A Community of Leaders: What I Learned from Ner Tamid about Communal Responsibility and Cultivating Engagement

This d’var torah was delivered at Temple Ner Tamid on Shabbat Shekalim, Parashat Mishpatim, February 9, 2018.

When David Katowitz reached out to invite me to speak tonight, he told me that Steve’s only guideline regarding a topic was that he wanted speakers’ comments to be  “not so much about me.” So, in deference to Steve’s wishes, I’m not going to talk about him. I’m going to talk about the Ner Tamid community.

I grew up at this congregation. This is not a statement about being a member of the community during my childhood years. This community played a major role in my formation. I spent a significant percentage of my childhood in this building.

I first expressed an interest in becoming a rabbi when I was fifteen, but in reality, it had been gestating for some time. When I was about eleven, my dad started bringing me to the Saturday morning casual minyan. Together in the synagogue library (which used to be much smaller back in my day), a group of adult learners – among them Dan Herman, Belinda Plutz, Arlene Linetsky, and Lanny Katz – would gather each week for a brief Shabbat service wrapped around an engaging hour-long Torah discussion. It was inspiring for me to see adults wrestle with the text – finding points of connection with contemporary society and life experiences, as well as voicing strong disagreements when applicable. Their examples helped teach me that there was space in our Jewish tradition for lots of different interpretations and perspectives – even an 11-year-old’s. The recognition and respect with which I and my thoughts were welcomed into the conversation was the starting point of my relationship with Jewish text. As a rabbi, I aim to bring people into a rich conversation with the text and tradition. I learned that here.

In Ner Tamid’s religious school, I learned the liturgy. But not only that, I learned to feel connected to the ideas expressed within it. At age eight I was already memorizing the words of the prayerbook, paraphrasing Mishnah Peah: “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure: to honor father and mother, to perform acts of lovingkindness, to attend the house of study daily, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to rejoice with bride and groom, to console the bereaved, to pray with sincerity, to make peace when there is strife – and the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.” What a message! These acts of chesed, this life, joyously lived – these are some of the most important things a person should do in this life – and this, too, is an expression of the values of Torah!

After I became bar mitzvah, I continued in my religious school education. In ninth grade, in Barbara Sack’s class, I made the tallit that I wear today. The connection I have with it is far deeper because of my personal role in its creation. When I teach today, the value of experiential education is always at the front of my mind, as is the importance of making long-lasting connections to ritual.

When I entered high school, Joanna Rich welcomed me warmly into the synagogue’s youth group. I quickly found my way into SNoTTY leadership – that’s Senior Ner Tamid Temple Youth – spending three years as the religious and cultural vice president of the Ner Tamid youth group. In this role, I began to engage in the process of designing creative services – which helped me begin to think about how to operate creatively within the structure of a service.

As the son of Bob Adler, someone who probably spent as many waking hours each week at the synagogue as he did at home, I think I saw Ernest and Armando as often as I saw my high school teachers – and I probably talked to them more than I talked to my teachers.

In the rabbinic era, the early rabbis were often judged by z’chut avot – the merit of their ancestors. Although some rabbis, including the great rabbi Akiva, were great in spite of, or perhaps because of their humble beginnings, there is a strong tradition throughout Jewish history of rabbinic dynasties – long lines of rabbis.

But I don’t come from a line of rabbis – I come from a line of devoted lay-leaders – people who make commitments to their communities. People who opt in.

I know what commitment looks like – and as I’ve been interviewing with congregations over the past month, I’ve had a keen eye for communities with a strong lay leadership. Growing up at Ner Tamid has given me a higher standard for quality and commitment.

There’s a major worry about the future of progressive Jewish communities – that once the obligation to follow the halachah, or traditional Jewish practice, has been removed, the sense of obligation, or responsibility, to the community will also be lost. And it’s not only in Jewish communities. Robert Putnam has written about our society’s shift away from rooted communities in his books Bowling Alone and American Grace. The thesis of Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is that though secularization has overall been good for non-believers, it has also led to the loss of important factors that religious communities offer to members, and aims to emulate the positive features of religious communities in a secular context. It is easy for me to see the absence of a sense of communal responsibility because I grew up in a spiritual home that was always filled with examples of it.

