Torah Study 9-22-18

Page 1400

Biblical poetry.

Jerry Slate joins the group.

Moses is about to die. The Hebrew here is very challenging. This is one of the two major poems in the Torah. Dating is also challenging. See commentary of Jeffery Tigay. Sometimes called the Torah’s lawsuit. There is a treaty and witnesses. This doesn’t mention many of the items covered in Deuteronomy. The focus here is not on exile – which is the focus of Deuteronomy. D was likely written considerably after the Babylonian exile and after the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom. This more likely 12th to 11th C, B.C.E.  . A copy of this poem was found at Kumaran and is mentioned by Josephus as part of ancient Jewish life.  Note the presence of merism – describing two extremes – and parallelism. LL Was this chanted? Consider the Rabbinic Voice. See NYT article.

“…The voice is the intricate product of a multi-pronged historical process.

According to this explanation, the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study. Because neither the Torah nor the Talmud is punctuated, students learn to add intonation with vocal emphasis. Which is why so many rabbis end sentences on a rise.

“Long ago, that phrasing was translated into everyday language by Ashkenazi Jews, then brought into English,” Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, told me. “It’s so common that even newcomers to the community pick it up,” she added, presumably meaning mothers-in-law, converts, Hollywood agents, “sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.”

32:4 The imagery here is of parent and guardian. This describes the relationship between G and Israel.  See the Woman’s Commentary here. There is nurturing here. Possible woman author?

See line 8 which is “divisions of humanity” in a later edition of Plaut. This seems to be more reflective of modern Reform ideas – rather than divisions into race as in this translation. See Dr. Weiss commentary on this section – G allocates lesser deities to other peoples.  See “…no alien god alongside.” In the service there appears the phrase “there is no other god like you…” Monalatry is not pure monotheism as we think of it today.

32:15 We have just heard about the blessing of the land; the people grew fat and course – bloated and engorged. “You neglected the Rock who begot you.”  “I will hide my countenance from them.”

32:19  Gods reaction is punishment. Here are warrior images. Verse 20 – hiding God’s face. Because they have pushed God away. “Let God shine his countenance upon you..” is a phrase at the end of the service. The same word in Hebrew for “face” and “countenance” suggest and intense presence. The word is used by God when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai.

32:26 The other nations gain confidence by virtue of the peoples misconduct. There will be a terrible punishment but the people are not entirely wiped out. The punishment is not forever – it is a cleansing process. There will be redemption. Chastising with love is the traditional explanation.   LL This sounds retrospective. It is a description of what happened to the people and their survival. PC: How does this help us ethically? Rabbi – Not the intended lesson here by the writer at the time. If we were writing this today it would be different. PC: Can we come away that punishment in anger is morally wrong? Rabbi – that is not what it is saying. Anger can be a positive force. AS: There is a common notion that ours is a vengeful God. Christians argue that theirs is a loving God. CL later: Read Bart Ehrman’s  book The Triumph of Christianity – How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World; and  Ehrman points out that Christianity aggressively destroyed the other religions of Rome and there was considerable struggle, as well as anger and violence, within the faith itself as is evidenced by the letters of Paul.

LL: It is also worthwhile to note that a Freudian interpretation may be that the Torah is to some extent a discussion with ourselves and others. See:

“…in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.”

“He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.”


Torah Study 9-15-18

September 15, 2018

Page 1436

Haftarah readings. See references to Assyria – this has to do, in part, with the Northern Kingdom. It has been conquered but there is still hope of return.

14:02 Attributed to Hosea.

Very poetic. Images for an agrarian people. A promise to take the people back after they have turned away. This was delivered orally. LL: There is an unfortunate tendency to think that we are smarter than people in ancient times. Not so. This biblical poetry suggests a more erudite group who could use and understand metaphor. It is not entirely clear exactly what ‘iniquity” refers to here. Is it apostasy? Or is their an assumption of iniquity arising from the loss to the Assyraians?

7:18 Attributed to Micah. You will subdue our sins and cast them into the depths of the sea. Hence, the modern ceremony of casting away one’s sins.  This is a loving and forgiving G.   Is the sin cast out or subdued? The former is more of a Christian notion and the latter Jewish. Our tendency to sin is inherent – part of being a human being – and must be controlled. Note that the theology here is of omniscience. God is all powerful and is equally responsible for good and evil. Compare the Book of Job which is chronologically later. Some early rabbis say Job was among those who returned from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE, which was about seven centuries after Moses supposed death. Others note that the book is written in a strange form of Hebrew, in archaic language, In any event it is a theological treatise or discussion. See:

21:15 Sound the shofar of Zion. Sanctify a fast day….I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive it to a land parched and desolate…never again to be put to shame. LL The word “shame” is problematic in its implication. Why should we care what other nations think? To be shamed suggests blaming the victim. Job is not shamed – he is steadfast. See Milton Steinberg and Harold Kushner on a more limited theism. God “withdrew” to create the universe. See: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

AF: What was the role of the prophets? Rabbi: They were often outsiders who challenged authority. Note that the rabbi’s developed the notion of an afterlife in response to the diaspora and martyrdom of leaders like Akiba. Remember that Judaism is more than monotheism – it is ethical monotheism. The rabbinic model is that love can make us better as a people.


“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”, Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Jack was an atheist, but he went to synagogue religiously, every Saturday morning.  His grandson watched this and knowing his grandfather’s strong feelings, was very confused.  Finally, one day he asked him, “Grandpa, I don’t understand it.  You say you are an atheist, but you go to synagogue every week.  How can you pray if you don’t believe in God?  Jack answered, “My boy, I don’t go to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”

Religion is really about relationships.  That is especially true in Judaism.  If one Hebrew word could capture the essence – and sometimes challenges – of being in real relationship, it is the word Hineini – one word that means “Here I am.”

Some of you may remember this word from Hebrew school as the answer when the teacher took attendance – Hineini – meaning simply, I’m here, I’m present. In the Bible, the term Hineini takes on much greater significance.  Altogether, Hineini appears fouorteen times in the Hebrew Bible.  Three of those instances are in the powerful Torah reading we read this morning, the

Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, including the very first time that this phrase is uttered.  Though Abraham appears on the scene much earlier, it is only here, when he is called to his last and most challenging of ten trials that his relationship with God is put to its greatest test.

With the first Hineini, Abraham responds to God’s call, without even knowing what he would be asked to do.  It is a statement of absolute readiness to act on behalf of another.

With the second Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of his son, “Avi – My father” as they walk up the mountain together.  It is the response of one who is present for another, even in times of great stress and difficulty.  Abraham does not reveal the potential horrors of what lies ahead, concerned here only for his son.

With the third Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of the angel stopping him from committing the unthinkable. So intent is Abraham on fulfilling his understanding of God’s word that the angel must call out to him twice, “Avraham, Avraham!” Here, Hineini is the response of one awakening to the reality of what he is about to do.  It is the response of one who is trying to be fully present in two roles:  Abraham, the believer, present to God, while at the same time to be Abraham, the father, present to his son, Isaac.

In his study of the meaning of Hineini, Dr. Norman Cohen, professor of midrash at HUC-JIR, concludes: “Hineini, in part, has to do with sacrificing for the other, and every time it appears it forces us to consider the nature of our relationships.”[1]  He posits three primary meanings to the response Hineini:  one; it indicates an ability to be present for and receptive to others; two, it indicates a readiness to act on behalf of others; and, three, it indicates a willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher.

