Something Is Missing

We took many great family trips with our two kids when they were younger. Family trips form some of our fondest memories.

But, I also took trips with each of our kids individually and those were great opportunities to spend time with our son or our daughter focused on their interests.

I have taken several trips with our daughter exploring our common interest in “supernatural” events. We’ve gone on several “ghost tours” and explored places that are said to be haunted. Some of those trips have been less than spectacular but a few of them , notably a “ghost tour” on the island of Oahu and a tour of the prison where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed were fantastically “creepy” and quite memorable.

Our son and I took many “road trips” around Michigan as he shares his father’s love for seeking out “off the beaten path” places. But, we also share the joy of being serious baseball fans, so we have also traveled to several Major League and Minor League stadiums to watch games and to just enjoy each other’s company amid the relaxed pace of a good ballgame.

But, the best baseball trip we took, in my opinion, was to Fort Meyers, Florida to witness our beloved Boston Red Sox’ Spring Training.

If you’re a baseball fan, going to Spring Training is like being the proverbial “kid in the candy store”. The “exhibition” games are not the draw. The attraction is spending time in the team’s practice facility which, at least when we went in 2008, meant you could watch the players practice up close, listen in on interviews with the players and coaches, meet and chat with baseball folks and, especially for those of us from the North, enjoy the warm Florida sun as a preview to spring.

Our four days at Fort Meyers were unforgettable. We watched our heroes take batting practice. We caught so many foul balls that we started throwing them back to the coaches. We listened on in a conversation between David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez (that in and of itself was an experience worth the price of the plane ticket), chatted with Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky and shared stories with other Red Sox fans, young and old.

Spring training is a magical time. No, the games don’t matter. But the spirit of the game of baseball, the sounds and sights of infield drills and that warm, warm sun brings a smile to the face of every fan.

As I write this, the Super Bowl just ended. It was a great game ending a great playoff season.

But, for me, the most important aspect of the Super Bowl (unless, of course, the Patriots are playing) is that when it’s over, Spring Training is only a few days away. Turning the page from football to baseball season takes place just as the sun is rising high enough in the Michigan sky to actually begin to bring some moments of warmth that embody the promise of spring.

Except for this year, that is.

I don’t pay attention to the state of negotiations between the owners and the players. I don’t really care about what the issues are that separate them. I only care that Spring Training won’t be starting this week and the promise that this annual ritual brings just won’t be here to warm our hearts and keep us hoping for sunnier times.

It’s been a tough couple of years for all of us. It’s so unfortunate that we have to face this month without the beginnings of the game of summer.

Detroit Tigers’ announcer, the late Ernie Harwell, used to quote from the Song of Songs before the first Spring Training game:

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

The birds will still sing, the flowers will still appear, but for some of us, there will be something vital missing as we look ahead to spring. For so many of us, the winter will seem to drag on that much longer.

I don’t know what the issues are that have led to this impasse. I only know that I miss baseball already.


Today marks the 36th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the loss of the 7 astronauts on board. May the memory of Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe always be for a blessing and, in their spirit, may we always commit ourselves to exploring our universe.

As I have often written and spoken about, I have always been fascinated by the space program. I have so many vivid memories of watching the Mercury and Gemini flights from home and, more often, at school. Our teaches schlepped out the big TV and gathered us all in the school auditorium even if many of the kids did not really care. The teachers did and I certainly did. I was fascinated by every aspect of the flights and, when Apollo came along, I watched in awe as so many of us did as we saw “earthrise” for the first time and as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

The challenger disaster struck all of us very deeply and very hard. This was, after all, the first time a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, had been on board a space mission and her charisma and excitement just captivated the entire nation. It was such a horrible tragedy especially in retrospect as we now know that there were so many who were deeply concerned and adamantly opposed to having the shuttle take off in such cold weather.

But, the shuttle disaster also struck me on another level. I wrote extensively in my book about my love of the space program and commented about the shuttle disaster: “When I was a kid, I never believed I would own a computer that could fit in my pocket, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me to assume that if a man could walk on the moon in 1969, I would be able to do so by the time I was 30 or 40.It took some time for it to sink in that it was never going to happen. I suppose I realized it before the Challenger disaster, but that horrible tragedy ended whatever future I had as a space traveler as it did for so many other millions of Americans. I cried that day for the Challenger astronauts, but I admit that I was also crying for my suddenly less exciting future.”

It was a sobering moment but it was also a moment that saw our nation rise to the challenge, inspired by President Reagan’s beautiful words at the memorial, of continuing to explore the heavens as we continue to do today.

There is one more point that I want to raise about the Challenger disaster and I do not do so in any way to diminish or minimize the personal tragedy but to point out a way in which our world has changed in 36 years.

The explosion occurred around noon. I had a lunch scheduled with a colleague. We went to lunch. I went to my office to do some paper work and begin writing a sermon for that weekend. Some time around 3 p.m., the phone rang and it was the mother of a bat mitzvah student calling me to ask if I was still going to meet with her daughter for tutoring that afternoon. I asked her why she would ask that. There was silence on the other end of the line and then she said: “Haven’t you heard the news?” I hadn’t.

It had been almost 3 hours and I had not heard the news.

That would never and could never happen today.

We live in a time when we have 24/7 minute to minute exposure to news events and that expectation carries over to every aspect of our lives. In many ways, that is a blessing, certainly it enables us to be in immediate contact with family and friends and that can be very important especially in critical times.

But with that immediate connection has come a sense of impatience that permeates every aspect of our lives. Nothing can wait, even for a moment and the expectations that we will learn about and react to events immediately puts more stress on all of us. That is one reality that I confront every time I think of the 3 hours I lived in complete ignorance of this terrible tragedy.

Returning to the real issue, though, the tragedy itself, we can not stop exploring and can not stop finding new ways, such as the new James Webb telescope to seek a better understanding of our universe. The expertise and the courage of all involved in the space program, especially the astronauts is an inspiration to all of us. And, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Challenger disaster as well as on Space Shuttle Columbia and Apollo 1 and those of other nations’ space programs as well, may we alway continue to look up and look forward.

Big Papi

Here is a newsflash: I am a Boston Red Sox fan.

That should come as a no surprise to anyone who knows me, has heard me speak or has read this blog.

As I love to point out, I have been a Red Sox fan since I was in utero. No surprise there either. If you were born in Boston or in most of New England (maybe part of Western Connecticut is the exception), you have to be a Red Sox fan.

It wasn’t always fun. I grew up watching the Red Sox finish in or near last place until 1967 when, in the year of the Impossible Dream, they came within one game of winning the World Series. That happened again in 1975 and 1986, each year bringing such excitement and then such disappointment.

And then came 2004.

And the whole world changed.

The Red Sox were down 3 games to none to the Yankees in the ALCS when, thanks to a 9th inning comeback-featuring a stolen base by Dave Roberts and a clutch single by Bill Mueller), the game went into extra innings.

Then in the bottom of the 12th inning, David Ortiz came up to the plate and hit a long home run into Right Field.

The legend was born.

The next night, another game winning hit by Ortiz, this time in the 14th inning.

The Sox won the next two and swept the Cardinals in the Series.

And through it all, there was David Ortiz, big Papi, smiling with his infectious smile, encouraging his teammates, laughing with key hit after key hit.

It went on from there. The Sox won the Series again in 2007 and, most impressively, in 2013.

2013 was the year of the Boston Marathon Bombing and David Ortiz lifted the team- and the city- on his back and with the slogan Boston Strong, endeared himself to the entire baseball (and non-baseball world) by taking the microphone before the first home game after the bombing and, after thanking all of the first responders and city and state leaders, uttered the unforgettable words: “Our uniforms today don’t say Red Sox. They say BOSTON.This is our f***ing city…Stay Strong!” Those words echoed though

He led the Sox to a great season, had the key hit in the ALCS against the Tigers and then led them to an improbable World Series win. His batting average for the series was an unheard of .688.

And now Big Papi is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

He is in the Hall of Fame because of his prodigious home runs and his team leadership.

But, he is there for another reason as well.

He is there because he was (and still is in some ways), the face of a team which finally rewarded its loyal fans and the face of a city which had been wounded so deeply by terrorism.

He is there because of his bat- and because of his smile.

Congratulations Big Papi!!!!

Stay strong!

Thoughts After the Attack in Colleyville

         On Saturday night, as we waited anxiously to hear news from Colleyville, Texas, hoping and praying for the safe release of the hostages held in the synagogue, many of us turned to the Internet to connect with others to share our pain and fear. I participated in three different Zoom gatherings that evening, singing quiet songs of hope, expressing words of faith, and sharing our fears for the future. 

         These gatherings provided a sense of strength and hope, and our hopes were fulfilled with the welcome news of the safe release of the hostages. 

         There is a blessing that we say upon hearing good news: Baruch Hatov v’Hamayteev, Praised is God who is good and does good. I said that blessing with great relief upon hearing the good news. 

