Further Thoughts on the Month of Adar

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


My favorite film from this recent season is Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth – a gorgeous and dark movie about friendship, mortality, and art. In one scene, an actor (played by Paul Dano) is speaking to a famous retired conductor/composer (played by Michael Caine). Each of them at different points in their career did a lighter, more commercially friendly project that they are now remembered for, instead of for all their critically acclaimed less-popular offerings. Dano says, “We’ve been misunderstood our whole lives because we allowed ourselves to give in just once to a little levity.” Caine responds, in a way that sounds like he is defending levity – “Levity is an irresistible temptation.” Dano goes on with his argument, lamenting that it kills him that he will always be remembered as a robot named Mr. Q, even though he has worked with all the great directors of his day. Caine responds this time, “Levity is also a perversion.”

Which is it? On one hand, levity is – at worst – a healthy distraction, and at best, a healthy philosophy and way to live life. On the other hand, living a life of levity can reflect in a negative sense, implying that we never took life seriously.

In our Mussar work, we have been studying a text by Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto, called Mesillat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just.”). One recent chapter warns of the dangers of levity, which at first read, was a little unsettling to our ears. Many of us initially argued, but aren’t laughter and humor not only good things, but also necessary ones? Rabbi Ira Stone explains in his commentary to the text, that it is not laughter or good humor that Rabbi Luzzatto is talking about here, but scoffing, sarcasm, the tendency we have to practice humor at the expense of others. We could take it further and say that the text is not speaking about humor at all, but a deep and ingrained pattern of cynicism that keeps us defensive, distrustful and distant from others.

The levity that Adar celebrates is more iconoclastic. It says, take all of the idols in your life – including yourself – less seriously. This kind of levity will actually help us become less cynical, more open to possibility, and more engaged with life.

Nobody is Lonely Anymore

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


My Mom just gave me a clipping of what struck me as a simultaneously hilarious and disturbingly apocalyptic New Yorker cartoon this week. In it, two teenaged girls are lying on a bed, not looking at each other, each consumed with their phone. The caption has one of them saying: “When I make eye-contact for the first time, I want it to be with the right person.”

It’s time to face the fact that, on one level at least, we are in the realm of the disturbingly apocalyptic. We’ve officially reached someone’s twisted future vision of humanity (be it Orwell or the Jetsons or Murakami or whoever). The one level I’m talking about is how we interact with our devices. No doubt, future generations will have even more impressive devices than ours, but maybe they will be more skilled in how they wield them. We haven’t yet figured out the new manners around cell phones (do we use them in public, in stores, when we are in the midst of other conversations?), and many of us have experienced both of the new sensations of someone bumping into us who is walking while texting, and our bumping into someone else while similarly occupied (I speak from the vantage point of someone who does more bumping then being bumped into, so this is no holier than thou diatribe…).

I think the relational cost is a great one; that is, we seem to be slowly losing the capability of being present with others who are actually in front of us. But another great cost is that we are forgetting the ancient skill of how to be alone with ourselves. The folksinger Greg Brown wrote,

half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones
driving off the road & bumping into doors
people used to spend quite a bit of time alone
i guess nobody’s lonely anymore
‘cept you & me babe  ‘cept you & me

It’s an interesting way of putting it. How can we learn to be more alone again? In Judaism, to be alone is code for being alone with G-d. And it’s true: sometimes when we are able to quiet the mind enough or set down the device, there’s an aloneness that makes room for others – both human and Divine.

It Could Happen Any Time

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon.  It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know.  That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

– William Stafford

Georgia King sent me this poem earlier in the week, and I’ve been coming back to it time and again since then.

Sometimes the world feels like a very scary place; sometimes we don’t know what to do with the rush of horrific news in our world that we may receive in the course of any given day. And we feel the truth that, as Stafford writes, “it could happen any time.” So that is true. We cannot deny that it is so. And we wake up and look out and know that there are no guarantees in this life.

And yet there is more that could befall us at any time, and is in fact, is extraordinarily more likely to actually happen: sunshine, love, salvation.

We look out our window now. Sometimes our fear for our world and our loved ones in it clouds and darkens our vision. This is just what it is to be alive. And every generation feels it and has felt it and will continue to feel it.

And yet there is morning, noon, evening. Each of them an undescribable miracle; a gift staring us right in the face. We cannot deny that this is true – the gift that is this life; the miraculous in what we call the mundane.

