Sunday, November 10, 2013


Va-yetzei begins by quickly letting us know from where Yaacov has departed—Beer-sheba—and where he’s going—Haran.  This single sentence proves to provide the framework for the much lengthier description of the place that comes in between.

What is that in-between place?  At first, we don’t know.  It’s just “a certain place,” and “this place.”  A seemingly any-place where Yaacov happens to stop for the night and use a stone for a pillow.  But it becomes so much more.  It transforms from a wayside camp to the setting of a holy vision.  Yaacov wakes from his extraordinary dream of an encounter with God and calls the place “awesome,” “the house of God” and “the gateway to heaven.”  Yet still, it seems to have no name.  Not until after Yaacov has transformed his pillow stone into an anointed pillar, until after he as renamed the site Bethel (house of God), do we finally learn that it had formerly been the city of Luz.

Did the spiritual experience itself turn the forgotten place into sacred space?  Not entirely.  It was with the aesthetic transition of a randomly chosen stone pillow to a thoughtfully fixed commemorative monument that Yaacov declared the name and made the transformation complete.

In the current Temple Beth Israel newsletter, you’ll read about a new initiative for this sacred space.  We hope to gather momentum and commitment to attend to the aesthetic stewardship of our sanctuary, building and grounds.  Some may wonder whether investing ourselves in the beauty of our space diminishes us; are we frivolous to worry about how the sanctuary looks, or whether the front hall conveys both an inviting and an inspiring welcome, rather than how the liturgy and d’var Torah move us? 

In Philadelphia, I grew up in the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed synagogue.  Brad and I raised our children there.  Between the two of us over the years, we became involved at many levels—in the school leadership, in the Rabbi search committee, in the house committee, in strategic planning, in religious and social programming, in social action, in the religious committee, and I could go on.  The physical facility also grabbed us.  Brad transformed the grounds, both to align the landscape with the
unique beauty of the building and to develop the first of his gardens—ultimately acres in the community—to help supply the synagogue’s food pantry.  I chaired an event, the Landmark Ball, to mark the designation of the building as a national historic landmark.  We became founding supporters of the Beth Sholom Synagogue Preservation Foundation, a 501(c)3 established to help support the facility needs, complete with an interactive visitor center and Frank Lloyd Wright design store.

Some perceived any emphasis on the architectural significance of the building as discordant with the synagogue’s religious mission. Stealing volunteer and donor resources from what’s really important in the life of a congregation.  Conflating the space and the spirituality of the activities that happen within it.

But perhaps Va-yetzei teaches us that this very conflation yields just what we require.  Yaacov models to us that the spiritual and the visual intertwine in the establishment of sacred space. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel said : The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”  I believe that beauty contributes to our sense of wonder.  We accept and even expect to bring this wonderful beauty into our sacred liturgy through music.  Why not into our sacred space as well?

In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives us another take on the intersection between aesthetic beauty and spiritual elevation.  He relates this Sukkot story from Israeli Nobel Prize laureate S. Y. Agnon:

[S]hortly before Sukkot in his Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, [Agnon] ran into one of his neighbors, an elderly rabbi from Russia, at a store selling etrogim. The rabbi told Agnon that he regarded it as particularly important to acquire a very beautiful, aesthetically perfect etrog. Although he had limited means, he was willing to spend a large sum to acquire this ritual object.

How surprised Agnon was a day or two later, when the holiday began and the rabbi did not take out his etrog during the synagogue service. Perplexed, he asked the man where the etrog was. The rabbi told him…:

“I awoke early, as is my habit, and prepared to recite the blessing over the etrog in my Sukkah on my balcony.  As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family, and our balconies adjoin. As you also know, our neighbor, the father of all these children next door, is a man of short temper. Many times he shouts at them or even hits them for violating his rules and wishes.  I have spoken to him many times about his harshness but to little avail.

“As I stood in the Sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the etrog, I heard a child’s weeping coming from the next balcony. It was a little girl crying, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she, too, had awakened early and had gone out on her balcony to examine her father’s etrog, whose delightful appearance and fragrance fascinated her. Against her father’s instructions, she removed the etrog from its protective box to look at it. She unfortunately dropped the etrog on the stone floor, irreparably damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use.  She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely, perhaps even violently. Hence the frightened tears and wails of apprehension. I comforted her, and then I took my etrog and placed it in her father’s box, taking the damaged etrog to my premises. I told her to tell her father that his neighbor insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful etrog, and that he would be honoring me and the holiday by so doing.”

Agnon concludes:  “My rabbinic neighbor’s damaged, bruised, ritually unusable etrog was the most beautiful etrog I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

In this story, an act of spiritual beauty emerged from the tradition of bringing aesthetic beauty into our ritual.


As a newcomer to Temple Beth Israel, I’ve found spiritual beauty in abundance.  In the genuine kindness and community. In the lovely chanting and the inspiring d’vrei Torah from our clergy and fellow congregants.

When I was checking out the options in my new community, I first went to the TBI website.  Here I got the impression of a ritually rich traditional congregation with progressive values and forward thinkers.  But, to be honest, when I first walked in…I wondered.   It wasn’t that I was looking for another architectural masterpiece. I saw a place whose building was fine but whose level of aesthetic stewardship might suggest disconnection and stagnation rather than spiritual engagement and progression.  And if I hadn’t persisted past that first impression, I may never have discovered that we have the transformative community that moves us beyond simply a place…to a sacred space. 

As a marketer, I knew we had to better manage that first impression, aligning our aesthetic appeal to our heart and soul, to help our congregation compete for growth.  Fortunately, when I raised my concerns they were heard as opportunity rather than complaint.  With Rabbi Nathan’s support and involvement, a number of us are exploring ways to move forward; and as many of you have noticed Brad already has begun to make his mark outside.

As I read Va-yetzei, I see what we are doing not only through my marketing lens but, in some small measure, through Yaakov’s eyes.  I realize that we need to solidify our identity by placing our stone—anointing our place with the attention to beauty that helps us to experience it as sanctified space.

I delivered this d'var Torah at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on November 9, 2013.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Today, the 20th of Av, marks my father’s yahrzeit.  I dedicate this d’var Torah to him, Bernard Wolfman, an accomplished speaker who gave me my first lessons in public address 39 years ago when I was preparing my Bat Mitzvah speech. And in the spirit of Eikev, he taught us to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and inaction.

The circus is in town.  This weekend, Circus Smirkus performs at the Gore Estate.

What is the circus? It’s an opportunity to believe, if only for a couple of hours, in magic. 

And what is magic?  Wikipedia gives this definition:
The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. offers:
The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.

To promote this season’s act, with its Wizard of Oz theme, Circus Smirkus writes:
Grab your Ruby Slippers and click your heels together, as Circus Smirkus goes "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" ….

But in truth, a magical click of the heels does not bring a circus to fruition. The hard work that goes into perfecting acrobatics, clown acts, high wire precision and gymnastic prowess leads to an end result that makes it all seem magical.
As something that emerges from supernatural or mysterious forces, magic seems squarely in the realm of religion.  And in many contexts, religion focuses on the acceptance of unfathomable unknowns.  But Eikev asks us instead to look also at the hard, human work behind the supposed magic of the supernatural forces in our lives.

Eikev means, essentially, “as a consequence of.”  The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Chumash points out that it might seem odd that a portion begins with this word, as though in the middle of a thought.  But by beginning here it allows us to frame the narrative from here through chapter 8, which also ends with an Eikev clause.

What falls between these statements of consequence are, when you think about it, pretty magical concepts for any people at any time, but particularly for a group that just spent 400 years in slavery followed by 40 wandering in the wilderness.  The promise of no sterility among the people or their livestock.  No illness. Total dominance over enemies, regardless of their size and means. Unending resources of food, water and ore.  In fact the text seems to encourage ascribing these to magic, when defined as the supernatural, as Moshe says:
beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case.

Yet the text anchors these fantastical concepts with eikev.  With consequences.  With cause and effect.  The promises that Moshe summarizes, as the embodiment of the covenant, depend upon the everyday actions of the people.  The parashah begins by telling us that eikev—as a consequence of—the people obeying the rules, good things will happen.  And chapter 8 concludes by telling us that eikev—as a consequence of—failing to heed God’s commandments, bad things will happen.

It’s a pretty radical concept.  We have influence interlaced with God’s power.  We have the will to help determine how God will act.  It is not enough to believe.  We must act.  We must act thoughtfully, purposefully, wittingly.  There are consequences to our actions that impact the forces in our world—even those we might call “supernatural.”

We should not be surprised, then, that in Chapter 9 Moshe warns against illusions of superiority, telling us “It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that Adonai your God is disposing of those nations…. Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that Adonai your God is giving you this good land….” 

Having established that our actions and inactions have consequences, it might be easy for our good fortune to go to our heads.  In this complex relationship of human consequences and supernatural intervention, the role of God can help us to maintain our humility.

And suddenly, the text takes a hard turn away from the life to come across the Jordan, and how we might earn it, steering instead to a recap of all Moshe did to bring the Israelites to this point despite themselves.  In this interlude he seems to embody the very arrogance against which he has just cautioned.  Perhaps we are to take it as an example of the trap we must avoid.

What are we to make of a text that reminds us of God’s “majesty” and “mighty hand” in the plagues and the parting of the sea, while insisting on the cause and effect our own actions in determining the quality of our future?

I believe we are to understand that faith matters but it’s not enough.  It’s not the whole answer.  Nor is the elevation of our own power, impact and will.  Our future is born of both:  taking responsibility for our actions and respecting what is beyond us.

Perhaps this is why we love the circus.  The ability to perform results from the choices people have made to work hard honing their skills and practicing their acts.  It could not have happened without the hard work, and we do appreciate it all the more for knowing the effort behind the act, but we’d rather not see the sweat.  Instead, we want to suspend our disbelief and feel the magic. To some degree, we want to go on faith.

We must make decisions with an understanding that our choices, our actions, yield consequences.  And we must have faith that those actions happen within a context greater than ourselves.  This combination of perspectives just may bring out the strong yet graceful in us, or the practical yet idealistic in us.  It gives us dimension and makes us whole.

May we all feel the wholeness that comes from the comforting weight of knowing that our actions have consequences and the freeing lightness of knowing that we have the capacity to soar—even if it’s not on the flying trapeze.

Thank you to my fellow congregants at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA--our new community--for inviting me to deliver the d'var Torah this morning.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Don’t let others’ “vestments” blind us

On Saturday, I participated in a discussion about the weekly Torah portion. The elaborate nature of the high priest’s vestments became a touch point for how we outwardly symbolize our Jewish identity, how much of that is traditional (and traditional to exactly when?) vs. a reflection of the culture in which we are contextualized, and how much of that in turn is a form of assimilation.  It was a fascinating and engaging conversation.  At the end, however, I voiced a caution:  Let’s be careful not to judge others based on their outward symbols of Jewish identity that differ from our own.  It will tear us apart. I’ve seen too many situations in which infighting ensued from focusing on others’ “vestments” of their Judaism rather than on the positives we can learn from and bring to each other.   If we bring our principles of civil discourse to the forefront, we can seek to learn from each other and find common ground.

Are you interested in bringing civil discourse to our political, religious, cultural and community organizations so we can learn and build together?  If so, please see what we are doing at The Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project, which I established to honor my father’s legacy.

Here’s where to click: