Saturday, March 31, 2012


When we think of the Exodus from Egypt, we often recount the midrashic tale of Nachshon ben Amminadav.  According to the rabbis, when the Israelites reached the shore of the Sea of Reeds, Moses raised his staff, as God had instructed, in order to make the waters part.  But nothing happened.  With the sea roiling before them, and Pharaoh's charioteers quickly approaching the rear of the camp, the people began to panic.  But Nachshon, the rabbis say, found the bravery to tread into the water, though the sea had not yet split.  He waded in up to his knees, then his waist, then his nose.  And slowly, people found themselves inclined to follow, and their collective show of faith in God finally made the waters part.

Certainly, it took courage for Nachshon to take those first steps.  But what of the second Israelite who followed him?  What of the final Israelite who stepped onto the dry seabed, seeing the Egyptians in hot pursuit?

Not all of us will be the trailblazers.  But whether we undertake a task for the first time or the fiftieth, we can have pride in our accomplishments.  For even the smallest action may represent an act of courage and faith.  Having the courage to be different, to face a challenge, and to innovate, changes us.  We transform from being mere spectators watching the world go by to being significant contributors, working in partnership with God to make this world a better place.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes.  The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world - are the ones who do.

What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in apricot? What have they got that I ain't got? 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Won't You Help Me Sing These Songs of Freedom?

One week from tonight, we'll be sitting down to our sedarim, reliving the moment of redemption as though we ourselves were experiencing it.

And in many ways, it's not a stretch of the imagination.  Though we likely have not known (fortunately) the physical constraints of being in bondage, we certainly have known what it is like to be redeemed.  As Dan Nichols sings, "We all need to know redemption from a hand stronger than our own."

It is human nature to make mistakes.  And it is in the nature of God to accept us back in love when we seek to atone for those mistakes.  Time and again, we are found meritorious of God's blessing--if not through our own actions, then through zchut avoteinu v'imoteinu, the merits of our ancestors.  God offers us redemption from our foibles and errors so that we may learn from our missteps and try to grow from them.  Thus, "By the hand of the Almighty/ We forward in this generation/ Triumphantly."

So, won't you help me sing these songs of freedom?

Thursday, March 29, 2012


And an orator said, Speak to us of Freedom.
And he answered:
At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom,
Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.
Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.
And my heart bled within me; for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfillment.
You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,
But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.
And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?
In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.
And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?
If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead.
You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.
And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you.
And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

Food for thought during Zman Cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Driving to work today, I saw a sight that upset me, but sadly did not surprise me: a well-dressed man, driving a fairly new-looking luxury sedan, rolled down his window and threw a wadded-up fast food bag onto the median as he turned off the highway exit ramp onto a major street.

I was stopped at a traffic light opposite the scene, so I wasn't sure what I had really witnessed.  Giving the man the benefit of the doubt, I thought that perhaps he was attempting to give his leftover breakfast to the homeless man standing there.  As my light changed and I drew closer, however, I discovered the truth: the man was merely a lazy litterbug.

Much has been written about trying to understand slavery in a modern context.  Some argue that we are slaves to social media and/or electronic devices, others that we are slaves to popular culture and the mass media.  I think, however, that the above example illustrates that in addition to all these things, we are becoming slaves to the cult of the self.

The environmental impact of the trash he discarded had no effect on the litterbug; he was just thinking about getting to his destination and having an uncluttered car.  In a similar vein much of our societal interactions nowadays are transactional-- you want me to support this cause, buy this product, vote for this candidate, join this committee?  Well, what's in it for me?

When we fall victim to this form of slavery, we run the risk of becoming like the rasha, the "wicked" son of the Passover seder.  He asks, "What does all this mean to you?"  In his self-absorption, he separates himself from the community, making himself unworthy of redemption in the eyes of the rabbis.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh, we are taught: all Jews are responsible for one another; our fates are intertwined.  Only by putting the needs of the community before our own personal needs and desires can we remain strong, standing up to oppressors, and avoiding any future slavery--spiritual or literal--that others might seek to impose upon us.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It's Not Easy Being Clean?

When I first saw the list of #BlogExodus topics suggested by Imabima, I thought this would be one I'd skip.  Cleaning is not my forte, to be honest, and even now I sit amidst [carefully organized] clutter in my office.  Even the various thoughts I had about spiritual purity were not crystallizing in my mind.

But then I got an email from a prospective convert with whom I've recently begun working, which gave me new insight into the meaning of cleanliness.

David (not his real name) was corresponding with a fellow student who is also enrolled in the Introduction to Judaism course being offered by our congregation.  This fellow student (we'll call him Samuel--also not his real name) is not sure if his end goal will be conversion, since he's not certain where or how to find God, and whether or not his experience of what he believes to be God is sufficiently "authentic."  Samuel thus asked David to share his experience of the divine.

David is a gay man and a survivor of sexual abuse.  Those factors, he wrote to Samuel, have led him to have a complicated relationship with God, vacillating between a view of God as protector to a judgmental God.  David wrote that at one point in his life,

I felt that I was bad... I hated myself and thought that somehow I should be different, better, good and not evil.  The God of my childhood who had protected me and given me safety became a fierce and stern man who called me weak and broken.  I was measured by the words of his followers in popular American culture and I was always found to be lacking.  I judged myself and I hated what I saw.  
David went on to write that he had come out of that dark moment and had found a way to embrace a God who loves him for who he is.  I applaud him for this, and am moved by his story of his personal journey, and how he laid it bare in the hope that Samuel could derive some meaning from it.

But as much as I am touched by David's insight and strength, I am also sad and angry.  God is being used as a pawn, a tool for the religious right who think that only they speak authentically with God's voice, that only they can parse God's intent for this world.  In their worldview, anyone who doesn't abide by their narrow construct of what God expects of us is subject to God's scorn, is dirty.

How many are out there like David, struggling with the aftermath of abuse, gender identity, racial identity, disability, or distorted self-image, who swallow the bitter and disgusting bile that is fed to them in the name of God and believe that they are somehow lower in God's eyes?  How many have been led to believe that the very qualities that make them unique are making them dirty and shameful?

I pray that we all may be blessed with insight and courage such as David has.  May we recognize that cleanliness and God's approbation are not bestowed upon us by others.  When we are pure of heart, cleanliness comes from within.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Learning and Teaching

Two of my teachers from my time at the Hebrew Union College (HUC, the Reform rabbinic seminary) passed away recently.  They could not have been more different men, but both of them shaped my life and the lives of countless other students who passed through the Cincinnati campus of HUC.

Dr. David Weisberg was a professor of Bible and Semitic languages for over 45 years at the college.  I studied with him in a pair of elective courses that looked at the megillot (scroll books) of the Hebrew Bible.  Though earlier in his career, he had acquired a reputation as a tough--occasionally cruel--teacher, by the time I studied with him the years had mellowed him.  His patient and kind demeanor even with students who were ill-prepared was a distinguishing characteristic, and he treated everyone warmly, often greeting people with "my dear friend," or later, "my esteemed colleague," without any hint of irony or condescension.

Dr. Herbert Paper was already an emeritus professor by the time I arrived in Cincinnati.  He was a scholar of Yiddish, and had been one of the first in the U.S. to teach the language at the university level.  He was at the college for 22 years, but had begun his career at the University of Michigan.

I later learned that during his tenure in Ann Arbor, Dr. Paper studied Yiddish informally with a native speaker: my great-grandfather.  It's nice to know that my family contributed to Dr. Paper's scholarship in this manner.

I never actually took a class from Dr. Paper, but I still learned a great deal from him.  He had become quite a raconteur, roaming the library and sharing his stories with students.  His most oft-told tales regarded his military service in Calcutta, India (which he compared to an unprintable body part), and his story of being one of the only modern Jews to actually celebrate the holiday of Purim in Persia.  Many HUC alumni can likely recite these stories from rote.

At a dinner reunion of classmates at the recent conference of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis), my friends and I toasted the memory of our two teachers.  From them we learned practical rabbinic matters, yes.  We learned the value of a good story.  But most of all, we learned how to be a mensch.

Y'hi zichram baruch.  May the memory of these teachers be a blessing.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Identifying the Chametz in Our Lives

The second of my #BlogExodus entries is a little late...but it's still before midnight on the west coast.

Many Jews go to great lengths to rid their homes of chametz (leavened foods) during Passover.  And that's a significant endeavor, as it follows the letter of the law laid out in the Torah: "Chametz shall not be seen within your territory [during Passover]" (Exodus 13:7)

But what of the spirit of the law?  Other forms of chametz can enter our lives and distract us from the things upon which we should be focused.  Think of this sort of chametz as extraneous things-- like leaven in our baked goods, these things are nice, but not essential to survival.

Admittedly, I'm in somewhat of a glass house here.  I like my gadgets and toys as much as the next person.  But on Pesach, I try to also be mindful of those who are not as fortunate as I am.  The rabbis of the Talmud teach us that our commemoration of Passover should not merely be a history lesson, as though the events we recount are rooted firmly in the past.  Rather, each individual is to live as though he or she were personally present at the moment of the Exodus; as though he or she was personally redeemed from slavery.  Embracing this mindset allows us, perhaps, to be more sensitive to the needs of others, and more reflective upon the chametz impacting our own lives.

The gentleman below is Don Edwards from New Orleans, Louisiana.  He lives in the Holy Cross Neighborhood of New Orleans, a predominantly African-American neighborhood that is in one of the lower basins in that city.  An artist and photographer, Don had purchased a house to use as his residence and studio.  When the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina, the house was heavily damaged by the water and was almost a total loss.

Since 2009, I've taken a group of congregants to New Orleans each spring to help with the ongoing rebuilding effort.  We've been working with Don, who gutted the house down to the studs and is determined to restore it.  This man, who has lost nearly everything, welcomes volunteers with coffee, cookies, bottles of water, and other accoutrements of hospitality.  His story and his resilience are mirrored by so many others whom I've met in the Holy Cross Neighborhood.

I'll be thinking of Don this Passover as I give thanks for what I have and consider what in my life might be nothing more than chametz.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Narrow Places of Mitzrayim

I'd been thinking about starting a blog for a while now.  My good friend Imabima gave me the impetus by suggesting a project for the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan called #BlogExodus.  During each of the fourteen (!) days remaining until we get to Passover, numerous Jewish bloggers and tweeters will be ruminating on different topics related to the Exodus.


Think about your best friends in the whole world.  I'd venture to guess that they share numerous attributes with you: your race, your religion, your socio-economic standing.  Like tends to seek out like.  In a sense, whether we do it consciously or not, we are engaging in a bit of "profiling" every time we make an acquaintance.  Will this person be enough like me that he or she fits into my comfort zone?  Or is there some trait they have that is so foreign and frightening to me that I can't possibly welcome them into my inner circle?

The issue of profiling is at the forefront these days as we grapple with the aftermath of two tragic cases:  the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and the death of three young Jewish students and a rabbi in Tolouse, France.  Though separated by distance, the two instances have some sad similarities.

George Zimmerman, the shooter in Florida (who does not appear to be Jewish, despite the efforts by some online pundits do depict him as such) and Mohammed Merah, the self-professed al Qaeda sympathizer who was the gunman in France, seem to have been deeply troubled individuals.  Something in them led to perceive the "otherness" of their victims as a threat, and thus they turned to violence.

Quick quiz...which of these objects is the most dangerous?

Our sages teach us that in every generation, we must perceive of the Exodus from Egypt not as an event from long ago in history, but as something that each of us is still experiencing to this very day.  They make a linguistic connection between Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, and the word Metzar, meaning a narrow place.  The idea is that we each have our moments of narrow-mindedness; we each have beliefs and ideals that occasionally constrict and confine us.  If we can break free from this narrowness, perhaps we can find a brighter future.

I may be an idealist, but I believe that someday love will win out over hate and fear, and we'll finally get out of Mitzrayim.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

So What's With the Cookies?

When I was a kid, my family would occasionally rent an RV and go on camping trips with a few other families.  We traveled in a caravan, and my father's CB "handle" was "cookie monster."  These sorts of things happen when your last name is Cook.

Later, when I worked at a summer camp, I adopted the nickname "Cookie" for myself.  In various settings over the years, the name has occasionally resurfaced.  Add to that my love of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, and you'll begin to understand some of the motifs on this blog.

There may be some who stumble upon this blog expecting to find recipes.  While I love to cook (and eat!) and may share some favorites from time-to-time, that's not the primary purpose of this blog.  Still, I don't wish to disappoint...if you came for the cookies, maybe you'll stay for the tachlis (Hebrew for "substantive material").  Hence, I encourage you to check out this recipe for Momofuku Milk Bar's Compost Cookies, which are excellent (you can find other versions of the recipe online which are a bit more straightforward, but this is direct from the original chef, via Oprah, so how can you go wrong?)

In the next day or so, I hope to dive in to the actual blogging, about Judaism, life, current events, and more.  I hope you'll join me on this adventure.