Murky Sunset

SFBaySunset 8/15

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge fuel load in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger because they are rich in super-flammable oils. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather system may or may not bring the snow our system requires. Paleoclimate research by Dr. Lynn Ingram at UC Berkeley suggests that we are entering a period of prolonged drought: the “unusual weather” was the weather of the last 100 years, not this new and much drier weather. Ever since the snowpack water has gone, farmers in the Central Valley have been drawing on groundwater, a very limited resource that is also going dry. Many people in the Valley no longer have running water at home. Some species, like the Coho salmon, are now nearing extinction. And it is fair to say that this summer the state is burning up. Right this moment, 21 huge fires are burning across the state, only a few contained by firefighters (meaning that firefighters have managed to keep them from spreading, but they are still burning.)

What are we to do?

At least twice every day from the end of Sukkot to Passover, an observant Jew prays the words, “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.” [who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] It is a daily prayer for rain, composed originally in the Land of Israel, which has a climate much like ours in California. Rain falls mostly in the wintertime, and it is scarce enough to be a constant concern. So it became our practice to pray for rain in its season.

In the dry season, we pray for dew (“morid hatal”) which reminds us that the tiniest drop of moisture is precious. When we cannot expect rain, we must still pray for dew, so that life can continue. The very text of our prayer causes us to remain mindful of water, regardless of current circumstance.

According to the experts, a lack of mindfulness about water is a big part of our problem right now. We have consumed recklessly, assuming that the snow will come to the Sierras so that we can plant whatever and wherever we want. We can use water – a limited resource – in whatever way amuses us, and we act as if we can afford to waste it.

Some Jews also recite the verses from Deuteronomy that make up the “second paragraph” of the Shema in their daily prayers:

So if you listen carefully to my mitzvot which I am giving you today, to love the Eternal your God and serve him with all your heart and all your being; then I will give your land its rain at the right seasons, including the early fall rains and the late spring rains; so that you can gather in your wheat, new wine and olive oil; and I will give your fields grass for your livestock; with the result that you will eat and be satisfied.’  But be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of the Eternal will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land the Eternal is giving you. Therefore, you are to store up these words of mine in your heart and in all your being; tie them on your hand as a sign; put them on your forehead; teach them carefully to your children, saying them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up; and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates — so that you and your children will live long on the land the Eternal swore to your ancestors that he would give them for as long as there is sky above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Some may scoff and say, “Oh, rabbi, do you really think that drought is a punishment from God?” I believe that it is, given my understanding of “God.” When we disregard the laws of nature, when we act as if  we can consume resources at will, without concern for anything or anyone else, when we worship the idols of the market and technology, we court disaster.

What can we do? Prayer and study are a beginning. Let us listen to the words of our prayers as we say them, and remember that we are merely stewards of creation, not the owners of it. While some make a pshat (surface) reading of Genesis 1 and say, “Ahh, we can do whatever we want!” the rabbis have long cautioned us that this is an improper reading. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, we learn that:

God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

The words of Torah in our prayers teach us  that we are the stewards of creation. We have more important things to do than merely to consume goods and services. We must care for creation, and for one another, whether we do that by fighting fires or by conserving limited resources. We can do it in our homes and in the voting booth. We can do it with our choices about consumption and tzedakah.

It is not too late to change our ways.

Holiness in the Nail Parlor


I met a remarkable woman last month, and I spent time with her today. Delane Sims has a little business in my home town of San Leandro, Delane’s Natural Nail Care. If all she did was nails, hers would still be a remarkable shop because she is committed to healthy methods and to good labor practices.

I originally found Delane’s because I was tired of going to get my nails done and then fearing that the women working on my hands were slave labor and/or that I was going to acquire an infection or fungus. I did a search online and found this wonderful place just a mile from my home.

But when I met Delane herself, I was in for a real treat. She runs her business with a vision of health and wholeness, and treats her staff like human beings. But that isn’t all: she is the primary mover of not one but two programs that are changing this corner of the world for the better.

The first is Steps to Success, a program that seeks out low income single mothers and empowers them through education, mentoring, and sustainable job placement in the nail care industry. Graduates have gone into business for themselves, or used the employment in nail care as a springboard to other choices including college educations. All of that is accomplished with an emphasis and active mentoring on work/family balance!

Her other program is Senior Moments, which identifies and reaches out to isolated seniors in the community, matching them up with appropriate professional referrals and volunteers. Senior Moments partners with a number of community organizations to bring help to the elderly. Elders are prey to scammers, they are vulnerable to sudden changes in health and life situation, and they often have thin resources for coping when these things happen. Senior Moments sees to it that whatever their income, they are rich in available resources for help and connection.

Going to get my nails done at Delane’s is both relaxation and inspiration. The last time I went, I was inspired to volunteer to work in her programs. Today I stopped by for a pedicure and we wound up talking Torah and she reminded me of all the many opportunities we each have for doing good in the world, if we are but willing to see the image of the Holy One in the face of every person we encounter. Delane seems to have mastered the art of staying in that holy mindset full time.

If you happen to live in the San Francisco East Bay Area, consider making an appointment with Delane. I know you will leave with healthy fingers and toes. I suspect your heart will have had a makeover as well: I know that mine gets one every time I see her.

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish


A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

A New New Year’s Resolution

resolutionConsidering New Year’s resolutions for the upcoming secular holiday?

You can make the same old resolution (lose weight, exercise, save money, etc) or you could try something new.

For those readers who are considering a new New Year’s resolution, let me offer you some possibilities:

Try a new mitzvah on this year. What mitzvah have you thought about but never actually taken on? Commit to trying out a new mitzvah, and give it a year. Here are some examples:

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a heavy subject! Learn to bake challah. Learn about the Jewish history of chocolate. Learn about Passover customs. See what your area synagogues and adult education programs are offering!

Read a book (or set a number of books.) It might be an ambitious commentary on Torah, but it might also be something a lot lighter. Some of my favorites:

Watch more Jewish films and discuss with friends

Are there other New Year’s resolutions you are considering to deepen or enhance your Jewish life? I invite you to share them with us in the comments!







What’s a Mitzvah?

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.


Why Mitzvot? Why bother?

I woke up this morning feeling that something was missing from my last post. I realized that while last night I answered the question about the 613 mitzvot, I forgot to include something important: why keep mitzvot? Why bother with a long list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” many of which don’t even apply in our century?

The answer to that question is imbedded in the words of blessing that we say before doing many mitzvot:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot

We keep mitzvot [observe the commandments] to make us holy, to continue the process of sanctifying our lives.

In the 21st century western world, there are no kosher cops to swoop down and arrest you for working on Shavuot. There are no mitzvah minders to report you to the Jewish Central Control if you choose not to say the bedtime Shema. Individual Jewish communities may employ peer pressure, or even (God forbid) violence to attempt to enforce their particular understanding of a mitzvah but even in the Jewish state of Israel, if you eat a bacon cheeseburger while wearing a bikini in public on Yom Kippur, it’s basically your own business.

There are some mitzvot, called Mishpatim [Laws,] that are self-evident rules for an orderly society. We may argue about the interpretation of “Do not commit murder” and “Do not steal” but most civil societies have incorporated them into their laws. If you rob banks and get caught at it, the kosher cops won’t get you but the regular city police will!

Other mitzvot, called Edot, [Testimonies], call to mind the Jewish worldview and story. We do them to remember narratives and to continue learning from those narratives. That’s the reason we eat matzah on Passover: we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and in doing so, continue to apply the lessons learned in our present day world.

The last group of mitzvot, Chukim [Decrees] appear to have no reason at all other than that it says in Torah that God commanded them. For instance, we can talk about possible reasons “why” the laws of kashrut, but really, that is speculation. God said, “Don’t eat pigs.” (Leviticus 11:7) Again, there are no mitzvah moderators to come get you if you chow down on pork BBQ. But Jews can argue (for hours!) about how exactly to interpret the mitzvot. (OK, the rule about pigs is pretty clear cut.  But what if it comes into conflict with respect for a parent who insists on serving bacon and who feels hurt if you don’t eat it? There’s always room for a discussion.)

So why bother? Again, it’s for the pursuit of holiness, and the mitzvot are a framework within which we seek holiness. If you ask a Jew why he keeps a particular one of the chukim, he might say, “It’s the tradition” or “In solidarity with other Jews” or “it’s how I was raised” or “it’s a spiritual discipline.” Or she may say, “To heal the broken world.”

Keeping all the available mitzvot all the time is a huge, life-consuming task. Ask anyone who is shlepping children (“be fruitful and multiply”) to Hebrew school (“teach your children Torah”) while reading labels carefully to keep kosher (“Don’t eat stuff on this list”) and getting ready for Passover (Oy Vey!). Because not only must she (or he!) do all that, he (or she!) must do it while being honest it all dealings, kind to animals, respectful to parents, without embarrassing anyone, not giving scandal to outsiders… on and on. If you look at the whole list, it’s like juggling 613 (or even just 245) plates in the air.

That’s the tricky bit about a life of mitzvot: observant Jews are always on the brink of failure, if not sitting on our behinds in the middle of the broken plates. Perfection is not the point. The point is the pursuit of a better Jew, and a better world – holiness.

You will meet Jews who have completely given up on most of it. You will meet Jews who say, “I will keep this mitzvah, but I can’t possibly do that one at this time.” You will meet Jews who say, “I am only going to try to keep these mitzvot, and the rest of them just seem like overkill.” You will meet Jews who say, “I disagree with the traditional interpretation of that mitzvah, so I am going to follow a different interpretation.” You may be one of those Jews – actually, in a long Jewish life it would be very surprising if you weren’t one of them sometimes.

Don’t judge any of them. Nor take it to heart if someone says to you that you are a “bad Jew” if you don’t juggle all the plates, their way, all the time. But you may find, as you add one mitzvah after another to your life, slowly and carefully, that you like the changes you see, in yourself, in your home, and in the world.

Start with one. Change the world.

Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?


A reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot.

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613.

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe?

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet?

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.'” (Is 56:1)