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Don’t Heed the Call

New technologies provide us with fantastic opportunities to connect, communicate, and have instant access to the world around us.

As a synagogue professional, however, I’m sometimes troubled by how a certain generation has embraced their devices. We all share a responsibility to train people in the proper and appropriate use of phones when in temple. It’s one thing to express blanket criticism–but if we repeatedly see the same blatant disregard for basic manners, then it’s clear that we’re simply not doing our jobs.

Kids and teens–I’m talking to you.

Would you please, please teach your grandparents how to use a cell phone?

It’s not terribly unusual for a cell phone to go off during services. We’ve all been there. You experience the one second period of horror as you realize that the familiar ringtone is in fact coming from your own phone. (The call is coming from inside your pocket!With astonishing speed, your hands then bolt for the phone and blindly start pushing any button you can find just so it’ll stop ringing. You then suffer the requisite moment of shame, which is blessedly short lived. In fact, there’s usually a mutual understanding with others, as you share furtive glances with your neighbors: This time it was me, but next time it’ll be you. In any case, the whole incident probably lasted a total of 2 or 3 seconds from start to finish. Furthermore, you’ll be way more careful next time, so everyone gets a pass.

But when that ringing phone belongs to a senior…

The initial “Is that my phone ringing?” period lasts about 5-10 long, endless seconds. Then, the ringing, which at first began muffled inside of a bottomless pocketbook, becomes loud and shrill as the phone is brought out to the full light of day.

Then–and I would never have believed this had I not seen it more than once–the person answers the phone as those around them look on incredulously.

I’ve thought a lot about this and I’m convinced that it’s generational. Those of you who are my age and older grew up in a time when a ringing phone was a matter of some urgency. You didn’t know who was calling and there were no answering machines. Does anyone remember the sheer panic of trying to unlock your front door, fumbling with your keys while the phone was ringing inside the house? And then when you finally dove for the phone, the person had just hung up. That was enough to ruin your entire day.

So it’s deeply ingrained not to ignore a phone call–the polite thing to do is answer and tell the caller that you’re in the middle of something and you can’t talk now. But grandparents need to know not to do that in the middle of services.

Teens, can you please help us out here? Here is some basic knowledge that all kids should pass on up to the Greatest Generation:

  1. How to put the phone on vibrate.
  2. How to take the phone off vibrate.
  3. What button to push to immediately silence the ringing.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to silence the ringing and ignore the call.

Grandparents learn best by watching others model proper behavior, so it’s up to you to set a good example.



What’s Your Name? Who’s Your Daddy?

Names are serious business in Judaism.

I think it all started in the Torah–all of the main characters’ names are loaded with significance. When Sarah was pregnant with Isaac, she thought the idea of a 90-something year old woman giving birth was hilarious. Sure enough, Abraham named their son Yitzchak, meaning “laugh.”

Years later, as Jacob was being born, he grabbed onto the heel–in Hebrew, ha’akev–of his twin brother Esau–so his name in Hebrew became Yaakov. Yes, Jacob is named after a heel. He actually could have ended up with a worse name if his hand had slipped.

Then all twelve of his sons were given names as the result of a feeling or action as they were born. It’s probably a good thing we don’t generally name kids like that anymore, or the most popular name each year would be OHMYGODGETTHISTHINGOUTOFME.

Sometimes one name isn’t enough. God decided that Avram and Sarai needed a bit of a name-lift, so He stuck a hei in each name, representing the presence of God, and from then on they were known as Avraham and Sarah. It’s fortunate that this predated modern bureaucracies–

“Yes, Mr. Abraham, reason for name change?”  “I have no idea. God just said so.”

Jacob also underwent a similar process, when God told him that from then on, he would be known as Yisrael. Inexplicably, he was still referred to as Jacob in most of the text until he died. I guess people just couldn’t get used to the change and kept calling him by his old name.

At the beginning of the Exodus story, we read of the iconic scene when Pharaoh’s daughter discovers a baby floating in a basket. She declares–in Hebrew–that since she drew him out of the water (mi’shi’tihu), she would name him Moshe. Nice of her to give him a good Hebrew name.

I think it’s this considerable emphasis on names that inspired Judaism’s perspective: a name is more than a label. Of course, most people know that it’s a tradition to name a child after a relative. Sephardic Jews might use the name of someone still alive, whereas most of us who are Ashkenazic look to those who have passed away. That’s one reason why you’re unlikely to ever come across a guy named Abner Goldfarb the Third.

[Incidentally, this inspires one of our very best Yiddish curses: A kleyn kind zol nokh im heysn. “May they name a small child after him.” Has there ever been a more brilliantly passive aggressive language?]

But more than that, we hope that our newly named child will serve as a living reminder of someone from the past. One of my favorite customs at a baby naming ceremony is when the new parents not only announce to everyone who the child is named for, but when they continue by telling about that person and describing his or her qualities and unique characteristics in detail. It’s truly a meaningful way to continue a chain that can literally reach back generations.

However, before you get all creative, just keep in mind one important tip: Try to imagine how frustrating it is to never find a souvenir key chain with your name on it.


The Kids are All Right

Just when we go to all that trouble to get kids to come to services, we hurriedly rush them out and tell them they’re not welcome.

Four times a year, we recite Yizkor–on Yom Kippur, as well as on the last day of each of the Three Festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The service itself does not consist of much–we include short passages marking the deaths of family members and recite the El Malei on behalf of all who have passed away over the years. More than merely text, it really provides a structured opportunity to remember family members in the context of the synagogue and is part of the ebb and flow of the Jewish calendar.

Even thought there’s no rule about it, in many synagogues it’s customary or even strongly encouraged for the children (presumably with both parents living) to leave the sanctuary during the brief time that Yizkor is being said. Why?

1. Superstition:

It’s amazing how many of our Jewish traditions are based on superstitions, but are nevertheless perpetuated from one generation to the next. In this case, we worry that a child with both parents living who is present for Yizkor will catch the attention of the Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death. It’s basically a Jewish way of telling a person that they’re tempting fate by doing something. So it’s easier to just send the kid out of the room instead of spending the whole time Poo Pooing and saying keynahara.

My response: The more we can separate our observance of tradition and ritual from silly superstitions, the better. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about imaginary angels and devils.

2. Protecting the Feelings of Others:

According to this opinion, people who are in mourning wish to be surrounded only by others in the same situation. Seeing children or others who have not experienced a death might make that person envious of their supposed better fortune, thereby magnifying their own grief–as if one person’s sadness could be increased by its absence in someone else’s life.

My response: In some misguided attempt to protect the feelings of those who are in mourning, you’re taking away a perfect opportunity to teach children empathy, and to expose them to appropriate displays of grief and sadness. It also gives kids a more complete picture of Jewish tradition–it’s not always Purim in the sanctuary. Sometimes people cry in shul, and that’s OK.

3. Behavior:

This might be the most practical of all the reasons. The Yizkor service is a somber period of recollection, and is not the time for crying or noisy kids of any age.

My response: Agreed. So very young kids who cannot control their behavior should definitely be given a break outside the sanctuary. But this is also a perfect, teachable opportunity for other children to learn how to demonstrate respect for those around them. We lose that chance when we make everything in temple fun and entertaining.

Yizkor is a time for everyone. It provides an opportunity to bring the congregation–the entire congregation–together in a display of communal mourning. That includes congregants of all ages. Children can and should learn that Judaism teaches us how to mourn as well as how to celebrate.

Got Any Dip for These Chips?

The Four Questions.

Do any other three words strike as much fear into the hearts of little Jewish kids around the world as those? Generations of Jews remember having to stand up in front of everyone present (and especially nasty old Aunt Ida who never had a good thing to say) and sing these questions while trying not to make a mistake.

The Four Questions serve as a starting off point for the Seder. You’ll notice that the Four Questions are not in fact followed by the Four Answers. If that were the case, the Seder would be over by about 7:30. No, you have to learn and discuss the story of Passover, as told in the Haggadah, to figure out the right answers.

