In partial defense of Tabitha Duncan and Roseanne Barr


Last week, Tabitha Duncan was fired from her job after posting a video of her and her (white friends) proudly declaring that she was going “N______ hunting.” She was also let go from the Air Force  Reserves. When interviewed later about the matter, she claimed that she was intoxicated at the time, and that she is not a racist. “I was intoxicated. I have black friends, I have black people in my family, I didn’t mean it.”

This is not the first time in very recent memory that such a claim was made. Roseanne Barr, star of the show Roseanne, also issued some tweets that contained what seemed to be virulent racist content. Her show was canceled. She was not released from Air Force Reserve duty. Later, when interviewed about the episode, she claimed, “I'm not a racist, just an idiot who made a bad joke.” 

Before we march Tabitha and Roseanne off to the cultural gallows, it is worth noting that, according to most definitions of racism, many people have racist beliefs (though most people clearly do a better job of keeping it to themselves). Enthusiastic public pronouncements of these two women as racists may be a form of scapegoating, and thus may be distracting us from an important conversation worth having around intoxication, responsibility, and self-control.


Many people on Ambien have reported doing all sorts of things without remembering that they did them - cooking huge meals, parking their car in neighbors’ driveways, ordering stuff from Amazon, and the like. 

A person under the influence of Ambien likely does not lose control and then do something uncharacteristic, but rather loses control and does something they would ordinary want to do, but are usually able to resist urge. That person who ordered all that stuff from Amazon, for example - it was all stuff she really wanted, but she figured some secret admirer was sending it. Ambien reduces a person’s capacity to resist the urge to do something they would want to do but shouldn’t. Alcohol does the same.

Resisting urges is difficult. Freud and the Talmud and many people in between have told us that there is a battle going on inside of between what we think we ought to do and what we think we ought not do. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a and elsewhere) speaks of a battle between the yezter tov and the yetzer harah, two urges fighting for control of our decision-making capacities. The yezter harah - that’s the destructive, selfish, or negative one - is portrayed as relentless, cunning, seductive and cruel. It is likely to assert itself when we are unaware or when our guard is down - like someone who is under the influence of Ambein. 

It is not nothing to have an urge and resist it. We should all feel proud of every time we resist acting on the yetzer harah.

A person struggling with, say, alcoholism must be vigilant at all times not only to avoid drinking, but also to be hyper-aware of chains of behavior that are likely to lead to more urgently wanting a drink. Such a person must be alert to an array of behaviors, cues, friends, and certain times of year (Christmas is notoriously hard for some) that could lead down a dark path. 

Alcoholism might be a particularly acute and well-known form of addictive behavior, but there are many others that would fit into this category. There are meetings available to address issues of addiction to narcotics, eating, gambling, and sex. Not surprisingly, research has begun concerning social media addiction.

It is quite reasonable that, if there is such a thing as social media addiction, Roseanne is addicted. I assume she would respond in the positive to these six questions that are used to start the conversation about social media addiction:

  • Do you spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
  • Do you feel urges to use social media more and more?
  • Do you use social media to forget about personal problems?
  • Do you often try to reduce your use of social media without success?
  • Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?
  • Do you use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job or studies?

Does it change anything if Roseanne is, in fact, addicted to social media, and she cannot stop herself from posting? Addiction often changes the conversation (though admitting addiction is an essential part of that conversation). Does it change this conversation?

My point is that many people are walking around with all sorts of addictions, and they fight those addictions all the time, and it is hard to do that, because a flare-up can be caused by all sorts of things. Resistance is hard, and people should be commended for resisting, to whatever extent that they do, the urges they have. Is there room here for compassion toward a person who struggles, like all of us, with self-control, and sometimes loses the struggle?


Roseanne Barr and Tabitha Duncan have racist thoughts. Does that make them racist? The standard definition of racism, as offered by Merriam-Webster, is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

It is interesting to wonder whether “having a belief” and experiencing thoughts are the same thing. If I look at a Jewish person and experience the thought that they are likely associated with the Elders of Zion, does that mean I believe that? It is possible that “my beliefs” occupy one part of my brain, and such thoughts occupy another entirely.

But let’s use Merriam-Webster’s as a working definition, and assume that, yes, thoughts that arise in me do so because of my beliefs. According to this definition, many of us would be considered racist. Tests around implicit bias (like the Implicit Association Test) reveal that many white respondents have at least a slight preference for “European Americans over African Americans.” Though the IAT is quite controversial and findings are not consistent even concerning the same individual on different days, there is other evidence that racism and stereotyping are widespread in America. An article in the New York Times reports on studies that show racial bias among doctors (blacks and Hispanics treated by doctors for a broken leg received pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury), school administrators (suspending black students at more than three times the rate of white students), police (who arrest blacks at 3.7 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession), and recruiters (it took 50 percent more mailings to get a callback for a black name. A white name yielded as much benefit as eight years of experience). There are many more examples.

It is interesting to note that while implicit bias is on the rise, there is some evidence that explicit bias is decreasing substantially. For example, from that NYT article, “In 1958, 4 percent of Americans approved of black-white marriages; today, 87 percent do.” Unfortunately, explicit bias does persist in America, but it may be that the average person, though aware of (or subject to) implicit bias, overrides that bias in their expressed opinions concerning race. 

Clearly Roseanne Barr and Tabitha Duncan also hold implicit bias. It seems that in a waking, unmedicated, non-intoxicated state, they generally do a pretty good job of overriding it, but then when certain chemicals come into play, things go haywire. There but by the grace of God go I, right? 


Assuming the absolute best about Roseanne and Tabitha, we are dealing here with people who make a reasonable effort most of the time to not express racist sentiments that many other people also have. Occasionally they ingest some substance that erodes their capacity for that self-control, and they act out. When exactly, is the sin or crime? The sin or crime is upstream of expressing latent racist thoughts; it is in putting themselves in a circumstance in which those thoughts are likely to be expressed. 

This is not a question about liability, but of where in the timeline we expect a person to act differently than they did. Once Roseanne has taken Ambien and logged in to Twitter, it is no longer reasonable to expect her to make a different choice. The yetzer harah has free reign at that point. Where is there a decision in which the yetzer tov and the yezter harah are both part of the conversation? At what point on the timeline do they still have enough control to choose to act differently, and if they do not, then they are fully culpable?

The obvious answer for Tabitha is - don’t drink. You have a problem in that you, like many, experience certain racist thoughts, and when you get drunk they come out. So you are not allowed to get drunk, ever. You need to make that decision now, and stick to it. In Tabitha’s case, her expressing her horrible plans for that evening is not the sin. Being drunk is. 

With Roseanne, it’s a bit trickier, because you need to take Ambien for sleep issues. So you need to not have access to your phone or your computer. You need to make an Ambien dispenser that requires you to place your phone and computer in a safe, or automatically shuts off all internet and phone access upon ingestion. If these aren’t possible, you need to enlist the help of your friends and loved ones. 


In Jewish law, one’s actions while intoxicated are considered to be expressions of your intention. From Talmud Bavli Eiruvin 65a:

One who is drunk: His purchases are valid, his sales are valid, if he does a capital crime he is executed, if he does a crime punished by lashing he's punished. As a general rule, he's like a conscious person for everything, except that he's free from the obligation of prayer… Rabbi Chanina says that [the above law] is true as long if he didn't reach Lot's level of drunkenness. Once he gets to Lot's level he is not liable in any of these cases.

In American law, there are many nuances concerning intoxication and liability. For example, in Alaska Stat. 11.81.630, voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a prosecution for an offense, but evidence that the defendant was intoxicated may be offered whenever it is relevant to negate an element of the offense that requires that the defendant intentionally cause a result. In Florida, evidence of a defendant’s voluntary intoxication is not admissible to show that the defendant lacked the specific intent to commit an offense and is not admissible to show that the defendant was insane at the time of the offense, except when the consumption injection, or use of a controlled substance… was pursuant to a lawful prescription issue to the defendant by a practitioner.


Interestingly, that passage in Talmud Bavli 65a refers to the drunkenness of Lot, which would exempt a person from liability. 

The Talmud refers to the story in Genesis 19:

Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave.And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world.Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.The next day the older one said to the younger, “See, I lay with Father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go and lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

“Lot’s level of drunkenness,” at which point a person is no longer liable for their actions, is the level at which a person “acts, but does not know what he is doing” (Tur and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 235). 

“Lot’s level of drunkenness” makes a person not liable for acts they would ordinarily be liable for, and their contracts are not valid. But what if a person knows that they are likely to reach “Lot’s level of drunkenness” and then repeatedly brings about that state? Lot himself did!

To wit: In the Torah scroll, there are certain words written with unexpected configurations - a big or small letter, a broken letter, an upside-down letter, or a dot over a letter or letters of a word. In the story of Lot and his daughters, there is a dot over the vav of the word uvekumah - “and when she got up.”

Rashi, the central commentator on the Torah, writes that “‘when the older daughter got up’ has a dot over the vav… to tell us that when she got up, he actually was aware. And still yet he did not prevent himself from drinking on the second night.” To what extent is a person responsible for what they do while intoxicated, and to what extent is a person responsible for the very fact of getting intoxicated? 

The writings of one rabbi clarifies that “one who has reached the level of intoxication of Lot is in fact exempt only for these things listen in the Talmud (cited above) - business, the death sentence, and lashes. But as for damages, there  is no doubt that person is liable, for that person should have be careful not to become drunk like Lot and to do damage. Who forced him to become so drunk so the point where he no longer knows what he did?”


We know that this was not Roseanne’s first time at the rodeo. And it doesn’t sound like Tabitha was completely unfamiliar with the idea of N_______ hunting. We don’t hear her wondering, on the video, “N______ hunting?!?!? What’s that?!?!? That’s terrible! That’s racist!” 

These are grownups who need to take responsibility for whatever point in the timeline at which they can still make choices. “I am not a racist” is not an excuse because your racism or lack thereof is not the most important question to be asking. Rather, you are being challenged to see that you have an avoidable problem with self-control, and it is yours to take responsibility for, if you choose to. If you choose not to, then you deserve all of the public ire that is coming your way. If you want to take responsibility but don’t know how, there is help for that. If you do take responsibility, then I commend you for fighting a difficult fight.

Pressure to say something interesting

What happens when you have nothing to say in Torah? When another great parsha flies by and you have nothing of note to offer? 

There are several versions of a story in which a king issues a sort of request for proposals from local artists, and the winner will decorate the palace. They will display their wares by decorating a small wing of the palace, and if the king likes their work, they’ll get the contract. In the end, one of the artists provides elaborate tapestries, murals, and the like, and the other offers a mirror that simply reflects the first artist’s work. Surprisingly, the king respects the second “artist’s” work. Not sure if he “wins”, but he is certainly not executed.

Maybe the moral of the story is that sometimes you’ve got something to say, and sometimes you’ve got nothing original to say, but you’ve found someone who does, and you provide a great service by calling attention to it. 

This is not dissimilar to someone who searches the racks of thrift stores to find clothes and things that can be sold in their boutique. It takes a huge amount of skill to find the right things, things that simply need to be presented in the right context, or framed properly. or translated. And sometimes a Torah source needs to simply be found, dusted off, and presented in a modern idiom for us to realize just how useful, inspiring, and impacting it can be.

It is not essential to have something clever to say, to have some new spin to offer. It is also incredibly useful to say, “I found this piece from Rav Kook that is rocking my world” or “this Seforno has completely changed my view on the gender dynamics of 16th-century Italy” or “I thought I understood the nature of reality until I got wind of this Midrash.” 