May we have the courage to be who we are and to be in the world as it is. Hanukah is a season of miracles. May we have the courage to meet the miraculous half-way.



Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Rabin was both a great defender of Israel, and a champion of peace. I wish I could write that despite Rabin’s death, we have been able to move closer to his vision of peace and co-existence, but as we know, that has not been the case. While there were and are many other factors and obstacles standing in the way of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, in many ways Rabin’s assassin was successful in his goal of stopping the peace process.

How do we honor Rabin’s legacy? We no doubt will answer that question in different ways. But I hope we can agree on two things. One, his death reminds us what a climate of extremism – and the unchecked, irresponsible political incitement that comes with it – can lead to. We must recover and teach how we can maintain respect toward one another even in the midst of fierce disagreement. And two, we cannot let cynicism get the better of us. Even in this time, where a secure peace feels further away than ever, we should not insist on the impossibility of possibility. We cannot give into despair. We can still speak of peace. As Rabin famously said, “Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”
Wendell Berry wrote one of his Sabbath poems to his granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin.

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light.

Creative Tension and the Siddur

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


The siddur, or prayerbook, is both an aid and an obstacle to prayer. Let’s think about a few ways that it is an obstacle. First of all, it’s in another language! But secondly, it seems like it is asking us to do two contradictory things at once: pour out our heart in an honest and unselfconscious way, and to fit this honest unselfconsciousness into set prayers and forms – which often seem distinctly impersonal and formal.

What is gained by using a traditional, collective form when we pray? Our voice is immediately put into relational harmony with generations of pray-ers. Our connection with our ancestors, real and imagined, resonates through the wires of the form. We can experience the feeling of being held, of allowing ourselves to rest in the container of these mysterious words. We are invited to know that even if certain words that we pray do not speak to us, that most likely they speak to someone else in the room.

In some ways, we encounter a similar tension when we read any traditional poetic form, like a sestina, or villanelle. Most of us are conditioned to want nothing but the free verse, since it seems unconstrained and more “natural.” It can seem like the traditional forms are either trying to be clever, or are stuck in a past that no longer speaks organically to us. Yet the forms ask us to do the same thing we need to learn to do as human beings whenever we speak and describe our experience – which is to try to describe the indescribable. In some sense, it is only through boundaries and limits that we can discover our truer voices; not through the fantasy of unfettered freedom. It is only through exploring relational tension and problem solving that we can learn to speak. In other words, the obstacles we confront when we read or write a sestina; or when we daven shacharit in the siddur – mirror our lives. I am not trying to explain away or apologize for all the difficulties we encounter in the siddur, only to say that some of these obstacles can be fruitful.

Also, it should be said the siddur is like a map that we are encouraged to stray from and get lost on trails that are of our own making. If poetry is like prayer, then we should remember James Joyce’s way of describing the question we must ask of any work of art: “Out of how deep a life does it spring?” It is up to us to bring the depth of our lives to the siddur to give it life. Otherwise, it is lifeless.


Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


Sometimes I will use this space to help us mourn and wrestle with some of the tragedies that have occurred in recent years in the public sphere, both here and in Israel. And it sure seems like we’ve had more than our fair share of those: shootings, acts of terrorism, environmental catastrophes.

So it is a pleasure this week to use this space to unabashedly and joyfully celebrate the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. We now have marriage equality in this country. There is obviously still much work to do to counter discrimination, to be sure, but it is important to really receive historic moments like this one, and to bask in the glow for a little while.

I know some of you – gay and straight – have been on a journey for decades, helping work towards this day. Some of you have shared with me that this day brought tears of joy, and that you never expected to see this in your lifetime. Others this week shared stories of past marginalization and prejudice. No doubt, this is a landmark moment for civil rights in this country. A victory for love. A victory for dignity.

I am proud that I am a product of the Reconstructionist movement for many reasons; one of them is how our movement has a history of clearly and strongly modeling a religious voice of justice and fairness for many marginalized groups. In rabbinical school, we were trained to see LGBT advocacy, education, and creation of new ritual as an unfolding expression of Torah. In 2009, as a rabbi in Bennington, I was among the religious voices who testified at the courthouse in Montpelier in support of recognizing same-sex marriage when legislators and representatives in Vermont were weighing this decision.

In our Rabbi’s Manual, first published in 1997, there is language we were given when officiating at gay and lesbian weddings: “For so long in our people’s history, the love of two men or two women was not a cause for rejoicing. Today we rejoice – we thank the source of life for giving us life and for enabling us to reach this joyous moment.”

Often when the glass is broken at the conclusion of a wedding, I will share that we do this in part to recognize the pain that not all who wish to become married are able to do so, and that we pray we live to see the day when this will change. It’s amazing that this day has arrived.

On Love and Courage

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog


I read a beautiful quote of the late Dr. Maya Angelou’s this morning:

We must replace fear and chauvinism, hate, timidity and apathy, which flow in our national spinal column, with courage, sensitivity, perseverance, and, I even dare say, love. And by love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage. Courage is the most important of the virtues – without it you can’t practice any of the others consistently.

I love this definition of love: that which leads us to courage. And then, of course, we have a definition of courage as well: that which love creates when we need to take a stand for love.

Reading this, I thought of the image of the Israelites at the bank of the Sea of Reeds, the advancing Egyptian army behind them and the water before them. The Torah portion that relays this image across the historical arc is beshallach, which we read this Shabbat. We celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds together by hearing chanted the beautiful and incomparable Song of the Sea. We celebrate crossings we have completed, and crossings yet to come. But perhaps more so, we mark that moment beforehand, before we knew what would happen, that hopeless place where courage would be born.

In the Christian tradition, some people talk about these moments as “Way Opening.” A clergy friend of mine once said, “I’ve never seen way open before me, but I’ve often experienced it close behind me.” As if to say, sometimes we get to see a pathway open before us where previously there was none. But often it happens quicker than we can process it, and it is only later, when we look back – when way closes behind us – that we can feel grateful for having been brought through.

You Don’t Have to Settle (Or Do You?)

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Jacob has led a tumultuous life. He has stolen birthrights and blessings, worked for his uncle for 14 years in exchange for two sister-wives, survived a reunion with his estranged brother, wrestled with an angel, had his daughter taken from him, and endured war and hardship, shame and embarrassment.

And so this week’s portion opens, “And Jacob settled in the land of the sojournings of his fathers.” Our sages say that Jacob hoped that all of the craziness of life was behind him, that he could settle in unperturbed from this point on. In fact, they read “settled” here, as the impulse that we have to disengage from the problems of life.

And we all know to some degree how Jacob feels. We come through a tumultuous event or period of time in our own life, and having emerged, want nothing more than to just settle in without trouble. Or we check off whatever we need to check off as far as our primary life tasks go, and we feel we are now entitled to relax without the concerns that have shadowed us for so long. And of course, life continues to bring tumult, collision, happenings happy and sad that continue to shake our foundation. There is no settling. Avivah Zornberg says we must continue to feel the “full tension of composure and discomposure…to be exposed to the shock of reality.”

And there is another kind of settling we can do. A settling into our lives as they are; a committing to sit with more wakefulness and intention into the very chaos we often want to settle away from. A settling that teaches us, through experience, how to develop a lev shomea, a listening heart in relationship to the tumult. Settling that doesn’t disengage, but that brings us further in.

Early Morning with Chickens

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This morning I awoke early and had more time than usual before coming to shul for our Wednesday morning meditation. I let out our chickens, and they emerged tumbling and squawking out of their coop. Looking out through our kitchen window, I could see a large tree on B Street, bare now of any leaves, but in first light covered with birds, maybe three dozen, shadows against the grey sky. I walked outside and saw a large black rabbit, who has been living in the neighborhood the last few weeks. Driving down East Main past Willow Wind, I got to see the usual cavalcade of deer. So many animals out in first light, greeting the dawn.

Winter is a time of waiting. Psalm 130 has within it the wonderful verse – “I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen for the morning, than watchmen for the morning.” The image of someone on the night watch waiting for the dawn – and this being likened to how we long for, or anticipate the Divine – has long been an important one for me, and every winter solstice season it takes on more weight. How do we wait for the dawn, how do we greet the dawn? Who – human or animal – shares the waiting with us?

And then after our sit, checking email I read Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Wait” (via Garrison Keilor’s Writer’s Almanac), which seemed to contain within it similar advice: “Wait, for now.
/ Distrust everything if you have to.
/ But trust the hours. Haven’t they
/ carried you everywhere, up to now?”

On Mazal tov and Horoscopes

Written by debra wolfson on . Posted in Rabbi's Blog

August 29. 2014

Mazal tov colloquially means “good luck” in Hebrew. Mazal, though, literally means star or constellation. And so the phrase, at least in mishnaic Hebrew, is probably better rendered as something like, “May you be under a good star.”

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