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Yom Kippur Sermon Rabbi Koppel

10/11/2019 09:52:11 AM


Rabbi Koppel

It doesn’t take a great deal of conversation with me to know that I love camp—I often talk about its influence on me, and its power for so many young people.  Throughout my time as a camper, staff member, faculty member, and senior staff member at the 5 Reform Jewish summer camps at which I have spent time, each has displayed many aspects of the same magic—as well as a unique spirit.  In my most recent summers, I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the particular magic of the URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, a Jewish arts camp, near here in West Chester, PA, housed at the Westtown School—which I’ve had joy of experiencing with several campers from our congregation.  So, let me set the scene.


Creative Arts Academy is a place that breathes art.  In the fields between the lush, green trees—between the storied walls of the old buildings…It is there that creativity happens.  At CAA, young people discover who they are each day, trying new arts, honing skills, unfolding different aspects of themselves, exploring their world, and figuring out how they fit into it.  As faculty there, at so many moments of each day, I take in the camp community in soft focus—noticing us all as an ensemble—moving towards the same goal of creating a more beautiful world.


Each morning and each evening, surrounded by green fields, with the background of the blue sky of morning or the sun setting into pink and purple clouds in the evening, the camp gathers for ritual moments.  Between the beauty of voices joined together in spontaneous harmonies, through the prayers we sing each day, we share reflections on the values of camp and the theme of the summer.  This past summer, that theme offered 3 essential questions that seeped into all of our activities, quoting the great sage Hillel.  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, then when? These questions are answered throughout the time at camp in myriad ways—through art and through actions.  In conversations and in contemplation.


It was in the midst of all of this that one evening, long after the evening program, after hours spent laughing and sharing and planning with the other faculty, that I read something on facebook that pierced the bubble of camp.  And I became instantaneously more grateful that the campers didn’t have access to screens, so that their bubble could remain in tact.  A musician friend of mine posted that while he had played at Gilroy the day before, he was safe. 


And as opened a tab on my internet browser to find out what had happened, and took a deep breath thinking about how we’d be taking the oldest campers to the county fair the next day,  I reflected on the fact that there was yet another incident to add to an ever growing list, and I simultaneously realized that this now adult had once been a camper in my unit when I was a counselor for Carmel—the youngest unit at Camp Harlam.  And I thought of another camper in my bunk that same year, who was in Las Vegas for a concert 2 years ago, and while not physically injured, will forever grapple with mental scars.  And I thought of my colleague who had been the student rabbi in Littleton, Colorado, just a few miles from Columbine High School.  And I thought of my colleague who is the rabbi/educator in Parkland, Florida.  And my several friends who work in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.  And just days later, still holding on to the bubble of camp, despite the bullet holes that permeated it, I would think of who my friends were in El Paso and then Dayton.  And while I know that these personal connections don’t make these stories any worse than any other, similar stories, I know that they hurt more.  And sometimes, it is when ideas become personalized, that they become more real for us.  And when some ideas become more real, we have no choice but to respond.


And with that, my mind returned in that moment, to the theme of the summer.  And I realized that I must be for myself, in order that my own realm be safer—the places and people I treasure.  I must be for others, in order to offer the same to those I do not know.  And that clearly, the time is now—and probably should have begun already. 


We have a problem in this country with gun violence.  And we have for a while.  In the places I mentioned—without even having to identify what happened in those places.  In so many other places where people have gone to shop, to see movies, to go to work, to pray, or to go to school.  Not to mention instances of gun violence that don’t even make national headlines, but are just as horrifying and important to acknowledge.  We have a problem. 


I’m not here to identify the specifics of that problem, or even to tell you what the solution is.  I have my ideas—I have no doubt that you do, as well.  I’d embrace the opportunity to engage in conversation about that.  But whatever you identify as the root of the problem, and whatever you think is the solution, I urge you to take action towards that solution.  Because approximately 100 people in the US die from gun violence every day[1].  Because in the Jewish year of 5779, a year of 385 days, there were 403 mass shootings in the US[2].  And those numbers are not ok.  And, most of all, because those numbers are not just numbers—each of those numbers is a collection of stories, and a collection of people connected to those stories, and of friends connected to those people.  This problem belongs to us all.


And it is happening all over our country.  And that terrifies me.  I know I’m not alone in that fear.  And, while as adults we may know how to grapple with those feelings, it is often even more challenging our young people.  I know that so many of our kids are scared.  A friend of mine told me recently that her daughter, a freshman in high school, spent that morning in hysterics, having woken up out of a nightmare about being in a school shooting.   And her nightmare felt real to her.  And she was late for school that day, because her mother had to calm her down, so that she could even begin to get dressed, and go to the very site of her nightmare.  This is a mature, 15 year old young woman—who woke up from a nightmare crying.  Our kids know what is going on, and for many of them, walking into school is a daily act of courage. 


To our young people here, I want to say to you directly: we see you; we hear you; and we are here for you.  You are loved, and you are valued.  And we want you to be safe.  We are doing our best. 


And to all of you, adults especially, I really hope that we are.  Because we need to.   We need to listen to our youth—especially as many of them are becoming leaders towards finding solutions to this issue—and because they are clearly telling us that there is a problem and looking to us. And we need to recognize that we owe real change to these next generations.  And we need to take action.  We need to do our best.  As I said before, this is true no matter your politics, no matter your beliefs.  Whether you feel that we need better gun laws in this country; or that we need to mitigate the culture of violence that is so pervasive, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about on Rosh Hashanah; or that we need to provide better and more accessible treatment for mental health; or that we need to recognize that mental illness is more likely to make an individual a victim than a perpetrator, and that we must reduce the stigma of mental health care; or that too often, too many people are failing to recognize the humanity of others…all of those are real needs in our society.  And while any one of them alone is unlikely to solve the immense problem that we have, put together, they can lead to real change—and perhaps we can take the steps necessary towards real solutions.  Be for yourself, and fight for the solutions that you believe in.  Be for others, and recognize that the work of your neighbor towards the same ultimate solution.  And let’s not wait any longer to engage in this sacred work together.


Because it’s going to take a while and it isn’t going to be easy.  And I don’t know about you, but I’m already exhausted.  And each incident that pops up in the notifications on my phone exacerbates the feelings already present—and I’m weary.  And I’m angry.  And don’t want to live in a world where I need to spend professional development time with our religious school faculty on active shooter trainings; and where we have to have increased security in our building; and in which I find myself constantly looking around for potential danger; and where one can’t help but to live on edge, wondering where it will happen next time.  Because there is an assumption of there being a next time.  And even as we fight for solutions, we also need to recognize and soothe our own feelings, and the feelings of those around us.  I’d like to suggest that these very High Holy Days offer us guidance in multiple aspects of this struggle.


Throughout this season, we read the ancient words of the unetaneh tokef prayer.  The prayer speaks of Divine Judgment; of God examining the life of each being on earth, determining our fate for the coming year.  On Rosh Hashanah, according to this prayer, God writes our fate in the Book of Life.  On Yom Kippur, our fate is sealed.  The basic theology of these words is troubling at best, especially when considering issues of gun violence.  But the ultimate message of the prayer is not that God determines our fate, but that our actions can change the determination.  “u’Teshuvah, ut’fillah, utzedakkah ma’a’virin et ro’a hag’zeirah.”  “Repentence, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree,” as it is translated in our machzor.  The implication here, and the common understanding of this line, is that if we engage in acts of repentance, prayer, and charity, then our fate will be better—we’ll prevent the brokenness and the chaos.  But I don’t think that’s true; too many good people have been victims of gun violence for that to be the case.  However, looking at the words more carefully allows for a different interpretation.  These acts of repentance, prayer, and charity will not so much change fate, but they can help to determine our reaction.  We are hopefully all written in the Book of Life; the question, though, is if we are in the book of the truly living.  For in order to live, we must realize that bad things will happen around us and that bad things will have an impact on us; we need to have the tools to live despite the bad.  I want to offer a more nuanced translation: Repentance, prayer, and charity bring us through the evil of the decree—this more literal translation is perhaps a more accurate understanding of these ancient words.  These actions give us coping strategies for living with the challenges that life presents.  No longer do we wonder how these acts can change our destiny, but how can these acts change the way we react to those events that are beyond our control?

T’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedakkah bring us through the evil of the decree.

T’shuvah: our acts of turning inward, can help us to see what we must do.  To see how we can be better at creating a reality that is different from that in which we find ourselves.  By sharing in collective repentance for the cycle of gun violence that has pervaded these last decades, we can turn towards a better future.  T’fillah: while surely, thoughts and prayers are not the solution to the vast problem of gun violence in this country, prayer is not a bad thing.  And successful prayer can change us.  Whether it brings us towards moments of transcendence which inspire us, or towards moments of centering and calm within ourselves, which comfort us.  Prayer that is more than going through the motions of the words we recite, prayer that makes us feel a sense of something beyond our day to day, can transform us and enable us to perceive both ourselves and our world differently.  Tzedakah: through righteous giving, of our money or of our time, to organizations that do work towards solutions in which we believe, our impact can be greater than what any one of us can do individually.  And if we understand this term more broadly, we can also see it as our mandate towards creating righteousness in our world—to making right that which we see is wrong. 


If we each engage in T’shuva, T’fillah, and Tzedakah, our actions can bring us through the terror of this problem of gun violence.   Each piece an essential part of the answer, to get ourselves through these challenging times, and to move our society beyond them.  As these holy days inspire us towards bettering both ourselves and our world, throughout this new year. 


And I truly believe this is possible.  It is, in fact, at camp where I find reminders of that, to remember on the days when I believe that it isn’t. 

On the final Shabbat of this past summer, I had the opportunity to lead Havdallah with the Directors and Leadership Team, sitting on the stage of the theater building, looking out at the camp community gathered, along with several families and community members, who had come for the final showcase.  The camp community sang the blessings, through tear stained faces, knowing that the summer was coming to an end.  The campers hugged each other, swaying with their arms around each other, separating themselves from Shabbat, and even as they held on to each other, grasping at the edges of the bubble as if to beg it to stay a little longer, beginning the emotional separation from camp.  And at the end, as is the tradition at Creative Arts Academy, the community sang Rabbi Max Chaikin’s version of Eliyahu HaNavi, the song calling upon Elijah the Prophet to herald a time of perfection and calling upon ourselves to build that reality.  As I watched the camp community from the stage, I saw the campers singing loudly—almost shouting the words—jumping and dancing and raising their arms with the message—truly living out the enthusiasm inherent in the idea of bringing about, “a time to come, when injustice shall be gone, pain and violence will be no more, done with hatred, done with war.”[3]  And I knew, in that moment, that they really meant it.  And as they sang the words, “So we will not wait a minute more, to build the world we’re waiting for. Building starts with you and me,”[4] I knew they were right.  This all starts with you and me.  And this all starts right now, as the gates close on the year that has past, and we open ourselves anew.  May we open those gates towards a time in which we are better, a year in which the world is better.  May we walk through those gates towards building that world.  So may it be for us all. 

ken y’hi ratzon

Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 Sermon

10/02/2019 11:06:05 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Sometime in the fall of 2016, a young man was at a bar with his friend. Let me clarify: with his boyfriend. They were enjoying a moment, enjoying a drink in public, as any young or even not so young couple might. They’re sitting at the bar, minding their own business, when a man, a stranger, clearly into his cups, came up to them. He came up to them and said something like, “after January, we’ll be able to kill folks like you.” He added a word to describe them, a word I would never say on the bimah.

Summer of 2017, I’m sitting on the deck at the faculty housing at Camp Harlam. The sun is shining, and working on my High Holiday sermons, when I see a post from my colleague in Charlottesville Virginia about how, that Saturday morning, they had to evacuate the building and take the Torah scrolls out the back door, as the Unite The Right protest and march, surged toward the building, dozens if not hundreds of people chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

A Shabbat morning last fall: I’m coming off the bimah after a bat mitzvah service. It had gone particularly well. We were in high spirits as we were preparing to go to the reception, when the president tells me there’s been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the clergy scramble to find out which one and how our colleagues are doing.

It’s August, I’m back from camp nursing a cold, and I’m working on my sermons for these high holidays, when the news report comes out that the Amazon Rainforest, the world’s lungs, is burning, barely weeks after multiple mass shootings, at the same time we know children are locked in cages, denied even a toothbrush, and now denied flu vaccines as well.

Perhaps the last thing you wanted on this Rosh Hashanah morning was this litany of woe, but I think they tell us something important about how whipsawed we are. It’s hard to know which way to look these days, or how to respond, except with an aching heart and a sense of dread. There is so much happening in our world right now, so much wrong, so much pain. It’s not that there wasn’t pain before, of course, but increasingly we are awake to the suffering of the world. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas used to write of how the human condition was to be asleep to the pain in the world, to be literally unconscious to anyone else’s existence or need, and that the ethics of our time demand that we wake up. But, he cautioned that being “awake” was to invite a kind of spiritual and moral insomnia. Well, if Levinas is correct, then we are there; we are ethical and spiritual insomniacs, dwelling on every pain, every crisis, every act of violence in our community and our world. No matter how much we may want to be plugged back into the Matrix, we are awake now.


Part of our moral insomnia, as well as our sense of whiplash, is the sense of helplessness in the face of so much pain. What do we do? What can we do? How can anything we do be enough? In so many respects, I feel like we’re like Abraham and Isaac in the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, our Torah portion for today. We will read as Abraham and Isaac set off, after God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, and are walking to the place God has shown, and Isaac will ask: “Father, here is the knife and the fire and the wood, but where is the offering?” As if somehow knowing, fearing what the answer will be. Similarly, it feels as if we’re walking together to some place, we don’t know where, knife and fire in our hand, wondering whether we’ll survive, physically or spiritually. What are we supposed to do? What is our task? How do we wrap our arms around the enormity of the world’s pain? Where are we supposed to start when the pain of the world is everywhere? Do we start with our community? Do we start with political action, or direct action? Do we find something we can do, something small? And what about our own pain? As I said last night, there are so many of us, perhaps even in this room now, who are on the razor’s edge. That’s what insomnia does to you, after all; it puts you on edge, makes you aware of your own fragility. A Christian colleague described to me an experience in his church. They have a women’s book club. It runs itself and is purely social. They read novels, the kind of thing that shows up in the New York Times Book Review. Last month they were discussing the latest book, some murder mystery, and somehow the topic turned to politics. Which lead to yelling. And screaming. An uncontrolled and uncontrollable revelry of invective and hostility. And this isn’t unique. Only a month ago, at Saturday morning services, when a congregant mentioned a public figure for the prayer for healing, another person present interrupted the service to share their hostility to the point where the congregant had to get up and leave services. How can we heal when we ourselves are hurt?

The answer is hope. We must begin with hope.

Yes, hope. It feels like such a pathetic word today, hope. It doesn’t help that the word was coopted by a political candidate back in 2008, emblazoned on some snazzy looking posters. Perhaps you remember. And perhaps you remember the disappointment that was felt when no kumbaya moment emerged and we were squabbling even worse than before. “How’s that hopey changey stuff?” Sarah Palin asked two years later.

The problem is that we got confused. We mistook hope for optimism. There’s nothing wrong with optimism, per se, but it isn’t as durable as hope, nor is it especially helpful to us right now. Optimism is passive, it doesn’t demand anything of us. Optimism is that Pollyanna idea that everything will turn out just right, that the future is bright, that our best years are always ahead of us; we just have to wait for someone else to act. Optimism is sitting at the gates, waiting for the messiah to arrive. And what happens when she doesn’t? What happens when the disappointment sets in?

That’s not hope. Not real hope. Real hope is much more urgent, much more prophetic, than that. Hope, I would argue, goes hand in hand with grief, that sense that the world is topsy-turvy. Hope, real hope, is subversive. To quote the theologian Walter Bruggeman: “Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion.” Or, to quote Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” fame, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Not in the way of the conspiracy theorist, mind you, or the delusional, but in the staunch refusal to accept that we are doomed, that the people around us are beyond salvation, that nothing we can do matters. It is, in effect, how Abraham responds to Isaac’s question that we discussed a moment ago. When Isaac asks where is the offering to be sacrificed, Abraham responds quixotically: “God will see to it that there is an offering.” At first, we might read this as terrible foreshadowing, or a hint of Isaac’s fate. But the other way to read this is as words of hope, as if to say, “I, Abraham, do not accept that God will make me sacrifice my son today. I refuse to accept that that is my son’s destiny, or mine. So, God, I’m calling you out. And who knows, maybe I’ll find a ram to offer instead, whose horn my descendants will use year after year to call you out, and remind you, and remind themselves, of what must be done.”

And that is what hope demands of us. And yes, real hope makes demands. Hope demands that we question and protest and push back, that we use our moral imaginations to conceive of a better world. Hope is a call to action. It is the call to be prophetic. Not to predict the future; that was never the Jewish understanding of prophecy. Rather, and here I quote Bruggeman again, to be prophetic is “refuse to accept the definitions of reality that are imposed upon us by the socio-economic political power structure.” The person of hope, the prophetic person, refuses to accept that there are those unworthy of love, or compassion. The person of hope refuses the narratives of fear and demoralization. The person of hope refuses to accept that we are helpless in the face of crushing certainty that all is lost. The person of hope refuses to accept that this is our world now, and that we are merely doomed to live in it. The person of hope refuses to give in to the pain, refuses to throw up their hands in helplessness, refuses to go back to sleep. The person of hope, the prophetic person, understands what the prophets understood: that there is always something to do, and that we are called to do it, and that the doing changes the world entirely. That the balm for moral insomnia isn’t sleep, but getting up and getting to work. It’s choosing to care for the Other however we can, with whatever we have. And we have resources: our time, our energy, our imaginations, our love, and our tradition.

To be a Jew is to be a prophetic person, a person of hope. That is the beauty of our tradition, going all the way back to Abraham. That it is a tradition of hope. That it understands that our path is one of action; that there is always a task, a mitzvah, before us, and none are more important than the other. That they are not, at the end of the day, empty rituals and moldy texts, or merely rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, but tasks that restore hope in others and ourselves, tasks that lead to healing, tasks that lead to dignity and holiness. That’s what we need to do.