During these Yamim Noraim, as we reflect on our lives and consider where we have missed the mark, most of us, I’m sure, think first and foremost about the various relationships in our lives and where, too often, we feel that we may have fallen short of our best.  We strive to say Hineini, “I’m here for you” with full integrity in all of our relationships but we know how challenging that can be, even in the best of circumstances.  Life’s demands pull us in so many directions. What family with working parents doesn’t struggle to achieve that ever-elusive work life balance?  The normal ups and down of family dynamics test us at different points in our lives, in some painful cases to an extreme.  We want to be present but the other person isn’t ready or able to let us in; or, we don’t yet know how to be present in a way that they need.  We try to be there for our friends, but we can get so caught up in our lives, that we sometimes lose track of what is going on with others.

As a community, this congregation tries very hard to say Hineini to its members.  Through organized efforts such as the Reyut and Nachamu committees, we have set up structures to support one another through times of illness and loss.  Each Shabbat we share birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal simchas, creating an opportunity to connect and share in one another’s joys as well.  In the small gatherings that were held this summer and through numerous conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve heard very powerful stories from those for whom this community has truly become their “family” and about how this congregation has supported them through the most painful of times.  Of course, no one and no institution is perfect; surely, we have missed the mark at times and for this I would apologize to those who may have been hurt as we try to learn from past mistakes.  I would encourage those who remain on the periphery to become more engaged in the life of the congregation that you might benefit from the full sense of community that this congregation that strives to say Hineini to its members can offer to you.

This morning I want to focus on a particular challenge that we are facing in saying Hineini to one another that is impacting the nation as a whole, religious communities, our relationships at work and even our families.  I’m speaking of the ever-widening political divide in this country where people are less and less able to respond “hineini” – I can listen and be here for you – to those across the divide; in a growing number of cases, it seems, people cannot respond to one another at all.  This gap is eroding our society as a whole, leading to escalating negative attacks on one another, to dysfunctional government, and to divided communities, destroyed friendships and broken families.

An article in the New York Times from just a few weeks ago described some of these situations: “A couple in Georgia, married two decades, won’t speak when the husband leaves his unwashed mug supporting President Trump in the sink; his wife refuses to touch it. A teenager eating at a Texas fast food restaurant had his “Make America Great Again” hat ripped off his head and a drink thrown in his face. A mother in New England sought the help of professional conflict mediators during the holidays because her two daughters — one who was pro-Trump, the other anti-Trump — had stopped speaking to each other.”

We know that concerns about “the great American divide” are not new to this unique time period in American history.  Nonetheless, it feels as though we are at one of our lower points in national discourse and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward.

Studies by the Pew Research Center and others show a widening and toxic political gap.  A Pew Study from last summer noted that since the Trump presidency, the partisan gap has surpassed earlier record levels reached during the Obama presidency.  Partyism is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. Today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party evokes feelings of not just frustration, but of fear and anger. Most politically engaged on either side see those in the other party as not just wrong, but “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” [2]

The pollster Frank Luntz recently commissioned a survey on the topic of political dialogue and division. In 1,000 interviews, he said, he found one result especially troubling: nearly a third of respondents said that they had stopped talking to a friend or a family member because of disagreements over politics and the 2016 election.

One organization on the front lines of trying to counter these trends is The National Institute for

Civil Discourse, a non-partisan center based at the University of Arizona’s School of Social and

Behavioral Sciences, founded in the aftermath of the 2011 assassination attempt on the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  The Institute provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements with civility and respect.    Reflecting on the 2012 presidential election, Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer noted “We got not a single message from anybody in the country about incivility in the campaign process… [t]hen 2016 rolls around … This is now deep in our homes, deep in our neighborhoods, deep in our places of worship and deep in our workplaces… It really is a virus.”[3]

Religious communities are not immune to this divide and these feelings.  Rare is the synagogue whose very identity is defined by being either left or right, blue or red.  Most of us are various shades of purple.  Certainly, Reform congregations such as ours have become more diverse politically over the years and while we accept diversity in religious practices, it is much more challenging when it comes to political points of view.

For some the answer is to avoid the challenging issues altogether, to keep the synagogue as a sanctuary, a safe space away from anything that might hint of controversy.  I agree that the synagogue should be a sanctuary and a safe space, but not as an escape from the outside world.  Judaism has taught us the opposite, as we learn in the Talmud: “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[4] We pray with windows so that our gaze can be towards the heavens, but so, too, do windows bring the outside world in; we cannot avoid it.  In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read on Yom Kippur known as the Holiness Code, Leviticus 19, reminds us that we strive for holiness in our relationships with one another by being fair in our business practices, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, by not dealing deceitfully with one another, by being responsible for one another, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  If we do not address how we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, in a way that invites everyone into the conversation, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.  Our faith provides our moorings, our moral grounding in a world that is more and more unmoored.  Judaism can help us to navigate these very rough waters.

We, too, have a long history of communal divisions.  You see, even as Judaism and Jewish law developed, it was never monolithic as we might imagine it to have been.  There were always multiple houses of study led by different rabbinic scholars who reached different conclusions regarding questions of Jewish practice.  Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, we find records of debates between rabbis followed by the statement:  and the halakhah (the law) is according to Rabbi Ploni.  If the law is according to one interpretation, why record the minority opinions at all?  Because they still had a place within the Jewish community and, therefore, within the records.

Among the most famous pairs of rabbis in the time of the Mishnah was Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, each the head of a different school.  They disagreed about practically everything and rare was the time that a ruling was according to Shammai.  Still, they had respect for one another as is recorded in the Talmud:

…for three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the halachah is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the halachah is in agreement with our views.” Then a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed,“both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”  Since, however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings?  Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs.[5]

Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that even though they disagreed with each other’s rulings and had different interpretations for some Jewish practices:

The School of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of the School of Hillel, nor did the School of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the School of Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “you must love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)[6]

Sadly, too many within the Jewish world today are not following these ancient practices!

The following teaching from Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the most beloved and influential of the 18th century Chassidic masters, can be a guide for us today:

The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites. Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.[7]

It is my fervent prayer that as a nation we can find ways to achieve some harmony, to bridge the divide that is tearing us apart, so that we can bring out the best in one another as opposed to the worst.  So, too, do I pray that if you find yourself in a similar situation to the respondents in the survey who have lost friendships or who aren’t speaking to relatives because of this political divide, that you can find a way to reach out and rebuild those fractured relationships for the greater whole that is shalom.

My concern this morning is about us, Vassar Temple.  How do we as a congregation build upon the strong foundation of community that exists here to bridge some of that divide, lest we will either move closer to irrelevance, unable to discuss or act on many issues of concern, or we will create an atmosphere where some people may no longer feel welcome in their own spiritual home.   I know that these are stark choices and I’m not saying that this is where we are, but I fear that this is where we will be heading if we do not find a way to become a true sanctuary, a sacred space where we can say Hineini to one another, that we can talk about difficult issues even when we disagree, and that we can find common ground upon which we can act to live out the values and teachings of our faith.

First, we need to try to be able to talk to one another and to understand one another.  I have found the work of a social psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haight, and a sociologist, Dr. Arlie Hochschield, most enlightening in trying to understand some of what is behind the current political divide.

In his groundbreaking research, Haight explores the processes by which we make moral judgments, fundamental decisions that shape our view of the world.   We actually use two different processes of cognition:  intuition and reasoning; and, while we might like to think that we use our powers of reason and intellect to make such decisions, Haight discovered that, in fact, it is our emotions that guide us in making quick, instinctive moral judgments.  Our powers of reason only come into play once we have already made our decision to justify them afterwards.  He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe how the mind functions here.  The rider represents the controlled process, such as reasoning and intellect; the elephant represents

the automatic processes, such as emotion and intuition.  (Yes, I said an elephant.  Haight explains that he chose the elephant over the horse because elephants are bigger and smarter, a better representation of the strength of the automatic processes that run human minds.)  Though the name, rider, might imply other, the rider does not control the elephant; rather, it is the elephant who controls the rider.   The rider is really just the spokesperson for the elephant, finding justifications for what the elephant has done or will do next.  Haight gives an example from his own life of a time when his wife complained that he had left dirty dishes on the counter that morning, something she has asked him not to do numerous times before.   Haight, who believes that lying is wrong and often chastises his wife for exaggerating in her stories, finds himself coming up with a very reasonable explanation for having done so, except that it is all a lie.  He later realizes that because he doesn’t like to be criticized as soon as he heard the criticism coming, his inner elephant started to react by claiming innocence and then the rider jumped in with all kinds of justifications that sounded reasonable, though not true.

