Shmini Atzeret and Political Anguish

rain pic

Around 1 in the morning Monday night, I awoke to the sounds of it.  The soft pattering quiet I had not heard for a season.  Unmistakable.  Rain.  The first rain of the season soaking the bamboo roof of my Sukkah.

The timing seemed supernatural.  The next day was Shmini Atzeret, the little-known holiday at the tail end of Sukkot whose primary ritual act is to pray for rain.  Twice a year, the liturgical calendar asks us to switch out a tiny phrase in the Amidah prayer, traditionally said three times a day.  Usually for me the line is a semi-conscious blip in the course of a service.  Sometimes it lifts me up into an awareness of seasons and the preciousness of water.  Twice a year, it expands into a beautiful poem of hope and vulnerability as we acknowledge the Earth’s cycles and our human dependence on rain and dew to feed our bodies.

Eloheynu v’Elohei Avoteynu v’Imoteynu – Our God and God of our ancestors: 

B’gishmei orah ta’ir adamah — With raindrops of light, illuminate the Earth,

B’gishmei bracha, t’varech adamah — With raindrops of blessing, bless the Earth,

B’gishmei gilah tagil adamah — With raindrops of rejoicing, give joy to the Earth…

The prayer is an acrostic, moving through the Hebrew letters and praying for every kind of goodness to wash over us as the rains begin.  Then it introduces the phrase which will be said in the midst of the Amidah until the end of Pesach as the season shifts again.

She’atah hu Adonai Eloheynu rav lehoshiah, mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem – for You are Adonai our God, whose power to save is great, the One who makes the wind blow and the rains fall.

This morning, a few days after Shmini Atzeret, as I obsessively checked for news, I had all but forgotten the Earth and its seasons shifting around me, the powers of the planet and its rains and winds.  Caught up in the pain of the moment, the outrage and disillusionment happening on our human scale, I had completely given in and cut myself off – running my life by the cycles of headlines and scandal rather than the cycles of prayer, water and sun.

Painful as it is – I am glad to be awake.  I know that for the sake of my children, and God willing their children’s children, I need to pay attention to the politics of our moment.  I need to remember what I committed to on Yom Kippur for the sake of the world.  I need to do more than I did in 2016 when that consequential election loomed. Actions like making calls, giving to campaigns and getting out the vote not only make a difference in the world, they also (more selfishly) make a difference to my distressed inner state.

I also know that all of our human structures of government, technology and community are built on a foundation of Earth.  In Hebrew, the first human beings are called Adam – from the word Adamah, Earth, that features so much in the prayer for rain above. We are formatively and linguistically — creatures of the Earth.  And that quality reminds me that there is a frame here beyond the momentary dramas on the political scale.

I find myself longing for grounding.  For perspective.  Yesterday I sat with a family who was planning to bring a 101 year old great grandmother to attend a Bar Mitzvah service.  I mused about how I would love to ask her how she sees our moment.  I wondered if she feels it is as unusual and troubling as it seems to me – or if it is just another cycle, far less worrisome than others she has lived through.

Not all of us have access to clear-minded elders who have lived through a century of human craziness.  But all of us do have access to the Earth and the Sky and our own community gatherings.  In our part of the world, we even have access to the ocean.

As these next weeks of political intensity unfold, we will all no doubt be tempted to cut ourselves off from our Earthliness, and our fellows humans, losing ourselves in hours of screen-time, reading every update.  But I hope in the midst of this tumult, we can all find times to connect with our spirits, with one another, and with our Earthliness.

I trust in that. I do.  It’s not just that I run to a shabbat service or the outdoors as an escape.  It’s that I know good things come when I take time to ground myself in the prayers of community and the natural world.  Clarity, peace, insight, inspiration: these are not just luxuries to seek in the redwoods or a room of singing voices when the fight is won — they are qualities we can find and bring to the struggle as we go.  May our voices joined together and our beautiful Earth remind us of who we are and what it’s all for, and may this season bring us much needed raindrops of hope and transformation.




Prayer Thoughts from a Rabbi Mom on her son’s prayer book dedication sticker…

Prayer is …

More than the words in this book,

though these words will guide you, and teach you,

if you let them.

Prayer is …

Time out of time — to notice

in the silence, in the distracting thoughts, in the still small voice within,

Change and stillness,

Knowing, and heartbreak

Remorse and forgiveness

Hope and resolve

Gratitude and compassion

Prayer is not …

a spectator sport.

It is not passive,

though it can be effortless.

The recitation of words can be rote, thoughtless and unconscious –

or it can be Practice — inscribing words on your heart.

Sometimes, a phrase suddenly jumps out of the stream and glimmers in new light.

This happens especially, as you learn to understand Hebrew.

[Oy, and then there are more challenges — when the Hebrew is not just a                                 meaningless mantra, and the words are not ones you would choose to say –                         curses on enemies, songs of victory, endless strings of lavish praise upon a                           God you don’t believe requires or desires those particular phrases                                           — that kind of thing.

Don’t get confused.  Still you can pray in your own words, or in silence.

Just keep rising, level after level.]


Be careful not to dismiss, judge, or otherwise miss the value of where you are and what has been given to you from your people.

Be careful not to become spiritually complacent, arrogant, stubborn, stuck.

Don’t give up when it’s hard.

Music is important.

