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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Spirit of Thanksgiving

Our local NPR station, Aspen Public Radio, did an interview with me and Gregg Anderson about Thanksgiving and our interfaith activities. There's also a mention of Aaron Kintu Moses (see previous post here) who visited us last week from the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda. This interview will air tomorrow (Thanksgiving Day) at 6:00 PM MST, but you can listen online at this link.

Thanks to Carolyne Heldman at APR for dedicating this episode of CrossCurrents to this topic!

Happy Thanksgiving - a day to remember all the blessings in our lives.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Aaron Kintu Moses - Jews of Uganda

This Monday, November 14, we'll welcome Aaron Kintu Moses to Aspen. He comes to us on a US speaking tour from the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, thanks in part to the help of the organization Kulanu, and most especially thanks to David Uhlfelder and his family for making it happen (as part of David's bar mitzvah project).

Aaron Kintu Moses is the director of education for the Abayudaya community of Uganda, a position he has held since 2003. Aaron also served as the community’s acting spiritual leader while his brother, Gershom Sizomu, completed rabbinical training at the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles.

As education director, Aaron functions as principal of the Hadassah Primary School in Nabugoye, and oversees the Semei Kakungulu High School and the Abayudaya vocational education program.  He is a key member of the community's executive committee, and he plays a leading role in welcoming visitors and volunteers to the community.

Aaron’s active involvement as a leader of the Abayudaya began at age 19 after Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979 and freedom of worship was restored in Uganda.  Aaron’s brother, J.J., inspired his siblings and other members of the family to begin a multi-faceted revitalization of the community and their Jewish practice.  From 1980 to 1988, Aaron was secretary of the Young Jewish Community they created.

There are two public opportunities to gather with Moses and learn about his community and the school he leads, where Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children learn together. We hope you'll join us for one or both!

(both take place at the Aspen Chapel, Monday 11/14)

9:30 AM: Interfaith/Intergenerational Breakfast
Come hear stories and songs from Aaron's community in Uganda, and get to know him in an informal setting.  Stay for the 10:30 AM pre-school class, where Aaron will share music and activities with our pre-school kids (and adults who want to stay!).

5:30 PM: Presentation and Reception
Aaron will speak about his community and his school's mission. He will share a slideshow as well as stories and songs. (He is a singer and guitarist.)

In addition, we hope you'll join us Sunday, November 13 at 5:30 pm for our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service and potluck dinner. It will take place at the chapel and explore the theme of Global Gratitude. Also, we'll share some letters from the Abayudaya children about what they're thankful for.

For more about Aaron Kintu Moses and the Abayudaya of Uganda, see the videos and links below!

Contact Rabbi David with questions
920-2536 /

American Jewish Life story on Aaron and the Abayudaya

• Video about the Abayudaya schools

More info about Kulanu

Beautiful singing of Hebrew prayer Hineh Mah Tov, Abayudaya-style

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kol Nidrei Service Now Online

Thanks to the nice folks at GrassrootsTV, our Kol Nidrei service is now online.

CLICK HERE to watch online
(or right-click on "Watch" link on the site that opens, to download the video file)

P.S. Happy Sukkot!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yom Kippur sermons

G'mar chatima tova and shana tova!

Below you'll find links to PDFs of both of my Yom Kippur sermons. As always, I'd love your feedback, either by commenting here or by emailing me.

May 5772 bring blessing for us all.

• Yom Kippur evening/Kol Nidrei: "Spiritual, but not Religious?"
• Yom Kippur morning: "Wealth, Poverty, and Purpose"

Monday, October 3, 2011

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 @ Maroon Bells

Thanks to all who joined us to bring in the new year 5772 at Maroon Bells on Friday morning. There was a great community feeling, and the weather and scenery couldn't be beat!  We have some videos of the morning, below.

We hope you'll celebrate with us again at Maroon Bells -- and we hope it'll be before next Rosh Hashanah, so stay tuned!

Rabbi David reading Mary Oliver's poem, "When I am Among the Trees"

Michael Sailor, Rabbi David, and Haver blowing the shofar

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Shanah tovah to all of you, from all of us at the Aspen Jewish Congregation!

I'm posting here my sermons from Rosh Hashanah Evening and Morning.  Click the linked titles below to download the PDFs.  I'd love to know what you think: feel free to post comments here or email me,

• RH Evening:  Letter to an Israeli Friend
• RH Morning:  Letter from an Expecting Parent

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The I-Word

Shabbat Evening • July 8, 2011 • Parashat Balak

There once was a Jewish man who had three sons, and he was anxious to marry them off to nice Jewish girls.  The first son married a Catholic girl, so the father figured he had two more chances.  The second son married a Hindu girl, and the father started to worry.  
   The third son came home one day and said, "Dad, I've met the one, and we're getting married.  Her name is Goldberg..."
   "Goldberg!" said the father, optimistically.
   "Yes," his son said. "I'd like you to meet Whoopi..."

Intermarriage is our topic this evening.  Like with all challenging topics in Judaism, there are jokes about it.  It's certainly a hot topic today, and it's hard to talk about properly.  It cuts straight to the core of that age-old question who is a Jew.  And it divides Jews from each other and Jewish denominations from others.

Tonight I want to offer some thoughts on intermarriage, both from the Torah portion and from my experience and reflection.

The story we heard chanted (Numbers 25:6-8) offers one gruesome way to respond to intermarriage.  The background here is that the Moabite king, Balak, worried that the approaching Israelites presented a military threat.  So he enlisted the prophet-for-hire Bil'am to go and curse the Israelites.  But rather than curse -- at God's command -- Bil'am blessed the Israelites several times over.

Following this series of events, we learn that many Israelites were lured into Ba'al worship (idolatry) by the Moabite and Midianite women with whom they were "fraternizing."  God sends a plague as punishment and tens of thousands die.

At that moment, one Israelite named Zimri comes forward with a Midianite woman, in the eyes of Moses and the whole community of Israel.  Pinchas, a priest (and a grandson of Aaron), takes matters into his own hands.  He takes a spear, charges Zimri and his Midianite companion, and impales them both through the belly.  The plague ends, and Pinchas is shown divine favor for his action.

Our tradition, like most of us, cannot stomach Pinchas' behavior.  The rabbis conceive of at least four ways of tempering this episode (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a) that are worth considering.  First, they suggest that if Pinchas had asked before acting if it were proper to execute Zimri and Kozbi (the Midianite), the answer would have been a firm no.  Second, if Zimri had stepped away from the woman at any time, Pinchas would have had no right to kill him.  Third, and most interesting to me, if Zimri had turned on Pinchas and killed him, it would have been justifiable as a defensive killing.  Pinchas met the criteria for the legal category of rodef/pursuer, the preemptive killing of which is legal.  Fourth, and tangentially, the rabbis also mention a rule based on the Torah's description of Pinchas "getting up from the congregation" to go and executive the couple.  Therefore, they say, you may not enter the Beit Midrash (House of Study) with weapons.  The subtext seems to be: learning leads to doing, so we must use caution when learning about laws with such dire consequences.

A rabbinic midrash (also Sanhedrin 82a) goes even farther in reinterpreting this episode.  In that version, Zimri's men approach him as the leader of the tribe of Simeon with a grievance.  Moses is meting out capital punishment to all those who associated with Moabite and Midianite women, and they want Zimri to stand up for them!  As a representative of his men's outrage, Zimri takes Kozbi, a Midianite woman, before Moses and says: "Is this woman permitted to me?  And if you say no, then who permitted you Jethro's daughter?!?"  For Zimri remembers, as do the rabbis, that Moses himself is married to a Midianite woman, Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Jethro)!  Moses is stumped at this display, and the people weep at his inability to answer (as the Torah mentions, the people gathered at the Tent of Meeting are weeping).

But what if the midrash got it wrong, or didn't go far enough?

What if the command about the foreign women is not racial -- but rather about associating with people who lead us astray?

What if the congregation was gathered at the Ohel Moed, weeping because of the destruction and division within the community over the question of intermarriage?

What if Zimri brought his Midianite partner to Moses because Moses of all people might sympathize with one who had fallen in love with a Midianite woman?  What if Zimri was determined to bring her into the Israelite community, and what if she wanted to be a part of it?

What if, instead of letting the zealot have the last word -- a victory for exclusion -- Moses had stepped up and said, "No. She is welcome here.  They are welcome here."

Even within just a year here, I have observed non-Jewish spouses devoted to their children's becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I have seen non-Jewish spouses bring their children every month to our Tot Shabbat (often without the Jewish spouse...but that's a conversation for another time).  I am currently working with several couples toward their wedding in which one partner is not Jewish, and both partners are committed to a truly Jewish process of learning and preparation for a Jewish wedding ceremony. In many cases, it's the non-Jewish fiance/e who is guiding the Jewish partner back to Judaism!

Times are different today than when this story occurred.  Identities are not fixed like they were for the ancient Israelites and their neighbors.

What is called for today is neither the silent passivity of Moses, nor the zealous exclusion of Pinchas.  We need an open door, a non-judgmental stance, a genuine interest in each person's story, a source of care and support.  Sure, we should have a willingness to talk about conversion if and when the time is right, but always without pressure or assumptions.

As one of my teachers put it -- five years ago, so it's even more true now -- there are more Jewish households today with non-Jewish members than at any time or place in Jewish history.

This is new.  And we have just begun to realize what this means for Judaism in the next generation.

But all generations of Jews have faced a paradigm shift as dramatic as this one.  And somehow we've managed to survive.  Not by being silent, nor by being overzealous.

Our survival, then, is threatened not by intermarriage, but by whether we can rise to the task of our generation.

With your help, we can do that here.  I hope you will join us, and I look forward to what we can build together.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A 4th of July Sermon

Delivered at Aspen Jewish Congregation at Shabbat services 
on Friday, July 1 -- with pictures!

This Shabbat, in Parashat Chukkat, we find the Israelites still wandering in the desert. It's not -- to say the least -- their finest hour. Right before the text we'll explore tonight, they say to Moses:
"Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and our very souls hate this God-forsaken food!" (Numbers 21:5).

The pattern of complaining, even after their miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery, continues. It reminds me of an old joke about two elderly women at dinner at a Catskills mountain resort. Mrs. Feinberg said to Mrs. Moskowitz, "The food at this place is really terrible." To which Mrs. Moskowitz replied, "Yes, and such small portions!"

Woody Allen made this joke famous in Annie Hall, where he also gave it his own existential spin:
"That's essentially how I feel about life," he said. It's "full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness. And it's all over much too quickly."
Snakes on a Plain.
In response to the Israelites' ungrateful whining, God immediately sends a deadly plague of "seraph" serpents. (The Hebrew "seraph" might mean fiery or poisonous.) Many are bitten, and thousands die. The Israelites, realizing they've done wrong, beg Moses to intercede and end the plague.

A Curious Antidote.
Here's where it gets strange. In response to Moses' request to stop the plague, God says:
"Make a serpent and place it on a banner. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live." And Moses made a n'chash n'choshet and placed it on a banner. Whenever a snake bit someone, he looked at the n'chash n'choshet and lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)
I left n'chash n'choshet untranslated to clue you in to the Hebrew wordplay. Nachash means snake, and n'choshet means copper or bronze. So God was telling Moses to make a copper snake and display it prominently before the assembled Israelites. Some artists think it might have looked like this, this, or even the inspiration for this familiar symbol of healing.

Snakes on a Flag.
Since it is the 4th of July, perhaps this whole idea of a snake banner or snake flag rings some patriotic bells.  Coincidentally, the snake flag has a long history related to the founding of our nation.  There's this early version, which Ben Franklin designed in 1754 as a call for unity among the colonies in the French & Indian  War.

More famous still is this snake flag, known eventually as the Gadsden Flag.  It was first used in 1775-76 by the US Navy and Continental Army as a symbol of American resistance to British authority.

Benjamin Franklin, writing pseudonymously as "American Guesser" in the Pennsylvania Journal Dec. 1775 issue, defended the choice of the snake as representative of America.  He said:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids— She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage... she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.— Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?" 
...'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.
Symbol or Idol?
For Franklin, the snake was the ultimate symbol for America and her unique character.  Enough of his fellow countrymen shared this sentiment that the snake symbol was placed on a banner and flown as a flag with national pride.  This snake flag, the American flag, the Israelite copper snake -- they all raise a question about the line between symbols and idols.  When does honoring a symbol cross that line into worshiping an idol?

Blurring this line became such an issue for the Israelites and their descendants that we hear about the n'chash n'choshet -- the copper snake -- centuries later during the reign of King Hezekiah.  In the Book of II Kings (18:4), it's reported that King Hezekiah, a faithful king unlike his predecessors,
abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the n'chash n'choshet that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nechushtan.
The object God intended as a healing mechanism for the plague became so revered that it became an idol -- a false god. Is it any wonder that the Israelites held it in such high esteem, given its apparently miraculous healing powers?  The same challenge faces us when we consider our national flag.  What does it mean to salute the flag, to pledge allegiance to a flag?  How do we avoid blurring that line between symbol and idol?