In his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haight applies this process of reasoning to the divisions we see in our society today.  If we are going to understand people across the political divide or have any hopes of changing someone’s mind on an issue, we need to better understand the forces behind their intuitive responses to reaching their decisions or in Haight’s terminology, “[we]’ve got to talk to their elephants.”[8]

Haight references Henry Ford who taught, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”[9]  So, too, does this apply to conversations on moral or political issues. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s angle as well as our own.  Haight concludes, “And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response.  Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”[10]  Difficult, but not impossible.  “When does the elephant list to reason?” asks Haight, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.  We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.  When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight…The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objection from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants… or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants…”[11]

In other words, we need to get out of our echo chambers, not only by reading other opinion pieces or seeking out news from other sources, but most productively by trying to get to know people who are across the divide – and not on the other side of an argument, but by getting to know them as people first, getting to know their elephants.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschield does just this in her book, Stranger in Their Own Land.

Hochschield, an admittedly political liberal from the very blue city of Berkeley, CA, had been watching the growing political divide for some years when she concluded that she could not understand those on the other side of the divide from a distance; she needed to get to know the people who were completely dumbfounding her.  She decided to focus on one issue, the environment, and in one area, in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana.  In the course of five years of research and ten trips to the area, Hochshield spent time in deep conversation in people’s homes and work places where they spoke openly and shared their stories.  “As a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right –that is, in the emotion that underlies politics.  To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their “deep story,” a narrative as felt.”[12]

Referring to one of the first women in Louisiana who opened her home and her life story to her, Hochshield wrote “…it occurred to me that the kind of connection she offered me was more precious than I’d first imagined.  It built the scaffolding of an empathy bridge.  We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”[13]

Hochshield’s book is a powerful one and one I highly recommend.  It certainly opened my mind to understanding some people who are across the political divide from me and how neglected and lost they had felt from the political leadership of our country for so many years.

If we can create opportunities for real dialogue here, not with the goal of changing people’s minds, but simply to begin to understand why they think the way they do, we, too, can build empathy bridges, as we may then open our minds to some of the concerns of the “other” in a new way.  We can say Hineini.  We can say I disagree with you, but I now understand you.  Such conversations will strengthen us as a community and may lead us to find Bratslav’s harmony between opposites.  In doing so, perhaps we will also discover more ways to join hands and take action on issues of common concern to better our community, our country and our world.  I invite you to join with me in envisioning what might be small group conversations where we really listen to one another in a safe environment where we can speak freely and openly, without critique.  If you would like to partner with me in this venture or participate in such conversations, please let me know.

Just over a week ago our nation paid homage to Sen. John McCain, an elder statesman who spoke the language of Hineini (even if he didn’t actually know the word!)    First and foremost, he lived Hineini through his life of sacrifice for this nation, through both his military service and his political leadership.  He lived Hineini by doing what he believed was right, even going against his own political party to do so.  He lived Hineini when he defended his political opponent against racist charges because it was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the most expedient for his campaign.   He lived Hineini when he admitted his mistakes.  Personally, I disagreed with John McCain on many issues, but I have the greatest respect for him as a man of integrity and decency who was willing to put aside differences and reach across the aisle for the sake of what he believed was better for our nation.  His choreography of his own funeral was his final testament that a different form of political discourse is possible and preferable for the wellbeing of our country.  May he inspire other leaders to pursue that better path.  May he inspire us to respond to opportunities for service, to be willing to sacrifice – – even on a much lesser scale – for the good of others, to act on behalf of causes we believe are important, to reach across the divide and say Hineini.

The final three Hineini’s in the Bible are not uttered by any person; they are words of promise from God spoken through the prophet Isaiah.  Hineini is God’s promise to the Israelites of the ultimate redemption that will come when they change their selfish and hypocritical ways.  We will read one such passage on Yom Kippur morning, where Isaiah reminds us of the nature of the fast that God desires  – that when we fast we will also share our bread with the hungry, that we will reach out to those in need, that we will be willing to sacrifice for others, that we will no longer act in ways that exile us from one another.  When we can truly say Hineini, I am here for you, then our redemption will be at hand and then the promise of Isaiah will be fulfilled and God will respond to us, Hineini, Here I am.

Rabbi Renni Altman


Cohen, Dr. Norman J., Hineini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003),

Haight, Jonathan The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2017)

Hochshield, Arlie Russell Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016)

Peters, In a Divided Era, One Thing Seems to Unite:  Political Anger (New York Times, August 17, 2018)

Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16)

[1] Dr. Norman. J. Cohen, HIneini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003), p. 4

[2] Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16)

[3] Ibid

[4] BT Berakhot 34b

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14b

[7] Likkutei Etzot, Shalom, #10

[8] Jonathan Haight, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, p. 57

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 58

[11] Ibid., p. 80-81

[12] Arlie Russell Hochshield, Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right, p. ix

[13] Ibid., p. xi

“A Time for Turning”, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018 sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“A Time for Turning”
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn… It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy… It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways. Adonai, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, Adonai our God, and bring us back to You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, Adonai our God, for in isolation there is no life.”

This prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer captures so beautifully the essence of these Days of Awe.  Indeed, this is the season of turning.  Each year at this time, Jews all over the world pause for ten days of self-examination, of Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls to determine what it is that we need to change as part of our process of Teshuvah — return.  We seek to return towards our highest selves, to return towards one another and, in doing so, we return to God.   Turning implies making a change, moving away from a direction in which we were heading towards a more positive behavior and, with that, we hope, to fulfilling a better vision of ourselves and our world.

There is a Hassidic story about a rabbi who asked his teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Kossov, why the Messiah had not come and why the promises of redemption remained unfulfilled.   Rabbi Mendel answered: “It is written: “Why has the Messiah not come either today or yesterday?”  The answer lies in the question itself: “Why has he not come?”  Because we are today just as we were yesterday.  As Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner note in their commentary on this story “the hidden implication in Rabbi Mendel’s remarks [is] that change is vital, even though you may be uncertain as to where you are going.  Change shakes up old habits and routines and opens up new vistas… As long as there is change there is hope for transformation, and as long as there is transformation there is a possibility for the greatest transformation of all”[1] – through our actions we can transform the world and bring about the coming of the Messiah (or a Messianic age).

With all of the potential that lies within change why is it so difficult for us?   The idea of change is often so overwhelming that we remain paralyzed in unhealthy patterns, rather than take the steps necessary to improve our lives and our relationships.  Here we are again, back at Rosh Hashanah, talking, praying and thinking about teshvuah, promising ourselves that we will really, really try to change this year.   Perhaps we have tried before, but maybe we didn’t do it quite right and things backfired and now we feel like more of a failure than before.  Perhaps we tried, but others wouldn’t really let us change; or, perhaps, it was just too hard and it was taking too long to see a difference, so we gave up.  Now we can’t bear trying to climb that mountain again.

Dr. William Bridges, author and lecturer in the field of transitional management and change, offers an approach to change that might help us move forward and achieve greater success.    He draws a distinction between change and transition.  Change is the desired outcome; but it cannot happen without transition as the process we undergo to get us there.

“Change is situational,” he teaches. “Transition, on the other hand, is the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become. In between the letting go and the taking hold again, there is a chaotic but potentially creative ‘neutral zone’ when things aren’t the old way, but aren’t really a new way either.  This three-phase process – ending, neutral zone, beginning again – is transition.”[2]

Successful changes emerge out of an intentional process of transition.  The first step is recognizing, in Bridge’s words, that “every transition begins with an ending.”   That ending, even when desired and ultimately for the good, inevitably involves some sense of loss.

We can see this most clearly in changes that occur when we move from one stage of life to another:

A couple is about to become parents; it is the fulfillment of their dreams.  As excited as they are, they are surprised by feelings of sadness, as they will miss the freedoms and spontaneity that they have enjoyed until now.

At a dinner honoring him upon his retirement after 30 years of devoted and exemplary service and leadership as a teacher and later principal, instead of the joy he had anticipated when thinking about this next chapter in his life, a man feels an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss as he looks out at his teachers and former students.  What will his purpose be now, he wonders?

Proud to launch their youngest child off to college, a couple re-enters their home, now an empty nest.  They have successfully reached a major milestone in their role as parents; they had looked forward with great anticipation to this time of renewal in their marriage.  Still they will miss the regular presence of their children in their lives and the feeling of being needed on a daily basis.

We can also experience a sense of loss when we consciously choose to make a change in our lives that will ultimately be an improvement for ourselves and our loved ones:

A woman leaves a job she has outgrown for a position in a different company that offers greater leadership and responsibility.  She looks forward to the new challenges; it’s the next step in a professional path she had envisioned for herself.   Still, she will miss her former colleagues and the stability and safety of that routine.

A nicotine patch helps a young man move beyond the physical addiction of smoking and enables him to move forward in the healthy choice he has made of quitting, but it doesn’t address his longing for the way smoking cigarettes helped him relax during his hectic days.

A brother reaches out to his sister after not speaking for many years.  Their lives have taken different paths; they hardly know one another or their families.  A disagreement over inheritance separated them; now their parents have been gone for more than a decade.  He finally decides that too much time has passed and too much has already been lost; he looks forward to this opportunity to rebuild their broken relationship.  Still, he has to let go of his need to be right at all costs; not an easy thing for him to do.

Changing – whether it means moving from one stage of life to another, kicking a bad habit or just admitting that you were wrong, means letting go of some part of our past.

Too often we deny the reality of that loss and any emotional toll it may take upon us.  Without recognizing the sense of loss we may be experiencing, however, we will end up carrying that unfinished business with us, a burden that will hamper our ability to achieve the change we seek, perhaps fulfilling our deepest fears that we couldn’t really change anyway.

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves the time and space to accept and grieve for those losses, we can see beyond those painful moments with hope towards the future, buoyed by the knowledge that “every transition is an ending that prepares the ground for new growth and new activities.”[3]  We can now enter what Bridges calls the most important element in the process of transition, the “neutral zone” -– the in between space between endings and new beginnings.  It’s the space where we still feel the loss of the old, but we haven’t yet experienced the benefits of the new; we’ve broken away from the past but haven’t quite settled into the new present.  All that we imagined with this great opportunity seems so far off.  We may even begin to question:  was this the right move?

“The neutral zone is… both a dangerous and an opportune place..,” teaches Bridges. “It is the time when repatterning takes place:  old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones … It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal.  It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s.  It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges.  It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that you seek.[4]

The neutral zone – it is both dark and frightening and bright with potential at the same time.  Our society, by and large, does not allow for time in the neutral zone.  Where time is money, there is little value placed on stopping to reflect, to consider, to dwell in one’s thoughts.

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, learned the hard way about the need for a neutral zone when making a significant change.  While the plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds provided a dramatic end to slavery in Egypt, those miracles could not transform the Israelites into a free people.  Moses learned this lesson all too quickly from the moment the Israelites crossed the sea and began complaining about the bitterness of the water, when they then lost faith in God and in Moses and turned to a Golden Calf right after the experience of Sinai, and, ultimately, when they preferred returning to Egypt rather than seize the opportunity and challenge of entering the Promised Land.  They needed the 40 years in the midbar, in the barren wilderness, to successfully transition from a generation of slaves to a generation ready to embrace freedom.

Wilderness is an apt metaphor for being in the midst of change.  Times of transition can be frightening, filled with uncertainty; but at the same time, if we choose to take advantage of the opportunities that this open space can provide, they have the potential for creativity, growth, and redefinition of self.    When we allow ourselves the time and space for real transformation to take place, we can then reach a new beginning and experience real change.

These Yamim Noraim are an annual taste of being in the neutral zone, entering the midbar, as we pause to reflect, take stock of our lives, and repurpose ourselves for the year ahead.   I encourage you to find ways to return to the midbar in the course of this year.  Seek out opportunities to reflect upon the transitions that you are in – some may find that space in prayer, others in long morning walks, or therapy, or taking a weekend away — by yourself.  Seek out any opportunity that will enable you to better recognize the losses you may have experienced with an ending, to reflect deeply about what you need to do to heal, and to find ways to move forward by setting goals for yourself and adjusting to the new ways of an anticipated change.

Endings, neutral zone, new beginnings — this understanding of transition that has the potential to be so helpful in addressing the changes we want to make in our lives, can also guide us through the most painful changes we encounter, those changes that happen to us that are out of our control.  We are reminded of such changes during these Days of the Awe through the haunting and powerful Unetonatokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be.

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

Who shall perish by fire and who by water.

Who by sword and who by beast.

 Why by hunger and who by thirst…  Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich.

Who shall be humbled and who exalted.

So many changes in our lives – for the good and the bad – can happen to us out of nowhere. An investment long ago forgotten suddenly brings in huge dividends and you find yourself with an unanticipated nest egg.  You take a trip on a whim and fall in love with the stranger you meet across the dinner table. A doctor’s visit leads to a diagnosis of cancer and your world is upended.  A loved one is in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life is changed forever.

While we do all that we can to make the best choices and plan our lives, the

Unetantokef reminds us that all is not in our control.  The actions of others, random acts of nature and chance, can bring upheaval and tremendous loss.  Change, welcome or not, does sometime happen to us.  We cannot prevent or control those changes; we can only mold their effect on our lives by how we respond to them.

U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagezera
But repentance, prayer and acts of justice, temper the severity of the decree.

Repentance, prayer and tzedakah – while these actions cannot change the course of events, past or future, they can be the tools by which we alter our experience of those events and help us move through the transition process to find a new beginning.

A colleague of mine shared with me the following parable about twins in the womb.  The whole world, to these two siblings is the interior of the womb.  They can conceive of nothing else.  Somehow, they realize that life, as they know it, is coming to an end.  What will happen to them?  One of the twins is a true optimist, embracing change and seeing it as an exciting opportunity for growth and development.  “Just think of the new opportunities that will present themselves,” says the optimistic twin. “We will have the opportunity to try new things, to do things another way.  Sure, it may not always work out perfectly, and some things will certainly be different, but what a great time it can be!”

The second twin is far more skeptical.  He fears change; change upsets the apple cart, turning the world, as we know it, upside down, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction.  “How can you talk about opportunities?” says the skeptic.  “There is no future, and even if there is to be a new future, it will be so different that we won’t be able to survive.  Our world, as we know it, is finished.  The future is grim.”

Suddenly, the water inside the womb bursts, and the ever-optimistic sibling tears

himself away.  Startled, the skeptic shrieks, bemoaning the tragedy.  Sitting in his morose state, he hears cries from the other side of the black abyss.  “Just as I thought, all is lost.  There is no future.  What was, is no more.  It is time to just call it quits, rather than face the other side.”

