Readings for Social Action Shabbat: Pikuach Nefesh

This year, my Social Action Committee wanted to promote the Stop the Bleed Campaign due to the experience of Har Sinai Congregation‘s member, attorney Deborah Dopkin whose life was saved because of the timely use of a tourniquet. Her story is told in this amazing local new story reported by WBAL TV Baltimore.

The theme of the service was Pikuach Nefesh (Saving a Life). However when the Social Action Committee began to look for readings suitable for this thematic Shabbat service, we find that there was not much available. Inspired by traditional texts, I wrote the following readings for the leadership participating in this service.

Reading 1: Kiddush – based on BT Sanhedrin 37a

Shabbat: the creation of humanity. Initially Adam was created alone, to teach us that anyone who destroys a soul…. that person is blamed as if they destroyed an entire world. And conversely, one who sustains one soul…. that person is credited as if they sustained and entire world.

Reading 2: Amidah – based on BT Yoma 84b, Mishneh Torah Shabbat 2:3

The sages taught us –

No one needs the permission of a Court to save a life on Shabbat –

              The one who is vigilant to do so is praiseworthy.

Although it is forbidden to fish on Shabbat, if you see a child fall into the sea, spread a fisherman’s net and raise the child from the water –

The one who is vigilant to do so is praiseworthy.

Although it is forbidden to build a step on Shabbat, if you see a child fall into a pit, dig part of the ground out, and create a makeshift step to pull the child out –

              The one who is vigilant to do so is praiseworthy.

Although on Shabbat one is forbidden from certain acts that medical care requires, even scholars and sages of Israel are obliged to treat a patient who is seriously ill by breaking those strictures.

              The one who is vigilant to do so is praiseworthy.

The sages teach us about Shabbat:

One prioritizes the saving of a life.

For it is written in Leviticus:

One obeys the commandments and lives by them.

We live by them and do not die by them.

From this we learn:

The laws of the Torah may not damage the world

But must bestow on the world

Mercy, Kindness and Peace.

2019: Beginnings

The trees are bare here in Baltimore. But in the land of Israel, coinciding with Tu B’Shevat, the almond trees begin to blossom ushering in the first sign of spring.

In the book of Jeremiah, in his earliest prophecy, God asks Jeremiah what he envisions? He sees an almond branch in full bloom – the almond branch a symbol of the imminent nature of the prophecy itself. (Jeremiah 1:11-12).

In the book of Numbers, Chapter 17, following the challenge to leadership by Korach, God through Moses, sets up a challenge to establish God’s preference for headship of the Priests. Twelve rods are set up by the Tent of Meeting, and the head Priest will be the one whose staff blossoms. Aaron’s staff shoots up an almond blossom and fruit, indicating that Aaron will be first.

Not just an ancient symbol for beginnings and firsts, the almond tree is immortalized as a “first”, on the new orange 100-new-sheqel note in Israel. On this new currency note, a picture of the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, is accompanied in small print with a line from her poem: “In the land of my love the almond tree blossoms…” as she refers to the fleeting nature of Spring in the land of Israel.

On Tu BiShevat, at our Seder, as we eat our first taste of fruit, known as “fruit with shells” the almond is a common taste that is in our first line-up of fruits. We will sing joyfully:

“The almond tree is growing,

A golden sun is glowing;

Birds sing out in joyous glee

From every roof and every tree.

Tu B’Shevat is here,

The Jewish Arbor Day

Hail the trees’ New Year,

Happy holiday!”

The fruit-with-shells, our first taste of the Seder celebrating the New Year of the Trees, is often represented by almonds.  The fruit-with-shells, in our mystic tradition, is a symbol the notion of the world of here-and-now. In our mystical language: it represents the world of Assiyah “doing”. The sweetness of the fruit is inside an encased shell, teaching us that as we live our lives in the present, we are encased by God’s effluence. God protects us.

January is the beginning of our Gregorian year.The Talmud offers us the maxim: “All beginnings are hard”. There is something comforting in the symbolic reminder of the almond-first-fruit, the fruit-with-shells, that in here-and-now beginnings there is a sweetness to be consumed, and that our lives are surrounded by God’s loving protection.

Happy secular New Year to all. Happy Tu B’Shevat to all. A time of good and positive beginnings for all.


Our Jewish Identities[i]

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Diane Gabaldon’s well-read NY Times, best-selling novel, and now a STARZ TV series, Outlander, is, for those that like historical romance, a double historical-time setting whammy. In 1945, a retired World War II nurse, Claire Randall is on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland. She finds herself suddenly transported to 1743 – and to survive she marries Jamie, a handsome Scots warrior who becomes enmeshed in the Jacobite uprisings. Eventually discovering that she can time- travel, Claire becomes caught up between two different men, two different lives. In the narrative that traces her journeys and experiences, she brings insight and wisdom from the future into the eighteen-hundreds, and a sense of the yearning for the past into her future twentieth-century reality.[ii]

In Jewish narrative time, our next few weeks are also hanging between two different historical eras, each with its own story and each with its own lessons.

In our Torah readings, we are commencing the Joseph cycle. The story of the chutzpadik dreamer, Joseph, tossed by his brothers into a pit, then sold to slavery, tossed into jail, and then rescued on the back of dreams, which prompts his meteoric rise to being 2nd in command to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.

In our calendrical story, the three parshiot that tell of Joseph, always run concurrent with the festival of Chanukah. The Chanukah tale is set in a different time of our history. During the Syrian Seleucids rule over the Holy Land, and it tells of the Maccabean rebellion against the tyranny of religious oppression, the reclamation and purification of the Temple, and the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

In our prayer services and in our studies, like Claire Randall who jumps between historical times, we as Jews will swing back and forth though history. We will oscillate between Egypt circa 1600-1700 BCE, and the Hasmonean period of 167 BCE – 63 CE. The narratives always juxtaposed in Jewish narrative time, are separated by about 1500 years.

