Author Archives: Hazzan Jesse Holzer

Yizkor- Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something of You

At a Jewish wedding, we greet everyone, from the bride and groom to the C list guest with the greeting, “Mazal tov!” So today, in addition to Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach, and Gut Yuntif, today, Shavuot, our wedding day to torah and to God, I greet all of you with a heartfelt “Mazal tov!” 

There’s a rhyme you may have heard from the wedding day, that brides should wear (or carry) “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” It’s actually a great guide for most of our traditions to maintain meaning over time. Most of our rituals have elements of old, new, borrowed and, well, blue…

Something old: 

The roots of Yizkor are found in the Midrash Tanchuma of the 8th or 9th century. In its section on parashat Ha’azinu, Moses’ swan song, it cites Deuteronomy 21:8, “Atone for Your people, Israel, whom You have redeemed.” We are told that the first part of the verse refers to the living of Israel, while the second part refers to the deceased. The Midrash continues, “Therefore, our practice is to remember the deceased on Yom Kippur by pledging charity on their behalf.” We are then told not to think that charity no longer helps the departed. Rather, when one pledges charity on the deceased’s behalf, he ascends as quickly as an arrow shot from a bow.

Yizkor was extended from Yom Kippur alone to the three Festivals, which is thematically appropriate. The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 16:16-17) that when we make our pilgrimage to the Temple for the holidays, we are not to appear empty-handed. Each person was to make a donation according to his ability. We see from this that charity is also an integral part of the Festivals and therefore a fitting occasion for Yizkor with its emphasis on charity as a merit for the departed.

Yizkor extended beyond this idea of offering tzedaka when it added a commemoration for the Jewish martyrs slain during the First and Second Crusades.  A special prayer, Av HaRahamim (Ancestor of Mercies), probably composed as a eulogy for communities destroyed in the Crusades of 1096, is often still recited by the congregation as a memorial for all Jewish martyrs.

Something blue– this wedding tradition originated as a way to ward off the evil eye. We have that in our Yizkor service as well, as a powerful superstition pervades the community: If your parents were alive, you didn’t stay for Yizkor. God forbid, you should tempt the ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, by hearing and seeing others mourn for their departed. This came into play primarily for the section of the yizkor prayers in which individuals read silently recalling the deceased. There are paragraphs for a father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, other relatives and friends, and Jewish martyrs. During the service, each person reads the appropriate paragraph(s). 

While the custom of leaving yizkor still exists today, the rabbis remind us that there are prayers at the end that are recited for victims of the Holocaust and other martyrs; for members of our community;  these apply to all members of the congregation, not just to those who have lost close family members. Some would advise staying inside in order to recite those prayers, or to go out and return for them. Something blue- we’ll come back to this. 

Something borrowed:

The custom of commemorating martyrs by reciting their names and praying for their repose was borrowed directly from the Christian Church. From the 4th century onwards it was the practice of the Church, during the celebration of the Mass, to offer a special prayer for local martyrs and deceased dignitaries, their names being read out from a diptych—that is, from two wooden boards folded together like the pages of a book. 

Something new, or as I’d like to call it, something of you:

Yizkor is a very personal experience. Without you, it doesn’t exist.

As in the book May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism—Yizkor,Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand writes:

Judaism also embraces the idea of collective memory…The assertion that we all stood during the revelation at Sinai is a profound statement that all Jews are bound together in a shared autobiographical experience.

This focus on communal memory makes the Yizkor ceremony all the more striking, for Yizkor is the one moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar when what matters is not communal but individual memory, each of us standing personally consumed by singular memories of relatives and friends who have died. Unlike a funeral or shiva, where individual memories are shared publicly to fashion a collective mosaic of the person being remembered, Yizkor provides a communal space for inward memorializing. Why is it that Judaism, a religion so fully dedicated to communal memory, makes this regular exception when it comes to Yizkor?

Yizkor works differently. It is not intended as a time to sharpen our memories, for there is no corrective of physical evidence or balance provided by others’ recollections. Instead, Yizkor encourages an evolution of our own private ongoing relationship. Each time we recite Yizkor and remember, we deepen the parts of that relationship that sustain us, while forgetting those characteristics that do not.

Instead, Yizkor encourages an evolution of our own private ongoing relationship. Each time we recite Yizkor and remember, we deepen the parts of that relationship that sustain us, while forgetting those characteristics that do not.

We all have the capacity to, and responsibility to remember. 

 Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 1:3, teaches “Our children shall be our guarantors.”

 According to the Midrash, when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem asked for a guarantee that they would keep it. They replied, “Avoteinu orvim otanu” — “Our ancestors will be our guarantors.” When this was unacceptable, they offered, “Nevi’einu areivin lanu” — “Our prophets will be our guarantors.” This, too, Hashem did not accept. When they said “Baneinu orvim otanu” — “Our children will be our guarantors” — Hashem replied, “Indeed these are good guarantors. For their sake I will give it to you!

We are the guarantors – in continuing our collective tradition, and in perpetuating our own individual memories of those who impacted us. 

It’s been a little over 3 years since Rose Goldberg z’l passed away. In addition to seeing Rose on a regular basis on Shabbat morning, I’d often see her at the funerals of friends and community members. Knowing that most of our funerals take place in the heat of the day, I’d often go over to Rose to offer a bottle of water after the service had concluded. She’d often decline the offer, but ask that we walk around to the graves of her loved ones to offer an el malei rachamim, memorial prayer. We would stop a number of times en route to the Zucker/Goldberg/Mibab section of our cemetery. “Let’s do an el malei for this person- they were a teacher”, “let’s do an el malei for this person, our clergy or ritual director” let’s do an el malei for this person, they were a mensch.” No family relation, but a 90 yr old woman, on a hot summer’s day, understood that even those not related in blood have a relationship with us, long after they are gone. 

I have two living parents, a living spouse, a living sibling and living children. Yet when I recite Yizkor, I remember a lot of people. I think of blood relatives – grandparents that I knew, grandparents I didn’t know so well, a grandparent I never knew…family members taken too soon. But I also take a moment to capture images of people who sat in these pews, regulars, the Rose Goldbergs, teachers and mentors of mine, and students of mine, who are no longer here, physically. Even as the sanctuary doesn’t appear to be filled, the seats fill up as if all of those I recall are sitting here, right with us. 

Biblical Historian Theodor Gaster wrote back in 1953:

To this time-honored idea the Jewish Yizkor service gives a new and arresting turn: by the very act of remembrance, oblivion and the limitations of the present are defied, death is made irrelevant, and a plane is established on which the dead do indeed meet and mingle with the living. The ceremony is transformed from a memorial of death into an affirmation of life.

Time stands still. And in that moment of silence are the sounds and sights of memory. From generations before us, an unending chain that affirms the impact of those we knew in life just as we know they continue to guide us after life. To those we remember today- may their memory and our memory of them, always serve as a blessing. 

Streaming the Holocaust

Growing up, a secret society met in our home. Members included husbands or wives sneaking away from their spouses, parents shunned by their children. Individuals long forsaken by society would come to our house because they possessed one unifying character trait: they loved sweet and sour tongue. My mother prepared the dish, and as witness to this prep I no longer have the stomach for the dish. The group was known as the “lashon tov” club, meaning “the good tongue” club, a play on the prohibition to gossip, aka to speak lashon hara, or “evil tongue.”

I learned a lot about Lashon Hara as I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat Hagadol, Parshat Metzora. In a strange quirk of our triennial cycle, this week we “read” Tazria Metzora, but because it’s the 1st year of our cycle, we don’t actually read from Metzora itself. And our haftarah is the special haftarah for Rosh Chodesh. So while we don’t speak these words this shabbat, it’s important to hear their message.

In Parshat Metzora, we encounter a skin ailment that spreads, just as gossip spreads from person to person. Our Rabbis concluded that there are different types of gossip so I’d like to take a moment to explore 3 in particular:

Lashon hara is defined as saying something negative about a person- through face-to-face conversation or by letter, email or text. These comments are mean spirited, but true. It’s because of that mean spirit that a local rabbi has a bumper sticker that says in hebrew “Lashon Hara- Lo Mdabeir Alai.” By contrast, motzi shem ra (lit. “putting out a bad name”) – is slander or defamation. Lies. Motzi shem ra is a greater sin than lashon hara. Lies are much easier to come by. We learn this in our weekday morning tractate of study:

The letters of the word truth (emet) rest on two legs [aleph -mem -, tav – ], while the letters of the word falsehood (sheker) have only one leg [shin -, kof – , resh -]. Truthful actions stand firm; actions based on falsehoods do not. The letters of emet are far apart [the first, middle, and last in the alphabet], whereas the letters of sheker are bunched together. Truth is hard to attain, but falsehood is readily at hand. III YALKUT SHIMONI, GENESIS, 3

And finally, there are times when a person is permitted or even required to disclose information whether or not the information is disparaging. For instance, if a person’s intent in sharing negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose that may serve as a warning to prevent harm or injustice, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply. 

Speaking up and speaking out against injustice and slanderous speech is not only allowed, it’s an imperative.

This could be a sermon about a whole boatload of contemporary topics and current events, from defamation suits to the unfortunate heavy workload of the Anti Defamation League, but I wanted to focus this Shabbat, as Tazria Metzora falls on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, on something very specific. 

The First Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel took place on December 28, 1949, following a decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that an annual memorial should take place on the Tenth of Tevet, a traditional day of mourning and fasting in the Hebrew calendar. In 1951, the Knesset began deliberations to choose a date for Holocaust Remembrance Day. On April 12, 1951, after also considering as possibilities the Tenth of Tevet, the 14th of Nisan, which is the day before Passover and the day on which the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943) began, and September 1, the date on which the Second World War began, the Knesset passed a resolution establishing the 27 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, a week after Passover, and eight days before Israel Independence Day as the annual Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day


This past Tuesday was Yom Hashoah, and this upcoming Monday night, our community gathers again to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, followed by Tuesday night, Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Having Yom Hashoah in the month of Nisan is strange to some- a month in which we omit tachanun, our daily supplication prayer, because we are on a spiritual high having left the bondage of Egypt en route to the promised land. Having a week “buffer” between the nationalist holidays of Passover and Independence Day means we Yom Hashoah does not get lost in a laundry list of “yoms.” And just as a yahrzeit can fall on any day of the Jewish calendar, from Purim to Hanukkah to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Hashoah falling on a day amidst joy reminds us to stop, reflect, and remember. 

As a child, our local kids choir, Kolei Shira, sang at one large performance each year in front of hundreds and hundreds. That was Yom Hashoah. Yom Hashoah also meant hearing the stories of Pinchas Gurevich and Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, two Holocaust survivors from our Jewish community in Massachusetts.

Amidst my own childhood, a number of seismic shifts happened in Holocaust awareness and observance in the late 80s and early 90s. Since 1988 in Poland, a memorial service has been held after a three-kilometer walk by thousands of participants from Auschwitz to Birkenau known as the March of the Living. The group just commemorated their 35th March a few days ago. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the places of memory- the sites where synagogues once stood, the sites where communities thrived for generations, the sites of ghettos and death camps of nazi occupied Europe, became more accessible. Visiting these sites became a powerful way to remember what Nazi propaganda led to. On this date, April 22, 1993, the US Holocaust Museum opened its doors, enabling each visitor to personalize in a small way the experience of someone who lived, and in many cases died, during the Holocaust.  

Places of memory. Museums to teach generations to come about the atrocities of the Shoah. These were two ways to remember and to tell the true story of what took place. A third was found in the world of cinema, as 1993 was the year that the movie Schindler’s List was released. Over the next 10 years, Hollywood would see a trio of Holocaust related movies recognized for the stories they told- Schindler’s list, winner of 7 Academy Awards including best picture, Life is Beautiful, starring Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni, and The Pianist, starring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody. All 3 stories humanized the victims of the Shoah. 

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a second seismic shift in holocaust education with the death of most survivors alongside the rise of antisemitism and new forms of propaganda. And so how do we connect to the holocaust so it doesn’t become just another page in Jewish history’s novel of martyrology? 

I mention these examples, created in my formative years, because they all had varying impacts on my life. To visit places of Jewish history- of life and of loss, was the most impactful Jewish experience of my life. Watching the Academy Award nominated films? Not so much. Not for me at least. But their importance on spreading truth to the masses is undeniable. And it reminds us that there can never be an oversaturation of Holocaust related resources to teach the next generation. Because we all connect in different ways.  

For some, it’s trying to understand the number 6 million, just as children in Whitwell Tennessee did when they collected 6 million paper clips some 20 years ago. Or it’s a statistic that sticks out- walk roughly 3 miles a day,  each foot representing a name, a person, and it would take you an entire year to name 6 million Jews who were killed. Truth is in a number.

Truth is even in fiction. 

The play Leopoldstadt is currently running on Broadway through July 2. 

Set in Vienna, the play takes its title from the Jewish quarter. This passionate drama of love and endurance begins in the last days of 1899 and follows one extended family deep into the heart of the 20th century. 

By focussing so much of the play pre-1933, the audience is able to better understand the culture and stories of those who were lost, especially those who thought they were too assimilated to be in danger when the Nazis arrived. 

Truth is in fiction, as in comic books! Comic books have long had Nazis as villains, so it’s no surprise that the TV show Agents of Shield focused on an evil Nazi network known as Hydra. When Agents of Shield wrapped up filming in 2020, so began a time in which every major streaming platform has produced a Holocaust centered tv show.

On Amazon Prime: Hunters is a conspiracy drama focusing on American Jews who literally hunt Nazis following WWII. Dark and gory, but very different from Prime’s other hit, Man in the High Castle, an American dystopian alternate history television series, a world in which Nazi Germany had prevailed. While I watched every episode of Hunters, I never got beyond the title screen of Man in the High Castle which depicts a map with the Nazi flag spreading throughout Europe and into America.

As I was halfway through writing this sermon, Journalist Lior Zaltzman, wrote an article, entitled “There Is a Lot of Excellent TV About the Holocaust Right Now.” She states:  

Earlier this month, we got a new, incredible limited Netflix series from Anna Winger, the creator of “Unorthodox,” which itself touched on Holocaust memory in present day Berlin. Her new series, “Transatlantic,” retells the story of Varian Fry and the ERC, the precursor of the modern day IRC, which helped rescue over 2000 anti-Nazi refugees from Europe — including Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt.

And next month, “A Small Light” from Hulu/Nat Geo/Disney+ will be premiering. Jewish filmmaker Susanna Fogel is involved in the production of the show, and it stars Jewish actress Bel Powley as a non-Jewish Holocaust heroine, Miep Gies (khees), the Austrian Dutch secretary who helped hide her boss, Otto Frank, and his family, including daughter Anne, in that secret annex in Amsterdam.

A show based on the incredible book “We Were the Lucky Ones” is also slated to come to Hulu sometime soon, directed by Jewish “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, who is also working on an upcoming “Fiddler” movie. It tells the unlikely story of survival of one family.

These shows aren’t focused on the usual Holocaust imagery we’re used to — barbed wires, concentration camps, emaciated Jewish bodies, the kind of visuals that have almost been fetishized at this point. These shows also don’t give us an idyllic World War II narrative about American heroism versus Nazi evils. They don’t romanticize Nazis or make them more relatable or likable. They do give us heroes that are human and flawed.

Truth is in numbers. It’s in fiction. And truth is…truth. 

On Tuesday night, PBS began airing the documentary How Sabba Kept Singing. Musician David “Saba” Wisnia believed that he survived the horrors of Auschwitz by entertaining the Nazi guards with his beautiful singing voice. The documentary joins David and his grandson Avi (a classmate of mine at NYU) as the pair embark on a journey exploring the mystery of Saba’s past. The movie is now available for free on PBS with an extended Director’s Cut on YouTube. PBS re-aired the documentary Traces: Voices of the Second Generation” by our very own Stacey Goldring following the premiere of How Sabba Kept Singing.

WJCT’s Brendan Rivers writes, 

“Stacey Goldring, filmmaker and founder of Searching for Identity, produced “Traces, Voices of the Second Generation” to inspire all of us to join the resilient “second generation survivors” and ensure these stories and their influence on the next generation are remembered. The resilient “second generation survivors” share their parents’ remarkable accounts of surviving history’s darkest evils. They reveal how the Holocaust affected their lives through its generational and inherited effects.”

Many familiar faces are featured in the film, available this past week on our local PBS. Stacey’s Second Generation group shares stories that are honest, raw, and the new truth of having 2nd generation survivors be the torch bearers of this legacy. Third generation groups like the organization “If You Heard what I heard” continue the collection of stories. From their website:

In May of 2020, after seeing yet another news report of an antisemitic incident at a los angeles area synagogue, we thought about our grandparents’ stories, and how if more people today knew about the holocaust, perhaps these incidents would not be so prevalent. 

We thought about how our generation would be the last to hear our grandparents’ stories firsthand, in the same room, over the course of decades, directly from them. 

We knew we had to do something, and we kept thinking, if you heard what I heard, you would never forget. from the desire to make our grandparents’ stories relevant  and relatable for today, this project was born.

Some of us are film lovers, others are fans of a good book. And many times, we are not in control of what moves us or doesn’t move us. As we move from this week of memory to the next, I hope you’ll challenge your sensitivities to see, listen to what’s out there to teach the legacy of the Shoah. There are so many mediums to choose form. Find the story, the medium that you find most meaningful- and share it- on social media, with your co-workers, with your families. Have difficult conversations. Speak and spread the only allowable Lashon Hara- through sharing of a difficult past, we will ensure that hate and injustice have no place in our future. 

Shabbat Shira FOMO

This week we marked the retirement of an 18th round draft pick of the Montreal Expos, a once summer intern for Merrill Lynch. That’s right, Tom Brady! Who is Tom Brady? To some, he is a Moses-like figure, delivering a New England Patriots squad from the slavery of mediocrity to the promised land of 6 NFL championships. To others, such as members of the AFC East, he is Pharaoh, punishing the division for almost two decades. He is also Pharaoh to the NFC East foes, who used their underdog status to supplant the mighty Brady. Or, even to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he is Pharaoh, changing his retirement status as often as Pharaoh changed his mind about freeing the Israelites.  

In debating this Moses or Pharaoh question, I’ve been thinking about my connection to Brady and to my childhood team, the New England Patriots. To clarify my allegiances, I began my Jaguars conversion in 2008 and reaffirmed my commitment to the Jaguars when #MylesJackwasn’tdown the Jaguars played the Patriots in the AFC championship 5 years ago. Now that that is settled, the Patriots have won 3 of their 6 championships since we moved to Jacksonville- 2015, 2017, and 2019. 

2015- Where was I? At home. Our family was invited out to Robin and Jefrey Morris’ house. Before kickoff, I said I was already stressed out and that if the game were tied 14-14 at halftime, I would have to go home to watch the rest by myself. Well, at halftime the score was 14-14, so I went home, as I watched Malcolm Butler’s interception clinch a Patriots victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

2017- Where was I? At home! The stresses of 2015 informed my decision to watch the game at home using my DVR, doing laundry/busy work around the house only to fast forward through commercials to watch the 4th quarter in real time. The Patriots came back from 28-3 to beat the Atlanta Falcons, securing the largest comeback in Super Bowl history.  

And finally 2019- where was I? You guessed it, Uganda. Waking up in the early morning hours, the Superbowl could only be “watched” via a refreshing webpage on, a game that ended 13-3, with me celebrating in my hotel room some 7,000 miles away. 

3 NFL championships, all experienced alone. None of those experiences compared to a game I attended a few weeks ago. An opening playoff round miracle. A miracle because the scheduling gods waited for Aaron Rodgers to lose to the Detroit Lions in the final game of the season so that the Jaguars would host a Saturday night playoff after Shabbat. A miracle that toes still have circulation in 30 degree temperatures. A miracle, in seeing the lows and highs of being down 27-0 only to triumph over the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30. Where was I? In a sea of teal, a single ticket holder amongst tens of thousands of fans united under a single cause, for it was always the jags. No it’s not a superbowl victory, but so much sweeter than those other victories because it was experienced in a community. 

That sounds like a great sermon. Be there. Experience community. Do things together. It’s the storyline of a movie released just this past week, 80 for Brady, in which four best friends live life to the fullest when they embark on a wild trip to see their hero, Tom Brady, play in the 2017 Super Bowl. Sounds great, but more likely than not, it’s a great drash for next week, when we consider how our tradition views the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. A midrash suggests the idea that all Jews; past, present, and future, stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the revelation of Torah

 “In order to establish you today as his people…,” so that I would not go back on the word that I swore to your ancestors. Deut. 29:13), “And not only with you [have I made this covenant and this oath].” But rather the generations that have yet to come were also there at that time, as stated (in vs. 14), “But with those who are [standing (‘md)] here with us [today… and with those who are not here with us today].” R. Abahu said in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahmani, “Why does it say, ‘those who are [standing (‘md)] here […]; and those who are not here’ (without using the word, standing)? Because all the souls were there, [even] when [their] bodies had still not been created. It is for that reason [their] existence (literally, standing, rt.: ‘md) is not stated here.” (Midrash Tanchuma Nitzavim 3:1)

You see, all Jews were at Sinai. What a moment to be there, together, at that “you had to be there” moment in history. Sounds great, but again it’s not the sermon for this week.

If Sinai is the Super Bowl, Shirat Hayam, the song of the sea, is the long road to and through the playoffs. And tradition does not suggest we were all there at the foot of the water. We weren’t there. We didn’t have a ticket. It wasn’t a recording we can later watch as a primetime special. So what do we do when we weren’t there for such a moment of celebration, such a moment of weight coming off our shoulders? We beat the odds, we overcame Pharaoh and mass oppression, and we weren’t there for the game or the post party celebration.   

We find the answer in the torah portion itself. We recite the Song of the Sea in its entirety, and Miriam responds with her own take on the song in the lyrics that follow: 

כִּ֣י בָא֩ ס֨וּס פַּרְעֹ֜ה בְּרִכְבּ֤וֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו֙ בַּיָּ֔ם     וַיָּ֧שֶׁב יְהֹוָ֛ה עֲלֵהֶ֖ם אֶת־מֵ֣י הַיָּ֑ם     וּבְנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָלְכ֥וּ בַיַּבָּשָׁ֖ה בְּת֥וֹךְ הַיָּֽם׃ {פ}

For the horses of Pharaoh, with his chariots and riders, went into the sea; and יהוה turned back on them the waters of the sea; but the Israelites marched on dry ground in the midst of the sea.

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כׇֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums.

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ {ס}    

And Miriam answered them:

Sing to יהוה, for He has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

Miriam, made the story, the song, the dance, her own. Moses had his spin, and Miriam, with a tambourine in her hand, added her own story to the mix.

A few weeks ago, singer David Crosby, passed away at the age of 81. Crosby’s father, Floyd, was an Oscar-winning cinematographer – traveling to pre-Israel Palestine in 1946 to make the documentary My Father’s House, a story not only about displaced Jews, but of the birth of a permanent Jewish state. In many ways, Floyd was a trailblazing story teller himself, adapting the old adage that if a picture says a thousand words, a moving picture transports us to another world. 

