What inspired the creation of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments?
I contributed an essay to the 2017 collection Seven Days, Many Voices, which was a compilation of articles focusing on each of the first seven days of creation, as described in Genesis 1. That project sparked my interest in editing a similar collection of essays, from a diverse lineup of authors, offering different complementary perspectives on the Ten Commandments.
What was the most challenging part of editing this book?
From its earliest proposal, one of the most important aspects of the book for me was that it include contributions from a diverse list of authors. I wanted the chapters to come from writers within the Reform Movement and beyond it, those who work as Jewish professionals and those who don’t. It was a challenge to secure contributions from such a diverse group of authors while still producing a finished book that would be comfortably at home in Reform settings.
What is something new that you personally learned while working on Inscribed? Did any of your own perspectives change?
I learned so much! The best part of my role in editing this book was that it gave me the ability to learn from amazing teachers with extraordinary expertise and insight in areas I had not explored deeply before—philosophy, military ethics, journalism, and so much more. For me, an educational imperative is at the center of Jewish life, and it was a joyful experience to spend so much time with so many marvelous writers and scholars.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
As a literary bloc, the Ten Commandments have endured and remained stubbornly relevant for thousands of years. I don’t think it’s impious to suggest that this is not because these Commandments are especially inspiring; instead, it’s because hundreds of generations have worked energetically to build relevance into the Ten Commandments. The beautiful and provocative writing of Inscribed’s contributing authors shows how this process of meaning-making continues to grow and unfold even in our own day.
Jerusalem, Nisan, 5780/April 2020: I’m sitting at my desk, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. In fifty years, when the coronavirus is a distant memory, please God—or perhaps by then all disease will have been wiped off the globe—some readers won’t know what I’m talking about. You do. Many of you, perhaps most, are doing the same thing in this precarious and surreal moment: protecting the preciousness of all human life—yours, your family’s, your neighbor’s—by drawing back from the world outside into the world within the walls of your own home.
The walls of my writing studio are covered with Jerusalem stone. My desk is a rickety home-office model, a put-it-together-yourself wood-simulation item purchased before IKEA was a thing. One wall of the study is lined with Jewish books, mostly siddurim, Torah commentaries, and other books of Jewish wisdom. Half of the bottom shelf is Hebrew-language books, a testament to my continued and only partially successful efforts to learn the holy tongue. The window faces east, my view through a tree-lined alley to a busy street that follows the 1949 armistice agreement line. The Old City is to the north. To pray, I swivel my chair ninety degrees to the left. The art on the wall behind me is Jewish, including a framed, hand-crocheted “Shalom” made by my Grandma Ida z”l, and a blessing for the home purchased with my wife, Ami z”l, too long ago to remember. My window ledge is full of family photos. As of this moment, everyone is healthy. Let it stay that way.
Some of you may have been sick or seriously ill with coronavirus. Some of you might be ill even now as I write or will, God forbid, become ill soon. Others may be grieving the death of a friend, a family member, or dear one. Some of you are walking into harm’s way to serve us: doctors, nurses, health-care professionals, police, fire, public safety, sanitation, food-chain workers, and more, all of the people in vital services. Each one of us is being asked—perhaps required—to consider what gives our lives meaning. What we value. Our connections. Our contributions. Our legacy. The past. The future. This very moment. This precious life. The place in which we encounter the Divine.
This is a book of prayers, poetry, and meditations inspired by divine encounters. The first half of the book draws from divine moments in our sacred texts, mostly Torah, but also the Prophets and the Writings. Written using a modern voice and a contemporary imagination, the text invites you to enter into these holy moments as experienced by our ancestors and to reclaim them as our own. The second half of the book focuses on holy moments in our daily lives, divine encounters that occur simply because we are human beings imbued with divinity. Divine encounters that occur because we’ve been given souls.
This book is a testimony to the preciousness of life. In the first half of the volume, you’ll walk with God in the garden, calling out to Adam and Eve. You’ll stand as witness to the moment of Creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s ladder, and the Golden Calf. You’ll hear the voices of Abraham, our father, and Sarah, our mother. You’ll leave Egypt, dance with Miriam by the sea, build the Tabernacle, and experience prophecy. You’ll encounter the Divine through experiences of our forebearers.
In the second half of the book, you’ll also be asked—perhaps challenged—to experience the Divine in your daily life. You’ll be asked to imagine flying between two horizons, step inside the light, and ride the river of life. You’ll encounter spiritual vandals. You’ll be asked to find the ethics in your eyes, the ethics in your hands, the ethics in your arms, and the ethics in your heart. You’ll experience the Divine in the poetry of living.
This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer is the third book in a trilogy with This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings and This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. This Grateful Heart focuses on time and seasons, providing prayers and meditations for our days, both the holy and the mundane. This Joyous Soul turns to the siddur, the prayer book, offering alternative readings for our classic liturgy. This Precious Life examines divine encounters in sacred texts and in our daily lives. This Precious Life is intended for personal meditation and communal prayer, as well as religious and spiritual counseling. As a book of meditations, it offers depth and breadth of emotion. As a spiritual guide, it brings intimacy and tenderness, humility and gratitude, supported by a foundation of strength, faith, and hope.
My goal in writing This Precious Life is to open you, the reader, to deeply experiencing moments of divine encounter using the liturgist’s hand and the poet’s eye to illuminate holy connection, to help you uplift your prayers and sing in praise. Along with those lofty ideas, there are practical uses for this volume. Use these offerings in your daily prayers, in writing divrei Torah, and in learning about and discussing the weekly parashah. Clergy and Jewish educators might consider using them as part of adult, teen, and Hebrew school education, as well as in Torah classes, sermons, conversion programs, counseling with congregants, and interfaith dialogue. Most importantly, my hope is that you are inspired to write new prayers in your own voice, based on your experiences of the Divine.
From here, sitting at my desk in Jerusalem, sheltering in place due to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to know what the state of the world—or the state of our worldview—will be when we return to the world or when you hold this book in your hands. What will happen to our trust, social interactions, the economy, our lives? How will we move through the world, day by day? How will the generation of children who sheltered at home be shaped by these precarious times?
This much is clear: This is a precious life. Your life. My life. Our lives. All precious. May we all live with a grateful heart and a joyous soul, sanctifying this precious life.
Read the same psalm every day for fifty days? The same one we read last year? Using the same book and the same practice? Yes. Yes. Yes and yes. Get a new notebook or open a new computer file. Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen. But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice (this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).
Why? Because the world has changed. Because the ways we see or hear, experience and reflect on the same words have changed. We know it to be true from our experience, reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle. We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way because of something or someone we encountered or considered. We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer, we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective. And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19, we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.
Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2) Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3) How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4) Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5) How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6) Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8) Who have we abandoned? (27:10) On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12) And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11) When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer? Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7) Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)
The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at www.tedallas.org
These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal.
What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness.
The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE.
Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction.
Seems like a happy ending. But not so.
Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.
It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need.
The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential.