The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Shabbat on the Slopes

Just yesterday, we had our very first "Shabbat on the Slopes." About 40 of us met on Snowmass, outside Gwyn's High Alpine, at 12:30 pm for a short service. We began by singing Mah Tovu, a text spoken by Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet who was asked to curse the Israelites, but who instead blessed them. He looks down from a mountaintop and is overtaken by the beauty of their tents below. How well we could relate when marveling at the views from Snowmass! We then sang the words "Elohai n'shama shenatata bi, t'horah hi," my God the soul you have given me is pure. The word n'shama can mean "soul" and also "breath" and as we sang, we breathed in the crisp mountain air. Somehow, singing these prayers together on the mountain made me appreciate the whole day of skiing in a new way.

After skiing for a few hours, about 25 of us met up at The Sweet Life at the Snowmass Base Village at 3:15 pm for a brief havdalah ceremony to celebrate the end of Shabbat. We all talked about what we're looking forward to in the next week -- most people have visitors in town and are excited to spend time with them!

If you made it to our first Shabbat on the Slopes, thanks for coming! If you didn't make it, we hope to see you at the next one. We will be having services on all the mountains (rotating locations) twice a month starting in January and going through April. Stay tuned for details!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Help Still Needed: Carmel Fire Aftermath

Now that the fire has stopped raging in the North of Israel, damage reports have come in and we can step back and see what's still needed.  Take a look at the photos and facts in these articles, and please step up and give if you haven't already.  Reports indicate the damage is in the 2 billion shekel range, with more than 10,000 acres of forest destroyed, and Israel still needs our help.

There are two easy ways to give:

  1. Send a check to: UJA Israel Fire Disaster Relief Fund
    PO Box 8590, Aspen, CO 81612
    or to donate by credit card, please call or fax 970.704.1827
    or email
  2. The Union for Reform Judaism has an emergency fund setup.
    Click here to donate online.

Thank you for your consideration.

• Boston Globe's "The Big Picture", striking photos of the fire and aftermath, including a NASA image where the smoke is visible from space
• Haaretz: Fire Damage to cost NIS 2 billion
• Haaretz: Carmel residents return to see aftermath of fire
• Op-ed: Stow the insecurity on catastrophe assistance

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chanukah YouTube Favorites

Another Chanukah has passed, and we've seen some great cultural output.  Below are two great music videos that came out of this Chanukah season, as well as an older (but still great!) clip from the Colbert Christmas Special, with Jon Stewart, about Chanukah.  Enjoy! (And please comment with links to your favorite Chanukah videos!)

Matisyahu does it again

YU's a cappella group mixing it up

Classic moment from the Colbert Christmas Special

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

On November 21st, we celebrated Thanksgiving together with the Aspen Chapel community with an interfaith service.   We sang, shared stories, and prayed for peace together.  An interfaith choir provided beautiful music, led by Cantor Rollin and Sarah Stevens, along with Dan Sheridan.  Pastor Gregg Anderson and I spoke. You can watch the entire service online!

Aspen Chapel Christian-Jewish Thanksgiving Service Nov. 2010 from aspen chapel on Vimeo.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembering Mort Heller

Morton Alvin Heller, longtime Aspen resident, died last week at his home, surrounded by family. Read the obituary here.  Yesterday Rollin and I had the honor of conducting the funeral for this beloved pillar of the Aspen community, whom we had barely gotten to know.  My eulogy is below, along with two poems that were read during the memorial service.  Rollin also sang "Fly Me to the Moon," one of Mort's favorite songs, which he used to sing to his grandchildren as "ski me to the moon..."  Although we didn't record it, you can enjoy a version of the song by clicking here.
זכרון צדיק לברכה, zichron tzadik liv'rachah
may the memory of this righteous man be a blessing in our lives.

Eulogy for Morton Alvin Heller (1920-2010)
Rabbi David Segal
November 28, 2010

   Niv-char shem mei-osher rav, mi-kesef u-mi-zahav chen tov.
   A good name is more desirable than great wealth,
   and good grace is better than silver and gold.
          ~ Proverbs 22:1

Morton Alvin Heller knew the value of a good name.  The presence of all of you here today attests to that.  The sparkle in the eye of everyone sharing a memory of Mort attests to that.  This community’s love and respect for Mort and his family attest to that.

Others will speak who knew Mort far better and longer than I.  When Rollin and I arrived in Aspen, Lita and Mort extended an open hand of welcome to us.  This, I now know, was a glimpse into the kind of man Mort was, and the kind of presence he and Lita were together.

As I sat with Mort’s family and dearest friends yesterday evening, they brought this man to life before my eyes.  The impression their stories made on me -- a shadow, I know, of the fullness of Mort’s life -- is what I want to share with you today.

They all spoke of Mort as a wonderful, genuine man.  That his most endearing quality was that he was so non-judgmental.  Friends observed that he never said a negative word, got angry, or swore.  Although Lita added, “If anybody could have brought the temper out of him, I could!”

Everyone spoke of Mort as sweet and mild.  A story was told of a time when Lita and Mort were in the car, with all the kids in the back, stopped at a red light.  When it turned green, and Mort didn’t step on the gas, Lita said, “It’s not going to get any greener.”  To which Mort replied, “Maybe if we wait a while.”

As a father, Mort earned himself a good name.  Mort and Lita’s children spoke of him as a caring and wise parent.  Of all of Lita’s suitors, they said, Mort was the only one who connected with her children.  He was very hands-on, sharing with them his love of all the sports in which he was an accomplished athlete.  But he never tried to take over or boss them around -- he was there when they needed him.  Lita’s children saw and appreciated how great he was for their mother, how happy he made her.  As Sam put it, “Mort was the Gold Standard of a stepfather.”

