Back to Basics

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman, has given me the honor of chanting Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon at Temple Ohabei Shalom. It’s a short reading — just four p’sukim — but full of richness. The reading comes from Leviticus 19, the beginning of what’s known as the holiness code. In it, G-d tells Moses to speak to the entire community of Israelites in order to teach them why and how to be holy. The why is (deceptively) simple: the people shall be holy in imitation of their Creator. The how takes up many, many p’sukim to follow, but my portion is refreshingly basic: revere your mother and father, keep Shabbat, and do not turn to idolatry.

As so many things — family, work, nation — seem to swirl into ever more confusing and complicated duststorms, it is a gift to return in this season of return to core teachings. My daily life can sometimes seem a series of fire drills, panics, dramas, and interruptions upon interruptions. How glorious to focus my mind on basic respect: for my elders, for my tradition, for my Creator.

On Sunday afternoon, Bill and I took the boys to the river to do a family tashlich. As we stood in a clearing in the woods, we talked about what we wanted to throw away from the past year and what we wanted to do better. What struck me — with both hope and rue — was how much our comments resembled those of years past. The things we want to do less of in the coming year — arguing, thoughtlessness, impatience, meanness — are exactly the things we wanted to do less of in the year just ended. Did we really do such a bad job at it the last time (and the time before and the time before the time before) that we have to try yet again this year? It is discouraging to name the same things year after year, to set the same intentions as the year before and know that I’m likely to be setting (or re-setting) them at the same time next year.

Shouldn’t we be keeping these basic intentions in mind throughout the year?

And yet I love the way our tradition builds this habit of introspection into the calendar and offers us this annual chance at realigning ourselves. These ten days of awe give us a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves of what matters most to us, and to get back to our basics.​


Darkness at Two

Sometimes everything comes at once, and sometimes the natural world can provide you with a perfect metaphor for viewing it all. Today we will experience darkness at midday. In a rare solar eclipse, the moon will temporarily block the sun and daytime will look like night. Our tradition talks a lot about G-d’s power to create light and darkness and to separate the two. We read it in B’reishit, and we mention it in evening prayers. Jewish thought is a constant project of joining things which belong together and separating – making havdalah – those things which are distinct from one another. So when the sun and the moon appear so close in the sky that one crowds the other out, it warrants attention.

There could hardly be a more exact image for what we are experiencing as a nation. Dark forces are gathering on the ground and in the highest offices of government. White supremacists have removed their hoods and are unabashedly practicing intimidation. They get away with behavior that was once considered shameful, and they get away with it partly because the president himself equivocates as to the appropriateness of their actions. I have heard it said over and over, and I feel it myself: I never imagined that Nazis would openly demonstrate in American cities and not be unambiguously condemned. It is hard to fathom. Alongside friends from many communities, I go about my daily work in a state of disorientation. How did we come to this? How did it happen so quickly? Where will it end?

Yet there is also light. There always is. Even amidst the awful events of Charlottesville a week an a half ago, there were people who lent their support to the Jewish community there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with security guards to protect the synagogue and praying alongside members of the shul. And here in Boston, over this weekend just past, we saw an astounding turnout – more counter-protest than protest – that turned back the forces of white supremacy. Their so-called free speech rally, a thinly-veiled show of white supremacist force, withered in the daylight, as tens of thousands peacefully demonstrated their commitment to diversity, acceptance, and kindness.

The partial eclipse we will see in Boston is the very picture of how our city refracts the national mood. The darkness is still there, but more than a little light will peek out. Though day feels like it is becoming night, the transformation will not be complete. We know that the white supremacist movement is out there, and that they think the guy in the White House is their guy, but those who would defend civil rights, women’s rights, human rights are still here, still fighting, and still determined not to see the nation fall prey to dark forces.

That tonight is Rosh Chodesh Elul merely sweetens the metaphor. In Elul, we turn inward and prepare ourselves for the refiner’s fire of the chaggim. Elul is a month of soul-searching, of peeling away the layers of excesses and irrelevancies to see what we are made of and what matters to us. What a perfect time to be doing so. (It always is!) As we make the transition from one year to the next and engage deeply in t’shuvah, we have the opportunity to examine our own assumptions, our privileges, and the ways in which we can redouble our efforts serve others with more love.

In Jewish tradition, our days begin in darkness. As darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon today – and then dissipates – let us all ask ourselves the urgent questions. What do we want from this new day? What can we do to bring about the change we wish to see in the world? In this moment, the forces of darkness are attempting to crowd out the light. The world needs you (yes, you!) to bring your mightiest effort to dispelling the darkness. Reach out to others in sincerity and humility. Be there for those who are in need, and allow for the possibility of t’shuvah, in yourself and in others.

With each day, this task becomes more urgent. A day like today – a day that starts twice – is the perfect moment to begin.

Finding our Place

I’ve been thinking recently about being lost & being found. Having been to several B’nei Mitzvah lately (you’d think I have a 13-year-old son or something!) I have witnessed over and over again that lovely tradition that maybe you’ve seen so much you’ve forgotten to see it: the way that those gathered around the Torah scrolls help the reader to find his or her place, and the way the reader in turn shows the place to those giving the blessings for the aliyah. It’s a simple thing, but the metaphor is rich. Those who give voice to the teaching – and those who are gathered round to bear witness – they have each other’s backs. Sometimes the person seemingly in the driver’s seat needs someone in the passenger seat to read the map, to point the way, to say, “This is where we are now. You are among friends, and we will not let you be lost.”

The first time I received a call from a congregant whose husband was dying, I heard the pain and fear in her voice: “Naomi, I’m lost. I don’t know what to do. Charles is dying and I don’t know where to start.” I had been to visit with him recently, so I knew that this was not a surprising turn. Still, when it is real, it is real. With all the courage I could muster, I said to her, “I’m lost too. We’ll be lost together.” I spoke with her about calling the funeral home, about aninut and aveilut, about the value of sitting shiva, even though neither she nor her husband thought themselves to be religious. While she did not see herself as worthy of claiming that part of the tradition, I knew that sitting still with her community and allowing them to take care of her would benefit her in ways that she couldn’t imagine.

Sometimes confusion seems to swirl around us, and it is easy to lose our way. What anchors us? What holds us steady in trying times? For me, the answer is – always – community. When I am overwhelmed, or when I have more sadness than I know what to do with, nothing brings my life back into perspective like time spent in community, a call from a friend, or even just a thumbs-up on Facebook.

We read in Psalms: “Essa einai el he-Harim, I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where will I find help?”

For me, the help that comes from the people around me is the help that comes from Adonai. My community is G-d’s hands and feet, as I hope to be for others who are in need. Sometimes you’re the one holding fast to the scroll with sure knowledge of your place, and sometimes you’re the one whose eyes search and search. Knowing that we each have the capacity for both roles strengthens us to fulfill them. Go and learn it.

Interesting times

This week has been interesting. Chinese-curse interesting. Like the curse says, we are living in interesting times, and the events of this week leave me wracked and raw. It isn’t only that my candidate didn’t win – although that hurts – it’s that the meanness that this  campaign season has brought out seems to have no bottom.

Election campaigns are always negative and divisive: the very nature of the enterprise brings out the most competitive instincts in all of us. Candidates are typically people with strong personalities and deeply-held opinions, and the closer they get to the finish line, the more ruthless they become. That’s ugly but normal. At the same time, it is usually the case that once the race has been won and lost, there is a sort of reset button. People stop insulting each other and, at least for a time, they speak of reconciliation, unity, and patriotism. The loser concedes the race and encourages his or her followers to support the new president. We lick our wounds and move on with our lives.

This time it seems different. The level of nastiness and name-calling has not abated, and despite both President-elect Trump’s and Secretary Clinton’s calls for unity, quite the opposite is playing out. The day after the election, which just happened to be the anniversary of Kristallnacht, shop windows were broken and swastikas spray-painted alongside Trump’s name in Philadelphia. In sleepy old Wellesley, some frat boys sped around waving a confederate flag and intimidating folks. Even the banter on Facebook has been just mean. From friends I’ve known a long time, whose politics differ from mine, I’ve witnessed racist slurs and been baited and teased. Although not everyone has acted this way, many have chosen to, “go low.” The loss is more than an office.

I keep hearing people whose politics are like mine saying that we live in a bubble. It’s easy to think – whether you’re in Newton or Ann Arbor or meeting in the ether – that everyone in this country sees things as you do. This week has taught me how wrong and dangerous it is to be lulled into that notion. This great fractious nation is teeming with opinions and feelings and fears. The way others see the world is as real to them as the way I see it is real to me. I share none of the principles that the most vocal Trump supporters are espousing, but I must acknowledge their humanity and attempt to see others as deserving of basic rights…just as I wish that they would see “the other” as themselves.

What to do about it? I wish I had a five-point plan. All I have is a general notion that we – all of us – need to overpower the hatred with kindness. We need to take the social risks, talk to strangers, smile at people who scare us, go where we don’t belong, defend those who are being intimidated or persecuted. We need to break the bubble before it breaks us.

Today is Veteran’s Day. We know the consequences of allowing disagreements to escalate into violence. We must make different choices. We have some terrible healing to do, and the work waits.


After this morning’s Rosh Hashanah service, at which I was both staff in charge and Torah chanter, I came home to have lunch with two grown-up boys. They’d started the cooking while I was out, and the three of us easily and naturally teamed up together to prepare the table and serve each other the food.

We set out on an errand walk after that – to the library and the grocery and then back home. With Little still little enough to hold my hand, it felt almost like being a stay-at-home mother again. There were multiple conversational threads, interruptions, silly jokes, singing – all perfected by the golden autumn sunlight.

There is a text we sing each week that never fails to catch in my throat: chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Though it is typically translated as, “renew our days as of old,” a dear friend taught this paradoxical line to me as, “Renew our days; make them like before.”

At this time of year, we hear that text more frequently and more insistently, as we contemplate what it means to start another year. We want more days, more time, yet it is hard to let go of the time already past. We want it new, but not too new, not at the expense of the sweet bits we already miss.

So when my afternoon turned unexpectedly into an autumn-lit walk with my two best people — those adorable, agonizing people who need me but don’t — it was truly a gift, a thick slice of heaven. As we made our way home, they decided to break away and race me home: them through the woods and me through the neighborhood. I gave them the backpack containing my phone and keys, and waved as they skipped ahead, chasing each other and giggling, a spontaneous Brother Party in the making.

I turned the corner and when I did, I saw a woman walking with two young boys: a toddler and a preschooler. They held hands, skipped, tumbled, laughed — and I saw in the glinting sunlight an echo of the old days, those days which can never be fully renewed and yet which sometimes brush against my cheek like a beloved ghost.


I’m scheduled to read Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the synagogue where I work. My aliyah is the very first one in the Torah, from B’reishit, detailing the first day of this world. It is the very essence of Rosh Hashanah, which some people call the birthday of the world. In these five short verses, the world begins the journey from chaos to order. (I’m not quite sure where or whether that journey culminates.) Separations are made, categories are drawn, things begin to be put in their proper places. Earth and sky get organized, and the lights go on. From the jumble of undifferentiated time comes evening and morning, a first day.

It is curious to me that for all the separation and categorization of this aliyah, it concludes, like the Sh’ma, with the word echad (one). There is a constant tension in Jewish thought, with separation and unity dancing around each other. We make a point of separating meat from milk, Shabbat from weekdays, the holy from the everyday. And yet we pray three times a day a reminder that there is one G-d, that our most important thought is the unity of the force that animates us.

Life, as always, is very full. As I work through the planning for the chaggim, I am making list upon list, categorizing and recategorizing. Sometimes when my mind gets overwhelmed with details, I’ll take a blank piece of paper and take all the scrambling thoughts and put them into categories. And when the scraps and notes on my desk pile up and threaten to choke the life out of me, I stack them all up into one big pile and make a fresh list, taking the gleanings from each scrap and giving them a fresh start on a new piece of paper. The feeling of knowing the landscape helps me know where to step first. Like G-d on that very first day, I separate the to-do from the done, and I survey it. Sometimes I can even say that it is good.

When chaos reigns, we cannot tell which end is up, just as on that first day of creation neither heaven nor earth was plain to see. Separating things into useful categories helps us see the spaces between – and that’s where the light is.

Yet when we look at the Sh’ma, we see that all the categories, all the days, all the meats and milks, the evenings and the mornings – all the things, as the young people now like to say – add up to the same thing. The One who created all the categories is somehow immune from category. For myself, the categorization creates the necessary breathing space so that I can feel the unity more clearly. The two seem to lean on each other in an interesting and paradoxical way. I don’t know what to make of this dance between separation and unity, and it pleases me to think that perhaps G-d needs both and values both.

As the new year comes barreling toward us, I wish us all the perspective to see the categories and the unity that underlies them. L’shanah tovah!

Department of Returns

With daily obligations seeming to expand exponentially, life sometimes feels like a treadmill of tech and striving. Don’t get me wrong: I love tech and I’m a born striver. (The treadmill, not so much.) But all that leaning forward can leave a person feeling off balance, and all that connecting (Facebook, email, twitter, and and and) can leave a person feeling oddly disconnected.

Our tradition gives us an amazing opportunity, just as the seasons turn, to slow down, pay attention, press the reset button. As Elul begins tonight, we begin to get off the treadmill and to make a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul, in preparation for the High Holidays. We pay attention, individually and communally, to how we treat others and how we conduct ourselves. We ask ourselves a veritable GRE of questions: Have we been honest in business? Have we been open and available with partners, families, and friends? Have we taken time for contemplation? We pay attention to our choices with money and our choices with time. Have we given tzedakah to the best of our capacity, with thoughtfulness and dignity? Have we been there — not just molecularly but spiritually — for the people who need us? Are we making wise and thoughtful use of our one and only lives?

Our tradition teaches us that there is always room for t’shuvah (return) but at this time of year, from Rosh Chodesh Elul to havdalah on Yom Kippur, the ground is particularly ripe for it. A great resource I’ve returned to (!) the past few years during this time of reflection is 10Q from Reboot (the same people who brought you the National Day of Unplugging).

10QlogoFor 10Q, the Rebooters send you one simple-not-so-simple question per day for the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The questions can be answered easily, but they invite the kind of pause that’s both meaningful and rare. At Yom Kippur, the answers are sealed up in an online vault, and as the next year’s Days of Awe approach, the vault is unsealed and the 10Q folks send you a link to review your answers from the previous year. It can be both thrilling and humbling to look at the past year’s answers and to see what changes and what doesn’t. The 10Q questions don’t change, but the answers do. And presumably we do as well.

In my line of work, it’s challenging to maintain a focus on the work of t’shuvah when I am busy creating the circumstances for others’ t’shuvah. I am determined this year not to lose sight of “the reason for the season” entirely. Here we go!