U’vayom hashvi’i shavat vayinafash

And on the seventh day [God] paused from labor and [God’s] spirit was restored. (Exodus 33:17)

This famous passage appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many will be familiar with it because it is end of a brief passage that we know as V’shamru, verses that we sing at every Shabbat service that remind us of the central importance of Shabbat to the Jewish People. Just as God rested and was restored on the seventh day, following 6 days of labor, so we are instructed to recuperate every week from our busy lives.

The hoped for result of this weekly respite is the term vayinafash, usually translated as “restored” or “refreshed”. In Hebrew, vayinafash is constructed from the root nefesh, which means “soul”, “spirit”, or “self”. Therefore the most literal, and evocative, translations of vayinafash might be “re-souled”, or “inspired”, or “find yourself”.

Our world, especially right now, is in many ways a frightening, dispiriting and soul-sucking environment. Bombarded with coarse and violent news, absorbed in the trivialities of constant information, fatigued by our efforts to walk upright through our days, we can lose our selves, and be swept off of our foundation. We can forget that life is good and that we can be agents of positivity in our lives. We need a regular reminder that life goes much deeper than the latest news cycle. We need a sanctuary in which we can nurture our tender hearts and spirits. We need a respite during which we can offer one another courage and hope to face the next day. This is the purpose of Shabbat.

One of the key functions of a synagogue, as I see it, is to be a space and a community in which people can restore their spirits, in which we can be “re-souled” on a regular basis. We approach this purpose with many different modalities: song; sacred study; fellowship; laughter; moral inventory; and prayer, to name a few. Last week, at Purim, the modality was laughter. If you attended our purimspiel, you hopefully exited with a lighter spirit and the healing release of laughter. (And a special shout-out to purimspiel author Bennett Neiman, and to our great cast of Purim players!) This Shabbat, with our special guest Rabbi Miriam Margles, we explore prayer as a restorative practice. Rabbi Miriam and I titled this weekend “Going Deep: Tapping the Wellsprings of Love and Courage”. Here’s what I wrote on the flyer:

“Prayer is meant to move us, both in the sense of awakening our insides, and moving us to action. Prayer, when practiced with intention and openness, helps us to act with clarity while maintaining a joyous and calm center. Our world needs our clear, loving and powerful presences, and prayer – both individual and communal – is a practice that nurtures and helps us to manifest our best selves. Prayer takes us inward, where we can tap the unfailing spring of Life Unfolding, and then outward, as that spring flows through us and waters the world with love and righteousness.

Rabbi Miriam is a master of this terrain, and a masterful guide in its subtle pathways. Shabbat is a retreat, a sanctuary in which we can replenish and renew ourselves. This Shabbat, Rabbi Miriam and Rabbi Jonathan, using both traditional prayers and experiential exercises, will help us tap the wellsprings of love and courage so that we can continue to step forward into our troubled world.”

Please join us for Shabbat services tonight at 7:30pm. Gabriel Dresdale will be accompanying us all with his sensitive and beautiful cello playing. A festive and copious Kiddush will follow, as Evan and Neesa Holland celebrate their move to their new home in Woodstock with all of us.

Saturday morning, Rabbi Miriam and I will be leading Shabbat service at 10am. At noon we will all be sharing a potluck lunch. And then from 1:30-4:30 pm Rabbi Miriam and I will be leading a free workshop, “To Be Moved and To Move: An Experiential Workshop on the Power of Prayer”. No preregistration is required – just wear comfortable clothes and bring a willing heart.

We hope that you experience the quality of vayinafash with us this Shabbat, that you find your spirit renewed and your soul restored. And please remember that your presence is also a gift, strengthening and encouraging the rest of us. Let’s go deep together here at the Congregation of the Full Heart, and then face the world together as well, with renewed energy.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

You are likely aware that anti-Semitic incidents are on a dangerous rise around the United States. Most prominently there have been dozens of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, and Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated. I have unfortunately also been receiving reports about anti-Semitic taunts and posters in our own Mid-Hudson Valley region.

While of course very distressing, none of this is surprising to me. Human beings tend to follow the cue of their leaders, and when hateful speech and intolerant behavior is modeled and championed from our national leadership, tacit permission is granted to everyone who is so inclined to exercise their own hateful speech and impulses. Hatred can breed in every human heart, and a healthy society’s role is to marginalize, suppress, and ideally undo that hatred, so that we can have a civil – as in civilized – society. We need look no further back than the Nazi regime to understand the human potential for evil, and the terrifyingly slippery slope that allows the container of civilized behavior to be upended. We also need look no further today than to Syria, where once again human savagery – led by Syria’s dictator Assad – has swept away the human values that uphold civilization. Jewish tradition names this recurrent wave of human depravity “Hamashchit” – “The Destroyer”, and the 11th century sage Rashi points out, “When the Destroyer is let loose in the land, innocent and guilty suffer alike.”

We are living in a dangerous moment.

I think it is important for us Jews to remember that despite our historic role as scapegoat, here in the United States at this moment we are not first in line for the forces of bigotry. Muslims and Hispanics appear to be closest to the crosshairs, and people of darker skin shades in general are the primary focus of bigoted hatred. But we are certainly all in this together, and the truism “What affects one, affects us all” is as true now as it has ever been.

Fortunately, that awareness of our need to look out for one another is being dramatically awakened in response to these developments. Perhaps you followed the heartening response to the desecration of the Chesed Shel Emet Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Two Muslim activists, Linda Sarsour of MPower Change and Celebrate Mercy’s Tarek El-Messidi, immediately launched a crowd-funding response to their Muslim communities in order to raise $20,000 to repair the cemetery. Within hours they had surpassed that goal and raised $100,000!

Then, as my colleague Rabbi Yael Ridberg reports, “less than a week later, when the Mt. Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, Tarek El-Messidi abandoned his travel plans and was one of the first people on the scene, helping to lift toppled stones, and pledging to use funds from the now $130,000 collected, to aid in restoration efforts in Philadelphia, and anywhere else they might be needed.

Many members of the American Muslim community gave of themselves — their money, their verbal condemnation of the attacks, their physical presence to volunteer at the cemeteries and stand together with Jews against such anti-Semitic actions.” Read more of her excellent post here.

Our Muslim allies’ response is precisely what is called for from all of us at this tenuous moment in the United States and around our planet. We can contain and subdue the forces of division and hatred with our determined efforts to remain connected and to offer support across group boundaries. I think that one of the goals of terror is to get folks to shrink back and close ranks with their own kind. I implore us Jews to resist the contracting imperative of fear, and instead to reach out determinedly to the countless people of good will from all corners of humanity who understand that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Dear Friends,

Our tour of Israel, “Meetings with Remarkable People”, has come to an end, and it exceeded all of our expectations. I know I can speak for everyone in our group when I say that we were uplifted and inspired by the passionate, courageous and principled individuals we encountered. We were able to experience an aspect of Israel that does not make the headlines: individuals from all sectors of the society who feel compelled to make a positive impact on the nation in which they live.

At times we traveled far off the beaten tourist path – sometimes literally, as our bus drove on bumpy dirt roads and across railroad tracks. We met a retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice and we met a Beduin woman who has started her own cottage industry. We met a Christian Arab High School principal transforming her impoverished students’ lives and we met a self-described punk rocker and hippie originally from Australia transforming the desert into fertile soil. We met a Palestinian Muslim man who, with his Israeli partner, daily risks his life to bring Palestinian and Israeli teens together, and we met an Israeli Jewish man who is guiding troubled Jewish teens to become proud men. We met a successful jeweler who is training Ethiopian Jews in his trade as his way of giving them an entrée into a stable economic life, and we met a passionate young Israeli woman who works for a solar energy company that is now providing most of the electricity for the city of Eilat, and has much bigger plans for the future.

We met all of these people, and many more. None of these individuals can solve the endemic problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. None of them can single-handedly undo the inequities of their society. None of them has any measurable influence on or significant access to Israel’s current governing coalition or Prime Minister Netanyahu. None of them has the power to stem the terrifying tide of angry nationalism and racism that is sweeping our world, or to hold back global climate change.

Yet none of them are giving up. In fact, what all of these individuals share is a twinkle in their eyes, and a fierce determination and love for what they do and especially for the people they serve. Each one of them has a vision and a purpose for their lives, and was eager to share it with us. Each one has identified what they are passionate about, and is pursuing their goals despite the daunting obstacles. None of these remarkable people is making headlines or rolling in grant money, but every one of them is an agent for positive change.

Perhaps you see where I’m headed with this: our trip not only reminded me that Israel is filled with good people. Our trip reminded me that the entire world is filled with good people. Anywhere you will go, if you know how to look, you will meet countless people who have empowered themselves and are committed to improving their societies. The people we met in Israel are remarkable yet also ordinary people, often very humble, but lit by the inner fire of love and of a sense of purpose, of wanting to be of service. Their sphere of influence is limited: a business, a school, a farm, a small city, a courtroom, a youth group, yet they are not deterred, because they are doing what they love and what they know must be done. They often spoke of their children, and of their desire to hand them a better world.

And so I came back from Israel with the gift of their inspiring examples. I came home encouraged and empowered to keep making a difference in the world within my own sphere, to act locally while I think globally, and I want to share this gift with you as well.

We are living in dark times, but there are good people everywhere. Find them, join hands with them, draw inspiration from one another, do work that you care about, and keep your heart open. That is certainly my goal.

I once again wish to thank our guide Kayla Ship and her organization Keshet Educational Tours for showing us this slice of life in Israel. I can’t wait to return.

If you want to hear more about our trip, you are invited to join me and members of our Israel group on Sunday, March 5, 11am-1pm at our monthly WJC brunch. We will be sharing our reflections and stories from our journey, and look forward to your questions and comments.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

While the snow continues to fall in the Hudson Valley, we have arrived in the very south of Israel, a desert landscape of beige and brown. The climate is cool at night and pleasantly mild during the day, a contrast to the surprisingly biting chill that met us in Jerusalem.

View of Mountains from Kibbutz Ketura

We are staying at Kibbutz Ketura, a kibbutz that was founded in 1973 by a group of idealistic young adults from Young Judaea, an American youth movement sponsored by Hadassah. (I’m sure there are some Young Judaeans out there reading this!) They claimed a completely barren site in the Arava valley - a great example of “the middle of nowhere” – and over the decades built a thriving, progressive community. Ketura is an old-style kibbutz, still maintaining itself as a complete cooperative. Across the road is Kibbutz Lotan, another successful kibbutz founded by American youth from the Reform movement. Immediately beyond Lotan is the border with Jordan – one can walk through the groves of date palms and reach the fence. Fortunately, the peace treaty with Jordan is stable, and the border here for decades has been completely calm. The view is stunning and restorative.

