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?



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. 

The Power We Give – Rosh Hashanah 5781

This is the recorded sermon I gave for Rosh Hashanah (first day) services at Congregation Neveh Shalom, with the text included below.

It begins, I suppose, with a person called – well, I don’t like saying the name if I can help it. No one does. People are still scared. See, there was this wizard who went bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse.

If you can name where that quote came from, 10 points to your house.

Yes, it’s from Harry Potter. I had actually never read the Harry Potter series until this past year, when Shiri became enthralled to the point of obsession. She never read them either of course, she had just heard about the stories from her friends with older siblings. I figured she’d want to read it at some point (perhaps judging by the fact that her go-to dress-up outfit is always Hermionie Granger) and that I should read it first so we could discuss it and I could know where all the scary parts were. So off I went on the Hogwarts Express, so to speak. 

If you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you know that the character who draws you in, the one that keeps you turning the pages and excited for the next chapter isn’t the title character. It’s someone who most of the other characters don’t even want to acknowledge by name. The character who holds the most attention and seemingly the most power is called Lord Voldemort. If you’re not familiar with the plot, Voldemort is the supervillain of the story, and so terrified is the wizarding community that they don’t call him by name, but instead refer to him as “You-Know-Who” or “He who shall not be named.” The fear, the danger, the violence mostly centers around the one character everyone is afraid to talk about.

It’s the sort of superstition we see all over the place, not just in fanciful fiction. It might be as innocent as not wanting to say something for fear of jinxing it. We’ll be discussing home repairs, and Duncan will say something like, “At least our old refrigerator hasn’t died yet.” That’s when I shoot him the death stare and quietly mouth obscenities at him that you don’t often hear from rabbis. Of course those words don’t actually affect the operation of our appliances, but why take any chances, right?

This “let’s not talk about it” fear can also take much more sinister forms. We don’t want to admit there are problems of racism, gender bias, patriarchy, anti-Semitism in the basic systems that govern and guide our lives. But what happens is that by refusing to name it, own it, and then deal with it as it happens, we let it reach a boiling point, and it causes much greater damage. 

I feel at this point I should acknowledge, as you may have heard from various sources, Harry Potter’s author J.K. Rowling has been outspoken and somewhat controversial about her viewpoints on current issues. While I don’t agree with many of the stances she’s taken, I think we can still say she was successful in providing us with this metaphor about what can happen when our problems and fears go undiscussed.

However, she’s not the first storyteller to use this device. Our very own core narrative shares the story of Amalek. The Amalekites, as told in the Torah, were a nomadic group living in the Sinai desert and the part of the Negev that was south of Judah. We know very little about them outside of what is specifically mentioned in the Torah, but we do know that the Amalekites staged a sneak attack on the weak and defenseless lagging at the rear of the migrating Israelites. It was an attack that showed Amalek to be uncommonly ruthless, and by today’s standards would certainly be considered a war criminal. 

When we read about Amalek in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, we encounter the following: 

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

“Blot out the memory.” “Do not forget.” Is it me, or is that confusing? It seems contradictory. How do we simultaneously remember Amalek while blocking out his name? It seems incongruous that we’d be able to do both. It’s not like Judaism doesn’t give double directives. We have plenty of those in the Torah, the one that comes to mind first, “shamor v’zachor.” This phrase from “Lecha Dodi” comes from both iterations of the 10 Commandments. In Exodus, we are to zachor Shabbat, remember the Sabbath, and in Deuteronomy, we are to shamor Shabbat, guard the Sabbath. Though the two versions aren’t identical, we can do both of these things. We can actively guard or keep, and we can remember. But with Amalek, the ideas of blotting out and remembering – they seem to be in direct violation of each other. Why would the Torah encourage us to remember and forget?

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it should, but it’s not from the Torah. We’re given a similar instruction on Purim, when we’re commanded to read the Megillah and say the name Haman, while also drowning out the name. So perhaps this tradition of Purim can help shed some light on how we can both remember and blot out.

At Purim we’re taught to blur the lines between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. And this isn’t just about getting drunk, it’s about telling a more complete story, one with representations of both good and bad. We don’t want to focus solely on the evil, and yet to revel in the victory without being able to reflect on the lesson learned would be a disservice to future generations.

This blurring of the lines and of the names also forces us to really examine who is to blame. For example, we don’t generally throw King Achashverosh into either the hero or villain column, but by allowing Haman to craft his extermination plan, is he not also guilty through his silence? To stand by is the opposite of to speak up, and no matter how advanced and connected our world becomes, we never seem to learn that lesson.

