Spiritual Response to Roe V. Wade

Spiritual Response to Roe V. Wade

This teaching appeared on the Inside Out Wisdom and Action (IOWA) blog. Spiritual Response To Roe V Wade

Starting From the Same Beginner’s Mind

This teaching appeared as part of Hot Off The Shtender, a series of teachings from SVARA fellows. Starting From The Same Beginner’s Mind

Torah From A Mussar Perspective Mishpatim

This piece originally was published as part of Torah From a Mussar Perspective in 5781/2021.


During this pandemic time, I have found myself frequently moving between periods of normal energy and periods of considerable fatigue. I note that the latter is not unexpected, given all that has occurred in our world and in my own life this past year. Yet, I yearn to emerge from this tiredness back to how I was pre-pandemic, knowing, ultimately that I, like all of us, have been forever changed by this experience. I am cognizant of the reality that to skillfully approach the coming months and years will require a new way of understanding ourselves in the world. The desire is ever-present to move forward as if we have not lived through unconscionable loss, upheaval, polarization, and strife. To do so, however, is not to allow ourselves to confront in our own experiences the traumas we have endured this year, hoping that by merely moving forward, all will be made right. This is a deeply human and understandable experience, one with which our ancient ancestors would have surely resonated. How do we move between worlds, between modes of being? How did our ancestors move from the degradation of slavery, through the redemption that came at the splitting of the Yam-Suf,[1] to receiving revelation on Har Sinai?[2] How is a formerly enslaved people supposed to integrate all of these experiences such that their and our enduring covenant with The Divine will lead to us leading lives of holiness?


Our parsha this week, Mishpatim is largely concerned with providing us the beginnings of an answer. We are given laws governing interpersonal disputes, property conflicts and so much more. It is one thing to stand as a collective at Sinai to receive the Torah in all of its richness. That, indeed, is another-worldly experience. It is another to come down the mountain, as it were, and begin to integrate that experience into the messy, complex, challenging reality of what it means to be human.


In Exodus/Shmot 23:1-2, we learn:


“You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty.” (JPS Translation).


We are to act truthfully and righteously in all of our interactions, being sure neither to perpetuate false and malicious rumors nor to side with those who act wrongly in service of their own power and prestige. We might understand the Torah’s command in a number of ways. Many of us are experiencing heightened tension with those in our “pods,” given that we have spent many months with just them. In a time, such as ours, when our bandwidth for disagreement and conflict is short, and when our external culture rewards polarization and strife in service of the ego and personal power, it is tempting to opt for falsehood and rumor over truth and messiness. Too many of us lack skillful means for managing emotional upheaval and personal conflict. I imagine that our ancestors who, for so long, lived lives lacking in personal agency, found themselves learning as they went how to establish what we would today call boundaries with others as a means of managing interpersonal conflict as they established themselves as a nation. Our rabbis teach that the Torah is eternally relevant, speaking to each generation in its own way. So, too, does the Torah speak in the language of human beings. Our Mussar practice encourages us to do daily cheshbon hanefesh, soul accounting, as a vehicle for encountering our own soul curriculum and areas for growth.


My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe of the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project,[3] which is a space for Jewish social changemakers to engage with Mussar practice as a means of building a deeply rooted spiritual practice to sustain them in their work, teaches often about the middah of savlanut, frequently but imperfectly translated as patience. In our Western cultural context, so consumed by the need for instant gratification, savlanut can feel unattainable. In a society so beset by systems of inequity and structural oppression, savlanut can ring hollow at best and feel deeply alienating at worst. Yet, Rabbi Jaffe reminds me that savlanut is, at its core, the capacity for us to respond with equanimity to conditions that arise which might elicit strong responses such as anger and frustration. Neither of these emotions are negative inherently—indeed, anger can be quite productive—and when accessed and utilized skillfully, can lead to much-needed change. When we find ourselves in conflict with another, be it interpersonally or politically, we can utilize a teaching from the Tomer Devorah, a classic Mussar text written in the Land of Israel in the 16th century. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, its author, notes that the Divine is not separate from us but indeed endures the insults, the trials and tribulations that we do. Nothing is hidden from G-d’s watch. There is not a single moment, Rabbi Cordovero teaches, in which a human being is not sustained by the flow of Divine abundance. When a human being uses this Divine sustaining power to commit a wrongdoing, G-d suffers along with the one who was wronged and bears the inequity of the transgression. Therefore, G-d yearns for human beings, as the Prophet Micah teaches, to do teshuvah.[4] The middah of savlanut, then, allows us to remain hopeful that true teshuvah is possible. Rabbi Cordovero reminds us that we must always keep our goodness flowing to the other, even and especially when we are not sure that the other will do teshuvah.


