Monday, January 27, 2014


Parshat Terumah
26 Shvat, 5774
January 27, 2014

A professor of mine told me the following story. Just after he received his doctorate, he attended a seminar with an eminent thinker in his field. *Said eminent thinker asked, “So, young man, what do you do?” My professor responded, “I’m a scholar.” The eminent thinker replied, “Son, ‘scholar’ is what other people call you, never what you call yourself.”
The same is true for humility. It is a virtue sought by an individual, but a title that only others can bestow.

Humility seems to be making a comeback among those of my generation. The Fleet Foxes even wrote humility’s revival into a song: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”

I greet any measure of retreat from pride with eagerness. Societal arrogance comes with a corollary blindness to the suffering of others.

The problem comes when, in a Facebook world, we tout our achievements without being a total…ah…you know what I mean.

Enter fauxmility, or the humble brag, most often expressed when a person says or posts, “I am humbled” proximate to the incredible honor they’ve just received. The problem here is not the intention – most people come from an honest and good place, and want to share their accomplishment while eschewing elitism. The problem is the words. To express that one is humbled when one is in fact elevated twists the meaning of the word. Hearing words that function against their apparent usage—a familiarity we acquire by suffering through political campaigns—makes us all wary and distrustful.

The Bible has an instance of saying, “I am humbled” – katonti (lit. I am small). Exactly one instance, I should point out. It comes in the context of asking for a favor: when Jacob prays for God to save him from his brother Esav, he says, “I am humbled by all of the kindness and truth that You have done for your servant, for with my staff I crossed the Jordan and now I’ve become [blessed enough] to divide myself into two camps (for protection).” (Genesis 32:11)

However, the phrase comes in the context of the sentiment, “you’ve given me more than I deserve, yet I ask for more” – that is to say, a position of weakness. When a person is in a position of strength, it is very difficult to explicitly mention humility without raising the specter of its opposite.

This may appear to be a purely linguistic issue, but it is not. Pride is a tricky, sneaky thing; it will easily ride backwards on our words to twist our ways of thinking. Pride occasions myopia, and both ethical goodness and spiritual wisdom require a clear perspective. Humility keeps our internal compass centered.

So perhaps, when sharing our latest honor, our job should be to avoid expressions of either pride or humility at all, and simply focus on an unadulterated good for the soul – gratitude. And, despite the way the internet pushes our exhibitionism, there may be times for us to keep our successes as private victories, wholly to ourselves.

* Names have been concealed to protect the innocent…and the guilty.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Parshat Mishpatim
20 Tevet, 5772
January 21st, 2014

Every year, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue partners with Turner AME Church for our Martin Luther King Jr./Abraham Joshua Heschel Shabbat. 800 people pack the synagogue to the rafters (our sanctuary is two-floored). This Shabbat, and our visit to their service on Sunday morning, are by far the most spiritually intense experiences of our year.

Our two institutions share a special relationship. Sixth & I was the original home of Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue still extant and thriving. However the community moved as demographics shifted, and the synagogue was bought in 1951 - by Turner AME Church.

Turner lived in that unique space for over 50 years, until their community moved away - at which point the church sold the original synagogue to three Jewish businesspeople, who then created Sixth & I.

What’s extraordinary to me about MLK Shabbat is how well it works. Prayer is so often experienced as a burden. But during this Shabbat (and on Sunday morning), our people seem to be set free. As someone who has spent a great deal of time and passion in davenning (the Yiddish word for prayer), MLK is one of the few times of year that I find the spiritual high natural to the more intense prayer experiences towards which I gravitate.

Some may claim that MLK Shabbat’s success is its novelty: basically, some version of “hey, isn’t it fun to pray with an AME church - they’re so much less boring than we are.” This is what Pastor Lamar meant when he described, “the Traveling Black Church show.”

But he, Rabbi Shira, and I do not think that that is the case here. It is unlikely that our relationship with Turner would survive if our shared prayer was a case of spiritual spectatorship. Something else is happening.

And I think the something else is that, on MLK Shabbat, the room is filled with believers.

Whatever one wants to say about our two communities, we believe in the shared dream of civil rights and the ongoing pursuit of dignity for all. And though we may falter while chasing that dream, or struggle to imperfectly implement just conditions, or even harbor resentment towards each other for the failures and delays of justice, we believe, with full hearts, in civil equality. Dr. King was not just the inspiring minister of a religion other than ours - he is a prophet of the religion of human dignity in which we believe.

There are a myriad of details to parse out in order to explain what I’ve described above. But for the Jews out there, what should be said is that MLK Shabbat is what prayer looks like when pray-ers believe. The issue with our services is not primarily that they are too long, nor in a foreign language, nor failures in Jewish education, nor failures of clergy, nor of lay people – it is that we have lost shared belief.

The great spiritual challenge of the 21st century will not be to create a new kind of prayer service; it will be to create, together, Jewish spiritual propositions which speak to heart of the contemporary condition: that is, it will be finding a Judaism in which we can believe again.

So the thing to do is to lean in, to borrow from Sheryl Sandberg. Rather than relentlessly search for new exterior forms for prayer, we have to reach into the content of Torah, and fashion spiritual beliefs that speak to the expanded knowledge and new ideas of the last centuries, so that we are filled with the holy fire. Prayer is an accurate representation of our spiritual state. Learning to pray again is the great religious work of our time.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Practice, and All Is Coming

By Greg Marzullo

When I was a child, my grandmother bought two movies for me: "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments." 

I was absolutely obsessed with "The Ten Commandments," and in fact, I still do a mean Nefretiri impression when pushed. ("They know you as a man of God...but I know you as a man.") Aside from the pageantry, I loved the parting of the Red Sea, when all of God's incalculable power was revealed in Technicolor glam.

Imagine my surprise, then, as a child, when the recently escaped slaves disobeyed God so brazenly, so soon (cue Cecil B. DeMille's ridiculous golden calf sequence replete with the sins of sensual grape-eating and licentious piggy-back rides). After all of God's hard work - the plagues against Egypt, the parting of the sea, the destruction of their enemies - the Israelites seemed downright ungrateful.

This week's Torah portion, which includes the parting of the sea and the appearance of manna in the wilderness, highlights the nascent community's grumblings, but Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, writing for, points out that miracles never change the heart of a person. Only practice does that. He writes:

"The shift from biblical to rabbinic Judaism reflects the growing, divine insight that the way to mold a sacred people lies not in external miracles, but in inner transformation. That transformation is accomplished through small, prosaic progress."

This reminded me of a line from the Indian sage Patanjali's "Yoga Sutras," one of the oft-sited classical era philosophical texts of yoga. In the text, he's talking about meditation and the integration of yogic principles into everyday life.

"Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness."

The big, Disney-esque moments of a spiritual life are breathtaking - miracles, epiphanies, communion with God - but perhaps these are only meant to inspire us to go further, work harder, journey deeper into the moment-to-moment practice of devotion. 

I meditate twice a day, every day, no matter what. If I'm out, and I have to sit in the Whole Foods cafeteria to get my time in, that's what I do. I've meditated on trains, planes and in automobiles. Cars have beeped their horns impatiently while I've meditated in Dupont Circle. Owners have called off their dogs from running over to me excitedly when I've been in Logan Circle. Tourists have taken pictures of me sitting on a bench on the Mall. 

Why the commitment? Because as Rabbi Artson points out, molding ourselves in the image of God takes time, commitment and deep practice. Even if you're a little unsure about the reality of a divine being, look to science. Neural pathways run deeply in the brain, and it takes the longterm practice of another habit in order to eventually render an older behavioral pattern irrelevant. 

In the Torah, Ha-Shem's miracles don't dissuade the Israelites from responding out of habitual fears. Only the passage of time and, more importantly, the practice of time, will craft a disparate people filled with negative mental/emotional/spiritual patterns into people at one with their God. 

It's important to remember that these stories are not just about some ancient peoples, our ancestors to whom we look as paragons of the good ol' days when God performed cinematic acts of wonder. These stories are guides into our own consciousness and of how to experience the miracle of Adonai within us. 

To paraphrase the great yoga teacher Patabhi Jois, "Practice, and all is coming." 

Imprisoned Knowledge

12 Shvat, 5774
January 13th, 2014

Sometimes, knowledge can be a prison. Rabbi Eleazer, one of the great teachers of the Mishna (200 C.E.), was known for his encyclopedic knowledge. His teacher described him as a “cistern that never loses a drop.” (Avot 2:8)

But as he was dying, he called out, “Woe to my arms that are like two rolled up Torah scrolls.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 68a)

 “Rolled up,” he said, as in unused, put away, unread. His great knowledge died with him.

The problem isn’t acquiring knowledge. We live in a city and nation of smart, knowledgeable people. Experts abound.

The problem is passing that knowledge on to others. We aren’t exactly awash in a surfeit of curiosity. Even the most brilliant thinker has to learn how to transmit knowledge. Otherwise the learning acquired over a lifetime stays trapped within the mind that acquired it. Every teacher will spend the majority of her life working to cross the divide between the knowledge trapped inside her and the students waiting to receive it. All teaching is a prison break.

Which brings us to the role of the student. The Talmud also teaches, “No prisoner can free himself from prison.” (Talmud Brakhot 5b) As adult students, we cannot rely on an expert’s teaching ability. Great wisdom doesn’t always come with great presentation.  Our job is to nurse a hunger for knowledge, and to learn to reach out to those who possess it, no matter how, or in whom, it is contained.

This is the difference between passive and active learning, and the reason why Jewish learning is never quiet. Never just receive knowledge; reach out, with your voice, your arguments, all the force of your mind, to engage with your teacher and make sure that the learning is passed from one person to another.