In my rabbinate, I’ve lately been emphasizing the importance of learning the communal response to the Mourner’s Kaddish. It’s one of the things I focus on teaching b’nai mitzvah students. I truly believe that the most important part of becoming bar or bat mitzvah is not being called to the Torah for the first time. It’s being recognized as a member of a minyan – and the responsibility to show up for the community in times of need. To me, it’s less important that a student has memorized X number of prayers than whether that student feels like they have a place – that their presence adds something essential to their Jewish community.

I grew up in this congregation in the early years after the Reform movement changed its policy, moving to recognize patrilineal Jews – the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother – as full members of the Reform community. Of course, we know that changing a policy is only one step towards changing the environment. It speaks very well of the congregation that though I grew up during this time, it wasn’t until I was almost sixteen that I became aware that some people might have an issue with recognizing me as Jewish.

This, to me, is the sign of a great congregation. Good policy is only impactful if it is well-implemented. I am about to graduate from the Reconstructionist movement, a small movement known for leading the way in making major innovations in our American Jewish society, based on a deeply rooted philosophy and progressive approach. But people don’t join Reconstructionist congregations because they’re well-versed on Jewish peoplehood, or because they appreciate the democratic nature of Reconstructionist communal governance, or because they want to read everything that Mordecai Kaplan ever wrote. In fact, I recently taught an adult ed course at my Reconstructionist congregation on Recon 101. People don’t join a synagogue simply because they agree with the theology or the educational philosophy. They join because of how the policies are put into action; because the community makes them feel welcome and let’s them know that they belong.

This Shabbat on the Jewish calendar is known as Shabbat Shekalim, the first of four specially themed Shabbatot. It served as a reminder of the approaching census, at which time each Israelite was expected to bring a half shekel to contribute to the upkeep of the Temple. Everyone, no matter their financial means, was required to make the same small contribution each year. Of course, the people were welcome to make additional free will offerings, as their hearts were called.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to talk to you about dues or a fundraising campaign – although I do think that there is a relationship. One of the members of my congregation in Allentown has belonged to the synagogue since he was in college. He told me the story about how the previous rabbi of the congregation encouraged him to join. The amount wasn’t important, she said – $50 a semester. What was important, she said, was that he felt that he had an investment in the future of the community. Now, nearly fifteen years later, he tells this story to the people he trains to fundraise for the LGBT Center he founded in Allentown. A sense of responsibility for the future of the community led to a commitment to stay and work to improve the resources in his adopted city. And despite the massive time commitment necessary to build something new, he still makes the time to stay involved in his congregation – because it means something to him.

Volunteering your time is itself a free will offering – a major one. It’s an act of love and investment. Not only for lay leaders, but for their families as well. Trust me.

My parents always want to give me updates about so-and-so from the synagogue board, and I always have to tell them – I don’t know who that is! But I know that they’ve got to be good! And have a strong sense of commitment! To me, it’s a major strength of the congregation that there is a successful process for identifying and developing future lay leadership and preventing burnout.

With all of this leadership development, and high retention of former leaders, what you end up with at Ner Tamid is a community of leaders. At times it can be intimidating or overwhelming – when so many people can tell you exactly what you need to do in a given situation. But the thing is, they’re usually right. And they’re willing to give you advice not because they think they have the right answer, but because they care. They’re invested in the success of the community as a whole. They’re passionate about the causes that matter them. At a time when apathy towards religion is increasing, when an increasing number of young people are identifying as spiritual “nones,” there’s something refreshing about a community that cares.

When I interview with congregations, I always ask, “what’s the experience or interaction that, to you, exemplifies the congregation in a nutshell?” And the answers rarely involve the rabbi. It’s the time when a dozen community members drove 45 minutes to pay a shiva call. It’s the fellow congregant, who you’ve never met before, who shows up at your house the week after you give birth to twins, with a homemade dinner and an offer to sit with the babies for a couple of hours so you can get some SLEEP.

For me, it’s the shiva minyan the night after my grandfather’s funeral. Papa died in mid-June, and so we made a plan to gather outside, in my family’s backyard. But as we were preparing to begin the service, it started to pour – a heavy summer rain that drenched everyone present. We all raced into the house – I think there had to have been at least fifty of us (my dad thinks it was closer to a hundred – the truth is probably somewhere in between). We pushed back the furniture in the main room of the house and all sat together on the floor. Being in a room packed full of wet, happy people, gathered together to support my family – out of the deep sense of love that they felt for us – has been one of the most deeply spiritual experiences of my life.

