Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate: Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit (C ’73) on the Unique Experiences of His Rabbinic Engagement

When I thought about becoming a rabbi as an undergraduate at CAL Berkely in 1966, I could never have imagined the extraordinary experiences I would have. For fifty years, people have asked me to engage them, teach them, and sometimes lead and interpret a meaningful ritual in their life.

I have served three Reform congregations over thirty years in the Upper Midwest. where I learned what “windchill” meant.

From the outset, the reality of interfaith couples and families became a central focus of my rabbinate. “Intro to Judaism” education and congregational programming have always been a significant concern. Eventually regional and national rabbinic work about gerim/gerut provided me with an opportunity to be a leading advocate for Patrilineal Descent.

University teaching became important, especially Jewish-Christian dialogue, which led to an opportunity to do doctoral work at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

HIV/AIDS emerged at a time when those who were among its first patients and deaths were alone and often rejected. I served this tragically unique community, which led to opportunities to lead in how Reform Judaism faced these challenges both in Chicago and nationally. Eventually my work was recognized, and I was asked to serve on President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, 1996–2000.

I retired from my congregational rabbinate in 2001 because of challenges to my health, and I finished my doctoral work (DMin) at the University of Chicago in 2001.

A state university that settled a class-action lawsuit over antisemitism asked for my help. As part of the settlement, I created a program of campus and community engagement about Jewish culture. Eventually, I became tenured faculty, and retired as Emeritus Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies. Though I tried to bracket my rabbinate at a state university, my pastoral role was called upon by students, faculty, and administration alike. My academic career required teaching about and interpreting Jews, Jewish life and texts, and Judaism to a campus and community of less than fifty Jews.

I helped to bring a unique symphony and choral Holocaust memorial program, “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” to the state university and a nearby Catholic university. We later took more than 250 students and faculty to France and Germany and performed it at Natzweiler-Struthof  concentration camp with survivors in the audience.

During this period, there was an opportunity in India to continue my HIV/AIDS work with multi-faith organizations who worked among infected children whose parents had died of AIDS. I participated in creating an international NGO that funded and provided service for sixty AIDS orphans in rural India who were all living with HIV/AIDS. Engaging people who had never met a Jew, but invited me to share a meal while sitting on the floor of their hut, added to my life commitment of pluralism.

My ongoing academic participation in the Society for Ricoeur Studies, is another unique experience of my rabbinate. I am the former student of Paul Ricoeur, who insists that philosophers and religious thinkers can and should engage in dialogue with a Jewish thinker.

My participation in conferences, took me to Rio de Janeiro in 2011 when I was invited to speak to a Reform congregation, ARI. Now eleven years later, that unexpected Shabbat invitation, led to exceptional personal love and another chapter of my rabbinic life, serving the World Union of Progressive Judaism. I volunteer for Brazilian communities who have no rabbi, and whenever asked, I teach at ARI where it all started.

During retirement I have written and edited two books with a third in preparation. The current crisis in antisemitism has added a new emphasis to my work in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I will co-teach a course at a Protestant seminary that deals with the challenges of preaching and teaching in response to antisemitism.

In 2021, the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, honored me as their alum of the year, the first time a rabbi has ever been awarded this recognition.

These fifty years were more meaningful because of the unconditional presence of my children. Still today, it is the love and respect of my family that I cherish the most.


Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

Categories
Inclusion interfaith Prayer

Blessing for a B”Mitzvah by Non-Jewish Family Members

I am the rabbi of a tiny community in the Rocky Mountains of Montana—the largest congregation in the state. Easily over eighty percent of our members have intermarried. Non-Jewish family members and friends are part of the life of my community.

B”Mitzvahs have become moments of interest to me. They are large gatherings with guests from all over the country. They obviously mean a lot to my families and their relatives, who almost always are excited to be a part of the service—and who cry no less than their Jewish family! They also are, by very nature, moments of commitment and exclusivity.

In thinking about a possible way for non-Jewish family members and friends to accompany, celebrate, and support their grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins, and friends, I wrote the following blessing.


Blessing for a B”Mitzvah by Non-Jewish Family Members

For generations, each member of our family has paved their own road.

Whenever we come together, we celebrate the vastness of our traditions, the depth of our stories, and the care that connects us.

On this day, you are taking upon yourself a heritage older than most others on this planet.

From this day on, you are a bearer of Torah, one of the sacred books of humanity.

We see that you are strong, wise, and ready to hold on to this book and make its teachings part of your own story.