But what the skeptic doesn’t realize is that as he is bemoaning the loss of the world as he knows it, his brother sits on the other side, taking a breath of fresh air, hearing sounds that he has never heard before, already feeling his limbs stretching out beyond their previous boundaries.5

Just as individuals go through periods of change and upheaval, and can respond in different ways, so, too, do institutions and organizations.  Vassar Temple is no exception.   I am so proud and excited to be the newest rabbi in Vassar Temple’s very proud 170 year old history.  The fact that I am the 30th rabbi in 170 years means that this congregation has been through rabbinic transition before.  Certainly in more recent history this congregation has been blessed by the stability of strong rabbinic leadership with your wonderful rabbis emeritus, Stephen Arnold and Paul Golomb.  One can hardly go through a day without a mention of their names and their presence being felt (and I say that in the most positive way).  What a blessing for this community!  I’m sure that for many of you, starting again with a new rabbi is a challenge, especially in what feels like a relatively short amount of time since your last rabbinic transition.  Yes, relationships take time to cultivate and nurture and I look forward to building them here with you.

I understand well the angst of transition for this time is one of great transition for my family and me as well.  I am transitioning back into the congregational rabbinate after a decade in organizational life.  I took Bridge’s teachings to heart and spent significant time and energy this past year addressing many of the issues around endings as I prepared to leave HUC-JIR.  My husband and I will be uprooting ourselves from the community in which we have lived for 25 years.  First, we will literally dwell in the neutral zone, between an apt in Poughkeepsie and our home in Great Neck as we settle in and get to know the area.

Arriving in Poughkeepsie just under two months ago, I am now fully in Bridge’s neutral zone at Vassar Temple as well, taking this time to learn about this congregation and you, its members.  My friends, I invite you to join me in this midbar; let us maximize our time in this transitional stage as we get to know one another this year; let us explore together just who Vassar Temple is today and formulate our vision for tomorrow.  Let us take this time to plant seeds of growth and creativity for the future.


5 Rabbi Jan Offel, “Changes,” Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767/2006,Temple Kol Tikvah, Tarzana, CA


We began one aspect of this transition process this summer in small group meetings, called “At home with Rabbi Altman” (my sincere thanks to the gracious hosts who have literally opened their homes for these gatherings).  There will be more such gatherings in the coming months and I urge everyone to attend one.  I also invite you to contact me for individual meetings whether to talk about more private things or just to get to know one another better.  I invite you to share your needs, your ideas, your dreams for this congregation and what you would hope for in this new chapter of rabbinic leadership.

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter…” So, too, may we come to see change as a positive part of the natural order of the universe.  May we learn to embrace the changes in our lives as opportunities for growth and renewal.  In that process may we experience teshvuah.   Help us, O God, as we strive to return to You.  Strengthen us, Adonai, as individuals and as part of this sacred congregation for a year of transformation that leads to change; a year of wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Renni Altman

[1] Howard Polsky and Yaella Wozner, Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, pg. 366

[2] The Way of Transition, p. 2

[3] Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, p. 42

[4] Managing Transitions, p.9

Torah Study Notes 9-8-18

September 8, 2018

See Plaut page 1373

This is the last reading of the year. Rabbi’s frequently select a parsha that relates to the New Year. This week and next week are two of shortest parsha. See Nitzvaim page 1372.

29:9  A commitment to enter into the covenant for future generations. See Commentary at Deuteronomy 5:3.  “…even the stranger within your camp…”  Refers to the stranger who has chosen to dwell with them. Note: That there is no provision for conversion in the Torah. Note “…with its sanctions…” This focuses on Sinai as the source of the covenant rather than the Abrahamic covenant.  The former is people focused with laws. The later is tribal. Consider the story of Ruth – amid “ alien corn.” The Orthodox approach to conversion is very different than the Reform.

29:15 This is again a restatement of the previous recitals. “… a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood…” The Eternal will never forgive them

29:20 The devastation attendant to tribal apostasy. “The Eternal uprooted them from their soil in anger…”

29:28 Note the distinction between concealed and overt acts. What does this mean? The footnote re a later insertion is not really an explanation. “Concealed acts” are actions that no one sees but G. Will you be punished by G? See Rashi on this point. We are responsible for enforcing adherence by those who publicly flout the law. We are responsible for one another. Generally, the Torah does not dwell on internal thoughts, with some exceptions “You shall not covet” “You shall honor your father and mother…” This section does not address evil thoughts. Consider Woody Allans “Crimes and Misdemeanors”  where he addresses the angst of conscience. God will exact the punishment. Noel: My thinking drives my behavior. How are we to separate our thoughts and our behavior. Consider when the thoughts are expressed and are covered by modern law as “free speech.”  See also 17…whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God. Rabbi: A thought must be associated with an overt act in order to be punishable by the community. We have previously discussed the distinction between intentional and unintentionally acts.

We start the new year with a sense of reflection as to our sins. The Hebrew for sin is “arrow” and refers to missing the mark.


Torah Study Notes 8-18-18

August 18, 2018

Rabbi Altman

Plaut – page 1300

Shofrim means “Justice” and this parsha focuses on judges, priests, kings and laws. The priests were primarily in Jerusalem and the sacrifices were to feed them. There is a warning here about practicing magic and divination. Last week was about false prophets. This section is on cities of refuge.  This concept is first mentioned in Numbers.

19:1 …so that any killer may have a place to flee…See the accidental death with the axe head in the grove of trees. This is an example. The Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud gave more examples. The “blood avenger…”  This was usually a family member, but it is also believed by some scholars that someone could be hired for this purpose. The killer had a place to flee and be safe prior to trial.

19:8 “…you shall add three more towns to that three… “ It is unknown if such cities ever were in fact established.

19:11 “If a man lies in wait and strikes a fatal blow… you shall show him no pity…Thus you will purge Israel of the blood of the innocent, and it shall go well with you.” See page 64 and the story of Noah. At that time the earth was filled with violence and the flood was man’s punishment.

(See: Steven Pinker’s. A History of Violence- https://www ) It is Pinker’s thesis that violence has actually considerably decreased since ancient times.)

See also Genesis 5 re the creation if man in the image of G: “For your blood guilt I will require a guilty person…” This is not nuanced here. It is the underlying principle that, because we are created in the image of G, there cannot be murder. This was a revolutionary notion for the time according to some scholars. Turn to page 479 verse 13 “You shall not murder.” is the broad principle from the Ten Commandments. Thereafter there are “case studies.” See page 514 verses 12 through 14. “One who fatally strikes another person shall be put to death…” followed by some specific examples. The killer here is masculine. There is no indication that the cities of refuge were available to woman. There is a distinction here for accidental and premeditated death. Here the altar is a place of refuge but not available to the intentional killer. Many of these sins and consequences were later modified as to the punishment by the Rabbis in their interpretations. LL: This is analogous to originalism vs interpretation in Constitutional Law. See also page 1124 for a reference to cities of refuge.

Numbers 35:6 The towns assigned to the Levites. ‘The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger… so the killer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.”  Later, the Sanhedrin became the “assembly” who passed judgement. Deuteronomy restates much of this.

35:13 Six cities – three beyond the Jordan and three in the land of Canaan. What follows is numerous examples of what constitutes murder with iron, stone, wood.  This deals with intentionality. See: Rise Up and Kill Them First by Ronan Bergman -.  This is the secret history of the Shin Bet and Mossad assassination programs. The title is from the Talmud “If someone should come to kill you rise up and kill them first.”

35:22 Remaining in the city of refuge. When the killer may be protected. Note the power of the high priest.

