Of Rice and Men

When I hear inappropriate comments, when I see unspeakable acts, when I read inconsiderate posts, my initial thought is clear: turn down the mic, turn off the camera, and deactivate the account.

Mics. Cameras. Twitter.

These are the arenas where hatred plays its dirty cards. Even without these forums, bigots, sexists, and imbeciles continue to whisper their inappropriate comments. They continue to act out their evil impulses in private.

But just as the Ice Bucket Challenge teaches the uninformed the difference between ALS and ASL, the fact that so many faces in the media limelight are on camera, mic-ed up, tweeting about their lives, means that we have fuel to ignite a fiery conversation about race, sex and other social stereotypes. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when these stories come to light. By rolling the tape, predators are caught red handed. They are the idiots caught on camera, but they represent a greater number of similar idiots who share the same views and practices. It is through our own uneasiness with this public display of insensitivity that we have the forum to have a strong public display of action to inspire change in the masses.

Looking over the news of the past week, the blunders of men reads like a Buzzfeed article or quiz entitled “Which athlete/racist/abuser/bigot am said the following?”

The case of Ray Rice brought to light the inactions of the District Attorney and the Judge who approved the pretrial intervention. #BlundersofMen.

The case of Ray Rice brought Floyd Mayweather, along with his $30 Million weekend payout, into the conversation, where he reminded us that his history of domestic assault is a “matter of opinion.” Having these opinions caught on tape shows the growing need for action- the banishment of a sport like boxing, the banishment of fighters like Mayweather. #BlundersofMen

The case of Ray Rice brought us sobering statistics of domestic violence, forcing an eye-opening conversation that a woman is five times more likely to be the victim of domestic abuse than become a CEO of a Fortune 1000 Company. #BlundersofMen

The case of Ray Rice brought us a conversation of moral equivalency started by Ray Lewis and continued by supporters of Adrian Peterson’s actions when it came to his 4 yr old child. The “it was ok a generation ago” doesn’t fly. There are many things “ok” a generation or two ago that we’d like to keep banished forever. It is our collective responsibility to support those in need. As the hashtag shows support Columbia studentEmma Sulkowicz and other victims of rape, we must all #carrytheweight. #BlundersofMen

The case of Ray Rice ignited the twitter hashtag #whyistayed, shedding light on the complexities of domestic abuse. #BlundersofMen

Kanye West made his way into the conversation by calling out two indidivuals who were unable to give him a standing ovation at his concert. It didn’t matter that one was in a wheelchair and the other had a prosthetic. What mattered was the insensitivity of West, the ego of West, and classlessness of West. We are all created in the image of God. We weren’t created to stand for Kanye, and I know I won’t stand for him. #IDon’tStandForKanye.

My heart aches for those who experience these acts of hatred and bigotry. Being mic-ed up, these villains are responsible for their actions. They represent a much larger group of villains that do not view their perspectives or actions as abuses. This week, the #blundersofmen share the names Rice, Mayweather, Peterson and West. Next week, the blunders may not have the same name recognition, but our responsibility to aid those in need, to call out hateful speech and action, should not change. Even when the mics aren’t on. Even when the cameras are no longer rolling. We are compelled to denounce these actions, to raise the bar for human decency, to continue honest dialogue so we foster a stronger community for all. May we combat the negligence and the abuses with the courage and strength of our hearts and character.

Summer Song Sadness

Last week, the NY TImes ran an article highlighting the beautiful (and I use that word deliberately) work of summer camps like Eden Village in holding to a strong “No Body Talk” directive.

On Friday afternoon, when the campers, girls and boys from 8 to 17, are dressed in white and especially polished for the Sabbath, they refrain from complimenting one another’s appearances. Rather, they say, “Your soul shines” or “I feel so happy to be around you” or “Your smile lights up the world.”

Summer camps are magical. For those who have attended, we see them as our reason for trucking through the rest of the year. They are our respite, our utopian bubble where initiatives like the “No Body Talk” rule can actually work. They are our Shabbat, a re-energizing and reimagining sanctuary in space and in time.

In the camp world growing up, our “songs of the summer” consisted of a myriad of Israeli techno hits. Oh to be at camp again. What’s competing for airplay right now?  Robin Thicke’s misogynistic “Blurred Lines” is being followed this summer by an even creepier “Get Her Back” single in which sexism spews from both lyric and video. No I don’t want it. Jason Derulo, who has finally retired saying his own name in every song, has followed up his filth ridden “Talk Dirty” with an even more offensive body-image destroying song “Wiggle.” These are two of many examples of utter trash that makes its way into the charts, on to our playlists and and into the way we speak of and act around others.

For those of us who are unable to spend our summer at Eden Village, we can still aim to create a summer filled with love and respect, from the lyrics we create between one another to the lyrics we listen to all summer long. When we skip out on such language, sexism and filth, we send a message to music executives that catchy melodies must be accompanied by creative lyrics. For they know that the modern music world, and its ability to skip over such trash, stands on 3 things: iTunes, Pandora and Spotify.

Sanctify This Day


There are three forms of sanctity in this world: sanctity of time, sanctity of humanity, and sanctity of space. As people around the world light a yellow candle in commemoration of this Holocaust Memorial Day, the three forms collide.

By igniting a flame, we create a sacred moment to reflect and to remember. Our task is to remember every day, so that faces take the place of statistics, so that our family story serves as caveat to our history books.  This is the sacredness of time.

By igniting a flame, we recognize the millions of souls whose dreams and aspirations were extinguished by the Nazi regime. We tell their stories. We share with others.

By igniting a flame, we memorialize the sacred spaces of our past: the spiritual centers for European Jewry for hundreds of years; the places marked by death that, while troublesome, are holy places because our loved ones are buried amidst the ashes. We mark sacred space in the present, in order to create a legacy built upon love to those who perished.

May we all find sacred moments, communities and spaces, so that we may continue to learn, to grow, and to heal.

Between the Bookends

Since the time of the prophet Ezra some 2,500 yrs ago, the Jewish people have been furnished with a musical liturgy rich in oral tradition. Within this tradition, two groups emerged- the fixed (nusah) of our prayers as well as the molded trope systems, known as cantillation, which define the way we chant biblical verse.

When the Masorites codified the cantillation systems a thousand years ago, the symbols and names to identify a musical phrase were intended to be easy and straightforward- Sof Pasuk meant “end of the verse”; Etnachta from the root lanuach, to rest, the name given to the trope found in the middle of a verse, a place to pause both thematically and musically.  Whether we are reading torah or haftarah or megillah, these cantillation marks act the same way. The trope symbols are as much musical notation as they are punctuation, accentuation and interpretation of the words they pair up with.

The trope “Zarka” appears almost 700 times throughout Tanakh.  In most of our cantillation systems, Zarka, taken from the Aramaic word meaning “scattering”, moves note by note in an identical “scattering” motion.

Keep that melody in mind for a moment.

Parallel to the development of our sacred cantillation system is our synagogue-chanting mode, the nusah, defined by distinct musical scales combined with the use of traditional phrases within a given scale.  There are only so many scales in use within traditional Ashkenazic worship, and so we look to the musical phrases to lead us to where we are in the religious calendar. To hear  the melody for High Holiday Maariv- we know it is the High Holiday season.  We don’t think “oh yes that’s a major scale.” We identify with a certain season, a sentimental connection to a time of year. To hear “Shabbat minha” it is suddenly Shabbat afternoon. Our festival davening, filled with numerous musical motifs, is defined, in essence, by 4 notes. These are the four notes that complete most phrases within festival nusah. Our opening and closing phrases share the same simplified nusah. Take the last paragraph of the Kedusha prayer, in which we transition to our festival nusah:  “Ldor Vador” to open, and “Hakadosh” to end our paragraph.

Each paragraph of our Festival liturgy is often bookended by the same few notes.

The scattering Zarka. What does it mean to have our fixed liturgy begin and end with the same musical phrase?

17th Century Rabbi Samuel Archivolti articulated the connection between music and text:

“There are two categories of song. The first category is a melody, which is composed to fit the words in consideration of their ideas. For by melodic changes we are able to distinguish between pause and continuation, a fast tempo and a slow one, between joy and sadness, astonishment and fear, and so forth. And this is the most excellent type of melody in music, for not only does it consider the ear’s pleasure, but also strives to give spirit and soul to the words that are sung. This type of song was used by the Levites (in the Temple), for it is the only way they could have arranged their music, and it is the type fit to be written for songs in our sacred language.”

So we return to the simplicity of our opening and closing Zarka.  “Ldor Vador“- from generation to generation,

HaKadosh” – the one who is holy.

The musical motifs that define our nusah, the set ways of our liturgical lives, were once described to me by Cantor Simon Spiro as “Slalom Posts”- as a slalom skier descends the mountain, the objective is to go from post to post. What he does in between swiping each post is entirely up to him. This musical freedom is the journey we can take between Ldor Vador (generation to generation) and Hakadosh(holiness)- how do we as individuals and as community bring “Generation to Generation” to “holiness”? It is up to us to treat generations before with holiness just as much as generations to come! Our task is to fill that space between the opening and closing of our lives with holy music.

This task is brought to light through melodic intervals that define this holiday.

Today we continue to celebrate Chol Hamoed- the period in between the very much defined bookends of this holiday- On one end, we have our seders and the recitation of the Tal prayer. On the other, the Yizkor memorial service, reminding us not only about our redemption from slavery to freedom but of the necessity to remember all those loved ones who have journeyed with us.

Chol Hamoed- often mistranslated as “intermediate days”, is rather the mixing of two worlds- the holy and the every day. For as the name implies, Chol is the ordinary and profane, while Moed is an appointed time or place of meeting.

One way to experience these middle days is as a  twice a year event- to taste a little of the holiness of yom tov in the aura of the weekday. Or we can extend this metaphor to the ways in which we live throughout the year- making holiness the norm of practice. We mark the Yom Tov bookends in big ways, acting holy when we are surrounded by pomp and circumstance, by ritual, by community and those we love. These liminal moments are part of our collective Jewish and family calendar. What is even more difficult is living a life of Chol Hamoed- adding sanctity to the mundane every day motions.; adding “Moed”, set time during our ordinary day to appreciate the joy in our lives, to sojourn in a special space with the divine.

Zarka: trope, and by extension Nusah, are able to transport us to the space between. A paragraph like Ldor Vador that recite multiple times a day has new meaning when we add the festival flavor to it. The nusah uncovers this idea of “bookends”- that we begin and end in a similar fashion, but what we do in the middle is what matters most. May we take the journey between the fixed points of release and return, and fill it with the coloratura of action and interaction, of holy being and holy doing, of loving others and loving ourselves. As we continue to travel from slavery to freedom, may we find each ordinary day to be that much more extraordinary.

Let Us Know: Top 5 “Frozen” Passover Parodies 2014

Top lyrical changes, as determined by MJGDS 4th/5th grade families:







Honorable Menschen:

Embracing All: Parshat Tazria

As a parent of a young child, I can easily get swept up in the competitive comparing and contrasting of kid’s- what percentile for height and weight? what developmental stage are you at? Is she walking? Is she talking? Is she multiplying and performing long division yet? I know I am naïve, but I hope that these milestone moments do not become breeding ground for unnecessary rivalry, with failure never being an option. For while we all are created in image of God, a seemingly perfect image, we all have had issues as we travel through life. Some we can overcome, others we just hope we can keep in check. I hope that whatever challenges come our daughter’s way, she will not battle them alone.

As I think of her early milestones, I think of my own childhood. I was a late talker. A very late talker. I was just about four when the talking finally began. At 3, my parents took me to a neurologist, who diagnosed me with oro-motor dyspraxia, a delay of the muscles around the mouth. He also said that I probably missed stages of sound formation due to a number of ear infections as a baby. Subsequently, I spent most of my elementary school years working with a speech therapist, finally conquering my “r” sounds when I could pronounce my therapist’s name, Mrs. Sotiropolis. This delay was coupled with a later diagnosed auditory processing issue, where the ideas were moving so fast in my head that they got jumbled coming out. This disconnect between my receptive and expressive language skills was aided through specialists who strategized ways to narrow the gap. I was already the introvert, the late one to talking. It took a while to lose the self-consciousness not knowing what words would get jumbled, not knowing how I’d be perceived by others.

5,000 years ago, Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Moses, the reluctant leader of the Jewish people, suffered from a speech impediment as well. God saw through his disability to appreciate his ability to lead and his passion and loyalty to God and community.  Today, Would Moses be given a leadership role in our communities? Would he be granted acceptance in the first place?

In thinking of our own community, what is our gateway to full membership and engagement? Is it your wallet? Is it your ability to read Hebrew and follow a service? Is it your capacity to sit respectively for a 3 hour service? Or is it merely the desire to actively engage in a prayer community, in educational and social opportunities within a group framework?

Our text from this week’s torah portion focuses on those let in and those let out of community. If we take the text quite literally, it paints a darker picture of our ancestors and how they perceived the other. Tazria, states the following in Leviticus 13:45-46:

And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

The Rabbis link slander (lashon hara) with tzaraat, this peculiar skin infection. Earlier in our storyline, God afflicts Miriam with tzaraat as punishment for challenging Moses’ authority. The Rabbis try to interpret this difficult section under the rubric of lashon hara because it’s hard to grapple with notion that the ancient Israelites had a fear of the unknown, a fear of the other.  Even worse, how could they shamefully embarrass someone, making them scream out, “I’m unclean” to the masses?  How could the Israelites masses make those inflicted take their journey alone?  While Talmud teaches that the community is called upon to offer support and prayer during this period of illness, the text unabashedly refers to the person as “hatzarua”, roughly translating to “the one who has leprosy.” Not someone afflicted with a disease, but rather someone who is defined ONLY by the disease they suffer from.