I readily admit that it can be hard to wrap our hearts around this in a time in which many feel so much wrongdoing is occurring with impunity. Indeed, our Mussar teachers emphasize that free will is bestowed to every human being by the Divine and that we are responsible for our choices and actions. When we find ourselves experiencing conflict with another, we might adopt a kabbalah[5] that derives from this source, a mantra of sorts. Here is an example:


Take your seat. Focus on your meditation anchor, be that the breath, sound, or something else. Call to mind the one with whom you are experiencing conflict. Repeat softly to yourself, “I keep my goodness flowing to you”. Keep repeating this phrase for five minutes or for however long you have. Notice what arises for you, physical sensations, emotions, feelings in the body.


I recommend anchoring your practice in a single interpersonal conflict at first. You might later expand this to send goodness out to those outside of your circle, to the world, etc. This practice is one I have found to be quite centering.


Our Torah reminds us to always act with truthfulness and equanimity. Let us extend that outward, so that as we change our own souls, we might impact those of others in our midst.




  • What is one conflict that I am experiencing presently? When I call that conflict to mind, how does it land with me?
  • How does the idea of being sustained by the Divine at all times, even amidst transgression, resonate with me? What might I draw from this idea?

[1] The Sea of Reeds

[2] Mount Sinai

[3] https://www.insideoutwisdomandaction.org/

[4] Return, or repentance.

[5] Mussar practice

Torah From A Mussar Perspective Shmot 5782

This commentary originally appeared as part of Torah From A Mussar Perspective from the Mussar Institute.


The Mussar tradition understands that we aren’t meant to simply read the parasha of the week but are instead invited to live deeply with and into it. This accords with the idea that the Torah speaks to every generation. Put another way, in Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag reminds us to “turn it, turn it, for everything is in it.”[1]


Shemot, the opening parasha of Sefer Shemot—”the book of names”—tells the story of the enslavement of the Children of Israel. A new Pharaoh ascends to the throne who knew not Yosef, the former Viceroy of Egypt and beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. The Children of Israel are subject to brutal, back-breaking forced labor. Ours is the beginning of a narrative of oppression and liberation that continues to reverberate throughout the world. It forms the core of our national story—we are reminded to recall the Exodus from Egypt twice a day in our prayers and particularly recount the story in all its detail at the Passover seder. During the hundreds of years of degradation and horror, there are some extraordinary incidents of moral courage or as we would refer to it in our Mussar work, ometz lev—strength of heart.


In her beautiful commentary to Parshat Shemot in The Mussar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Amy Eilberg[2] highlights in particular the moral courage of the Egyptian midwives, Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh issues a decree instructing all Israelite baby boys to be killed straight away, while baby girls are permitted to live. Shifra and Puah do not obey the decree and claim that the Jewish women who are laboring and giving birth do so quickly that the baby is already delivered by the time they arrive, making it impossible to act in accordance with Pharaoh’s evil proclamation. This is also why Yocheved, in another act of tremendous moral courage and with a level of Bitachon and Emunah that is unfathomable, places Moshe in a basket and sets it on the Nile River. Blessedly, Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, finds the basket and adopts Moshe as her own. Yet a third act of ometz lev by an incredibly righteous woman. Batya’s actions deserve even greater esteem given her social status and the incredible risk she no doubt took.


It is safe to say that no matter where you are in the world, these past few years have been immensely trying. The pandemic, political unrest, personal and familial hardship, professional upheaval, we’re all holding a lot. At times like this, I find it is easy to go in one of two directions. We can lean towards righteous anger and indignation, or we can disconnect and find ourselves in a comfortable complacency of apathy and lack of care.


Middah comes from the Hebrew for “measure,” a poignant reminder to us that middot are neither entirely bad nor entirely good. Rather, each middah has a spectrum. We can strengthen our hearts towards hardening them, as Pharaoh does many times throughout our sefer or we can strengthen our hearts towards “spiritual audacity,” in the words of the late Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. This latter approach is a supreme Jewish value and one that the Mussar tradition has long advocated.


At times, it can feel like the brokenness in the world is so tremendous that we simply don’t know how or where to begin. Worse still, we might feel so trapped in narratives we tell ourselves—that we’re not good enough, not deserving enough, not experienced enough to act. Perhaps we find ourselves entering a mindset of scarcity. If I give an inch, you’ll take a mile. Conversely, we might find ourselves leaning towards moral courage but find that we are so frustrated and filled with shame at the state of the world and the ways we may be participating in that that we feel emotionally dysregulated. Brene Brown, the noted sociologist and shame researcher speaks often about the difference between shame and guilt. When we feel guilt, we are aware that we have acted badly. Shame, by contrast, is an emotion that hits us at our very core and tells us, falsely of course, that we are inherently bad and undeserving of love and compassion.


I imagine that Shifra, Puah and Batya were deeply aware of the ways in which slavery morally stained their society. They could not just sit by. They had to risk it all to do what they could to effect change. The Torah memorializes their bravery and acts of justice for eternity to remind us that we have the power, each and every one of us, to act righteously and from our deeply rooted convictions. We’re not Shifra, Puah or Batya. Despite this, we all find ourselves in situations, large and small, when strengthening our hearts towards acting morally courageous is available to us. May our parasha inspire us to act with deep moral courage when we are called upon to do so.

[1] Avot 5:22

[2] Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  She serves as a spiritual director, peace and justice educator, and teacher of Mussar. Her current communal work includes leadership positions with Congregation Etz Chayim Anti-Racism Impact Team, Islamic Networks Group and Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom.


Changing Ourselves To Change The World

This essay first appeared in Chaver Up! 49 Rabbis Explore What It Means To Be an Ally Through a Modern Jewish Lens, edited by Rabbi
Sharon Kleinbaum and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.


One of the central motifs in the Pesach seder is our journey from degradation to praise, from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom. We are now b’midbar, in the wilderness, making our way to Sinai, to covenant and to radical collectivity. We were all at Sinai, every Jewish soul past, present and future, beyond the limitations of time and space to receive Torah. We heard the aleph in anochi—I—all together and separately in a way we could understand. This is why, as we learn repeatedly in rabbinic tradition, the Torah has seventy faces, infinite interpretive possibilities. G-d desires all of us to receive Torah, to be met by Torah and to be in relationship with these sacred instructions, all the while knowing that our relationships with that instruction—Torah in its broadest definition—are as varied as we are.

This sounds quite lofty and abstract—being met by The Devine? Radical relationship? How are we, how am I, supposed to live that out if I am someone who has been cast aside, wounded by that Torah that I am told is a Torat Chayyim—a life-giving Torah? In a world in which the examples of religious leaders misusing, abusing, and weaponizing Torah against those who are marginalized is legion and unfortunately always growing or so it seems, thinking about allyship as a spiritual practice rings hollow. Knowing just how profound alienation from religious community is for folks who have been and are now marginalized and knowing my own human limitations, how do I live out this aspirational practice authentically?


My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe in his book Changing the World from the Inside Out challenges us to encounter the self through deeply-rooted Jewish spiritual and ethical practice as a means of building a resilient inner core, which anchors us in a profoundly uncertain and destabilizing world. We cannot change the world, Rabbi Jaffe claims, if we aren’t working on internal change.

Too often, allyship becomes performative—a title we ascribe to ourselves and not a posture of profound humility we earn over time through authentic partnership, radical listening and embracing the notion, which is anathema in a Western cultural context utterly obsessed with knowledge gathering and action that we in fact don’t know everything. We have so much to learn from others we too often ignore because, though we may not admit this to ourselves, we fall into the trap of assuming that our educational attainments, or class, or our race, or our ability status allows us to have an objective view on what others need, those who are “less fortunate”. They don’t have all of the information they need to make impactful decisions for their lives and communities. Radical listening and accepting just how little we know allows us to turn this notion on its head. We are aware that we hold a piece of the tapestry of the human experience. We also know that ours is not the finishing piece of the puzzle. So much Torah has yet to be revealed to us. Or, perhaps, G-d is desperately trying to make known to us through encounters and events in our lives that Torah which we refuse to uncover because it shakes us, challenges us, asks us to let go of biases we may desperately wish we didn’t hold because we are good people after all. I believe that we have unfortunately ascribed a moral judgement to the inevitability of holding unconscious negative bias. We have all grown up in cultural contexts that had imbedded within them ideas about people of all sorts. Messaging that we receive is so subconscious that it takes years of conscious unlearning and relearning to rewire our neural pathways. Spiritual practice is not about the destination. Though we are heading towards a mountaintop moment, ours is a spirituality rooted in the sanctification of the everyday. As we unlearn, we re-learn. None of us is free of unconscious negative bias. Our task as spiritual practitioners are to deepen our inner awareness so that we show up with the most authenticity we can in our external reality.

I fear that we have become so focused on wokeness, on knowing the right language, reading the right books, hearing the right speakers that we are neglecting the reality that we are constantly a work in progress. G-d is infinite, we are finite. If we don’t allow ourselves to learn not merely to learn but also to put our learning into action, we will forever be caught in the self-defeating trap of fearing doing the wrong thing so much that we become frozen, unable to act at all.

With gentleness and compassion, Rabbi Jaffe invites us to explore our growing edges through Mussar and the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. A particularly impactful piece of his work for me is his teachings about bitachon—trust. There is no doubt that bitachon is a tough bridge to cross. Social change and good allyship is about action, about using my voice, my resources to stand alongside communities who are too often silenced. Isn’t bitachon a passive act? In fact, bitachon is precisely the opposite. Trusting that I hold what is mine to hold and that I am able to be in radical collaborative relationship with others allows me to remember, always, that I am part of that which is greater than myself. Allyship is not about the ego or escapism. Rather, it is about doing my own work through daily cheshbon hanefesh—soul accounting or another spiritual discipline so that I can show up most humbly in my external work. If my internal reality is consumed by a ceaseless need for self-gratification, I am stuck in an avdut consciousness. I have not made that journey as we are invited to during the seder from narrowness to expansiveness. I know both from personal experience and from the experiences of others that those who are not working on themselves but are seeking some external validation through allyship are some of the greatest impediments to meaningful social transformation. Human beings are not revolution objects, not canvases on which we thrust our baggage. If I am to be an ally in the deepest sense, I must never forget that I, being created in the Image of G-d am radically meeting another being created in G-d’s image, as inherently beloved as I am. Giving myself space to grow, to try something and not succeed, to learn from my mistakes allows the spiritual practice of allyship to be made that much more manifest. As the Psalmist teaches in Psalms 16:8, I keep the Divine before me, always. It is not upon me, as we learn in Perkei Avot to complete the work, but I am neither free to desist from it. Just as Shabbat is a container for the world as it should be, allowing us to taste a moment of redemption each week, so, too, is allyship a sacred container, allowing us to radically encounter the other and the self, remembering, always, that we are all interconnected one with another.


Coming Close To God: A Reflection on Pesachim 98

A version of this piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s daf yomi page of the day Talmud project.


On today’s daf, the Talmud is deep in the weeds of a continuing discussion about when, how and by whom the Passover sacrifice must be brought. What happens if a person purchases a variety of animals designated for sacrifices, but can’t remember which animal was designated for which sacrifice? We learn in a Mishnah the following:

“In the case of a Paschal lamb that was intermingled with other offerings, such as guilt-offerings and burnt-offerings, and it is not known which animal was separated for which offering, all of them are left to graze until they develop a blemish and become unfit; and they are then sold, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this type of sacrifice, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this other type of sacrifice, meaning that he must purchase one of each type of sacrifice that was intermingled at the value of the most expensive animal in the group. And he loses the difference from his own pocket. Not all the offerings were as expensive as the most valuable animal in the group, yet he must purchase an animal for each type of offering for the value of the most expensive animal in the group.”

Written centuries after the destruction of the Temple, which was the focal point for animal sacrifice, the rabbis in our Mishnah and the Gemara which follows it are very committed to understanding and living out, in a limited fashion, the sacrificial system. Why? To this day in traditional daily morning liturgy, one can find a series of Biblical and Talmudic references to the sacrifices offered daily and on holidays. Though none of us are making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, we learn and study the sacrifices and their surrounding laws as a remembrance of what once was. For those of us who are quite happy that prayer has entirely replaced sacrifice, the idea of studying the sacrificial system in any fashion may disturb or make us uncomfortable. Wasn’t the entire point of the Talmud that the rabbis wanted to radically remake and reshape Torah law for an entirely new, portable, diasporic context, decentering the Temple entirely? And what are we to make of the passage which immediately follows our Mishnah?

“If a Paschal lamb was intermingled with firstborn animals, Rabbi Shimon says: If those whose offerings became mixed together were groups of priests, they may eat all of the animals on Passover night. This is because priests are permitted to eat the meat of a firstborn animal, and the slaughter and other services for a firstborn animal are the same as those for a Paschal lamb. The attending priests should state that they intend to sacrifice as a Paschal lamb whichever animal is the Paschal lamb and to sacrifice as a firstborn animal whichever animal is a firstborn.”

The rabbis here are quite careful to make determinations about how to designate and consume various mixed or intermingled animal sacrifices. Though there is not a consensus on this point—Rabbi Shimon disagrees with the Gemara’s reasoning—it is clear that the rabbis are taking great pains to preserve the memory of a system which, though not present for them in any sense, would one day be restored.

At the end of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, there is a personal meditation which concludes traditionally with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Third Temple, speedily and in our days. There we will offer the sacrifices as of old and in ancient days.

The rabbis of the Talmud were living during a profoundly liminal moment in Jewish history. The trauma of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of the religious life that pulsed throughout it was still fresh. Yet, the desire remained strong to retain what they could and remake tradition so that it would endure. How blessed we are to be heirs of their genius. As the rabbis embraced a new way of being and doing Jewish, which we today call Rabbinic Judaism, they were careful not to erase the old.

We, too, are living at a time of tremendous global and communal change. COVID has forced us to ask questions we may never have imagined. Can ten Jews constitute a minyan on Zoom? What about fulfilling mitzvot like hearing the Megillah on Purim which we just observed yesterday? What will remain with us when we return, bimheirah b’yameinu—speedily and in our days—to in-person Jewish life and what will be dropped? What might we study and preserve for future generations? Are their pieces of how we used to pray and practice that may never return?

As we continue to navigate our new normal, remembering and studying the old as we embrace the new, may we take inspiration from our rabbis’ careful study, explication and questioning of what was and is no longer.

The Importance of Hallel on Passover A Reflection on Pesachim 95

This piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi page of the day Talmud project.


Today’s daf opens with a Mishnah. “MISHNA: What is the difference between the Paschal lamb offered on the first Pesaḥ and the Paschal lamb offered on the second Pesaḥ? On the first Pesaḥ, at the time of slaughtering the Paschal lamb, it is prohibited to own leavened bread due to the prohibitions: It shall not be seen, and: It shall not be found. And on the second Pesaḥ it is permissible for one to have both leavened bread and matza with him in the house. Another difference is that the Paschal lamb offered on the first Pesaḥ requires the recitation of hallel as it is eaten and the second does not require the recitation of hallel as it is eaten. However, they are the same in that the Paschal lambs sacrificed on both the first and second Pesaḥ require the recitation of hallel as they are prepared, i.e., as they are slaughtered, and they are both eaten roasted with matza and bitter herbs, and they override Shabbat in that they may be slaughtered, and their blood sprinkled even on Shabbat.”

This Mishnah outlines the differences between the Paskal offering that is brought for the first Pesach E.G., on the 14th of Nissan and the second Pesach a month later on the 14th of Iyyar. We’ve discussed Pesach Sheni or second Passover on previous dapim. Pesach Sheni is, today, a minor holiday but was initially instituted in the Book of Numbers as a means for men who were not ritually able to bring the Paskal sacrifice at its proper time the opportunity to do so. Today, some have the custom to eat matza in honor of the day and to refrain from saying Tachanun, which are supplicatory prayers found in the Shacharit (morning) and Mincha (afternoon) weekday services. There has also been a process of making the day more spiritually meaningful, by talking about the importance of second chances. Missing the opportunity to bring the Paskal sacrifice does not mean that a person cannot bring it a month later.


Amongst the similarities and differences between these two offerings the Mishnah outlines is that while both sacrifices require the recitation of Hallel—Psalms of praise—as they are being slaughtered, one only recites Hallel while eating if one brought the Paskal sacrifice in Nissan. To this day, we recite Hallel at the seder. Part of it is recited prior to the meal and the majority of it is recited after the Birkat HaMazon, blessing after the meal.

Hallel is one of my favorite Jewish liturgical and ritual moments. During this pandemic year, when communal singing became impossible and gathering at all incredibly hard, I have reminisced fondly about the many holidays I have spent in Jewish spaces that had a deep and abiding love for communal singing. Hallel was the absolute pinnacle of that. The root for the word Hallel relates to praise, though the Psalms that make up Hallel—Psalms 113-118—actually incapsulate a wide human emotional spectrum.