In Warsan Shire’s poem “what they did yesterday afternoon”, toward the end, it reads

I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered


The world hurts, everywhere. We are awake to the pain; we cannot go back to sleep, back to indifference or helplessness. Our tradition demands that we act with hope, with the moral imagination that things could be different, and work toward that difference however we can, with whatever we have: caring for and healing the Other. To use our moral imaginations to reject the reality presented to us, and substitute our own, a world of Justice and wholeness and mercy and peace.  We hope for that world by doing justice now. By loving mercy now. By repairing what is broken, now. By walking humbly, now. As the New Year begins, as we hear Abraham and Isaac’s words, as we hear the sound of the shofar, may we hear the sounds and words of hope, and may we choose to live them, each and every day. Amen.

Kol Nidrei Sermon

10/02/2019 11:04:39 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Kol Nidrei 2019

A few weeks ago Marisa shared with me an article about the Cheddar Man. Cheddar man is not, as you might imagine, a man made out of cheese, as sharp as that might be. Rather, he’s a 10,000 year old, perfectly preserved mummified man found in a boggy cave near Cheddar Gorge in England. This was mildly interesting to me, but not exactly a big deal; a number of prehistoric folks get found in the various bogs in the British Isles. The article went on to share that the mummy was so well preserved, some researchers decided to sequence his DNA. Fine. But, what I found truly interesting, and surprising, was that, having sequenced Cheddar Man’s DNA, they found his direct descendants living within a few miles of the this person’s final resting place. Think about that. 10,000 years after Cheddar Man died, they found his grandson 300 times removed living no farther than a short walk away.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine being able to say, “we’ve always been here” and for that to be literally true? Talk about being rooted to the land! This utterly fascinates me, to the point of giving me vertigo. Because this idea of being able to trace your ancestors back thousands of years to one geographic spot, that there are people who can say they’ve been in one place since before history, is completely foreign to us as Jews, and especially to us as American Jews. Of course, there are some of our people who have lived in our ancestral lands since Biblical times in an unbroken lineage of rootedness, but most of us do not have that experience. We cannot talk about our ancestors being in one place going back to the dawn of time. Rather, we talk about our grandparents or great-grandparents fleeing from persecution or hardship to come here, and before that their grandparents or great-grandparents fled from somewhere else. Our people have known exile after exile, dispersion after dispersion. Even our Biblical ancestors speak of a sense of exile. Abraham describes himself as a stranger in the land his descendants are supposed to inherit. The Psalmist speaks of himself as being a foreigner even in her own land, because of her distance from God. At Passover, Deuteronomy commands that we must recite our history, a history that we still recite at the seder to this day, that emphasizes our unsettled background, beginning: My Father was a wandering Aramean. Even the name we sometimes choose for ourselves as a people, Hebrew, means “to cross over”, to wander, unsettled. While we yearn for an Israel reborn and someday whole and at peace, that isn’t the comfort of being rooted in a place for millennia, but the ache of a people separated from their home, like a child torn from her mother. Truly, there is nothing like the Cheddar Man in Jewish history.

Or is there? I would argue that we are rooted, deeply rooted, as a people—but not in land. We are rooted in Torah. We are profoundly attached to our sacred text, our brit, our covenant, with God, with the words of our sacred Scripture. And at the risk of being Extreme, it’s more than the words. It’s more than the words and the stories that we to this day recite at Shabbat, that we teach to our children, that we break our teeth on, that we struggle with and that every generation has struggled with; words that we sometimes reject, often reimagine or reinterpret, words that beget more words: words of the rabbis in Midrash and Talmud, words of poetry and liturgy, words of stories and humor, words of challenge and question to this very day. Those words, all swirling around, in Hebrew and Aramaic and Yiddish and Ladino and English and so many other languages, lead us to our values. It’s not just the text; it can’t be. If it’s just an artifact to parade around the sanctuary and for terrified 13-year olds to chant from, it’s nothing but a museum piece. But the Torah that we are fundamentally rooted in, is the expression of our values as a people. That we were chosen to bring a light to the nations. That we have a special obligation to the world, to repair it, and bring word of God’s oneness. That all of us, created in God’s image, are holy, that we should love our neighbor and the stranger, protect the vulnerable, and that we deserve rest each week. I’m sure those ideas sound trite, but once upon a time, they were radical. Sometimes I think today that they’re still radical. And we Jews, forced to flee Judea but entering instead the country of Yiddishkeit, continue to preach these radical ideas. We are the world’s iconoclasts and always have been. As my teacher Rabbi Shai Held shared this summer: we as Jews have been disloyal to idols since the days of Abraham. Disloyal to tyrants since Pharaoh. Disloyal to little men who wish they were God since Haman. And that disloyalty to evil is a form of loyalty to God. We could spend hours discussing what that disloyalty to idolatry and tyranny has done for our history as well as our moral fiber. What are we loyal to, fundamentally? Not blood—anyone can be Jewish. Not land, as much as we may love our home country, and yearn for a Zion truly restored in all her grandeur. We are loyal to Torah; as a body of texts, as a process of learning and questioning, as a commitment we made at Sinai and continue to make with every choice, every mitzvah, and as an idea of who we are meant to be, who we are as our best selves, who God imagines us to be. We are loyal to the idea that in our commitment to Torah, to that Sinai moment, we are truly eternal. There is something truly powerful about taking a bar or bat mitzvah, that scared 13-year old I mentioned earlier, and bring them before the Torah knowing that each of them has an ancestor that did the same thing generations ago, thousands of years ago, in another land wearing other clothes with another accent, and that if they were to come forward in time in the conveyance of their choice: DeLorean, Police Box, or New York Phone Booth, and if they were to slip into the back row of the sanctuary to listen to their great-great-great grandchild however many generations removed, even though they would be truly a stranger in a strange land, that they would know what their descendant was reciting, and be rooted in it. Rooted in Torah just as we are.

That rootedness doesn’t happen on its own. We were not given the Torah at Sinai as an individual moment of epiphany. The Torah wasn’t given to a prophet in a private moment, distant from society. We were given it together, and the fulfillment of Torah—its values and obligations—requires the collective, the group, the community. Atem Nitzavim kulchem hayom we will chant tomorrow from the Torah: you stand here TOGETHER on this day. And later, Kedoshim t’hiyu, You—in its plural form, You—shall be holy. Rootedness in Torah isn’t just about the individual, though surely each of us is required and essential to fulfill it. Rather, Torah is about all of us coming together in sacred partnership—with one another and with God, if I can be so bold. And when we think of Torah and its principles, the rituals that grow from Torah, we see our interconnectedness, our dependence on one another. As one example, we cannot recite Kaddish without 10, so the mourner needs 10 or more to support and sustain them. So many of our mitzvot are like that, encouraging us to be there for one another: in justice and in lovingkindness. We are our best selves, as Jews, not standing alone, but shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters, encouraging and supporting each other, whether in the smallest act of kindness, like a tray brought for shiva, or the strongest act of civil disobedience, and everything in between. Which is not to romanticize who we are. There’s nothing so difficult as being in community with other Jews. We are, after all, am k’sheh oref, a stiff-necked people. There is nothing simple or easy about life in community, and it certainly does not lead to instant gratification. We are disappointed by one another, and we ourselves disappoint. We argue, we forget. We find ourselves having the same interactions over and over again. We lose our patience, or others lose their patience with us. Real life in community is not a product you can buy, the customer is not always right, and your happiness is not guaranteed. There’s a discipline to it, to forgiving others their weak moments and their minor foibles. To forgiving ourselves when we don’t have the right words to say, when we fell short in our obligations and know it.  The Torah may be eternal, but each moment passes by and we wonder, perhaps always, whether we did enough. To live in community is not to take the easy path. It is to take the more meaningful path. To live in community is to learn to laugh at one’s self, to show up to the shiva call or the hospital room or the rally even when one is tired, to be patient with other people’s children as they play in the back of the sanctuary because that was once our children, or even us, to embrace with the older congregant who comes and looks around the sanctuary and sees none of her friends, because they are gone.  That is the real path of Torah, the path that leads to chesed, that is, to grace.

This is my 11th High Holidays here. My 11th Kol Nidre. There’s a little more gray in my hair, and altogether less of it. The two-year old from my first High Holidays is now preparing for his bar mitzvah. 11 high holidays of being able to say that I am your rabbi, of being rooted in this community, of being at your bedsides and b’nai mitzvah, at your funerals and weddings, in your classrooms and living rooms and board rooms, sitting on the floor of the JCC preschool and standing arm in arm with the clergy of this community. Compared to the 114 years this congregation has served Wilmington, it barely registers, to say nothing of the 10,000 years we discussed earlier. But it means something to me. To me it means that we are rooted, together, in Torah. Rooted together as a community. I don’t know where this community will be in 10 more years, or 100. I know that it is strong in its commitment to its neighborhood, that the members are committed to one another, committed to celebrating Jewish life, to Jewish learning, to social justice. To being the voice of Reform Judaism in the First State. And tonight I want to make you a promise, just as we promised at Sinai to do and hear, na’aseh v’nishmah, whoever we will be, whatever we do, we will do it together. We will continue to be rooted in our Torah values, as our ancestors were, as the builders of this community were. We will continue to live those values, doing the hard, messy work of community, the loving work of community, together. We will continue to grow as Jews, as people, and as a sacred congregation, and we will do this together. Because we stood at Sinai together, we are still standing at Sinai together, pledging ourselves to the work. And I cannot wait to get started.

10/02/2019 10:52:36 AM


Update this content.

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

10/02/2019 10:52:23 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019


Can I share a somewhat embarrassing story with you? I feel like, after 11 Rosh Hashanahs together, maybe we can level with one another a little bit. Several years ago, don’t ask me when, I was trying to buy something at a pharmacy near my home. I remember that I was rushing, because I was trying to get meds to my kid, and as I was ringing up, I was trying to signal with my body language that I just wanted to get out of there. It wasn’t life or death, these weren’t prescriptions, but I was definitely stressed in the way that a parent can be when their kid is not feeling well. The cashier asked me if I wanted to participate in some kind of promotion or sign up for a frequent shoppers program. I really had no interest and just wanted to get out of there, so I said no, but she didn’t drop it. In fact, she kept pushing. I don’t know if she had been instructed to really hustle for these or if she was just a super optimistic person, but we went back and forth a few times. At that point, in that moment, I told her that if she didn’t stop pushing, I’d talk to her manager. I didn’t actually want to talk to a manager—I just wanted to get home, but that’s what I said. It was as if I punched her in the gut. She immediately shut down, and stopped making eye contact, looking down at the register. I think she even said, “wow”, and not in a good way. I just wanted to get out of there, but in my hurry to depart, I made this stranger fear for her livelihood. Did I really need to do that? Would it have been so bad if I had smiled and made a joke, or just said “hey, I know this is your job, but I’m just trying to get home in a hurry.” Or just signed up for it to get her off my back? Was my reaction necessary?

I bring this up not to embarrass myself or just whine about my failings, or use this as therapy time, but because I think there is a real question in front of us about how we as a society interact with people, especially in moments when we’re in a hurry or stressed out, or feel we need to take control of the situation, and that is to do something similar to what I did; to assert some level of authority or threaten the other person with some kind of consequence. In effect, it is to perform an act of violence.  Oh, I don’t think anyone in this room is going to resort to physical violence: I don’t think anyone here is up for a barroom brawl. But physical violence is only one kind. Certainly, it’s terrifying, and we see far too much of it, especially in the last year: from mass shootings around our country to the violence in our own city’s streets. However, we know and experience other kinds of violence in our lives, other ways we can be assaultive. It’s all around us: the use of punitive measures in our schools to correct behaviors, for example, rather than trying to use empathy. The threats of violence inherent in so many ways that we interact with one another, ways that we as individuals or a society try to force compliance, to assert control. Reflect, for a moment, on how we speak, how we posture ourselves. Do we operate from a place of entitlement, where our words, our needs, our wants, are more important than that of the people around us? Do we ask for help of our co-workers or make demands? Is there an implicit threat in our voice when we ask for something? Must we win at all costs, in every argument? Do I even need to discuss the way we talk to each other on social media, especially about politics and our political views? How, when we disagree with someone, or we don’t hear the exact right turn of phrase from a person we’re interacting with, we are quick to ‘cancel’ them? Cancel them? Really? Yes, really. Perhaps it is a result of the world we’re living in, where we are all wound so tight, all living right on the edge of explosion, that these kinds of defensive reactions seem appropriate. And yet, are they?

In his book Between The World And Me, The author Ta Nehisi Coates describes an experience leaving a movie theater with his son where an adult pushes the son out of the way. The woman is white, and Coates and his son are black. When Coates tries to protect his son, tries to intervene in some way to shelter his son, to do what any father might do, the woman’s response is “I’ll call the police.” That in and of itself is a threat of violence, a threat, as Coates points out, against any control he has over his body. Maybe we don’t have an exact corollary experience in our own lives, but we can ask ourselves the question whether we are quick to threaten consequences—to our children, to the people around us? Are we quick to call for a manager or supervisor, whether of the person ringing us up at the store or the teacher at our child’s school? Go back to the example I gave at beginning, the woman at the pharmacy: While I didn’t threaten her physically, my words was assaultive, and did clear violence to this poor woman. I didn’t know anything about her—not even her name. I don’t know what traumas she’s faced in her life, and how I may have fed into those traumas.

And essentially, that’s what we’re talking about. Trauma. Violence—whether words or actions—exposes others to the possibility of trauma and reawaken the traumas they’ve already experienced. What would it look, like, then, to live in a trauma-informed world, one where, while we might not know exactly what each other has experienced, we live in such a way that we take people’s trauma into account? The Jewish thinker Immanuel Levinas put it a little differently: we cannot know each other’s burdens, not really, because we live our own lives, not each other’s lives. But we can be responsive to each other’s burdens and take them into account in our interactions. Maybe it’s assuming best intent in others, rather than assuming they’re out to get you. Maybe it’s taking a moment and listening to the voice of the other person, and reflecting on the stress in their life, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, knowing we’d want the same for ourselves, or giving them the space to give voice to that trauma. There are so many ways to put a salve to each other’s wounds rather than exacerbate them; I’ve mentioned a few, I’m sure we could think of many more, but all of them require us to be willing to commit to living in a non-violent fashion.

As it happens, our community—this congregation and our city—is in the midst of that effort even as we speak.  This evening, at the conclusion of Peace Week here in Delaware, our interfaith and civic partners are gathered much as we are gathered: to commit to a new year, a year full of possibility, a year full of potential holiness waiting to be unlocked. However, they are not preparing to enter the year 5780. Instead, they are gathered to commit to the first year of NonViolent Wilmington. Part of the nonviolent cities movement, the vision is exactly as it might sound, for us as a city—institutions, nonprofits, houses of worship, businesses and citizens—to commit to Wilmington being a place of nonviolence. It is a noble idea, an effort that we as a congregation are committing to as well. And to many of us, I’m sure it sounds totally Pollyanna. To begin with, we are weighed down by the sheer amount and intensity of violence we as a city experience weekly, sometimes daily. While the last year has been better in terms of violent crime, a brief reflection on the shootings only in the last month tells us that we have a long way to go, to say nothing of the trauma the residents of Wilmington are still grappling with; lost parents and children and friends. Add to that the physical threat our community has felt since the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh less than a year ago, the way minorities have been under increasing stress this last year. Then add on top of that the various ways violence shows up systemically—in our criminal justice system, in our impact on the environment in our treatment of the vulnerable, then add on top of that t the kinds of violence I was describing earlier—the hurts and threats we make as expressions of our own stress, well, it would be understandable if many of us felt this was a lost cause.

Which I would argue even more strenuously that we should commit to this effort. Since that encounter in the pharmacy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to be a more peaceful person, to “seek peace and pursue it”, as our tradition admonishes. I am increasingly convinced that the violence around us—whether we perpetrate it or not, whether we are victims of it or not—debilitates us. Whether it is the violence we see around us—the crime in our city, or the way we respond to that crime—the violence of our actions, or the violence of our rhetoric, including our political rhetoric, we find ourselves locked in a system that amplifies and emphasizes violence as always justified, always warranted, always necessary, and always traumatic. Why would we choose to live in a world so comfortable with violence? Why wouldn’t we choose to make real a vision of non-violence? Violence cannot be resolved merely by our elected officials, or our schools, or our police and first responders; it is not contained ‘over there’: it will take the entire city, all of us, each of us committed to the well-being of this community, choosing to move forward, even if this goal is aspirational. 

In order to make that commitment, we must understand what non-violence means, especially as Jews. As we know, our tradition is not one of pacifism. Our tradition reminds us that sometimes, sadly, violence is necessary. For self-defense. In warfare. Even to protect the vulnerable. Again and again the Torah and rabbinic tradition give us profound examples of how restricted, controlled violence is sometimes necessary. But our tradition never values violence for its own sake, nor does it understand it as the best possible choice, only the sometimes necessary choice. Think, instead, how often our tradition emphasizes the importance of peace and maintaining peace; how the blessing of peace is repeated again and again. Meanwhile,  violence is understood to interrupt what should be a natural order, a disruption, a violation. Even the violence perpetrated by God is not idealized nor is it celebrated by our texts and traditions. In Genesis, right before tomorrow’s Torah reading, when God chooses to destroy Sodom and Gamorrah for their many sins, Abraham chooses to challenge God and push back against the divine decree, rather than revel in the destruction of the wicked. Similarly, when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea after Israel has fled, Israel sings songs of praise, songs that inspire the angels themselves. How do the rabbi’s imagine God’s reaction? God stops them, appalled, and asks: “My children are drowning, and you sing songs of praise to me?” While violence may be a necessary, according to the Torah, it should be understood as a tool of last resort, and should not be our first instinct.

I’m sure there are many listening to this right now thinking, “but that’s not how the world works.” No, it’s not. Not yet. We tell people to get tough, because it’s a tough world. We tell people to suck it up, figure it out, rub some dirt in it and move on, move forward. We tell children these things. That their pain doesn’t matter, or if it does, it’s because it’s supposed to make you stronger. That it’s a test. That’s the way the world is: it’s a big tough world and you just have to be tough enough to get through it. That’s how you succeed. That’s what we say, isn’t it? That’s what we tell ourselves and each other. That’s what we expect. What a bunch of nareishkeit. Is that really what we want to teach? Is that how we really want to live? That it’s okay to torment one another because that’s how previous generations dealt with their trauma? That it’s a dog-eat-dog world and we should go out there swinging? Why? What’s Jewish, exactly, about that idea? I don’t remember anything in the Torah saying “suck it up”. I remember the Torah reminding us to love our neighbor, to look out for the orphan and the widow, and to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in our midst. Thirty-six times in the Torah, we are reminded to care for the stranger, to love the stranger, and that love is unconditional. Not to love them when they comply, or submit, but to love them because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Maybe it is a tough world, the Torah seems to say, but it’s our job to make it a little gentler, a little kinder, a little more generous. A few years ago when I urged us to become rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace, I was struck by how many people came forward telling me of how other people should be more willing to pursue peace. Virtually no one spoke of themselves or their own failings. We are quick to point fingers in every direction but our own. And, to be sure, we are commanded to rebuke our neighbors, but only after we reflect inwardly on our own behavior, and only as an act of love. Can you say that the last time you called someone out, it was out of love? Out of a sense of peace? I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that many of us, perhaps most of us, struggle with that. We struggle with acting in a non-violent way.

