Thursday, August 28, 2014


When he was on Saturday Night Live, Jon Lovitz had a recurring character called "Master Thespian," a parody of scenery-chewing British actors.  While this role was played for comedic effect, there is no doubt that there are performers who go to similar extremes in the playing of their parts.

Do we, too, fall into this pattern?  Do we put on appearances for others that mask our true selves?  Elul calls upon us to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul.  It urges us to assess how we behave toward others.  It asks us to be sure that our public and private selves are in sync.

Otherwise, we are simply going through the motions and not fully living life.  Otherwise, we are merely acting.

This post is part of #BlogElul, a project begun by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Did You Do Today?

"What did you do today?"
It seems like an innocent-enough question.  We ask it of our spouses at the end of the workday, or of our children at the conclusion of their school day.  Maybe we're really interested in the answer; oftentimes we're just making small talk, the cursory check-in becoming the verbal equivalent of the quick peck on the cheek.  It says, "I care about you; I'm curious about how you spent the hours when we were away from one another."
Sometimes, there are exciting things to report.  "I lost a tooth!"  "I got a promotion!"  "I met the CEO of the company!"  But such moments tend to be few and far-between, punctuated by more mundane occurrences.  "I filed those TPS reports."  "I had a math test."  And these run-of-the-mill experiences hardly seem worthy of sharing, particularly when we take note of the larger issues impacting our world.  In the last few weeks we've seen the impact of racism and police brutality; watched conflicts escalate throughout the Middle East;  been awakened to the toll that depression can take even on those who seem happy and carefree; witnessed a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and action.
In the face of such upsetting happenings unfolding on the world stage, we may feel powerless.  When we are asked, "What did you do today?" our first inclination may be to hang our heads and admit, "Not enough."
But Elul reminds us of possibility and potential.  We don't rush into the act of teshuvah all at once.  We ease into making the change that we feel is necessary so that we may be ready for the coming year.
In a similar vein, God does not expect any one of us to single-handedly change the world.  Rather, each of us is called to act in our own way to make a small (but still meaningful) impact for the betterment of society.  We don't have to do it all.  We just have to do our best.

This post is written as part of #BlogElul.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Blog Hopping

When my friend and colleague, Rabbi Yair Robinson, invited me to this "Blog Hop," I was just relieved to discover that this was a viral social media thing that wouldn't require me to dump a bucket of ice water on my head (at least, I don't think I have to do that)...I'm still not entirely sure what the Blog Hop does entail, so I'm going to post this, and if someone wants to correct me, perhaps I'll edit later.

I was given the following questions to answer, so that's where I'm going to begin:

1. What am I writing or working on? 

Right now, I'm working on my sermons for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I'll be delivering a total of four, and I tend to plan them out fairly meticulously, as opposed to most other times of the year, when I often speak from notes or outlines.  The broad topics of my sermons are: Social justice, The audacity of prayer, Religious freedom, and Israel.

I'm also working on some other writing pertaining to my congregation, including notes for a sermon for this Shabbat and a charge to a Bat Mitzvah; a family workbook for B'nai Mitzvah students; a program for Selichot.

As for this blog, it's taken on many forms since I first began it back in March of 2012 in order to participate in #BlogExodus.  Sometimes I post for that endeavor, or for #BlogElul; other times a post reflections on the weekly Torah portion, and on occasion I comment on current events as they relate to the Jewish world.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre? 

Well, if there's a genre of blogs written by rabbis serving small midwestern communities and striving to make connections between popular culture, current events, and Jewish teaching, (I guess there was such a genre until my friend and colleague Eric Siroka made his recent cross-country move) then I guess I stand out from others in that class by being the only one whose personal muse is Cookie Monster.  Honestly, I think that every writer brings his/her own perspective to the table.  I try to write things that are meaningful to me, or help me make sense of the world, and if others find wisdom or comfort in my words, then that's a nice fringe benefit.

3. Why do I write what I write

I have always enjoyed writing.  Sometimes others have enjoyed my writing.  True story: when I was a senior at Northwestern University completing an English major, I thought that I would pursue graduate work in creative writing.  I created a portfolio of about a dozen pieces of poetry (and some prose) that were sort of nonsensical humorous pieces somewhat akin to Shel Silverstein's work.  I asked my very proper professors- one of whom taught 18th century British literature and the other who taught the plays of Shaw and Shakespeare- to review my work and serve as references.  I later learned (when I was not accepted to any of the programs to which I had applied) that neither of them had been able to appreciate any of the whimsy and humor in my work.  That's when I determined that my writing would be shaped by my thoughts and interests, not by someone else's opinions of what I should write (I guess my epiphany was somewhat like Morales' in A Chorus Line).

I like to dabble with poetry (a bit more serious than what was in that early portfolio).  For most of the 11 years of my rabbinate, I've written our congregation's Purim shpiels which help me to exercise my more humorous side.  I write to express myself, and hopefully to educate others, or at least give them food for thought.

4. How does my writing process work? 

It depends what I'm writing.  But one way that I've challenged myself a bit is that usually by Wednesday of each week, I post my Friday night sermon title on the Temple's Facebook page.  That certainly isn't a binding commitment, but it makes me think pretty far in advance so that I have at least a loose idea of what I want to say.  Sometimes, I get to Torah study a bit early on Shabbat mornings and take a few minutes to flip through the parsha for the following week, to see if there's a verse, phrase, or idea that stands out.  I also try to keep an eye open for current events (whether "hard news" or cute human-interest stories) that might provide a jumping-off point for a sermon.  And lastly, I sometimes will explore the feature on Wikipedia that tells what happened on a particular date in history.  Is it the anniversary of the lunar landing or the Beatles invasion or the debut of MTV?  Perhaps that can be woven into a sermon or newsletter article in some manner.

So I guess this is the point at which I nominate others.  I'm not positive who among this group is still actively blogging, but I'll give it a shot: Micah Streiffer, Eric Siroka, and Seth Goldstein, you're up...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Be Compassionate to Us and Answer Us

I grew up at perhaps the perfect time for being able to appreciate the genius of Robin Williams.  I was about 7 1/2 years old when Mork and Mindy premiered and a national audience was exposed to his zaniness.  I recall seeing his theatrical debut, Popeye, at a birthday party a few years later.  And I remember watching him, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal on the inaugural broadcasts of Comic Relief, though I am certain a large portion of their humor went completely over my head.  So, like many, I was shocked and saddened to learn of his death.

I think it would be a disservice to his memory to play "armchair psychologist" and claim to understand the demons that drove his addiction and depression.  So, I'll refrain from commenting on that, save for one brief thought: a number of people on social media have lamented that f only Mr. Williams had understood the wide reach he had, the tremendous impact that he had n others, perhaps he would not have taken his own life.  I don't think that depression, mental illness, and suicide work that way, unfortunately.  I think that Mr. Williams knew, rationally, that there were people who loved and admired him, but I think those accolades couldn't outweigh whatever pain and self-doubt he was experiencing.

Every time there's a high-profile incident such as this, voices rise up calling for a national conversation on mental illness.  It's certainly necessary, and maybe it will actually happen this time.  Maybe there will be increased awareness, and someone - or perhaps, hundreds of someones, will be able to get the help that he or she needs because someone recognizes their pain.  At any rate, if anyone reading this is hurting and in need of support, I hope that they will seek out help at 1-800-273-8255 (the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the U.S., which runs 24/7).

We are about to enter the month of Elul, which invites us to prepare for the High Holidays by engaging in cheshbon nefesh, an examination of the self.  As part of our preparation, we might contemplate the prayers of selichot, including that familiar formula "Avinu Malkeinu."  "Avinu Malkeinu" appeals to God as the Parent of us all (i.e., God's compassionate side) and the Ruler over us all (i.e., that side of God that is focused on judgment).  We hope that these two aspects of God are balanced in such a way that we are found to be meritorious.

The "Avinu Malkeinu" formula actually has many verses.  One of the most well-known asks God to "be compassionate to us and answer us."  But as we engage in our soul-searching, our cheshbon hanefesh, we should ask ourselves whether this is a blessing that we have truly earned.  Is it fair to ask God to show us compassion, if we have not shown compassion to one another?

This past year, these past few weeks and months, have been difficult: the Israel-Gaza conflict, partisanship in U.S. politics, ISIS threatening Yazidis in Iraq, Boko Haram threatening girls in Nigeria, and numerous other disturbing events on both the domestic and the international stage.  How we respond to each of these incidents will be recorded as part of our legacy . Can we claim to be deserving of God's compassion and blessing if we have not shown compassion to others?

Let us open our hearts to all who are hurting.  Let us extend our hands in friendship to all who suffer. To paraphrase John Keating, Robin Williams' character from Dead Poet's Society, let us, in caring for others, make our lives extraordinary.