In previous years, I’d often quickly gloss over those parts of Hallel that hit a more somber tone. This year, however, they have come alive for me in a very deeply resonant way. Thinking about what it must have been like, experientially, to say Hallel as one was consuming their Paskal sacrifice, as part of the larger project of reliving the liberation that came through the Exodus from Egypt inspires me to enter the emotional complexity Hallel affords me in a more authentic way. Liberation came for B’nai Yisrael when we left Egypt, yes, but we also then had to learn how to be in the world as free people, receiving a covenant that bound us to The Divine and one another. No sooner do we leave Egypt, in fact, than we begin to lose faith that that choice was a wise one. The spiritual life is not merely about the joys and transcendent moments. For me, it is as much about the sorrows, sadness and rawness of being human. Perhaps that is why the rabbis instituted the recitation of Hallel twice for the first Pesach but only once for the 2nd. Those bringing the second Pesach already endured a sense of spiritual separation, making their praise even sweeter.

Vayetze 5781 — The Humanity Of Our Ancestors

There’s something so richly rewarding about returning again and again to our foundational stories in sefer Bereshit year after year. As we learn in Perkei Avot, often translated imprecisely as ethics of our fathers, turn it turn it, for everything is in it. I approach Torah year after year with the intuitive sense that something new will emerge—Torah will reveal herself to me in an entirely new way this year. My experiences, like Torah, therefore, can never be static. The inner life of the spiritual seeker is one of profound self-inquiry, uncovering layers of our past and present experiences as if we were pulling back the endless layers of an onion.

These twelve weeks of inhabiting and immersing ourselves in the profundity, tragedy, trial and triumph of sefer Bereshit are weeks of such richness that determining how one ought to focus one’s Torah teaching is an exercise in self-limitation. Though we divide the Torah into 54 parshiyot designed to be read over the course of a calendar year, the narrative flow and contiguity between parshiyot, particularly in Sefer Bereshit is something we must not lose awareness of.

We were introduced to Yaakov Avinu, our third and final patriarch last week in parashat Toldot when we learn that he emerged into the world grasping the heel of his older brother, Esav. We later learn that Yaakov was a simple man, a tent-dweller, perhaps in our pandemic time we might call him a natural introvert or homebody. By contrast, Esav is a man of the outdoors, someone who loves to hunt. Their relationship was a rocky one from the get-go—perhaps our Torah is hinting at discord when it presents us with contrasting profiles of the two brothers, just as it will contrast two sisters in our parsha this week. This discord comes to a head at the end of parashat Toldot following Yaakov’s stealing of Esav’s blessing through an act of deception orchestrated by Rivka. Numerous commentators, contemporary and historical alike have offered insights into Rivka’s decision-making process, Yaakov’s choice to go along with it despite initial misgivings and Yitzchak’s reaction—did he know what was going on or didn’t he?

What interests me most of all is something deeper and yet more profound. Ours is a tradition that does not shy away from the hard, messy reality of human life. How many of us find ourselves part of deeply flawed, profoundly imperfect and truly, deeply human family structures? Our Torah records these foundational ancestral narratives, and we return to them year after year because we know in our bones that they are just as human as we are, and we are no less human than they were. Our western conception of religion seems to tell us that religious figures whom we revere and look up to, in one fashion or another, must by their very nature and designation as holy be without flaw. By contrast, our Jewish tradition argues the opposite. Our humanity in all of its messy, complex and contradictory reality has existed from the very beginning and we will continue to contain multitudes far into the future. Our Torah, speaking to us in every generation and throughout time and space records these foundational narratives because they have the power to reveal so much about ourselves. It is easy, perhaps, to look at Rivka’s orchestration of a tremendous act of willful deception and respond assuredly that G-d-forbid, we would never act so crassly. If we hold to the idea that progress is inherently linear, a notion deeply popular in the west, then it is easy to look at an ancient, far-removed text, read this episode and dismiss it outrightly as a relic from a bygone era. Our Torah cautions against this smugness and asks us to look deeply within and engage in some soul-accounting or cheshbon nefesh. When have we acted deceptively, deliberately or accidentally? Have we made choices that resulted in someone feeling stripped of their human dignity or agency? What were the underlying conditions, physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional that lead us to that point?

