This Shabbat (Sabbath), many in the Jewish community are reflecting upon the rabbinic teachings connected to the weekly biblical reading of “Noach” (Genesis 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-10). The following is a reflection rooted in these. For more about the sources, please go to www.chabad.org.
The first verse of this biblical passage contains this enigmatic Hebrew phrase: “Noah ish tzaddik b’dorotav”. This is usually translated as Noah was a righteous man in his generation. From these words, later rabbinic commentary debates whether this is a compliment or a criticism, a larger reflection on the story of Noah overall: why was he selected? Was he really righteous? What does that mean? What does that say about the rest of humanity? Why would such a total destruction be wrought over the entire earth, including animals and vegetation? What about the lesser told stories of Noah following the flood… drunken and exposing himself sexually to his child… the text of which is also unclear but certainly problematic… and which concludes with his son Ham’s generations being cursed… a biblical curse which in turn became used and twisted to justify more of humanity’s evils, in particular racism and slavery.
And so it is, “the righteous in one’s generation”- the themes in this biblical text are sadly far more contemporary than we would like. We do not need to look far to see examples so plentiful of humanity’s cruelty and perversity, far too often in the name of religion, that we are tempted to wish for our own flood…
The complex theological questions of trying to understand the purpose of tragedy and natural destruction like floods… why some are spared others are not… what is “righteousness” and is it just an illusion… what does it mean to seek to become “tzaddik”, which can also be translated as saintly or holy…
What does it mean to walk a spiritual path and heed the Call of the Holy One… a Call that no one understands… a Call to build that is potentially met with ridicule by one’s contemporaries? What happens when sometimes we are Called by the Source of Holiness, and sometimes we feel compelled to do something so profoundly wrong that it causes generational trauma?
The Talmud records a rabbinic adage: the greater one’s “yetzer hatov” (capacity for good), the greater one’s “yetzer hara” (capacity for bad). Indeed, so many of the revelations that have been coming to light recently, regarding religious leaders and others, seem to reflect this insight… although for many of us, it actually causes us to question the “good” that was spoken or done… was it all just a façade for the evil that was done behind closed doors? Does one invalidate the other?
Many years ago, I was leading a bible study with a group of adults who struggled with schizophrenia… and they shared with me a profound insight that continues to guide me to this day. We were discussing the Calls that people in the bible were reported to have received, and one of them said, so very wisely… if any of those biblical characters were to be living today and to share their truths with someone, they would likely get brought in handcuffs to a facility and medicated until they could not hear anything or even think clearly… And another person responded: I can always tell when the Voice I hear is G!d, and when the voices I hear are my illness… G!d encourages me to love and heal… the other voices do not lead to good things.
The incredible wisdom in this insight may very well provide the key to understanding some of the dilemma that has troubled the rabbis for centuries. It also speaks to the challenge of discerning our “Calls”. Each of us may discern them differently, and they will come to us differently, and we will respond to them differently. It may be a gut feeling or a butterfly or a dream or a song on the radio or an opportunity that seems to come out of nowhere. We may heed the call, we may talk ourselves out of it, we may try to distract ourselves or numb ourselves…
Part of the spiritual work that must be done in order to be able to discern the Call is to become more self-aware and to work on our own healing and wholeness, so that we can recognize which parts of us are activated when we “feel called”… the more we are centered in a place of Love and compassion and connectedness… the more likely we will be to recognize those Calls that emerge from that place and lead us to those places…
This coming week, let us work on healing ourselves… uncovering our truest S/selves… and becoming more mindful of the ways in which we are Called to become who we were created to be… let us recognize the ways we are called to build shelters and havens in the midst of the storms, and let us generously welcome all those we encounter with love and a commitment to healing…
Originally from Montreal, Canada, I studied in Jerusalem at several Orthodox yeshivas, prior to beginning my studies as a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College. I am a second generation Holocaust survivor, and early on, wanted to do whatever I could to build a world where hatred and prejudice would never again have the upper hand.
For me, studying Judaism from traditional perspectives was crucial because “it was important to understand what we are reforming”. I believe in making educated choices from the rich set of resources provided by Jewish tradition, in order to ensure that every ritual and prayer is meaningful. I was a founding board member of the Society of Classical Reform Judaism (now Roots of Reform), due to my unwavering commitment to advocacy for interfaith families and the creation of inclusive Jewish communities that are unconditionally welcoming of all spiritual seekers, regardless of their religious background, relationship status, identity or Hebrew speaking ability.
In addition to nearly two decades working in synagogues, teaching, counseling and participating in life cycle events, I am also a social worker, psychotherapist, mediator and trained as an interfaith chaplain. I worked with the American Red Cross after 9/11, providing counseling and support at the family assistance center, Ground Zero and the morgue. My doctoral research was focused on burnout and compassion fatigue, as part of my years of work in hospice and palliative care. My life experiences have taught me hope and how to cultivate resilience and wisdom.
This blog reflects my attempts to distill rabbinic wisdom into insights that can speak to all people. I have dedicated my life to healing and spiritual alchemy. I first began the writings that formed the basis of this blog as part of my role as Vice President of Mission for KentuckyOne Health, an interfaith hospital system that brought together Catholic, secular and Jewish hospital systems, in order to bring wellness, healing and hope to all, including the underserved. I began my weekly reflections on the Torah portion, in order to share some of Jewish Hospital's heritage and values with staff that may not have known much about Judaism. These reflections were then shared by staff with others who asked to be placed on my blind copy list, as well as by the system mission leader of Catholic Health Initiatives to his own reader list, along with his own reflections.
I have been profoundly humbled by the reactions to these writings, and as more people have asked to have access to them, I eventually worked to overcome my discomfort with the internet in order to publish them online. I realized that Jews and non-Jews were drawn to my inclusive interpretations of the biblical text, and my reflections on how to apply these in our every day. I believe that, much like the Sufi teaching that describes all the religions of the world like different prayer beads, with the same string of truth that runs through each of them, so too can these ancient spiritual and mystical teachings can come to life, when we reflect on the echoes of other world traditions and by contemporary psychological theory.
As my professional journey has continued to evolve, and I have found myself transitioning from pulpit rabbi to community rabbi, to who I am becoming as I seek to move beyond all labels, I have found that this site remains an important way for people to get to know me, and understand my theology.
I am fundamentally committed to the sacred act of translation- seeking to discern the Divine through text and life, and to translate those words of Torah and wisdom into reflections that can speak to people of all faith traditions... and in so doing, hopefully encouraging others to do the same. We are all created in the Image of G!d, and as such, each of us has our own unique understanding of the Sacred. In the same way as the rabbis teach that if even one letter from the scroll of the Torah is missing, the entire Torah has lost its sacredness (is no longer kosher), so too is this world diminished so long as people silence themselves. For too long, organized religion has been used as a weapon, to keep people silent and to teach shame... my quest as a rabbi, and indeed, as a human being, is to work to translate religious teachings into redemptive and healing truths, to seek to liberate s/Spirit and to work toward "tikkun olam" (the healing of the universe).
My current rabbinate is dedicated to teaching and mentoring other rabbis, and working with interfaith families, as well as those traditionally marginalized from mainstream Judaism. In the same way as the holiness of the Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) can be found in its fringes (tzitzit) so too do I believe that the most important contribution I can make to the Jewish people is "Keruv" (helping people find their way home), and to the broader world is "shleimut" (helping people to find wholeness). I also serve G!d as a social worker, doing what I can to work for justice for all people.
It is my prayer that the insights in this blog will bring healing and insight to others, and encourage others to find their voice and path. Thank you for your time reading my work.
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