         But, as Jews we believe that whatever good God might plan for the world, it must be performed by human beings inspired to do the good. So, this expression of praise should go first to the people who brought this crisis to an end. 

         The courageous and wise actions of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the other hostages were exemplary as they, in many senses, secured their own release. The training that they had for emergency situations like these quite possibly saved their lives and this is a reminder to all of us of the importance of such training.

But, credit also certainly must go to first responders, law enforcement, and FBI hostage negotiator team whose bravery and expertise were so evident. I believe that the prayers of so many helped in some way we may not completely understand but this was a human drama that demanded a human response, and that response came. 

         In the days since this horrific act, two thoughts have repeatedly come to my mind.

         First, there is no doubt that anti-Semitism is increasing in this nation and that this should be a matter of grave concern for every Jew and every person of good will. We must take even greater steps to educate ourselves, and to protect ourselves and our institutions than we have already done. In addition, we must demand that our elected officials and public figures make statements and take actions to fight this terrible plague of bigotry. We must also make it clear to those who take public positions against persecution that anti-Semitism is real and it is dangerous and that the Jewish community must be recognized as among those whose members and whose institutions are endangered by hatred.

         But, as we recognize this need, we should also recognize the fact that we are truly privileged to live in a nation in which attacks against Jews, when, God forbid, they happen, are treated with the utmost seriousness. The massive response of law enforcement to this hostage situation reminds us that we are regarded as equal citizens in this great nation.

         While we justifiably fear anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions, we also must recognize the blessing that this nation provides for us, and we must take comfort in the support we receive throughout this country. 

         And that is the second point. Each of the online groups I participated in on Saturday evening included people of many different faiths and backgrounds. The prayers and hopes were not coming exclusively from the Jewish community. People of all faiths were standing with us as we faced this crisis just as we, as Jews, have stood with those of other faiths when their communities were the target of attacks. 

         This is what this country should always stand for. 

         I have never met Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker but, as we all heard repeatedly on Saturday, he is passionate about building relationships with those of other faiths and those relationships were reflected in the members of his local community who were present and public in their deep and sincere concern. 

         But, many rabbis and other Jewish leaders throughout this country have that same commitment to interfaith relationships and, again, this was reflected in the way that those of other faiths around the country expressed their concern and solidarity with our people at our time of crisis. 

         It was a reflection of the best that this nation can be. 

         On Sunday, I was scheduled to teach a session of a course at a local church. I was invited to teach the class by friends with whom I have worked in the Interfaith Roundtable of Washtenaw County for many years. The relationships that I have with my colleagues of other faiths have been one of the most important aspects of my rabbinate. I was glad to accept the invitation and have looked forward to teaching this course for months. 

But, even after hearing of the resolution of the situation in Texas, I wondered how I would, in fact, be able to teach the class given the emotions of the previous day. How could I gather my thoughts to teach a class on Jewish Biblical interpretation in light of what had occurred?

         But I realized that it was critical not only to fulfill my responsibility but to take advantage of the opportunity to say and to demonstrate something very important. 

So, I preceded my class with some thoughts on the news of the previous day and stressed the fact that by reaching beyond our own boundaries and building bridges with others, we not only develop a support system when a crisis occurs but also make the strongest statement we can against persecution and bigotry. It is when we get to know those of other communities that we can understand them and their joys and fears more deeply and will find it easier to identify with them at good times and bad. 

         So, even as we express and act on our justifiable fears about the rise in anti-Semitism, let us never forget two critical facts.

         First, we live in a nation in which people of good will and the institutions of our communities are there to support and stand with us as we face these threats. 

         And, secondly, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker and so many other rabbis and Jews in general demonstate, the building of relationships with those of other faiths is a critical expression of what it means to live in a country of freedom. Those relationships are critical for all of us, and we must continue to reach beyond the walls of our synagogues to form friendships and express and mutual commitments of support. 

         Those relationships become even more critical in light of these dangerous times.

The Power of a Song

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the “Shabbat of the Song”, the Shabbat on which we read Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea from the book of Exodus. In honor of the “Shabbat of Song, I share a personal experience which, while very simple and brief, points to the power a song can have. 

This past summer, we traveled to North Carolina for a family wedding. With most of a day to do a bit of sightseeing, we drove to Durham to see the Duke University campus. 

After driving through the beautiful campus, we drove into Durham and found that the weekly Farmers’ and Artisan’s Market was taking place. We wandered through the stalls for a while, admiring the produce and chatting with some of the sellers.

As we were leaving, we noticed a store which offered various handmade products from different artisans. The store was very pleasant with music from “our era” (the 60s and 70s) playing over the sound system. We spent some time in the store admiring the different pieces and, finding one that we liked, we went up to the counter to purchase it. 

The man behind the counter, whose accent and dress reflected his Caribbean background, was clearly busy with running the store and, while smiling sweetly, did not say much to us as we gave him the item. He took it and began to write out the receipt. 

As we waited, the unmistakable introduction to a somewhat well-known song from the 70s filled the room. I immediately smiled and turned to my wife and as the introduction ended, sang “O-o-h Child, things are going to get easier”… 

All of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t the only one singing. The man behind the counter had started singing at the same time and looked up to see who was joining him in the duet. He looked at me with his smile growing wider and we both sang a line or two together in rather perfect harmony. 

He grabbed my hand, shook it hard and was still smiling when we left the store. 

It was such a simple moment. But, it was one I will never forget. 

A song has the power to lift our spirits, to inspire us, to bring people together, including people from completely different backgrounds who met briefly and created a simple, beautiful memory which warms my heart as  I remember it on this cold winter day.

May the songs we sing always warm our hearts and souls.  


One of my favorite traditional texts is found in Rashi’s interpretation of Psalm 23, verse 1. Commenting on the introductory phrase: “Mizmor L’david“, A Song of David, Rashi writes:  The Rabbis said: Wherever it says: “A song of David,” he would play [his musical instrument] and afterwards the Shechinah, the Divine presence, would rest on him. And, wherever it says: “L’David Mizmor” Of David, a song, the Shechinah rested on him [first] and then he recited a song.

I love this idea. Sometimes, the inspiration of the Divine presence inspired David to sing. Other times, he sang and thereby brought the Divine presence to him.

This is a critical text to consider when we think about prayer in Jewish tradition. Sometimes, we are deeply moved and inspired to pray. Sometimes, the prayer itself is what brings the inspiration.

Our tradition teaches: Mitoch she lo lishma ba lishma, performing a religious act even when we are not inspired to do so is important because performing the act can itself bring the inspiration.

This is a beautiful thought and one which is often proven true. Saying the words of a prayer can inspire us in unexpected and unanticipated ways.

But, I think that there is a larger context that we should consider and I discussed this in my podcast last week. Sometimes, the inspiration does not come immediately but comes nonetheless.

Each morning, I put on my tallit and tefillin and say the morning prayers. After so many years of doing this each morning, it has become routine and I will admit that some (many?) mornings I am neither inspired by the Divine to be moved to prayer nor do I have a revelation of the Divine presence during the prayer.

But, that does not mean the inspiration does not come.

By beginning the day in this way, I think we are providing a context for the day and part of that context is to open ourselves us to the reality that sometime during the day we will be moved by something we see, something we hear, something we experience that will bring us that inspiration that we so deeply seek.

It is unreasonable to expect that every religious ritual we perform will transform us immediately by giving us a glimpse of that which is greater than us. But, by structuring our lives around these rituals, we are making a statement that we are ready and willing to be inspired during the course of the day. The rituals remind us that sometime each day we can be inspired to sing a psalm of our own. And, more often than not, that psalm will come.

You can hear more on this subject on the episode of my podcast Wrestling and Dreaming: Engaging Discussions on Judaism entitled Searching and Finding.

Three Years Later

This post is a sermon which I delivered in 2018. It was the only sermon I have ever given in which a round of applause interrupted the delivery- and, as you will see, it was not directed at the rabbi. The words I wrote and spoke then are even more critical and urgent today as three years has not brought any of the changes that must occur in this nation. I dedicate this sermon to the memory of the 4 students who were killed in Oxford, Michigan last week and to all of those who were wounded and to the families and close friends of all who were affected by this terrible tragedy. When will we learn?


Rabbi Robert Dobrusin

And so, we begin the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus.

The first half of the book contains, in so many ways, too much information about a tradition whose time passed centuries ago. One might ask: why do we need so much detail about the sacrificial tradition? 

It is a legitimate question. Even though so many of our traditions have their roots in the sacrificial system: the Ner Tamid -the Eternal light- the Musaf service, the shankbone on the Seder plate just to name a few, we still don’t seem to need to read all these details.

And yet, we read them because they are part of our Torah and, in fact, despite the archaic details, the book holds a unique place in our tradition. It is well known that from Talmudic times through to today in some circles that young children began the study of Torah with the book of Leviticus. They didn’t start from Bereshit, from creation, but from Vayikra, from Leviticus.


One Talmudic rabbi offers an answer. Rav Assi said: “Surely children begin with Vayikra because children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, therefore let the young children come in purity to study purity.”

