kavanah

The Preparation

Bo 5783 – Ilu Finu

I am a classic overpacker. This week I’m in the middle of four Shabbatot on the road in a row so I’ve been thinking about packing a lot. When I start packing, I count out how many days and how many outfits I’m going to need. Invariably, even if I am just gone for 2-3 nights, I somehow manage to pack way too many items of clothing, just to be prepared in case I need something more (I never do and always come home with many outfits untouched). But it’s good to be prepared!

In Parashat Bo, Moses again finds himself before Pharaoh asking to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh has agreed to let them leave Egypt to worship their God as long as they leave their sheep and cattle in Egypt. Even the children are allowed to go! But Moses says this is insufficient. They need all of their livestock to go with them as well:

וְגַם־מִקְנֵנוּ יֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ לֹא תִשָּׁאֵר פַּרְסָה כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ נִקַּח לַעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקֵינוּ וַאֲנַחְנוּ לֹא־נֵדַע מַה־נַּעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵנוּ שָׁמָּה׃ (שמות י:כו)

Our own livestock, too, shall go along with us—not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there.” (Exodus 10:26)

Why is this such a sticking point for Moses? Why do they need to overpack and take all of their livestock with them? The Ger Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Me’ir explains that the words, “we shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there” aren’t talking about the sacrifices themselves, but about worship in general. We don’t know what value there is to worship yet, so we have to be prepared for every possible outcome! We just don’t know how to do this thing yet, we don’t really know what “worship” is! We don’t know if it’s going to work, and to be honest we don’t even know what “working” looks like.

This is a feeling I still have when I enter a space of prayer. And my answer for what “working” looks like can (and should!) change all the time. For me, prayer is supposed to help me figure out how to be the best version of myself. It helps me orient my day and set myself up for success. It is a moment to look inward and outward, to talk to God, to be in community, and to talk to myself. But I often don’t know exactly what it will look like or what I will need until I enter into that space, and the more I allow myself to enter and be open to possibility, the more I can feel lifted up and centered by my prayers, which to me feels like “success.” 

We echo this sentiment every Shabbat in our morning prayers. We say, “Ilu finu male shirah kayam… v’ein anachnu maspikim l’hodot lecha al achat me’elef alfei alafim she’asita im avoteinu v’imanu,” “were our mouths filled with song like water fills the sea… we still would be unable to thank You for the thousands upon thousands of things You have done for our ancestors and continue to do for us.” The melody of this song lifts these words up high as if they were carried on the waves of the sea, buoyed higher by the ability of voices to come together in harmony, even greater than one voice on its own.

Prayer is one of the hardest things a Jew is ever asked to do. We struggle to find the words to say, the methods to use, to express our gratitude for the wonder of our own existence. So what is the role of words in prayer if words can never be enough? If we can begin to understand the depth of meaning layered in the words, perhaps the words will begin to soften our hearts, guide us, change us, and inspire us. And perhaps that is the ultimate goal of prayer. We might not know what we hope to achieve when we start, but hopefully when we arrive, we’ll know we are there, and we’ll know we’ve come prepared.

Shabbat Shalom

Josh

The Routine

Va’era 5783 – Wonder (Asher Yatzar)

Human beings are creatures of habit. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The House of the Dead, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.” Some allow themselves to settle into such a monotonous routine that they walk through life like zombies. And yet, this characteristic means that even in the harshest conditions humans find ways to persevere and to survive. 

At the same time, illumination flashes in the most surprising places. We never know when or where it might strike. We read in this week’s parsha, Va’era, about a strange hail: 

וַיְהִי בָרָד וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד כָּבֵד מְאֹד אֲשֶׁר לֹא־הָיָה כָמֹהוּ בְּכל־אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָז הָיְתָה לְגוֹי׃

The hail was very heavy – fire flashing in the midst of the hail – such as had not fallen in the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. – Ex. 9:24

This fiery hail is an oxymoron and an impossibility in and of itself – fire within rain. It was something so unheard of, so strange, that it served as a lightbulb of sorts for the Egyptians. They had forgotten who they were as a nation: founded as a land of beauty and hope and bounty along the Nile, welcome to strangers and suffering peoples in need during times of trouble and famine. 

After seven (a number of completion!) plagues, a flash of illumination within the hail wakes them up and shakes them to their foundation. Before the next plague, the courtiers speak up for the first time, finally asking Pharoah to come to his senses and let the people go before Egypt is completely lost. This act is a flash of hope of a better tomorrow for the Israelites. 