It can be even more useful (and a lot more vulnerable) to add “and this is how I’m reacting to it” or “this is what I want to do” or “now I am seeing things through the following lens” or the like. 

Maybe throw in some “what are your thoughts on this?” or “does this align with your view of gender dynamics in 16th-century Italy?” or the like.

My point is that there are so many great texts out there. So many great things have been said, and amplifying those things is a great service to offer. One should feel proud that one has found something relevant to share with others, rather than feel embarrassed for not having found something “original” to say.

Elijah, what are you doing here?

“The Hagaddah was written by Eliyahu HaNavi” - R. Simcha Bunim

Running away from Izevel the queen, Eliyahu (in Melachim 1 19) makes his way to Har Sinai. Hashem interrogates him:

(ט) וַיָּבֹא שָׁם אֶל הַמְּעָרָה וַיָּלֶן שָׁם וְהִנֵּה דְבַר יְדֹוָד אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ: (י) וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַידֹוָד אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּי עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ:

And he came there, to the cave, and he rested there, and behold! The word of God came to him, and said to him, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” And he said, “I have ben zealous for Hashem the God of Legions, for they have abandoned your covenant, the children of Israel, your altars they have smashed, and they have killed your prophets by the sword. I alone remain, and they have sought to take my life.”

Hashem shows him a vision:

(יא) וַיֹּאמֶר צֵא וְעָמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד וְהִנֵּה יְדֹוָד עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד לֹא בָרוּחַ יְדֹוָד וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְדֹוָד: (יב) וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְדֹוָד וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה:

And He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before Hashem, and behold! Hashem will make a great, strong mountain-splitting and rock-shattering wind pass before Hashem. Hashem is not in the wind. And after the win, a quake – Hashem is not in the quake. And after the quake, fire. Hashem is not in the fire. And after the fire, a voice that is quiet and subtle.”

Malbim explains Hashem's message in showing him this vision:

וממנו ילמדו שלוחיו ונביאיו בל יסערו סער בל ירעישו רעש ובל יבעירו אש, כמו שעשה אליהו בקנאתו לה' צבאות שעצר את השמים ושחט את נביאי הבעל, כי ה' ישלח את נביאיו שיבואו אליהם בקול דממה, וימשכו את העם בעבותות אהבה ובדברים רכים:

And from this His messengers and prophets will learn not to kick up a storm, not make excessive noise and not to burn [like?] fire, as Eliyahu did in his zeal for Hashem Master of Legions, for he stopped the rain and slaughtered the prophets of Ba'al, for Hashem sends his prophets to come in a quiet voice, and will draw the people toward them with cords of love and with gentle words.

But Eliyahu can't hear it.

(יג) וַיְהִי כִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵלִיָּהוּ וַיָּלֶט פָּנָיו בְּאַדַּרְתּוֹ וַיֵּצֵא וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הַמְּעָרָה וְהִנֵּה אֵלָיו קוֹל וַיֹּאמֶר מַה לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ: (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַידֹוָד אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּי עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ:


And it was, when Eliyahu heard this, he covered his face with his cloak, and went out and stood at the opening of the cave, and behold there was a voice directed at him, and He said, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” And he said, “I have ben zealous for Hashem the God of Legions, for they have abandoned your covenant, the children of Israel, your altars they have smashed, and they have killed your prophets by the sword. I alone remain, and they have sought to take my life.”

It seems that Hashem has a different role in mind for Eliyahu than Eliyahu does for himself. And it seems that Hashem sees something in His people that Eliyahu does not. Hashem wants Eliyahu to be someone who brings Him and His people closer together, while Eliyahu maintains his conviction that they are not worthy of that, and so he ends up driving Hashem and His people apart from each other. Hashem insists that Eliyahu get it right, and Hashem will not let him off the hook.

From the very last lines of the last chapter of the last prophet, Malachi (3):

(כג) הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם יְדֹוָד הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא: (כד) וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם פֶּן אָבוֹא וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם:

Behold, I am sending you Eliyah HaNavi, before the coming of the day of Hashem, great and awesome. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers upon the children, and the hearts of children upon their fathers, lest I come and strike the land desolate.


(כד) והשיב לב אבות – להקב"ה.

And he will restore the hearts of the fathers” - to the Holy One Blessed is He.

Eliyahu's (now Eliyah's) task is to restore the hearts of Hashem's people to Hashem. And this will be accomplished for fathers through children and for children through fathers, as Rashi continues:

על בנים - ע"י בנים יאמר לבנים דרך אהבה ורצון לכו ודברו אל אבותיכם לאחוז בדרכי המקום וכן ולב בנים על אבותם


Upon this children – by means of the children. [Eliyah] will say to the children, by way of love and placation, 'Go and speak to your fathers to hold on to the ways of the Omnipresent.And so, too, the hearts of the children are upon the fathers

This passage is from the Haftarah of Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. It seems relevant to Pesach because Pesach is a time of a unique intergenerational conversation. We hope that the questions and answers of Pesach night will help parents see that their children care, and have a lot to offer, and that they are so worth investing in. And the children will see their parents with their ancestral stories as invaluable resources and support in their own journey toward embracing the covenant.

Elihayu comes at the end of the Seder. Maybe he comes to make sure we are succeeding. The other occasion that Eliyahu always attends is a circumcision. This could be seen as a sort of punishment, or a demonstration by God that Eliyahu is in fact not the only Jew who cares about the covenant.

It is intriguing to think of Eliyahu as the person perpetually charged with the task of bringing Hashem and the Jewish people closer together, specifically at times when we invoke his memory – brit milah, Pesach, and at the end of Shabbat. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch:

וְעוֹד אִיתָא בַּמִּדְרָשׁ דִּבְכָל מוֹצָאֵי שַׁבָּת אֵלִיָּהוּ נִכְנָס לְגַן עֵדֶן, וְיוֹשֵׁב תַּחַת עֵץ הַחַיִּים וְכוֹתֵב זְכוּתָן שֶׁל יִשְֹרָאֵל הַמְשַׁמְּרִים אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת, וְלָכֵן מַזְכִּירִין אוֹתוֹ אָז לְטוֹבָה:

And it is also brought in the Midrash that, every motza'ei Shabbat, Eliyahu goes into the Garden of Eden, and he sits under the Tree of Life and writes the merits of the Jews who keep Shabbat, and therefore we mention him for good.

The original source is from Midrash Rut, and is not specific to having kept Shabbat:

ר' כהן ור' יהושע דסכנין בשם ר' לוי לשעבר היה אדם עושה מצוה והנביא כותבה ועכשיו כשאדם עושה מצוה מי כותבה אליהו כותבה ומלך המשיח והקדוש ב"ה חותם על ידיהם הה"ד (מלאכי ג') אז נדברו יראי ה' איש אל רעהו וגו'

R' Kohen and R' Yehoshua of Sichnin, in the name of R' Levi: In the past, a person would do a mitzvah and the prophet would write it. Now, when a person does a mitzvah, who writes it? Eliyau writes it, and Moshiach and the Holy One Blessed is He sign it. Thus it is written: “Then the ones who fear Hashem speak one to his friend.

Rav Kook expands the range of this story so beautifully:

אליהו יושב בכל מוצאי ש"ק תחת עץ החיים וכותב זכויותיהם של ישראל. על כן ראוי לכל מי שיש לו שייכות של תשוקה לרזי תורה, שהיא מדת גילוי אליהו, באיזה דרגא, אפילו אם היא רק בדרך דמיון, או הרגשה, או השגת השכל האנושי, וק"ו אם עלה בחסד עליון למדרגות יותר גבוהות, שבכל מוצאי ש"ק יעשה גם הוא כמעשיו של אליהו, ויעסוק בזכויותיהם של ישראל. ויכיר בהכרה שכלית ובהשגה בהירה וברורה את קדושת ישראל, ויקרת מעלתו, וידבק עצמו בכללות עם קדוש, עם ד' וסגולת נחלתו, שאין קץ ותכלית להופעת אור קדשו של כל יחיד ויחיד שבהם, שגם הריקים שבישראל כל העולם משותת עליהם .ויש להתרעד ביראה קדושה, מקדושת הנשמה האלהית העליונה של כל נפש מישראל ולהיות מלא שוקקות וחמדת עולמים לקדושת רוממות קרן ישראל בכלל, ולהצלחתו של כל יחיד מישראל, בכל מעשי ידיו, בחומריות וברוחניות, ובכל טוב. ומתוך מעמקי נשמתו ירנן ויקרא, אשריכם ישראל, אשריך ישראל מי כמוך עם נושע בד'. אהבתיך עמי ולאומי, איויתיך בכל לבי, ובכל נפשי, אחמדך בכל חום לב, בכל אש עצמותי, אשתוקק לראות כבודך, יפיך, והדרך, עת תרומם ותנשא, עת תגדל ביפי צביוניך, ויצאו כל סגולותיך, והנפלאות הכמוסות בך, מן הכח אל הפועל, עת תנטע ותתאזרח בארץ צביונך, בארץ פארך, ויגלו לצפון ולים, לקדם ולמערב, תפארת עוזך וגובה קרנך. וראו גוים צדקך וכל מלכים כבודך, וקורא לך שם חדש אשר פי ד' יקבנו, והיית עטרת תפארת ביד ד' וצניף מלוכה בכף אלהיך.

Eliyahu sits every motza'ei Shabbat under the tree of life and writes the merits of Israel. Therefore it is fitting for anyone who has some relationship to longing for secrets of Torah, which is what is meant by 'an appearance of Eliyahu',' on whatever level, even if it is only by way of imagination, or feeling, or something grasped by human intelligence, and all the more so if a person ascended, by God's kindness, to higher levels, that on every motza'ei Shabbat he, also, should mimic Eliyahu's actions, and involve himself with the merits of Israel. And he should recognize the holiness of Israel with intellectual recognition and clear understanding, and the preciousness of Israel's high level and he should attach himself to the entirety of the holy nation, the nation of Hashem, the treasure that flows from Him, and that there is no limit or end to the display of the holy light of each individual among them, and even the 'empty' people of Israel – the whole world is founded upon them. And one should tremble with holy awe from the holiness of the Divine Supernal soul of every Jewish person, and to be full of avidity and delight in the holiness of the loftiness of the pride of the Israelite people in general, and the success of every individual Jew, in everything he does, physically and spiritually, and in all good. And from the depths of his soul, he should sing out and cry out, “Fortunate are you, Israel, fortunate are you, Israel, who is like you, nation saved by Hashem/ I love you, my people, my nation, I long for you with all my heart, with all my soul, I delight in you with a warm heart, with all the fire in my bones, I wish to see your glory, your beauty, your splendor, at such times that you rise up, at the times when the beauty of your pride is expanded, and all your capacities, and the wonders that are hidden in you will emerge, form potential to actual, at such time that you are planted in and become native to the land of your pride, in the land of your splendor, and the splendor of your power and the height of your pride will be revealed to the north, to the south, to the east and the west. And nations will see your righteousness, and all the kings will see your glory, and you will be called by a new name that the mouth of God will determine, and you will be a crown of splendor in the hand of God, and a mitre of kingship in the palm of your God.



Speak intensely to your children

We learn a great deal, in the first Rashi of the book of Vayikra, about the nature of the ‘call’ that went out to Moshe before Hashem spoke to him. 

ויקרא אל משה - לכל דברות ולכל אמירות ולכל צוויים קדמה קריאה לשון חבה (יומא ד' ויקרא ר') לשון שמלאכי השרת משתמשים בו שנא' (ישעיה ו) וקרא זה אל זה

And he called to Moshe - for all of the speakings and all of the utterances and all the commandments there was a calling beforehand, which implies affection, language that the ministering angels use, as is written, “And they call to one another.” 

Rashi, from the Gemarra and Midrash, explains that this calling happened every time, regardless of the type of speech that was about to be used. It is interesting, then, to consider, in the opposite direction, what was additional element might have been operative when Moshe spoke to the people. As Rav Kook explains, Moshe had to not only convey a specific message, he had to do so in a way that would have an inspiring effect on the listener.

וידבר ד' אל משה לאמר, צו את אהרן ואת בניו לאמר. כשם שה"לאמר" הראשון הוא מיוסד להגיד, שכח ההשפעה המקורית של הדבור אל משה הופיע ג"כ בהאמירה שלו, למסור דבריו למי שנצטוה להגיד לו את דבר ד', כמו-כן ביסוד   הצואה של אהרן ובניו, שיש בה משום זירוז מיד ולדורות, יעמד כח החיים של דבר ד' הראשון כאשר יצא מפי רועה נאמן לראשית קדושת הכהונה,בישראל, לאהרן ובניו. כמו שהיה מיד, כן יהיה לדורות, באותו רשם הקדש, בעוצם חיותו ועומק קליטתו באמונת אומן נשגבה. והרשם הזה פועל להגן נגד כל התרשלות, האפשרית לבא במקום שיש חסרון כיס, ופועל להקיש את רשם הדורות אל הרשם של מיד. "אין צו אלא זירוז מיד ולדורות. אמר ר"ש ביותר שיש חסרון כיס" (ספרא). 

The first 'to say' is there to communicate that the original effective power of the speech to Moshe was in force when he spoke to convey the word of God to those to whom he was commanded to speak. And the life-force of the original word of Hashem, as communicated by the faithful shepherd at the moment of the original sanctification of the Priesthood, continued to be in force toward Aharon and his sons in order to motivate them, immediately and for all generations. As it was at that first moment, so shall it be for future generations, with this very same impression of the Holy, in its intense alive-ness, and its deep capacity to absorb people into its great faith. And this impression acts to protect against all sorts of weakening which are likely to come when an endeavor is costly, and it also acts to position the impression on future generations as relate to the impression of the original moment. “The word tzav always implies urging, immediately and for future generations. Rabbi Shimon added that this is even more necessary when the act is costly.”

This particular lesson has enormous implications in the realm of pedagogy: It is of  essential importance that we invest our teaching - be it in the classroom or at the seder, or anywhere - with enthusiasm. That is what comes through, in the end. And this can help open up at least one portion of the Hagaddah.

As I have attempted to articulate elsewhere, in light of a teaching from Erica Brown, the Hagaddah is less the story of the Exodus, and more a series of stories about people talking about the Exodus.

Ostensibly, each one of these stories - the Bnei Berak Seder, the 4 sons, the person delivering 1st fruits to Jerusalem, and many others - represents a sort of Exodus in itself. In each, there is some Mitzrayim, and some Exodus, at least in potential. The Four Sons, for example, may represent a family and the need for that family to escape certain patterns that keep that family from the generational healing that Eliyahu the prophet is supposed to bring through the Seder. The bearer of the 1st fruits may be stuck in thinking it is someone else’s story, and he needs to make it his own. 

But what of the Bnei Berak Seder? What’s astounding about this story is that we have no record of what they said (outside of sporadic mention in other parts of the Hagaddah of the five men who were there that could, theoretically, be pinned to that Seder). Rather, we have the simple assertion that these five men, who knew SO much Torah, still enthusiastically engaged with the telling, to the point where they needed to be stopped. 

So what becomes remarkable about the story is not the content, not what they said to each other. Rather, we are left to wonder at the fact that, somehow, there was just so much to talk about. How? Wasn’t the material finite? Sure. but that’s just in one dimension. In this other dimension, driven by passion, enthusiasm, intensity - those things open up so much in the text. So we have an Exodus from the sense of the text, the story, the symbols, the possibilities as finite.


Get out of here - Nissan and Pesach

Some people, apparently, dance when the new moon of Nissan approaches because we are about to enter a month of not saying tahanun - the part of the prayer service in which we confess that we have done wrong, take responsibility, experience regret, and ask for forgiveness.

Another time I’d like to explore why I think tahanun is one of the highlights of the prayer service. In the meantime, though, it is interesting to note the reason why we don’t say tahanun during the month of Nissan. This is from the Magen Avraham, one of the primary commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch:

ג) בכל חדש ניסן.  מפני שי"ב נשיאים הקריבו י"ב ימים וכל יום הקרבן היה י"ט שלו ואח"כ ע"פ ופסח ואסרו חג א"כ יצא רוב החדש בקדושה לפיכך עושין כלו קדש :

For the whole month of Nissan - since the twelve leaders of the tribes brought offerings on the twelve days and on each day of the offering was a festival day for that leader, and then the eve of Pesach, and Pesach, and isru chag - with that, most of the month is in holiness, therefore we make it entirely holy

This is not the only instance in which we desist from saying tahanun because of someone else’s joy. This, from the Shulchan Aruch, OC 131:7:

נהגו שלא ליפול על פניהם לא בבית האבל, ולא בבית החתן, ולא בבהכ"נ ביום מילה, ולא כשיש שם חתן:

We have a custom not to ‘fall on the face’ (another name for tachanun - ed.) in a house of mourning, nor in the house of a bridegroom, nor in a shul on the day of a bris, nor in a shul when a bridegroom is present


At all times that we do not say tahanun, it is not that we do not have what to confess, take responsibility for, feel regret about, etc. It is that the need to do so is overshadowed by another consideration - be it a holiday, or someone else’s joy. 

This is an incredible move. And it is not unique to the Jewish - or for that matter the general human - approach to the experience of multiple and conflicting priorities or emotions. Sometimes we mix them all together and average them out, and that is our mood. At other times, we emphasize some components of our experience and suppress others because of some overriding purpose. The month of Nissan is one of them.

But the month of Nissan seems extreme because of the length of time over which we emphasize and deemphasize. It is notable as an experience - a month when we downplay our sins and regrets in favor of other sentiments.

L’ma’aseh, functionally, if we use this forgoing of tahanun not simply as a way to save us 90 seconds on Sunday Tuesday Wednesday Friday and maybe 5 minutes on Monday and Thursday, but as presenting a series of opportunities to actively downplay our sins and regrets so that we can play up something else, then Nissan becomes very rich, and a path to Pesach and its exodus becomes clear.


What is it that we play up when we downplay our flaws and faults? I’d suggest that we’d be playing up our good points, so we could be happy, so we could be redeemed. Here’s how I’d frame it:

כִּי בְשִׂמְחָה תצאו

In joy, you shall go out

וְזֶה הוּא כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵהַגָּלוּת, כְּתִיב (יְשַׁעְיָה נ"ה): "כִּי בְּשִׂמְחָה תֵצֵאוּ"

And thus, when the Jewish people left exile, it is written “In joy, you shall go out.”

                                    Likutei Moharan I:24

How do you get happy?

כִּי זֶה יָדוּעַ שֶׁצָּרִיךְ הָאָדָם לִזָּהֵר מְאֹד לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד, וּלְהַרְחִיק הָעַצְבוּת מְאֹד מְאֹד (כַּמְבֹאָר אֶצְלֵנוּ כַּמָּה פְּעָמִים). וַאֲפִלּוּ כְּשֶׁמַּתְחִיל לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּעַצְמוֹ וְרוֹאֶה שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ שׁוּם טוֹב, וְהוּא מָלֵא חֲטָאִים, וְרוֹצֶה הַבַּעַל דָּבָר לְהַפִּילוֹ עַל יְדֵי זֶה בְּעַצְבוּת וּמָרָה שְׁחוֹרָה, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, אַף - עַל - פִּי - כֵן אָסוּר לוֹ לִפֹּל מִזֶּה, רַק צָרִיךְ לְחַפֵּשׂ וְלִמְצֹא בְּעַצְמוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, כִּי אֵיךְ אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלֹּא עָשָׂה מִיָּמָיו אֵיזֶה מִצְוָה אוֹ דָּבָר טוֹב, וְאַף שֶׁכְּשֶׁמַּתְחִיל לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדָּבָר הַטּוֹב, הוּא רוֹאֶה שֶׁהוּא גַּם כֵּן מָלֵא פְּצָעִים וְאֵין בּוֹ מְתֹם, הַיְנוּ שֶׁרוֹאֶה שֶׁגַּם הַמִּצְוָה וְהַדָּבָר שֶׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה שֶׁזָּכָה לַעֲשׂוֹת, הוּא גַּם כֵּן מָלֵא פְּנִיּוֹת וּמַחֲשָׁבוֹת זָרוֹת וּפְגָמִים הַרְבֵּה, עִם כָּל זֶה אֵיךְ אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיֶה בְּאוֹתָהּ הַמִּצְוָה וְהַדָּבָר שֶׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, כִּי עַל כָּל פָּנִים אֵיךְ שֶׁהוּא, עַל - כָּל - פָּנִים הָיָה אֵיזֶה נְקֻדָּה טוֹבָה בְּהַמִּצְוָה וְהַדָּבָר טוֹב שֶׁעָשָׂה, כִּי צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לְחַפֵּשׂ וּלְבַקֵּשׁ לִמְצֹא בְּעַצְמוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב, כְּדֵי לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ, וְלָבוֹא לִידֵי שִׂמְחָה כַּנַּ”ל,


And so, too, a person must find in himself, for it is known that a person must be very careful to be joyous always, and to be very far away from depression (as we have explained several times). And even when a person begins to look at themselves and sees that there is no good at all, and he is full of sins, and the Other Side wishes to make him fall because of that into depression and melancholy, God forbid, even so, it is forbidden to fall because of this. Rather a person must seek and find within himself some bit of good. For how is it possible that he did not, in all his days, do some mitzvah or good thing. And even when he starts to look at that good thing, he sees that it is full of flaws, and there is no respite. Meaning, he sees that even in that mitzvah or holy thing that he merited to do, it is also full of ulterior motives and strange thoughts and many flaws. Despite this, how is it possible that there wouldn’t be, within that mitzvah or holy thing some bit of good. For anyway, however it may be, anyway there was some good point in that mitzvah or good thing that he did. For a person must search and seek and find in himself some bit of good, to give himself life, in order to come to joy. 

So, it was essential that the Israelites be worthy of being redeemed from Egypt. Here’s Rashi on Shemot 12:6:

(ו) והיה לכם למשמרת - זה לשון בקור שטעון בקור ממום ארבעה ימים קודם שחיטה ומפני מה הקדים לקיחתו לשחיטתו ארבעה ימים מה שלא צוה כן בפסח דורות הי' ר' מתיא בן חרש אומר הרי הוא אומר (יחזקאל טז) ואעבור עליך ואראך והנה עתך עת דודים הגיעה שבועה שנשבעתי לאברהם שאגאל את בניו ולא היו בידם מצות להתעסק בהם כדי שיגאלו שנא' (שם) ואת ערום ועריה ונתן להם שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה שמלו באותו הלילה


And it shall be for you a safekeeping - this is a language of checking, that the sheep would require checking for flaws for four days before it would be slaughtered. And why did the taking of the sheep precede its slaughter by four days, that which was not commanded for the Pesach offering of future generations? R’ Matia b. Cheresh says: “It is written (Yechezkiel 16) ‘I have passed by you, and I have seen you, and behold your time is a time of companionship’ - the promise that I promised to Avraham that I would redeem his children has come about, and they had no mitzvot in hand with which to involve themselves such that they would be redeemed, as is written, ‘and you are naked’,’ and He gave them two mitzvot - the blood of Pesach and the blood of milah, for they were circumcised that night. 

In this reading, God gave them mitzvot, so they could be happy, so they could feel worthy of being redeemed. But does that work? If you do one good thing, but the rest of you is still so identified with all the lousy things you’ve done? Would you feel redeemable?

That would be the trick. Your ability to identify with that little bit of good would be your ticket to redemption.

Consider this Midrash:

 וחמשים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמשה ויש אומרים אחד מחמשים ויש אומרים אחד מחמש מאות 

And the Jewish people went up from Egypt chamushim - one in five; and some say, one in fifty; and some say, one in five hundred

The simple meaning of the Midrash discusses how many of the Jews left Egypt. The deeper level of the Midrash, as explained by Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman (among others?) is ‘how much of each Jew left Egypt?’ 

Said another way, how representative of me or you would that good point have to be in order for us to feel redeemable? The first answer is one in five - it would have to seem like that was a decent amount of who we are. The second answer - one in fifty. Even less. The third answer - one in five hundred. Even if most of me feels so far from that point, it is still enough. It is still in me, and certainly that part of me could be nurtured and grown. 

So I’m looking at it in reverse: let me find all the subtlest, tiniest bits of good in myself and others, even if it don’t feel representative of who we are at present, and let me consider those worthy of redeeming, too. And in order to do that, we’ve got to not say tahanun for a month, so we can give ourselves maximum permission to find all the goodness inside of us and inside of others, so it can all be redeemed, expanded, expanded upon, grown, and given the chance to have maximum impact.

Avoiding Chaos - Mishkan Part 2

As I wrote in a previous piece, I believe that the Mishkan represents a constantly deconstructed and reconstructed story, approach, framing of a situation, or narrative about one's life. It is an apt metaphor for the way in which a person's life can coalesce around a particular theme, or issue, or relationship, or trait, or heuristic, for a certain period of time, and then at some point (often unexpectedly) that theme, or issue, or relationship or trait no longer sufficiently frames or explains that person's life. It is, all of a sudden, a story built of empty words. At such a time, a person could continue to insist that that theme, or issue, or relationship continues to explain what's going on, and that person could double down and try to force it to retain its relevance. This can be compared to someone who insists on worshiping Hashem in the place where the Mishkan used to be, though it has since moved on.

Instead of fixating, there is a skill in learning how to allow that story to unravel, to lose its cohesion, for the sake of a greater cohesion.

But that period in-between, before the next story takes hold, is risky – so risky that, for some people, the possibility of rebirth, rejuvenation, reinvigoration, a new and inspired sense of direction, an updated sense of self, etc. are simply not worth the risk. Outside of the old story is chaotic and unknown, and therefore order is worth clinging to, regardless of how stale or self-defeating it might be.

So, to truly open up into a new story is first to open up into chaos and the unknown. Though we will discuss later how we can preemptively scaffold an experience with a story in order to give it form and direction, that is but one among several approaches to this process. What I want to discuss here is the high-level skill of joyfully and courageously engaging with the chaos/unknown with the intention of allowing an unanticipated new story to emerge and take hold.

Shaul's story stands as a fantastic example of the lack of this ability. From the end of the story, we know the beginning – Shaul was unable or unwilling to stand his ground in the face of the desires of his people. Certainly that character flaw existed from the beginning, and we see intimations of that throughout the story (Shmuel 1 10:27; 13:11; 14:45, etc.) We can easily say, looking back, that Shaul was probably operating within the story of “I have to be kingly the way the people want me to be kingly” and he should have been working within the story of “I have to be kingly the way God wants me to be kingly.” If only he'd known that, he could have engaged with the very scary, chaotic question of how to be king like God wants.


Well, actually he did know. Shmuel told him, way back at the beginning. In Shmuel 1 13:14, after Shaul caved to the needs of the people and prematurely brought an offering that Shmuel had told him to wait on, Shmuel then tells him:

וְעַתָּה מַמְלַכְתְּךָ לֹא תָקוּם בִּקֵּשׁ יְדֹוָד לוֹ אִישׁ כִּלְבָבוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ יְדֹוָד לְנָגִיד עַל עַמּוֹ כִּי לֹא שָׁמַרְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְדֹוָד:

And now, your kingship will not last. God has sought a man after His own heart, and God has commanded him as a leader of His people, for you have not kept what God commanded you.

Like Shaul, we are rarely without clues. Looking back, we can see that we've fixated on certain stories the whole time, and herculean efforts to get our attention to some other story we should be focusing on, some other way of looking at things, we have simply plowed ahead, and ignored those clues.

And of course we ignore them! It is dangerous not to! After all, we may ask ourselves “Who would I be if I wasn't playing x part in y story!” And the answer to that question is just too scary.

So, we harp: “I haven't gotten married yet because I just haven't met enough people” instead of “I haven't really figured out what I'm looking for in a partner yet, and I am sure that is coming through when I go out with people.” “This job isn't working out because I'm not good enough at it,” instead of “I have to stop being afraid of looking for a new job.”

We, of course, are afforded the choice of remaining fixed on those stories. My suggestion is that no such choice was afforded with the Mishkan. Its constant deconstruction and reconstruction of the Mishkan brought with it an automatic collapse of whatever story we had going on at the time, whatever way we had of explaining what was happening to us and why, or what its all about. All of that would be taken apart as the Mishkan was taken apart, and then we'd be in that liminal space between stories until the cloud stopped and started to slowly build the new story again.



The story of the Mishkan - Mishkan Part 1

I have written in the past about Shaul and his stories. Shaul is somehow so convinced that he has fulfilled Gd's command concerning the annihilation of Amalek that he simply refuses to compute the reality that he has not.

(יג) וַיָּבֹא שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל שָׁאוּל וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ שָׁאוּל בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה לַידֹוָד הֲקִימֹתִי אֶת דְּבַר יְדֹוָד: (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל וּמֶה קוֹל הַצֹּאן הַזֶּה בְּאָזְנָי וְקוֹל הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ:

And Shmuel came to Shaul and Shaul said to him: “Blessed are you to God! I have fulfilled the word of God!” And Shmuel said to him, “And what is that sound of sheep that is in my ears? And that sound of cattle that I hear?”


(יח) וַיִּשְׁלָחֲךָ יְדֹוָד בְּדָרֶךְ וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ וְהַחֲרַמְתָּה אֶת הַחַטָּאִים אֶת עֲמָלֵק וְנִלְחַמְתָּ בוֹ עַד כַּלּוֹתָם אֹתָם: (יט) וְלָמָּה לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְדֹוָד וַתַּעַט אֶל הַשָּׁלָל וַתַּעַשׂ הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְדֹוָד: (כ) וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל שְׁמוּאֵל אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתִּי בְּקוֹל יְדֹוָד וָאֵלֵךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחַנִי יְדֹוָד וָאָבִיא אֶת אֲגַג מֶלֶךְ עֲמָלֵק וְאֶת עֲמָלֵק הֶחֱרַמְתִּי:

And God sent you on the way and He said to you, 'And you shall destroy those sinners, Amalek, and you shall battle with him until they are utterly decimated.' And why did you not listen to the voice of God, and you inclined toward the spoils, and did evil in the eyes of God?” And Shaul said to Shmuel, “I have in fact listened to the voice of God, and I walked in the way that God sent me, and I have brought Agag the King of Amalek, and I have vanquished Amalek.”

I wouldn't say that Shaul is an anomaly here. I think that we all get caught up in the stories we tell about our lives. The diffrence would be whether we can let go of those stories when they prove to be false, or incomplete, or inadequate. At such times, we should let the old story fall away to whatever extent possible, and then reconstruct a better story that holds more truth, promises more connection, gives us the greatest amount of impetus and room to grow, etc.

I equate the deconstruction and reconstrution of a story with the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Mishkan in the wilderness. When the Mishkan was in its state of construction, the people could engage in worship and sacrifice. The relationship to the Divine became localized and, to an extent, concretized. Based upon ideas we will explore later, each location in which the Mishkan was reconstructed was a place in which the people – as a whole, or as individuals, or both – had to navigate through some issue. In that sense, God, as the backdrop of that work, was accessed and accessible in a specific way. When the Mishkan was in its state of deconstruction, that accessibility and localization and specificity was elusive. At such times, one might have been expected to digest the inspiration and information of the last iteration, free it of its specific trappings, and consider its wider implications. It would have to become more conceptual or abstract in order to be useful in another iterations

Maybe it ended when it got too literal, when people felt they had control of the narrative. The infinite had become finite. The story-within-a-story had become the entirety. There was no more meta. Everything was immanent. Perhaps there is some correlation between when that happened and when the cloud lifted, the Mishkan was dissembled, the story was deconstructed, and the process would begin again, informed by the last iteration but not defined by it.

Shaul got stuck in his story. There was no other iteration, no next chapter in his life. No teshuva, no reflection. It is not surprising that he spend so much of the remainder of his life trying to eliminate David, as if David was to blame for the breakdown of his process of growth. 

Creating maximaly jarring prayer encounters

I am surprised (and not surprised) that we do not see more people in our houses of prayer standing and trembling, having taken three steps back to begin the silent prayer and then suddenly gripped with seizures of realization that they are about to speak before the Holy One, Blessed is He, face to face, that they are about to take one step into the holy city, another into the palace, and another in the throne room itself, that they are about to expose their thoughts and hopes and dreams (and flaws and errors) to the One Who knows, to the All-Capable. Would you not be hesitant, if not completely paralyzed??

And yet, this is the trade-off of expecting and formulating regular, everyday prayer. Perhaps it could not have been expected that most people would be able to engage with regular prayer and maintain that level of intensity and awareness. It is inherently and deeply disruptive. It throws every aspect of ourselves and the lives we live into question. The rhythm of a life that engages seriously with regular prayer is one in which the veil between us and our God is repeatedly - endlessly - torn aside and restored, torn aside and restored. How is one to manage? How can we ramp up sufficiently to acknowledge and engage with the greatest level of intensity that we can manage, and then ramp down enough to engage with the world we live in without being overly distracted, or even disillusioned?

In this piece, we will deal with the question of ramping up - specifically how, within the amidah itself, we can bring ourselves to the fullest possible realization of the magnitude of the moment as early as possible within the amidah, so that most if not all of our encounter with the Divine will be dynamic, intense, real, impacting, personal, inspiring, challenging, and honest.


The beauty and smoothness of the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Ya’akov” threatens to hide the utterly frightening truth that hides underneath. This is a blunt statement of Who it is we are talking to, and the God to Whom we are talking could possibly be considered to be nice and kind, but there is just so much more, and once we start to engage with more layers of the reality of God, the experience of encounter can be deeply unsettling - not to mention inspiring, encouraging, and invigorating. When we are able to focus on these words and their implications, we broaden our thinking beyond the illusion of a small God to whom we offer much flattery and little of ourselves. For that paltry deity we substitute the God Who surrounds us, calls us forth into being, inspires us, challenges us, accompanies us, cares for us.

Each component of the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Ya’akov” can re-alert us to those other layers.

אלהי יעקב כו'. לשון אלהים הוא כולל כל כחות אלהים ובכל א' מאבות היה בו כח אלהי מיוחד

“The God of Ya’akov” - the word ‘Elo-kim’ includes all the Divine capacities, and within each of the Patriarchs there was a unique Divine power



So, Who is the God of Avraham? 

