Earth’s Embroidery

Earth’s Embroidery by Solomon ibn Gabriol (11th century poet, Spain)

With the ink of its showers and rains,
with the quill of its lightning, with the
hand of its clouds, winter wrote a letter
upon the garden, in purple and blue.
no artist could ever conceive the like of
that. And this is why the earth, grown
jealous of the sky, embroidered stars in
the folds of the flowerbeds.

The official first day of spring was almost two months ago, but today really feels like spring is here. Instead of one or two random days of warmth, we have many days of higher temperatures to look forward to, with both sunshine and rain as their companions.

Our Jewish texts have long acknowledged both the importance and beauty of nature. The miracle of life, of God’s creations, is a source of connection to the Divine. In a moment of exceptional natural beauty, we are struck with awe and motivated to express words – or be present in the powerful silence of gratitude.

I have recently rediscovered our medieval poets, like Solomon ibn Gabriol and Yehudah ben Levy, among others. I had forgotten how well they paint pictures with words, transforming our feelings into a concrete form that brings them forward. As winter turns to spring outside my window, I can imagine the contest of colors happening between the sky and the earth, and the earth saying, “it’s my turn now.”

I look forward to searching for the stars among the flowers.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit.

Praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Source of creation and its wonders.

Supreme Court Leak, Reproductive Rights, and Jewish Values

I was not surprised to hear about the brief that was leaked from the Supreme Court on Monday, but that doesn’t mean I was any less devastated. Okay, maybe I wasn’t surprised that these five Supreme Court Justices were willing to overturn Roe vs. Wade, but I am still in disbelief about what was written in the opinion and the long-term ramifications for women’s health and so much more.

But I  am not a lawyer; I am a rabbi, a dedicated Jew, a woman and a mother of a young woman, so I can only speak to the subject of reproductive freedom from my perspective with Jewish values as my guiding principles.

Access to abortion is a Jewish value and essential health care. From the Torah to the Talmud to Maimonides, there is profound support within Jewish sacred texts and scholarly teachings for the right to abortions and for prioritizing the life and wellbeing of the living woman over the rights of a fetus.

The Jewish community overwhelmingly agrees with the need to protect abortion access. Polls show that 80-90 percent of Jewish Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

For a Jewish perspective on abortion, you can read this excerpt on from The Social Justice Jewish Commentary by Rabbis Joshua R. S. Filler and Emily Langowitz;

The Reform Movement, including Reform rabbis, support and defend a person’s right to control their own reproductive health decisions. We believe that all people should be equipped with the information they need to make the choices that are right for them, in consultation with their loved ones and health care providers. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) have affirmed these rights on record going back to 1967 through multiple resolutions and Reform Responsa (answers to questions about Jewish law).

We have a lot of work to do, and I’m not even sure where to start. I just knew I had to start somewhere so I started here. We hope to provide more Jewish resources and ways to be involved in the future. As someone said to me just this morning, as Jews we have a responsibility to be a “light unto the nations,” to be role models for improving society and lives of individuals, to repair the world.

Kein Yehi Ratzon – May it be God’s Will and our own.

Central Conference of American Rabbis Statement on Draft Supreme Court Opinion Overturning Roe V. Wade, May 3, 2022

Haggadah through the Ages

I love teaching. One of the things I love most about teaching is that I always learn something new, both from my preparation and from the participants in the class.

This is exceptionally true for my most recent class, The Story of the Story: History, Art, and Culture of the Haggadah. We have discovered so many interesting tidbits as we take a journey alongside the development of this “book” – a text that continues to change.

In 2011, Edward Rothstein wrote in a New York Times article that over 5,000 editions of the Haggadah had been published since the invention of the printing press. Considering that 5,000 doesn’t include the many illuminated manuscripts created in the Middle Ages nor does it include the vast number of editions that have been published in the past 10+ years, I can’t even imagine what the real number is. And with the explosion of online and DIY Haggadot… the number is incalculable.

Why so many editions? The liturgy in the Haggadah is not exactly mandated or required. The main goal is to tell the story, to relive the Exodus, to celebrate our freedom and commit to working toward the freedom of all people.

The “traditional” text of the Haggadah wasn’t fully in place until the late Middle Ages. Although some basics were outlined in the Talmud, there was no book or instructions. In the early Rabbinic period, they held a study session instead of telling the story of the Exodus, and they were forbidden for taking part in the Afikomen. What? No searching for the Afikomen? In those times, as the Passover Seder was modeled after Greco-Roman banquets, “afikomen” or “dessert” referred to the post-dinner revelry that we should most definitely not participate in. Parents were encouraged to create a game of matzah snatching to keep the children engaged; perhaps that was the precursor to the Afikomen search.

Some tidbits we have discovered is that the order of the Passover Seder wasn’t written down until the 12th century; that Maimonides wrote the passage Ha Lachma Anya – the “bread of affliction; and the Seder Plate itself didn’t make an appearance until the 16th century.

The most interesting to me – so far – was a question asked and later answered (through some research) by a class participant about a fox seen in an illuminated manuscript. It turns out that many illuminated manuscripts include the motif of a rabbit or a hare being chased by dogs or hunters or even a fox. In every image, the hare escapes. Why is this non-kosher animal in our Haggadah? It could be that the hare was a common image for the time. But in the context of the Haggadah, the hare symbolizes the Jewish people being persecuted and surviving time and time again. From one odd image almost hidden in Haggadah illustrations, we find the main theme of Passover symbolically represented: freedom.

There’s so much to learn, so many creative ways to explore our past, our present and our future in this holiest of days.

Chag Sameach – Happy Passover (almost)

Caring for Ukraine

It’s hard to believe that five weeks ago, Russia invaded Ukraine in their campaign to take over the country. The ongoing “breaking news” flashing on our TVs and on social media describes the latest on the devastation that Russia is bringing to Ukraine and the escalating humanitarian crisis. It is hard to watch, to listen to, or to read about, but we can’t hide away.

This war affects us all – in the present and in the future. Not just in inflated gas, wheat and other food prices, or through the influx of Ukrainian immigrants to the U.S., or in our heartbreak for human beings needlessly suffering. The war is not just about Ukraine; it is about all of us.

Our Jewish values demand that we reach out to care for Ukraine and her citizens and to help those countries who are overwhelmed with assisting over 4 million refugees who have left Ukraine. Many of us have helped in different ways: we have contributed money to relief efforts, contacted our representatives, featured the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag in a variety of media to show support. And still we ask: What can we do?

We can look back through Jewish history and heritage and see our people’s ties to Ukraine. Some of us can look to our own family history for the same link. At Temple Emanuel Sinai, we have fellow congregants who were born in Ukraine and made their way to the United States much more recently. What can we do? We can reach out to them especially, show our care and support, inquire how they are doing and ask about family and friends directly impacted. Then we can ask them our question: What can we do? What should we do?

Tatyana and Jacob Gorodetsky grew up in Ukraine and came to the United States in the early 1990’s via Belarus. Their family has been part of our TES community for many years. They welcome your questions and have some concrete ideas on how we can all help. Feel free to contact Tatyana through email:

I often find it meaningful for prayer to be the last words that linger with us – on our lips, in our ears, on our hearts and minds. These lines from “A Prayer for Peace in the Ukraine” by Rabbi Sabath Beit-Halachmi articulate what I’ve been feeling and what I imagine many of us have been feeling.