The Rabbis' Fix.
As they often do, the Rabbis of the Talmud offer a solution to this problem, based on a creative reinterpretation of the copper serpent episode.  Where God said, "Make a serpent...When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live" (Num 21:8), the Rabbis comment:
But was it the serpent that killed, or was it the serpent that kept alive?
Not so: what the text indicates is that so long as Israel turned their thoughts upward and submitted their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed. Otherwise, they rotted away. (Talmud Bavli RH 29a) 
In other words, don't think that the act of looking at the copper snake banner is what healed the bitten Israelites.  Rather, understand that as they directed their eyes up toward the snake, they actually looked above it or through it, toward God's ultimate healing power.

So it should be when we look at our nation's flag.  When we pledge allegiance to it, we are not casting our lot with a piece of fabric. Rather, we are committing ourselves to a set of values -- freedom, justice, equality of opportunity -- upon which this project we call the USA rests.  When we sing and cheer and salute our flag on July 4th, let us together reaffirm those values and ideals that make our flag worth saluting.

Happy Independence Day, and Shabbat Shalom.

I am indebted to Rabbi Stephanie Kolin who first made the connection between this parashah and the American history of snake flags.  Thanks, Stef!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

4th of July Music

This 4th of July, Cantor Rollin had the honor of singing the National Anthem not once but twice!  Both times were performed as a duet with Jeannie Walla.  First, they sang at the start of the Boogie's Buddies Fun Run at 8:00 AM.  Then they sang again at the start of the Aspen 4th of July Parade, from the balcony of the Hotel Jerome.  We got it on YouTube - enjoy!  And Happy Independence Day.

To experience more of Rollin's singing, join us this Thursday, July 14 at
Voices of the Ages: A Journey Through Jewish Song

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Leadville Jewish Cemetery Clean-up

Every year for the past decade or so, B'nai Brith of Denver sponsors a weekend in Leadville centered around cleaning and restoring the historic and now active Jewish cemetery there.  Recently, through their efforts combined with the Temple Israel Foundation and Bill Korn, they restored the 19th-century synagogue as well.  More details about Leadville's (surprising) Jewish history here.

This past June 25, I was invited along with several other Colorado mountain rabbis to participate in a Shabbat morning service in the Leadville synagogue to dedicate a newly acquired Torah scroll to be housed in that temple's ark.  Below are my remarks from that service.  Hope you'll join us at next June's Leadville Cemetery Clean-up Weekend!

Temple Israel, Leadville, CO • June 25, 2011

We gather for this morning’s dedication during an uncomfortable Torah portion. Korach is a story of a power struggle, between miffed Levites on one side, and Moses & Aaron on the other.
I’m not going to talk about the revolt of the Levites or the attempt to “dethrone” Moses. After Korach’s band of 250 gets swallowed up by the earth and consumed by fire from Adonai, Moses and Aaron scramble to tend to the deadly plague God has sent to decimate the people, as punishment.  Aaron took the requisite fire pan and incense to make expiation on behalf of the people, check God’s wrath, and end the plague.

The description of Aaron’s behavior is what caught my attention:
Vaya’amod bein ha-meitim u-vein ha-chayim / “He stood between the dead and the living...” (Num 17:13).

This phrase is striking, for me, for two reasons.

First, we learned in Leviticus 21:11 (Emor), “[A priest] shall not go anywhere near a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother.” The Torah is deeply concerned with ritual purity, and keeping separate things separate. Priests serve the living; they are not to risk defilement by being near the dead.

And yet Aaron stands here, between the living and the dead, seeking an end to this horrific plague. Perhaps when the stakes are that high, i.e. when life is at stake, the priest is called to step over the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit, and continue ministering to the living.

The second reason this phrase is striking is how it resonates with where we stand in this moment.

We stand in a newly restored sanctuary, ready to dedicate a Torah, as proxies for the Jews who lived and died here. Their ghosts share the pews with us. The light mountain air is heavy with their memories.

In this moment we inhabit the present. In light of the spirits of the past, and our hopes for a bright future, we ourselves are thrown into sharp relief as a conduit, a way-station, into eternity. Restoring this holy space and setting a Torah within it are inherently hopeful acts. We’ve reclaimed the neglected Jewish remnants of earlier days. At the same time, we affirm our belief in a thriving Jewish future.