Avraham’s first encounter with this God (Bereishit 12:1) is a challenge to embark on a great adventure. It is a call away from home and its comforts toward a future that is unknown, but also saturated with potential. 

When I invoke the God of Avraham, I am invoking the God Who calls me to adventure as well, Who calls me away from the comfortable life I think I want toward the potentials I might not otherwise engage with.

Avraham continues to encounter this God, albeit unpredictably - communications arrive and then disappear like fireflies. This is not a God Who provides the regular and predicable support of an ongoing instructional narrative. Rather, there are moments of clarity surrounded by periods of uncertainty. “Am I still going the right way?”

The next time Avraham encounters this God (12:7) there is a promise - “I will give this land to your children.” That is certainly enough to keep Avraham going. He builds an altar. 

Then, brutal silence amidst a famine (12:10). What is Avraham to do? If he gets guidance from that God, we don’t know about it. He makes a decision. Maybe it is a good one. Maybe it is not. He has to live with it and deal with the consequences. Is that God still with him?

He goes down to Egypt, and Sarah his wife is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Maybe it was the wrong choice. And yet, “God struck Pharaoh with great plagues, and also his house, on account of Sarai, the wife of Avram” (12:17). Even if it was a bad choice, God is there to support him and ensure that matters don’t spin out of control. 

Soon thereafter, another difficult decision: Avram’s nephew, Lot, is mishandling his now-abundant possessions, and it is not going well. Avram decides to split from him. Did he make the right choice? Is he still in God’s favor? “God said to Avram, after Lot had split from him, ‘Lift up your eyes and see from the place where you stand, north, south, east, and west. The land that you see, I will give it to you and your children, forever. I will make your seed like the dust of the earth such that, even if a person could count the dust of the earth, then he could your children. Get up, walk the length and width of the land, for I have given it to you.”

The God of Avraham is a God who makes promises that seem like they could never come true. Since at that point Avraham was childless and old, it must have seemed impossible that he would have any children, let alone more than the dust of the earth.

And then, as God is again silent, Avram is called upon to fight a war, offering no specific guidance. Avram does what he must, according to his values and instincts. His values include loyalty to his nephew, as well as an unwillingness to profit from the war. Only when the war is over does God appear to him again. Rashi (15:1) says God wanted to reassure him that he had not exhausted his merits in that war. God assures him that his future reward - children, the land - stands. Avram has doubts - he has no children, only his trusted servant. God assures him again that he will have children from his own loins. Taking him outside (Rashi indicates that he took him outside of his astrology, as Avram pointed to the constellations and insisted that they indicated he would not have any children) God tells him that his children would be more numerous than the stars. Avram believes him, but still harbors doubts - “How do I know that I will inherit it?” (Many wonder at his question - after all, he believed God just two verses ago! Some propose that he wondered how his children would merit to keep the land of Israel and to remain in God’s good graces, even if they are in exile.)  God has Avram make certain sacrifices and then casts a deep sleep upon him. He informs Avram that his children will be slaves, and will then go free and inherit the land. 

In chapter 17, Avram is told by God to circumcise himself. God says, “Walk before me, and be tamim!” This is understand as the ability to walk before Hashem, unlike Noach, who walked with Hashem (see Rashi on Gen. 6:9). Avraham (with his new name) is expected to be able to navigate the spaces in which God has not made clear to him what to do. 

Soon thereafter, the command of the Akeidah. This God continues to challenge, again forcing Avraham to abandon everything he knows and expects and to follow after this God. 

Clues about the God of Avraham continue in this way until the end: moments of clarity, sparse instructions about how to be, and promises of a fulfilling future interspersed within long bouts of silence in which Avraham must find his own way. 

And this is the God we pray to when we pray to the God of Avraham: God Who calls us toward our future and the adventures that will inevitably ensue, Who gives us guidance and also requires us to figure things out on our own (and increasingly trusts us to do so), Who binds us in covenant and demands everything of us, and also promises to give us everything in return, Who asks the impossible and then shows that it is possible.


Who is the God of Yitzhak?

Yitzhak’s relationship with God begins when he is bound to the altar by his father. He is subject to a command that was not given to him, that he cannot understand. In important ways, he is a function of someone else’s destiny and someone else’s story. 

His task, it seems, is opposite of his father’s: do not go forth, do not embark on adventure, do not go seeking your destiny. Rather, all of that is already in motion. Allow it to happen to you. The people around you - your father, your father’s servant, your wife, your sons - will be the ones who play an active role in the fulfillment of your destiny. 

The God of Yitzhak also speaks to him infrequently (this is a theme - the God to Whom we pray does not often communicate). The first time (26:2) is to tell him not to go the wrong way - “Do not go down to Egypt. Dwell in the land that I have indicated to you. Live in this land, and I will be with you and bless you, for I have given these lands to you and your children, and I will fulfill My promise that I made to Avraham your father. And I will increase your seed like the stars of the sky, and I will give your offspring these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring, because Avraham listened to my voice and kept my commandments and laws and Torahs…”

The God of Yitzhak indeed blesses Yitzhak - his wealth increases beyond the measure of his actions. His servants find abundant water. Yitzhak has the power of blessing. And, he is blind. His ability to give blessing depends upon the positioning of the person or people who seek to receive it. There is a gap between what happens through Yitzhak and what Yitzhak chooses to do. 

Who is the God of Yitzhak? The God of Yitzhak requires very little input from us, once we are bound to Him. The God of Yitzhak puts all things in motion and ensures that we are moving forward. We have very little to contribute.

So, when we pray to God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, we are praying to God Who, on one hand, requires great effort from us, Who tests us, Who requires that we make decisions in hard circumstances and take risks and believe and commit, and on the other hand requires almost nothing of us, Who cares for us and ensures our growth and success even when we are powerless to accomplish such things on our own.


Who is the God of Ya’akov?

The God of Ya’akov first speaks to him from the top of a ladder, in a dream. This is indeed the God of his father and grandfather, and he will indeed inherit this land. The people of the world will indeed be blessed by his children, and he will indeed be protected. But there are some words that imply contingency - “I will not abandon you until I have fulfilled what I have spoken to you.” Ya’akov responds in kind: “If God is with me… and protects me… then Hashem will be my God.”

God’s subsequent protection does not shield Ya’akov from the challenges he faces - in the house of Lavan, with the rape of DInah, with the acrimony among his sons, the sale of Yoseph. His life seems harder even than Avraham’s. And yet, Ya’akov does tell Lavan, “These twenty years, I served you in your home, fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you switched by wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzhak hadn’t been inclined toward me, you would have sent me forth empty-handed.” Ya’akov feels that God is, in fact, with him. 

Ya’akov’s life is marked by hardship after hardship, like his grandfather’s. But he is shown that those are not separate from his relationship to God. “God said to him, ‘Your name Ya’akov - your name shall no longer be called Ya’akov, but rather Yisrael shall be your name.’ And He called him Yisrael.” And we know from the account of his wrestling with the angel that Yisrael implies that “you have striven with God and men, and you have proven capable.” 

Ya’akov’s God sounds like Avraham’s God: challenge after challenge, marked by sparse communication. What is the difference between them? The Gemarra Pesachim 88a writes:

אמר רבי אלעזר מאי דכתיב והלכו עמים רבים ואמרו לכו ונעלה אל הר ה' אל בית אלהי יעקב וגו' אלהי יעקב ולא אלהי אברהם ויצחק אלא לא כאברהם שכתוב בו הר שנאמר אשר יאמר היום בהר ה' יראה ולא כיצחק שכתוב בו שדה שנאמר ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה אלא כיעקב שקראו בית שנאמר ויקרא את שם המקום ההוא בית אל

Rabbi Elazar said, what does the verse mean that says ‘And the many nations will go and say, “Let us walk and go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Ya’akov”’? The God of Ya’akov and not the God of Avraham and Yitzhak? Specifically not like Avraham about whom the word ‘mountain’ is used, as is written, ‘as people will not say, God is seen on the mountain,’ and not like Yitzhak, for by Yitzhak the word ‘field’ is used, as is written, ‘and Yitzhak went out to converse in the field,’ but rather like Ya’akov, who called [the place] a house, as is written, ‘and he called the name of that place the House of God.’

The difference between the God of Avraham and the God of Ya’akov is one of accessibility. Despite the lack of communication, Ya’akov concludes that God is near to him, that there is constant relationship. 

So, the element introduces when we invoke the God of Ya’akov is not about the mission or the communication. It is about proximity, closeness, a sense of home, of not being alone in the world. Of being with

So, in conclusion, when we invoke the God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, the God of Ya’akov, we are calling out to the God who calls out to us in adventure, the God who sees when we do not and moves us toward our destiny (whether we know it or not) and the God whom we feel is with us as navigate. 


If I can become conscious of all of those elements of my relationship with the Divine, that would be quite the beginning of a prayer-encounter! If it is in fact meant to be personalized, which I suspect it is, then each of us can inhabit those elements in ways that are maximally impacting and alive for us.

The Rav and Rebbe Nachman on Tefillah

I have always wondered what it was like to pray with Rav Soloveitchik - primarily, and with some degree of confusion - because I have davened in many Modern Orthodox institutions in which the service felt somewhat distant from the cutting edge of encounter that I believe was articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s writings and persona. 

So I found this article about the differences between the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur and the Rav’s own nusach/practice/hashkafa to be quite interesting. 

Let me say here that I am in no way qualified - nor do I at all intend - to address Yaakov Jaffe’s claims about how the Rav prayed, and whether this Siddur is a useful window into what the Rav would want us to know about prayer. Rather, I am accepting the claims of this article wholesale and focusing my attention on what may have been a minor point to the author but is very alive for me as an issue. Jaffe writes: 

R. Soloveitchik helped convey the feeling of surrender towards God and Halakhah precisely through a series of differences between his liturgy and the conventional one, with the differences all pointing in the direction of withdrawal and recoil. The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers. It is an approach to prayer that carries intense caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid. And so, as much as we think about the prayers we do say, we are also constantly reminded of all the prayers we cannot utter. Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy. Or, in the words of the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur (120):

Mortal man, puny and insignificant, must first ask permission before engaging in a dialogue with the Infinite. Man needs a license, a matir…. An acknowledgment of His grandeur—an introduction with serves as the matir, the humble request for license which allows us to proceed to the gates of prayer.


Some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s customs are grounded in a lack of “license” or “right” to pray, unless certain preconditions and introductory prayers have been invoked first.

Some prayers are omitted because they were created in the modern period, and carry the hubris of creativity, unbecoming of the humble, defeated penitent.

Other prayers are omitted because they are too anthropomorphic in nature, or describe the Creator on the same level as human beings and not as significantly greater and beyond.

At other times, prayers must be removed from the Siddur because we cannot offer a prayer at the wrong time in the service, or the wrong day of the week, so we recognize withdrawal by confessing that we cannot offer this particular prayer at this particular time.

We accept defeat by not repeating verses in the service, and not reciting mystical prayers or catechisms. We humbly pray what we can bring ourselves to say, but nothing more. 

What I find particularly intriguing here is, for lack of a better word, the monolithic nature of prayer that is being attributed to the Rav. The way that Jaffe lays it out, the Rav’s approach to prayer was singular and absolute: prayer is a function of surrender, withdrawal, recoil, defeat. “Prayer is rendered with caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid.” “The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers.” “Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy."

Again I write what I am about to write with the caveat that I am not wading into the debate of whether or not this is an accurate appraisal of the Rav’s take on prayer. And I have no doubt that the Rav’s approach is based upon seamless and accurate readings of countless texts, with the Rav’s incredible genius for assembling those texts into a cohesive view. But when I read this article, I think of something Rebbe Nachman wrote:

כִּי יֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַעְלָה וְיֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַטָּה, דְּהַיְנוּ עוֹלָם הָעֶלְיוֹן וְעוֹלָם הַתַּחְתּוֹן, בְּחִינַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַעְלָה, שֶׁאֵינָם יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל בִּידִיעָתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת הַשָֹֹּגָה שֶׁל מָה, בְּחִינַת: 'מֶה חָמִית מַה פִּשְׁפַּשְׁתְּ', בְּחִינַת: אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ וּלְהֶפֶךְ: צָרִיךְ לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַטָּה, שֶׁאַדְּרַבָּא, מְלֹא כָּל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ (יְשַׁעְיָה ו). כִּי יֵשׁ שׁוֹכְנֵי עָפָר, שֶׁהֵם בְּנֵי - אָדָם הַמּוּנָחִים בַּמַּדְרֵגָה הַתַּחְתּוֹנָה, וְנִדְמֶה לָהֶם שֶׁהֵם רְחוֹקִים מְאֹד מִמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרַךְ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְעוֹרְרָם וְלַהֲקִיצָם, בִּבְחִינַת (שָׁם כ"ו): "הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר". וּלְגַלּוֹת לָהֶם שֶׁה' עִמָּם, וְהֵם סְמוּכִים - אֵלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ". וּלְחַזְּקָם וּלְעוֹרְרָם, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ מְיָאֲשִׁין עַצְמָן, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כִּי עֲדַיִן הֵם אֵצֶל הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וּקְרוֹבִים - אֵלָיו, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ”
“For there are those who dwell below, and those who dwell above (darei malah) - meaning, the upper world and the lower world, an aspect of heaven and earth. And the righteous one must show those who dwell above that they know nothing of the knowledge of God, and this is the aspect of ‘what?’, from the concept (in the Tikunei Zohar), ‘What have you actually seen? What have you searched out?’, a function of ‘Where is the place of His Glory?’ And, the opposite: the righteous one needs to show those who dwell below that, the opposite! The world is full of His Glory. For there are those who dwell below, who are people who are situated at the lowest level, and it seems to them that they are very far from Him, may He be blessed, and the righteous one must awaken them and rouse them, in the sense of ‘wake up and shout, you who dwell in the dust,’ and to reveal to them that Hashem is with them, and they are in proximity to Him, because ’the world is full of His Glory,’ and to encourage them and to rouse them, such that they not despair, God forbid, for they are still near God and close to Him, for ‘the world is full of His Glory.’

I do not know if it is fair or reasonable or accurate to map the Rav into Rebbe Nachman’s configuration, but assuming it is OK to do so, the Rav is davening like Rebbe Nachman’s darei malah - one who dwells above. On this map, the one who dwells above moves and grows through realizing that, really, he knows nothing at all. He is, as it were, grasping in the dark for some foothold, some place where he can stand in relation to the Divine.

But for Rebbe Nachman, in this particular framework, there is another position from which to pray - those who feel so far from God that they are in danger of giving up on relationship with Him must be shown that, in fact, they are very close to God. I believe this means that there is no barrier to prayer, no need (or place) for the kind of clamoring in the dark that the Rav describes. 

In this sense, the Rav’s view of prayer addresses only one particular kind of pray-er, and in that sense, as Jaffe correctly, points out, the Koren siddur is really not a Soloveitchik siddur. But what I find useful for my own purposes is the acknowledgment that there are different kinds of pray-ers (and therefore different kinds of siddurim). 

And a question I have - and I surrender, withdraw, and admit defeat when bringing this question to bear on the Rav himself, who seemed to be eternally darei malah on this point - is around how we are different kinds of pray-ers at different times. Sometimes we are darei malah - we are so close that we need to remember how far we are. And sometimes (I imagine this is pretty common for most of us) we are darei mata - dwelling below, lost, out of contact, wondering what it is we are even doing by opening a prayer book because it feels futile, it feels like no one is listening (and, possibly, no one is even praying). At such points, the Rav’s warnings about the true status of “Mortal man, puny and insignificant” are only counterproductive. Rather than engender awe, they engender despair. And, in Rebbe Nachman’s telling, it is actually inaccurate in that it only articulates one approach to prayer. At such times, a different sort of prayer is needed. Maybe the Koren Siddur, if it does not articulate the Rav’s own view, could theoretically be useful at those moments. 

On the point of having access to a varied tool box containing different modes of prayer, I offer this passage from Gemarra Berachot:

מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מאריך יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו כמה ארכן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מאריך יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב ביה את ארבעים היום ואת ארבעים הלילה וגו' שוב מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מקצר יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו כמה קצרן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מקצר יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב אל נא רפא נא לה
“There is a an occurrence when a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayers) before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed at excessive length. Rabbi Eliezer’s students said to him, “Rebbe! What a lengthy pray-er this one is!” He answered them “He is not praying any longer than Moshe our teacher, about whom it is written, ‘For those 40 days and nights…’ Later, there was an occurrence of a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayer before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed very succinctly. His students said to him “What a short pray-er this one is!” He said to them, “No shorter than Moshe our teacher, about whom we are told (that he prayed) ‘Please, God, heal her, please.’”

Innovation - why you may be doing it wrong

Originally published on 2/26/17 

Innovation is a buzz word of late in our community. I keep hearing the argument that innovation is a “prerequisite” for Jewish programming, especially when the end users are the elusive post-college/pre-marriage crowd. But I suspect that the voices clamoring for innovative programs don’t fully understand the nature of this powerful tool, and when to apply it.

A new program or initiative doesn’t need to be edgy – unless it does. And if it does, then a surefire process must be in place whereby the right person is found, the right conversations are convened, the right backing is in place and the right message conveyed. And that’s where innovation comes in. Innovation in how we build and populate our programs is the key to success – how we operate, not just what we offer.

When we bring our demand for innovation to bear on how the essential conversations before, during, and after a specific program take place rather than only or primarily on the program itself, we have already succeeded. Just these kinds of conversations took place in December at the Katz Innovation Summit at Hillel International’s General Assembly.

The talented professionals at Hillel’s Office of Innovation and Penn Hillel used their best thinking to create an environment in which creative thinkers could put their heads together in an innovative way and have the kinds of conversations that bring success.

Just about every minute of the summit was curated, and this alone is innovative. We’ve all sat through so many meetings in which the task was to march through the printed agenda. How much attention is spent creating an environment in which people’s best thinking will emerge? How much focus is there on ensuring that everyone is relaxed and up-to-date enough to truly contribute? These are functions of curation, not agenda. It takes awareness, courage, versatility, good will, patience, creativity and so much more to curate an encounter rather than simply plan a meeting.

Let me provide an example. As soon as the first session began and we were broken up into groups, our first activity was to make a list of everything that holds us back from implementing our best ideas in the workplace – without knowing why we were doing it. Even within the five allotted minutes of that conversation, one could sense a shift from external factors – phones, interruptions, other staff members – to internal ones – fear of failure, limited creativity, exhaustion.

And then, once we had made the list, we were told to set aside everything on that list for the next activity: imagining the Hillel of the future.

Permission to imagine without fear is not always granted in the nonprofit space. And when we are having important conversations, we need to be able to do so without anxiety.

Temporarily free of our obstacles, we did the work of starting to imagine the Hillel of the future. And much of our vision was, in fact, “externally innovative” – funding structures, mobile classrooms, specialized and well-trained professionals, specialized personalized modular programming. But we also realized that we wanted an old sage sitting in one of our rooms, because people in every generation, regardless of how hip they are, want a cup of hot cocoa and someone wise to talk to now and then, and that will never change.

When I hear a program or approach described as “innovative,” I assume that word is shorthand for an event that will inevitably be and feel contrived. But the most innovative programs do not need to be described as innovative, because they simply work. All the innovation happened behind closed doors to get the right people in the field, in the right framework, with the right backing.

Bo - Where are the adults?!

There is an oft-given homily from this week’s Torah reading that goes as follows: Pharaoh is about to relent and let the Israelites leave Egypt to serve God in the wilderness. He calls for Moses and Aaron and asks: “Who, exactly, would be going to serve your God in the wilderness?” Moses answers, “All of us! Our elders and our youth, men and women, sons and daughters.” Pharaoh believes he sees the farce: “You don’t really need all those people to do your worship! Let just the men go! Those are the only people who are needed in order to perform this worship!”

This conversation is often presented as a juxtaposition between the Egyptian form of worship as the domain of just the men, or maybe the priestly class, and the Israelite form of God-service as a family affair, requiring young and old, priests and laymen, etc. And. But. 

This is not untrue: Judaism, practiced properly, is a family affair. Even within those denominations whose public rituals are entirely led by men, public rituals are not nearly the entirety of God-service. There is so much more: there are meals with questions and answers, there are rituals to be performed at home that everyone can participate in, Sukkahs to build, Purim costumes to coordinate, mishloach manot to deliver, etc. etc. 

Yes. And. Is it possible that Judaism, as it is practiced among many, is too focused on children, at the expense of the adults’ experience? And is it possible that the adults are all too happy to focus their families’ religious practice on Tot Shabbats and Purim Carnivals and the like because they never learned/don’t know/forgot how to make religious practice meaningful and fully engaging for themselves? Is it possible that Judaism itself has become childish for so many people because Jewish adults don’t know how to access the tools needed to update their religious orientation (and this is quite an update for some people - kinda like going from DOS to High Sierra)?

It may well be that I am particularly sensitive at this time of year with 40 days to go until Purim, an adult holiday if there ever was one. Yes, Purim features costumes and schpiels and all sorts of functions and activities that may well appeal to the child in all of us. But really it is a vision quest in disguise, and vision quests are hard, and gut-wrenching (often literally), and require courage and vision and leaving, and friends and fire and trust and truth and faith, and maybe it would just be easier to drive the kids to the Purim Carnival, no?

Shemot - Sometimes, text describes reality

Learning Torah can be dangerous to our well-being. It can cause serious damage to our self-esteem. That would happen particularly when we read something that, in a certain way, inspires us, but ultimately leaves us feeling bad about ourselves because we are not on that level.

The truth is that there are a multitude of such gaps in Jewish liturgy, literature, mysticism, etc. When a “technology” (to use R’ Zalman’s word) is presented and no attention is given to explain how that technology is to be used (and the expectations that should go along with it) it can run amok and leave people feeling hurt, empty, and disillusioned.

Prayer is a common locus for such misunderstanding and pain. One might believe that, once he or she has prayed, then results will follow. (The talmud does deal with that by communicating that iyun tefillin - literally, looking deeply into prayer, figuratively “depending upon one’s prayer, that it will be heard” (Rashi) - evokes a reminder of a person’s sin; “heard” here seems to mean “heard, accepted”.) 

The language of prayer can lead one to big questions: If God “heals the sick”, then why isn’t She healing Aunt Gertrude? Did I do something wrong? Did she? If God opens the eyes of the blind, why are there so many blind people? Is God paying attention? 

This can lead down a rabbi-hole of complex questions, and can lead to serious crises of faith. I understand (not well enough, but at least in name) that prayer is not necessarily determinative of reality, and that, just because we pray for something, doesn’t mean it will automatically happen, and there are many factors, etc. etc. But my point is that we are forced into certain apologetics about prayer because the language of the liturgy lends itself to expectations that therefore require disabusing. And those apologetics are sometimes exist on a slippery slope of reasoning that will require further damage control down the line.

For example, one way (and this is not Rebbe Nachman’s way, BTW) is that we say prayer doesn’t really change the world - it changes us. Now, aside from the very obvious critique that this sounds an awful lot like Reconstructionist Judaism (a point I will BH come back to), one of the big questions on this point is, well, if this is supposed to change me, why should I be using words that I either don’t understand or don’t identify with? If these prayers don’t capture my actual concerns, why should I prayer them? And if understanding is not essential in order to transform me, does that mean they are magical?

All that to say, when a text comes along and tells it like it is, it is such a relief. Suddenly, you feel you’re back in the saddle, like the Torah does in fact reflect and describe (and therefore is allowed to proscribe) your relationship to reality. I found such a passage on this week’s parsha in the Torah Sheleimah (I know I’ve already harped on what an essential text this is. But I mean it). The Torah says, “And it was, over those many days, the King of Egypt died, and the children of Israel groaned from their toil, and they cried out, and their crying-out rose up to God because of their toil. And God heard their wailing….” The Midrash (Tanhuma Ha’azinu 4) says, on this verse:

“…to teach you that the Holy One, Blessed is He, Blessed is His Name, - sometimes He is seen, and sometimes He is not seen; sometimes He hears, and sometimes He does not wish to hear; sometimes He answers, and sometimes He does not answer; sometimes He is sought-after (meaning, allows Himself to be found, after searching? ed.), sometimes He is not sought-after; sometimes He is found, sometimes He is not found; sometimes He is close, and sometimes He is not close.”

Thank you! Thank you for stating the clearly! Even if the reasons why God “chooses” to not hear, or not be found, or not be close would remain a complete mystery, I find this infinitely more satisfying than telling me God is always near (Hashem is here! Hashem is there! Hashem is truly everywhere! Up! Up!) and then leaving me to wonder what exactly I am doing wrong such that I cannot find a connection where I am, which, if I had a partner-in-dialogue with whom to figure that out, I’d love to have that conversation! But if it is just me bouncing my questions off of my neuroses, that’s not going to get far enough to be definitive...

(Also, there is some work that has to be done to figure out whether and how this reconciles with Rebbe Nachman LM I:6:3. Another time.)

Vayechi - Royal Dainties!?

My primary concern, as is evidenced by my publishing record to date, is about how people move through experience, continue to grow, and figure out their place, position, options and possibilities in relationship to God, Torah, ideas, themselves, each other, modernity and culture. 

At the same time, I am unaccustomed to actually putting my thoughts to paper in a more serial fashio, with the intend that my 'idea' will be perceived noth through my ability ot articulate it in one fell swoop but rather my ability to express pieces of it over time. So, this is new for me. 

But I suspect it is important - at least for me - to document my forrays into parsha, holidays, and other sundries that catch my eye, and I will begin now, after this brief caveat: as is well-known, one cannot set out to alternadox. As such, I am deeply committed to not distorting my thoughts and wriitngs with the intention of it being alternadox. I'm just gonna do my thing, and what will be will be.

So, Vayechi. I am particularly interested in the blessings that Ya'akov gives to his sons - specifically, the fact that some sons get a long, descriptive blessing, and other sons get, like 5 words. To wit (translations from, which is a kick-ass website that is only gretting better and better. And it is even more kick-ass since they got access to the entire freaking Steinsaltz Talmud in translation):

Yehudah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of peoples be his. He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine; He washes his garment in wine, His robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine; His teeth are whiter than milk.

Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties.

Royal dainties!!? Yehudah is a lion, king of beasts, who dare rouse him. He's got a sceptor and a ruler's staff. He washes his robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine. And Asher makes cookies. What are we supposed to do with that?

And yet, as Rav M.M. Kasher brings in Torah Sheleimah (which is an incredible resource that alerts us to just how varied, deep, and sometimes totally bizarre midrashim can be) Genesis Chapter 49 note 394 from the Tanhuma, "Perhaps you want to infer that one of the brothers was greater than the other [like, maybe you think the one who is compared to a lion is more important than the baker - ed.] we see that it says "He blessed them" - that they were all equal." 

It is tempting not to see them as equal, the lion and the baker. I would think that most people would prefer being a lion to being a baker, but it's just not true. In my decidedly anachronistic view, isn't it quite possible that Asher was going to get some out-sized blessing, like "Asher is the elephant who stomped around a lot and made a lot of noise and was really big," and was in fact quite relieved to get the exact blessing that fit his insides: He was a provider of food and nourishment. He was more than comfortable behind the scenes, cooking. 

The concept is enhanced by another Midrash - this one form Bereishit Rabbah Chapter 97: "Since Ya'akov split the land up for them, and gave Yehudah land that yields barley and gave Naftali a land that yields wheat, still yet they were all included in the blessings, such that they would eat from each other's yield, which is what the Torah means when it says, "Each according to his blessing he blessed them." And in another version of the Midrash, Rebbe Elazar adds, "We learn that they suckled/were nourished from one another."

Lions have to eat, no? And bakers need lions, right? Maybe to protect them, and eat their stuff, and maybe even give them purpose sometimes.

Inasmuch (inasmuch as the word inasmuch is a word worth using forthwith) as this section of the Torah is applicable to you and I and today, I hear this very personally. I may have spent too much of my life thus far trying to be a lion (and failing) while there are some royal dainties that need baking. It is ta'avah, a lust, to want to be big, a leader. Leadership is not accomplished by people trying to be leaders. It is accomplished by people doing their thing, with integrity. I think what's-his-name said something like "did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?" Do we need lead roles? Maybe we just need to try to find our thing and do it up and let the larger picture emerge as holding both of us. And thankfully Ya'akov had that larger vision. Ostensibly, each son-tribe had a place in that vision, and if they each did their thing, as well as provided access to each other to be nourished by that thing, then they could move forward together. Or, they could resent each other, clamor for leadership roles, ignore their own talents and gifts, etc.

In respectful dialogue with Mordecai Kaplan

I find Kaplan's approach, concerns, questions, demands, empowerments of and respect for the Jewish people to be nothing short of inspiring. In fact, I think that Reconstructionism should be the starting point for non-Orthodox Jews (and some Orthodox one's, too) in their search for an authentic and compelling Jewish life. Here I engage with some of his ideas (mine are the indented bullet points).

These are from an essay entitled “Mordecai Kaplan: His Interpretation of Judaism" by Emanuel S. Goldsmith:

    •    Religion could not exist apart from the total life and culture of a people and that economics, politics, an other environmental influences are crucial in the development and maintenance of a religion

    ◦    I think Kaplan would agree that there is something consistent and unchanging about the religion that manifests in different eras, and that therefore the different manifestations of that religion are cohesive with one another

    •    The challenges of America and the “adventure of freedom” it offered its diverse peoples presented a particularly exciting challenge to Mordecai Kaplan in the development of his interpretation of the Jewish heritage

    ◦    I agree that the American experience has offered a unique opportunity for the development of modern Jewishness. I wonder whether Kaplan would rejoice in the choice many have made to strongly de-prioritize Jewish choices in the face of other choices - not all of them about universal human morality

    •    “The point of departure in religious life is the contemporary scene and present day religious experience rather than the dictates of authority and the religious experience of past generations”

    ◦    This is certainly the lived reality, and therefore the starting point, though there is room to wish it were otherwise. We could have hoped that people would have started with a conception of Eternal Israel and made decisions from that place while also being very alert to and responsive to the “contemporary scene and present day religious experience.” While Kaplan’s thinking here very much applies in the realpolitik sense, we may also mourn the many missteps taken by institutional Judaism over the last 100 years and try to avoid them in future. 

    •    “Religious modernists are eclectic, selecting out of the garnered treasures of their forebears only those which they see as relevant and significant for their community’s life today. Only those aspects of tradition which can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions. For them, it is modernity, despite its flaws and failings, that it is the judge and test of tradition, rather than the reverse.”

    ◦    Again, this is of course true a postiori. But we shouldn’t simply accept that some of those treasures have been and will be abandoned, simply because they have been poorly explained, demonstrated, and/or exemplified. There is still effort to be made to show how other aspects of tradition “can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions.” 

    ◦    I understand that, in the lived reality of today, modernity is the judge of tradition and not the reverse. But this is not something we ought to take sitting down. There is great value in the effort to reclaim those discarded treasures and re-present them a modern idiom and context for further evaluation. 

    •    “Judaism is more than a specific philosophy of life; it is the ongoing life of a people intent upon keeping alive for the highest conceivable purpose, despite changes in a general climate of opinion.”

    ◦    Who can argue with that? 

    •    The main function of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization is “to involve the individual in the social and spiritual heritage of a historic society and to commit him to the transmission of that heritage… It expects its adherents to identify themselves with all the generations of their forebears who created the tradition and lived by it. Self-involvement in the social and spiritual heritage , and commitment to transmit it, are bound to transform the vicarious experience of the reality of God into a personal experience.”

    ◦    Kaplan’s demand that individuals participate in the transmission of heritage is both obvious and harrowing. Clearly people need to be invested and committed in order to transmit anything of substance. But how much space is there for the individual to interpret and personalize Judaism to the point where they feel good about transmitting it? Where is the push-back that tells the person they may well be wrong? This is a dialogue, right? 

    •    “For us Jews, there can be no higher purpose than that of exemplifying the art of so living individually and collectively as to contribute to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress of mankind. The type of religion which we Jews as a people, and which mankind as a whole, urgently needs as a means to survival has to consist, or take the form of, moral responsibility in action. 

    •    The purpose of Jewish existence, for Kaplan, was not that Jews survive as a relic of the past but that they take the old biblical idea of humanity’s being created in the likeness of God and pull it to human life, that they try to make themselves, in A.D. Gordon’s brilliant expansion of a biblical; phrase, “A people in the image of God.” Kaplan always stressed that individuals with a sense of moral responsibility were not enough. If humanity is to survive, the total group must order its life in accord with responsibility.”

    ◦    Yes! And this is such a far cry away from how many Jewish groups are functioning today. i think the idea that what we’re doing here is essentially working for our own, individual “place in the world to come” alleviates us from responsibility as a group to  have and reach collective goals. Individual piety is not irreconcilable with collective insensitivity, and even collective cruelty.

    •    “God is the Power, Force, Process, Dimension, or Energy by means of which people are motivated to exercise their rights, pursue their responsibilities, and strive to be at peace with themselves, with nature, and with other people. 

    ◦    Never say “God is.” What follows is inevitably a diminution. Obviously, if you don’t believe in a God, then go for it. But in my understanding God “is” also the Commander, the Creator, the Challenger, the Consoler, the Other, etc. etc. etc. 

    •    “For a religious tradition to become part of a our personal experience nowadays, it has to possess the authenticity we associate with scientific fact. It has to convey the kind of literal meaning which we can integrate into our normal experience.”

    ◦    I think we have done this far too little, but it is also not the entire story. Yes, we want it to be so real, so obvious, so essential that people immediately identify with and act according to its dictates. But there is another dimension of religious tradition that involves myths and dreaming, stories and messages from another world that surprise us, stir us, and force us to reconfigure ourselves even as we respond. 

    •    “Judaism [is[ not merely a system of religious beliefs and practices, but [is] the sum of all those manifestations of the Jewish people’s will to live creatively.”

    ◦    Is there a limit to this?