Now David Crosby was a strong opinionated, charismatic leader of both the Byrds and Crosby Stills Nash (and Young). He played a role in the counterculture movement in spite of being a descendant of two well established families, the Van Cortlandts and the Van Rensselaers. He had demons that materialized in the form of drug addiction, resulting in health issues that plagued him for most of his adult life. But he also made magnificent music. As Miriam before him, Crosby took a metaphoric timbrel, or a metaphoric tambourine in his hand in popularizing the song “Mr. Tambourine Man” with his band the Byrds back in April 1965. 

Crosby’s story, and the song he is most often associated with, Mr Tambourine Man, parallel how we might view another song, the song of the sea.

As many of you might know, Mr Tambourine Man isn’t an original Byrds song at all. It’s a Bob Dylan song. Dylan released the song a few days AFTER the Byrds did in April of 1965, but he had signed off on their arrangement back in January of that year. Crosby loved Dylan’s writing style, his storytelling, and added his own take on the song.

So what was in the arrangement? As bandmate Roger McGuinn once said,

“I give the credit to Crosby…He was brilliant at devising these harmony parts that were not a strict third, fourth, or fifth improvisational combination of the three. That’s what makes the Byrds’ harmonies.”

Where did that ear for harmonies come from? Maybe it was from his youth, as Crosby notes in his autobiography that as a child he used to harmonize as his mother sang, his father played mandolin and his brother played guitar. 

Dylan the lyrics, Crosby the harmonies, and I imagine the Byrds played the instruments, right? Well, sorta. McGuinn played his 12 string guitar, but everything else on the track (outside the tight harmonies of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby) was performed by the Wrecking Crew, a group of top-tier Los Angeles session musicians. 

One person, Bob Dylan, was present at the birthing of the music and lyrics to Mr. Tambourine Man. But as we can see, the song we know today has been nurtured, adapted and beautified by those who heard its call. Each person contributed their own layer to its story. 

The art of storytelling, and the art of song-writing, is making the story come alive in new and creative ways. We make it our own AND we join in conversation with the past as partners in forming its legacy- not as a song of yesterday but as a song that continues to grow and develop. 

So were we there at the edge of the water? Were we there to witness every moment of unease and exaltation? Maybe not. But in retelling the stories of Egypt, the stories of pain and suffering alongside the stories of hope and of relief, of watching the waves surge open and close; in making those words and melodies come alive in our own hearts, we add our voice to the story, and make it our own.   

Our stories, our songs, are built on the melodies and souls that came before us. They are uniquely ours- songs informed by history and our story. These are the layers of history, of Jewish history, the harmonies and chords built on the foundational notes of those first moments as a people. As we approach a new year in the week ahead (Tu Bishvat), may we be reminded to appreciate the roots as much as we appreciate the budding flower, for in hearing of our people’s original triumph, we appreciate the triumph of being able to tell their story, in our own way, each and every day.  

Who is like you? (Sermon 7th Day Passover 2022)

Today we recreate history: the history of Roman soldiers who in 200 BCE, took matzah in their hands, added oil and cheese, thus creating the first ever matzah pizza. Yes, today is the 7th day of Passover, and thus the return of matzah pizza! 

Today, Shvii Shel Pesach, the 7th day of Passover, we celebrate a journey, a journey from avdut lecheirut, from slavery to freedom. Each of us appears somewhere along this path towards freedom, each day our position changes.  

Today, Shvii Shel Pesach, we read of the splitting of the red sea. “The red sea split itself in two…”

 Normally, in English we say “the splitting of the Red Sea.” But the rabbis call this moment kriyat yam suf,  קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means “to tear”, the tearing of the sea.” 

Here in the book of Exodus, the verb used to describe the splitting of the sea is (bokei yam lifnei moshe) baka ,בקע (think bokei yam lifnei Moshe recited each night during the Maariv service).  The root Baka means “to split.” So why did the rabbis switch to kriya? By changing to kriya, the rabbis acknowledge a change in perception of the nature of the event.

The Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter (1799-1866), was once asked this question: why Kriya as opposed to Baka?

The Shulchan Aruch HaGraz (Orach Chaim §340:17) defines korea as the act of ripping apart two things that were joined together, but were once separate. The Midrash says that when G-d first created the world, He stipulated with the water that when the time comes, they will split in order to allow the Jews to cross the Yam Suf. Because of this prior stipulation, the water can be seen as having already been split from the time of Creation. Thus, when the Jews came to the Yam Suf and G-d split the sea for them, He was actually splitting something which had already once been split. For this reason, the Oral Torah uses the word korea when talking about splitting the sea.

There is another theory: while the Torah uses the word baka, it is most often used to describe the splitting of a solid, hard object, (like a rock or a block of wood). That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (think funeral service). This most likely would’ve been a natural reminder for us to be sad about the death of the Egyptians.

 According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired and restored, so too the sea would return to its original status. 

The Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

So let us reimagine that moment of Mi Chamocha once again- Kriyat yam suf– it could be a moment of great relief, a moment of extreme exhaustion, or maybe it was a moment of exultation, or maybe it was a moment of sadness and loss (the kriya for all who were lost, for the comforts they left behind)…or maybe, the kriyat yam suf is a call to action, of reconciliation; that this tearing is only temporary, that God saved us from the waters to repair and rebuild…or maybe, just maybe, the kriya was symbolic of a moment of loss, when we don’t have the words to express ourselves; and in that moment, only one thing can get is through this time- to burst out into song. 

So what was it like to sing at the edge of the waters? What kind of song did the Israelites chant? This kriyat yam suf moment, while collective, meant different things to different people. We hear this reflected in the melodies we use for this text. 

A few weeks ago, I joked about some of the melodies associated with Mi Chamocha, a prayer we recite two(three) times a day. I imagined that day as a day of joy and exuberance, and so my ear is drawn to a high energy melody.

Listen to Cantor Richard Silverman’s interpretation of  Mi Chamocha, a now standard of our Friday night service.

Such joy and excitement at a moment of freedom!

I have vivid memories of interviewing the music teachers at the Hadassah Primary School in Uganda. They explained the power of rhythm to tell a story. There are rhythms for all life cycle moments- from going to battle to performing a brit milah. As I listened to this Zulu melody below, it reminded me of the “prayer rhythm” explained to me back in Uganda. 
Siyahamba is a South African hymn that became popular in North American churches in the 1990s. The title means “We Are Marching” or “We are Walking” in the Zulu language. Elana Jagoda took the melody and fit it to that space of marching/walking into that Mi Chamocha moment.

Debbie Friedman’s Miriam’s Song expresses this feeling of “space.” We focus on slavery as restricting our chance for sacred time, but we shouldn’t discount that we finally have the space to move!!! This melody makes us want to get up and dance in a giant hora!!

At the same time, we are exhausted. We feel broken by the moments that led to our freedom, and Shir Yaakov’s Mi Chamocha emotes this sense of exhaustion.

The melody for Mi Chamocha is also often the song of the Holiday – marking sacred moment/time. Each time we sing the “tune of the day”- we affirm our faith in the power of a calendar- here once again the post-slavery door opening to freedom, in this case the freedom to mark sacred time.

And finally, a melody that seems to encompass many of these emotions- beginning with exhaustion and despair, culminating with the voices of young people, unjaded by years of slavery, expressing joy and hope in a better world for tomorrow. There are so many layers to ‘When you Believe” from the Prince of Egypt.

All of these melodies are distinct, unique. They are deeply embedded into the text, not some random melody superimposed over a random text because we like the way it sounds. They tell their own version of the story. They paint a different picture of the events of Yam Suf.  

So let’s take that Mi Chamocha moment seriously…and personally. Each time we are at that threshold moment- we make a conscious (or subconscious) decision to say “Where am I today?” Am I walking in the light of God? Am I still stuck in the narrow depths of mitzrayim? Am I ready to act boldly? I invite you to take our Mi Chamocha as a portal to resetting oneself, each day. May the text inspire a sense of transition to sacred time, may the melody ring as anything from a battle cry to a cry for help, and everything in between. Mi Chamocha? Who is like you? No one is. Shirat Hayam, Kriyat yam suf, captures each of our stories, unique and beautiful. We can find the melody that unlocks our own story, and in doing so, be our most authentic self each and every day we cross the sea.