As a grandfather, Mort earned himself a good name.  His grandchildren spoke fondly of their time with Grandpa Morty.  Ben told of his first summer job, at the age of 12, delivering local mail on rollerblades for Grandpa Morty’s bank.  Ben went on to say that, as gregarious and generous as Morty was, there was something deeper in this -- it was not frivolous work given to a grandson, but a lesson in the value of a day’s work, and in responsibility.

Elizabeth remembered that Grandpa Morty had terrible handwriting, so bad that she couldn’t read it.  But while she was at summer camp, he wrote her a letter every day -- though she needed her mother to decipher them!  Rachael spoke of Grandpa Morty as full of surprises, always excited to see her, and always able to make her feel at home.  And the story was told of Cyrus, who was asked in school at age 7 who his best friend was.  He replied, “Grandpa Morty!”  Such was the care Mort had for his family, and the affect he had on those he loved.

As a friend, Mort earned a good name.  His business partners and colleagues rarely saw a man with more integrity and kindness.  He was trustworthy and trusting, and invested in the success of others.  He was, as one friend described, a man of “strong opinions that he voiced in a mild way.”  And his lifelong friendships are a testament to Mort’s loyalty.

As a lover of life, Mort made a name for himself.  It was said that Mort achieved the “perfect balance between work and play.”  Not only was Mort good at sports, but he was a good sport.  At an Aspen ballet performance by an African dance group, they brought Mort on stage to dance.  By all reports, he was fabulous -- and he didn’t get off the stage!  And then at a performance of the musical Hair, where the actors pull an audience member from their seat into the action, they sat on Morty’s lap, kissed his bald head, and brought him up to dance!  And yet again, at a Flamenco performance at the Greek Theater, Mort couldn’t sit still.  He was shaking the entire row with his rhythmic movements.  And to top it all off, after the show, in the parking lot he jumped onto a car and started dancing, Flamenco-style!  As Robin said, “We never had cringe moments with Dad, as silly as he was.”

Even in illness and infirmity, Mort was worthy of his good name.  His spirit did not weaken in the later stages of his life, and he continued to embrace those people and pursuits that brought him joy.  He never complained, facing weakness with his characteristic gentleness and grace.  In the words of Harlan, who was by Mort’s side for 12 years, “Mort was the humblest and most appreciative man I ever met.  When we try to be better people, we should ask ourselves, What would Mort do? and try to be more like him.”

As a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, friend -- as a man -- Mort Heller earned his good name.  That name, that legacy, more precious than wealth, lives on.

In closing, a poem by the Hebrew poet Zelda:

“Each of Us Has A Name”
By Zelda, translated by Marcia Lee Falk

Each of us has a name

given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name

given by our stature
and our smile

and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name

given by the mountains

and given by our walls

Each of us has a name

given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name

given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name

given by the sea

and given by
our death.
by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; 
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 
But make allowance for their doubting too; 
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, 
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies, 
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating, 
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master; 
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim; 
If you can meet with triumph and disaster 
And treat those two imposters just the same; 
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken 
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, 
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, 
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings 
And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn long after they are gone, 
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch; 
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; 
If all men count with you, but none too much; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run - 
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, 
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn,
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
It can be said with certainty that Mort Heller was not one who simply visited this world: he embraced life and left a lasting impression.  He will be missed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day in Aspen

This morning I had the honor of offering the invocation and benediction during Aspen's Veterans Day commemoration.  After the presentation of the colors and a memorial wreath, Colonel Dick Merritt and Dan Glidden led the community in the Pledge of Allegiance, words of welcome, and the lighting of a memorial candle.  Then they invited me to give the invocation, and here's what I said:

Good morning. It's an honor for me to be here with you today.
The Abraham of the Bible -- the father of three faiths -- was, at times, a man of war.  He was called by God to bring a new way of life to the world.  In the service of that call, he left his home and family, journeyed to an unfamiliar land, and there stepped into the role of general to battle hostile forces threatening what was dear to him (Gen. 14).  
But Abraham never lost sight of his calling, the transcendent purpose of his wandering and warring.  That calling had been proclaimed by God: “You shall be a blessing... And all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2-3).
In our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln, too, became a man of war.  He was called and sworn to protect this Union, its constitution, and the universal freedom promised in its Declaration of Independence.  He despised war, but loved the union more.1  Liberty and Peace were his higher purpose; war, the unfortunate instrument to protect those ideals and the nation whose soul they breathe into life.  So it has been throughout the history of our country, when men and women have stepped forward to serve.
In that spirit, we honor and celebrate you, our veterans, today.  As we give thanks for your service and sacrifice, let us always remember:
in your courage in combat, we see your commitment to peace; 
in your bravery in battle, we sense your transcendent purpose:
to be a blessing to your families, to our nation, and to the world.
After I spoke, Dick Merritt expressed that I was their chaplain for the day, and he spoke about the proud history of chaplains in the military. He told a story about a military ship that was sinking, and the four chaplains who gave up their life preservers -- and therefore, their lives -- so that four more troops could be saved.  They were three pastors and a rabbi, a reminder that all faiths are joined in support of our country.  Then a list was read of Aspen soldiers killed in Action, and Tom Buesch read a moving poem by a young airman (I will try to obtain a copy to post here).  Jeannie Walla led us in the national anthem, and then all veterans present were called forward in order of the wars in which they served.  It was an emotional sight, to see so many of different ages and life experiences who had served our country.  Several veterans gave impromptu remarks about memories of the war, what their service means to them, and fellow soldiers lost along the way.

Finally, I was asked to offer the benediction:
Today we have celebrated, commemorated, and reflected.  In closing, I offer a blessing inspired by the ancient words of the Torah:
May God bless and keep our veterans, and those they love and protect.
May God’s face shine upon them and be gracious to them.
May God’s countenance be lifted up to us all, and grant us that most precious of gifts, peace.
And together let us say, Amen.
I am grateful that I took the time out of my day today to be reminded of the debt we owe all those who serve in the military.  To all our veterans: Thank you.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Relational Community: the changing American religious landscape

I recently came across these two articles about religion in America and thought they were worth sharing.

First, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote two weeks ago, in the wake of several studies and articles on religious Americans, that "Media Images of Religious Americans [are] Elitist, Condescending, and Wrong."  I recommend the full post, but I'll just highlight a few key points that relate to our Jewish world here in the Roaring Fork Valley:
Jews have always prescribed two paths to tradition: the path of the mind and the path of the heart. And both are essential to religious well-being...
How should we judge religion? We should judge it by what people know, but just as importantly, by what they do. And we should see religious belief, for all who are inclined to embrace it, as a virtue and a blessing. On this basis, there is no room for doubt: religion is a great asset for our country, one of those things that makes America great.
I sincerely hope that we continue to cultivate that kind of religious outlook in our community.  As Rabbi Hillel said 2,000 years ago, when asked to summarize the Torah "on one foot": Do not do to others what is hateful to you. The rest is commentary: go and learn it. 

Doing AND learning, acting AND knowing: these are both essential to being an authentic Jew.

Second, I highly recommend this fascinating article about what's really going on within American religious communities.  Entitled "Changing Faiths", the article's tagline reminds us that religious Americans are "far more diverse, tolerant, and compassionate than the image of an evangelist upsurge would suggest."
Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren
of Saddleback Church,
author of The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church
The article is a book review about Robert Putnam and David Campbell's new American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.  (You may remember Putnam from his earlier bestseller, Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community.)  What's most interesting to me about this article -- and it's integrally related to Putnam's earlier research -- is the implications for what makes for a vibrant religious community.  In the end, it's more about Cheers than about belief in God, Torah, or the soul, for example.  People want to go "where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came!"  In the author's words:
What makes religious folks collect clothes for the poor, donate to the United Way, and attend town meetings is not just theology or exhortations by the clergy; it is involvement in the life of the congregation, having family and friends there, talking about religion with them, and participating in small groups. "Devout people who sit alone in the pews are not much more neighborly than people who don't go to church at all," they find. "Statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of a congregation (perhaps a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone."
The point is, religious communities are strongest when they are relational communities.  Where people know each other's stories; where they care about what keeps their neighbors up at night, and they share  their hopes and dreams and help each other achieve them.  The particulars of belief and practice are, as Hillel said, commentary: go and learn them, and talk about them together.  But what counts most is whether we are connected to each other, whether we can look each other in the eyes, face to face, and say: I share your joy, I know your pain.  That's the foundation on which we can build a spiritually and morally fulfilling congregation that will bring light to our lives and to the world.  That's what will make us a true community.

We need your help as we continue to rethink how we can build such a relational community in Aspen and the Valley.  Won't you join us?

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Write for yourself this song..." (Deut. 31:19)

"The Sofer is here, the Sofer is here!" read our ad in the Aspen Times this past summer.  Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski, a rabbi and sofer (specialized Torah scribe) in Philadelphia, came to Aspen for four days to restore and teach our community about two newly acquired Torah scrolls that were in need of some repair. We also put new Eitz Chayim (the wooden Torah rollers/handles) on our older scrolls, and had them restored as well.  Overall, it was a great experience for all ages to see this unique art of Torah scribing up close and personal.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in writing and restoring a Torah!  Actually, it's going to be twice-in-a-lifetime: we're bringing the sofer back again during ski season, so more of our community will have the opportunity to participate. (For Torah dedication and sponsorship opportunities, please be in touch with Faith Leibell, 925-8245,

Here are 15 video highlights from the sofer's visit! (Scroll down; you may see some people you know!)

Sivan, Mel, and Joshua watch the sofer at work and lend a hand

These were custom-ordered from Philadelphia!

It really involves sewing - with a needle and thread made from cow sinew!

More sewing...

Sivan and Michael, hard at work

We had a great downvalley experience with the sofer, too!

Cantor Rollin demonstrated her Hebrew-English chanting. The sofer was pleasantly surprised :o]

Ross, Aiden, Josh, and Josie lend a hand

Marian's turn, our President!

Meg and Jake participate in the mitzvah

The Lansburgh family

The art of sofrut is really quite complicated...

Sonny and Gigi Durand

Alan Bush really got the hang of the sewing!

Cantor Rollin's turn, with some help from Nina

Monday, September 27, 2010

Songs and Sermons from Yom Kippur

Moadim l'simcha - Happy Sukkot -- and Happy Simchat Torah to all!

It was an honor to lead this community in worship and learning during Yom Kippur.  We hope the new year 5771 brings many blessings for you and your families.  As we did after Rosh Hashanah, we are posting songs and sermons from Yom Kippur.  Please see the descriptions and links below.

We hope to see you again soon.

בברכה / with blessing,
Rabbi David Segal & Cantor Rollin Simmons

Adonai Mah Adam (click to download)
   from the Yizkor (Memorial) Service
   composed by Pedro d'Aquino

God, what is man that You should care about him, mortal man, that You should think of him? (Psalm 144:4)
Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)
at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dusk it withers and dries up.  (Psalm 90:6)
You return man to dust; You decreed, “Return you mortals!” (Psalm 90:3)
Turn, O LORD! How long? Show mercy to Your servants.  (Psalm 90:13)
Give us joy for as long as You have afflicted us, for the years we have suffered misfortune  (Psalm 90:15)
Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.  (Psalm 90:12)
But God will redeem my life from the clutches of Sheol, for God will take me. Selah. (Psalm 49:16)
My body and mind fail; but God is the stay of my mind, my portion forever.  (Psalm 73:26)

From Dust to Dust (click to download) 

   from the Yom Kippur Morning Service   
   Composed by Cantor Rollin Simmons; Arranged by David Deschamps
   Text from High Holiday Liturgy, adapted from Kol Haneshama and M'tsudah Siddur

We begin from dust
we find our end in dust
so long as we live, we strive for bread
We begin from dust

Like vessels of clay we break
Like grass we wither
Like flowers we fade
Like shadows we pass
Like clouds, we drift away
We blow by like the wind.