    •    “To choose to remain a Jew is a three-dimensional affair. It involves choosing to belong to the Jewish people, to believe in Jewish religion, and to practice the Jewish way of life.”

    ◦    I’d love to know what the distinction is, for Kaplan, between religion and way of life. But, yes. 

    •    “Judaism will henceforth have to be compatible with the inevitable variety of human minds.”

    ◦    Sure, but human minds can change too, no? Isn’t there also a charge that humans open their minds and listen to the ideas of past and present manifestations of Judaism, and evolve accordingly? I fear that Kaplan has too high an esteem for people - he seems to assume that we have all arrived at our current positions on things because we’ve thought them through and are clear, whereas I see that people are often simply lazy, bigoted, small-minded, fearful of not fitting in, etc. And I include myself in that, and I mean it in the nicest way. How are these reconciled? 

Best Practices

Best Practices: I’ve been loving the ‘best practices’ section that is now included in the RCA’s emails. For example, an anonymous (?) member of the RCA posted as follows:

“When I prepare a derasha or a shiur, I often think of four target audience members. remembering that not all of my congregants are married with children, or are male, I think of how my comments and examples will resonate with each of them. For example, I may consider a middle-aged married father, a widow/er, a divorced single-parent mother, and twenty-something single. This helps to sensitize me to how my presentation is being received and helps to diversify my examples and applications.”


What I love about these is that they are almost always in response to something that happened. I imagine that, for the above anonymously submitted best practice, that person got burned because they gave a teaching that assumed everyone was married, or Torah-educated, or gender-binary, or could afford food, or the like. Hopefully someone pushed back, and this teacher realized just how diverse our communities are - and how we create painful in-group out-group dynamics by giving divrei Torah for specific groups of people, who then get to chat loudly about them at kiddush, while people who were excluded are not afforded such a pleasure.

I would assume that many of us have developed our own Best Practices and are not even aware of them. We have simply hacked the situations we are in to the best of our abilities because we have had to, and now here we are. Someone observing might be mystified by what we have set in place, while we are simply satisfied that we are able to continue to accomplish whatever goal it was we set out to accomplish, despite the limitations presented by the world we actually live in, or because of the “bugs” (read: features) of our own personalities. 

So I am sure I have developed my own best practices, but I would be hard-pressed to name them until they come up. If I notice them and I think they are worthwhile, I will be presenting them here. 

Ah! Got one! It’s called “who cares?” It looks something like this: Whenever you read or are exposed to something in Torah or Jewish literature, it is wise to conclude your reading or exposure with the simple phrase, “Who cares?” Meaning, why does this matter? How does this change anything?

I simply do not think that most of us can afford to subject ourselves and others to divrei Torah that are not relevant. Each time an inapplicable homily is delivered, somewhere in the listener/reader’s mind a synapse is created that says, “The Torah is abstract. It is not about real life. It doesn’t address my problems or teach me how to live.” When that synapse is reinforced enough times, that person will come to assume that Torah is something you do for giggles, as an exercise, when you have nothing better to do, but if you need to be exposed to something that will actually change your life, you look elsewhere. 

Pema Chodron is an example that comes up often in our family as someone whose writing is always directly applicable, as opposed to many Torah books we may read, which require one or more additional steps to get to relevance. My wife often asks why Torah books don’t go directly to the question that matters. It seems like we always have to start with a mahloket between Rashi and the Ramban about some minutia in the parsha and maybe at the last stage is something applicable. 

Granted, one of the completely legitimate responses to “who cares?” is “I am glad that the Torah remains cohesive. One could think that there are so many different voices in Torah that at some point it becomes a long series of distinct religious paths, so I am glad to see that many of them dovetail together and represent different options of action or interpretation within a common pool.” I just wouldn’t assume, in light of the anonymous “best practice” I brought above, that everyone also has the same taste for “Torah as Resolution of Itself” as opposed to “Torah as actionable in the life I live.”

So, now that I’ve said all that, who cares??!?? I’d answer that as follows: I want people to always come away from my writings with the perspective that Torah matters, and that it should matter, and if it doesn’t matter, something is wrong. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Knowledge. 


I have to admit I once asked this out loud when I was at someone’s Shabbes table, when someone gave a devar Torah that was somewhat erudite but, it seemed to me, inapplicable to a real-life situation. I remember the giver of the devar Torah being somewhat put off by the question (making him the first and last person I have ever offended). And I also remember that, once we all calmed down and re-holstered our pistols, we had a very interesting conversation about this very topic of Torah mattering, and also that the giver was able to express why that particular devar Torah mattered to him. 

The moral of the story is, don’t be nice all the time. Ask - tactfully - “So, how does this apply to my life?” and see where it goes.

One man gathers what another man spills

I am in the habit of reading one letter from the book “Alim L’terufah” everyday. A short preamble about that:

My friend Rabbi Ariel Burger (who also generously provided these drawings and paintings) introduced me to the practice of ‘mini-sedarim’ - that is, reading some non-zero amount from a particular array of books every day. I wasn’t really paying attention to my friend Rabbi Ariel Burger’s mini-sedarim practice until he started finishing books. And I thought to myself, “I would like to have read some whole books!But I don’t think I have the sitzfleisch to hunker down and read large swaths of such books. Perhaps mini-sedarim is the way for me!!” So I am in the process of carefully choosing which books I’d like to read a bit of every day so that, down the line, I will have read those books. 


I strongly recommend this practice. It could be anything - Tanankh, Psalms, classic texts like Kuzari and Maharal. Chassidic texts like Tanya and Likutei Moharan. Modern English texts like the works of David Hartman, or Heschel, or Mordecai Kaplan. Future texts. 

I have, thus far, chosen three texts: the daily portion of the weekly parsha, Rav Kook’s letters, and Rebbe Natan of Breslov’s letters, as collected in the aforementioned book, “Alim L’terufah.” 

Why letters? At the risk of harping on a point, I see letters as one of the most useful forms for articulating real Torah. Here is a moment in which someone is asked not only what the Torah says, but how it applies in this exact situation. The respondent is pressed to respond to a real person in real time. What emerges is a useful guide for how Jewish ideas are lived in the real world. 


Why Rebbe Natan’s letters? Rebbe Natan stands as a bridge (not the only bridge, but an essential one) between us out here in the grind and the Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. As my friend Rabbi Josh Bolton said, “I sometimes feel like Rebbe Nachman’s Torah is fire and too hot to approach.” It is therefore priceless that his primary student, Rebbe Natan, would convey how this fire-Torah applies to real life, particularly to the life of his son, Rebbe Yitzhak. That said:



Often, in Rebbe Natan’s letters, he claims that he really has nothing to say. For example, in letter 96:

My precious, beloved son. I have no words right now to write anything to you. Also, my mind is not clear. Just the same, I have done as you asked to write, at the very least, a letter of greeting. And I have already written to you, and what can I add, my son?

So, this is going to be a disappointing letter, right? He continues:

May Hashem illuminate your eyes to find true guidance, according to the day and the hour, through which to be encouraged. And the main thing is to make one’s self happy all the time about the greatness of Hashem’s salvation and His astounding wonders, such that we have merited to not be in opposition to such holy books (as Rebbe Nachman’s), which are beyond valuing… and let these matters not ever become old in your eyes. And the truth is, anyone with a Jewish heart and who is looking toward the truth will see that they are in fact new every time, because every day they are made completely new.

Rebbe Natan then goes on to explain the line from the liturgy, “And in His benevolence, He renews every day the works of creation (ma’asei bereishit),” by means of the approach in the Tikkunei Zohar of playing with the different combinations of the letters of bereishit, including “rosh bayit” - literally, head of the house, a reference to the zadik of the generation. Thus, says Rebbe Natan, the work of the rosh bayit is also renewed every day! 

Less interesting to me than this fascinating idea of a work of literature being renewed or reinvigorated (though that is pretty damned interesting) is the reality that Rebbe Natan really thought he had nothing left to say, and then he comes out with this gem.

I wonder, were he to look back on this letter, if he would think that he hadn’t really said much, or if he would think that, at the end of the day, he did offer something new to the conversation. I’d like to assume the former - that he was actually disappointed that he couldn’t offer something worthwhile in this letter.

My interest is how what one person knows so deeply that it is no longer new, or even noticeable, to them, can be entirely mind-blowing and essential to other people. So much of what would be useful Torah is never articulated because the person who holds it isn’t even necessarily aware of it as Torah, so they never bother to say it. It has simply become a part of their “system”. 

I can only speak for myself, but so many of the questions I have revolve around method, approach, system. I am far less interested in a vort - a sort of one-off homily about something or other  - than I am in the articulation of a practice, alongside direct guidance for how that practice works in real time. 

And as such, it becomes a lot more necessary to speak about how we do what we do. An essential example would be to talk about formal prayer - tefillah. I’ll leave that for another time. In the meantime, though, might I suggest that we all be more open to those conversations around how we do what we do, and open up the possibility of speaking about things that seem obvious to us but might be useful guidance for others?



One of my favorite “jokes”: A Jewish guy is driving through downtown, looking for a parking spot. After failing for some time to find one, he says, “OK, God. If you hook me up with a parking spot, I’ll give $50 to charity.” He continues searching, but fails to find a spot. “OK, God, fine. I’ll start keeping Shabbat.” No parking spot. “Ok, fine! If you hook me up with a parking spot I’ll stop eating - - - oh, never mind. There’s one.”


Hopefully you can conjure and articulate a narrative or framework about your life in which things make sense. A framework helps us understand why we are doing something, what we can expect for ourselves, what we can expect the results will be, what challenges are likely to come up, how we might overcome them, etc. A framework lends a sense of order to all the components of a particular set of factors. 

For example, you might hate your job, but you remind yourself that going to work everyday allows you to provide for your family, and that allows you to get over the aggravation of going to work. In this framework, every misery is mitigated by the benefits of your family having food or shelter, or the possibility that your kids will be better educated and more successful than you. 

It gets trickier when we’re talking about religious life and religious acts. Convincing frameworks are harder to come by because it is far more difficult to speak about anticipated results of religious acts. But this difficulty doesn’t make it less necessary - just harder to come by. After all, iff I don’t have a framework in which to understand, say, prayer, then it stops making sense, and then I either stop doing it, stop thinking about it, or stop believing I can actually invest myself in it. And none of those are very satisfying answers. So my framework might not be hermetically sealed, but it’s got to offer me at least some context. 







“If you look carefully at my lips… you'll realize that I'm actually saying something else.”


                                    The Naked Lunch

Enter Purim. On Purim we are acknowledging chaos, and even cultivating it. We are acknowledging that our framework neither frames nor works. The story we’ve been telling ourselves about what is going on is simply not accurate. 

Alas. We are in fact quite capable of building and dwelling in alternate universes. It allows us to ignore the inconvenient truths that threaten to intrude from the edges. We get to block other people’s needs out. We get to pretend we are doing our jobs - like Shaul, who tells Shmuel, “Blessed are you to Hashem! I have done what Hashem told me!” As Shaul continues to delude himself - “I have listened to the voice of Hashem, and I have walked in the way that Hashem sent me!” - as he is declaring his perfect adherence to Hashem’s will, King Agag of Amalek is alive, and Purim is born.

On Purim, if we look carefully, we will see that we are actually living in chaos, that our frameworks are more prophylactic than conduit, that our stories are more delusion than description. Maybe we’ll see that our love is self-love, that our service is self-service.

But this is the day. We scramble the signal and for one holy stretch of time we go out of our minds and perhaps - perhaps! - we can learn about a frame that is not-frame.