Still, I wonder whether everyone can actually answer each of the Four Questions. To review, here they are:

  1. On all other nights, we eat bread or matza. (Question 1A: why would anyone eat matza if you didn’t have to?) Tonight, why do we only eat matza?
  2. On all other nights, we eat any kind of herbs. Tonight, why do we eat bitter herbs?
  3. On all other nights, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?
  4. On all other nights, we eat while sitting or reclining. Tonight, why do we eat while reclining?

(I wonder whether this is where Jerry Seinfeld got his comedic inspiration: Hey guys, what’s the deal with bitter herbs….?)

So go back and read that third question again. It’s a particularly strange one–I suspect everyone sings it but doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s it’s really asking.

On all other night, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?

That’s actually two questions built into one: Why do we dip our foods, and what are the two times we do it?

The first time is easy of course. We dip our celery or other green vegetable into the salt water, to combine the images of the Festival of Spring with the tears of the Israelite slaves. But what’s the second dipping?

When I ask this question to kids and adults, they often answer that we dip our fingers into the wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Good guess, except that our fingers aren’t food, unless you’re attending the Donner Family Seder.

In fact, when it’s time to make the blessing over maror and eat it, you’re supposed to dip it into a little charoset–to mitigate the bitterness with a little bit of sweetness.

OK, so now we have our two dippings–but it doesn’t answer the larger question: Why? What does dipping foods have to do with Passover? The other questions are pretty obvious and straightforward: matza, bitter herbs, reclining at the table. Is dipping foods some weird Passover custom that we never learned?

In fact, like reclining at the table, dipping your foods (which On All Other Nights might reflect poor table manners) is a sign of luxury. Slaves have to grab whatever is there, eat it fast, and get back to work. But now we’re a free people–we can sit, take our time with our food, dip one kind into another, and really savor the meal.

And now we can see that the Four Questions make a lot more sense. They’re structured in such a way to progress from slavery to freedom.

The first two questions–matza and maror–deal with what the Israelites experienced as slaves, while the last two questions–dipping and reclining–are a demonstration of how free people act.

Now go practice some more so Aunt Ida doesn’t give you the stink eye.

Creating a Safe Space-Time

The recent death of Stephen Hawking made me think of his famous work, A Brief History of Time. This book has been described as the most bestselling book that no one has ever finished. I was no exception. There was simply no way I could comprehend much of what was written (the illustrations were kind of cool–all I remember was showing a bowling ball on a sagging mattress to demonstrate the bending of space-time…or something.)

Pretend for a minute that Professor Hawking had been in the room with me while I was trying to decipher his book. At some point, he might have asked me, “Do you have any questions about what I wrote?”

Could I have even come up with one question? The material was so far over my head, so incomprehensible, so removed from any context or anything I had ever experienced–I would likely have sat in a slack-jawed stupor–unable to even formulate the first question.

In that moment, I would have become the seder’s infamous Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask.

In many Haggadot, this last of the four types of learners at the Seder is often pictured as a baby or very young child. Someone who has not yet learned how to even speak, and therefore is literally unable to pose a question. But this overlooks so many educated and intelligent individuals who for whatever reason have simply not had the benefit of a Jewish education, who have never been a part of any Jewish ritual–but who want to be. It just so happens that what many of us consider the most basic Jewish knowledge is simply not part of their background.

Soon enough, the Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask becomes the Child Who is Afraid to Ask. We may say, “There are no stupid questions!” but do we succeed in actually creating such an atmosphere? Is there a secret comfort that we take in being “in the know”? Is it satisfying to use our Hebrew and Yiddish expressions with each other, laughing at our inside jokes, while realizing that not everyone around us is in on it?

This is one instance where I think the ancient rabbis got it right. It’s our job, whether at our own Seder tables or as a Jewish community, to make sure that we’re not being exclusive or cliquish, that we don’t somehow think we’re more Jewish than others because we already know this stuff. Let’s make our congregations and our communities judgement-free zones where any person, irrespective of Jewish background, can feel welcomed and comfortable seeking knowledge.

As long as they don’t ask me to explain space-time.

It’s Snark Week

One of the most important ways of understanding the Bible is to remember the saying of the Rabbis:

דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם
The Torah speaks in the language of mankind.

That is, the text is purposely presented in a way that we can relate to. So it should come as no surprise that as we read of various Biblical characters communicating with each other, we occasionally find priceless examples of dry wit, irony, and downright sarcasm. Who can’t relate to that?

Therefore, I present to you my:

Top Five Sarcastic Biblical One-Liners:

5. God rolls His eyes at Jonah
Jonah 4:4

Anyone who raised a teenager can relate to Jonah. Filled with melodrama and narcissism, Jonah always makes everything about him. Towards the end of the story, Jonah complains to God that the entire errand of warning the Ninevites of their impending destruction was just one big waste of his time. So later, while Jonah was sitting in the unbearable heat, God provided a big plant to provide shelter and relief. The next day, God took the plant away. Jonah, attempting to win Best Actor in a Short Film, raised the back of his hand to his forehead, and cried to the heavens, “Oh! I would rather die than live like this!”

To which God, in an uncharacteristic instance of perfect understatement and not just a little sarcasm, replied,

“Are you really upset?”


4. On behalf on an ungrateful nation
Exodus 14:11

Just what do you have to do to get any respect? The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, are finally free. They personally witnessed the power of God, and watched the Egyptians suffer 10 devastating plagues, including the death of every first born son. They were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night (early GPS–God Positioning System). So it was pretty clear by this time that Moses and God had their backs.

As they were approaching the shore of the Red Sea, with the pursuing Egyptian army in the distance, one guy, obviously the ancestor of a modern day temple president, went up to Moses and asked,

“There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, so you had to bring us out here to die?”


3. Animals? What animals?
I Samuel 15:14

The story of King Saul and King Agag is a deeply poignant and troubling episode. Saul was instructed by God to wage war against the tribe of Amalek and utterly wipe out everyone and everything. In a time when putting the males to death might be common, this command was way over the top–it specifically included not only the men, but every woman, child, baby. And every animal. Complete genocide.

King Saul, probably in way over his head, obviously had major reservations about carrying out such an order. He ended up sparing his counterpart King Agag (letting the vanquished king live was common in war–sort of like professional courtesy), and allowing his soldiers take some of the cattle.

God sent his prophet Samuel to confront Saul and call him out on his disobedience. Samuel asks Saul, “Did you completely follow God’s command?” Saul replies confidently, “Yes, I did everything God asked me.”

Samuel uses his dry wit to make his point, as he looks around and sees a bunch of cattle that used to belong to the Amalekites. With pinpoint timing, he asks Saul,

“So what’s this bleating of sheep I hear all around?”



2. For this we sent you to Brandeis?
Judges 14:3

Before there was Fatal Attraction, there was the story of Samson. What most people know of this gem of a story is a guy who likes to wear his hair long and the femme fatale who tricks him into getting a haircut with dire consequences. In fact, the entire narrative of Samson is a story of romance, desire, betrayal, anger, and violence. It was also written with a great deal of irony and comedy.

First we read of Samson’s beginnings. Because his parents, Manoach and Mrs. Manoach (that’s correct–the Tanach can’t even bother giving her a name), had great trouble conceiving a child (a common motif in Biblical stories), they pledge their soon-to-be-born son to the service of God as a Nazarite. Among other restrictions, that meant no wine and no haircuts. Samson is born, gets older, and goes on Spring Break to a city called Timnah, where he meets and falls for a Philistine woman. He returns home and excitedly tells his father that he’s getting married to this woman.

Samson’s father asks his son the question that is destined to reverberate throughout the next couple thousand years of Jewish life:

“What, there were no Jewish girls for you to marry?”


1. Dude, that’s my wife
Esther 7:8

The story of Esther that we read on Purim is one of the most familiar and well-known narratives of the entire Bible. It also happens to be a perfectly constructed short story, filled with effective literary techniques–foreshadowing, conflict, irony, and yes, a good deal of comedy.