Since nothing in Judaism is circumstance, what can we learn between the consistent matching of these two stories? At first glance, the story of Joseph and the story of Judah Maccabee seem to have little in common. But if we look a little below the surface, beyond the narrative to the themes, there are lessons that can be derived.

The story of Joseph and the story of the Maccabees are both stories that speak of the relationship between a group’s particularistic identity and its interaction with outside influences.

Image result for the joseph story
The Story of Joseph by Biagio d’Antonio (1446 – after 1508)

Joseph, is an acculturated Egyptian. Born a Hebrew, he adapts to Egyptian ways and mores, to survive and eventually thrive, in a foreign culture. He swaps his coat of many colors hand-woven by his father, for the royal robes of the viceroy of Egypt. Underneath it all he is a Jew – he announces to his brothers at the end of the tale: “I am your brother Joseph,” but on the outside he has fully integrated and could be easily mistaken for a typical Egyptian.

Joseph is the young immigrant to the lower eastside of NY. Who shed their European peasant clothes for western garb made in modernized factories. Who spoke to their children in English rather than Yiddish. Who changed their names so that they could advance in the world. No longer peddlers on the streets, or piece workers in the schmatte business, they aspired to be doctors and lawyers, reporters and managers, and people of “regular professions” as well as practicing the Jewish religion.

Joseph is the early German Reform Jews who wanted to be taken seriously in a world that had emancipated them from ghetto life. The synagogue became the Temple in order to promote a concept of loyalty to their home country. The chants and tropes of Chazzanut were rejected for more contemporary music played on an organ like in a church. The Rabbi wore robes like a priest and no longer just taught and adjudicated, but was expected to attend to clergy duties such as visiting the sick and leading services. Both rabbi and congregant shed kippah, tallit and tefillin as garbs of yesteryear. They were modern on the outside, and Jewish on the inside.

Joseph is the culinary Jew of today. One who attends a meal for the Passover Seder with only the first part of the Haggadah read, or no part of the Haggadah read – but boy is the food, yum! They might light candles at Chanukah – if they remember! And the Bar Mitzvah is mostly about the party. Oh boy, do they like lokshen kugel (which they call noodle pudding) and kneidlach (which they call matzah balls) and Chocolate Babka (which is so delicious that it is acceptable to use its Jewish name). They are Jewish to the core in their culinary tastes, just not Jewishly religious.

The Maccabean story, and its’ heroes, thrive using a different approach. Living in an era when Jewish identity is suppressed and oppressed, they yearn and fight for greater adherence and practice. Jewish survival for them is not found in adaption or appropriation of outside customs, but rather in “authenticity.” Identity for Maccabean type Jews is built through an insular approach and maintaining traditions.

The Maccabees are the Chassidic Orthodox Jews of today who reject outside influences, such as television and Google and high school educations, who wear the garb of their Polish ancestors, and who prefer instead to immerse themselves in the study of Torah and Jewish practice in Yeshivot.

The Maccabean Jews of today are those adherents to Classical Reform Judaism as their religion. The folk that reminisce how in the day, all the prayers were in English – except the Shema. No-one wore a kippah. The music was to be performed and respected as the audience/congregation listened. And the Rabbi’s word was the word of God. They advocate that the essence of Reform Judaism is in such traditions, and that is the way Reform Judaism should be expressed today – and ever more shall be so.

The Maccabean Jews of today are the Israelis that preach that Judaism will only survive in the land of Israel because one can only be truly Jewish in a Jewish land. Where the seasonal music is not Christmas melodies, but rather Jewish festival tunes. Where Shabbat is in the airwaves of the radio station and traffic comes to standstill on Yom Kippur. And where the norm for bakeries is to rival each other on who makes the best challah or sufganiyah.

Perhaps the lesson of reading the Joseph narrative and the Maccabean revolt together, during this time of year, is to present us with two extreme ways of being Jewish. The extreme of the assimilated Joseph who is all Egyptian with a tad of Judaism, and the extreme of the dogmatic Maccabean who is all Judaism and rejecting of most of modernity. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation in Toronto suggests that “Today, both approaches are embraced by different factions within our people, to varying degrees. There will always be room at the Jewish family table for both the Josephs and the [Maccabean] brothers.“[iii]

This is true. But the Jewish family table is filled with more seats…

Most of us would not place ourselves on the extreme sides of preferring secular living or Jewish practice. We contemplate finding balance in the middle. We seek a personal mixture of integrating into society, and, making our lives Jewish, in a way that works for us and our families. This of course is the essence of Reform Judaism. Balancing modernity with our Jewish faith. As we sit in the middle of the table, we must advocate that our place setting is valid and authentic. As we sit in the middle of the table, let us be mindful of the balancing act we create in our daily lives.

The juxtaposition of the Joseph narrative and the Chanukah story, the presentation of one extreme versus another, begs us to ask the question of ourselves: How can we be authentic moderns and Jews at the same time? As we revisit two periods of Jewish narrative time, Egypt circa 1600-1700 BCE, and the Hasmonean period of 167 BCE – 63 CE, we are challenged to ask essential questions of our own Jewish identity as we balance being Jewish now, for ourselves, today.

Wishing you all a happy Chanukah. May your sense of Jewish self and modern self, find a re-contemplated balance, an admixture of Jewish identity that brings meaning to all your days, and inspires the next generations and eras to come.


[i] This sermon was inspired by the teaching of Rabbi Daniel Korobkin   in this article:


[iii] Op cit. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin


Gender in the Image of God

Image result for transparent tv showLike all interesting television, there was a cutting edge premise.

In 2014 Jill Solloway produced a comedy drama for Amazon studios that went on to win multiple Golden Globe Awards. The series was based on her own experience of her father coming out as transgender. In the series, Transparent, the story was told of a Los Angeles Jewish family, the Pfeffermans, whose father – Mort – transitions to become Maura.

For those of you who have seen the series, you will know that many of the themes are distinctively Jewish, including a well-portrayed female rabbi, Holocaust switchbacks and a trip to Israel.  Also, many of the neuroses portrayed are Woody Allen style stereotypically Jewish – from food obsession to personal angst and guilt.

But the primary purpose of the series is not its Jewish story-line, but rather to explore ideas of gender identity through, as Jill Solloway worded it: “a wounded father being replaced by a blossoming femininity.”[1] In order to make sure that this was authentic as possible, Jill Solloway set about to create a transfirmative action program, hiring transgender individuals to write, work and consult on the show.

A Jewish transgender television series in 2014 might be conceived as cutting-edge to mainstream America, but from a Jewish viewpoint, this concept was not a radical endeavor.

Our Torah portion Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent in the hot sun, when three strangers/angels wander by and Abraham hurries to offer them hospitality, enlisting his wife Sarah in this project. At the finish of the meal, the strangers ask where Sarah is, and they are told she is inside the Tent. The visitors then predict that, at this time next year, Sarah will bear a son. We are told in the Biblical text that Abraham and Sarah are old. Sarah beyond child-bearing years. And Sarah laughs. Abraham however questions Sarah’s mirth – for is anything beyond the power of God?[2]

The Talmud, in Yebamot, pursues an interesting tangent from this biblical text.[3] The rabbis seek to understand why our forefather and foremother are infertile.

Rabbi Ami… and this is where it gets interesting… Rabbi Ami suggests that Abraham and Sarah were Tumtumim, people whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured, and God turned them into male and female gender, specifically for the purpose of procreation.

Then the Talmud surprises us with a differing viewpoint… Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh, and he declares that Sarah was an  Ay’lonit, an individual identified as female at birth, but who develops male characteristics at puberty, and hence is infertile. He offers as a proof-text the words of Genesis 11, “she had not child,” to indicate that she did not have a womb.

We tend to think of Abraham and Sarah, the original progenitors of our people, as a man and a woman colored by our growing up in a world that has seen binary gender as normative.

On our birth certificates the doctor declares us male or female. Forms ask us if we are masculine or feminine. We attend Camp Airy if we are a boy. Camp Louise if we are a girl. Genesis 1 declares that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve, male and female God created them. American society is greatly influenced by Christian values which understands gender as simply male or female.

Reuben Zellman tells the story of a College student walking down the street of a major U.S. city when a woman shouted out and began following the student down the street. “Hey,” she yelled. “I’m talking to you! Are you a man or a woman?” as she cut off the student’s path. “Just tell me what you are.” When the student did not respond, the woman said: “You’re a woman right? I knew it, you are a woman.” Finally, the student responded: “No.” “Well, fine, you’re a man then.” And again, the student responded: “No”. The woman began to scream “Which are you? Why won’t you tell me?” The student swallowed and said as evenly as they could: “I’m neither man nor woman. I am neither. I am both.” The woman, and her friends, began to laugh incredulously. “You’re both! You can’t be both.”[4]

You can’t be both.

President Trump and his Administration have taken such limited view of gender as binary. This stance has received much press in the last week. An article in The Guardian explains: “US officials have been pushing for the rewriting of General Assembly policy statements to remove what the administration argues is vague and politically correct language, reflecting what it sees as an “ideology” of treating gender as an individual choice rather than an unchangeable biological fact.”[5]

Our Jewish tradition from Mishnaic times, would disagree with this understanding of the existence of only binary gender. Our rabbis saw the world as being filled with gender diversity, defining at least six possible genders that they understood as present in this world.

Their first two categories are the traditional male and female many of you were raised with as normative. Zachar, or male, is a word derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. Nekevah, or female is based on the word for crevice and refers to the female anatomy.

But there is more diversity in gender. In the Mishna and the Talmud and Classical Midrash, a period spanning from the 1st through 16th centuries of the Common Era there are exactly 499 references to the Androgynos. This is a person with both male and female sexual characteristics. The first Androgynos was Adam in Genesis 2 – a human who then was split into two genders.

Already we have heard arguments over Abraham and Sarah’s gender. Rabbi Ami suggests that both our ancestors were Tumtumim. The Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash and Jewish law codes have 516 references referring to people who are Tumtum.

Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh suggests that Sarah is an Ay’lonit – a person who is female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty and is infertile. Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law Codes speaks of such individuals 120 times.

Then there are Saris, a person who identifies as male at birth but develops female characteristics at purberty, and, may or may not be lacking a penis. According to 535 references in Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law codes one can be a natural Saris, or one may become one through human intervention.[6] Our rabbis even knew of transgender surgery!

It is clear in our texts, that Jewish tradition has historically understood that there is diversity of gender, even if in the more traditional communities the marriage of a man and a woman is seen as an ideal. The acknowledgement of a richness of gender is part of what Judaism sees as the reality of the world. No surprise then that a Jewish sitcom, Transparent, should be one that brings to the fore of American consciousness a discussion of gender diversity.

Caitlyn Jenner, once a male Olympic athlete, then a minor character in a reality TV show, and now a transgender rights advocate and author, wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled: “I thought Trump would help trans people. I was wrong.” [7]

Caitlyn writes of her dashed hope to work within the Republican system on transgender rights. She speaks of her many trips to educate and lobby members of Congress, Washington policy makers and powerful influences.

Following two years of efforts, Caitlyn laments: “The recently leaked Department of Health and Human Services memo that suggests – preposterously and unscientifically – that the government ought to link gender to one’s genitalia at birth, is just one more example in a pattern of political attacks. One doesn’t need to look back far to witness the president assault our nation’s guardians with a ban on trans people serving in the military or assail our nation’s future with a roll back of Obama-era protections for trans schoolchildren.”[8]

Rightly, Caitlyn Jenner sees people denied humanity.

It is important to see humanity in all its diversity. Our rabbis saw this diversity. If writing today, they may have even been even more nuanced than the six or seven genders recognized in our text.

Last summer, when I attended the new 6 Points Jewish Arts Academy, each child who attended, each adult on staff, was asked what their preferred gender pronoun was. I am seeing this question asked more often in schools, at conferences, in houses of worship and at camps. Seeing people for who they are acknowledges and celebrates their humanity.

The impact of Jill Solloway’s TV show Transparent, and its exploration of multiplicity of gender identification, was and continues to be profound in the American societal context. From a Jewish point of view, it is not a cutting-edge premise, to acknowledge what is the reality of gender identification, in a TV show or in daily life.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that every human being – each of us, is made, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. God cannot be perceived as one gender, or another gender. God is beyond gender. God is all genders.

As a Jewish community, with a long historical understanding of a multiplicity in gender, we need to promote what is real and true. Like the rabbis before us, we must advocate for a world where people are people, defining themselves in a way that is comfortable for them to be authentic. Inspired by Jewish text and perspective, let us lobby for equal treatment and recognition under the law.

It is our mission to be part of tikkun, mending, to create a world, where all are honored, because we are all perfectly- made in the image of God.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.



[1] Prudom, Laura (July 12, 2014). “Amazon’s ‘Transparent’ Season 1 to Debut Late September

[2] Genesis 18

[3] Yevamot 64a, 64b



[6] Terms for Gender Diversity in Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla, 2006 in


[8] ibid

I Am Because of You

Image result for har sinai congregation owings mills

Why be part of a congregation? Can’t I just be spiritual by myself? Why do I need organized religion? Why do I need a Har Sinai Congregation?

Let me begin in Africa.

Boyd Varty grew up on the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa and he tells the story of a baby elephant called Elvis. Yep. That is Elvis like the singer Elvis! The elephant was born with a deformed back legs and pelvis and when she walked she sorta did a pelvis dance like Elvis Presley.

Everyone thought that because of her disability, Elvis would have little chance of surviving in the wilds. However, for five years she kept returning in the winter months to the Game Reserve and all the gamekeepers and guides were always excited to see her. One day, they followed Elvis and her herd to a small watering hole.

Boyd describes: “I watched as the matriarch drank. And then she turned in that beautiful slow motion of elephants. And she began to make her way up the steep bank. The rest of the herd turned … and began to follow.

And I watched young Elvis begin to psych herself up for the hill. She had a full go at it. And halfway up, her legs gave way and she fell backwards. She attempted it a second time. And again, halfway up, she fell backwards. And on the third attempt, an amazing thing happened. Halfway up the bank, a young teenage elephant came in behind her. And he propped his trunk underneath her, and he began to shovel her up the bank.

And it occurred to me that the rest of the herd was, in fact, looking after this young elephant. The next day, I watched again as the matriarch broke a branch. And she would put it in her mouth. And then she would break a second one and drop it on the ground. And a consensus developed between all of us who were guiding people in that area that that herd was, in fact, moving slower to accommodate that elephant.”[i]

In his observation of Elvis the Elephant, Boyd Varti said that he learned to expand his concept of community.  No longer was his focus on one elephant but the interaction of that elephant with the whole group. In South Africa, where he is from, there is a notion of ubuntu – which Varti translates as: “I am because of you.” Each elephant in that herd became greater than their individual elephant-selves because of the “love me tender, love me true”[ii] way they treated Elvis.

In synagogue terms, our humanity is heightened by the people around us.[iii] Our congregation elevates us.  We are more than just ourselves. Through Har Sinai Congregation, our soul is sharpened and shaped in religious terms by the people who are on this journey of Judaism beside us.

Reverend Lillian Daniel, a Protestant Minister and author, puts it this way:

“Sometimes our best thinking can only get us so far, especially since any God we create will likely agree with our point of view on everything… Religious tradition should be like sandpaper against a culture that is constantly asking ‘How can we meet your needs?’ It should require something of you. Any idiot can find God in a sunset. Finding God in the woman sitting next to you whose baby cries during the entire sermon takes grit.”[iv]

Our synagogue is sandpaper grit sanding our individual beings: refining and clarifying them in the reflected spirituality of our neighbor. Spirituality is self-seeking, it is about “me”. Religion requires “us”.

In the story of Elvis the Elephant, we can find another reason for belonging to a holy congregation, separate to Boyd Varty’s reading.

Elvis the Elephant’s disability was a gift for her herd. Elvis brought, in Jewish terms, her Torah to the group. In the giving of her Torah, her disability, she made that herd special.

In the book of Numbers/ B’Midbar, Moses and Aaron and Miriam brought their own gifts, their Torah teachings to the fledgling Israelite community. Moses provides leadership as the conduit to God’s will. Aaron supervises appropriate ritual. And Miriam ensures that there is water to those who are wandering the desert.

In the book of Numbers, there are characters who bring unlikely gifts but when analyzed are Torah none-the-less.

The prophet Balaam and king Balak brought their Torah, for in their desire to curse the Israelites, the blessing of the Israelite’s tents and homes were expressed.

The rebel Korach, brought Torah, because in his rebellion he teaches the Israelites that Moses is the real deal, the one through whom God speaks.

Even the spies who ventured into the land of Canaan and brought back bad reports – their contribution was a gift – for it brought forth the realization that the generation who left Egypt were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land.

It may be that your gift is not obvious to you at first, yet each of us has a gift, or in Jewish terms, Torah, to bring to the congregations we belong too. A sacred community is made up of the multiple Torahs each of us share in the small groups that make up our congregational whole. You become more than a reflection of self, and so valued, for each of the gifts that you bring to our Har Sinai Congregation.

Your Torah might be greeting the new person at the Pre-neg on Shabbat. Your Torah might be helping with the community finances. Your Torah could be singing at services to help create a warm spiritual atmosphere. Your Torah might be blowing the Shofar or playing a drum. Your Torah might be giving time to stuff envelopes in the office. Your Torah might be sharing your wisdom with a Bible study group. Or leading a class. Or teaching a group of congregants to play Mah-Jong. Your Torah might be leading a Havdalah hike or arranging for a speaker for a Brotherhood or WoHSC event.

Whatever your Torah thank you and our community needs you! Giving to your congregation will make you not only feel good but will make you more integral to our community and will make the congregation special.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are who we are because of us.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are because of the Torah you give.

But there is more.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are greater because of purpose.

All people need to live larger than the daily grind… we flourish when we pursue a life of meaning. Within a congregation we define and act out purpose together. And for so many reasons, this is easier and better to do in a group.

I love the following set of analogies by an anonymous author, to make a case for the benefits of being in a congregational community with purpose.

It is another lesson from the animal kingdom.

This time here in North America.

There is much that we can learn from the North American geese whose purpose is to head south for the winter as they fly in a “V” formation!

Here are some of the lessons:

Science knows that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following and hence they can fly further than if they fly on their own.

With a congregation we meet people who share a common direction and we can get there more easily because we are travelling on the thrust of each other.

When a goose falls out of its “V” formation, it feels the drag and resistance of going it alone, so quickly tries to return the formation.

As congregational members we can keep to the task of our communal purpose the more we remain together.

When a goose tires, it rotates to the back of the “V” wing and another goose flies at the point.

In congregational communities, we can take turns getting the job done, but when we tire we can help each other to our destination, so we can get more easily succeed together.

Geese, as they fly in their “V”, honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up with their speed.

When we live in congregational community we become the cheer leaders for each other.

Finally, when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose, and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay by the fallen goose’s side until it can fly or until it dies. And only then, do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their group.

In congregational communities, we are more than ourselves, we are there for each other in difficult of moments.[v] 

We need the sense of geese to stand beside each other and be buoyed by community and community purpose.

Here we sit on Yom Kippur morning in community as Har Sinai Congregation.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are who we are because of us.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are because of the Torah you give.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are each more because of purpose.

And in addition, at Har Sinai Congregation, we are more because of the chain of tradition that is passed on by us all.

Let me begin with a traditional Yom Kippur place.

Our Torah Portion that you will shortly hear.

This morning we read from the book of Deuteronomy:

“You stand here today, all of you, before your Eternal God – the heads of your tribes, your elders, and officers, everyone in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter the sworn covenant that your Eternal God makes with you this day…” This covenant that we will read about in the Torah was made with the Sinai generation and the generations not yet born[vi]

Being part of congregational life is important because we are all of us, part of a community who values continuity. We are part of a long chain, a covenant of values that was given to all of us together at Mount Sinai. The covenant of Judaism is our common inheritance, whether by birth or by choice, the thing we share with each other, it is in the concept of our Jewish DNA. It is for us to pass it on.

Being part of a synagogue, enables us to understand this in context. Our kids comprehend that being Jewish is important when they see their family practice, its traditions and mores. Tradition even has more weight and standing when it is done by many people around them, in a synagogue, living Jewish lives. We are strengthened in our heritage through each other’s valuing of tradition and each other’s participation.

At Simchat Torah we will read the words of Deuteronomy that end the Torah. Moses will have just finished reminiscing and remembering all that has occurred. How he journeyed and was changed by the Israelites in the wilderness. His life is integrated with theirs, because of their mutual experience from the time of Egyptian bondage, through the desert, to this moment on the mountain.

At this poignant moment, he stands at the top of the mountain looking at the vistas of the future in Canaan that he knows he will never see.

Why be part of a community? Why be part of a congregation? Can’t I just be spiritual by myself? Why do I need organized religion? Why do I need a Har Sinai Congregation?

There will come a time, like Moses, when we will stand at the top of our life’s mountain, looking backwards and ahead as well. When we do, we will have benefited from the enormous blessing of being part of something, a synagogue, our Har Sinai Congregation.

We will find blessing because our lives were refined because of those who surrounded us.

har sinai logoWe will find blessing through our gifts which have been amplified in their sharing.

We will find blessing because we were able to journey in a community of support and shared purpose.

We will find blessing in being part of a chain of tradition that will continue beyond ourselves into the future.

These blessings come naturally with being part of a Kehillah Kedosha, a holy community, a holy congregation.

These blessings can and should be ours. Here, at Har Sinai Congregation.





[ii] Song Title, Elvis Golden Records, 1958

[iii] ibid


[v] A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

[vi] Deuteronomy 29:9-14

Kehillah Kedosha – Building Our Holy Community


The Yiddish writer S. Ansky, in his play The Dybbuk, described it with these words:

“Once a year… the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the High Priest and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril, for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant, might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.”[i]

Dramatic, right?

During Yom Kippur afternoon, we re-enact this moment described in Ansky’s play. We relive what is known as the “Service of the Sacrificial Cult.” While we do not physically perform a ritual sacrifice here on the Bima (!), we verbally imagine the ancient High Priest’s rite on Yom Kippur, in the days when the Temple in Jerusalem stood.

We read the three confessionals that the High Priest offered for his own sins and those of his family, those of the priesthood, and those of the Israelite people.[ii] It includes a dramatic full prostration in the service, at the very moment, when the High Priest would utter the ineffable name of God.

Related image

So strong the power of this moment, that our own founding rabbi, David Einhorn, despite the early Reform rejection of the Temple and its’ sacrifices, included a long  interpretation of this rite in his prayer book Olat Tamid.

