The news is often depressing. Many of the stories involve human failure to listen, to think, to care, or to act. Some of them are also natural disasters, infinitely complicated by human failures. It’s so, so sad.

So it lifted my heart today to see something new in my garden: a brand-new monarch butterfly drying out his wings. This creature just emerged from his chrysalis and was taking advantage of the noontime sun, getting his wings ready for flight:


He is sitting on a grape leaf, the leaf under which his chrysalis hung for the last little while:


“Well, how nice, rabbi,” some of you may be thinking. “But what does a butterfly have to do with all the grief in the world today? How can people change enough to make any difference at all?”

Change is hard. Ask the butterfly – he had to struggle to get out of that jade box! For him, transformation was inevitable: nature had hard-wired it into his system. For human beings, change is harder. We are stubborn, and sure of our own ideas.

In Jewish tradition, this is where prayer comes into the picture. Human beings rarely change on their own in Torah: they change when they come into contact with the Divine, with that which is greater than themselves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it so much better than I ever will, so I will finish with a quote from the introduction to his Siddur:

When, at the end of his vision, Jacob opened his eyes, he said with a sense of awe: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” That is what prayer does. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of God. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. God exists where we pray. As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.

That’s why I pray, today and every day, for a world in which justice is available to every person, a world in which wisdom and goodness win out over foolishness and meanness. I pray for change, beginning with me.

The Magic of the Minyan


I started my day with the Tuesday Morning Minyan, and at sundown, I will join a shiva minyan at the home of a bereaved gentleman in our congregation. In the morning we had learning, and prayers, and then coffee with the guys (this week they were all guys, except me.) In the evening, we’ll have some quiet visiting, and prayers, and then some nosh and more quiet visiting.

“Minyan” literally means “a quorum for Jewish prayer, or 10,” but beneath the surface, it means so much more:

– a group that comes together daily or regularly to pray and share the connections of community

– a group that comes together to comfort the mourners among us

– a group that can represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, standing before God in prayer

– a group of Jewish adults: the magic about the age of 13 for bar mitzvah is that that’s the age at which one counts for the minyan

– a group of Jewish adults: when women began to “count for a minyan,” it was a major step forward for liberal Jewish women

– Ten: the minimum number to say certain important prayers, such as Kaddish and the Barechu blessings

– Ten: the number needed for certain important activities, like reading Torah.

Why ten? The traditional answer is that that is the number of the “spies” who persuaded the Israelites that the Land was too scary to enter in Numbers 13-14. God refers to them as eda’ah hara’ah hazot – “this bad congregation.” (Num. 14:27) Their number was sufficient to drown out the good report of Caleb and Joshua; ultimately their voices spoke for the whole people.

I like to think of it in a more positive way: ten is the number of toes on my feet. A person who loses a toe can still walk, but balance will be impaired and speed will be impaired. Even the little toe is critical for the complex architecture of our feet. In the same way, each member is critical to the functioning of the minyan, from the 13 year old awash in hormones to the 93 year old who cannot see the prayer book anymore. Each has a part to play, even though it may be mysterious to us.

I knew everyone at the minyan this morning; odds are, I won’t know many people at the minyan tonight. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the presence of every person in the room. What matters, for the Jewish people, is that we show up.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry?


The Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about idol worship:

I will lay the corpses of the Israelites in front of their idols and scatter your bones around your altars. – Ezekiel 6:5

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. –Isaiah 44:9

Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. – Jeremiah 11:12

And of course, there is the direct commandment against idolatry in the Torah:

You are not to have any other gods before my Presence. You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them, for I the Eternal you God am a jealous God. – Exodus 20:3-5

So sometimes visitors are surprised to attend services in a synagogue and see Jews carrying the Torah with reverence, touching it, and even touching it and then kissing their fingers. Isn’t that idolatry?

I like what my friend Rabbi David J. Cooper has written about this: “…if it does seem like idolatry to you, you should definitely not kiss the Torah.” If any custom or even a mitzvah feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Wait, study, and talk with a teacher that you trust. If it continues to feel wrong, trust your conscience.

Many people, myself included, kiss the Torah. I also touch the mezuzah when I go through a doorway. Here are two things to know about this practice:

Kissing any religious object (the Torah, a mezuzah, the fringes on a tallit) is not an obligation. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to do it. It is a practice that is meaningful to some Jews and not to others.

There are many reasons for this kissing. If you ask four Jews “why kiss?” you will probably get at least five answers.

Why do I kiss the Torah when it passes by me? I kiss it out of love and reverence for what it represents.  To me, it represents the centuries of Jewish striving towards holiness, centuries of struggling with a book that is passed through imperfect human hands. The Torah itself is not holy; it is a signpost that points towards holiness. When I touch it and kiss my fingers, I remind myself that it is my compass, pointing towards that which I seek.

Other Jews will have other answers. If you are Jewish, dear reader, what do you do when the Torah passes by you during the service? Do you kiss it? Why or why not?

I’m looking forward to your comments.

Psalm For a Very Dark Night

"another sleepless night" by elias quezada, some rights reserved

Today was an awful news day, with terrible events that left families in mourning.

Jewish tradition has given us the book of Psalms, ancient prayers that address every imaginable human emotion.

Sometimes people are put off by the God-language, which may not align with their beliefs about God. However, if we focus on the Psalms as expressions of human experience, they can offer the comfort that we are never truly alone with our feelings. Whatever I feel, many others have had that hurt or that joy before me.

Here is Psalm 77.  The speaker is in agony and sleepless, and he describes it in terms that are still quite fresh.  He used to feel secure, but now he does not. On a day like today this Psalm speaks to me:

To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
    ¹ I cry aloud to God,
    aloud to God, that God may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Eternal;
    in the night my hand is stretched out without rest;
    my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
    I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah!

You keep my eyelids from closing;
    I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
    and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
    I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Eternal spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever?
    Are God’s promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has God in anger shut down compassion?” Selah!
10 And I say, “It is my grief
    that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Eternal;
    I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
    and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
    you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
    the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah!

16 When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Is there a psalm or a prayer that speaks to you during very difficult times? Why that particular one?

Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?

Blessing for a New Job


“Is there a blessing for a new job?”

I got this question from an old friend who is currently job-hunting. I hope that he has an occasion to bless his new job very soon.

The quick answer is yes, there’s always Shehecheyanu, the blessing for an unusual event, be it a holiday or even the taste of the first fruit of the season:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyemanu, v’higianu, lazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has given us life, protected us, and brought us to this moment.

But what about something more specific? The guy is a baby boomer like myself – we’re of an age now when getting a new job means triumphing over ageism and beating the odds. Getting a new job is a very big deal, and it speaks to dignity and survival. I think it should have its own special blessing:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shenatan li tikvah v’ko-ach v’he-vi oti l’avodah hadashah zo, kach ani yochal l’hitparnas.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who gives me hope and strength and has brought me to this new employment so that I may make a living.

May the day come when all people have the dignity of honest work for a sufficient wage and the sustenance of body and spirit it provides!

Praying for Rain, Drowning in Snow

New England has been hit with a huge snowstorm. I’ve seen it on the news: multiple feet of snow, snow billowing in the wind, filling up the screen. I know that it is causing a lot of suffering; I shudder to think what homelessness or poverty mean in weather like that.

And yet I have to confess that one of my emotions watching this news is envy.  I’m in California. The East is having biblical storms, and we are having biblical drought. As awful as that blizzard was, we’d need a few of them up in the Sierras before we could quit worrying about water here.

The phrase in Hebrew in the tweet is “who sends wind and causes the rain to fall.” It’s a prayer we say daily as part of the Amidah from Sukkot to Passover, asking for rain to fall, asking that winter be winter. So far, winter in California has been more like fall or spring: cool and breezy, but not much rain since December.  And winter “back East” and in the Midwest has been brutal and wet.

Our climate is out of whack. There’s a section of the Shema I think about a lot lately, one that the early Reformers ditched back in the 19th century because they felt it too “superstitious:”

And if you obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Eternal’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Eternal gives you. – Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Let’s leave the traditional understanding of that passage aside, just for a moment. Try this paraphrase of the last bit:

Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray from the commandments and worship alien gods (like power, money or convenience) and bow down to them (give them priority over the commandments.) For then there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish.

The last several years have been the hottest on record. Drought plagues the breadbasket of the nation and the eastern cities are awash in floods and snow. Perhaps, just perhaps, greed might have something to do with this. Convenience might have something to do with this. A desire to ride in my own car all by myself, no matter the cost, might have something to do with it. That’s what the scientists are saying; so much for “superstition.”

I have lost count of the number of my friends with cancer. I’m a baby boomer. We’ve been swimming in toxic chemicals all our lives, from dyes to food additives to pesticides and plastics. DDT wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Questionable stuff abounds in our air, our food, our water, and in our bodies. All of those things make money for someone, give power to someone, are convenient for someone. When “someone” is myself, it’s still cold comfort when the diagnosis comes.

Are money, power and convenience bad? Of course not, not in and of themselves. In excess, though, they can be a problem. When we put them before our ethics, yes, a problem.

One of the purposes of Jewish prayer is to make us more aware of the contradictions in our lives. If we say the Shema and pay attention to the meaning, every word of it will transform our lives. Same with the daily Amidah: say it and pay attention, and suddenly life will look different.

As for this one prayer for rain, I suggest to anyone who feels waterlogged that they might quietly add “b’California” (“in California”) to the line. We’re mighty dry.