Going for Gold

There’s a lot to unpack in our torah portion this week, but I’ll begin with one of the more troubling stories. Moses ascends the mountain to take down the law on two tablets. The Israelites simply don’t know what is going on. Did Moses slip and fall? Was he negotiating on their behalf for a generic, less expensive set of tablets? The growingly impatient Israelites take Aaron’s instructions to remove their gold earrings so that they might create a tangible, see it to believe it God to worship as the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Following the egel hazahav, the Golden calf, are plagues, violence, mistrust and unrest. This isn’t the gold standard for nation and community building. The calf may have been beautiful and maybe it was what the Israelites thought they needed for that moment, but what we as a people remember is their impatience, their loss of faith, and less than ideal leadership. 

And yet, this negative storyline is surrounded by positive acts- a second chance to write the tablets, sharing the foundational laws of Shabbat as a tangible way to see God’s creations as everyday miracles. But it is in the opening lines that we find the anecdote that reveals leadership, patience and faith in one another. 

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒

“When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment” (Exodus 30:12) We see that this census meant that each person, regardless of status, provides a hatzi shekel, a half a silver (not Gold) coin. We focus on this idea that each of us counts, but I want to zero in on the term the text uses to conduct this census. כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ (Lit. “lift up the heads”) harkens back to an earlier story in the book of Genesis.

Joseph, interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, states “In three days Pharaoh will pardon you**pardon you Lit. “lift up your head.” (יִשָּׂ֤א פַרְעֹה֙ אֶת־רֹאשֶׁ֔ךָ) and restore you to your post; you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your custom formerly when you were his cupbearer. (Genesis 40:13) Dignity is restored to the cupbearer because Pharaoh, the old Pharaoh, lifts up the cupbearer’s head. They see each other face to face, just as in our parsha, Moses lives the head of each of the Israelite men. He sees them, as he has seen God, face to face. It is not merely the act of taking their half shekel, it’s seeing and acknowledging the purpose each of us has in this journey. And in raising the heads of the Israelites, one by one, he ilfts their spirits and ours in seeing this dignified example of raising others.

I was thinking about this notion of raising others the past few weeks. You see, a torah portion about Gold, Silver, (and yes there is even a reference to a bronze basin), seems like it was destined to be read during the Olympic Games, at least in a quadrennial cycle of torah reading. 

What’s your greatest memory of the Olympic games? That moment etched in your heart because you saw it on tv or heard about it soon thereafter. For me, there are a handful of moments that define the Olympics for me. And none include the names of Olympic greats like Mark Spitz, Usain Bolt, or Michael Phelps (I did appreciate watching the 2008 Phelps show on our new 37 inch HD tv with no other furniture in our possession, just a week after we got married). I also must say that while I would’ve appreciated moments like Jesse Owens defying fascism or the 1908 Miracle on Ice, I wasn’t alive for those moments. And apologizes to Kerri Strug as well as all of competitors in the Summer Olympics of 1996, 2000, or 2004 (I was away at summer camp).

We begin in 1988. Dan Jansen finds out his sister has passed away. Stricken with grief, he competes but falters in his attempt to medal. He continues on to 1992 again without a medal. In 1994, Dan Jansen finally wins the 500m speed skating Gold following tragedy. 

1992: British sprinter Derek Redmond, tore his hamstring in the 400 meters semi-final but continued the race limping. Derek and his father JIm, complete the lap of the track together, with Derek leaning on his father’s shoulder for support following his injury.

For the Olympic games can bring out the best in who we are as human beings, and it may not have anything to do with the world records or medals we win. 

2021 Tokyo: When Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi finished the men’s high jump competition tied, they could have gone to a jump-off to decide the winner. Instead, the two competitors decide to share in the joy of Gold. 

2022: After finishing last in the #CrossCountrySkiing 15km, Carlos Quintana of Colombia was embraced by #Gold medallist Iivo Niskanen of Finland. Niskanen finished a full 8 minutes ahead of Quintana, but as he said, ““All athletes must respect each other, everyone has worked hard to be here.”

And just prior to these Olympics, two local athletes made headlines. From the speed skating capital of the US, Ocala Florida, came two Olympic heroes, Erin Jackson and Britanny Bowe. 

Team USA’s Erin Jackson was ranked No. 1 in the world over 500m when she slipped during the Olympic Speed Skating Trials. She thought her Beijing 2022 dream was over but an act of generosity of her longtime friend Brittany Bowe changed all that. Bowe gave up her spot in the 500m (she competed in two other distance events at the games) so that her friend, the talented former Jax Roller Girl All Star and Florida Gator I might add, could compete, and win Olympic gold, becoming the first Black woman to ever win gold in the 500m speed skating event, and the first American woman since Bonnie Blair in 1994 to medal in the 500m. Bowe, the world record holder in the 1000m, won a bronze medal in that distance.

We tune in every four years to follow the “odds on favorites,” forgetting that their stories are filled with hardships: anxiety, financial difficulties, you name it. But we also forget that during those years, friendships are formed, the Olympic spirit is strengthened, and sportsmanship reigns. Gold medals may tarnish over time for a number of reasons, and these recent games do not come without controversy, but sportsmanship, and the compassion and support for fellow competitors, never withers. Even when we have to google search to remind ourselves of the name of an athlete or the country they represented, that feeling of witnessing something special, remains. We may think we need to see something spectacular, some egel hazahav, but if we allow ourselves to lift our heads, lift the heads of others, we see goodness and greatness all around us. Sure, we can enjoy a golden moment, but one that involves a half-silver? That’s the story that drives our spirit. How can we find instances in our own lives to lift others through selfless acts? How can we be driven to do things that may pull us back to the pack rather than lead us to “victory”? As we approach the festival of Purim, our tradition reminds us through gifts of charity and mishloach manot, that our individual joy is tied to another, that it isn’t me and you, but us. This is the Olympic spirit, and the spirit of our people. 

How Grief and Joy Share Space in Our Sukkah

“I like to think grief is the price we pay for truly loving someone. And it’s worth every penny” – Ted Lasso

Sermon delivered Shemini Atzeret 5782

This past Sunday, I made my semi-annual drop off at our local Goodwill drive thru. I always feel good about the experience, unloading items that simultaneously declutter my own space but hopefully fill someone else’s with joy. During the dropoff, I struck up a fascinating conversation with one of the workers who was helping me out. He noticed my kippah, so over the course of 15 minutes or so, we discussed themes of the Jewish holidays, what it means to have a “calling” as opposed to having a job, and the potentially indelible marks we can leave in this world. I think we both were bummed when someone finally pulled up behind me in the drive thru. He told me, amongst other stories, about his uncle who had recently passed away. We processed this loss outside my car, processed his relationships with his uncle, his aunt and his cousin. Because sometimes that’s where and when and with whom we can process loss. 

Where else can we process loss these days? A  few weeks ago, and I found myself on a Zoom call with 4 of my brothers from the NYU Alpha chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, as we were invited to reflect, process, and to be honest, grieve as we marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I had spoken to each of them individually over the years, but we had never talked about our experiences from that day. Because sometimes that’s where and when and with whom we can process loss. 

Loss stinks.  It doesn’t matter what silver linings we throw at it. People are taken too soon. It flat out stinks. And those we lose after having lived a long life, are those somehow less tragic? Well, they are also those constants who are suddenly no longer there for us. Pain and grief strike at all who endure loss, but how we all experience that pain, and more specifically that grief, varies in a myriad of ways. We don’t know when it will hit us, or even engulf us, but it will.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share the following written by Lyz Best, the widow of my cousin Jeremy Glick z’l, who perished on board United Flight 93. I shared these words at our healing service on Yom Kippur, and I hope you find comfort in how she deals with the weight of grief, and how each of us takes on that challenge of grief in different ways.  

20 years later – I have made friends with my grief – Lyz Best

I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, ‘It tastes sweet, does it not?’ ‘You’ve caught me,’ grief answered, ‘and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing? –Rumi

Twenty years ago, grief barged its way through the red wooden front door of my family’s old farmhouse looking for me. So rude and unexpected grief didn’t even have the courtesy to knock. 

September 11th, 2001, I remember every detail of that morning until 10:03 the moment Jeremy’s plane crashed in a lonely field in Pennsylvania.  The last thing I remember from that morning is my father hugging me.  He was crying.  I was shaking and in shock from spending over 30 minutes on phone with my husband. 

During that fateful call we comforted each while he made a plan to attack the hijackers on his plane.  For hours after the phone went dead, I hid in the bathroom away from everyone in the house.  I didn’t want to know the truth.  I thought if I avoided everyone this nightmare would go away, Jeremy would come home, and I could go back to living the beautiful life in front of me.  When I did finally get up and tiptoe my way into the kitchen I bumped into my dad.

With both disbelief and with certainty I grabbed my father by the shoulders and screamed over and over, “Wait. You think he’s dead?”  Wait you think he’s dead?” He couldn’t form the words to tell me.  He was in shock. Of course, he was he loved Jeremy as a son. We both just cried harder and the last thing I remember is falling to the ground.  I have no memory of the rest of the day. 

I remember the next morning clear as day though.  Shock and pain consumed me.  It was like nothing I have ever felt before. I was pretty certain I would die from the pain I was feeling.  Our beautiful daughter lay in the crib next to me.  She was cooing, looking peacefully up at her mobile just three months old unaware of the horror of the previous day. 

I didn’t think it was possible, but for the next 7305 days the sun has come up and it has set, and I am still grieving, but my grief is different today than it was in the early days.

Over the years I have often wondered what today, twenty years later would feel like?  Would the pain be as sharp?  Would I still feel so alone?  Would my daughter know her father? Would I experience joy again or would life always be so chaotic?

Grief took so much away from me.  Grief took away my husband and robbed him of the opportunity of experiencing life as a father. It took away the man I loved and was supposed to dream with, raise children with and grow old with.  Grief left me a single parent and left my daughter no tangible memories of her father.  Grief left me with fear, debilitating anxiety and PTSD.  It left me angry and exhausted.  I didn’t recognize the new me and I certainly didn’t want to accept or embrace my new life as a 31-year-old widow.

But little by little I made a choice that there had to be something better than where I was at.  So, I chose to embrace grief rather than fight it.  I had no choice.  I had a daughter to raise and life in this state was pretty unbearable.  So, I did the work.  

At first, I tried to find the old me, that carefree, fun adventurous person – but soon I learned that she had changed.  She didn’t exist anymore.   I found that the best way for me to work through grief was to let it out.  I cried, screamed, yelled and occasionally would curse and throw something as I hard as I could.  I also wrote letters to Jeremy, talked to him often and used writing as an outlet. 

I kept an open mind and worked hard in my weekly therapy sessions and went to a support group for widows.  I read a lot and practiced self-care.  I ran a lot of miles and even completed a marathon. I spoke of Jeremy often and found ways to honor him and his memory that made me feel good. 

Slowly over many years grief became my friend.  I began to accept it rather than bury it deep inside where only I could see and feel it.  It took me many years to realize that if grief remained my enemy and if I didn’t look it in the eye, I would be blind to the many gifts that grief would bring me.  So, one day, I invited grief to take a seat next to me on the couch and he’s been a more welcomed companion ever since.

Grief has taught me the importance of gratitude and as a result senses for beauty and joy are stronger and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.  Grief has taught me that love will never die, but grow stronger and be honored in ways that are sacred.  Grief has taught me that pain and the tragedy of 9/11 will never go away, but it will change, and it will be different. Grief has shown me the true relationship between mind, body and spirit and the importance of self-care. 

Most importantly I have learned that grief is both personal and universal at the same time.  It has reinforced that the most important thing that we can experience as humans is compassion and how we care for others.  If we let it, grief and sorrow can prepare us for joy.  It can awaken us to a peace and freedom we would not have been able to see and feel otherwise.  This is my blessing.

A powerful message- that our zman simchateinu, this time of joy, isn’t shrouded in the darkness of grief, but that we are better prepared for joy because of our grief. 

Judaism sketches a roadmap directing us toward comfort and renewal after we’ve experienced loss. There’s no rule that we have to connect with all the elements of our grief cycle, no more than we are expected to connect with every piece of liturgy or every holiday. But we have enough material that, hopefully, we do find that time and place to process that works for us. Maybe it’s during shiva, or shloshim. Perhaps it’s seeing our loved one’s name etched in stone at an unveiling, or in hearing our loved one’s name at a yahrzeit. Maybe it’s the first yahrzeit, or the tenth. And maybe its not in our formal Jewish mourning calendar. Maybe it’s in a space prior to death, when we may find peace while our loved one is under the care of hospice. Maybe it’s on a Zoom screen or in a parking lot, but we all need that space to process, and to embrace grief. 

If we don’t find space in the mundane moments or in our own personal mourning timeline, we do have a time set in our collective calendar, the time we have set before us this morning. Yizkor, remember. Nestled between the joy of Sukkot and the revelry of Simhat Torah, the highs and lows of life are reflected in the Yizkor service. I invite you to consider grief as a passageway to comfort. Whether you have lost recently or years ago, I hope that you’ll take today to pray but also to process, to sit in silence and to share in memory. 

We are completing the festival of sukkot- in which we welcome shared space, however fragile that space is. We fill our sukkot with stories to bring joy to this season. Share a story of a loved one with a friend or family member. May you take not just these next 20 minutes, but this day, to share in memory. We remember today, to help us, to guide us on how to remember, tomorrow. 

May we always remember those who came before us. Just as our grief knows no boundaries, so too may the power of memory. 

Write our own story. Parshat Korah

An opening disclaimer: I love my parents…. back to the sermon

Outside Berlin, you’ll find a cushy summer estate, a  longtime favorite vacation spot of the German elite. The suburb is called Wanssee, now famously known as the site of the Wansee conference held there in January 1942. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the implementation of the “Final solution to the Jewish question.” Today, the estate houses a museum that tells the story of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Amidst the documents, letters, correspondence planning the expedited murder of millions is a room filled with quotes on the wall- not of Nazi generals, but of children of survivors, and children of Nazi leaders.

 Ulrike Krüger, whose father was Director of the SS “Ancestral Heritage Society, writes, “”Yes, this guilt of my father is part of my life. I live and therefore I have responsibility. I can only endure this if I am willing to face this past again and again and thus take this horrific event seriously from a physical and psychological point of view. My challenge is to implement this awareness in my everyday life and to try to counter prejudices, disregard and destruction of humanity.”

Katrin Himmler, born 1967, great niece of Heinrich Himmler, writes “”When I was fifteen, one of my classmates suddenly asked in history class whether I was actually ‘related to Himmler’. I said yes, with a lump in my throat. The class was as quiet as a mouse. Everyone was wide awake and tense. But the teacher got nervous and carried on as if nothing had happened. She missed a chance to make us understand what still connects us, who will be born after, with these ‘old stories’.”   

Parents aren’t perfect. Ancestors and History in general are not perfect. But there comes an often uncomfortable truth when we learn that those who came before us had questionable pasts, when their actions and motivations hurt others. How each of us responds to that truth, matters. For the family who do wrong for the wrong reason, and more confusingly those who do right for the wrong reason. To those who fill their mouths with abusive rhetoric and their fists with abusive right hooks. 

To those who do not embrace or include,to those who live in a world in which “the good ‘ol days” were good for everyone, how do we speak to those truths? How do we recite Yizkor for the abusive parent (side note-click here)? How do we act in a way that distances us from those words and those actions, while simultaneously empowering us to follow a path filled with compassion and love?