Let me share with you three echoes of Leadville’s Jewish past that I believe speak to us about who we are today and where we should guide our future.

The first echo:

The 1879 edition of the Leadville Chronicle included a description of that fall’s Rosh Hashanah celebration.  An excerpt:
. . . last night nearly all places of business in this city belonging to Jews were closed, and they are all closed today.  This is the Jewish new year, the same as the first day of January begins the Christian new year.  The Jews believe that God finished the world five thousand six hundred and forty years ago today, and consequently this to them is the year 5640.  Immediately after closing their stores and shops yesterday evening they assembled in the [Shoenberg] Opera House on Chestnut street, and held religious services appropriate to the going out of the old year.  At nine o’clock this morning they reassembled in the same place.  The hall was filled with as well dressed and as intelligent appearing assemblage as has ever been witnessed in Leadville.  Many of our leading merchants with their families were there.  On all being seated one of the brethren wearing a white cloth over his shoulders approached the stage and began to read from a book printed in Hebrew.  The reading was a sort of chant, something after the style of the Episcopal or Catholic Christians, and every little while the large assemblage would arise and join in the chant.  Each person was provided with a book.  A member told the reporter that it was the book of the new year and was only used on these new year occasions.  The services were the same here in the Opera House today as they were in the Jerusalem temples five thousand years ago, only of course not so imposing.  It was according to the orthodox faith in which the reformed wing joined.  The white cloths or shawls which some of the congregation wore, were in imitation of the apparel worn by the Israelites when they were driven out from Egypt.  These cloths are worn by the orthodox Jews on all religious occasions.  They even wear them to their graves.  The chanting corresponded to the Christian prayers for a prosperous new year, and thanks to God for the blessings of the year just passed into oblivion forever.  All things considered, the Jews and the Christians are alike in their new year observances, with the exception that after prayers the Christians make calls, customary on such occasions.  The Jews, after their prayers in their synagogues, go quietly to their homes and do nothing but read their Bibles and pray till the great anniversary is over.
Of course you have to laugh at some of the observations of the non-Jewish reporter. There is a sense of being different as Jews,  of trying to make their way as immigrants in America, while not necessarily fitting into the ways and customs of the dominant culture, nor being fully understood by their neighbors.

The second echo:

In 1880, the Leadville Chronicle published an interview entitled “A Chat with ‘Cheap Joe.’”  The subject was Joe Shoenberg, of the early Leadville family.
To be a Shoenberg in Leadville is to be a clothier and a man whom the whole community respects.  The Shoenbergs, who are in that trade in Leadville, are numerous. . . .[Earlier in the year a reporter had quipped "If any more Shoenbergs come to town THE CHRONICLE will have to enlarge again."]   Joe--or "Cheap Joe," as he is called--everybody knows, or thinks they know, all about him.  They have seen him, talked with him, bought goods at his store [16 West Chestnut Street] and are prepared to swear by him.   There is something, however, they don’t know that THE CHRONICLE reviewer found out a few days ago, and that is that "Cheap Joe" was born a clothier.  A chat with him the other day revealed a portion of his early history, which will be of interest to the reader.  His parents, who were well-to-do in the world, sent him to school at an early age, and they were very proud of his attainments.  Joe had one habit, however, which his parents objected to--he would trade or sell his coat or vest with any boy who had a spark of speculation about him.
I include this story because it shows a different reality than the first.  It’s a picture of a Jewish man who is fully integrated into the community, a man with a good name, and respected status. He’s not a stereotype: the story humanizes his individuality with the vignette about his childhood. He’s an integral part of the social landscape of Leadville.

The third echo:

In May of 1883, the Letter Carriers of Leadville placed an announcement in the paper. After thanking the newspaper, it said:
Resolved, That the thanks and regards are hereby tendered to Messrs. May & Shoenberg [both Jewish], clothiers of this city, for their prompt and generous action in furnishing uniforms for the carriers at lower rates than the same could be obtained in the city of Philadelphia.
From difference, to integration, to this: a story of generosity.  Of giving back to the community that had taken them in. Ultimately, it’s a story of hope, and a very American story: of Jews and non-Jews living, working, investing in their community, together.

It’s the legacy we continue to inherit from our immigrant ancestors, who were pioneers whether they moved to city or country, to flatland or mountains.

•   •   •

Circling back to the Torah portion... Korach’s sin, according to Yeshayahu Liebowitz, resided in his inflated sense of completion: “All the community are holy!” he hurls at Moses as an indictment of Moses’ raising himself above the congregation of Adonai.

Look carefully at the verse in Leviticus (19:2), says Liebowitz, and you’ll find something different there:
Kedoshim T’HIYU / “You SHALL be holy,” says Adonai, “For I, your God, am holy.”

As Liebowitz understands it, only God is truly, perfectly, presently holy. For us humans, the command is in the future: “Become holy!”

Korach’s mistake was confusing human holy striving with God’s holy completeness.

Let our rededication of this space and dedication of this Torah scroll today remind us not to make Korach’s mistake. Like the wise individual who renamed human beings, “human becomings,” let us remember: As Jewish souls, as a Jewish community, we are always heading toward holiness.

Today’s ceremony is not an end, but another milestone on our way to living out God’s command, Kedoshim t’hiyu, “You shall become holy!”

Standing in the present, between the dead of our past and the living of our future, we rededicate ourselves, as we dedicate this holy space and holy scroll, to being a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” always striving to be pioneers of holiness.

May this be a Shabbat and weekend of rest and restoration, of wholeness and holiness.

Shabbat shalom.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Congrats to the Class of 2011!

This past Monday, I had the honor of participating in the Aspen High School Baccalaureate service, which took place here at the Aspen Chapel.  Several local clergy spoke, along with Mayor Mick Ireland; the a cappella choir performed "Amazing Grace" and Cantor Rollin, Nelly Weiser, and Obadiah Jones performed "One Voice."  Below are my remarks to the graduating seniors.

Congrats to you all, and have a great summer!

MySpace Codes

Aspen High School Baccalaureate Service
Monday, May 23, 2011
Aspen Chapel
Remarks by Rabbi David Segal

I’m not sure I’ve been out of high school long enough to offer you any wisdom...  However, I want to share two pieces of ancient wisdom from my tradition, the Jewish tradition, that may be helpful to you as you step into the next stage of your life.

First, a proverb:
There are four types of those who sit before the sages:
a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve.
The sponge absorbs everything.
The funnel lets in at one end and lets out at the other.
The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees [dregs].
The sieve lets out the powdery stuff and retains the good flour. 
                       (Pirkei Avot 5:15, quoted in Book of Legends 426:228)
In college, in your life, you will feel like all of these types at one time or another.  There will certainly be some early morning classes after late nights where you’re the funnel...  But the key is learning how to be the instrument called for in the moment.

Next, a story:
     Once upon a time, Rabbi Simeon ben Rabbi Eleazar was leaving the house of his teacher.  He was riding leisurely on his donkey, feeling great about himself because he had been so filled up with study and learning.
  In this mood, he ran into an exceedingly ugly man, who greeted him, “Shalom aleichem - peace be upon you!”
Rabbi Simeon, rather than return the greeting, said: “You worthless creature! How ugly you are! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?”
The man replied: “I do not know, but go and say to the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel You have made!’”
Rabbi Simeon immediately realized he had done wrong. He got down from his donkey, fell on his face before the man, and said: “I apologize to you; please forgive me!”
The man replied: “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and say to Him, ‘How ugly is the vessel You have made!’”
Rabbi Simeon followed him to the man’s village. The people of the village came out to meet Rabbi Simeon, a renowned teacher, with the words, “Shalom aleichem, peace be upon you, our master, our teacher!”  At that moment the man asked them, “Whom are you addressing as ‘our master, our teacher’?”
The villagers replied, “The man walking behind you!”
Then the man said, “If he is master and teacher, may there be no more like him in [the world]!”
They asked him why, and he told them how Rabbi Simeon had misbehaved.  The villagers said, “Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a great man, and very learned in Torah.”  The man said, “For your sakes, I will forgive him, but only on condition that he does not make a habit of such misbehavior.”
Right after this incident, Rabbi Simeon went to the house of study and preached:  “At all times, one should be flexible like a reed, not hard like a cedar tree.”
                   (B. Ta 20a, paraphrased from Book of Legends 259:275)
Several lessons are to be learned from this.

First, even great sages make mistakes.  As you step into this next chapter of your lives, may your mistakes be as valuable as your accomplishments, and even more fruitful for what you learn from them.

Second, never let study distract you from being a decent human being.  Rabbi Simeon was so inflated by his great learning that he became a total jerk. Though his intellect was deep, he judged others superficially.  Go and learn, and increase your knowledge, but not at the expense of wisdom, of common sense, of valuing people and relationships above all else.

Third, like the sieve, be open to all, even as you gravitate toward those friends and colleagues whose companionship bring richness to your lives.

Learn from Rabbi Simeon’s mistake, follow his words and not his example:
In all things, be flexible like a reed, not unbending like a cedar.
In the force of storm-winds, a cedar tree stands still until its strength gives, and it shatters. But a reed bends with the storm, and avoids breaking.

May you be blessed with the strength and wisdom of the reed, knowing when to bend, knowing how to weather life’s storms.

Finally, in ancient words, I offer this blessing:
Yevarech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.  May God bless you and keep you.
Yaer Adonai panav eleicha vichuneka.  May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
Yisa Adonai panav eleicha, v’yasem l’cha shalom.  May God’s face be lifted up to you, and may you find the greatest of blessings, peace.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Two Thoughts for Shabbat of Passover

Two mini-sermons related to Passover and this time in American history.

On April 12, 1861 -- 150 years ago -- Confederate troops fired on a Union garrison stationed at Fort Sumter.  So began the Civil War.

Ostensibly about slavery and state’s rights, President Lincoln knew much more was at stake.  If secession were to be tolerated, nothing less than the very premise of democracy would be challenged.  Anarchy would be the result.  Hundreds of thousands paid with their lives to protect freedom -- to protect the institutions and founding documents that enshrine our freedoms.

Also in 1861, in Baltimore, Rabbi David Einhorn gave a famous -- to some, infamous -- sermon. Einhorn was a leader of Reform Judaism in the USA.  His prayer book, Olat Tamid, became basis for the Union Prayer Book, the predecessor by 100 years to the book you’re holding right now.

In Germany, before he immigrated, Einhorn had preached against opponents of Jewish emancipation, casting them as Egyptian taskmasters, cruelly oppressing the Israelites of the day.  Soon after he immigrated to the USA, he called slavery “the cancer of the Union.”

On this fateful evening in 1861, speaking to his congregation in Baltimore, MD, a border state, Einhorn invoked the story of Passover, the Exodus of Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  He argued that Jews should be more sensitive to the plight of slaves, and that slavery was inconsistent with Jewish values.

In part, Einhorn said:
"We are told that this crime [of slavery] rests upon a historical right! ... Slavery is an institution sanctioned by the Bible, hence war against it is war against, and not for, God! It has ever been a strategy of the advocate of a bad cause to take refuge from the spirit of the Bible to its letter."
It was just like a Reform Jew to draw a distinction between principles and laws.  The Bible’s laws may tolerate slavery; in fact, they do.  But the overarching principles of freedom, and of humanity being created in God’s image, militate forcefully against slavery.

This is not unlike President Lincoln’s view: he knew well and spoke often of how the laws of the land tolerated and protected slavery.  But the principle that “All men are created equal” -- the premise of the country’s founding documents -- militate against the enslavement of one race by another. 

Of course, Lincoln had to fight a war to defend this principle.  As for Einhorn, the night he gave his staunchly abolitionist sermon, a riot broke out. An angry mob tried to tar and feather him. He fled for his life, ending up in Philadelphia, in a free state, where he soon took over the pulpit at Congregation Keneseth Israel.

(As an aside... Being a congregational rabbi, you see, can be a dangerous endeavor! But seriously, it does lead to the questions:
How far out in front of his congregation 
can a rabbi be on issues?
If no one follows, then what kind of leader can he be said to be?
How strong a stand can his congregation tolerate?
Can he find a way to stand up for causes that is both passionate and inclusive of those who disagree?)
This week we celebrate Passover, known in our tradition as Chag Heiruteinu, the Festival of our Freedom.  And we also mark 150 years since the Civil War began.

This Shabbat let us celebrate:
  • our liberation from Egypt;
  • democracy’s victory over anarchy;
  • liberation from bonds ancient and more recent.
But let us also remember:
  • there are still places where Pharaoh reigns with a hard heart, and a cruel hand;
  • that we, the grandchildren of slaves, have a responsibility to champion the freedom of those still in bonds;
And finally, let us remember, as we stand up for causes, arguing passionately with each other along the way, that living in a democracy, and within a community, demands that we disagree without demonizing, or dehumanizing.

That the Israelites were redeemed from bondage was a miracle. But the greater miracle, the miracle in which we still participate today, is that they managed to survive the next day, as a free people, responsible for their own destiny, willing to bear the burdens that freedom entails.

May we, as Jews and as Americans, continue to be be worthy of that responsibility.

Broken Tablets

One of the themes of Passover, that I have shared a number of times, is REBIRTH.  The rabbis in the Mishneh identified four new years, including Rosh Hashanah, but they also, importantly, included Passover.

Pesach is the time of spring renewal, and the time of the rebirth of B’nei Ya’acov (Children of Jacob) as B’nei Yisrael and Kol Edat Yisrael (Children of Israel and whole assembly of Israel).

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate a clean slate a starting over, a break with the past.  We call it teshuva, turning to a new path, reorienting ourselves on the right path; we speak of a Book of Judgment that is open and shut, and we’re either in or we’re out.

On Passover, it’s a different kind of new year, characterized by the special Pesach Torah reading we just heard.
‘The Eternal said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”’ (Exod 34:1)
God doesn’t let Moses forget about that first set of tablets, shattered in anger, when Moses saw the Golden Calf.  The rabbis took it even further: In addition to the newly carved tablets, the broken tablets were also placed inside the ark, to be carried with the Israelites for eternity.

The new year of Passover is not like the clean break of Rosh Hashanah.  It does not mark the creation of the world from a void, but the re-creation of a people from slaves with crushed spirits.  It’s more like the rebirth of spring, when fresh buds break forth anew from familiar soil.  The spiritual challenge of Pesach is: How do we carry with us the broken tablets of our past mistakes while also forging a better future?

On Pesach we are called not to throw out the shattered pieces of our past, but to carry them with us, perhaps even proudly, along with the new ones we carve, each season of renewal, in the sight of God, our community, and our better selves.

Shabbat shalom, moadim l’simchah, may it be a Pesach of joy and renewal.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sermon in Song: Passover

Last Friday night, Cantor Rollin shared some teaching and music with the congregation in celebration of the upcoming festival of Passover.  She explains each of her selections in the three clips below.  Enjoy the music, and Happy Passover!

Intro, Zeh Dodi / This is My Beloved

Dodi Li / My Beloved is Mine

Tal / Dew

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thriller Megiller!

Last Friday night, we celebrated Purim together with our very special and spirited performance of "Thriller Megiller," a Purim Spiel by Norman Roth, edited and adapted by Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons, inspired by the musical genius of Michael Jackson z"l.

The cast includes: Alan Bush, Sonny Durand, Faith Leibell, Esther Navias, Sarah Navias, Sandy Rothman, Michael Sailor, Rabbi David Segal, Cantor Rollin Simmons, Lynda Weiser, Robin Wittlin, and our JS students!  Tech support: Gigi Durand

Hope you enjoy the show...

Thriller Megiller, Part 1

Thriller Megiller, Part 2

Thriller Megiller, Part 3

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Purim Night!" is here...

Purim is coming: March 19-20, to be exact. We're having several celebrations in our community (see below), but first, we think you'll enjoy this video featuring our religious school students. They were really good sports, and I think you'll agree they captured the spirit of Purim!

Watch and enjoy -- and forward this to everyone you know, share it on Facebook, etc.!
 Let's reach 1,000 hits by Purim!

Join the AJC for upcoming Purim Celebrations:

Friday, March 18, 5:30 PM
Megillah reading and "Thriller Megiller" Spiel (featuring Michael Jackson songs, of course!)
followed by congregational dinner and kid's carnival and costume contest

Saturday, March 19, 8:00-11:00 PM
Adult-only Purim party, Sky Hotel
call 925-8245 for details

Sunday, March 20, 4:30 PM
UJA/Neshama/Chabad Community Purim Party, St. Regis Hotel

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cantor Rollin & The Mazel Tones

Our Shabbat Band debut on January 28, 2011 was a success!
We hope you'll join us this Friday, February 19 @ 6:00 PM, as Sonny Durand's Bar Mitzvah begins, and the band plays for their second time.  Below are videos from the last performance.  Enjoy!

Cantor Rollin and the Mazel Tones
Lead Vocals: Cantor Rollin Simmons
Guitar: Tim Durand
Drums: Brad Manosevitz
Bass: Derek Miller
Backup Vocals and Tambourine: Shereen Sarick