We are proud of your pride in being Jewish.

We respect the respect you show for your heritage.

We love the love you feel for a people and a wisdom you chose for yourself.

Go, _______, find your own way. Take our blessings with you.


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT.

Categories
member support mental health Rabbinic Reflections

The Cup or the Well: Resilience for Today’s Rabbis

My teacher, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz, often quoted one of his teachers, “Can men [sic] drink deeply if an empty cup is passed around?” In this fraught moment in human—and Jewish—history, many rabbis are feeling like their cups are empty.

The call for our resources has perhaps never been more urgent. Our communities need our gifts, talents, and tools. They need our teaching to gain access to Torah’s timeless wisdom; they need our acumen to craft rituals that will make meaning out of life’s transitions; they need our leadership in pursuing justice and in defending our people from antisemitism, they need our loving presence by their sides as they encounter loss, grief, hatred, and fear.

Fortunately, we have much to give. But we are finite beings facing infinite needs. Our job responsibilities are too frequently impossible to accomplish. Our institutions too often lack adequate resources to accomplish their missions. Our lay leaders are confused and frustrated (and not infrequently, they take it out on nearest target—their rabbi). We have our own personal lives—responsibilities to partners, kids, parents, siblings, and friends that don’t respect “blackout periods” of peak work—our spouse gets COVID at Rosh HaShanah, our child has a meltdown and needs mental health care; our parent breaks a hip, our friend loses her job.

It is so easy for our cups, our hearts, our spirits, to be depleted, exhausted. How are they (we) to be refilled?

Is this the most helpful paradigm for us; waiting for someone or something to refill our cups? Perhaps, instead, we might imagine ourselves in the position to draw from a well, to seek, and find, sustenance when we most need it. Perhaps ezreinu, our Help, is to be found whenever and wherever we need it, like Miriam’s well, which showed up for our people while we were wandering in the midbar. Miriam’s well, according to the Midrash would show up every time the Israelites settled in a new place in the wilderness.[1] This beehive-shaped well would appear seemingly out of nowhere; its water was available for all who came to draw it. From the well, our ancestors drew more than sustenance; they drew healing as well.[2] According to one account, the well would appear every Motzei Shabbat; those who drew from it were healed of all their afflictions.[3]

In the paradigm of the well, sustenance is there for us when we need it. Hagar found the well that was there all along, in her unspeakably desperate moment, when she was convinced that she and Ishmael were about to die. With God’s help, Hagar looked up and spotted the well.[4] She filled her vessel, and she revived Ishmael. Hopefully, Hagar followed the convention of airplane oxygen masks and first slaked her own thirst!

We rabbis, who are the nurturers and sustainers of those we accompany, may be too tired, or too proud, or too discouraged to remember to look up to see the well. And we certainly cannot do it alone. We need to support and remind and encourage one another, to be truly chaveirim.

And, if we look up, help and healing are here. We can find support to open our eyes to sources of sustenance through colleagues whose job is to accompany us, such as counselors and coaches available through the CCAR. Maybe we can find the well through taking a brief break after Havdalah (whether that break comes on Saturday night or Wednesday). And perhaps we can find the well through our spiritual practice, with the help of guidance like that of the daily practice offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

May we all be able to lift our eyes and see the wellsprings of help, hope, and healing that are here for us. May we draw waters in joy from the Living Well. [5]

[1] Rav said Miriam’s well was “a portable, pure spring.” BT Shabbat 35a

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:22 tells of a blind person in the town of Shichin who came upon the well of Miriam and recovered his sight.

[3] Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim 299:10

[4] Genesis  21:19

[5] Aryeh Hirschfield’s translation of Isaiah 12:3


Rabbi Dayle Friedman (HUC-JIR NY ’85) is a CCAR Special Advisor for Member Support and Counseling. She has written widely about pastoral care, spirituality, and aging. Her most recent book is Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife.

Categories
interfaith Rabbinic Reflections

‘We Stand on Common Ground’: Rabbi John A. Linder on Meeting Pope Francis 

Our rabbinates give us the opportunity to be in places we’d never imagined. Though the quiet, unheralded encounters and relationships sustain me the most, I’ll hold this one particularly close to my heart. 

We live our respective faiths most deeply by being in covenantal relationship with one another; bound by our shared humanity. For me, this was never validated more powerfully than during a recent, unexpected trip to Rome. I was invited to join a delegation of twenty interfaith leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to meet with Pope Francis for a conversation in his residence in Vatican City. I embarked with the blessings of the leadership of Temple Solel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. At the beginning of our meeting, the Pope thanked us for inconveniencing ourselves to come and see him. Imagine that!   

What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement (I was one of five non-Spanish speaking leaders, fully participating thanks to headphones and a translator!). The encounter was filled with many blessed exchanges about the joys and struggles of our work; affirming the central role faith institutions play in building community through the pursuit of justice, especially for those on the margins. 

As we shared our community organizing experiences, we were all struck by how carefully Pope Francis listened. I was profoundly moved by his humility. He listens lovingly, from a place of curiosity, openness, and humor. He loves to smile and laugh! The Pope was just fun to be with!   

The Pope heard us tell stories of organizing around our local issues. He was touched when hearing about how becoming a public person restores dignity and develops a sense of one’s agency. What really struck the Pope is that we were not talking about theory or ideology, but rather real-life stories that described experiencing God through encounters with the other. The room was filled with kindred spirits.   

Pope Francis stressed the importance of being with people, of paying attention to their reality, emphasizing what he referred to as “amor concreto,” concrete love. The Pope lives in love. He’s been walking the talk of his ministry from the barrios of Argentina to the Vatican—seeing and hearing injustice, acting for systemic change, and being changed in return. He celebrated the value that we place on leadership development and strategic action; of doing rather than complaining about what’s not being done; of acting without disparaging or demonizing. The Pope, though just learning about us, remarked that the IAF is “good news for the United States.”   

What profound validation for the local work of the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), our IAF network affiliate. I feel great pride that Temple Solel has been a member of VIP for fifteen years, acting together within a broad-based interfaith organization to carry words of Torah into the real world. Throughout his encyclicals and many writings, the Pope appreciates the radical nature of the Hebrew Bible, as the foundation of Christian Scripture. He understands that it’s impossible to realize words of scripture without entering into the fray of the public square, without ruffling some feathers. He has never sought refuge in an ivory tower. Pope Francis, looking at each of us directly in the eye, said, “the only time you should look down at someone, is when you are helping to lift them up.”   

At the conclusion of our conversation, I presented Pope Francis with a leatherbound and gold leaf Hebrew Bible. I said to him, through a translator, “Your Holiness, I have never been more certain, that we stand on common ground.” The Pope got a kick out of it when I told him that my (almost) 94-year-old mother-in-law inscribed the book the night before my flight to Rome.   

I think about the unlikely paths that brought each of the twenty members of the IAF delegation together—paths paved by the common values of our sacred texts, which merged into a collective pilgrimage to Rome, to be touched by the presence and soul of this magnificent man, all of us recognizing that the ground upon which we stand as brothers and sisters is, indeed, holy ground. Now back home, we are strengthened by one another, interconnected through our respective faiths, emboldened and blessed by Pope Francis to continue our sacred work, channeling the words of Micah, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” 


Rabbi John A. Linder serves Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Unpacking the Bible’s Simple Truths: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on ‘The Book of Proverbs’

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this Q&A, he discusses why he chose to write about Proverbs and what readers can learn from the book.


You previously published two social justice commentaries with CCAR Press, on Pirkei Avot and Jonah. Why did you choose Proverbs as the text for your third commentary?  

I believe the Book of Proverbs is one of the most overlooked books in the Tanach. And yet, its simplicity can speak to the complexities of our moment. In the twenty-first century, our identities, relationships, and choices are often more complicated than ever. As we grow in our complexity, it is imperative to remember the moral foundations on which our lives are built. For me, in this generation, Proverbs is about getting back to basics and returning to simple truths.

Many Jews might ask, “What even is the Book of Proverbs?” Contained in the Writings, the final section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is a work of ancient but timeless wisdom traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Dealing more with morals and ethics than the Divine, it can be of immense value to believers and non-believers alike. When I teach Torah, I try to pass on a version of the tradition that encompasses both the study of ideas and the translation of those ideas into real-world action. The Book of Proverbs offers us an excellent bridge between those ideals.

Proverbs is a very different text from Jonah and Pirkei Avot. Did your writing approach differ for this volume? 

Absolutely. These three books are very similar in that they are all interested in translating ancient holy texts into relevant moral replies. But they are so different. Pirkei Avot is rabbinic, the Book of Jonah is a narrative, and Proverbs is from the wisdom literature. In the first two, I viewed my role as simplifying the complicated. But here, I viewed my role as complicating the simple. Proverbs distills our Jewish values down to their very essence and it reinforces our commitment to the integrity of a Jewish path. The texts can inspire us and challenge us to do more and live differently.

Did writing this book change any of your perspectives? 

My main ideas did not change, but the book has the potential to transform us in subtler ways. For example, in a society that feels unforgiving and has us convinced that one mistake by ourselves or others makes us irredeemable, Proverbs reminds us that “Seven times the righteous one falls and gets up” (24:16). I paused to think about resilience, forgiveness, and redemption at a time when our society is struggling with extreme binaries.

Which proverb did you find most meaningful?

The book reinforces the notion that Judaism is about spiritual and ethical work and learning to grow in responsibility. Instead of providing indisputable answers, Proverbs often supplies us with contradictory lessons. For example, Proverbs 26:4 teaches: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.” This is a useful lesson in the age of online mudslinging. Yet the very next verse tells us the complete opposite: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” The reader is trusted to work out the application on their own. In an era where so many feel they have it all figured out, how do we engage, resist, or walk away from those we view to be destructive?

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

In a world that tangles and muddles our ideas of what our lives should be, the Book of Proverbs helps us return to the foundational questions regarding our relationships with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. Our culture rewards our being compliant and undisruptive, but Proverbs drives us to take moral and spiritual action with clarity and courage. It challenges us to make distinctions between laziness and productivity, foolishness and wisdom, cruelty and justice. By studying this text, we confront the fact that we are constantly making decisions (consciously or not) about what kinds of people and Jews we are going to be. In today’s rapidly changing and exhaustingly overwhelming world, we can experience a great deal of fear and worry. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. In the end, more than wanting readers to master the Proverbs from the Bible, I’d like to see them inspired to write their own proverbs that can help guide their lives.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018), The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020), and The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary (2022). The books are available separately or in a discounted bundle.

Categories
Rabbinic Careers

How the CCAR’s New Rabbinic Career Services Department Helps Reform Rabbis Navigate Their Paths

Maintaining optimism and hope while reflecting on these last challenging months in our communities may seem like a tough goal to achieve, but as Rabbi Alan Berlin and I begin our new roles in the CCAR’s Department of Rabbinic Career Service that is precisely our mission. Recognizing that the rabbinate has changed significantly in the last decade, the Conference made an interim shift in the department structure last year that is now expanded and firmly in place. By creating a team to work with our congregations, communities, and rabbis not only for placement work, but by looking at the whole of a rabbi’s career and the relationships they build with congregations, organizations, and communities both inside the institutional framework of the Reform Movement as well as outside, we have the potential to introduce even more people to the beauty and integrity of Reform Judaism. 

Even in the first days of working together and with many of you and your communities, Rabbi Berlin and I, in our separate but inherently connected positions of CCAR Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services, have already found that offering the rabbis and communities of our Movement the guidance of 4,000 years of Jewish wisdom is extremely fulfilling and rewarding. My role will be specifically working with the rabbis of our Movement: those looking for new positions, those who may be heading on a different path than pulpit work, and those who may just be looking for new inspiration in the work they are already doing. Rabbi Berlin will work primarily with our congregations and organizations in the search process. He will also oversee the CCAR Interim Rabbi Program.  

In the few short weeks since we joined the CCAR as staff members, we have had the opportunity to offer equal measures of empathy, experimentation, firm counsel, creativity, and join conversations centered in curiosity and inquiry. We believe that these are just the beginnings of the conversations we will have and the types of discussions we will all be in together as we support Reform rabbis and Reform communities in navigating the future of our collective sacred work.  

As Director of Search Services, Rabbi Berlin works closely with congregational and organizational leaders as they seek rabbinic leadership. He envisions facilitating a rabbinic search process rooted in Jewish values where CCAR members feel that they are treated with kavod before, during, and after the process. At the end of a rabbinic search, candidates and interviewing congregations and organizations should feel that they engaged in a good and fair process. And, of course, Rabbi Berlin intends to facilitate a process that leads to excellent matches between rabbis and their congregations/organizations.  

My vision for the role of Director of Rabbinic Career Services is one inspired by the interconnected themes of storytelling and collaboration. By weaving these elements together, I hope to help my Reform rabbinic colleagues continue to experience the Reform rabbinate in ways that are meaningful and inspiring. I am hopeful that I can help identify the individual story that each rabbi wants to share most about Judaism. I look ahead with excitement to working with Reform rabbis to find the communities that will appreciate them most and allow them to develop their strengths. Ultimately, my goal is that through this work, the Reform rabbinate will be represented by people sharing their highest level of creativity and insights with the many people rabbis walk alongside. 

Some of you may be familiar with the story about the daughter and father who were traveling far from home. On their way back, hoping to arrive home by the start of Shabbat, their wagon lost a bolt. They stopped and encountered a farmer who offered them anything they wanted. After asking for a wrench, a bolt, and some oil, still unable to fix the wagon, getting more and more nervous about the arrival of Shabbat, the farmer reminded them of the one thing they had not requested: his help, upon which he sat with them and helped them fix their wagon.    

Rabbi Berlin and I both hope you know that the whole Rabbinic Career Services team is here to offer Reform rabbis as much assistance, advocacy, and help as we can to help you on your path. 


Rabbi Leora Kaye is CCAR Director of Rabbinic Career Services. She resides in Brooklyn, New York. Rabbi Alan Berlin is CCAR Director of Search Services. He resides in San Antonio, Texas.

Categories
Books CCAR Press

CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Benjamin David on ‘Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation’

Rabbi Benjamin P. David of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, shares insights on editing Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

What was the inspiration for Seven Days, Many Voices?
There is so much material in the Creation story that speaks to our world at present. Within the Creation story, after all, are questions around gender, climate, faith, relationships—so many of the issues we think about often these days. I wanted to give us a new and provocative lens to consider and reconsider how the six days of creation might speak to us today.

Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? 
I learned so much from wonderful authors and colleagues, who opened my eyes to issues related to Israel, memory, Shabbat, and much more.

What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? 
It takes a lot of work to pull together rabbis, cantors, educators, and others given the busyness of our lives. I learned to be both very patient and very persistent.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?  
I want readers to be proud that the Reform Movement creates space for broad and creative Torah commentary. To rethink the Creation story and pull new meaning from it has us acknowledge that the Torah really is timeless and speaks to every generation. I also believe that reexamining our origins sheds greater light on not only where we come from, but why we are here and what our role is as Jews and members of the human family.


Rabbi Benjamin P. David serves Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi David is available to teach on topics in Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.

Categories
News Rabbinic Reflections

The Aftermath of the Highland Park Fourth of July Massacre: A Reflection on the Idolatry of Gun Worship

This past weekend, my family and I attended a wedding in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful affair. Two wonderful families were joined with lots of love, fanfare, and celebration. There were many events that brought us all together. As we awoke this morning and got ready to attend a farewell brunch before flying home, our joy was diminished by the news of a violent act of murderous terror that filled the airways and social media—the horrific massacre in Highland Park, IL. This time, however, it was personal. 

Highland Park is a Chicago suburb with a substantial Jewish population that is very close to my hometown of Evanston, IL. When I was in high school and college, I taught and led services at several congregations there. I have many close friends and family who live in or near the area where the shooting took place. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band—dear friends and musical collaborators—were performing on a float in that very parade. So far, I have not heard that any of the people I know personally were harmed, but as of this writing, seven souls were snuffed out and more than two dozen others were wounded by a lone gunman armed with easily-obtained, high-powered weaponry, and multiple rounds of ammunition. 

It is hard to write about the plague of gun violence that has infected our society without wading into murky waters. The politicians, lobbyists, and pundits on every side of the political spectrum will do all that they can to spin this horrific event—and the hundreds of others like —to underscore their specific agendas. Accusations will be thrown about. Somber and angry speeches will be delivered. Tears will be shed. Funerals will be held, lives upended, and nothing will change—the daily deluge of violence will continue unabated. 

Many of you know my views on firearms. I have written and spoken extensively on how gun violence is not merely a social or political problem. It also screams out to the world that we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis: that of idol worship. Simply put, idolatry can be defined as the worshipping of physical objects and imbuing them with powers, qualities, and cosmic significance that supersedes logic and undermines the foundations of our nation. Our society’s obsession with the ownership and deification of weapons of mass destruction—fed and exacerbated by gun manufacturers and the lobbying organizations on their payrolls—has taken a horrific toll on the social fabric and spiritual capital of our citizens. It is nothing less than idolatry. Highland Park now joins the ranks of Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Colleyville, Uvalde, and too many others to mention. We have seemingly lost the capacity to be shocked anymore. The question we are asking is not: “How can this happen in a civil society,” but “When will the next tragedy occur—and will it impact those whom we know and love?” 

In the Torah portion we will read this Shabbat, Parashat Chukat, we learn how Moses, instead of speaking to a rock and commanding it to yield water for the thirsty Israelites, strikes it three times and is punished by God and told that he will not enter the promised land. The Rabbis are puzzled by the severity of this decree. Why was Moses treated so unfairly? What did he do to receive such a cruel sentence? There are many possible answers, but one recurring theme is that Moses’s actions were both violent and defiant. He appeared to show the Israelites that he, himself, was the source of life-giving water, not God. In other words, Moses places himself in the role of provider and creator. The violent act of hitting the rock appears to be an attempt to make it look like the staff itself, wielded by Moses, is imbued with the power to sustain and protect the people, thereby diminishing God’s authority and deliverance. 

For those for whom the Right to Bear Arms is sacrosanct, any attempts to place sane limits on the ownership and use of weapons of mass destruction is nothing short of blasphemy. For those of us who see the consequences of these weapons in the blood flowing in our streets, schools, and public spaces, the fact that so many lives have been snuffed out so meaninglessly is, in and of itself, a Chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name. 

If we cannot acknowledge the spiritual, psychological and societal toll that the proliferation of firearms on our streets and in our homes continues to exact, then we, like Moses, are rebelling against the godliness implanted within us by our Creator. 

I do not have answers to this tragic situation. But I do know that unless and until we move away from political slogans and lines drawn in the sand, we will continue to see grieving parents and children mourning the loss of their loved ones following senseless acts of violence. We need to learn to look at the facts on the ground and find sane measures to reduce the carnage. 

May we never fail to be horrified by tragedy, and may our horror move us to look within ourselves and our souls and strive to make a change. 


Rabbi Joseph R. Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. He serves as a Chaplain in the Colorado House of Representatives and is past President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council. He has had several poems and articles published in leading national literary and academic journals and is a frequent contributor to anthologies and collections of Jewish writing. 

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

When It’s Time to Speak

Days before Shabbat, I saw on the calendar that we would welcome a new board president to the bimah for a blessing on Friday night. In addition to the sermon and weekly preparations for worship services, not to mention the busy week that was still in front of me, I wondered what could I say to the new president that hasn’t already been said? The question wasn’t easy to answer and not because I didn’t know the new president well, and not because I wasn’t unfamiliar with themes for the occasion. But I was stuck. Then I opened to the weekly parashah and its commentaries and found an insight that changed my orientation to the problem and revealed an answer to my question.

In many places where words were spoken, the Hebrew wasn’t only ויאמר or וידבר. In these texts, for example, either in the same verse or verses that followed, the Hebrew included תספר באזני בנך (Ex. 10:2), or באזני עם הארץ (Gen. 23:13), or אוזנים לשמוע (Deut. 29:3). A clear reference to hearing and not just speaking revealed that the goal wasn’t only to say what needed to be said, but to be sure that what was important to say was meaningful to the one(s) who heard it. In another text (Ex. 17:14), we find, “ושים באזני יהושע,” literally, put it in Joshua’s hearing; but a familiar translation only tells us, “…read it aloud to Joshua.”

“Put it in Joshua’s hearing,” changed my orientation to the problem and led me to ask a better question, “What does the new president of the board need to hear from me?” This question revealed many options. I began to think about validating the president’s gifts and skills that earned her the privilege to serve as president. She would want the congregation to hear that she cares deeply, leads wisely, and always finds time for the congregation’s needs. I thought about linking the new president to a biblical leader who was lifted up by the people to succeed and flourish in her new role. She would like to hear her name linked to the names of the matriarchs or Miriam or Deborah who found leadership to be challenging and rewarding. I thought about expressing my own trust in her partnership to lead the congregation with me. It would be a comfort to her to hear that carrying the weight of Torah, literally and figuratively, as we would stand before the Holy Ark on Shabbat, was a sacred burden we would help each other carry.

When Shabbat came, my final words, which I prepared and then spoke extemporaneously, felt sincere, authentic, and meaningful. In turn, what the new president of the board heard in that moment before the Holy Ark was just what I had hoped she would also always know in her heart and mind. When I added, “עלי והצלחי” there was little question but that she would rise to her new role and prosper in it.

Ever since that Shabbat, I learned not to ask myself, “What should I say?” but rather, “What do they need to hear?” It’s about them and then what we can become together.


Rabbi David A. Lyon serves Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. He also serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.