35:29 The testimony of witnesses. There must be more than one for a conviction of murder or, indeed, any capital crime.  Note verse 33 –“… you shall not pollute the land… for blood pollutes the land… “ Remember that this is written in Babylonia and the Israelites were disenfranchised. The Talmud says that a Sanhedrin that decrees death once in seven years shall be discharged, or even every seventy years according to the Rabbi being quoted. There was great concern about the death sentence. Judaism is about using the Torah as a starting point and then refining by argument and discussion. See Essay on The Pursuit of Justice on page 1308.


Torah Study 8-4-18

August 4, 2018


Presiding: Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Statements were requested by Rabbi as to why SF, PC and LL are attending Torah class. Sam gave a very in depth reply with the focus on learning to become a better person; Paul seeks intellectual companionship and learning “With people smarter than me.” I expressed my interest in religion as a historical force on humankind generally and in Judaism and the Jewish community. This is Rabbi Altman’s second Torah Study class at Vassar Temple

Page 1232

Deuteronomy -Eikev

9:4: Moses explains why the people are being given this land. It is the covenant with A, I and J. They are reminded that the people before them have been wicked and therefore are to be ousted. But they could be ousted as well. This is a demand for ethical behavior in addition to a demand for monotheism. This also has to do with the nature of gratitude. Is good fortune our doing? Or are there other forces involved. If they do not follow these commandments the land will spew them out. (LL: Much of this section is written in the first person. Moses is speaking and refers to himself as “I” These are sermons and speeches delivered by him.) SN: It is unfortunate that many if not most of the benefits inuring to the Israelites come at the expense of other peoples. Rabbi A: We cannot look at all of this through a modern lens. It is sacred text. PC: Looks like G fell down on the job here in terms of delivering on his promises. So much human suffering.  SF How are we not despairing here? We do it by ethical learning and improving ourselves. LL This is proto Judaism. We live in a rabbinic world.  Judaism has evolved into an intellectual process of examination of text and self.   SF Morning prayers asks that G treat us with compassion, mercy and justice etc. But that is about how we should treat one another.

9:8 An account of M’s experience on Sinai. See Essays starting on page 1241. This recitation repeats the account in Exodus 31 et sec. The incident of the Golden Calf.  Was M right or wrong in smashing the tablets?  Did he have a right to do that? See Midrash handout from the Babylonian Talmud, Exodus and Deutronomy. In M’s view the people broke the covenant and therefore were no longer entitled to the laws. G commended M for his action. See text from Exodus – referring to the “oral law” comprising Halakha, Midrash and Aggadah. The fact that M writes the second set of tablets indicates a partnership between G and M and hence between G and Man. SF: In Mussar anger is one of the highest forms of idolatry. SN Anger can motivate us to do good things. SF Maimonides talks about countering anger by doing the right thing – here that would be carving the second set of tablets. Rabbi A:  It is believed that M came down the mountain the second time on Yom Kippur.   LL: This section repeats the account in Exodus from 30:12 et sec.

From Wikipedia: Deuteronomy is traditionally seen as the words of Moses delivered before the conquest of Canaan, a broad consensus of modern scholars see its origin in traditions from the Northern Kingdom brought south to the Kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Assyrian conquest (8th century BC) and then adapted to a program of nationalist reform in the time of Josiah (late 7th century BC), with the final form of the modern book emerging in the milieu of the return from the Babylonian captivity during the late 6th century BC.[3] Many scholars see the book as reflecting the economic needs and social status of the Levite caste, who are believed to have provided its authors; those likely authors are collectively referred to as the Deuteronomist.


Cantor Laura Stein thanks Vassar Temple

By Laura Stein, Friday June 22, 2018

I wanted to be a cantor my whole life. After I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah and chanted Torah for the first time, I was hooked. In high school, I interned at my home synagogue, attended the URJ’s Kutz Camp to learn guitar and songleading, and started serious vocal training – all in anticipation of one day attending cantorial school. Would you believe that I even wrote my college entrance essay – early admission to Washington University in St. Louis – on my dream of becoming a cantor and on how their liberal arts curriculum would help me get there? And it worked! They let me in and then I spent four years studying Spanish literature…

All joking aside, arriving at my cantorial ordination was a lifelong dream. And yet, it posed challenges I hadn’t accounted for. During my second year of cantorial school at HUC, I was unhappier than I had ever been before. I was working at a pulpit in the Northeast where I didn’t feel particularly appreciated or utilized, and hadn’t found a mentor in any of my co-clergy. Congregational life was unconvincing. During the week in my classes, I felt unstimulated and disconnected from the teachers and their values. Academically, I found cantorial school to be pretty lackluster. Was this what cantorial life was like? This wasn’t what I had envisioned. And so, like I had before, I followed my heart, took a big leap, and asked those around me to trust and support what I was about to do. I walked just four blocks over to NYU and handed in an application for social work school, the addition to my career I felt I needed. On the walk back to HUC from the NYU admissions office, I called my parents and told them what I had done. Their response was “wait. Did we agree to pay for that?!” I said, “I don’t care what you do. I have to go.”

I simultaneously quit my Northeast pulpit for the following year and got accepted to NYU for an MSW. That following year, my 3rd year of school, was now filled with a lot of social sciences classes and no connection to pulpit life. To say that I was a bit shell shocked would be an understatement. I was so lost that year, more lost than I wanted to admit. I wasn’t “Cantorial Intern Laura Stein” at any synagogue. I mean, I didn’t want to be and…now I wasn’t. So shouldn’t I have been happier?

Then an email arrived. It was May, the end of my 3rd year of school – a year during which I felt suspended in mid-air somewhere between the identity of a cantor and the identity of a social worker. HUC’s student placement director emailed the entire cantorial school asking if anyone wanted to make the trip up to Poughkeepsie five times the next year. It wasn’t a formal internship, she said, just a way to introduce HUC life to the congregation and show them what a cantorial intern or a cantor could bring. I responded hesitantly. “You don’t like congregational life, remember?” I told myself as I sent the email. “You want to be a social worker who just sings sometimes, remember?” I sent the email anyway. Something pulled me toward Vassar.

And so, I came last year five times, as I was contracted to do. It was supposed to be a short stint – just a way to show the congregation what an HUC student could do, and try to sell cantorial music and the value of having a cantor. And yet – it wasn’t a short stint. That email that I responded to oh-so-hesitantly changed my life.

I said this to Rabbi Berkowitz on the phone the other day – that this internship changed my professional trajectory – and she said, “Wait, really? I didn’t know that!” I don’t think I’ve shared that with the congregation, since my job doesn’t include much speaking from the bimah. So let me take this time to tell you: This congregation is the home I had been looking for during my five years at HUC. Leah – you are the mentor I had been waiting for during my five years at HUC. Joe – you are the musical partner I was waiting for during my five years at HUC. And you: the congregants. All of you were the voices I had been waiting for. The people who’d sing back when I said “now your turn!” The people who’d watch my recital online and support me as I finished my graduate school journey.

I want to thank the music committee, the ritual committee and all of the people who brought me into the Vassar Temple family and made it possible for me to find home among you. I want to thank all of you who have invited me into your prayer life, into your homes, and into your lives in general, so that I could be on your Jewish journeys with you.

It’s hard for me to believe that I was here for two years. After my first pulpit and my first year at NYU, I said I would never find another home. But Vassar found me. I now see myself as a cantor who can work in congregational life. This wonderful community has taught me that integrity can exist in synagogue life and that Judaism is alive and well.

Thank you for everything you have given to me. V’yarechecha – May God Bless all of you.

Cantor Laura Stein

When will we be able to bensch gomel for gun violence?

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Tzav and the March for Our Lives. Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

This week’s Torah portion continues our conversation about the zevach sh’lamim, the offering of well-being. Parashat Tzav separates this offering into three categories: n’davah, a voluntary offering; neder, a votive offering; and todah, a thanksgiving offering. Each offering is sacrificed at a time when one wants to acknowledge God as the source of one’s good fortune.

What makes the todah offering different from the other sh’lamim offerings is that this offering is made when a person or family has survived a treacherous situation, such as a long journey or a life-threatening illness.

While we no longer offer such sacrifices–or any sacrifices, for that matter–the rabbis transformed the practice of the todah offering into a prayer some Jews know as bensching gomel. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah and Rav tell us: “Four must offer thanks to God with a thanks-offering [by this time, “offering” probably meant giving to charity] and a special blessing. They are: Seafarers, those who walk in the desert, and one who was ill and recovered, and one who was incarcerated in prison and went out” (Berachot 54b). They add that this should be done in front of a minyan, a community of at least ten adult Jews, who, like the neighbors with whom one shared the todah offering, bore witness to the miracle and shared in the survivor’s joy.

While we don’t do it too often in our congregation, nowadays it is customary for a person or family who has survived an ordeal—an illness, an injury, an accident, or a long journey—to come up to the bimah and recite these words: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, sheg’malanu kol tov. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us. The congregation then responds Amen, adding, Mi sheg’malchem kol tov, Hu yigmolchem kol tov. Selah. May the One who has bestowed goodness upon us continue to bestow every goodness upon us forever! This blessing appears in our liturgy right after Mi Shebeirach, a reminder that, just as we plead for help when we are in distress, so should we give thanks we have come through a dark time.

The custom of bensching gomel may help us to process any guilt we might feel, for surviving when others did not. It might be a space in which we can express both our profound relief, and our lingering fear. For the community, hearing this prayer reminds us that life is fragile, and that everything can change in an instant. Thus, we must be grateful for every moment we are not bensching gomel.

I thought of this prayer this week, when reading about yet another school shooting, this time in Great Mills High School in Maryland. When someone told me that another school had been attacked, I braced myself for the worst. But nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when I read that the gunman had been taken down by the school resource officer, and that only two students had been shot. At that time, there had not been any fatalities aside from that of the shooter, though this morning, I learned that one of the victims has now died.

But in that moment, all I could think was: Thank God. I felt relieved. I was relieved that it hadn’t been worse. I was relieved that it hadn’t happened here, or to anyone I know. This feeling of relief is yet another indication that such incidents have become far too common.

Our rabbis taught us to give thanks for surviving illness, incarceration, and dangerous journeys. How long before we are bensching gomel for surviving a week at school?

Over the course of my adult life, I have watched the occasional tragedy turn into an epidemic. I graduated from high school less than two months after the Columbine High School massacre, in which twelve students and one teacher were killed, in addition to the gunmen. This shooting was the first of its kind, and sent us into a tailspin over gun violence, bullying, mental health, heavy metal music, goth culture, and violent video games. Measures were taken to reduce bullying and ensure school safety—someone I knew was banned from attending prom for making a joke about selling guns in school. But there was not a single student protest in 1999 that I can remember.

Recently, a contemporary of mine asked why we did not take to the streets, as high school students are preparing to do right now, all over the country. Some said it was because we didn’t have access to social media at that time, and it would have been difficult to coordinate action both within and between schools.

But I had a different realization: we didn’t take to the streets because we had every reason to believe that this massacre was an isolated incident. We had no reason to believe that something like this—something that had never really happened before—was likely to happen again, or often. We certainly didn’t have any reason to believe that it would happen 17 times in three months, as it has this year. And we didn’t have any reason to believe that the adults in our lives, including our nation’s leaders, would not do anything to protect us from harm.

But less than 20 years later, I find myself sighing with relief, giving thanks to God, that at least only two people were shot this time. At least one of them survived. At least the school resource officer did his job. At least this shooter only had a handgun. School shootings and mass shootings have become commonplace. But we must never allow them to become acceptable.

The North American Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY, has for many years run a campaign on Gun Violence Prevention. Now, the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as leaders in the national conversation on school safety and gun violence prevention. It is no wonder that our children are taking to the streets. We have failed them.

These students are not protesting because their classmates were killed. They are not protesting because they do not feel safe at school. These students are protesting because there are simple and concrete ways that we, as a society, could stop this from happening, and we have refused to do so.

Samantha Haviland, a survivor of the Columbine shootings who is now a school counselor, expressed a similar sentiment: “Nineteen years ago when Columbine happened, we didn’t understand it. We were shocked by it. We didn’t think this was a thing. We thought we were outliers…We adults, myself and my generation, have failed these students where we have learned this is a thing and we still haven’t done anything.”

After the nation-wide school walk-out on March 14th, some students in our high school program mentioned that their teachers told them that instead of “walking out,” they should “walk up” to students who look lonely or isolated, as many school shooters were reported to have been. Encouraging students to be kind and welcoming and compassionate is never a bad thing. But telling them that kindness will serve in place of common sense gun laws is ridiculous. Similarly, encouraging teachers to carry guns in place of providing real school security measures and mental health resources is unconscionable.

I mention these proposed solutions in the same breath because they are two sides of the same coin. Both suggestions place the burden of preventing school shootings on the shoulders of the victims. Don’t our students, and our teachers, already have enough to worry about? Isn’t hard enough to be a teenager without having to prevent gun violence on your own? Isn’t it hard enough to teach teenagers, without also having to be prepared to take on a gunman? Both proposals are attempts to shift the responsibility from where it belongs: it belongs on us.

At some point, we have to think long and hard about what we owe to our children. We have to decide whether we truly believe that we, as a nation, are responsible for their safety. We have to decide whether we, as parents, educators, and concerned citizens, would really do anything to protect our children from harm. Because if that is what we believe, then we are failing them every time we do nothing.

If we believe that our children deserve to be safe at school, then we need to advocate for increased funding for our schools in general, and for mental health and security in particular. We need to fight for common sense gun laws that ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines. We need to close loopholes that allow purchasers to sidestep background checks and restraining orders. We need to promote research on gun violence as a public health crisis. And in order to do this, we need to hold our local, state, and national leaders accountable for prioritizing donations from the NRA over the lives of our children.

I won’t be joining the March for Our Lives tomorrow—except in spirit—because I’ll be celebrating a bar mitzvah. We are welcoming one of our children into the covenant of Jewish adulthood, and in the process leading up to this moment he’s learned a lot about being responsible and caring for others in our community. As we celebrate with him, I ask us to consider: Are we modeling responsibility and concern for our community for him and his peers? And are we doing everything we can to ensure that they will grow up in a safer world than we have currently put in front of them? Or are we turning our faces away?

Tonight, we are going to sing one of my favorite healing songs tonight, “Don’t Hide Your Face from Me.” The words come from a psalm asking God to be present with us, and answer us in our time of distress. This is, in essence, what our young people are doing. They cannot offer praise to God for their survival, because every day we are still putting their lives at risk. They are asking us, from a place of deep pain and trauma, to stand with them, to care for them, and to help them to emerge from this dark place to a future free from violence and fear.

How will we answer?

When the Ordinary Becomes Tragic, and the Tragic Becomes Ordinary

A d’var Torah on parashat Terumah, in response to this week’s shooting in Parkland, FL. For the Jewish texts, I relied heavily on Dena Weiss’s “From Table to Grave.” Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which means “gift,” and it refers to the gifts that God requests from the Israelites for the purpose of building the mishkan. The mishkan is a dwelling place for God, also called a mikdash, or holy place. The Torah tells us:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved….and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:1-9).

