Shavuot: Month of Revelation and Release

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“The Torah was given in public, openly in a free place. For had the Torah been given in Eretz Yisrael, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, “You have no share in it.” But now that it was given in the wilderness publicly and openly in a place that is free for all, everyone who wishing to accept it could…Another reason: to avoid causing dissension among the tribes. Else one might have said, “In my territory the Torah was given.”…therefore the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one.”

Mechilta de R. Ishmael (Ex. 19.2, 20.2)

“We are not born free and equal, but we are born to become free and equal. It is the goal of all social endeavor to bring about equality in the inequality into which people are born. It is the goal of spiritual endeavor to make humanity free”. R. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Diary, June 1915

The beginning of May heralds in Shavuot which originated as an agricultural festival. It celebrates the beginning ("first fruits") of the wheat harvest in Israel which continues throughout the summer and ends with Sukkot in the fall. "On the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Shavuot, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations" (Numbers 28). "Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Eternal your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Eternal your God has blessed you. You shall rejoice before the Eternal your God" (Deuteronomy 16).

In later centuries, in times of exile, we were disconnected or driven from lands where we had farmed. We began to view the Torah itself and revelation as the first fruit. Shavuot served as the annual downloading from the mainframe of Divine Truth to us wherever we were.

As Rabbi Emanuel Goldsmith, a student of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan wrote in Reconstructionism Today, Spring 2002 Volume 9, Number 3: For Reconstructionist Jews, the Torah is divine not in the sense that God dictated it to Moses, but in the sense that the Process by which our people discovered its laws, spun its narratives and authored its poetry is exactly what we mean by God. Even the ethical shortcomings of the Torah are a source of insight and instruction for us. In periods of religious introspection and exaltation, this spirit gives voice to those eternal ethical and spiritual insights in which we behold manifestations of a Power that is the ultimate source…”

As I look forward to “gathering around the foot of the mountain” again in collaboration with a fellow Reconstructionist and Northwest Philadelphia congregations at Germantown Jewish Center on Shavuot, I want to open to the Process and the Power that compels us to do justly and love compassionately in ways that have deepened and intensified this year.

Our wonderful celebration of Rabbi Yael’s twenty years at Mishkan was both an evening of honoring Rabbi Yael, her contributions to our community and the larger Jewish world, but also - a reflection, celebration and forward looking moment for what yet might be in our personal and congregational lives. This will not simply be “revealed to us” as we await guidance, we must participate in and support our community in multiple ways for us to have another twenty years together of meaningful Jewish spiritual life and activism.

As Mordecai Kaplan states in one of the quotes above, we have to work for our freedom, for justice, for loving each other and engaging our neshamot, our souls in spiritual consciousness and action. Our new strategic direction that emerged from 18 months of conversations affirms our statement of principles acts as a framework, but does not do the work for us.

As I meditate on how to adequately prepare myself for this year’s Shavuot, my own need for a recommitment to daily spiritual practice (ranging from morning prayer or reading, getting outside once a day to be near our beautiful stream, quiet reflection, journaling, song, hitbodedut- talking aloud to God/Universe/Self and more), has become apparent. To do the “soul carrying”, the pastoral, administrative, managerial, program and service leadership as a rabbi cannot be sustainable in a vacuum. Our own daily practice, however defined, is a vital part of our own physical-emotional-intellectual-spiritual balance. As much as I feel blessed what I offer as a spiritual leader- spiritual direction, prayerful services, teaching and so on- I know I cannot remain centered and connected with myself-others-The One, without a daily dive below the surface of busy activity.

Partnership with R. Yael, Julie Benioff, staff, incoming board and current and future committee chairs, all of our members as well as larger community is absolutely necessary. No one else will magically do the volunteer work needed alongside our small and remarkable staff to fulfill our mission and vision. Grounding in daily spiritual and well-being practice, is as core to our work in tikkun olam and acts of loving-kindness (gemilut hasadim) as anything else.

I am honored to have been newly appointed to the co-chair of the POWER clergy caucus with Reverend Mark Tyler. Our first act was to initiate a clergy support and information sharing call the night of the recent riots in Baltimore. Our various religious perspectives and practices helped frame and contain the anger, frustration, hope and hopelessness, care and concern that will mobilize us into action. Philadelphia is not immune to the decades of racial inequality and economic disparity, in particular for our black brothers and sisters, and we do not need to wait for a revelation from Sinai to organize for change. Our deepening connections to various Muslim schools and mosques (Masjidullah, Al Aqsa) in Philadelphia this past month is particularly important in light of the hateful ads placed on SEPTA buses recently. I am proud of our POWER core team, New Jim Crow group and other tikkun olam efforts at Mishkan that keep us at the front and center of the many social, economic and ecological justice issues we confront.

I want to stay mindful of the integrated approach to spirituality-activism-acts-of-caring, whether it is working with our b’nai mitzvah, organizing funds for meaningful purpose in our community, reveling in our annual retreat for all ages or gathering for our end of year community meeting, Wednesday, June 17th.  We will continue to develop and plan for next year and wrap up our meta-theme of SHMITA reflected in all aspects of our Mishkan this past year.

As we open to whatever is revealed to us this month, remember that your particular voice and journey offers new insights to the Torah we have inherited. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in “God Was in This Place” p. 178:

“Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some people seem to know their Torahs very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some are short. Some are intricate and poetic, others are only a few words and still others can only be spoken by gesture and example. But every Soul has a Torah. To hear another say Torah is a precious gift”


Passover and More

April 2015 /5775

I was at the last evening of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association convention in Toronto when the news of the outcome of the Israeli election filtered in.

On one hand the possibility of peace, self-determination for Palestinians and economic, social, environmental and religious equity and justice in Israel seems even more out of reach given the outcome of the recent elections in Israel. I appreciated the words from our Reconstructionist movement’s leadership after the election on March 23, 2015:

“The recent, hotly contested Israeli election and its high voter turnout are laudable evidence of the vigorous democracy that has characterized the State of Israel since its beginning. In a part of the world where no other country has managed to sustain a full democracy, this is a noteworthy achievement. Several events during the election are nonetheless matters of great concern… As a new government is formed, the Reconstructionist movement calls upon its members to join together with like-minded I values, to a relationship with the United States that rises above partisan politics, to active pursuit of a two-state solution, and to a path forward characterized by statesmanship and a commitment to equality for all of Israel’s citizens.”

I found some solace and challenge in the words of Moriel who was with us at Mishkan Shalom only a couple of weeks ago: “Despair is selfish; false. I’ve heard attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the teaching that “despair is the most selfish state a person can be in.” When you despair, you think primarily in terms of yourself (This is so hard for me; I’ve analyzed the situation and I don’t see any reason to hope). In doing this, Heschel teaches, we render ourselves unable to do what he calls God’s work, but what could also be framed in secular/humanistic language: Working with and for others. I’d also add to Heschel’s teaching one from Martin Buber: “At every moment, we are able to do something that will change the face of the next hour.”

As we enter fully into this month of Nisan and beyond we will have opportunities to dialogue, organize, learn and pray, celebrate and wrestle with what unfolds in the Middle East and elsewhere, while not diverting energy from our own backyard. In order to help draw attention to the urgent need for a Full, Fair Funding Formula for our schools that doesn’t come disproportionately off the backs of middle and low-income families, POWER is partaking in the Fast for Family Values for 100 days between March 23 and June 30. In response to this, I suggested to our Mishkan Power team, we choose Friday, April 3 from dawn to the Seder to be our communal day of supporting this 100-Day initiative. April 3 has significance for Jews at this time of year: “It is in keeping with a tradition of the “Fast of the First-born” the day prior to the First evening of Passover and the First Seder. As a firstborn male in my family I have observed this in the past. Now I feel compelled to do so again, but from an egalitarian perspective where any young person or adult who wishes to join me can also do in keeping with the initiative we are part of through POWER and our own moral commitment to an economic and educational justice in our state and the city of Philadelphia, which Is so impoverished educationally and especially in areas of race- economically”.

Some of us may choose to join the April 4 rally in downtown Philadelphia that afternoon for social and economic justice, being organized by POWER and the MLKDare coalition as a follow up to the MLK Dare march and rally in January. This was chosen by the coalition as it is the day Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated. It also presents complications for me and many of us being Shabbat and the first day of Passover and we have services that morning and the second Seder that evening. Each of us will choose to honor our tradition and personal customs as we see fit in terms of the day, knowing there will be many more actions ahead and each observance, rally or meaningful family celebration contributes to the web of connections we need and that our work for justice is a long road ahead.

