JWB Jewish Chaplains Council- JCCA- “Jewish Military Professional Award”

In 1978 when I raised my hand and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States I had no idea what I was getting into.  I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near what was then the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, NY.  Knowing that I wanted to be a rabbi, I was always curious about what went on behind those walls.  So, when I learned of the chaplain candidate program, I applied and was accepted as the first female Jewish candidate in any branch of service.  No one in my family had ever served in the military and I reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course without a clue as to how to put on a uniform.  Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined standing here now at the end of a long and rich career.

I graduated from rabbinical school in 1981, and began an amazing journey, from Korea to Germany, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and culminating in the most intense learning experience of my life as a student at the US Army War College.  The Army allocates significant resources towards training leaders.  Trust is a foundation of leadership.  One of the most important things I learned was that- “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first.”

As chaplains we see each Soldier as an individual, made in the image of God, providing comfort and support, encouragement and a listening ear. When tragedy strikes, as it too often does, people feel helpless to respond.  No one knows what to say, what to do.  It is the military chaplain who has the holy privilege of being the person who represents the command as that first line of defense.  Successful leadership demands genuine caring.

There have been so many poignant opportunities to express that caring. Military service can be a lonely experience as a Jew, and it is our chaplains who foster a sense of community among Jewish servicemembers.  I recall one Chanukkah at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.  A SGT who participated in the Chanukkah program each night confided that, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.”  Or the seder at FOB Taji where one young woman told me, “It almost feels like home.”

Leadership means setting priorities and following through with commitments. It sometimes means learning to say no, though one of my guiding principles has been, “Find 99 reasons to say yes rather than 1 reason to say no.”  It means leading by example.  As chaplains, we build relationships by being with others, putting up tents, eating in the DFAC, or serving on guard duty.  We earn respect which is fundamental to effective leadership by our willingness to engage with Soldiers wherever they are.

Leadership means recognizing that none of us can do it alone. The project is never complete until the thank you notes have been written.  I am so grateful for my physical and mental well-being, for the support of my family and friends, for the incredible and unique opportunities I have had to serve God and country as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.  I pray God’s blessing on each of you, and God bless America.



Holiness and Goodness

What a joy to be together with this beautiful community to begin a day of sharing and learning devoted to the theme of “Wholiness.” I want to thank Nancy Weinberger, Gail Alcaly, Teri Cohen, Simone Schwartz, and Janet Yellish, along with their committee, for all of their hard work to make this event possible.  I know that when I come to these kind of events, all I really want to do is spend time with all of the amazing friends who are present- the speakers and the workshops are entirely secondary to the goal of being with so many people that I love.  Is it any wonder that the quintessential Jewish dance is the hora, a dance of community celebrating together.

Holiness, your theme for the day is the foundation of Jewish spirituality. Judaism does not teach that in order to have an experience of holiness we need to remove ourselves from society, climb a mountain, meditate and contemplate.  Rather, it challenges us to drive in traffic, get married, have a job and children, AND, to maintain a sense of holiness in our lives.  We do this through the path of blessing and the cultivation of gratitude, through a constant process of self-reflection focused on expanding our own character.  “You shall be holy,” we read in the Torah, “as I, God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)

Nick Hornby wrote a book called, “How To Be Good, “ an intriguing study of a young family man who becomes dissatisfied with what might be described as an “ordinary” level of goodness in his life, and his struggle to come to terms with what is an appropriate level of materialism and is there such a thing as “enough” when it comes to caring for the needs of others? He longs for a sense of meaning, a sense of holiness, in his life.

In the book, David and Katie live a comfortable, middle class existence.  David earns his living writing a column for the local newspaper based on his anger with all the trivial annoyances of life.  Even though he earns his livelihood through his anger, his anger is undermining their marriage.  Then David meets DJ GoodNews, a full-time social activist.  Overnight, the angry cynic acquires a deep sense of values.  He begins to re-shape his household in accordance with his newly discovered quest for goodness.  Among his first actions is donating one of the household computers to a domestic violence shelter.  His son is, naturally shocked.  When David challenges his son’s values, the child replies that, yes, he does want to help, “but not as much as a whole computer.”[1]  It occurs to me that we all feel this way- we all want to help, but not as much as- fill in the blank with whatever is your personal hesitation regarding giving.  Katie finds herself confused:  “I’m a good person.  I’m a doctor, and here I am championing greed over selflessness.”   How to be good and how good do we have to be turns out to be not such an easy question to answer, and one of the fundamental questions of the religious life.

“So what do I believe?,” Katie asks herself.  “Nothing much, apparently.  I believe that there shouldn’t be homelessness, and I’d definitely be prepared to argue with anyone who says otherwise.  Ditto battered women.  Ditto, I don’t know, racism, poverty and sexism”,[2] she answers her own question, rather glibly.   I’m sure we all agree with Katie’s sentiments, the question is, what are we doing about it and what should we be doing about it and can we ever be satisfied that we are doing enough?  How can we be forces for healing in our troubled world?

GoodNews’ radical answer is that until the last peasant in the rain forest has a dishwasher and a cappuccino maker, then he’s not joining in.  Where do the rest of us, who’d like to think of ourselves as good people, draw the line?  As the story progresses, they organize a neighborhood meeting and ask each family to consider having a homeless person move in with them.  “Do we have a moral right”, ask David and GoodNews, “to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements?”[3]  Ultimately Katie comes to the perspective I think we all share; as she puts it, “We know what’s right, but we don’t do it because it’s too hard, it asks too much.”[4]  So, the question we come to wrestle with today is, what are we willing to do to be forces for holiness in our own lives and in the world?

“A recent New Yorker Magazine depicted a cartoon of a man kneeling in prayer at his bed before retiring for the night.  Looking heavenward, this fellow complains, ‘I asked You, in the nicest possible way, to make me a better person, but apparently You couldn’t be bothered’.”[5]  If only we could just turn the whole thing over to God and save ourselves the angst and hard work involved in being and becoming better people!