We have all heard the labeling of individuals with disabilities, the hurtful remarks transmitted by pity, fear, ignorance and disrespect.  This commentary continues to poison our community spaces that are meant for all. Steps are being made throughout the Jewish community, however, to ensure meaningful experiences for all.

This comes in two stages. Stage 1 is our Jewish obligation to literally not allow a stumbling block before those who are blind, establishing avenues that lead toward an inclusive physical space for all those in need. Stage 2 is our moral obligation as decent human beings: changing the attitude and creating gateways to community through social acceptance and appreciation.

Step 1: Access to Worship, Breaking down physical barriers to inclusion

In our building, we’ve installed ramps and walkways. We’ve provided large print siddurim and assisted hearing systems. We’re lowering counters and installing handicapped entrances to bathrooms. We are creating elevator access for our schools. Within our schools, we’ve started to help children with special needs in with a modified curriculum while trying to be as inclusive as possible. At our local JFCS we’ve hired our first inclusion specialist to work with the different arms of the Jacksonville Jewish community.

On the national level, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium partners with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Council for the Jewish Disabled, Union for Reform Judaism United Jewish Communities, and the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies to provide a unified resources as well as a unified approach to inclusion.

The Ruderman Foundation’s Global Innovators in Inclusion Competition is looking to support fully inclusive programs that ensure everyone can participate together, without stigma or imposed limitations.

These accomplishments, in our school, shul and community, should be CELEBRATED. When we complete a project such as our elevator construction, this is a holy moment ensuring no physical barriers to any child receiving an education here. This is indeed sacred work. But these milestones are only Step 1.

Step 2: Remove barriers of attitude and communication to enable all people to participate fully in worship, learning and social activities. Without this, it doesn’t matter many special programs or enhancements we make.

  1.    Initiate outreach to people with disabilities to identify and serve their needs.
  2.    Advocate and inform our community of the needs as people move through the life cycle of the synagogue.
  3.    Changing the rhetoric. Sensitivity to language used. Eliminating certain words from our vocabulary.

We all experience being left out or put down. We all have been left out of the inner circle at one point or another. How do we respond? What is our action point so others feel included? The following are action items we may incorporate into our community.

Action Items (taken from a myriad of online resources):

  1.    Continuing our work in the schools: Children may engage in hands-on, multi-sensory Jewish education that builds on social skills enhancement and enables them to feel proud of their Jewish identity. This model can flow between schools and shul. We can ALL benefit from a multi-sensory prayer experience.
  2.    Create an area on the application form for High Holiday Tickets, membership and other congregational programs for people with disabilities to indicate what assistance they require to participate.
  3.    Create a Special Needs Fund to help with costs of improved access to the building, prayer books for those with visual disabilities, a better sound system and other accommodations.
  4.    Write a statement of welcome and inclusion that is added to all congregational membership materials. An example:

i.     They are friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, volunteers, and teammates.  They are people with developmental disabilities.  The Jacksonville Jewish Center encourages everyone to get to know someone with a developmental disability and you’ll find out he or she has a lot to offer to our community.  Recognize ability, not the disability and picture their potential.

  1.    Include the universal symbols of accessibility in all publicity and marketing for our congregation (ie: the icons for wheelchair access, assistive listening devices, etc.)
  2.    Create a program or open forum that will allow congregants to discuss any attitudinal barriers to inclusion that may exist in your congregation. Explore why those attitudes exist and develop a list of strategies to address and eliminate them from our congregational community.
  3.    Push our chesed committee to go a step further, asking members to assist family members of the congregants with special needs with grocery shopping and other errands on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Also ask congregants to provide rides to and from the synagogue for programs and Shabbat services for congregants with special needs.

As the tagline importantly states, “People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people.” One out of every five individuals has a disability, yet we can and should focus on the ways in which our communities may be enriched through their participation.

Serving as a Rosh Edah, Rosh Tefillah and Music staff at Camp Ramah in New England, I saw the direct impact that inclusion brings not only to those who have developmental disabilities, but to the campers and staff that directly engaged in meaningful moments that include all. It is not a burden of our time or resources. Involving everyone as valued citizens of the circle encapsulates the potential depth that community can offer.

In altering the attitudinal landscape, inclusion becomes the game-changer that can define our community. Inclusion is a gift.  The tzaraat, this troubling Tazria narrative, is turned on its head. Our fears and inhibitions of the unknown are left outside the circle, the cold and insensitive acts are left to be proclaimed, “Unclean Unclean.”

We are much more than a Not-for profit organization. As my former co-counselor and charitable startup founder Adam Braun pens it, we are a “for purpose” organization. Our purpose should be obvious.  Although 84 percent of people with a disability report that religious faith is important to them, less than half attend a religious service at least once a month.  There is a spiritual need yet to be realized.

The Arc, a community based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, highlighted today, March 29 on their calendar in a grassroots initiative to raise awareness about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  What is the act? Simply make plans to go out somewhere in public today. That’s all. Just plan a day out and about enjoying the things you like to do. And, in the process help raise awareness and generate some conversation during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

Just to socialize, that’s all. It seems fairly straightforward, but what this teaches is that the communal needs are not being met, that the stigmas and preconceived notions still exist.

Our purpose is to meet those needs; to include those who have the spirit and desire to be part of a greater community; to exclude the preconceived bigotry. May we support and learn from one another. May we all grow to learn that it is more than just being aware. It is more than merely being sensitive and accepting of others. It is about embracing all in our community, and in doing so, embracing ourselves.


Shabbat Shalom


Shabbat Shira 2.0: A Day to Celebrate the Arts

With last night’s Golden Globe Awards and this Thursday’s Academy Award nominations, we find ourselves in a period in which all forms of theatre- on stage, on television, and on the big screen, are put under the microscope.

What do we look for in a nominee? What makes us get beyond one person or the other? It is not an answer reserved solely for the arts. In any scenario, we look for believability. We hope that this person can transport us to their world- through costumes, through dialogue, and through acting. It is believability and vulnerability that catch on with the people, allowing them to begin to believe in something greater. In the bible, there is no greater moment for us as a people than the triumphant song delivered by the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. This Shirat Hayam (song of the sea) is more than a melody. It is great theatre. It encapsulates the baggage that years of slavery places on a people, the fear that a sea that will not part as an Egyptian overlord does not give up in his pursuit. It is the literal crying out to a God that finally listened. It is a cry of relief, a cry of hope.

The reciting of the epic-lyric poem Shirat Hayam during Parshat B’shalach is the main reason we call the portion Shabbat Shira, a Sabbath of song.  As we see, beyond the melody, it is the backstory and theatrical nature of the moment that make it meaningful generations later. Each morning we recount the Shira experience in our tefillot. We realize that the song can only be a triumphant one if we had each person play their part: To Nachson, who took the first steps in the water; To Moses, the most unlikely of leaders who played the role so well;  To an Almighty that created that shock and awe that made a people believe for the first time. Shabbat Shira is more than just a Sabbath of Song- it is the backstory, the appreciation of what it took to get to that moment in time. It is a time to appreciate the artistry of that moment, when we became one for the first time.

Through Your Eyes: The interplay of the changing views of our tradition with the changing ways we examine our own lives

The following appeared in the January edition of the Jacksonville Jewish News:


This month we celebrate the Jewish Holiday Tu B’shvat, also known as “Rosh Hashana L’ilanot” the birthday of the saplings.  A few weeks later, Leora and I will celebrate the first birthday of our own sapling, Rena.  This is Rena’s first Tu B’shvat, just as she has celebrated holiday firsts after holiday firsts this past year.

Having an addition or loss in one’s family always puts a spin on liminal moments throughout our Jewish calendar. To celebrate holidays when someone is missing is tempered by the joy we feel when we see a new addition experiencing Jewish communal life for the first time. Our own holiday moments have blossomed seeing them through Rena’s eyes.  As each year passes, the snapshots of Jewish time will change as well. This goes beyond the holiday gatherings. Our lectionary cycle of Torah reading remains the same year to year, but our lives change our interpretation of the text, as we are never the same person year to year. We empower ourselves to make the words come alive and find relevance in for us today. In the month of January, four vastly different Torah portions are read over the course of four Shabbatot. Each of them teaches us something different about ourselves, giving us the tools and instructions to build a better tomorrow. Imagine one take a way a week to guide your life. One value set to work on. In each Torah portion, I look for inspiration to make me a better parent, a better husband, a better leader, a better Jew, a better human being.

Parshat Bo: Our portion states, “Bo el Paro”, come unto Pharaoh. Moses, having been shot down time and time again by Pharaoh, is asked to come to Pharaoh knowing his heart was hardened, knowing seven plagues had not swayed his decision. Parshat Bo, for me, is about taking risks, taking chances in an uphill battle because success is predicated on participation in the challenges brought before us.  Bo inspires us to find meaning and purpose in the discomforting places and moments that fill our lives.

Parshat B’shalach: Parshat B’shalach (falling on Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song) takes us on a journey from Egypt to the Desert by way of the Sea of Reeds. After escaping the Egyptian onslaught, the Israelites break into jubilation. The text states, “Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song (Ex. 15:1). Moses, the quiet, humble leader has his first song with backup vocals from the Jewish people. Delivered from slavery, transformed by miracles, the group sang together as one. B’shalach teaches us that moments, both bitter and sweet, are meant to be experienced as community. B’shalach teaches us that while Moses was a risky pick to lead the Jewish people, he was the right pick. Not the loudest, not the most connected. Maybe it’s ok to invest a little time and energy on those who show humility as their greatest strength.

Parshat Yitro: Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, is taken aside to hear the story of the Israelite journey from Egypt. When he hears about the tragedy that befell the Egyptians, the text states, “Vayichad Yitro.” A rare word, Vayichad comes from the word for goosebumps.  The text teaches us about the value of sensitivity.  We must be sensitive to the fact that we all come with our own baggage, our own expectations. Some come from a place of happiness and positivity, others from a place of pain and brokenness.

Parshat Mishpatim: The Torah portion known as “laws”. We get a wide variety of does and don’ts ranging from laws concerning bribery to laws concerning the holidays. Thus is the value of updating our software. The world’s largest law book should inspire us to search for meaning in our daily lives. How will these laws find relevance for us? How will they inform our business practices and our spiritual ones?

Take risks, value humility, be sensitive, and update your software. Not so bad for some monthly goals.

Awareness in Exile: Taking an exodus to bring you closer to home

Clergy have the most interesting lives. Last Saturday night, with no college football game of note, I watched what I’d call a fascinating three hour “documentary.” Five thousand people singing and dancing. Over a hundred choral members leading a congregation in soulful harmony. Inventive prayer services. Bibliodramas, dramatic sermons, rock stars and rock star clergy teaching and preaching the bible to the masses in a relevant and deep manner. This wasn’t a mega-church. It was the URJ (Union or Reform Judaism) Biennial Convention in San Diego, CA.

The alternative service WAS the service. On Friday night, the entire clergy team from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA led the 5k crowd in a musical Kabbalat Shabbat Service. My best takeaway was a one line zinger from Senior Rabbi Joel Sisenwine: “The goal is not to get through the service but for the service to get through us.” It doesn’t matter if it is a 1 hour service or a 4 hour experience: if a service flows, it can flow through us, allowing us to imagine a time when on Shabbat, the period where time is supposed to stand still, we can enjoy the moment rather than peak at our watch to see if the bell has rung high noon.

There were a lot of great takeaways from seeing how services were conducted. One difficult aspect of the pulpit world is that it rarely affords you the opportunity to visit shuls with “best practices.” As clergy, we may hear of what Rabbi X or Cantor Z did in their shul, but until we experience it live (or virtually), it is hard to see it’s truest strengths. As a student, I was able to travel to different communities, to see what was out there in other pews. Even as congregants, we may remain in one service never seeing what other communities are doing- not because we want to trade in our team colors, but because we want to improve our community.

We don’t know what to work on, as a prayer community, until we see what we might be missing. We don’t know what to improve for we are blinded by complacency and the stagnant and even degenerative norm. It is as if we are “unaware” of the potential of our community.

Rabbi Art Green, in channeling the great Hassidic masters in his most recent work, asks the following question about this week’s torah portion, “Where was the Torah cast down at the time? It fell into the “shell” of Egypt. That is awareness in exile, for the Torah represents awareness. And this is why Israel had to go down into Egypt. To raise up fallen Torah…”

We use this term “light of Torah” because there are times in our lives when darkness can run rampant and other times when our eyes have become so accustomed to the light that we devalue its importance.

In our torah Portion, Shemot, we have 3 examples of individuals or groups acting complacently, as awareness in exile takes form:

Example 1: When Moses encounters an Israelite slave in harm’s way, he looks “Ko Vacho”- this way and that way, not because he was necessarily looking to see if anyone would catch what he was doing, but because there were people there who did not come to this Israelite’s aid. Blinded was the responsibility and need for action.

Examples 2 and 3 go hand in hand. Our opening section of Parshat Shemot states, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”

What does this mean “A new king arose over Egypt.” The Talmudic sages Rab and Samuel battled it out to determine whether this was a new king, literally, or if the king had just forgotten all that Joseph had done for him. One could go even further to suggest that it was only through the memory of Joseph’s worthwhile contributions that kept Egyptian hatred below the surface. In any case, both Egypt and her leader were no longer “aware” of Joseph.

The same lack of awareness can be submitted in the case for the Israelites themselves. Would they fall into slavery if they had remembered the hard work of Joseph, the committed partnership he had created within the Egyptian political system? Israel forgot Joseph as much as Egypt! The community separated itself from Joseph, as Moses had been born separated from the community. It would take both Moses and the Israelite nation a generation to realize the phrase: Al tifrosh min Hatzibor- Do not separate from the community. We assume this means that in order to NOT separate from our community, we must live in a bubble, when in fact we realize we can serve our community better by keeping our eyes open to the outside. It is easy to be complacent, it is much harder to remain alert and aware of the different tools we can use to better ourselves and our community.

How can we avoid “awareness in exile”? It’s an active conversation within our community- shabbat regulars, lay leaders, and professional staff talking about what we are missing. We assume that everything the needs of our core.

We must be aware of the myriad of individuals our community serves. We must be aware of the fact that no two individuals come to worship here for the same reason. We must be aware that while Shabbat is a day of rest, we must push ourselves spiritually and emotionally. We must be aware of the idea of stepping out of our normal routine in order to grow as community.

Take an exodus from your own needs for a second. Explore what makes you come to services. Why are you here? Maybe it’s for social reasons, maybe its because a life cycle event brought you closer to community, maybe its the cantor! We all come for different reasons. May we find awareness of ourselves and our community, so that we can answer the greater questions: Why is that seat next to you empty? Where is your friend who used to come? You know why you come today, but what will get you here tomorrow?

Welcoming the Familiar Face

A little “Who’s Who”: His aspirations were to become a professional soccer player, but a series of ankle injuries while playing at Pedro Pablo Sanchez High School dashed his hopes. After graduating from high school at age 16, he worked six-day weeks on a commercial boat captained by his father, catching shrimp and sardines The job was “way too tough” for this individual, who was more interested in becoming a mechanic As a 19-year-old, he had to abandon a capsizing 120-short-ton commercial boat, all but convincing him to give up fishing as a career. If the tide had turned, he may have remained in his native Panama, catching shrimp instead of throwing baseballs.

Six years later, he’d make his major league debut with the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher. Today, we know him as the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.

As Rivera is set to retire at the end of the season, opposing teams have honored him in their respective ballparks during his farewell tour.

The Boston Red Sox, my Red Sox, the sworn enemy of the NY Yankees, honored Mariano Rivera Sunday night on the occasion of his final regular-season game at Fenway Park.

A few of the highlights from the evening (as depicted by the Boston Globe):

  • When Rivera was introduced, he jogged to the mound, where the entire Red Sox team awaited him. He received hugs from players David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and some gifts from the club.
  • First, the Red Sox presented Rivera a painting of the unscripted and delightful moment in April 2005 when he was greeted with a standing ovation from the fans during pregame introductions on the day the 2004 World Series flag was raised at Fenway.
  • Rivera, who realized that the fans were thanking him for his two blown saves in the 2004 ALCS — along with his two blown saves in the Yankees-Red Sox series that opened the ’05 season — broke into a big smile and raised his arms in bemused thanks. It was that moment that was captured in the painting.
  • The Red Sox also presented Rivera the panel from the manually operated Green Monster scoreboard that had his number “42” on it. It was signed by every current Boston player.
  • Rivera also received a Fenway Park seat from 1934, a pitching rubber from the visiting bullpen and an undisclosed donation for his charitable foundation from the Red Sox owners.
  • Rivera then shook hands with the Red Sox players as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Rivera’s theme song) played over the loudspeakers and highlights of Rivera succeeding against the Red Sox came up on the centerfield scoreboard. Earlier, the Boston Cello Quartet played “Enter Sandman” to open the ceremony after finishing the national anthem.

What a beautiful night for both Rivera and Boston. There is something special about appreciating a player who made your team sweat, who made your players lift themselves to a higher level and outperform, brought an entire Red Sox Nation from years of frustration into years of plenty, years of championships. A nation that ascended because one player brought the best out of them.  There is something sacred about treating your guests in the highest regard and the greatest respect. Although I am surely biased, the classy Red Sox exhibit the value of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests, a mitzvah highlighted on this festival of sukkot. It is the value of ushpizin, welcoming guests into Fenway Park, what is for many of the players and staff a home away from home, a temporary dwelling, a holy place, a sukkah.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite these Ushpizin, one of seven exalted individuals to take up residence in the sukkah with us. The Zohar states,

“When a man sits in the shadow of faith (sukkah) the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him? A person should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests. Upon entering the succah, Rav Hamnuna Sava would rejoice and, standing inside the doorway, say “Let us invite the guests and prepare the table.” Then he would remain on his feet and bless them, saying, ‘IN sukkot you should dwell. Be seated exalted guests, be seated; be seated guests of faithfulness, be seated.’ He would then raise his hands in joy and say, ‘Worthy is our portion, worthy is the portion of Israel, as it is written: For God’s portion is his people.’ Then he would sit down.” (Zohar Emor 103b)

Each day we welcome not only an individual, but the ideals that they embodied.

The seven sefirot, or divine energies, we are fed by the ushpizin are:

First day: Chesed—the attribute of “Benevolence” or “ Love”—personified by Abraham.

Second day: Gevurah—“Restraint” and “Discipline”—embodied by Isaac.

Third day: Tif’eret—“Beauty,” “Harmony” and “Truth”—embodied Jacob.

Fourth day: Netzach—“Victory” and “Endurance”—Moses.

Fifth day: Hod—“Splendor” and “Humility”—Aaron.

Sixth day: Yesod—“Foundation” and “Connection”—Joseph.

Seventh day: Malchut—“Sovereignty,” “Receptiveness” and “Leadership”—David

In modern times, we welcome seven female figures in Jewish history who embody similar positive attributes. While the selection of these 7 individuals often differs, here is one assortment of female leaders that we recognize as Ushpizot.

1) Eve, for her passions and connection to the Earth

2) Sarah, for nation building and destiny

3) Leah, for motherhood, giving and selflessness

4) Miriam- for vision, initiative and expressiveness

5) Deborah – for leadership, strength and power

6) Beruriah- for intellect and wisdom

7) Ruth- for unconditional love

It is in stark contrast with our High Holiday liturgy in which we often speak of our transgressions rather than the values that SHOULD define our lives. Values of vision, strength and initiative empower us to go forth into a year of “Yes I can” rather than “No I’m sorry.” No more beating our chests for the sins in our lives, but rather the positive attributes we should all embody. All this from harkening the call of our ancestors, the heroes of yesterday. From Moses to Miriam to Mariano.

One might be confused why I can devote a speech to the evil empire with the knowledge of my Red Sox affiliation. In our evening prayers we recite the Hashkiveinu prayer asking for a “sukkat shalom”, a shelter of piece from our enemies. Isn’t Mariano Rivera my enemy? At the end of the day, Mariano Rivera is not my enemy. In a few weeks time, he will be something other than a baseball player. But to any Red Sox fan, “Mo” is what I’d call a “familiar face.” He hasn’t shared our clubhouse, our traditions, the inner workings of our organization, but we invite him into our sukkah, into Fenway, because maybe he has something to teach us about ourselves; reveal to us what we are made of. He is a frequent guest, a respected guest, a familiar face.

The Ushpizin are not unfamiliar characters- they are some of the more prominent individuals from our Tanakh.  They are meant to be familiar faces. For familiar faces have the opportunity to drive us to improve ourselves, to teach us, to remind us of some important values that can drive our lives.

In its temporary nature, the sukkah acts as an open book, a glass house where everyone, close friends and even the casual acquaintance see right through. We are exposed.

We can treat the sukkah like a shark proof cage- giving us a glimpse of the outside world while protecting ourselves from the harsh realities? We can glance at the gloomy cloud above dampening our chances to invite our acquaintances in to our lives. We can worry about spreading ourselves too thin. Or, our sukkah, in theory, can act like its counterpart, the chuppah, open on all four sides, ever expanding our social network in tangible, authentic way. Of all the ushpizin and ushpizot, of all the values that we are reminded of, be it wisdom, strength humility and so forth, two values ushpizin stick out. Our first male guest, Abraham, and our final female guest, Ruth, share the same value, unconditional love.

We are taught “Vsmachta B’chagecha”- that you should rejoice in the holiday; our joy based on inviting friends and family but also giving to the needy in our community. We are often reminded of these two polar relationships in Judaism- those closest to us, and those on the fringes. Rarely, however, do we focus on those in the middle- the familiar face, the friendly acquaintance. Maybe it is time to bring them close to us as we gather in for our harvest season.

May this holiday’s harvest be plentiful, may we share that plenty with all who we come in contact. May we seek out those familiar faces in our lives and deepen our relationships with them, for we never know what values they may teach us, what lessons we can learn. May we offer up unconditional love to all who enter the temporariness of our lives.  If we are reminded of the values of Abraham and Ruth, of unconditional love, then next year, we can look at our Sukkah, acknowledge those Ushpizin who shared their love with us and joyfully proclaim, “This is the house that (Abraham and) Ruth built.”






As a side note, here are the 7 “Rivera”ism that we can welcome on Sukkot:

First day- The value of The Cutter; the out pitch. The cutter’s movement is created by Rivera’s long fingers and loose wrist, which allow him to impart more spin on the ball. Over 80% of his pitches are cut fastballs. To know that you have a way out when you are in a tough spot

Second day:  The value of Relief. He is the majors’ all-time regular season leader in saves (651)

Third Day: The value of consistency. Rivera saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons

Fourth Day:  The value of Longevity. 19 seasons

Fifth day: The value of clutch moments. 16 Postseason records

Sixth day: The value of yesod, foundation. The Mariano Rivera Foundation, which helps provide underprivileged children with an education, distributes more than $500,000 in the US and Panama through church-based institutions

Seventh day: The value of composure. Rivera, the closer, comes into the game at tense moments. 3 outs to go. Game on the line.


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