He reinterpreted Israel’s unique mission as a priestly people, who must be an Olat Tamid/ an eternal offering on behalf of all humanity. The High Priest, for Rabbi Einhorn, was a symbol for “God’s priestly people, who are to “carry the hope of salvation” and “show the path of life to all.”[iii]

The priest’s power is established in the biblical book of Leviticus. So strong this Yom Kippur ritual of the priests, that their influence is felt long past the initiation of rabbinic Judaism, and is continued  still today in our Reform Machzorim, in Gates of Repentance and in the  newest Reform Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh.

The Book of Leviticus, the Priest’s book in the Bible, establishes for the Israelites a clear place, and a defined religious ritual, that will sustain them in their wanderings from Egypt in the wilderness, and later, in the Promised Land.

Jacob Milgrom writes, that the book of Leviticus also founds values. He says: “Values are what Leviticus is about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse…. Underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and one another.”[iv]

The role of a holy community has always been to give a sense of place, ritual and values. And in today’s modern Jewish world, there are many types of successful holy communities who create place, rituals and values in a variety of ways.

In Olat Tamid, his prayerbook, Rabbi Einhorn knew the importance of reinterpreting, to make Judaism relevant for his time. Har Sinai Congregation stands at a Mount Sinai moment, about to reform itself for its future, and must ask important congregational questions:

who can we be,

what can we stand for,

and how can we measure our success?

For many years, in the congregational world the success of a congregation was measured by its size. Even twenty five years ago when I began in the rabbinate, the questions in the elevator at rabbinic conferences often turned to how many family units are in your congregation…  I remember that men of a certain era would jokingly ask: “How big is yours?” It was seen, as a type of rabbinic promotion, to place in a congregation that was larger.

Indeed there are many successful large congregations and their accomplishments are great. But the thinking about size in the worship world has changed. There are also amazingly successful mid-size and small congregations.

Once the Gerer Rebbe, questioned his students. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” One disciple didn’t know the whereabouts of Moshe Yaakov. Another did not know how Moshe Yaakov was faring. “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof? You study the same book? You serve the same God? – yet you dare tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?”

The Gerer Rebbe in this story, notices that Moshe Yaakov is missing. A smaller vitalized congregation provides the ability for a rabbi to be more attentive to what is happening to their congregants, and to have, a greater personal presence in their lives. The Gerer Rebbe in this story was also disturbed by his students, because they did not know where Moshe Yaakov was to be found. Just as importantly, the Gerer Rebbe’s anger was manifest because his students did not know about Moshe Yaakov’s well-being. They had failed at being intimately connected to their friend in their small community.

In a small community, the ability for clergy to be connected, for individuals and families to know each another, and to be familiar and care for each other, is their very real, small group advantage. Robin Dunbar scientifically confirmed that humans are only capable of 150 meaningful, stable, intimate social relationships at one time.[v] Large and even medium congregations struggle with that sense of intimacy and connection, trying all types of configurations and arrangements to create structure to mimic what is more natural in a small community.

Our special Har Sinai Congregation, like congregations across this country, has grown smaller in numbers. Demographics and affiliation trends do not indicate we will be larger soon. But we have the incredible opportunity to be a successful smaller congregation, with a smaller foot-print, that structures and leverages itself for success.

To do this we need vision. I am inspired by small congregations who have taken up the challenge of, as Priya Parker words it, the “art of gathering… the conscious bringing together of people for a reason and committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”[vi]

Image result for the temple in jerusalemThe Levitical Priests had such a bold, sharp purpose. Their drive was not maintaining the grand Temple or the dramatics of ceremony, it was not the communal gathering of the people, or the sacrifices, or the wording for the expiation of sin. If you drill down deep, deep, into this ancient ritual, the Priest’s central raison d’etre is found in the utterance of the Ineffable Name. The bold, sharp purpose was to create connection to God. So powerful was their purpose, that we still include it in our Yom Kippur ceremony today.

A building, the size of a congregation or how people connect, worship, dues structure, program, religious school, committees, caring groups, education, are all means – they are not the bold, sharp purpose of a congregation. They are all vital for the running of a synagogue. But those means are not and should not be mistaken for mission. Ultimately, they are all infrastructure, that needs to connect in some way to the bold, sharp purpose that a congregation chooses.

In Cincinnati OH, Temple Sholom took their floundering congregation on the down-turn, and invested in change, by focusing on their unique purpose in a town that held several Reform synagogues. Concentrating on the mission of spiritual justice at their center, they sold their building, and moved to a rental, put half the money they made aside not to be touched, and took half the money for ramp-up programming, focusing on their new, defined purpose. Initially they lost members. But in defining a “bold, sharp purpose” they have, within a short period of a few years, expanded their membership to numbers greater than before, and have engaged younger generations than they expected.

Other small congregations have understood that they cannot be everything to everyone, and are successful also, because they are clear about what drives them.

Lab Shul in New York, a synagogue without walls, focuses on being “an artist-driven, everybody friendly, God-optional pop up experimental community for sacred gatherings.”[vii] They attract the money and the participation of Millennials, Generation Y, Gen Next, iGen, who attend their services and events. It is seen as a place to be, and people wait with anticipation to see where they will pop up next in the city, inspired by their creativity, innovation and experimentation in cool atypical venues.

The Kitchen, in San Francisco, is a sacred Jewish community “provoking awe and purpose… believ…[ing] that Jewish religious practice can transform: It can change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world.”  The folk in The Kitchen, have envisioned and rethought what congregational life can look like, placing themselves in an unconventional space, and rebranding everything to match their purpose. They’re run by a Cabinet of folks (as in the Kitchen Cabinet), with well-branded bios of each member, so we know by perusing their website what they bring to the Kitchen Table, and how their presence relates to community purpose. On Shabbat morning, the community davens for half-an- hour, and then does an interactive Torah reading – changing lives with storahtelling. Then they invite those who have walked into their Shabbat morning Kitchen to lunch: “Shabbat lunch is on them”. Awe, purpose and investing people at the center underpins all they do. So much so, who wouldn’t want to buy their “swag” and display it with pride?