Our city could be a non-violent city. But if it’s just about getting Wilmington’s name on a website, it does no good. This effort must be a grassroots one, requiring all of us—each of us—to pull in the same direction. This is about violence on the streets and violence in our homes. This is about the violence in our rhetoric and in the structures of our society. This is about the violence to our environment and to our neighborhoods. This is about choosing to live in a way that is trauma-informed, remembering that we are neither the centers of our universe nor God, but people interconnected and dependent on one another, even, and perhaps especially, when we differ. I’m not going to lie: this is going to be hard. Everything is going to push back, including our own fight-or-flight response. But if Wilmington is to heal its streets, and if we’re to heal our own hearts, we need to pursue it.

So I ask you, I invite you, to make a pledge, to commit to pursuing non-violence in your life, to helping others pursue non-violence, to live your life in a trauma-informed fashion. To affirm the values of our tradition, to seek peace and pursue it.

I don’t know what happened to that clerk. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember her name or what she looked like. I have never apologized, and I don’t know that I could find her now if I could. But I know I can do better, I can be more responsive to those around me. And I know that, if I do so, it can make a real difference. I hope you will join me.

Re'eh 2019

08/29/2019 01:34:31 PM


Rabbi Robinson

This week was one of anniversaries. It was the 64th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. Hurricane Katrina made it’s second and third landfall this week 14 years ago. And 56 years ago, as part of his participation in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what would become known as his ‘I have a Dream’ speech.

He had been scheduled to speak, of course, along with John Lewis, Rabbi Uri Miller, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, and Benjamin Mays, among many others. Perhaps ironically, the most famous part of the speech was not the one he planned to deliver. He had his written remarks calling for the end of racism in America, but as he concluded, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to him, “tell them about the dream, Martin!” Thus he began his real sermon, the one everyone needed to hear that day. The one we still need to listen and pay attention to. I won’t try to recite it, as I would simply fail, but his words have become such a part of the warp and woof of American society that I can take the risk and assume that we all know them, deep in our hearts. His call, a litany of blessings invoking a time when all shall live together in harmony, when equality is not questioned, and when we are all truly free—all of us—seems, I’m sure to many of us here tonight, like a messianic ideal, a dream that sometimes feels further and further away from reality. But it’s worth noting that he told the world what we NEEDED to hear, words that resonate with us even to this day. Sharing the dream wasn’t just a reminder of the task at hand, but meant to inspire as well, to paint a picture of what was possible. And despite the use of the word ‘dream’, I truly believe that King thought what he was describing was possible.

Which leads us to our Torah portion, Re’eh. Here Moses stands before Israel to lay out the blessings and curses that await the people as they cross into the land. The land promised them, the land flowing with milk and honey, was once an aspirational goal, an abstract idea, something that seemed beyond them, but now they were being rallied with the Land right in front of them. But that’s not the interesting thing. What’s interesting, at least to me, is that Moses does not speak to the people in the plural; he speaks to them in the singular. That word, re’eh –‘look’, is spoken as one speaks to a single individual. And the rabbis of old pick up on this right away. They reimagine the scene entirely to one that I’ve shared before is, I think, one of the most beautiful images. Gone is Charleton Heston in his fake beard standing on a mountain speaking to the assembled throng. Instead, we have the image of Moses going through the camp and speaking to each and every individual, telling them what they need to hear, what blessings—or curses—they need in order to enter the land in peace. While the scene was different, in so many ways, that’s what King’s words do for us.

And do we need words like that today.  It is hard to feel optimistic about where we are going as a nation in terms of recognizing the equality and humanity of all. That we commemorate this anniversary the same week as Emmett Till’s yahrzeit, knowing that no commemorative plaque or marker remains up for long in Mississippi before it is vandalized or stolen, much like  the marker at Price’s Corner that went up just this summer, commemorating one of the few recorded racial lynchings that took place in this state.

Yes, it can be disheartening, when we look at the landscape of our country and see all that is taking place, as the bigots among us seem to get louder, and we constantly seem to be moving away from Dr. King’s dream. It’s exhausting; think of the number of articles and opinion pieces this week talking about how much fatigue we all seem to be suffering these days. I know I’m weary. But as Psalm 27, which we recite the month we anticipate Rosh Hashanah, reminds us, we must be strong and of good courage. Yes, the day is short, the work is hard, and the taskmaster is demanding, but we are not given the freedom to desist from it. And I think King instinctively knew that. We need to look out for one another in this work, to support one another, to share, as Moses did, as King did, our dreams of hope with one another, so that we don’t become weary, so that we can be strong and of good courage. We need to be able to say to one another “Look”, look at what might be, what should be, and look at how we’re going to get there. Look at this teenager standing in front of Popeyes registering people to vote when all they wanted was a chicken sandwich. Look at this kid in Scotland who drowned out hate speech by a bigot with his bagpipes. Look at these two kids from Delaware who read bedtime stories on Facebook every night to kids who don’t have someone to read to them. Look at what we can do, how we’re going to get to that dream. We need that, to be lifted up and to lift one another up. So I ask: what do you need to hear, and what do you need to say to others? What dream do you need to talk about, so that we can cross into that land? Because here’s the thing: King wasn’t going to talk about it until Mahalia Jackson nudged him. Moses wasn’t going to go through the people to talk to them until he knew he had to. We have to be the ones to speak, to share, to lift up. We can’t wait for a prophet like Moses or King to do it. We need to do it for each other.

Sunday begins Elul. Next Friday we’ll recite Psalm 27, and we’ll hear the shofar. As we march toward a new year, may we think of our dreams, of King’s dream, of the blessings in our tradition, and commit ourselves to share them, so we don’t grow weary. So we may be free, at last.

Eikev 2019

08/22/2019 12:42:50 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Eikev 2019

Some Hasidim of the Maggid of Mezheritz came to him. "Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud

that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good. How can that be? What would our

gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?"


The Maggid replied, "Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you."


The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came

to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack,

sagging with age.


When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only

small window. "Welcome, strangers!" he said. "Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg.

Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!"


"No. We have come only to ask you a question. The Maggid of Mezheritz told us you might help us

understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?"


Reb Zusya laughed. "Me? I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me." He shook his head in

puzzlement. "You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with



This week we read in parashat Eikev how we are to offer blessings for our meal after we have eaten and been satisfied, part of a suite of mitzvot concerning how we ought to express gratitude once we enter the Land. This begs the question of what it means to be “satisfied”? What if we don’t like the food, or the way it’s served? What if we find the conversation, the whole ambiance, to be wanting? Why would we offer blessing when we might, in fact, not be satisfied? For those who have recited birkat hamazon at repeated meals of camp food, we might really want to ask this question. What does our tradition mean by that idea?


One way of looking at it is, to be sure, that consumer mindset that all of us seem to have embraced. We are buying an experience, whether it’s the food on our plate, the engagement of our community, the loyalty of those around us, or even the island of Greenland, apparently, and if we’re customers, then the customer is always right. But I’d argue that our story suggests a different way of understanding the idea of satisfaction. That we may teach ourselves to be satisfied, to see even the bad days as good. To stand in a posture of generosity toward those around us. This past summer, during my time at Camp Harlam they spent a lot of time talking about “assuming best intent”; of campers, staff, parents or any member of the community. What a lovely idea. For when we assume best intent in others, it helps us see them  and acknowledge their humanity. This posture gives us the freedom to recognize the efforts of others, allowing us to give people the same benefit of the doubt we give ourselves. After all, while we cannot know fully what each of us carries in our hearts, if we stop to think about it, we know each of us is carrying burdens, burdens we may never see or fully understand. To assume best intent, to have that generosity of spirit, creates space for us to redefine satisfaction, and therefore express gratitude.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we read im ein kemach ein Torah, im ein Torah ein Kemach (some of us may have even grown up singing these words). “Without sustenance, there is no Torah, without Torah, there is no sustenance”. Satisfaction on its own is mere idolatry of the self, an attempt to fill a bottomless hole. But a posture of generosity toward others leads us to see the good, the best intent in others, and therefore leads us to gratitude. In that way we may see every meal, and every day, as full of miracles.

Parashat Pinchas July 26, 2019

07/25/2019 11:27:09 AM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Pinchas

This past Wednesday, after dropping our son off at Camp Harlam, Marisa and I found ourselves with a free evening. So we went to the JCC pool for one of their barbecue dinners and to hang out. When we arrived we could hear live music coming from the pool deck, and when we got ourselves settled we found out it was a band of high school aged kids playing a whole bunch of classic rock. Like, nothing they were playing were things they would have known first hand. Dire Straits, the Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd (thankfully, not Freebird), Bryan Adams, you get the idea. And here’s the thing: they were really good! Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the idea of high schoolers playing rock well, but they did an excellent job. Technically very precise, very accurate, well performed and played. And as Marisa pointed out to me, they added nothing to any of the songs. They were perfectly accurate covers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does beg the question—did they feel what they were playing? Did they, you know, get it? Were they emotionally invested in the music? Could they be? Or were they just trying to make sure they hit all the notes?

There’s an important question here, one of emotional content. As important as skills and facts and details are, without an emotional connection, it lacks the ability to move us, the ability for us to learn meaningfully. They played the songs very well, but at no point did their performance make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and without that, what’s the point?

And, in fact, we know that without an emotional connection, people will simply not learn, will not take action to correct or repair what is needed in this world. As an example, we can talk about food insecurity among children, cite statistics and trends, or we can read a newspaper article about a school district near Wilks-Barre that threatens families that haven’t paid for their children’s meals with involvement by child protective services. It’s not that we didn’t know that people were suffering, but it took a story like that to cause thousands of dollars of donations to flood in, donations that were, as we know, initially refused by the district.

It’s not enough for us to know the facts; we need an emotional knowledge as well. The Philosopher Richard Rorty wrote:

The idea that we have an overriding obligation to diminish cruelty, to make human beings equal in respect to their liability to suffering, seems to take for granted that there is something within human beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak. It suggests that a non-linguistic ability, the ability to feel pain, is what’s important, and that differences in vocabulary are much less important.

Rorty goes on to argue that those of us who are not suffering have an obligation to speak for the victims, especially when the victims are silenced. We give voice, we describe the pain that others are feeling, in order to move us toward empathy and action. Knowing the problem is not enough; our task is not just to know but to really know, to get it.

Which leads me to our Torah portion. Look, Pinchas is a complicated guy. We see his action, an action of violence, and we get stuck on the end of his spear like his victims. And the rabbis are conflicted about him too, arguing in the Talmud that they would not have sanctioned his choices. On the other hand, in the Midrash, the rabbis point out that Pinchas’ acts when others hesitate, and his actions are what saves the people from disaster. Everyone saw what was happening, and how Israel was descending into idolatry; everyone knew the facts, but only Pinchas was willing to act. Only Pinchas ‘got it’.

Which leads to us. Rarely are we faced with moments of complete moral clarity; usually, there is ambiguity. Facts alone will not help us choose what to do, and facts alone will not help our neighbors choose what to do. Talking about statistics is not the same as giving voice to suffering. Playing the notes well and correctly is important, perhaps essential, but so is making sure we make the hair on the back of people’s necks stand up.  We must be moved, and we must move others. In a way, that is what it means to be Jewish. Both to know, and to really know.

I pointed out before my reading that Pinchas’ Brit Shalom is written defectively; the word “Shalom” has a reduced vav, as if to say that the peace Pinchas is receiving is diminished by his actions. But we also see that Pinchas’ name is increased, he gains a yud in his name that wasn’t there before. Which is to say, PInchas gets it, emotionally as well as intellectually. Surely there are consequences to our actions. Certainly, we may worry about the outcomes and repercussions of what we do. But when people suffer, we can’t wait for the facts to save us; we must be moved by their suffering and act. Even if we don’t land all the notes.

Balak July 19, 2019

07/18/2019 03:50:53 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Balak 2019

Last week while I was away up on the Cape I had the chance to participate in my dad’s installation as president of his Rotary club. It was, in many respects, an interesting event; I’ve known many of the members of his club for years, decades really, and it was a great moment for him and for our family. He asked me to speak as part of the installation, and when I got up I recalled a former member of the club, a past president of the Cape Cod Synagogue, a guy named Milton Penn, who had been honored a few years ago, before he passed. He was given a lifetime achievement award, one that was well deserved. Here was a man in his 90s who still went to work most days, who had given charitably and of his time to support the community around him, and was in every respect a pillar of society, and was beloved. There was no doubt he deserved the recognition. At the time he stood up, said thank you, and said something to the effect of, “the point is service above self; I didn’t do this to earn an award, but to serve the community.” And then he sat down. If you didn’t know Milton, you might imagine that this was false modesty on his part, or a Yankee abruptness that would go with some lack of social graces. But then you didn’t know Milton. He meant what he said; we are called to serve our communities and each other, to put the needs of the community above our own, and while awards are nice, they cannot be the motivation. In a way, he lived the words of Pirkei Avot: do not be like one who serves in the expectation of receiving a reward.

I think about Milton a lot when I’m on the Cape, and often wonder what he would make of this society, one that is increasingly interested not in service, nor in doing service to receive a reward, but just the rewards themselves. Think of the people we know, like Milton, who work quietly, behind the scenes, just plugging away trying to make the world better, not looking for any kind of recognition. Now think about your social media feed, as people post and post and post, almost as if they’re looking for a fight, looking to tell you about their values, but not really showing them.

This isn’t a new issue, of course. We’ve always, always had to deal with those who would talk rather than listen, who would be happy to have another certificate on their wall but not much to show for it. There are a lot of people who would be like Bilaam, the prophet in our Torah portion. The rabbis describe him as haughty, more sure of his capabilities than he ought to be, or as a wise person once said, “always certain, sometimes right.” What’s most concerning about Bilaam is his interested in doing the work of prophecy primarily for reward, rather than for any higher cause. Even in the part I just read, when he praises Israel ‘freely’, it’s all a bit suspect; it’s more hype than reality. And yet, we sing it first thing in the morning, when we enter the synagogue. Why? Because it is a prayer, and prayers are not descriptive in nature, they are proscriptive. They are aspirational; they tell us what we should be striving for.

 The truth is, it’s not enough to simply say, “how lovely are your tents, your dwelling places.” We have to make them lovely, and I’m not talking about décor here. Saying those words, singing them beautifully on Shabbat morning, doesn’t make it true. Doing the work makes it true. Serving those in need, caring for those in need, makes it true. Are our tents beautiful? Have we opened ourselves, our doors, to those who are fleeing trauma, who have needs that are unfathomable to us? Are we talking about how great we are, or are we being truly great?

At that Rotary installation, as at all Rotary meetings, we began with a patriotic song. My dad chose “America The Beautiful”, perhaps my favorite national hymn, and we sang all four, plus the four different refrains. I’d direct you to look at it on page 377 in the prayerbook. Most of us are familiar with only the first verse, which is descriptive of the natural beauty of our land, but when you look at the text of the other verses, you quickly see that it is prescriptive: our ancestors, pilgrims all, beat a thoroughfare for freedom in the wilderness, were noble heroes devoted to liberty, and committed to make the cities gleam, undimmed by tears. What are we doing to live up to their dream, of a beautiful America? What are we doing to affirm these words? Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov: How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob. What are we doing to make these words true? Milton Penn knew, and he placed service above self, without regard for reward. May we do the same.

Rabbi Robinson sermon June 28, 2019

06/27/2019 11:28:32 AM


Rabbi Robinson


Parashat Shelach Lecha


This week, Rabbi Richard Levy passed away. A hillel rabbi and professor at HUC in LA, he’s remembered for a number of things. He was one of the 17 rabbis who heeded the call by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was arrested protesting for civil rights in St. Augustine, Florida on June 19th, 1964. He wrote On Wings of Awe, the high holiday prayerbook still used by many Hillels at universities around the country. He is the primary author of the 1999 Statement of Principles of Reform Judaism, adopted by the Reform rabbinate as our declaration of our mission and vision as a Movement.  And he is possibly most famous in our movement for a magazine cover. In November of 1998, the cover of Reform Judaism Magazine (May it be remembered for blessing) arrived in people’s mailboxes with Rabbi Levy’s beatific image on the cover, in profile, leaning forward to kiss the tzitzit, the fringes, of his tallit. It was the same issue that the new principles were introduced to the movement and the picture was meant to be a statement indicating that Reform Jews weren’t afraid of ritual garb or ritual in general, anymore. That we had made our peace with the traditions of the past. Well, it made a statement all right. While many embraced this idea that you could be Reform and keep to various traditions, plenty of folks went bananas about this ‘orthodox’ ritual being ‘foisted’ on the movement. Obviously, 20 years later, it’s safe to say that we got over it, but it says something about the nature of ritual and ritual garb, that it evokes such a reaction. And there’s something to that reaction. After all, how does a shmatta, never mind the fringes of said shmatta, help us live better, more meaningful lives? What’s the point of it? Hasn’t it become just another thing for b’nai mitzvah families to buy and otherwise, well, just a shmatta?

Interestingly, that question goes back to the very origin of the practice. This week begins with the adventures of the spies in the land of Israel. That group of 12, including Joshua and Caleb, scout out the land in order to bring a good report back to the Israelites, but instead create widespread panic that ultimately causes the Israelites to spend a generation out in the wilderness before entering the Land. It’s a pretty dramatic story, one that ends with…the commandment to wear tzitzit as a reminder of God’s commandments. What on earth does this have to do with the first part of the parsha? They seem entirely disconnected. Indeed, in some of the pseudopigraphic (I love that word) accounts of the book of Numbers, as well as the Midrash, there is a thread that suggests Korach’s rebelling, which is the very next narrative, is a reaction to this mitzvah. When Korach says rav lachem “you’ve gone too far”, the commentators say this is in reaction to tzitzit. What does this have to do with the spies and God’s declaration that this generation would die in the wilderness?