Haman, Amalek, Voldemort – we give them power when we only follow one part of the instruction. When we blot them out and then subsequently forget them, or when we remember them but don’t do anything about it. How many times have you heard you have to learn from your past so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future? We say the name, and we drown it out. We call out injustice, and we shout it down.

Tragically, we’ve become too good at just the “drowning it out” part without the “calling it by name” part. As we were thrown into the insanity of COVID-19, it revealed not only how broken our healthcare system is, but made abundantly clear cracks in our education system, our expectations of family work/life balance, our housing markets, and access to food. 

Then on top of racial and economic disparities made worse by the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered. While it was on one hand the latest evidence of unchecked police brutality, it also became the boiling point for the issue of systemic racism. 

I’d like to hope that maybe we’ve finally reached the point where we’re not leaving off half of the equation. Maybe we’re starting to do more than just remember, we’re starting to blot out. Maybe we’re not just shouting “boo,” we’re actually learning from the past.

Let’s be clear, though. Merely saying the name of the problem doesn’t make it go away. As in the case of Lord Voldemort, having Harry say his name wasn’t enough. It was only when Harry Potter was brave and bold enough to continue to say the name without fear that he was able to finally get enough buy in from the whole wizarding world to actually stand up and do something.

Social media has allowed us to become a passively reactionary society. What I mean is we rush to react and label people and actions we don’t agree with. But without any real change or even discussion behind it, engaging in this kind of virtue signaling doesn’t count as “saying the name of the issue.” These things don’t help anyone, they only drive bigger wedges between us.

I’m not suggesting we stop calling out injustice. I’m suggesting we call out these issues, these fears, these hypocrisies by name, and then back up those words with real data and real actions. It’s helpful to remember that not every issue affects me individually, but that doesn’t give me license to ignore it. We simply cannot pretend that problems don’t exist because we don’t say their names. That just allows the issue – and the fear of the issue – to grow. My Harry Potter quote at the start was from one of the early chapters of the first book. By the end of the first book, Harry learns a valuable lesson. Professor Dumbledore tells him, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This year, in 5781, we must continue to name the problems. We must relentlessly call them what they are. Don’t give them more power through silence. Voice with voice, hand in hand, we will work to achieve greater justice. Blot out AND do not forget.

Wind, Air, Breath

Each year as we approach the High Holy Day season, I am drawn to a particular theme. This year, as the holidays come right after the birthday season in our home (two in August, two in September), the idea of the “birthday of the world” is especially resonant with me. As we’ve had all four human birthdays in our house, we’ve celebrated with cake and candles, but this was the first year we couldn’t blow out candles.

We’re all hyper aware of how COVID-19 spreads, and we’ve been avoiding expelling air and fluid particles around others for the last six months. We wear masks to keep our breath from hurting others and theirs from hurting us. We learned this lesson early on, but it didn’t stop there. In Portland and in other cities, it wasn’t just COVID-19 that took our breath away, so to speak. Protestors everywhere have faced tear gas as a way of silencing rallying cries. try and silence protestors. 

Yet still, we continued on. At home we hunkered down and embraced the quiet neighborhood streets. With all the family time on our hands, after just a little practice we soon had a new bicycle rider among us and an expert balance biker. We embraced the outdoors for parade parties to celebrate friends and go on hikes. We loved playing on our sprinkler pad out front and having socially distant and safe outdoor playdates with friends. 

Despite the crazy of COVID-19, despite the social unrest over racial injustice, we were able to provide relief and some normalcy for our kids. Our big kid even went to day camp this summer, and was able to wear her mask and stay safe the whole time. 

We were hopeful when school started for both kids that in-person connection would soon follow. Our first grader started online and looked forward to outdoor, physically distant chances to see her friends outside of school hours. Our preschooler started in-person preschool in the amazing program he’s been part of since he was 1. It wasn’t the exact same routine, but it was a routine nonetheless. Our kids were happier, and things were more manageable. 

And then . . . 

The west coast began to burn. A week ago was the last time my kids stepped outside. A week ago was the last time we could take a deep breath. Why?

Because ten days ago a windstorm made wildfires exponentially worse, and they got scarily close.

Eight days ago we learned that fires were even in the Portland metro area southeast of us.

Eight days ago our preschool closed because the air quality was so bad even the inside wasn’t safe.

Seven days ago we listened as our kids asked us to close all the blinds because looking outside was “too scary” because the smoke made the sun spooky and the sky dark.

Seven days ago my daughter had her birthday, and instead of a birthday car parade, I stood outside with three layered masks and an iPad so she could connect with the friends who dared to drive by. 

As my dear friend lamented, “They took away outside!” Yes, now the smoke, fires, and hazardous air quality has even taken away outside. 

Ruach Elohim. When we read about creation in the Torah, we read about the spirit, the wind of God. This wind seems to be the opposite. This wind has taken away our air. This wind has actually condensed our usable space to four walls. We can’t take a deep breath. We can’t actually breathe. 

And we’re the fortunate ones. We were far enough from the fires themselves to be out of danger and not have to evacuate. We’ve got a house that has fairy decent seals. We’ve got community. We’ve got income that supports us. Yet our kids, like so many in our area, have had almost every outlet, every sense of normalcy, taken away from them with the latest devastating layer on 5780/2020 . 

The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve heard from numerous people saying they can’t imagine what life is like right now. I’ll tell you – it’s not fun. Our kids are already screened out because of school, and they’ve had their fill of yoga, art, games, and pillow forts. 

I’m writing this because perspective is everything. In Portland, we’ve been living with awful, off-the-charts hazardous air quality for a week. In other parts of the world, this happens almost year long. We need to change this.

I’m writing for our dog, Stanley, the ten-year-old “puppy” who can’t breathe when we go outside, but who still needs to go outside. 

I write because I needed to decide this week if it was better to wear a KN95 mask plus another double-layer mask inside for a funeral and risk COVID-19 exposure or be outside in the same situation and risk the over 500 AQI reading. 

I write because I can see what’s coming, and the mental health of adults and children needs to be a top priority for this country right now.

I write because I officiated a wedding for a beautiful couple twelve days ago, and it was windy but beautiful, and overnight those winds took the beauty and replaced it with danger. 

I write because we must listen to each other, and use our voices as the ruach, as the spirit that whispers elements of change to one another. The wind, the Spirit of God, is now the voice that tells us climate change is real, mental health must become a priority, and our world will cease to exist if we don’t take this seriously.

I write because, simply, we need to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and we need to tell each other’s stories. 

The word “shanah” in Hebrew happens to share a root with the words for “year,” “change,” and “learning.” May this be the year when we learn about how we can work together, support one another, and make change for a better tomorrow. 

Your Presence is Requested – Rosh Hashanah 5780


This is the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 30, 2019.

I want to try a quick exercise with you. I’m going to name a significant date in history, and I want you to think of where you were and what you were doing on that day. Try to recreate the scene in your mind with as much detail as possible. 

Ayeka (Where are you?): For those over 70, where were you on D-Day? For those over 50, where were you when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon? For those of you over the age of 18, where were you on 9/11? 

Early in the Torah, God asks a simple question to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God says “Ayeka?” Where are you? Well, we know where they are physically. Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden, and they have just broken the rules. They lost themselves in a moment of curiosity and adventure. They forgot the rules, and thus their safety, and it takes God to call them back into the present. So it’s not just “Where are you?” It’s “Where were you?” “Where was your mindset when this came to be?” And this question has resonated throughout generations.

Often we use location or movement-based language to describe emotional intent. Think about something as simple as saying “I’m going to do something.” No, you’re not actually going anywhere, that’s simply how we show intent, with movement. “Where are you?” doesn’t always mean I can’t see you. Sometimes it means “Where is your focus?” or “Where are you in your life?” 

The same goes for the response, the reassurance of “Here I am.” “Hineni.” It’s another concept that appears several times in the Torah, and it isn’t necessarily referring to physical presence. 

On Rosh Hashanah, when we read the terrifying tale of the Akeda, Abraham’s answer to God and to his son, Isaac, is “Hineni.” Literally he’s saying “Here I am,” but this single word is more about Abraham being completely present for both God and for his son. He’s present enough for God that he takes on this formidable task, and he’s present enough for his son that he actually stops when the angel says stop. Whether it’s “Ayeka” for Adam and Eve or the “Hineni” for Abraham, what does it mean to be aware of where you are? Of who you are? 

When I was growing up, my family had a tradition of going out to a fancy dinner twice a year with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, other milestones. My grandparents would plan it, and the restaurant they chose was called Opus One. It’s not open anymore, but thirty years ago this was the premier restaurant in downtown Detroit. It had a maître d’, fancy full-course meals, dimmed lights, and delicious steak.

I remember the first time I was old enough to join in on this fun night out. I can picture every detail. The dress I wore had puffy sleeves and flower print. I had socks with lace around the bottom and my fanciest patent leather shoes. I remember asking the waiter if they had A1 sauce to go with my steak. After dinner the waiter brought around a huge cart with samples of all the dessert offerings for us to choose from, and I remember seeing a chocolate mousse with large chunks of chocolate on the top and knowing I must have that “stuff in a cup,” whatever it was. To this day my family still calls chocolate mousse “stuff in a cup.” By the way, aren’t you glad this isn’t my Yom Kippur sermon?

The most vivid of all these moments was the trick my cousin and I pulled on my aunt. My Tanta was notorious for slipping off her shoes under the table wherever she went. After she took one of them off, my cousin Scott and I stole her shoe and passed it around the table. When she tried to get up to go to the bathroom, her shoe was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t go, she was stuck at the table. She looked everywhere and just about gave up until they brought out dessert, and under the silver cloche, there was her silk shoe. As if the shoe was saying, “Hineini – here I am!”

I happen to have an oddly accurate memory when it comes to day-to-day life, but this particular evening I remember down to the very last detail. I’d tell you to check my Facebook profile and look for the pictures to confirm, but this was in the early 1990s when there was no Facebook or selfie taking. We don’t have pictures of this moment, just my 8 or 9-year-old self being so fully present in that moment that I could savor each minute and hold the memory as a film in my own mind decades later.

Let’s go back quite a bit before that pre-Facebook night. In 1839, a dapper-looking Robert Cornelius set up his camera at the back of his dad’s gas lamp importing business in Philadelphia. He readied the camera, sprinted into the frame, and sat on a stool for a minute before returning to the camera. His reward for these few minutes of casual photography? The world’s first selfie.

From camera obscura to the digital camera, photography has come a long way. In the decades since its invention, it has helped shape both how we see the world and how we live in it.

The first photograph documented is from 1810, taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Using a camera he designed, he captured an image on a piece of paper that was coated in silver chloride. Unfortunately, we don’t have the photographic evidence because the paper eventually darkened until the image disappeared altogether. From there, photography continued to grow and change, and thus was born a new method of visual story telling that used light and chemicals rather than paint and paintbrush. 

Today, we’ve all become citizen archivists, and for better or worse our children and grandchildren will be able to see just how cute or hilarious or embarrassing any moment of their childhood was just by scrolling back through Google Drive.

Duncan and I are usually so quick to take out our phones to capture any given moment that it’s fairly common for us to hear, “Mommy, take a picture of me!” We rush to record the school performances or that silly thing the three-year-old just said. And they really do become precious memories to look back on as the baby faces transform and mature into young adults. I’ve even been known to take a selfie or two. If it’s a particularly great hair day or I’m in a beautiful location, I’m likely to take out the phone and snap a quick pic of me enjoying the moment. 

But I’m curious, what does that mean for those special moments like the ones I remember so vividly? How does snapping a photo affect Ayeka?  Can you fully answer Hineini if you’re focused on the picture? There’s no photograph that could have retold the shoe story with as much detail as I remember in my head. I suppose we could have had a video of the moment when Tanta’s show was revealed on the serving platter, but then someone would’ve had to have been behind the camera, not fully enjoying the moment themselves. With each innovation of the camera lens, with the increasing ease of holding your memories through pictures and film, what happens to our brain’s ability to connect and store information? 

When you compare studies done in the last few years, there’s some debate as to whether taking as many pictures as we do helps or harms our memories. Some research suggests that photography acts as a surrogate memory, meaning we actually remember less, while other experiments show that taking photos – or even just having a camera on-hand – means you remember more of what you see, but less of what you hear. 

But carrying around expensive cameras with us every day doesn’t just have these intangible, debatable effects. It also can have real and devastating physical consequences. Last year NPR did a study of news reports between October, 2011 and November, 2017, which concluded that in those six years there were 259 selfie deaths reported globally, with the highest occurrences in India followed by Russia, the United States, and Pakistan.

While 259 people dying over the course of six years is a pretty small percent of the planet’s population and total deaths during that time, I still find this number to be absolutely mind-blowing. We’re not talking about cancer or car accidents here. We’re saying that 43 people died each year simply trying to take a picture of themselves. It is something our brains are already built to do: be present and remember. Ayeka?