There are a few points in the story that don’t get as much attention. One such passage provides what I think is the best laugh-out-loud moment of the entire Tanach. Towards the end of the story, Haman’s plot has completely unraveled, and he finally knows the jig is up and he’s in big trouble. Esther has identified him to King Achashverosh as the person who is seeking to wipe out her people, the Jews. The King is furious and in his anger, storms out of the room. Haman, overcome with the fact that he’s pretty much dead man walking now, feels faint and collapses right on top of Esther, who’s lying on her couch.

At this precise moment, King Achashverosh walks back into the room, takes in the scene in front of him, and with a timing and delivery bordering on sheer perfection, asks:

“So you thought you’d shtup my wife, too?”


B-B-B-Bad to the Bone?

You gotta hand it to those ancient rabbis–they sure knew how to tackle classroom management. In fact, we read about their nuanced understanding of effective pedagogical techniques each year at the Passover Seder.

Forget everything you thought you knew about education. The rabbis had it all figured out: there are simply four kinds of learners–the familiar four sons that appear in the Haggadah:

The Wise Son
The Wicked Son
The Simple Son
The Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

(Of course, in true traditional Jewish fashion, the women-folk were relegated to the kitchen, so we’re not sure what the daughters were up to.)

So which kind of kid do you think is the best? Which one might go on to become a Jewish professional or effective leader? Who is more apt to make Mom and Dad proud?

No brainer right? I think it’s the wicked child.

Like a lot of kids who seem to resist learning, I think the wicked child is the most misunderstood. Let’s take a closer look at how the Haggadah presents this type of learner.

We might imagine that he simply disappears during the Seder. Maybe he announces to everyone, “This is stupid!” and storms off to go partying and have an illicit bagel with his other hoodlum friends. But that’s not what happens at all. This kid is engaged. He’s present. He’s asking questions and challenging authority. Rather than absenting himself, he wants answers. And most surprising, he’s knowledgeable about the Seder and the Torah. He uses a direct quote from Exodus–What does this service mean to you?–and puts a sarcastic twist on it by emphasizing the words “to you,” challenging the adults in his life to explain why and how he should embrace these rituals. He wants in–but needs to see more.

In other words, what the rabbis of the Haggadah called the Wicked Son is really just a typical teenager.

And here’s where actually understanding the Hebrew text comes in handy, because in most translations I’ve read, this next part is simply omitted. When asked how we should handle such an awful child, the text reads:

.אף אתה הקהה את שיניו
Smack him in the teeth.

Obviously, those guys had very little patience for anything but blind obedience. That’s why they loved the wise child, an annoying little goody-two-shoes who sat right up front, always raised his hand first, and begged to be called on with the correct answer. (Good thing the Jews never believed in gym class, because this kid would have been toast.)

As for me, give me the wicked child any day. I much prefer to be around students who ask difficult questions, challenge established beliefs, and rethink the best way for them to engage in Jewish tradition.

Finger Puppets and Genocide

Long ago, I think some corporate executives within the Organization of Jewish Religion decided that they had a ratings problem.

Christian merch was flying off the shelves and their branding was expanding around the globe. The Jews felt they had something special–after all, it was their legacy product that set the stage for everything that came after. They had secured all the important celebrity endorsements–

“I’m proud to call the Jews My chosen people!”–God

–and had established their headquarters in a desirable Jerusalem neighborhood.

Still, the Christians were killing it. So the marketing executives in the corporate office set out to find out why. They quickly realized what every modern company knows so well–get the kids hooked and the customer stream will follow. Christmas was introduced with their new mascot–Santa Claus–which was also a brilliant piece of cross promotion with Coca Cola and brought in needed revenue. They unveiled the Easter Bunny–a bit controversial since the Bunny character inexplicably laid eggs and didn’t even have a passing connection to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it was an instant success and had a lasting effect on public school calendars for all time.

The report got sent upstairs–Target the kids!

Everyone got to work right away. It wasn’t easy. Many of our Jewish holidays deal with serious, complicated, and violent themes. There’s brutality and sexuality throughout. How do you turn an R-rated subject into something G-rated?

They began with Purim, and took a cold hard look at the holiday. A dubious leading man, Mordechai, schemes to place himself at the pinnacle of power using every Machiavellian trick in the book. He pimps out his nubile underage niece to the non-Jewish middle-aged king to secure a presence in the palace. He skulks around the grounds until he spots an opportunity to turn in would-be traitors to ingratiate himself with the king. He sets up the mighty but ultimately dim-witted Haman to take the fall for attempted genocide. Finally, in the climax of the story, the newly powerful Mordechai leads the Jews on a killing rampage throughout Shushan, wiping out 75,000 non-Jews who had been bent on their destruction.

The solution: Let’s get the kids to dress up and make a ton of noise. We’ll market character costumes and manufacture promotional noise-makers with Jewish stars and Torah logos on them.

Next came Chanukah. This one was tough. It was a rather dry festival commemorating a military victory. To further complicate matters, the victors in the story–the Hasmonean Dynasty–never made much of themselves after this episode. They themselves ended up assimilating and falling victim to the very thing which their recent ancestors had fought against. It was a fairly decent story of underdogs overcoming the odds, but how can you repackage this one for the kids?

The solution: We’ll create a new back story. Snazz it up with special effects–a divine miracle–and introduce a product that everyone has to have. Before this point, no one even knew what a menorah was, but soon enough it became the hot button product of the time, with people lining up around the shuk all night to get the latest release. Throw in a dreidl (with a hint of gambling to appeal to parents), and Chanukah became the must-celebrate holiday of the year for the whole family.

The marketing department even looked at stories from the Torah–in particular the story of Noah and the Flood. The team took a unflinching look at this story–how could they spin the needlessly violent and agonizing death of all humanity, not to mention the horrible suffering of all the animals on earth?

The solution: Focus instead on the very few animals that were actually spared, and portray Noah as a benevolent and avuncular figure who was simply along for the ride. Instead of worrying about the devastating effects of the flood, transform the ark into a cruise ship with lovable animals, bobbing happily along the waves on an extended tour of the ancient Middle East. Using the rainbow as their logo, this story of a happy man with cute pairs of animals became enshrined in children’s hearts forever.

Fast forward to today. This once-brilliant marketing campaign has become a victim of its own success. Every facet of Judaism seems tailored only for kids. The medium has become the message. This became apparent when I recently spied a certain product intended for kids at a Passover seder–Ten Plague Finger Puppets. Some Jewish company thought this was a good idea? OK, frogs are pretty amusing, and in fact, that particular plague was itself intended to be a somewhat comical jab at the Egyptians. But blood? Vermin? The Death of Every First Born Son and Animal??

In our Siddur, it explains that during Passover, except for the first two days, we recite an abbreviated version of Hallel, the series of Psalms and blessings added for every festival. The reason for this, according to Jewish tradition, is because our own joy and celebration must be tempered by our acknowledgment of the deaths of so many Egyptians, during the plagues and then their drowning in the Red Sea. An incredible Jewish concept–we don’t take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. That’s also the reason why we remove a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of the Ten Plagues at the seder. So should we wear our Finger Puppets while we take a drop of wine out of our cups?

Let’s make Judaism an adult religion again. Let’s not infantilize kids and teens and assume they can’t handle any serious subjects. Let’s struggle with reconciling the violent and anachronistic episodes of our tradition with living a life of holiness and community. Let’s come up with ways to explain a modern concept of what God is, what God means, and what God can be, and move away from the white-bearded father and king who lives in the sky that so many people learned about as children without the possibility of any more sophisticated and adult alternative.

I’m fully confident that our ratings will go up and we’ll once again establish brand loyalty.


We Have Met the Deity–and He is Us.

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Da lifnei mi atah omed

Know before whom you stand


These words commonly adorn the bimahs and arks of countless synagogues around the world, and presumably serve to remind us that we are in the presence of God (and to stop texting during services).

Instead, could these ubiquitous words carry another meaning?

One Shabbat morning while I was leading services, I was staring at this Hebrew phrase, and the thought occurred to me that rather than that conventional interpretation, this message might be thought of in an existential context. (And here you thought I was daydreaming during the service.)

What if the one who we are standing before is…ourself? The creation story as told in Genesis hints at this answer. The text specifically says that we are created in God’s image.

This perspective is further emphasized throughout Jewish tradition. The Hebrew word for prayer itself is להתפלל, l’hitpalel, a reflexive verb. By definition, we don’t pray for something, but rather to effect a change in ourselves. The act of praying, gathering together as a community, engaging in Jewish ritual…these are not actions meant to please some distant and invisible deity. We do these things to bring ourselves closer to each other and to connect with tradition. Our centuries-old charge is Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. We don’t pray to God to make that happen. We don’t recite a few words in the prayer book, throw up our hands, and say, “I’ve done my part. Now it’s in God’s hands.” Prayer is an inward act–it inspires us to see the world around us and seek to make a difference.

We are the agents of change, and our prayers help to provide the impetus for making that change.

Similarly, it’s much more powerful and compelling to think that it is we ourselves who must judge our own actions. When a person is accused of any type of destructive or dishonest action, don’t we often ask, “How can he face himself in the mirror?” We are perpetually in the position of looking over our own shoulders and evaluating our deeds.

In the Talmud, we read the story of Rabbi Yochanan’s students, who rushed to the rabbi’s deathbed, eager to get a blessing from their teacher before he died. Rabbi Yochanan, with his last words, told the students, “May you fear God as much as you fear man.” The students were confused and upset–how could such a respected scholar mean such a thing? Rabbi Yochanan explained, “When you commit a sin, your first thought is, I hope no one saw me.”

Know before whom you stand. You’re standing in front of yourself.


The Blooper Reel: Not-So-Great Moments in Cantorial History

Everyone loves watching the outtakes from a movie–sometimes presented during the credits or as part of the bonus features of the DVD. (Does anyone watch DVDs anymore??) Unfortunately, all of my scenes are live presentations with no chance to redo them.

I’ve had more than a few bloopers in my many years as a cantor. A few memorable ones come to mind:

Early in my career, I was soloing at services for one of the first times, and I was pretty nervous. When we got to the part when we announce the yahrzeits (the anniversary of a death) for the coming week, I not-so-eloquently announced, “The following yahrzeits will be celebrated during the coming week.” No one said anything to me after services, so either they weren’t paying attention, or they took pity on a newbie cantor.

Being inexperienced isn’t just nerve wracking–it can also be dangerous. At one of my first funerals, it was time for me to cut the mourner’s black ribbon with the little razor that the funeral home gives out. In a bit of nervous energy, I not only made a cut in the ribbon, but also succeeded in slicing my finger. But the show must go on–I surreptitiously grabbed a tissue, kept it wrapped around my finger for the entire service, and only bled on my book a little. No one ever noticed. Still, I’m happy that most funeral homes now use the self-tearing ribbons.

One Shabbat morning, it was the week before Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, when it’s traditional to add a prayer announcing the coming new month and exactly when it begins. That would have gone very smoothly had I actually bothered to look at a calendar ahead of time and seen not only what day the month began, but also which month it was. Before I started chanting the page, I had no choice but to do the walk of shame over to the rabbi’s side for a quick whispered conversation. Lesson learned.

Finally, one of my all time favorite and memorable moments in the history of services. During a bar mitzvah many years ago, the family had assigned the honor of reading the Prayer for Peace to a friend who had traveled in from South America.

Do you know what happens to the Prayer for Peace when it is recited with a South American accent? It turns out that the long ē sound in the word “peace” doesn’t quite make it all the way. (Go ahead, I’ll wait till you try that out.)

And so, while the guest proceeded to recite the now unfortunate line, “And may a great peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea,” I stared laser beams into the carpet in front of me.

Does anyone else have any good work-related bloopers to share? Do accountants find it funny when they add two numbers wrong? Do doctors ever say, “So there I was about to cut the left arm…”

I guess it’s just a cantor thing.