As always, the commentator Reuven Hammer brings his careful insight. He points out that the word that is used for the warning that comes with the command to wear fringes, that we should not follow, or “taturu” after our lustful urges; is the same Hebrew word used for the spies’ mission, that they are sent “va’yaturu”, to scout or follow. While not a totally unique word in the Bible, it doesn’t happen that often, and the fact that the word is repeated three times in short succession should tell us something. That in fact, these words are deeply related. Tzitzit is not meant to be an empty ritual, it’s to remind us of our sense of obligation, of our covenant with God. We aren’t supposed to pursue whatever is in our heart, but follow the path that God has laid out for us. The spies followed their heart—their fear, their anxiousness at the mission ahead, their nostalgia in Egypt, their own lack of faith, and it was a detriment to themselves and the people. And it’s the same with us. Yes, even we moderns need some ritual object to remind us of our covenant with God, to keep us following the pathway of the just. Think of the images we have seen of children at remote facilities having come from the border, or the images of Oscar Ramierez and his daughter Valeria, dead on the Mexican border. We are shocked out of our complacency by images and objects. That is what the Tallit is supposed to do for us. We are supposed to hold them in our hands and remember what our obligations are—to the poor, to the vulnerable, to each other. It is not just a fidget for services or a fashion show, but an object that is supposed to call us out to our obligations. As I tell our b’nai mitzvah students, when we put on a tallit, we are signaling to ourselves and others that we take our sacred commitments seriously; that we take the mitzvot seriously. That we take this world seriously.

When Rabbi Rick Jacobs became president of the URJ several years ago and led services at the URJ biennial, at the sh’ma, he asked everyone gathered who was wearing a tallit to gather up the tzitzit and in gathering them, think of the vulnerable in this world who need to be gathered, and hold them close. That’s what we do as Reform Jews; we need to hold the vulnerable close to us. Richard Levy understood this. We should understand this. Maybe we’ll choose to wear tzitzit, maybe not, but we need to remember those fringes, so that we remember those on the fringe of life, so that we remember our obligations as a nation of priests and a holy people. May it be so. Amen.


05/31/2019 03:14:05 PM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Bechukkotai

Walking Erect, Walking in Dignity

This past Monday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. My family and I had gone down to the riverfront to participate in a small Memorial Day exercise that was taking place, and there was a soft breeze.  It was perfect in so many ways. Except I had a little pain in my back. It wasn’t bad, but it did mean that I was moving more stiffly than I prefer. By the evening I was doing everything I could to not bend over. By the next day, I was in a phenomenal amount of pain. It started in my back and extended through my hips and across my shoulders. Something had gotten knocked out of alignment, but I persisted on going about my day with as much advil as I dared take. By the evening I had managed to make something go pop and the pain started to subside. I have no idea what I did wrong to begin with, but I realized the next day I had been in so much physical pain that Tuesday was a complete blur; I had gone about the day in a fugue not really aware of what was going on.

I spent two unpleasant days bowed with back pain, pain that went away. But it made me think of how many people are bowed over with equally powerful pain: pain caused by age and the mistreatment they incur, the pain of indignity, the pain of carrying all the weight of the world all of their burdens, the pain of the justice involved individual and their families, struggling mightily under the weight, the pain of and stress of being viewed with hostility in a hostile world: the person of color, the gay person, the disabled, the religious minority. I think it’s an especially powerful idea right now, as we become increasingly aware of how so many in our community are walking with burdens so heavy that they stand stooped and low. Sometimes it seems like the despair of the world has everyone hunched over, aware of their burdens. There is an expression in Hebrew: “omeid b’she’ela”, to stand as a question mark. There are a lot of people going around standing—literally and figuratively—as question marks, bearing a burden that seems intolerable.

But that is not how we are meant to go about. We are meant to stand erect, to stand with dignity. In our portion tonight, in verse 13, God, after telling Israel how many wonderful things will befall them if they follow the mitzvot, says a phrase that is at first familiar but different. “I am Adonai your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to no longer be their slaves; who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” The commentator Sforno cites the Midrash in saying that, when Israel was enslaved, the Egyptians would make them lie on the ground so they could walk across them. And here, God removes the fetters that kept Israel bent over for centuries. As Baruch Levine says in his commentary, The aptness of the biblical metaphor is apparent. A person who is subjugated, upon whom a yoke is placed, is bent over. Once the bars are broken, he can stand at full stature.”

It's telling that this verse comes right after God encourages following the mitzvot as a way of maintaining deep relationship. As my teacher Shai Held writes,

The verse implicitly contrasts what it means to be a slave to Pharaoh with what it means to be a servant of God. Pharaoh places the Israelites under a backbreaking and soul-crushing yoke, whereas God invites them to stand tall.4 Subtly the Torah indicates that to serve God and to stand upright are not mutually contradictory. On the contrary, one cannot really serve God without a robust sense of one’s own dignity. True divine service depends on those who serve standing tall.

To fulfill the mitzvot outlined throughout the Torah is not an act of subjugation; on the contrary, it is an act of dignity. To be in divine service—to relieve people of their burdens and break the shackles of what binds them, to lift up those who have been knocked down, and to rebuild that which has been destroyed—requires that we see ourselves as engaged in the process, as partners. God doesn’t want servants and slaves, God wants us to have agency, to be engaged, to serve with dignity.

To be sure, we live in a time when the dignity of so many is under attack. Perhaps that even describes people in this room. And when our dignity is under attack, our burden feels weary, and our back becomes bowed. We must remember what we are called to do, both by our sacred Scripture and our historic experience. It is our obligation to cry out—on our behalf and on behalf of others—to find courage, to find our voices, to stand up, even when the weight of the world is on our shoulders.

In college, I learned that one of the most powerful moments on the stage in the 20th century happened at the end of William Butler Yeats’ play “Cathleen Ni Hoolihan”, or “The Countess Cathleen”, when it was first performed in 1902. In that play, Cathleen, “The old Woman of Ireland”, is played by Maude Gonne, encouraging the young to fight for her independence.  She spent most of the play hunched over, but at the end, contrary to the direction Yeats had given her, she pulled herself up to her full height of six feet, a towering frame on the stage, and strode off like a queen, saying the lines “They shall be remembered forever, the People shall hear them forever.” It’s a powerful image, as powerful, perhaps, as the image the Torah gives us. May we stride forth, therefore, not bowed in pain or weary from our burdens, but in the strength of our mission, given to us by God and history; to assert our own dignity, and the dignity of those who suffer. Thus may it be said that we remember forever and hear that covenantal call in all we do, forever. Amen.


05/24/2019 09:12:26 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Friday, May 24, 2019

I’ve spoken before on how I enjoy my experience as a member of Rotary. I appreciate being a part of a club devoted to service, one with an opportunity for weekly fellowship, full of people committed this city, even though we are in vastly different professions and have often very different political and cultural perspectives. I truly enjoy my Thursday afternoon meetings, with one exception: I dread the introduction of new members. This would seem counterintuitive: I’ve only been a member a couple of years, after all, and being a member club, you’d think I’d rejoice in welcoming new folks in. And in that respect, you’re correct. I have no problem with new members; I have a problem with the introduction of new members. Inevitably, the sponsor gets up to say something, and has this captive audience of 75 or so folks to say something nice about this person who’s about to commit to the group…and they botch it. I’ve heard off-color jokes as recently as this week that put the new member on the spot. I’ve heard people repeat how wonderful it is that the person is joining despite “not being a native of Wilmington”, as if to emphasize the outsider status of the individual you want to welcome in. It’s basically the most cringe-worthy couple of minutes of any given week, and I hate it!

I especially hate it because it’s so the opposite of what we usually do. Normally, this feels like one of the few venues are there left in today’s America where people who are different—different experiences, different walks of life, different politics, different faiths—can come together and speak peaceably with one another  Somehow, the four-way test takes over, and our conversations are measured by whether our words are the truth, whether they are fair, whether they build goodwill, and whether they are beneficial. It’s as if the lessons we’ve learned about the thoughtful, kind conversations we have go out the window as soon as a person gets a microphone in front of them.

I don’t think the people speaking mean ill. I don’t think they mean to embarrass anyone or make anybody uncomfortable.  I think they just really don’t understand how much damage their words do. And honestly, do any of us? Honestly, how often do we find ourselves profoundly offended by the words of another, and when we confront them, discover that they don’t even remember saying the words that so tormented us? Or, how often have we said something in all innocence, only to find out we have done real damage? I can tell you it happened to me at least once this past week where I said something that I thought was innocuous, but inadvertently made someone feel publicly called out (which is not a thing that I do). Thankfully they called me to talk over the conversation so I could straighten things out, but seriously…oy! On the other hand, I’ve had the experience of former students who tell me how something I said fifteen years ago when they were thirteen or sixteen has impacted them so profoundly, that they took those words to heart and have carried them around as a guiding star their entire young lives…and I have zero recollection saying anything of the kind. Now, this is nicer, but again…oy!

Our words matter, and how we use them can have lasting impact, both positive and negative. The text of our Torah is explicit that we must watch how we speak to one another. In verse seventeen of chapter 25, we read

וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Eternal am your God.

The rabbis debate, what does it really mean to wrong one another? Is this about commerce? Is this just to say ‘be excellent to one another’, a la Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure? After all, this is, on face value, a pretty bland commandment. So just…be nice? And isn’t it good to be nice? That can’t be it, is it? As a matter of fact, no, that’s not it. Our old friend Rashi, that medieval Frenchman, tells us that this mitzvah is a warning against vexing people with our words, by annoying them, or giving them unfit advice. And if you think that you can get away with it, because who can tell your intention, we are reminded that we should fear Adonai our God; that is to say, we may be able to disguise the intentions of our words from one another, but God knows our intentions, our real intentions, before we even open our mouths. Sforno, writing a few centuries later, adds to this, insisting that you may not even use your words to misrepresent and therefore treat the other person unfairly. And in case you think this only applies between or among Jews—it does say “don’t wrong your fellow citizen”, after all—the Ramchal brings the Talmud in to remind us that to deceive a non-Jew is forbidden (Chulin 94a).

The words we say have power, have meaning. Perhaps there was a time when we could pretend that our words were meaningless, or didn’t do any real or lasting damage, but we have been reminded as of late of the power of words to do real harm. The words that whip up the mob or even just single individuals to take violent action against minorities. The words that drive out the marginalized or vulnerable and cause them to fear for their safety, or even worse, cause them to do violence to their own selves. And we should be asking ourselves the question: how are we using our words? How do we speak to one another in our day to day interactions? And I would ask us to look inward—too often I find that when the topic of speech comes up people are very quick to point the finger in any direction but their own; ‘those people need to be more careful in what they say.’ Those people? Excuse me? There may be truth in that, but if we only feel the sting of others’ words directed at ourselves, but don’t evaluate the potential hurt that our own words may cause others, well, perhaps we should do some self-work before we offer oh-so-helpfully to assist other people, those people, with their speech problems.

Once, a wealthy man, a scholar, sent his servant to the marketplace. “Go and buy me something good from the market.” “He went and brought back tongue. Must be from the old country. Curious about his purchase, the scholar decided to have some fun with his servant. “Now go and buy something bad from the market.” The servant went and brought back…tongue. The scholar lost it. “What is this?” He said.” When I told you to buy me something good, you bought tongue, and when I said to buy something bad, you bought tongue!” The servant replied, “that’s because both good and bad comes from it. When it is good, there is nothing better, and when it is bad, there’s nothing worse!” (Leviticus Rabbah 33:1)

We understand that the servant in our story wasn’t talking about the quality of the meat when he said this, but rather that which the tongue itself produces; that is, speech. There is nothing better and nothing worse than speech. May we take those words to heart, and as we open our lips to speak, remember the words of the psalm, the words we use to anticipate the Amidah: Open my Lips, that my mouth may only declare God’s glory. Amen.  

May 17, 2019

05/20/2019 09:47:57 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Yair Robinson

Parashat Emor 5779

My son had his spring chorus concert this past week. One of the songs played by the band was an orchestral arrangement of Psalm 42. Do you know the psalm? It reads, in part " soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirsts for God, My tears have been my food day and night; Why so downcast, my soul, why disquieted within me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him, my ever-present help, my God"

As I was listening to the music, I couldn't help but think this was the perfect song, the perfect psalm, for this week.

America this week was exhausting. Reading the news this week was especially exhausting. To quote Elon Musk, I'm just trying to think about the future and not be sad. But Missouri. And Georgia. And Alabama. Oy. When Pat Robertson says you've gone too far, well, need I say more?

I have gone through this week with a profound sense that we are failing women. That we as a nation are failing to protect women's bodily liberty, to protect the rights of the individual. Watching the lawmakers in these states trip over each other (and basic science) to violate women's integrity has been astounding, and heartbreaking, and terrifying.

And not just women. Let's be clear, what is happening in Alabama, and Missouri, and Georgia, and Ohio, is not the passing of laws that affirm life. They are acts of unabashed cruelty. They are not acts of love for potential children, because those same lawmakers are quite content to abandon said children once they have emerged into the world, especially if that child is brown, or gay, or poor, or non-Christian. No, these are not acts of love; these are actions that cause any person of good conscience to lament as our psalmist laments. These are acts of profanity, acts that defile the idea that all of us are created in God's image. The lawmakers who insist on such laws can use God's name all they want; they use that name in vain.

Cantor Flynn just chanted beautifully, as always, from parashat Emor, and she quotes from the text: You may not profane God's holy name. Some commentators connect this text with the commandment to recite the Kedusha in the context of community. In that discussion, in the Talmud, we learn that If one says 'Amen, yehei shemei rabbah' with all of his strength [i.e., with all of his intent], even if there is a trace of heresy in him, he is forgiven."

That is a powerful idea. That the act of saying this prayer with full intent and strength is transformative. Which is good, because we're going to need all of our intent and strength. We cannot be asleep any longer. Our task is to sanctify God's name, and to recommit ourselves to justice. Yes, we must lament, we must cry out. We must weep. We can give ourselves space to doubt and fear. And then we must act. We have to make those phone calls; to our national leaders, to our state leaders. We must give whatever we can to support organizations on the ground fighting these unjust laws. We must listen deeply and carefully to the stories of women who have found themselves suffering due to this kind of injustice. We must do this, because failure to do so would be a profanity in and of itself. Yehei shemei rabbah--we commit ourselves to God's greatness, God's holiness, by doing the justice work that is needed in this broken world. May it be enough. Amen.


Sermon for March 15, 2019

03/14/2019 10:44:24 AM


Rabbi Robinson

I don’t know about you, but I have been grieving this week, for people I never knew. Perhaps you have too, since the news came out of the home invasion and murder of two young people, Christian Coffield and Janiya Henry only a short distance from this very sanctuary. Two children, teenagers, themselves the parents of a three-month-old, senselessly gone, killed in their own home, putting paid the text from Exodus 12 and our haggadot, that somehow being in our homes provides a measure of safety from death. And how many of us are grieving for our fair city, having hoped that the decrease in violence last year was a portent of things to come.

What shall we do in this moment? What is our task? What is our responsibility, we who feel somehow insulated and protected from Christian and Janiya’s experience? What are we supposed to do? I ask this because I think, as Jews and as people who count Wilmington as their home, we have a moral imperative at play in their deaths, as with all deaths in our city. And, if you can’t hear it in my voice, I ask this out of a sense of weakness, of helplessness, out of a profound and deep sense of the brokenness of our world and our community. I guess I’m expressing a moment here of shared guilt, of despair, and God knows we’ve had a number of those moments. I know as close as we are to Purim we’re supposed to rejoice, but in this moment, on this Shabbat, this week, the thought of rejoicing feels monstrous. There is so much hurt, there is so much pain. What am I—what are we—supposed to do, we who are not police or lawyers or elected officials or activists or social workers or even residents of this neighborhood? And even if we spent every moment of every day, every last red cent in our bank accounts, every ounce of energy we had, trying to eradicate the myriad of pains in our community, would it matter? I ask again, in this moment of despair, what are we supposed to do?

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

The Eternal called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:


So reads our text as Rabbi Koppel just read for us so wonderfully. We are used to the idea that God speaks to Moses. Sometimes it’s moments of terrible pronouncements, sometimes it seems like two old friends chatting over a cup of coffee. But how they talk to each other is as important as what they said. As many of you know, God usually addresses Moses by saying vayomer or vayidaber, God spoke, or even vayitzav, God commanded. But here the word is Vayikra, God called. At the risk of splitting hairs, a call is a different kind of speech act. The medieval commentator Rashi picks this up, and tells us that all oral communications from God are preceded with a call, and gives us a pile of prooftexts, which is very nice of him!  So what? How does this help us understand our task in the face of our grief?

Well, I think—I think—it has something to do with where the call is emanating from. We read: God called Moses and spoke to him from the ohel mo’ed. We normally understand that to mean the so-called “Tent of Meeting”, that tent at the center of the Tabernacle, where great pronouncements of mitzvot are made, the place where the cloud representing God’s presence descends each day. But as my teacher Rabbi Ethan Tucker reminded me this week, we know that there are two ohalei mo’ed, two tents. There’s the one that we spent the last several months reading about in the back-end of Exodus, part of the Tabernacle. But then there is the tent that Moses, after descending with the new tablets, schleps chutz lamachane, outside the camp, to have, shall we say, more personal conversations with God. And the later rabbis, being close readers, affirm that, while we might think the first tent kind of gets phased out for its shinier, new-fangled replacement, in fact it appears that both tents are still around for the rest of Torah. That Moses keeps his busted old tent for those more personal encounters. That not every pronouncement, not every call by God, is made from a place of grandeur, or perfection, or wholeness. Sometimes the call emanates from a place of profound brokenness as well, from outside the natural order of things.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. In no way shape or form am I suggesting Christian and Janiya’s death is for the good or God’s will, or some other equally horrific theological idea. But we can say that their death, that the orphaning of their child, that the violence in our cities is a cry, a cry from God toward moral outrage. We are called, called, from the brokenness in our city. And dare I say it, God is waiting for our answer.

So, what is our answer? It must be to love this city and the people in this city more, to love with a radical love. A love that calls us to action, to serve this city, to make the difference we can make, even if the work seems overwhelming, the pain too much. But we must love. Love through tzedakah, through the just giving that we do through our pantry and so many other ways. Love through action, through volunteering and tutoring organizations that directly help our neighbors. Love through our voices, advocating for policies that will support the city, reduce gun violence in our state, and improve everyone’s lot. And love, frankly, through love. To see the folks beyond our bubble as being our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters, as well. To stop seeing them as other, as if their lives and experiences have nothing to do with our own.

