Since my heart attack last week, which came suddenly out of nowhere with ferocious speed and near-lethal results, my favourite prayer is “asher yatzar”: “…who formed us with wisdom creating a myriad of ducts and vessels, and should but one of them rupture or become blocked it would be impossible to stand in Your presence. Praised are You who heals all flesh and does wondrously.”

We all take for granted the incredible intricacy of our bodies and the true wonder of human health—until we are shocked into acknowledging how fragile this thing called life really is. We are encouraged to be more mindful, more appreciative and grateful for what we have with daily blessings like asher yatzar and with Torah portions that we prefer to avoid, like this week’s Metzora in Leviticus 13, 14 that speaks about fearful diseases.

The priest’s job in biblical times was to help manage the disease on a spiritual level and ultimately bring the afflicted back into the sphere of the community and the full realm of life. “Put Israel on guard, warn them (ve-hizhartem) against their spiritual disconnection with the Life-Force.” Today, we are all priests; our job is to dedicate ourselves to promoting our own lives and the lives of others to their fullest capacity.

The Zohar, classic of Jewish mysticism, tells us that the warning of the priest (hizhartem) connotes zar, “stranger, strangeness. “Don’t make those things that you consider negative, fearful, disgusting a stranger.” Rather than reject what we dislike, in us or in others, making it a stranger to us, we should open ourselves to examine it with curiosity. Is this true? Is it really so? In this way, says the Zohar, we maintain a connection with the vitality of Godliness that dwells in us.

Can we actually play a role in controlling the inner workings of our bodies? Neuroscience today has reported on the many incredible health benefits of meditation. Specifically scientists claim that meditation can lower stress and the risk of cardio-vascular disease. Although I practice meditation regularly, teach it and lead a weekly meditation minyan, as I did that morning, it didn’t prevent my heart attack. Nor did the regular half hour jogs that I do several times a week, as I did effortlessly that morning.  As the rabbis say, ain havtahot le-tzadikim, “there are no guarantees in life, even for the righteous.”

In my case it was a fluke. In some people the plaque that builds up from normal amounts cholesterol that exist in all of us can sometimes get dislodged for some unexplained reason. When that happens those loose particles of plaque rush into the next available artery. In my case it was the LAD, the main artery to the heart, that was 100% blocked by the time I arrived in emergency. Fortunately, I was already in the ambulance with the defibrillator attached when the really critical condition occurred, and the stents were deployed before any major damage to the heart set in.

Meditation could not have stopped it from happening, but it did help me to remain totally focused and surprisingly calm. It perhaps helped me to be more aware the moment the discomfort in my chest began to arise and that I had broken out in a sweat while sitting at my desk sending an email. Perhaps it helped me to know it was time to call for help.

Now that I am breathing much easier, I am back to meditating, and eventually expect to get back to jogging—hopefully with a greater sense of connection and appreciation for the Life –Force.




Shabbat Tzav 5776 /26 March 2016 –GRATITUDE: A CORE SPIRITUAL TRAIT


GratitudeFinding meaning in the ancient animal sacrifices we read about in Leviticus doesn’t come easily to most moderns. But what if these archaic rituals actually offered some deep spiritual wisdom that even secular, humanistic types could benefit from? That is the message coming from the Hasidic master, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk back in the 19th century. He Continue reading

Shabbat Vayikra/Zakhor 5776 / 19 March 2016– MEMORY IS SACRED, VICTIMHOOD IS NOT


zakhor-logo-bnLast week, Bernie Sanders responded to Anderson Cooper’s question about whether he was intentionally keeping his Jewish identity under wraps. He answered by saying, “No, I am very proud to be Jewish.” He then proceed to define his Jewish identity in the basis of the Holocaust: my relatives perished in the Holocaust; my childhood memories of seeing people with numbers on their arms taught me that we must always fight extremist political policies that threaten minority rights. Continue reading

Shabbat Yayakhel-Shekalim 5776 / 5 March 2016 — KNOWING WHAT COUNTS

MinyanMidRes                                                                  Do We Have a Minyan?–Dov Abramson

Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”  The well-known Jewish custom of counting people who make up a minyan as “not one, not two,” etc., or assigning each person one of the ten-words from the verse in Psalms, “Hoshia et amekha,” bares out the long standing Jewish aversion to counting people. The Talmud bases the prohibition against counting people on the Torah’s assertion that the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea which cannot be measured or counted. However, the passage we read on Shabbat Shekalim, in which the census is taken by requiring the contribution of a half shekel as atonement lest a plague break out, warns us of the danger against numbering human beings. Continue reading


Jews in All ColoursThe face of the Jewish world is rapidly changing. Organizations like Bechol Lashon are helping Jewish professionals and traditional gate keepers better reflect and include the growing phenomena of Jews of colour, LGBT, and interfaith realities of the new Jewish demographic. The need for diversity and inclusivity is exactly what our most ancient project for building holiness, the Mishkan project, also teaches. Continue reading



Rabbi Donniel Hartman recently published Putting God Second, to make the case that by focusing on the relationship with God, religion can undermine its primary purpose, the ethical treatment of human beings. Hartman echoes R. Mordecai Kaplan who, in his last book, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, argued that religion needed to be made safe for democracy. All monotheistic religions have a triumphalist notion of truth, and if allied with political power would present an existential threat in the age of nuclear weapons. Kaplan argued that the supernatural concepts of God and religion must be transposed into the key of naturalism to create a humanist expression of religion. Only such a human-centered expression of religion would be able to tolerate a pluralist notion of truth and accept the possibility of many paths to salvation. Continue reading

Shabbat Va’era 5776 / 9 January 2016 — “KNOWING GOD”: WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM THE PLAGUES?

Ten Plagues

The ten plagues brought upon the Egyptians is so central to the telling of the Exodus story that the Reconstructionist “New Haggadah” which had eliminated them in its original 1941 version had to reinstate the plagues by popular demand in 1978. Problematic as they may be from an ethical point of view, the entire drama of the Exodus is lost without the plagues.

Traditionally, the rabbis dealt with the ethical dimension by creating the custom of diminishing our cups of wine by one drop at the recitation of each of the ten plagues. It was a ritualistic way of saying that we cannot fully rejoice when our enemies suffer, as it says in Proverbs 24:17, “When your enemy falls, do not exult.”

This still begs the question, why were the plagues necessary? What was accomplished by inflicting their pain? Continue reading

Shabbat Vayehi 5776/ 26 December 2015 –REMEMBERING THE FUTURE AS WELL AS THE PAST

George Orwell, in 1984, said, “He who controls the past commands the future, and he who commands the future controls the past.” Orwell is not simply restating the truism that history is written by the victors. He is pointing to the claim made by contemporary scholars of memory: that the memory of the past alone is insufficient for identity formation. Our identity is formed not only by our narrative of the past; it is also shaped by the way in which we understand its consequences and commands for the future.
Our Jewish narrative of liberation from slavery in Egypt was accompanied by the command given thirty-six times in the Torah: You must not oppress the stranger, you must care for, love the stranger “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt and you know the heart of the stranger.” Our identity is not formed on the basis of a narrative of victimhood or even of privilege. Jewish identity is formed on the basis of a narrative of consequences and commands that shape our narrative of the past into a narrative of obligation for the future.
In Jacob’s blessings to his sons in Genesis 49 we have the first biblical text that establishes the identity of the tribes and characterizes them both individually as personalities and collectively as a nation. And while he starts out telling them what will happen in the future, that vision eludes him. Rambam explains that his inability to see into the future is due to his depressed state—“prophecy does not rest in the midst of melancholy, but only in the midst of joy.” But perhaps the Torah is giving us the message that we can never predict the future based on our knowledge of the past alone. What Jacob is giving his sons is a “blessing” that can transform their past into something new and different.
The Maor Va-Shemesh illustrates this in his interpretation of Shimon and Levi who are “blessed”: “Let me not be included in their council, let my being not be counted in their assembly….cursed be their anger… their wrath. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” Drawing upon the Talmudic teaching, “when a scholar is hot –tempered, it is the Torah that boils in him” (Ta’anit 4a) he observes that when a righteous person feels inadequate in his learning or his deeds, his self-criticism results in anger directed towards others as well as himself. He is unable to be with people and mingle pleasantly with them. He remains in solitude with himself, thinking that speaking about mundane matters is a distraction form serving God. But in truth, it’s necessary to serve God in all the ways of the world. As it says in Proverbs (3:6), “know God in all your ways.”
When Jacob said, “let not my being come to their council,” he meant their exclusive behavior is not my desire because it stem from dark bitterns. “Let not my being be counted (teihad) in their assembly.” Teihad has the connotation of rejoicing, as in Jethro rejoiced (yihad). In other words, I am not happy when I am with them. Therefore he said, “I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” That is, their consciousness should be to mingle more pleasantly with people, whether with people who are on a lesser spiritual level, the level of “Jacob,” or with those on a higher level, “Israel.”

This is the hopeful message as one generation seeks to transmit its wisdom to the next. For the sake of your own individual identity and that of collective well-being of your nation, learn to transform your narrative of the past in to a blessing for the future.

Shabbat Vayiggash 5776/ 19 December 2015– A MESSAGE FOR THE ROAD: DO NOT BE QUARRELSOME

This week Im Tirtzu, a right-wing organization in Israel, released a video ad that attacks four leaders of Human Rights NGO’s and their organizations for being moles, doing the bidding of foreign nations; in short, accusing them of treason. This incitement is despicable and dangerous. It feeds into the government’s attempts to delegitimize human rights NGOs and has even spilled over into accusing Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel of disloyalty. Continue reading

Shabbat Mikketz/Rosh Hodesh/ Hanukkah 5776 / 12 December 2015 — FROM BREAKING POINT TO HOPE


This past week we experienced the birth of our first grandchild. One of my  first reactions was how fragile and vulnerable this new little creature is, and how awesome is the liminal moment between existence and non-existence, life and death. The dialectical nature of the life-death nexus is revealed in the Hebrew term for the biblical birthing-stool, mishbarim. It comes from the same root as the word for cirisis, mashber. The possibility of new birth is closely related to the breaking point, shever, which marks a crisis. Crisis can be a point of danger and worry that paralyzes or demoralizes. Or, it could be the opportunity for giving birth to something totally new that we could never have imagined previously. Continue reading