Monthly Archives: September 2017

Yom Kippur 5778: Uplifting Our Lip Service

[This is not my YK sermon, but a message to cantorial and rabbinical students]

The English put-down of “giving lip-service” rings hollow to Jewish ears. Sure, if your actions don’t match your words, there’s a problem, but words are not mere markers for action. Often enough, they themselves are actions. We serve God through worship; we serve one another through kind expressions, and by avoiding hurtful and deceitful expressions. Hosea encourages Israel to return to God by “taking with you words” and “paying with your lips in place of [sacrificial] bulls.” This indicates that what God requires is precisely lip-service. If only that were easily accomplished!

The prayer Kol Nidre reflects our insecurity about flaws in our verbal output, which is a welcome acknowledgement of the challenge before us. Still, often our liturgists seem intent on twisting our tongues. For example, putting the words ענו and ענן in the same paragraph causes many a prayer leader to stumble. The words look almost identical, but in sound (anAV/anAN) and meaning (humble/cloud) they are completely distinct. I have heard many a student mix them up, and then the introduction of the word for sin, עון (aVON) just a few lines later adds to the confusion. Some prayer leaders mispronounce this as “OWN” and the longer version, עונותינו (aVONateinu) as ownateinu. If these three words didn’t look so similar, perhaps fewer of us would stumble upon them. Slowing down to consider what they mean is the best way to get them right. What is going on with the humble guy in the clouds, and what’s he got to do with our sins? Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah 5778: Just Mercy

The pick-up truck was parked outside a prison in rural Alabama. It was festooned with Confederate flags and bigoted bumper stickers; there was a shotgun in a rack. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer, fresh out of Harvard Law School, coming to visit a new client imprisoned on death row there. He noticed the truck and gave it a look before heading inside. As an African American in Alabama, Stevenson had good reason to worry about that truck, and his concerns were magnified when he met its owner—the very guard who greeted him at the prison gate. He had a Confederate flag tattooed to his arm, and he wasn’t smiling at Stevenson. The guard treated the young lawyer roughly—strip searching him and making him sign the visitor logbook, both against the established protocol for attorneys. The guard grabbed Bryan’s arm and told him that it was his truck, his prison, and his rules that would govern their visit.

Still, Bryan Stevenson persisted, because he was deeply motivated to help some of the most desperate people in our country—death row prisoners. He tells this and other stories in his powerful book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. We learn how Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, and how with great effort he exonerated Walter McMillian, an innocent man who spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Continue reading

Ki Tavo 5777: Blessed in Both Directions

Sometimes translations can’t help but make a mess of the original. A prime example is Deuteronomy 28:6, which in Hebrew consists of six poetic words: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ. JPS requires 15 words to render this in English, “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.” Other translations are not much shorter, but they offer a more satisfying, “when you come in,” and “when you go out” (RSV, Alter). Everett Fox, as usual, tries to capture the sound of the Hebrew, but his rendition is still a mouthful: “Blessed be you, in your coming-in, blessed be you, in your going-out.” One challenge for translators is that English lacks the pronominal suffixes and prefix prepositions that allow Hebrew to be so compact.

Another challenge is that the original text is both obvious and opaque. We don’t really know if the Torah intends a simple blessing for arriving home and leaving again, which would basically repeat v.3, “blessed in the city, blessed in the field,” or if the Torah is implying something more elaborate. The phrase could be a merism, that is, an expression which encompasses all possibilities. Hence, “you will be blessed everywhere.” Medieval commentaries consider various options, associating these arrivals and departures either with commerce (looking back to vs. 4-5) or battle (Hizkuni, looking ahead to v. 7), or both. Good for the medieval commentators for offering such contextual readings! (I also like the dressed-up Aramaic Targum Yonatan, which offers, “Blessed are you when you come home to the study hall, and blessed too when you go out to the marketplace”—the rabbinic fantasy life). Continue reading