Singing with others together,

lifting voices,

generating joy,


holding silence,

finding harmonies,

creating beautiful sound.

Words are important.

Moving the heart.

Teaching across time and generations.

Silence is important.

Making space to listen, to receive.

Prayer is…

interactive and solitary

Paradoxical — Revolutionary

Prayer is a gift you give to your soul.


Thank You but No Thank You

If you have heard me speak of Jerusalem, you may know that I hold a love for it that is deep and not entirely rational.  You may have heard me tell stories of encounters I’ve had there with Palestinians losing their homes to unjust Israeli policies.  You may have heard me tell stories of the joy I felt during my sabbatical there to see my children experience Jewish holidays and Shabbat as part of the mainstream culture around them.

It’s complicated.

I love Jerusalem with the love of generations of my ancestors who have dreamed of returning there.  AND – I am not blind to the ways my people have misused their newfound power.  I have worried for my own safety and the safety of my children as I’ve lived in Israel during waves of terror and warfare, and I have seen with my own eyes Israeli forces violating the human rights of Palestinians.

It’s complicated.

When I heard President Trump’s announcement, validating the Jewish narrative of that place, asserting a hope for peace – some small part of me nodded and smiled.  But most of me shook with fear as I wondered whether a lighted match had just been thrown into a pile of oily rags (the metaphor my teachers once used to explain the events leading up to the first and second World Wars.)

After a year of constant assaults on the rule of law, the free press, the integrity of public service, the environment, the rights and dignity of every vulnerable group in our great and diverse nation, this President is the last man on earth I would trust to make a  risky international move “because it’s the right thing to do,” as he claimed was his motivation yesterday.

In the coming weeks, as the Muslim and Arab communities world-wide react to this inflammatory move, I pray that they contain their outrage and refrain from violence.  I pray that they finally see the wisdom and power of a non-violent response.  But if they don’t, (which seems likely), I pray that in our country, Israel, and the Middle East, this moment does not become the opening to a new chapter of terrorism, crackdowns, Islamaphobia, war, and all of the other plagues that follow on the heels of the politics of fear and hate.

Whatever satisfaction I felt at hearing the President of the United States recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, (something I hope and pray for in the right time for the right reasons), I could not celebrate yesterday’s announcement.  Even as it appears to bring Jews closer to fulfilling ancient and powerful dreams, those dreams will mean little if we awake every morning to a reality of violence, injustice, and fear.  So thank you, but no thank you, Mr. President. You have not won over this rabbi by pretending to champion the cause of my people while you damage the prospects for peace.

High Priests, Politicians and Presidents – Bound by the Law to Serve the People

At the outset, I would like to make a shout out to our Commander in Chief for his recent Executive Order weakening the wall separating church and state.  I would prefer That wall to remain high and strong BUT as long as it’s wobbly, I suppose I should be grateful that the President wants to “give our churches back their voices.”  So I feel I must say two things – Thank You, but No Thank You, and, in the meantime, Brace Yourself.  You will not always win when you invite the voice of morality to weigh in …

So – what does the “voice of the church” have to say about the events of the moment and their intersection with scripture? This week in Parashat Emor the book of Leviticus turned to some of the special rules that apply only to the ancient priests, a caste of Israelites who lead the ritual life of their people.  They must maintain a level of ritual purity far stricter than that of the ordinary citizen. This impacts who they can marry and who they can mourn and other dimensions of life.  As is the case now, there are slightly different expectations of our leaders, usually higher expectations.  Usually…

On the other hand, Torah makes it clear that even if we hold leaders to different standards in some ways, no one is above the law.  Even the High Priest.  He may have the power to atone for the sins of the whole people.  He may have the privilege of access to the Holy of Holies, where no other person may enter.  He may get a lifetime supply of animal sacrifice barbecue in return. But he still has to obey the 10 commandments (613 actually) and he is still held accountable for his sins.  In fact, he is not allowed to exercise his power and privilege to atone for others until he has atoned for himself (Lev. 16:11).

This basic idea – that even the most powerful leader must follow the law, that even the most powerful leader should be held accountable for his mistakes, is one which seems to have some people confused today.

This week we saw it as Kellyanne Conway brazenly defended Trump’s latest power grab – who are we to question!?  He has the authority.  It’s his prerogative.  Yes, he has the authority, but even Presidential authority does not endow one with immunity from the law – civil, criminal, and moral law — which even a President must not break.

Kellyanne Conway was right about one thing.  The President does have the authority and power to fire the head of the FBI – even while that person is leading an investigation which brushes closer and closer to the President and his inner circle.  (Anyone who can remember Watergate knows that Presidents can fire investigators and special prosecutors.)

The question is not whether the President holds the power, the question is whether he is using that power to interfere with the checks and balances which are meant to hold him accountable to the law.

If we let this breach go unchallenged, we risk losing the separation of powers which is the deep structure protecting our Democracy. As David Frum writes in The Atlantic, “liberty must be defended … with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them.” (“How to Build an Autocracy”, The Atlantic, David Frum.)

The institutions which make our Democracy possible are under attack.

Our ‘High Priest’ has forgotten (if ever he knew) that he’s there to serve God and the people, rather than his own selfish ends.

At times like these I am glad to be a person of faith.  Faith in the triumph of Truth.