I was thinking of this recently when I read about a young woman named Avery Sanford. Her father was not thrilled to be paying child support. When Avery turned 18, her father dumped 80,000 pennies in front of his daughter’s home as his final payment. Once Avery and her mother picked up the pennies,Avery and her mom decided to flip the coins, and the script. They donated his last child support payment – every penny – to Safe Harbor, a domestic abuse shelter. 

We can get sucked down that rabbit hole of cancel culture, of hearing something so bad we cringe, we cancel that person, but we continue to say nothing or do nothing to change our own path. But If we look at the words of Ulrik and Katrin, the actions of Avery, the focus isn’t on canceling that relative. Rather, they modify their personal algorithm, their own story, to speak to truth, and more than speak or write, they ARE better. They live and are committed to a life of purpose, a life of agency. 

So this week we’re talking about Korah, right? We know the story. Korah, who happens to be Moses and Aaron’s first cousin, wants power. The rabbis go back and forth as to why Korah is punished, many focusing on the intention and reasoning behind the power grab. In the end Korah, along with 249 co-conspirators were punished for their rebellion when God sent fire from heaven as the earth opened up, consuming all 250 of them. Immediately following, there is a plague that killed an additional 14,700 men. Ouch! And yet there was one group not included in that mass of 15,000: namely,  the sons of Korah.

For those who are unaware, my Saturday afternoon teaching for the past 6 months has focused on the book of Psalms. When our people look for healing, we go to the Psalms, a collection written primarily, but not exclusively by King David. Since I teach roughly every three weeks, Those keeping score we will learn Psalm 8 next Saturday afternoon! Not to jump the gun, but I wanted to focus on a few psalms that we’ll probably encounter in the next 2-5 years, Psalms 42—49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, i.e. the psalms written by the sons of Korah.

Now having a basic storyline of Korah and his rebellion, aka Korah engulfed into the earth, we read the following:

Psalms 46:2-3(2) God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. (3) Therefore we are not afraid though the earth reels, though mountains topple into the sea—

תהילים מ״ו:ב׳-ג׳(ב) אֱלֹהִ֣ים לָ֭נוּ מַחֲסֶ֣ה וָעֹ֑ז עֶזְרָ֥ה בְ֝צָר֗וֹת נִמְצָ֥א מְאֹֽד׃ (ג) עַל־כֵּ֣ן לֹֽא־נִ֭ירָא בְּהָמִ֣יר אָ֑רֶץ וּבְמ֥וֹט הָ֝רִ֗ים בְּלֵ֣ב יַמִּֽים׃

The sons of Korah thank God for being their refuge. They won’t be afraid even though the earth trembles. They say this having just felt the earth literally tremble. They are guided by faith,….They put their trust in a divine being that swallowed their father. In exploring the other Psalms, we learn that this isn’t out of fear. This is their response to Korah. This is their intentional and thought-out legacy.

Psalm 84 we read:

Psalms 84:2-5(2) How lovely is Your dwelling-place, O LORD of hosts. (5) Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they forever praise You.Selah.

תהילים פ״ד:ב׳-ה׳(ב) מַה־יְּדִיד֥וֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶ֗יךָ יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃ ׃ (ה) אַ֭שְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ ע֝֗וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃

Ashrei. While we get Bilam’s curse-turned-blessing in two weeks, here we have an intentional blessing to recognize joy to those who follow in God’s path. And finally, in one of their last Psalms, the sons of Korah write:

Psalms 85:10-13(10) His help is very near those who fear Him, to make His glory dwell in our land. (11) Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and well-being kiss. (12) Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven. (13) The LORD also bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce.

תהילים פ״ה:י׳-י״ג(י) אַ֤ךְ קָר֣וֹב לִירֵאָ֣יו יִשְׁע֑וֹ לִשְׁכֹּ֖ן כָּב֣וֹד בְּאַרְצֵֽנוּ׃ (יא) חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ (יב) אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ (יג) גַּם־יְ֭הֹוָה יִתֵּ֣ן הַטּ֑וֹב וְ֝אַרְצֵ֗נוּ תִּתֵּ֥ן יְבוּלָֽהּ׃

What amazing poetry. Truth springs up for the earth, from the same earth Korah is swallowed, justice from the heavens that sealed Korah’s fate. Korah’s sons focus on blessing, on righteousness, on lovingkindness,on truth on justice, words that inspire, that once again get us as a people through the dark times, through the despair of illness and loss, we use the words of Bnei Korah to HELP us remember that God is good and while our path isn’t always straight, it leads to a brighter tomorrow, for as the sons of Korah write in Psalm 84, “God is our sun and our shield, God bestows wisdom and honor.” The wisdom, that With truth, justice, and agency, we are masters of our own story, our own destiny. 

Praying with our full bodies

We are a call and response people. Our call to worship, the Barchu, contains within it a formula in which we affirm each other’s intentions.

Leader: I would like to lead y’all

Congregation:  I hear you, I see you up there as our leader. Please lead us.

Leader:  I hear you, I see you congregation, thank you for allowing me to lead us in prayer. 

This formula continues with our torah and haftarah blessings, and today, in moments of our special shira torah reading. The reader pauses, acknowledging the public, hearing the public respond, and then repeats what we have said aloud. But our formula goes beyond the verbal commitment.

Let’s look into the torah portion for a moment. 

 וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ׃
Exodus 14:31
And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses.

This is our preamble to our “Az Yashir” moment. In order to sing, we need the material to write our individual songs. The Israelites must see God’s prayer in order to sing out.

אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Exodus 15:1
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said: I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea

At the conclusion of the Shira, Miriam takes center stage with her reprise of “Shiru Ladonai”. 

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
Exodus 15:20
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Exodus 15:21
And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

And Miriam chanted. SHe answered THEM- men and women. She continues with a reprise of our opening number. (While the text cuts it short, we assume from its placement that she sings the song once again, in its entirety.) And what was the formula, the code for Miriam to begin her song?  She gathered her percussion instrument, her tof. Seeing this, the women went out and danced with their timbrels. 

From these two passages, we realize that our “call and response” formula is not just a verbal contract between individual leader and people. We use our bodies, our sightline, our dancing shoes, to confirm that we as a community are on board.

As we come upon almost a year of living with half of our faces covered, I wanted to take a moment to think about how we use our eyes, our feet, and the rest of our bodies to communicate with the world. Masking will and should continue for some time, but how we pivot with the rest of our bodies matters.

We look to our youngest for guidance. When they don’t have the words to say, they use the vocabulary of their bodies. I know that when my son rolls his arms back and forth that it means “Wheels on the Bus.” When he stomps on the ground, it means “We are the Dinosaurs” by the Laurie Berkner Band. 

Looking at photos  from this past year’s s’mahot, celebrations, we can see what happens to our eyes when we smile. We’ve learned to interpret moods based on how much squinting takes places. It reminds me of a show Leora and I loved watching- the short lived but well loved series “Lie to Me”  in which Dr. Cal Lightman teaches a course in body language and microexpressions, acting as a consultant for law enforcement on a number of cases. That’s one way of looking at body language.

How we stand in conversation gives us an idea of our own interests in what’s being talked about. We look at our feet. If our feet are pointed towards the person we are talking to, we are engaged, if they point elsewhere, probably not so much. We really do let our feet do the talking. And of course, if on a cold winter day we sit in a folding chair, ars crossed, the internet reads that s a grumpy man upset that the synagogue isn’t serving kiddush yet. We live in unnatural times. We step off the sidewalk onto the street, we take a step back rather than embrace, because we love one another. 

And we know that body language is literally that: language. 

