Interview with "Jewish Rhode Island"
Realizing the Power of Light in a Time of Darkness
Favorite part of being Jewish and being a rabbi?
For me, it’s connecting with a really old way of inhabiting time. Judaism really grounds me in the seasons and the way time unfolds. I love becoming a Jewish spiritual and religious leader. Right now, I work with rabbinical students as part of a team of spiritual directors. I listen for the way that a secret emerges in people’s lives, the way God may be calling people to become what they’re becoming.
I help them hear themselves into life. I call it ‘therapy with God.’ Judaism has such wisdom about how to build community and bring people together, as well as how to witness and support each other as we evolve, grow and go through different stages in life.
Closed Wells, Closed Hearts
The Jewish day starts with night, based on the verse in Genesis that reads, “There was evening, and there was morning.” Before light can emerge from it, darkness must first be created. This is true of our societal darkness. We can all think of examples of the altruism, resourcefulness and generosity that arise from the very midst of disaster’s grief and disruption. When I went to synagogue a week after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the rabbi told us he had seen a group of Muslims walking to area synagogues to keep an eye out for trouble. Many of my rabbinic colleagues shared similar stories of neighboring faith communities offering care and support.
The Crown of Good Name (Yom Kippur Day Sermon)
The Targum, a 1st century translation renders “closed up” into the Aramaic tmunim. Being driven by self-interest, “chokes up (matametem) the heart.” As we sort ourselves into ideological camps, “us” and “them”, we close our hearts to each other. We lose access to our collective purpose and vision. As we fall for this “us” versus “them” narrative, we shut down spaces essential to a vibrant democracy, beginning with our hearts.
You’re Special — Just Because You’re You (Kol Nidre Sermon)
We are completing the journey from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. These ten days are a meditation on what we do between birth and death: Rosh Hashanah is yom harat olam, the Day the World Is Born. And Yom Kippur is the day we rehearse our death by abstaining from life-affirming activities, and wearing white to represent a burial shroud. Between these two days, we confront the fragility of our lives – and reexamine how we want to journey across the length of our days.
Broken Heart, Bigger Heart (Rosh Hashanah Day Sermon)
My greatest spiritual teacher taught me that I have a soul, a part of me that is inherently worthwhile. Fifteen years after he died, in a world that too often tells people they are not worthwhile, I’m not surprised this teacher is getting so much attention: a few months ago, a documentary came out about him — and next year, a biopic will be released. Looking back at my weekly television visits with this teacher, I know he is worthy of all this attention. In his Neighborhood of Make-Believe, his puppets, King Friday and Daniel Tiger may not have been much to look at. But that wasn’t the point. These visits — with Mister Rogers — were encounters with my soul.
Writing the World into Being (Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon)
One hineini, Abraham packs for a journey, gets ready to fulfil the terrible mission he has unwittingly accepted. Another hineini, Abraham’s journey ends, he is relieved of his awful burden. One hineini: Abraham accepts the painful fate he has been given. Another hineini: he responds, with joy, to a totally different truth. One hineini, Abraham’s life path seems set. Another hineini, he opens up to a totally different destiny.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world, yom harat olam. The moment the universe shimmered with possibility. That is why we say, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written”: the ink is still fresh. We imagine what words might fill the pages of the year ahead. But it’s so hard to stay focused on the white space of this new chapter when our vision is cluttered with headlines.
Hope in the Margins
Balance is not a perfect blend / of extremes. It is something that takes place / inside a larger system. It is a perspective,
an awareness that makes space for us / to fully experience winter and then spring, / light and then darkness. / Darkness and then light.
Our certainty that things cannot change offers us psychological protection by forcing us to abandon our expectations. But it also obscures the reality that change is a property intrinsic to everything that exists—our bodies, our relationships, even our social and political institutions. Opposed to our surety, hope locates itself in the premises that we do not know what will happen, and that in the spaciousness of that uncertainty is room to act. Torah invites us to imagine all that is still unknown sitting in the twilight, waiting to be thrust into history in order to embrace an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists—which excuses both groups from acting.
Two-Line Torah: Emor 5777--Choosing time
A few weeks ago, the largest glacier everbroke off the Antarctic ice shelf. As global temperatures soar and shorelines shrink at an accelerated rate, we become more aware of ways in which our resources are limited. This is compounded by our reactions to these realities. We fear the instability we are witnessing around the world and feel compelled to hold onto whatever resources might help us maintain our sense of safety, however illusory, for a little bit longer.