As Proverbs 12:19 teaches, “Truthful speech abides forever, a lying tongue but for a moment.”

And there is Truth.  By the way. Objective, fact-based, not-opinion, not-“alternative” Truth.  A reality so real that it’s realer than reality TV.  The kind of Truth that doesn’t go away or disappear when it’s inconvenient or even downright damning.

If leaders choose denial, deception, and manipulation in order to seize and stay in power, one day they will pay.  One day they will no longer be able to fool the masses.  One day this Democracy will no longer allow the party in power to draw district lines in their own favor or stack the deck with corrupt local judges.  One day we will stop the flow of obscene amounts of tainted money into vitriolic political attack ads.  One day the people will learn how to avoid being sucked in by the quicksands of lies and misinformation on the internet.

On that day the people will awaken and see that they were duped by the schemes of a powerful meddling international criminal who figured out how to manipulate free countries through lies and deception, skillfully placed and timed, consumed by the open, uncritical minds of under-educated, over-stimulated American citizens. And when we awaken, we will reinvigorate this Democracy, keep our land free, and reclaim the content of our own minds.

When that day comes, any politician and any party who has chosen to support a regime ready to destroy the foundations of American freedom will lose the future.  If ever they had a chance to be a part of it.

Our congressional leaders must do the right thing now if they ever hope to be worthy of public trust and respect down the road.  Appoint and fund an independent investigation to follow the truth wherever it leads, without fear of retaliation.  Defend the institutions of our free country now — for the love of the United States of America.  Remind the High Priest that he is accountable to a higher power, and bound by the laws of the land.


We Need Science and Science Needs Religion

Image result for march for science images

This past Saturday, April 22nd, two worldwide conversations happened simultaneously.  In honor of Earth Day, tens of thousands of people gathered in over 500 cities world-wide to March for Science.  A sampling of the best signs according to Slate and others includes: “Science is Real, Denial is Deadly”, “I Can’t Believe I’m Marching for Facts”, and “Got the Plague? Me Neither. Thanks Science.”

While the crowds marched, Jews all over the globe also read Parashat Shemini – a section of Leviticus that some would say clashes with our contemporary sensibilities. Here is a sample of the Biblical material:

These are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth: Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews its cud among the animals you may eat. … the swine, which parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you… anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters … is an abomination to you… and these shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey… the hoopoe and the bat… (Leviticus 11:1-4, 7-10, 13-19.)

Reading Leviticus with an awareness of the other global conversation, this list becomes more than a bunch of arbitrary rules; instead it presents a snapshot of known species 2500 years ago; an early classification system. In a word — science. (A primitive and limited sort of science to be sure, but still, science). And yet, if we read the Levitical list as if it is meant to replace or compete with a modern scientific treatise on bio-diversity, we miss the point entirely.

Thinkers often oppose “science” and “religion” as if the two are in some inherent cosmic struggle.  One cannot “believe in the Bible” and “accept the truth of science” at the same time.  But to me that seems a deeply false dichotomy; a mistake which misunderstands both science and religion.

Religion and science may both seek the Truth in some sense, but they explore different arenas of human inquiry.

Science can help us to understand the microscopic makeup of our bodies and the cosmic movements of the stars.  Science gives us reliable, evidence-based descriptions of our world that we can apply to build bridges and subways, engines and weapons, computers and medicines. Ignoring, denying or undermining scientific inquiry and scientific facts is foolish at best, and gravely reckless as a basis for public policy.  I cannot believe that in 2017 there is a need to defend the very institution of truth and evidence based science but here we are. Onward marchers world-wide!

And yet, science is not all inherently good.

In fact, “good” is a category poorly captured by the scientific approach.  Morality in general is not going to be “discovered” as a principle of the physical universe.  We may be able to use social sciences to describe and predict human behavior, but that is different than the fundamental judgment call of whether or not a person’s actions are “good.”

This is where the Torah comes in.  From the very beginning of Genesis, “goodness” is a basic building block of creation.  Check out day three (Gen 1:9-13).  This is not a truth claim about how long evolution unfolded in order to bring forth plants on the face of the earth.  It’s a poetic description in an ancient text about a time before humanity.  And it introduces something extremely significant into the mix.  “God saw that it was good.”  Goodness. A moral dimension.  A value judgment.

Science by itself lacks this key ingredient.

Science by itself can make medicines. Science by itself can make weapons capable of destroying all life on the planet.  Science is a tool, maybe the most powerful tool we have.  We human beings are the ones wielding that tool.  And we must discern together how to wield it for the good.

So what does Leviticus say about learning to use our science for the good?

Remember that ancient taxonomy of species and which ones we can eat? Without getting caught up in the details, I want to point out one overarching takeaway in the moral dimension.

Whatever animals make it to whatever lists, the whole system teaches us that there are rules about how human beings are meant to relate to the creatures of the earth.  We are not allowed to consume endlessly, whatever we want, whenever we want.  There is a moral dimension not only to how human beings treat each other, but also to how we relate to our planet and our fellow creatures.

Do we have the power to eat pigs and shrimp and bats and vultures and bugs?  Well, some of us do.  But Should we?  That’s the question the Bible introduces.  Should we?  What Should we do or not do in order to maintain the “goodness” woven deep into the fabric of our world? We need more than science to answer this question.

