Note: These are my personal thoughts and are not necessarily reflective of any institution or organization.

We have just passed the end of the shloshim period, the 30 day period of intense mourning for the victims of the October 7 terror attacks in Israel. Shloshim often marks the end of the formal mourning period and the transition moment when we move on from a loss.

But, we can not move on from this horrendous loss. The heinous, unspeakably horrible attacks by Hamas terrorists must not be forgotten. We can not move on from the memory of that dark day because it reminds us of what this war against Hamas is about. It is about the survival of the State of Israel against an enemy which seeks its destruction. 

And we also need to face the reality that many of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations are not calling for an end to the occupation, a cause which I, and many who love Israel would support. Rather, they are a call for an end to the Jewish State. 

Those are the realities of the situation today and we must always keep them in mind. Those who are fighting to defend Israel from an enemy which seeks its destruction are standing up for all of us who care about the existence and safety of the State of Israel.

However, these realities should not preclude us from feeling heartbreak and pain of what we are seeing in Gaza, the pain and suffering of those who are truly innocent including the babies and young children. We can not look at the video and pictures from Gaza and not feel such pain and heartbreak for those who have been caught in this war because of decisions made by their leaders. We should be heartbroken and devastated by what we see. 

The realities I mentioned above also do not remove from Israel the responsibility, rooted in our ethical tradition and Israel’s own stated values, to conduct this war as ethically as possible and in accordance with international law. This has always been stated as a point of pride for the IDF and it is critical that it continue to be so in practice. 

The realities of this struggle should not lead Israel to oppose the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, with the provision that it is done in a way in which the aid reaches the people who really need it, not going to aid Hamas’ efforts at attacking Israel. 

These realities do not in any way justify the attacks by settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank which have been taking place in recent weeks. We must condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms. 

And, finally, none of these realities remove from Israel the responsibility, as stated in our tradition, to seek every possible way to achieve the release or freeing of the hostages who have been held in Gaza for more than a month. The taking of these captives was another example of the horrendous attack which still touches everyone in Israel and Jews throughout the world. The suffering of the hostages and their families is immeasurable. Redeeming captives is an absolute priority in our tradition and should be here. While we pray for and work for the safety and security of Israel and peace and safety for all in the region I will close with a prayer for their return of the hostages. 

For all our family of the House of Israel who face anguish and captivity. 

May God have compassion upon them and may they be brought from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, speedily and soon, Amen. 


As have so many, I have found myself constantly thinking about the situation in Israel and struggling to put into words how I feel at any given moment.

A couple of days ago, I was not able to join with a group of clergy friends for our monthly virtual meeting because I was participating in an online briefing concerning the situation. These are people whom I have talked with about many important issues over the past few years and I was disappointed that I couldn’t talk with them this week.

This morning, I wrote an email to the members of the group expressing how I feel. I wanted to post my note to them for others to read. I’ll offer a bit of a disclaimer that this is how I am feeling at this moment. I might feel very different in a few hours but I am confident enough in my thoughts to post them here.

I know everyone will not agree and I respect that but this is a horribly complicated situation brought about by a heinous, evil attack which we can not completely comprehend.

Here, then are my thoughts as I share them with my colleagues:

I missed talking with you especially since it is always comforting to be with friends, even virtually, during difficult times. 

These times have been very difficult for me but of course exponentially less difficult than for those who have lost loved ones to this massacre or who are wounded or who are waiting to hear news from family members who have been taken hostage. I have close friends and extended family in Israel and everyone I have contacted is OK physically but I’m sure there are people I know who have been personally touched by this tragedy and everyone in the country has been traumatized in so many ways. 

An issue that I have raised on many occasions in sermons and in my writing is how Jews must be careful not to allow the memory of the Holocaust to dominate our thinking. We must remember the victims and join with others in teaching the world the dangers of bigotry and hatred but we have more to offer our children than to think of ourselves as perpetual potential victims. 

I still believe that, but the nature and extent of this horrible attack brought back Jews’ historical memories of  anti-Semitic violence from the Crusades to Pogroms to the Holocaust and I think it is fair to say that in striking back against Hamas, Israel is also striking back against the ghosts of the past through times when Jews had no power to respond with force to their enemies.

 I have never idolized the Israeli Army like some do. I have always recognized their vital and irreplaceable  role in keeping Israel safe and deeply respect the dedication of those who fight for their country- something I have never done- but I haven’t felt comfortable buying into celebrating the Israel Defense Forces like some do. Still, at times like this, to know that there can be a forceful response to violence of this kind is a matter of deep pride and complete gratitude. I wish each and every one that is fighting or has been called up on reserve strength and courage.

I do grieve for the innocent children and adults who are caught in the crossfire in Gaza. But, Hamas planned and executed these attacks knowing precisely how Israel would respond and that response would certainly put every person in Gaza in mortal danger. This was their choice. I don’t believe that that removes responsibility from Israel to do all it can to minimize the possibility of killing innocent civilians and hopefully Israel is doing  this as it has done before but it is inevitable that innocent people will die because of the decisions that Hamas has made. Israel now must make a calculation as to whether it is strategically wise to start a ground campaign especially given the reality that it would cost many more lives on both sides. That is a military decision that I can’t evaluate. Of course, I pray that there will be an end to this madness but to even suggest that Israel is “to blame” for the situation is totally misguided and wrong. The attack on Saturday was not a response to Israel’s policy towards Palestinians. This was a step in Hamas’ stated goal to completely destroy the State of Israel. 

I read yesterday that a Palestinian journalist wrote that the retaliatory attack on Gaza won’t bring peace.That is an understatement. And, as one who has been very blunt in my criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza (although we need to remember that Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, leaving infrastructure that could have been used positively and the leadership in Gaza has chosen to divert funds that could have been used to build up a reasonable society to build tunnels and rockets with the goal of destroying Israel)  and who has advocated for an end to the occupation and the creation of a  Palestinian state, I am devastated by the reality that whatever fading hope there might have been for some kind of movement towards a settlement of this enduring conflict any time soon has disappeared completely in the wake of this attack. 

I pray that there will be an end to this violence but I am also deeply concerned for the future of the State of Israel. While Israel’s founding as a nation was not the simple, clean picture that we might have been taught it was in our Hebrew school classes, the reality is that Israel was formed through the dedication of Jews seeking a place of refuge and endorsed first by the British, then by the United Nations, surviving a war after the state was established and through several wars since and  has sought and achieved peace with some of  its neighbors. Israel has not been blameless in this conflict. There is blame on all sides, but the nation carries with it the hopes and vision of Jews throughout the world for a place of refuge and strength. And for many of us, that also means striving for a country embodying the most sacred of spiritual and ethical values. 

I fear for the future as we mourn for those who have been killed, pray for the healing of those in pain and for the return of those who have been captured. After that, I pray for peace for the entire region and for an end to this horrible conflict between cousins who have so much to live for. 

That is the end of my note to my friends. I encourage your response on this page.


One of the most important aspects of the Jewish faith, and one which is reflected in so many ways in the Jewish community, is that debate and disagreement are accepted and honored.

This is certainly true regarding our perspectives on Israel.

Jews who feel emotionally connected to Israel are “all over the map” in our opinions. We discuss Israel’s actions and priorities endlessly and find ourselves often disagreeing with family and close friends over even the most basic questions.

But, tonight, I would hope that all of us, regardless of our political or philosophical perspective, are united in our shock, in our horror and in our absolute commitment to stand with Israel and her citizens at this terribly sad hour.

While there will be some debate about exactly what form the response should take, we know that Israel must respond to these attacks strongly. There is no option.

There are many questions about today’s attacks which must be asked and there will be disagreement in the future about where we think Israel should go from here.

But, tonight, let us stand together, as one, in support, sadness and love.


         I began my d’var Torah this past Shabbat with an admission that on that beautiful Shabbat morning, I was feeling a bit sad. I told the congregation that as one who is not reluctant to quote contemporary song lyrics in sermons, it was only because we had just learned of his death that morning, that they were spared a sermon based on Jimmy Buffett lyrics. 

         To say the least, it didn’t quite get the response that I was hoping for. Apparently, the synagogue was not full of Jimmy Buffett fans- or at least those who would admit to it. 

         I am a Jimmy Buffett fan. To real Buffett fans, I probably wouldn’t qualify as a “parrothead” because although I always intended to go to one of his concerts, I regret that I never did in fact. And, I really know only about 15 or 20 of his songs and they’re probably the ones that “real fans” are somewhat tired of hearing. But I know what I like and the songs I know and love never fail to bring a smile or perhaps, in some cases, a bit of a tear.  

          As a songwriter and an entertainer, he was captivating. His energy, his smile and his interaction with the audience were always a joy to watch (on video in my case) and I found his songs to be creative and, in most cases, fun to listen to and sing along with. 

         So many of the songs celebrated the simple and somewhat decadent pleasures of life-Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise, for example- and while some clearly reflected joy in values that I would prefer not to extol, it’s always good to remember that life is worth enjoying and I thank him for bringing a smile to my face.

But, he also wrote songs which touched on a subject near and dear to my heart: aging.  

        And those are the songs I find myself thinking about in these days after his death at age 76.

         In a song with the provocative title: A Pirate Looks at Forty, a man laments choices and decisions he has made and realizes that he has followed a path which has left him as “an over forty victim of fate”.

         In my favorite Buffett song: Captain and the Kid, Jimmy tells the story of his relationship with his grandfather who was a sea captain and taught him to love life on the sea. He writes of the aging “captain”: “His life had gone from sailing ships to raking Mom’s back yard. He never could adjust to land although he tried so very hard.” While the entire song is moving to me, those two lines capture the image of a man who could no longer live the active life he was accustomed to and for whom only death allows him to escape the confinement of land. 

But aging is not all sad and in the song Pencil Thin Mustache, he notes the trend towards nostalgia among younger people by reminiscing and celebrating the characters he knew in his youth: Boston Blackie and Ricky Ricardo and encourages people to celebrate growing older: “So if you find yourself in that nostalgic rage Honey, jump right up and show your age”. He unapologetically expresses a joy in advancing age in rather blunt language that would not be my choice of expressions but captures the sense of security that comes from living life as one chooses. 

Finally, in Changes and Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes he sings: “If it suddenly ended tomorrow, I could somehow adjust to the fall” but reminds us adamantly that: “Oh yesterday’s over my shoulder so I can’t look back for too long. There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me and I know that I just can’t go wrong.” Comforting and energizing words.

I don’t think that Jimmy Buffett sought to present himself as a deep-thinking philosopher. But his songs touched something in me, sometimes in their escapism but more deeply especially in these past few days, in listening to songs which depict a person coping with aging. 

In Psalm 71: 9, we read a verse which is chanted several times on Yom Kippur as part of the penitential prayers: “Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me.” I read a beautiful interpretation of that verse recently. The word “cast me off” is the same word as “throw” and the interpretation read that in that verse, we are asking God not to throw us into old age, but rather to allow us to age gracefully, step by step as the years go along. 

I have to admit that when I heard of the death of Jimmy Buffett at age 76 and earlier this year the death of Gordon Lightfoot at age 84 and now find myself looking up the age of many of my longtime favorite musical performers and finding many are in their late 70s and 80s, it really makes me more than a bit sad at what seems to be the somewhat sudden reality of my own aging.  

Then, I take a deep breath and realize, God willing, that “there’s just too much to see waiting in front of me” to worry about getting older and I’m ready to move forward again making every day count by staying active and vital.

But, first, in memory of Jimmy Buffett, I’m going to take a trip in my mind to that “one particular harbor” and put my feet up. I’m not going to eat a cheeseburger and I don’t like margaritas but taking a bit of time off with a drink (only one) and relaxing on a beautiful day is a pretty good idea because, after all, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere and tomorrow is soon enough to move forward again. 

May he and his songs live on in our memory. 


This past Wednesday, I made a quick trip back to my home town of Boston. Let me quickly apologize to my friends and family back in Massachusetts that I didn’t let you know of my plans. It was a last minute decision and I could only stay for several hours. I promise I’ll be back soon for a longer visit.

The objective of my trip was to visit the cemeteries where my parents, grandparents, several great-grandparents and other family members are buried and to say a memorial prayer at their graves. I usually plan such a trip each summer but I have started to question whether it really is necessary to do this each year and had considered not making the trip this year.

But, a few weeks ago, I started to feel a bit guilty. I had promised myself that I would continue the family tradition of visiting the cemeteries and in the midst of what has become a busy summer, I saw an open date on the calendar and made my plans to go back and forth from Michigan to Boston in one day.

I carefully planned my route: first to Melrose to visit my paternal grandfather’s grave, then to Woburn where my maternal grandmother’s parents and her brother are buried. Then, on to West Roxbury where my parents, maternal grandparents, paternal grandmother, two uncles and one aunt are buried. And, finally, to another part of West Roxbury to visit the grave of my paternal grandmother’s father which I had only recently discovered through the website

It was a whirlwind trip made infinitely more complicated by the closing of the Sumner Tunnel which left traffic around the airport horrible (even for Boston). There was a long line to get my rental car and I had problems trying to figure out how to keep my cell phone charged even though I had brought every charger I had from home. It started to rain even though no rain was predicted and I began to seriously doubt whether this trip made any sense.

But, I finally made it to Melrose to visit Grandpa Dobrusin’s grave and thanks to Ellen’s long distance assistance, I was able to figure out the car charging situation. The rain let up and I was feeling better by the time I got to Woburn.

I visited my great-grandparents’ grave and then stopped at my great-uncle Meyer’s grave. That has a special meaning to me since my middle name is named for him.

Then, it was on to West Roxbury. By now, I was sure I had made the right decision to come on this journey and I spent some time at my parent’s, grandparents’ and uncles’ and aunts’ graves. I found myself “talking” to them much more than I usually do when I visit, remembering how my grandmother would talk to all of the deceased. It seemed silly when I was a kid. But, it does not seem silly in any way now.

I ended my visits at my father’s maternal grandfathers’ grave, seeing it for the first time.

From there, it was a quick detour to the house I grew up in Brighton. I walked around the outside of the house for a few minutes and then drove back to the airport, fighting the horrible traffic, returned the car and took the shuttle to the terminal.

I was very satisfied.

As I sat on the plane to return home, I started to think about the inevitable question: does it really make a difference to visit cemeteries and, in a larger sense, to continue to consider the relationship with our deceased loved ones. Would my day have been better spent in other ways, either in Boston or at home? Does anyone really care?

I tried to sleep on the plane but was unable to. So, I took out my phone and opened the app that I have which has a “scrabble”-like crossword game.

The app opened the game with a word and I looked at my rack of letters and a word jumped out at me: silky. I was surprised, to say the least, Silky was the name of our first dog and I smiled as I played the word.

The app then answered with its word instantaneously. The word was duke.

I nearly dropped the phone because Duke was the name of my mother’s childhood beloved dog whom she remembered with a smile and tears years and years later. I stared at the screen and was so shocked that even forgot to take a screen shot which I dearly wish I had.

I refuse to believe this was a coincidence. It is not the first time my mother has let me know she is still with us. (see:

I was so glad I made the trip but it was also so good to know that it was appreciated in another place.


This posting is a summary of this week’s edition of my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming: Engaging Discussions on Judaism. You can hear the podcast at or other sources for podcasts. 

Last Shabbat’s haftarah comes from the book of Micah and it ends with Micah’s famous statement in chapter 6 verse 8: “He has told you O Man what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.” 

There is, however, a beautiful interpretation of this verse which changes the meaning significantly by replacing the word “and” with the word “but”. This is perfectly reasonable as the Hebrew letter vav as a prefix can mean either of those two words. 

The interpretative translation is: “Human beings have told you what is good BUT what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.”

This understanding of the verse proposes a distinction between what some people consider to be “good” and what God truly wants from us. It is a particularly meaningful approach to the verse when we consider that we hear so many voices speaking words of arrogance, injustice and a lack of compassion for others. Seen this way, Micah’s words compel us to analyze our voices and our actions to consider whether they reflect the positive qualities of justice, goodness and humility. 

This past week, the United State Supreme Court handed down a decision supporting the right of a website designer in Colorado who refused to provide services to a same-sex couple based on her religious beliefs. I believe this decision was terribly misguided and presents a serious threat to equality in this nation and to the LGBTQ community. 

In her dissent, Justice Sotamayor wrote: “Today is a sad day in American constitutional law and in the lives of LGBTQ people. The Supreme Court of the United States declares that a particular kind of business, though open to the public, has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class.”

I agree with her statement and the characterization of this decision as marking a sad day. I feel that this sets a very bad precedent for LGBTQ individuals and their families as well as for others in this nation who face bigotry and persecution. 

This nation has taken some very important steps for equality and respect for LGBTQ individuals and families and polls show that the majority of Americans support these steps. But increasingly we read of state legislatures which are seeking to hinder this progress and this decision gives fuel to those who seek to roll back the protection that our current laws provide. 

In addition, the ruling opens up a slippery slope as it would seem to set a precedent that would provide legitimacy for a business to discriminate against anyone on religious grounds. For example, can a restaurant or hotel now refuse to extend service to a same-sex couple? Are bi-racial couples and families in danger of being excluded? Can the owner of a business refuse to serve a Muslim or Jewish or Asian-American individual? While some may argue that the ruling is very limited in its scope, it does open the door for further exclusion. 

There are two other factors in this case which disturb me. First, from what I have read, the woman who brought the case against the law in the state of Colorado had not yet set up her business and had not been approached by a same-sex couple. She wanted to prevent such couples from coming to her for her services. 

It is particularly sad that this is the case since it reflects the reality that it is much easier to treat someone as unequal and not deserving of your respect if you have not met them face to face. 

For many of us, and I include myself, our thoughts about homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage have evolved over the years. For me, the critical moment in this evolution came when I began to talk with LGBTQ individuals and couples face to face. In doing so, I learned not only of the challenges they face but of the beauty of their lives and their relationships, seeing the same qualities that I respect in any individual and family. I began to realize that these qualities supersede any issue of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

But you need to open yourself up to seeing the common humanity. If one closes one’s eyes and just thinks of individuals as “the other”, it is easier to discriminate against them. 

And finally, there is the “religious” issue. 

Any religious group or denomination has the right to its teachings on any issue and while I would strongly disagree, it is within the right of a religious community to exclude LGBTQ individuals or families. 

But, by making this decision the Supreme Court has given people another reason in this country to see “religion” as promoting exclusion, lack of respect and compassion. This is so sad as there are so many approaches to religion in the nation and the world which at least attempt to model themselves according to Micah’s principles of justice, goodness and humility. None of us is perfect and no approach to religion is perfect but the idea that religion can be seen as providing justification for exclusion of others is a terribly sad result of this ruling. 

As we see the situation faced by the LGBTQ members of our communities growing more tenuous and threatening, we need to raise our voices not only in support of these individuals and their families but in the firm conviction that religious voices can, in fact, be voices of humility, goodness, compassion and justice. 

In Memory of Rabbi Harold Kushner z”l

Today, we heard the news of the death of my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner. Rabbi Kushner will be remembered for his many contributions to his communities and to the Jewish people. But, for me and for so many others, his greatest contribution was his heartfelt, profound and groundbreaking book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner spoke from his own experience and helped us all come to terms with tragedy in our lives and continue to believe in God and in lives of purpose. 

Fifteen years ago, I delivered this sermon on Yom Kippur in recognition of the meaning that this book held for me and for so many people. Before I included it in my book The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey, I shared it with Rabbi Kushner and he thanked me for sharing it with him and for speaking about the book in this way. I was deeply honored by his response.

May Rabbi Harold Kushner’s memory be for a blessing.



I decided on the subject that I wanted to address during this sermon two months ago. I wrote a first draft and I liked it but I knew it needed something. It needed a twist to make it interesting and memorable and I couldn’t come up with it. 

So, I did what I often do when I am faced with a situation like this  – I got in my car and took a drive in the country. 

It was a lovely day but the drive wasn’t helping. I still could not think of the missing piece. After a while, I became frustrated and started to turn back for home. As I did, I noticed there was a CD loaded in the car’s CD player. Without knowing what it was or which member of my family had put it in, I decided to turn it on. 

Let me assure you that I do not believe that God sends messages through CD players. But maybe I should consider it because the song that came on provided the perfect missing piece to the sermon.

I don’t believe the song was meant to be a theological statement, but others by the same writer have a strong spiritual element to them so I’m not prepared to completely dismiss that possibility. Either way, though, I am not being irreverent when I suggest that there is some wisdom in this song, whose most popular version was recorded by a singer, with the decidedly inappropriate (for Yom Kippur) name of Meat Loaf, to help us understand a very serious spiritual issue. 

The song is called: Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.

Some of you will recognize the song and some won’t. But it really won’t matter in the long run because my sermon today is not about the song but rather about a book.

The book, written 30 years ago by my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, is called When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Rabbi Kushner’s son, Aaron, was a victim of a terrible disease called Progeria, otherwise known as Rapid Aging Syndrome. Aaron died at the age of 14 in the body of an old man. Throughout Aaron’s illness and after his death, Rabbi Kushner faced a theological crisis as all of the lines he had heard as a student and all of the lines that he had said in his role as a rabbi suddenly sounded hollow in this changed reality that he faced. How could a rabbi continue to preach, how could a Jew continue to pray, how could a person continue to believe having faced this reality?

Rabbi Kushner decided not to hide from the issue but to think it through. After much contemplation and after reading through Job and other sources of wisdom, he had a startling realization. He took out his pen, because that’s what we did 30 years ago, and wrote out three simple statements which he said all people who believe in God would like to believe:

  1. God is all-powerful and directly causes everything that happens in this world.
  2. God is just and fair and stands for people getting what they deserve in this world so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
  3. Job — or Aaron Kushner — was a good person. 

Rabbi Kushner writes: “As long as Job is healthy and wealthy, we can believe all three of these statements with no difficulty. When Job suffers, we have a problem.”

And, whenever one has experienced deep sadness or has felt the pain of someone else in the world which can be so cruel, that problem surfaces again. 

Knowing he could never give up believing in God, Rabbi Kushner felt he had to eliminate one of these three statements in order to continue to believe. He would not abandon his belief that his son was basically a good person and he concluded that to believe in an unjust God, one who did not stand for fairness and justice, was senseless and offensive. 