Of course, in saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that rabbis are irrelevant. Chas v’shalom! God forbid! In spite of my desire to subvert hierarchical expectations of rabbinic authority, I still believe that rabbis have an essential role to play in Jewish communities. Otherwise, I’ve just wasted a lot of money and six years of my life! Rabbis have an enormous influence on the communities they serve – though not always as much as they think – and a responsibility to guide and support their communities during times of transition. Rabbis are equipped to do this by virtue of what Liam Neeson would refer to as “a particular set of skills.” We learn Torah and Jewish tradition so that we can translate and demystify them for our congregations, ensuring that Judaism continues to be relevant to Jews. We are trained to provide pastoral support for congregants during hard times. We cultivate a prophetic moral voice to speak on important contemporary issues from a spiritual, ethical, and religious perspective.

We are given a great example of the rabbi’s responsibility in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, where Moses is instructed that he – and he alone – will be allowed to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He is the community’s representative. He has long been their advocate, so, now, it will be his responsibility to bring knowledge and instruction down from the mountain top.

So, I have to admit – I lied (chest thump). I can’t talk about the influence of this community without talking about the influence of Rabbi Steven Kushner.

Sitting in this sanctuary during my formative years – usually right there – I learned from Steve how to deliver a dvar torah. How to structure my message for maximum impact. The importance of balancing intellectual content with emotional resonance. The power of a well-placed pop culture reference.

I still lay out my divrei torah the way that Steve taught me when I was a teenager – pick a font that you can read easily, make it large enough to read from a distance. Single-sided, non-stapled, large page numbers. Roughly a minute per page.

Steve’s attention to detail and appreciation of aesthetics taught me how even the look of a prayerbook can augment the prayer experience. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked for Steve to learn how to pick the right kippah for a bald head.

I don’t want to say that my relationship with Steve has always been perfect. I wasn’t always the most focused student in confirmation class – although if I was playing games on my Palm Pilot, it was only because he had just sent them to me.

We have had disagreements – I remember one in particular that I won’t describe in detail, except to say that looking back, I was right about the first part, but he was right about the second part. But, speaking in my own defense – I was eighteen.

How could I not talk about Steve? He has been one of the greatest influences on my decision to pursue the rabbinate.  When I first decided that I wanted to become a rabbi, he was the only rabbi I had really known. Until I was in my senior year of college, I didn’t have a close relationship with any other rabbi. He was my first, and most significant, role model for the rabbinate.

So it is my great honor to be here tonight with this sacred community, honoring Steve’s many contributions to this congregation, and all of your contributions to my rabbinic future.

Shabbat shalom.


The “December Dilemma,” or, Fear of a Dominant Culture

This d’var torah was delivered at Congregation Am Haskalah on Shabbat Vayishlach, December 1, 2017.

When I was growing up, one of the major conversations in the Jewish world revolved around the “December Dilemma” – the question of how interfaith parents would
handle the holidays of Chanukah and Christmas. At the time, the common wisdom was that raising a child with two religious traditions was ‘confusing.’ So my interfaith
family stopped celebrating Christmas in our house.

We would still drive up to my great-aunt’s house in Connecticut on Christmas Day. And there were Christmas traditions that remained special in our household. My
mom would always hang up holiday lights, and in the weeks before Christmas, ribbon candy – a childhood Christmas treat – would always show up in our house.
When I was beginning my rabbinical studies and feeling slightly left behind because of my background, it was a point of pride that I was the only person present with
enough experience to help my classmate, the child of rabbis, string lights in her sukkah.

My son, Daniel, turned three last week, and he’s at an age now where he is beginning to ask questions about the world. Since Thanksgiving, he’s been noticing with awe the
Christmas decorations popping up all over. He’s excited to point out “Santa!” when he recognizes the guy in the red and white suit. On Wednesday, as I was walking him to
school, he pointed to a large ornate wreath and said, “look at this big circle, Jake!” (His calling me by my first name is a different story)

In spite of my upbringing, that deeply ingrained Jewish fear of assimilation, of being seduced by the allure of the dominant culture, persists. I still feel anxious at times when Daniel comes home from his (progressive, wonderful) Christian school singing songs about baby Jesus that he is learning for his Christmas pageant. But I also know that he loves to sing Hinei Mah Tov and Modeh Ani. He has enough positive associations with Judaism that as he grows up and celebrates Christmas with his friends and family, I hope that he won’t feel left out.

One of our important decisions as parents was not to give Chanukah gifts. We know that Chanukah can’t – and shouldn’t – compete with Christmas.  There is something wondrous about the festivity of the “Christmas season.” And though it can often be frustrating – I have an intense memory of sitting in Penn Station on January 3, wondering when they were going to stop playing Christmas music  – there’s still something beautiful, and transcendent, in the messages of the season – themes of love, hope, appreciation, and family.

We drive up to Ottawa each year at Christmas to spend the week with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and nephews. It’s wonderful for Daniel to have a week of uninterrupted time with his cousins, especially given the distance. And we celebrate Christmas together.

When our children receive Christmas gifts, they each receive one big present from Santa. But they receive many more from family and friends. The emphasis is not on what they have received, but the loving support of people who care deeply about them.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are extremely rational people – scientists. Non-religious atheists. And yet, they love their Christmas traditions – movies, music, food. In the tradition of JRR Tolkien, and in keeping with a tradition from my brother-in-law’s family, my nephews receive a long letter each year from Father Christmas. My wife, Jill, grew up in a secular home and loves being Jewish – but she still loves Christmas music – especially the really religious songs. And the appreciation of traditions is not a one way street. My nephews know the Shabbat blessings, and love to light candles and play dreidel.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to encounter his brother Esau for the first time in years. Jacob had seriously wronged Esau twice during their
youth – first by selling Esau a bowl of stew at the cost of his birthright and secondly, by disguising himself as Esau to receive their dying father’s blessing. As the camps come closer, Jacob is rightfully afraid. Esau is approaching with 400 men.

As Jacob approaches Esau, Esau runs towards Jacob – and hugs him. Esau and Jacob have both grown enough to see each other as peers, to respect each other as individuals, to appreciate their differences. In spite of their youthful clashes, Esau holds no bitterness towards Jacob. He has his own future, his own gifts, his own people, the Edomites.

In the Talmud, Edom is the codename used by the rabbis to describe the excesses and abuses of the Roman Empire. You would think that it would be confusing, given that
there actually was a land of Edom, southeast of the Judean kingdom. By the rabbi’s time, though, there was no people called the Edomites. The Hasmonean high priest Yochanan Hyrkanos, Judah Maccabee’s nephew, had conquered the land and forcibly converted the people to Judaism. What a terrible irony that within a generation, the zealots who fought so fiercely against assimilation turned around and used the power they had acquired to force others to assimilate. The rebellion against empire quickly became an imitation of empire.

Today in America, Chanukah is a story of anti-assimilation that has been reduced to imitation. It is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar whose importance has been puffed up so that Jewish kids don’t feel left out of the December celebrations and good cheer. Its major symbols – dreidel, sufganiyot, latkes – are all borrowed from European cultures. And they are still beautiful.

As Reconstructionists, we recognize that Judaism has always been evolving – always influencing and being influenced by neighboring cultures. We recognize that the problem with a dominant culture has never been the culture – it’s the domination that’s the problem. We know and trust that, secure in our own traditions, faiths, and communities, we can recognize the beauty of other traditions and be influenced by them, while holding fast to our own beliefs and identities.

Eulogy for Kurt Grishman, 1919-2017

My name is Jake Adler. Kurt Grishman was my great-uncle, the older brother of my grandmother, Leoni Adler. Kurt and Leoni were particularly close, so our extended family spent plenty of time together while I was growing up. I have fond memories of holidays spent together in Bethesda, and many visits to Hyde Park and Rhinebeck.

As I said at Lore’s funeral, she and Kurt were the great comedic duo of my childhood: she was the slightly scatter-brained, carefree pixie with joie de vivre to spare, and he was the exasperated grump.

Kurt came by his grumpiness honestly. At just two years old, he experienced the death of his father, Leo. Alongside this loss came an early sense of responsibility to be “the man of the house.” He was a caring older brother to my grandmother, Leoni, always her protector. This became even more important as he entered his teenage years. He became bar mitzvah at roughly the same time that Hitler seized control of the German government, and his teenage years were marked by the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, among dozens of other laws which prohibited Jews from participating in German society. While Kurt and Leoni were granted some special privileges due to their father’s service in the German Army during the First World War, these did not shield them from experiencing daily discrimination and anti-Semitic bullying at the hands of peers, and, more disturbingly, authority figures.