Locally, or internationally, we need look no further than Chabad, to see a successful community with a bold, sharp purpose. The Rebbe encouraged his followers to create communities open to Jews, bringing them closer to Judaism, mitzvah by mitzvah, anywhere and everywhere in the world, from Baltimore to the Himalayas. They invite you to every mitzvah – sit in their Sukkah on a truck, wave the lulav, try out some tefillin, and they will bar mitzvah your boy (if his Jewish credentials are right) for minimal work. They have a central financing system, sustained by people who give money to them, from within their community and without, because people are inspired by Lubavitch’s seeming openness, attention and reach.

These synagogues know what they do well and focus on it. They prosper by attracting members that buy into their unique visions. They create a boutique community and their purpose defines them: their doing, their praying, their gathering, their operations.

Image result for ELEPHANT RIDESarah Van Breathnach tells of a business trip her husband took to the beach, where she and her daughter enjoyed the mornings, while he attended workshops. One afternoon it was announced that there would be elephant rides for the children in the hotel parking lot. Her daughter, Katie, was delirious with excitement.

Sarah told her: “Life is always full of wonderful surprises if we are open to them. Some mornings you will get up not knowing what will happen, and you get to ride an elephant that day!”

When they got home, there was an invitation for Sarah to join a group of journalists on a trip to Ireland. She was tired of traveling, and not really a spontaneous person, so she told them she probably would not go.

Her husband, overhearing her, said: “So you are not going to ride the elephant?”

She decided to go.[viii]

Two years ago, when I interviewed to come to Har Sinai Congregation, I shared my vision, my bold, sharp purpose. My aspiration…

My dream is to create a community that is willing to pray, govern, learn and play, in out-of-the-box meaningful ways, and willing to live a creative Judaism that is rooted in the values and traditions of our people.

Har Sinai Congregation would live out this vision of creative and relevant and participatory Judaism, run not by staff alone, but by us all. It would make us unique in Baltimore. My aspiration would make us an inspiration.

Imagine being run not by a large Board, but by a smaller group of a dozen Imagineers – visionaries – creators.

Imagine not committees, but multiple groups of people working on unique short and long-term projects that underpin our congregational life.

Imagine various small unique, creative Jewish purpose gatherings, meet ups, celebrations, workshops, adventures, where you would arrange the event, could connect and get to know each other – how I would kvell at your motivation and inspiration!

2018-08-18 12.21.01Imagine services, yes, in the synagogue, but also in the woods and in libraries and in restaurants. Services with sermons occasionally, but also with learning or games or stories or drama or music as the focus of the teaching moment or in prayer.

Imagine Torah reading and a teaching at Farmer’s Markets under a tent just as it was read in the Talmudic times in public places.

Imagine family and singles in people’s homes doing Jewish meals and activities on Friday nights, Shabbat mornings, with food catered by the participants of our cooking club.

Imagine going from house-to-house as we help each other build and decorate our own Sukkot.

Imagine an ice cream flash mob on Shavuot at The Cow.

Imagine creating a group of storytellers within this community, a bluegrass band, a barbershop quartet and a kid’s choir.

Imagine musicians-in-residence, Artists, cantors, soloists, brought in for 3 to 6 months or even a year at a time, to lead our music and work with our congregants, to create a unique, varied and participatory musical identity.

Imagine bike rides and golf games and hikes with Torah study.

Imagine learning in cafes and doing a God Shopping exercise in the Mall.

Imagine while working in the Food Pantry creating a mural to illustrate the Tzedakah principals to cheer up the Food Pantry’s walls.

Har Sinai Congregation, of my aspiration, would create modern Jewish souls rooted in traditions, creatively interpreted for today.

You hired me on the passion of this vision.

For some, riding an elephant with this vision may not seem like a good idea, for you love the familiar, and are resistant to change. We have traditions, customs and programs, which are important to people, that may limit, and have limited, what we can do new.

Riding the elephant of one’s vision means making a leap onto its back. On occasion, I feel like I have tentatively got onto the elephant, and many times have said I will ride the elephant later. Or that ascending the elephant is not a good idea for now.

I also know, that the vision of a congregation cannot be entirely my own – rabbinic input has import, but our purpose needs to be communally shaped. All of us ultimately desire connection, support, caring, interaction and holiness, and we need to figure out how to make our Har Sinai Congregation that place in the twenty-first century for the older and younger and future generations.

That is why I have encouraged the Futures Committee to go out and speak to you and gather input. To survey you to find out what is important, and what is essential to you in our Har Sinai community. To meet with you in small groups to figure out our reason-to-be. To discover as Priya Parker recommends: our reason for the “conscious bringing together of people for a reason and committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”[ix]

That is why tomorrow afternoon I have invited Har Sinai Congregation members with a vision to drill down deep on their thoughts in a fishbowl meeting during the “Sharing Our Stories” hour.

Let us find the narrative, what in the business world they call the “WHY” that moves us.

We have important work to do to ensure our success. We have exciting work to do to take us to new places. The time is now, this is our Mount Sinai moment, as we look to the new Har Sinai Congregation beyond these walls, to ride a whole herd of elephants into our future.

And how shall our success be measured?

Not by our financial wealth alone, though certainly we need money to survive. And we know that people give money to places that inspire them. Let us be that place.

Not by number of congregants alone. Though we know that places with boutique purpose attract those with a similar mission, and the exclusiveness of mission generates excitement. Let us be that place.

I commenced my words this evening with words from The Dybbuk, at the moment the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to utter God’s ineffable name.

S. Ansky tells us that “…even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world.”[x] Distraction from the High Priest’s purpose destroyed worlds. Keeping to purpose created and sustained a world, and worlds to come.

Our triumph will be in Har Sinai Congregation’s purpose and the world we create. Our success will be measured by being clear about the congregation’s “WHY” within, and without our community, and having that mission create meaning in people’s lives.

har sinai logo

We are Har Sinai Congregation. We are not the walls of this building. We are more than the structural programs we offer, or the services we run, or the Board and committees that are found in every synagogue.

We are what was in our 176 years past, but we need to be more than what was. As Rabbi David Einhorn imagined, in our reimagination of Judaism we like the High Priest can “carry the hope of salvation” and “show the path of life to all,” for ourselves, and the generations ahead of us.

We are what we will be.

A Kehillah Kedosha – A Holy Community. A creative, joyful, cutting-edge, participatory synagogue, for the future.



[i] The Dybbuk and Other Writings, S. Ansky, ed. David G. Roskies.


[iii] ibid

[iv] Leviticus: A Book of Rituals and Ethics, Jacob Milgrom, Fortress Press, 2004


[vi] The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, Riverhead Books, 2018


[viii] (Passionate Living vs.Fear)

[ix] The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, Riverhead Books, 2018

[x] The Dybbuk and Other Writings, S. Ansky, ed. David G. Roskies.


A fictional tale in honor of Grandma Lillian and all the amazing mothering aunts in my life.

Image result for crockery set flowers and birds

Let me tell you about my Grandma Lil. She was the best cook in the world, well at least I thought so, and that thought was shared by many others.

One day, my Grandma Lil thought she would do a Mitzvah and took some chicken soup over to Mrs. Roseman whose husband was ill. “I don’t feel right accepting a gift from you,” she said to my Grandma Lil. She insisted my Grandma take a few coins.  And Grandma Lil went home and put those coins in a little jar on a shelf in her kitchen.

The next week, my Grandma Lil baked too many rugelach cookies for Shabbat. She took some over to her friend Mrs. Bancroft. She insisted my Grandma take a few coins.  And Grandma Lil went home and put those coins in a little jar on a shelf in her kitchen.

The following week, Mrs. Barnett came to visit. “My daughter is getting married. Would you make her a beautiful wedding cake?  I will pay you for your ingredients and time.” My Grandma Lil was chuffed. Grandma Lil put those coins in that little jar on her shelf in the kitchen.

As time went by more and more people came to my Grandma Lil and asked her to bake and cook her delicious foods for them. It helped them out in their busy lives because they did not always have time to make something home-made. Didn’t I tell you that she was the best cook in the world? And those coins they paid her would go straight into what was now a big jar on her kitchen shelf.

One day my brother and I asked – “Grandma, what are you saving all the coins for on the shelf?”

“I am going to buy a whole new set of dishes for Rosh HaShanah,” she told us. “I’ve seen a set, a beautiful set of dishes, with painted rims filled with flowers and birds, just right for the holiday that celebrates the world’s creation. They remind me of the dishes my mother used in England to celebrate the holidays when I was a child”

The money in Grandman Lil’s large jar continued to grow and grow. When it was almost full, she counted the coins out carefully… even the pennies. She had $360, ten-fold double-chai, just enough for the set of beautiful dishes she had seen at the department store downtown, the with painted rims filled with flowers and birds that reminded her of creation and the set her mother had owned in England.

My Grandma Lil put all the money back into the large jar and decided to take the coins down to the bank to swap them out for some notes. Behind the counter was Mr. Davis. “That’s a lot of coins” he said. He adored my Grandma Lil who would often bring home-made lokshen noodles to his house for his wife to put into their soup. “What are you going to do with this $360, Lil?”

And my Grandma Lil told him all about the beautiful dishes she had seen in the Department Store downtown, that reminded her of the set her mother had in England. Just perfect with painted rims filled with flowers and birds, just right for the Rosh Hashanah holiday that celebrates the creation of the world.

The crisp dollar notes in her hand, on the following day, she set out for town to make her big purchase at the Department Store.

But when she got to the store…. there was not a single dish with the painted rims filled with flowers and birds to be found. You cannot imagine how sad my Grandma Lil was. She had been saving so, so long for these special dishes. And that Rosh Hashanah she was so looking forward to setting her table with those plates and cups and saucers.

“I don’t have new dishes, but I suppose I can fill my old dishes with the foods that everybody loves, and it will still be an amazing Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps no one will notice that the dishes are not the new ones if they are tasting my chocolate babka and honey cookies.” And with a sigh of resignation, my Grandma Lil made her way home.

As she came up her street she saw all these cars. “Someone must be having a party, she thought. And then when she entered her house – she saw that my brother and I and my Mum and Dad were there. Mr Davis with Mrs Davis. Mrs Barnett and her newly married daughter and their whole family, Mrs. Bancroft and Mrs. Roseman, and so many others. “Wow, I am the one having a party…” she exclaimed. And then she noticed. Every single one of us was carefully holding a dish, a cup or a saucer, a plate or a bowl.  Each dish was decorated with painted rims filled with flowers and birds, just right for the holiday that celebrates the world’s creation, the festival that marks the beginning of creation.

“Surprise!” we shouted. “Thank you!” we said.

As everyone all at once shared with my Grandma Lil how magnificent her cooking was, what it meant for our families, and how it helped make our celebrations and sad times and gatherings so wonderful. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,”– “Thank you for your food that so often has brought us all together.”

You know what my Grandma Lil did next?

She went into her kitchen and she began to cook. She invited all her friends and acquaintances to come back and join her on Rosh Hashanah eve for fancy breads and pickles and brisket and fruits and all the wonders that she created. She cooked the recipes she recalled that her Mum had made in England long ago. And she plated it all on those dishes with birds and flowers on the rim, which reminded her of creation and Rosh Hashanah’s past with her family.

What a sweet Rosh HaShanah that was – eating Grandma Lil’s food,  the best food in the world, on those plates with birds and flowers on their rims, that reminded us all of God’s creation on Rosh HaShanah, with the community brought together around Grandma Lil’s cooking.


Inspired by the story Grandma Roses Magic by Linda Elovitz Marshall