That left only one of the three sentences to eliminate. So he came to the conclusion that to believe in an all powerful God who is involved in every act that takes place in the world and in every aspect of our lives and treats us based upon our adherence to commandments or to ethical living is indefensible, untenable, and potentially hurtful as well. 

Rabbi Kushner looked at those three sentences about God’s omnipotence, God’s goodness and his son’s innocence and concluded (and these are my words) that “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.” He decided that he would rather believe in a God who was not all-powerful than to give up his faith in God’s goodness or Aaron’s.

Kushner wrote his book so that people who felt distant from God, feeling that God’s touch was so cold that they, like the singer of the song, were in fact “crying icicles instead of tears,” could find comfort in believing in God again. They could believe although the expectations were different. They could believe in God who was not giving them protection from pain but sympathy, comfort, and encouragement when the world turned against them. 

Rabbi Kushner teaches this approach with hesitation. He admits that something is lost when you give up this belief in an omnipotent God. He writes: “In a way, it was comforting to believe in an all-wise, all-powerful God who guaranteed fair treatment and happy endings, who reassured us that everything happened for a reason, even as life was easier for us when we could believe that our parents were wise enough to know what to do and comforting enough to make everything turn out right. But…it worked only as long as we did not take the problems of the innocent seriously. When we have met Job, when we have been Job, we cannot believe in that sort of God any longer.”

I believe he is right. I believe his theology makes perfect sense and it has guided my thought and my interactions in my own life and in my rabbinic work. 

But the story can’t stop here because thirty years later, there is a question that has to be asked: Is it good for the Jews? 

By that I mean two things. First, can we sustain a belief in God and build a traditional Jewish life of prayer and ritual around a belief in a God who does not directly impact our daily lives? Is this blunt honesty or is it the first step towards denying the existence of God altogether and undermining everything our teachers have taught for millennia? 

Secondly, does it really help people? Is it fair to leave people with this answer or is it ultimately unsatisfying?

Let me address the second question first. 

No matter how clearly or passionately I or anyone else might present this idea of limited divine power, it does leave us with some serious issues. There are those who reject it entirely, preferring to ignore the question or to embrace the more traditional answers: “We can’t understand God’s actions.” Or, “Everything will be explained to us in the world to come.” Or, God forbid, “We should have fasted on Yom Kippur (or checked our mezuzahs more often).”

I understand the reason people choose to believe that God punishes those who aren’t loyal to the covenant or aren’t the best people they can be. Such beliefs underscore the importance of being good. They underscore the importance of observing the traditions. But the pain and the guilt that this belief can cause is so deep and so damaging. To even suggest that directly or indirectly God punishes with devastating illness those who do not keep kosher is a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

Still, some see Kushner’s approach as an unreasonable alternative and too great a challenge. They think it is wrong to expect that people in the midst of terrible agony can accept a complex idea and would want to struggle with a thorny and somewhat paradoxical theological concept. For some, it is better to accept a clear statement defending God or claiming we can never know God’s reasons or denying that God exists. For some, the comfort lies in having a definitive answer while Kushner’s answer may be seen as weak and defensive. 

Then, there are those who have accused him and others who hold this opinion as engaging in “theological gerrymandering” — trying to structure God’s role in the world so that it includes just what we want and excludes everything else. I accept that criticism but would argue that a theology that causes us pain or runs counter to what we see in the world with the hope that it would make us better people doesn’t work for everyone. In addition, it is important to note that, for Rabbi Kushner, the idea of this theology is not to take responsibility away from us but to envision God as teacher and to help us to become God’s agents and God’s angels on earth bringing comfort, support, and love to those who so desperately need it.

This theology works for me. It is honest, constructive, and thoughtfully sensitive. It leaves me with far fewer unanswered questions than any of the other approaches that I have ever heard. But theology is personal and one size does not fit all. 

Then, there is the other issue. If God can’t or, as I prefer to think of it, has willingly stopped interacting in history at one point after the Exodus and Sinai, then why in God’s name would we waste time praying: why would we say a Mishebayrach blessing asking for God’s healing? Why would we pray for rain when there is a drought? Why would we pray for God to protect our family or our people?

If God can’t control any of these things, why bother to pray at all?

What do we need God for if God can’t do what we need God to do? 

For these questions, I have answers. 

We do need prayer. We need prayer to remind ourselves and remind God what is important to us whether or not we can expect a tangible response. We need prayer to bind us together in a community reaching for something greater. We need public prayer to remind others how much we need the community’s help in supporting us as we face difficult times. We need the comfort of community and the comfort of believing we are not alone.

We do need God in our lives. We need hope and we need faith: faith in God, faith that living correctly makes our lives and our world better in the long run, even if some days bring disappointment or even tragedy. We need faith to believe that this story that we are all writing together will someday have a happy ending in a redeemed world. 

We even need faith in answered prayers and in miracles which, when they occur, seem to contradict Rabbi Kushner’s belief in God’s limitations. 

Yes, it seems prayers are sometimes answered and divine miracles occasionally do occur, and I celebrate them joyfully and praise God even at the risk of being inconsistent in my theology. But some prayers are not answered and miracles don’t happen to everyone and they don’t happen every time, and I refuse to believe that God plans miracles only for those who perform the right rituals or who say the right words or who are in some sense deserving. The Talmud tells us: Ayn Somchim al Hanays, “We do not depend upon miracles” and we don’t question our merit or blame ourselves if the miracle doesn’t happen for us or someone we love. 

But even when the prayer is not answered or the miracle doesn’t occur, we must continue to believe that God cares. We just need to know where to look for proof. The Torah says that when Moses asked God if he could see the Divine face, God said: “You can only see My back.” A traditional commentary explains: “You may not see Me clearly but look back on a situation and you will see where I have been,” in the face of a friend who cared, in a doctor who tirelessly worked to bring healing, in the sense of comfort brought by a familiar song or word of prayer. That is evidence of God’s caring and that comfort is real. 

When I see you, God forbid, in times of horrible tragedy, I remember what Rabbi Kushner taught us at the Seminary one day. He taught us that Job’s friends only got in trouble when they started to talk. Sometimes the best I can do is to offer my presence. Sometimes, silence is the best answer.

But you still have a right to ask: Why? Why did this happen to me?

And, because I have no other answer to give and because even at times of pain I need to be honest, I will say to you: “I don’t know why. But as the psalmist says: ‘I am with him in your trouble.’ I believe with perfect faith that God is crying with you now. It is precisely at times of tragedy that people need God the most, to believe in a God who can’t change the past or even the future but who is there to support us, to cry with us, to encourage and inspire us and, yes, even to be the object of our anger.” 

Our tradition has always encouraged and modeled screaming out in anger against God and I believe that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to scream out against God in the face of tragedy. But I would humbly suggest that if you are going to blame God, you should blame God specifically for creating a world in which free will and natural consequences rule. Don’t blame God for singling you out to receive such pain because that can’t be the way God works. 

Blaming God for the world that God created rather than for bringing pain to your life does make a difference. As the world goes on and as we, God willing, recover at least somewhat from the tragedy that we have faced, we might come to accept the fact that a world of free will and natural consequences is much better than a world in which we are merely puppets being orchestrated by God. Occasionally, when life is so bad to us, we might like that comfort, but being a free human being is, on balance, far better. 

I know that there are still unresolved theological questions. I don’t and I can’t speak for God. But I believe that no one is singled out for tragedy in this world. I believe that God cries with us and I believe that we need God in our lives even if all of the serious theological gymnastics don’t satisfy us.

The Torah commands us to love God and despite what we will hear later this morning when we read about the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva who said he loved God even as his life was taken in such a cruel way, for most of us, loving God at times of great sadness is impossible. No one should apologize for finding it difficult or impossible to love God when in the midst of suffering. 

So, let me return to Meat Loaf and my song for the day. As many of you no doubt know, his “two out of three” were: 

“I want you, I need you but there ain’t no way I’m ever going to love you.”

 I believe God says something very similar: “I want you to want me and to need me even if you can’t love me at this moment.” Two out of three, dayenu, that is enough for now. 

But now isn’t forever and nothing in life is set in stone, and that’s why we should never say to God: “There ain’t no way I’m ever going to love you” because no matter how dark and cold the world may appear now, one day the sun may shine brightly enough or at just the right angle to melt away the icicles and bring you not only to want God and to need God but to love God and God’s world again.

May we all be blessed with comfort and with the peace of God’s embracing presence. No matter what each of us believes about God, may we never forget that we are God’s agents of comfort in the world God created. 



I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor on Shabbat Parashat Terumah 9 years ago. It remains one of my favorite sermons and the congregational singing after the sermon remains, for me, one of the most moving moments I have experienced from the Bima.


Rabbi Robert Dobrusin

February 1, 2014

Rosh Hodesh Adar

Today’s Torah portion is called Terumah. The terumah was a contribution, given from the heart, in this case for the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert. The word terumah comes from the Hebrew word lihareem, to lift up. But what is the connection between this contribution and the word meaning “to lift up”?

Rashi notes simply that terumah means hafrasha, separation, separating these items from the rest of one’s property. In fact, there are those who say that the donor physically lifted up the object being contributed to show that it had been designated for a sacred cause. 

As the Etz Hayim Hummash points out, there is a spiritual element to this elevation as well. The commentary quotes the Hasidic teacher Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev as saying that a person is elevated, is lifted up, by giving such a gift. So, the “terumah”, the lifting up, could refer to both the object and the donor. 

But, it is also true that such elevation can be contagious. When a person sees another person contributing something and being inspired by that act, they themselves would be lifted up, encouraged and inspired to do the same. So, the process of elevation can take many different forms. 

Earlier this morning, we sang the Hallel service, psalms of Praise to God in recognition of the beginning of the new month of Adar. We lifted up our voices in song. No matter how many times we sing the Hallel, these inspiring words lift us to different places in our spiritual lives and hopefully inspire us to act in our lives on those values which our tradition teaches. That inspiration can be contagious as all who hear the voices raised in song are inspired themselves.

There are many sources of inspiration in our world and music is one of the most enduring. Listening to favorite music, whether a classical symphony, jazz, rock, whatever we find moving, can bring us to a different and a higher place, can elevate us in unique and lasting ways. 

But, as inspiring as melodies may be, it is often the words to a piece of music that serve as the greatest inspiration. Words which are meaningful when read or spoken impact us so much more deeply when they are set to music. The music combined with the words can become a driving force which grabs us and will not let go. 

I have often spoken from the bima of my personal musical hero, the late Harry Chapin, whose words and melodies move me no matter how many times I hear them. And, for the past few days, I have found myself listening and singing along to a song he wrote some 40 years ago in tribute to one of his mentors, a man whose life and words and music inspired so many for so many years but whom some apparently felt was just an “old folkie” whose time had passed. 

Here are some of Harry Chapin’s words of tribute and respect to this man’s enduring impact on our lives. What was true 40 years ago is still true today:

He’s the man with the banjo and the 12-string guitar.

And he’s singing us the songs that tell us who we are.

When you look in his eyes, you know he’s really in there.

Yeah, he knows where we’re going and where we been

And how the fog is gettin’ thicker where the future should begin.

