Every Person Has a Name: The Common Thread of 9/11 and Other Disasters

16 Sep

Yom Kippur/Yizkor 5782

September 16, 2021

Where were you on 9/11? For this community in Northern Virginia, I’m sure the trauma of that day is still seared in memory.  The initial disbelief, followed by utter horror. 

Twenty years ago, I lived in the New York area where I was serving in my first rabbinic pulpit, Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY. I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 when news of the first plane crashed. I heard it on the car radio on the way to work. Like so many others, I thought it must have been a small private plane that lost its way. When I got to the office, I asked my colleagues if they heard the news. They informed me that Tower 2 was hit. Then we knew. America was under attack. Soon after that the Pentagon was struck, followed the crash in Shanksville, PA. 

Serving as a rabbi in the New York area in 2001 meant that 9/11 was not a far away tragedy. It was home.

Everyone in the congregation was affected in some way.  Some lost loved ones.  Others had a near brush with death in escaping the towers. Others were running late or had dentist appointments and were supposed to be in the towers but weren’t. 

In the midst of the turmoil of the community and a sense of helplessness, I longed to do something, anything, to serve not just my congregation but the broader community. The American Red Cross put out a call for rabbis to serve as volunteer emergency clergy. I knew I had to do it. It was during my service at the Family Assistance Center in Manhattan that I witnessed the hand of God: seemingly overnight, government agencies from the state, Federal and local levels set up shop in a massive warehouse on the Hudson River so that survivors and relatives of victims could come to one place for support: unemployment checks, insurance checks, search for relatives, medical care, psychiatric counseling, pastoral counseling. Every possible service that was needed was assembled under one roof. It was awe-inspiring to witness the human capacity to do good in response to the face of evil. The operation was a communal act of love that showed each person mattered. The experience of serving as a chaplain there had a profound influence on me that laid the groundwork for me years later to move to professional chaplaincy. 

This summer, I had a visceral reminder of the family assistance center. We suffered a terrible tragedy in South Florida this past summer with the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers apartment building in Surfside. The cause was not terrorism but human negligence in the building’s construction and maintenance. Still the carnage was staggering, and the Jewish community was affected disproportionately. There too, a family assistance center was promptly set up in a nearby hotel conference room where survivors could go to find support. I had the opportunity to visit the center a few days after the collapse. There, in one room, the survivors could have one-stop shopping for all the different forms of support they needed: FEMA, insurance, Jewish Family Services, clergy. I was also deeply moved when I saw several disaster rescue personnel of the Israel Defense Forces come through the center to have some food before going back out to dig through the rubble.  I was reminded in Surfside, like in the aftermath of 9/11, that even in the midst of disaster the face of God shines through thanks to the kind acts of people.   

This summer I was reminded of another important lesson: In a mass-casualty disaster, the victims are not statistics. They are people.  9/11, Coronavirus, Surfside. Each one is different. Each had its own reasons. But no matter the circumstances, each one who died was a universe lost.  They were children, parents, siblings, spouses, friends of others. They loved and they were loved. They had names. 

When we strip away people’s names, they become “other.” Tragically, in the long history of the Jewish people we know what it’s like when we are made “other.” One of Israel’s most popular and beloved poets, Zelda Schneurson Mishkovksy, known simply as Zelda, wrote a poem widely recited on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron called, “L’chol Ish Yesh Shem, Everyone Has a Name.”

Having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, her poem was inspired by a famous midrash in Kohelet Rabbah which says that “A person is known by three names.  One that he is called by his father and mother.  One that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself.”   She wrote:

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו אלהים

ונתנו לו אביו ואמו

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his father and his mother.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו

ונתן לו האריג

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by the fabric he wears.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו ההרים

ונתנו לו כתליו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו המזלות

ונתנו לו שכניו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the constellations of stars
and given to him by his neighbors.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חטאיו

ונתנה לו כמיהתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longings.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו שונאיו

ונתנה לו אהבתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חגיו

ונתנה לו מלאכתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his celebrations
and given to him by his work.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו תקופות השנה

ונתן לו עיורונו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons of the year
and given to him by his blindness.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו הים

ונתן לו מותו.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

As the poet teaches, each name represents a life, and that each life is precious. 

Each of them had a name.

In the aftermath of mass casualty disasters, media outlets often publish portraits of people who died so that readers or viewers can attempt to grasp the magnitude of the human loss lest we brush them off as statistics or collateral damage. I’ve selected a few such brief portraits from 9/11 and 9/11-adjacent deaths. With one exception, I selected profiles of Jewish victims, even as we express solidarity with our community at large.  

ALONA AVRAHAM

A 30-year-old resident of Ashdod, Israel, Avraham was on her first trip to the United States. She was traveling from Boston to Los Angeles on United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

GERALD P. FISHER

Gerald “Geep” Fisher, a consultant with the management and consulting firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton, had come to the Pentagon to discuss methods of handling survivor benefits for armed forces staff. He lived in Potomac, Md., with his wife, Christine. He was also survived by two children from a previous marriage, his mother and a sister.

JEREMY GLICK

Glick, 31, of West Milford, N.J., called his wife, Lyz, from United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco and talked to her for 30 minutes on his cell phone. He told her that three terrorists carrying knives and telling passengers they had a bomb in a red box, had taken over the plane. His wife informed him of what had happened at the World Trade Center. Then he said that he and three or four other 6-foot-plus passengers had come up with a plan to jump the hijackers and stop them from doing whatever they had planned to do with the plane.

Investigators believe that Glick and his fellow passengers kept the plane from hitting a Washington, D.C., target, possibly the White House or Capitol. Glick was survived by his wife and then-12-week-old daughter.

So far, I’ve highlighted Jewish names from 9/11. I’d like to highlight one individual of another faith tradition. He did not die on 9/11, but on September 15, 2001. He’s not one of the 2,977 people in the official death toll of 9/11. As noted by the writer and activist Valarie Kaur, every September, a Sikh family gathers quietly at a gas station in Arizona to mourn. They remember Balbir Singh Sodhi, a kind-hearted and generous man, whom many called Uncle. He was planting flowers in front of his gas station when he was murdered by a man who called himself a patriot. With the image of Osama bin Laden’s turbaned head plastered throughout the media during those days, white supremacists carried out vicious acts of revenge violence against South Asian and Arab Americans, including Sikhs, whose men wear turbans. Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first person killed in thousands of acts of hate crimes in the aftermath of 9/11. We often associate the aftermath of 9/11 with our nation coming together as one, but that wasn’t always the case, and we need to remember that. 

In the last 18 months of COVID-19 in America, there has been a tragic link between 9/11 and COVID-19. At least 42 New York City first responders who were exposed to the toxic dust of the fallen towers, later died of COVID-19.

Michael Field arrived at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

The FDNY emergency medical technician wound up working at Ground Zero for nine months. He later suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and pulmonary issues — conditions that his wife, Stacey Field, attributed to his work digging through the rubble as the rescue operation quickly turned to a long-term recovery effort.

Michael Field, who was Jewish, died on April 8, 2020 at age 59. Two weeks earlier he responded to a medical emergency at a residence where a patient had a known case of COVID-19 and had contracted the virus.

Field was among the earliest deaths of COVID-19 in New York. 

Know that each of them had a name, and more than that, each had a life.  In the words of the Talmud, each life was a an entire universe.  Each had hopes and dreams, aspirations and accomplishments, and loved ones.  As the poet Zelda reminds us each name had a life.

As we remember our loved ones during yizkor, we remember their names, and their names were windows into their souls. Everyone we remember was an entire universe. We think about special times that they spent with us and important lessons that we learned from them. Yom Kippur gives us space to mourn our departed. In doing so, this is a time to hold our living dear ones a little closer. To tell them words that matter and to strengthen our bonds one relationship at a time. L’kol ish yesh shem. Everyone has a name. Let us honor all of our departed, including those martyred on 9/11, and strive to bring love and healing into our world. May the memories of our departed be for a blessing. 

Truing Our Wheel: Confronting Systemic Racism on Yom Kippur

15 Sep

Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre, September 15, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah and Good Yontif.

This morning, I went into DC and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I have been longing to visit since it first opened and am grateful that I had this opportunity. 

This museum is part of the Smithsonian network of museums that line the Mall and tell the American story. There are a lot of great things about America that are celebrated in the museums and around the Mall. The African American Museum is a gift to our nation and the world in its mission to tell profound truths: that the United States was built and developed on a foundation of exploitation, oppression and systematic persecution of African Americans, AND, that despite it all African Americans are integral to and have made vital contributions to the life and culture of America and the realization of the American project of equality for all.

On the large wall that can be seen from all three floors of the main exhibit is a quotation attributed to the great journalist Ida B. Wells: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Over the last 18 months our nation has engaged in a long overdue reckoning with ugly truth of systemic racism in our country.  The disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on people of color coupled with the George Floyd murder  last year have not only outraged people of color but have awakened many white people—at last—to the gross injustices that Black and Brown people in America experience every day. 

The American Jewish community has begun to engage in this reckoning, and I believe in this new year of 5782 we need to lean into it even more decisively and bear witness to uncomfortable truths of our nation’s past and present. One reason is that Jews are not monolithically white. We have never been. We are a multi-racial people. The rainbow of Jewish skin tones is perhaps most obvious in Israel; however, it is increasingly so in America. A substantial percentage of our population, at least 10%, perhaps 20%, represents Jews of Color. Second, we Jews know too well the pain of antisemitism and the historic injustices that we have suffered for centuries. As privileged as we are today, we know that hatred of people of color is not too far removed from hatred of Jews, as we saw in Charlottesville four years ago.  Third, we are guided by our tradition to tell the truth. The purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine hard truths about ourselves, to confess our sins aloud and resolve to do better, particularly to ensure that we treat all human beings as created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. 

I’d like to share a personal story that helped me discover the truth of systemic racism in our society and my own personal complicity in it. A little over a decade ago, I was traveling and had occasion to rent a bicycle in the city I was visiting. I stopped at the bike store to pump air in my tires. I noticed there was a man using the pump on another bicycle. He was wearing a bright, crisp Polo shirt and neat slacks. He had short hair, a trimmed mustache and wore stylish wire-rim glasses. He happened to be African American. I went up to him and asked him if he worked for the store. What I implied was that I’d like him to pump up my tires too. I’ll never forget the pained look on his face. He answered my question with a firm, “No.”  He didn’t work there. However, it was instantly clear that our interaction was not about a simple point of information—whether or not he worked for the store. We didn’t exchange anything else in words, but his expression spoke volumes. If this man were white, I likely would have assumed that he was another customer just filling his tires and going on with his day, which in fact was the case. I would have quietly waited my turn. However, he was black, and my mind played a trick on me in which I did not see him as a customer like me. I instinctively saw him as a member of a subservient class by virtue of his skin color, and I made a hurtful micro-aggression. 

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from a public high school that was majority Black. I consider myself to be kind and considerate to all people. I do not seek to cause harm to anyone. Yet, I’m still a product of a racist system that made me not fully see the man at the bike shop, and I have anguished about that ever since.

Over the years, I have come to recognize not only my failure to see the full humanity in people with darker skin than I have, I have begun to realize the extent to which, in an environment of systemic racism, I have benefited from “White Privilege.” For me, “White Privilege” is when society grants me unearned and undeserved status simply because I have white skin. Here’s a recent example: I work as a chaplain in health care. At a hospice staff meeting, a new colleague came up to me and said, “Hello, Doctor.” The real doctor was sitting right next to me, and she happened to be a Black woman. I felt embarrassed. Due to my white skin—and male gender—I was given credentials that I had not earned and assumed to have knowledge I do not have. It’s easy to brush off this incident, but upon reflection, I suspect that in this country personal advancement based on race is more common than we wish to admit. 

Back to that bike shop, it occurred to me that when your bicycle tire is not rolling smoothly, you take it in to the bike shop for a process called “truing” the wheel. Each spoke is carefully adjusted back to its original place and tension, and once the entire wheel is trued, the ride is so much better. We need to “true our wheel” as a nation, so to speak, in order for our great country to reach its fullest potential.

The Talmud has a beautiful teaching about the difference between the word Emet, truth, and Sheker, lie. Why are the letters of the word sheker adjacent to one another in the alphabet, while the letters of emet are distant from one another? That is because while falsehood is easily found, truth is found only with great difficulty. And why do the letters that comprise the word sheker all stand on one foot, and the letters that comprise the word emet stand on bases that are wide like bricks? Because the truth stands eternal and falsehood does not stand eternal. (Shabbat 104a)

In our nation’s history, every time there is a serious national conversation on hard truths related to racial equality and justice, there is, inevitably, a backlash, from forces invested in the lie of white supremacy. That is happening now with respect to school curricula in various states around the country. 

In recent months, white opponents to racial justice have used powerful media outlets to denounce  “critical race theory” – a field of inquiry taught in law schools about the impact of racism baked into criminal justice and other powerful institutions. They have falsely distorted the phrase as a dog whistle to attack what they view as an “anti-white” conspiracy to brainwash schoolchildren

In response to this media-created rage, school boards, including in Loudoun County, have had heated public gatherings, and seven states have banned mentioning specified race-related topics in the classroom. Some 20 other states are considering it.

Arizona’s newly enacted ban, signed into law on July 9, is typical of those popping up around the country. It imposes penalties, from suspension of a state teaching license up to permanent revocation, for anyone caught teaching certain taboo concepts.

The banned list includes teaching material lest anyone should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of race or ethnicity.

In my state of Florida, the law reads: “Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons. Instruction may not utilize material from the 1619 Project and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. Instruction must include the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments.”

While it’s good that teaching the Holocaust is a normal part of American school curricula, it is unconscionable that the Florida law equates the mandate to teach the Holocaust with the mandate to NOT teach the history of systemic racism in America. It is unacceptable that a law singles out Jews as a “good minority” who deserve to have our story told in American schools, while the story of systemic racism against African Americans in America is denied.   

Recently the Brookings Institution published an analysis of the recent state laws by their Fellow Rashawn Ray and Researcher Alexandra Gibbons. They point out that proponents of these hateful laws are obsessed with a narrative that America is perfect and good and that any effort to say otherwise is unpatriotic and un-American. Moreover, the proponents are afraid that if we say prior generations of America were racist, then we are accusing them of being racist. 


In Jewish tradition, we do not whitewash our ancestors and their actions. In the Bible, the characters are not two-dimensional. All of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—are imperfect, and the Torah does not shy away from describing their screw-ups. Moses, great as he was, made grave mistakes at times. King David is called out by the prophet Natan for his sins. They are not whitewashed. Rather, their mistakes are described in detail. They are our heroes not in spite of their flaws but because of their human frailties. They suffer consequences because of their mistakes, and they change. We remember and honor our ancestors with the truth of their full humanity. America’s founding fathers may have have their faces carved in granite, but they were still flawed human beings. Reckoning with historic racial inequality does not make us weaker as a nation. It makes us stronger.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained in the Conservative Movement, is a renowned chaplain and justice activist. She was a guest on my podcast last year.  She acknowledges that the process of confronting hard truths of systemic racism in the past and present is not easy. Rabbi Eilberg said in our conversation: “Getting through the defensiveness, a sense of being blamed, is maybe one of the hardest things for people. So, we need to listen to one another. We need to take seriously what’s hard about this for us, especially good hearted white Jews who want to be on the right side of history and morality, and we have things to learn that are uncomfortable at first to explore.” 

On Yom Kippur, we employ time tested tools to “true our wheel” as individuals and as a community. We need to use these tools to do our part to “true” our nation. 

Among our most effective tools in our toolkit are the confessional prayers. When we stand together and say “Al Het,” we do so in the plural form—for the sins WE have sinned. Whatever our individual intentions, we are part of a broken system that requires all of us to acknowledge and work together to fix. 

I’d like to borrow from the words of Yavilah McCoy, a Jewish educator and African American who wrote a special version of  Al Chet, the prayer that we say throughout Yom Kippur while beating our chest.  Her prayer reads:

I am saying Al Chet:
For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias.

For the sins we have committed through, imutz ha-lev, hardening our hearts to the need for change.

For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly. For the sins we have committed through uttering racist words.

For the sins we have committed through acts of racial micro-aggression…

For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness, and atonement.

When we say “Al Chet,” we are “truing our wheel” as a community. To do so individually is too hard, so we come together and support one another in the process. By doing this work in our broader American Jewish community, we can help “true the wheel” of our nation, in order for our democracy to reach its fullest potential. Reckoning with historic racial inequality does not make us weaker as a nation. It makes us stronger. When we fail to see the truth and look the other way, we live a life of sheker, a lie. 

