On Israel – Words from Rabbi Alex

On Israel - Shabbat Words 10/13 - Rabbi Alex Kress

Opening Words

Shabbat shalom, l’kulam. 

Welcome family and friends. We gather tonight in a moment of darkness, in a moment of tragedy, in a moment of devastation, in a moment when the medieval poet Yehuda HaLevi’s words come to mind: Libi bamizrach v’anochi b’sof hama’arav – My heart is in the east, but I am in the uttermost west.

We are gutted, we are angry, we are hurt, we are confused, we are pained, we feel helpless, we cannot pull ourselves from our phones, we are mourning for more people every day, we are drained, exhausted. We gather tonight to process that, to cry, to pray, to mourn, to hold each other, to find moments of peace and tranquility, to turn off our phones and just be for a sliver of time with no demands on us except being present.

But perhaps more than anything, we gather with Jews across the world tonight, to defy the terror of this week with the holiness of Shabbat. Jewish joy, if we can muster it, is the greatest defiance of hatred and antisemitism possible. 

Tonight, we move through liturgy that refills our empty reservoirs, gives us strength, grounds us in ritual, reminds us of our connectedness, gives voice to our deepest yearnings, and…at the end of our service, yes, we will lift our voices up in joy, in the joy of Shabbat, in the joy of song, in the joy of singing together, in the joy of being together, in the joy of being proudly Jewish, in the joy of the Jew. 

But we aren’t there yet…we will get there. 

We begin with words from Psalms: Ozi V’Zimrat Yah Va Yehi Li Li’shua – Yah/God is my strength and might, and will be my deliverance.

Before Psalm 29 – Rabbi Galit & Kodesh v’Chol

When I was in Israel in February, I spent Shabbat in a small heimish community like ours in Holon, just outside Tel Aviv. It’s not official, but I think of them as a sister-synagogue of Beth Shir Shalom. My friend there, Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, had arranged for her Reform community to host us for services and then had arranged for families to take us to their homes for home-cooked meals. I went to the Tenenboim house; they had three kids, close in age to mine. We laughed, we connected through my elementary Hebrew and their broken English. We played games, some of whose rules I did not understand. Their friends and family came in and out of their warm little home throughout the night. My colleague and I totally missed the bus back to the hotel because in the blink of an eye, our dinner had turned to a multi-hour, middle-of-the-night affair of Jewish joy. I was at complete peace. 

It is hard to comprehend what they are going through today, to understand the trauma this beautiful family, their beautiful kids, the beautiful community of Kodesh v’Chol, all of Israel has just endured. On our planned trip to Israel in June, which I hold out hope will happen, our first stop was to Kodesh v’Chol to celebrate Shabbat with them. But the world is different than it was a few days ago. As Rabbi Galit wrote this morning, “Six days feel like six months.” You’ll find the rest of her note on the last page of the handout.

In her first message Saturday night, she asked us to pray Psalm 29:

יְֽהוָ֗ה עֹ֭ז לְעַמּ֣וֹ יִתֵּ֑ן, יְהוָ֓ה יְבָרֵ֖ךְ אֶת־עַמּ֣וֹ בַשָּׁלֽוֹם׃
May Adonai grant strength to God’s people; May Adonai bless God’s people with Shalom.

And so we will, with a beautiful tune from Nava Tehila, our friends in Jerusalem.

B’reishit Drash

Exactly one week ago, we gathered to celebrate, to rejoice, to dance with our Torahs, to parade down to Wilshire proudly as Jews with our holy scrolls in hand, to unroll the entire Torah, to read the last words of D’varim/Deuteronomy and the very first of B’reishit/Genesis, to embrace our newest children into our community by enveloping them in Torah. 

What we did not know, was that as we danced and sang and chanted and rejoiced and celebrated one of the happiest moments on the Jewish calendar, Hamas was already getting in place to carry out the deadliest pogrom against Jews since the Holocaust. The Jewish world awoke on Shabbat morning – a morning of peace – to anything but. The barbarity of the murders, the rising death toll, the surprise attack on another Holy Day of Tishrei 50 years after Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur: there are no words. 

As we celebrated Simchat Torah last week, we began reading this week’s Torah portion, B’reishit: 

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ 

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth was Confusion and Chaos, without form and void.

Little did we know that our world would be plunged back into Tohu Va’vohu-Confusion and Chaos in mere hours. 

Our creation story isn’t really a creation story of the world. It’s a story of the world created anew, with a new rhythm, a new unity, a new righteousness. The world of the Torah’s authors was a world of Tohu Va’vohu – a world of warring, of one-upsmanship, of tribalism, of parochialism, of chauvinism. Our Creation story says STOP: Why must we live like this? 

