From Rabbi Robin

Grief, Yom Kippur Morning 5778

on Sunday, 01 October 2017. Posted in Rabbi


Yom Kippur Morning – Grief

Near the end of my sabbatical this past summer, Colleen took a call from a woman who seemed very eager to speak with me. She assured Colleen it could wait, and so it did until I returned. But I understood from Colleen the urgency, and called the woman back just as soon as I could.

It turned out that she was in her mid-forties, and her wife was dying from brain cancer. She had been reading a lot about death and grief. She was particular moved by Sheryl Sandberg’s postings. If you don’t recognize that name, Sheryl is the CEO of Facebook. Her 47-year-old husband David Goldberg died of a heart attack in 2015 while on a treadmill on a family vacation. Sheryl wrote much about how her faith and religious traditions sustained her – her writings first appeared on her Facebook page. And so the caller asked me if I would help her, after her wife died, to “have a shiva and a sh’loshim.”

I immediately realized from the way she worded her request that she was unfamiliar with the Jewish traditions surrounding death and mourning. I asked if she or her wife were Jewish, and discovered that neither were. And so I explained shiva and sh’loshim to her, and then helped her explore possible ways that she might be able to get what she needed by borrowing from the Jewish traditions. A few days later, I read her wife’s obituary in the Concord Monitor. Although I never heard from the caller again, I learned from a friend who knows her that our conversation had been helpful in giving her a framework in which to grieve.

Grief. We are a community all too familiar with grief this year. Later this afternoon in our Yizkor service, when Gary Sobelson reads the names of TBJ members and close family members who have died this year, he will read 30 names.

As most of you know, one of those names is my father, Robert Leonard, who died on March 6. Since my earliest memories, I was a daddy’s girl, the child who followed her father everywhere and took so much delight in how he doted on me. A second name Gary will read is Deborah Silverman, Cantor Shira’s mother, who died on June 11. When Debbie and I met 17 years ago, we quickly became close friends. Then she became my mother-in-law. Then I became her rabbi. Our relationship was deep and rich.

I’ve learned a lot about grief this year. This morning, I share with you some of those lessons, along with what you all have taught me about grief and grieving.

As Sheryl Sandberg quickly discovered, the Jewish practices around death and grief contain tremendous therapeutic smarts. Back in 1974, author Audrey Gordon wrote in a book entitled Jewish Reflections on Death, a chapter called “The Psychological Wisdom of the Law.” Let me unpack it.

From the time of death until the funeral, mourners are in a state of what is called aninut, or deep sorrow. During that time, nothing is required of the mourners other than the planning of the service and burial. That is it. It is a time to take care of the most immediate need, and to feel. The emotions are likely to be messy and all over the place. In addition to the sadness, there may be relief after a long illness; shock in the event of a sudden or violent death; despair when a child or parent of young children dies; anger when the relationship was difficult or the deceased was an abuser, an addict, or just plain mean; or disappointment when words remain unsaid.

Every feeling, every emotion is the right one. Every person mourns differently. One mourner may need to look at every photo of the deceased. Another may need to hide in bed. The third might be in “doing” mode, making arrangements with the funeral home or cemetery.

We honor the memory of our loved ones when we give each other the room to mourn as we each need to.

Following the funeral and burial, we enter the period of shiva. Shiva means “seven,” as the traditional period of mourning following a burial is seven days. The reality of most people’s lives is that we don’t take one day or three days for shiva, never mind the full seven days. I did after my father’s death and it was one of the greatest gifts I could have given myself.

Most people in this community associate shiva with having a reli­gious service in the home. But that’s not what shiva is about. Shiva is about mourning and allowing people to provide companionship, comfort, and food, which are the obligations of the members of the community following a death. It’s not about the service. Back in the days when Jewish communities were small, if everyone was visiting the mourner when it was time to pray, they said the service then and there. That’s how a service became associated with shiva. My grandfather died when I was 16. My mother observed shiva for the full seven days. I don’t remember a single service in the house.

Shiva gave me the chance to talk about my dad – the great, the good, and even the not as good. I could put him and my relationship with him into perspective and context.

One night at shiva when I was still in New Jersey, a man whom we did not know came to the home. He introduced himself as someone who grew up in the same neighbor­hood as my dad, though he was four years younger. My dad died at the age of 82, and this man had not seen or spoken to my dad in nearly 65 years. But he made a shiva call after seeing my dad’s obituary in the paper simply to tell us that my dad was the nicest guy he ever knew, who let a kid four years younger hang around, never being dismissive or nasty. With­out shiva, we would never have heard his story.

Shiva also allowed me to connect with those of you who told your own stories of when your parents or another close relative died. These gave me great comfort. Sometimes we laughed together. Sometimes we were near tears. As our shiva book reminds us, “Who among us has not passed through trials and bereavements? Some bear fresh wounds … and therefore feel more keenly the kinship of sorrow; others, whose days of mourn­ing are more remote, still recall the comfort that sympathy brought to their sorrowing hearts.”[1] Thank you for sharing your loved ones with me.

Following shiva, we enter a period called sh’loshim, which means 30. It tells us that for the next 23 days (assuming a full seven days for shiva), we are now slowly returning to our lives. We go back to work. We may accept social invitations, but usually just for a meal or conversation. During sh’loshim for my dad, CONTY, our youth group, hosted a concert with the young musician, Spike Kraus. I wanted to attend to support CONTY, and I wanted to stay away because I wasn’t in the mood. So I came and I sat in the vestibule, greeting attendees, but staying out the actual concert room. It was the perfect balance for me. I also forewent the Purimshpiel and other moments of hilarity. I attended the auction and listened to the jokes with only half of an ear – sorry Donna and Steve.

Our tradition teaches that after sh’loshim, for the entire first year of mourning, we re-enter the world at the pace that feels right for us. My re-entry was probably slower than many who experience the death of an 82-year-old father with whom he or she had a wonderful relation­ship, for shortly after I emerged from sh’loshim, Debbie’s health began to take its toll and we moved to her last few weeks of life. I hope and pray that I became for Shira the supportive presence she was for me, while I also did all that I could to learn how to be with and support a three-year-old who would suffer the death of two grandparents in a three-month span.

We are not sure what Liba understands or remembers. But we tell her and she tells us that while Grandpa and Bubbe are no longer alive, they live on in our hearts.

For a death that is sudden, unexpected, or otherwise tragic, these Jewish mourning periods can provide a safe structure during a time that is otherwise pure hell. Sheryl Sandberg wrote about sh’loshim, “I have lived 30 years in these 30 days. I am 30 years sadder. I feel like I am 30 years wiser. It was a long 30 days – the longest of my life by far. And I was, in many ways, marking those days because every single one was just a victory to live through. It wasn’t just the grief. I felt like I was sucked into a void where I would never really be able to catch my breath. My brother-in-law described it as a boot sitting on his chest.”

For some, the best way to get through the grief is to live a bit higher, inspired by what the deceased taught us. My childhood friend, Jill Ginsburg, a physician living in Portland, Oregon, did a second sh’loshim following the first 30 days after her mother’s death. Jill’s mom stressed with her children the obligation tzedakah, to help out those in need. Jill honored her mother’s memory by putting a $100 bill in her purse each morning for 30 days. Some time during each day, she gave the money to a person she encountered who seemed to need the cash, a boost, some love, a meal, an affirmation, or even a “thank you” for being awesome. Jill, like Sheryl Sandberg, posted her experiences on Facebook, encouraging others to honor their loved one’s memories in ways that fit their budgets and desires.

Grief, of course, is not just about working through the Jewish time frames. A blogger named Jamie Anderson writes that “Grief … is really just love. It is all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

What do we do with that unspent love? My friend Jill gave it to 30 people who needed a bit of human recognition. My father-in-law, Russ, became the baker that Debbie had been, showering the people in his life with cakes, cookies, and pies. Sometimes, we need to say to the deceased what we didn’t have the time – or the courage – to say in life. We can sit at a grave and converse. We can talk with a friend or therapist about what need to articulate. We can write a letter that we will never send.

I found that writing was an extraordinarily therapeutic way to deal with my grief – and I did not initially realize that this was what I was doing. I love to write. I was a writer before I attended rabbinical school. As I began my sabbatical, I intended to spend a great deal of time writing. One of my challenges as a writer has been finding the right topic. I’m not a fiction writer. I write what I always called “creative non-fiction” and what I learned might be called “the braided essay.”

I bought a book entitled 642 Things to Write About. I paged through and nothing caught my eye. And then I saw it: “Write about a natural disaster you lived through.” I immediately thought of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the 7.1 tremor that shook the California Bay Area while I was living in San Francisco. So I wrote. I considered more natural disasters and storms I had experienced: 1980’s summer heat wave; the blizzard of 1978; and hurricane Donna, which hit New Jersey the day I was born in 1960. My writing expanded to human disasters as well: the second Intifada – the Palestinian uprising while I lived in Jerusalem; I even touched a bit on living in New York City on 9/11.

It became clear to me that I was writing about loss – loss of lives, loss of property, loss of equilibrium, and loss of innocence – without having to write about the loss of my dad. This was incredibly healing. A wise therapist once told me “the psyche knows no time.” One loss conjures up all other losses.

I wrote not only about loss, but also and perhaps more importantly, about memory and remembering. Our tradition teaches that the way we keep our loved ones with us is by remembering. Yizkor, our memorial service, comes from the Hebrew root zion-chaf-reish, “to remember.” It is the obligation of every Jew to remember. Remem­bering lets us hold our loved one as we want to – I think of my dad buying me my first puppy when I was nine, standing proudly with me at my bat mitzvah, asking me when he first met Shira, “why couldn’t you have met her sooner,” and sitting on the floor playing with Liba, even when his bones ached from his metastases.

What do we do with the difficult memories – the hurts, the let downs, the disappointments, the neglect, and even the abuse? Our memories are allowed to be selective. We can choose to put out of our minds that which causes too much pain. At the same time, we can use those memories as life lessons or we can reframe them into something less painful. During a funeral at which I officiated many years ago, I remember saying about the deceased who had abandoned his family, “The greatest gift he gave you was to get out of your lives and let your mother raise you.”

Elie Wiesel describes our patriarch Isaac as the most tragic of all Biblical characters. His father appears to be willing to offer him up as a sacrifice. The text tells us that he and Abraham walk down the mountain separately unlike their journey going up. Wiesel writes, “He is alone – on the verge of despair. And yet he does not give up. On the contrary, he strives to find a place among the living.”

Isaac’s mother, Sarah, dies just after his father takes him up the mountain and binds him to the altar. These two experiences – the binding and his mother’s death – allow him to develop empathy for Hagar, the mother of his brother Ishmael whom his father had expelled from the family. The midrash teaches that he sought her out, acknowledging their losses to be different, but their pain to be similar.

The death of a loved one – a beloved loved one or a challenging loved one – can leave us feeling broken. Broken is an okay place to be. Sometimes, brokenness falls in the midst of wholeness, like the sh’varim three blasts or the t’ruah nine blasts of the shofar, which come between two calls of t’kiah, the whole note.

Sometimes, brokenness is next to wholeness, as we learn in the midrash on the broken tablets. According to our tradition, Moses picked them up and placed them in the Ark of the Covenant right next to the second set of whole tablets.[2]


Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest from Austin, Texas writes: “The human heart is sufficiently complex that we can be both deeply grateful for the good we experience daily, and simultaneously mourn brokenness. If we do not allow sorrow and gratitude to exist in the same moment, we lose the ability to have both. We’ll shame ourselves out of grieving, which in turn prevents us from embracing wonder and gratitude. Mourning and thanks­giving are not only not opposed to each other, but often grow together, so intricately entwined that we can’t stifle one without killing the other.”[3]

By allowing our grief, our mourning, our brokenness to live in the midst of or next to wholeness, we eventually move to a place and time where we will actually feel joy.

In 2015, when Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer, a talk on coping with death from a few years earlier resurfaced. In discussing his first wife and son who had died in a car accident forty years prior, Biden said:[4]

“There will come a day – I promise you… when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, [and we can read into this, father or mother or any loved one] will bring a smile to your life before it brings a tear to your eye. … It will happen.”      

Sheryl Sandberg describes it like this: “About four months after Dave died, I was at a friend’s bar mitzvah, and a childhood friend pulled me onto the dance floor. And a minute in, I just burst into tears. I ran out of the room really quickly, not really know what was wrong. And then I realized what it was: I felt okay. I felt okay. For one minute four months later, I felt happy. And I felt guilty.

“My friend Adam said to me, ‘Of course you haven’t felt happy. You don’t do a single thing that would make anyone happy since Dave died. You’re waiting to feel better in order to do something that will make you happy, but really it goes the other way. Give yourself permission to do things that make you happy.’”

Grief, loss, mourning. They are messy. They linger. They abate. They return. And they teach us.

Our shivah minyan book contains these words:

Build me up of memory

loving and angry, tender and honest.

Let my loss build me a heart of wisdom,

Compassion for the world’s many losses.[5]

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. And may 5778 be a year of health and well-being for us and all of our loved ones.


[1]Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, page 1a

[2]Bava Batra 14b


[4]Vice President Joe Biden as quoted here:

[5]Debra Cash, Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning, page 13b.

Loving Israel, Kol Nidrei 5778

on Sunday, 01 October 2017. Posted in Rabbi


Kol Nidrei – How Can We Love Israel?

In 1993, I visited Israel for the first time. I joined with others from my synagogue on a congregational trip with our rabbi. One afternoon, my rabbi and I got into a taxi and separated from our group for the rest of the day. We were off to see a sofer, a scribe, so that our congregation could pur­chase our own Torah scroll – until that time, the only scroll we had was a Holocaust scroll lent to us from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in England.

So why was I in the taxi that incredibly hot day, in a long sleeved shirt and a long dress, with my rabbi? As I was a past president of our synagogue, he wanted me there to offer an opinion on behalf of the lay leadership before he was about to spend close to $16,000.

The sofer was a very nice Orthodox man. Given his understanding of Judaism, he would not shake my hand or make eye contact with me. My rabbi didn’t think he would appreciate my being a past president of our congregation, so I was called the “wealthy donor.” He mostly spoke with my rabbi, but he tried to include me.

At one point, he brought us into a room and opened a drawer. From it, he brought out about a half a dozen scrolls, and excitedly placed them in my arms. I was very confused. With his under­standing of Judaism, I should not have been allowed to touch a Torah scroll, as I might be menstruating and pass along my ritual impurity. I smiled, and he opened one of the scrolls, anxious to show me his beau­tiful work. And then I understood.

The first three words were – vay’hi bimei achashveirosh – it happened in the days of Achashveirosh. These were scrolls of the book of Esther, one of the Biblical books lacking God’s name. In traditional Jewish communities, it’s okay for women to touch or hold these scrolls because a scroll lacking God’s name cannot become impure.

While the sofer and I didn’t live similar Jewish lives, we did our best to respect each other. I covered my arms and legs, knowing the importance of modesty in his community. He lavished me with scrolls so I could see his work and be a part of the conversation and decision-making on the purchase of the new Torah scroll. And while I could not touch any of the Torah scrolls he had to sell, he happily let me look at them and even smiled when I read – not chanted, but read – the first day of creation from one of them. We were seeking points of intersection, rather than looking to see what separated us.

Four years later, in the summer, of 1997, I was again in Israel. This time I was there to study with a group of lay leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was living at the time. We were mostly Reform and Conservative American Jews, studying with Israeli modern Orthodox pluralistic Jews who welcomed us dearly.

One night, however, the program differed. We met with an ultra-Ortho­dox representative of the government to speak about the future of Judaism. One member of our group asked him if he considered us to be Jews. I remember his response like he was sitting before me now: “Oh, I accept that you are Jewish – assuming your mother was Jewish and her mother was Jewish all the way back. You’re Jews – you are just sinning Jews who have no place in the world to come.”

Israel. In one breath I love it and in the next breath – well let’s just say I am not quite as fond. One of the biggest challenges for me as a Reform Jew and Reform rabbi is the second-class status of non-Orthodox Jews. That is very hard for me to reconcile with the image of a Jewish state for all Jews.

And 2017 has been a very hard year for non-Orthodox Jews, especially Reform Jews, in Israel. Let me explain why.

Reason one. In 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited Natan Sharansky, the former refusnik from the Soviet Union who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, to lead an effort to bring about a solution to the lack of egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, Sharan­sky and his team reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and adopted by the government. But on June 25th of this year, Netanyahu announced a halt to the plan after being pressured by the Haredi ultra-Orthodox members of his cabinet.

Mind you, the solution wasn’t so radical. It would have given the Reform and Conservative movements oversight in an area called Robinson’s Arch, around the corner and out of sight of the main prayer spaces at the Western Wall. Reform and Conservative Jews already use that space; Orthodox Jews don’t.

The response to Netanyahu’s announcement was swift. Both the Jewish Agency and the leaders of the Reform movement canceled scheduled events with Netanyahu. Isaac Fisher, a long-time highly generous supporter of AIPAC, suspended all future donations to Israel. The American-born rabbi Daniel Gordis, who made aliyah nearly 20 years ago and who is often critical of American progressive Jews, urged those same Jews to stop supporting Israeli govern­mental entities, such as El Al airline.

Why is the Western Wall such an important issue for America’s progressive Jewish community? It’s not because of the holiness of the site; very few progressive Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple or desire that it be rebuilt. Rather, the Western Wall represents, for many, the place that Jews gathered as one people for over 1000 years. After the Temple’s destruction in the year 70 of the Common Era, Jews were expelled from the Western Wall until 1967, when the Israel Army secured the site during the Six Day War.

After a nearly 2000-year absence, the return represented the completion of the establishment of the state of Israel, the victory of the War, and the end of the remaining sense of galut, or exile.

Reason two why it has been a hard year for progressive Jews in Israel: Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month Elul, was Wednesday, August 23. It is traditional on Rosh Chodesh to read a special passage from the Torah that commands us to announce the new month. Rosh Chodesh is asso­ciated with women, as women were given the gift of Rosh Chodesh, a time of study, for refusing to participate in the making of the Golden Calf.

The Israeli feminist organization, Women of the Wall, seeks to hold a Torah service at the Western Wall on every Rosh Chodesh morning. Women of all denominations, yes even Orthodox, make up Women of the Wall. The ultra-Orthodox authorities who govern the Western Wall object to these women bringing in a Torah scroll. So they harass the participants, and have even had them arrested.

In August, two American women, both students at my seminary in Jerusalem, were taken aside as they tried to enter the Kotel outside of the Western Wall and were told to lift their shirts and skirts so that they could be checked for possibly smuggling in a Torah.

The Israeli Supreme court had already told Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief custodian of the Western Wall, to stop invasive body searches of women seeking to pray at the site. Rabinowitz’s responded that the body checks were done for security reasons, “in coordination with and at the direction of the Israeli police.” The professor who accompanied the 15 students demanded that the guards stop. They refused.

Eventually, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel intervened. After he warned the guards about the illegality of what they were doing, they stopped the body checks.

The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and the Women of the Wall Torah services are closely related. Solving the first problem provides a solution for the second problem as well.

Here’s the third reason it’s been a difficult year for Reform Jews in Israel. Earlier this month, on September 6, Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, called Reform Jews worse than Holocaust deniers because we reject traditional Jewish law. Last November, he called Reform Jews “evil,” claiming that we don’t observe Yom Kippur or Shabbat, but still want to pray at the Western Wall. I don’t mind him expressing whatever opinion he wants. I do mind that the Israeli govern­­ment pays his salary.

Prime Minister Netanyahu chastised Amar, saying, “All Jews are part of one family and the diversity of our people should always be respected. I categorically reject any attempt to delegitimize any part of the Jewish people.”

And yet, that is just what Netanyahu did 13 days after Amar said his hateful words. Netanyahu now claims that Reform and Conservative leaders are using our desire for egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall for political purposes, “a clandestine way to gain recognition.”

Add to these reasons the following: Israel’s refusal to engage seriously in any peace talks or efforts with the Palestinians, Israel’s refusal to stop illegal settlement activity in the West Bank, and now 50 years of Palestinians living under Israel rule, and most progressive American Jews struggle with How to Love Israel.

But I do love Israel, just as I love the United States. But to love my country doesn’t mean that I must love my government – because I don’t.

I love the ideals of my country and what my country has historically represented. That is true for me of Israel, too. I love what my country can be. That, too, is true for me of Israel. And I love the many, many good people of this country. And that more than anything else for me, is true of Israel.

After Hurricane Harvey, a couple in Houston – well known in the City for their philanthropy – opened their own home to people who had physical limitations and could not stay in shelters. They encouraged other people in the City to do the same, and created a chain of hosts. That’s what I love about America.

Likewise, when an Israeli family on vacation in the nation of Georgia was in a devastating jeep accident, they were airlifted back to Israel on Yom Kippur; a doctor left Kol Nidrei services to care for them. The next morning, Hadassah hospital employees skipped services and walked over six miles to tend to the injured family members. That’s what I love about Israel.

An Israeli blogger who calls herself Forest Rain – I’m guessing that is not her real name – writes beautifully about what she loves about Israel. These are her words:

“Through Israel, my existence expands outward and encompasses much more than my individual self. I am more than just me – I am my family, my friends, and the strangers who live beside me. I am not limited to my individual space or time. I am the Nation of Israel living in Israel, around the world and spanning centuries. I am me and at the same time I am also my ancestors stretching out behind me and future generations stretching out before me.

“My fellowship is the strength, wisdom and belief of all people as reflected in me. I am the bones in the ground in Jerusalem, the ashes in the concentration camps, the soldiers and the children of Israel. I am the blood soaked into each grain of dirt in this country. I am all the tears ever shed by my people. I am the centuries old longing to be free in our own land.

“Israel is a nation because she is a family. The children of Israel belong to everyone in Israel. One stunning example was when the people of Israel collectively held their breath, waiting for Gilad Shalit on the day he was returned from the bondage of his Hamas kidnappers. An entire nation stopped for a single person. It happens over and over – every person matters, every life must be accounted for.

“I love Israel because she is passionate. Our reality can be harsh but it is also invigorating. Tradition and modern life are intertwined. People care, no one is apathetic. Life has meaning. Strangers will die for you so that you may live. Israelis don’t wait for the authorities to save them. We save ourselves. And each other. And anyone else we can help on the way.

“I love Israel for her stubbornness. No matter how big the chal­lenge, she always tries and often succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Israel knows she isn’t perfect but she tries hard to get there. Our standards are high and our stubbornness keeps them steady. We aim for the stars and beat ourselves up for ‘only’ reach­ing the moon. We fall, dust ourselves off and try again the next day.”

As an ohevet Yisrael – a lover of Israel – I want this beloved country to be a place for all Jews. In the prayer for the state of Israel, written in 1948 just four months after the declaration of statehood, the authors[1] pray to God ush’lach or’cha va-amit’ha l’rosheha sareha v’yo-atzeha, “send Your light and truth to all who lead and advise.” That remains our prayer today. But prayer is not enough.

I am willing to help Israelis work and fight so that we progressive Jews can call it our home just as much as the Orthodox can. I invite you to join me in this effort. Here is what we can do:

First, remind ourselves of the words of the founding documents that say, “The State of Israel ... will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … and it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience.”

Second, we can direct our donations for Israel to such organiza­tions as the Association of Reform Zionists of America, which passes those contributions on to the Israel Movement for Progres­sive Judaism. These are our people in Israel.

Third, we can contact the Boston office of the New England Consul General Yehudah Ya-akov, ask for a face-to-face meeting, and insist that the rights of the non-Orthodox Jews in Israel be respected and treated equally by the Israeli government. This is not so outlandish. He has been to TBJ and has been looking for a reason to return. In our conversations, we must emphasize the position of the Reform movement on egalitarian prayer space and our support of Women of the Wall.

Lastly, we can support Israelis by visiting the country. Spend your shekels at their hotels, shops, and restaurants. You’ll support the country, eat some of the best food you’ve ever had, and see some of the most beautiful places on earth. Our congregational trip in February includes several opportunities to meet with Israelis in their homes or offices, allowing us to see the “real” side of Israel, not just the places tourists visit. Please, visit the website on the bottom of the flyer on your seat. And then let me know that you want to join us.

In the Haftarah portion we will read tomorrow morning, the prophet Isaiah tells us, “Build up, build up a highway. Clear a road. Remove all obstacles from the road of My people.”[2]

I pray that this New Year brings with it a renewed commitment by us, progressive American Jews, to do all we can to remove the obstacles that keep Israel from fully embracing all ways of being Jewish. The roots for Reform Jewish practice have been established. Over 50 Reform congregations flourish in the land. More then 200 non-Jewish Israelis convert with the Israeli Reform movement each year. Requests for Israeli Reform rabbis to officiate at weddings, b’nei mitzvah, and other lifecycles overwhelm the small group of rabbis.

And most recently, Elena Sztokman, the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, left Orthodoxy to enroll in the rabbinical program at my seminary in Jerusalem. She stated that only Reform Judaism was committed to the full equality of all Jews in Israel.

There is more to be done. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot, “The day is short and the work is much; the reward is great, … and the Master of the house, [meaning God] is pressing.”[3] Let us respond.


[1]Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, with author S.Y. Agnon

[2]Isaiah 57:14

[3]Pirkei Avot 2:15

Peter Josephson, Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5778

on Friday, 29 September 2017. Posted in Rabbi

Lay Sermon

L’Shana Tovah.

And what an honor and privilege it is to have been asked to speak today. Thank you, Carol. Thank you, Rabbi. And thank you to everyone who has been so encouraging – so looking forward, you told me, to hear what I might say.

I’m a little curious about that myself.

First, a word about my kippah. I bought this when I was in Brooklyn over the summer. It’s kind of splashy, and when I bought it I promised myself that I wouldn’t wear it out of the house. But at yesterday morning’s service everyone looked so nice that I decided to wear it today. Next week I’ll ask forgiveness for my splashiness.