Our wheel as a nation is out of alignment, and we are on a perilous ride. The greatest gift we can provide to our society is emet, truth. In this Congregation Beit Emet, this house of truth, I pray on this most holy day of Yom Kippur, that may we muster the courage to examine our inner truth as individuals and as a community so that we can true the wheel of our nation and world and remind everyone that we are all created in the image of God. May God grant us the strength to bring more love, justice, compassion and kindness into our world.  Amen.

On the Road to Resilience

8 Sep

Sermon delivered Rosh Hashanah Day 2, September 8, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah.

At Boca Raton Regional Hospital where I serve as a chaplain, the last month has been quite challenging. In our area and around the state of Florida, there has been a surge of cases of COVID-19.  This surge is a result of a combination of lax attitudes and practices towards masking and vaccinations and the arrival of the Delta variant. I wasn’t working in the hospital during the earliest waves of the virus pre-vaccine. I know from what colleagues tell me that those were terrifying times because there was no vaccine to provide protection for front line workers. However, in raw numbers, the surge we we have been seeing in recent weeks is the largest ever. Our ICU is full with COVID patients, and there has been a shortage of beds. Every week, I join the head chaplain, for staff wellness rounding in which we go floor to floor to offer support and encouragement to the nurses and doctors and other staff who are on the front lines. Many of them are exhausted, burned out, angry and traumatized. We meet with the staff to make sure that their work is recognized and appreciated. In so doing, we strive to cultivate resilience so that these crucial employees will choose to continue to share their gifts of healing. 

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a trauma expert who wrote the acclaimed book on the subject “The Body Keeps the Score.” He writes: “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.” (21) Dr. Van der Kolk also writes about effective responses to trauma: “Resilience is the product of agency: knowing that what you do can make a difference.”

Today’s Torah reading, the Binding of Isaac, is ripe with trauma. However, embedded in the text and in the chapters that follow is an account of a path towards resilience. 

In our culture, we are used to Hollywood endings. The heroes overcome their challenge and ride off into the sunset. We know that in the end Abraham does not kill Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The story, though, does not exactly have a Hollywood ending. Have you ever noticed that Abraham and Isaac do not walk off together? Have you ever noticed that they never speak to each other again? After this episode, the very next piece of information we learn about the house of Abraham is that Sarah dies, possibly from shock over the news from Mt. Moriah. Hers is not the only body keeping score; Isaac is later described as blind, which the midrash connects to his traumatic experience on the altar. 

There are tragic consequences to the Akeidah. More than a paradigm of faith, the Akeidah is the ultimate recipe for how to traumatize a family. Within this complex story, though, or at least in its aftermath, we find a layer of hope and redemption. Who is the hero of the redemption of this family? Without a doubt, it is Isaac. This may come as a surprise. Because of his submission on the altar in apparent silence, we tend to regard Isaac as passive. A fresh reading of the text yields a new perspective of Isaac. The secret to understanding Isaac’s greatness lies in the map on your handout.

We know from the end of the Binding of Isaac narrative that Abraham travels to Beersheva, a distance of more than forty miles. This is curious because we are told in the next chapter that Sarah dies and is buried in Hevron, only 20 miles from Jerusalem. This suggests that Abraham knowingly bypasses Hevron on his way to Beersheva. He knew Sarah was there and perhaps suspected that she would excoriate him (to say the least) if she heard about the Akeidah. According to the midrash, word does reach Sarah soon enough, and indeed she dies from the shock. Abraham retraces his steps and walks 20 miles back to Hevron to bury Sarah.

Meanwhile, Isaac is missing in action. He does not accompany his father to Beersheva and is not present at his mother’s funeral in Hevron. This is odd because we’re told later how sad Isaac was over the death of his mother and that he does not overcome his grief until he marries Rebecca. So where is Isaac? In the lead-up to Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, we are finally told his location, Beer Lahai Ro’i (Gen 24: 62). This is an oasis deep in the Negev desert, perhaps another 40 miles from Beersheva. After the Akeidah, Isaac ran as far away as he could from his father and the life he knew. Except, there are two people in Beer Lahai Ro’i whom Isaac knows and knows well: Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, and Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother. We read about their banishment from the house of Abraham on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. When we learn from the Torah that Be’er Lahai Ro’i becomes Isaac’s home, bells should go off in our minds that he went to live near Hagar and Ishmael.

Isaac when growing up probably sat for dinner with his parents in their tent and heard stories that cast Hagar and Ishmael in a poor light. But after the Akeidah, Isaac sees the world differently. Isaac now understands what it’s like to be abandoned. Hagar and Ishmael are the only two people on earth who would understand the trauma he experienced at the hands of his father. Moreover, he understands what they went through when they were banished into the desert. To put it in COVID-19 terms, Isaac wanted to spend lockdown with Hagar and Ishmael and no one else. 

We have no record of any conversations in Beer Lahai Ro’i. We only know that when Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah. This often overlooked scene is one of the most powerful in the Bible: Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham and fathers of two separate nations, stand side by side in brotherhood at their father’s grave.

Think about all that transpired beforehand. The family of Abraham had collapsed. Hagar and Ishmael had been banished, and Isaac had nearly been killed on the altar. Abraham feels he will never be forgiven and cannot face Sarah ever again. Sarah, to the extent she was able to process the events before her death, probably felt betrayed and abandoned. Five people, five lives, five hearts traumatized and wracked by pain.

I believe that Isaac earned his name as a patriarch by doing the quiet work behind the scenes to enable the reconciliation between himself and Ishmael. When Isaac emerges from the trauma on Mt. Moriah, he could have taken different routes. A more outward-driven personality might have seized the moment for PR. He could have broadcast his victimhood to the world. He could also have lived the rest of his life in seclusion. Isaac does neither. He actively works behind the scenes to effectuate change. Instead of living with hurt and resentment, he taps into his pain to seek out an opportunity for reconciliation. Earlier, the pain was so raw he couldn’t even bear to meet his father at his own mother’s funeral. Isaac understands, though, the need to connect. He may feel abandoned by his father, but he is not resigned to a life of abandonment.Through Isaac’s insight and courageous initiative, the sons of Abraham reconcile. Isaac, in partnership with Ishmael and Hagar, illustrate the verses from Ecclesiastes: 

4.Kohelet 4:9, 12

טוֹבִ֥ים הַשְּׁנַ֖יִם מִן־הָאֶחָ֑ד אֲשֶׁ֧ר יֵשׁ־לָהֶ֛ם שָׂכָ֥ר ט֖וֹב בַּעֲמָלָֽם׃

Two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings.

כִּ֣י אִם־יִפֹּ֔לוּ הָאֶחָ֖ד יָקִ֣ים אֶת־חֲבֵר֑וֹ וְאִ֣יל֗וֹ הָֽאֶחָד֙ שֶׁיִּפּ֔וֹל וְאֵ֥ין שֵׁנִ֖י לַהֲקִימֽוֹ׃

For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls with no companion to raise him!

וְהַחוּט֙ הַֽמְשֻׁלָּ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בִמְהֵרָ֖ה יִנָּתֵֽק׃

A threefold cord is not readily broken!

Isaac’s resiliency also demonstrates what is known by caring professionals as post-traumatic growth. For some, resiliency and post traumatic growth are synonymous. For others, here’s the distinction:  “Resiliency is the personal attribute or ability to bounce back… PTG, on the other hand, refers to what can happen when someone who has difficulty bouncing back experiences a traumatic event that challenges his or her core beliefs, endures psychological struggle (even a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder), and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth. Post traumatic growth is not innate. It’s a process that “takes a lot of time, energy and struggle.” 

Isaac’s achievement is significant. Just look at the ground he had to cover on foot to get a sense of his effort. In our quest for resilience and post-traumatic growth in our response to COVID-19, we have to show kindness to ourselves, because the process of bouncing back is hard. 

Rabbi Mychal Springer, founder of the Center for Pastoral Care at the Jewish Theological Seminary said in a recent online presentation for rabbis:  “Resilience is something we aspire to. And we know we can’t always feel resilient. Sometimes we are laid low, and we have to respect the process. It’s not a question if one of us will fall. We will fall. When we fall we can pick one another up.” Rabbi Springer says that a resilient person understands that falling is a part of life and that we need to build our lives around the reality that falling happens. We can be self-sufficient with certain kinds of falls. But with others we need support. In the case of Isaac, he needed that support from Hagar and Ishmael, the two people in the world who “got him,” who could relate to his trauma. I imagine that they supported one another with open hearts to turn their respective encounters with death into a collective affirmation of life. 

For the last 20 months, we have all been hyper-aware of our mortality because we have been surrounded by illness and death. Even if we have stayed physically healthy without infection, our collective isolation and loneliness have heightened our stress levels. Resilience and post-traumatic growth will not occur through ignoring or denying the world around us. Rather, renewal comes about through our leaning in to our stress and our fear of mortality. Our task is to let our mortality serve as our catalyst to bring more compassion and loving kindness into the world. 

The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about acknowledging our fears and choosing resilience. We dress in white and draw death close. Our proximity to death allows us to take seriously that we only have one precious life to live. With a mindset towards making the most out of our life, we are reoriented to what we need to do for meaningful living. And that is resilience. Out of our brokenness comes our agency because we can make a choice in the time that we have. We have that ability. There’s so much we can’t do, so much that is out of our control. Then there is what IS in our control. When others are feeling down, we can make sure we see them. And when we’re feeling down, we can make sure that others see us. As Kohelet teaches us, טוֹבִ֥ים הַשְּׁנַ֖יִם מִן־הָאֶחָ֑ד two are better off than one… וְהַחוּט֙ הַֽמְשֻׁלָּ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בִמְהֵרָ֖ה יִנָּתֵֽק׃ and a three-fold cord is not easily broken. In this new year, let us renew our commitment to helping one another through the crisis of our times, and may God grant us the strength to bring more compassion, loving kindness and peace into our world. 

Amen. 

Returning to Community with Covenantal Purpose

7 Sep

Rosh HaShanah, Day 1, September 7, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah.

My daughter Esther, whom I mentioned last night, celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah in January of this year. Like many families, we scheduled the date years in advance. Being  a good father who happens to be a rabbi, I trained Esther for well over a year. I don’t know if she’d agree, but a benefit of having a parent as a rabbi is free in-house bat mitzvah tutoring. We assumed that her bat mitzvah would resemble her two older brothers’ in that we would be surrounded by hundreds of our dearest relatives and friends. When the pandemic lockdown started in March, 2020, my wife and I figured that the bat mitzvah was 10 months away. Everything will be fine by then. By the summer, we were thinking it would be a smaller affair but still fairly normal. By the fall it was clear that we either postpone it indefinitely or hold our simcha online. By that point, we had gotten used to online services, and Esther had mastered her Torah reading and Haftarah. We opted to celebrate her bat mitzvah as originally scheduled online. Our family was in the sanctuary of our synagogue where we are members in Boca Raton, Florida, along with the rabbi, cantor and synagogue president. Everyone else was online. We made it work. And it was beautiful. 

Once we decided to celebrate the simcha online, we chose to go all in. We wanted our Zoom bat mitzvah to be infused with the sacred purpose of helping Esther cross the threshold into Jewish adulthood and to do so surrounded by relatives and friends from near and far. My parents had an aliyah from their home in Chicago. Friends from Europe and Israel, who would never have been expected to attend in person, logged on and took part virtually. At our virtual party after Shabbat, friends and family from around the country lit candles for a virtual candle lighting ceremony and were spotlighted on cue as each paid tribute to Esther. Our goal was to create a simcha that included the community and provided Esther with her deserved recognition for this milestone.

I was and continue to be an advocate for online worship as an emergency measure throughout the pandemic. We suffered great losses to be sure, but we figured out how to come together online for life’s events: funerals, shiva minyanim. Passover seders, Thanksgiving dinners, b’nai mitzvah, birthday parties, and even weddings  And, of course, services. Among my heroes are the rabbis of the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards who rose to the moment to enable online worship for our community.

Life online has not been easy. Raise your hand if on a Zoom call you thought you were muted but in fact were unmuted. Raise your hand if the last 18 months were the most difficult of your career. Raise your hand if during the last 18 months you were reminded of the things that are most important to you. 

I think what the Jewish community accomplished online in the last year and a half was miraculous and saved the Jewish people in the midst of a crisis. At the same time we all have greater appreciation than ever before for the power of face-to-face contact. When my home synagogue opened for in-person worship in April, I was at that Shabbat service, and I have been there every week since.  

As long as it is safe for us to gather in person, we need to be more mindful than ever on how we gather and what we hope to get out of our time together.  

Priya Parker is a writer, consultant and podcaster who wrote the book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She wrote this book in 2018, but has been a prominent consultant to group leaders and organizations on how to foster meaningful gatherings online and in person during the pandemic and eventual post-pandemic era. Earlier this year, she addressed the online convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. She is not Jewish but is well familiar with Jewish communal norms such as the Passover seder and shiva gatherings, and she often cites these as examples of purposeful gatherings. 

Parker notes that we spend our lives gathering – first in our families, with friends, in playgroups and at schools. Then, with adult life, come weddings, business meetings, religious worship, class reunions and dinner parties. And at the end of life, our families and loved ones gather at funerals. Gatherings are a huge part of life, and they’re a part of the human experience. But the time we spend in them is often underwhelming and uninspiring. Too often gatherings are lackluster and lacking in purpose. Parker teaches that successful gatherings have a well defined purpose. She provides guidance to leaders on how to plan carefully every stage of an event towards achieving that purpose.  Gatherings that are purposeful are also meaningful and memorable. 

Our Jewish tradition incorporates purposeful gathering in the term B’rit, or covenant. In studying today’s Torah portion. Genesis 21, I find it striking that the reading begins and ends with purposeful, covenantal gatherings. As our reading opens, we experience the birth, brit milah and weaning of Isaac. These are very key milestones for Abraham and Sarah as they confirm the fulfillment of their dream of progeny. At the end of Genesis 21, Abraham and Avimelekh, a rival chieftain, come together to preserve water rights and communal peace. The chapter is bookended by these two covenantal gatherings:  Abraham’s family celebration of Isaac’s birth and Abraham’s pact with Avimelekh. The first is for Abraham and his family. The second widens the circle between the family and their broader community.  

In between these covenantal gatherings, we see incidents of conflict and strife. First there is the tension in the House of Abraham. The rivalry between Sarah and Hagar leads to the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. They ultimately survive with God’s help, but the conflict scars Abraham and his family.  Next, we see conflict between Abraham and Avimelekh over water rights. This is not a small family squabble. There is potential for a regional war. 

What we learn from the structure of our Torah reading is that with covenant we thrive; without covenant we falter. A covenant is very different from a contract. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. A covenant creates a moral community. It binds people together in a bond of mutual responsibility and care.”

The Torah as a great work of literature has distinctive literary and poetic features. Parallelism is a literary device used here in Chapter 21 to spotlight the covenants in our Torah reading. In parallelism, different words or phrases that express similar ideas are placed in close proximity to emphasize a particular theme. The words might not rhyme in sound, but they rhyme in theme. We often see a particular kind of parallelism called chiasm that takes the structure A-B-B-A.  Your handout illustrates the chiasm that I believe is the scaffolding of Genesis 21. 

A. Birth, brit milah, weaning of Isaac—family celebration, festive gathering

B. Expulsion of Ishmael—family tension, strife, 

B’ Abraham reprimands Avimelekh for stealing water—communal tension, strife

A’ Covenant between Abraham and Avimelekh—festive, covenantal gathering of community

I am honored that I can serve as a guest rabbi for Beth Emeth during this time of transition for the congregation. As the congregation heads into a new year with the wise guidance of Rabbi Aft, I invite the community to consider the meaning of Brit, covenant, and what it would mean for the congregation to be mindful of covenant in all gatherings going forward. Based on Priya Parker’s work, I’ve prepared questions for each of you to think about individually and together for renewing the covenant of a sacred community as a guiding purpose for gatherings. 

Looking Back to the Before Times…

  • During the past 16-20 months, what did you miss and long for that you couldn’t do with others? 
  • What activities or ways of spending time with other people did you not miss? What might you want to discard for good? 

Reflecting on Pandemic Era inventions…

  • What did we learn, create or try anew during the pandemic that we want to bring with us? 

For me, these included shiva gatherings on Zoom in which every person who wished got to speak and share memories. My own family began the practice of gathering on Zoom to mark the yahrzeits of my grandparents in which my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins around the country came together on Zoom to remember our departed. We never thought to do this before COVID-19, and now we don’t want to give it up. 

Imagining Forward…

  • What might we invent going forward? 
  • How might our future inventions strengthen the covenantal purpose of our community? 


I leave that as an open question for the congregation to ponder and wrestle with on Beth Emeth’s journey forward. 

In closing, I want to return to the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, who died last November shortly after publishing his last book: “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times”.  He wrote the book prior to the pandemic but practically stopped the presses to add an epilogue that takes into account the early weeks of the lockdown in Spring 2020. His closing words are a charge to us all to renew our covenantal relationship post-pandemic. He writes: “I hope that we will retain the spirit of kindness and neighborliness that humanized our fate during the months of lockdown and isolation when people thought of others, not themselves…Those who did these acts discovered, as we almost always do, that in lifting others, we ourselves are lifted.” Rabbi Sacks continues:  “I hope we will emerge from this time of distance and isolation with an enhanced sense of what most of us have missed—the ‘We’ that happens whenever two or more people come together face-to-face and soul touches soul, the ‘We’ that is at the heart of our being as social animals and that can never be fully replicated by electronic media, however brilliant and effective they are…” And Rabbi Sacks says further: “As the world recovers from the pandemic, we can work to rebuild our societies the way they were, or we can use this rare moment to enhance the structures of our togetherness, a togetherness that had been weakened by too much pursuit of self. The choice is ours, and the time is now.”

I offer a blessing to Congregation Beth Emeth that the New Year will bring about opportunities  to reflect on when, how, why and around what the community gathers for the sake of 

renewal of the covenantal purpose of this sacred community. May this noble effort to renew our brit be a blessing to the Jewish people and to our world. 

Quote

The Best Day of My Life

6 Sep

Rosh HaShanah Evening, September 6, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah.

What a blessing it is to be with Congregation Beth Emeth on this Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, what a blessing it is to be alive and to usher in a new year. Before I reflect more deeply on this blessing, I would be remiss in failing to note, that both Rabbi Aft and I are from Chicago and both of us root for the Chicago White Sox, who are closing in on the playoffs. It is an honor to serve the Beth Emeth community in this time of transition. We Chicagoans know how to help out in a pinch. 

You will also be pleased to know that my daughter Esther, who celebrated becoming bat mitzvah in January of this year, is a die hard Washington Nationals fan. We live in South Florida not far from the Nats’ Spring Training site in West Palm Beach, and Esther has made them her team. She also has a flair for design, and she wanted me to share that she always thought it was cool that the font in the team logo looks a lot like the font in the Walgreens corporate logo. Esther loves to call the Nationals, “The Walgreens Team.” 

In 2018, we were in Chicago for a family gathering. It happened that the Nationals were playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field. So, I went with my kids and my father to the Sunday night game. My dad and I were rooting for the Cubs—I am a rare Chicagoan who roots for both the Sox and the Cubs—It’s complicated. My kids were rooting for the Nationals, especially Esther. Max Scherzer—remember him?—was pitching for the Nationals and was unhitable. However, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning as the Nationals were clinging to a 1-0 lead. The strategy worked perfectly. The Nationals scored two more insurance runs in the 8th and took a 3-0 lead. It was at that point that Esther kissed me on the cheek and said, “This is the best day of my life.” Well, poor kid, she spoke too soon. With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, the Cubs loaded the bases and sent up a pinch-hitter named David Bote who hit a walk-off grand slam, and the Cubs won 4-3. The crowd went wild, and my father and I enthusiastically hugged. My joy was short-lived, though. Esther had burst into tears. She was inconsolable. I spent the rest of our trip trying to be my best chaplain self and comfort her. 

Whenever I reflect on that evening, I can’t help but think of the innocence of my child saying “This is the best day of my life.” 

Esther’s optimistic words echo words of thanksgiving in Jewish tradition. On Jewish holidays throughout the year we sing in the Hallel prayers of Thanksgiving: Zeh hayom asah Adonai nagilah v’nismechah vo—This is the day that God has made. Let us celebrate and rejoice in it. 

Oddly enough, we do not say that prayer of Thanksgiving or any part of Hallel on Rosh HaShanah. Why not? 

The Talmud teaches: 

דאמר רבי אבהו אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע מפני מה אין ישראל אומרים שירה לפניך בר”ה וביום הכפורים אמר להן אפשר מלך יושב על כסא הדין וספרי חיים וספרי מתים פתוחין לפניו וישראל אומרים שירה לפני

As Rabbi Abbahu said that the ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, for what reason do the Jewish people not recite songs of praise, i.e., hallel, before You on Rosh HaShana and on Yom Kippur? He said to them: Is it possible that while the King is sitting on the throne of judgment and the books of life and the books of death are open before Him, the Jewish people would be reciting joyous songs of praise before Me? Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are somber days of judgment whose mood is incompatible with the recitation of Hallel. (Arachin 10b)

We don’t say Hallel on Rosh HaShanah because the mood of the day is too heavy and somber. Nevertheless, we should be grateful that we are here together right now. Rosh HaShanah is a joyous day. It is a festive day. It may even be the best day of our lives. How do we know this? 

We find a beautiful reference to Rosh HaShanah as a day of joy in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Nehemiah. In the Torah and the rest of the Bible this day is the first day of the seventh month.  Nehemiah is set around 444 BCE. Jews who had been forced into exile by the Babylonians were allowed to return to their ancestral land by Persia, the new super power of the time. The Jews were once again allowed to gather in Jerusalem in large numbers after a prolonged absence. They were starving for leadership and sought guidance in reclaiming their traditions. On the first day of the seventh month, Rosh HaShanah, throngs of people assembled in the main square before the Water Gate (that’s in Jerusalem, not DC).  They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the Lord had charged Israel. Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday… (Nehemiah 8:1‑3).

The people were overwhelmed with emotion. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר נְחֶמְיָ֣ה ה֣וּא הַתִּרְשָׁ֡תָא וְעֶזְרָ֣א הַכֹּהֵ֣ן ׀ הַסֹּפֵ֡ר וְהַלְוִיִּם֩ הַמְּבִינִ֨ים אֶת־הָעָ֜ם לְכׇל־הָעָ֗ם הַיּ֤וֹם קָדֹֽשׁ־הוּא֙ לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם אַל־תִּֽתְאַבְּל֖וּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּ֑וּ כִּ֤י בוֹכִים֙ כׇּל־הָעָ֔ם כְּשׇׁמְעָ֖ם אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה׃

Nehemiah…, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites … said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֡ם לְכוּ֩ אִכְל֨וּ מַשְׁמַנִּ֜ים וּשְׁת֣וּ מַֽמְתַקִּ֗ים וְשִׁלְח֤וּ מָנוֹת֙ לְאֵ֣ין נָכ֣וֹן ל֔וֹ כִּֽי־קָד֥וֹשׁ הַיּ֖וֹם לַאֲדֹנֵ֑ינוּ וְאַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת ה’ הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם׃

He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the LORD is the source of your strength.”

11

וְהַלְוִיִּ֞ם מַחְשִׁ֤ים לְכׇל־הָעָם֙ לֵאמֹ֣ר הַ֔סּוּ כִּ֥י הַיּ֖וֹם קָדֹ֑שׁ וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵֽבוּ׃

The Levites were quieting the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy; do not be sad.”

12

וַיֵּלְכ֨וּ כׇל־הָעָ֜ם לֶאֱכֹ֤ל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת֙ וּלְשַׁלַּ֣ח מָנ֔וֹת וְלַעֲשׂ֖וֹת שִׂמְחָ֣ה גְדוֹלָ֑ה כִּ֤י הֵבִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹדִ֖יעוּ לָהֶֽם׃ {פ}

Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.

On this particular Rosh HaShanah Day 2500 years ago, the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God and accepted the Torah as their basic law. The people wept when they realized how far they had strayed from the teachings of the Torah. But they were admonished not to mourn because “this day is holy to the Lord your God” (Nehemiah 8:9).

As we begin together a new year on the Jewish calendar, we acknowledge the hardships of the last year the we have endured as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 600,00 people have died from COVID-19 in our country, and the virus is still disrupting our lives. We have witnessed and experienced illness, death and isolation. For many of us present in the sanctuary now, this holiday might be the first or one of the first in-person religious gatherings. And we also acknowledge that there are many in our community who are worshiping with us virtually because we are not yet out of the pandemic. There are many other distressing challenges. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan took place amidst violence and disorder that has been shocking to watch. Climate change is wreaking havoc in so many ways and throughout the world. Democratic institutions in America and around the world have been tested in ways that we have not previously seen in the West in most of our lifetimes. In addition, many of us has different levels of individual challenges with health, family or work or any combination.  

We can relate to our ancestors in the time of Ezra and Nehemia, perhaps more now than ever before, to their sense of profound loss mingled with their gratitude and joy for being together. 

Yes, there is a somber element to the High Holidays, but even within the solemnity there is hopefulness and joy. The message of the High Holidays is that we do not have to be stuck in the same habits of the previous year. We can improve, we can be better, we can make up for the mistakes we have made in the past. 

The High Holidays are the most optimistic holidays of our tradition. Instead of dwelling on our past faults, we recognize that God has given us the ability to overcome our faults and to grow as human beings. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are reminded that God believes in us. Teshuvah (repentance) is, therefore, an act of joy. If God believes we can be contrite and do teshuvah, that is God’s vote of confidence that we can do better and be better. And that in itself is cause for joy. 

We are gathering in person and online to celebrate Rosh HaShanah together as a community. We are reaffirming our faith in God and, more important, we are reaffirming God’s faith in us. What could be better than that? 

Let us resolve to make this Rosh HaShanah the best day of our life. As we observe the holiday together, let us affirm life, celebrate life and resolve to live the best life possible in the year to come. 

Please join me in a very familiar Jewish expression of gratitude for life, the she-he-hiyanu: Baruh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam she-he-hiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh. (sing)

“The Soundtrack of Our Lives”: Rick Recht on My Teacher Podcast

18 Jun
Rick Recht in conversation with Rabbi Ed Bernstein on My Teacher Podcast

Rock star and Jewish educator Rick Recht reflects on his career in music, leadership training, social justice and Jewish communal life post-COVID-19.

Giving Thanks: Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz on her new role as JTS Chancellor

19 Nov

Here’s my newest edition of My Teacher Podcast in which I interview Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the eighth Chancellor of JTS and the first woman in this role. In this Thanksgiving 2020 interview, she reflects on her career, scholarship, personal challenges and steering JTS through the COVID-19 era.

Answering the Call: Rabbi Amy Eilberg on pursuing peace and justice

22 Oct

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained at the The Jewish Theological Seminary – JTS, reflects on her distinguished career as a chaplain, spiritual director, peace and justice educator and activist and her teachers who guided and called her to service along the way. Please listen to our conversation on My Teacher Podcast.

28 Sep

I am conducting High Holiday services online for B’nai Zion Congregation in Chattanooga, TN, from my studio pulpit in Boynton Beach, FL. Here is my message for Yizkor, 9/28/20.

 

27 Sep

I am conducting High Holiday services online for B’nai Zion Congregation in Chattanooga, TN, from my studio pulpit in Boynton Beach, FL. Here is my message “White Jews Confronting Racism” in Kol Nidre services, 9/27/20.