Category Archives: Prayer

Replanting the Uprooted on Tu B’shevat

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu celebrated the festival of Tu B’shevat (“The New Year of the Trees”) by leaving a meeting with American peace envoy George Mitchell and promptly embarking upon a tree-planting tour at Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Here is what he had to say:

The message is clear – we are here and will remain here. We are planting and building; this is an inseparable part of the State of Israel.

For those looking for a different way to connect the festival of Tu B’shevat to the current political reality in the State of Israel, I recommend reading this at your seder, written by Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights:

Lift the olive branch and say:

The olive branch, what is the reason for this?

We raise the olive branch as a symbol of responsibility, identification and hope.

We raise this branch in sorrow because each and every year, olive trees, the source of livelihood for Palestinian families, are intentionally chopped down, burned and uprooted.  In attempting to exercise their right to work their lands, farmers repeatedly put themselves in danger. Both the human being and the trees of the field are desecrated, and there is no earthly law or judge (ein din v’ein dayan). Only a few are guilty, but all are responsible (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel).

On Tu B’shevat, we are taught that the trees cease to drink from the rains of the past year and begin to be nourished from the rains of the current year (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 56a). However, into the old and the new waters have fallen the tears of the dove of peace whose feet cannot find a resting place (Genesis 8:9) because the earth has become filled with violence (Genesis 6:11). The olive branch has become bitter in her mouth – a symbol of strife.

We raise this branch as a symbol of identification with those Israelis and Palestinians who are doing everything in their power to change this reality and make enemies into friends (Pirke Avot De’Rabbi Natan) by planting, pruning, plowing and harvesting together, despite the voices of hate and incitement from both sides.

May it be Your will that the fruit of the olive, symbol of the World of Yetzirah/Creativity (Pri Eytz Hadar) inspire us to create justice and peace out of the basic materials of the soil, the fruit of the soil, and the human spirit (adamah, pri adamah, ve’ruakh ha’adam) so that by the time evening falls (Genesis 8:11) we will reconnect the olive branch to the root of the soul (Shoresh Nishmato).

May we thus beat our swords into plowshares and  our spears into pruning hooks…so that every person may sit under their vine or fig tree and none shall make them afraid (Micah 4:3-4) and the land shall know tranquility (Judges 3:11, etc.) and all of its inhabitants will rejoice.

Feeding the God of Compassion: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

From my Yom Kippur eve sermon last Sunday night:

If the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of fear or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God of compassion? The God of xenophobia or the God of justice? And if our answer is indeed the latter, then we must affirm it. We must bear witness to this image of God in no uncertain terms. History teaches all too well what the God of hatred can do in our world. Those of us who reject this theology must be ready to do so without hesitation – to actively promote the God of compassion.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

Continue reading

Yom Kippur: Life as a Terminal Illness


I included this reading in our service for Shabbat Shuvah yesterday: an excerpt from a 1999 commencement speech by one of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen. I believe it’s about as wonderful a Yom Kippur message as you will find.

I’ll be offline until Monday evening. May we all be sealed for health, meaning, peace and life in the coming year…

So here’s what I wanted to tell you today: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast?

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water gap or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure; it is work. Each time you look at your diploma, remember that you are still a student, still learning how to best treasure your connection to others. Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Kiss your Mom. Hug your Dad.

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas in the suburban neighborhood where you grew up; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black, black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted.

Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take money you would have spent on beers and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister. All of you want to do well. But if you do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.

It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the color of the azaleas, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live.

I learned to live many years ago. Something really, really bad happened to me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had my druthers, it would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, seems to be the hardest lesson of all.

I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that it is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.

I learned to look at all the good in the world and to try to give some of it back because I believed in it completely and utterly. And I tried to do that, in part, by telling others what I had learned.  By telling them this: Consider the lilies of the field.  Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy.

And think of life as a terminal illness because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived.

Well, you can learn all those things, out there, if you get a real life, a full life, a professional life, yes, but another life, too, a life of love and laughs and a connection to other human beings. Just keep your eyes and ears open. Here you could learn in the classroom. There the classroom is everywhere. The exam comes at the very end.

