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Mission: Accepted





Did you ever watch “Mission Impossible”? At the start of each episode, a recorded voice would announce “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” And then after explaining the mission, the voice would conclude “this tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”

This week’s Torah portion contains a scene like that, only without the self-destructing cassette tape. At the burning bush, God tells Moshe his mission: to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let God’s people go.

Moses demurs, I don’t even know who to say has sent me! And God answers “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming. Tell them that Becoming Itself has sent you.” Moses demurs again, and God gives him some magic tricks to perform, a staff that will turn into a snake and back again. Moses demurs a third time:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֖א בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָֽח׃ / But he said, “Please, My Lord, make someone else Your agent!”

At this point, God does not say “well, it’s your mission if and only if you choose to accept it.” God says, “fine: your brother will partner with you in this work — now get to it.” God gives Moshe companionship in the task ahead, but God does not give him the chance to say no.

Moshe was out tending sheep in the wilderness, not searching for a new mission in life. And then his eyes were opened to wonder, the bush that burned but was not consumed. And then he heard the voice of God telling him there was work in the world that only he could do. It’s no wonder he balked. Who can blame him?

I have empathy for Moshe’s “please, God, send someone else.” He knew his own failings. He knew all the reasons why he didn’t feel suitable for divine deployment. Maybe he liked his life the way it was, and he didn’t want to get drawn into politics and into creating change.

Maybe he anticipated that the work of bringing change would be hard and that people would hate him. Sure enough, when he first goes to Pharaoh, the initial effect is that the people’s labors are intensified, and the people curse him thoroughly. Leadership is rarely easy. Poor Moshe is disliked both by Pharaoh, and by the people he seeks to serve and to save.

“Please, God, send someone else!” Maybe you too have felt that way. Maybe you’ve looked at the road ahead and seen that it looks scary. Maybe you know your life needs to change, but you’re scared of change and of the work it requires. Maybe you know our nation needs to change, but you’re paralyzed by the enormity of the change we need.

Maybe you’ve been a parent bringing a newborn home from the hospital thinking “I am in way over my head,” or started a new job thinking “why did they hire me, I don’t have these skills,” or stepped reluctantly into leadership wishing someone else had been willing to take the banner because you don’t want the drama or the responsibility or the projections others will place on you.

Moshe didn’t get to say no to his deployment, but he did get someone to share it with him. I’d like to think that we can all find that, if we keep our eyes open. All of us can seek a colleague, a friend, a brother, a partner — someone who shares the calling and the burdens that come with it.

Moshe had that in his brother Aharon. Their skillsets were complementary: Moshe spoke to God, and Aharon had the necessary skills to speak to the people. We can take turns being Aharon and Moshe for each other. We can by turns engage with the life of the polis and the life of spirit. We can create change on the front lines, and we can create change behind the scenes. And together we can be stronger, and more, and more whole, than any of us could be alone.

We get to do the work together. We don’t get to turn away from the work at hand.

All of us are tasked with perfecting our broken world — which sometimes means healing the brokenness in ourselves, and sometimes means healing the brokenness in public life. All of us are tasked with speaking truth to power, fighting for freedom, helping the vulnerable push through the narrow place of constriction into liberation. All of us are charged with cultivating the sense of wonder that will let us hear God’s voice issuing forth from the fire, and the sense of obligation that binds us to the work we’re here to do.

Our challenge is shifting from channeling our inner Moshe — “Please, God, pick somebody else!” — to channeling our inner Isaiah (6:8):

וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת-קוֹל אֲדֹנָי, אֹמֵר, אֶת-מִי אֶשְׁלַח, וּמִי יֵלֶךְ-לָנוּ; וָאֹמַר, הִנְנִי שְׁלָחֵנִי. / And I heard the voice of God saying “whom shall I send, and who will go forth for us?” and I said, “Here I am. Send me.”

The work is vast. Working toward redemption — whether personal or national — is not easy. But it’s what we’re here to do. When the work of change and transformation call, don’t look around to see who else might pick up the slack. Say “Here I am. Send me.”


Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Shemot.

return-to-shabbatDear all,

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel.

This week we’re reading parashat Shemot. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

Here’s a commentary from my friend and colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus: Moses the Rookie Chaplain and the Burning Bush.

And here are commentaries from the URJ: Shemot at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Viyagash.

return-to-shabbatDear all,

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

And happy new year! Here’s to a 2017 filled with blessings for all of us.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel.

This week we’re reading parashat Viyagash. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the URJ: Vayigash at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

On being enough, the “inner accuser,” and letting our light shine

רָנִּ֥י וְשִׂמְחִ֖י בַּת־צִיּ֑וֹן כִּ֧י הִנְנִי־בָ֛א וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֥י בְתוֹכֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְה

“Shout for joy, daughter of Zion! For behold, I come, and I will dwell within you, says Adonai.”

That’s the first line of the special haftarah reading for Shabbat Chanukah, Zechariah 2:14-4:7, which I chanted many years ago at my bat mitzvah.

I’ve remembered that opening line all these years. But there’s much in this haftarah from Zechariah that I didn’t remember. For instance, Zechariah’s vision of Joshua, the high priest, standing before God as though on trial, with השטן / ha-satan, “the Accuser,” there to accuse him. But God rebukes the accuser, says that Joshua is a “firebrand plucked from the fire,” and makes his dirty garments white as snow.

Then an angel wakes Zechariah and asks what he sees. Zechariah describes a vision of a golden menorah, mystically fed by a stream of flowing oil direct from two olive trees. Zechariah asks the angel what this means, and the angel tells him, “‘Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone’ — so says the God of Hosts.”

The vision of the golden menorah may be why these verses are chanted on Shabbat Chanukah. They evoke the miracle: the oil that should not have been enough to keep the eternal flame kindled, but somehow it was enough. Or maybe the miracle is that our forebears took the leap of faith of lighting the eternal flame in the first place.

These verses evoke, too, our sages’ decision centuries ago not to include the story of guerilla warfare in our sacred scripture. The Books of Maccabees, which tell the tale of the insurgency against Antiochus, are not part of the Hebrew Bible. When we tell the story of Chanukah, we tell the story of the miracle — the oil, and the faith — not the story of insurgents fighting soldiers. “Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit alone.”

What we have, what we are, is enough — even at times when we fear we don’t have enough to offer. Even when all we have are the tiny sparks of hope we nurture and carry in our own hearts. We read in Proverbs that “The candle of God is the soul of a human being.” Our souls are God’s candles. It’s our job to be the light of the world. So far, so good. But what do I make of that perplexing passage earlier in the haftarah, the vision of Joshua and ha-satan, the Accuser?

This year I read those verses as a parable about internal reality. I know what it’s like to hear the words of my inner accuser. That voice tells me that my mis-steps disqualify me from being the person I want to be. Who am I to claim to be a servant of the Most High when my garments are so shabby — when the life I try to weave is so riddled with mistakes, disappointments, inadequacies? That voice reminds me of all the good I intended to do in the world that I failed to do, the loved ones whose suffering I cannot alleviate, the problems I cannot fix.

But the Holy One of Blessing sees me otherwise. God sees me through loving eyes. God sees my good intentions, even when I don’t live up to them the way I wish I could. God sees my struggles and my griefs not as a sign that I am failing, but as the refining fire that burns away my illusions. God says to my inner accuser: this soul is a burning branch plucked from the fire of human circumstance, and her yearning to do better and be better is what enables her light to shine. God says to my inner accuser: see, I forgive this soul’s mis-steps, and I make the garment of her life as white as snow.

Each of us has that inner accuser… and each of us can experience redemption from that voice when we remember that we are seen also through loving eyes. If you believe in a God Who sees you, then those loving eyes are Divine. If you don’t believe in that kind of personalized deity, then those eyes may be those of someone in your life… or they may be your own eyes, when you take the leap of faith of seeing yourself the way you wish your dearest beloved could see you.

In Zechariah’s vision, Joshua’s garments become white as snow. Just so for all of us. When we do our own inner work to try to be better, our tradition teaches, we are forgiven. And the sorrows of the old year, the stains and smudges on our life’s “garment,” do not disqualify us from hoping for better in the year to come. On the contrary: it is precisely with awareness of our mistakes and our sorrows that we are called to hope for better — to kindle the light of hope even when reason would argue otherwise.

Our task is to let our light shine, and to trust in the One Who ensures that what we have, that what we are, is enough to meet whatever comes.


This is the d’var haftarah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI earlier today, on New Year’s Eve Day which is also Shabbat Chanukah which is also the anniversary of her bat mitzvah. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Chag urim sameach – joyous festival of lights!


Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Tomorrow evening after we make havdalah to end Shabbat, we’ll light the first candle of Chanukah. Chanukah reminds us that we can kindle light even in the darkest of times — indeed, the darkest of times is precisely when we must encourage the  lights of our hearts and souls to shine.

In anticipation of Chanukah, here is some wisdom from some of my teachers:

Rabbi Shohama Wiener writes: “Concentrating on watching the Chanukah candle lights shimmer is a way to take in light in a time of darkness, and a reminder that always we must take in spiritual light in order to give light—that is, to transmit light through us from its truest source. If we do this spiritual practice and fill with light, then naturally we will transmit that light to others.” Read the whole post: The Lights of Chanukah – Receiving in Order to Give.

Rabbi Marcia Prager writes: “Stories of the origin of the dreidl suggest that the toy and its “gambling” game were used by Chanukah celebrants living under the Roman occupation to circumvent Roman edits forbidding group gatherings, and thereby plan acts of resistance… The great Rebbes of Eastern Europe elaborated on these themes, using the lessons to offer guidance on the inner work we must undertake when we wish to grow spiritually. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the great grandson of the Holy Baal Shem Tov, offers this unusual teaching on the dreidl: The dreidl,  he says, is a symbol Creation itself. Why? Because all existence is like a rotating wheel.” Read the whole post: The Dreidl: A Simple Toy – Or Is It?

And Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: “Chanukah celebrates the re-dedication of the ancient Holy Temple, the place where the infinite meets the finite, where the spark of God bursts into flame within us. Each year we recall the “great miracle that happened there.”  And that same miracle is happening inside as we heal the desecrations we have suffered and re-dedicate our lives to Holiness.” Read the whole post: The Inner Practice of Chanukah.

On a more practical note, here’s a page of Hanukkah Resources from the URJ, including how to light the chanukiyyah, blessings and songs, and more.

May you be filled with light as this holiday unfolds. Shabbat shalom and chag urim sameach — wishing you a joyous festival of lights!

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov and chag sameach!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to all — and chag sameach, wishing you a joyous festival of Sukkot!


return-to-shabbat sukkot_1

Join us this Friday evening at 5:30pm for a Shabbat Sukkot Potluck in the Sukkah (dress warmly!)

Join us also this coming Saturday morning for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax.

The synagogue sukkah is yours to use all week long: feel free to come sit in the sukkah, bring a picnic, stargaze in the evenings through the gaps in the cornstalks, bring a sleeping bag and camp out… the mitzvah of the week is to rejoice in the sukkah, and I hope that all of you will take advantage of our beautiful sukkah in its beautiful surroundings!

And join us next Monday October 24 at 10am for Shemini Atzeret Services With Yizkor. (What’s Shemini Atzeret? I’m so glad you asked! Read all about it, and about Monday morning’s services.)

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

May Sukkot fill you with joy!


Seven ways to enrich your Elul

elulDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

This weekend we’ll enter into the lunar month of Elul — the four weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. This is the time to begin the journey of introspection and reflection which can deeply enrich your experiences of the High Holidays. Who have you been, over the last year? What are the things you feel great about, the things you’re proud of? What are the things you feel not-so-great about, the places where you missed the mark?

One tradition says that Elul is the time to work on teshuvah, usually translated as “repentance” though the word really means “return,” in our relationship with God — whatever you understand that term to mean — God far above or deep within, the Source of meaning, Love, the Cosmos, the Cosmic Parent, the Beloved, whatever metaphor works best for you. This is also a good time to work on repairing our relationships with ourselves: where have we disappointed ourselves, and how can we learn to offer ourselves forgiveness? What are we most grateful for, and how can we cultivate that gratitude in our lives every day?

If we spend Elul engaged in this work, then by the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around we will already be steeped in the themes of the season, and the prayers in our prayerbook may resonate in a different way… and we’ll be better prepared to spend the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mending our relationships with the people in our lives. (Of course, that kind of interpersonal repair work can be done during Elul, too.)

Here are seven ways to dive deeper into Elul:

  1. Take a few minutes every day to breathe deeply, be present in the moment, and take your emotional-spiritual temperature: how are you feeling, not physically but emotionally? What’s arising in you today?
  2. On social media check out the hashtag #blogElul, which all month long will bring you blog posts and tweets on themes of repentance and return. (This is an annual thing organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, a.k.a. Ima Bima.) Or check out #Reflect4Rosh, a new online pre-high-holiday initiative organized by Rabbi Dan Horowitz of The Well, which invites people to reflect each day and to post photos and reflections tagged with that hashtag.
  3. Read an Elul poem every day and spend a few moments letting the poem soak in and seeing what it awakens in you. (In my office I have copies of my collection See Me: Elul Poems available for borrowing or purchase; you can also buy the book on Amazon if you are so inclined, and if you do so, you can get the e-book for 99 cents.)
  4. Come to Shabbat services. Dip into song and prayer with our community. You may find that it opens your heart and enlivens your spirit in ways you didn’t expect… and you’ll also get some advance glimpses of some melodies we’ll be using during the Days of Awe.
  5. Read, pray, or sing Psalm 27 every day. This is the psalm our sages assigned to this month. Here are some different versions to try:
    1. Reb Zalman (z”l)’s English translation
    2. One verse of the psalm set to music, in Hebrew, by Nava Tehila
    3. Alicia Ostriker’s psalm 27
    4. Achat Sha’alti melody by I. Katz
    5. R’ Brant Rosen’s English translation 
    6. Kirtan Rabbi’s Achat Sha’alti (info) and mp3
  6. Go for a walk. Another tradition teaches that Elul is the month when God leaves the divine palace on high and wanders in the fields, waiting for us to come and walk and talk and pour out our hearts. Take time this month to walk in the fields, hike up the mountains, and silently or out loud say to God whatever you need to.
  7. Hear the shofar each day. Tradition invites us to hear the sound of the shofar during each day of Elul as a spiritual wake-up call. What do you need to wake up to: in your own life, or in the world around you? There are many shofar videos on YouTube — here’s one:

I hope that some or all of these methods speak to you. We’re entering one of my favorite months of the year. If we open ourselves to it, it can work some powerful transformations on our hearts and on our souls.

Wishing everyone an early chodesh tov — may your month of Elul be meaningful and sweet.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel