ON WRITING, AVOIDANCE, AND SHOWING UP FOR EACH OTHER

Somewhere in the space between reluctance to commit and the sense of being too busy, I have found a million other things to do besides write to you.

But when I articulate for myself what this work is all about, I know: it is about being a conduit for God’s love. Which is unconditional, a form of grace, and has nothing to do with reluctance to commit, or being too busy, or the million ways in which we hide from one another and from Him. Her. It. Whichever pronouns suffice to point to that sense of Greater Than All Of This, Always. That’s what I mean when I say God. But theology is for another time. After all, this is my way of initiating (resurrecting?) “On My Mind,” which has lived on the website as the Rabbi’s Blog, and until now has been the landing spot for my sermons and teachings.

At first, it was a sense of priority: get to know several hundred families. That was the most important thing when I began two and a half years ago. I gave myself eighteen months. (If you’ve never taken me up on my open office hours, it’s still a thing. Click here to schedule time together.) As I prepared for the High Holidays last summer, I had a plan: beginning with the new Torah cycle, I would share Torah weekly—maybe a video, maybe written, maybe both. (Would that the sermon was still that forum; I do hope that one day we will get to that place, where coming together weekly on Shabbat mornings will feel compelling and holy to more of you. It does to some of us already, and those I get to see each week—and even each morning, some of us, at daily minyan online—get what I mean. But I’ve come to realize—not without sadness—that for the rest of you I’m going to have to reach out beyond that medium.) So yes, I thought, I’ll do what many of my rabbinic colleagues do, and not only write a weekly d’var torah for services, but also create something that goes out to everyone and anyone who wants to read and/or watch it.

So, B’reshit. In the beginning. Those opening words of Torah, the first parasha, that first weekly reading of the Torah cycle. That’s where I thought I  would start, when this idea germinated last summer. Get through the High Holy Days, Sukkot, and then as we begin the Torah over again I’d be off and running. 

We read it on the morning of October 8.

War. At that point, a terrorist attack and hostages taken and the Jewish people shattered to its core. Israel not yet striking back, not yet mobilized to retrieve those taken, still counting the missing and the dead and unsure who was which. Those first weeks-turned-into-months tipping us over the edge from the comfort zone we’d been in to a discomfort zone of anxiety, fear, sadness, uncertainty, worry, grief, despair. The writing I’ve managed to send out since then has centered around all of this. Too much else to do, holding so many people with hurting hearts. Good thing we spent those eighteen months getting to know each other. 

But now it’s time to expand out. To go ahead and nourish us with Torah of all sorts. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like. Sometimes, it will be the weekly Torah reading; other times, it will be movies, or what’s on my mind with the kids or life in general. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that we need more Torah, more teaching, more wisdom, more spiritual succor. We crave it, now that the shock has taken root in our bones, the shock of this war and the resurgence of anti-Semitism; the shock of the culture of this country in this election cycle and culture-shift—but also the shocks and aftershocks to this congregation of a generational shift in leadership. 

Two and a half years into my tenure as your rabbi, there are still a million things that keep me from reaching out in this way. But if I push myself to articulate why I want to write to you at all, it is this:. Because I want to be in relationship with you. And in order to do that, we have to show up for one another.

So this is me trying a new way of showing up. In return, I hope you’ll try new ways, too. Because I love you, and God loves you, whatever that might mean to you. And if you don’t know, or are surprised to hear a rabbi saying those words which have come to sound Christian or just empty—well, good. That gives us something to talk about over our next cup of coffee, our next email exchange, the next time you push yourself to show up in this relationship with me, with Oheb, and with the Jewish people.

JULY 4: SHINE BRIGHT

When the kids were little, we used to take them to visit my in-laws for July 4. My (very wonderful) parents-in-law live in Brighton Beach, just a few blocks away from the beach and Coney Island boardwalk fun. The real highlight, however, lay in the opposite direction. As dusk turned to dark, we watched as dozens and then scores of simultaneous fireworks shows would bloom and burst before our eyes. It would start slowly – at first, while it was still light, just one or two firecrackers from a distant lot. Then, more would join – a small show at a park lasting several minutes – “Look, there, to the left!” “Over there, straight ahead!” We could see from a distance the beachfront shows off towards the coastline, and the big show on the Hudson River, depending on the year. All far enough below or out toward the horizon so that the noise would not reach us. But in the siren-pierced cityscape of Brooklyn, what would unfold was the magic of thousands of people celebrating the holiday in backyards and parks, on street corners and rooftops. Some right up close and others far away. Some displays were professional – from that perch you can see far off the Manhattan skyline, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, and the Atlantic shoreline – but those were outnumbered by the smaller, home-grown variety. All colors, all shapes, no coordinated timing. Just lots of people doing their own thing, in their own way, but also together, a celebration of country and freedom and expression and exhilaration of all sorts.

There is something about that image that I find deeply moving: the image of all those exuberant, short-lived sparkles lighting up the sky and then dying out, each having their moment. Each lit by someone or a group of someones, each with its own story and flavor. None particularly spectacular on its own and also each spectacular on its own. Watching from a distance, we would be filled with the sense of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, the sense of being part of or at least witnessing something grander than what anyone on the ground could grasp.

There is wonder to this story, and exhilaration, and awe. There is also humility, the knowledge that each of us is nothing more and also nothing less than a spectacular firework brought to life through the imagination and dreams of others. Each of us has just a short time here, to delight and light up the darkness, to provide others with a chance to come together and express wonder and joy. It’s not going to last long. And we won’t really know if we are a starburst or a sparkler, green or red or gold, until it’s happening and nearly over. We won’t know who was watching, what forces were whispering blessings and oohing and aahing over us from afar.

In his collection Tales of the Hasidim, published in 1961 but collected from the decades before that, Rabbi Martin Buber shared the story of the Rabbi Simcha Bunem, an 18th century Hasidic rabbi. It was (by now famously) said that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. One was inscribed with the saying from the Talmud: “For my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote a phrase from our father Abraham, from the book of Genesis: “I am but dust and ashes.” The trick, he taught, was knowing which slip to take out when.

As this country wakes up to its 248th Independence Day, we need all of it: the exuberance, the excitement, the celebration. The sense that each of us is here for a brief bright moment and so we must vote and march and advocate for all the holy things that need to happen l’taken olam, to heal the world, that the world should be a little brighter because we were each here. And also: we need that sense of distance, of watching something larger than us. We need to remember that our little explosions are after all not very much in the grand scheme of things, and that when we feel anxious or overwhelmed it’s not all on any one of us. This week, in the aftermath of the presidential debate and watching hurricanes move in and wars continue, we need to remember that part, too.

In the early 20th century, there was a movement to make July 4 “safe and sane.” That was literally the name of the movement: the Safe and Sane Movement. July 4 had become dangerous from all of the fireworks and Roman Candles and cannonballs and other explosive-related celebrations; tetanus from the shrapnel from the fireworks and other explosives killed thousands of people each year. (The mayor of Chicago, for example, issued an executive order in 1903 that prohibited not only fireworks and gunpowder, but also “the placing upon the car tracks of any street railway… any torpedo, bomb, or other thing containing any substance of an explosive nature.” Apparently, that was a thing. In case we thought modern gun control issues were without precedent.) I imagine many of us would agree that this movement to return our nation to safety and sanity would be apt in this moment of national life, too. Beyond the national, though, or perhaps riffing of it, of what it does to our insides: I turn to the personal. The inner world we each secretly hold. May you be safe. May you be sane. May you shine bright, burning and delighting all around you. And may you sparkle, knowing you are part of something much larger, something made brighter because of you are here. At Oheb Shalom, in the Jewish community, in this country which has been so good to the Jews these 248 years, in this world.

MINT OREOS AND THOSE 2,000 YEAR-OLD TEFILLIN

It only took until Tuesday.

It wasn’t the Mint Oreos that Naomi brought home from Target, though they didn’t help of course. Or the invitation to join the girls for ice cream in Maplewood. I mean, “choose life,” right? (Deuteronomy 30:19). After all, the vow was not even about sugar.

I made this vow last Shabbat morning, at services. There we were reading about the nazir, and we decided that the real power of the vow made by the nazir is that it was temporary. That he would refrain from something for just a while, and then be done. What, we wondered, might we take on that would serve us well emotionally and spiritually, as a temporary vow? What might we refrain from for one week that would serve us well in some way?

My vow was not about Oreos or ice cream, though given my sweet tooth it could have been. My vow—since you’re wondering—was about refraining from feeling angry at myself for one week. When I run late, when I don’t get to call people back or return their emails, when I give in with a little too much abandon to that sweet tooth. What might it be like to refrain for one week—not from those habits, but from self-recrimination?

That’s what only took until Tuesday. I suppose my public confession is pretty ironic. I’m publicly self-recriminating myself for not privately refraining from self-recriminating myself. Please laugh with me.

Which brings me to the headline of the week: did you see that archeologists found 2,000 year old tefillin in Israel?! You know, those little black boxes that get strapped to the forehead and arm with black leather straps, with the shema and some other lines of Torah inside. You know, that the Chabad guys will sometimes try and get (Jewish-seeming men) to try on. The ones that I and a number of Oheb congregants do lay, solo or when attending weekday morning minyan.

The headline was not actualy about their discovery. The headlines were about the 2,000 year old tefillin not being dyed black which is the only way they are made today, per Jewish law.

What does this have to do with refraining from negative self-talk and temporary vows, though? Well here’s a cool factoid: there are four Torah passages written inside those tefillin boxes. Inside the arm-box, they are all written on one piece of parchment. But on the head-box (get this): each one is written on a teeny tiny piece of parchment, and inside the box are four compartments, and each parchment gets its own little chamber. One compartment in the arm box, four in the head.

We either do something or we don’t. Eat the Oreos, put on the tefillin, say the kind thing or the nasty thing. One compartment on the arm tefillin. But what goes on in our minds is much more complicated. We struggle with the different ideas in our minds, the different voices in our heads. We want to do something but shouldn’t. We did something and regret it. We vow to refrain but the habit is too strong. We are always in a conversation with ourselves.

There is something inspiring about those 2,000 year old tefillin in this context. That they were likely not dyed black is cool evidence that Jewish law morphs over time (I’ve always thought a feminine or queer version would be patent leather, at least, or some bling). That our ancestors wore tefillin, made tefillin, hid them away with their precious texts and objects, is mind-blowing. We are the inheritors of a people who have played with how to be human, how to live a good life, how to struggle with the different voices in our heads and make the best decisions for ourselves. (That they were living in the Land of Israel, at this moment when so many people like to call Jews “colonizers,” also feels important.)

Somehow tefillin became out of vogue with progressive Jews. So yes, as your rabbi I am putting tefillin back into the conversation for us as a community. But more than that: I’m wondering, how does Jewish wisdom help us struggle with our own selves? What are the ways our inner conversations maps onto Jewish practice and ritual?

How might our most ancient Jewish practices—tefillin, prayer, coming together at minyan during the week and/or on shabbat, showing up for one another in caring community and friendship—help us live up to that sense of being b’tzelem elohim, worthy and beautiful and wonderful creatures made in the image of God?

I have no plans to stop the Mint Oreos or ice cream. I also will keep playing with refraining and indulging, laying tefillin and praying, and most of all being with you all in this work of being human, being Jewish, and using all of that toward a life of wisdom.

RAFAH, COMPASSION, AND HOLDING MULTIPLE TRUTHS

Maybe because of the images from Rafah all week, maybe out of a sense of being misunderstood, or maybe because of the opening lines of this week’s parasha*, I am going to take a risk, and share with you a few pages from my diary. The entry is dated October 29, 2023. I share it out of a sense of wanting to be in this with you all – setting aside the recent verdict for a minute to remember what the headlines were all week until then.

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SERVICE, SERVICES, SERVING: A Note for Memorial Day

In today’s America, the idea that we are obligated to serve—that our lives are somehow to be “of service”— feels pretty counter-cultural. Unlike Israel, in this country military service has been — for several decades — optional and voluntary. So too in Jewish life many eschew the idea of chiyuv — our obligation as Jews to fulfill the mitzvot, living a life of service to God and the Jewish people. I see this most often when people translate the word mitzvah, “commandment,” as “good deed” instead.

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OhebKids! Shabbat Morning

A weekly, teen-led Saturday morning experience for Oheb kids to connect, pray summer-camp style, and explore the weekly Torah portion. Meet in the Youth Lounge.