On Gaza and Yom Kippur: A Call to Moral Accounting

From my op-ed in this morning’s Sunday Chicago Tribune:

The actions of the Jewish State ultimately reflect upon the Jewish people throughout the world. We in the Diaspora Jewish community have long taken pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish State. As with any family, the success of some reflects a warm light on us all. But pride cannot blind us to the capacity for error on the part of the country we hold so dear. We cannot identify with the successes, but refuse to see the failures.

As we approach Yom Kippur, I call on America’s Jews to examine the Goldstone findings, and consider their implications. In the spirit of the season, we must consider the painful truth of Israel’s behavior in Gaza, and understand that we must work, together, to discover the truth — and then urge on all relevant parties in the search for peace.

Faith and Faithfulness: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

From my sermon this past Rosh Hashanah eve:

How do we discover the true meaning of spiritual commitment in our lives? Perhaps the first step is simply taking a closer look at our lives themselves. Maybe, just maybe, the source of our emunah is much closer than we think.  On Rosh Hashanah we say in our liturgy “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world is born.  Your entire life has been leading up to this moment. Take the time to look back. What has led you here to this place tonight? Who are the people who have helped to guide you on your journey? What are the memories and experiences that you continue to hold sacred? And, finally, how will you transform them into faithful action? How will you commit to them honor them in the coming year and the years after that?

Click below for the entire sermon:

Continue reading

A Vow for Yom Kippur

If you are interested in making a sacred promise this Yom Kippur, I’m submitting one for your consideration. The Shomer Shalom Jewish Institute for Jewish Nonviolence has developed the following vow (or “intention”) for be recited daily or annually on Yom Kippur. (Frankly, I can’t think of a better supplement to Kol Nidre…)

G’mar Tov – and may we all walk in the path of peace this New Year.

I believe that the practice of Judaism and the practice of all religions is for the sake of peace. Therefore, I, _____________, for the sake of peace and for the purpose of fulfilling “hashomer akhi anokhi” (“I am responsible for safeguarding the life and well-being of my sister and brother”), disavow the use of any form of physical, emotional, verbal, spiritual or economic violence toward myself and others, and hereby  accept upon myself the way of non-violence/shmirat shalom. I do this of my own free will and full realization of the commitment I herewith assume.

As a Shomer/et Shalom I, ___________ offer my diligence, devotion and dedication to the following principles and practices of Shmirat Shalom.

I choose to live by the principle that the study of Torah is intended to cultivate peace.  I will study Torah as a Shomer/et Shalom.

I choose to live by the principle that prayer is intended to cultivate peace. I will practice prayer as a Shomer/et Shalom.

I choose to live by the principle that the Sabbath and Holy Days are intended to cultivate peace. I will practice Shabbat and Holy Days as a Shomer/et Shalom.

I choose to live by the principle that our capacity for love and nonviolence is necessary for peace.  I will practice love and nonviolence for all people as a Shomer/et Shalom. As a Shomer/et Shalom, I am a conscientious objector to war.

I choose to live by the principle that the earth and all that is in it is sacred. I will practice environmental stewardship as a Shomer/et Shalom.

By offering this intention I, _______, accept the privileges and responsibilities of a steward of active nonviolence, a Shomeret Shalom.  May peace prevail upon the earth quickly and in our day.


New iPhone Apps that are Good for the Jews

Not sure which blessing to say over what foods? No need to live with the shame any more. Just download the new iBlessing application onto your iPhone and with the touch of a finger you’ll know exactly which bracha to utter over fish, meat, bread, fruit, etc. While you’re at it you might as well download the nifty Parve-O-Meter: a timer app that calculates exactly how long you need to wait to eat dairy after you’ve eaten meat (or vice versa).

What’s next, the iSefirah app for those who lose track of the Omer? (I shouldn’t laugh – I’m sure the Apple folks are working on it as we speak…)

If you’ve got iTunes, you can find the iBlessing and Parve-O-Meter here. If you’re blessing-challenged and don’t own an iPhone, don’t fear: check out the Say-a-Blessing Keychain (now offered with the handy LED flashlight feature!)