Lech L’cha 5774 – Pack Your Bags!

We meet Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai, as they are known at this early point in their story) this week again in Torah … The portion is called Lech L’cha and these are the words that Abram hears from God. These words are the first clue we receive into the character of Abraham. God tells Abram to, ‘Pack Your Bags! … go, leave your homeland, the land of your birth, your parents’ house … to a place that I will show you.’ Abram, in order to become Abraham (and Sarai, in order to become Sarah) needed to leave what was familiar, comfortable and insular. This journey was not a mere physical one – but an existential, emotional and spiritual journey. In order to grow, evolve and mature – Abram needed to pack his bags (physical and emotional) and leave home.

Anyone one of us who is a parent or a child (which I think should be most of us!) understands this important aspect of becoming a person. As much as our parents may love and guide us, as much as our homes or homelands may be familiar and life giving to us … there comes a point (often a painful one) in which we need to extract ourselves in order to better become ourselves. We do not cut off or reject these important relationships, people or the ways that they have impacted us. We do, however, heed the same call that Abraham heard from God: “Leave what is safe and familiar and go to a place that I will show you … and I will make your name great.”

As the Rocky Mountain Rabbinic Council began its iEngage Israel class this week … I hear echoes of God’s call to Abraham within the class materials, lectures and discussions. The class (and its supporting curriculum from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel) is designed to give Jews across the political, denominational and age spectrums a chance examine our relationship with Israel and with other Jews in our community. It is a class that will challenge its participants to re-examine our Jewish community’s accepted narrative about why Israel is important and how we translate that importance into relationship. The participants are being asked to leave the friendly confines of their intellectual and emotional homes – at least in the context of their relationship to Israel. They are being asked to extract themselves from a life long narrative and perspective about Israel – in order to consider other ideas about how that relationship may grow, evolve and mature.

And like those journeys from our parents’ homes for Abram, us and our children … this intellectual one may be painful and cause anxiety, but it also promises greatness. We must remember no matter the journey upon which we may find ourselves: the place that God wants us to see, the greatness … only comes if we are genuinely ready to pack our bags and and go.

Sukkot 5774 – Build, Dwell and Depend

The festival of Sukkot begins tonight (September 18th). Many Jewish Coloradans and their families and friends will find their way to physically sit, eat and/or sleep in a Sukkah this year. As with any ritual, the physical choreography is a way to directing the one observing the ritual to encounter an awareness of a spiritual reality. For many in Colorado – Jewish or not – I believe that the last week of rains and flooding have already opened their hearts and minds to an important spiritual reality related to building and dwelling in the Sukkah.

The recent flood waters devastated so many lives – destroying homes, businesses and taking lives. Across the spectrum of this impact were realizations by tens of thousands of people in Colorado that no matter how physically secure we feel, we are actually quite vulnerable. And in our vulnerability, we discover the true nature of our power and strength. This awareness is a fundamental intention of the mitzvah to build and dwell in a Sukkah. The 14th century Spanish scholar known as the Menorat HaMaor framed is this way: “The human being must leave his or her permanent home and move into a temporary abode that is devoid of wealth and security to remind her or him how deeply each person depends upon God.”

The Sukkah is a temporary hut. It is fairly sturdy for something that is supposedly easily put up and torn down. The Sukkah building at Micah every year seems to coincide with at least one good windy, storm. A couple of times in the past few years I arrived at Micah to see the Sukkah on its side, feet away from its original location. I think this uncertainty is part of the intended feel of the Sukkah. We get ourselves out of our comfortable and secure homes, erect these huts with almost open roofs and flimsy walls and spend our time within those walls and under that roof with those we love. If it rains (or even snows some years) we simply move our meal inside. Perhaps, though, for even a fleeting moment (or more if we are fortunate) we appreciate our blessings; acknowledge how little control we have over the forces of nature and where or upon whom our true dependence lies.

We build a Sukkah and dwell in it so that we understand where our dependence and strength dwells. So, when we realize the vulnerability in ourselves and in other – we know where to turn and we know when to help. As we dwell in our Sukkot this year – the ones in our yards or the ones in our hearts – let us turn to one another and help one another.

Re’eh 5773 – Peace Talks … Again.

For the first time in three years official representatives of Israel and Palestine are sitting down to engage in formal discussions about creating parameters for peace. We do not have to look very far to find those who think such an endeavor meaningless, hopeless or even dangerous. Cynics question the sincerity of either side’s intentions toward peace, pundits warn that very little movement is possible and then there are those who tell us the talks themselves are too little (Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talk Charade) or too much (Christian Israel-Backers Blast Obama on Peace). If this most recent round of talks were a horse race, the filly called ‘Peace’ might make the odds of a long shot look good. Forget about betting on ‘Peace’, is it even worthwhile watching the race?


Admittedly, the more that the current situation between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people continues the less optimistic I become about a resolution (even) in the near-distant future. Each side continues to become more and more entrenched in its position – building walls (both physical and psychological) between one another. Peace seems like an unattainable, naive abstraction. Reality is too messy, disjointed and plain unfair. Should we just batten down the hatches and defend ourselves against those who would threaten and take what is ours?


I came across a verse in this week’s Torah portion that – while I am sure that I have read it before – surprised me. This week’s portion, Re’eh, continues recounting Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites. This week Moses is reviewing various laws that relate to preserving the community’s holy place and helping to create a community in which holiness is cultivated. As Moses speaks to the people about being aware of and caring for the poor and needy in the community, he tells them: “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, this is why I command you to open your hand to the poor and needy … “ (Deuteronomy 15:11) Never?! For all the talk and promise of covenant; for all of the possibilities in redemption from slavery … I was surprised by this non-utopian, messy, gray vision for the society that they will create. I find two important ideas in this statement: (1) An acknowledgement that no matter what the Israelites might do – their community will always have those in need, those who lack. It will be messy, imperfect and unfair. (2) Despite the messiness, imperfection and unfairness the Israelites are still (choose your own word here:) expected/obligated/commanded to confront it and do something about it. In the face of the size of the task at hand (in this case, hunger and homelessness), it is not acceptable to resign oneself to impotence.

Is it irony? Paradox? A sense of divine humor? Or, maybe it is just a Jewish way of seeing the world. No matter how dire or insurmountable before us the iniquity in the world may seem, we cannot stop opening our hands, our minds or our hearts to those whose lives are impacted by these iniquities. With this nudge from Torah, I will pay attention to the discussions between Israelis and Palestinians. While I will be all too aware of the messiness of our situation, I will also strive to to see the possibilities.

V’etchanan 5773 – Crossing Lines

Being a young baseball fan, my son is having a hard time getting his head around the concept of an All-Star game. All of the players and teams have been playing so hard against one another (especially those hated Yankees) and then they just stop in the middle of the season and play with each other? Then in a few days they are going to go back to playing against each other? Seriously? When, where and which lines we cross can be a confusing concept for a young baseball fan.

Even for those of us who can wrap our heads around the idea of baseball’s midsummer classic, still may have a tough time with other kinds of lines and the conditions, variables and situations that mandate crossing them or not. Ask President Obama. As president he looks around the world and sees turmoil, injustice, cruelty and violations of basic human rights. When is it the right time and what is the right way to cross the lines between sovereign countries and governments and say something or do something? Ask any Jewish person who cares about the land of Israel. We look across the ocean and see things we love and see things that seem dissonant from our deepest values. When is the right time and what is the right way to cross that line of loyalty and support and offer loving and respectful critique and feedback? Ask any human being. We see a family member or dear friend in trouble (or at least what we perceive as trouble). When is the right time and what is the right way to cross the line to say something that may not be heard or understood and quite possible may injure that person or the relationship?

Unlike baseball’s mid-summer classic, there are no clear and fast rules that tell us when to cross what lines. These life decisions vary, change and depend upon the particular relationship, situation and other variables at play. Then how do we know the right time and right way to cross those lines between us and those around us? In this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan (from the book of Deuteronomy), we find what may be the most often recited verse in Jewish history: The Shema. “Listen Israel, YHVH/Adonai is our God, YHVH/Adonai is One.” The Shema is not a declaration of monotheism, but something else. It is a declaration of Israel’s relationship to this deity – that YHVH/Adonai is the ONE and ONLY understanding of divinity for the community called Israel. ‘YHVH/Adonai is OUR god.” This declaration is Israel’s attempt at definition and differentiation. This declaration of self-understanding guided, guides and continues to guide Israel as it grows, loves and acts.

In wondering when and how to cross the lines in our lives, we all need what the Shema provides Israel – an understanding of who we are and where we begin and others end. There is not a steadfast template as to when to step on or over those lines between us and others. There is no handbook that guides us how to constructively involve ourselves in the problems of a friend – whether that friend is another country or another person. In each of those moments of decision perhaps the most helpful template is having a clear understanding of how each of us understands the nature of justice, compassion … of divinity.

