First Sunday in Lent

Sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Durham as part of a pulpit exchange…

Good Morning! I am so glad to be here with you today, able to return the favor Rev. Douglas bestowed upon me and Judea Reform Congregation on Friday night. I am grateful for our partnership, and for the continued bond between our two congregations, a bond fostered over decades by Rabbi Friedman and Rev. Harvard. Mindy, we’ve got big shoes to fill! I’m grateful to Kathy and Allan as well. Their musical friendship was the catalyst for this pulpit exchange.

One of the great joys that clergy find in pulpit exchanges of this sort is that it puts us in a relationship with less familiar texts. Rev. Douglas preached Exodus 25 on Friday night, a passage that she tells me does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, and she relished the opportunity to engage with it. Her teaching was challenging, and uplifting: everything one could hope for. Continue reading

Taking Refuge, Making Justice

Iyyun Tefilah, Judea Reform Congregation, February 16, 2018…

Seven days a week, Jews pray the hashkiveynu prayer as evening falls: “Grant, O God that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed; spread over us the shelter of Your peace.”

Many of us learned this prayer in Hebrew School from teachers who said something along the lines of, “Imagine what it must have felt like hundreds of years ago, when this prayer was written. There were no light switches. Nighttime was so dark and scary. The fear our ancestors felt, and the need to find a sense of safety amidst that fear, is why this prayer was composed.”

I wonder if we aren’t doing ourselves a disservice by emphasizing the prayer’s roots in an earlier, scarier time. Because let’s face it: If hashkiveynu weren’t already a prayer, would our generation not need to invent it? It may not be as hard to see in the dark as it once was, but the darkness is no easier to look upon. “Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine, and sorrow,” our ancestors prayed. Is this not our hope, our prayer, too, we who can’t look at a screen or open a newspaper without being confronted with all those things in abundance? “Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings,” they prayed. Is refuge not among our deepest desires, as well? Continue reading

One Person, One Heart – JDAIM 2018

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a time to shine a light on a topic that receives too little attention, given its importance. It’s not overstating the case to claim that the way a community welcomes and includes people with disabilities goes to directly to its character, to its soul. My evidence to back this claim: this week’s parashah, yitro. Continue reading

On the Song of the Sea, and “thoughts and prayers”

Here’s a nugget from the Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926), on the verse (Exodus 15:1), “Then Moses sang, and the Children of Israel…” Intrigued by Rashi’s observation that “it arose in their mind to sing,” he writes:

Everything we do starts as a thought. All actions begin with an intention. Furthermore, the measure of the mitzvot we perform is connected to the intention and passion we bring to them. It was nothing special that the Israelites sang at the shore of the sea. Indeed, they weren’t even singing, in the sense that it was a response to the holiness of the moment, and “Shekhinah spoke from within their throats.” Rather, this: that they sang demonstrated their great desire to offer up songs and praise to the Holy One, a desire that propelled them to the heights of prophecy, and to the singing of the Song of the Sea. That was what was special: that “it arose in their mind to sing” in the first place.

I love this teaching, and I’m disturbed by it. I love it because it reminds me of the value of setting my intention, again and again, as I go about my day. I’m disturbed because I’ve always learned and taught (Pirkei Avot 1:17), lo ha midrash ha’ikar, ele hama’aseh: “What’s essential is not the intention, but the action.” “Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed,” was drummed it my head, and I’m not prepared to jettison that notion for one that could be used to excuse bad behavior with an all-too-easy “Oh, but they meant well.”

The solution, I think, is this: our commandments are divided into two categories, the ritual and the ethical (bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachaveiro). It’s not a perfect division, of course, and figuring out where the ethics lies in a Jewish ritual, or how to uncover ritual in an ethical deed is a great exercise. But broadly speaking, the division holds, and it is the marker between the Shem Mishmuel’s teaching and the one from Pirkei Avot. For ritual commandments, it is indeed all in the intention; but when it comes to our actions in the interpersonal realm, even the most heartfelt “thoughts and prayers” are worthless, when not followed by deeds.


A Loosening of Leopards

I had the privilege of welcoming Koach Baruch Frazier and Dove Kent to Judea Reform Congregation on Friday, January 12, 2018. My framing remarks…

A tweet that shows up in my feed every so often these days says something like this: “Have you ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights era? Stop wondering; you’re doing it.”

It is in that spirit that our Adult Education and Social Action Committees conceived of this evening’s program, which is intended less to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr’s accomplishments than to continue his unfinished work. Dove Kent and Koach Baruch Frazier are here tonight to challenge us, to push us, perhaps to make us uncomfortable. Continue reading


Last week we looked at Joseph’s question of his brothers, avichem hazaken, ha’odenu chai? Is the elderly father of whom you spoke still alive? And using a quirk of the sentence structure as the hook on which to hang our lesson, we talked about the difference between merely living and being truly alive. Our Tradition names that quality, that animating force that turns living into Life, chiyut. I suggested that when we cultivate an awareness of the chiyut around us and within us, we grow stronger, kinder, more loving, more grounded…we find peace within and generate peace all around. Continue reading

Od Avinu Chai

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in an interview granted around the time of his 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, said this about why he wrote in Yiddish, a language with an ever-shrinking pool of speakers and readers: “The language is ailing, yes. But in Jewish history, the distance between sickness and death can be a long, long time.”

So there’s dying, and then there’s dead. And on the flip side, there’s living, and there’s alive. This week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, includes a curious exchange between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 43:27-28) which viewed through the lens of our Tradition, illuminates this point. Hearing the words this year, I find myself reflecting on the question, “In what ways am I merely living, and in what ways am I truly alive? Continue reading

Vigil on the Fifth Anniversary of Newtown

“After the Newtown shootings”

God, let me cry on Your shoulder.
Rock me like a colicky baby.
Promise me You won’t forget

each of Your perfect reflections
killed today. Promise me
You won’t let me forget, either.

I’m hollow, stricken like a bell.
Make of my emptiness a channel
for Your boundless compassion.

Soothe the children who witnessed
things no child should see,
the teachers who tried to protect them

but couldn’t, the parents
who are torn apart with grief,
who will never kiss their beloveds again.

Strengthen the hands and hearts
of Your servants tasked with caring
for those wounded in body and spirit.

Help us to find meaning
In the tiny lights we kindle tonight.
Help us to trust

that our reserves of hope
and healing are enough
to carry us through.

We are in Your hands: put us to work.
Ignite in us the unquenchable yearning
to reshape our world

so that violence against children
never happens again, anywhere.
We are Your grieving heart.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s poem, written on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, says everything there is to say about why Jews care about gun violence prevention.

One line, really, says everything there is to say: “each of Your perfect reflections.” Those precious children, those loving teachers who died that day, and every one of the victims of gun violence who died before or since (can you believe we’re talking about “since,” and that the number is 150,000 souls?), all are God’s perfect reflections. The very first chapter of our sacred scripture says it so clearly: “b’tzelem elohim bara oto — in the Divine Image did God create them.”

To say that human beings are created in God’s image, Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches, is to say that each one of us is infinitely worthy, entirely unique, and of equal value to every other person. Gun violence negates every one of those claims, turning perfect reflections of God’s presence into mind-numbing, heart-breaking statistics, stripped of their worth, deemed expendable by those who worship at the altar of the NRA.

Kol ham’abed nefesh achat k’ilu ibed olam, v’chol ham’kayyem nefesh achat k’ilu kiyyem olam —  “Whoever destroys a life, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world” (M. San 4:5).

Guns destroy lives in so many ways: the bodies they shred; the memories they scar; the families they tear apart. In truth, every death from gun violence destroys entire worlds, and the steady march of deaths destroys the universe, again and again and again.

May this vigil, and the hundreds of others happening around the country tonight and in the coming days, be more than an expression of “thoughts and prayers.” May the light of the candles illumine the Divine Presence in each of us, and may the knowledge we are all God’s perfect reflections spur us to action. May we save lives, and thus save worlds.


Sharing the privilege of leadership and service

Opening remarks, Interfaith Inclusion Day of Listening, November 5, 2017.

I’ll begin with a few words about process, and rabbinical authority. I’m proud of the way our congregation is carefully and prayerfully considering the ways in which our members who aren’t Jewish might take part in the life of the synagogue. I wish it to be absolutely clear that the authority to make changes in the realm of governance, in particular, rests with the membership. This is not a question that can be settled by deferring to the rabbi’s wishes, and even if it were, I wouldn’t want the authority or the weight of responsibility. That’s a weight which is best borne by many shoulders.

On Yom Kippur I studiously avoided sharing my own feelings on the topic at hand. My goal that day wasn’t to advocate for a particular outcome, but instead to suggest what we might bring to the conversations that would follow: imagination, empathy, and the capacity to see things through another’s eyes. I reiterate that call now, encouraging each of us to approach the conversation with all the humanity within us.

But today I’ll do what I didn’t do on Yom Kippur: share my own thinking on the topic. Because if being the rabbi doesn’t come with unilateral authority (thank God!), it does come with some expertise and with a megaphone, and I would be shirking my responsibility if I were coy about my own feelings on the subject.

An analogy to another moment in my rabbinate will help me to explain my thinking. In 2007, after nearly a decade of saying “no” when asked to officiate at weddings where only one partner was Jewish, I began to say “yes.” As I said it then, in a letter to my congregation, my nine years in congregational life had led me to

[t]he recognition that marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners are often imbued with an appreciation of Judaism (even a love of Judaism) and with the desire to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families.  Where that is the case…I find myself comfortable – eager, even – to join those couples under the hupah and to invite God’s blessing upon their marriage.

Ten years later, it is the same recognition that leads me to believe that we would do well to welcome into certain leadership roles our members who aren’t themselves Jewish in the conventional understanding of the term, but who appreciate and even love Judaism, and who are helping to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families. And now, as then, I find myself not only comfortable, but eager, to welcome them — to welcome you — to the table.

My reasoning is both practical and principled.

Practically speaking, I see a generation coming of age for whom identity is fluid and fungible. Gender and race are increasingly recognized not as immutable and defining traits, but as social constructs which people perform. In this context, a strict Jewish/non-Jewish binary is increasingly out of place, and to some even offensive. It seems to me that maintaining the status quo would be out of character for a synagogue that takes future visioning as seriously as we do. Practically speaking, some adjustment to the current practice sets us up to thrive as notions of identity continue to evolve in the coming years.

But this is not only about forecasting future trends, and setting ourselves up for organizational health. Ever since Abraham, when forced to choose, Jews have aspired to do what’s right, not what’s expedient. Demographic trends aside, it just feels right to me to open the door to leadership, at some level, to our members who are not Jewish by the conventional definition, but who are essentially living Jewish lives. We are a synagogue whose calling card is inclusion. As such, I believe that all of our members who appreciate and even love Judaism, who are creating Jewish homes and Jewish families, ought to be welcomed to lead and serve in some capacity. That ought to be the litmus test. I believe that we will be richer for it.

Having said all of that, I conclude by returning to process, with a reminder that the power to set our course in this regard rests not with me but with you. I trust in your collective wisdom. Whatever the particulars that emerge from today’s conversation and the ones that will follow, my prayer is that Judea Reform Congregation will remain healthy and strong, a blessing to this community, to the Jewish People, and to all beings, everywhere.

“A Name for Ourselves”

Judea Reform Congregation, Parashat Noach

Four miles to the east of where we learn and pray tonight, in the Hayti neighborhood, sits a field littered with the concrete slabs of a public housing project. From 1967 until 2007 Fayette Place stood, before it was bought by developers, razed to the ground, and then left waiting for market conditions that never arrived.

Here and there, a few steps survived the wrecking ball. My colleague, Rev. William Lucas has called them, poetically and tragically, “the steps to nowhere.” That image came to mind this week as I studied parashat noach, and specifically the eleventh chapter of Genesis, where we read the story of the Tower of Babel. I imagine the great ziggurats, Mesopotamian fortress-temples which inspired the story of the tower, after they’d crumbled but before they’d been completely dismantled or covered over by the sands of time. It must have been something, to see those ruins, those steps to nowhere. Continue reading