Taking it out on the Little Guy


Hope you all enjoy this commentary I offered during the Sim Shalom online Shabbat morning service.  Join me next time August 6 at 8:30am PST/11:30 EST by going to www.simshalom.com.

In the portion for this Shabbat, we have a king named Balak.  Balak is not too happy about the fact that the Israelites (who, by the way, are still in the wilderness heading toward the Promised Land) seem to be able to conquer whatever enemies they encounter.  Knowing the Israelites are protected by their God, Balak figures he needs some strong magic to defeat them, so he calls upon Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse them.

Now, Bilaam is not an Israelite, but he’s caught on to the power of their God and not only believes in that God but seems able to have full-fledged conversations with God.  So, when Balak sends messengers to ask Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam talks to God and says no.   But over time, they wear him down, and God says he can go as long as he only says and does what God tells him to.

So, off Bilaam goes with the king’s soldiers, riding on his donkey, when an angel of God stands in their way.   Apparently God decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all to let Bilaam hang with the king’s soldiers.   Perhaps God could sense that Bilaam’s allegiance was wavering.  The donkey can see this angel, and she stops in her tracks (yes, this is a girl donkey).  Bilaam is quite angry at the donkey because he can’t see the angel, so he beats and beats her.  And then, the donkey does the unexpected.  She speaks.  She says to her rider, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?  Look, I am the she-ass you have been riding all along until this day!  Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”  

Bilaam realizes the error of his ways, and with that, his eyes also open so he can see the angel of God too.  Now all is understood about what he must do.  In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them, naturally angering the king to no end.

As I was thinking about this portion, it occurred to me that it has a great deal in common with the Harry Potter story.  Once I chatted with my 14 year old (who knows all things Harry Potter), I was sure.

In Harry Potter, the king Balak is played by, of course, the evil Lord Voldemort.  Both of them are powerful.  Both of them act out of fear of their own deaths.  Both of them send others to do much of their dirty work.  God is represented by Dumbledore, the ever-wise, good, and powerful wizard who is lovingly protective of his “nation”, but will kick butt if he needs to, in spite of his peaceful soul.  Balak is Snape, the teacher who picks endlessly on Harry and whom no one quite knows if he is an instrument of Lord Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s until the very end.   The angel is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, who comes to the rescue only to those who believe in the Good and is no help to those who don’t. 

And who is the donkey?  Why, Harry Potter himself!  He is “ridden” constantly by his teacher Snape… cornered, accused, and threatened at every turn.  And why?  Because (at least while he’s young) he is easy prey for Snape’s anger, and because Harry has his mother’s eyes which are wide open to the Good while Snape’s are too confused to fully see. 

It’s easy to understand why fantastical stories such as this one in the Torah or Harry Potter are popular.  They have obvious sides of good and evil, and there are clear heroes for whom we can root.  But most intriguing are the middle-men, Bilaam and Snape, the ones we aren’t quite sure whether they are part of the light or part of the dark.

They are us.

None of us are Voldemort and none of us are Dumbledore.  None of us are Balak or God. We are all somewhere in between.  We all serve something that might be considered a “dark lord”.  It could be an abusive relationship, a nasty boss whom we feel we have to appease, our egos, or an addiction of some sort no matter how minor that addiction is, but we’ve all got something. However, we all serve light masters too… children who remind us who we really want to be, supportive spouses, mentors, parents, communities, faith structures, and friends.  We find ourselves battling with these two sides all the time, and often the negative voices seem to be louder than the positive.  And while we are arguing with those voices in our heads, we may find there is someone younger or smaller or weaker we can let out some of our frustrations on because we believe they won’t fight back.  Maybe we find ourselves being less than our best to an employee, or a waiter, or a less popular kid in class, or a bagger at the market…  Maybe we hurt the ones we love most, like our children or our spouses, because we know they will forgive us. 

But maybe, just maybe, those “little guys” are the guys who can see the Truth, who can see the angel, who can be heard by Fawkes.  We might not consider them enough, or give them enough respect to notice that they are staring straight into the eyes of an angel of God.  We miss the opportunity to learn from them because it appears they have nothing to teach. But let’s remember the idea that we should treat every human as if he/she was the Messiah, because if a Messiah comes, it might not appear as a king or as a president, but as some kind of quiet request.  The student.  The employee.  The waiter.  The homeless. 

We may not be sorcerers or wizards, but we all harness an enormous amount of power over each person we encounter every day.  Which master do we serve as we engage with each one?  Do we act from love or fear?  Let’s be truthful with ourselves, and when we catch ourselves operating from fear, let’s try to open our eyes, see the angel before us with a hand open-palmed in a gesture of “Stop!”, and try again from a place of love.

Life is a Sonata

Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art, and today my life feels like a sonata.

In sonata form in music, there are three sections: exposition, development and recapitulation.  The exposition offers a musical identity, the development plays with that identity by building tension with a sense that this journey may be moving in another direction, and then the recapitulation brings the listener home again by returning, at least somewhat, to that original identity.

I had a wonderful professor in graduate school who explained the sonata form in terms of going to college.  He used to say that the exposition was the years we spent growing up, the development was our moving away and going to college, and the recapitulation was returning home.  Once we are home again, we are in the same old house, in the same old room with the same old parents, and yet everything has changed.

I have been the Cantor of a synagogue in Santa Monica for four years… until last Friday.  That role was a very integral part of my identity and became the dominating force of my life’s schedule.  Before that, I worked, but only part time.  Mostly I was a mom.  I cooked dinner, tucked in my children most nights, and had plenty of time to get to the market or to a yoga class.  But during my four years of working at the synagogue, being present for those simple tasks became more of a luxury than a norm.  Yet, I am home again.  This week, I cooked dinner every night.  I read to my seven year old.  I went to yoga.  I dealt with many things that didn’t get dealt with for a long time.

Now, while doing the dishes and sending the children upstairs for bed, I almost feel as if the last four years of my life were a dream.  Here I am standing in the same house, in front of the same sink, telling the same kids (albeit a bit older) to brush their teeth.  Did those four years happen at all?  Have I really been here the whole time?

Of course not.  I’m just in my life’s sonata recapitulation.  I was someone.  Then my life developed, and there was beauty and tension and direction and mystery, but just like musical form, it wasn’t to develop forever.  Eventually I was to return home.  And yet, I am not the same, and I will never be the same.

Every day is a sonata form.  We separate for life’s experiences, and then return to one another slightly altered by the events of the day.  We are always changing and evolving, and as we go to sleep each night, we are never exactly the same people who laid their heads on those pillows the night before.  Our families and friends may expect, the next time they see us, that we are just as we always were, but that can’t be true.  It’s never true.

What I am learning is that we all need room to explore and discover new strengths and weaknesses in ourselves.  We need to feel the freedom to try new things, professionally, culturally, and spiritually.  We all expect such evolution from our children, but we grown-ups need just as much space to continually redefine ourselves.   Sometimes it is difficult and frightening to evolve or allow others to do so, for what if those who love us most don’t love what we become?  What if we don’t love the changes we behold?  But we have to be brave for ourselves and for them.

So, maybe we can try (what seems to me) a nearly impossible task… to look upon our loved ones each day with fresh eyes and ask ourselves and them, “Who are we today?”   And perhaps we can give our friends and family a little breathing room to define and redefine and change and return and try not to pass judgement too soon on the continually glorious acts of creation that we all are.  My husband and my children gave me that space.  They supported my following a dream, even though they had to make sacrifices and be unsure about the future.  I will never, ever regret following that dream, and I have to thank them for giving me that space.  And while I know there are new challenges and opportunities around the corner waiting for me, for now, I am very glad to be in my recapitulation and be home.

Yom Kippur/Forgiveness and the Major Scale

L’Shana Tovah everyone!!

Thought I would share the “mini-sermon” I gave at our Kol Nidre service.  Enjoy!