I have to admit that I got teary eyed at the inauguration ceremony a few weeks ago. It wasn’t from any speech. It happened when Georgia fire captain Andrea Hall, paying homage to the deaf and hard of hearing community, to her late father who was also deaf, signed as she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge and its message is significant to all. Not surprisingly, news came out this week that  An American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter will attend every daily White House press briefing. The decision will make the briefings more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

When we use our bodies to speak, to move, to engage, we deepen our connection to one another. 

In Jewish tradition, there are countless ways to make our bodies communicate in a way that makes the text come alive. Our trope system itself, taamei hamikrah, began as hand motions, known as chironomy. Before there were the written “Mapach” and “Pashta”, there was the Gator chomp and the two handed jumpshot. This comes into play not only in the teaching of trope, but in the day to day reading. If a torah reader gets stuck on a word, a symbol hand gesture would remind them of the melody.  

Some of my most meaningful prayer moments from this past year involve movement of body. Those who have joined us for Friday night services may have seen a certain family member of mine join the screen for Yismichu Hashamayim, a time when everyone puts their video on so that for one word, “hashamayim” we can put our hands up in the air to show that we “do care.” Early on in the pandemic, we used to rotate with a few melodies for the Psalm, but it became apparent that this was a place where our bodies could do the praying and singing.

Last Spring, I remember each Shabbat morning on Zoom looking out to find shul regular Joe Schmuller clapping away. And when it comes to end Shabbat, you might have seen members of my family circle dancing on Facebook or Zoom. 

This is my first dvar torah of the livestream era. I have memories of 20+ years ago, taking a public speaking class at NYU. We recorded ourselves reciting speeches and watched them back as a class. What I thought had been a very expressive, was more of a tiny armed dinosaur situation. Now, I watch myself conduct a service or an event for hours every week. I listen back not only for the sound quality, but for how I moved by body. A few months ago I began standing for all of these online events because I felt more active, more present. This was one way for me to change my body language to be more engaged.

We are a call and response people. I hope that you’ll take a chance in the days ahead to think about ways in which our bodies can tell a story, especially in this new age. 

For Zoomers, it’s putting our video on, knowing that the comfort of being in our pajamas may not be as important as the comfort of knowing what we do for another by being on screen. For our texters and eye wanderers, it’s looking up and engaging in physically distant but not socially distant conversation. Choosing how we communicate, choosing THAT we communicate differently, is all that matters. It’s giving a thumbs up, a toe tap, clapping our hands, or typing a kind word on a chat.

Our smiles are often covered, our voices often muted, but the rhythms of Jewish life need the rhythms of artistic expression – song, dance, a body that moves and communicates. In this era of uncertainty and angst, when we can’t sing the way want to, congregate the way we want to, we must pivot, to the left to the left, to the right to the right. 

We must move to the beat of Miriam’s timbrel, sharing with one another, so that I see and hear you for you, you hear and see me for me. Back and forth back and forth, a beautiful song expressed through our entire being.

Express Yourself- Jewishly

Leora and I moved to Jacksonville 11 years ago, one week after our wedding. There was a lot to get acclimated to during that first year: living outside a mass-transit city like New York, renting and eventually buying a house, moving far away from family, finding the balance between work and home. On seemingly minor scale, I got used to wearing my kippah everywhere I went. As a student living in New York, I may have gotten away with wearing a baseball cap when eating at an unhekshered restaurant, given the rabbinic concept known as maarit ayin, which states that certain actions which might seem to observers to be in violation of Jewish law, but in reality are fully permissible, are themselves not allowed due to rabbinic enactments that were put in place to prevent onlookers from arriving at a false conclusion (thanks Wikipedia). Living in Jacksonville, when at the time we had no kosher restaurants to speak of (also known as the Dark Ages), wearing a kippah became a connector, an identifier to those who saw me. Rather than have someone think “what is the cantor eating?”, they would say “oh hey Cantor, how’s it going?” Despite an occasional uncomfortable comment about my headwear from someone who may never have met a Jew before, wearing my kippah and living in Jacksonville have been a symbiotic relationship. 

When I took a group of congregants to Germany on a Cantors Assembly Mission in 2012, I didn’t think twice about walking around by myself while wearing a kippah. Fast forward a few years we find the climate rapidly changing. This past summer, German government officials warned Jews to not warn a Kippah in public for fear of anti-semitic attacks. A German newspaper responded by printing a picture of a kippah and urging readers to cut it out and wear it in solidarity. All of this came on the heels of my Cantors Assembly Mission to Uganda. While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, the 11of us were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver, wearing colorful, oversized kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip. There is a tension between the fear of being outwardly Jewish and the pride we feel when showing off our wearing very Jewish accessory. Which brings me to this high holiday season. Given that I face the ark most of these Days of Awe, you’ll notice a special kippah. This was purchased from a young man, Samuel Kyeyune from the Uganda Abayudaya community, so moved by the Tree of Life tragedy that he created his own Kippah design to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh, to proclaim that we are a people that are strongly rooted in our heritage, that our tree will continue to bring forth life in this world for generations to come. May we all have the opportunity for growth. In the year ahead, I encourage you to look inwardly so that you might express your Judaism outwardly in whatever way you find meaningful. As  the great Kabbalistic sage Madonna once put it, “Express Yourself.” 


Remarks from Pride Shabbat

Pride ShabbatThere are moments that we etch into our collective memory. For myself, those moments include the Challenger explosion, the assasination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the morning of 9/11. While moments like these may be followed by moments of bravery, of community coming together, the moments themselves are initially moments of collective pain and sorrow. 

There are also moments of collective memory having overcome adversity, adversity often sowed from tears, adversity following generations of struggle. These moments begin not in pain but in pure unadulterated joy. 4 years ago, I stood on a crowded street in historic Charleston, South Carolina, waiting to attend the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Pinckney had been brutally murdered a few days earlier along with 8 others who had gathered to worship and to study, to join in fellowship. 

A joyous cheer broke out in the crowd. A crowd of mourners broke out in shouts of joy. The Supreme Court had just ruled that the fundemental right to marry is guarunteed to same-sex couples. Marriage equality throughout our country. People of every walk of life- every age, every ethnicity, every gender, every religion, every sexual orientation, in line to pay their respects to a respected and beloved minister and leader, screamed for joy.  I was proud to be a part of such a moment. I am proud of what we can do when we acknowledge the beauty of all humanity, when we recognize that Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. I was proud in that moment of collective joy. I am once again proud today.

On this Shabbat, we celebrate love. We celebrate diversity. We celebrate the dream, the hope for a more inclusive and embracing community. This Pride Shabbat, literally SHabbat Ha-gei-a-va, is our collective embrace of all: pride in all individuals, pride in our community for making today a reality.

The fact that we mark today with the vibrant colors of the rainbow, here in the sanctuary of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, is truly a celebration. There was a time, not that long ago, when anyone who had what may have been coined an alternative lifestyle had to find an alternative place, an alternative community. We’ve come a long way on our journey towards inclusivity, but we have a long way to go. 13 years ago, as the Conservative Movement passed a ruling to allow ordination of Gay and Lesbian rabbis and cantors, our congregation was still making the giant leap towards fully egalitarian worship. When our city debated the passing of a fully expanded Human Rights Ordinance, our 3 clergy were the first handful of faith leaders to sign on in support. At at time when Pride parades battle with intersectionality, when members of the LGBTQ Jewish community feel like they have to fight off a rise in anti-semitism, I hope that today is affirmation that we can be a haven, a home..a place and community where one’s Judaism and one’s sexuality do not have to be at odds with one another.  Leading up to this moment, perception and reality have been greatly unaligned. Yet, I am proud of where we are going. I am proud that when you google “Pride Shabbat” that the Jacksonville Jewish Center pops up as the #2 response. I am proud to be here with members of the LGBTQ community, with allies, friends and family. And I am proud to be here this morning, to have this platform and share this bima with our member Frieda Saraga, who through her own journey, has made it her life’s passion to embrace all. We are blessed by her presence, her commitment to push for growth in our own congregation and for all of Jacksonville. 
For access to our Pride supplement click here.