Okay, so we can’t save the world, but what can we do? What are we willing to do?  Here’s another story with a less radical and therefore more inspiring and realistic approach.  “A little boy about 10 years old was standing before a shoe store on a roadway, barefoot, peering through the window, and shivering with cold.  A lady approached the boy and said, ‘My little fellow, why are you looking so earnestly in that window?’  ‘I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes,’ was the boy’s reply.  The lady took him by the hand and went into the store and asked the clerk to get a half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy.  She then asked if he could give her a basin of water and a towel.  He quickly brought them to her.  She took the little fellow to the back part of the store, and removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with a towel.  By this time the clerk had returned with the socks.  Placing a pair on the boy’s feet, she purchased him a pair of shoes.  She tied up the remaining pairs of socks and gave them to him.  She patted him on the head and said, ‘No doubt, my little fellow, you feel more comfortable now?’  As she turned to go, the astonished child caught her by the hand and looking up in her face, with tears in his eyes, answered the question with these words:  ‘Are you God’s wife?’”[6]  The reality is that we are all God’s hands and God’s hearts. Listen to these inspiring words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

Compassion is not just one attribute of God; it is the first one mentioned in the list of 13 attributes- “Adonai, Adonai, el rakhum v’khanun- God who is compassionate and gracious”.   We who are created in the Divine image, are challenged to bring holiness to our world through our compassion and caring.

I had the honor to serve in the US Army Reserve for 38 years.  In the Army, before they give you the APFT, the Army Physical Fitness Test, you get a little briefing on each event.  Before the sit-up, the person grading the test reminds you that as long as you are continuing to try to sit up, the event is not over.  So it is with our moral development.  As long as we are still making an attempt, we are still in the game!  And, since we never outgrow the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, it is a struggle that will be with us throughout our days.

Rabbi Harold Kushner sums it up well in his book How Good Do We Have to Be?”:   “If we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in each other’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know.  We can reenter Paradise.”[7]  He leaves us with these words of encouragement, “How good can we expect a person to be?  As good as he or she is capable of being, and much of the time that turns out to be very good indeed.”[8]

It is so easy and all too tempting to be judgmental. As we gather here today to focus on our own inner development, let’s conclude by connecting with our sense of compassion and caring for each other.  I invite you to think of a person in this room from whom you perhaps feel estranged.  Maybe there were harsh words exchanged or some personal slight. It is inevitable in human relationships that tensions arise.  Yet, as we seek to create holiness in our lives, it is healing for us to let go of resentment and judgement.  Think about that person and hold their image in your mind as you close your eyes.

  1. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for (his or her) life.”
  2. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in (his or her) life.”
  3. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
  4. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill (his or her) needs.”
  5. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.

Open your eyes and let’s learn about life together here today.


[1] Hornby, Nicholas, How to Be Good, NY:  Riverhead Books, 2001, p. 92

[2] Hornby, op.cit., p. 94

[3] Hornby, op. cit., p. 142

[4] Hornby, op. cit., p. 156

[5] Cohn, Rabbi Edward Paul, “From Where I Stand”, quoted in The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002/5763, p. 194

[6] The American Rabbi, Fall 2000, p. 18

[7] Kushner, Harold S., How Good Do We Have to Be?,  NY:  Little Brown and Company, 1996, p. 181

[8] ibid., p. 177

Friendship and Holiness

Welcome back and I trust that you are enjoying a wonderful day of friendship and community. It’s great to see friends on Facebook, and even better to see our friends’ faces in person!  The Rabbis acknowledged our deep human need for companionship long ago when they taught, “O chevruta, o metuta”, which translates roughly as, “Give me friendship or give me death.” I was having dinner with a group of friends and one woman, who works at home, commented that when she wants some human contact, she takes a break and looks at Facebook.  “No!,” I objected!  “Facebook does NOT count as human contact!”

In our too busy and overprogrammed lives, it is vital to our spiritual well-being to make the time to be with those who care about us, who share our values, the friends who touch our hearts and our lives. I was truly moved in an Army briefing once when I saw that among the priority of supplies to troops who were serving in a combat zone, ahead of ammunition, ahead of even water, the number one priority was mail.  In establishing this priority, the military acknowledged the fundamental human need for a human connection.

One of the great joys gatherings such as this is the opportunity to re-connect with so many people we truly care about, with whom we have shared so many experiences, and whom we just don’t get to see enough of during the year.  I’d like you to take a moment right now and look around the room and appreciate all the people who care about you and bring blessing to your life.  (Pause)

We live in a transient society:  loneliness is a plague of modern life.  We are all so busy that we don’t take or make the time to schedule in time with friends in the same way that we schedule in every other commitment.  Consequently, we drift away from people we genuinely love, and find ourselves in despair when our undeniable human need for companionship is not met.  The Talmud tells us that if thirty days go by and we have not seen a beloved friend, we should say the she-he-cheyanu prayer when we are re-united, the prayer of celebration in which we thank God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment of holiness

A study suggests that one fourth of all Americans have no one to talk to about important matters. Americans have one third fewer close friends and confidantes than they had two decades ago.  When Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore wrote of her own frustration at the difficulty of finding friends, she was personally embarrassed to acknowledge her neediness, but overwhelmed by the response from those with whom her comments resonated. “I’d yanked the curtain off a shameful secret, “she writes, “only there is nothing shameful about it.  A lot of women are lonely.”[1]

We all have had parents, some of us have siblings, spouses, children, but, despite these filial connections- we still need friends. The need for friends transcends our status as single or partnered.  Even if we are partnered, no single individual can meet all of our needs, and our relationships with our nearest and dearest will be deeply damaged if we don’t recognize this fact, if we somehow expect that our significant others are or should be our whole universe.  A wounded wife confided in me that, “My husband can’t give me everything I need.”  I replied by gently suggesting that the expectation that any one person can give you “everything you need” is completely unrealistic.  Perhaps that’s why we all resonate with that wry observation that, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family!” We understand that there are wonderful aspects of family life, while simultaneously acknowledging that families can be quite demanding as well!

Choosing friends, therefore, is a decision that requires as much serious thought as any other important life decision. The type of friends we embrace will influence the type of people we become and those who will accompany us along life’s journey, providing companionship and perspective, humor and solace. Barbara Kingsolver writes that, “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.”[2]

“In Judaism, cleaving to friends . . . ranks as one of the 48. . . values needed to acquire Torah. At first it might seem strange that friendship is listed with awe, fear and humility. . . But the true test of an individual is (their) ability to be a friend, to be supportive, to take risks on behalf of a friend, to love a friend in spite of the choices the friend makes.”[3]  It has even been suggested that a close circle of friends is an important factor in maintaining good health.

If we hope to maintain our friendships, then we need to overcome one great obstacle- we have to be able to forgive our friends for their imperfections. Certainly there are issues that arise in relationships that can and should destroy friendships.  The Torah describes God as-  nosay avon, va’fesha, v’khata, v’nakay- forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon,” so we, who are created in the Divine image, should strive to emulate these characteristics in our relationships with others. We need forbearance from our friends, and we must demonstrate this quality as well.   If you are willing to be friends only with people who are perfect, you are guaranteed a life of loneliness.