Yom HaShoah #TorahForTheResistance: Humanization as Resistance
This week’s parasha enumerates the dates and observances of the main Jewish festivals and Shabbat. Reading these instructions, the rabbis notice something peculiar: while the Torah refers to Shabbat as mo’adai, “my chosen times”, it refers to the rest of the festivals as mo’adam, “their chosen time” (Lev 23:2, 4). The rabbis conclude this is because our ancestors needed to choose when to observe the holidays based on their own calculations. By contrast, God sanctified Shabbat at the beginning of time for all time.
The Sacred Space Between Us
When I woke up election morning, I was struck by the awful irony it was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Just 78 years earlier on the day America elected a right-wing populist to office, my grandfather Frank Shurman awoke to a world that was hiding in plain sight. Election day morning, 78 years later, many of us also woke to an America that had perhaps been more or less visible to each of us, depending on our privilege. Since Election Day I have been sitting with the images of resistance my grandfather’s story offers me as it continues to echo across time. The story he told about what happened 78 years earlier gave me an image of resistance I’ve carried with me most of my life. But recently I’ve discovered another story of resistance, one he didn’t tell me when he was alive.
What Trees Can Teach Us About Politics
Over the course of the fall semester, several swastikas appeared on the college campus at which I work. When I first saw a picture of one, spray-painted on the inside of a bathroom stall in the library, I was pained by the depiction of a symbol that is inextricably bound up with the systematic murder of many of my family members.
Descended From Trauma Enriched By Hope
In the headlines, we see someone coming closer to an elected seat of power than he should. Trump doesn’t exist alone, but within systems and values that have lifted him frighteningly close to the highest office in our nation. Trump’s campaign is, sometimes more explicitly than other times, fueled by misogyny, anthropocentrism, capitalism and white supremacy. These systems place folks like him very close to society’s centers of power. This is, in part, because we live in a society that values self-reliance, and competition and touts bootstrap stories as heroic.
My Experience Doing a Tech Cleanse
The first person to toast my sister and her fiancé at their rehearsal dinner was a descendent of Mrs. Hamilton. She recalled her grandmother, a “righteous gentile” who had sponsored our grandfather and his family to immigrate to America in 1938. She described how delighted our grandparents would be to see our families gathered together for this celebratory moment. I wasn’t the only one moved to tears by the way she brought their memories into this rite of passage in our family.
How Listening to Music Taught Me to Compose My Own Life
Recently, there’s been a lot of writing about how to mindfully cope with our addiction to technology. We’re beginning to develop a whole new lexicon, that includes words like “text claw” and “wexting” (texting while walking) to speak about this strange new world. I’ve written before about how technology is supposed to help us feel connected, but, in fact, amplifies an experience counter to this, fueling a sense we are missing out on connecting with our friends, community and the natural world around us.
Compassion is a Skill
As I sat watching a magnificent string quartet perform, I lost a whole movement in the rumblings of my wandering attention. The measures and notes slipped by me and I began to worry I might walk away from the concert carrying only the concept of this event, but devoid of any substantive encounter with the music, itself. At the root of my concern was the creeping sense that I too frequently live my life as a concept of how a life should be lived, without sinking into my raw, messy moments of becoming.
Why I Let Go of My Life's Purpose
The other day, friends of mine shared how they crack each other up by furrowing their brows and casting worried looks at each other. This physical comedy routine was inspired by people’s looks of concern and pity in response to the loss of a close friend of theirs. Fortunately my friends were able to make a joke out of that intense look of worry that crossed people’s faces and which betrayed their friends’ needs, rather than allowing them to attend to the needs of my grieving friends.
When Meditation Gets Real
In the commencement speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence in 2006, Ann Patchett observes:
Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand.
But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go.
And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
For most of my life, I’ve been a student. The Latin etymology of this word is related to studium ‘painstaking application’, making a mistake and trying again, tolerating the discomfort of being in process, approaching each task with the gracious self-acceptance of a beginner. As a student, I was able to nourish dreams and visions of what I could uniquely contribute to the world. As a student, I, and everyone around me, knew I was in a process of learning, of applying myself, painstakingly, to each new task.