Ketura’s success was by no means guaranteed. The Arava receives almost no rainfall, has no obvious natural resources, and the summer heat is brutal. Through trial and error some of the kibbutzniks created a successful algae factory that is quite profitable. And, of course, they noticed that the area’s greatest resource is continuous and intense sunshine – solar power. Led by Yossi Abramowitz, and battling Bezek, the Israeli electric company that holds a monopoly in Israel, Ketura has created a burgeoning solar energy company, with plans to build enormous fields of photovoltaic panels that will be able harvest enough sunlight to power the entire southern region – including parts of Jordan. They certainly hope to extend their reach to the rest of Israel, planning for a sustainable energy future.

In my eyes, Ketura’s crowning achievement is the Arava Institute (http://arava.org).

In keeping with the kibbutz’s vision to promote pluralism and peaceful cooperation in the region, the Arava Institute trains environmental activists and academics from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and around the world. Their website states, “The Arava Institute is a leading environmental and academic institution in the Middle East, working to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict. Students live, learn and work together at the Institute, study conflict resolution, and celebrate each other’s holidays, in all ways encountering one another intimately. The Institute’s motto is “Nature knows no borders”. I encourage you to peruse their website, and if you are inspired, consider offering your support.

Last night we had the pleasure of participating in a kibbutz-wide Tu B’Shvat Seder in the communal dining room. (Tu B’Shvat actually falls on Shabbat, but the kibbutz was celebrating a day early so as not to conflict with their Shabbat observance. At the WJC, our student rabbi Kami Knapp will be leading our Tu B’Shvat Seder following our Shabbat morning services and lunch!)

Tu B'Shevat at Kibbutz Ketura

Tu B’Shvat falls on the full moon of the month of Shvat, and marks the “New Year for Trees” in Israel. We taste the fruits of Israel, sing songs, and give thanks for the bounty and goodness that the trees provide us. The kibbutz dining hall was packed. We sat near the Kenyan volunteers who are here for a year working on the kibbutz. Children dressed as flowers and butterflies and bees performed a dance, teens taught us rounds and chants, adults spoke meaningful words, we ate delicious fruits and nuts, and our group was blessed with a privileged glimpse into the life of this community.

The most moving moment for me was the prayer for peace. The organizers invited up a representative of every different language spoken on the kibbutz. Each one then recited the prayer in his or her own language: French, Spanish, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, three Kenyan languages whose names I do not know, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew: “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel” – “May the One who makes peace above, make peace among us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.” After each recital we all declared “Amen”.

The members of Kibbutz Ketura are certainly doing all that is within their power to contribute to that vision of a peaceful and sustainable world. May they be blessed in all of their efforts.

Over the past week we met with so many remarkable and inspiring people, and I promise to write more about those meetings in weeks to come. This has been an extraordinary trip. But now as Shabbat approaches I will pause, and send you all my warmest wishes for your wellbeing. I will write again soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!

I am in the midst of an incredibly stimulating and well-planned tour of Israel with a great group of 33 individuals ranging in age from 15 into the 80s. I have been working with Keshet Educational Tours, our tour company, for more than 20 years. Their mission, as indicated by their name, is to educate while we tour, and they just keep getting better and better. Our trip is really a seminar-on-wheels, with fabulous educators teaching us about different aspects of society, history, politics and nature in Israel, alternating with fascinating experiences, sightseeing and large amounts of great food. It is odd to say this, but right now being in Israel actually feels like a break from the turmoil of our own United States.

I only have time to give you a small taste of my experiences thus far, and will write more in the coming week. But let me begin at the beginning. As I emerged from my plane last Sunday at Ben Gurion Airport I scanned all the advertisements – for yogurt, for banking, for cell phones – all in Hebrew. And as always, I marveled that we Jews had, against all odds, reinvented ourselves, rebuilt a long-lost homeland, resurrected our ancient tongue, and here I was again, living a miracle. That sense of awe always overtakes me when I am in Israel, and doesn’t leave me, even as I grapple with the intractable problems and existential questions that accompany life in Israel. During my cab ride from the airport I had what felt like the perfect introduction to my time here (and a chance to practice my Hebrew, as well.) My driver was a sweet young man from Tel Aviv, and after we greeted one another he said to me, “We in Israel are used to living in a balagan (a great Hebrew word which means “a mess”); now the whole world is a balagan – even the United States is a balagan!” I responded, “You’re right, but at least here in Israel this is our balagan!” And so it is, and I still cannot help but embrace it.

Our group convened that evening at our hotel, and in the morning we headed off on our adventures. One high point for me was meeting with David Breakstone. David Breakstone is the brother of our own WJC member Diane Colello. David is also the Vice Chair of the World Zionist Organization, and the founder of Israel’s Theodore Herzl Museum. A passionate educator, David has spent his adult life in Israel promoting Herzl’s original vision of Zionism: a movement not only to create a refuge for World Jewry from anti-Semitism, but also a movement to create a Jewish society that could be a model of equity and social justice for all of its citizens. No one will dispute that Herzl’s utopian dreams are far from being realized, and are even in many aspects receding. Other less generous versions of Zionism battle for preeminence. But thanks to people like David Breakstone, Herzl’s dreams have not died, and the educational center he created stimulates countless Israeli students and teachers to think about the founder of Zionism’s vision, and to consider what kind of nation they themselves might want to work for.

We had the privilege the next day of learning from another amazing educator, Noam Zion, a scholar at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. The late American philosopher David Hartman founded the Hartman Institute in 1976, shortly after he had moved to Israel. Its mission is to reinterpret Jewish teachings for the challenges of modernity, such as religious pluralism, democracy, and especially the unprecedented challenges of a newly powerful Jewish state. How can one apply Jewish ethics to the implementation of state power? Is it even possible for a nation state to behave ethically? The Hartman Institute has become a leading center and influential think tank in Israel for political, educational, military and religious leaders to explore these challenging questions.

Noam Zion was one of the scholars responsible for the creation of the Israel Defense Force’s manual on the ethics of warfare. All IDF officers and soldiers are required to study this curriculum. Professor Zion led us through a lesson that describes the training these soldiers receive. Rather than a simple book of rules, the curriculum teaches soldiers how to pursue ethical decision-making in complex, dangerous and even life-threatening situations. Professor Zion described the substantial effort the IDF has made to train soldiers who will respond ethically in tremendously difficult conditions. He described the extreme challenges of what is known as asymmetrical warfare: a uniformed army confronting a civilian population, among whom are unidentified enemies. I cannot even begin in this brief paragraph to do justice to the nuances of Professors Zion’s teaching. Suffice to say that this was not propaganda – it was mind-expanding education in the best sense, raising for all of us more questions than answers.

Kayla Ship, our terrific Keshet tour guide, told us that when the Keshet staff had a strategic planning meeting, they came up with a tagline for their educational mission: “It’s Complicated”. In all of the meetings we have thus far had, no teacher or presenter has insulted our intelligence. No question has been off limits. I am deeply impressed by the education our lovely group has received thus far, our minds expanding and bending, our assumptions challenged, sometimes painfully, sometimes thrillingly, sometimes both at the same time.

Which brings me back to my own mission statement: if you want to really understand Israel, you must come here, preferably more than once. Panel discussions, op-ed pieces, and “60-Minute” reports are completely unable to bring this place to life, and we ourselves become talking heads as we debate Israel from afar. It may be complicated here, but it is also vibrantly alive, and I am so grateful to be traveling with this wonderful WJC group as we bend our minds and wrap our hearts around this extraordinary land.

More to come next week – until then, Shabbat Shalom and take care of yourselves!


Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I am preparing to lead the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s trip to Israel, “Meetings with Remarkable People.” I fly out this Saturday night, and our group convenes in Jerusalem this coming Sunday evening. We have a full contingent of about 35 people, and I’m sure this will be a deeply meaningful and bonding journey for all of us. Following the tour I will be staying an extra week in Israel to visit with my daughter Timna, who is currently living in Tel Aviv, and to catch up with the rest of my family who live in Israel. I will be back in Woodstock on February 20.

I look forward to writing weekly dispatches to you all about our experiences on the tour. I will be checking my email regularly, so if you need to reach me you will be able to connect with me via email.

All of our services, classes and events will be continuing while I am away, in the able hands of congregation members, our staff and our terrific student rabbi Kami Knapp. At this deeply troubling and unsettled time in the United States I encourage us all to stay connected and close to our synagogue community, so that we can give each other support, perspective, and strength.

I would like to briefly share some words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory, whose writings we studied in our Torah study class this week, and will continue to engage with this Shabbat. We have reached the episode in the story of the Exodus when Moses confronts Pharaoh with the message of YHVH: “Let My people go!” Pharaoh replies, “I do not know this YHVH, and I will not let the people go.”

On January 14, 1963, as the keynote speaker at the first “National Conference on Religion and Race”, held in Chicago, Rabbi Heschel used this reference to open his extraordinary address:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.

Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry. Let us make no compromise with callousness.

Rabbi Heschel than builds an irrefutable case that Judaism, and every true religion, must oppose the Pharaonic view that some humans are more equal than others. Anything less is idolatry:

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

That is, we worship the principle of empathy, the capacity to know another person’s pain, the ability to reach out beyond our own ego and recognize our fundamental parity with every human. As YHVH says to Moses at the burning bush, “I have marked well the plight of My people; I have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I know their pain.” (Ex 3:7)

With prophetic power, Heschel insists that we worship the God of empathy. His words ring as true today as they did in 1963, for they are the truth. We must be resolute, and confront the Pharaohs of our day who treat other humans and the world as a whole only as playthings for personal gratification. Heschel cites the words of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, writing against slavery:

I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard.

Rabbi Heschel’s essay is from his collection The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (1966). As I strive to keep my moral compass steady in these dangerous times, I find my self turning for guidance to Heschel, a Jewish scholar, an activist, a poet, a refugee from the Nazis who became Martin Luther King’s close colleague, and became the leading moral voice of Jewish teachings during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, until his passing in 1972.

When I return from Israel, I will offer a class on Heschel’s writing, so that we can internalize Heschel’s teachings, and bring them into our own lives and actions. His is a Jewish voice that can guide us on the path of righteousness in today’s world.

Until then,

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

In August of 1790, George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island as a good will gesture, Rhode Island having recently ratified the U.S. Constitution after a contentious delay and thus affirmed the authority of President Washington’s national government. During this visit President Washington met with the leaders of Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport.

The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, founded in 1658, was the second Jewish community formed in the Colonies, the first and oldest being Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam (now New York City, of course), founded in 1654. The Touro Synagogue in Newport was constructed in 1763, and is the oldest synagogue in the United States.

The founders of these first Jewish communities in what were to become the United States of America were Sephardic Jews. They were on the run from the Spanish Inquisition, which had chased them all the way to the New World, and they sought refuge from persecution and death. Rhode Island, created on the principle of freedom of religion by Roger Williams, offered that haven. That welcome set the course of the United States as a pioneer and as a beacon of religious tolerance to this day.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the Hebrew Congregation’s leader, presented a public letter of welcome and gratitude on behalf of his community to President Washington. Seixas welcomes the President, thanks the Almighty for Washington’s leadership, and then writes,

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine…

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: — And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island 

Moses Seixas, Warden

August 17th 1790

The next day Washington returned the gesture with a penned response. This letter is credited with enshrining the principles of religious freedom and tolerance that form the DNA of our democracy. The letter reads, in part,


…The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

It is interesting to note that the immortal phrase, “a Government, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” was not Washington’s original coinage, but in fact the words of Moses Seixas! Be that as it may, Washington had the wisdom to repeat that felicitous phrase, and thus it entered the lexicon of the guiding principles of these United States.

It is also important to remember that these enlightened sentiments did not extend to the African Americans who were brought here in chains, or to the Native Americans who were being decimated and displaced by our founding generations. Our national ethos is still crippled by that legacy. Nonetheless, the underlying principle of equality expressed by Seixas and Washington has given us the foundation to continue striving and struggling toward its genuine realization.

I share this piece of Jewish and American history quite intentionally on the day that we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States. Our new President thus far shows little understanding of or respect for the rights of all Americans as defined in our Constitution. He thus far shows no empathy for the plight of the refugee seeking our shores. I want to remind us all that the United States (despite some tragic and heartless lapses) has provided a home for millions of Jewish people, the vast majority of us arriving here as refugees, fleeing persecution from nations that had no laws protecting minorities or ensuring freedom of religious expression. I ask you to slowly reread the exchange of letters above, and reflect on their profound content. These sentiments were shared at a moment when our nation was but a few years old, but they remain astonishingly fresh and relevant. (You can find the full text of both letters here.) I want to remind us that as both Jews and as Americans it is our duty to protect and preserve these freedoms and protections, not merely for ourselves, but for any who are threatened.

And, on the Shabbat when we begin the Book of Exodus, which tell us that “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8), I want to remind us that we cannot take our freedoms for granted. That king fears the Hebrew foreigners, and oppresses and enslaves them, institutionalizing generations of suffering and bondage. I want to remind us that the midwives Shifrah and Puah defy the Pharaoh’s orders and at great risk to themselves ensure that the Hebrew babies survive. I want to remind us that in our tradition, Shifrah and Puah are heroes. As Jews and as Americans, our values are aligned and they are clear: welcome the stranger, protect the powerless, and stand up to potential tyranny and injustice. Let us be attentive, and see what is asked of us in the coming days, months and years.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I am sharing with you the piece I wrote a year ago for the Shabbat preceding our national holiday celebrating the birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This Shabbat we will be including some of his inspiring and powerful teachings in our services, as well as showing the acclaimed documentary “13th”, which teaches about the legacy of racism in the United States with bracing clarity. Dr. King’s memory is a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Martin Luther King Is My Rabbi

Va’yavo Moshe v’Aharon el Par’oh va’yomru eilav, “Ko amar YHVH, Elohei ha’Ivrim: ad matai may’anta lay’anot mipanai? shalach ami vaya’avduni!”

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Source of Life, the God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve the Source of Life!” (Exodus 10:3)

Our Torah tells an ageless and inspiring story. Every year when our cycle of readings brings us to the telling of the Exodus from slavery, I am stirred once again by the central message of our people’s journey: we affirm that there is a Power inherent in the fabric of the universe that insists that human beings be free from subjugation and tyranny. We affirm that there is a moral law imprinted in the “DNA” of human affairs and even in the tapestry of all Creation that insists that all humans bear the imprint of Divinity, and therefore must be treated with dignity and respect. We know that human beings, in our lust for power, can willfully ignore this moral law, harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh. It is our task as human beings not to succumb to our own lust for power and control that would lead us to subjugate others to our will. As Jews we are called upon to serve, bear witness to, and align ourselves with the God of Freedom.

These truths can become buried, however, in the struggle for survival. In the face of all the Pharaohs throughout history that have tried to hurl our babies into the Nile, to this very day, we Jews can close ranks and read the story of the Exodus as merely a promise of our own survival, rather than as the bearer of soaring truths about the human condition. In the rote repetition of the tale, we also run the risk of becoming inured to its deeper message. How do we awaken again to the universal message of our story?

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed me the way. The Africans who were captured from their homes and forced into slavery in the New World were also forced to adopt their masters’ religion. But subversively, as these African slaves listened to their masters’ Bible, they heard their own lives in the story of the slaves in Egypt. The seeds of their own hope and liberation were embedded in the very heart of the teaching that their oppressors had forced upon them. When they sang “When Israel was in Egypt land…Let My people go”, they made the ancient story vibrate with new life and urgency. Dr. King fully understood the inspiring power of the story of the Exodus, and the sustaining hope it gave to African Americans. He embraced the prophetic voice of justice that is the centerpiece of the Hebrew Bible.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, was replete with Biblical references:

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…[And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream…

Dr. King is quoting the Prophet Amos, who spoke these words in the name of God to the community of Israel in the 8thcentury BCE:

I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.

If you offer me your burnt offerings or your grain offerings I will not accept them;

I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings.

Spare me the sound of your hymns and the music of your lutes.

Rather, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!

(Amos 5:21-25)

Then Dr. King quotes the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5):

I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

As Dr. King drew on the Hebrew prophets for his vision, he awakened me to the power and message of my own heritage. And as he invoked the journey of Moses and the Children of Israel toward the Promised Land as the template for his own people’s struggle, I recognized that journey as being our own, in every generation. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, Dr. King etched this indelible image with his final words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I thank Dr. King and all of the African Americans who continue to struggle against the ingrained racism of American history and life. I thank them for inspiring me with their fortitude and continued determination against the external and also the internal, warping effects of oppression, a struggle that I support with all my strength. But I equally thank them for taking my ancient story and reminding me that it speaks to us today, and every day. For this is the plain instruction of the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation every person must view him- or herself as personally leaving slavery in Egypt. And anyone who elaborates upon this story is to be praised!”

I thank Dr. King for bearing witness to the God or Power or Idea that I worship as a Jew and as a human being of conscience:

…there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice, and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice. (The Power of Nonviolence, 1958)

That is why I think of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of my rabbis. May his memory continue to inspire us.

Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’mitzrayim
And Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt (Genesis 42:1)

We lost a sage of our era with Leonard Cohen’s passing last month. His absence prompted me, as it has so many others, to revisit his words and to absorb his unflinching wisdom. Leonard Cohen was a prophet of brokenness, a seeker of the light who did not ignore the inherent frailties and folly of the human condition. In “Anthem” (1992) he sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

In these words Cohen echoes the teachings of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Isaac Luria, a formative giant of Kabbalah who lived and taught in Tzfat in the mountains of the Galilee in the 16th century, explained the brokenness of our world with a compelling origin story that still animates Jewish thinking today. Luria explained that when God attempted to create our world, God poured the infinite Divine light into the vessel of creation. But it was impossible for the finite creation to contain that infinite light. The light caused the vessel of creation to crack. Much of the light escaped and rejoined the Divine source, but much also remained hidden in the shards of our sublime yet broken world.

Luria taught that the human task is to find and recognize the countless sparks of Divine light. Through our attention and devotion to freeing these sparks, we do our part to repair the broken vessel of our world. Luria named this process Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.

So we can see the Kabbalistic background of Leonard Cohen’s verse, but what has this got to do with our Torah portion? As Jacob addresses his sons at the beginning of chapter 42, there is a vast famine underway. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his son Joseph is in Egypt. Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and proposed a plan to store the grain of the plentiful years in preparation for the lean years to come. Joseph is now second-in-command to Pharaoh, disbursing that grain to feed the entire populace. “And Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt.” – “Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’mitzrayim.” Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to procure provisions, thus setting into the motion the drama of their reunion with Joseph.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, known by his pen name “Me’or Eynayim”, “Enlightener of the Eyes”, was a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov and a Chasidic master of the 18th century. Rabbi Menachem Nachum offers a mystical interpretation of this verse. Remember, Jewish spiritual teachers throughout the ages understand Torah primarily a spiritual rather than a physical journey. Rabbi Menachem Nachum notices that shever, which means “grain” or “provisions”, also means “brokenness” or “breakage”. He also notes that Mitzrayim, which means “Egypt”, also means “the narrow place” or “constriction”. Thus he reads the verse “Va’yar Ya’akov ki yesh shever b’mitzrayim” as “And Jacob saw that there was brokenness in the Place of Constriction.” 

On the spiritual journey, Mitzrayim is our physical world: a place of constriction and brokenness, in which the Divine Light is present but hidden. Our task as spiritual beings is to descend from the Promised Land, the place of Divine Oneness, into the world of broken vessels, vessels that were shattered when the light of Oneness overflowed into them. The task of Jacob’s sons – that is, the Children of Israel – is to recognize the sparks of light that are hidden and waiting to be released and uplifted by our searching hearts and our righteous deeds.

Father Jacob sees the light glimmering through the cracks of our shattered world. He sends us down into that world, our beautiful, broken world, to seek that light in all we do and to liberate the sparks and let them fly! Rarely is that a simple or easy task, but who said that a life filled with purpose was supposed to be easy? May we be blessed with each other’s good company as we pursue our holy, human work.

The light is always there, mingled with dark, but we have to know where to look and how to see. Or as Leonard Cohen—Eliezer ben Natan ha’Cohen was his Jewish name—taught us in “Suzanne”:

And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever

His memory is truly a blessing.

Wishing you continuing joy in front of the Chanukah candles, Shabbat Shalom, and may we know where to look among the garbage and the flowers in 2017.


Rabbi Jonathan


On the top of the front page of this past Tuesday’s New York Times print edition, there is a beautiful photo of two women embracing. One of the women is light-skinned and gray haired, the other is dark-skinned, her head covered by a hijab, the traditional covering worn by some Muslim women. These two women were among 500 Muslim and Jewish women who gathered at Drew University for the third annual gathering of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

At this organization’s first annual gathering, 100 women attended. Last year, 200 attended. It will surprise no one that in the wake of our recent presidential election the numbers swelled to 500, with many more interested who did not attend. Driven by fear of our President-elect’s campaign promises to discriminate against Muslims, and by the precipitous rise in anti-Semitic speech on social media and anti-Semitic incidents around the US during Trump’s rise – not to mention the rampant misogyny and racism that have also been unleashed – these Muslim and Jewish women find themselves drawn together by common cause, to mobilize to protect themselves and their families, and to defend the American values that make it possible for us to live together despite our differing backgrounds.

My eyes were drawn to the photograph for a very personal reason: the light-skinned woman with the beautiful gray hair is Barbara Breitman, one of my oldest friends and a precious Jewish colleague. A brilliant psychotherapist and teacher, Barbara directs the Spiritual Direction program and teaches Pastoral Counseling at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, my alma mater. Barbara has influenced a generation of rabbis through her guidance and personal example. I felt such pride seeing her representing my Jewish people and our highest values of love and tolerance as she beams from that photograph with her fellow participant Shabiha Sheikh.

Here at the WJC, we are also taking steps to break down barriers and increase understanding. We are partway through our current course, “In the Tent of Abraham: The Mystical Heart of Islam, Christianity and Judaism”, which I am co-teaching with Rev. Matthew Wright from St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, and with two fabulous teachers of Islam and Sufism, Karuna Foudriat and Rabia Gentile. Having read some books and taken a graduate school course in Islam, I thought I knew something about what it meant to be a Muslim. In fact I know next to nothing. My academic investigation has not even scratched the surface of what a committed Muslim feels about his or her faith, and how that faith feeds their spiritual journey and guides their moral behavior.

I’m learning about why Muslims revere Muhammad as their founder and prophet, and how they try to model their own lives after his example. I’m learning about the spiritual underpinnings of Muslim practice. Karuna and Rabia, our teachers, have no illusions about the way their beloved traditions have been desecrated and hijacked by Salafi and Wahabi Islamists, who practice the fundamentalist and warped version of Islam that destroyed the World Trade Center and terrorizes so much of our world, including of course the Muslim societies that they inhabit. But by observing the fundamentalist and militant versions of Christianity or of Judaism, we see the same capacity to ignore teachings of love and instead elevate teachings of exclusive claims of truth and utter disdain for others. Nonetheless, it remains true that underneath all of that human folly and perversion, the spiritual heart of Islam still beats, inspiring committed Muslims on their path to fuller realization. And that remains true for Judaism and Christianity as well. It is, of course, up to committed practitioners of all three faiths to keep that spiritual heart beating, and to continue to craft the best versions of our traditions that will honor and support the true diversity of the human family in our planetary era. Those versions are embraced by millions, even billions around the world, and I won’t allow the bullies and demagogues of my tradition or any other to tell me different.

I’m learning so much. I feel that because of this course I will be able for the first time to approach a Muslim and have a conversation with them about their practice and their faith. I’m learning about the common practices and related beliefs that link Islam with Judaism, and with Christianity, even as I’m working to understand the origins of the age-old conflict between Islam and Christianity. I already knew about the fertile interchange between Judaism and Islam during the medieval period known as the Golden Age of Islam, but now I can revisit that remarkable era with deeper understanding.

This is so important to me. I am acutely aware of the extreme hatred toward Israel that has been infused in Moslem countries throughout the Middle East. I am not lowering my guard about geopolitical matters. But the United States has always been a laboratory testing the hypothesis that many and differing groups can live together in one society, that we can know each other, share school assemblies together, sit in doctor’s offices together, visit each other’s houses of worship, even marry and make families together. This model makes it possible for American Jews and American Muslims to reach out to one another, and to build bonds of mutual concern, friendship and even love. The United States at its best is an idea and an ideal in action, and at our best we model and export that idea and ideal to the rest of the world: we can share our society. As our new administration prepares to take office, I am not only fearful for the physical safety of minorities in our country, including Jews; I am fearful for the crippling of an idea that is our best hope for humanity on our crowded planet – the idea that we humans can transcend our basest natures and instead nurture our capacity to welcome the stranger into our midst.

In our class session this past Tuesday, WJC members Susan Rosen and Carol Fox Prescott reported to us that they had made the trip to New Jersey and had participated in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom conference. Susan and Carol described the love that was palpable among the women at the gathering. In our Tent of Abraham class, and in everything that we do at the WJC, we are doing our best to extend that feeling of love to our community. I want us to continue to create a sanctuary in which truly everyone can feel welcomed, where we can share our hopes and fears and aspirations with one another, even (especially!) if we do not all agree. May our participation in the Woodstock Jewish Congregation help us transcend our stereotypes about others, nurture our courage, and support us to stand up for that which we hold dear.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

While I was not able to find the time this week to write out my Torah commentary, I’m so pleased that those of you who wish to can listen to it! We have been recording my classes, and they are archived here. You can also listen to audio recordings of the course I am currently leading at the WJC with Christian and Moslem teachers, “In the Tent of Abraham: the Mystical Heart of Islam, Christianity and Judaism”. (Over 60 people are attending this course!) The response to these classes has been fantastic. I myself am learning so much. So, if you have the technology and the inclination, tune in!

I would also like to remind you about the wonderful programs we have planned for this Sunday, when the shul will be bustling. Our Membership Committee is hosting a free brunch Sunday from 11 am–1 pm, at which I will be leading a discussion about the meaning and history of our Hebrew and Jewish names. Hopefully, this will be the first of a series of Sunday brunches with engaging topics of Jewish cultural interest. While the brunch is taking place in the rear of our building, the rest of the place will be filled from 10 am–3 pm with vendors for our Chanukah Market & Bazaar, organized by our Congregational Learning Committee and benefiting our Family School Enrichment Fund.

More to share next week—until then sending you wishes for strength, equanimity and an open heart.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

Just a brief note today to remind you all about the course that I will be co-teaching with inspiring colleagues at the WJC beginning this coming Tuesday, November 15, 1:45–3:45 pm: “In the Tent of Abraham: The Mystical Heart of Islam, Christianity and Judaism”.

It certainly seems to me that we need this kind of dialogue more than ever at this moment and following this week’s election. In the face of the ascendant rhetoric of divisiveness, this course will be one way that we step towards the “other”, by learning together about our traditions, what we share and where we differ.

All the information and a fuller description are on the flyer below, and also on our website. You can register by clicking here, or simply come to the first class on Tuesday. And if you cannot attend, we will be recording the classes and hope to post the audio online.

Also, remember that Shabbat services are a great opportunity to remember that below the stormy surface of our lives, a great ocean of love and wholeness is always present. Shabbat helps us remember, experience and draw equanimity and strength from the living waters of life. You are always welcome. From now until March our Kabbalat Shabbat service begins in Fridays at 6 pm, and our Shabbat morning service is from 10 am–12 pm. Tomorrow after services we are sharing a potluck lunch—bring a dairy/vegetarian dish and join us!

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Dear Members and Friends of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation,

Each of us woke up this morning (if we happened to get some sleep) to the stunning victory of Donald Trump in our presidential election. Knowing you well, I know that for most in our congregation this was a bitter defeat, and for some in our congregation a satisfying victory. We as a community will be best served if we can continue to greet each other warmly and love each other well, no matter what the near future holds. The world will keep wheeling around the sun, and we can still remember to give thanks for each breath, each moment, and each act of kindness, even as we speculate about what is to come, and about what we each might do to make our world a better place.

My colleague Rabbi Paul Kipnes sent out this prayer this morning, and I asked his permission to re-post it here:

“There was that moment at the Red Sea when our people despaired like never before. Looking behind, the people saw an enemy coming for them. Looking ahead, the waters seemed ready to swallow them up.

To stand still was not an option.

We pray,

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו ואמותינו
Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu v'imoteinu,
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers,

When our nation is divided
When our people are afraid
When our children are confused
When we ourselves are unsure about how to move forward.

Grant us,

Like Nachshon, the courage to face our fears and walk forward into the unknown.

Like Miriam, the insight to find the hidden waters in the wilderness to quench our thirst.

Like King Solomon, the wisdom to decide wisely as we face difficult questions in the days and months ahead.

Like the prophet Nathan, the faith to speak truth to power, demanding as he did from King David, truth and justice, compassion and kindness.

And may we lie down in peace and rise up each tomorrow refreshed and renewed, prepared to work toward blessing for all.


If I can be of support to anyone, please contact me—my door is open, and I am ready with a warm embrace and a sympathetic ear.


Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I have a couple of important reminders to share with you today.

On Saturday evening, November 19 we are honoring Ron Carleton at our annual Keter Shem Tov gala. We have extended our deadline for reservations until next Friday, November 11, so you still have time to reserve your spot. It is a fun and festive evening during which we get to celebrate a treasured member of our community, with good food, friendship, dancing, and an auction as well. I hope many of you will take advantage of this extended deadline and join us on November 19.

“Keter Shem Tov” means “the crown of a good name”. The term comes from Pirkei Avot, a collection of wisdom sayings from our ancient sages:

“Rabbi Shimon said, there are three crowns: the crown of Torah (i.e. scholarship), the crown of priesthood (i.e. religious leadership), and the crown of kingship (political leadership). But the crown of a good name is superior to them all.”

Rabbi Shimon wants us to know that our crowning achievement in life is not an external marker, not the positions of power or authority we have attained. Our greatest achievement is to live with integrity and to build trusting relationships that matter. It is this “social capital”, in the final analysis, that gives our lives meaning and sustenance.

I am so glad that the WJC is conferring this honor on our past president Ron Carleton, a man who has devoted himself and his considerable gifts to the well being of our Jewish community and equally to the larger community in which he and his wonderful family reside. Ron offers his wisdom and his organizational skills selflessly, without seeking personal reward. I find Ron’s integrity to be as near impeccable as anyone I have ever met, and I have learned from him how to navigate by principle and how to always look for the high road. I hope you will join us for our celebration on November 19 as we bestow upon Ron this well-deserved honor.

This coming Tuesday, November 8 is Election Day (finally!) If there is anything close to a sacred duty – a mitzvah - in our American democracy, it is fulfilling the responsibility, right and privilege to cast a ballot and elect our leaders. I encourage each of you to fulfill this American mitzvah and be certain to vote and to encourage others to vote as well. Our democratic experiment, founded on the radical concept that a government can only be rightfully chosen by its citizen constituents, is messy to be sure, and troubled and compromised, as we are all aware. But it is based on an exalted idea, that all human beings are created equal, and this is a notion to be cherished and upheld.

So I wish to suggest that as we prepare to vote (or even if we have already voted in early balloting), each of us take a moment to offer a prayer of gratitude that we live in a nation that empowers its citizens to have a voice (still a rarity in much of the world.) May each of us use that voice to advance the principles we hold most dear, realistic about the limits of our influence, yet in the spirit of the greatest good that we can conceive, and may we continue to have faith in our collective future. Amen, and keep breathing, everybody!