Besides the life and death safety issue, which, again, is pretty rare but crazy that it happens at all, being present has other benefits. It’s not just for us, it’s for the people we’re being present for. Rabbi Rachel Wiesenberg, a rabbinical colleague in Long Island, teaches that the gift of your attention is a precious one. And the choice to withhold this gift can have major repercussions in our relationships. Hineini

Similarly, Rabbi Brett Krichiver from Indianapolis writes, “When we miss the chance to be present with our closest loved ones, we may not notice the damage done until it is too late to repair. We may not notice the distance that begins to grow, the hurt born, hope lost. Our distraction causes those we love to withdraw, the Divine presence that once lived in the space between us starts to fade.” Check in- when you’re with family- Ayeka?  Can you respond Hineini?

A colleague, Rabbi Sue Fendrick reminded me of this teaching. The rabbis tell us in the Talmud in Masekhet Sotah that just as God is merciful and gracious to human beings through acts of kindness and generosity and caring, so are we called to be kind and generous and caring to each other. Mah hu rahum v’hanun, af atah rahum v’hanun. And I would suggest that our obligation to act in God’s ways extends to the act of presence, of being present. Just as God is ever-present to us, so may we be ever-present to each other, not because we’re trying to emulate God’s omnipresence, but because it’s part of our humanity. With all our imperfections, our struggles, our failings, giving our attention, our presence, is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Hineini

Jewish tradition even commands that we be there for one another. We have determined that particular occasions or tasks require a a minyan, to proceed. For things like Kaddish and Barchu, we need 10. For a beit din or a mezuman at the beginning of Birkat Ha-mazon, three are required. For havruta, we just need two. O havruta, o metuta, the rabbis tell us. Either thoughtful partnership or death. In other words, connection equals life.

Being completely present is hard. With all the distractions in the way today, it is perhaps the hardest thing for any of us to do, to put other things aside and be present. We even have apps that remind us to be mindful. How strange is that – one of the causes of our daily distractions is also attempting to offer a solution. But as the gates begin to close, the challenge is one of both Ayeka and Hineni. Mindfulness means asking each other “where are you?” and being able to answer “here I am.” 

I’d like to leave you with some words of poetry that beautifully illustrate what human to human presence means. The end of Marge Piercy’s poem “The Low Road,” provides a set of images of the various minyanim that can enable various gatherings and actions. Her words begin at the level of havruta, two people, and move towards an ever-widening definition of who we consider our “we”—a worthy challenge to us. 

Two people can keep each other sane

can give support, conviction,

love, massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation

a cell, a wedge.

With four you can play games

and start a collective.

With six you can rent a whole house

have pie for dinner with no seconds

and make your own music.

Thirteen makes a circle,

a hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity

and your own newsletter;

ten thousand community

and your own papers;

a hundred thousand,

a network of communities;

a million our own world.

It goes one at a time.

It starts when you care to act.

It starts when you do it again

after they say no.

It starts when you say we

and know who you mean;

and each day you mean

one more.

Ayekah? Where are you?


The Marshmallow Test – Rosh Hashanah 5779


This is the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 10, 2018. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

Marshmallows are my secret weapon. The only surefire way to get both of my kids to do something they aren’t particularly fond of doing is with the promise of a marshmallow. I know it goes against a lot of sound parenting advice to use food as a motivator, but I’m pretty sure there’s an exception for marshmallows. You can look it up.

The problem is Shiri and Matan are at two very different stages. Only Shiri can really grasp what it means to get different types of rewards for different actions. But they both understand marshmallows. There’s something about the way the cloudlike sweetness melts in their mouths that can get them to do just about anything we ask. And for parents, marshmallows are great too. They don’t get gooey until they’re super hot, and the ones from Trader Joe’s are kosher and vegan. I give marshmallows all the credit for saving our tushes several times on a recent long trip. Kids getting too rowdy at shul? Pass a marshmallow. It may not be long-lasting peace, but we take what we can get.  

I know what you’re thinking. You want a marshmallow now, don’t you? Or maybe you’re thinking about a famous experiment about delayed gratification, the marshmallow test. If you’re not familiar with the marshmallow test, it was a series of studies done in the 60s and 70s at Stanford in which a marshmallow or other treat would be placed in front of a child. The child could choose to eat the marshmallow right then, or if the child could delay gratification and wait 15 minutes, the child would be given two marshmallows.