On the night of November 8, 1938. Leoni answered the apartment door, and the SS came into the apartment and took Kurt. He was eighteen years old. He spent nearly a month interned in Sachsenhausen, a work camp 35 km north of Berlin which would serve as the model for and administrative center of all other concentration camps.

Kurt was released from the camp on December 3, 1938, just days before his nineteenth birthday. From the day he was released, Kurt was never silent about his experience in the camp. His sister Leoni remembered that after his release, their mother, Toni, insisted that he wear a hat to cover his shaved head. Kurt obliged, but made a point, while walking through the neighborhood, of tipping his hat to every person he encountered, making sure that everybody could see what had been done to him.

By December 19, they had left Germany, heading to Amsterdam, where they stayed with Kurt’s aunt, uncle, and cousin for over a year, before traveling to the United States on the Pennland. Aboard the Pennland, Kurt and his sister and mother met another family fleeing Berlin. The Spitzes offered to introduce Kurt to their daughter, who had recently arrived from Britain. And so it was that Kurt met Lore Spitz, in Times Square, on New Year’s Day. They were married in 1943, and raised three wonderful daughters together: Joan, Linda (aleha hashalom), and Wendy.

At sixteen, he began an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker, a trade in which he would continue for the rest of his professional life. Outside of work, he was still a lifelong tinkerer, taking pride and pleasure in making things: lamps, jewelry, knife handles. A photographer, he loved teaching his children and nieces and nephews to make pinhole cameras, and built his own photographic enlarger out of two coffee cans and a lens.

Kurt loved classical music. He was one of the original members of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the founder and artistic director of the Rhinebeck Chamber Music Society. He was a conductor for the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra. No matter that, as his daughter Wendy pointed out, “he wasn’t the greatest violinist, and he hated to practice.” Kurt was a builder. He built up the resources that he wanted to see in his community. He followed his passion, and was committed to creating opportunities to bring music to his community. He would work twelve hour days as a toolmaker at the Wire-O Corporation, come home to wash up, and then head out to play with the Philharmonic.

Kurt was absolutely committed to the needs of his community. He saw where something was needed, and set about working to mend the gap. And herein is the secret of Kurt’s appeal. He was a grump, but he was a personable grump. He didn’t let the experiences that had hardened him harden his heart. He had a deep intellect, a strong sense of humor, and a sharp wit. He connected easily and deeply with people.

Kurt never felt particularly drawn to Judaism. He had grown up in a fairly secular home in Berlin. He told me once, seventy years after his emigration, that he always felt more German than Jewish. He was never particularly fond of Jewish ritual, preferring walks in the woods to Rosh Hashanah services, and he loved to eat lobster on the family’s annual vacations to Cape Cod.

He took me aside once, several years ago, and asked me why I would want to become a rabbi. He told me he didn’t understand – he thought that we had moved past all that. At the time, I was not fully prepared to answer his question – to explain the ways in which Jewish communities could be forward-thinking – engaging with rituals in a meaningful way; embracing faith and rational thinking. I would have loved to have shared this quote from Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism:

“It is a mistake to lump together into the one category of disbelievers and atheists all who say they do not believe in G-d, and to classify as believers all who profess theistic belief. A significant classification would divide [people] into two distinct groups holding two directly opposed attitudes towards life. Those who consider life as a meaningless vanity, as ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ are the real atheists, though they may prate of G-d. But those who, at great danger and cost to themselves, are identified with some cause of social reform or humanitarian benefit, enjoy and communicate the experience of life’s worthwhileness, despite all its tragic waste and ugliness, must be classified with religious believers. They act as witnesses of G-d, regardless of what they say. In their desire to break with the limited traditional conception of G-d, they may proclaim themselves atheists, yet they are the first to accord genuinely divine honors and adoration to persons, texts and events through which the world promises to come one whit nearer to their hearts’ desire.”
MMK, The Meaning of G-d in Modern Jewish Religion, 1937

Despite his wariness of organized religion, Kurt had great appreciation for life. He expressed gratitude for his arrest on Kristallnacht, since he might not otherwise have felt the same urgency to leave Europe without that experience. He found great joy in music, dinners out with family, and a nice glass of Scotch. He embodied the quote from the Jerusalem Talmud:

רבי ירמיה אמר העוסק בצורכי ציבור כעוסק בדברי תורה

Rabi Yermayah said, the one who is occupied with the needs of the community is like one who is occupied with the Torah.

Kurt strove to make his community and his world a better place. He made it his mission to increase beauty in the world through the promotion of music. Kurt embraced life, in its beauty and in its sorrow, in its consonance and its dissonance.

Ma’aseh Bereshit – Instagram @JewishHaverford

Wholeness in brokenness – Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

This sermon was delivered at Haverford College on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777, October 2, 2016.

The story of the Oven of Akhnai is one of the foundational texts of the Talmud. The story features supernatural events of increasing intensity: streams running backwards, carob trees bending over, schoolhouse walls shaking, a Voice calling down from Heaven to support one side of a disagreement, and God’s rejoicing at humans’ rejection of divine intervention. The central character of the text is a man who suffers such shame at the hands of his peers that his eyes burn anything he looks at, his anger destroys a significant portion of the world’s food supply, and his pain causes the death of his brother-in-law.

There is a lot to unpack here, and I’ll be offering some opportunities in the coming year to study this text and examine what it has to teach us about human interpretation of Torah and the importance of respect in disagreements between peers—but for now, I’d like to focus on the starting point of this whole situation: a dispute about whether an oven that has been broken into pieces and then reassembled can be considered a pure vessel. Every part of the story that follows hinges on the question of whether an object that has been shattered and then put back together operates and exists in the world in the same manner as one that has never been broken.

A little over a month ago, my one-and-a-half year old son tripped while running and fell headfirst into a toy box. He fell with such force that his forehead split open, and he had to go to the hospital and have dermal adhesive, or skin glue, applied to the resulting head injury.

I was out of the country at the time of this incident, so I only heard about it secondhand, with a seven-hour time difference slowing the flow of information. As I waited for more details, I wondered and I worried. Was my son going to be OK? Had the shock of the incident traumatized him? Would this injury leave a scar on his perfect, untouched face? A reminder that he had experienced something that changed him permanently?

It’s one of the biggest worries a parent can imagine: permanent damage. You know that your child is going to grow up eventually, and that you can’t keep them fully protected from the world. But the first time that you are faced with something that you can’t fix is a pretty terrifying experience. It’s a reminder of the limits of your own control.

Fortunately, aside from the deep wound in his forehead, there were no other medical issues, and he quickly recovered. The only lingering impact of the injury has been an interest in touching the mark and saying “head.” We’ve been applying Vitamin E to his forehead, but there’s only so much we can do to minimize the scarring.

Some scars are minor, like this one on my head, from falling off of playground equipment when I was about my son’s age. I don’t remember the injury, and if I had more hair on my head, I would barely remember that it was even there. As it is, I still don’t notice it very often. But other scars can impact the rest of your life.

Whether physical or emotional, the damage of a traumatic event can linger for years. I would imagine that all of us have had painful experiences in our lives – whether accidental or intentional, at the hands of strangers or at the hands of people we loved and trusted. These traumas can change our worldview and cause us to question our very sense of self. Even as time and other experiences may have allowed some healing, the scar tissue can still cause complications in the future, or serve as a reminder of a painful time—a time of vulnerability, at odds with the way that we’d like to view ourselves, or the strength that we hope to project.

We can also be spiritually scarred by an experience. Traumas can damage our sense of wholeness, leaving us feeling broken, imperfect, fragmented. We may wonder if we are still ourselves after all that we’ve experienced. Or worse, we may worry that we are merely the most fragile versions of ourselves.

In the kabbalistic tradition which emerged from the writings of Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century master of mystical tradition, it is taught that in order for the universe to be created, God had to contract – to recede in order for there to be space for something else to exist. God then filled the empty space with divine light, held in heavenly vessels. But the vessels were too fragile to contain the divine light, and they shattered, spilling the contents throughout the universe. The holiness contained within was scattered, with no sense of order.

The kabbalists taught that by doing mitzvot, acts of kindness, the study of Torah, and prayer with deep intention, humans are capable of gathering together these disparate elements and enacting a unification of the divided aspects of divinity. When a person engages in these practices, they raise up the broken things in our world to a higher level in a process of repair, or, in Hebrew, tikkun olam.

I find this theology to be tremendously powerful. Even divinity is in need of repair. And with each act of goodness and devotion that we offer to our imperfect world, we bring healing. It’s a long process, but by virtue of our actions and intentions, we can repair some of the brokenness in our world.

This example can also offer a model for our own healing. By recognizing the pieces of us that feel broken, acknowledging their fragility, and doing the work to raise and strengthen them, we can once again achieve wholeness. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be “perfect.” On the contrary, we will always carry scars with us. But with healing efforts, maybe they won’t hurt us as much.