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

I am writing on the day after Simchat Torah – a roomful of happy people of all ages danced with the Torah scrolls and each other, lifted up by the joyous music of Berl’s Hotsie Totsie Klezmer Orkester, our “in-house” band that just keeps getting better and better. We unrolled the entire Torah scroll around the room, making a giant circle so that the end touched the beginning, and we listened to the final verses of Deuteronomy and the first verses of Genesis. The kids gave the adults blessings for the coming year and the adults did the same for the kids. Then, of course, we had refreshments!

Simchat Torah culminates the High Holy Day season, a grand finale to this annual opportunity to reconnect with our best selves and aim our hearts and minds toward the new year. And what a High Holy Day season it has been for our wonderful community – and for me personally, I’d like to add. I feel powerfully renewed by my preparations during Elul, my precious time under the tent with all of you, the pleasure and ecstasy of sitting in the Sukkah and reveling in the autumn splendor during last week’s balmy days, and finally saying goodbye to this holy time on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. It all feels of a piece to me in a fuller way than I have ever experienced before. I thank you for any and every part that you shared with me, and for all of your support for our congregation.

And what am I taking with me as I reenter “ordinary” time? A heart filled with love, an open countenance, amazement and gratitude for being alive, an urge to laugh and sing, and a readiness to speak my truth and stand for my convictions, while allowing others to do the same. I am ever clearer that I choose not to walk through this life armored and defended, but rather choose to find my inner strength, my own backbone and the deeper support of Life Unfolding, and take the risk of openness, along with its inestimable rewards. I enter the New Year ready to love – my family, my community, the orphan and the stranger, this moment and this reality – and to love myself, too. As the years go by, nothing else seems to matter nearly as much as loving this life and all that it contains.

So, come on by the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, and this year let’s especially practice love. It will make us stronger and softer at the same time, so that we can meet the world with both courage and joy.


Rabbi Jonathan

Simchat Torah Service

Monday, October 24 (6–8 pm)

Please join us at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation from 6–8pm on Monday evening, October 24 to celebrate Simchat Torah, our joyous time to become "the dancing feet" of the Torah. This is our opportunity to begin to apply the spiritual teachings we learned during the High Holy Days to our lives in the coming year. We will follow our custom of unrolling the entire scroll around the room, linking the end and the beginning. We will have our own Berl’s Hotsie Totsie Donershtik Klezmer Orchestra to help us rejoice, sweets to share and lots of space to dance with the Torah. Rabbi Jonathan has prepared a special evening for us. We invite you all, young and old, to dance with us. Please bring a dessert if you are able.

Aliyot and Blessings

High Holy Days at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation 5777/2016

Dear Friends,

It is our custom at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation to choose themes when we call people up to the Torah, and all who feel moved by that theme are invited to rise. Then, after the reading, a member of the congregation crafts a special blessing, known as a misheberach, and offers it to all who have risen. A number of people asked me to post both the themes and the special blessings, so that they could read and reflect on them further, and I do so here. It is a fairly long document, so please feel free to read only part of it at a time, so that you have time to soak in the blessings of these High Holy Days.

Love, continued joy during this festival of Sukkot, and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan


1. Births and New Beginnings:

Isaac is born. This Aliyah is for those among us who, like Sarah, have experienced a birth or new beginning—perhaps unexpected or even seeming miraculous—and want to acknowledge, give thanks, and receive a blessing.


Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah,

May the one who blessed our ancestors bless you.

May you be blessed.

May you be blessed with joy.

May you be blessed to feel the sun on your face,

May you be blessed to feel the wind in your hair.

May you be blessed to laugh and cry in equal measure.

And may your joy increase:  may you still feel the sun and the wind when the beginning of your endeavor has ended, and the middle has begun.

            Ellen Jahoda

2. Death, Losses, Brokenness:

Hagar and Ishmael are banished. This aliyah is for those among us who have walked this year in darkness and through the valley of the shadow of death, who have felt burdened and shackled by life; for all those whose year was marked by loss, brokenness, or death, and who would like to acknowledge that and receive a blessing for a better year.


Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Yaakov; v’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah: May the Healing One who blessed our ancestors bless you.

In this past year, we have suffered. Our souls have been wrenched apart by loss, by pain, and by ruptures that seem irreparable, and we may have a hard time finding comfort. Our hearts are so heavy we feel they must break. Let them. Let the grief you feel take over your spirit until you have nothing left. Then God can come in.

God enters when we open our eyes and see, really see, where we are and what is before us. Just as Hagar felt the terrible grief of knowing with certainty that Ishmael would die in the desert, only to have God open her eyes to the saving grace of the well, so may we reach the depths of our despair only to have our inner spirit nourished, revitalized, and strengthened.

Though we all bear our separate losses, we grieve in community, saying Kaddish only when there is a minyan. We confess in community, knowing that we are all responsible for becoming better, holier people. We therefore stand here together, now, in community, helping one another to heal and to find solace because we are family. We can walk through this desert together. May this year open our eyes to let us see the well of life-giving waters (mayim chayim) that God shows us, and may we allow ourselves healing, comfort, and ultimately, joy.

V’imru Amen.

            Cynthia Werthamer

3.  77=ע׳׳ז For Strength and Hope in the Coming Year

Some more “sevens”: this new Jewish year is written Tav-Shin-Ayin-Zayin. There are no numerals in traditional Hebrew, so the letters each represent a number. Tav and Shin are 400 and 300 respectively, adding up to 700. Ayin is 70, and Zayin is 7. Thus the letters combine to 777. But Ayin and Zayin, which add up to 77, also spell a word, oz. Oz means “strength”. I would, with your indulgence, like to offer this aliyah to our entire congregation. In this aliyah, Hagar is in despair, certain that she and her boy Ishmael will die of thirst. An angel reaches out to her and tells her to have no fear. And Hagar lifts up her head and looks around, and lo and behold there is a well of water to sustain her and her son. I would like to bless us with strength in the coming weeks and in the coming year: the strength of our convictions; the strength of faith and hope; physical strength and well being; emotional strength; the inner strength that we need to meet each day as it comes, and to face a troubled world. Psalm 27, the traditional psalm for this season, concludes with this exhortation: “Be strong and of good courage, and keep hope alive!”

I would like to invite Noami Halpern up to the bimah—she will offer and teach us a blessing to share for this aliyah. Please rise.


May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, Source of Life, our Rock and our Redeemer.


(These themes were repeated, first on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and then once again on Yom Kippur.)

As the computer program combs the entire Hebrew Bible, out of that search one and only one complete verse emerges whose numerical value is this entire Jewish year: 5,777. It is a haunting verse from the Book of Lamentations, a lament that speaks to the human condition when we feel dislocated, when historical tragedy overtakes us, when insecurity undermines us. The verse is:

Tzod tzaduni ka’tzipor oy-vai chi-nam (Lamentations 3:52)

My enemies have ensnared me like a bird, without cause

What is this verse’s message to us, in the year 5777? In what ways have we become ensnared, without noticing? Certainly one of the great challenges we face at this moment is the sense that events are overtaking us, that we are trapped in a juggernaut of cultural and civic degradation, and of course planetary climate degradation, that leave us feeling bewildered and powerless. I feel this lament, this cri-de-coeur: how did this happen, and what are we to do? Who, or what, are our enemies that trap us and keep us from flying towards our destination? How do we get out of the trap?

The remedies I seek with you today are not external political or social programs. I believe each of you here is a thoughtful person who will decide how you want to contribute to the public discourse. But if we feel trapped, how can we be our most effective selves? So, we are here first to focus on the spiritual, internal work that will give us the grounding, the perspective and the wisdom to avoid feeling victimized by circumstance. We want to know how to walk in this world with grace and power, rather than be buffeted and swept off our center by the torrent of headlines that always threaten to overwhelm.

I look to the Torah for guidance. As is my custom, we searched for other verses in the Torah with numerical value equaling 777, Tav-Shin-Ayin-Zayin, the more conventional way of writing the year in Hebrew. Interestingly, a cluster of phrases all from the Book of Deuteronomy popped onto the screen. I chose three of these phrases that speak to me most deeply about how to free ourselves from feeling trapped and victimized. I felt that the Book of Lamentations and the Book of Deuteronomy are somehow in dialogue, one presenting the ailment, the other offering good medicine for what ails us. Here they are:

1. “V’hayu l’totafot been eynecha” (Deuteronomy 6:8) = 777

     “And they shall be a sign for you between your eyes”

The passage after the Sh’ma, which we know as “V’ahavta”, is from Deuteronomy, chapter 6. We are supposed to place “these words” as a sign upon our arm and as a sign between our eyes—these words being that the Source of Life is ultimately one unity, and that we are to love the Source of Life with all of our heart, soul and might. In time, this instruction becomes fulfilled by the creation of tefillin, the lacquered leather boxes that are worn during prayer. I am certain that it is not accidental that the tefillin traditionally rest on the forehead between the eyes – the place known in other spiritual traditions as the “Third Eye”. Our Third Eye represents our expanded awareness, our mindful presence, the seat of our opened consciousness. In Jewish spiritual discourse, this expanded consciousness is called mohin d’gadlut, literally “large mind”. By attending to this greater sight that we each possess, we learn to not become trapped in the mazes of our repetitive thoughts and emotions.

This aliyah is for all those who wish to practice the remedy of mindful presence in the coming year, freeing ourselves from the trap of unneeded worrying and anxiety, and keeping our eye on the great and wondrous mystery, the fact that we get to be here and participate in this experience called “life”.

Misheberach for Second Day Rosh Hashanah:

Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah

May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all of us.

Dear One,

When forgetfulness

Blinds us

To your presence

May we feel

The touch of your loving hand

Upon our brow,

Opening our sight,

Turning us

            From complaint to gratitude

            From worry to stillness

            From separation to fullness

            From despair to wonder

Help us to return

From our lost wanderings

To finding you,

The one always waiting

With patience and welcome

The one endlessly longing

To greet us again.

We are your miracles.

Your breath is our breath.

Our lives are your gift.

Bless us to dwell in your divine mystery.

And let us say Amen

            Blaze Ardman

Misheberach for Yom Kippur:

Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’LeahMay the One who blessed our ancestors bless you.

At the start of Genesis, amidst his growing rage at his brother Abel, Cain hears God’s voice saying, “Beware, Cain, sin is a crouching demon at the flap of your tent. But you can overrule it.” May you be blessed with the capacity to rise above yourself and hear such a voice of warning when you are captured by anger, jealousy, or any moment of fear or constriction; and may you have the will to heed that warning and overrule your own demons.

May you be blessed like Abraham as he raised his knife against Isaac, to hear a voice say, “Stop. Do no Harm,” even when you are sure you are following a path of right and righteousness.  