What if we didn’t fight over God? What if we didn’t fight over land? What if we lived within a common framework of justice, love, and peace? What if all human beings were created in the image of God?

Tonight is one of those times when the Torah portion is not a mistake. It is the message we need in this moment. 

We need to pick up the shattered pieces and create the world anew? We need – we demand – a world of justice, a world of love, a world of peace.

We need to remember that we are all divine reflections – created b’tzelem elohim. We cannot dehumanize in the face of dehumanization. 

We need to remember Cain’s deflection of his murder of Abel: Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

And God’s subsequent wail: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”

We need to remember that Cain forces the Rabbis to then teach that to take a life is as if destroying all of humanity. And to save a life is as if saving all of humanity. We need to remember that this is in the Quran too.

You might feel hurt.
You might feel scared.
You might feel attacked. 
You might feel vulnerable.
You might feel confused.
You might feel angry.
You might feel a pain like you’ve never felt.
You might feel helpless.  
You might feel so many things simultaneously that you don’t know what to feel.

Me too. I’m processing with you and I’m here for you.

For me, it seems hard to do anything but pray. I’ve felt so helpless, so far away, so disgusted, so disheartened, so exhausted by it all.

But I have come to one conclusion, despite it all. I LOVE BEING JEWISH. 

No one – NO ONE – will take that from me. No one will rob us of the joy of being jewish. The joy of parading our torahs, of lighting our menorahs, of dressing up and drinking at purim. We will continue to celebrate. We will continue to gather. We will continue to display our Judaism proudly.

In our Torah this week, the very first thing God adds to the darkened, chaotic world is light. We will – we MUST – add light in the coming days and the coming months and the coming year to our lives, to our families, to those around us, to our community, to our world. 

I sat at my home Monday night, crying and crying and crying, sitting in pain and devastation. I came across a video from a group called Koolulam that gathers thousands of people to sing together. I happened upon their version of a huge hit in Israel, a song of unbridled joy paired with the unbridled joy of Israelis singing and dancing and celebrating, a song that I played as we paraded the Torahs. Mahapacha shel simcha ki Kulanu mishpacha. The song’s chorus sings: “A Revolution of Happiness Because We Are Family.”  

There is no defiance of antisemitism, of hatred, of terrorism, quite like Jewish joy. When we end our services tonight with Oseh Shalom, we’ll start slow, we’ll hold each others pain and deepest yearnings. As we go, we will pick up pace, we will stand, we will put our arms around each other, we will lift up ourselves and our prayers up in an act of defiance, in an act of Jewish joy.

I love you. I’m here for you. We rise now to begin our amidah, and then we will spend a few moments in silent prayer.

A Poem for Today: 10/13/2023

Avinu Shebashamayim
I know you’re not up there
But the sky has no borders.
So I look upward.
Seeking your oneness.
Yearning for your intervention.

But you aren’t the solution.
You are the question.
We, your answer.
Your agent in repairing
shattered, holy vessels.
And lands.

How can we repair when we are
So angry
So broken
So vulnerable
So scared
So confused

Why do our answers leave more of your
broken vessels
in our wake.

Avinu Shebashamayim
Barech et eretz yisrael.
Bless the land of Israel.
Barech et eretz falastin.
Bless the land of Palestine.
Barech et whatever-you-call-it.
With peace.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav,
May the one who makes peace in the high heavens
Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu,
Make peace for us
v’al Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel,
For all Israel, and for all who inhabit the land.

But truthfully
making peace isn’t
God’s responsibility.
It’s ours.

V’imru: Amen.


Parshat Sh’lach L’cha – After Roe

Parashat Sh'lach L'cha 5782 - After Roe

Shlach L’cha tells the story of the scouts that Moses sent out to see the land of milk and honey that God promised them. But more than the land, they were scouting the future. Were the years ahead really flowing with milk and honey, or did challenges and uncertainty await?

The scouts reported back that the land did flow with milk and honey – just look at this single bunch of grapes, so large it had to be carried on a frame between two scouts! Yet Canaanites of great stature and strength occupied the land and the scouts thought it impossible for the Israelites to settle there. They describe the promised land as a land that devours those that dwell there. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary tells us that “this phrase alludes to the results of frequent warfare, which ravaged Canaan.” In other words, the human politics made the holy land inhospitable, destructive, and even deadly. The scouts’ pessimism permeated the Israelite camp. They wept hysterically at the report: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt!” At the end of the scout story, God sends the Israelites into the wilderness for their lack of faith, away from the promised land via the Sea of Reeds – the very sea that they crossed to escape slavery in Egypt and gain their freedom. They moved backward, away from their future destination, and were forced to regroup in an uncertain, dangerous land.

