support those who might be having a difficult time?

This week we read Parshat Ki Teitzei, which discusses a variety of seemingly unconnected laws, including laws for going to war, picking favorite children, and charging interest on loans, among many more mitzvot. In fact this parshah has more mitzvot within its text than any other single parshah. On the surface these laws all deal with the “proper” ways to build and govern a society, but there is another theme that runs through many of these mitzvot, which is how we treat the vulnerable and less fortunate in our society.

Chapter 24 of the book of Deuteronomy focuses on the innate dignity of people on society’s margins. Specifically, this includes people from the widowed and the orphaned to the worker and the poor or downtrodden. Throughout this text, the Torah demands that we work to support them. For example, verses 14 and 15 of this chapter focus on the needs of the worker. We are required to pay wages right away, not withhold them or otherwise take advantage of an employee. The Torah declares that the penalty against an employer who abuses a laborer is guilt brought on by God. That is to say, in a dispute between the powerful employer and the more vulnerable hired worker, God is on the side of the vulnerable.

Human dignity is at the core of how we should treat one another, and to offend or oppress another human being is to offend and oppress God. As we learn from several of the verses in this week’s portion, this goes beyond acts of malice against other people to also mean suffering from outside causes, hurricanes included. Every human being has an inherent value, equal in worth in the eyes of our creator and in our own. Our job, according to Parshat Ki Teitzei, is to actively respect, honor, and support one another no matter the circumstances that created the need. When we can uphold this mitzvah, when we strive to see the worth and dignity in one another, there is no suffering alone.

Right now we have the opportunity to help the more vulnerable among us, namely a smaller conservative synagogue in Houston that faces months of work to repair the damage that has been caused by Hurricane Harvey. I hope you’ll join me in supporting our fellow community Congregation Or Ami; you can read more about what we’re doing and how to help here:


The Dirty Work – Parshat Shoftim 5777

The Dirty Work

When I was at summer camp as a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the chore chart. Every cabin had a paper plate wheel that matched up your name with a task that was part of cleaning the cabin. The tasks included things like sweeping, laundry, garbage, and table server at mealtimes. They ranged from the most desired (easiest) chore of holding the dustpan, to the least desired (grossest) chore of cleaning the bathrooms.

However, everyone’s favorite spot on the wheel wasn’t a chore at all – it was a free spot, which gave one camper per day a break to sit back and relax while others did the work. I’d like to think that taking a turn on the free spot was rejuvenating and good for my soul, though I know it didn’t necessarily improve cabin morale, it just made the other campers yearn for their free day.

A benefit of having a chore chart is that the cabin stays clean, but the point of it all is to teach responsibility and the value of combining our efforts for a greater good. Each one of us has a role to play. The Torah makes this point as well. The Levites had certain defined responsibilities to the people, as did the Kohanim and the other tribes. Every person’s job throughout our journey in the desert was critical to the survival of the Israelites. But what framework did the Torah provide as we moved forward after our nomadic period? How did the responsibilities change once we were living in a firmly-rooted and established society?

We arrive at this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. In Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that focuses entirely on the legal system, we read the commandment to establish judges and officers. We also cover a list of punishments for violating certain mitzvot, and we learn about laws regarding false witnesses and murder.

In chapter 19, verse 10 we read:

“Thus blood of the innocent will not be shed, bringing bloodguilt upon you in the land that the Lord your God is allotting you.”

This is the final line in a conversation about the communal responsibility to ensure public safety for society. The Talmud in tractate Makot uses this verse to infer that society is responsible for public safety in all regards, such as keeping the roads safe and drivable.

In the chore chart of life, having every position filled and accounted for is what keeps things running smoothly. But here’s the key: the responsibility for public safety does not fall solely on the law enforcers or the justice system. You don’t have to work in sanitation to do your part by composting and recycling, and you don’t have to work for ODOT to report dangerous road conditions. We are responsible for safety. We each have a role to play.

On a related note, any tips for convincing my kids that bathroom duty is in fact the best job on the chart?