Our Torah also demonstrates to us repeatedly that our decisions and actions have consequences, consequences which can last for generations. In our parsha this week, Laban, Yaakov’s uncle and the father of Leah and Rachel engages in an act of deception which mirrors in some important respects that which Yaakov and Rivka perpetrated against Yitzchak when he reverses the marriage order. Yaakov awakes after what he believes to have been his wedding to his beloved Rachel only to discover that he had married and spent the night with Leah, the elder sister, whom our Torah contrasts with Rachel by describing her eyes as being dim, weak, not as beautiful. Though Yaakov does marry Rachel, he is never settled. His father-in-law, Laban, mistreats him, changing his wages many times. Rachel and Leah’s relationship is a challenged one and Leah, knowing in her very soul that Yaakov’s affections are squarely with her sister is left seeking, yearning for that which remains distant from her.

Leah, often seen, unfortunately in my view, as the least consequential of our matriarchs offers us a glimpse into the complex but all-too-real reality that so many experience of being made to feel like an outcast in their own families. From the very depths of what I can only surmise was unspeakable grief and pain, upon the birth of her fourth son, Yehudah, Leah says she will now thank Hashem and names Yehudah thusly. We am Yisrael, the Jewish people, carry that sense of gratitude, of hoda’ah because of Leah’s expression of pure gratitude. And we know that that gratitude does not erase the pain, the injustice, the unfairness of it all. Oh, do I wish the circumstances of Leah’s life had been dramatically different. And indeed, how might Yaakov’s life have been different had he not engaged in willful deception? Furthermore, how would Yitzchak’s life have been different had the Akeida—the near-sacrifice—not taken place? One can only imagine the permanent psychological imprint of that trauma.

When we revisit these narratives year after year, we are asked not merely to immerse ourselves wholly in what we might comfortably describe as the dysfunctional lives and family structures of our ancestors. We are also asked to immerse wholly in the stories of our own lives. What an opportunity our Torah presents us with if we choose to accept it. It is certainly not easy but toiling in Torah is never meant to be simple, straightforward, without struggle. May Torah continue to reveal herself in all of her beauty, uniqueness and profundity to each of us, individually and collectively.

Bereshit 5781

After a Tishrei like no other, here we are, beginning our Torah anew, just as we do every year. Bereshit, like all of the parshiyot in Genesis is filled with foundational ideas and narratives. In the opening perek/chapter, we are told that human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine. This seemingly simple idea has been understood by our sages and commentators in a variety of ways. One chief idea is that being created in the image of The Divine means that we are each endowed by Hashem with inherent dignity, value and worth, without regard to external markers of human-fashioned social hierarchies, oppressive systems and biases. No human being is created any more or any less in The Divine image. We all have within us a spark of The Divine, a spark which cannot be sullied, but yet, we also were given free will and the ability to choose whether to reveal that holy spark or conceal it. We reveal and make manifest in the world that holy spark through our interpersonal interactions, through how we treat our planet, and generally through how we choose to show up in our lives. Do we treat people with dignity and honor? Do we strive to build a better and more just world, a world in which we all can thrive? Or do we choose to conceal that spark? One cannot consume news media without hearing, seeing, or reading about the utter failure of humanity to live up to the best of who we can be.

I feel such gratitude to be a part of a spiritual tradition and lineage which does not seek to claim that human beings are perfect or above reproach. Indeed, our Holy Torah shows us repeatedly in Sefer Bereshit/the Book of Genesis and beyond that we contain multitudes—we are capable of great goodness and great evil. We return to our Torah’s narratives again and again because in every generation, they speak to us anew. The times in which we live grant us the opportunity to unearth novel insights into eternal, ancient texts.

I was drawn this year to the end of our parsha in particular. Ten Generations have elapsed between Adam, Chava and Noach. Hashem is growing increasingly frustrated with human behavior, noting that humans are wont to behave violently and lawlessly all of the time. In a collection of Agadic Midrash or narrative midrash, which are rabbinic expansions and interpretations of Biblical texts called Bereshit Raba, we are told that ours was not the first world Hashem created. Disappointed with the many other worlds created before our own, Hashem found it necessary to start over. And here again, Hashem’s disappointment is manifold. Regretting that humanity was ever created leads Hashem to bring about a totalizing flood, saving only Noach, his family and myriads of animal species of all kinds. Sometimes, change is so great, disappointment so deep that we cannot but destroy the very foundational structures that form the building blocks of how we understand our lives and the universe. We don’t like chaos, striving always for binary categorization. Our frustration, too, can cause us to lash out, destroying anyone or anything in the line of our fire.

Many of us are grappling with feelings of profound frustration, disappointment in our fellow human beings, disconnection, rage and even disgust during these days of pandemic, anxiety and unrest. That disappointment can lead us to feelings of unending despair, apathy and disaffection. In a time of tremendous change, how are we to find our footing? At a time of such a profoundly necessary societal reckoning, not to mention myriads of interpersonal reckonings and shifts in priorities, it feels for many of us like we are at a turning point, and it is time for the world to be reborn and remade a new. How do we breathe and build that world into being? Though we may resonate with Hashem’s disappointment, we must also remember that after the flood, Hashem promises, in a covenant with all of humanity, never to destroy the world like that again. We return, then, to our first teaching. That holy spark of The Divine, when revealed into the world, allows us to make manifest the absolute best of who we can be. What would it feel like to live in a world where all beings could thrive without fear? Let us take this anxious time as an opportunity to actualize our deepest desires for a better world through action and spiritual practice rooted in our traditions and rooted in resilience.

Bahaalotekha 5780

Our parsha or Torah portion this week is parashat Bahaalotekha, the third parsha in Sefer Bamidbar or the book of Numbers. We are introduced to Pesach Sheni or Second Passover in this parsha, which was instituted upon request of some Israelites who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at its official or fixed time—on the 14th of Nisan at twilight. The stated reason was on account of them being what is called Tumaat Meit in Hebrew or imperfectly translated, ritually impure due to recent contact with a corpse. Their ritual status made it impossible for them to offer the Passover sacrifice in Nisan, but all was not lost. A month later, on the 14th of Iyyar, they were able to offer the Passover sacrifice. Today, when we no longer offer sacrifices, Pesach Sheni has been understood in a variety of ways.

In some Chasidic thought, Pesach Sheni has come to represent the idea of spiritual second chances. Teshuvah, or turning and returning is a practice that is available to us all year long, not only on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach Sheni is another opportunity for us to right what has been wrong, to return to a better path, to have an opportunity to make up something we may have missed. It has become customary in some communities to hold a model seder on Pesach Sheni—indeed, I had the joy of participating in one myself this year—following the structure but of course omitting all of the elements that are only applicable on Pesach itself. Some folks also will eat a bit of matza. Because Pesach Sheni falls during the Omer period, which traditionally is a period of semi-mourning, it also allows for a bit of a celebratory respite.

The Torah states that those who may offer the Passover sacrifice on Pesach Sheni also include those who were on a long journey in Nisan and unable to make the sacrifice. This notion of being on a long journey has also been transformed and made into something of a metaphor.

Much ink has been spilled regarding this challenging and difficult time on a local, national and global scale. Many of us feel as though we have been on a journey whose beginning we barely remember and whose end we cannot imagine. The raw, visceral, unavoidable and inescapable truths of the foundation of America which black, indigenous folks and other people of color have known intimately for centuries are finally, or so it seems, being seen by more white folks than ever before. Many are cautiously optimistic, noting that something about this moment is different but worried that this will not last, as far too many past experiences have amply demonstrated.  We are collectively journeying but importantly, we are each also on an intensely individual journey. In this time of national and global reckoning, it is our responsibility to continue on our inward journeys because without an honest and often times difficult soul-accounting, we cannot show up as our full and authentic selves in the work externally which urgently needs doing and needs all of us. We each have an important role to play. This is a long haul, a marathon and not a sprint. We may feel shame in this moment, realizing that we in fact have had many chances to choose to do and act differently and we did not avail ourselves of those opportunities.

Pesach Sheni was instituted so that those who were far away could make the sacrifice. Our Torah understands that even with one’s best efforts to get it done on time, some folks are not able to. There is something important also about this opportunity for a do-over only for Pesach, not for any other holiday. Pesach is a foundational event for the Jewish people, as we journeyed out of slavery and into freedom or, as the Haggadah also describes, from degradation to praise. Sefer Shemot/the book of Exodus notes that we cried out because of our oppression. Our cries were finally heard, but after many centuries of enslavement, degradation and loss of dignity and autonomy.

And in our own day, our siblings cry out for justice, for life, for breath after too many centuries of injustice. We have had many opportunities. Many of us have been close, proximate and others have not been. Hashem knows our innermost thoughts, yearnings and feelings of shame. It is never too late to do important work, our parsha is teaching us. If not now, as Hillel taught, when? May our journeys guide us to committing to make this world a true dwelling place for the Divine Presence/Shechinah. May we co-create a world of beauty and abundance, where all may thrive and feel utterly at home in their bodies.