Kohelet Rabbah, an ancient rabbinic text, tells a story of the first human being.  After creating Adam in the Garden of Eden, God takes him on a walk and says, “See how good are My works… think about this.  Do not destroy or corrupt my world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to come after you to set it right.”

Or as the organizers of the March for Science put it, “There is no “Planet B.”

As we humans continue to develop the gifts of both the intellect and the soul, may we be blessed with a deepening understanding of our world and a strong moral sensibility.  May we be blessed to pursue not only what is possible, but also what is right.  May our scientific advances help us to heal what we have damaged and protect what is precious, beautiful and good. And may we and our leaders also develop in the moral dimension, cultivating the integrity, courage, and love for future generations that it will take to face inconvenient scientific truths and place people and planet ahead of short term profit.


A New Pharaoh Arose in Egypt…


(The following is a mash-up of Saturday morning’s Shabbat sermon and my words at the SF Women’s March that afternoon as we prepared to pray with our feet. Above is a photo of a tiny fraction of the crowd in front of SF City Hall.)

It’s time.

Time to tell the story again. One of the greatest stories in our sacred human inheritance. A story which has inspired people in times of trouble all over the world for generations. It’s a story that gives us a template for the struggle against tyranny and slavery of all kinds.

I’m talking about the story of the Exodus, in Hebrew, Yetziat Mitzrayim. On the morning after the inauguration of America’s 45th President, even as millions marched worldwide, Jewish communities in every corner read and discussed the story of Moses confronting Pharaoh which began in the week’s Torah portion.  It’s a story Jews remember every day in our prayers, every winter as we read through the Torah, and every Spring as we celebrate Passover.  I have studied and told and listened to this story thousands of times in my life and I can’t think of a moment I felt I needed it more than I do now.

So I want to tell you the story…

A new Pharaoh took office in Egypt who did not know he was not God.  He said to his people, “Behold, there is a people in our midst, the Children of Israel.  They are different from us.  They are dangerous.  What if they were to join with our enemies and rise up against us?!”

Using fear and hate, this new Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites to build with hard labor.  Pyramids rose – towers, reaching to the heavens, glorious monuments to Pharaoh’s name.  Yet still he was afraid and commanded the midwives Shifrah and Puah to kill every baby Hebrew boy at birth.

And there the resistance began.  In the first example of civil disobedience ever recorded in human history, the midwives followed their God-given sense of right and wrong and refused to follow immoral orders.

The Children of Israel continued to multiply until Pharaoh commanded all of his people to kill newborn baby boys, making his whole society complicit in a policy of killing innocents.

But one baby boy survived when his mother floated him down the river in a basket. An Egyptian princess, Pharaoh’s own daughter, took pity on him and loved him and raised him as her own.

That baby, Moses, became the hero of the story we know.

God called to him from the burning bush and said, “I have a job for you,” and Moses agreed.  Even though he doubted his own ability.  Even though it would have been easier to stay safe shepherding flocks in the desert.

Lord knows we need some heroes today.

We need leaders who will go to the powers that be and say, as Abraham said to God Himself, “Far be it from You to behave this way!”

We need leaders who will say,  “Far be it from you to proclaim America’s greatness even as you trample the institutions and values that make our Democracy function – freedom of religion, free and fair elections, an independent truth-telling press, public education, human rights, civil rights!”

Yes, we need those courageous leaders who will be Moses and stand up to Pharaoh.  But we also need the midwives and the princesses.  Resisting evil decrees, using positions of privilege to protect the vulnerable.

We even need the slaves, who finally finally, after 400 years, turned away from their twitter feeds and facebook pages and awoke to their own suffering and cried out to God. Only after their cry did God pay attention and act to free them.


Today we march with the stories of our ancestors in our hearts, offering guidance to us now as we face our own struggles.

Today we march remembering the moral courage of the midwives and the kindness of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Today we march remembering how Moses stepped out of his comfort zone to answer God’s call.

Today we march because the struggle for freedom and justice did not end when the Israelites crossed the sea.  That struggle continues to this day.  And we too are a part of this sacred story.

Today as we march for women’s rights, for human rights, for civil rights, we lend our bodies to story much bigger than one lifetime.

As it is taught in the ancient rabbinic text, Pirke Avot, it is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.  Today, we all take up that sacred work, which even Moses did not complete.

May we come to see the day when all human beings are free and safe, when nations use their powers and their wealth to protect even the most vulnerable in their midst.  May we live to see the day when men and women of all colors, religions, sexual orientations and abilities are treated fairly and equally under the law of the land.  May we live to see the day when fear and hate give way to love and respect in our public discourse, and America lives up to its aspiration to be a land of liberty and justice for all.

Make of Yourself a Light

Hannukah is a holiday of many layers and stories.  The ancient Book of Maccabees tells us a Hannukah story about a band of heroes (the Maccabees) who defied the oppressive Greek empire when they attempted to force the Jews to abandon their faith.  Somehow, this tiny band of fighters prevailed, the Jews regained control of their sacred Temple and autonomy in their land.  But the war and the Greeks had done considerable damage.  After the victory, the Maccabees had a lot of clean up to do in the Temple sanctuary, which had been seriously defiled.  This “rededication” of the Temple is actually the true meaning of the word, Hannukah.