Korach 5773 – Shooting Messengers

We don’t have to pay attention too closely to hear messages from people telling us things that we do not want to hear. These messages originate from varied communication methods we access in the public domain and from the people with whom we work, live and love. The messages relate to all kinds of matters: what we put on or in our bodies to what we put through and in our minds. The packaging of these messages can be harsh, loving or somewhere in between. Because these kinds of messages do not feel good, our first defense is to deflect, deny or destroy them by whatever means we have at our disposal. And yet, even though these messages may be unasked for, unexpected, unrefined and even hurtful … some of them, maybe even just a few might actually contain something of value.

In Torah this week Moses and the Israelites receive a decidedly unfriendly message. In the portion that bears his name, Korach (with some of the Israelites firmly behind him), stands up to threaten the authority of Moses and the Levites. Korach and his followers joined together and confronted Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the community of the Eternal One?” (Numbers 16:3) In the account that follows in the Torah (and in the generations of commentary, as well) Korach and his followers are taken to task for their arrogance and ambition. Korach’s rebellion ends as he confronts Moses before the entire community in a high-noon-esque showdown … and he and his band are swallowed up by the earth.

It does not seem that Moses or God had any intention to listen to their claim that the entire community should enjoy access to divinity and the holiness that follows such access. And while the form and presentation of the message may have been suspect, the actual message seems downright, uh … Jewish. At least to my contemporary Jewish ears. Despite their dramatic reaction and violent rejection of Korach, it seems that the core of Korach’s idea has some staying power. How many of us – if reading Korach’s statement completely out of context – would disagree or even reject its meaning? And yet, the people who delivered that message – one that Moses and the Levites did not want to hear – were deflected, denied and summarily destroyed.

I would not suggest every message we hear has the same amount of accuracy or truth. I would suggest that there is probably a significant amount of truth that we reject out of hand because we are not open to hearing it. It may be the messenger or the way that message is delivered that turns us off … that turns on the mechanisms of deflection, denial and destruction. Whatever it is, we allow that kernel of truth to be swallowed up so that it is out of sight and out of mind – just like Korach. And so, we may miss out on important truths — truths that help us grow as individuals or ones that help us to understand the people who bring us these truths and in turn strengthen our relationships and our communities.

There is a Korach out there who will soon confront and challenge you … pay attention and listen before you deflect, deny and allow him and his message to be swallowed up.

Shavuot 5773 – Bringing The Mountain To You

Tonight and tomorrow Jews around the world will commemorate the most significant mountain experience in the history of the Jewish people – Sinai. On the festival of Shavuot we relive this mountain moment that is such an essential part of the Jewish story. At Sinai our spiritual ancestors stood together and directly engaged with the divine – and their lives were changed. In honor of that part of the Jewish story and in the spirit of opening up to such moments in our lives, I invite you to take a few moments to commemorate Shavuot in the next couple of days.

Bringing the Mountain To You – A Shavuot Reflection

  1. Carve out some time where you can sit, relax and reflect.
  2. If you can make it a space where you can experience of bit of the majesty that is part of our Colorado mountains, better yet! 
  3. Bring along something to write with (if that is something you prefer) or something to sip on (if that is something you prefer). 
  4. Make yourself comfortable … first physically, make sure you are good to sit for some time. 
  5. Then mentally, take a few moments, focus on your breathing, empty your mind of what you have to do or what you did not do … just clear out your mind of the clutter of the everyday. 
  6. Read this teaching from our tradition a couple of times about the Sinai mountain moment: “When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they miraculously were made whole, so that their physical perfection reflected the integrity of their souls. This the Torah describes all the Israelites as ‘standing’ at the foot of the mountain, implying none was crippled; ‘hearing’ the words of God, implying that none was deaf; ‘seeing’ the thunder and lightning, suggesting that none was blind. As they distanced themselves from Sinai and began to grumble about the hardships of the journey, the effect of the miracle began to wear off. Their blemished souls began to be reflected in their blemished bodies.” (Numbers Rabbah 7:1) 
  7. Consider the nature of this moment that the commentary suggests. You may think, write or even draw in response to the following prompts: 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘stand’ without any weakness or injury. 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘see’ with great clarity and vision. 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘hear’ with lucidity and comprehension. 
  • Compare and contrast those times – what is similar and different about them? 
  • The commentator names these moments of standing, seeing and hearing at Sinai as ‘miracles’. How comfortable are you applying that term to your moments of standing, seeing and hearing? 
  • How easy or difficult are your moments of standing, seeing and hearing to recreate? 
  • What can you do enable more moments like these in your life?

Take a few more moments to be in the moment, reflect on what you thought about, wrote or drew.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.