All words and actions are preceded with a call. God is calling, and we must answer. We may not be experts, we may not even live in this neighborhood, but this is our home, we have skin in the game, and our response is needed. Our love is needed. Leviticus goes on to describe the offerings of the ancient Temple. May our response to the call be our offering, healing our city’s grief and pain. Amen.



Parashat  Terumah

02/08/2019 10:03:16 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Terumah


Several months ago at a Rotary meeting a woman, a past president of the club who I know pretty well, came up to me and asked “which synagogue is yours?” Now, I’m used to this question. I get a variation of it all the time. “you’re the one on Baynard Boulevard, right?” No, that’s Beth Shalom. We’re on Lea and Washington. “Right, the one with the big ten commandments out front!” No, that’s Adas Kodesh. “Oh, I know! You’re that blue and white building! Near the Home Depot!” No, that’s a Ukranian Catholic church. So I was prepared for some version of this litany, with my usual answers, like “we’re behind the music school” and the like, but before I could she continued: “you’re at Rabbi Drooz’ congregation, right?” Now, I’m used to people asking me if I’m at Rabbi Grumbacher’s congregation, and when I get a question about Rabbi Drooz, it’s from someone closer to my grandparents’ generation than my parents, or mine.

She then took out a little pamphlet. She told me of how, when she joined Rotary, and joined the chaplain’s committee, she had met Rabbi Drooz, and loved his invocations at the beginning of meetings. She told me of all her fond memories of him and handed me the booklet. It was a collection of his invocations from his time at the Wilmington Rotary club, and she felt I should have it.

I’ve kept that pamphlet and have looked through it a few times. It is very much a product of its age and of Rabbi Drooz’ generation; typed on a typewriter and not a word processor, with a lot of male language for God. Some of the prayers were clearly from the Union Prayerbook or Gates of Prayer; some were his own words. This little booklet, not more than a few pages, was clearly not meant to be something preserved forever, but something to be used by the chaplain’s committee for a time, and then put aside, perhaps in the archives, if that. But the fact that this woman—not Jewish, by the way—kept this collection and spoke so glowingly of him, as if he might walk into the room at any moment, was very moving to me.

Now, I’m fully aware that I could be reading too much into this; that it’s just as likely that she was cleaning out her house, Marie Kondo style, and she decided this was a nicer way of throwing out this old pamphlet than just tossing it in the recycling bin. And yet, she must have kept it for some reason, and gave it to me for some reason—a gift, a free-will offering of the past, assuming that it would mean as much to me as it did to her. Of course, it can’t.  I did not ever get to know Rabbi Drooz in person; he had passed in the 1990s, long before I got to Wilmington, and so I only know of him from his writings, the stories told about him, and his portrait in the hallway. But it does mean something to me that I was entrusted with these memories. That is, on a certain level, what it means to give a gift—that we entrust something precious to us to someone else, in the hopes that they, too, will find it of value, even if it’s different. Could Rabbi Drooz know that his little booklet and the words in it would have such an impact twenty years after his passing? Probably not, but he sent those words out into the world hoping that they would make a difference, that they would be received as they gifts they were.

I suspect many of us wonder whether or not our actions, our choices, our gifts make a difference in this world. Most of the time, we don’t know how our actions impact others, or even if they are remembered. But if I learn anything from this chance encounter at Rotary, our actions are remembered, and our gifts make a difference. So give that which is precious to you, freely; offer them as gifts to those you encounter, and know that when you do so, you have made a difference.

Installation of Cantor Flynn

01/14/2019 10:52:47 AM


Rabbi Michael Howald

Installation of Cantor Flynn by Rabbi Michael Howald, Temple Israel Congregation

One of my favorite readings from Mishkan T’filah begins:

“This is an hour of change, within it we stand uncertain on the border of light.

Shall we draw back or cross over?” This reading describes the daily transition from day to night and from night to day as a metaphor for all those occasions When our world begins to shift from one status to another.

This evening, we collectively mark another kind of transition in the life of this Jewish community.

As Congregation Beth Emeth installs Elizabeth Flynn as its cantor. I come to this moment of ceremony and celebration with a great deal of pride in and admiration for all that Cantor Flynn has accomplished since she first came to my congregation in Staten Island as a third-year cantorial student in the summer of 2015.

We worked together for three eventful years, leading services, teaching students, comforting those who struggled with illness and the death of loved ones, celebrating with new parents and joining lovers in marriage.

With each passing year, her abilities, her knowledge and her capacity grew until the time came for her to claim her rightful place at a pulpit in a congregation to call her own.

That moment, long anticipated and richly deserved, has now come.

For three years, Cantor Flynn and I stood together at the threshold of many transitions in the life of our Staten Island community and tonight we stand once more on the border between day and night, and between Shabbat and the rest of the work week.

This evening we also mark by words and ceremony the ritual crossing between the recently arrived and the duly installed cantor of Congregation Beth Emeth.

This transition, this liminal moment between the new and the established, contains the seeds of the great possibilities that lay ahead for this congregation and Cantor Flynn.

This is the hour of change, and tonight, as we stand quietly on the border of light, we embrace the full potential of this moment, celebrating all that Cantor Flynn has already brought to this congregation and all the gifts she has yet to bestow as a trusted counselor, a steadfast friend a scholar of music and a talented and diligent service leader.

This hour of change unites the call of clergy and the response of the congregation into an affirmation that carries Beth Emeth across this important threshold in the life of this holy community into a world formally fixed with the music and light, joy and laughter, strength and splendor that Cantor Flynn has already helped bring to this sanctuary.

It is my honor to participate in this sacred moment with you and to offer words of gratitude and blessing in this ritual of installation. Blessed is Adonai our God, who has given us the privilege to stand with this congregation and its cantor at this hour of change.

Installation of  Cantor Flynn

01/14/2019 09:54:28 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth


Installation for Elizabeth Flynn:

I want to share with you a story that I last shared at my installation. There was a rabbi named Nathan Finkel, who lived towards the end of the 19th century and headed a yeshiva in Slobodka, a small town in Lithuania. On cold, dark winter mornings, it is said, the rabbi used to get up early, cross over the bridge and go into town. He would stop off in all the shtibelech, all the little prayer houses and places of study, one after another. And in each small, dark room, he would light a fire in the oven and stoke the flames before continuing on his rounds.

“Why did he do it?” His closest friends would ask. And he would say: If all the prayer houses and places of study are warm early in the morning, then coachmen, porters and all kinds of working people will come in to get warm - and then they will find themselves in a sacred place. [Norman Lamm, The Good Society: Jewish Ethics in Action, p.31]

I have always loved this story, because I think it gets to the heart of what we do. What do we do? Is it about singing beautifully at worship? Is she just someone who says nice words at the holidays, or on Shabbat, who teaches our children and leads worship? Our job, Liz, the job of Jewish clergy, the job of all clergy, is to create a space of warmth and light. To provide a shelter from cold indifference, a place -- a safe haven from the daily, never ending competition and the meanness of spirit we find in the workaday world.  Our task is to create a sanctuary; a refuge where people are loved and supported, where we share in the work of justice and goodness, a safe place filled with God’s presence, where people can come in from the cold.

"They'll come in to get warm," said Rabbi Nathan, "and then they will find themselves in a sacred place." It is that warmth that brings people in – the warmth of community, of knowing that this is a place where all are valued as betzelem elohim, created in God’s image. It is the light—the light of Torah, of meaningful worship, of God’s justice, the ethics of our people revealed in the world—that keeps people here. Our task—your task, Liz—is to help the people first find warmth, so that they will stay for the light.

And you are already doing this work. I see it in the way you welcome people into your life, and share yourself with grace and warmth. I see it in your intentionality, the way you reflect on conversations with congregants, encounters with people, always concerned about whether or not you served them well. Always asking: did you give enough, did you do enough. I can assure you, cantor, you did, you do, you will—because you are enough. I have been watching you work and I am endlessly impressed by the way you see the whole person.

There are colleagues and teachers who have more to say, and more to say about who you are and what it means for you to do this work, so I will not belabor the point. But let me say this: I—we—are so glad you have come to bring the warmth of your presence—on the bimah, in the classroom, in the hospital room and the shiva house, and yes, in the Pokemon Go raid. And we are glad to have your light as well.


Parashat Vayechi December 21, 2018

12/19/2018 12:44:39 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayechi


My Christian Clergy friends and I have a running joke, that one of these years we’ll switch places. They’ll show up to preach Rosh Hashanah and I’ll offer the homily for Christmas. It’s a fun idea, especially as we each prepare for those more stressful, more intensive services with their larger congregations. Wouldn’t that just be the bee’s knees? You expect your pastor, and some rabbi gets up and starts preaching Torah instead of the Gospel. Ha ha! And then we go back to working on our own stuff and move on.

Obviously, I’m not preaching Christmas day next Tuesday. But I’ve got to admit, as our Christian brothers and sisters are preparing for one of their high holy days, what would I offer to them? Or what would be a meaningful Christmas sermon to those of us for whom the day is the opportunity to catch a movie and go out for Chinese and not much else? What would a rabbi’s Christmas sermon sound like?

This week, as we prepare for Jacob’s passing, and Joseph’s passing, and the transition from Genesis to Exodus, from survival to subjugation, we find Jacob preparing to bless Joseph’s children Ephraim and Menasseh. We’re familiar with the blessing, of course; firstly, because of Jacob’s peculiar gesture, crossing his hands and blessing Ephraim as if he’s the eldest instead of his brother Manasseh, and secondly because we invoke them to bless our own sons even to this day, just as it’s described in Scripture. But before we even get to that we have this poignant moment between Jacob and Joseph on Jacob’s deathbed. The text reads: 

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹהִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Even just on a surface level, it touches the heart. The father who assumed his beloved son, the son of his wife Rachel, had died out in the wilderness, wracked his life with guilt and mourning, has experienced the miracle of seeing his son alive, as well as his son’s children. The commentary says that the word ‘Philalti’ means “I didn’t even dare pray to see you alive again”, as if to say that Jacob never entertained the hope of seeing Joseph alive again. And yet, the impossible happened. Here was his son, here were his grandsons. What Jacob thought he knew, what he was so sure of before, had been turned upside down.

And so we look toward a new secular year, and we march forward with the data before us, and we think we know. We think we know what the future holds. We think we know what lies before us, good and ill, and we don’t dare to hope against hope that things could be different. Instead, we put our heads down and soldier on. But every now and again, there is a moment like Jacob’s, an unexpected event, one we hesitate to speak aloud in case we jinx it somehow, and we are amazed, and we discover that peace can emerge in the war-torn land, dignity can be restored to the impoverished, and justice is restored to the beleaguered. Or, to quote the poet Sheenagh Pugh:

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse…

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor…
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.

The question, as we sit in the darkest time of the year, as move toward the end of Genesis and the end of the secular year, as we move toward the birth of something new, is whether we will allow ourselves, like Jacob, to open ourselves in wonder to the hope that is beyond hope, to open ourselves to the radical possibility that all might, might, go well after all. Pugh continues: “The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow/that seemed hard frozen. May it happen to you.” May it happen to all of us as it happened to Jacob. Amen.

Parashat Vayeshev: How Much Pain?

11/29/2018 10:23:31 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayeshev: How Much Pain?

What is an acceptable level of trauma? What is an acceptable level of pain? What is our comfort level with letting people suffer? I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and assume that the answer for us is “none”. There is no acceptable level of trauma, pain and suffering. For those of us who have experienced pain and suffering, and all of us have experienced pain and suffering, whether it’s emotional, physical, psychological, the very thought of a painful moment in our lives—an injury, an abusive encounter—is enough to put us in a tailspin. Some of us can heal and move forward from our injuries, but many of us find past trauma never really goes away. And we all know people like that. I have a friend in his 50s who played football in high school, and not at an especially high level, and he’s still dealing with knee issues from his time on the field more than thirty-five years ago. If we’re like most people, we hear that and shake our heads, intolerant of the idea of still dealing with pain from a past injury, at the same time feeling our own body or history for our own aches.

Accepting this idea, that there is no level of trauma that is acceptable, let me move on to the idea of moral trauma, especially bigotry. What is the acceptable level of bigotry for us as a society? Ethnic jokes? The use of misgendered names for trans individuals, or tired clichés about who wears the pants in a gay marriage? Is it redlining? Or pushing African Americans into worse housing loans, worse jobs, worse opportunities, or assuming their achievements are merely due to their skin color? Or shooting tear gas at people who are brown skinned? What is a healthy level of bigotry for a community? Again, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that, for all of us, the answer is “none”. The acceptable level of bigotry is “zero”. We recognize that expressions of bigotry, be they overt, like nooses left on a college campus, or subtle, like crossing the street when a man of Color comes our way, are unacceptable in a just society. We may be surprised to find our behavior turns out to be unintentionally bigoted—how many people use the word “retarded” because of habit, never once intending to demean those with learning or developmental issues, for example—and when we discover we’ve said something offensive we go through our cycle of defensiveness, embarrassment, and remorse and correct the behavior. At least, that is what is supposed to happen. Regardless, we recognize that to behave in this way is to cause real pain, moral trauma, and if there is no level of pain that is acceptable, then there can be no level of moral trauma that is acceptable.

So why is it, then, that when antisemitism comes up in discussion, the conversation quickly turns to the idea that there is some level of antisemitism that is acceptable in a free and just society? If you are a conservative, you should tolerate attacks on liberal forms of Judaism, the use of old canards and blood libels against opponents like George Soros and the like, so long as the conservative individuals in question support Israel (and we can have another conversation about what that means later). If you are a liberal, you should retain your fealty to the leaders of the Women’s March, and remember that their antisemitism—their expression of support for Louis Farrakhan, their accusations that supporters of Israel are not loyal to the United States—aren’t really antisemitism, that they are fighting for justice for all, and our supposedly white privilege and wealth means we should shut up and just support the cause. And if you think it is limited to politics, just bring up with your “friends” on the internet how you don’t celebrate Christmas and watch the fireworks explode. Or talk to any parent of kids, public or private, and ask them about the conversations they’ve had with fellow parents about how miffed they are that the school is closed for Rosh Hashanah, or that we are somehow undermining the education of children by even wanting the days off from school. If there is no level of pain or trauma—including moral injury—that is acceptable, why are we expected to grin and bear it?

I ask this pointedly, as I’ve been thinking a lot about something Linda Sarsour said, that has been coming up more on college campuses; that good liberals shouldn’t “humanize” Zionists, that to do so would be like asking black folk to “Humanize” members of the Klan. I can’t begin to tell you how freaked out and upset I get at this idea.

Let’s leave aside the comparison between Israel and the Klan for the moment. I’m troubled by this idea, that we should ‘dehumanize’ the people we disagree with, as if disagreement, even anger, is too milquetoast a response. How does dehumanizing my opponent help? First, does it give them room or space to learn or grow or make amends for their actions? Does it give you the space to see their perspective, their reality, their own human dignity? What does it accomplish other than making all of us, each of us, complicit in the defacing of God’s image in the world, denying the humanity and, by extension, the holiness inherent in everyone? We may disagree vehemently with the other, be angry at their choices, rage against the ways they undermine our sense of what is right, but they are, in the end, still people.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people, even in their humanity, from doing the wrong thing. As Donna Hicks points out in her book Dignity, while our humanity cannot to be questioned, our actions are always up for judgment. Look at our Torah portion. Joseph is introduced as a pretty awful character. He tells his father awful things about his brothers, and the question is raised whether he’s telling the truth or not. The favorite child, he rubs it in his brothers’ face by telling them about his dreams, dreams that make him the hero. Can we wonder why his brothers hated him, were angry at him? His actions are wretched. But his brothers don’t stop and correct the behavior, or just chew him out; instead, they gang up on him, tearing his clothes, flinging him into a pit, starving him, selling him into slavery, and finally rubbing his beloved cloak in sheep’s blood to suggest he was torn apart by a wild beast. Joseph’s behavior is bad, but his brothers’, response is to dehumanize Joseph, making him a slave and even replacing his physical body with animal blood. They deny Joseph his dignity, sending him to Egypt, an act that will have massive consequences, not the least of which Israel’s eventual 400 years of exile and servitude in Egypt. That, my friends, is the outcome of refusing to humanize the other; it will eventually result in our own dehumanization. And as a people who have been the subject of dehumanization, as recently as last month in Pittsburgh, we understand that threat intuitively.

There is pain and trauma in this world, a lot more than “none”. There is pain and trauma being caused by people claiming to do so in the name of American values, and I will resist that and do what I can to heal that pain and repair that trauma. There’s a lot of bigotry in this world, a lot more than “none”, and I will do everything I can to create a culture of peace and justice in this world. But demonizing the other will not help us heal pain, it will not help us create peace or justice. As we mark the end of sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning, for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, let us remember that there is no level of trauma, no level of moral injury or bigotry that is acceptable in a just society, and that any attempts to dehumanize the other must be met with all the resistance we can muster.


Parashat Vayetzei: She has those Eyes

11/16/2018 09:06:13 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayetzei: She Has Those Eyes

As the snow was coming down this past Thursday, I was on the phone with a longtime congregant. Her beloved husband, who had been in and out of the hospital a lot over the last several months, was coming to the end. As often happens, it was unclear whether it was going to be days or hours or weeks, but the family had gathered in their home to spend time with him. She thanked me for the call and, as we were talking, she said, “we’re trying to be strong for one another”. I responded, “well, maybe take turns; you don’t always have to be the strong one.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about strength, and weakness, and what those two really mean. What are these ideas? What is real strength? What is real weakness? As Americans, I think we all have certain cultural ideas about what strength and weakness mean, ideas that we as a society have held up for a long time and are increasingly seeing challenged. The idea that strength means somehow stifling emotions other than anger, for example; that we can’t express our feelings. Or that we cannot accept help from others, that to do so makes us weak. A friend and local pastor refer to such people as ‘half generous’; they’re happy to give, grateful to give, but cannot accept assistance even when they need it.

Of course, these personal expressions and ideas of weakness and strength have global ramifications. Our response to migrants coming to the border is to send the army, rather than social workers, lawyers and medical professionals. Again, Israel seems trapped in showing how strong it is against terrorist organizations, which never quite gains the quiet and peace Israelis so desperately need. Again and again corporations, universities and other organizations, confronted with the misdeeds of instructors and executives, insist on being right, double down and deny accusations of wrongdoing rather than admit their own errors, because to admit an error is to be weak.

Increasingly, we find that these models—especially those that are based on gender—to be mostly malarkey. How is showing emotion weakness? How is admitting a mistake and learning from it weakness? How is there any strength is sticking your chin out and picking unnecessary fights? What is really gained from all this?

Our tradition, of course, already understood this, that what we consider to be weakness is really strength. “Eizeh hu Gibor? Who is Mighty?” Asks Pirkei Avot, in the Mishnah. The one who has self-control, who doesn’t impose her will over others, or throw their weight around. And here we are presented with the idea of weakness and strength in our Torah portion. First, we’re presented with Laban, Rebekah’s brother, Rachel and Leah’s father. He’s a cynic; strength for him means being able to take advantage of others. He is in constant competition with the world; if someone else ‘wins’, it must mean that he loses, and if he is to succeed, he must make sure everyone else is vanquished, left in the dust. Meanwhile, we see Leah’s eyes. They are described as weak, rakkot, in comparison to Rachel’s beauty, so the assumption is that ‘weak eyes’ means unattractive, or bad. I had a teacher in rabbinic school who said, “it means she’s a real bow-wow”. Maybe, as the midrash suggests, she wore her eyes out crying because she was originally supposed to marry Esau, Jacob’s nogoodnik brother? Or…maybe weakness doesn’t really mean what it says. The Talmud (Bava Batra 123a:14) raises the question about weakness: how can the Bible describe Leah this way, given her righteousness as our matriarch? Not at all. In fact, we are misreading the word. It’s not Rakkot, but arachot, long-lasting, in reference to the gifts her descendants would receive. Because who would be born from Leah, if not Levi, the tribe of the Priesthood, and Judah, our tribe, the tribe of kings? Her eyes aren’t weak; rather, they look toward a future of holiness. Unlike her father Laban, who’s constantly jockeying for position, treating everyone as a potential mark, someone he can mislead for greater advantage, she’s not interested in the short-term gain, but long-term growth. While her father sees the world cynically, she has her eyes open in hope. And while cynicism is hard and hope is soft, hardness doesn’t mean strength, and softness doesn’t mean weakness.

Ruth Koch and Kenneth C Haugk, founders of Stephen Ministries, talk about the idea of assertive rather than aggressive or passive response. That is, we shouldn’t let people walk all over us, but we shouldn’t try to smother others either, shouldn’t always be trying to win. Maybe real strength is found in taking care of ourselves and each other, of allowing ourselves to feel and acknowledging our feelings, while not imposing them on others? Who is strong? The one who has Leah’s eyes. May we aspire to have them ourselves as we say, Amen.

D'var Torah: Parashat Toldot: Dayenu

11/11/2018 05:11:20 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

I’ve had a refrain going through my head these past few weeks: Dayenu, it would have been enough for us.  But not the joyous Dayenu we sing at Passover, but a more somber one—enough is enough.  Had this one thing happened, Dayenu.  It would have been enough for us. 

Had there been a shooting in Pittsburgh, but not on Shabbat during services: Dayenu.

Had survivors of the Las Vegas shooting just over a year ago, not also been at the bar in Thousand Oaks: Dayenu.

Had there been a shooting in Thousand Oaks and not wild fires ravaging that same area: Dayenu.

Had swastikas been drawn in synagogues and public spaces throughout the country, but other synagogues not faced arson attacks: Dayenu.

Had our JCC had bomb threats nearly 2 years ago, and not been evacuated again this week: Dayenu.

Had Kristallnacht shattered windows and lives 80 years ago, and antisemitism and other hateful prejudice not continued to exist in the decades since: Dayenu.

Dayenu. It’s enough.  It’s too much.  

Between all these things, amidst other moments of challenge that so many of us have, traumas and wounds barely healed the reopen with each headline. When even our moments of joy can feel muted, for some of us: Dayenu. 

When some of us feel bad for feeling joy: Dayenu.

As Rebecca cried out with twins fighting with her womb: אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי

“If this is so,” she asks, “Why am I?” 

If this is so, Why are any of us? Why are we? Dayenu.   It’s enough.

And yet, we turn towards the news, morning after morning, to see what else has happened.  For many, with a dread and a knowledge that there will be something.  Some other horror that has faced our world since the night before.  A sense of relief at those times when the world has been quiet—but a feeling that those times are fewer and further between than they used to be.  A sense of numbness and lack of surprise when we read of a new horror, that feels as unnatural as the tears that might burn on our cheeks.

And we find moments of hope.  We find sources of support.  We find opportunities for resilience.  And yet: Dayenu.

And yet we know we cannot be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief; as Rabbi Rami Shapiro reminds us, we must do justly, now.  Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.  We are not obligated to complete the work, but nor are we free to abandon it.  We must say dayenu, now.

We know what happens for those fighting twins that Rebecca eventually births.  Jacob and Esau go on to lives of fighting.  But surely—we cannot accept that we are to live lives that are full of reports of almost daily trauma.  We cannot accept that while there may be factions around us who cannot agree and whose messages only grow louder, that they will continue to fight within our midst.  At some point, it must truly become enough.  For when it truly enough for us, then we must do something.  We must realize that we need to begin to repair, ourselves and our world, so that the future is better than the present may seem.

So what do we do with this sense of dayenu?

I believe that the answer is in those very twins, warring in Rebecca’s womb.  Because even those brothers eventually come together, a few chapters later than this week, Jacob and Esau crying over each other in a deep embrace and seeing in each other the Face of God.  In those brothers, we can see hope, a glimmer of the idea that eventually, the hatred and violence, the trickery and the manipulation, is, indeed, enough.  And it is in our young people that I continue to see hope.  This week’s Torah portion, after all, is called Toldot: generations.  It is through the generations that we can continue to make mistakes, and through the generations that we can find the hope towards repair.

Rebecca and Isaac, it seems, do not learn to change for the better, the behaviors of the generations before them.  Isaac instead digs anew the wells that his father had dug before him, instead of finding new wells of his own.  He urges his wife to pretend she is something other than who she is, in order to protect himself—just as his father had done.  Isaac and Rebecca both love one child more than the other, increasing the strife that existed for those children.  Perhaps, the story could have moved forward differently, if they had changed, and found a way to give their children the tools they could have used to make their world different.  Each generation has the potential to repair the damage of past generations—if only they are given the tools and the ability to do so.

 Perhaps, the next chapter in our own story can be different.  To those young people growing up in a world where shelter in place drills are commonplace, because too many shootings have happened in schools.  Those young people who are evacuated from their schools because of suspicious packages.  Those young people who have learned that they need to be careful wherever they are, because they read the same news that we read.  Those young people who have only begun to speak out against what they see as wrong.

Perhaps, it is through them that it will truly become dayenu.  Enough.  If we listen to them.  And help them to grow.  And help them to learn lessons that will help them to build the world that we all must believe is possible.  And listen to them.  And let them speak their truth and their power.

We have not yet learned.  And yet we can.  We can learn and we can teach what we have learned.  And together create that better world.  Where our broken and breaking hearts are mended.  Where our fractured world is healed.

And then, we really can create plowshares out of swords.  And musical instruments out of those.  And music out of those instruments.  A world where we don’t come together with our neighbors at rallies and vigils, but out of celebration and love.  

I believe that such a world is possible.  Because, as I heard this week, whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.  It is imagining that world, and how to build it, and that we can, that keeps me going.  May this be the week where we, as a world, truly can say dayenu: It is enough.  

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Parashat Vayera October 26, 2018

10/26/2018 09:07:58 AM


Rabbi Robinson

I want to spend a moment talking about the word ‘audacity’.

It means a lot of things: the willingness to take risks, to be brave and intrepid. It can also mean impudence; showing a lack of respect. Recently, in a meeting of some local Jewish community leaders, it was pointed out that I have a tendency to be audacious when I speak in those settings. I’d like to think they meant the good stuff; I’ll leave it up to you and them what they actually meant.

It’s a word that has become a little cliché, especially after President Obama’s book with that word in the title, The Audacity of Hope. Doesn’t that seem like a long time ago, now? We hear that word being used again and again in different contexts: business, social action, politics and religion. It’s an app for recording on the computer. In our own Reform Movement you can’t go to a national program without hearing someone talk about “audacious hospitality”, for example. Which sounds awesome, if a bit nebulous. Abraham Joshua Heschel most famously used the word to talk about the Jewish religious experience. He referred to the idea of the prophets and living prophetically—that is, protesting injustice in the world with words and actions—as spiritual audacity.

What do we mean when we talk about audacity?

We could argue that Parashat Vayera is one story of audacity after another. Abraham’s audacity of leaving God’s presence to serve three strangers along the road. Sarah’s audacity to laugh in the face of her husband’s old age. Hagar and Ishmael’s audacity to live. And in this case, Abraham’s audacity to challenge God. Here, God tells Abraham of the Divine intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s response? He immediately challenges God. Not just meekly ask questions, but throw it back in God’s face: Chalila lecha! God Forbid that you should do such a thing! Will not the judge of the whole world judge righteously?

We love this story as a story of chutzpah, as a story that shows that God wants us to challenge, to push back. We lift it up as an example of God-wrestling, of how God seems to especially love those who want to see justice in the world and aren’t afraid to stick their neck out to get it, willing to challenge every authority figure—even the ultimate authority figure. We can even read this text of Torah as if there’s an ellipsis after God tells Abraham of the imminent visit—and doom—of Sodom and Gomorrah. As if God is actively inviting Abraham to respond, and respond provocatively.

But here’s the thing; despite all of the back and forth between God and Abraham, despite Abraham’s challenge, despite the audacity of the protest, it doesn’t work. Abraham negotiates God down to 10 righteous individuals, and there aren’t EVEN 10 in the whole of the plain. For all of Abraham’s audacity’, God still destroys Sodom. The protest fails. Or does it?

The answer to that question depends on the point of the exchange. If the point is to save Sodom, even in spite of itself, then the answer has to be that Abraham is a failure. But what if there is another purpose? What if this is God teaching Abraham—and by extension, us—how to be audacious? My teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, writes in his The Heart of Torah, “God wants Abraham to train his descendants to do what is just and right, but Abraham cannot teach what he himself has not yet learned. Abraham needs to learn how to stand up for justice and how to plead for mercy, so God places him in a situation where he can do just that.” God doesn’t need to ask Abraham for what to do, or even let Abraham know what’s going to happen. God can just let fly with the fire. But God doesn’t; God opens the door to allow Abraham—and us, Abraham’s descendants—the possibility of moral confrontation.

And if we want to be more theologically radical, the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Hartman Institute, wrote, “The God of Nature acts alone, the God of history, however, acts in a relational context.” That is, our God, the God of Torah, is not some unmoved mover, but seeks out partnership and, therefore, limitation. Held again, “God wants—indeed, God actively solicits—the intercession of the prophets. Argue with Me, God says, stand up to Me and persuade Me.”

Why is this important? Because it is so easy to ask, “why bother?” It’s easy to simply assume that our every effort to make a difference in this broken world is doomed to fail. Even if we were not living in a world where political enemies received pipe bombs, and those who spoke up for justice were ridiculed and mocked; we would grapple with this question. What’s the point of talking to political leaders if they’ve already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote? What’s the point of protesting injustice when it seems like no one is listening? As one example, what’s the point of getting email reminders, daily, that there are still hundreds of children separated from their parents when they are not yet reunified? What’s the point of voting, even, when the outcome seems certain? What’s the point of feeding the hungry or clothing the naked? They will merely be hungry and destitute, and if not them, others. Because, to return to Abraham Joshua Heschel, indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. The point is not winning, though we hope to win. The point is that the words need to be said, the act needs to be made, the conversation needs to be had. As the Talmud reminds us, whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his or her community and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of the entire world.” (B. Talmud Shabbat 45b). And so, we stand next to Abraham. We draw near, as he did. We find the strength to lift up our voices. We hear the ellipsis in the conversation, the invitation by God to speak up, to challenge. And we respond, audaciously. Because we must.


October 19, 2018

10/19/2018 09:44:45 AM


Daniella Buchstaber, Community Shlicha

Did you ever feel an urge to make a life changing decision? I’m talking about actually taking a chance and following your heart? Would you still have the courage to make that decision without knowing or the outcome, because you knew deep down it was the right thing to do?

In Lech Lecha, Abram experienced his calling when God told him לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ- “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.” For Abram, this moment was so powerful and meaningful that he left Haran for Canaan, taking everything with him: his wife, his brother’s son, his entire property. Abram did not know where he was going, what he would encounter when he got there, or what the consequences of his actions would be, but he had conviction. The only thing he had was a strong belief in his decision because he trusted God to navigate and illuminate the path ahead.

God called and Abram answered. He chose to follow this calling and leave his comfort zone. Now when I say comfort zone, I mean Abram had the life. He was a wealthy man with a lot of sheep and goats; he was well respected within his family and his community. Imagine experiencing a moment of clarity in which you hear your true calling and then realizing it meant leaving a life you spent the last 75 years building.

This act is an act we can learn from. Abram’s faith in God was enough to trigger him into action. But what about us? You know, regular people with a regular connection to God. Most of us probably feel we have one sided conversations with God, without being able to hear a call back to us.

It is very possible that many people who are sitting in this room right now had a moment in which they felt a calling. Whether it’s something we really love and want to do, or a dream that we’ve had since we were children. A calling is stronger than just an aspiration. A calling is waking up in the morning knowing in your heart and in your gut that you MUST act.

Many Jewish philosophers tell us that we have a piece of God in us. That means that we don’t really have to have God reveal to us and encourage us to take action, as we already have this power inside of us.  True, most of us probably won’t hear the voice of God telling us to get up and go, but we must remember that the urge inside of us to pursue something because we know in our hearts it is the right thing to do, is GOD calling and it is up to us to ACT.

Yes, I know it is hard to leave your comfort zone. It’s comforting! It’s our warm cozy bed on a Monday morning, but you get out of bed anyway because you must. I believe in challenging myself to leave my comfort zone over and over again. As a perfect example, two months ago I got on a plane and left my home knowing I wouldn’t see it for a whole year, without really knowing what’s in store for me when I landed.  The fact that I’m standing here in front of you today, talking to you about Parasht Hashavua is a another one, as I do not usually discuss texts from the Torah, in English, let alone in public.

In my life, I have always tried to challenge myself and follow my internal calling, which is serving Israel and the Jewish people. This is a calling I felt since I was a teenager. I remember one day I read on the news that a group of Israeli teenagers went on a delegation to the University of Cape Town in order to protest against Israel’s policy, and I was overwhelmed by a very strong feeling, thinking this is not something you should do! I mean, Israel is not perfect - but why not try to influence and change from the inside? Why go to South Africa and harm Israel’s image that is already fragile? Looking back at that moment in time, I realize that the strong feeling I felt was my calling. It wasn’t anything like the divine calling that Abram had received, rather a strong burning in my heart and in my gut, which made me want to ACT. Immediately I started an advocacy project for teenagers and after a year I was able to form a delegation that went to Germany and spoke to over 200 peers about Israel and its complexity. That was the beginning of my journey serving my country and as you can see I am standing here in front of you today, serving as a bridge between Delaware and Israel. And although the calling was something I was sure of almost immediately, I have to say that many times I have acted out of that calling without knowing what’s in store, and in those times I always discovered and learned new and amazing things.

I once heard someone say that a calling is not something that just happened for no reason. There is a reason for why we feel what we feel. And if we feel a certain calling, we must follow it because it might be the reason why we were born into this world. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders but it is an opportunity to be brave and heed God’s calling.

So what is it? What is your drive? What is that one thing that when you think about it, you feel compelled to action? And are you, in this moment of time, really perusing your calling or is there something holding you back? These are questions I ask myself on a daily basis almost, and I encourage you to ask yourself those questions as well.

There is a lot we can learn from Abram’s decision at Parahshat Lech Lecha about courage, taking risks and believing in yourself.  Today I want you to motivate and challenge you to follow Abram’s example and answer your calling because when you do, the fear of the unknown will melt away and you’ll be free to fulfill the purpose you were put on this earth to do.

Sukkot 2018

09/28/2018 09:16:54 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Sukkot 2018

The day finally came: I had to get rid of my old rabbi’s manual. Despite popular belief, the rabbi’s manual does not come with an allen wrench nor does it explain how often I need an oil change. Rather, it’s a small prayerbook with the wedding ceremony, the funeral service, readings and services for dedicating a gravestone, visiting a dying person, and the like. I’ve used this rabbi’s manual to lead my first funeral and first wedding and countless of both since. It was a satisfying size, and had all kinds of typed notes from various life cycle occasions I’ve performed over the years. But a rolled down window during a rainstorm plus warm weather resulted in it getting moldy, despite my best efforts to save it. And truth be told, even before this incident, it was looking pretty ratty and worn. It was done, so off it went to be buried.

I have another copy, of course, the one I got for my ordination. Plus the new version, as well as the old one in pdf form that I’ve printed out to use, but it isn’t the same. I know, it’s just a book, not the end of the world, but it served me well, and I’m going to miss it.

It’s human nature; we get attached to things. But nothing is forever. Everything is, at the end of the day, ephemeral. Objects, our health, even the way we express our values and aspirations. The question isn’t how we keep things from fading away; it’s how we learn to accept that they will, despite our best efforts. It’s one of my favorite aspects of Shinto and Japanese tradition: there is an understanding that everything, even ceramics and shrines, are impermanent and fragile. The transient nature of life is not to be resisted, but celebrated; that there is beauty in entropy and change.

So Sukkot comes in, and reminds us that as well. Sukkot, as we sit in a hut open to the elements (and boy was that ever true this week!) says to us “gam ze ya’avor”, this too shall pass. The kids’ decorations, made with such care on Sunday, are trashed from rain and wind. The wood of the sukkah curls, the schach rots and falls away, we get damp waving lulav and etrog, and we are reminded that the rain isn’t forever, nor is the sunshine. That the pain we feel will fade, but so will the joy. As Ecclesiastes reminds us this time of year, to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. That’s not just a song, but a reminder to us to appreciate each moment, to make our days count.

I’ll get over the rabbi’s manual. I’ll learn to love the new one, eventually. I will get used to not having it, even as I’m grateful for its service in the first 19 years of my career, as a student and a rabbi. And with the last days of Sukkot, I will remind myself to appreciate these moments, even as they too pass away.

Haazinu 2018

09/28/2018 09:13:12 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Many of you have often heard me say that there’s all kinds of learning, a lesson I learned from my teacher, Ken Ehrlich. I want to share one moment of learning from early in my rabbinic career.