I was taking a walk with my music in shuffle mode. I usually listen on shuffle because often, something I would have never chosen, pops up and inspires me.

Last week, I took a walk and a choral piece called “Solfeggio”, by Arvo Part, filled my headphones. This piece is nothing more than a major scale sung on “do re mi” in a long crescendo. That’s it. But each voice part sustains its note while the next emerges. Sometimes it’s the note right next to it, sometimes it’s the same pitch an octave away. The result isn’t simple the way a piece using the major scale usually is. It’s incredibly dissonant.

As the piece continues, the notes are held longer, the crescendo grows and grows, the dissonances make the space, the ears, the whole body vibrate as magnificent crunches and clusters wash over the listener. It is an unbelievable work of art.

I conducted this piece once with an adult community choir. After the concert, a woman in the audience told me I had “no business doing that atonal music.” I smiled at her and said, “But it’s a major scale.”

Of course I knew what she meant. The major scale is so obvious. So lovely. So easy. Yet, it can be complicated, dissonant, a little uncomfortable, even (as I think it was for that lady) threatening.

Just like saying “I’m sorry.”

Here we are on the eve of the day dedicated to “I’m sorry’s”. So simple, so beautiful, and yet a little uncomfortable… Maybe even downright scary.

When we started our process of self examination at Selichot, we read in the prayer book the variety of sins we needed to consider, and it was painful. Hearing and speaking them made me want to escape. For the sins I know I have committed, it felt way easier to run away than to face the “I’m sorry’s” that I owe. At the same time, I also felt a different pain because I believe some of those sins were perpetrated against me, and I fear no “I’m sorry” is ever coming my way. And even if it did, can we forgive all things?

But guess what? Yom Kippur is not only about saying I’m sorry. It is also about forgiveness… Not God’s forgiveness. Our forgiveness.

In the book “To Be a Jew” by Hayim Halevy Donin, he wrote in his chapter about the Holy Days:

“Where attempts to pacify take place, the grieved party must feel it incumbent upon himself to extend forgiveness with a full heart. If he stubbornly persists in refusing to be pacified, he is regarded as cruel.”

Repentance is a two way street. There is an action and a necessary reaction.

It is said that we need to treat all people as if they are the Messiah. We consider this notion easily when we see someone in need. But I often think, that if such a test was to be sent, the Messiah would come in the form of a person I can’t stand. A person who hurts me. A person who creates stress in me. How would I handle the conflict If that person was the Messiah?

Let’s all think about the people in our lives with whom we have unfinished emotional business. Let’s Include those we have wronged and those who have wronged us… very often they are one in the same, aren’t they? Let’s even close our eyes, empty our thoughts, and really see them in our mind’s eyes. It can be stressful to invite them into our space, but let’s be brave and try. And let’s not forget to include ourselves, because I bet all of us had moments when we were harsh and unforgiving to ourselves.

Now, let’s send them an apology, right here and now… if for nothing else, simply for the fact that tension exists. Let’s experiment with sending them forgiveness too, no matter what the sin, and open our minds to accepting those people, faults and all. Let’s shake their hands. Let’s agree to disagree. Let’s understand them for who they are and be honest with ourselves about who we are. Let’s say to them, right here, right now, out loud: “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” Maybe one of them is the Messiah.

Now, in reality, there is probably no Messiah in our midst, and the apologies we are waiting for may never come. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. If we release ourselves from the anguish of holding on to old hurts, then we are free of them no matter what is said or not said. And now that we are a little less burdened, maybe we are also a little less afraid to say our face to face “I’m sorry’s,” the ones we owe to the world, to ourselves and to each other.

Yom Kippur is a difficult day without comforts or nourishment. But let’s not get so stuck in the discomfort that we miss that it is, in fact, a beautiful day. What a gift to be together, supporting one another as we face our errors but also look forward to a life renewed. That choral piece wouldn’t have been a work of art if it was only simple. The discomfort is what makes it hauntingly, stunningly beautiful.

May our discomforts in the day ahead lead to our lives being works of art.