For many people, forgiveness is the greatest spiritual challenge in their lives. In her wonderful book, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd wrote that, “People in general would rather die than forgive.  It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.”[4]  Yes, it’s that hard.

Too often we confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. It is true that sometimes we need to protect ourselves from future hurt by ending relationships.  Yet that is a rare circumstance and it is still healthier for us to let go of resentment and anger.  Shlomo Carlebach was forced to flee the Nazis as a young man.  As an adult, he returned to Vienna to give a concert. He was asked, “How can you go back there?  Don’t you hate them?”  His answer was that if he had two hearts, he would devote one to hating, but, since he only had one heart, he did not want to poison his own internal being with hate.

Winston Churchill listed the three hardest things he could imagine attempting to accomplish: to climb a high wall which is leaning towards you, to kiss a girl who is leaning away from you, to speak before a group on a subject which they know more about than you.  Newspaper columnist Sydney Harris wrote, on the other hand, that the three most difficult things to do are neither physical nor intellectual feats.  They are:  to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, ‘I was wrong’.”

We have seen the disastrous social consequences that ensue when people feel friendless, unaccepted, and excluded. Including the excluded is a special mitzvah, an expression of the middah, the soul trait, of kavod, honor- cultivating the ability to see the divine image in each and every person.  It’s easy to love the loveable.  There’s a reason the Torah tells us 36 times to have one law for the native and the stranger.  You were outsiders.  You know what it’s like.  It is our responsibility as Jews to stand with the disenfranchised.

“Who is honored?”, we learn in Pirke Avot. “The person who honors everyone.”[5]  The way of holiness is to find the good in each person we meet on life’s way, to find the one thing that we can learn from them, the one area in which they are on a more elevated spiritual plane than we are.

Too often, it is only when we face a tragedy in our lives that we come to understand and appreciate the critical nature of friends in supporting and sustaining us. When I was widowed at the age of 58, I was overwhelmed at the thought of managing the logistics for shiva.  I had been in the community for 30 years and served a congregation of over 700 families.  Where was I going to put all that food?  My friends stepped in, corralled every refrigerator in every garage in a 3 block radius, lovingly handling everything so that I could focus on my grief and care for my 2 daughters. “A friend”, it has been said, “ is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.”[6]

In order to make and keep friends, we need to move beyond self-interest, and be willing to sacrifice our own desires on occasion. We need to know when to speak, and when to remain silent, offering the comfort of our presence without the need for words.  We need to cultivate sensitivity to our surroundings and learn to subjugate our own feelings where they are inappropriate to the environment.  This is an extremely difficult task in contemporary society that worships feelings and teaches us that expressing them is not only our right but also our responsibility.

Jewish tradition tells us that we should always greet others warmly, with a smile- not just when we “feel” like it. We should learn to see the good in others and give them the benefit of the doubt.  And, most importantly, we need friends who will not only tell us that we are the best, but who will tell us when we can be better. The cartoon strip Crabby Road depicted its main character as saying, “A friend will always tell you exactly what she thinks, so I guess that makes me friends with everybody.”  That’s not exactly accurate.  Yes, sometimes we need friends who feel secure enough in the relationship to point out when we’ve gone astray. The Midrash tells us that a love without reproof is no love.[7]  Gently suggesting an alternative way of thinking or behaving is an art unto itself- there is never an excuse for cruelty.  Listening with open-ness and humility is an expression of maturity and the greatest gift we can give to others.  What we all most long for is to be heard and understood.  Listen to these beautiful words of Rabbi Elie Spitz, ““To listen to another person is to bring comfort through connection. . . In listening to a soul in pain, sometimes all we can offer is mindful listening.  And in that act of listening, we validate that the soul is worthy of time and attention, that the burdens that cause pain are real and heavy, and that good continues to exist in a broken world.  Our very presence as caring listeners attests to the kindness that exists in an imperfect but beautiful world.”[8]

Humility is the fundamental middah with which we begin the study of mussar, Jewish teachings that guide us towards character development and our own spiritual curriculum. It is only when we have humility that our spiritual development unfolds.  Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.”  We all need to cultivate the ability to say these words, to be open to acknowledging our failings in order to grow.

We need to have the confidence that when we share our innermost selves, that our friends will listen with open hearts and minds.  “A simple friend”, it has been said, “thinks the friendship is over when you have an argument; A real friend calls you after you had a fight.”[9]  I had to call a friend whose son’s Bar Mitzva I had very much hoped to attend back east and tell her that a work commitment precluded my participation.  Her immediate response was joy that I had so much meaningful work to do.  When I wrote to thank her for her understanding, I said, “A good friend would have wanted me to be there.  A great friend would understand why I can’t.  Thank you for being a great friend.”

We are often reluctant to make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our deepest hopes and dreams, the places which cause us pain and heartache. Certainly, to do so requires taking a risk.  We may be laughed at, we may be dismissed.  But our deepest hope is that if we can somehow summon the courage to overcome our fear of losing face, the result will be deeper and more meaningful friendships and a real sense of connection to others.  We may discover, along the way, that we are not alone in the challenges of life, and that if we haven’t learned from the wisdom and experience of others at least we can feel less alone.

Rabbi Harold Kushner reports on a workshop he conducted for clergy and psychologists who were counseling individuals in Oklahoma City who had lost loved ones in the bombing of the Federal Building. “After the workshop,” he writes, “I met the bereaved families.  I said to them, ‘It’s been a month since that tragedy.  What one thing more than anything else has helped you deal with your loss?’  And remarkably, they all gave me the same answer, using the same word:  community.  (People)  coming up to them to hug them, to express sympathy, to bring them food to fill the emptiness inside them.  And I realized they were giving me a profoundly religious answer.

A 19th century Hassidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, once said, ‘human beings are God’s language.’  That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people.  I would paraphrase”, Kushner concludes, “to say that human beings, reaching out to others, doing good things when they don’t have to do them, are as close as we will ever come to seeing the face of God.”[10]

Life is so hard, and it is much, much harder when we feel that we have to face it alone. Our tradition calls on us to treat each other with chesed, with loving acts of kindness, or, as Alan Morinis translates it, “generous sustaining benevolence.”[11]  Other middot are listed on the bookmarks you each received and I encourage you to consider Mussar study as a way of expanding and reinforcing your search for holiness.