Think about the most famous scar in pop culture – the lightning bolt on Harry Potter’s forehead. This mark brought Harry a tremendous amount of attention, both positive and negative, and served as a psychic link to the person who created enormous amounts of trauma to the world. When Voldemort returned to power, the scar caused Harry tremendous pain. Which is why the last book ends with the most satisfying final line a faithful reader can imagine: “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”

His scar doesn’t hurt anymore…but it’s still there. At the end of the book, the world is not perfect. Harry and his peers have had to face devastating losses, repair major rifts in their communities, and rebuild a fractured society, amid constant reminders of the traumas of the past. Regardless of the plot of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, these events can’t be undone. They have become an essential part of his identity. After healing, we don’t suddenly become different people; we remain ourselves. Jewish tradition recognizes this in the language used around someone who reconnects with Judaism. Unlike the term “born again,” which is used in Christian communities, a recommitted Jew is known as a ba’al teshuvah, a master of the return.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are compelled to pay attention to our vulnerabilities, notice our own brokenness, and reflect on the ways in which we have been imperfect and the ways in which others have hurt us. We think about ways to do better in the future, and we aim for teshuvah, a return. A return to what? Torah? God? Community?

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Bruce Springsteen said, “…whoever you’ve been, and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you…I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”

I concur with Rabbi Springsteen: when we make teshuvah, we are returning to our selves. All of our selves: the self that is joyful; the self that is mourning; the self that feels guilty; the self that feels proud. We are not only our worst moments, but neither are we only our best moments. We contain all of our scars and our smiles; our hugs and our tears; our strengths and our vulnerabilities; our fears and our hopes.

Returning to our selves means acknowledging and honoring the multitudes that comprise us – while making sure that we pay close attention to who we’re putting in the driver’s seat.


Dvar Torah – Acharei Mot – last Shabbat gathering of the year

The following dvar torah was presented at the final Shabbat service of the academic year at Haverford College.


This week’s parsha, Acharei Mot, is also the Torah reading for Yom Kippur. This makes sense, as the first chapter of the parsha describes the ritual as performed by Aaron on Yom Kippur. Aaron brings two goats to the entrance of the Mishkan–the place where God’s presence dwelt among the people–and casts lots. One of the goats serves as a sin offering, and is sacrificed on the altar. The second goat is sent out of the community–to Azazel–to make atonement for the sins of the community.

Who is Azazel? That depends who you ask. The King James Version of the Bible translated “a goat for Azazel” as “a goat that escapes,” or “scapegoat.” According to the book of Enoch, an early apocryphal work, Azazel was among a group of angels who were demoted for fraternizing with humans. Azazel’s sin was teaching humanity how to manipulate metal, which they used to make weapons. Other traditions present him as a demon of the desert, with a goat-like appearance.

This can seem pretty scary, especially if you’ve ever seen the cover art of a heavy metal album. A magical horned desert demon who’s crafty with metal? That poor goat doesn’t stand a chance! Cast out into the wilderness–to an unknown fate, away from all of the comforts of the society.

And yet…the fate of the goat for Azazel must be considered in relation to the fate of the goat for Hashem. We know that the goat for Hashem will be slaughtered as a sin-offering. That goat doesn’t stand a chance. Given the odds, would you rather face certain death or the possibility of facing a desert demon?

As you can imagine, the rationalist thinking rabbis of the middle ages were quite uncomfortable talking about a mystical desert demon. Rashi suggests that the word azazel should be divided into two words azaz and el, meaning “to be strong” and “mighty.” And the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, suggests that being ”sent” to Azazel actually means to send the goat out alive to find a place to graze, among its own kind.

This is our last Shabbat with our seniors. Next Saturday, we will send them out into an unknown world–a scary prospect. And yet, we have confidence that we are sending them off to a future full of potential. Additionally, graduation falls during the counting of the Omer, the observing of the 50 days between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is a time of great anticipation–anxious about what’s in the future, but knowing that we are approaching something monumental.

Seniors, here is our tradition’s counsel. Don’t let your worst fears about the future keep you from pursuing your dreams. Know that, like Rashi suggests, by being “strong and mighty,” you will achieve great things. Have confidence that, like the Rashbam suggests, you will go out to a place where you will find sustenance and new communities of support.

Shabbat shalom!