Like dust we scatter
Like a dream, we vanish from sight.
But you, oh you...
Your reign is eternal, O God who lives and endures. 
Your reign is eternal, O God who lives and endures.



a word from Rabbi Segal:  I preached about two hot-button issues this Yom Kippur: Israel; and the Muslim center near Ground Zero.  I hope that my words will be received in the spirit in which I delivered them: as an invitation to conversation, and to an exchange of ideas and sources.  I expect and welcome different points of view, so I hope to hear from you to continue both conversations.
Click the sermon titles to download the PDFs.

• "Sacred Grounding": thoughts on the Cordoba House and Jewish responses to Islam in America

• "A Tale of Two Emails": about how we talk about Israel within the Jewish community, and how it's hurting us
       *click here for the handout from the afternoon discussion session about Israel

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Sermons and Song

Shanah tovah, everyone!  It was an honor for Rollin and me to lead the Aspen Jewish Congregation in prayer and reflection this Rosh Hashanah.  In some ways, this was our first major introduction to the community, and we have felt so embraced and welcomed.  We look forward to our worship together again on Yom Kippur.

Several of you asked us to post my sermons and Rollin's singing, so here they are (click the links to download the PDF and MP3 files):

  • Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon: "The More Things Change..."

  • Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon: "Offlining Toward Paradise"

  • Cantor Rollin singing Avinu Malkeinu

We hope your new year has started off with sweetness and blessing. May these Yamim Noraim / Days of Awe help you connect more deeply with your loved ones and with your best self.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Promises to Keep

Parashat Ki Teitzei • August 20, 2010
Aspen Jewish Congregation • Rabbi David Segal

[22] When you make make a vow to the Eternal your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Eternal your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; [23] whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. [24] You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Eternal your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:22-24)

Last week I happened to see a rerun of an episode of The Office.  In it, Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott had, 10 years before, sponsored a group of inner-city school kids, who became known as Scott’s Tots.  He promised them that he would pay for college if they graduated from high school.  This episode took place 10 years later, when the kids came to collect on his promise.  Needless to say, he couldn’t afford college tuition for an entire class.  Instead, he offered them each gifts:  “I know you all need laptops for college,” he said, “so here are laptop batteries for each of you...”

It got me thinking about this time of year, which is all about keeping promises, and what to do with promises we’ve broken.

The best known prayer of the High Holidays is Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre.  But we rarely stop to think about what it means.  Literally, the title means “all vows.”  And in fact, the text is an ancient Aramaic legal formula for a release from vows -- kind of like a release you sign before you do something living for another year, in this case.  There is some debate about whether it should absolve us of vows from the previous year, or from the subsequent year, but either way, it is not a beautiful, heart-wrenching prayer in its content, but rather a dry legal document.

Kol Nidre has a long and strange history.  I won’t go into all the details, but a few highlights are worth noting. For one thing, for centuries, Kol Nidre was a tool of Christian propagandists, who claimed it as proof that Jews aren’t trustworthy.  “Don’t do business with them,” would go the argument, “because they don’t keep their promises. It says it right here...” Fortunately, the world has changed enough that that's no longer the case -- and hardly anyone speaks Aramaic anymore, anyway, so they can't understand it!

There have even been attempts to remove Kol Nidre from our liturgy.  Mordecai Kaplan, a notable Conservative Rabbi of the early 20th century and the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism, tried to remove this prayer from the service at his New York City synagogue.  In his view, it was not modern enough to keep; it was inconsistent with the values and practices of the day.  In response, there was virtually a congregational rebellion.  People were just too attached to this prayer.  

For them -- as I believe it still is for us -- there was a deep connection to the music.  The haunting melody, the gravity of this time of year, the connection to tradition and the passing of time...all of these together make Kol Nidre a profoundly sacred moment, even for those who don’t usually use the word “sacred.”  We’re fortunate enough this year that we will hear Kol Nidre both on the cello and sung by our Cantor.

But in addition to the music -- which would be reason enough! -- I think there is another reason to keep Kol Nidre in our service.

The Torah’s laws about vows, which we just heard chanted, is pure; it’s an ideal of perfect behavior. But Kol Nidre reminds us: we live in the real world, where we go back on our word, where we lose faith.  Sometimes we do it willfully, and sometimes accidentally.  So we need Kol Nidre, not just to ask God to forgive us, but also to remind ourselves:
We must be more mindful of the vows that cross our lips, because we ARE ultimately accountable for them, and we must care for our souls in that regard.  AND we must also live in the real world, with other people.  We must acknowledge not only ours but other’s limitations and inevitable imperfections.

Although it’s not yet winter, a poem came to mind that expresses this idea.  I think it’s probably familiar to many of you:

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This time of year, we dwell in that space that Frost describes. Yom Kippur is, spiritually, the darkest Jewish evening of the year.  We retreat, reflect, turn inward.  We inhabit the silent solitude of the woods.

But in the end, we must move on.  We can’t stay in the woods forever. The shofar blast, like the horse’s harness bells in the poem, awakens us from our inwardness. We re-emerge into our world of obligations and relationships. It is messy, but it has the potential to be holy, too.

Every Yom Kippur, we turn inward, consulting the quiet darkness, and we recommit ourselves:
to keep our promises; 
to go our miles;
and, when it is our turn, ultimately, to sleep,
we will have left the world of our relationships and responsibilities better for our having left our own trail in the newly fallen snow.

Shabbat Shalom and an early Shanah Tovah.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Milk & Honey (and Oil...)

Shabbat Eikev • July 30, 2010

There's a story told of Moses on the mountain, looking out over the Promised Land, frustrated that he will only see it but not cross into it.  In his conversation with God, he said (picture Alan King, cigar in hand, telling this):
"God, how wonderful!  A land flowing with milk and honey -- wonderful!"
Then Moses continued,
"But God, how about maybe some oil?"

This type of joke, and others like it, has entered the Jewish consciousness.  Israel is called "a land flowing with milk and honey" 17 times in the Torah, but never a land of oil (ok, maybe olive oil).  Perhaps there's something here about the psychology of not appreciating a blessing.  Perhaps today, looking around, we can't help but see the wealth of some of Israel's neighbors, the resource richness.

This "resource envy" is misguided.  Consider that studies have shown that countries rich in oil and natural resources (e.g. minerals) -- think Middle East and Africa, especially -- tend to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and war, not to mention inequality and lack of democracy.  For further reading on this idea, check out The Paradox of Plenty by Terry Karl.

And there have been some recent examples.  When it became big news last month that Afghanistan is sitting on $1 trillion worth of mineral reserves, some commentators (including Jon Stewart) expressed their condolences to the war-torn country.  The sentiment went something like this: "Congratulations, Afghanistan: you're now assured centuries of conflict, greed, and instability."

Similarly, natural gas was discovered recently off the coast of Haifa.  Initially hailed as good news for Israel's economy, the excitement turned more dismal when Hizbollah claimed the rights to the resource deposit.  Journalists then began to speculate on another Israel-Lebanon war, this time over resource rights.

One economist (Paul Collier of Oxford University and the World Bank) has estimated that, in countries who depend solely or mostly on natural resources, the chance of civil war can be 20-40 times higher than in other countries.

This is know as the Resource Curse or the Paradox of Plenty.  The interesting thing about this idea is that it applies not just to countries and international politics -- but also to people, to us.

It's already old and tired to say that we live in a materialistic, consumer culture.  But how many of us have more shoes than we need?  More clothes than we actually wear?  Too many tchotchkes?  (And believe me, as someone who just moved last week, I am guilty of this myself. I am not immune!)

And the deeper, harder question is:
When we raise children immersed in this culture of amassing things, what are we teaching them?  What are they learning about the value of a dollar?  About the value of a day's work?  About plenty and poverty, and where they fit in in the world?  About what really matters in life?

Now, Judaism is not an ascetic religion.  We don't really have a monastic strand who rejects material possessions and all worldly wealth to live a life of poverty.  Judaism is not anti-wealth.  But it is against valuing substances over substance.  It is against -- to use our metaphor -- valuing oil over milk and honey.

Milk and honey are the antidote, precisely because they are not the most valuable resources, but rather the truest blessings in life.

Milk resonates with motherhood, nourishment, and love, as well as protection and empowerment.
Honey symbolizes sweetness, joy and celebration.  And it's worth noting that it's produced by bees only in community, reminding us about the nature of human fulfillment -- that we need to be in relationship.

Milk and honey are things without which we cannot live, without which we cannot be fully human.

Two final thoughts.

First, it might actually be a blessing in disguise that Israel has no oil.  It's had to rely on intellect, creativity, people power.  It has created cutting edge hi-tech; great music, film and arts experiences; and religious and spiritual flourishing.  Without oil reserves to rely on, but with plenty of milk and honey to go around, Israel found a better way.  The question is, how can we take a lesson from that success into our lives?  What can we learn about how human ingenuity and imagination flourish -- when we're forced to play outside (although in Aspen, I'm preaching to the choir!)? When we read a book?  When we spend time with a friend, or helping someone in need, rather than with our things?

Second, we recall what we heard chanted tonight from Deuteronomy (11:10-11):
For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.
(Sounds a little bit like our own Roaring Fork Valley, doesn't it?)  This description is a reminder: that we aren't ultimately in control.  The rains come and go, and we don't command them.  There are mountains and valleys, ups and downs, highs and lows, and we don't get to control those either.

What we do get is milk and honey.  What we give, if we will take up our responsibility, is milk and honey.  Nourishment and sweetness. In community, in relationships, in friends and family, in the beauty of nature, in the quiet of Shabbat.  In service and tzedakah, in tikkun olam.

Oil's value rises and falls.  But milk and honey are priceless, and eternal.

Shabbat Shalom -- may it be sweet and satisfying.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A New Home

Well, we have been in our new house in Basalt, Colorado for a week and two days! It is a very different space than what we were living in in New York. The most exciting things for me have been:

1. having a washer/dryer - we can actually do laundry while doing other things - it's just right there!
2. EXTRA closet space - like for all our suits that we're never going to wear here.
3. direct sunlight! - in our NY apartment, we got about an hour of direct sunlight, but only in the summer from about 6-7pm, and it was only in one corner of our living room - we cherished it!
4. a deck - oh to sit and eat and drink outside... there's nothing like it.
5. two sinks! - Not that I don't love David, but we don't have to share EVERYTHING.

Well, those are the top five. There are many more wonderful things about our new house. I think it will take some time for it to feel like home. We haven't yet hung all the pictures, or found places for all the little things, but it's coming along.

Here are some pictures of the move:

Boxes galore!

We have a lot of books. A lot of Jewish books.

Our living room on its way to being cozy!

And before I go, I also have to share our last Havdalah experience. We were up at the house of Bob and Judy Layton in Missouri Heights, and we just could not get over the views up there. Along with about 20 others, we stood outside and sang a niggun (a wordless melody) - we had some great voices! - and shared a havdalah ceremony. We shared our hopes for the coming week: some were traveling to visit family, some were receiving visitors, some were preparing to move to the Roaring Fork Valley permanently. We sang the blessings, watched the candle glow, and just marveled at the majesty of the moment...

And now, another shabbat begins. Shabbat shalom!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av in our Time

Delivered on July 16, 2010 • Parashat D’varim
Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation

It’s a confusing time to be an American Jew.

From Monday evening to Tuesday evening (July 19-20), Jews observe the holiday of Tisha B’Av.  Literally, the name means ninth of the month of Av.  I think most American Jews are unaware of this holiday and its content, such as that it’s a fast day and part of the lead-up to the High Holidays.  According to our tradition, Tisha B’Av commemorates many things:  first, the punishment of the Exodus generation for their faithlessness upon hearing the scouts negative reports of the land.  They were condemned to die in the desert, says our tradition, on Tisha B’Av.  Then, the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, by Babylonia in 586 BCE and by Rome in 70 CE, respectively.

Later historical events also came to be understood by Jewish tradition as coinciding with Tisha B’Av.  For example, the expulsion of Jews from England (1290) and Spain (1492), as well as the beginning of the 1942 deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, are all believed to have occurred on Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av is especially confusing for Reform Jews.  One of our early American Reform Rabbis, David Einhorn, had a unique interpretation.  Einhorn lived and worked in the mid-to-late 19th Century in Baltimore and then Philadelphia.  In his prayer book, he included Tisha B’Av as a celebration!  In his view, the destruction of the Temple was the day that we Jews went out into the world to spread our prophetic message of universal justice, and thus to be a light unto the nations.  Nowadays, I think we have a little more humility about the prospects for universal redemption.  The world is far from complete and whole, and we acknowledge there are reasons to mourn, and to commemorate destruction and brokenness.

There is also confusion within our tradition about the reasons for the two Temples’ destruction.
In the Talmud (Yoma 9b), we learn that the First Temple was destroyed because the Israelites were engaging in idolatry, incest, and bloodshed -- the three worst sins.  For the Second Temple, the reason given is sin’at hinam, baseless hatred.  Despite that the Jews of the time occupied themselves with mitzvot, it was their needless enmity that caused the Temple’s devastation.

Another voice in the Talmud offers a different interpretation.  Rabbi Yochanan (Metzia 30b) says that the reason for the destruction was that the rabbis “gave judgments in accordance with the Torah.”  As you can imagine, his colleagues are taken aback (I’m paraphrasing):  “What?!?  Should we have had unqualified amateurs giving rulings???”  So then Rabbi Yochanan clarifies: the problem, he says, was that they were so strict to the letter of the Torah that they disregarded the needs and merits of individual cases.  They were unwilling to go beyond the letter of the law to address present realities and preserve the dignity of people.

So we have these two reasons given for the Second Temple’s destruction: Sin’at Hinam and Excessive strictness in Torah. These are striking reasons. The most obvious answer would have been: Rome’s army was stronger.  However, Jewish tradition says no for two reasons: (1) God is in charge of history, and (2) more relevant for us, a Jewish “house divided cannot stand...”

This last point takes us back to our theme: it’s a confusing and troubling time for Jews.
The aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla incident showed once again that there are those who hate and blame Israel regardless of the facts.  There is an information war full of bias and falsehoods.  In many ways, Israel needs our help now more than ever.

And yet, there are two things Israel is doing now that fly in the face of that need for Israeli-Diaspora partnership.  They relate to the two reasons the rabbis mention for the Temple’s destruction: excessive strictness with Torah and sin’at chinam...

There was a bill making way through the Israeli Knesset that would dramatically change the way conversions are handled in Israel.  It was originally meant, I’ve read, to streamline the conversion process, e.g. to help the thousands of not-yet-converted Russian immigrants by granting more local control to community rabbis to oversee and approve conversions.  Instead, it consolidates power over all conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.  This could have far-reaching effects on the question of “who is a Jew?” and who decides.  It would effect the Right of Return, as well as whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Unaffiliated conversions are recognized by Israel.  It raises no less than a question of whether Israel is ahomeland for all Jews, or only a narrow category determined by the Chief Rabbinate.  And it has certainly been feeding the Israel-Diaspora rift.

Second, Anat Hoffman, the director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested at the Western Wall. She was there with a group called Women at the Wall, who periodically gather on the women’s side to pray together.  This is a problem at the Wall, because it is managed as an Orthodox synagogue, such that women aren’t allowed to pray out loud.  In the past, the group has endured heckling and verbal abuse, as well as occasionally having things thrown at them in protest.  This time, Anat Hoffman was leading the women prayer and carrying a Torah.  This cause such a ruckus that, perhaps fearing a riot, the Israeli police forced her away from the Wall and arrested her.  Again, this raises the question: is Israel a Jewish homeland for ALL Jews?  Is the Western Wall, as a central symbol, open to all Jews to exercise their Judaism?

As I’ve said already, this is confusing and troubling.  Israel needs our help and support, yet we feel pushed away.

So let me try to offer some clarity in the midst of confusion, some comfort amidst all this tzuris.

Let’s look to Torah. In the first line of our parashah, D’varim, the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, it says:
Eileh haDevarim asher diber Moshe EL KOL YISRAEL be’ever haYarden baMidbar mol suf...  
These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan... (Deuteronomy 1:1)

I point this out because it is the first occurrence of “Kol Yisrael” (All Israel); before this, the Torah calls them “B’nei Yisrael” (Children of Israel). [1]

Something is different after the Exodus. They are no longer just the children of Jacob.  Their bond extends beyond family.  They are becoming a nation, a people, a civilization.  They -- we -- are a collective with a shared sacred history.

That shared sacred story links us.  Whether we’re on this or that side of the Jordan River -- whether we’re Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or no label at all --
We are Kol Yisrael, ALL of us, Jews.

Now, I’m not so naive as to expect us to speak in a unified voice.  In fact, it could be argued that our nature as Jews results in precisely the opposite.  So rather than that, I believe we should affirm our right to speak with different voices and STILL BE CONSIDERED JEWS.

Israel does need our help. But in TWO ways, and neither works alone:
Not only to survive, but also to remain a home for KOL YISRAEL, for all Jews.

In that spirit of Kol Yisrael, linking us together as Jews despite vast differences in practice and belief, I’ll conclude with a short Shabbes story.  I was told this story earlier this week by Rabbi Mendel Mintz, our local Chabad Rabbi.

At Mendel’s father’s Shabbat table, there was arguing, discussing, disagreeing on some point of Torah or politics.  But there was one unbreakable rule, he would always say:
“You don’t badmouth another Jew at my table. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.”
As Mendel tells it, his father would interrupt anyone, even his kids, if they were saying something negative about someone else.

How dearly we need a dose of this wisdom today.

As we wish each other Shabbat Shalom tonight, and always,
I hope we can also be agents of Shalom --
of peace, of wholeness --
to our Shabbat table, to Jews everywhere,
and, we pray, to the world.


1. R. Ephraim Landschutz [= Leczyca, 1550-1619] in his commentary Kli Yakar (to Dt. 1:1), as cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I thought I would use my very first blog posting (they have all been from Rabbi David so far) to reflect on a most wonderful weekend. It began on Friday, when I started running around in disbelief that another shabbat had arrived so quickly! Wasn't it just shabbat? I guess that's what happens when you are adjusting to a new place. Despite my anxiety, shabbat services were full of energy and excitement. We had a great crowd, who sang along with enthusiasm and welcomed us with great warmth. We offered the traveler's prayer to Whitney Mufson, daughter of Nina and Joshua Saslove, who just departed yesterday for her junior fall abroad in South Africa -- we hope she has a fantastic experience!

Saturday - Shabbat - brought in a friend from out of town, who helped me do some house-related errands. We are moving into our new house this Thursday (I can't wait!). Then, we went to Arbany Park in Basalt for a Pot Luck Havdalah gathering with some folks from down-valley. We had a lovely crowd who brought delicious food (Alan's lamb chops might have been my favorite! Although a tough competitor was the cake brought by Werner... really, everything was great). We sang some havdalah melodies as we reflected on what we were all looking forward to in the week ahead.

We had some very spirited singers! All the kids loved seeing, smelling, experiencing the different havdalah objects - especially listening as the candle was extinguished in the "wine" (which we had to make ourselves from crushed grapes and water!).

After most of the people had left, we sat and lingered in the beautiful park and waited for the rainstorm to pass. Even the rain is beautiful here. We all searched the sky for a rainbow -- but it wasn't until we got in our car heading back to our temporary home in Aspen that we saw the most brilliant rainbow. Each color stood out - I can hardly put into words how beautiful it was. Sadly, I didn't get a picture!

Sunday morning, we took our very first hike of the summer - up to Crater Lake.

Spectacular views up there! It was a bit exhausting, but worth the trip. Our reward (for which we worked very hard!) was Bagels at the Bells. We had quite a crowd up at the Bells. Everyone seemed to enjoy yummy toasted bagels and some shmoozing. We finished cleaning up just as the rain began to fall. Rabbi David and I came home and passed out - I guess the hike was more tiring than we realized! We had a perfect afternoon of relaxation. Now we're ready for a big week of work and moving to our house. Shavua tov!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Welcome letter

This is available on our regular website, but I thought it deserved to be posted here as well.  It describes our hopes and plans for the character of the Jewish community we are building here in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.  It was sent out in a recent mailing with the newest version of our membership packet.


Baruch Habah -- Welcome to the Aspen Jewish Congregation!

In Pirkei Avot, “The Sayings of the Fathers” (1:6), our rabbis teach:
Aseh l'cha rav, u'kneh l'cha chaver, v'hevei dan et kol ha-adam l'chaf zechut.
“Make for yourself a teacher, find for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”
This three-part statement describes the Jewish community we want to build -- with your help -- in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Make for yourself a teacher.  With religious school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, guest lectures, and adult education opportunities, the Aspen Jewish Congregation is a hub of formal and informal Jewish learning.  We hope you find that there’s something for everyone.  And, just as the rabbis’ words can also mean “make yourself a teacher,” we invite you to bring your own interests and talents to be a teacher yourself in our community.

Find for yourself a friend.  Judaism is about community, about weaving together our individual stories into the sacred stories of our tradition and people.  From holiday celebrations and social action projects, to music and worship, to book clubs and cooking classes, we invite you to link yourself to our community and here find and become chaverim -- friends, colleagues, and a network of support.  What kind of community do you need for wherever you may find yourself on life’s journey?  What gifts do you bring to support and inspire others on their paths?

Judge every person favorably.  The rabbis are wise in urging us to deal with all people according to kaf z’chut, the aspect of merit.  We strive always to bring out the best in ourselves and others by creating a caring community based on the highest ideals of Jewish text and tradition.  We welcome and embrace all those who seek to join together in shaping a life of Jewish meaning and immortal impact.

If we haven’t already, we hope to meet you in person to get to know each other, to answer your questions, and to ask some questions of our own!  Please feel free to be in touch with us.

Bivrachah, with blessing,
Rabbi David Segal
Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, July 4, 2010

More on the 4th of July

A few more things to think about on this Independence Day, in the form of a text study. Both of my postings so far have had a lot to do with George Washington -- 'tis the season, I suppose. Happy 4th to all!

Jews at Home in America (?)

•Read the biblical text and two letters below, followed by questions for contemplation and conversation.

1. Jeremiah 29:7
Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to Adonai in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected first president of the United States on his visit to that city.  President Washington’s visit to Newport was part of a goodwill tour on behalf of the new national government created by the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Newport had historically been a good home to its Jewish residents, who numbered approximately 300 at the time of Washington’s visit. (source)

2. Excerpts of the letter from Moses Seixas to President George Washington
To the President of the United States of America. Sir:
Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle...
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship...
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden

3. Excerpts of the letter from George Washington in response to Moses Seixas
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.
...The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
...May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid (see Micah 4:4). May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington

(Read the full letters here)

Questions for Contemplation and Conversation:

  • Jeremiah was speaking to Israelites during the Babylonian Exile, urging them to seek the peace of Babylon, their one-time conquerors. How do you think they would have reacted to this message?  How does it resonate with you, as a Jew living in America? Do you think of America as “exile”?
  • What struck you about how the Jewish community described itself in the letter to Washington? What would such a letter look like today?
  • To what extent has Washington’s description of America in his letter been proved true by the test of history?  Share a story of your family’s immigration to America: how does that experience reflect or challenge Washington’s lofty vision of America?
  • Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, has said that American Jews today enjoy more prosperity, safety, and acceptance than at any time or place in Jewish history.  How do you react to that statement?
  • In what ways do you feel that America is a home for you as an American Jew?  In what ways do you feel excluded from it?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 4th, Jewishly

As our inaugural blog entry, I'm posting the D'var Torah I gave last night at our first Shabbat service as Rabbi and Cantor of the Aspen Jewish Congregation.  Happy 4th of July!

Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation • Friday, July 2, 2010 • Shabbat Pinchas

After the Revolutionary War, in 1783,
a group of American military officers 
founded the Society of the Cincinnati.
Their aim was to preserve the ideals
of the American Revolution
and to hold the government accountable
for the promises it had made
to the officers
and to the people of the colonies.
The society elected,
as their first President General,
someone whose name rings out
this July 4th weekend:
George Washington.

The Society of the Cincinnati took its name
from the Roman hero
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus.
As the story goes --
part legend, part truth --
during a wartime emergency,
Cincinnatus was called from his farm
by a panicked Senate
to serve as military commander
and dictator of Rome.
Just 16 days later,
after he defeated the invading forces,
Cincinnatus resigned as dictator,
restored power to the Senate,
and returned to his farm

In his own day,
George Washington 
embodied the hero Cincinnatus:
After his victorious leadership 
of the Revolutionary War,
he could have leveraged his popularity and power
to become King, as many urged him to do.
Instead, he helped establish 
a non-hereditary, term-limited
succession of power.
He insisted on the title “Mr. President,”
rather than the more majestic and monarchic names
suggested at the time.
After a reluctant second term as President,
Washington declined to seek a third term,
setting a precedent for future Presidents
that later became law 
as the 22nd Amendment, in 1951.
And like Cincinnatus before him, 
he returned to Mt. Vernon,
his home and farm.
The motto of the Society of Cincinnati 
captures both men’s stories:
“He gave up everything to serve the republic.

Our Torah Portion this week,
Pinchas, in the Book of Numbers,
confronts us with 
a more ancient story 
of leadership and succession.
Here we find the Israelites nearing the Jordan River,
and preparations are underway 
for crossing into their future homeland.

As we heard chanted so beautifully,
Moses ascends the mountain 
at God’s command.
There he enjoys a panoramic vista 
of the Promised Land,
only to be told by God,
V’ra’ita otah v’ne’esafta el amecha...
“When you have seen it,
you shall be gathered to your kin” (Num 27:13),
the Torah’s euphemism for death.

If I were Moses,
I might have protested immediately:
After all I’ve done 
for Your stubborn people --
when I didn’t even want this job 
in the first place! --
THIS is how you repay me?

But Moses being Moses,
that’s not what he said.
His immediate reaction 
to this gut-wrenching news
was to think of the Israelites’ wellbeing
rather than his own:
Yifkod Adonai Elohei haruchot l’chol basar ish al ha’eidah
“May Adonai, God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a leader over the community.”

I suppose one could interpret Moses’ words
as a passive-aggressive complaint,
as if to say,
If I’m not leading them, you better find someone who can. Good luck.
And Rashi, a medieval commentator,
does just that.
According to Rashi,
Moses’ description 
of this future leader,
one who will “lead [the people] out and bring them in” (Num 27:17),
is Moses’ way of saying to God,
Don’t do to this new leader 
what you are doing to me,
by preventing me from leading the people
into the Promised Land.  (Rashi on Num 27:17)

But regardless of Moses’ actual motivation,
it is worth noticing
that Moses does not assume 
hereditary leadership,
nor ask for his son to be appointed.
In that posture,
and in God’s response,
there is the faint stirring 
of a democratic and republican impulse.
God says:
“Take Joshua ben Nun, and lay your hand upon him.
Stand him before Elazar the priest 
and before the whole community, 
and command him in their sight.
Invest him with some of your authority, 
so that the whole community of the Children of Israel
shall hear.” (Num 27:18-20)

Unlike Moses’ appointment,
which happened in a solitary desert,
with a burning bush as the only witness,
this will be a public succession.
The Israelites have begun to reach
political maturity as a people.
Desert revelations and secret prophecies
cannot sustain them
as they cross from slavery into freedom,
and from freedom into responsibility.

Joshua’s succession occurs 
lifnei Elazar hakohen, before Elazar the priest, 
and lifnei kol ha’eidah, before the entire community.
The verb yishm’u (Num 27:20),
describing what the Israelites will do 
in this moment, 
is usually translated as obey.
But it is the same root as Sh’ma,
in its most basic meaning, to hear --
in other words, this ceremony of succession 
happens in public,
so that the entire community may bear witness.
There is transparency.
And where there is transparency,
there can be accountability.

To be fair,
it would still be thousands of years
before ideas like 
direct election,
universal suffrage,
and a government 
of the people, by the people, and for the people,
would take root and blossom.
But in its day --
an age of kings and empires,
of ruthless and unchecked power,
and pharaohs worshiped like gods --
the Torah’s vision of leadership
is radical,

As we celebrate our Revolutionary American story 
this holiday weekend,
let’s remember and honor 
these lessons of leadership:

Freedom and Independence 
demand responsibility.
We can no longer simply rely on God
to send a prophet from the wilderness,
charged with the task of leading us.
Good leadership requires public accountability,
and it is up to each of us,
both as leaders ourselves 
and as community members,
to ensure transparency,
to protect democracy,
to participate in public life, at every level.

May this 4th of July be filled
with joy, shared together with friends and family.
May it also lead us 
to recommit ourselves
to the values and examples
of Moses,
of Cincinnatus, 
of Washington,
bringing upon ourselves, our families, and our communities
the blessings of freedom.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Independence Day.