As we gather together today to consider how to bring holiness into our lives, we reflect on the value of simple acts of kindness and compassion to bring a sense of God’s presence into our troubled world. We cannot claim to be religious people and show contempt for others, who, after all, are each expressions of God’s image. Plato taught, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”  “To know a person,” Bertrand Russell said, “is to know their tragedy.”  We can never know, just by looking at a person, the enormity of the burdens they may be carrying.  To love them means to reflect on and enter into their needs to the greatest extent possible

Take a moment and look around this room.  Imagine the heartaches, the frightening medical diagnoses, deaths of young people, threats to livelihood.  It is amazing that any of us finds the strength and resilience to soldier on, and some do not.  There is a traditional prayer we say upon seeing 600,000 Jews gathered together, in which we address the Holy One as “chacham ha-razim,”  the wise one of secrets.  This prayer is a recognition that each of us has our own secret burden and that we rely on the kindness of loved ones and strangers to ease that burden.  A contemporary meme notes that “A physician once said, the best medicine for humans is love. Someone asked, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’  He smiled and said, ‘Increase the dose’.”

It is all too easy to judge. It is all too tempting to hold on to anger.  When we reflect on the theme of holiness, we reflect on kindness and compassion, on humility, on generosity of spirit and forgiveness; we reflect on honoring the image of God in every person we meet, and we reflect, with the most deep and profound gratitude, on the friends who hold our hands on this journey through life, who prod us and forgive us and support us and encourage us and continue to increase the dose of love.


[1] Jewish Woman Magazine, Summer 2006, “Lean on Me”,  p. 22

[2] quoted in Utne Reader, op. cit., p. 72

[3] Jewish Woman, op. cit.,  p. 24

[4] Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, p. 277


[5] Pirke Avot 4:1

[6] source unknown

[7] Genesis Rabba 54:3

[8] Spitz, Rabbi Elie, Healing From Despair, VT:  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, pp. 122-123


[9] internet, “Good Friend Test”, author unknown

[10] Kushner, Harold, “Yearning to See God”, The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002, p. 29

[11] Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA:  Shambhala Publications, 2007, p. 187

From Shushan Purim to Pesach: A Lesson in Empathy


What a wonderful, raucous Purim we enjoyed on Wednesday night and I trust that your celebration continued on Thursday. You might not be aware that in Jerusalem, and, in Shushan, for that matter, Purim was delayed until Thursday night and Friday. Today was “Shushan Purim,” and you might wonder- why, in these cities, is Purim celebrated on a different day than in the rest of the world?

We find that even in the times of Mordechai and Esther, Purim was celebrated on a different day in Shushan than in the other cities. In all other cities, the battle against the enemies of the Jews took place on the thirteenth of Adar, and the people rested and celebrated on the fourteenth of Adar. In Shushan, however, the battle took place on the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar, and the people rested and celebrated only on the fifteenth. Thus, it is the custom in ancient, walled cities, to observe Purim one day later than everywhere else. We call it Shushan Purim, commemorating that original battle.

As we struggle to understand and respond to the violence which feels epidemic in our culture, those final chapters of Megillat Esther are particularly disturbing. We all know the basic outline of the story- Haman wants to destroy the Jews, Esther intercedes, Achashverosh backs off, and the Jews are saved. Let’s party. Except. . . For some reason that the Megillah does not identify, the decree that the Jews be destroyed cannot simply be rescinded. Oh, we wanted to kill you but never mind. The pogrom has been cancelled, let’s all be friends.

Instead, circumstances are much darker. In chapter 8 verse 13, we read the king’s amended edict- “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed forces, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.” “Destroy, massacre, exterminate!” The decree is disseminated throughout the kingdom. We know that Haman’s 10 sons were executed. According to the Megillah, 500 people died in the city of Shushan on the first day and 300 on the second day. In total, per chapter 9 verse 16, 75,000 people were killed in the ensuing battles. There is no explanation for why the king’s decree was not simply rescinded, and no compassion expressed for the victims of this debacle. The only thing we read about is the feasting and merrymaking that followed immediately, and the fact that, since the Jews of Shushan battled for a second day, their celebration was postponed until the 15th of Adar- Shushan Purim. We tend to focus on the lighter side of the events of Purim, yet I think, especially at this time when there is so little compassion for those with different perspectives than our own, that we need to take to heart the lesson that violence is not the answer to hatred.

The Megillah began with Haman’s denunciation of the Jewish people in chapter 3 verse 8- “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws’ and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Haman’s message is simple- we have zero tolerance for anyone who is not like us and our goal must be to destroy them. Sound familiar? In 2018, we still struggle with understanding and accepting those who are not like us.

If there is anything that we, as Jews, have stood for throughout the centuries, it is tolerance for those who are different. We know that the Torah tells us 36x that we must have one law for the native and the stranger, that we are mandated to stand with and be the voices for the disenfranchised. It is disheartening, to say the least, to read the Megillah’s simple description of violent slaughter, with no commentary, and, in fact coupled with joyous celebration.

By the time we get to Passover, a month from now, the message has changed. The midrash tells us that “At the crossing of the sea, the ministering angels wanted to sing praises to God. But God silenced them, saying, ‘My children are drowning in the sea and you want to sing before me?’”[1] As Jews, we are not a pacifist people and we recognize and support the right of self-defense. Yet, we should never rejoice over the loss of human life. The midrash provides a vital and inspiring counterpoint to Megillat Esther.

Don Isaac Abravanel, who fled Spain in 1492, commented that, “By spilling a drop of wine, from the Pesach cup for each plague, we acknowledge that our own joy is lessened and incomplete. For our redemption had to come by means of the punishment of other human beings. Even though these acts are just punishments for evil acts, it says, “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy”. (Proverbs 24:17)”[2]

Pirke Avot suggests that the wise person is the one who learns from everyone. (Pirke Avot 5:1) In this case, I think we can learn from the Megillah what NOT to do. We can and should take to heart the words of Psalm 34 verse 14, “to turn from evil and do good, to seek peace and pursue it”, and to mourn the tragic loss of human life wherever it occurs. Please turn to p. 42 and let’s sing together, reminding ourselves, “Who is the person who desires life? Who loves filled with goodness? The one who guards their tongue from evil and their lips from speaking deceit.   The one who turns from evil and does good, who seeks peace and pursues it.”


[1] [1] Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence A. and Arnow, David, My People’s Passover Haggadah, Volume One, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, p. 105


[2] Zion, Noam and Dishon, David, The Family Participation Haggadah: A Different Night, Jerusalem: The Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997, p. 101


Terumah- Where Does God Dwell?



Have you ever built or remodeled your home? It is rarely a fun or pleasant experience and there are SO many details to keep track of, and, SO many decisions to be made. Well, God takes care of that for us in this week’s Torah portion, where we read of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. Verse after verse, page after page, chapter after chapter- detail after detail of EXACTLY how God wants the Mishkan to be built. Precise instructions for every aspect of the project- the materials, the size, the design. Absolutely no room is allowed for creativity or vision; everything is spelled out.

Parshat Terumah describes the first Jewish gathering place ever built. Every person is invited to participate, but only as their heart moves them. A holy place for a holy people can only be built by volunteers. The Torah is not averse to taxes, but the word terumah itself means a gift, something we give because we feel moved to give.

In chapter 25, verse 8, we read God’s words, “Let them build Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” This is surprising. We would expect the Torah to say, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT?”  All of this time and effort and expense to build God a home, and God is not even going to live there? What’s the point of that? Not even as a winter visitor?

The point, I believe, is that the spirit of God, the spirit of holiness, cannot and should not be contained in a particular place. The spirit of God resides in the very act of giving itself, in our desire to create a place for community. What God wants is for us to be moved to give. Despite the tremendous emphasis on the details of the construction, it is the gift of our participation that is ultimately the most meaningful. Your presence here tonight is so meaningful- without you we could have the most beautiful sanctuary in the world and it would be an empty shell.

The verse says, “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” How fascinating that the word “to dwell”- “v’Shachanti”- is the same as the root of the word “shachen,” meaning “neighbor.” One more hint at the connection of the Divine spirit dwelling in our relationships and in how we give to each other! The way that we connect with God is to connect with each other- we are God’s hands and God’s heart, we fulfill our Divine destiny by giving of ourselves to build relationships and community.

The ark was to be adorned with the figures of cherubs, and they were to be constructed in such a way that they faced each other. Our place of worship is not a place where we withdraw from the world. It is a place where we are reminded of our responsibility to the world. That is why halacha, Jewish law, requires that a synagogue be built with windows, so that we never forget that what goes on in here must resonate in the world out there.

“Where does God dwell?”, asked Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. “God dwells,” he answered, “wherever we let God in.” You’ll notice on the front cover of your Shabbat bulletin the Hebrew word, “v’natnu,” “and they shall give.” You will notice that it is a palindrome, that is, it appears the same whether you read it from left to right, or, from right to left.

Thus, we learn, that when we give, we receive back, and as we receive, so we are moved to give. When we give to others, we come to appreciate our own blessings. As we give, we appreciate that life itself is a gift. Thank you for the gift of your most precious selves as part of our congregation, for your presence and your voices, for your love and caring in our community and in the world.

As we build a sanctuary, we are reminded to bring our best possible selves as our gift to the community, and that, as we do so, the spirit of God will, indeed, dwell in our midst.

Shabbat Shekalim and Giving



Since Ron proposed to me on May 8, 2016, Shabbat Shekalim will never be the same to me again. Tonight we usher in a special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim, as we read in the book of Exodus that every adult (male in the Torah) was to give a half shekel to sustain the religious life of the community. The Torah specifies that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” (Exodus 30:15)- each person was to give the same half shekel. This portion is read every year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar, the month of Purim. Adar begins next Thursday night and Friday, and the rabbis say that when Adar enters, happiness increases- may it be so in each of our lives.

In essence, Shabbat Shekalim serves as a reminder that taxes will be due soon, yet its meaning is so much deeper. Here is a half shekel. (show coin)   Ron and I had hiked to the top of a hill in the mountain preserve, and we sat for a while enjoying the view. Out of nowhere and totally by surprise, he slid down onto one knee, pulled this coin out of his pocket, and began talking about how he had brought the half shekel home from a trip to Israel, in hopes of finding his other half. I was so shocked that I didn’t grasp what he was saying, but eventually it became clear that he was asking for my hand in marriage. I said yes, of course, and here we are.

The half shekel is a reminder of how much we all need each other, how much we need to be in community, and how each of us has something to offer, whoever we are, rich or poor. None of us is complete on our own, we are all imperfect, yet, with each of our contributions, the community is complete. We are all on the receiving end and the giving end at different times in our lives, we are each half a shekel and together we become whole.

Recognizing our interconnection, we understand the need to give. The half shekel represents sharing our physical resources. Generosity is a fundamental middah, a soul-trait, and it is one that we cultivate through our generous giving. Personally, I can have a tendency to be less than generous, and I know that I struggle with fear of scarcity, concern that if I give to individuals or to organizations that I support, that I will not have enough for my own needs. Our tradition assures us that no one will go broke from giving tzedakah. Maimonides encourages us that we acquire the quality of being generous through repeated acts of giving, that the person who gives 100 coins to 100 people will become more generous than the person who gives 100 coins all at once. We need to constantly reinforce the quality of generosity. So, when we were coming home from NY on Wednesday, I held my tongue when Ron gave the driver $50. for a $38. drive to the airport. I know I need to practice generosity at every opportunity! As Jews, I think we need to be especially sensitive to stereotypes that portray Jewish people as less than generous. We can counter these stereotypes by our gracious giving.

We can give of ourselves beyond tzedakah. When we rejoice at a wedding or sit with the bereaved, we are giving generously of our time. When we share our wisdom and experience we are giving generously to support the growth of others. All of these are acts of generosity.

The story is told of[Rabbi Elijah (Elya) Chaim Meisel of Lodz, who, during an exceptionally cold winter, went to a rich citizen to ask for funds for firewood to heat the homes of the poor. The rabbi knocked, and the wealthy man came to the door in his evening jacket. Honored by the appearance of the distinguished rabbi, he invited him into the house. Rabbi Elya Chaim responded that since he would be staying just a minute there was no need to go inside. He then engaged the man in conversation, asking in great detail about each family member. Out of respect for the rabbi, the man answered all his questions, but by now his teeth were chattering. Still the rabbi refused to enter. Finally, the man said, “Rabbi, why did you come here? What is it that you want?”

“I need money to buy wood for the poor. They are suffering greatly from the cold.” The shivering man promised to give a hundred rubles, a huge sum, whereupon the rabbi entered his house and sat down in the living room in front of a warm fireplace. The man brought the rabbi a glass of tea and they sat and spoke. Finally, unable to restrain himself, the man said to Rabbi Elya Chaim: “Why didn’t you just come in right away, and ask for the donation? You know I wouldn’t refuse you.”

The rabbi answered: “Standing outside in the cold, you started to shiver, and when I told you how cold the poor were, you felt in your own bones the truth of my words. That’s why you gave a hundred rubles. But had you and I sat together in comfortable chairs in front of a warm fireplace, drinking hot tea, and I had spoken to you of the sufferings of the poor, you wouldn’t have felt it in the same way, and would have contented yourself with a ten-ruble contribution.

Generosity begins when we recognize that we are all connected; it begins with the half-shekel.


Flip Phones and Parshat Bo

Were you as shocked as I was to read that flip phones, aka dumb phones, are making a comeback? Social commentators suggest that it’s about a retro cool factor, or, driven by the increasing cost of smart phones, or, perhaps, concerns for greater security. But I wonder if it may be something subtler and deeper? I wonder if there is an emerging rebellion against our technology dependent, technology addicted, lifestyle? Look around any restaurant, anywhere where people gather. Everyone is looking down at their phones. If they are interacting with each other at all, it is to show each other texts and images on those phones. Incredibly and counter-intuitively, smart phone sales are stalling while flip phone sales are gaining, yet on some level comprehensible.

“. . . a flip phone may be a new sign of cool. James Gardner, with digital experience agency Connective DX in Boston, said there’s a phenomenon he called “reverse status signaling.” In conventional status signaling we flaunt our wealth via brands like Louis Vuitton and BMW. But in reverse status signaling we “turn this on its ear. It typically but not always happens in once-prestigious categories that have lost their exclusivity and gone mainstream,” (says) Gardner.

“Smartphones were once scarce and accessible only to the elite,” Gardner notes. “Now, they’re mainstream and have become, not a signal of power, but instead a sign that you’re a corporate drone who’s tethered to their job and email 24×7. Reverting to a flip phone—or NO phone at all—subtly tells the world that you report to nobody. You are the boss.”[1]

You are the boss. In this week’s parsha, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt after 430 years. The essence of slavery is that someone else controls our time. The essence of freedom is that we get to decide how we choose to spend our time. The first thing the Israelites do in Exodus 13 is to establish the holiday of Passover, a reminder of what it means to be a slave, what it means to be free, and a reminder that we are in control of our own calendar. For many of us, we are voluntarily accepting a new kind of servitude, servitude to the pinging sound of another email, another text message, another Instagram or Facebook notification. Ping! Ping! Ping!

When even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges the dark side of social media, when he is quoted as saying that his personal challenge for 2018 is to fix Facebook, “. . .protecting our community from abuse and hate. . . making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,”[2] we know that we can hope that we are on the cutting edge of a renewed sense of reflection on how we spend the precious time with which we are blessed. Will we be subservient to the incessant and insistent demand of our phones, or will we take control of when and how we engage with social media?

Last week Ron was driving and looking at his phone. Doing a mitzvah- studying his GPS to find directions to a shivah minyan. A noble cause. Ron acknowledges that he was distracted and swerving a bit. At the next light, a car pulled up to him and the driver, firmly but without hostility, asked him to please put the phone away. He proceeded to explain that he had lost his beloved wife in a car accident caused by a driver who was driving and texting. Now, the other driver has made it his mission in life to discourage this dangerous practice at every opportunity. Ron really took it to heart and felt that this man saved his life. Ron has now adopted as his cause to share this story in hopes that others will embrace this radical notion that it can wait; it can all wait.

We all spend too much time tethered to our phones. As we read this week of the Exodus from slavery to freedom, perhaps we can look within and reflect on how enslaved we are to social media and technology. Do you think you can get through the rest of this service without looking at your phone? What about the rest of this evening? What about the rest of Shabbat? Or, perhaps, maybe what you really need is just a good, old-fashioned flip phone?????



























5 Ways to Hack Your Jewish Life



Do you remember when a hack was the term for a taxi or other vehicle available for hire? Or when you could or couldn’t hack a challenging situation? Or when someone with no obvious talent who was somehow successful might be called a hack? Or when a cough might be described as hacking?

Then hack somehow morphed into a facility for breaking into computer systems. And now- hack-a noun- is used to describe a super-cool shortcut to achieve a desired end. As in- exercise hack: take the stairs, park further away in the parking lot. As in- love hacks: rejoice in your partner’s successes, touch them affectionately, a lot. Here’s a great life hack I picked up- Do you have a collection of plastic grocery bags? Is the collection out of control? Not sure where I picked up this hack, but how about using an empty tissue box as a dispenser for those bags? Pretty cool, eh?

So, as we enter 2018 and we are all super-busy, I thought I might modestly offer you some tips on 5 ways to hack your Jewish life. Here goes:

  1. Light Shabbat Candles– Your Jewish calendar tells you what time candle lighting SHOULD be each week. Forget it. Candle lighting should be whenever you get home on Friday night, even if it’s super late and you’re tired. There’s a reason that Shabbat is the only ritual in the 10 commandments and why Ahad Ha-Am said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Take a moment to remind yourself that you are not just a human “doing,” you are a human “being.” Take a moment to connect with the holiness of Shabbat by lighting Shabbat candles.
  2. Resolve to read ONE Jewish book this year. Just one! Here are a few suggestions:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl- you should read this book because every person on the planet should read his inspiring reflection on the triumph of the human spirit amidst the most harsh conditions of a concentration camp.

As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg- not just because it is written by a rabbi. It is a highly readable novel set in the time of the Talmud. When Cantor Wolman and I recently discussed important Jewish books, and, guess what- this was the first book that came to both of our minds! That should be an intriguing enough reason to pick it up.

Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life by Leonard Felder- Perhaps you think the title is overselling? Wrong! Felder offers wildly creative translations of prayers that you already know and re-imagines them in ways that bring depth to our daily lives.

Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis- I gave this book to a friend recently and she reported that just thinking about the title was an elevating experience. Mussar study, learning about our own individual soul curricula, is increasingly popular, and Morinis’ book is the primary text for studying how we can become finer people by applying Jewish wisdom to the refinement of our own character traits.

  1. Learn about and observe a new holiday. Chanukkah is over and it’s a long time until Passover. Consider joining us for the Jewish Arbor day, Tu B’Shevat, on Feb. 3? You may be surprised and even proud to know that before there was an Earth Day or an ecological movement, YOUR Jewish tradition recognized and celebrated the holiness of the natural world. The Tu B’Shevat seder is an outrgrowth of the Jewish mystical tradition and involves eating lots of yummy fruits and nuts, while sharing texts on Judaism and nature, all in a fun seder format.
  2. Sign up for an online parshah column and/or A Taste of Mussar. One of the benefits of technology is that inspiration is no further away than your computer screen. There are so many online resources that you can subscribe to. The Union for Reform Judaism publishes “Ten Minutes of Torah” (http://pages.mail.rj.org/subscribe) and there is no cost for this service. A Taste of Mussar is a self-paced introduction to Jewish wisdom on humility, gratitude, patience, and the other middot, soul traits, which are fundamental to mussar study. (http://mussarinstitute.org/courses/taste-of-mussar/) You don’t even to need to leave home and you can enhance your Jewish consciousness.
  3. Finally, say a blessing. I timed myself saying HaMotzi and it can be done in less than 3 seconds. Perhaps not the deepest spiritual expression, yet, surely better than no blessing? Take two and a half seconds to appreciate the fact that you have food to eat, that nature and human effort combined to bring about the meal you are about to enjoy. Once you become accustomed to saying HaMotzi, there are lots of other blessings you can learn- for seeing a beautiful flower, the clothing on your back, for the healthy functioning of your body. But start with HaMotzi- you have to eat anyway, so why not make it a religious experience?

This is New Year’s weekend and many of you may be thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Forget it! Think, instead, about hacking your Jewish life with Shabbat candles, a good book, a new holiday, an online resource, or a blessing. And, as we say on Rosh HaShanah, I wish you a good year, a healthy year, a sweet year, and also a year filled with many meaningful Jewish moments!

Sukkot and Hurricanes

Sukkot and Hurricanes

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell


The year my friend Toby was dying of lung cancer, she told me that she did not want to say the Unetaneh Tokef prayer.  She said that she was living every day that message of Who shall live and who shall die?  Who in their time and who before their time? She just didn’t think she needed to pray those words. I totally understood where she was coming from and gave her my rabbinic authorization, for whatever that was worth, to be excused from Unetaneh Tokef.  Toby did not make it to the next high holidays.

I kind of feel that way this year about Sukkot in certain parts of the world.  For most of us, Sukkot is a fun time to be outdoors, to huddle in our very fragile, transient, temporary shelters and experience, for just a moment, what it might be like to simplify our lives and live in the most basic of shelters.  After Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, homelessness is all too real for all too many.  For too many people, their home has become their sukkah.  It feels ridiculous, almost sacrilegious, to imagine a sukkah sitting outside a home that has been devastated by hurricane storms.  Not that they’ve asked me, but I’m giving a pass on Sukkot to the Jewish communities in Houston, Miami, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Cuba, and everywhere else that has been impacted.  Who by water, indeed. . . Unetaneh tokef is always powerful; this year it is entirely too real.

We read in Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall dwell in booths seven days; all members of Israel shall dwell in booths; So that you may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt:  I am Adonai your God.”

The Menorat HaMaor teaches us that,  “The Sukkah is designed to warn us that we ought not to put our trust in the size or strength or beauty of our homes, though they be filled with all precious things. . . but, rather, we should put our trust in God who called the universe into being.”  Through our observance of Sukkot we get a taste of what it would be like not to have a home. Whether we are hot or cold in the sukkah is not the issue.  The point is that we are not in a climate controlled physical setting where we are disconnected from the weather outside.

Just as our Sukkot are open to the world, so must we not return to our homes, closed off from the needs of others.  We must continue to be open to others.  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

May we be inspired through our symbolic homelessness to renew our commitment to work for a time when no one will be compelled to live outdoors for lack of a home. We at Temple Chai have the opportunity to participate in supporting Family Promise as we open the doors of our synagogue to homeless families.  And we are especially proud of those who will journey to Houston with Cantor Wolman to be our hands and our hearts, voices of love and caring to those who are rebuilding after the devastation.

Sukkot is a holiday of universalism- in ancient ritual we offered prayers for each of the 70 nations of the world.   It is not enough to pray for peace for ourselves alone. Our celebration is incomplete if we do not include prayers for peace for our troubled world.  Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote of,  “The sukkah as the symbol of protest against the injustices and inequities of current civilization, and the need for upholding standards of righteousness which our civilization should seek to achieve.”

As the holiday of Sukkot draws to a close, we will offer public prayers for rain. We implore God- Hoshanna- Save us!  Don’t hold back the life-giving waters.  This year, these prayers take on new meaning.  “For blessing and not for curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for scarcity.”

I’ll conclude with the beautiful prayer “For Rain” written by Alden Solovy- you can find it in your Shabbat bulletin.

For Rain- Alden Solovy

Source of life and blessings,

The rains come in their season

To feed the land, the crops, the gardens.

The earth abundant, food plentiful, gardens lush.

Sweet, clean water, feeding rivers, filling the sea.

Sometimes too much,

Sometimes too little,

Sometimes not at all.


Fountain of blessing,

Remember us with life,

With beauty,

With prosperity and bounty.

Remember us with the gift of rain,

The gifts of earth and sky,

Blessings upon the land,

Each in its time,

Each in its season,

Each in its proper measure.



Mountain Biking and Humility

On Humility

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Erev Rosh HaShanah 2017


My husband Ron has introduced me to the joy of mountain biking.  We have a beautiful, regular route at Brown’s Ranch, just challenging enough and still fun.  Except, that is, for the first 90 seconds.  You’ve barely had time to process the fact that you’re off road, on a bike, adjusting to pedaling and shifting, and suddenly there’s a turn.  A narrow turn.  Between two rocks.  Going uphill.

I’ve probably attempted this climb 50 times.  I have successfully transited this spot and remained on the bike about 5 times.  Let me tell you, mountain biking is a humbling experience.

As we enter into this High Holiday season, humility is at the forefront of our spiritual agenda.  Our culture is plagued with examples of extreme arrogance.  Our own spiritual accounting and humble consideration of our own shortcomings is the antidote to the pervasive temptation of arrogance.  Jewish teaching emphasizes humility as the foundation of character.  As we assess the ways in which we would hope to grow, humility is really the only appropriate response.

One of the great things about this particular mountain bike trail is that it is less rocky than others.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no rocks.  There is no such thing as a path through the mountains, or through life, for that matter, that does not contain rocks.  The only question each of us faces is how we will traverse the rocks we encounter.  If we’re lucky, we can glide over them, experience a little bumpiness, and keep going.  As we look within and set goals for our own character development, it is inevitable that the path will not be completely smooth.  And that’s okay.

Sometimes there are so many rocks that you just can’t get over them.  If you’re an experienced rider like Ron, you might be comfortable continuing to ride.  If you’re a novice as I am, it is a sign of both wisdom and humility to dismount and walk until I reach smoother ground.  Knowing what you CAN do and what you CAN’T do, knowing what you know and admitting what you don’t know, this is what it means to be humble.

It has been humbling for me to be in the role of a rank beginner.  Most of my life is spent in an arena where I am the teacher and others are the students, where I am the subject matter expert.  Humility requires taking a step back so that I can listen and learn.  And, it requires Ron to step forward and be in that leadership role- which he does, by the way, with kindness and expertise.  It is not arrogance for a leader to lead.

Listening to others is a vital part of humility.  The sages say that Hillel’s opinions prevailed over those of his rival, Shammai, because Hillel and his students were willing to humbly study points of view with which they disagreed.  “Who is wise?,” ask the sages.  “The person who learns from everyone.”  Perhaps as an exercise during these Aseret Y’May Teshuvah, these 10 Days of Repentance, you can make it a practice to identify one positive trait you see in each person that you encounter, one area in which their level exceeds yours.  This will not only inculcate humility, it will inspire you to grow spiritually.

Mountain biking has brought new meaning to the expression- don’t get in a rut.  I always thought that a rut meant the boredom of a tedious routine. After some serious rain, I encountered serious ruts on the trail.   I discovered that trying to ride in a rut is frightening.  The narrow confines of that rut are a harrowing place.  The High Holidays are a good time to reflect on our lives and where we may find ourselves in a rut.  Getting out of a rut may not be easy, yet, surprisingly, it may also lead us to a smoother ride.

We are blessed to live among glorious mountains.  When we reach the summit, the views uplift our souls.  However, there is only one way to reach those heights, and that is to climb.  Ascending from the base of a steep incline requires fortitude, perseverance, strength, and, the right gear.  When we reflect on the year that is drawing to a close and contemplate the inevitable challenges of the year ahead, we want to engage all the support we can, from family, from community, from our own innate gifts, so that we can make it up the hill and revel in the view.

The mountain biker who is traveling up the hill has the unspoken right of way.   We recognize that going uphill is not easy, so we yield to support them in their climb.  We humbly recognize that we can’t do it alone- we need each other.  I am so grateful when another rider sees me struggling up a hill, and they politely and patiently wait at the top for me to pass, sometimes even adding a word of encouragement.

When I was first  learning the art of mountain biking, I crossed paths with a woman on the trail who said, “We all start somewhere.”  Humbling and touching and a beautiful reminder of the tremendous impact we can have just by reaching out to each other with a kind word.

Passing other riders on the trail is a unique challenge.  Mussar, the study of Jewish ethics of character development defines humility as occupying, “No more than my place, no less than my space.”  Mussar is a centuries’ old practice of introspection that focuses on the individual soul curriculum as it relates to various traits such as gratitude, patience, equanimity, generosity, trust, and others.  If you are intrigued by Mussar, by the way, consider registering for our fall class, “Seeking Everyday Holiness.”

As I understand humility from a Mussar perspective, humility means that we should be sensitive to those around us and make sure that each person receives the appropriate measure of attention and focus in a group situation.   Do you know someone who seems to take over a room when they enter? Who dominates the conversation?  Who can’t seem to listen to others and who always has a personal anecdote in every situation?   That is not the way of humility, of anavah.  When a mountain biker passes me at breakneck speed, in my mind they are taking up more than their place.  Arrogance, not humility.

No less than my space.  Humility does not equal low self-esteem.  It is important to be conscious of our own strengths.  We will need them in order to overcome our weaknesses!  Lack of awareness of our capabilities leads to inaction and missed opportunities.  We each have something to contribute to the common good, we each have the capability of growing. That’s what these High Holy Days are all about.

Humility DOES mean recognizing that our talents are gifts from God.  As Alan Morinis,founding director of the Mussar Institute, expresses it, “. . .being humble doesn’t mean being a nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.”

Humility means seeing our gifts as blessings and using them in service to others.  Moses was known as the most humble man who ever lived.  How can that be?  The man we know as the greatest leader and prophet of all time?  Moses closeness to God ensured that he was constantly aware of his own limitations, as we should be, especially at this High Holiday season.  We read in the Orchot Tzaddikim, The Ways of the Righteous, that “All of the good things I do are but a drop in the ocean in comparison to what I ought to do.”

Humility means recognizing others for their strengths and talents.  Bachya ibn Pakuda famously taught that he never met a person in whom he didn’t find at least one quality in which that person was superior. “If he was wiser that I was, I would say, ‘Because of his superior wisdom, he must revere God more than I do.’ And if he was inferior to me in wisdom, I would say, ‘On the Day of Judgment, he will be held less accountable than I will, because my transgressions were committed with knowledge and intent, while his were committed unwittingly.’ If he was older than I was, I would say, ‘His merits must exceed mine, since he came into the world before me.’ If he was younger, I would say, ‘His demerits are fewer than mine.’”

Take a moment now to think about any negative feelings about others that you might be about to carry into the new year.  Imagine that individual standing in front of you?  Pirke Avot teaches us that the wise person is the one who learns from everyone.  What can you learn from this person, as challenging as they may be?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the question of an 18th century rabbi, who wonders—if humility is so important, why isn’t it one of the 613 commandments?  Good question, right?  Well- try to imagine someone saying a blessing along the lines of, “Behold, I am about to fulfill the mitzvah of being humble.”  It’s like a catch 22.  Rabbi Telushkin’s grandfather was a rabbi who observed a prominent person in the congregation who would intentionally take a humble seat in the rear of the synagogue and then furtively look around to see if others noticed his humility.  Rabbi Telushkin the grandfather approached this prominent person as follows, “It would be better for you to sit in the front of the synagogue and think you should be sitting in the back, than to sit in the back of the synagogue and think you should be sitting in the front.”

Humility is especially important for those in leadership roles.  Thus, the cantor entered this evening’s service with the Hineni prayer, confessing his unworthiness and asking God’s help as he prepares to lead the congregation. “Here I am. So poor in deeds I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive. . . Although unworthy, I rise to pray and seek Your favor for Your people Israel.”[1]

So many obstacles on the mountain biking trail- deep sand that causes our wheels to sink in place, impeding any forward movement.  Precarious turns where we think we are moving in one direction and suddenly have to shift.  Will I have enough water and what if there is a mechanical problem?  Can I let go and trust the equipment to carry me safely home?  Sometimes the only thing to do is come to a complete halt- like when there is a rattlesnake lounging across the path in front of you.  Perhaps the High Holidays are the time when we come to a complete halt and give ourselves the luxury of a period of time to contemplate where we are and where we are going.

And then, there are the glorious moments!  The weather is perfect, the trail is smooth and glides over rolling hills, the views are spectacular and the desert is alive in all its glory.  As we enter the  year 5778, I wish you all of these blessings, and the humility to keep pedaling even when life is less than perfect.  May those times be few and far between.


[1] Mishkan Hanefesh, NY:  CCAR Press, 2015, p. 17

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