…We stand together with our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine,
the birthplace of so many of our ancestors,
a place where the Jewish people has known both light and darkness.
We pray for a quick end to the raging conflict and the senseless bloodshed.
May our people remember that wherever a Jew is in danger or hurt,
we all feel that danger and pain as well.
As they seek cover from the life-threatening missiles
and fire falling from the sky, as they help the elderly
and hug their children tightly, and defend their homeland,
we pray that they can maintain hope that a Sukkat Shalom–
a canopy of blessing and peace–
will soon emerge above them.
May all the innocent people in the Ukraine and throughout the region
know that we are with them. Even from afar, we hear their cries.
May they know that we will continue to advocate for peace among nations
and that we will strengthen our commitment to aid and protect
every human being…”


Gratitude Practice at Shabbat Services

Help. Thanks. Wow.

In the book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, author Anne Lamont brings prayer to its most basic meaning and makes it accessible to all.

Help, Thanks, and Wow are the themes of all Jewish prayers whether expressed alone in personal prayer or as part of a structured worship service.

Today, I want to focus on Thanks – gratitude.

In addition to being part of our liturgy, gratitude is important because it puts everything in perspective. Giving thanks reminds us of our blessings and all that is good in our lives. A gratitude practice – articulating what we are grateful for on a regular basis – can lift our spirits and bring us joy. Research shows that regular acts of gratitude can even improve our physical and emotional health.

Through many of the blessings in our worship service, we have the opportunity for a regular gratitude practice. Of those blessings is unique as it combines an individual blessing with a congregational affirmation. In our Torah service, right after our prayer for healing, it is customary to say a thanksgiving blessing, called the Birkat haGomeil. Traditionally, this prayer is said by individuals who have survived life-challenging situations, for example: recovering from an illness, returning safely from travel, and overcoming a tragedy.

Even though Birkat haGomeil doesn’t traditional extend to other things we may be grateful for, like a simcha (happy event), or appreciation of nature, or the kind act of another human being to name a few, the wording of the text can apply to any reason for gratitude.

The text of Birkat haGomeil invites an individual to recite in front of the entire community: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has bestowed every goodness upon us.” Then the congregation responds, “Amen. May the One who has bestowed goodness upon us continue to bestow every goodness upon us forever.” (Translation from Mishkan T’filah)

The unique nature of Birkat haGomeil is that it brings our gratitude to the public, and lets the congregation know what good things are happening in our lives. Then all of us can be grateful for each other’s blessings as a community.

This Shabbat, we’re going to begin this custom of inviting participants to share something they are grateful for in a short sentence. We’ll have index cards for you to write on before the service and there will be an opportunity to share out loud for those who are comfortable doing so. We hope to invite our online worshippers to participate once we determine the best method for that communication.

Even in our turbulent world, we have so much to be grateful for. Let us share our blessings with each other so we can rejoice together. Amen.

Purify Space and Make it Holy

I wrote my rabbinic thesis on the magic and demonology found in a 13th century book called Sefer Hasidim, The Book of the Pious. One of my favorite stories from the text describes how to expel demons from a space where you want to build a house. 10 men, one of whom carried a Torah scroll, were required to walk a grid over the space so they covered every inch of ground while reciting psalms. Other instructions designated how to consecrate a new home with a variety of rituals involving salt and bread. It is a wacky book.

This may sound like a wacky ritual from a wacky book, but the principal remains relevant today. These Jewish men wanted to ritually cleanse a space so they could build a house. They needed to purify it in order to create a holy space. I’d like to think we don’t have or believe in literal demons today; perhaps our “demons” are bad memories or negative feelings tied to a space. So, creating an emotionally safe space today is equally important – whether at home, at work, at school, at temple or other special places. Just like hundreds of years ago, we can design ways to remove negative feelings and memories from a space and infuse it with positivity.

Our Torah portion this week, Tzav, addresses the same concept, although it is a brief comment that could be easily overlooked. In chapter 8 of Leviticus, during a discussion of the priests’ ordination, one verse describes how Moses uses parts from the animal sacrifice to “purify the alter” and “consecrate it.” Why were both purify and consecrate mentioned? Aren’t they the same thing? When I looked at the Hebrew, I realized they had different purposes. Consecrate is easy: the Hebrew word vay’kadesheihu means to make holy. But the Hebrew words for purify, vay’chatei comes from the same root as sin, which can also be translation as expiation or even redemption. In Biblical times, when a sin offering was made, it was to repair or redeem the mistake that was made; from a ritual perspective it was almost as if the mistake was taken away with the sacrifice.

Perhaps the Hebrew vay’chatei can teach us that when we want to purify a space, we need to perform a ritual to take away any bad memories or feelings that we might associate with the place. If every time we walk into a certain place, we relive a bad memory, that space will never feel good or safe. To make a place holy, we need to repair the space. What a concept! I don’t necessarily have a ritual to offer for the purification; I think it depends on you, your memory, and what you need. It’s in our power to transform spaces into something holy.

Chazak, chazak

Last Shabbat after the Torah reading, when we chanted the words, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik” – be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened – I wasn’t thinking about the fact that we would begin the book of Leviticus this week.

Leviticus is not my favorite book of the Torah. Outside of the Holiness Code (Chapter 19), and maybe a few other sections, I don’t find the material very interesting. I can’t seem to focus on the long descriptions about animal sacrifice and how the priests fulfilled their jobs. Every year, whether in sermons or Torah Study, I struggle to find ways the text is relevant to our lives.

This year, my reflections on my struggles with the book of Leviticus brought me a couple of insights – or reminders of why the content of Leviticus is valuable.

I may consider animal sacrifice and the role of the priesthood outdated, but their inclusion in our sacred text and the historical evidence of their centrality in Judaism shows that they were extremely valued. I may not value them, but someone did, and those “someones” are my ancestors. Reading the details about the priests’ job made me think about a friend or a family member who recounts all the details of their job. We might find the job and the description boring, but because we care about them, and hopefully don’t find the person boring, we care about what they have to say. For these reasons and more, I can find value in the text.

My second reason the text is valuable is because our worship structure is based on the sacrificial system. When the ancient rabbis realized that animal sacrifice was not the only way to worship God, and perhaps may not be available as a practice at all, they adapted the sacrificial worship into a liturgical structure – prayers – that continues to be the basis of our services today. Additionally, most of our ritual and ethical commandments are grounded in the text of the Torah, which of course includes the book of Leviticus. And the rabbis knew how difficult Leviticus was, so they created some of the most inventive midrashim – explanations – based on Leviticus. I remember studying a midrash based on Leviticus that was actually all about Purim!

So, as we begin the book of Leviticus this week, with a hint to the celebration of Purim that will take place in the coming days (see below), I hope to take my own advice and value the struggle with my least favorite yet still valuable sacred text.

Prayer for Peace in Ukraine

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar II. Traditionally, the month of Adar is the month in which joy should take over as our primary emotion (Adar I and Adar II in a leap year). It is hard to feel joy when watch human beings suffer. As we pray for peace – in Ukraine and in the world, we pray and hope for a day when joy will not only be easy but the most common emotion of every human being. This poem, written by Miriam Klimova in Ukrainian and Hebrew followed by an English translation by Rabbi Lior Nevo and Aharon N. Varady, not only asks for protection for all who are in danger but all expresses that hope for peace.

English Translation:

“Perhaps only migrating birds know –
Suspended between earth and sky –
The heartache of two homelands…” (From “Pine” (1955) by Leah Goldberg)

Our God,
bless our friends and relatives!
Lord of all creatures,
by your great mercy,
protect all the inhabitants of your world.
Spread over them a canopy of peace,
liberate them from all hatred and enmity,
and plant in the hearts of all people of this earth
love and fraternity,
friendship and peace.