On a simplest level, I understand Rav Assi as saying that there is a childlike element to the sacrificial system which children can best understand: “I will give you something if you will be my friend”. 

But, many understand him as saying something deeper. I read a quotation online attributed to Rabbi Ari Israel who wrote: “Youth, who represent our past, present and future are first taught the book of purity and spirituality. Children, filled with optimism, can readily look at the world with hope. They start out sans any preconceived biases. God is pure. Children are pure. Leviticus is pure. Let them all find each other and holiness can spring forth.”

And so, according to this interpretation, the children understand more than the adults because, in their naïve optimism, they can see further or more deeply. 

This is a beautiful thought. It is truly beautiful.

I don’t know when Rabbi Israel wrote this but I assume it was not recently.

I say that because our children today are not filled with optimism. They have seen too much in their young lives. They have read too many stories. They have seen too many news reports. They are not naïve. They know quite a bit and they don’t have confidence that their parents and grandparents, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how much we love them, have done enough to stem the horrible tide that has taken the lives of so many of their contemporaries. 

And so, they closed their books and took to the street to say to us that their time of innocence and hope has been threatened and that they must be the ones to move our nation to open a new book. We must open a book which is not filled with violence, one which tells us to open our eyes to suffering and make wise decisions now, a book which seeks holiness and wholeness in a nation by doing all we can to putting an end to the horrendous plague of gun violence. 

And, they have something to say to all of us. 

Far from being naïve, these young people are saying to each and every one of us, that we are the naïve ones. We have sacrificed our moral compass to political expediency. We are guilty of allowing endless political squabbles focusing on technicalities to drag on interminably while more die.

I know the problem is too big to solve with good will alone. I know the epidemic won’t be stopped with catchy slogans or symbolic actions. 

But, the young people know that too.

They know that walking out of school won’t solve the problem. But, they are telling us all loudly and clearly that, for their sakes, in memory of the victims and in the name of everyone whose future lies ahead: Dayenu. It’s enough. It’s time to act.

It is long since time to open that new book. And, far from telling our children to get out the way, it is time to let our children lead us to do what we, the “responsible” ones, need to do.

I’d like to ask all the young people here who walked out of class this past Wednesday and those who couldn’t do so but supported those who did to stand up so that we can recognize you and thank you. (A spontaneous burst of applause from the congregation as many middle school and high school students stood up.)

Thank God, you’ll be voting in a few short years. 

More than saying thank you, we promise you to your face that we respect you, we hear you and we will act.

May you go from strength to strength and teach us what we must learn. 

The Profession I Didn’t Choose

On Tuesday evening, my beloved Boston Red Sox will meet the New York Yankees in a one game playoff to determine which team advances to the American League Division series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Red Sox and the Yankees have a long standing rivalry, dominated for decades (almost a century) by the Yankees but in the 21st century, the Sox have the advantage of four World Series Championships to the Yankees’ one.

In tribute to my love of the Sox and of baseball in general and in response to a comment made by a Facebook friend that I could be a baseball announcer, I am posting this sermon I delivered many years ago. It is a frank appraisal of my “experience” as a baseball announcer and my satisfaction that I had made a better career choice.



This past week, I fulfilled one of my lifelong ambitions. 

It wasn’t quite for real but it was the next best thing. 

On Thursday night, I was able to sit in a booth on the top level of Tiger Stadium, put on a headset, watch a monitor and simulate a broadcast of one inning of a game between the Tigers and the Red Sox as part of the “Fantasy Play By Play” promotion. Despite the fact that the inning that I chose to broadcast, the third inning, was the quickest, least interesting of a long and otherwise interesting ball game, I felt, for those ten minutes like I was where I was always supposed to be. 

As I sat high atop the stadium and barely resisted all inclinations to lock myself in for the duration of the season, a serious thought came to mind. I thought about one element that connects baseball to this week’s parasha, to Judaism in general and to myself. 

Baseball is a game of rituals. These rituals are found on two different levels. First, there is the ritual involved with the fans. In no other game or pastime is there such a unifying sense that you are participants, doing what you are supposed to do. You have to stand up for the seventh inning stretch. You have to eat hot dogs, unless thankfully spared by the laws of kashrut. You have to at least make a passing attempt to keep score in the program. You must. There is no choice. 

But, baseball’s more enduring ritual is the ritual on the field. Each game, in essence, is exactly the same: a very carefully structured, balanced, regulated progress of 3 strikes, 3 outs, 3 times 3 innings, 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to the plate and 90 feet between the bases. As my teacher in such matters, the late Bart Giamatti wrote: “Baseball is a game of symmetrical demands in a symmetrical setting which encourage both passion and precision.”

Giamatti expressed the idea that because of baseball’s ritual precision, the players were encouraged to act passionately: to find the meaning in the precision by creating within the tight boundaries of the ballpark, new responses to the immutable structures of the game. 

As I sat on top of the stadium Thursday evening, I realized that one of the responsibilities of the announcers is to express the passion and allow others to feel like they were there and involved in the passionate ritual.

Before I listened to the tape of my broadcast, I knew I had failed miserably.

I only spoke. I knew what I was feeling but I wasn’t passing it along. If someone had read the script of my performance, it wouldn’t have seemed too bad. But, I just didn’t pass along the emotion along with the ritual. 

What a challenge it is. It is what separates Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully and Harry Carey and, my favorite baseball announcer, Ned Martin, from all the rest.

And, it is also the ultimate challenge for those who engage in public Jewish ritual.

We have chosen as a people to believe that service to God needs to be repetitive in form, consistent, predictable. Our prayers and rituals mean more than the sum of the meanings of each individual word, that the structures are worth keeping merely because they have been kept for so long and because their roots are in our experience of the divine.

But, somewhere, the passion must come through. 

This morning, we read the section of the book of Numbers which contains birkat kohanim, the blessing of the priests which is such an important part of our tradition. 

Let me share with you two brief comments on this blessing. 

First: the priestly blessing is introduced with the words; koh tivarachu, thus you should bless the people of Israel. The commentaries offer many explanations to the word: thus. Each of these teachings indicates that the blessing had to be said in a particular way: aloud, in Hebrew, standing, with arms outstretched. The blessing was not just the words but also all that went along with the words. 

But Jewish tradition added an element to this ritual. It was not enough that this be a beautiful grouping of three phrases, each with a similar cadence, 3 words, 5 words, 7 words; the structure was not enough, even if we add the different elements which were required: aloud, standing etc. 

When the priests blessed the people, they preceded the blessing with another blessing: that God had commanded them to bless the people in love. It was not enough that they say the words and perform the rituals. They had to do it with love. 

I am quite sure that, on occasion, priests said this blessing without that sense of love. But, it is the potential that ritual has to be infused with love which keeps it alive. It is, in our tradition, the infusing of symmetrical structures with subjective emotion that brings about true worship.

I couldn’t pass that along the other night at the ballpark. No matter how much I love the game, I couldn’t quite pass it along the way I could while sitting in front of the TV or in the stands watching with friends. There the passion came through but not in the broadcasts booth.

My experience taught me that what a rabbi does is not so different from the announcer. It is the rabbi’s role to make sure that those who aren’t on the field feel the passion involved in Jewish ritual by explaining, elucidating and commenting, orchestrating and coordinating. No rabbi succeeds in those tasks all of the time. But, it is the potential to do so that keeps us trying. 

Thursday night, I learned that there are similarities between the two respectable professions: baseball announcer and rabbi. 

I also learned the most important thing: no matter what my dreams might be, I’d rather be here. 


I will begin this morning with a phrase from the Rosh Hashana musaf service.      

היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים.   

This day, all the creatures of the universe stand in judgment before You, O God.              

This core statement of traditional High Holy Day theology is one which may not reflect our conception of God during the rest of the year; but we are drawn to it when the High Holidays arrive.

The Mishna teaches that we pass before God on these days as b’nai maron, which is explained by many, including the author of U’ntaneh Tokef, as passing before God as sheep before the shepherd. But, in the Talmud, Resh Lakish has a different explanation of these words. He teaches that the residents of a mountainous village called Maron, b’nai Maron, reached their village by climbing up a path so narrow that they had to walk single file. So, we pass before God as individuals, walking alone, singled out. The rest of the world fades away in the background as God focuses on each of us individually and we have God’s undivided attention as each of us stands in judgment. 

On the High Holy Days, we should find at least one moment when we truly feel that we are standing on a narrow path alone in the presence of God, as the mortal, fallible and yet grand individual that each of us is. 

This concept is, I believe, the essence of the High Holy Days.

As we think about this concept, we should quickly dismiss the question: how God could possibly attend to each of almost 8 billion human beings as individuals at the same time. Of course, time and space in that sense mean nothing to God so there is no reason God couldn’t focus on 8 billion people individually. We shouldn’t ruin this beautiful idea by being rational.

So, it wouldn’t matter if there were twice or hundreds of times or thousands of times as many souls to confront individually, God could handle it. 