I bought it because it reminds me of the Alaska flag. As many of you know, I was born and raised in Alaska, and lived their almost half my life. (That “half” – almost half – stings a little.) The Alaska flag is described in the Alaska Flag Song, which is the state song, and which every Alaskan knows. I won’t sing it, but the lyric goes like this:

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,

Alaska’s flag may it mean to you,

The blue of the sea, the evening sky,

The mountain lakes, and the flowers nearby,

The gold of the early sourdoughs’ dreams

The precious gold of the hills and streams,

The brilliant stars in the northern sky,

The Bear, The Dipper,

And shining high,

That Great North Star with its steady light,

O’er land and sea a beacon bright,

Alaska’s Flag to Alaskans dear,

The simple flag of the Last Frontier.

For most of my life that Great North Star with its steady light was all the religion I had or needed – that and some healthy Emersonian pantheism.

I grew up in a quite secular household. I had a few months of Hebrew class when I was about eleven years old, in the basement of the Anchorage Baptist Temple on Arctic Boulevard, but the only thing that has really stuck with me about those months is the generosity of the Baptists who welcomed us into their space.

I should send a note.

The only holiday – the only Jewish holiday – that my family observed was Passover, that most American of holidays. I loved Passover.

My wife attends South Church, and several years ago she asked if I’d be interested in coming with her to a Friday evening service at Temple Beth Jacob. The whole idea seemed quite foreign to me, but as I look back I realize that for years I’d been searching for something in addition to The Great North Star with its steady light, and that – for many reasons – I had become aware that what I was looking for was somewhere in Judaism.

My experience that night was entirely mysterious – which is one of the joys of remembering it. Perhaps that was the third Shabbat service of my life. It was entirely foreign to me. And it felt like coming home. Just like that. Melodies I don’t remember hearing before were entirely familiar to me.

So we’re sitting in the service, and I’m sobbing, and trying to be quiet about it because it seemed so illogical, and Becky said, “Maybe you should talk to the Rabbi.” And I was nervous, and very aware of my inadequacies, but it seemed important. And it felt like, “If not now, when?”

So I asked Robin if we could make an appointment. And I said to her, “I think I might be Jewish.”

I have discovered since that I have been Jewish for a long time, but I didn’t know it, and I didn’t know how.

And so, Here I am, learning how.

So I was in Brooklyn, and I stayed with my sister and her husband, and I was doing a reading of “Twelfth Night” in which I was to play The Fool. We rehearsed in a friend’s living room in Prospect Park, and because not everyone in the cast knew each other our director asked us three questions as an icebreaker:

Who are you?

What role are you playing?

Where do you come from?

Looking back I realize that I should have stumbled over the first two. When someone asks you both “Who are you?” and “What role are you playing?” together, there’s a certain possibility or implication that the way we present ourselves may not reflect our truest selves. The coupling raises a question of integrity.

But I was more flummoxed by the question of “Where do you come from?”

My wife and I moved to New Hampshire about twelve years ago. But we lived in Massachusetts longer than that, and I can guarantee you that I don’t come from Massachusetts. We left Alaska half a lifetime ago, so I can’t any longer claim to come from there.

I suppose I’ve been wandering a bit, like an exile looking for the trail.

Where do I come from?

As we went around the circle in the room and folks answered and my turn drew closer, I was aware of a little tiny voice in the back of my head urging me to a very peculiar answer. It was so peculiar that when it was my turn to speak I said only that I grew up in Alaska, but now I live in New Hampshire. I didn’t give the real answer.

A couple of days later I was having coffee with a friend and I told him what the little tiny voice had told me.

I come from the past.

It has slowly dawned on me that my great ambition in life is to make myself ready to receive what is, to bring it into the present, and to send it along into the future.

I want to be a riverbed.

I think that is why I am both a student and a teacher, both a child and a parent.

That is why my Hebrew name is Baruch Ben-Tzion.

Memory – Active Remembrance – is essential to the Jewish experience. We come from the past. It’s an odd thing. You’d think the past would feel like a weight - the weight of tradition, of custom – and it certainly can be that. I’ve had that experience. But more recently I’ve had this other, mysterious experience, that when I remember those who have passed, and try to live my life in remembrance of them, the weight lifts. The more of them I carry, the lighter my own load becomes.

There’s a poem in our siddur, a meditation before Kaddish. It’s by Merrit Malloy, and part of it goes like this:

I want to leave you something,

Something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live in your eyes.

When someone dies we dedicate ourselves to live in their memory, to continue to bring something of them, what was good in them – their spirit, their work – into the present, and into the future.

Yesterday, for only the third time in my life, I had the great privilege to chant Torah. I remember clearly the first time. I remember it like it was yesterday, and it very nearly was. It wasn’t very long ago, in preparation for my bar mitzvah here at TBJ – that astonishing moment when the Torah is opened, and suddenly the experience of today is bound to the experiences of generations and generations going back thousands of years. There in a single moment are my father and grandfather and others I don’t even know and am not even related to - the past and the present collapsing into the here and the now.

Yesterday we chanted the story of Abraham and Isaac, and there’s nothing I can tell you about that story that you haven’t already thought of. Becky and I have two children, a marvelous daughter who lives in Seattle, and a son who just settled in St. Paul, whose middle name is Isaac. I could tell you a true story about how neither of them is supposed to be with us today. Both are extraordinary gifts. And I will tell you, I couldn’t do what Abraham does. I like to imagine that I would be like the Abraham who argues with God. I don’t know if I’d actually be able to do that – probably I would just find a green pasture to lie down in – but I like to imagine that I would put up a fight.

And yet this Abraham – the Abraham ready to sacrifice his “only one” – has something to teach us about readiness.

Three times Abraham is called, and three times he gives the same answer. God calls Abraham, and Abraham answers “Here I am.” Isaac calls to him, and Abraham answers “Here I am.” An angel calls to him as Abraham’s arm is raised over his son, and Abraham answers “Here I am.”

Abraham has readied himself for whatever will come, but I don’t think he knows what that will be.

There’s an acting exercise I love called “crossing the threshold” in which the readiness is all. We prepare ourselves before an imaginary door. We don’t know what the door is, or what is on the other side, but when we are ready we open the imaginary door and step across the threshold, and every time there is something waiting for us. And every time it is something unexpected, something we can’t plan for.

We stand at a threshold now. It’s Rosh Hashanah!

Here is a poem from the Siddur, by Adrienne Rich:

Either you will go through this door

Or you will not go through.

If you go through there is always

The risk of remembering

Your name.

Things look at you doubly

And you must look back

And let them happen.

If you do not go through

It is possible

To live worthily

To maintain your attitudes

To hold your position

To die bravely.

But much will blind you

Much will evade you

At what cost who knows?

The door itself makes no promises.

It is only a door.

We stand at the threshold of a new year. We must make ourselves ready, as Abraham was. But we do not know what we must be ready for. We will receive something, like a memory, and it will pass through us into the mysterious future.

Ready or not, here we are.

I’ve always loved Pesach. But in the last few year I’ve been bothered by the end of the service, when we declare “Next year in Jerusalem.” I fear that can descend into a moment of mere complacency, an excuse, an “Oh, well, better luck next year.” Like we’ve all become fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers – Wait until next year!

I don’t want it to be that. And it occurs to me that today is a good day to remember that what in the spring we called “next year” actually begins right now. This is the next year. This year in Jerusalem.

Today we discover that what might have seemed an easy “oh well, next year” actually has the quality of a promise. It is as though last spring we already knew that we were falling short, and that the day of atonement was coming, and that we had to rededicate ourselves to do better.

This year we need to build a path, or a hundred paths, to Jerusalem.

So we stand at the threshold. The door is before us. Ready or not, here we are.

Adonau, or Eloheim, or Whatever Is Divine, please plow open my ears. It will take a plow, because I have closed them. Help me hear you. Plow open my mouth, so that I can breathe you into every cell of my body. Plow open my hands so that I can proclaim you, not merely with words but with deeds.

We don’t know what waits for us.

But we have a calendar.

First, we will feed the hungry. We will fill our bags, and we will empty them, and we will fill them again, and we will fill them again.

Then, we will defend religious liberty; we will plant fruit trees; we will ridicule tyrants, and we will shame them; we will bring refugees across the wilderness to freedom, and we won’t leave Miriam behind when she is sick. We won’t even leave strangers behind; we will welcome them.

And we will stay up all night studying Torah together.

And when we wake up in the morning we will thank Adonai, or Eloheim, or Whatever Is Divine that we have one more day to contribute our own little tiny piece of the work that stretches before us.

Now, I don’t want to descend into mere sentimentality, I’m given to that. This year will be hard. We don’t know where we’re going, and each of us has our own wildernesses to cross. Like Abraham, we are both ready and not ready. Like Abraham, we must attend to the now. Here we are, standing at the threshold of a new year. And we made a promise.

And we still have the north star.

We will not succeed. We will not heal all the brokenness in the world this year, and we are bound to make mistakes, to introduce new brokenness. We know already that next spring at Pesach we will have to renew the promise, and we know that next year at Yom Kippur we will have to atone just as we do this year. But failure doesn’t matter, because we made a promise.

The great Jewish American humorist Calvin Trillin likes to remember something his father taught him. “As long as you’re here, you might as well be a mensch.” We might as well be mensches. It’s not like we have something better to do than that.

And if not now, in this year of all years, if not now, when?

Shanah Tovah.

Moral Leadership, Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5778

on Monday, 25 September 2017. Posted in Rabbi

Moral Leadership

During Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address in 1971, after he became the governor of Georgia, he announced: “The time of racial segregation is over.” Many in the crowd gasped in disbelief.

Carter wanted to clearly differentiate between himself and his predecessor, the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. Had this been like most elections, Carter could simply have declared “out with the old and in with the new,” but Carter had a challenge: Maddox had just been elected lieutenant governor.

Maddox was infamous for his deeply racist views. In the early 1960s, he harassed and intimidated African Americans who sought to eat in his restaurant. With the Confederate flag as his symbol, he was elected governor in 1966.

In the 1990s, Maddox recalled that Carter asked him to the gover­nor’s office three days after the inauguration. Maddox walked into the meeting vowing to help Carter implement state policies. But that wasn’t what Carter wanted. Instead, Carter tore into him, saying, “Lieutenant Governor Maddox, I didn’t call you into my office to find out when and how you were going to support me. I called you to tell you [that if] you ever oppose me, I am going to fight you with the full command and resources of this office.”

Maddox added, “My daddy whipped me and things like that but he never talked to me that mean, that vicious. If I even opposed [Carter] on one issue, … he was going to crush me.” Maddox was instantly afraid of the governor and stayed away from him for the rest of his life.

By slapping Maddox down, Carter showed that true leaders take bold steps to render powerless those filled with hate. A leader does not court anti-Semites and racists, playing them for their support.

Carter isn’t the only past president to demonstrate moral leader­ship when members of a persecuted minority fear for their safety, for their very lives. President George W. Bush’s message to America’s Muslim community following the attacks of September 11th have been extolled similarly. He said:

“Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear [head] cover[s] must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know.”

Historian Barbara Perry wrote, “George W. Bush rose to the occasion ... to go to those who were of the same religion but certainly not of the same political persuasion as the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11, and Bush modeled the kind of behavior that we would want to see in this country. I think he should be given all credit for virtually no violence breaking out against American Muslims at that time.”

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.”[1] As Jews, we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One medieval commenta­tor teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent.

We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of the President who fuels hatred and division in our beloved country. This is not a political statement. We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action.

We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man, and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all of the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times, compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice. 

The first shofar blast is t’kiah, the sound of certainty. As rabbis we are speaking, from sea to shining sea, to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets, and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors.

We call on our political leaders, progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal.

We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year, we are “Proclaiming liberty through­out all the land.”[2]

The second shofar blast is sh’varim, the sound of brokenness. Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened the too many examples of the swastika etched into benches and doors, or otherwise dis­played right here in New Hampshire during the past many months.

It also reminded us of the attacks on the New Americans here in our community over the past few years. How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances, and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities.

Silence, complacency, waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event – these are not options for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward anyone. Let us interfere as rofei lishvurei lev, healers of the broken hearted, and m’chabeish l’atzvotam, binders of their wounds.[3]

The third shofar blast is t’ruah, the sound of urgency. The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Mishnah teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.”[4]

But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we had learned and forgotten only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

The final shofar blast is the t’kiah g’dolah, the endless pursuit of justice. Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, the Eternal God, give to you.”[5] Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness among the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in this New Year. For when our nation lacks moral leadership in the presidency – described by Franklin D. Roosevelt as “preeminently a place of moral leadership,” we must take up that mantel.

Why us? Shouldn’t we be looking to members of Congress and state and local officials? Yes and no. We are warned in Pirkei Avot to be wary of relying only on the government. The text reads, “Be careful about the government, as they approach a person only when they need that person. They seem like good friends in good times, but they don’t stay around in the time of a person’s trouble.”[6]

Perhaps, ironically, we can look to leaders of corporate America. The very people who never live with the worries that you and I have – taying bills, making sure we have medical coverage, arranging child care – are the people who have demonstrated moral leadership, as many from the corporate world quit presidential advisory boards in the wake of the President’s morally repugnant response to the events in Charlottesville.

At the same time, according to authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their 2010 book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, members of a religious community may be uniquely positioned for moral leadership. According to what the authors found, “By many different measures, religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans – they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

Why are religious people better neighbors and citizens? Putnam and Campbell surveyed people about religious beliefs and religious practices. They found that beliefs and practices mattered very little. Whether you believe in an afterlife, pray, or identify as Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon – none of these things correlated with taking up moral leadership and caring for others.

The only marker that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how connected people were with others in their religious communities. Friendships and group activities, done in the name of religion and morality, brings out selflessness. They reach a conclusion found 100 years earlier by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim: “It is religious belong­ingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

And Jews, who have reached higher echelons of our society than any other persecuted minority, may be here for a reason. We find this lesson in the book of Esther:

“If you keep silent in this crisis, … you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have attained to the royal position for just such a crisis.”[7] Like Esther, we have the moral responsibility to speak out, especially given the many positions of leadership and power we have achieved in this country.

Being the voice of moral leadership – demonstrating the ability to make the morally correct decision – isn’t easy. Our Biblical prophets knew that. Martin Luther King knew that. Every kid who stands up to a bully on the playground knows that. And we know that.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote these words about the very first humans:

[Adam and Eve] became human…

They entered the world of the knowledge of good and evil,

a more painful, more complicated world,

where they would have to make difficult moral choices.

Eating and working, having children and raising children

would no longer be simple matters…

They knew they would not live forever.

But most of all, they would have to spend

their lives making [moral] choices.”[8]

Such is the human condition. And for Jews, it has been, in many ways, the foundational way in which we navigate the world.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz was a rabbi in Germany. In 1926, he assumed a pulpit in Berlin. Even before Hitler came to power, he under­stood that there was no future for Jews there.  He wrote, We Jews, urging them to leave. He was expelled by the Nazi regime in 1937, and he and his family came to the United States.

In August of 1963, Prinz was the President of the American Jewish Congress. He was among the ten leaders of Dr. King’s March on Washington. Speaking before an estimated crowd in excess of 250,000, 25% of whom were white, he said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned … was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.


“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act from the President, down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea, and the aspiration of America itself.”

This Rosh Hashanah, let us commit ourselves to the words and vision of Rabbi Prinz. We have painfully learned that we cannot look to our current president to be the moral leader of our country. Thus, the responsibility falls to us, each one of us. If you do not think you are up to the task, heed these words of the poet Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves,

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will for us all. Shanah tovah.


[1]Shabbat 54b

[2]Leviticus 25:10

[3]Psalm 147:3

[4]Sanhedrin 5:4

[5]Deuteronomy 16:20

[6]Pirkei Avot 2:3

[7]Esther 4:14

[8]Page 88

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