This song, “Wonder” is about the small miracles that happen in our lives every single day. Though day to day we may walk through life in routine, if we take a moment to pause, think, and open our eyes, we begin to notice and see the world anew. The Hebrew words in this song are the prayer “Asher Yatzar”, the prayer that Jews say after we go to the bathroom. Why do we say a prayer after we go to the bathroom? So many things in our bodies have to work properly in order for us to live each day, so many parts have to open and close at the right times. If we say a blessing to acknowledge the smallest things happening in our own bodies, all the more so we should be looking around and noticing the miracles and wonders all around us! This Shabbat, what will serve as a flashpoint for you? What needs changing in your routine or our collective psyche?

Shabbat Shalom,

Josh

The Prayer

Shemot 5783 – Tefillah

When was the first example of communal prayer in the Bible? There are tons of examples of individual prayer: from Hagar crying and calling out in the wilderness to Rebekah seeking God, Eliezer praying to his master Abraham’s God and Rachel calling out in her pain and later gratitude, but when did a group of people first gather to call out to God? The rabbis believe that it happened in this week’s parsha, Shemot. We read in the Torah: 

“וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹקִים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה. וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹקִים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹקִים אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃” – שמות ב:כג

“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. And God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” – Ex. 2:34


The people of Israel were suffering and in pain, they called out in anguish, and God heard their cry! But what actually happened in this moment? The rabbis have a machloket, a disagreement, about this intense experience. In the Zohar, Rav Judah explains that, “of all the three expressions for prayer used in the Exodus narrative, crying out is the greatest of all because it is entirely a matter of the heart. Rabbi Berachiah said: When people pray and weep and cry so intensely that they are unable to find words to express their sorrow, theirs is the perfect prayer, for it is in their heart, and this will never return to them empty.”

At the same time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, a medieval Biblical commentator, teaches a different midrash: “The children of Israel groaned and cried out to the Lord… Immediately the ministering angels recited, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, who hears prayer.” Notice what he is doing here! This is an important shift towards fixed prayer. Rabbi Daniel Landes notes that “by having the angels recite a central line from the Amidah that will only be invented epochs later, the author of the midrash has the angels confirm the need for fixed prayer, that is, a set liturgy beyond spontaneous “crying out,” such as the Zohar would have it.”

We are still engaged in this ancient debate around fixed versus spontaneous prayer today. I believe communal prayer is collective emotion coupled with the ancient words of our tradition. We need both! Without emotion, our prayer is meaningless, it doesn’t affect us in any way. But the words of the siddur serve as a conduit, a channel, to give the words of our hearts direction and to unite our hearts with the hearts of those with whom we come together. 

This song, Tefillah, is a hybrid Psalm. I took verses from different Psalms and brought them together around a theme. In the midst of the pandemic I was feeling alone and far from community, and I collected these verses and wrote a melody and a prose translation around what it might feel like to call out from that place of loneliness and hear a response. 

This week, as we remember our ancestor’s first collective prayer, how can we unite our hearts around shared purpose, and sing out our own prayers and the prayers of those with whom we gather?

Shabbat Shalom,

Josh

The Truth

Vayechi 5783 – Emet

The Shema is probably the most iconic Jewish prayer. It is one we all know. They are words we say when we rise up and when we lie down. Words we sing to our children, words we whisper and words we proclaim with joyous song and melody. There are powerful stories and midrashim about rabbis and martyrs whose last words were the words of the Shema as their lives were taken from them. But when did the people of Israel first say the Shema? Our rabbis teach us that it was in this week’s parsha, Vayechi. In Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:34 we learn:

When did Israel first merit to be given the Sh’ma? From the moment that Jacob lay down on his deathbed, calling to all the tribes [i.e., his sons] and said to them: “Come together and listen/שמע, sons of Jacob.” What did he mean by this? He meant “From the moment I pass from the world you will bow down to another God.” And they answered him: Shema yisrael/Listen [to us] Israel – Adonai eloheinu/Adonai is our God – Adonai echad/only Adonai (Deuteronomy 6:4)

What is happening here? Jacob is frightened! He’s in a new land, in the diaspora. His children have had traumatic experiences with each other and he is worried that when he leaves this world his new religion, his entire Truth, will leave along with it. How will they be able to carry on the tradition? And how do his sons respond? They recite the Shema back to him! They say, “Listen, Israel (our father Jacob whose name is also Israel), your God is our God, and God is the only God.” We are here to carry on your Truth, they say. This is what we are affirming every time we say the Shema. This tradition, these values, this pathway to walking through this world, is one that we choose every single day.

In the end, all we can do is live and walk and practice our values throughout our lives. The words of this song, Emet, come from the paragraph before the last blessing surrounding the Shema. They are buried in the middle but contain everything. The word אמת, Truth, is an all-encompassing word – it contains the entire Hebrew alphabet from Aleph to Tav (with Mem right in the middle of the alphabet), and it contains the entire lifecycle of a human being from אֵם to מֵת – from the womb (mother) to death. This is our mission all the days of our lives: to lift up our truth and to walk with it, to hold onto our traditions and make them new each day.

This Shabbat, may we find a way to lift ourselves and the people we care about, to sing out and walk the path we were meant to walk in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Josh

The Pause

Vayigash 5783 – Lechu Neranenah

“But prayer is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. An opening up. A hardened heart beats with renewed passion, a dream is revived, a hope is rekindled, a soul starts to believe, a body soon begins to stir. Prayer ignites us to act. Instead of proceeding in a state of numb acceptance, prayer rouses us out of our indifference, it resurrects our outrage, our anger, our longing, our faith, our strength.” – Rabbi Naomi Levy

What is prayer if not a moment to pause and reflect? On Shabbat we are told in the Torah that we must refrain from work. But if that is the case, what is it that we are supposed to DO on Shabbat? How do we observe Shabbat in actuality? The opening word of Kabbalat Shabbat are “lechu”, “let’s go!” from Psalm 95. Lechu demands an action. We have to go out. We have to make a change in order to enter Shabbat. 

And that is what Vayigash tells us. Some sort of encounter has to take place. In the parsha it says “Vayigash Eilav.” “And Judah went up to him.”  It would seem at first glance that the encounter in this story is between Judah and Joseph. But Rabbi Dovid of Kotzk says that that word “Eilav” is superfluous, we don’t need it there. And so he reads it differently. He says the Eilav means “to himself.” Judah went over with himself his actions and his words, and then went up to speak to Joseph. 

Both of these actions are needed on Shabbat. We need to go out and come together in community, but we also need to take a moment to pause and look inwards at ourselves. Kabbalat Shabbat is written in the plural, “lechu neranenah,” “Let us go out,” but “Vayigash eilav” is in the singular. These words tell us that before we join together on Shabbat, we have to take a moment to turn inwards, to look at ourselves.

On this Shabbat in particular we have the opportunity for even greater reflection. As we approach the end of the calendar year, What is it that we need this Shabbat? How can this pause help us jump into action in 2023? My hope for us this Shabbat is that we are able to take time to pause and reflect, and to actualize our reflections, hopes, and dreams in the coming year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Josh

The Light

Hanukkah 5783 – Hanerot Halalu

On these miracles, and on these wonders, on these salvations, and on these comforts

Al Hanisim v’al hanifla’ot v’al hateshu’ot v’al hanechamot

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנֶחָמוֹת

These words may sound familiar from the beautiful prayer that we sing on Hanukkah and Purim to celebrate miracles. They appear in Hanerot Halalu, one of the songs we sing after we light the Hanukkah candles. Last year, I wrote about the powerful message of these words: teaching us about the gift of presence as the only thing we are allowed to do with the candles is to bask in their glow and be together with friends and family.

This year, the words above are calling out from the page. The phrase may seem a little off to some readers because in the Ashkenazic (Jews of Eastern European descent) version of the text the last word in the phrase is milchamot, battles. We give thanks for the miracles, the wonders, the salvations, and the wars that You fought with us in those days at this time. In the Sephardic (Jews of North African and Spanish descent) version of the text, the last word in the phrase is nechamot, comforts. 

I chose to use nechamot or comforts in this melody because that is what I believe we so desperately need, especially now. Hanukkah happens during the darkest and coldest time of the year. There is a reason that so many religions have “light” holidays around this time. What we need more of is light and warmth and comfort, and so we give gratitude to the Holy One for being a source of comfort for us then and now.

And yet today as I write this I am thinking of the word milchamot, the battles. Each one of us has battles we are fighting that those around us may know nothing about. Each one of us struggles through moments externally and internally.  And so I believe today we must take both versions of this text together — the comforts and the battles. 

May these words serve as an inspiration to us to be there for each other in our times of need, whether we know we are needed or not. You are not alone. We are not alone. We don’t have to fight these battles alone. Let those close to you serve as nechamot, as comforters.

Wishing you a holiday filled with light, warmth, and love,

Josh

The Vision

Vayeishev 5783 – Arise

Throughout our history, there have been multiple occasions where Jewish leaders have had to entirely reinvent Judaism in order to allow it to outlast their generation. Leaving Egypt, the Babylonian exiles, the destruction of the Second Temple and recreation of Judaism as a prayer-based religion as opposed to a sacrificial cult, Jews leaving Spain, leaving Europe, and more. These paradigm shifts did not happen easily nor did they occur on their own. They mostly happened out of necessity and as a very last resort. In each of these instances, Judaism could not have survived without the courageous minority who crafted a vision for what could be and how to get there. This week I learned that our ancestorJoseph was one of those visionaries. We often read Joseph’s dreams as problematic. Why did he feel the need to egotistically share them with his brothers and his father? What good could have come from that? Rav Joseph Soloveitchik has a different read. In the first dream, the Torah says,

וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם־נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי׃

There we were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.” (Bereishit 37:7)

Rav Soloveitchik suspends his disbelief that this is a dream and notices something strange: Why are the brothers binding sheaves of wheat? They are shepherds! They should be minding their flocks! This, he says, is the crux of the rift between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph had in his mind a paradigmatic shift for the family. The family lore was passed down from generation to generation from Abraham’s covenant with God that the people of Israel would become strangers in a strange land and that a terrible exile lay in their future. So Joseph therefore sought to prepare for that scenario. His brothers, however, believed that this profession of shepherding sheep would succeed forever, and laughed and ridiculed his dreams and vision.

Even though no person can truly know what lies ahead, Joseph could see the writing on the wall. And what ended up happening? Joseph was able to prepare a whole nation (Egypt) to receive a family of strangers and welcome them into his new land. They learned from welcoming how to share, how to be kind, how to love. This lasted until the residents and leaders of the land forgot the kindnesses done to them by these strangers in their midst and turned to hate. 

I wrote Arise as a plea to myself, to communities, to our country, to remember how to welcome the stranger. To learn through action how to love and be loved. It feels to me like we are at another moment of paradigmatic shift. We must choose the path that leads to more love, more hope, more justice, more kindness. It might not seem popular at times and we might be ridiculed and laughed at as we dream of a better world, but if we learn from our dreaming ancestor Joseph and share the vision, we can make it so.

The Confrontation

Vayishlach 5783 – Na’ar Hayiti

“I hate confrontation.” Have you ever heard this sentence before? Have you uttered it yourself? Knowing you have an issue you need to confront with another person – be they a family member, a friend, or a co-worker – can bring intense anxiety and fear. Humans in general are afraid of confrontation. We fear being unliked. We fear we may not be able to communicate effectively. We fear the other person may not approach the situation with as much empathy as we hope to have for them. So we try to dance around the issue or approach solutions in creative ways when deep down we know that what we really must do is speak honestly face to face. 

There is a Chasidic tale told about Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi (The Alter Rebbe i.e. the first rebbe of Chabad), and Reb Baruch of Medzhybizh who were in a longstanding and perpetual state of disagreement. Peacekeepers and messengers were sent back and forth multiple times but were unable to repair the relationship, and their rift grew wider and wider. After many years, Reb Baruch said, “We see that when Jacob sought to assuage Esau’s anger, the Torah says,

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִי

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau (Genesis 32:4)

And the end result? Nothing. A few verses later we read,

וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הַמַּלְאָכִים אֶל־יַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר בָּאנוּ אֶל־אָחִיךָ אֶל־עֵשָׂו וְגַם הֹלֵךְ לִקְרָאתְךָ וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת אִישׁ עִמּֽוֹ׃
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is

 coming to meet you, with four hundred men with him.”

That is to say: confrontation and war.” 

Only when Jacob and Esau finally met face to face were they able to set aside their differences and make peace with each other. From here we learn that with matters of repair we can’t trust messengers – we have to do the work ourselves. And if there is something we must do that we fear, only when we step into the breach and face those fears will we find success.

I wrote this particular song after a shooting in 2014. I don’t often write lyrics in English, I usually prefer to let the words of our tradition speak through my melodies. But these words from the Psalms inspired me: 

נַעַר הָיִיתִי גַּם־זָקַנְתִּי וְלֹא־רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק נֶעֱזָב

I was young and am now old, and I have never seen a righteous person abandoned. (Psalms 37:25)

I believe these words are not meant to be said as a fact, but rather as an aspiration. What would the world look like if we didn’t abandon those who need and deserve help? The first step in facing a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. Then we awaken the desire in ourselves to change, and finally we go out and face our fears. 

This week and beyond, I bless us to learn from our ancestor Jacob. May we find within ourselves the capacity to understand our fears, the desire to seek repair, and the bravery to face them head on.

The Rehearsal

Vayeitze 5783 – Hachamah

First impressions matter. But sometimes we mess them up and just wish we could have a do over. Can you think of an encounter or interaction you had where you said or did something you wish you hadn’t and just want to hit the reset button and try again? This might be how God is feeling in this week’s parsha, Vayeitze. If you remember from a few weeks ago, God totally ruined a first interaction with Isaac, traumatizing him for life. Now God is gearing up for a first encounter with Jacob and just wants to get it right.

So what does God do? God pulls a Nathan Fielder. Fielder, a Jewish comedian, created and released a new show this year called “The Rehearsal.” In it, he helps ordinary people rehearse difficult conversations or life events through the use of sets and actors hired to recreate real situations. The situations can be trivial, like confessing to a lie about educational history, or more complex, like raising a child. He commissions extravagant sets with every detail recreated and hires actors to practice different dialogue trees with his clients over and over again. I recently watched the first episode and it is both incredible and very uncomfortable. It just feels unnatural to rehearse a real human interaction in such a way as to be able to predict and force an outcome.

But back to God. Jacob has run away from his parents’ house and his brother Esau after stealing his blessing. The Torah then writes,

“וְיִפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם… כִּי בָּא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ… (בְּרֵאשִׁית כֹּחַ:יא)”
“And Jacob came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set (Bereshit 28:11).”

The Midrash teaches that the Holy One caused the sun to set earlier than its proper time in order to speak with Jacob privately. Like a parable of the lover of a king who comes to visit the king occasionally, and when the lover arrives the king says, “put out the lights! Extinguish the lamps! For I would like to speak with my lover privately.” (Breishit Rabbah 68)

God sets the stage for the perfect date. Almost like God has been practicing this encounter every day like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. We humans don’t have the luxury of doing this, but we do have a similar opportunity every week as we prepare for Shabbat. Every week the Shabbat Queen arrives in our homes and communities, and we can choose how we greet her! The more we can prepare for the moment, the better we’ll feel when she arrives and the more we can take advantage of all Shabbat can offer. Instead of just letting Shabbat hit us where we are on Friday afternoon, tired, worn out, and frazzled from a long week of work, what if we were able to freshen up, dim the lights, and go out to greet her with our family and loved ones, and enter into Shabbat the way we truly WANT to enter into Shabbat.

That is what this poem by Chayim Nachman Bialik reminds us to do. It fits liturgically right before Kabbalat Shabbat, and we sing this melody (composed for this text originally and then set to Lecha Dodi) to set the tone and the mood for our ideal encounter.

Each week we are lucky enough to approach this same moment again, how will we greet it? This week (and every Shabbat that follows), I hope we can each find a way to make Shabbat be what we need it to be for us.

A Lie By Any Other Name

Toldot 5783 – Elohai Netzor

What is Tefillah supposed to “do”? For me, prayer is all about figuring out how to be the best version of myself every single day. What do I need? How can I be prepared? Can I set an intention for myself every day to strive to be the best Josh Warshawsky I can be today? What is daily prayer if not an exercise in self-discipline and self-reflection? If it is doing its job, prayer awakens us to walk a life of honor, honesty, goodness, and truth. 

This idea is expressed most clearly through the prayer that Mar son of Ravina would use to conclude his Amidah prayer according to the Talmud. The prayer itself was so meaningful that it was placed in almost all siddurim after the Amidah for every pray-er to say three times a day:

אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה, וְלִמְקַלְּלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם, וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה. פְּתַח לִבִּי בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ, וּבְמִצְוֹתֶיךָ תִּרְדּוֹף נַפְשִׁי.

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. To those who curse me let my soul be silent, and may my soul be like dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue your mitzvot. (BT Brachot 17a)

In reading through this week’s parsha, Toldot, it almost seems as if Jacob is aware of this particular prayer as well. He struggles with his mother’s instruction to lie to his father. Jacob, the simple Torah scholar, knows this is wrong. In response to his father’s question, “Who are you, my son?” The Torah says, 

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־אָבִיו אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ

Said Jacob to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born” (Bereishit 27:19)

But Rashi and other commentators throughout history notice the seemingly unnecessary words, “to his father” and read the verse differently. Instead, they say that the verse should be punctuated like this:

וַיֹּאמֶר: “יַעֲקֹב”, אֶל־אָבִיו: “אָנֹכִי. עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ”.

And he said (in a whisper so his father could not hear) “Jacob” and to his father, “I am. And Esau is your eldest”.

In this reading, Jacob’s words remain truthful though they still yield a deceitful outcome. Does this change how we should view Jacob? The rabbis do their best to make us think so, but I’m not so sure. Though Jacob’s tongue has not spoken “evil”, his lips are still creating deceit.  

 A lie of omission is still a lie. What must we learn from Jacob? Each day provides a new opportunity for us to walk through the world as a decent human being. In the end, the choices we make are ours alone to make. Though we may be pressured by outside forces (be they family, coworkers, or celebrities), though we may stumble and fall, the choices we make are ours alone to make. 

Let us keep the words of this prayer close to heart and strive each day to be a better version of ourselves than the day before.

Praying in the Field

Chayei Sarah 5783 – Eilecha

Sometimes we get lost in the noise of the world around us. This is especially true now as the world feels like an increasingly scary place, and also true when we’ve been through something traumatic. Prayer allows us to tune our frequency to what is happening within and open up our hearts to possibility and hope. We don’t know how much we need this. When Isaac goes out to pray in the field, he is in a state of shock. The last time we heard his voice was when his father Abraham was about to sacrifice him. Since that time his mother Sarah has died and now he is alone. He goes out into the field filled with heartbreak. I imagine him sitting amongst the tall grasses, humming to himself, searching for comfort.

But perhaps he was not completely alone. In the Torah we read,

“וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching.” (Gen. 24:63)

The word “su’ach”, “prayer/conversation,” can also be read as “si’ach” “shrub”. Rebbe Nachman teaches that Isaac’s prayer was accompanied by every bush and shrub in the field, waving and swaying and giving strength to his prayer. 

Only when Isaac felt that strength and support elevating his prayer was he able to lift up his eyes and truly see what life could look like beyond the pain of his mother’s death and his father’s betrayal. As Rabbi Naomi Levy writes, “But prayer is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. An opening up.” The words of this daily prayer from Psalm 30 are a calling out, an initiation of a conversation. And only once we open our hearts are we able to imagine and embrace what a response might feel like. 

“אֵלֶיךָ ה׳ אֶקְרָא וְאֶל־אֲדֹנָי אֶתְחַנָּן׃ שְׁמַע ה׳ וְחנֵּנִי ה׳ הֱיֵה־עֹזֵר לִי׃

I called to You, Holy One. To You I reached out for connection. Hear me, Holy One, receive my call and connect in return.” (Psalms 30:9, 11)

What would it look like for us, like Isaac, to awaken our prayer and the prayers of those around us as a vision of hope for the future? To call out for connection and to answer the call of those reaching out for connection in return?

Don’t Be A Benchwarmer

Vayera 5783 – Barcheinu

עָזְרֵנוּ וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ שֶׁנִּזְכֶּה תָּמִיד לֶאֱחֹז בְּמִדַּת הַשָּׁלוֹם, וְיִהְיֶה שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּוֹ. וְלֹא תִהְיֶה שׁוּם מַחֲלֹקֶת בֵּין כָּל בְּנֵי מִשְׁפַּחְתִּי

Help us continually hold onto the attribute of peace. May there be peace between a person and their fellow, and within our own families, and may our family not be selfishly divided.

TL;DR: VOTE! 

The end of the Torah service at a typical Conservative congregation often feels like it drags on and on: A prayer for the congregation, a prayer for our country, a prayer for Israel, a prayer for peace, etc. Growing up, I would recite them along with the congregation by rote memory. But a few years ago, I was directed towards an additional prayer sitting nestled at the end of this long series, simply titled, “a personal meditation. The prayer is attributed to Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz, who was the scribe and chief disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. 