And perhaps there are.

Maybe there are more souls to judge than those 8 billion.

Right here, some of you might be thinking that I am going to talk about animals again. While I do believe that animals have souls in one sense or the other, that’s not my subject today. 

I’m thinking in another direction.

You might say that I’m thinking vertically, not horizontally.

This morning, I would like to share some thoughts on a book published this year that I just read for the third time- It’s great to be retired. It is a fascinating book which I would love to discuss with those of you interested at some point after the holidays. I can’t do the book or the subject justice within this time frame. I’ll try to whet your appetite though. 

The book was written by Avi Loeb, professor of Science and former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University.  

The title of the book is simple enough, but it is the subtitle which will grab your attention. The book is entitled: Extraterrestrial and the subtitle is: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.

Professor Loeb believes that we may very well have witnessed that sign. 

Let me assure you that he has not seen little green people. He hasn’t taught musical scales on top of Devil’s Tower or come across that tall man carrying a book entitled To Serve Man. He hasn’t climbed into a machine to go through a wormhole in the time space continuum. The sign he refers to is more subtle: an object hurtling through our solar system which was sighted by astronomers in a Hawaiian observatory in 2017 and given the name ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “scout”. 

Professor Loeb explains that ‘Oumuamua wavered from the path of an object influenced only by gravity of the sun and that it showed no evidence of gas or debris following it which would affect its movement. He writes that the most reasonable  explanation given the evidence is that it is an artificial object with its own system of propulsion, the product of intelligent beings somewhere out there. 

Of course, not everyone agrees with him. That is an understatement. 

But the science behind his hypothesis, and he is careful to call it a hypothesis, is fascinating. The book solidified my belief that such extraterrestrial intelligence does exist and that we should continue to search for it to the extent possible.

Professor Loeb brings up many critical ideas. I will discuss three of those ideas that I believe are particularly meaningful during these Days of Awe.

First, while Loeb says: “I put my faith and hope in science” and certainly I absolutely agree that trust in science is crucial especially in this era of COVID, he is highly critical of the way in which the scientific establishment, by and large, refuses to take his hypothesis seriously. He says it is evidence of the arrogance of scientists who will not consider ideas which don’t fit into their prior assumptions or haven’t been proven conclusively. Loeb writes that the failure of scientists to consider theories that are not immediately verifiable is preventing many from considering this possibility and he sees this as a missed opportunity. I will quickly add that I feel the same way when scientists dismiss some experiences which are referred to as “paranormal”. I think many deserve strong scientific consideration and investigation. 

We must acknowledge that there is mystery in creation that we have yet to completely understand. 

Professor Loeb is passionate about this perspective and writes with language which takes on a spiritual character, even as he states that he is “secular”. His personal musings about his youth in Israel and his reflections on seashells and galaxies clearly display an awe with which he sees the universe and a desire to understand our place in it.

He expresses ideas which could be found in any number of rabbis’ High Holy Day sermons, including certainly my own. For example, he writes: “We are here for a short time and consequently we had better not fake our actions. Let us stay honest, authentic, and ambitious. Let our limitations, very much including the limited time we are each given, encourage humility.” Humility can lead us to acknowledging that this world is full of mysteries and possibilities which enhance our respect for creation. 

Secondly, a thought about our present and our future, certainly on our minds on the High Holy Days. 

Loeb refers to the theologian Blaise Pascal who famously stated that human beings wager with their lives on whether God exists or not. Pascal argued that it is better to live our lives as though God existed. If we are wrong, all it cost us was a few pleasures. If we are right, we are saved from eternal punishment.

Similarly, Loeb says, we should bet our future on the idea that ‘Oumuamua is extraterrestrial technology. 

Professor Loeb stresses how critical it is that we recognize “the promise of betting right, of exploring out among the stars for the life we expect to find there: betting wrong and planning too little and too late could hasten our extinction.”

But, why now? With all the dangers and challenges we face in the world, why even consider this possibility now? In this context, Loeb refers to economist Robin Hanson who coined the term “filter” to refer the age when a civilization advances technologically to the point where it can achieve great things but can also self-destruct.

The lessons we would learn and the discoveries we could make would justify investment both with resources and with our creative energy. We might discover something which would enable us to surmount this “filter” in one way or another and help the prospects for our survival. That is quite an argument and one which, again, you need to read in more detail to completely appreciate.

Finally, he addresses the questions which are often raised in connection with the issue of extraterrestrial intelligence. How would religion deal with this discovery? What would it mean to those of us who believe in God of creation and of human beings created in God’s image? As we might say: Is it good for the Jews? 