We too are reentering the wilderness in our country as millions of people lose access to life-saving and live-affirming reproductive care. This grave injustice will intensify inequality and disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable in our society. With the fall of Roe v. Wade, we have every right to mirror the devastation of the Israelites and to lose faith in our leaders. Our future – a future with bodily autonomy and religious freedom for ourselves, our partners, and our children – was just stripped away from us. For some, we now understand on a new level the effects of inhospitable, destructive, and deadly politics. For others, they’ve been dealing with these dehumanizing attacks for their entire lives. Responding with anguish and weeping like the Israelites is understandable, perhaps even necessary. But I pray that we also find the strength to remember the scout who first offered optimism in the face of dismay.

As the other scouts reported on the insurmountable odds of conquering the promised land, Caleb told the Israelites, “We shall surely overcome it.” This grounded optimism leads the Torah to describe Caleb as having a ruach acheret, a different type of spirit. He saw the obstacles but did not allow them to obstruct his clear vision of what the future could – and ultimately would – hold. Though we have returned to the wilderness in despair, may we never forget where we are headed. May our vision for religious freedom, respect for others, and bodily autonomy be regained in our days through the work of our hand. May we remember our duty to raise our voice against injustice, organize for change, and support generously those in need. And may we always remember the power of community to heal, uplift, and seek a better tomorrow.

Our Broken Hearts

Dear Beth Shir Shalom Family,

Our hearts are broken, yet again. There are no words for the trauma our nation repeatedly endures: our children murdered in classrooms, our elderly gunned down in grocery stores, our worshippers killed in prayer. 

As my sadness ebbs and flows with my anger, I cannot muster more than a simple question: How? How did our nation become so indifferent to death? How have our politicians allowed this plague of gun violence to continue? How have we as an electorate not demanded change from our representatives? It does not have to be this way. For over two decades the Reform Movement has been calling for comprehensive legislation to prevent further gun violence. To allow this status quo to remain is to desecrate God and our religion and we will not stand for it.

As you process your grief and hold your people tight, know that I am here for you. If you’re in a prayerful mood, you can find the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish here or a God-Optional Kaddish that I wrote below. 

Sending you and your family love & strength in these trying times,
Rabbi Alex Kress

God-Optional Kaddish

may the divine sparks of Humanity
be magnified and sanctified
in our majestic World.
may Compassion & Empathy
reign in our Lives,
in our Every day,
and in the lives of the many houses of Humanity;

may our holiest Principles guide our world
towards an era overflowing with Blessing, Lovingkindness, and Respect;
in which we revere, raise up, exalt, honor, and praise our Diversity.

blessed is the Unifying Force
whose web of Life connects us all,
whose Blessings and Hymns, Praises, and Words of Comfort,
remind us that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

may our lofty dreams for Peace
be realized through Us,
and through all our neighbors on this earth,
by affirming the sanctity of life.

may our human network be an endless Source of Peace,
and bestow all those in need with Comfort, Tranquility, and Hope.

as a Whole made up of infinitely different Parts, we say: amen.

Finding Holiness in Hugs, Home & Hoagies


The pandemic kept me away from Philadelphia for over a year and a half, the longest I had ever been away from my hometown. As the plane descended out of the clouds, I gazed down on the city and was overcome with emotion. So much of my life had happened down there: celebration and mourning, love and heartbreak, triumph and failure.

I had returned home to reset after two of the hardest years of my life. As I drove from the airport to my childhood home, I cried as the streets came alive with memories. There, in that parking lot stood a stadium with a courthouse and a jail in the basement (yes, you read that right), where I caught my first foul ball. Over there, on that stretch of highway, I cut someone off and got honked at for the first time. And there, in that sanctuary, I became a bar mitzvah and later said a final goodbye to my grandfather. And here, well, here is the home where I scraped my knee and yelled too much and learned to love.

As linear time collapsed, I looked around and saw the memories that shaped me. I realized the grounding force of memory was as important in this homecoming experience as making my habitual pilgrimages for hoagies and hugs. In Parshat Matot-Mas-ei, we find a list of places along the Israelites’ journey from Egyptian bondage toward their promised homeland. The itinerary lists the stops but leaves out the memories, and our commentators try to fill in the story for the reader by referencing other parts of Tanach.

The 13th-century rabbi, Nachmanides, unpacks Numbers 33:14, which tells us the Israelites camped at Rephidim and had no water. He reminds us that at Rephidim the people were thirsty and quarreled with Moses and God, calling that place Massah (trying) and M’ribah (strife) before miraculously getting water out of a rock. It was there too that the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites. Numbers 33:18 tells us that the Israelites camped at a place called Rithmah. Rashi explains that it was here that the spies shared their pessimistic view on conquering the land of Israel. Numbers 33:44 lists a place called Iye Haavarim, a name, according to Rashi (1040-1105) “denotes waste places and heaps of rubbish.” All in all, there are forty-two stages in their journey. Midrash Tanhuma explains this long list with “the parable of a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure him. When they returned home, the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him, “Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had the head-ache, etc.” (4:10:3).

It is easy to downplay all the little moments that make us who we are. We like to act as if life is linear, predictably moving toward a given destination along a predetermined path. Yet the Israelite journey from slavery to the Land of Israel reminds us that there are many chapters that shape who we become. The Baal Shem Tov, the great Hasidic master, teaches that the many stages of the Israelite journey not only apply to the Israelites as a whole but to each and every one of us. “All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual between the time they are born and the time they die.” These forty-two stages remind us that life often leads us down an unpredictable and often circuitous path. Sometimes we fail in ways that inflict moral injury and pull us to an unimaginable low. In other moments we reach heights that soar past our wildest imagination. Most of the time, we forget to find holiness in the mundane steps of our journey or offer gratitude for whichever stage we find ourselves in.

Towards the end of Matot-Mas-ei, the Israelites are instructed: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I, Adonai, abide among the Israelite people” (Numbers 35:34). No matter where the Israelites found themselves in their journey, God remained. The midrash Sifrei Bamidbar teaches that “even when the Israelites were unclean, God’s presence remained amongst them” (160:15). In other words, God’s holy presence remained amongst the Israelites during their basest behavior and their best.

As I wandered through formative places of my city, memories flooded in – memories of failures and triumphs, memories of great joy and loss. Most of all, I rejoiced in walking into my childhood home and embracing my father after what felt like an eternity. Holiness, I realized, abounds in every tangible and intangible step of our journey.


Parshat Matot-Mas-ei simply reminds us to look for it.

Confronting Violence and Injustice Against Women


The statistics were not a secret, but for the first 30 years of my life, I was naively oblivious to the fact that more than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual violence, and nearly 1 in 5 has experienced rape or attempted rape during their lifetime (CDC). Because women close to me had never confided their experiences of sexual violence, I was shocked when they began to tell me – first one, then another, and another– that they had been raped, sexually harassed, touched without permission, or abused in other ways. Listening to their stories, trying to absorb their pain while controlling my rage, I felt guilty about my own ignorance and inaction. Why was I shocked at a truth that has been true for so long? Why had I never spoken out before?

In an effort to learn more, I read Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, a piercing memoir every man should read about a subject every woman knows all too well. Ms. Miller recounts what she remembers of being raped at the age of 23 and it’s traumatic after effect — the constant fear and need for vigilance and defensive safety measures. She describes the affronts women live with, such as unwelcome comments from strangers in public places; being stared at, followed, and cajoled; and the countless times she needed to phone someone for help when in a threatening situation. She details the shame, humiliation, and mental pain she and her loved ones endured when seeking justice through our legal system.

Her story, along with the testimonies of the women who had confided to me their stories of abuse and vulnerability, helped me understand the magnitude of the problem we face and how little most of us do to confront it. For too long, our society has belittled, ignored, and erased the stories of women for the protection of men. And, yes, it is important to note that people of all genders can be both victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Yet, statistics and anecdotal evidence all show that it is alarmingly the case that women, including trans women disproportionately, are overwhelmingly the survivors; and men, the perpetrators, many of whom face no consequences.

Unfortunately, this prejudice is reflected in the patriarchal nature of the Torah, with the rare exception of Parshat Pinchas. While this story might not chronicle the plight of women facing sexual assault, it does focus on injustice and against women. The Torah records the story of a family with five sisters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – and no brothers. When their father, Zelophehad, died, his property was distributed to male relatives, skipping over the daughters. The sisters came before Moses and pleaded: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4). Unable to render a swift decision, Moses asked for God’s judgment, and God agrees with the women: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just” (Numbers 27:7). This case is notable, not only because it is a rare instance in the Torah in which specific women identify injustice and have their voices elevated, but also because God rules against the established patriarchal norms. Medieval commentator Rashi further elucidates God’s words, saying, “This tells us that their [Zelophehad’s daughters] eye saw what Moses’ eye did not see.”

This story of women fighting for justice should be rightly celebrated because it demonstrates the Torahs perspective, that when women advocate for themselves and speak out against injustice, the men who maintain the status quo rule are obliged to respond.

Today’s rape culture stems from society’s implicit education that men have the right to take what they want in life, including women. This same status quo belittles women for showing the initiative, confidence, and sexuality we praise men for, and this dichotomy is taught early in life. As a society, we fail to teach consent early enough, giving young men a sense of sexual entitlement. Popular culture and media too often objectify women’s bodies, urging men to value them for their sexual desirability. We downplay the connection of catcalling and unwanted touch to sexual violence. Most disconcertingly, when we see this rape culture in front of us, we all too often fail to speak out. When was the last time you heard a man stop another man from talking about a woman in a derogatory or objectifying way? Proverbs 24 chastises those who say in times of trouble: “We knew nothing of it.” But now in 2021, with so many women and trans folks bravely sharing their experiences, we can no longer feign ignorance. Instead, we must stop talking, start listening, and take action as individuals and as a community.

In the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the community failed. God knew what was just, but as always, it takes human action to correct course. Sexual violence against women is a grievous epidemic that requires all of us to eradicate. Chanel Miller writes: “My community taught me that my words hold weight, they hold worth. Being heard shouldn’t be an unexpected gift, it should be a given. I was saved because people listened.”

We must listen and we must act. We must follow the five biblical sisters’ example and stand up for justice by speaking out, challenging established norms in our community, and holding each other accountable. That means teaching children consent and educating adults who don’t practice it. It means never saying, “What was she wearing?” or “He could never. He’s such a nice guy.” It means opening the space for survivors of sexual violence of all kinds. It means prioritizing the survivor instead of the perpetrator.

We can end the epidemic of sexual violence. We can right this injustice.

In the End, There Was Love


On June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. They delivered the news that the Civil War had ended and General Order Number 3, declaring that “all slaves are free.”

In a Thanksgiving address a few months later, the abolitionist rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal chastised the masses for their incredulous indifference to this historic moment: “Were not those who spoke for universal freedom and acted for universal justice in a small, small minority? And was not the name abolitionist a name of disgrace? And now this name has become a name of honor…” His optimistic proclamations — “The fetters of prejudices are broken” and “The white people have become emancipated just as well as the black people” — were premature. The fetters of prejudices are still intact and our society is still broken. Slavery was abolished, but discrimination remains embedded in our laws, our cultures, and our biases. As the struggle against racism continues, Parshat Chukat holds a hidden lesson in how we might find sustenance and purpose in our journey in the pursuit of justice.

In Numbers 21, we read how the Israelites battled against adversaries during their trek through the wilderness. The Torah tells us that in the “the Book of the Wars of Adonai speaks of et vahev b’sufa” (Numbers 21:14). These last three Hebrew words are particularly confounding. The English translation “Waheb in Suphah” reads like a bygone locale, but our tradition takes an interpretive approach to explain the phrase.

In the Talmud, we read of two study partners whose intense arguments made them feel like enemies. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz teaches that vahev is related to the word for love, ahava, and b’sufa as “at its end” [b’sofa]” (Kiddushin 30b). In other words, et vahev b’sufa could be interpreted to mean: “In the end, there was love.”

Read in the context of war, it may seem naive to expect enemies to end up as lovers. However, the Jewish understanding of love is based on the depth of covenant, not on the flutters of infatuation. The great Civil Rights rabbi Joachim Prinz reflected this understanding when he said, “You cannot be a rabbi unless you love people. You don’t have to like them, but you have to love all of them. [God] says, ‘Thou shalt love the neighbor as thyself.’  [God] doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt like them.’ I have loved all the people with whom I’ve come into contact. Even those with whom I have disagreed because I think God wants us to love people.”

This non-romantic, communal type of love elevates the concept of humanity as being created in the Divine image and espouses an understanding of covenantal responsibility to each other. Every human being has innate, inalienable worth, and Judaism demands that we see each other through that lens of covenantal love.

When I read et vahev b’sufa through the creative exegesis of our tradition, I am transported to the March on Washington in 1963, when, just before Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Rabbi Prinz laid out the Abrahamic case for our ongoing fight against racism: “Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

Just as Parshat Chukat lists the Israelites’ battles and resting places in their trek toward the Promised Land, so too should we mark our nation’s jagged journey toward racial justice. It is therefore appropriate to mark not just the official end of slavery with the phrase et vahev b’sufa, but also the continuing struggle against the legacy of Jim Crow – systemic racism.


Perhaps et vahev b’sufa is yet another reminder in our tradition of what redemption should look like: a time of overflowing covenantal love in which we lift up our fellow human beings’ dignity and integrity. Though that promised land remains far off with many righteous battles and much good trouble between here and there, a prayer for redemption in the prayer book Mishkan T’filah guides our way: “Wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt. That there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

Know Before Whom You Stand Before You Judge


During the pandemic, I had a serious mental health breakdown and no one knew. Perhaps I seemed a little off or distant to my loved ones and coworkers, but the depth of my sorrowful disorientation remained mostly hidden to the outside world.

Back on more stable ground, for now, I realize how much the still unraveling experience has opened within me access to new channels of empathy and understanding. The expression, “Be kind, for everyone is going through something you know nothing about,” has always resonated with me, but the trauma of the pandemic brought that lesson home in a profound way.


Poet Rudy Francisco writes:

Sometimes I’m the mess

Sometimes I’m the broom–

On my hardest days,

I have to be both.


Covid-19 has brought on my hardest days, forcing me to be both mess and broom.

In Parshat Balak, we read the farcical story of Balaam and his talking donkey. Balak, the Moabite king, hires the seer Balaam to curse the Israelites, whom he views as a growing threat. As Balaam sets out on his journey, God becomes irate and sends an angel to stand in front of the envoy’s donkey. Though Balaam fails to see the angel, the donkey does and swerves around it. Balaam beats the animal for reacting to something he cannot see. It happens again, and the donkey squeezes along the wall, painfully pinning Balaam’s foot. Balaam strikes the donkey again. The third time the donkey sees the angel of God, she lays down with Balaam on her back, at which point he becomes furious and hits her with a stick yet again. God finally intervenes, opening the donkey’s mouth to defend herself and then opening Balaam’s eyes to the presence of the angel. Balaam then says, “I erred because I did not know…” (Numbers 22:34).

So often we err because we do not know. We judge and gossip before ever attempting to react with kindness or understanding. The sin of Balaam is not his inability to see the invisible but to assume he knows it all and react violently. The medieval commentator Rashi adds that the acknowledgment of error was a disgrace for Balaam “because he used to boast that he knew the will of the Most High (24:16) and now his own mouth bore testimony: ‘I did not know’” (Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 1). When we pretend to know the inner workings of others, we assume to know the intricacies of God’s creatures, setting ourselves up to have to confess, “I erred because I did not know.”

Instead, we must recognize our agency in every situation and the harm that can be inflicted by claiming ignorance after acting carelessly. All of us have played both the role of Balaam and the role of the donkey. Like Balaam, we are all guilty of doing something harmful because we did not know or understand the situation or consequences. We judge based on perfect Instagram feeds instead of recognizing the inherent messiness of human life. Other times we are like the donkey, dealing with something no one else can see or understand and often receiving harsh judgment in return. When we truly understand that life is always more complicated than what most people publicly project, we begin to recognize the value and impact of acting thoughtfully and compassionately in the first instance of every action and interaction.

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle broke from the royal family and aired their pain publicly, they shattered the pristine image many outsiders had of royal life. The public fixation with the royal family has always invited grandiose assumptions of what their lives are like as seen through the prism of endless media messaging. Yet, no one on the outside can understand the vulnerabilities we do not see. We make assumptions about other people when we are able to see and understand just a fraction of their experiences. The private stressors and traumas we carry affect us profoundly, and we all must learn to replace our reflex to judge with a reflex to show compassion.


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflects: “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” I still admire intelligent people, but perhaps Heschel is correct; it’s the kind people we should aspire to emulate.

Choose Hope: The Story of Coach Ted Lasso and the Biblical Caleb


In the first episode of Ted Lasso, the title character played by Jason Sudeikis tapes a poster above the entrance to his office. It reads simply, “Believe.” The character is a small-town American football coach hired to lead a British soccer club, which Sudeikis describes as “Mr. Rogers meets John Wooden.” The problem is that Coach Lasso knows nothing about soccer and was intentionally hired by the clubs nefarious owner to tank the team. Undeterred by the challenges, he perseveres to spread optimism and hope.

In the story of the spies from this week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, we find the Torah’s version of Ted Lasso. Moses sends 12 men, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan. They are tasked with finding out how many people live in the land, if the soil was rich for farming, and if their towns were fortified. After 40 days, the men return downtrodden.

Though the land is flowing with milk, honey, and enormous clusters of grapes that take two people to carry, the spies deliver Moses and the Israelites a grim picture: The land is full of inhabitants, some so large they make the spies look like grasshoppers. Their cities are fortified and there is no chance the wandering Israelites can make the land their home. At this news, the people weep loudly, railing against Moses: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt” (Numbers 14:2)

However, one spy had a different experience. “Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us, by all means, go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it’” (Numbers 13:30). Caleb’s optimism and confidence stood in stark contrast to the cynicism of the other spies. While they expressed reservations and fear, Caleb expressed hope and faith. The text tells us that Caleb has a ruach acheret – a different spirit – that appears influential. A few verses after Caleb exudes positivity, another spy, Joshua, joins in and implores the Israelites to have faith. The 15th-century commentator Isaac Abarbanel teaches that while Joshua had a prophetic spirit that would later inscribe him in the canon, Caleb “had merely a human spirit.” Caleb, like Ted Lasso, was just a can-do guy.

Yet the story of Caleb and Ted Lasso is not only about their gift of optimism; it is that they made choices. Caleb, like Ted, could have been weighed down by cynics but instead chose to spread light rather than darkness. Caleb, like Ted, could have kept silent in the face of such negativity but instead chose to speak up. Caleb, like Ted, could have let the despondent undermine their faith but instead chose to believe in themselves, the people around them, and in things unraveling in the way that they were meant to unravel.

As Coach Lasso sets up his office in that first episode, he hangs a few iconic sports photos whose subjects inspire him: Muhammad Ali towering over Sonny Liston, the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, Coach Jim Valvano winning the 1983 NCAA Tournament. These moments embody the ruach acheret (different spirit) of Caleb: Muhammad Ali speaking out against the war in Vietnam and losing his boxing license; a group of amateur American hockey players beating the professional Soviet Union team; heavy underdog Douglas knocking out Tyson; the unbridled optimism of Coach Jimmy V facing down a deadly cancer diagnosis to implore the world, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” These figures became legends because of the spirit they brought to the moment, a choice we are all capable of making in moments big and small.

Though we might not always have the positive disposition of Ted Lasso or the boundless courage of Caleb to offer hope in the face of adversity, we do control what we say and how we act. We can hold grudges and be petty or we can forgive. We can let challenges stop us in our tracks or we can find a way to persevere. We can spread kindness and hopefulness or we can drag others down.


When we find ourselves at a crossroads and faced with a choice, Caleb and Ted Lasso both teach us to believe in ourselves, in others, and in the possibility that things might just work out for the best.

Build Longer Tables, Not Higher Walls


When I was 2, my dad stood in front of a lightbox holding an X-ray that confirmed his mother was dying of lung cancer. As her first
yahrtzeit approached, my dad felt a yearning to observe the mourning rituals of Judaism.

My mom, who was not Jewish and had no plans to convert, stayed home with my infant sister and me so my dad could attend Shabbat
services for the first time in decades. Just before the closing blessings, the rabbi preached a sermon warning of the moral catastrophe of intermarriage and the impending havoc it would wreak on the Jewish people. His stinging words
repulsed my father.

This story of someone showing up to partake in Jewish ritual and being made to feel unwelcome is all too familiar.

We read of a similar tale in Parashat B’haalot’cha, in which Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses’ life choices: “He married a
Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). Our tradition identifies this woman as either Tzipporah, Moses’ wife in Exodus, or perhaps a different wife from Egypt. In either case, the argument is clear: The non-Israelite woman is an outsider, looks different, and is not worthy of marrying into our exclusive club. Whether it is her religion, skin color, or some other supposed fault, her “otherness”
is too much for Miriam and Aaron to countenance.

Too many of us harbor such chauvinistic attitudes, consciously or unconsciously. We take pride in how many Nobel Prize winners are
Jewish, and lately how many Jews played a role in developing COVID-19 vaccines. When we learn someone is in a new relationship, we ask of the partner, “Are they Jewish?” The more vulgar among us make jokes about the goyim (the derogatory Yiddish word for people who are not Jewish). When they see Jews of Color in the synagogue for services or an event, they assume they are part of
the janitorial staff
. When they see anyone outside of their Ashkenormative perception of who is a Jew, they turn into Aaron and Miriam and say, “You aren’t like us.” Every action or comment that makes someone feel “other” adds a brick to the wall of exclusion.

As our Torah portion makes clear, there is no room for exclusivity in our community.

God, irate that they would criticize Moses, descends upon Aaron and Miriam in a cloud. When the cloud departs, Miriam is stricken with
tzaraat, the scaly skin ailment associated with punishment for slander (Sifra Mtzora 5:7). The Torah tells us that “Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days, and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15). In other words, Miriam was forced outside the very boundaries she was attempting to erect and enforce.

To recover from the illness brought on by her actions, and also for the community to move on, Miriam, not Moses or his wife, had to leave the community. This is a lesson in radical inclusivity.

In a world in which, according to the Pew Research Center, 72% of non-Orthodox marriages are interfaith, we must dispel exclusionary
attitudes toward others. We must not be silent when we hear people in our community espouse ideas and language that make others feel unwelcome. When we poison the ground on which we build holy space through word or action, we undermine the very project of creating a sacred community. When we passively or actively make people feel different, we thumb our nose at God in whose image we
are all made. 

I was lucky that my parents persisted and found a spiritual home that welcomed our interfaith family. Yet all too often, those we
greet with hostility leave forever. Not only does rejection of “the other” violate the sanctity of all human beings, it seriously undermines Jewish continuity.

Though we have made great strides in accepting interfaith families, there is more work to be done in lowering barriers to those who show up at our doors seeking community. Our responsibility is to include, not judge, all who wish to be part of our community and share our sacred values. As the saying goes, we must build longer tables, not higher walls.

Embracing the Unknowable


As a kid, I loved how math made the world orderly. It was neat and predictable: Two plus two always equaled four; the answer was never in question. Yet, as I got older and math continued to get more and more complicated, I became increasingly fascinated by the human experiences that numbers and equations alone could not capture.

Fact remained important, but what about truth? What about the subjective realities of our lives, like love and hurt, that can be
comprehended only in the abstract? We can count and categorize people in large swaths, but how can we understand their individuality? To be human means to live with both sides of the coin: the curious pursuit of the knowable and the humble recognition of the unknowable forces of the universe.

The Book of Numbers opens with the knowable: a clean mathematical survey of the Israelites in the wilderness. The first half of this
Torah portion counts each tribe’s battle-ready men – 603,500 in all – and meticulously records their placement around the Tent of Meeting. The second half of the portion moves from human concerns to Divine service. The Levites’ responsibilities in officiating religious rites and maintaining the mishkan, the sacred dwelling place of God in the Israelite camp are spelled out. In these distinct sections, we find the two sides of the coin: what is in human hands and what remains out of our control. Though we can organize ourselves in preparation for the wilderness, we will never truly know what lies ahead.

As the pandemic spread across the world in early 2020, cancer spread through my body. As the son of medical professionals, I eagerly
followed the knowable medical science, undergoing two surgeries at recommendation of my doctors. But when you experience a life-threatening illness, you realize that the doctors, like the patient, must also embrace the

When the biopsy results came back, I received a call with good news: “We didn’t find any viable cancer. Your immune system killed it
all. We’ve never really seen anything like it. We might want to write up your case for a medical journal.” Jokingly, I said, “Let me know when you’ve got it. I’ll add the theological perspective.” The reply surprised me: “Honestly, rabbi, the theological perspective makes as much sense as the biological one.”

We crave reason and predictability, but certainty is often elusive and we must embrace the unknowable. My cancer didn’t happen for a
reason, nor did my cure. No one was to blame, neither human nor Divine. What kept me grounded throughout my treatment was my embrace of a belief articulated by the theologian Judith Plaskow in “Two Feminist Views of Goddess and God”
(Tikkun, Jan. 16, 2015):

“God is inclusive of good and evil, the power of creativity that undergirds all life processes; this God is not personal or solely good, but rather is the power undergirding everything.”

This approach to faith, in which God is not beyond the world but immanent in it, helps us to recognize that rationality and spirituality are not only compatible but dependent on one another. When we apply this theological understanding to our lives, we develop a spiritual resilience that carries us through the wilderness of the unknown. In the unpredictable ebb and flow of life, this type of malleable faith heightens our highest highs, softens our lowest lows, and keeps us grounded throughout. It allows for a dynamic theology that meets us – the family member, professional, Jew, friend, citizen – where we are, with the potential to change and evolve as we assume different roles throughout our lives.

Hidden in the census report that begins Parashat B’midbar is a reminder that survival depends on a mysterious interplay of fact and
faith. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes that in the census, twice as many of the children have the name of God in their names as do their parents (The Steinsaltz Humash: Humash Translation and Commentary, Jerusalem Ltd., 2018, p. 730). Even though the parents were born into the desperate conditions of Egyptian servitude, they gave their children names like Nethanel, “God has given,” in the belief that this will endow their children with spiritual resilience and that reliance on the rational alone will not sustain them in the


Each of us faces a wilderness, an unknown future with unexpected twists and turns, in which rational decisions may guide us but faith
has the power to sustain us. The question is: Will we let it?