God of Mercy

אל מלא רחמים… God filled with mercy…

It is my job to chant these words in commemoration of the three boys who were murdered after they were abducted 18 days ago.

God filled with mercy.

Filled with mercy? How can you talk about mercy when three teenagers — children — are dead? The world mourns for Eyal Yifrach, Gil’ad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frenkel.

And talk about? No, start with. We start by invoking God’s mercy when people are dead.

In the moments when God is the hardest to reach, in the moments we are angriest, when souls have been released from our world, we start by calling God “merciful.”

In the past two weeks, I have officiated at two funerals. Both were people who led long, fulfilling lives. El malé is comforting when someone has lived life to their fullest. When someone’s life is cut short, I can’t pass the first three words without sensing deep cognitive dissonance.

We ask Harold Kushner’s famous question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

After I posted an article about the deaths on Facebook, one person called this the “most horrendous outcome imaginable.”

We do not make comparisons between deaths and situations. We are heartbroken. We never met these boys, but we are heartbroken. But while we focus on their memory, and their families’ profound sadness, we remember all of those we know who are still missing:

– Ze’ev Rotschik, missing from Israel since 1973.
– Zechariah Baumel, Tsvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, missing from Israel since 1982.
– Ron Arad, missing from Israel since 1986.
– Guy Chever, missing from Israel since 1997.
– Lauren Spierer, missing from Indiana since 2011.

Is this the most horrendous outcome?  Three boys are dead.  There is nothing that will bring them back.  At the same time, knowing how long others have been missing, and how that gaping hole of unknowns continues to affect their friends and families, I hesitate to admit the relief I feel.  When I heard they had been killed shortly after their abduction, my inner voice said, “Mercifully.”

God filled with mercy.
Have mercy, let these boys’ families find peace.
Have mercy, bring the others, and all the others who are still missing, home safely.

May their memories be blessed.
יהי זכרם ברוך


A New Beginning

A new beginning
Spinning as if in a puffy pink dress
Among a sea of people
In a busy room.
Happy, and at the same time
Content to focus on all the colors,
On all the noise,
And at the same time
To let it all blend together
Realizing that everything blurred
Is less daunting
Than stillness.

   At this very time when the whole world is almost in chaos, we must look to the cultural and above all to the spiritual forces to reconstruct human life on a nobler, purer and above all a saner basis.
It is through music—the universal language—that we may help bring the nations together in amity.
Music which can allay the unrest of labor created by the monotony of the toil of the wage earner forced upon him through our inventive genius, which has taken the burden from the back and hands of man and put it on to the machine.
Music, which can start the rhythmic flow of movements through the muscles and sinews and the very blood of your children.
Music, which can assuage your grief and intensify your joy.
Music, which can fill your brain with infinite harmonies.
Music, which can hold the family together and bring peace and happiness to the humble home of the mechanic as well as the palatial home of the millionaire.
Music!—as the mother sings to the babe at her breast, as the choir chants as the wedding, in the requiem for the dead.
Music! Music! which begins where words end, which whispers to us of immortality.

John C. Freund on “Jewish Traditional Music”, in an address to the Jewish Ministers-Cantors Association at Temple Emanuel on December 19th, 1922.

Franz Liszt encounters Solomon Sulzer

Yesterday, for my thesis research, I spent part of the morning reading Franz Liszt’s The Gipsy in Music, which contains a pretty scathing treatment of Jews — perhaps worse than Wagner’s famous one. But his experience in Sulzer’s synagogue can be called nothing less than transcendent. While I would usually paraphrase, I am compelled just to reprint his writing and let it speak for itself. I promise to comment more in depth on this piece at a later date, but right now I’m just letting it sink in and aspiring to someday provide this kind of transformative experience for someone in my own pews.

(From Franz Liszt, The Gipsy in Music, translated by Edwin Evans 1926, p. 52-54.)

At Vienna, we were acquainted with the celebrated tenor, Sulzer; who, in his capacity of Cantor in the Synagogue, had made a reputation the more distinguished through being reserved for a circle of real connoisseurs. Within this artistic organization the regulation mask for concealment of the interior being was not so thick; so that occasionally the actual impress upon his soul caused by the secret paternal teachings might be observed.

It was common to hear him speak as if, after having squared the blocks of stone for the construction of the pyramids, he had witnessed the Egyptian darkness. He seemed to have been an eye-witness of the drowning of the impious Pharaoh and his host; and of the cloud of fire guiding the chosen people, invisible to its enemies; the latter seeming still so to shine in his eyes as to give them an emotional expression—an expression which returned in speaking to Korah, Dathan and Abiram being swallowed by the earth. His account of the sistrum and psalterion sounding together for joy in Zion, and of the tones of David’s harp, as as that of one who had heard them; and he seemed equally to have known Hiram, to have visited Ophir and Sidon, and to have watched with his own eyes the Queen of Sheba mounting the steps of the legendary throne of Solomon, ‘leaving so much aroma behind her that for eight years the streets were still impregnated.’ In the same way he seems to have listened to the songs of the captives on the banks of the Euphrates in the time of Ezekiel, the words of Nehemiah and the orders of Esdras when they raised the Temple from its ruins and when they rebuilt the Holy of Holies.

It was in order to hear him that we went to the Synagogue of which he was the musical head, and where he sustained the upper part.

Rarely has it happened to us to be attacked by so lively an emotion; one to seize so irresistibly all the sympathetic and devotional faculties of our soul, as on that evening when, with a thousand lights dispersed like stars over a vast ceiling overhead, we became aware of a strange choir of dull guttural voices starting to sing.

Each chest seemed a sort of dungeon from the depth of which an impalpable beings as emerging in order to praise the God of the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of the misery and slavery. It seemed a cry to him in a voice resigned by resolute, as if sure to be delivered one day from this endless captivity; sure to be quit of this odious land with its strange rivers, and sure to escape from this new Babylon, the great whore, in order to re-enter into his own kingdom in the sight of all the terrified nations and with triumph, a magnificence without example.

In the course of hearing the Hebrew words pronounced one could easily imagine them as sombre flowers becoming detached from their stems and shedding their vibrating petals and sonorous thongs, and rough discords, float and flutter about; scripting the air like tickling tongues of fire. The air seems specially aglow for the sense of hearing, which is assailed by burning waves, ardent breathings, and inflamed vapours; at a time when everything remains calms and pacific to the sight, and when all seems serene and tranquil in the material atmosphere.

No woman was admitted into this consecrated enclosure, as if therein the act of prayer was reserved for male courage and virile force. It was as if the communion of this chosen nation was with a God angry and firm, prompt and long in punishing, tardy and slow in his rewards; and as if, with that God, there existed a treaty; with respect to the conditions of which, whether properly carried out or not, no third party was able to judge.

For all that, however, the women thus have counted amongst themselves souls of great strength; such as Deborah, Judith, Abigail and the mother of the Maccabees. Others there have also been, full of grace; such as Rachael, Ruth, Bethsaba and the wife of the young Tobias. And others full of greatness, such as Hagar, Zipporah, Esther and Anna, the prophetess. It follows, therefore, that neither force, grace, nor grandeur of the soul are sufficient for the communion with the God of Israel; none are eligible who are not marked with the mysterious sign—the sign of blood.

Quite suddenly all these men (all still bearing the seal which Abraham bequeathed to the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael) started a succession of short movements, rapid and regular, as if in order to render visible the rhythm of their apostrophes. Soon, it seemed as if the Psalms themselves were floating above our heads like spirits aflame; or like a multitude of winged Cherubim floating in space to serve as a footstool to the Most High.