Professor Loeb reminds us that at different times, both religion and science have bolstered arrogance of humility. Frequently, both encourage their practitioners to put on blinders restricting their thoughts, teaching that we have all the answers we need in front of us.

But he notes that occasionally both disciplines have encouraged people to shed their blinders and open themselves up to the new, the controversial, the unexpected. 

He is correct. But, I can say with respect to religion,  it needs to happen more often. 

So, how do I see this from my perspective as a rabbi?

I believe that there is nothing in traditional Jewish faith that would in any way be threatened by assuming or even proving the presence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Perhaps some of our texts even pre-suppose this reality. After all, the word for universe in the Machzor text I quoted before, is olamim, plural of the word olam, world. Think about that. 

If we believe that God is limitless in creative power, then the presence of other beings who believe in whatever way they might that they are created in the image something greater than they themselves, who stand on narrow paths looking up to the heavens in awe in no way invalidates our uniqueness, as individuals of as a species, in God’s eyes. 

This entire question is not a threat to our faith. And I will take this one step further. I think this search is vital and can be extraordinarily meaningful on a spiritual level.

Taking the leap of faith that those other beings exist and, in fact, searching for them, would keep us appropriately humble, believing that there might be others created in God’s image. It would also widen our vision to more deeply acknowledge the wonders of the universe. 

Two of my favorite movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact are about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and I often use them as metaphors for the searches we are all on in our spiritual lives. But these are science fiction and while I find them fascinating and thought provoking, I do not expect human beings to experience extraterrestrial intelligence in the way these movies propose.

However, I can readily accept the idea that an object hurtling through our solar system came from another type of intelligent life. I can readily accept it especially if accepting it could bring human beings together to contemplate and better understand who we are and how we connect with the universe and our creator. 

After all, isn’t that the message of the High Holy Days?

It is a fantastic, courageous book.

If you’re interested in continuing the discussion, I’m ready any time. 


This is the fourth and final posting of original prayers which I shared with the Congregation on the first night of Rosh Hashana. This prayer, from 2002, followed a d’var Torah in which I commented on a line from the Shabbat morning service: Yismach Moshe B’Matnat Helko.

The words are translated: “Moses rejoiced with the gift of his heritage”. But, the word yismach is actually a future tense verb so we would more accurately read this as: “Moses will rejoice”.

The paragraph which follows this line is: “Veshamru B’nai Yisrael et HaShabbat”, a verse from the Torah which is usually translated: “The people of Israel should keep the Sabbath”. But, I suggested we translate it as: “The people of Israel will keep the Sabbath”. Perhaps this is a promise from God to Moses that in fact the people would observe the commandments that he had delivered to the people and that this made Moses happy in that he rejoiced in the fact that his sacred work would be rewarded.

That led me to think of what it is that we could do that would make different figures from Jewish history rejoice. Here is the prayer that I wrote:

As we have made Moses rejoice by our gathering tonight, may we continue to make our ancestors rejoice through our actions in the coming year.

May Aaron, who taught us to seek peace and pursue it, rejoices as we seek and pursue peace in our homes, in our community, in our nation and in our world.

May Miriam, who taught us to sing a joyous song to God, rejoice as we find new ways to express our joy at being alive and our thanks to our creator.

May Joshua, who taught us to be strong and courageous, rejoice as we find renewed strength and courage to face the difficulties of life in the year ahead.

May Esther, who taught us to always be prepared to step out from behind whatever masks we may wear and remember our responsibility to our people, rejoice as we and our children proudly identify with our Jewish community and our Jewish people. (2021 note: this does not apply to COVID masks, please continue to wear them.)

May Rabbi Akiva, who taught us that we are never too old to begin to learn, rejoice as more and more of us take on the commitments of serious Jewish learning at whatever stage in life we are.

May Hillel, who taught us to be gentle and flexible in our efforts to do God’s will, rejoice as we realize that strength and loyalty to our people is not an excuse for belligerence and arrogance.

May Maimonides, who taught us that the middle way is the proper way, rejoice as we find a way to avoid extremes and seek moderation in our daily lives.

May the Ba’al Shem Tov, who taught us to find mystery and ecstasy in our daily life, rejoice as we rise above the every day to find beauty and holiness in our world.

And, may all of those who lived and died so that we might be here tonight, rejoice in the commitments we have made to return again and again throughout this year.

May God bless us all of us together with a year of life, peace, health and rejoicing.

Best wishes to all for a Shana Tova u’mituka: A sweet, healthy, year.