Kedoshim 5773 – Why We Run

I am thinking about the heinous crime that was committed on Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Each and every time a tortured soul chooses violence in this way we all feel more vulnerable. We feel more open – than we already are – to pain, loss and death. It is our gut reaction to minimize that vulnerability in the face of such wickedness. And yet, we cannot forget that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable is when it is possible that we experience incredible things …

The marathon itself is an exercise in vulnerability. Each runner exposes herself or himself to her or his physical and emotional limits – in the hope of pushing oneself to higher levels of experience. To approach those limits is to spend some time ensconced in vulnerability. Each runner knowingly and trustingly accepts that a community of organizers, volunteers, civil servants, medical professionals and citizens will be present – witnessing that vulnerability and each (in their own way) helping every runner find the transformation she or he seeks by allowing for and facing that vulnerability. Without this community, the runner cannot realize that goal.

Speaking of goals, in Torah this week our spiritual ancestors are given quite a goal. In the portion of Leviticus called Kedoshim, the Israelites are charged and challenged: Be Holy – Kedoshim Tihyu. Commentators like to make note that this charge is given not to each individual (in the singular), but to the entire community (in the plural). The idea being that the state of Holiness is something that needs to be achieved – not merely among others, but with others. I like how Martin Buber might have understood this concept: “For Buber, holiness is found not in rising above the level of one’s neighbors, but in relationships, in human beings recognizing the latent divinity of other people, even as God recognizes the latent divinity in each of us.” (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary)

The experience of the marathon – for the community it takes to host a marathon – is emblematic of this concept of Holiness. The criminal or criminals who planted those bombs at the Boston Marathon sought to strike directly at this vulnerable and holy place of ours. Even as we reel at the images and stories from the scene, we cannot abandon that charge to ‘Be Holy’, we cannot stop seeking to realize and liberate the divinity in others, we cannot stop running marathons.

Shemini 5773 – When Was Your Last Good Blush?

When was the last time you blushed? Physiologically speaking, when was the last time you were in a situation when uncomfortable circumstances caused an irregular flow of blood to your head and caused a reddish tone to appear in some form on your face (often the cheeks)? Emotionally speaking, when was the last time that you felt embarrassment or shame because of something you heard, said or did that was inappropriate, disrespectful or disgraceful??

We do not live in a society in which we blush a lot. We live lives in a more public eye – everything we do seems to get quickly and abundantly documented and shared via the wonders of the web. So, perhaps we are immune to frequent moments of shame. We live in an era that encourages (and even rewards) personal expression (the more outrageous, the better). So, perhaps a feeling like shame inhibits such pursuits and developments.

Are we evolving past the point as a species that we find shame a useful emotion or blushing as a productive physiological response to shame? Will shame and the blush go the way of the appendix – as anachronistic remnants of once useful ‘organs’? Or, do these built in ‘defenses’ of shame and the blush hold some deeper meaning or purpose for we human beings as we continue to understand our existential place.

In this week’s foray (Shemini) into the book of Leviticus, we continue wading through the accounting of the priestly and cultic laws and customs. Early on in the portion – in a seemingly innocuous line in the text – the Torah says that Moses told Aaron to approach the altar where the sacrifices were to be done. Aaron was the high priest, so it seems rather obvious that he would be the one approaching the altar. Not so obvious for the 11th century French commentator, Rashi. Rashi wanted to know why Aaron – who was the high priest – needed Moses to tell him to approach the altar at all. Rashi’s answer to his question: Aaron was ashamed. (He does not tell us why.) Not only does Rashi suggest that Aaron was ashamed (he may have been blushing, too), but Rashi teaches that Moses said something very helpful to Aaron (to help get him to the altar) and instructive to us as we consider the emotion of shame: “Why are you ashamed? For this you were chosen!” Moses (or Rashi) suggests that because Aaron was able to feel shame, that he ascended to this sacred role of high priest.

Our tradition suggests to us to consider the powerful place that shame may hold in our lives. Our spiritual development depends partly on our ability to emotionally and physically experience the impact of actions that are inappropriate, disrespectful or disgraceful. This kind of healthy shame empowers us to understand our limits and to establish healthy boundaries between the human beings with whom we share the world.

Pesach 5773 (Too Much)

We can be too much for our own good …

As many of us look at our Seders in the rear-view mirror (and I hope they were joyous and meaningful Seders), we still have the prospect of plenty of Matzah in our near future. Matzah is the symbol of the Exodus from Egypt, the bread of affliction and ultimately it is the culinary actualization of a chametz free-world.

Chametz is the name for those things that do not pass the Passover test. It is the name for foods that have been allowed to leaven – to puff up, to expand or to enlarge. The foods we eat during Passover are the ones that fall in line behind the Matzah and limit their amount of puffing, or expanding or enlarging.

Let us not only think of Chametz as a culinary category, for that only touches the surface of the depth of Chametz. Chametz names a spiritual element, as well. It describes what happens to human beings when we make choices that cause ‘puffing up’, expansion and general enlargement that is detrimental to our collective well being. While, this kind of Chametz may be more difficult to find than the food related Chametz that we find in our pantries each year – this kind of Chametz may be more pervasive in our lives.

Now that Passover has arrived and houses around the world have been successfully searched for Chametz, it is time for another kind of search for Chametz to commence. Pay attention to the puffiness, expansion and enlargement in your life. What choices have you made that have caused an unnecessary and possibly harmful expansion of your physical world? Parts of your body or your home may feel as if there is too much of something (or many things). What decisions have you made that have caused a destructive and limiting puffiness in your spiritual world? You may be feeling emotions or harboring attitudes that have become so large that they inhibit your ability to make loving connections with those closest to you.

The fact of the matter is that in our efforts to make our way in this world and create safe and nurturing places for us and our loved ones – we can make, collect and acquire too much for our own good.  So much stuff – things, emotions, attitudes – that it gets is the way of living and loving.  Don’t just spend this week eating Matzah and worrying about putting Chametz in your mouth, accept the gift and challenge that Passover offers to consider and pay attention to the Chametz that you put into your mind, your heart and your soul.

Vayakel/Pekudei 5773 (Drones Beget Drones)

This week I am wondering why I am not so outraged that Rand Paul will not shut up … Senator Paul is engaging in a ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’ kind of filibuster, protesting President Obama’s nomination to head the CIA. The point that Senator Paul keeps returning to is his grave concern that the President holds the power to order a drone strike on American citizens under ‘extreme circumstances’. I have never found myself on the same side of a political issue as Senator Rand. Nor I as I try to understand the reasons behind his filibuster, do I see a lot symmetry in this case between our political ideologies. And as outrageous as his claim and fear of drones striking Americans on American soil may be, I have studied too much history to blithely discount such a concern.

It is not at all an uncommon historical occurrence for those in power (or those who seek power) to consider their fellow human beings an impediment or threat. Such situations occur when those in positions of authority or influence stop seeing the humanity of the other human beings who inhabit the same state or community. (i.e when governments see their citizens as drones, then it is easier to send drones to deal with them – (seeing) drones beget (using) drones). Instead of seeing human beings – who contain and emanate sparks of Divinity and the Sacred, they see obstacles and threats. And then they act accordingly.

In this week’s Torah portion – Vayakel/Pekudei – we (again) have an accounting of the structure, elements and various details of the portable Tabernacle that traveled with the Israelites in the wilderness. One would hope for a more dramatic and fitting end to the book of Exodus — the book that begins in slavery in Egypt, then sees the dramatic redemption of the Israelites and then their revelatory encounter with God at Sinai. Instead, we get a rehashing (It is the second or third time already!) of the pieces, parts and instructions for the Israelites wilderness DIY project.

Within this rehashing is a subtle, yet helpful perspective as we consider the ways that – when at our worst – we human beings tend to regard one another. The book of Exodus begins in Egypt — in slavery. Slavery exemplifies the worst of this inability to see the divinity in the other. It is the ultimate in seeing others as things to be used or to be disregarded when their utility ends. We end Exodus in Pekudei — which derives from the Hebrew root that has to do with ‘taking a count’ or ‘taking note of’. We end Exodus with a laborious counting and noting of each and every element of the Tabernacle.

Here I turn to Ovadiah Sforno (15th century Italian commentator) who had something to say about this counting and noting:

“ …each one of them (the articles counted) was worthy to be considered as important and to       be called by its private (individual) name, not only as part of a generic group (category). This is certainly justified (regarding) each one of the holy vessels …”  (Sforno on Exodus 38:21, translation from Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz)
Sforno speaks of the act of counting the vessels as a way of remembering and acknowledging their inherent worth and value. If such an approach is true of the articles of the Tabernacle, how much the more so is this concept is true for living beings? The counting of these mere vessels is an interesting contrast to the way that our ancestors were ‘counted’ at the beginning of Exodus.

… and an important reminder for us, as well. This tendency toward having trouble remembering, counting or taking note of the humanity in others is embedded deep within our psyche. We find its roots within responding to the needs and demands of surviving in the world. Living only in that perception of reality is akin to being slaves in Egypt. Expecting that our leaders and our institutions seek to honor the sparks of divinity in all human beings liberates us from that bondage. Seeking to cultivate that spark within one another enables us make the entire world a Tabernacle (just like what is described in Exodus) and to encounter the divine in each and every moment and place in our world.