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.

All Over Again – Parshat Nitzavim 5776


I didn’t really believe it when people told me that love evolves. Married couples told me the love I felt for my husband wouldn’t always feel the same as it did on our wedding day or at any other point in our relationship. Then I found out it was true. Even as our love grows stronger, the days, months, and years that pass cause me to see Duncan in a new light, a light that shines with different characteristics and moments of magic at each step along our journey together. I look at our lives today and how different they are from seven years ago when we got married, and I fall in love all over again for new reasons. We joke about having a recommitment ceremony each year of our marriage, but the truth is we are always subconsciously evaluating what it is that we love about our partners and affirming our commitment to grow together throughout all of life’s ups and downs.

So many of our life experiences are about moving forward, committing to a plan or recommitting to what we do and being able to move forward, fully invested in our lives. This can happen daily on a smaller scale or less frequently on a larger scale, like the renewal of a contract at work or your membership at the gym. As we close in on the High Holy Days, the question is what would it look like to renew that contract with Judaism?

This week we read parshat Nitzavim, which is entirely concerned with how we treat our land, including how we reduce, reuse, and recycle and the results of our actions on future generations. This week we read about the continued warnings to believe in God and observe the mitzvot or else, as well as the idea that we have a choice between good and bad and life and death. The Torah tells us that we determine whether we live a full life through our good choices or die through bad.

The section of text begins: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, and all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to water drawer, to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” Why are we talking about a covenant again? Didn’t we already enter into the covenant with God at Sinai? Wasn’t it the moment of receiving the commandments when the whole nation responded together with “We will do and listen”?

As the Israelites embark on a new experience in the land of Israel, this moment in the Torah serves to reaffirm the covenant they made with God at Mount Sinai. Our relationship with God, like other literal or figurative contractual relationships, requires retooling, reformatting, and recommitment. A relationship with God is not static; it is fluid and ever-changing. As such, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that we must be active in renewing our love for God and our Jewish community.

As we approach the High Holy Day season, now is the time to take stock in our commitment to our religious community and our relationship with God and take action to move forward. How will you recommit in the new year?

Torah-landia – Parshat Nitzavim 5775


As we prepared for our move to Portland last year, the question nearly every person asked us was “Have you watched Portlandia?”  We did actually catch some of the series to see what it was all about, but it’s after having lived here for over a year that the humor in the uniqueness of our city has become perfectly clear. One of my favorite quirks, albeit a confusing one, is the complicated waste disposal system in many restaurants, grocery stores, and coffee shops. Sometimes I honestly don’t know where my trash goes.  Reusable? Compost? Recycling? Landfill?  Even though I feel like I spend half the outing figuring out how to sort my dishes, this might be environmentalism at its best. And this is Portland.

However, Portland is not the first place to hold its residents to a higher standard in regard to waste and sustainability.  The Torah, and particularly this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, has concern for how we treat our land, how we reduce waste, and what the results of our actions will be on future generations.  This week we read about the continued warnings to always follow God and observe the commandments, as well as the idea that we have a choice between good and bad and life and death.  We’re instructed that the power to lead righteous lives is within our control.  

Specifically, chapter 29 goes into detail about the downfall of our land should one generation choose not to do its part to take care of it.  The text teaches that if mitzvot are not followed then certainly the land will be barren and crops will not grow.  Later generations will ask the children who succeed you, “How did those who lived before us permit themselves to despoil the earth, air, and water, not leaving us a livable environment?”

How interesting that a document that defines our past and present also asks us to anticipate the future. The Torah compels us to remember that what we do has an impact on future generations, and that our damage cannot always be undone.  Yes, the idea of sorting every scrap of garbage makes Portland sound weird (and even makes for great television parody), but living in a world where we know the origins of our food and do our best to create a sustainable living environment also means that we continue to nourish and provide for our future generations. Not to mention you can put a bird on it.

photo credit: Portlandia! via photopin (license)

Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear – Parshat Nitzavim Vayelech 5773

Change isn’t easy.  It has become cliche, but it’s evident whenever circumstances take a directional turn.  Think about your last move or even your last spring cleaning.  Did you pack up with dispassionate efficiency or did you reminisce as you looked at each piece of paper, book, or memento?  Did you purge the old to make room for the new?  What seemed like a straightforward process has now taken three times as much energy, and what’s worse, it feels as if you’ve taken steps back and not moved forward at all.

This week we read parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days.  Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people.  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.  Wedged within these words is the commandment of teshuvah, repentance.

The text informs us in chapter 30 that repentance is a mitzvah in its own right.  God teaches that if we repent and open our hearts to understanding the wrong we have done and make actual effort to change, then God will bring us comfort, love, and wellbeing.  The Torah presents repentance both as an obligation and as something innately human.  But, it also understands that this act can be difficult.  Chapter 30, verse 11 states, “Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  The rabbis of the Talmud understood this verse as referring to the entire Torah.  God is reminding us that while the laws might seem intricate and complicated, they are exactly within our reach.

The great Medieval commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (RamBaN) narrows the focus of this verse to refer only to the laws of repentance.  He teaches that it is difficult to break a bad habit, to fully repent, and to change one’s way of life.  And yet, every day there are people who prove that it can be done.  In fact, according to RamBaN, repentance is a lot like the give and take of packing.  A midrash also offers us the metaphor of a mirror.  The figure we see in the mirror seems to be twice as far from us as it really is.  But with every step we take toward the mirror, the reflection takes a step toward us.  So it is with repentance.  Our goal seems so far off, but God says to us, “Take one step toward Me, and I will do the same and meet you halfway.”

In this season of repentance, we are reminded that life is a give and take.  In order for this to work in any relationship, you must make the first move, the first step towards giving.  Whether in regard to decluttering a space, mending existing relationships, or even getting through life day by day, meeting each other halfway can make all the difference in the world.