I’m cool for Kol Nidre

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When people ask me what prompted me to become a rabbi, I often tell them about my love of Jewish learning, or Israel, or a desire to help, or some such noble pursuit.  The truth is what prompted me to become a rabbi was-Chuck Taylors.

I remember as a kid going to synagogue on Yom Kippur and seeing my rabbi and cantor wearing snow white Chuck Taylors on the bimah.  I grew up in a more traditional congregation, and many people observed the prohibition on wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur.  The rabbi and cantor wore Chucks.  Now, if you can you name another religion where on the holiest day of the year the leader of the congregation rocks Chuck Taylors?  Did not think so.   The Pope, who is a very humble and caring man, still wears Pradas.  Don’t get me started on what our Newark Archbishop wears-but trust me, they ain’t 40 dollar Chucks. 

Most Reform rabbis wear leather shoes, because Reform is a classy movement and we still think that sneakers on Yom Kippur smack of “the old country”.  So for over a decade I have worn nice leather shoes.  But this year I went out to Footlocker and bought me some snow white Converse All-Stars to rock on the bimah this Yom Kippur.  Stylin’ don’t you think?

An easy fast!


Feeding with a long-handled spoon

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Our Muslim brothers and sisters are in the middle of Ramadan, which commands both fasting and penitence, and shortly (Aug 7) my Jewish sisters and brothers will begin the long 40 day period of penitence and introspection that commences with the month of Elul and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As a congregational rabbi, I am asked quite often about the “sticky” matters relating to forgiveness.  In my tradition, we are obligated to forgive those who genuinely seek our pardon, who acknowledge the wrongs they have committed against us.  In turn, we are commanded to ask pardon of those whom we have wronged, and if applicable, make restitution.  But it is my experience that the majority of people are troubled not by those who honestly and openly seek our forgiveness, but those who refuse to acknowledge any harm they may have caused, indeed, are often quite oblivious to the pain that they have inflicted.  Over the years, I have been asked by genuinely pained and troubled people,  “Rabbi, how do I forgive my sister\neighbor\best friend when she\he won’t even acknowledge that they have wronged me?”   Even worse, too many people are burdened by feelings of anger and resentment that keep them from living happier, less troubled lives.  I have tried  to explain that if a person simply refuses to acknowledge a wrong they have caused, we cannot “forgive” in the classic Jewish sense, for forgiveness requires atonement on the part of the offender. However, we can forgive in the psychologically healthy sense, in that we learn to live with the new knowledge that this person is not who we thought they were, that they have indeed harmed us, and that as a result our relationship has diminished.  Even if we are required by circumstance to maintain some connection with them we should do so with the new and liberating understanding  that  the previous understanding of our relationship is no longer valid.  We allow the anger and resentment to be replaced by wisdom and experience.  I found a remarkable expression of this sentiment in today’s New York Times. (7/25/13).  An article profiling former colleagues of controversial chef Paula Deen focused on one of her close collaborators, Dora Charles.  Ms. Charles states that she was promised by Ms. Deen considerable financial benefits from her extensive collaboration and work, but despite her loyalty she was abandoned by Ms Deen and now lives in meager circumstances in a trailer park.  When asked about forgiveness, she says “I still have to be her friend if I’m God’s child.  I might feed her with a long- handled spoon, but yeah I’m still her friend.”  In other words, there is still relationship, but there is unbridgeable distance.  Ms. Charles offers the perfect metaphor for what I have been lamely trying to explain to my distressed congregants all these years.  Sometimes, when you have to stay in relationship with someone that has disappointed or injured you and refuses to acknowledge the fact, all we can do is “feed them with the long -handled spoon.”

One lesson from Sandy: You may lose electricity; but you never lose power

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This has been, and continues to be, a hard week for so many.  As the cold settles in, the lack of electricity and heat is making life increasingly uncomfortable.  As one who has experienced significant power loss twice in the past year, I can attest to how the cold and dark begin to numb the mind and weary the spirit.

But if there is a lesson in this-it is that while we might lose electricity, we never lose power.  The power to love one another, the power to hope the power to help.  I have personally witnessed great acts of generosity and kindness, often bestowed by people who themselves were suffering.  I have seen people express genuine gratitude and thanks for even the slightest courtesy extended towards them.  In a few days, things will be back to “normal” for most.  I am afraid that we will soon be once again enmeshed in the frenzy of our lives, and forget that goodness and generosity of spirit are the greatest “energy sources” of all.

Welcome guests-welcome them!

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I am breaking my iron rule about “no blogging on Shabbos” to share a thought on this day.

The Torah portion of Vayera introduces us to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim-of welcoming guests.  I can think of no greater mitzvah these days than to welcome those who are displaced, who are cold, who are in need of shelter.  Welcome them-welcome them.


A random thought.  On the way to shul today I passed a truck carrying devices for smoking cessation.  I can’t think of a worse week to try to convince people to stop smoking.

How Hard it is to Change!

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One of my favorite authors, Sister Joan Chittester,  has written;

 Life gives us all a chance over and over again to do today what we did not do last year or in another place or yesterday.  Life, however interrupted, is one long moment of coming to be the best we can be.  But the growing is not linear.  It is at best a process of stops and starts, of moments apparently without meaning and times that test the fiber of the soul.

 I find the High Holydays to be a cleansing, and even exhilarating experience.  But as the Holydays arrived this year, I also found that the resolutions I made the previous fall have barely been fulfilled, if at all.  I wonder if this year  I am truly a better parent, a better spouse, a better friend, as I vowed to be one year ago.  If I answer myself truthfully, I find that I have fallen short yet again in all those areas. 

 Sister Joan’s teaching brings me immense comfort.  Progress is slow, fitful, and uneven.  Every step forward is accompanied by steps back.  Perhaps that is why I always look forward to Sukkot.  On Sukkot, we build a fragile hut of boards and bamboo, and eventually take it down again to be stored away for next year.  Every year I put it up, and every year I confront the reality of having to take it down.  That is kind of like the promises I make to myself to improve ethically and spiritually and socially.  Every fall I try to envision a new life for myself, a new way of being, and it is as fragile as a hut, and sometimes over the course of the year  it falls or is taken down.  But I know that next year I can try to build it again.  Self-construction is a task that can be attempted again and again.