Lincoln and the Maccabees

Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, almost exactly 150 years ago. Thanksgiving had been celebrated in some communities in America since 1607, but Lincoln was the first to make it a holiday for the nation itself.

The language of the declaration, written for Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward, is powerful and poetic. It said, “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, … commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Lincoln did not wait for the end of the Civil War to offer gratitude and ask for kindness toward those in need on both sides. He delivered it in the middle of a war that would continue for another year and a half.

The story of Chanukah takes place in the middle of the war, not the end. It celebrates the Maccabees reclaiming and rededicating the Holy Temple, but the war for independence took another dozen years.

According to the first book of Maccabees, which was written around the time of the Chanukah story in the 2nd century BCE, The Maccabees declared eight days of thanksgiving, even though one would have been fine. Maybe the oil lasted for eight days because they were willing to celebrate those eight days. The celebration was giving thanks for getting the Temple back and for being able to resume their full lives as Jews.

There are only two mitzvot, two commandments, on Chanukah. The first is to light the lights, and if possible place them so people outside can see them. Even in the darkness moments of our lives it is possible to find light and goodness and share that with the world.

The other is to give thanks. Thanks for everything, for the good things, and for the opportunity to help fix the bad, and gratitude for all those who struggled and gave their lives so we could be free.

This is what Lincoln meant in his dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg almost exactly 150 years ago, too.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This is the spirit of the Maccabees.

The struggle is never over. The world is still a dangerous mess. If we wait for everything to be settled and perfect before we celebrate we never will. The celebration must include gratitude for our lives and dedication to making the world better.

We have shown the ability to celebrate during times of grief and chaos, and to still remember who we are, both our identity and our values as Jews.

What we as a people can do is remind the world that it is always possible to still be fully human, and that goodness can be found in unlikely places. And that it is our responsibility to help others live lives they can be grateful for, and to help protect the world from those who want to destroy everybody’s liberty.

If we do so, then we, as Lincoln said, shall not perish from this Earth.

Whose dreams do we want our children to have? Thoughts on Jacob and a coat

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is probably the most famous musical based on the Hebrew Bible.  It might be the only one, though I would love to see what Sir Andrew could do with Leviticus. The songs in “Joseph” were delightful.  The story was fun. Even Donny Osmond was perfect (maybe because he has so many siblings). The only problem with the story is that the biblical Joseph never had a coat of many colors.  Jacob gave him a Ketonet Passim, according to the Midrash a special long-sleeved or delicate coat; a coat not necessarily colorful, but highly symbolic.

In Biblical times, such a coat seemed to be a sign of tribal leadership.  Joseph’s brothers were not upset that their father gave Joseph a fancy coat.  They were upset that Jacob wanted to make Joseph, the youngest brother, the head of the tribe, bypassing the normal order of tribal succession.  Within a short time of receiving this coat, Joseph begins to dream that he is superior to both his brothers, and then his parents. It is small wonder that Joseph’s brothers try to get rid of him.

I have often wondered if Joseph would have had these same dreams had his father not given him the coat of leadership.  The coat itself seemed to cause Joseph’s dreams, dreams that got him into a great deal of trouble.  Jacob, in a sense, gave Joseph dreams that Joseph was not able to handle.  Joseph spent the next twenty years of his life recovering from his father’s plans.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own dreams. I see so many situations in which the parents are trying to live out their own lives through their children. Maybe they did not have the business or athletic success they would have liked, and so try to have their children make up for it. Sometimes the parents in fact did have great success and believe that their children, with enough effort, can be just as successful. If the child has different plans, this can lead to great stress and tension on the relationship, even if everyone really has the best of intentions.

If we cause dreams that cannot be lived up to, we risk inflicting a great deal of harm on our loved ones.  As Bruce Springsteen sang in “The River”, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t’ come true/ or is it something worse?”  We have to ask ourselves what kind of dreams we are giving to others.  Do we make them feel safe and secure?  Do we give them appropriate levels of responsibility?  Are we generous and kind to those who may not be our favorites?  Do we have reasonable career and financial expectations of our loved ones?  If we cannot answer these questions with a yes, we may be causing nightmares instead of nurturing dreams.

Let us try to make sure the dreams we give our loved ones bring them comfort and peace of mind.

The World is a Prayer, You are a Prayer-Texts and Meditations for Sukkot

Sukkot is a reminder that  there is not difference between nature and ourselves. We are part of the world, and made of the world. These texts and meditations will help provide a sense of connections between our physical and spiritual selves, leading to a greater sense of wholeness and peace.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s Prayer

Master of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone;

may it be my custom to go outdoors each day,

among the trees and grasses, among all growing things,

there to be alone and enter into prayer.

There may I express all that is in my heart,

talking with God to whom I belong.

And may all grasses, trees, and plants awake at my coming.

Send the power of their life into my prayer,

making whole my heart and my speech

through the life and spirit of growing things,

made whole by their transcendent Source.

O that they would enter into my prayer!

Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication, and holy speech;

then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your presence.

Sukkot Prayer By Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz, 2012*

(Based on Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Likutey Moharan Helek I, Torah #5:2.)

Allow me to sit in the sukkah without withholding joy

Allow me to sit in the makom of your presence

Let me experience your joy

Let your joy be mine

And mine by yours

May our joy unify the elements of your essence.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s teaching of AZAMRA

(Likutey Moharan I:282)

Azamra l’Elokai be-odee!

“I will sing to my God as long as I live!” (Psalm 146:2).

Find the good in others…

KNOW that you must judge all people favorably. This applies even to the worst of people. You must search until you find some little bit of good in them. In that good place inside them, they are not bad! If you can just find this little bit of good and judge them favorably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favor. This way you can bring them back to God

This teaching is contained in the words of King David in the Psalms: “And in just a little bit (ve-OD me-at) there’s no sinner; when you think about his place, he won’t be there” (Psalm 37:10). King David is teaching us to judge everyone favorably. Even if you consider someone to be totally bad, you must still search until you find some little bit of good in him. There in the place of this tiny bit of good, that person is not bad! This is the meaning of the words, “And in just a little bit there’s no sinner…” In other words you must seek out the little bit of good that is still in him. For in that place he is not a sinner. Maybe he’s a bad person. Even so, is it really possible that he is totally devoid of even the slightest modicum of good? How could it be that all his life he never once did anything good? By finding one tiny good point in which he is not bad and thereby judging him favorably, you really do raise him from being guilty to having merit. This will bring him back to God. “In just a little bit there’s no sinner!”

By finding this little bit of good in the bad person, this place inside him where he is not wicked, through this “…when you think about his place, he won’t be there.” When you examine his “place” and level, “he won’t be there” in his original place. For by finding some little bit of good in him and judging him favorably, you genuinely raise him from guilt to merit. And “when you think about his place, he won’t be there”. Understand this well.

Find the good in yourself

You must also find the good in yourself. A fundamental principle in life is that you should always try to keep happy and steer well away from depression. When you start looking deep inside yourself, you may think you have no good in you at all. You may feel you are full of evil, and the negative voice inside you tries to make you depressed. Don’t let yourself fall into depression. Search until you find some little good in you. How could it be that you never did anything good in your whole life?

When you start examining your good deed, you may see that it had many flaws. Maybe you did it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude. Even so, how could it be that your mitzva or good deed contains no good at all? It must contain some element of good.

You must search and search until you find some good point inside yourself to give you new life and make you happy. When you discover the good that is still in you, you genuinely move from being guilty to having merit. Through this you will be able to come back to God. “And in just a little bit there’s no sinner; when you think about his place, he won’t be there.”

Earlier we saw that we have to judge other people favorably, even those who seem totally bad. We must search for their good points in order to swing the scales in their favor. The same applies to the way you look at yourself. You must judge yourself favorably and find the good points that still exist in you. This way you won’t fall into despair. The good you find inside you will give you new life and bring joy to your soul.

Guided Meditation for Sukkot by Rabbi Aaron Bergman

-Breathe with your nose into the belly, push out with diaphragm. Hold for a few seconds. Concentration comes during the holding of breath. Breathe out slowly through the nose (first few breaths should be through the mouth). Repeat every few breaths. Allow any thought to arise. Greet the thought with curiosity, but not judgment. Where are these thoughts located? Your mind is your ally. What is it trying to teach you?

The sukkah is made completely from nature. So are you. Think of yourself as fully in the world and the world fully within you.

Think about the sukkah at night. It is very dark, but it is possible to see some light. What is that light for you? Realize that the light is within you.

Realize that you are the source of light and that the world only appears dark sometimes.

Breathe quietly for a few more minutes.

A Guided Meditation for Emotional Healing during the High Holidays

Gates of Repentance

A (Self) Guided Meditation

One of the central images of the High Holidays is that of Heavenly Gates open to our prayers.

Gates can open to the outside and new possibilities. Gates can close us off from what is within.

Repentance can cleanse us spiritually or make us feel guilty. It is an answer to the difficult questions about ourselves and our lives that we have been avoiding.

This meditation is not necessarily relaxing, but it can bring a feeling of catharsis, wholeness, and spiritual cleansing. This is not meant to be done in one sitting. Pick a section to work on, preferably in the given order, but you can decide for yourself. Spend no more than fifteen minutes at a time in the beginning. Allow yourself another fifteen minutes to gather yourself together. This is very emotional.

  1. Sit comfortably.

  2. Breathe normally. Do not do anything special. Just be aware of your breathing. You will naturally fall into the right rhythm.

  3. Visualize a gate. What does it look like? Is it inviting? Is it threatening? Why do you think this is the image that came to you? Think of a gate in which you can meet anyone past, present, or future, a gate in which you can meet yourself as a child or as an adult, the person you thought you would be, the person you wished you would be, and the person that you are. Where is God in this gate?

    1. Visualize all the people with whom you have had a relationship that brings you joy. What do you want to say to them? Say it in your mind if you are with others and do not feel comfortable. Say it out loud if you are alone. Remember all the wonderful things they did for you. Why did they do it? Did you feel worthy of their love? Why or why not

    2. Visualize the people with whom you have a challenging relationship, and are still alive. There may be some overlap with the first group.What do you want to say to them? Is there a fault? What do you think happened in the lives of these people that made them so difficult? Can you feel any empathy or understanding? What is your share in the difficulty? Speak to them in your mind. No one else will hear. Can you share any of this with these people? Why or why not? What would forgiveness look like, of each other, or just one to the other? If forgiveness is not possible, what would letting go look like? Can you get on with your life if no forgiveness is possible?

    3. Do the same as above, but with those who are no longer living, or capable of response. This is a lot harder emotionally, but the conversation may provide healing. People’s spirits are eternal. I am not suggesting that the person’s spirit is necessarily listening, but somehow people’s presences can be felt in times of extreme emotion. This is a matter of personal belief.

    4. Visualize yourself as a child. What would you like to have told them? It is too late to follow that advice? Whose life did you wind up living? What turned out as expected? What did not, but was worse or better than you thought. What do you want to say to the you of the future? Which you do you want to see walking through the gate at the end of your journey. How are you going to get to that point?

    5. Where is God in your life? Share all the anger and sorrow and joy and appreciation.

Do this exercise at least once a week. Sometimes it will feel comfortable. Sometimes it will be very uncomfortable. Stick with it for several weeks. You will develop insights that will allow you to start healing.

The Shofar and the war against hatred and suffering

The shofar is one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It predates the Jewish people by many centuries. One way you can tell its age is because when the Torah says to blow the shofar, it does not have to explain what it is or how to make it. The Torah assumes that everyone knows what it is.

The original purpose of the Shofar was as a signal to the beginning of a war or battle, like a bugler in the American Civil War. It was the sound of victory after defeating the enemy in war.

Judaism understands that wars against our enemies may be necessary, maybe even inevitable. We can and must defend ourselves and our loved ones. War, though, is never holy. We never rejoice at defeat of our enemies, we only offer gratitude for our ability to live without fear.

In Judaism, we have transformed the shofar as an instrument against our external enemies, and instead as a call the war against our worst instincts, against all the things we do, either on purpose or inadvertently, that may bring pain and suffering to others and to ourselves.

The purpose of the shofar changed from announcing a literal war to a metaphorical one, from destruction of others to improving who we are and bringing peace to the world.

When we blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur it signifies the celebration of the attempt to win that war. The internal struggle to do better is never over, but we can at least rejoice in our intentions.

May no one ever again believe that war is holy. May the sound of the shofar open hearts around the world, and change hatred into compassion.

Choosing Your Life: Some thoughts for the Holidays


When I was a little boy I used to sleep over at my grandmother’s house, something I really enjoyed. One night she came out with white cream all over her face. I asked her what it was. She said it was wrinkle cream. I said to her, I thought you already have enough wrinkles. She said, patiently, that it was to get rid of them.

This cream was later sold as something to reduce the signs of aging. It is now sold as something that will end the aging process, and is of course much more expensive.

What people are looking for is a way to live forever, and to look great forever, too.

On the surface, it sounds like this is what the Torah is offering.

In the Book of Deuteronomy God says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, you and your descendants.”

If you look carefully, the choice is not life and blessing or death and curse. Everyone is going to have blessings and curses. There is no avoiding that. There are people who choose life even during the difficult moments. There are people who are so numb to the blessings in their life that they are like the living dead.

The Torah continues with a discussion of all those who are part of the covenant. The only people with specific jobs mentioned by name are the wood choppers and water carriers. They were not really great careers even then. No possibility of upward mobility. The job did not get any more interesting. It is important to notice, though, that what they did was still considered to beas valuable as what anyone else was doing, and just as deserving of honor, including honoring yourself. Everyone has something of value to contribute. Every moment in which you focus on doing the right thing and doing it well is a moment that is full and meaningful.

Choosing life does not mean you are not going to die, but that every moment can be filled with life and with good. When you truly live, you realize how much good there is. When you do not, it feels lifeless and meaningless.

It also means choosing life for future generations. It is a little scary knowing that their world may not be safe or easy. It means that it will be worth it. Holocaust survivors who started families, or started again with new families. They knew more than anyone how terrible the world could be, but they chose to create more life. Without their courage Judaism would have ended. Because of their courage, we have the strength to continue.

The Torah says the covenant is with “everyone who is standing together today.” Why did it have to say that? What does it matter whether they were standing or sitting? The idea is that we sometimes do not realize how many people really are standing with us if we let them, people who can help us truly live during the difficult parts of our journey. That is why the covenant was made with everyone. We can all help each other somehow to embrace life, to find meaning in times that are hard, and to not take for granted the moments of joy.

We have to stand together during the difficult parts of the journey. The ones who may not be standing with us at one point might stand with us when we really need them at another time. We might be the one they need someday when they feel they are standing alone.

This is why we come together on Rosh HaShana. You can pray anywhere. But we come to the synagogue to feel like we are not standing alone, that we are alive to every moment.

In these next few days, let’s think about how we can help those we treasure to live that journey with happiness and courage.

Learning to breathe

I was very fortunate to have some time off this summer. I was able to spend good times with friends and family. I also had some time to learn and reflect.

The most important thing I learned to do was breathe. This sounds kind of funny, because we all breathe every day without much training or effort. We cannot even hold our breath for long before our bodies force us to start again.

I learned to breathe in two different ways. The first is through some advanced meditative breathing techniques that I learned that could be applied to private prayer and meditation and would work pretty well during services, too. They have helped me focus on the power of the present moment in deep way. I will be discussing those techniques at my Sunday morning hamakOhm program, which is starting August 25th.

The other kind of breathing I learned is a lot harder, but has been very helpful to me and how I react to things that happen in my life. I know that change is always occurring, and that nothing really stays the same. I should say that I knew it in my head, but my heart was lagging a bit.

The people that I love, both young, old, and in the middle, have been going through a lot of changes lately, mostly good, some not so good, but all inevitable and unstoppable and a natural part of life.

For some reason it just hit me hard. I wanted everything to just stop and be the way it has been, because when others changed, it meant I changed too.

They may have been ready, but I was not. It felt like it was hard to breathe.

My first reaction was to ignore it, and just say to myself, “Everyone goes through this, what is the big deal?” That did not work. Knowing that someone else faces the same thing does not really help lessen your feelings about your own situation.

Instead of turning away from what I was feeling, I sat with the feelings and embraced them. I realized I was lucky to have such wonderful people in my life to worry about, and feel nostalgic and sentimental about, and if they did not need me in the same way that they used to, they still needed me and wanted me to be a part of their lives. Things would be different, but they would be okay.

I also realized that I did not have to fix the difficult part of their lives, and that I couldn’t even if I wanted to. It is also possible that what I thought of as a difficulty for them was a challenge they wanted to face on their own, and that they just wanted my love and support and, often, my silence. We could love each other for just who we are at every moment.

This is when I started to breathe again. 

The Command to Remember Who You Are

There has been an attempt over the last few years to put copies of the Ten Commandments in American public spaces, such as courtrooms. Aside from the challenge of Church and State separation issues, there is the matter of which version of the Ten Commandments to put up. The Catholic division of the Commandments is different from the Jewish and Protestant one. The Commandments were written in Hebrew, so there is the question of the appropriate translation. Perhaps most importantly, the Torah itself has two different versions. Though they are mostly alike, they do contain some fundamental differences.

The most significant variations are found in the Commandment about Shabbat, the sabbath. The version in the book of Exodus says, Remember the Shabbat…because God created the Heavens and the Earth. The version in our Torah portion, in the book of Deuteronomy, says, Guard the Shabbat…because you were a slave in Egypt and God brought you out of Egypt.

The first version, God the Creator, was given to the people right after they had left Egypt. Pharaoh thought he was a god and used that idea to terrorize the weak. This version reminds the people that no human being has supreme value over another. Even though the Israelites had been slaves, they needed to remember that they were created in the image of God and were entitled to full human rights.

The second version was given to them before entering into the Promised Land. The Jewish people were soon to be in power, and they needed to remember that they had once been powerless and that they needed to use their power to protect and care for the disenfranchised, not take advantage of them.

I believe this is why there are two different beginnings to the Commandments. Remember is more passive. Remember you are fully human. Guard is more active. Engage fully in helping those who need help to get the help that allows them to live in human dignity.

The Torah is not concerned with what we put on our walls, but what we put in our hearts. Remember that you are in God’s image. Guard that everyone else is treated that way, too.

You can’t leave the wilderness if you you stay where you are

I remember when my parent’s friends (not anyone reading this) would come back from vacation and insist on showing us their pictures. The first few were interesting. The next dozen were tolerable. The following several hundred were excruciating. We did not want to be rude, and tried to at least look like we were paying attention. The pictures were even worse if we had been to the places ourselves.

The entire first Torah portion of Deuteronomy is Moses’ travelogue on all the places the people had been in the wilderness. Didn’t Moses know how much this would aggravate them? Of course he did. That was the point.

Moses wanted the people to leave the wilderness and go into the Promised Land of Israel. He knew they did not want to leave the wilderness, because it had become comfortable to them. Their lives were dreary and mediocre, but they clung to them out of fear of the unknown. Moses needed to jolt them out of their complacency.

The description that Moses gave of their travels is relentless misery in each place they went. Their time in the wilderness was not necessarily all that bad. The people had been living on manna, which is like living on cream of wheat. Nutritious, but bland and uninspiring. They liked it, though, because they did not have to work for it. When they were in danger, God would fight their battles. Why did Moses want to push them out to a land that was strange and unfamiliar to them?

Moses understood that living in the wilderness is not living, it is not being truly alive. The wilderness is a metaphor for when we allow life to just happen to us. We make no decisions. We take no chances. We risk nothing and gain nothing. We settle for dull and average, and then wonder why we do not feel like ourselves, why we do not feel fully engaged in the world.

The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar, which has the same root as to speak. The wilderness is when you say you are going to do things in your life, but just settle for talking instead of doing.

The Hebrew word for our Torah portion is Dvarim, which means words, but also deeds. It is an anagram for midbar, wilderness. Moses is telling the people, that if they do not take a chance, if they do not mix things up, they will miss their lives. 

There is no possibility, of course, of controlling what happens in our lives, and we certainly cannot control the outcomes of what we do. We can though, choose to live our lives with courage, without being held back by fear, by not settling for mediocrity.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Moses teaches us the unlived life is not worth examining.

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