The words are a prayer of hope and intention, not directed towards the community but towards the individual. At first this individual prayer seemed like an outlier after all of these communal prayers. When I looked more closely, however, I realized that this prayer is actually the ideal way to end this series: it is directed at the individual to realize the responsibility and autonomy each one of us has to actualize these prayers. It is up to you, to me, to each one of us to make sure these prayers come to fruition – God can’t do it alone. 

This is what God is telling us and telling Abraham in this week’s parsha, Vayera. Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find 50 righteous people within the city. God agrees. The Chassidic rebbe Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa focuses on these words, “within the city,” “בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר”. He says, 

לֹא דַּי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ צַדִּיקִים חוֹבְשֵׁי סַפְסָל בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, אֶלָּא צַדִּיקִים שֶׁהֵם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר

It is not enough for these righteous people to be “benchwarmers” in the Beit Midrash, rather find people who are within the city, mixed in with all the rest of the people, dealing with the world as it is and even so still working and remaining righteous! Only then will God save the city on their behalf.”

Righteousness is not a state of being that one achieves and maintains forever, rather it is a constant effort that can only be actualized through the continuous work each one of us does in the world. This is how we create a more just world, a world filled with peace and companionship and unity. It is up to us to work towards this vision. Today is election day – one of many opportunities to engage in this process of making our country and our world better. Please vote! Don’t be a benchwarmer, be a human who lives and engages “within the city.” Be someone who makes this world worth saving.

Going Back to Your Essence

Lech Lecha 5783 – Elohai Neshama

אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְּרָאתָהּ אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי

Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hi. Ata b’ratah, ata yatzartah, ata nafachtah bi.
My God, the soul that You have given me is pure. 
You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me.

Habits are hard to change. And when you are so used to something that you do it by rote and then something changes, the feeling can be jarring. But it also can help us experience something with new eyes. Recently I was praying with the Rabbinical Assembly’s new(ish) Lev Shalem siddur and I discovered that the order of two opening prayers had been flipped. In the Sim Shalom siddur, the blessing for the gift of our body, asher yatzar, precedes the blessing for the gift of our soul, elohai neshama, and in the Lev Shalem siddur the prayer for the soul comes first. 

I asked myself why? There must be a reason! Perhaps the editors of this siddur were hoping to help me understand that without a soul, I am just a body, just flesh and blood. It is only through recognizing that I have a soul – a soul that has been restored and re-energized and returned to me each and every day – that I can then acknowledge the body and container in which this soul resides. A body on its own cannot recognize such a gift. 

And that’s what it is – a gift. It is a gift to be alive. A gift to experience the world anew every single day. Abraham was someone who epitomized this. He looked out at the world and said, “this world of beauty, of nature, of creation, can’t just exist here on its own.” He looked to the stars, to the sun and moon, to the angels and gods of every little thing, until he realized that the answer lay within all along. For a holy spark is present in each and every thing. And within each one of us is a piece of the Divine – our soul – given to us as a gift. This was the true beginning of his journey. So when God says to Abraham “Lech Lecha”, the Chasidic Ukranian Rabbi Avraham Khein teaches that God is really saying “לֵךְ לְעַצְמוֹתֶיךָ” “go to your essence”.

Each morning we have the opportunity to go to our essence – to search within and to acknowledge the miraculousness of our existence. As our bodies and souls wake up we sing these words. The floating, searching melody lifts up and roots down, tethering us to earth and heaven as our soul awakens to a new day.

What would it be like if we could remember to start each day like this? 
If we took this prayer seriously, how would it change the way we live our lives?


5783 Musical Torah Journey

Starting Anew

A few months ago, my music page on facebook was somehow flagged and taken down. I appealed to no avail, and a few days later I went online and the whole page and all its contents were gone. I know it may seem trivial as all social media does, but in some ways, that page had been a record of my musical and rabbinic journey over the last fifteen years. 

So I’m starting anew. Every week on my new page I will explore a piece of music I’ve written in connection to and conversation with the Torah portion and where we are holding in the story of the Jewish people. Through this journey, I hope to find deeper meaning in these melodies, stronger ties to our tradition, and true relevance to the work we are doing in the world today. I’m not exactly sure where this journey will leave, though I hope it will lead to new conversations, new ideas, new relationships, new inspiration, and new music. I’d love to hear your thoughts along the way. 

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