The instructions that follow deal with the interior furnishings—the ark, the table, and the menorah—as well as the external structure—the coverings, frames, and textiles, the altar and the enclosure.

The juxtaposition of the instructions for the aron, the Ark of the Covenant, and the shulchan, the table for the bread of display, caught the attention of 14th century Spanish Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, and reminded him of a peculiar custom of his French neighbors:

“It is the practice of the pious in France that they make their casket ([also called an] aron) for burial out of their table. [They do this] to show that a person will not take anything in his hand and nothing of his labor will accompany him, except for the tzedaka that he did in his life and the goodness he bestowed at his table. Therefore the Rabbis said, ‘One who sits at his table has his days and years lengthened’ (Berakhot 54b).”

At first glance, this custom reminded me of a story I told last month at Tisch Shabbat, in which a miserly man finds himself poor and hungry in olam habah, the afterlife, because he didn’t send anything ahead for himself (except for a piece of cake that had fallen on the ground). Whether we believe in such a model for the afterlife or not, stories like this remind us to share what we have while we are here, because we can’t take anything with us when we go.

This custom is, in a way, one step beyond the humility normally required in a Jewish burial. While our custom is to bury our loved ones in a plain pine box, here the aron must not only be plain, but recycled.

While for Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, the connection between ark and table signifies what awaits us after our death, forDena Weiss of Mechon Hadar, this custom might impact how we live our lives. An aron is a place of storage, whether we are talking about the Ark of the Covenant, our household closets, or our final resting place. As such, an aron has a sense of permanence and stasis, rather than of change and movement. A table, on the other hand, is “the domain of the temporary,” and as such, items—and people—are in constant motion, coming to the table, and being cleared away. Weiss writes:

“If your table becomes your coffin when you die, every time you see your table, eat at your table, set something upon it, or remove something from it, you are reminded that you are still alive. So long as your table is still a table, it is not a coffin, and you still have the option to do what you want and need to do with the days that remain. Yes, life is short, but it is not over.”

I had this realization myself about a year ago, when I asked the funeral director for a ride to a graveside burial during a snowstorm. He ended up putting me in the hearse. Someone later asked me what it was like, and I said, “Well, if you’re in the front seat, I guess there’s nothing to complain about.”

Sometimes it takes riding in a hearse, having a near miss, or realizing that your table will be your coffin, to shake us out of the fog of routine that keeps us from seeing clearly.

Weiss tells us that, if we let habit control our lives, our table can easily become a coffin in our lifetime. However, she adds, the reverse is also true: “You can look at your life’s course, look at your habits, and decide to revive what feels dead, hopeless, and irrelevant.”

When I initially read this interpretation of the Torah portion, I planned to give a lovely, upbeat little drash on how we can transform our coffin-like ways to a more table-like existence of movement, possibility, and generosity. And I hope that you do take that message away with you. I hope you take time this Shabbat to think about how you can make sure you are living your life fully present at the table, and not with one foot already in your coffin.

But this week, in the wake of the 18th school shooting in 2018, I can’t help thinking about how easily one’s table can become one’s coffin. On Wednesday morning, thousands of high schoolers in Parkland, FL woke up, probably reluctantly, checked their social media, showered, got dressed, did their hair and makeup, grabbed something for breakfast as they rushed out the door. It was Valentines’ Day: maybe they were engrossed in some romantic drama, their own or their friends’. It was Ash Wednesday: Maybe some of them stopped at Church on their way to school, felt the priest’s thumb on their forehead as they said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How many of them fought with their parents over hugging or kissing goodbye, since, as far as they knew, it was just going to be an ordinary day?


What ordinary coursework were they studying—or not studying—when the fire alarm went off? How many of them were staring at the clock, willing it to be the end of the school day, as they always did, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the campus, armed with an AR-15, and began shooting?

Nearly 3,000 students went to school that morning, thinking it was an ordinary day. As of this writing, 17 of them will only come home in a coffin. Many others have been injured, and for everyone at that school, their family, their friends, and their neighbors—life as they know it has been changed forever.

All of these children are our children, but particularly close to our hearts in the Reform Jewish community was Alyssa Alhadeff, a fourteen-year-old freshman who spent her summers at URJ Camp Coleman. Her cousins go to synagogue with my cousins, at the Reform Temple of Rockland, just over an hour from here. She is part of our family.

Her mother, Lori Alhadeff, wrote on social media:

16victims-alyssa-master180“My Daughter Alyssa was killed today by a horrific act of violence. I just sent her to school and she was shot and killed. Alyssa was a talented soccer player, so smart, an amazing personality, incredible creative writer, and all she had to offer the world was love. She believed in people for being so honest. A knife is stabbed in my heart. I wish I could [have] taken those bullets for you. I will always love you and your memory will live on forever. Please kiss your children, tell them you love them, stand by them no matter what they want to be. To Alyssa’s Friends honor Alyssa by doing something fabulous in your life. Don’t ever give up and inspire for greatness. Live for Alyssa! Be her voice and breathe for her. Alyssa loved you all forever!”

Alyssa’s death, and the death of her classmates, is a painful reminder of how quickly our table—our ordinary routine—can become our coffin. But it is also a disturbing reminder that our coffin has become our table.

This is the 18th school shooting in the first six weeks of 2018. That means that, on average, children are being shot in our schools three times a week. We have allowed the tragic to become the ordinary.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As long as we are still alive, we owe it to those who have died to use our voices and our votes and our resources to bring about meaningful change.

This might take many forms. We can advocate for safer schools, not just with the presence of metal detectors and law enforcement, but with funding for social workers and psychologists who can address mental health issues, at school and at home, before they lead to tragedies like this one.

We can advocate for better mental health care in our communities, something that is always on the chopping block in state and national conversations about health care.

And we can and should demand sensible gun laws, particularly regarding background checks and the sale of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons. Many recent shootings have been carried out with AR-15s, what some call a consumer version of a military-grade weapon. It is lightweight, affordable, and capable of penetrating a human body and the wall behind it. It can quickly fire off multiple rounds, particularly when modified with a bump stock, which is also legal, despite attempts to ban them following the Las Vegas shooting in 2017.

An AR-15 is not a handgun. An AR-15 is not a hunting rifle. An AR-15 is designed to kill people, quickly and efficiently, and it can legally be purchased many places in the United States. AR-15s, as “semi-automatic assault rifles,” were part of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Now they part of the epidemic that is killing our children, nearly three times a week on average. We have allowed them to become ordinary.

But as long as we are alive, we can still, as Dena Weiss suggests, “look at the priorities that [we] have stored away in [our] closet and restore them to [our] table.” After Shabbat, I encourage you to visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Everytown for Gun Safety to learn more about what you can do to remove the stain of gun violence from our table.

I offer, in closing, the words of Rabbi David Wirtschafter:

“It is the word gift, t’rumah, … that this Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, takes its name. The slaughter of more young people, the squandering of yet more gifts, constitutes a level of grief that we cannot accept. The spilling of innocent blood can never become acceptable. It can not be tolerated, rationalized, trivialized, marginalized, or stoically endured. No one should have to endure it. So, may every person, whose heart so moves us, consider the cost of our current state of affairs.

May we be moved to ask if this is how God intended us to use the gift of life.

May we be moved to go beyond thoughts and prayers.

May we be moved to act on behalf of our children, our students, our neighbors, and our communities to demand a more responsible use of our most precious resource.

Children are among God’s greatest gifts to us.

Our ability to cherish, protect, nurture, love, and value them, is among the greatest gifts we have to offer in return.

To receive a gift is to accept the promise that comes with it.

To give a gift is to express the expectation that it will be received with gratitude and utilized responsibly.

For the sake of our children, past, present, and future let us become better guardians of our gifts. May this be our blessing, and let us say: