Creating Sacred Communities For The Whole of Israel: A Yom Kippur Drash

Creating Sacred Communities For The Whole of Israel: A Yom Kippur Drash

Creating Communities For the Whole Of Israel: A Dvar Torah for Yom Kippur

Memory and Moving Forward: A Reflection on Purim 5781

A version of this piece was originally published by SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.


Today, I remember. I remember vividly the all-consuming sadness I felt last Purim, as the sun was setting and my celebratory seudah was ending, the last event I attended with a large Jewish community. I remember feeling overcome with the intuitive sense that it would be a long, long time before I would daven with a minyan, learn in a physical bet midrash, and otherwise gather to sing, celebrate, learn, mourn and grieve with others outside of my small pod. I also distinctly recall not knowing how to explain my sorrow. Last Purim, we knew there was a deadly, dangerous virus looming. I remember the conversation surrounding the question of whether one could attend a virtual Megillah reading. Were the circumstances really that grave that a virtual reading could be sufficient for those for whom in person gatherings took religious precedence? Surely this outbreak will be a few months at most—we’ll be back to “normal” by Shavuot.

As I think back over this turbulent year, I am humbled by my own sense of assumed knowing, on a holiday that is all about not knowing. Purim is, after all, many things. It is a holiday about opposites, reversals, revelations and concealments. It is also understood to be about knowing and not knowing. Traditionally, one is supposed to drink until they cannot tell the difference between blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman. It should go without saying but I feel absolutely obligated to say that this knowing and not knowing is not only achieved through the use of intoxicating substances. Our sages also teach that the knowing and not knowing is about achieving a mystical union with all that is. For those of us who are spiritually inclined but for whom achieving mystical union with all that exists feels a bit too abstract or out there, we can also think of this idea of knowing and not knowing as related to the Gemara’s famous teaching on Shabbat 88A concerning our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.

״וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר״, אָמַר רַב אַבְדִּימִי בַּר חָמָא בַּר חַסָּא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, וְאָמַר לָהֶם: אִם אַתֶּם מְקַבְּלִים הַתּוֹרָה מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם. אָמַר רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: מִכָּאן מוֹדָעָא רַבָּה לְאוֹרָיְיתָא. אָמַר רָבָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הֲדוּר קַבְּלוּהָ בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, דִּכְתִיב: ״קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים״ — קִיְּימוּ מַה שֶּׁקִּיבְּלוּ כְּבָר.

The Gemara cites additional homiletic interpretations on the topic of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. (Steinsaltz translation).

We encounter here the famous idea that our acceptance of the covenant through our declaration of we will do, and we will hear, or we will listen was not, in the rabbi’s read done willingly. We were coerced. It was not until the days of Purim that we in fact willingly accepted the Torah upon ourselves. During this time of knowing and not knowing, we are provided here with an interesting juxtaposition. On a day when we tend to be consumed by physical delights and pleasures, we also celebrate our fullest acceptance of Torah.

Admittedly, as someone for whom Purim has, at the best of times, been incredibly alienating, this shift in emphasis is comforting. I can immerse myself in my love of learning Torah and skip the parties. No more need I attend a Megillah reading feeling utterly miserable on the happiest of days because the room is loud and I cannot hear anything going on, knowing all the while that this holiday is so visual as it is with everyone showing off their costumes and laughing at comedic sketches I miss because I cannot see them. Learning all Purim night? Now that I can get behind!

If I’m being honest with myself and if we are being honest with ourselves, what does that shift in emphasis actually mean for us? Isn’t everything Torah ultimately? We are not a people known for our asceticism. In fact, our tradition requires us to take pleasure from the physical world and thereby elevate and make it sacred. Purim is deeply a part of that. I have to remind myself that just because the loud and chaotic Megillah readings of years past left me feeling deeply alienated, that in no way means that Purim is not mine to take hold of, just as we each take hold of all of the festivals.

Which brings me back to the somber character of this Purim and I imagine all Purims subsequent to this year. We are both marking the one year anniversary of this terrible pandemic and celebrating a tremendous moment of redemption for the Jewish people. The Gemara’s teaching above and our celebrations of Purim are both experienced collectively. We celebrate our deliverance together and our acceptance of Torah together as one people.  We know from this past year that we need community to remain resilient and to hold us and that community is and can be experienced in so many ways. I remain humbled and deeply moved by how SVARA has pivoted and how so many of us have pivoted to navigate this crumble and crash. Even and especially as we mourn the tremendous losses of this time, we are unearthing new possibilities for connection which I pray stay with us long after COVID is eradicated and we are all vaccinated, speedily and in our days, amein!

And yet, the yearning to find individual expression within a communal framework is with me deeply. I bring that juxtaposition with me as I prepare to celebrate and receive all that Purim holds for me. This Purim, as I prepare to hear Megillah in an environment that will better meet my needs, I allow myself to open to the expansive possibilities of this holiday, knowing that my own not knowing prevented me from showing up most authentically in my own life as a Jew and as a lover of Torah. May this holiday with all of its layers of possibility, struggle and promise allow us to get even a taste of the world we are co-creating into being.

The Plurality of Mourning Shabbat Nachamu 5780

This piece originally appeared on SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.

Nachamu Nachamu ami, “comfort, comfort my people,”— the opening words of the Haftorah from the book of Isaiah, which we will read this Shabbat, ring particularly poignant this year. What does it mean for us to move from a period of mourning, fasting, and solemnity into a prolonged period of communal consolation?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the profound wisdom of our Jewish calendrical cycle. We are not a linear people—our years are cyclical and, as we move through the cycle, our tradition asks us to embody the specific mood or energy of each moment, year after year, even as we ourselves are in a constant state of flux. For many years, when the Three Weeks came around, I wondered how I would find meaning in this time. Connecting viscerally to the Chorban—destruction of the 2 Temples—was not something to which I had an immediate or easy access point. I did always believe deeply in the utility and importance of collective mourning, but on some level it felt hollow. That is, until this year.

As these long pandemic months continue, as the losses—tangible and ambiguous alike—continue to pile up, as many of us feel weighed down by past and present grieving, it feels like our holy tradition is calling out to us, crying alongside us. As we emerge from the 9 days into Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, we are being reminded, even if just in a whisper, that we can move on. It will take seven weeks of comforting haftorot to make up for the three haftorot of rebuke, but we will be able to rebuild and enter a new year.

In Masechet Taanit 29B-30B, there is an extended discussion about how one ought to prepare for and observe Tisha b’Av. Numerous Tannaitic opinions are recorded pertaining to many aspects of the day itself and the days which precede and follow. The text asks: Should the mourning of the 9 days actually last for all of Av or just during the week in which Tisha b’Av falls? If Tisha b’Av falls on a Sunday, is there even a week of mourning before? When can a person do their laundry? What if they only have one garment and Tisha b’Av falls on Friday—can they wash their garment for the honor of Shabbat? And what about Torah study? Are you allowed to learn Torah? Maybe you can only learn the sections you’re familiar with. How ought we commemorate this time?

I am profoundly moved by the way in which the rabbis engage in this back-and-forth. After the Chorban, the Talmudic project began in earnest in Yavneh because the rabbis understood that we were living in a radically altered world and wanted desperately for our traditions to survive. We are heirs to their ingenuity. As I learned this sugya, I kept coming back to the way in which the rabbis were working out for themselves and future generations just how we would commemorate Tisha b’Av specifically and the Chorban broadly. Writing hundreds of years after that trauma, there was no consensus. To me, this lack of consensus points to the very human reality that the way we grieve and mourn is radically individual. Some of us need those safe containers to hold the pain. Our tradition masterfully created a staged process for mourning the deaths of dear ones for that reason. We move from Shiva to Shloshim to observing the yartzeit annually because we know that even as time progresses, we need a ritualized way to return to the loss and re-emerge into the world again and again, year after year.

Just as our rabbis were not of one mind about how to commemorate the loss of the Temples in Yerushalayim—just how much mourning and for how long is too much?—I know I am wrestling with a plurality of thoughts and feelings about my own grieving during this time. For those of us in an American cultural context, ours is a culture which is better at bottling up emotion and staying as far from death and pain as possible. Where’s the space for the rawness, the realness, the ambiguity of the losses some of us experienced and the real tangibility of others? May the wisdom of our rabbis and our calendar provide us with some solace and grounding in this moment of radical crash. May the fluidity with which the rabbis have an honest back-and-forth about how to commemorate this time provide us with fodder for how we mark our own time of trial and calamity.

Bamidbar 5780

Parashat Bamidbar, which Jews the world over just completed, is chiefly concerned with an extensive census of military-aged men and a meticulous description of the manners by which each tribe camped and traveled. The parsha opens the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as Numbers owing to the opening census and in Hebrew as Bamidbar, or in the wilderness. Indeed, Bamidbar is not the only book of Torah whose name in Hebrew differs markedly from how later English translators named and understood it. Jewish tradition has focused a great deal on the literal and spiritual significance of being in the wilderness, which I feel is more relevant this year than perhaps it has ever been in our lifetime.

When the Jewish calendrical cycle was calculated, it was determined that Parshat Bamidbar would be read most years on the Shabbat before the holiday of Shavuot, as is the case this year. We are in the home stretch of counting the Omer, preparing for zman matan Torateinu—the time of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and we are, simultaneously, journeying in the wilderness, just as the Children of Israel are as our parsha opens. For those of us who have been counting the Omer, we are reminded, daily, of our eventual destination—revelation—and though the counting might give us some semblance of structure in a world in which time seems endless, without differentiation, we also must grapple with the uncertainty that being in the wilderness inevitably carries with it. Indeed, as we are later reminded in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, the Torah is not in heaven, but in our mouths to do it. Or, stated beautifully in a famous midrash describing Hashem’s revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai, though revelation was a collective event—all souls were at Sinai, as one, to receive Torah—we all received Torah in a manner that we could understand. In other words, Matan Torah was a singular, national event and still, because Hashem understands humanity and the Jewish people to be each unique and irreplaceable, we each received the collective revelation in a manner that would allow us to understand and live it out in our individual lives and through how we show up in the world at large.

As we are reminded beautifully in the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, just as no two coins are alike, neither are two human beings. Being created in the image of G-d, the Jewish tradition teaches, is not about physical appearance at all. Rather, this revolutionary teaching about human dignity commands us to view ourselves as partners and co-creators with G-d in creating the world each day anew. Indeed, our dynamic relationship with Hashem is borne out each morning when we say the Yotzer Or bracha, the opening passages of the daily morning liturgy.

Our actions matter deeply. Hashem has entrusted us with a spark of divinity within. The Torah is not in heaven, but in our mouths to do it. We choose, multiple times a day how we are going to actualize or conceal that holiness with which we’ve been gifted. Jewish tradition also places a premium on human responsibility and the need for teshuvah for mistakes large and small. In a world in which it is far easier to cast blame upon our adversaries, engaging in tremendous acts of mental and emotional manipulation and gymnastics to do so, Jewish tradition demands of us radical soul accounting, leading to physically making amends with those we have harmed.

We are in the wilderness, and the wilderness within which we find ourselves is both a collective experience and a deeply individual one. Only this time, the individual wilderness is not so that we might uniquely understand this period of profound rupture. Rather, our individual wilderness is intimately related to our personal circumstances—our health status, our economic position, our employment prospects, our class, our racial and ethnic background, our ability status. And in this moment, when many wish to proclaim the collectivity of the moment—we are in this together and we’ll get through it together—a desperate act of grasping for comfort—we are obscuring the many ways in which no, we are not in this together. Yes, we have all experienced a prolonged period of isolation. For some of us, prolonged periods of isolation are normal, not an aberration. Yes, we are collectively experiencing instability. For many of us, instability is indeed the only thing that remains consistent. Truly, instability and radical uncertainty are always thrumming in the background of our lives but for those of us who have lived with relative privilege and thus relatively sheltered lives, this may have been the first time we have had to grapple with our impermanence. We strive for uniformity as a means of deep human solidarity, as a means of trying to make order out of chaos. Human beings are nothing if not creatures who yearn for meaning, to connect to something or someone much larger than ourselves. This moment has been for many a profoundly transcendent one. We are recognizing the limits of individuality and the importance of human community, even at a distance.

Yet, we must strive, always, to decenter ourselves. Put another way, we tend to imagine ourselves as the normal, the typical and all others as deviating from that. This sense of ourselves too often during this time has manifested in the ways we speak about others experiencing this moment. The wilderness is not a uniform experience. Too often, we conflate the notions of uniformity—all acting and being the same—with unity—showing up on behalf of one another, not obscuring our individuality but deeply committed to honoring each of our individual journeys. Chasidic thought speaks often about achdut—spiritual unity. Indeed, each of our chagim—pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one—is about unity in the deepest sense. Unity is not uniformity. We received the Torah as one, but we did not each receive a carbon copy of revelation. The revelation we received was given to us in a manner that would penetrate our inner most essence.

Though the wilderness in which we presently find ourselves is vastly different, our individual and collective responses, I believe, must be guided by the paradox I have been describing. We are uniformly going through a moment of great rupture, but we are each uniquely experiencing it. If we are to truly act as partners and co-creators with Hashem in re-creating a more abundant future for us all, all of us irreplaceable, all of us inherently valuable, we must do so in a manner that honors our individuality and does not shy away from or explain inequities and disparities which we know have been present for generations. Rather, boldly and humbly, we must live out the radical implications of being created in the Image of Hashem through the choices we make each and every day towards the creation of a more abundant society for us all, which places kavod habriot, human dignity at its center, along with valuing the lives of all living beings who call our holy planet home. May it be so.

Behar 5780

This week marks the tenth Shabbat since I have been in shul, davening with a minyan. Each Shabbat morning as I arise, put on my tallit and prepare to pray the morning or Shacharit service, I cannot but feel the absence of friends, the silence without melodious harmonization, and the void left without a physical community to be amongst. This is the second Shabbat out of those ten Shabbatot during which we liturgically complete the reading of one of the five books of the Torah. This week, we read the two final parshiyot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Behar and Bechukotai. Ordinarily, when the Torah is read with a minyan of ten adult Jews present, at the conclusion of a book of the Torah, the entire congregation rises if able to do so and proclaims together, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another”. We know that in the fullness of time, a year will elapse, and we will return once more to Leviticus, and we wish each other and ourselves well on our continuing journey through Torah and life itself.

The Jewish tradition is one deeply bound to time, but not in a Western, linear fashion. Instead, ours is a tradition of cycles. Seven is a key number for us in organizing these temporal cycles. The 25th chapter of Leviticus, which is the vast majority of Parashat Behar, the first of our two Torah portions this week is a prime example of our Torah’s concern. We learn first about the Shmita or sabbatical year. Every seven years, land is to lie fallow, uncultivated, unharvested. The prior six years the land is worked as it typically would be and, knowing that the Shmita year was coming, it is expected that society is organized in such a manner that no one is left behind in the seventh year. Animals and human beings are able to sustain themselves and enjoy the rest afforded to them by this time.

The fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years, is known as the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original occupants. It ought to be mentioned here that even as such land returns to its original inhabitants, G-d makes clear to human beings that land is, in fact, not ours at all—we are merely tenants upon it. All land ultimately belongs to G-d.

As we are reading about the forty-nine years leading to the Yovel, we are simultaneously in the midst of counting the Omer, a practice that we do daily during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.  On the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesach, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we would bring our first fruits, the first results of our post-Pesach wheat harvest. We rest on this day out of abundant gratitude for our produce, and with each day’s counting of the Omer leading us to this time, we are deeply conscious of where we are in this cycle, we pray will have an abundant end.

So, too, we count the years until the Yovel, marking the Shmita year with each cycle as we go, praying for years of bounty and plenty. The Torah instructs that when we are resting, we are to ensure that all members of society can engage in this rest. And, so too, when the Torah describes the three pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one of them, their rest and joy is meant to be felt by and available to all.

And so, I return to my Shabbatot in this time. I think often as I engage in my own Shabbat practice of the privileges inherent in being able to remain sheltered in place, with access to plenty of wholesome, nourishing food, a spacious yard to enjoy, and enough space so as not to feel too cooped up. With each passing Shabbat, I mark the time since I was with in-person community. I grieve that loss, and yet, I know deeply how truly lucky I am. The relative stability and security I presently feel should be available to all.

The Torah this week reminds me starkly yet again that the social safety net it envisions, a system of laws and practices rooted in the idea that all human beings are created B’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine is, at best, profoundly broken in our own society. We express gratitude for essential workers and first responders, calling them heroes. Many are showing the very best of humanity through how they are relating to those of us who are engaged day in and day out doing tasks which we would be hard-pressed to function without—and, if we’re honest with ourselves—hard-pressed to do ourselves. Yet, too many express nothing more than surface-level gratitude and are angry when a delivery is delayed. I want my package and I want it now. Workers going without essential PPE? Too many of us are more concerned with expediency than with protecting the health and safety of those delivering our longed-for quarantine goods.

In a society steeped in instant gratification, the notion of interdependence, that we are each ultimately responsible for and bound up with one another is foreign, anathema.

Let us heed our parsha’s radical calls for social responsibility and restructuring as we imagine and, G-d willing, co-create a more abundant world post-COVID. Just as our Torah instructs us to ensure that the needs of all are met before the Shmita year, let us work to reimagine a society that considers meeting basic human needs as a given and not an inconvenience. Just as we honor the cycles of time, experiencing periods of rest and labor, let us work ceaselessly to ensure that the rest our Torah calls us to engage in is something that all can enjoy and not merely a privileged few.

On COVID-19 and New Accessible Opportunities For Us All

New Accessible Jewish Paradigm shifts in the Wake of COVID-19

March 20, 2020


This week has been a challenging and uncertain one for our world. We know we’re in this for the long haul, that things are going to get worse before they get better. Many of us feel profoundly unmoored as mainstays of our lives are temporarily closing. The rhythms of our days feel off and knowing that we don’t know how long this will last, we don’t yet know when the structures of our days will return to what they once were. None of us have ever lived through something like this. We feel anchorless, directionless, and for the most vulnerable—including many people with disabilities and underlying health conditions—this time of deep uncertainty comes with a host of other unknowns.


The past two weeks have seen the proliferation of Jewish programming online. You can stream a synagogue service any day you choose, drop into a class or even attend a concert. All of this is done out of necessity for sure, but it is also coming from a deep knowing that people seek meaning, connection and solace. In the flurry of activity, something felt deeply discordant to me. The pace at which programming and even prayer books became available online was due to the fact that these things—accommodations, if you were—are now what the majority population requires. We structure our society to center and prioritize the needs of majority populations, even in this ever-shifting reality. We too often forget those on the margins, namely folks living with disability and chronic illness. I believe that this forgetting is because our communities of care—individually and communally–don’t often include us. We are not often seen as peers or equals. We tend to prioritize those needs and concerns that impact our lives most immediately and viscerally. Though the disability community is 20% of the human family, our needs are frequently deprioritized because the perception is that the needed accommodations and supports will impact a small number of people only—hence, not worth the time, effort and expense. When we have someone in our life who requires alternative means of access, we are more inclined to work towards that. Why? Because accessibility is no longer an abstract thing, it’s concrete.  Many folks living with disabilities and chronic illness have been dealing with the impact of isolation for a long time. Many have been dealing with the indescribable pain of wanting to be in community and not being able to access it. Imagine what it feels like, now, to get that taste of access. For some folks, it’s for the first time.


For many people with disabilities, this newfound ease of access is accompanied by a host of complex feelings. Many yearn to return to in-person gatherings, even as we recognize the access we now enjoy to things we may not have ever had access to before. For some of us, the ease with which electronic publications became available online has caused some challenging feelings to arise around how quickly things can become universally available when the need feels urgent. As someone who is blind, digital accessibility is a key concern of mine. Though we have seen the proliferation of e-books from Jewish and mainstream publishers on Bookshare, Kindle and other distributors, getting digitally accessible prayer books has been a challenge that has often felt insurmountable. When advocating for alternate format production of printed materials, there are important considerations that must be sensitively navigated which go beyond the scope of this piece. Nevertheless, it is important for all of us to reflect upon the perception that many folks in the disability community have that our needs are simply lower priority, which can leave us feeling dispensable and unwanted in Jewish community.


Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest prophet is someone who had a speech impediment of some kind. In Shmot/Exodus 4, G-d tells Moshe that he will lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Moshe demurs, citing his speech impediment. Immediately, G-d responds with a rhetorical question—who created you? Was it not I, G-d? Did I not create you in my image just like every other human being? Here is your necessary accommodation—your brother, Aaron will serve as your spokesperson. Disability is a natural part of the human condition. I believe that the reason the Torah names specific groups of individuals in G-d’s reply—blind folks, deaf folks, folks with physical and speech disabilities—is because G-d understands that we often forget that we, too, are created in the image of G-d. Disability advocates have often pointed out that the world was not designed for us. And that is due to the choices that we humans make each and every day to prioritize some over others. In this time of turning inward, we are being given an unparalleled opportunity to make a course correction. I pray we take it.  G-d, through G-d’s retort to Moshe, reminds him and all of us that to build a mikdash—a sanctuary in which the Divine Presence can feel truly at home—we must structure our world so that we all can thrive as our best selves.


Many fear that once life returns to a semblance of normalcy, we will return to a world in which virtual offerings are fewer and not nearly as robust. What would it be like to use the gifts of this time—the gifts of out-of-the-box thinking and trying new things to shape a reality in which gatherings can exist in a variety of ways all at once? Let us remember and lift up the deep lived wisdom of the disability community for whom innovation has been the name of the game for generations. Let us learn from disability wisdom about emotional and spiritual resilience, being a problem-solver and creating community across geographic and spatial boundaries.


Ours is a tradition that revels in complexity and nuance. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the rabbis, who were, at best, a tiny minority realized that the world they once knew was no more, gone overnight. How were they to move forward and preserve our ancient, precious tradition? Their solution was to make Judaism portable through the compiling and codification of the Mishnah and Gemara which we call the Talmud. Yet, the rabbis never forgot the world they once knew. Entire tractates of Mishnah are devoted to studying temple sacrifices. Entire portions of traditional liturgy are devoted to daily study of temple rites. Even as a new paradigm occurs, the old is not forgotten. Similarly, in our time, even as we yearn to return to our synagogues, houses of study and community centers, even as we yearn to enjoy Shabbat meals with others, even as we wonder what Passover will feel like this year, may we not forget the gifts newfound communal access and ways of thinking give us.