When you look at his life, you know he’s really been there.

Old Folkie

They say he’s always bleedin’

But whenever somebody’s needing him,

He’s the one who cares.

It’s always the “Old Folkie”

Whenever something’s burning,

Or a lesson needs some learning,

Or a tide that needs some turning,

To a better world somewhere,

Yeah, the “Old Folkie’s” there.

He’s the man who put the meaning in the music book.

Yeah, the world may be tired but Pete’s still going strong.

He wrote this song in honor of Pete Seeger and now, after Pete’s death this past Monday at age 94, the words are so much more meaningful.

Pete Seeger was one of a kind. He was a musician who loved music for what it was, who was a musical scholar in so many ways, but who will always be best known for using his music to lift us up- to inspire, to encourage, to push us to dream and to act on our dreams. Taking up whatever cause needed him most, he sang for civil rights, for an end to the war in Vietnam, for the environment, for labor unions, for whoever needed him. 

Pete Seeger taught us about the power of music and the power of words. His words and melodies could pound like a hammer against injustice, ring like a bell to proclaim truth and were the songs which inspired so many of those musicians whom I grew up hearing. My older brother tried to teach me to appreciate the words of Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and so many others.  At first, I was too young to understand then but as I grew up and listened again and then found my own favorites, many of the same genre, I realized how sacred these words are. And, I realize now especially how the man I saw singing and playing his banjo at an informal concert in a park in Boston when I was 10 or 11 years old was such a mentor to the musical poets I love.  

I know some contemporary musicians take on social causes with their music and the fact that it just doesn’t seem the same to me is partly a sign of age and perspective. But, I fear that the tradition that Pete Seeger was such a big part of, maybe the biggest part of: using music to lift us up to a higher sense of social consciousness and responsibility seems to be rare these days. 

But, as long as there are cds and Itunes or youtube or whatever they called those flat black vinyl things, his music will live on after him and will inspire so many. And hopefully, it is not only the old folkies among us but the younger people too who will find meaning in these words set to music. 

Meanwhile, all of us who have been influenced by Pete Seeger will continue to listen to his words and will be inspired to write our own songs, our own poems and yes, even our own sermons with the goal of uplifting those who hear our words and bringing about the change in our world that he sang out for so loudly and clearly.

There is a Hassidic commentary on Parashat Terumah that it is not only the giver who was elevated by the contribution to the tabernacle, but God also was uplifted when people gave with the proper spirit.

When we sing the Hallel and sing it with all of our heart, God is uplifted as well. And, when the words and music of the dreamers and activists like Pete Seeger, inspire us to do small or big things to make this world a better place, God is surely uplifted.

But, this morning, words are not enough. I want us all to feel that inspiration again and by doing so, elevate each other and elevate the Kadosh Baruch Hu. And, maybe, those in the congregation this morning who are too young to know what I’ve been talking about for the last 10 minutes will look into the eyes of those who are singing and catch a glimpse of what it can mean when music moves us to a higher place and greater awareness of our responsibilities as human beings. Then, maybe later today your parents and grandparents can tell you a bit more about why this has been so important to us over the years. 

So, please join me in the song that many of us have been singing all week. I was going to print out the words and hand them out but I know you don’t need them. You all know these words written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.

Please join with me:

Here I led the congregation in the singing of If I Had A Hammer which many spontaneously stood up for, joining hands as they sang. It was quite a moment.

May the memory of Pete Seeger, continue to be an inspiration to all.  

The Middle of Hanukkah

           Hanukkah brings with it each year the retelling of the miraculous story of the past and, of course, the joy of light, laughter, presents (small or large), games, oily food and all the other things that make up the celebration of the festival.

           But Hanukkah is more than just a celebration of the past and of the present, it is also a statement for the future. The flames are symbolic of the hope for a renewed and strengthened spiritual life which brings light to our dark and our “ordinary” days. It is a hope for a world filled with increasing light, with joy and salvation spread to all.

           This year, as we reach the midpoint of Hanukkah, I urge you to look at the “half-lit” hanukkiah and see it as reflecting the teaching of our rabbis hat we should see the world as perfectly balanced between good and evil, salvation and destruction so that even one small act can tip the balance in the proper, constructive direction. 

I  hope you will take this occasion of the mid-point of the holiday as a time to pledge yourself to working for more meaning in your own lives and for more light and joy in the world at large. As you see the lights grow over the nights to come, take a moment to think about areas in your lives and in our world which desperately need more light and then, on each of the last nights of the holiday, dedicate the lighting of the candle to a symbolic meaning in addition to the traditional meaning of the holiday,

           You may decide to reflect on the struggles of the brave people of Ukraine. Perhaps you will dedicate one of the nights to expressing concern for the environmental dangers that threaten the world. One night, you might offer a prayer for peace in Israel and an end to the divisions and violence which has caught up so many for so long. Or, you may look around our nation and think about ways that you can be a person who brings people together rather than accentuate differences.

           On an personal level, you could see the candles as lighting your way to increased commitment to study over the year to come. Perhaps you will envision the promise that an upcoming simcha holds for you and your family. You might see the candle as a memory for a loved one who has died recently but whose presence you feel at the lighting of the hanukkiah.

           But whatever it is that you do each night, realize that prayer and symbolic commitment is meaningless without action. So, make sure that in addition to remembering people in need, you make that donation to tzedakah you’ve been meaning to do. If you have decided your life needs some a stronger spiritual component, commit to participating in some adult education programs or getting back to studying Torah. If you are looking forward to a simcha, start now to think about how others will benefit from your joy. If you are thinking about Israel, Ukraine or those here at home, take the time to engage, on whatever level, in political action to support the cause which is most meaningful to you.

           The Maccabees didn’t just sit back and imagine what the world could look like. They acted and then used the light to inspire them to further action.

           So, if you’ve celebrated a few days of Hanukkah by focusing on oil and latkes and presents, keep the joy and the light but try to envision a greater meaning for these lights.

           I wish you all a holiday season full of light and a happy and healthy 2023!


Today, November 26, 2022 is the 100th birthday of Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. In tribute to him and to his extraordinary talent, I would like to share a sermon that I delivered in 2006 and published as part of my book The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey:



The source for my remarks today is not the Torah. But it has earned its own standing for me as a critical source of learning. For decades it has been a font of wisdom, insight, and meaning and will remain, I am sure, a source of learning and joy for generations to come. 

The source features situations to which we can all relate, introduces us to characters with whom we can all identify, showcases the talents and the weaknesses of human beings we all know, and always seems so perceptively to reflect the reality of our struggles to make sense out of our world.

We know the characters so well for they resemble us. Like us, they populate a world which at once is too big for them and yet which is just the right size. That they are children reminds us of our subservience to a presence greater than us. That they are in a world without visible adults reminds us that we decide our own destiny and cannot directly see that presence. We must depend on ourselves and on our own limited intelligence and experience to make sense of a world which is so rapidly changing around us as we grow. 

And we owe all of this insight to one man, one genius who, by sharing his talent with the world and displaying his soul so publicly, changed all of our lives. This man’s name was Charles Schulz.

I don’t imagine there is anyone who can honestly say: “I don’t like Peanuts.” Other art forms are more dramatic and more brilliant, but our world has never been the same since Charlie Brown came on the scene.

While I could go on for hours about my favorite Peanuts strip, I will share with you only one gem: my favorite Charlie Brown cartoon. 

Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy are lying on their backs looking up into the sky and Lucy asks the others to tell her what they see in the cloud formations.

Linus talks about the clouds looking like a map of British Honduras, the profile of a noted sculptor and “the stoning of Stephen … I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side.”

And Lucy says: “Uh huh, that’s very good. What do YOU see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”

And Charlie Brown says: “Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsey but I changed my mind.”

Charlie Brown’s answer at first seems so sad. You can’t but feel pity for him. He feels completely out of his league.

But then we notice something. Charlie Brown isn’t “thinking” this. He is saying it. He might have “changed his mind” but he said it anyway. I don’t think this is a sign of his well-documented “wishy-washiness.” Rather, I think it is a brilliant statement: “I was going to say it but changed my mind, but I honestly think you need to hear it anyway.” He looked at a younger friend who had seized the moment and impressed everyone with all that he knew, and Charlie Brown still said his simple piece and I love him for it. 

We need to think deeply about Judaism. Our Judaism needs to grow as we grow. We need, to the best of our ability, to look at the forms around us and utter statements of wisdom, linking events of today to those in the past, rattling off the names and ideas of the Jewish philosophers and artists, the thinkers and the poets, and relate them to that which swirls around us. We need to look up into the sky and understand the wisdom of the ages. 

But we need as well to remember that the wisdom of the ages is sometimes found in the simple stirrings of the human heart, in seeing the duckies and the horsies around us and not being afraid to say so. Wisdom can be found in seeing this world with childlike eyes no matter how old those eyes might be, in seeing and being satisfied with simple answers to complex questions, relating to a Judaism of the heart and the childlike wonder and joy of the world.

Sometimes, I fear, in our zeal to bring great meaning to our Judaism, we make it too difficult. Others often raise the bar so high that we are not comfortable responding, feeling that what we can add is not appreciated and not valued. Like Charlie Brown, we may feel like we should change our minds about saying what we feel. Unlike him, we may in fact swallow our words and remain silent.

May we always continue our serious investigation of all that Judaism is and all that it can be. May we struggle with Torah and grapple with ideas. May we fret or, God willing, rejoice over population studies and look for new spiritual awakenings. May we make great plans for ensuring our people’s future and bringing meaning to a new generation of Jews.

But we deprive ourselves when we do this. For the answers to our deepest questions as Jews, and as human beings, are often to be found in the simplest words and in the simplest, purest meaning. Those ideas can be voiced by anyone, no matter how much or how little they know about the intricacies of our faith, the language of our people, the words of ancient rabbis, or the current sociological theories. 

May we also find plenty of time to lie on our backs in the cool grass, look up into the sky and see the simplest of visions and then have the confidence to share them with others.

As we look for role models around us, let us learn from those whose examples shine for us in our contemporary world as well as those who came before us. And let us always look for role models in unexpected places. 

And so let us learn. 

From Schroeder, who played the most beautiful piano music with his talented hands on a toy piano, let us learn to take the simple instruments we have: our hands, our voices, our hearts, and make the most beautiful music, rising above all of our limitations to make the best use of the talents we have been given. 

From Linus, who carried his security blanket everywhere, let us learn to treasure the things which bring us security in the world: holding tight to family, friends, and faith to help us steer our way through the difficult days ahead. 

From Lucy, who showed brash chutzpah, let us learn to face this world with confidence but let us figure out a way to leave the arrogance behind and make room for others and respect them. 

From Pig Pen, who perpetually walked in a cloud of dust, let us really be a part of this world, let us get dirty helping others, let us feel the earth between our fingers and our toes, and let us rejoice in a love of the world we live in. 

From Charlie Brown, who always came back for more, let us learn to trust even if we get hurt on occasion, learn to dream even if the rest of the world laughs, and learn to get back on the pitcher’s mound again even after we get hit so hard that it knocks us over. 

Finally, from Snoopy, let us love our homes, let us love our meals, and let us always dance with joy and always, always let us dream great things.