It’s 1998. I’m walking down the hall at HUC in Jerusalem with a bunch of my classmates, and we’re talking about heaven knows what. Clearly, something isn’t going my way, but the details are fuzzy now. At some point, I say with joking, mock exasperation “Clearly I just can’t win”, when a classmate looks at me and says, deadpan, “then maybe you should stop trying.”

Oof. That hit where it counts. It was an aside, probably meant in the same playful spirit as my comment, but it ended up having a profound impact on me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that encounter and what it means for my life and my rabbinate. Specifically, what’s the winning thing about? On a certain level, it’s about vulnerability, or rather, masking vulnerability. In fact, I would dare say that a lot of what we do in our lives is to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable, exposed. It feels bad.

There’s a famous story about President Johnson that, as he was getting on a helicopter, a Marine came over and said, “excuse me, sir, but this isn’t Marine One. That’s your helicopter.” To which LBJ responded “Son, they’re all my helicopters” and got on the wrong one. While true on one level, would it have been so bad if Johnson had smiled at the Marine and gotten on the other one? Did it matter that much? It does when we think of vulnerability as weakness and admitting our mistakes as a sign of failure.

But, didn’t we just go through a whole day whose purpose is to expose our vulnerabilities? To open ourselves up to healthy self-doubt? Isn’t that why we fast, on some level, and recite our sins alphabetically over and over again? By being vulnerable, we allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities before us. We allow ourselves to move past winning and toward growth.

That’s why we read Ha’azinu as well. God, through Moses, sings this song to the people, calling them to account right when they are about to cross the River Jordan and enter the promise land. They’re primed to focus on winning, to defeat the local yokels and settle this land flowing with milk and honey, but before they do, they are reminded of all their faults and foibles as a people. Their fecklessness, their failure to affirm God and follow the mitzvot. The song hits them right between the eyes and exposes their vulnerabilities. Not so that Israel will be defeated, not so that they give up, but to open themselves to growth, to learning, to not just be a people conquering a land, but to be a just people, a holy people. To be God’s people. So it is with us. We can only be just, and holy, and count ourselves as God’s people if we are vulnerable, if we take off our armor and allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes and each other.

Some time shortly before my encounter in the hallway 20 years ago, my teacher David Marmur taught me one of my favorite stories. Perhaps they are related. That in every conversation, there are two angels, the angel of winning and the angel of learning. The thing is, only one angel can be present at any given time. It’s been two days since Yom Kippur, Two days since we heard the shofar. May we continue to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, as on that day, and as such may we allow our better angels to prevail. Amen.

Yom Kippur Morning 5779

09/20/2018 04:37:41 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

Are We Awake? Are We Prepared?

This sermon began this summer at camp.  I had the opportunity to spend time this summer at 2 different Reform Movement camps—first returning to Camp Harlam—the camp where I grew up—as faculty and also serving on faculty during the inaugural summer of the new URJ 6 points creative arts academy.  At both camps, in addition to the satisfaction and inspiration of working with the campers and staff, I found (as I often have in my years as a rabbi at camp), that the time spent in conversation with the other faculty was equally meaningful.

As we shared in sacred conversations throughout the day between camp activities, walking from place to place on camp, at meals, and late at night—often over a campfire—we’d cover any number of topics, ranging from the goings on of camp to the happenings in our congregations…from making plans for services to making plans for a “faculty outing”…from ideas for programs to insight on our lives.  In my mind’s eye, I imagine that this is how the Talmud was written—through snippets of conversations of the ancient equivalent of rabbis, cantors, educators, and youth advisors.  Pieced together across generations.  Discussing, interpreting, learning—creating new tractates through our sharing.

In one of those conversations, we had just been singing Noah Aronson’s introduction to the Bar’chu, as we often sing/just sang here: “Am I awake, Am I prepared, Are you listening to my prayer, Can you hear my voice? Can you understand? Am I awake? Am I prepared?”

My friend took issue with the middle portion of the intention: “Can You hear my voice, Can you understand?” saying that it was liturgically problematic because it denied that God can hear and understand.  But, I countered, I think that many who say these prayers have had  doubts that God in fact can do any of that….My friend continued with the idea that it didn’t make theological sense within the context of liturgy.  I continued with my assertion that it didn’t have to—that our prayers were, at least in part, an expression of our own thoughts.   The conversation ended there, as camp conversations sometimes do, before we had any chance for resolution, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Because, I believe that most of us have moments, even when we sit here in the sanctuary, perhaps especially when we sit here, when we don’t believe, or when we have doubt, when we honestly aren’t sure that there is a God at all, much less One that can hear or understand any of this.  To me, it is profound to express that sense of doubt within our prayers themselves—our very doubt transformed into liturgy.  

Indeed, this struggle with belief is nothing new, nor is the expression of doubt.  Even in the Psalms, our people’s earliest expressions of prayers, we see this.  In Psalm 13, we read:

How long, Adonai; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

Look at me, answer me, Adonai, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death

lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.

It seems to me that the essence of these words is similar to the essence of Aronson’s: Will you ignore me forever? Can you hear my voice? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? Can you understand? 

And as we read the end of this Psalm, we again find similar echoes: 

But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to Adonai, Who has been good to me.

I see the message of a complete apparent turnaround in theme as twofold—first, despite the doubt, we pray anyway.  Second, we recognize the dichotomy inherent in the first response, and we embrace it—we allow faith and doubt to exist symbiotically, each fueling the other even as they stand in opposition to each other.  We recognize that the struggle doesn’t remove us from Judaism or even from the act of prayer.  As my teacher, of blessed memory, Dr Eugene Borowitz writes, “What I thought was some secret difficulty of mine with God not only occurred to some Jews centuries ago but has long been an accepted part of Jewish religious life. …Many people feel their disbelief so keenly they cannot give much credence to their occasional sense that there is a God…In Judaism faith in God is that dynamic; it is not an all-or-nothing, static state of being.”  

And so we ask—Am I awake? Am I prepared? Are we ready to move forward within our struggle-filled Jewish expression, and attempt prayer, even if we do not know to Whom or for What purpose we are praying? Whether our words reach Some Hearing and Understanding Entity, or hang as vapors.  And so, we at least attempt prayer.  Because we know that Judaism is a religion of action over faith—and prayer, after all, is an action.

Which brings us back to the struggle, for many, of sitting here in services, reading and listening and singing.  And the doubt that is evoked by those very actions. And yet we show up—surely, some of us today intimately know this struggle, but we are all here.  Perhaps we feel some amorphous sense of obligation. Or we know that Goldberg comes to talk to God and we come to talk to Goldberg.   Or because we hope that it will be meaningful or inspiring.  Or because there are parts of it that we love.  Or because we recognize that, especially on these High Holy Days, the sounds, the words, the symbols—are all designed to stir up for us the ancient memories of our people, while at the same time calling upon us to return ourselves to the people we were meant to be.  Or, perhaps, because recognize that potential exists.

105 years ago, Franz Rosenzweig, who would later become one of the greatest and most influential Jewish theologians of modern times, had decided to convert to Christianity.  But he wanted to do so as a Jew—taking a closer look at the things from which he was choosing to separate himself—he wanted to “go through” Judaism to get to Christianity.  And so, as one final step of leaving the religion of his birth, he attended Yom Kippur services at a small synagogue in Berlin, understanding the Day of Atonement as a necessary action in his preparing to take on Christianity.  At that service, he found himself profoundly moved—and realized there was no need for him to find salvation outside of his own religion.  And he chose, that day, to remain Jewish.  

As described in a 2013 article in Tablet Magazine: 

In effect, Rosenzweig experienced a paradoxically non-mystical enlightenment on Yom Kippur 1913: 

 A “meta-historical” breakthrough, yet at the same time one solidly anchored in time; a theoretical, yet thoroughly pragmatic epiphany; a revelation irreconcilable with Christian religion, yet committed anew to Hashem via the Neilah service, the final prayers spoken on the Day of Atonement. Just as it is not possible to “unring” a bell, Rosenzweig clearly could not “un-sound” the shofar he heard in 1913.

Clearly, the experience of worship during these days of awe can work and sometimes does work.  

But, at the same time, sometimes it doesn’t.   Someone’s struggle with the faith-doubt dichotomy may prevent them from fully entering the experience.  Someone may feel disconnected.  Someone may feel as if they were on the outside looking in, even surrounded by community.   For many reasons, for many, the experience of High Holy Day worship doesn’t always entirely grab them.  And this isn’t something we often talk about, or acknowledge, or give permission for.  But the truth is these days can be fraught with obstacles.  It’s important to recognize that, whether we are the person that isn’t connected or we are the person that is.

Sometimes, the experience might feel too unfamiliar…because it’s different from what we grew up with or because we didn’t grow up with these holidays.  Or because many of the prayers, the melodies, the content, the aesthetic, are not what we are used to or comfortable with.  Or because we happen to be distracted by the rest of life.  Or because of our doubt or the ambiguity of our personal connection to Judaism.  Or because the God we do believe in doesn’t seem to be reflected in the prayers, overshadowed by the God we don’t believe in.  Or, because we harbor anger towards God, or haven’t been able to forgive God.  

And much of the text doesn’t necessarily resonate for everyone.  The liturgy of these days is full of metaphors that don’t make the connection for many of us that they were designed to make.  We don’t live in a world where kings and shepherds are figures we regularly come across outside of stories.  Some of the intent of the words is lacking for us—the power that the symbols are meant to evoke can be lost.

And, for many, the liturgy brings pain.  Unetane tokef, in particular, can be a hurtful moment—hearing the words can wound us.  

I still vividly remember reading those words on Rosh Hashanah 17 years ago, days after the planes hitting the towers gave new meaning to the very idea of “Who shall live and who shall die,” and reading through a blur of tears, many lines of that section of the text hit like shrapnel.   A moment of catharsis for some, and of blinding pain for others.

And in any year, for someone who has had loss, for someone who has survived, for someone who is ill, or for someone who loves someone who is ill…those words, as well as others in the liturgy, can be painful.  And those moments of pain can tear us away from the experience.

For many reasons, for many people, the experience of these services can be difficult—and the words of our lips do not match the meditations of our hearts—and we find ourselves unable to connect.  And yet, even if we are going through the motions of worship, we might find for ourselves a moment where our worship becomes prayer.   

And perhaps, the purpose of all of this is discovering those moments.  Finding just one prayer, one melody, one insight, one moment of peace, or even one moment of deep feeling—that can be a effective worship experience.  

Judaism has never been an all-or-nothing religion.  Very few people find every single moment of any given service meaningful—that should be neither our expectation nor our standard.  

If we find just one instant of transcendence, then we have succeeded.  And even if we don’t, and we won’t always, it need not be a failure.  For worship can inspire us towards action, even if it doesn’t transform us in that moment.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in Man’s Quest for God, “Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self; not to refer an ancient vocabulary in modern terminology, but to transform our lives into prayers.”  And that is our challenge and our opportunity.  

To take a liturgy, parts of which may seem alien, and to determine the truth, the wisdom, that is inherent in its words—even if that truth is buried, and to then take that truth outside of the service.  To make those messages part of our living.

Feeling remorse, facing adversity, hoping for the future, fearing the unknown, wanting what is best for ourselves and for those we love and for the world at large, appreciating that which we have in our lives—all of that is at the heart of our prayers.  We can, and we should, take the opportunity to find for ourselves ways through which to express those ideas.  

And especially when a prayer is troubling us, is disconnecting us, we can read it with the intention of determining its truth, its meaning in a greater context, and determine what we can say, or better yet, what we can do, that will meaningfully convey that message for us.

We all connect in different ways: through spirituality, or action, or learning, or community, or nature, or music.  I challenge you to integrate your mode of connection with your Yom Kippur experience.  

It doesn’t have to be today, but find a time to take one aspect of what today is about—one piece of what our liturgy speaks of—and bring that aspect to the way that you do connect.  Whether that’s taking a walk outside and truly enjoying and appreciating the world around us, or hand writing a letter to someone who has been helpful to you, or volunteering your time, or giving food to someone who is hungry, or reading a book, or having a conversation with a friend, or whatever it is that you find meaningful, don’t let your Yom Kippur worship experience end when you walk out the door. 

Let us not forget, after all, that one of the main themes, the main actions, of this season is t’shuvah, repentence—turning within, truly examining our lives and seeking forgiveness for those times when we’ve missed the mark.  And while we can do the self-reflection portion of t’shuvah while we pray, the other portions necessitate leaving the worship setting.  

To give someone a meaningful apology or to truly forgive another, one must be in conversation and one must be fully present.  And to really determine for ourselves how we can act differently—to engage in real change—that takes a lot longer than the timeframe of services; even when we are here all day.  

We must allow the opportunity to find meaning to extend beyond this timeframe and beyond this space.  And by expanding this experience beyond this moment, we can, perhaps, find other moments through which we can both transform worship and prayer, and for that worship and that prayer to transform us. And by engaging with the worship, by appreciating the moments when we do connect, and by allowing ourselves to have moments of disconnect…we can each have a Holy Day Experience which calls us—be it through the sound of the shofar at Neilah or through the still, small voice whispering to us amidst the cacophony of the liturgy.  

Connecting us each to something—to the community around us, to the generations before us and those yet to be, to the acts of building a world inspired by our dreams, to Something Beyond ourselves, to our doubt and our faith, and even to the prayers.  Connecting us to our sacred texts, our insights becoming part of the sacred conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. 

And in doing so, we write another page for ourselves in the Book of Life, inscribing ourselves for a meaningful and engaging year, a year of being awake and prepared, a year of connection. 



Erev Yom Kippur 2018

09/20/2018 11:27:30 AM


Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

No One Leaves Home

Home-Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won't let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs

or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.


As Jews, we know what it means to run. As Jews, we know what it means to not have a home, to think we had a home and find that it is on fire. As Jews, we know. We know what it means. We have been carrying our babies, our bread, our stories, our burdens on our backs for two thousand years. We know. And now, tonight, the holiest night of the year, we are secure in our synagogues, our homes. We rejoice in our prosperity, in our relative safety, even as we’re mindful of the police protecting our door. And we know that there are children in converted Walmarts weeping for their parents, and parents scattered to the four winds weeping for their children. No, their weeping is not more important than that of the parent or child weeping in Wilmington, yes, they lament in a different language. And as Jews we know what it feels like, because we’ve felt those tears in the backs of our throats. We know.

I don’t know what the solution is for immigration, for refugees, for asylum seekers. And I’m not going to pretend that I do. I don’t presume that one person’s pain is more precious than another’s. I know that there is pain, and as Jews, we know that our obligation is to alleviate that pain, to recognize the dignity of the person suffering that pain, to embrace that person and love them as a person.

I don’t have any answers this Kol Nidre, except one. That there is a choice before us. Whether we are going to add to the suffering of others or help relieve it. Whether we are going to take our own security for granted or extend it to others. Whether we are going to stand against the tide of anger and rage or be swept up by it. I will stand against it, with every fiber of who I am. Even when I’m exhausted, and truth be told, I’m exhausted a lot of the time. And I bet you are, too. Tonight, on this night where we sing away our vows, and apologize in advance for the promises we fail to keep, I take an oath: I will stand against the pain of hunger by working to feed the hungry. I will relieve the pain of violence by supporting its victims. I will challenge the pain of being the stranger by embracing and offering dignity to the estranged. I will do this, and more. And I ask that you do this with me. We must. Because it is the only way forward. Because to do otherwise would be blasphemy. Because no one leaves home unless it is the mouth of a shark.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

09/11/2018 09:47:21 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

“Lift Up Our Eyes”

In a few moments, after I’m done speaking, after Avinu Malkeinu and a hakafah that is either too long or too short, depending on your point of view, we will settle in to our Torah service, and hear the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, chanted beautifully by our congregants. We will hear about how God asks, no, commands Abraham to take his son, the only of his wife Sarah, his miracle child, his child of laughter, and sacrifice him. This is no metaphor; Abraham must take a knife and slit his son’s throat, and place him on the fire as an offering; a test, we are told. As many of you have frequently observed, it is a deeply, profoundly uncomfortable text. Why on earth are we reading this text on Rosh Hashanah? The Sunday School answer is, of course, because of the ram Abraham will see and sacrifice instead of his son, and the source of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that we sound on this day. But in light of the cruelty of the story, it seems pretty weak. Why couldn’t we read the Ten Commandments, say, or the seven days of creation, or literally any other text but this one, where a father nearly murders his child on behalf of his God?

I used to think that the pivot point in the text was the dialogue between Abraham and Isaac as they go up the hill. When Isaac asks where the sheep is to sacrifice, Abraham answers that God will see to it, a wink and a nod to the readers that all is not lost. But lately I’ve been thinking that it’s moment that is the key to understanding this text and why we read it on the first day of the New Year.

Throughout the story, the word “see” is used over and over again; it is a leitmotif of the text as Abraham sees things, God shows things, God sees things, and the like. But twice Abraham lifts his eyes, vayisa et einav, and sees…something. First the mountain of Moriah, and then the ram in the thicket. When we read that Abraham lifts his eyes, it is as if what he’s seeing wasn’t there before; that is, this isn’t just that he didn’t notice or wasn’t paying attention, but rather that what Abraham sees was literally not there a moment ago, until his eyes were opened. In fact, the Talmud lists the ram in the thicket as a miracle, created at the beginning of all things, waiting for its moment to save Isaac. And what he sees is not just a place to offer his child, or a ram to offer in his stead. What he sees are choices, moral choices. As I’ve shared with you before, a way to read this text is to see it as Abraham being given and failing a test; instead of challenging God, Abraham submits, and God must stop the test. While I still think that’s true, I increasingly believe that these two moments where Abraham lifts up his eyes are the moments where the test happens; Abraham has the choice to take Isaac up to Moriah, or do something else, anything else to protect his son. Likewise, Abraham, seeing the ram, recognizes the opportunity to save his son.

When Abraham lifts up his eyes, it becomes moment of moral clarity.

And so it is with us today. This story shocks us on the first day of the New Year. Good. It horrifies us on a day when we should be enjoying honey cake and hearing that same story from our uncle for the umpteenth time at dinner, but we listen anyway because we love our uncle. Good. It is a story to shake us, to challenge us before we go back to the mundanity of our lives, before we hear the shofar, giggle at the tekiah gedolah, and go home to watch the ball game. As it is for Abraham, it is a moment of moral clarity for each of us, a moment when we should be opening our eyes to what is going on and asking ourselves what am I doing? What are the limits of violence, of indignity, of pain, that we are willing to tolerate in our midst.

So let me make the question explicit: what are your limits? Where is your moral clarity? I ask because we are being challenged as a people and a nation as never before. Every day brings its new sin of bigotry and malice. Whether it’s a guard at a swimming pool throwing people out because they are people of color or children as young as one year old defending themselves in immigration court, trying to plead for asylum, our moral clarity is being tested. When we see the working poor, including men and women in uniform, increasingly left adrift by a nation that doesn’t want to lift the tide to lift all ships, our moral boundaries are being tested. And surely we are challenged when we do turn to help, when we go to rally with our allies and friends, and all too often are told that we aren’t wanted because of our Zionism.

It is not that these issues weren’t there before, of course. Many of us have been fighting this fight for a long time, have been knee-deep in the fight against poverty, bigotry and depravity. But now it feels like the fires are burning out of control, and no one is bringing any water. We are as a society at the moment between when Abraham raises the knife, and God’s voice emerges from the heavens, and like Abraham, we don’t know if the voice is coming. We can’t see the ram.

So what do we do? What can we say? What is our task?

It was Nachman of Bratzlav who said, “the entire world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is to not be afraid”. Today he might qualify that statement and say, “the important thing is to not feel helpless”. We may, in fact, feel helpless, feel that there is nothing we can do except stare at what is transpiring in our community, our nation and our world with that pit in our stomach. But helplessness is as much a learned behavior as is anything else, and action is a learned behavior too. We cannot wave a magic wand and make everything all right; that’s not how the world works. But we can choose to set down our sense of powerlessness, and take up whatever action our minds, our bodies and our capabilities allow. We must—we must—remember that we have agency, and so long as we have agency, the power to choose and to do, then there is hope.

Our task, therefore, is to open up our eyes, and act. We cannot wait for the ram to appear or for the voice of God to stop the knife. We cannot wait for someone else to step up.  We must act without ambiguity, but with full moral clarity in our actions.

First, we must be civically engaged. We must challenge our elected leaders, even when we like them. We cannot wait for the exact right time, the exact right legislation, or the exact right person; we must challenge them and push them to alleviate the pain in our communities. And we have an opportunity to do that. On September 17th, next week, the JCC and Jewish Federation along with Hadassah will be hosting their Candidate Forum. There will be a handout with a link to resources from our Religious Action Center with questions to pose to the various candidates, Republican and Democrat, about our values as progressive Jews. If you are free that evening, look at the questions, perhaps you have a few of your own, submit them in advance, and go and be present, press them. And whether you can go or not, start asking tough questions of our Senators, our Congresswoman, our governor, every elected official. Write emails, go to forums, vote for the people who will stand up for our values, and then continue to reach out.

Second, we must challenge our friends and neighbors. We all know people who are happy to re-share a meme or re-circulate an email; are they registered to vote? Are they volunteering their time? Are they giving of themselves to causes in our community and country that will make a difference? Could they be more generous with their resources? Are they working to make this world really better, or just mouthing off? I know how engaged and civically minded this room is, how many of the people in this room take the time to research candidates and vote. It was a joy to watch all the pictures of congregants posting their ‘I voted’ selfies on primary day. In addition, I am asking you to reach out to your friends, your neighbors, and push them to do the same. Get one more person—a family member, a friend—to reflect on the issues they care about, learn about the candidates, and go to the polls in November and vote their conscience.

Finally, we must challenge ourselves. We need to truly show up:  to march, to speak out, to work and work hard for the kind of community we believe in. If our eyes are truly open to what is, and what ought to be, then we need to put ourselves truly into the work. I have been immensely proud of how our congregants have marched, and written letters, and given of their time and wealth. But marching and protests, civic engagement, writing letters, all that only goes so far. It’s important, it’s critical, but it isn’t relieving the pain right now, it isn’t fixing what is broken right now. We need to act: what will we do?

Last night I mentioned the words written on the walls of this synagogue, words written on the walls of this very sanctuary: Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With thy God. These words were and continue to be a call to action. Our congregation has a long history of working to alleviate poverty. If you’ve ever experienced poverty yourself; perhaps because of your own experience growing up, or you’ve done something like the SNAP challenge where you attempted to live on the meager resources provided by our safety net, you know how much pain and suffering food and housing insecurity causes. And we know how much need there is in this community. According to our friends at the Food bank, one in eight Delaware families are food insecure, and one in six children. That’s over 114,000 people. We’ve seen the need, and we’ve answered the call. We’ve partnered with Family Promise for several years, helping house and support homeless families, and have another opportunity to do that work two weeks from now, starting on September 23rd. We have joined with our brothers and sisters of other faiths to pack Thanksgiving meals in November. Our Sisterhood and confirmation classes have partnered with Ministry of Caring to support their soup kitchens. We have supported our congregant Brennan Stark, who, at age 19, is building sustainable housing for low income families here in Wilmington, and heaven knows he needs our help. All of that will continue, but I also want to commit to something else, something new that will support this neighborhood, this community. For 10 years we have gathered food as part of Project Isaiah at the High Holidays, filling a truck with grocery bags, hundreds of pounds of food which are then taken to the Delaware Food Bank. Not this year. This year, it’s going in our own, new Food Pantry. Thanks to our administrator Jon Yulish and our social action committee, Starting in November, once a week, coordinated with other support services in the community, we will open our doors to those in need around us, providing emergency resources for individuals and families who are trying to make ends meet. Perhaps they’re on SNAP and the month is running out. Perhaps they’ve lost a job or had been sick. Perhaps they don’t have transportation to get to the market. Whatever their circumstance, we are going to be here. And it needs to be ‘we’. We’re going to need volunteers to help stock and sort, to help our new friends ‘shop’ for their groceries. And we’re not going to stop there. The vision is to be able to expand, to offer other resources; perhaps perishable food, perhaps having a social worker here who can help our guests get the support services they need, perhaps having medical professionals here who can do screenings and other support. Perhaps there are needs out there that we are unaware of, and as we get to know our new friends, we will find a way to step into the breach. We are going to make our spiritual home a place that supports the people around us. Because we have to. We must answer the call. We must respond to the crippling needs we see around us. To do otherwise would be an act of idolatry, a rejection of the image of God present in each person. If we pretend that this space is only for us, that we are helpless in the face of poverty, if we look in the mirror tonight and say, “there’s nothing more I can do for my community”, then we might as well give up calling ourselves Jewish, because Jews act, and Jews don’t wait for permission.

As you collect your shopping bags there will be new instructions on what we need and how to volunteer to help. And, on Erev Sukkot, there will be a special program for anyone who wants to participate, and we’ll need all hands on deck for this. Finally, as you depart, you can take a quick peek at the space we’ll be using in all its glory, just before you exit the building—WITH your shopping bag! Every year we collect a truck and a half, and I’d love to see us bring in six months’ supply for the pantry! And from this point forward, let that shopping bag (or two, or five) be your starting point, not the end point. I offer you to be generous in spirit: that every time you enter this building, you bring some non-perishable food for the pantry. That we find time, every one of us, to help in some way, whether it’s stocking shelves or actually being present to help our soon-to-be new friends. That we ask our friends and neighbors to also bring us what we need to bring out.

Our eyes are lifted up; they are open. The task is before us. What shall we do? Do we embrace the choice before us, or do we sacrifice that choice on the altar of hopelessness and helplessness? At Camp Harlam, before the Amidah, they often sing words written by songleader and friend Julie Silver: “Open my eyes to truth, open my hands to give freely, open my lips to good words, to pure words, open my heart to love.” Our eyes are open; may the rest follow, and follow soon. Amen.

If you are going to the Candidate Forum on September 17th, or would like to participate more fully in our Civic engagement work, please visit HERE to find resources, including sample questions.

Erev Rosh Hashsanah 5779

09/11/2018 09:44:10 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

“The Walls Demand It of Us”

You can learn a great deal about a community, including a sacred community, by the space they call home. You can learn a great deal about a community’s history, about its values, about its loves and relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. Space is not merely space, after all; it tells a story and projects a message about who the community is and who it wants to be.

Once I went to a church for a social justice event. This church, like many houses of worship, had many doors. I walked up to the main door to find it locked. So I walked around the side to what looked like the office door, and found it locked as well. I walked around the building for several minutes trying each one in turn, until finally I found one that would open. Later, I found out that this door—which was a real back door—was the one that ‘everyone’ used to get in. Everyone who knew, at least.

Similarly, I recall a story I head about a congregation far from this community, a synagogue, where to get from the rabbi’s office to the religious school office, you had to go through several doors, down several hallways, and up a flight of stairs. Perhaps it was because of geography, or just the way the congregation’s building evolved? Nope. Apparently, the rabbi and the educator at that congregation hated each other, and they worked to put as much space and as many barriers between them as possible.

I love our space, our building. I’ve gotten to know it well over the last 10 years, and it feels homey to me. I love showing people where the staircase to the rabbi’s office used to be, both because it’s a neat little bit of trivia, but also because it demonstrates how the values of the congregation changed. As I’ve shared with many of you, I love the long corridor from the main entrance to the sanctuary as a sacred space. You come in, feeling whatever you felt based on the drive over here, and as you walk down, you see the pictures of generations of our confirmands, you hang up your coat and see your friends, you have a chance to get a drink of water, go use the rest room, and by the time you enter the sanctuary, the troubles you carried in with you—the stress of the drive, from work—are all left behind. I love this sanctuary, especially when it’s filled with people. You know I love the parking lot. And I especially love the words we have inscribed on our wall, outside the synagogue. If you go out onto Lea Boulevard and look past the spotlights, you’ll see the words of the prophet Micah inscribed on the outside walls of the sanctuary. Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With Thy God. Those words, along with the two tablets of the commandments positioned way up high in the corner, and the sign with our name, are the only ways you can tell that this is a synagogue. That’s it.

What do those words say about us? What do those words teach us about ourselves as a community, or as individuals who choose to be a part of this community? Certainly the words are attractively carved, in a font that was very much of the era. But it can’t just be mere decoration, could it? Synagogues often have quotes from scripture or other sources, but not always this quote, and not always in English so that everyone can read them. Certainly, as Reform Jews, we have embraced the idea of the prophetic message, especially in the era this building was built, with an eye toward proclaiming what is right and just in our community. So there’s a sense of history and connectivity there, too, that these words make this place feel like a reform synagogue, and a historic one at that. But I’d like to suggest another possibility. I’d like to put forward the idea that, in the same way that the yahrzeit plaques and the portraits on the wall and the ark behind me, that these words tell us something about the who we are and what we’re about. Even more than that, that the very fact that the words are written OUTSIDE the building are also meant to say something to those around us.

First, what does it say about us? Let as assume that these words are not merely decorative. It says that, as a congregation, these words matter. More than that, that these words get to the very fiber of who we are. That if you enter this congregation, and speak to its membership and clergy and staff, its active volunteers and less active occasional worshippers, you will find these words: To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God, lived. Lived by our youngest toddler to our oldest grand and everyone in between. Of course, that raises an important question: are we? Are we really living these words? Can each of us say that these words are our words? Is this how we’re living our Judaism, how we’re living our lives? So let me ask, what are we doing for justice? What are we doing in mercy, or goodness? Do we see ourselves walking modestly after God, or going through life modestly at all?

I feel like it’s necessary to raise this question today, at the start of a new year, because we are a living in a time when we as a society and a nation are decidedly NOT doing justly, loving mercy or walking humbly with God. Just as an example or two, where is the justice in asking 2-year old asylum seekers to represent themselves in court, as many of them had to do this summer? Is there mercy in how we understand those suffering from addiction, or poverty? Or do we hold them accountable to unreasonable expectations.  And as we hurl insults at each other online or otherwise dive head first into the outrage machine that is the internet, can we really say that we are being humble in our experience of others?  I think it is safe to say that we are not as a country living these words, and our failure to do so is causing us a great deal of harm as a society. We are failing to lift up the just needs of others,  and turn instead to cynicism. We are increasingly cruel with each other, rather than gentle and kind and loving, seeing those who disagree with us as opponents or worse, enemies. And we are only satisfied with one answer, the extreme answer, with no room for forgiveness, or learning, or context. This is a rot in the moral underpinnings of American life, and it is taking its toll on us. The American Psychological Association now says that the fourth greatest stressor in American Life is politics, and it’s as much because of the outright hostility to, and erosion of, basic norms of civic and civil behavior as it is who won and who lost. Suffice to say, when Micah wrote these words, he lived in a similar time, with a similar breakdown, a similar calamity. Which makes the need to live these words all the more important.

This leads us to why it is on the outside wall, rather than inside. If it were inside, it would be clear that this is a personal, communal reflection. But by putting it on the outside, the people who created this building did something amazing. Two things, actually. First, they created inspiration for anyone who walks by. If you’re in the neighborhood, or driving to work, and you see our building, you see those words. And maybe they fade into the background, or you stop paying attention after a while, but maybe, just maybe, they inspire. They raise the kinds of questions in the passerby that we’ve been exploring together.

But our congregational forebears did more than that by putting Micah’s words outside our building. They called us out. Because now, if you are unfamiliar with us, and you see our wall, and you walk in, you might ask out loud or to yourself, whether or not we are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly. You might look around and talk to the folks; the members and the staff and the clergy, the volunteers and the worshippers, the kids and the adults, and ask yourself, is this a place and a people that truly lives by those words on the wall? They should ask that question, and we should be prepared to answer. Because if we don’t live by those words, then this is just a building, full of empty rituals. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? By putting the words on the outside the people who built this building in the 1950s challenged us to live by these words or run the risk of making the whole enterprise nothing but hypocrisy and pablum.

So the question becomes whether we are going to choose to make these words a part of our lives. Whether in our day-to-day interactions we will be these words, so that when people speak of this congregation they will say not only that we’re nice (and we are) or that we care about education (which we do) or that we are active in our community (which I think we are but you know there’s always more to do) but will say “Oh, I know which congregation is yours. It’s the one with the words from the prophet Micah on its walls. It says, “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God” and I can say that every person from Beth Emeth lived those words and made them real.” Because it’s not enough to be nice, to care about education or be active in the community. It’s not enough to have beautiful services and a wonderful space filled with memories. None of it is enough if we don’t make these words come alive in a world so full right now of pain and enmity.

I’m sure it seems like too much. Why should each of us, then, be responsible for those words? Isn’t it hubris to think that we are uniquely required to fulfill them? And what if we fail? What if we succumb to the bitterness, the anger, the simmering rage that we see and feel around us?

A few weeks ago I was speaking with Aaron Selkow, the director of camp Harlam, where we send many of our kids, and he said something interesting. He asked why we as institutions insist on saying that we’re either really great at something or really not? Why does it have to be either or? Because when you say you’re really great, that’s just an opinion, and it may change. And when you say you’re bad at something as an institution it kind of lets you off the hook, doesn’t it? Why can’t we say we’re experimenting? We’re trying, we’re doing our best, which means we may fail, or fall, but we’re falling forward? If that’s true for institutions—for camps and synagogues and businesses—isn’t it true for people? What right do we have to say that we can’t, or that it isn’t our strong suit, or that we’re already good enough at something that we don’t have to reexamine and continue to learn? The words on our wall do not call us to be perfect but they do call on us to TRY. We don’t get to say it’s too hard. We don’t get to say we’re doing all we can already, and it’s good enough. Yes, the words of the prophet demand a great deal from us. They push us out of our comfort zone. But they leave no room to hide in self-pity or apathy. Our wall, our very building, calls us to action. Tomorrow I’ll speak more of how, but we cannot doubt the why, only respond as our ancestors did, affirming their choices. We will try. We will step out of our comfort zones. Even when it’s hard. Especially because it’s hard. The very walls demand it of us.

Parashat Ki Tavo

08/30/2018 04:41:12 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Ki Tavo


If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans. It’s a variation on the Yiddish expression that I heard on the radio earlier this week in an interview, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Because we as people are planners; what are we doing today, next week, next year. Where are we travelling to, who are we having dinner with, what movie are we going to see, when are we going to go to the game with our buddy or our kid, who are we going to be when we grow up? and so on and so forth. That’s what we do: we plan. And yet, we know, deep inside, in some secret part of ourselves, that our plans are all written in pencil, they’re all theoretical. We think we know what the future holds—for our careers, our relationships, our health—and then life happens, and our plans go out the window. Sometimes in profoundly negative ways, and that might be what comes to mind: a layoff, an unexpected diagnosis, but sometimes it can be profoundly positive as well. How many times have I talked to people who met their spouses when preparing to marry someone else, or right after a big breakup, or stumbled into a job they thought would be temporary and instead led to long, meaningful careers, or weren’t planning on having kids—or having another kid—and, well, you see where I’m going. Life, as the saying goes, comes at you fast.

And yet, we plan. We still plan. We can’t help ourselves! It’s who we are. And we see it so clearly in our Torah portion this week, the verses I just recited. Vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz asher Adonai elohecha notein lecha, when you enter the land Adonai your God is giving you, you shall take the first fruits and offer them up. When. Don’t you love it? Not, “Should you be able to”, or “If”, but “When”. What confidence! What a plan! This is going to happen, Israel! So be ready! Put it on the calendar! Here, I can share the event with you, do you prefer google calendar or ical or outlook? How could they know? How could they be so confident that, after entering this land flowing with milk and honey, and after tilling and planting and tending, they would have first fruits AT ALL, never mind enough to bring to Jerusalem? Yet there it is. A plan.

Or maybe not. Or not exactly what we mean by a plan. I think there’s another way to read this. What if this isn’t a plan for prosperity—I will have first fruits, I will have success—but instead a plan for appreciation and gratitude: “I will be grateful for what I have and I get”; “I will give thanks for what there is in my life, even if it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would”? That’s not how we normally think of plans, is it? We don’t plan to be grateful. And yet, how might that change our perspective on life? Would it help us cope with the unexpected harm, or be better prepared for the unexpected joy? Would it allow us to be more present, more in the moment? It might not make the surprises any less surprising, but it may change how we experience them? How we relate to them. How they affect us. Is that something we would find appealing?

I think it’s worth asking the question, especially now, as we prepare for a new year. Rosh Hashanah comes and its liturgy reminds us that our plans are, perhaps, less assurances and more hopes, or aspirations. And we don’t like to be reminded of that. But the prayers of the new year also remind us of the opportunities around us for gratitude, for the expected and unexpected alike. And as Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us, while we can’t change what happens to us, we can experience what happens not as evil, but simply what happens. And, perhaps, find a way to offer our thanks for what we have—whether despite or because of what happens—all the same. Amen.

Sat, October 19 2019 20 Tishrei 5780