With Pesah (, Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut (which we will commemorate on Thursday, April 23) in this year of SHMITA with a guest speaker from Israel working on ecological interfaith cooperation (, and our spring community meeting, Sunday morning, April 19, there will be many opportunities to connect in ways that connect us to our mission as a congregation and to each other and the greater community we are part of.

We are blessed with so many spiritual lights in our community to help us find our way to another shore of possibility in life. In our own Mishkan Shalom we have Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who was recently honored by the national Jewish paper, THE FORWARD, as one of a handful of inspirational rabbis in the United States and our founding Rabbi Brian Walt who will be honored by TRUAH: Rabbis for Human Rights for his work in fighting for a more just world this May, and who will return to Mishkan Shalom along with many others to join in honoring Rabbi Yael’s twenty years of service and leadership in our community, Saturday, May 2.

I will be blessed by the presence of my parents, sister, and some of my Toronto family coming to Philadelphia for the first time for Passover this year. I look forward to seeing you at Mishkan Shalom for one or many of the services, programs and actions in the month ahead. I pray each of you finds new meaning, joy and deepened connections with those who gather with you for our annual pilgrimage out of the narrow places, even as we rekindle our commitment to the liberation of all people and the planet.

I will leave you with a prayer I wrote for my own family Seder in Toronto a few years ago.


Gathering the mixed multitudes in my soul

I rummage through my belongings

In preparation for leave-taking

What aspects of myself

Do I need to make the journey

What can I leave behind

To memory in the narrow places

Maybe this year, we will go out together

In broad daylight

Not in the still of the night

In no haste

Soul in Soul

Holding each other in loving compassion

Knowing we will cross together

Finding home at last

In the depth of Divine waters

That part willingly

On the shores of a wilderness

So, let’s not leave in haste this year

But see the blessings that even

The narrow places have offered us

For no place is without You

Freedom is in Your arms

Wherever we may be

On the journey.


Dedicated to the memory of a remarkable and beloved young man, Aryeh Stein Azen. You set out to change the world dearest Aryeh. We are forever changed by your courage and heart.

From Purim to Pesach & All the Places Along the Way
March, 2015

Happy Adar everyone! As you read this Purim is upon us and has its joyful and holy invitation to the sacred. 

We read the well-crafted drama of the Purim story from the Hebrew Bible, Megillat (The Scroll of) Esther; celebrate with a festive meal- seudat Purim; give tzedakah directly to those in need- mattanot l’evyonim, not through third parties; give mishloach manot- deliver festive goodies to friends. We are encouraged to connect deeply with the Purim story, dress up in masks and costumes, hiding as it were, just like Esther did until her Uncle Mordechai challenges her and supports her to reveal her true Jewish identity. Even the Talmud discusses the practice of drinking “spirits” on Purim to the extent we can no longer tell who is good and evil, and are less able to make these distinctions within ourselves in order to reveal our true selves. The Hebrew word for secret “sod” and wine “yayin” have the same numerical value of seventy in Hebrew letter count. Our tradition teaches: wine releases the secret! Esther’s name is derived from the word for that which is hidden or “nistar”. We enter the story, inhabit the roles, claim our true heritage and identity, then celebrate and release our tightly wound self-images.

There is also the shadow side of the Purim story- the book of Esther ends with our people being given the authority by the Persian king to defend ourselves against those who were going to wipe us out and we do- by killing many. We also run the risk of characterizing other people in harsh terms, becoming triumphal ourselves and characterizing other peoples as “out to get us”, or ultimately hiding behind new masks.bbat morning session led by Rabbi Yael on March 28th on preparing for Passover which arrives the first Friday of April this year (Remember no Jewish holiday is ever early or late- they are always right on schedule!).

I will hold the polarities of my interest and my ambivalence to the themes in the Purim story. I feel that this is actually in keeping with Esther’s own journey towards self-revelation and values-clarification, and what we as Jews, partners and allies wrestle with in building a community where we do the dance of being safe enough to hide out and be loved for our patterns and viewpoints, and strive to grow, unmask our surface presentation and together discover the deeper Divine potential locked in each of us. To this end I look forward to what we will discover as we cast our lots (pur) together and unroll the scroll of our own stories and our people’s stories for all to hear once more. Chag Purim sameach- and here’s to the turn we make towards our own renewed liberation and Exodus in the weeks ahead.

February 2015/Sh’vat/Adar, 5775:
Marching in the Light of God 

We are marching in the light of God (Zulu song)
Or Hadash al Tzion Ta’Ir – Let a new Light shine on Zion

The month of February in the Torah cycle this year, straddling the Hebrew months of Sh’vat and Adar, tracks our ancestors from Egypt through the initial stages of the desert journey in the book of Exodus. It has always amazed and inspired me, that out of a prolonged period of oppression and facing harsh and often untenable circumstances, we chose to immediately organize our material resources and establish a shared center for religious experience, governance, justice and social connection in the mishkan of the desert. We did not wait until our circumstances “settled down” or became completely clear to organize around core values and a sense of sacred direction and purpose.

In writing about this aspect of our shared communal endeavor, I find guidance as well from this month’s celebration of Tu B’Sh’vat, the ancient Jewish New Year for the Trees (see  for details of this year’s Tu B’Sh’vat Seder led by Rabbi Yael and me). One of four historical “new years” in the Jewish calendar- the 15th of the month of Sh’vat is a reminder to honor the cycles of nature and the living trees that we inter-breathe with, reconnect with the earth we are extensions of and have impact on, and look at the Tree of Life as a guiding metaphor for relationship. The overall health and well-being of our ecosystem is fragile and resilient. Paying attention to the nurturing of the parts, while attending to the whole is one of the ecological messages of this holiday, both in terms of trees themselves and the sustenance they offer and need, and also in the macro-spiritual template of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Here the sephirot (or spheres of Divine energy) are only compatible and ultimately sustainable if the web of connective tissue, the “partzufim” or face-to-face relational dynamics, connect the spheres.

It is also true that the observance of Tu B’Sh’vat reminds us that deep aquifers of life are flowing and taking shape beneath and beyond our view at times. It is commitment, acts of compassion and faith in the face of not knowing our outcomes, while making sure we are strategic in our actions and seed the ground for long-term change not only short-term gain, that parallel the earth’s hidden cycle at this time of the year. We celebrate the Life Force of the world, even as our trees are barren and our days still short.

This year Tu B’Sh’vat also acts as a mid-season invitation to get involved, or deepen our efforts if we have already been committed in this year of SHMITA consciousness and action. Since biblical times, we as a people have taken every seventh year in the land of Israel as a “Sabbatical” for the land and for forgiving debts. Moving beyond the biblical constructs and embracing the contemporary progressive and ecologically-focused Jewish approach with organizations and communities around the world, we still have the opportunity to explore this theme, and call-to-action, together and see how we can realize our collective communal potential. (See

As this relates to our community and web of relationships- we need our board, committees, havurot, program areas, school, networks, staff, clergy, etc. to function well, with clarity and purpose, within their areas of responsibility, and be in communication, collaboration and visioning together informed by our shared mission. We also need to align our financial and volunteer resources with our values to ensure that our community as a whole, as well as the parts, are sustained by our contributions on many levels in the months ahead. Without an interdependent web of connectivity, any communal, structure decays or withdraws and eventually ceases to grow. As for the single tree, so for the forest- as for the individual, so for the community.

Looking beyond our walls, Mordecai Kaplan argued that Jewish life must provide us with recipes for justice in our actions in the world. As members of Jewish community, our challenge is to discern how to embody these values in our lives and in our communities. Kaplan also urged us to move beyond self-realization and the ongoing renewal of the Jewish People to see peaceful interdependence and Godly living as, what we would term today, our global responsibility. In this respect I suggest that the future of the Jewish people can only be found in a globally sustainable, evolving religious culture—interdependent and interconnected with healthy and conscious global systems—environmental, religious, political, social, cultural, and economic.

We call our TorahEytz Hayyim”, the life-giving tree. I look forward to celebrating Tu B’Sh’vat together with you at our Seder and in the Mishkan Shalom School in the month ahead, as well as continuing to plant and reap the bounty of what we are nurturing together.

Photo: Some of the more than forty members of Mishkan Shalom who arm in arm with 7,000 other Philadelphians, spent an inspirational day marching as a member congregation of POWER and dozens of other coalition organizations who support the call for a $15/hour living wage, for full fair State funding for our school systems, and for racial justice and an end to stop and frisk police policie

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