Jubilant with enthusiasm, exultation and heavenly ecstasy, these majestic poems unfolded their story of the powers of God of Abel and of Noah, of Melchizedek and Isaiah. It would have been impossible to resist associating all the sympathies of one’s soul with the grand acclamation of this crowd of the circumcised; carrying on its shoulders the burden of so many ancient traditions, so many divine benefits, so many rebellions and so many adulterous infidelities. Bearers of hard punishments, but, at the same time, of unshakeable hopes.

Whilst a Christian’s imagination was feeling itself cast down by the weight of these remembrances which accumulated before the altar, without victim and without sacrifice—before the sacred parchments and the Holy-Books—those who made themselves victims to replace the holocausts preserved their countenances impassable; betraying neither supplication nor ecstasy, while their provisional sanctuary resounded with the familiar evocation, the terrible threefold name:

Adonaï! Elohim! Jehovah!

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

Fascinating. I think a lot of this rings true for us as female Jewish clergy also — but it won’t ever stop me from trying!

The Millennial Pastor

priestA few days ago I wrote about the issue of women in ministry. While I don’t think I have ever hidden my views on the topic (I married a female colleague, after all), I also have never written about it on the various blogs I have maintained over the last few years. And maybe recently, I didn’t see it as my place to comment on women in ministry. I am still not sure… I don’t see it as my place to comment on anyone’s “right” or “place” to be a pastor. If anything, I think it is my place to talk about my experience of being a Lutheran pastor or a millennial pastor or a Canadian pastor. It is also to my place to talk about being a male pastor.

So let’s talk about that.

Being a male pastor is kind of like Louis C.K.’s description of “Being White”

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Quiet Moment

Yesterday I gave the first of three performances of my Senior Recital, a requirement for graduation from Hebrew College, at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey where I was born and raised. What a whirlwind day! Several hours of anxiousness later, seventy minutes of performance went by so quickly I barely remember it all…

But the most moving moment I had yesterday? The quiet before the storm.

As the audience of over 100 (some report close to 150) filed into the sanctuary where I was going to perform, I took a few moments for myself in the chapel – to collect myself, to breathe, to think, to meditate. Really, I’m not a big meditator. As I sat in the dark, I found myself staring at the chapel’s beautifully carved wooden ark.

“I remember staring at that ark when my dad would lead services and I could barely see over the shulchan (reader’s table),” I said to myself. Suddenly, I felt tears welling up. “It hasn’t changed in twenty years.” The ark hasn’t, even through two renovations. I have.

Idiomatically the classical Jewish sources, leading services is called “Descending before the Ark.” I remember leading services before that ark. I remember before I could lead a whole service, just leading Alénu and Yigdal at the end of services in front of it. I remember trying to figure out which holiday each of the symbols represented, and tracing the windy carving all the way around.

“Who would have thought then that I’d be doing this?” I said aloud to the dark room. Suddenly I knew how far I’d come.

In the moments before I stepped out in front of the audience, I wasn’t feeling as anxious. I wasn’t stressed. Sure, my heart was beating out of my chest – but not because I had any doubt in myself. As I looked around the room for the first time, I saw friendly faces. I saw the way they looked at me – expecting, kvelling, seeing me for  differently than they saw me in whatever part of my life in which they met me for the first time. Welcoming me to the mouth of the long tunnel that has been this journey.

I am a work in progress. I am found.

Second Thoughts

Moments that make the High Holy Days’ cantorial workout totally worth it.

Giving Up The Ghost


A funny thing happened to me on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This is not, typically, a day I relish. I have already done the first day. I’ve admired the Torah scrolls and the clergy in their white regalia. I have grooved on the special melodies and savored the once-a-year prayers. I’ve dipped my apple in honey and shared the festive meal with friends.

Enough already! Who has time to go through it all over again? I have work to do.

This year, I’ve got a new writing project that’s just starting to gel. At its core is a mother who has become estranged from her grown son. I don’t know what came between them, or what the separation means to him. I just know that her heartbreak drives her to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do. How can I figure out where this is going when these holidays…

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The Full Moon of Elul

WordPress’s Daily Post reminded me that today is the full moon — which means tonight will begin the fifteenth of Elul. As my last High Holy Day season (God willing) as a cantorial student approaches and the first of Tishrei skulks around the corner, I am torn between gleeful excitement and terrifying anxiety.

Elul, the last month of the Jewish year if you count from Rosh Ha-Shanah (in Tishrei) and the sixth month of the year if you count biblically (from Nisan), is meant to be a season of repentance, reflection, and soul-searching. We customarily recite Psalm 27 twice every day: once in the morning, once in the evening. In the morning, our recitation is preceded by a loud and often startling shofar blast, followed by these words: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” … “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord.”

The words of Psalm 27 linger with the ringing echo of the ram’s horn. The first and last verses of this poem, which I quoted above, are not the whole story. The Psalmist begins whole, with full confidence in his God, but then his reality begins to unravel. “When evil-doers come close to me, to eat my flesh,” (Ps. 27:2) all “adversaries and foes” fall when the Lord protects our poet. The reiteration of this confidence in the subsequent verses feel a bit like the lady doth protest too much. When all of these atrocities happen to the Psalmist in verses 2-6, despite everything, he continues to have faith in the Lord. It’s cocky on one hand, and feels almost sarcastic on the other. The celebration in spite of atrocities seems rote, forced.

Confidence fails the poet in verse 7. “Hear God, my voice calling; be gracious to me, and answer me.” Where is the surety? Where did God go? Where has the poet misplaced his faith? The Psalmist in the subsequent verses begins searching for God, whose face is hidden from him; he begs for God’s attention and support. The insecurity is palpable, relatable. Not every day can one be as confident as the Psalmist was in verse 1 of this text.

The hope — not security — in God’s protection at the end of Psalm 27 shows the maturity res of surviving a struggle. It is the larger story of the biblical Israelites, who first knew God face-to-face at Sinai but then needed to rediscover Him for themselves in subsequent generations.

It is with this meditation that I see the full moon of Elul.

Repentance is not about the security of forgiveness, it is about hope. The angst of anticipating an apology is worth the growth, and worth the potential repair of relationships even if not in the short-term. My heart races with thrill and fear equally as I look forward to my station as shelichat tsibbur this Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur knowing that I am so blessed to be the catalyst for the prayer experiences of my congregation while, as always, feeling the weight of carrying the congregation on my shoulders – musically, textually, spiritually. Then again, they carry me also: with their collective energy, song, and spirit. I have learned to trust my congregation for their positivity, their attentiveness, their faith.

As I stare at the full moon tonight, knowing that when it disappears for the very next time a new year will dawn, I will think about how I am different. Not different just by virtue of the full moon as the Daily Post suggests, but different by virtue of a full year of growth and change. With a full year since the last time I stood at my High Holy Day pulpit, I am quite aware of my personal development. In some ways, for worse; in other ways, for better.

We are all different than we were a year ago at this time. We all improve in the future from reflecting upon what is past, both failures and successes. No guarantees, except that hope in ourselves, in our future successes, and in God, is always worth our energy. “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

Who am I in God’s Picture?


by Hinda Tzivia Eisen, summer 2013.

I feel insignificant.

When God is infinite, and there are seven billion people in the world, how much audacity must I have to believe that God pays attention to me? How selfish to think I deserve for Him to heed me.

And yet, I do. I do believe that I am in God’s consciousness. I do believe He checks in on me when I call. And also when I am not looking — like a parent who checks in on a sleeping child.

So I vacillate between feeling deeply tiny in this Universe, and feeling a bloated sense that my God is with me.

Even in the best of times we must choose the torch we carry wisely, and we must be careful who we choose to illumine.

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“If” 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, or talk to 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 impostors 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 worn-out 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 walk 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.