May you be blessed like Jacob after wrestling with the angel, who tells his brother Esau, “When I look at you I see God’s face.”

Through this sign, through this knowing with your third eye, may you be blessed with truly seeing that our God, YHVH, is one; one unfolding process that is all that was, is and will be; visible and invisible; transcendent and immanent.

And in that awareness may you be blessed to see that EACH of us, human, animal, plant and rock, all of this physical world are G-d, holy and to be cherished.

And finally, may you be blessed to feel the divine presence of that One unfolding Being, our God, Adonai Eloheinu, with you at all times, offering compassion and support no matter what befalls you.

            Gail Albert

2. “Hatov v’hayashar b’eyney YHVH elohecha” (Deuteronomy 12:28) = 777

    “What is good and upright in the eyes of YHVH your God”

Maintaining our integrity and our moral center will always help us remain upright in the midst of the traps of confusion, attacks and temptation. This is where our true strength lies, a place where we are much less likely to be shaken, a place where our petty thoughts and venality and resentments cannot find purchase, a place of quiet humility but also of power.

This aliyah is for all those who wish to practice the remedy of doing what is good and upright, of doing the right thing because it is the right thing, of being able to look oneself in the mirror and know you have done your very best to be a mensch. Take the high road. It is worth the effort, and the view is way better.

Misheberach for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah:

Mi sheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov

v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah:

May the wisdom of our ancestors fill your heart with compassion for those who stand before you in disagreement and struggle.

May you stand outside of yourself, taking three steps forward to a sacred higher ground of being where you can listen and be heard, beyond right and wrong.

When confronted by confusion, attacks, temptation, and control, may you stand on that higher ground in a field of moral integrity, seeing from that perspective, the impact of your actions.

May you speak your truth with a strong and resilient heart

laced with humility, knowing that the other has his or her truth, and like you, doing the best he or she can. Even though you might not be in agreement, acknowledging what is, asking for forgiveness and forgiving, gives peace of mind.

When you bump up against another, may you remember to take three steps forward onto this higher ground, surrounding yourself and the other with compassion…. for living is often a challenge.

And let us say Amen.

            Laurie Schwartz

Misheberach for Yom Kippur

Mi sheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah, May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all of us,
with the resilience and fortitude that you blessed our ancestors
Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel; with the wisdom and courage, you blessed our teachers; Moshe Rabainu, Miriam ha’naveiya, Dinah the prophetess, the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rav Kook, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi.

May we be blessed with insight, strength and resolve to walk in the essence of our souls seeds of light. Let their subtle seeds of wisdom’s truths infuse our thirsty souls and feed our hungry hearts. For each year at this time,
we are born and reborn again out of infinite divine desire to cloak this world in godly goodness.

May you, o God, of our knowing, hear the truths of our hearts,
may we in your image, in deep reflection, hear the truths of our hearts as we open our lips to you in prayer and contrition.
may the wisdom of your divine knowing, deep listening and understanding, permeate our souls.

May we remember, as we remember our ancestors and teachers
and bathe in their light and the light of our Torah, and know our purpose here in this life. Help us to remember that we are sparks of your light, goodness and infinite wisdom buried deep within us. 
May you ignite and re-ignite the fires of our passionate hearts
to illuminate our sparks, as we strive to be a holy people.

Let the awesome awareness that our being is one with you infuse us with courage and strength, and let this deep knowing define and determine how we walk in the world.

May we re-inform ourselves of these seeds of light within us, as they illuminate the call for equitable justice, and the divine qualities of grace, compassion and wisdom, so to inform our actions as we live our lives.

Bless us all with the critical courage to transform our decisions, speech, directions and actions into the seeds of light that will transform ourselves, and our lives.

Bless us all with the audacity of courage to dare, to sprinkle the seeds of our light, of love, goodness, conviction and compassionate justice,
to repair, rectify and restore your magnificent creation.

Ribono Shel Olam, God of our knowing, bless us all with the deep and constant knowing that these truths of Torah are all within each of us,
always within our mouths and within our hearts and the works of our hands.
and let us say amen.

            Pauline Tamari

3. “Ya’arof ka’matar lik-chi” (Deuteronomy 32:2)

    “May my words fall like gentle rain”

With these words Moses begins his final address to the Children of Israel: “May my words fall like gentle rain, my speech drip gently like the dew, like showers on new growth, like droplets on blades of grass.”

The breakdown of civil discourse and thoughtful speech in our public realm entraps us in pettiness and divisiveness, and undermines the constructive power and purpose of communication. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” (18:21)

This aliyah is for all those who wish to practice thoughtful and constructive speech, no matter what venality you encounter from others. It’s not easy! But let us watch how we speak, so that our words nourish rather than pummel and destroy. This too is powerful medicine for the troubles of our times.

Misheberach for Second Day Rosh Hashanah:

May the one who blessed our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel bless you: you adult learners, who need a good reason to do the right thing; who so want to avoid the strong temptation to deliver that clever slapdown that may be sitting on the tip of your tongue. May you be blessed with prescience to know just how great you will feel having avoided delivering a withering blow. May you be blessed with clarity, kindness and patience to know that when you take the elevated path and avoid the sarcasm or cynicism you elevate us all and give us the encouragement to do the same thing. So when the dialogue gets heated take a deep breathe, hear the inner voice urging you on to goodness and help lay the path for us all to create a new normal: kindness.

And let us say: Amen.

            Laurie Mozian

Misheberach for Yom Kippur:

Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov

V’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah

May the one who blessed our ancestors bless you, who have risen today in honor of this day of Yom Kippur and in honor of Torah with the resolve to refrain from hurting others with your words.

Words have power to help and heal, to enlighten and comfort but also to cause anger and fear, and to damage relationships.

We were just reminded by our Torah that we have choices in life, to choose between life and death, blessing and curse; choosing life-enhancing things, choosing compassion, this is what makes our lives worth living.

When we hear people who should know better use language that demeans, belittles, or bullies others, or worse, when we let ourselves slip into lashon ha-ra, hateful speech, let us remember that, however angry or upset we may be, we are speaking to or about other human beings who are also made in the image of G!d.

Let us remember to separate their hateful speech from their humanity, and may we be blessed to find the right words to convey our meaning with firmness, with kindness, with gentleness.

And let us say: Amen.

            Ellen Triebwasser

Why Do We Read the Story of Jonah on Yom Kippur?

A Yom Kippur Teaching

The Hebrew Bible is an anthology of writings. It not only includes the Five Books of Moses, which are contained in our Torah scroll, but also the many books of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and the collection known as Ketuvim, or Writings. The Writings contain the Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Job, Esther, Ruth, and numerous other titles. Taken together, all the books of the Bible are known as the TaNaKh, an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.

One might have the impression that the Bible is a single narrative and a consistent theological discourse. One would be mistaken! The Tanakh is in fact a marvelously diverse anthology of sacred history, poetry, law, moral instruction, farce, fable, and inquiry into the meaning of life and the nature of the cosmos. The Tanakh explores all of the big questions that we humans face: why are we here? Is there cosmic justice? How are we to fulfill our potential? What is our responsibility to one another? This exploration is not systematic, in the way a modern book of philosophy might undertake. The Tanakh, rather, is in dialogue with itself, one story or discourse actively taking issue with the implications or declarations of another. The Tanakh in fact sets the tone for one of the most grand and enduring quality of Jewish culture: holy argument. That is, Judaism elevates dialogue, passionate debate, to a spiritual path. Where do we find God? Yes, in sunsets, in the miracles of nature, in the ecstasy of prayer… but also in the exchange of ideas. One finds God not at the end of the discussion, but in the very act of searching.

While we traditionally read and study the Five Books of Moses on a weekly basis throughout the year, the later books of the Tanakh do not get weekly attention. Our sages therefore strategically associate many of these books with certain holidays, so that we encounter them at least once during the year. These lesser-read books often offer a counterpoint to the primary narrative of the holiday. The book that the sages assigned to Yom Kippur is the story of Jonah. I would like to explore with you this evening the radical and timeless message of this tale.

One of the names of Yom Kippur is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We traditionally imagine God sitting on the Judgment seat, the damning ledger of our deeds open before him, as we plead for mercy and forgiveness. In this venerable image, the purpose of our fervent prayers and confession, our fasting and self-denial, is to influence God to move from the Judgment Seat to the Mercy Seat, and, undeserving though we are, grant us another year in the Book of Life. But what if it is not God who needs to move from harsh judgment to compassion, but we ourselves? What if it is we ourselves who are stuck on the Judgment seat, and it is God who is pleading with us to have mercy on each other and on creation? This is the surprising message of the Book of Jonah.

I gleaned these insights from Judy Klitsner in her brilliant book “Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other” – thank you, Bob Messing, for introducing me to it – and I am pleased to expand on them here with you tonight.

Klitsner shows how the story of Jonah is an intra-biblical response to the story of Noah – a subversive sequel, as she calls it. Numerous linguistic and literary parallels link the two tales, but the thrust of the Book of Jonah’s message is diametrically opposed to the moral of the Flood story. The rabbis pick up on those distinctions, and on Yom Kippur choose to amplify the message of Jonah, to our great benefit, as I will explain.

In the popular imagination, pretty much the only thing we know about Jonah is that he is the guy who gets swallowed by a whale. When I was a kid, I remember I got him mixed up with Pinocchio, who also gets swallowed by a whale, if you recall. In the actual story of Jonah, the whale episode (and it is in fact a giant fish that swallows Jonah, not a whale) is only a prelude to the real climax of the tale.

The book, which reads as a kind of fable, contains only four short chapters. Jonah ben Amittai is a prophet of God in the land of Israel. The story opens as God calls to him and tells him to travel east to the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Babylonia and the greatest city in the world, and tell them to repent of their evil ways. Instead, Jonah flees in the opposite direction. He runs to Jaffa and boards a ship headed west to Tarshish, far across the Great Sea, the Mediterranean. He falls asleep in the hold of the ship, and a great storm arises. The sailors pray to their gods to no avail. Finally Jonah awakes and, understanding that his flight from God has caused this turbulence, insists that the sailors toss him overboard. The sailors, having exhausted every other option to save their ship, beg for forgiveness and reluctantly toss Jonah overboard. The sea immediately calms, and Jonah is swallowed by the fish.

Chapter 2: Jonah is in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights. He finally prays to God and affirms that he will heed his calling and perform his mission. The fish spews Jonah back onto dry land. Chapter 3: God once again calls to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh, and this time Jonah obeys the call. He reaches Nineveh and proclaims that in 40 days Nineveh will fall if the people do not repent of their evil ways. The people of Nineveh, led by their king, believe the message, actively repent, pray for forgiveness, and change their ways. God renounces the punishment, and Nineveh is saved.

Chapter 4: You might think that Jonah is pleased with this outcome, his mission a complete success, millions of lives saved. But no, Jonah is angry with God. He cannot believe that God is going to forgive these people, who deserved to be punished. God says to Jonah, “Why are you so angry?” Jonah quotes the Thirteen Attributes that we chant during these Holy Days, and retorts, “I knew that you are compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment, and that you would forgive these people. That makes me so angry! That is why I fled your call in the first place. Where is justice? I would rather die.” And God says, “Is anger better for you, Jonah? Why should I not have compassion for Nineveh, that great city, and all of its inhabitants, human and beast, who do not know their right from their left, and are simply doing the best that they can?”

And with that question, the story ends.

Judy Klitsner points out that God’s attitude is markedly different in the earlier story of Noah. In that episode, human society has degenerated and polluted the world with Hamas, which means injustice, violence, or lawlessness. “Vayinachem – and God regretted making human beings…and said ‘I will erase humans from the earth, along with all other creatures that I created.’” (Genesis 6:6-7) But God cannot bear to destroy it all, and singles out Noah as worthy of redemption. God instructs Noah to build the ark.

In Jonah, the King of Nineveh declares, “Let all turn back from the hamas of which they are guilty…God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. Vayinachem – and God regretted the evil God had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:7,8,10)

In both tales, the human condition is the same – we fill the world with hamas. We’re a mess. But God’s regrets change. In Noah, God simply regrets creating humanity, and decides to wipe clean God’s creation. In Jonah, God has come to know and trust humanity’s capacity for change, and regrets God’s own harsh judgment against them. Has God changed and grown?

Another literary clue supports this thesis. In Noah, God brings rains for forty days and forty nights; the people do not have a chance to repent. In Jonah, God tells Jonah to proclaim, “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown!” The forty days of blanket condemnation in Noah become forty days of opportunity in Jonah.

Noah and Jonah also compare. Noah never speaks. He simply accepts God’s decree. He does not attempt to debate with God or challenge God’s judgment. As I have taught in the past, our tradition considers Noah inferior in this regard. When God tells Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues passionately against God’s judgment. Noah is silent, incomplete in his humanity, unable or unwilling to stand up for his fellow humans. Jonah, presented with the opportunity to save others, runs away, and then only begrudgingly fulfills his mission. Both of these prophets are found wanting. But whereas in Noah, God regrets making humanity and asks nothing more of Noah than to follow instructions and build the ark, in Jonah God regrets God’s own harshness, and then tries to educate Jonah to soften himself.

Most interesting to me is Jonah’s name. Jonah in Hebrew is yonah, and means “dove”. The same yonah that Noah sends out from the ark. After the rains have ceased and the waters have begun to recede, that dove returns to Noah with an aleh zayit– a sprig of an olive branch – in its beak. This is the sign that the earth is habitable once more, and that humanity has a second chance. The Book of Jonah – the book of the dove – elevates not the God of strict judgment portrayed at the outset of Noah, but the God of second chances, the olive branch, the symbol of new beginnings. The Book of Jonah portrays a God who believes that humans, despite our weakness, are capable of teshuvah, and deserve the opportunity to attempt sincere change. No wonder our sages chose Jonah to be read on Yom Kippur, the day of second chances.

If God, as it were, can move from harsh judgment to compassion, then can we? Jonah is each of us, sitting on the judgment seat. The Judgment throne is not evil, it is in fact essential to our humanness. A sense of justice, an appreciation for fairness and truth, is an exalted human attribute. But Judaism insists that the world can only be sustained in the tension of polarities. Justice and compassion must exist in a dynamic balance. The rabbis often state that if the world were only based on strict justice, humanity would be condemned. It is compassion that allows us to continue to try to overcome our many flaws. And here, Jonah’s full name becomes very instructive, and a key to understanding his parable. His name is Jonah ben Amittai, Jonah, son of truth. Jonah is a zealot for truth – and the truth that he perceives in human affairs is that we fail miserably to live up to our highest nature. We fail. Why should we not be punished?

Who here has not felt the zealot for truth pacing within, demanding justice, furious for payback? But God says to us, “Jonah, is anger better for you?” Is anger better than compassion? One might say that as the Tanach unfolds, even God has matured, from judgmental of us and disappointed in us, his flawed creation, to compassionate and forgiving. In the Book of Jonah, God wants us to learn that hard-earned lesson, too.

As I mentioned, Yom Kippur’s other name is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. But a better name for this day might be Yom HaDin v’HaRachamim, the Day of Compassionate Judgment. For, while we certainly must be clear-eyed judges of ourselves on this day, honestly acknowledging how we have missed the mark, our tradition invokes a God of forgiveness, who knows our faults, and still believes in us, and in our ability to grow. The future is not determined; it is always open to new possibility, especially if, like the people of Nineveh, we are open to acknowledging our failures and open to making amends, open to the difficult work of changing ourselves.

The choice is before us: will we be zealots like Jonah, angrily demanding judgment, or will we, like God, move from the Judgment seat to the Mercy seat, and let compassion reign? Will we be like the angry prophet Jonah, or can we perhaps be like the Yonah after which he is named, the dove bearing the olive branch in our grasp, carrying a message of hope, peace, second chances and new beginnings for ourselves and the world?

I wish for us all the possibilities of forgiveness and compassion. So may it be.

As a lover of numbers, I am greatly intrigued by this new Jewish year, 5777. We’ll see it only once a millennium, and I think it is worthy of our attention and reflection. For the number seven is the central theme of Judaism, and the organizing principle of our spiritual system. Seven is the number of wholeness, fulfillment, and completeness. On Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, we especially note that the Torah begins with the story of creation, a story of six days of creating that can only be made complete by a seventh day on which all of that creating pauses, and instead the Creator reflects upon and blesses this magnificent creation.

Seven is the “magic number” of Judaism. It is, in fact, a number that crops up everywhere in human cultures, and in patterns of nature. I can summon no definitive explanation for this phenomenon. Light refracts into the seven-colored spectrum. Spiritual systems identify the seven chakras, or energy centers, in the body. The Western musical scale has seven notes in its octave (completed, of course, by the repetition of “do”.) We traditionally counted seven seas, seven heavens, seven continents, and seven planets. Whether the origin inheres in nature, or the human mind (or both), seven represents wholeness, the “All” of life.

But patterns of seven pervade Judaism in particular, not as some curiosity but as the anchor of how we mark time and remember the unity of Creation. Seven has much to teach us. So, let’s take the cue in a year of 777, and dive in.

There are seven days in a week. Around the globe, we mark this seven-day cycle as though it was as inevitable as the sun’s daily journey across the sky, and the moon’s wax and wane. And yet, there is nothing inevitable about a seven-day week. We don’t observe it in nature, not like the 29 ½ day lunar cycle, or the 365 ¼ day solar year. In the times of Ancient Israel, the idea of a seven-day cycle that culminated in a day of rest did not exist in the empires of Egypt or Babylonia, or anywhere else that historians can identify. As unlikely as this may sound, the seven-day week is an invention of Judaism. It is one of our tradition’s gifts to the world.

In addition to the ubiquitous seven day week, cycles of seven appear everywhere in Judaism. Our festivals last seven days; we sit shiva, which simply means “seven”, to honor our dead and mark our grief; we count seven weeks, seven sevens, between Passover and Shavuot, journeying from slavery to our covenant as free people with the Creator, and seven weeks again from Tisha B’av to today, Rosh Hashanah, a journey of teshuvah, an annual return from exile and despair to renewal and reconnection.

And not just days and weeks, but years are also counted. The seventh year is the sabbatical year, a year in ancient Israel when debts were forgiven, when our ancestors let their cultivated fields lie fallow, and even removed the yoke from their oxen: A year of rest for the earth, and all it contains. After seven sabbatical years arrived the Jubilee year, a time when wealth was redistributed, servants were freed, and all were reminded that although we enjoy its fruits, we do not own the earth. God declares, “the earth is mine – you are but leaseholders and temporary residents upon it.”

Months are counted, too. We are just entering the month of Tishri, a month that contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. It is a month of holy days. If we follow the more ancient Jewish understanding that the year begins in springtime, with the month of Nissan, the month of Passover, then count off – Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz Av, Elul – and we have just entered the seventh month of the year, the sabbatical month, as it were, when we take a pause from our year, awaken to the Shofar, fast and reclaim at-one-ment with life on Yom Kippur, rejoice in life’s goodness and bounty on Sukkot, and then dance joyously on Simchat Torah. Our wise tradition gives us a full month every year to exit our rat race and remember that there is more to life than scurrying and hoarding.

The ancient menorah with its seven branches, perpetually aflame, stood in our ancient Temple to remind us of the sacred meaning of seven.

Here, then, is its message: the Torah understands and accepts that it is our nature as human beings to domesticate the world, to manipulate and cultivate our environment for our own purposes. We are a remarkable species, endowed with the ability to take the raw materials around us, analyze and dissect them into their smallest parts and transform them in countless ways. The Torah affirms our gift as a unique and exalted attribute: “And God created the human being in God’s image – male and female God created them. God blessed them and said, ‘be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it’…And God saw everything that God had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Gen 1: 27-28, 31)

But the Torah also understands and accepts the inherent danger of a species with this much power: our will to domesticate easily becomes a will to dominate; our capacity to have power over our world persuades us that we are no longer beholden to that world; our ability to be creators makes us forget that we are also creatures. We become deluded by our own gifts.

Hence the seventh day, the seventh month, the seventh year, which regularize and ritualize time, mandating that we pause from our doing and manipulating. On the seventh we broaden our awareness, and contemplate the whole. In asserting that we are created in the divine image, the Torah does not limit that assertion to our ability to create and destroy. We know we are more than that. Thus the Torah also describes as Godly our ability to be self-aware, to consider the consequences of actions and the interdependence of all, to be reverent and reflective. One might say that after the six days of Creation, the world is not complete and whole until God steps back and reflects on God’s masterwork. So it is with us: we are not fully human if we do not regularly reflect on the big picture and the big questions of life. Six days we are “human doings”, but seven makes us “human beings.”

It is interesting to note that the number 7 in Hebrew, sheva, pronounced differently becomes “sova”, which means fullness and satisfaction. If we do not take the time to notice that we are satiated with life, we will never stop consuming. Seven reminds us to notice that we are already satiated with life’s blessings. We are already blessed beyond measure.

I wonder if the rainbow inspired our ancestors to consecrate seven in this way. (And if not them, then me, as I will explain!) Undifferentiated light illuminates our world, but that light by itself cannot be seen. Yet when refracted just so through drops of water, we see the magnificent spectrum of the rainbow, seven colors (with infinite shadings in between), a sight that simultaneously amazes and inspires and reassures. Judaism understands our universe, too, as a physical manifestation of an unseen Power, infinite, glorious diversity manifesting from a Unity that we call by countless names. The fleeting appearance of the seven-hued rainbow could be interpreted as a shimmering glimpse of God’s glory, an unbidden and graceful reminder of the one light that wondrously manifests as our physical universe.

In the story of Noah, the rainbow makes its first appearance in the Torah. After the floodwaters have subsided, after the earth has been cleansed of human depredation and violence, and humanity is ready for a fresh start, God chooses the rainbow as the sign of the new covenant, the promise that God will never again flood the earth: “Here is the sign I am giving you of the covenant between Me and you and every living thing on earth, now and forever: I have placed my rainbow in the cloud – it is a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-13)

The Rainbow covenant predates and encompasses the covenant that God will later make at Mount Sinai with the Jewish People. The Rainbow Covenant is made with every living thing on earth. It makes good sense to me that today the rainbow is a symbol of humanity’s glorious diversity: one human family, every identity, color, shape and size as equal and worthy as any other, all emerging from and refracting out of the infinite light.

As the One becomes the many, Seven reminds us that the many are in fact all manifestations of the One. This is the supreme goal of the spiritual path: to live and act with the humble and glorious awareness that we are connected to everything, and that all is One.

I was thinking that the United States of America was founded on this exalted spiritual goal: E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. We humans are expert at dividing and conquering. The Torah and all human history will attest to our capacity for domination and subjugation. It is part of our nature – in Hebrew, our yetzer hara. Yet the better part of our nature – our yetzer hatov – aspires to connect rather than to divide. The Biblical concept that all humans are created in the Divine image, and the American declaration that all men – and we now say all humankind – are created equal are deeply related. The possibility of knitting a sense of common destiny and mutual concern out of all of God’s children is both the American Dream and the Jewish vision of a perfected world. In the words of the prophets, the day will arrive when “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), and “Everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid.” (Micah 4:4)

To manifest this vision of possibility means, in Jewish terms, that we must take the meaning of Seven to heart, and imbue all of our actions with the expanded awareness, with the largest truth, with what we might call “Shabbat consciousness”, so that rather than picking the world apart for our own gain, we are instead doing what we can to put the world back together for the sake of the greatest good.

As Reb Nachman of Bratslav of blessed memory expressed 200 years ago in a prayer we read last night,

“Let all residents of earth recognize and know the innermost truth: that we are not come into this world for quarrel and division, nor for hate and jealousy, contrariness and bloodshed; we are come into this world You to recognize and know, who is blessed forever.”

Or as Pete Seeger of blessed memory, invoking the rainbow, wrote:

One blue sky above us,

One ocean lapping all our shores,

One earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more.

And because I love you

I’ll give it one more try

To show my Rainbow Race

It’s too soon to die.

We live in challenging times. And then again, have there been times that were somehow not challenging? That seems to be the nature of our earthly reality. Therefore, as we enter this year of 5777, may we be imbued with the message of 7, with Shabbat consciousness, able to, in the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “embrace the Whole, even as we wrestle with its parts.” May we find strength, sustenance and comfort in our expanded awareness. May we remind one another of the wonder of being alive. May we see within humanity and all of creation the seven-striped rainbow of spectacular, cascading diversity forever refracting from the ever-present but invisible light that embraces us all.

Shana Tova to you all.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5777/ October 3, 2016

Ha’edoti va’chem ha’yom et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz: ha’chayim v’ha’mavet natati l’fanecha, ha’bracha v’ha’klala. u’vacharta ba’chayim, l’ma’an tichyeh atah v’zarecha.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19)

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, is always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah. I praise the wisdom of our sages, who carefully calibrated the calendar so that we would always be hearing these words to prime us for the New Year. It is Moses’ final oration (although a coda of an epic poem and a blessing will follow), and ends with the stirring call that has come to define the Jewish character and especially this season of the Jewish year: choose life. Moses’ words are so timeless that I feel he could be delivering them in our synagogues today.

Moses himself makes clear that he is speaking across the generations, addressing every single individual, from the leaders to the woodchoppers, men, women and children, and even those who are not yet present to hear him speak. He calls us to do teshuvah, to return to God, to our people, to our land. He calls us to open our hearts, “to love the Source of Life with all of your heart and soul.” (30:6) He insists that this change of heart is possible, and that we do not need intermediaries to accomplish it:

Surely this teaching which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” No, the thing is very close close to you, in your own mouth and in your own heart, that you may do it. See, I set before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil. (30:11-15)

Moses asserts that we are capable of change. Moses insists that we are capable of opening our hearts, of choosing life and goodness, no matter how far we have strayed from our goal: “Even if you are scattered at the ends of the world, from there YHVH will gather you, and bring you back.” (30:4)

Moses is being the ultimate spiritual teacher here at the end of his teaching. He is telling us that our self-limiting beliefs are keeping us from fully participating in the unfolding of creation. It is not in heaven, or across the sea, it is close to you, on your own lips, and in your own heart, you can do it! I can feel Moses’ sense of urgency as he exhorts us, his people, to enter the Promised Land, the land of human fulfillment. We have a noble task to perform, to expand our sense of the possible. We are to do teshuvah, and align our beliefs about ourselves with our true and magnificent potential. We are to choose life and aliveness so that, as Moses says, we and our descendants may live long upon the good earth that the Creator has granted to us.

This is the message of the High Holy Days.

We aim to give up our acquired habit of powerlessness, the idea that we cannot change, and, trembling at times, crack open the door or the window again to new possibilities, and let the breeze rush into our closed room. We aim to open our hearts, even if that means opening ourselves to uncertainty and even pain. We aim to come home, to ourselves, to our community, to life and aliveness, from wherever we have wandered or felt exiled.

I love that Moses calls heaven and earth as witnesses to this moment, as if to say: we are not separate from creation. The whole world is watching, as it were, waiting for us to fulfill our part. The life energy that animates all of creation also animates us. One day that energy will carry each of us out of our individuality and our essence will rejoin and mingle with the earth and sky. That will be the day of our death. But now Moses asks heaven and earth to witness us, each of us empowered to be a conduit for love, righteousness, courage, and transformation. We matter. The Baal Shem Tov taught that divine sparks are hidden and trapped throughout creation, waiting to be liberated, and that every single person has their own unique set of divine sparks waiting for them to reveal and uplift. No one else can fulfill the noble task of being you. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The challenge I face is how to actualize the quiet eminence of my being.”

Yes, it is a challenging time. We can list the reasons to despair. Then again, when have times not been challenging? No matter, says Moses, the potential for change is still in our hands. Moses still has an audience for his words as we enter the New Year of 5777: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!”

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova – I look forward to seeing many of you under the tent, and may we all be inscribed for the New Year in the Book of Life and Aliveness,

Rabbi Jonathan

Arur makeh re’ehu ba’sateir – v’amar kol ha’am “Amen”

Cursed be the one who strikes down their fellow in secret – and all the people shall say, “Amen”. (Deuteronomy 27:24)

In Ki Tavo, Moses instructs the Children of Israel in the details of some rituals that they are to perform once they have entered the land. Chapter 27 describes a communal reaffirmation of the covenant that the twelve tribes are to undertake. They are to gather in the northern city of Shechem, where Jacob had settled long ago. Shechem sits in a valley between two hills, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Six tribes are to gather on the slopes of Ebal, and six on the slopes of Gerizim. The Levites are to build an altar, and erect plastered pillars on which the words of the Torah will be inscribed. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice a series of curses that will befall the people if they do not uphold the covenant, and a series of blessings that will accrue to them if they obey.

Some readers might notice how anomalous this description is from many other passages in the Torah. For example, didn’t the Children of Israel already have tablets inscribed with the Torah? Why did they now need plastered pillars? And what are they doing on the sacred mountains in Shechem? Will not Jerusalem be the eternal center of the covenant? These and many other inconsistencies in the Torah lead scholars to theorize about the differing traditions of the northern and southern tribes of Israel – the northern tribes with their center and holy mountain in Shechem, and the southern tribes with their center and holy mountain in Jerusalem. These competing traditions were ultimately woven together in the final version of the Torah that we hold today.

That said, I wish to focus on the dramatic ritual itself. The twelve tribes are arrayed on opposite slopes, and the Levites proclaim twelve prohibitions, followed by a communal “Amen”. The number twelve would appear to parallel the number of tribes, and continue the symmetry of the entire description, but as I read the passage I asked myself, out of all the mitzvot in the Torah, why are these twelve placed together here?

Listen to the prohibitions:

27:15) Cursed be anyone who makes a graven image, and sets it up in secret – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

16) Cursed be the one who insults father or mother – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

17) Cursed be the one who moves a neighbor’s landmark – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

18) Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person on the way – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

19) Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

Then follow several prohibitions against incestuous relationships, followed by

24) Cursed be the one who strikes down a fellow in secret – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

25) Cursed be the one who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

26) Cursed be whoever will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them – and all the people shall respond, “Amen”.

Upon my first reading, this collection of “Thou Shalt Not’s” appeared random. But then I noticed a common thread: all of these transgressions can be performed in secret. Each one is something a person could get away with: Hiding a graven image, murdering someone in a dark alley, taking money under the table, engaging in illicit sex, misdirecting a blind person, moving a landmark in the dark of night…who will ever know?

It appears the Children of Israel are being directed here to affirm a higher level of moral responsibility. They are being asked to become people of conscience. One level of moral decision-making is based on what would happen to you if you got caught. You don’t want to look bad. You don’t want to be punished or shamed or ruin your reputation, so you avoid transgression. This external focus is important, especially when it reinforces upright behavior. But an ethically mature person has internalized that witness. That person no longer determines his or her behavior on whether someone else is watching, because the ethically mature person is already and always watching him or herself, and assessing the rightness of the action at hand.

I think that upon Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim the Children of Israel are being recruited into a higher and more mature level of moral behavior. As they enter the Promised Land, they will not be able to build a trustworthy community unless each one of them is able to monitor their own moral choices. Each person must carry a witness within, and take responsibility for his or her own actions whether or not anyone else will ever know.

This is a timely teaching as the High Holy Days approach. We are each called upon to do a cheshbon nefesh, a rigorous self-accounting at this time of year. We are asked to assess whether we have harmed anyone, whether we need to make amends and offer apologies to others whose lives we have touched. Let’s not separate our account sheet between overt and hidden transgressions. I believe our Torah portion is reminding us that, for a person of conscience, there are no hidden transgressions, since we ourselves are doing our utmost to be honest witnesses of our own behavior, and to hold ourselves to a high standard. Amen to that!

Wishing you and your loved ones a sweet and healthy New Year,

Rabbi Jonathan