And fulfill the vision of your prophet:
“Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)


Why Was the Golden Calf Built?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, includes the story of the Golden Calf. This story is familiar even for many who would not consider themselves knowledgeable in the Bible. Moses was on the mountain talking to God for a really long time, and the Israelites became impatient. Perhaps he’ll never come back? They lost their faith in Moses, in this new God they couldn’t see, and they built an idol – a “god” they could see.

Yesterday, at a worship committee meeting, I asked our members why the Israelites built the Golden Calf. I wanted to dig deeper than the usual reasons listed above. We talked about the trauma the Israelites had experienced: years of slavery and now suddenly being free. They didn’t know where they were going, what was happening, what the future would hold. They were wandering, lost – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The one person who held a hint to the answer of these mysteries was gone. He had disappeared, and there was no word when or if he would return.

They needed to do something. So they return to the familiar, to their comfort zone even if they know in their hearts that no positive outcome will result from their actions. After all, this Golden Calf, a symbol of Egypt, is almost like a memorial to their past enslavement. But they can’t seem to help themselves.

We, too, are a little lost. We yearn for answers: what does the future look like? Many of us hold on to our comfort coping methods, even when we know that they’re not so helpful: Oh chocolate, how lovely do you make me feel! We think about “going back to normal” when there’s no such thing as “going back” or “normal”. But we can’t seem to help ourselves.

When Moses finally comes down the mountain, he offers guidance for the future: the innovation of the 10 Commandments, and some say the Torah. Yes, it’s a new path, unfamiliar and scary. But what he – and God – have provided is a way to heal by going forward.

We, too, will find a new path to embrace, even if it is unfamiliar and scary. It will have characteristics of the past, like spending time together and in person, and seeing the smiling faces of other people. It won’t be the same, and it will be the way we heal forward.

Compassion, T’shuvah, and Whoopi Goldberg

Some of you may have heard about Whoopi Goldberg’s comment on the television talk show “The View” regarding the Holocaust not being about race. The response to her comment was swift, strong, and varied. Some people were incredibly harsh, accusing her of being Anti-Semitic, while others were interested in determining if her opinion was from lack of understanding and education. The very next day, after speaking to a number of Jewish leaders and educators, Whoopi issued an apology on “The Voice” and on social media. She apologized for the hurt she had caused, acknowledged her wrongdoing, and exhibited a willingness to listen and learn.

A friend sent me an opinion piece today about ABC’s decision to suspend Whoopi Goldberg from “The View” for two weeks even after her apology. The author of the article explained that Whoopi’s apology was in line with our Jewish values of t’shuvah (repentance), and it would be better to keep the conversation in the public so others could learn too. We should honor people when they realize their mistakes, learn from them, and begin to repair the damage. In fact, for someone who sincerely and correctly does t’shuvah, Judaism considers it a double mitzvah.

In thinking about ABC’s reaction, the vitriol Whoopi Goldberg received, the rising Anti-Semitic words and actions in our country, and so many challenges in other topics that are too depressing to name, I feel like most of us are feeling “on the edge”. We are unsettled, burned out, quick to react with anger or annoyance instead of empathy and compassion. This state of being is understandable, yet not helpful to ourselves or others.

Yesterday, I met with our 7th grade Religious School class as they finished preparing for leading Shabbat Services tomorrow night (for our early service, 6:30 pm, on zoom and live-streamed). My short time with them reminded me how wise our young people are, from our littlest ones to our teenagers. The 7th graders wrote personal prayers to fill in what they felt were gaps in our prayer book: prayers that expressed compassion for ourselves and others. They felt that this was something we needed to talk and pray about especially now.

They are absolutely right. If everyone’s default was compassion – especially in challenging times, can you imagine how different people would be? I’m not sure I can comprehend a world ruled by compassion – it’s beyond my experience. But I can imagine working on my instinct toward compassion, and I can imagine being surrounded by a group of people who are compassionate. We make a difference one person at a time in order to change the world.

Our 7th graders have begun the process. Come to services tomorrow night to be inspired and join with them to increase compassion in our world.