What a week we’ve reached! The Days of Awe, days of introspection, Yom Kippur, rehearsing death (reminding us of our impermanent lives), reaching for the angels of our better and purest nature, ushering in the harvest of Sukkot.  It’s a lot.  It’s the whole cycle of time, the inner work of a lifetime, telescoped into an intense window of reflection, ritual and repair.

What if this week really were our lifetime? Jewish wisdom calls us to live each day just that way – as if it were our last (Talmud, Shabbat 153a) – because someday it will be.  Among Yom Kippur’s many reminders is that we’re mortal, and that our mortality gifts us with the precious impulse to treasure each day, so that we can attain a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

If this week really were our lifetime, what might we do?  We might make special effort to savor special people and places; we might give forgiveness and ask forgiveness; we might wrap up unfinished business.  Maybe we’d write a “swan song” – an ethical will to offer loved ones our emotional and spiritual legacy after we pass from this world.  Or maybe we’d write a poem, as Moses did in this week’s Torah portion (Ha’azinu) before his death.  Indeed, the whole of this week’s Torah portion is that poem – the poem of Moses’ life, his hopes for the nation he’ll leave behind, his ethical will to the world.

What would be the poem of your life?

During this week that connects Yom Kippur’s mortality and renewal with Sukkot’s harvest and celebration, we rehearse Moses’ swan song precisely to connect the two.  We harvest life’s bounty by rehearsing mortality and purifying all we can.  We reach deepest in so that we can reach farthest out.  We write the poem of our lives.  What will yours be?

Shanah tovah.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Have you been to a poetry slam?  It’s a form of poetry competition.  The poets present their works in a struggle for dominance.  One doesn’t naturally associate poetry with a sport.  Drop any notion of poetry as a lovely art form.  The poems presented are often confrontational and clever.  There is no chance Elizabeth Barrett Browning would win one of these.  Yet it begs the question, what is the role of poetry that is confrontational?

In the Torah reading for this week Moses says:  “Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.”  A poem stands as witness, like an accuser in a courtroom.   Like Picasso’s masterwork Guernica, a grey toned depiction of the Spanish Civil War’s destructive aftermath, Moses’ poetry calls to the conscience of each person who might have been tempted toward immorality.

The Greek historian Polybius wrote: “There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.”  Polybius could have been talking about the High Holidays, when the liturgy beckons us to use our own thoughts to stand as witness to our shortcomings in this process we call teshuvah.  It is not easy to set aside the ego and the protective instinct that insulates us from doing the soul work necessary to improve ourselves.  At Proverbs 18:17 we learn that the one who pleads his cause first seems righteous but his neighbor will come and expose him.  For me, this means that we need accusers, like Moses’ poem, to expose us to our own failings and set us on a path of improvement.

In the special way that a painting or poem can unlock the heart, we should also have prayers and services that help open us up to our errors and shortcomings during these High Holidays.  That is one role of the liturgy and of clergy.  Our job is to employ words to their purpose of urging us on toward self-improvement.  The words can be prayer or poetry.  My prayer for these yamim noraim, these Days of Awe, is that the machzor prayer book, like Moses at a poetry slam, stands as witness and confronts you so that your heart is open to do meaningful teshuvah.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I have a friend who makes the most delicious challah. Every week she creates beautiful sweet challah that is the edible definition of “hiddur mitzvah’, enhancing a mitzvah. Every week she made challah for her family and our Torah study group.

One week the challah tasted just a bit different, it was almost the same but not quite the same.  She told me that she hadn’t done anything differently and she wasn’t sure what I was noticing. However after giving it more thought, she remembered that this time she had not been as focused on making challah as a act of love as she usually is. So now I understood why it tasted different. It was missing a spiritual ingredient, kavanah, intentionality and mindfulness.

I was reminded of the challah as I thought about this week’s Torah portion, Nitzanim. In it Moses tells all the Israelites that they will be blessed in the land if they love Y-H-V-H, walk in god’s ways, and keep the mitzvot. At first I interpreted this as an implied question and answer,  “What does it mean to love Y-H-V-H?” – To walk in god’s ways and perform the commandments. And then my friend’s delicious challah came to mind and I saw a different way to understand this. In all you do, love Y-H-V-H, do it with intention, do it mindfully, do it with kavanah. When you walk in god’s way, do it with intention and love. When you perform the commandments do them mindfully, with love.

The time from now through Yom Kippur is a gift to look at what we are doing and how we are doing it. If we open ourselves, the time in prayer can give us the inspiration to know where to begin. The high holiday liturgy tells us “Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tsedakah will lessen the decree”. Our self-reflection and self-judgement should guide us.

Is there a mitzvah you’ve been thinking about taking on but have not yet done so? Perhaps it is kashrut, or observing Shabbat, or studying Jewish text, or not participating in “Lashon haRa” (gossiping). Often we get blocked by the feeling it is too much. In this week’s parsha, Moses tells the Children of Israel that it is not too much for them – it is neither in the heavens nor across the sea, but rather it is in their mouths and heart. Begin with a piece of it and when you do that piece, do it with intention and love.

One might begin giving Tsedakah that connects a theme to each holiday throughout the year giving both the holiday and the mitzvah of Tsedakah that much more kavanah. Supporting organizations addressing homelessness could be the focus of Sukkot tzedakah, Shemini Atzeret could focus on water, Chanukah could be about education, Tu b’Shevat could be on the environment. As partners with God in creation, our Tsedakah can help make the world God created whole again, truly an act of love.

The new year is a time to renew and begin again, or even begin. Shanah tovah

JoHanna Potts

It’s just like Passover in September (not Christmas in July), but with a High Holy Day spiritual message about gratitude and the means of spiritual growth.

This week’s Torah portion (Ki Tavo) features the Passover Haggadah’s re-telling of the journey from bondage to liberation: “My father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down to Egypt few in number to sojourn, and there became a great and mighty nation.  The Egyptians … oppressed us … [and] we cried out … and God heard our plea … and freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, awesome power, signs and wonders” (Deut. 26:5-8).

Cue matzah, four cups and Seder songs!  But why these words now, and how do they cue up the upcoming Days of Awe?

These words are the first liturgy of monotheism, prescribed to be spoken when we “come into the [Promised] Land … and take the first fruits of the ground” in gratitude to God for “bringing us into this place, and giving us this Land – a land flowing with milk and money” (Deut 26:1-2, 9).  Our spiritual ancestors were called to give thanks and to use specific words linking them collectively to their timeless ancestral story.

In our day, people all kinds of houses of worship – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. – do much the same, using prescribed texts shared in communal prayer for collective expression.  Even Jews who typically don’t attend synagogue, who fill synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, will encounter prescribed liturgy – the shared texts and stories of collective ancestry and prayer experience.

As we prepare for the Days of Awe, this week’s Torah portion comes to signal that once again we’ll journey from bondage to liberation (though our shackles might be of inner bondage rather than physical slavery), and to remind that our path to liberation must include gratitude.

But can text really command gratitude?  Can fixed words really evoke a spiritual journey?  Words can be important, but liturgy is just jargon unless we give it life.  As we ready for the High Holy Days, the season asks us to enliven our words with intention, focus and heart.  The Days of Awe call us to offer words as if they were fruits of our inner harvest after reaching a land of promise.

And when this lofty goal eludes us (it always might), when our words don’t fully reach the heart, may our words rest gently on the outside of the heart, waiting their moment to go deep and bring forth a bountiful harvest of inner liberation and gratitude beyond words.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

I recall in the 1960s when fringes were all the fashion.  In their essence, fringes are threads that move loosely.  Whether an adornment for beaded moccasins or brocade draperies, the imperfect fringes were understood to enhance beauty. Fringes are a contrast to the smoothness of the adorned material. It seems that imperfection can be used to enhance beauty.

Fringes are also an ancient design. In parashat Ki Teitzei we get this instruction: “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” Why adorn a garment with tassels? The tassels are a reminder that the seeming perfection of a garment can best be appreciated with adornment of something that appears as if frayed. Previously in Torah we learn that tzittzit [fringes] are for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of G‑d to perform them (adapted from Numbers 15:38–40). How interesting that something that is seemingly imperfect gives us the impetus to strive for holiness.

The same theory applies in another later instruction. We are told to leave something unfinished when constructing a home. The custom is called zeicher l’churban and it comes from the Talmud (Baba Batra 60b) directing that we leave a cubit without stucco or without paint. The reason is so that we remember that the beit hamikdash, the holy temple, was destroyed. With the pride of constructing a beautiful home, we stop to notice what remains imperfect in our lives – be it fringes or a cubit of a wall without stucco. In noticing imperfection we are reminded of something holy.

As we approach the High Holidays, we are directed to notice what is imperfect in our lives. What are the fringes you have added to the fabric of your life? Perhaps you’ve made an error regarding how you treated your family, or a failure to take care of your health. These imperfect fringes can serve to enhance beauty by the contrast of their imperfection. For example, did the distance created with a family member make you appreciate the relationship all the more?  Or have you come to value good health more because of an episode of self-neglect?

Even as they are imperfect, you can notice the fringes of your life so that they serve a purpose.  In noticing them, you may be moved toward enhancing holiness. The role of the High Holidays is not merely to take stock of imperfections. The High Holidays help us to improve our lives by engaging with imperfections as if they are a talisman of holiness. See them and remember to make improvements in yourself and the world.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

This is the beginning of the month of Elul, the month that precedes the holiday-packed month of Tishrei. It is now that we begin sounding the shofar daily, signaling that it is the time to prepare for the transformation we hope to make in the coming year. First we must look into our spiritual mirror and honestly at ourselves. We need to engage in a “soul searching” that reveals ways in which we hold ourselves back, act out of fear and close ourselves off to different ways of seeing our role within this world. This isn’t an occupation review. It is about how you do, not what you do. There are a few questions to consider in this process: 

How are we living up to being made in the image of God and seeing others as made in the divine image as well? How can we be our most generous selves? Do we give others the benefit of the doubt? How do we feel and express gratitude? Do we see the wonder in our world? How do we alleviate the pain others may feel? How do we support our community? How do we pursue justice?

If we find, while gazing in that spiritual mirror, that the image of ourselves reflected back doesn’t yet match our aspirations, each day gives us an opportunity to come closer to it.


by JoHanna Potts

This week’s Torah portion (Re’eh, “See!”) recaps key aspects of Jewish tradition – monotheism, freedom, holidays and dietary laws. Perhaps its most important line, however, is a deceptively simple call: “After YHVH your God you will walk” (Deut. 13:5). What might it mean in our day to “walk in God’s ways”?

It seems straightforward to follow something physical: the Book of Exodus ends with the image of desert literally following God’s “cloud by day and fire by night” (Ex. 40:38). God, however, isn’t to be seen (Ex. 33:20). And if “God’s ways” were only Torah’s laws and traditions, then Torah might simply tell us to follow them: Torah wouldn’t need to add “walk in God’s ways.”

This question has called and confounded people for centuries. Talmud asked, “How can a human being walk after God?” Talmud’s answer was to walk after God’s attributes (B.T. Sotah 14a):

As God clothes the naked [like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden], so we also should clothe the naked. As God visited the sick [like Abraham after his circumcision], so we also should visit the sick. As God comforted mourners [like Isaac after Abraham’s death], so we also should comfort mourners. As God buried the dead [like Moses in the desert], so we also should bury the dead.

In this understanding, behaviors – clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, burying the dead – evoke God’s attributes. But God is more than behaviors and attributes: God is holy. “Be holy,” Torah records God to say, “for I, YHVH your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). To be holy, our ancestors imagined, is to be merciful and gracious – qualities more expansive and dynamic than any fixed set of behaviors or laws. After all, we can’t codify God any more than we can squeeze or freeze God into any one idea however glorious and grand. Maybe that’s why tradition calls us into both particulars practices and overarching qualities – verbs and also adjectives, specific acts of our hands and also loftiness of our souls. Like a tree needs both deep roots and tall branches, we humans need both the rooting of specific behaviors and the high and holy aspirations of spirit.

In a recent lesson, I asked a child how we earth-bound humans can be holy and “walk in God’s ways”? At first she offered a list of behaviors – follow laws, obey parents, do homework, etc. – but quickly she switched into listing attributes. To be holy, she concluded, was to love… have compassion… be forgiving… be generous… be kind…. be patient. To be holy, she decided, is to see the world as God sees the world, and try to see as we imagine God might see.

“And a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

R’ David Evan Markus

Were the Bible written today, it might include wisdom on start-up businesses, communitarian governance, positive psychology and organizational skills. At least those are the “bibles” I notice people reading around me nowadays. To the modern purveyors of how-to business literature, success often means not only financial reward but also position in the industry, innovating for the future and organizational restructuring. These principles are not just for businessmen. Non-profit organizations spend huge amounts of time on new modes of operation, financial development and creative marketing. They measure success by metrics – emails opened, clicks on links, donations made, attendance at events. Why not wonder if business contributes to creating a healthy society or if non-profits sustain the souls of people?

Success in the ancient Jewish world would have meant rainfall when needed, healthy animals and abundant food. Eager to prime the pump with the Source of plenty, sacrifices would be offered and rules were admonished (but not always followed). It is a model we find the second of three paragraphs following the Shema, which traditionally we read twice daily. Some progressive Jews have stopped reading this altogether: a Torah of reward and punishment is challenging to the modern Jew.

I think that there is a common flaw with the nouveau guidebooks on success and the way we are wont to read Torah. It is not so much what is said but how we receive the message. Torah isn’t about believing that a prescription will yield a positive healthful result.  Torah is about faith in a Creator/Source/Power that sets in motion the possibility of reward and the potential for punishment. For example, if we don’t take care of the earth and if we pollute and scorch the atmosphere, then we plant the seeds of our “punishment” growing naturally from our actions. And if we care for each other and share resources well, then we plant the seeds of those “rewards.” God is in the formula.  God is the inspiration and the energy to make change happen.

There is reward and punishment in the collective sense of identifying core values and upholding them in our work and in our society. Torah inspires us to reach beyond literal meaning and focus on the planetary and societal goals that our activities and livelihoods should serve. Along with every book on starting a business or restructuring operations, there should be a reminder from Torah that we must measure success by the qualities of meeting collective needs – preserving and enhancing life. Let that be our bottom line. Add peace, freedom, protection, and resources to the list of metrics of success: let those be our bottom line. With that kind of how-to and purpose to what we do, we can live out heavenly days right here on this earth.

R’ Evan Krame

Is the key to a good life found in following the rules? For example, consider the rules of suburbia: study hard in good schools, work hard at our professions, care for our bodies and obey the laws. We assure ourselves that if we live by these rules, we are likely to succeed. Some of us have suffered the consequence of not paying careful attention or forgetting the rules, stumbling over the laws, or erring badly in our practices – even if unintentionally. The discovery of such errors may bring adverse consequences to our livelihood, personal lives or health. How do we find comfort when our own fallibility trips up our preconceived notions of how life should proceed?

A primary resource on the topic begins this week’s Torah reading.  An angry and frustrated Moses has pleaded with God to allow his passage into the Promised Land. Moses failed to follow God’s instructions earlier by hitting a rock to draw water when all he needed to do was call out. Moses is not only denied entry but is then told by God not to raise the issue again. Further, Moses is instructed to ascend to where he can see the land he may not enter. God may be telling Moses to fully experience disappointment; to acknowledge and accept is the key to moving on.

Despite his outrage or perhaps to channel his misery, Moses employs his oratory skills and turns to the multitudes that will cross into the land. Moses gives them instruction and warning. They are advised to use their senses of sight and hearing and obey the rules so that they may successfully acquire their new homeland. To make the point he employs two of the most well-known textual readings of Judaism, the Shema Yisrael (Listen up Israel) and the Aseret Dibrot (Ten Commandments). Simply put, the two lessons are pay careful attention and obey the laws.

Moses takes his own disappointment and frustration and channels it into a methodology and teaching for the next generation to use. The advice still works as a coping mechanism for those who have a sense that their life plan was derailed by their own failures. If we can’t obtain a second chance for ourselves, we might find some satisfaction in teaching the next generation to use their senses and carefully obey the rules. The Torah teaches that comfort and consolation begin with the internal mechanisms of acknowledgement and acceptance.  Recovery from disappointment may be found in teaching from experience.

In the seven weeks approaching the High Holidays, a time of repentance, we must first acknowledge and accept the errors of our past before we can consider improvements in our lives.

See the path of your life.  Really see it.  What do you see?  Do you like what you see?  If not, what readiness do you need to change it?

This week’s Torah portion (Dvarim) heralds the approach of Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple and countless other tragedies in Jewish history.  It also heralds Shabbat Chazon, the coming Shabbat before Tisha b’Av named for this week’s Haftarah portion (Isaiah 1:1-1:27), which begins with Isaiah’s Chazon (vision) about dire consequences of poor life choices.

We might be forgiven for seeing here mostly doom and gloom: after all, we’re approaching the Black Sabbath (not the rock band, but the darkest moment of the Jewish year). Doom and gloom have their place, but there also is light: Tisha b’Av carries also the kernel of liberation, the breaching of inner walls that make new journeys and freedoms possible.  As Leonard Cohen so poignantly wrote in his song Anthem, “There’s a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

What we’re called to see is light – even and especially light amidst the doomsayers, darkness and destructions that are inevitable parts of life. We’re called to see the true reality of our lives, beyond the walls, unprotected by walls, freed from walls.  We’re called to see the path before us and begin again, like the journeys recounted in this week’s Torah portion, to get up from our doldrums and go.

But go where?  Desert journeys we recall in this week’s Torah portion are long past, but we recall them now as metaphor for our journey of the next seven weeks, between now and Rosh Hashanah – a mirror-image of the seven weeks between Passover (liberation) and Shavuot (revelation).  Once again, like our desert forebears, we can journey from narrowness to expansiveness, from darkness to light, from brokenness to a new wholeness.  The journey will take effort, but the effort is the purpose of the journey.

That is the deep meaning of this week of preparation, this moment of seeing clearly the path stretching before us.  May your vision be clear as we ready for this journey anew.

Rabbi David Evan Markus