The Rabbis, who inherited the book of Maccabees and the leadership of the Jewish people many generations later, added a new layer to the Hannukah story.  Rather than emphasizing the story of the battle of the few against the many, they told the story of a miracle of light.

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), when the Maccabees went to rededicate the Temple, they had a problem.  One of the most sacred fixtures of the Temple was something called the eternal light, a light that was never supposed to go out (Leviticus 6:6).  They found among the rubble a single vessel of oil to keep that fire burning – enough for one day.  But it would take another 8 days to produce a new batch of oil to replenish it.

Things looked bad.  I imagine that there may have been some who said it wasn’t worth lighting that fire, using that oil.  It could never be enough.  Time to give up.  But somehow, hope prevailed and they lit the lamp anyway.  Even though they couldn’t see how it was possible.  They used that last bit of oil and gave everything they had, and then a miracle happened.  The light lasted not just one, but eight days and nights, enough for them to produce a supply to keep the fire going long into the future.

Each year on the anniversary of these miracles we light the Hannukah menorah, the Hannukiah, to remember both of these stories. And it’s no coincidence that we tell these stories and light these lights, right at the darkest time of the year.  All around us, darkness seems to grow.  Days get shorter. Nights get longer.  And that’s just the darkness in our physical world. …

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about darkness.  Physical darkness. Political darkness.  Spiritual darkness. And light.

Light – if you might recall – was the first Creation.  Genesis 1:3 – “God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.  God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light, Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning – a first day.”

“But wait!” you may say, if you remember what happened next, “How could there be an evening and a morning yet?  The sun, moon and stars weren’t created till the 4th day!  What is the meaning of the term, “day” without the sun?  What could “light” even mean if it isn’t light as we know it on our planet?”

If you were to say this, you would be on to something.

The rabbis of old may not have been astro-physicists, but they were close readers of the Torah and they too wondered what this original ‘light’ might have been if it wasn’t the light of the sun.  Their answers are found in a literary genre known as Midrash, as well as mystical texts such as the Zohar, which tell us that this original primordial light was not just light as we know it.  It was a powerful supernal light that illuminated the vision of the first human being before the fall.  Adam could see from one end of the earth to the other and from one end of eternity to the other.

But when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God became afraid that they might misuse the power of the Great Light, and so it was hidden away until the end of days as a gift for the righteous in the world to come.  As it is written in Psalm  97, Or Zarua Latzadik, the light is sown for the righteous.

In one rather obscure chain of midrash and mystical texts, the secret light is hidden in a jewel called the Tzohar, which is passed from Adam all the way through the generations to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, who takes it to hang in the sanctuary as the first Ner Tamid, the first eternal light.

And if you are thinking – hey that sounds familiar. Yes, it’s the same eternal light that was at the center of the Hannukah story.  It’s also the same eternal light that is a standard fixture in every synagogue. Now, I can’t promise you that the one in our sanctuary was lit from the fires of the first original light of creation, but …symbolically….

You see, it’s not just that a sanctuary needs A Light.  It needs an “eternal” light.  One that never goes out.  One that passes through generations , connecting what we’re doing now to the distant past and future, from the very origin of Being to the World to come.  The eternal light reminds us of the light of goodness and holiness that outlives any single human being.

And I would argue, the Ner Tamid is not only a reminder of goodness and holiness out there in some perfect past or perfect future. The great secret is – that hidden light is hidden within us. The Ner Tamid is a reminder of who we really are. Proverbs 20:27 tells us, “Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam” — the candle of God is the human soul.

It’s a radical idea, really. God is not just our light. We are God’s light.

I think this is one of the great lessons of Hannukah.  Hannukah may fall every year when the nights are longest, but on Hannukah we don’t just sit around in the dark waiting for a miracle.  We light candles.  One by one.  We fight back.  Even against all odds.  And it may not be possible to see exactly how that bottle of oil is going to be enough, but on Hannukah we take those first steps towards redemption from wherever we are – even in the darkest of places.

If where we are is a desecrated altar and a single jar of oil, we go ahead and light it anyway and trust that God will meet us half way.  We take the steps we can.  Hannukah teaches us that it is worth it.  In the famous words of Pirke Avot, Lo alecha hamelakha ligmor…. It is not up to you to finish the work, velo atah ben horin lehibatel mimenu – but neither are you free to desist from it.

So. If you find yourself or your community or your country or your world in some kind of darkness, you don’t have to rededicate the Temple all by yourself – but you do have to find your own way to participate.  Each year we teach ourselves through the lighting of the candles, do not despair.  Do not despair.  The light is coming.  Do not despair.  Find your way. Find your candle.  Even one candle can fill a room with light.  Each night, the light will grow. As Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” now is the time to ‘make of yourself a light.’

Journies Not Taken Alone

(When I originally gave this talk on November 12th 2016, it coincided with a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.  I have left in references to the girl we celebrated that morning, though her name has been changed.)

This week in Parashat Lech Lecha, the Torah narrows its focus from all of creation, to all of humanity, to one particular lineage – Abraham’s lineage.

It’s a lineage that we claim as Jews.  Abraham is our forefather.  But it is also a lineage claimed by the other two great monotheistic faiths. Abraham is the father of Christians.  Abraham is the father of Muslims.  His descendants are indeed as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dust of the earth, as God promises him this week over and over again.

But when it all begins, it seems to be just Abraham.  And as Emily will explore later on, it’s probably a call happening deep within Abraham that might not be easy for him to follow at first.   A call into unknown territory.  A call within one person’s heart and mind.

And then there is the promise.  Faithful as he is, even Abraham has trouble believing, (childless and in his nineties) that this promise of fathering many nations can come true.  It seems impossible. Abraham expresses his doubts to God, “Oh God, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless? …” God takes him outside and says, “Look to the heavens and count the stars if you can – so shall be your descendants…” (Genesis 15:2).

The question is how?  How can we go from a still small voice within Abraham’s one human heart to a lineage as numerous as the stars?

One answer unfolds in the soap opera of Abraham’s family.  Miracle children born to his wife and her maid servant in his old age.  But there is also another moment that is easy to miss in all of that drama.

Right after Abraham (then Avram) hears God’s call, we read, “Avram went forth as God had commanded him and Lot went with him. Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran. Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son, Lot, and all the wealth they had amassed and the souls that they had made in Haran and they set out for Canaan,” (Gen. 1:4-5).

From the very beginning, you see, Abraham was not alone.

As much as our culture likes to focus on rugged individuals and think of solitary heroes, Abraham was not alone.  He took his closest family.  But also, there is that curious line, “the souls that they had made in Haran.”  Who are those people?  What does that mean? Traditional Jewish commentaries explain that these are converts.  Even before Abraham went out on his journey, he had somehow managed to start bringing other people along with him.

Other portraits of Abraham in the Torah and Midrashic legends talk about how his tent was always open.  Next week’s parashah begins with a story of Avram and Sarai rushing around to greet and host angelic strangers with the most generous hospitality.  In mystical Jewish tradition, Abraham is associated with loving kindness.  He is the Patriarch of the open heart.

No wonder his lineage was destined to grow.

Yes it was a line of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters.  But it was also, all along, those souls he was making by bringing other outsiders into his tent and making them feel welcome and loved.

Why do I think this is important right now?

Well I notice that those numerous descendants still haven’t figured out how to get along and feel like one family yet. All over the world, groups of Abraham’s children are killing each other and whole nations are talking about shutting each other out with walls and borders, dissolving cooperative agreements — no open tent flaps here.

These months leading up to the election have been poisonous.  No matter who won, about half of our country was going to spend this past week in a state of horror and dismay.

I’m still surprised it was my half.  And even though I’m not ready yet to try to open my tent and reach out like Abraham, I do think it’s a good time to remember him.  How he set out with hope on a journey into the unknown and didn’t try to do it alone.  How he gathered and traveled with his circles of loved ones, and even made new souls to come along.  It’s a good time to remember how even Abraham was full of doubt and yet put one foot in front of the other, trusting in a vision of the stars in the heavens that he knew he would never live to see himself.

Emily, I wanted to be able to stand up here with you today and celebrate your joyous moment in a very different context.  I was imagining us being able to connect the dots between the work you are doing for girls around the world with your girls’ club at school and the first female American President elect.  Those hopes were not meant to be.

Instead we celebrate you in a context that, to many of us, is considerably darker and more worrisome.  We send you into adulthood as a light, but we send you at dusk and not at dawn.

Which reminds me…The past few mornings, I have noticed something more than I usually do.  Despite my doubts and fears, without any effort on my part at all, surprisingly, thankfully, beautifully – the sun has risen, day after day.  And in those days, I have been having some remarkable conversations which give me hope.  Conversations which remind me – I do not have to make this journey alone.

Emily, today I want to remind you and all of us – even in times of darkness and challenge, even when you are scared or doubtful, even if your hopes seem impossible, you have your family and your community around you. You are not alone.

So I have been having these amazing conversations this week.  The first was Wednesday morning as I dropped off my son in his San Francisco JCC preschool class.  His teachers are a white woman, a black woman, a Latina woman, and a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.

All these months I have been thinking how much I cherish them.  All these months I have been thinking to myself what a gift it is that my son will grow up forming those sweet loving feelings we all have about our preschool teachers, and his sweet loving idealizing feelings will be formed around these very different women.  Women entrusted to teach him what you teach at Preschool – listening, creative problem solving, conflict resolution, and above all, loving.

I started to choke as I tried to express this to these women and we found ourselves all hugging one another in tears as one by one they confessed to me how afraid they feel right now.  Since then, I have felt so much closer to them all, and I have wondered to myself why it took this moment for me to be able to tell them how much I appreciate them.

Wednesday evening another amazing conversation took place.  I called Or Shalom to gather and make a safe space to respond to the election for all who could come.

More than 50 of us sat in a big circle and shared from the heart, passing between us a stone I brought from Jerusalem with one word engraved on it – Ometz – courage.

We talked of courage, and fear, hope, despair.  One lesbian woman worried that her marriage could be dissolved under a transformed Supreme Court.  One man shared his insights after reading a book called, “How the Jews became White” and urged us to use our unique position as a white minority to reach out to the white community who spoke so loudly in this election. A child encouraged us all to find ways to express our love and remember the goodness in our lives.  Some spoke of family and friends who had voted differently than they, and the challenge of engaging in any kind of dialogue when there seems to be so little common agreement about what is true, what is real, and what matters.  People expressed the need to listen more deeply and seriously to people unlike themselves.   Many suggested that action is the best antidote to despair.

After the gathering one man told me that he had been having atrial fibrillation symptoms since the election returns had started coming in, and during the meeting, his heart finally calmed down.  Being together helps.  It really does.

Since then in so many brief moments with friends and acquaintances, other parents at drop off I’ve never met before, the conversations have been blooming.  Real conversations of substance.

What are we afraid of?  What have we been taking for granted? What are the issues we care about most? What does it mean to be an American in 2016?  The specifics of what each person said are beginning to fade now for me, but the feeling has not faded.  I am not alone.

Yet in all of these San Francisco conversations I have been aware that eventually, as the feelings subside and the shock wears off, those conversations need to move beyond our little progressive bubble.

We need to start listening a lot more deeply to the people we have been dismissing and open those tent flaps a lot wider.  It has not worked to talk only to ourselves and call our fellow citizens names.  It has not been responsible to tune out the channels that spread a completely different world view to so many fellow Americans.   Right as we may be, (or not!), that rightness didn’t convince enough people on election day, and we need to learn how to talk to them respectfully.

AND at the same time…

We need to let this moment call us to organize around the values and policies that we cherish most — and fight for them. We need to put aside our high-minded lefty squabbles and stop the factionalizing and come together.  We need to be methodical and patient and strategic and persistent. Once the mourning period ends, it will be time to analyze, organize and act.

The past two weeks I have been standing up here talking about despair and hope in the Torah.  God’s despair to see the potential for evil in humanity.  The despair of the rabbis who agreed – perhaps it would have been better for human beings not to have been created.

These weeks I have tried to convince you that in spite of it all, we still have to resist that despair and find in our most difficult challenges the chance to live lives of purpose.  As the rabbis teach in Pirke Avot, Lo Alecha hamelacha ligmor, It is not up to you to complete the work, velo atah ben horin lehibatel mimena, but neither are you free to desist from it.

All that time I thought I was talking about the reasons to vote and make the last push for the election.  But maybe I was just hedging my bets.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so discouraged about the state of our Democracy. Today I need those messages of hope more than I did last week, that’s for sure.

And yet, as I told my 3 year old son this week, sometimes you lose.  And then, even if you are very disappointed and very angry, you still have to get up and be the best person you can be.  You still have to do your best to be good.

Now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to wake up.

America in the early 21st century is not Germany in the 1930s, but it could be — if we let our disappointment paralyze us.  The Jewish people and humanity as a whole have been through much worse than losing an election in a democracy where hatred may be rising but protections are still strong.  Now is the time to look around and gather ourselves, to make more souls and begin a great journey, together.




The “Idolatry” of the Western Wall

(Above — standing in the midst of a sculpture — Jerusalem at the center of the world.)

A well known story imagines a conversation between a Hasidic master and a doubting rationalist. The rationalist notices the Hasid going outside to pray and says, “What are you doing running around outside to pray? Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” To which the Hasid replies, “God may be the same everywhere, but I am not.”

I have been reminded of this story many times in recent weeks as I have observed digital conversations between colleagues of mine, coming to consensus that the kotel (the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem) is no more holy than any other place in the world, and that in fact the pious crowds who care so deeply about it are engaged in a mild form of idolatry.

The conversation is happening now because of a historic decision by the Israeli government to recognize non-Orthodox authority over a small piece of very contested real estate on the Temple Mount. Most people are calling this an important victory for Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. Some are not happy because there have been compromises along the way, because they doubt that it will ever happen, etc. etc. One thread of the conversation has to do with whether or not we should care so much about this place at all anyway…

I am in Jerusalem right now, very near to that wall which many have been calling the “heart” of the Jewish world. Perhaps I too am an idolater for deciding I wanted to come back to this place to spend my precious sabbatical, rather than blissing out on some peaceful island that has no significance in the history of my people (and far fewer stabbings and home demolitions). Perhaps I am an idolater for letting myself sob out loud when I looked down on the plaza after 9 years, for feeling I was coming home, for pushing slips of paper with names and words into the cracks, for walking backwards when I leave, as is the custom, reluctant to turn away from that place.

The Kotel. Jerusalem. Perhaps these places are no more ‘objectively’ holy than any other. In the desert, after all, the Holy of Holies moved from place to place. Ezekiel tells us that when the first Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah rode off in her chariot to Babylon to be with the exiles. I can tell you for sure that one can find God on the coast of Northern California and in the Colorado mountains.

But I beg you, please, my dear rabbinic friends, don’t take away the significance of the holiest Jewish place on earth. Don’t ridicule those who imbue it with power and meaning.

So maybe it’s not the proper wall, or maybe it’s a different wall than the one Jews went to 700 ago. Maybe Isaac was never bound on that mountain top. Maybe the Universe wasn’t born there. Maybe all of those prayers for all of those generations directed to this place from every corner of the globe have left no physical trace in our world. Maybe God can hear us just as well from our remote exilic streets. BUT…

Where is your spiritual imagination?!? Since when does the holiness of a place derive its power from the rational facts of its material history?

When I have wailed at that wall over the years, it has not been because I have been imagining that the stones were God’s ears.

Arrival. Homecoming. Return. Pilgrimage.

These gestures have spiritual significance and also physical forms. The two are entangled. We live in a hopelessly physical universe. We also live constantly within networks of illusion and symbolism. We get confused.

Sometimes the symbolism in our hearts propels us to ignore the real flesh and blood human beings before our very eyes. The power of our stories, our holy places, our wounds, drive some of us to violence in the very name of that which is holy.

This is wrong. It is a tragic mistake. But the solution is not to diminish the spiritual significance of those places and ideas that spark such passion. To do so is to cut ourselves and our people off from our own spiritual roots.

I confess I am getting sick of how the “enlightened” progressive world concedes whole dimensions of human life and Jewish tradition to right wing interpretation and claim. Religion. God. The Kotel. These are not just dispensable peripheral aspects of who we are as humans and Jews.* We may understand them in vastly different ways. We may notice that in the hands of the zealous, wielded without humility, they become powerful weapons for injustice, even evil. So — let us take them back. Let us direct that power for the good. These are our inheritance too, for better or for worse.

The work is harder when it engages the power of symbols and myths without casting them aside. It’s harder to let that holy place be holy and then to live with the heartbreak of seeing how it is still not perfect. But I’d rather have a broken heart than to pretend I can live without any heart at all.

Left photo is Robinson’s Arch on the Temple Mount complex site where there is a proposal to grant non-Orthodox control and build a new plaza for egalitarian prayer.  Right is from a recent gathering of Women of the Wall in the existing women’s section of the kotel reading Torah amid disruptive protest.

*While I do not consider faith, religiosity or spirituality to be prerequisites of a serious Jewish life or morality, I do believe that authentic engagement with Judaism must include grappling with the meaning of God and spiritual practice in Jewish tradition and one’s personal life.


Jerusalem Parliament


Many mornings, my husband, Raj, and I have taken to dropping off the kids and then going to a nearby coffee shop for an hour or so before his class begins. We have even taken to sitting at a particular table, near an outlet, where I can linger and write and plug in if needed. It’s a big table, more than we need, but usually when we arrive there are lots of open spaces.

One morning a while ago now, we sat at the table, discussed the nature of revelation and religion with great passion, and then, Raj went to school. I stayed and began a very long call to the credit card company about car insurance and this is what happened…

Between transfers to various call center workers, out of the corner of my eye, I see an old man in a wheel chair lingering near the other end of my table. And then another old man comes and they talk a bit to themselves. And then a few minutes later, the second one sits at the table. No eye contact, no words, nothing.

I disregard it as I am not using the whole table and I am distracted by the call. Then a third old man comes and sits at the head of the table and tries to talk to me while I am on the phone. I hear him say something about how they have been coming here for years and he motions to another table nearby. I say briefly that I am sitting here and that I am on the phone.

When I end the call, another old man has come, and he tries to explain again.

“We are here for our Parliament,” he says. “They didn’t have big tables before like this but we have been coming here so long that they got them just for us.” He gestures to an open table nearby, expecting me to move.

“And what have you decided in this ‘Parliament’?” I ask.

“Decided?! Oh no decisions, just discussions, arguments – politics, books, religion.  We love to argue…”

“So I have a question for you and your Parliament. Will there be peace?”

“No. Definitely not. Never.”

It seems there is consensus on this one.

“Why not?”

“I’ll tell you, if you have time to listen,” says the one to my right. And over the next hour or more he says this many times, as I ask him his perspective on peace and the future of the Jewish State and the question of justice and so on.

The table fills with old men. I become the most interesting thing that has happened in the Parliament for weeks. They become one of my favorite memories so far on this trip.  Eventually, when Raj joins us, they explain that they have extended me an honorary membership.

They tell me of their children in Miami and Los Angeles. I show them pictures of my children. I do not reveal to them that I am a rabbi.  I do not tell them what I think of Netanyahu.  I ask  few questions, open my heart, feel a genuine fondness.

They are all Jerusalem-born. Only one of them is willing to give the Old City to international control for the sake of peace. They repeat cliches I have heard a thousand times before — “Give them a finger and they take a hand!” “The Torah says, ‘If they come at you with a knife, kill them first.'” “We want peace but there is no one to talk to on their side.”  “They want to drive us into the sea.”

The man next to me is named Yaakov. And next to him are three more Yaakovs, a Yitzhak, a Moris, and a Shalom.

Morris tosses out a phrase in Arabic, says he works with Arabs all the time. He claims that the Arabs have nothing to complain about, that they have all they need. He tells a story of some Arab guy showing up to buy something with a big sack of cash.  He says the current situation is acceptable because if they stab us with knives and we kill them, then we will only be wounded and they will all be dead.

The Yaakov closest to me tries to quiet him and seems a little embarrassed that his delicate new American friend should hear this harsh Israeli sentiment. He may not have hope for peace, but he knows that such things are ugly to say. He tells me that my point of view is shaped by an American, Western mentality. One that is accustomed to equality and rights and not feeling constantly under threat.

Even so, before long, he tries, as so many Israelis have tried, to convince me of the many reasons I should move to Israel. He has great faith in the future of the Jewish state — its strength, its technological prowess.

As a final selling point, he explains that Israel is more friendly than America.

I don’t think he means exactly ‘friendly.’

After years of living here off and on, I am still trying to find the words for what he meant. It is real, this quality, but not friendly. It’s some combination of passionate, open, vulnerable, tough, ready to fight, ready to be convinced by a good strong argument, quick to care, tribal loyalty. Once they decide I am part of them, it opens up. This fast, fierce love.