Here’s what they found with this original test. Demonstrating the willpower not to eat the sugary treat seemed to be a predictor of the kid’s scholastic ability, specifically their future SAT scores. In other words, this test seemed to show a correlation between the ability of a child to delay gratification and how well he would succeed later in life.

First of all, if I were to run this test on my children, I’m pretty sure they would fail. But how can you blame them when our entire world is instant gratification? As society and technology evolve together, we have more and more opportunities to get anything we want as fast as we want it. Craving a favorite food and don’t want to leave the house or office? You’re not limited to restaurants that offer delivery anymore. Use DoorDash or Uber Eats and get practically anything delivered.

Want to watch a TV show, but forget to DVR it? No problem, you can stream it online. What the heck, just binge the entire series on Netflix. And forget about stressing over taking perfect photos on your camera or waiting for a roll of film to be developed.

We’ve gotten so used to the instant life that even fast things seem slow. I’m sure I’m not the only one who experiences the excruciating pain of awaiting an important email response by checking my phone every 30 seconds to see if it came through.

It seems like technology itself will never catch up to the level of our expectations for it. Our world is becoming one where we have limited patience to wait and see what happens next. With the ease of email, text messaging, and Twitter, we share our thoughts instantaneously, and we seek feedback immediately. But with this quick-to-share, quick-to-respond mentality, we seem to forget the whole point of communication in the first place. We forget to actually read what others are writing. That means our search for instant gratification can lead us to miss really important human cues, sometimes cries for help or connection.

When the Israelites are in the process of accepting the commandments of Torah and Jewish life from God, they respond to Moses by saying, “Kol asher diber haShem, na’aseh v’nishmah.” All that God has said, we will do and we will listen. The mandate of Judaism isn’t merely to “do this, don’t do that.” Our mandate is to do good in our world and listen to those around us as well as to God. The mitzvot we observe have an active component that we accomplish by doing, and a reactive component that we accomplish by listening, by actually opening our ears to calls for help.  

Where do the marshmallows come in? Well, if you’re thinking it sounds ridiculous to claim that eating a marshmallow or waiting in order to eat two marshmallows can have an impact on your SAT score, you’re not alone. Researchers from NYU and UC Irvine thought so too, and they decided to redo the experiment, but with ten times the number of participants and taking into account factors like the social and economic background of these kids. You know what they found? Delayed gratification wasn’t the determiner of success. Success was the determiner of delayed gratification.

When they accounted for things like household income, the kids who came from families who were better off or better educated were, on average, the ones who performed better. For example, among the kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for the second marshmallow did no better in the long run than those who ate the first marshmallow right away. By the same token, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited also did no better than those who ate right away.

How do we give our children and ourselves the best chance at success? It’s not by teaching them to delay gratification. It’s by teaching them to consider consequences and ask “Why”. Think about what happens if you eat this dessert. Will it mean no dessert later? Will it mean a greater risk of cavities? If you’ve considered the options and still want to eat the marshmallow, for goodness sakes, eat the marshmallow.

And when it comes to communication, if there’s something on your mind that you think needs to be said, sleep on it first. Talk it over with someone else. Roll it around in your mind, and if you still think it’s worth saying, then say it. Where we run into trouble is when we speak first, and then consider the consequences after it’s too late.

Na’aseh v’nishma – do, and listen. Yes, have an opinion and get things done, but also have compassion and get to know people. Who says that your opinion is more valid than someone else’s? It’s easy to be passionate about a topic, and when we’re passionate and have something to say, we want to push it out into the world in a fury of keyboard strokes. We want to be the first one to comment.

As we enter this new year, I have a challenge for all of us. Why not be the first one to listen? Instead of rushing to comment, how about if we rush to understand? How about if we rush to consider? Instead of talking louder and louder in order to be heard, what if we spoke less and less in order for someone else to be heard? In this new year, what if we could ask how someone is doing, and not be on to the next thought in our heads before they have a chance to say, “Great, thanks” or “Actually, not so well, and I could really use a friend right about now.”

To me, the updated marshmallow test is much less about who’s right when it comes to delayed gratification, and much more about having enough information to create an accurate study in the first place. It’s not a test of the children. It’s a test of us. Can we see that some people are struggling to put food on the table? Can we see how much where we come from is affecting where we have the ability to go?

In this new year, let’s slow down the assumptions and the immediate feedback. Instead, let’s rush to accept and acknowledge. Let us stumble over each other being the first to listen.

Shanah tova.