As the High Holidays near, we joyously welcome our new rabbi, Matthew Kaufman, to KI.  Rabbi Kaufman brings a wealth of experience, both congregational and scholarly, to his role with us, along with deep knowledge of Kehillat Israel and its culture, having grown up and become bar mitzvah here.

Although the current pandemic means we must hold services online during the Days of Awe, Rabbi Kaufman is making plans for in-person (but physically distanced) activities that will allow face-to-face time with congregants—including tashlich on the first second of Rosh Hashana and small-group gatherings in KI members’ yards and other outdoor spaces.
Members will be hearing more about that soon, and non-members can get more information by emailing But for now, we welcome Rabbi Kaufman!

A note from Rabbi Zimmerman

Dear KI members,

Even though it has taken me this long to get back to you, I can’t begin to tell you how touched and grateful I am for the warmth of the celebration and “parade” June 6-7. Elischa and I were deeply moved by all your kind words. And the masks, the Amazon gift certificate, and the mezuzah are all deeply appreciated and will remind us of our dear friends at KI as we travel and then get settled in our new home.

These are very strange and challenging times, and I regret leaving you having to still contend with online services and activities for the foreseeable future. Fortunately we developed ample experience since March in sustaining Jewish community life even on the Zoom platform, so I am confident that you will continue to flourish. I am also grateful to leave KI in Matthew Kaufman’s capable hands. You and we have prepared hard for this transition, and I believe the benefits will continue to pay off in the years to come.

I wish you all the best of health, the strength and patience to persevere in difficult situations, and the continued joy of KI community life now and in the future.


Rabbi Michael Zimmerman

Statement from the Board of Directors and Rabbi Zimmerman on George Floyd, Policing, and Public Protests

.לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ
.לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ
Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.
Do not hate your brother in your heart. (Lev. 19:16-17)

At Congregation Kehillat Israel, we are pained and disturbed by the events unfolding across our country, including in our hometown of Lansing. The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department has once again laid bare the fact that too often our current policing system does not value Black lives. Our hearts break for his young daughter, who now will have to grow up without her dad. Our hearts break for his community, who lovingly knew him as Big Floyd. In the short span of eight minutes and 46 seconds, Mr. Floyd lost his life and the lives of those who loved him were irrevocably changed. In less than 10 minutes, George Floyd became yet another Black man killed by American police.

Our hearts also break for the thousands of people all over the country taking to the streets to peacefully protest this violence, only to be met with yet more violence. Whether it is a video of tear gas being used against non-violent demonstrators or an account of police attacking protestors without provocation, the information flooding our news feeds raises many urgent questions about how our law enforcement handles protests.

Jewish tradition teaches that every human being is born carrying a spark of the Divine. We are all awesomely and wondrously made betzelem elokim, in the image of G-d. It is our duty as Jews to stand up for those whose inherent holiness is being demeaned and disrespected. Thus, we cannot be silent when we see racist violence and prejudice on full display as we have over the past week, for we are commanded, “Tzedek! Tzedek tirdof! Justice! Justice shall you pursue!” (Deut. 16:20).

The Prophet Isaiah says in the haftarah we read every Yom Kipur, that “thoughts and prayers” in difficult times are not enough. We must “unlock the fetters of wickedness… and break off every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Jewish communities the world over must take hard looks at ourselves, evaluate how we can best be allies to Black people and other people of color inside and outside of our communities, and spring into action to “untie the bonds” of structural racism wherever we find it.

We stand in full support of our Black friends, neighbors, and family members. Congregation Kehillat Israel says, without hesitation: Black lives matter.

In addition to this statement, we sign onto the Reconstructing Judaism and Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association’s June 2nd statement “Standing up for Racial Justice and Against Racial Violence.”  We echo their demands for reform, accountability, and justice.


Kehillat Israel Board of Directors

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman

Interview with Rabbi Zimmerman on WKAR today at 4:45 pm

Interview with Rabbi Zimmerman – This will air again at 4:45 pm today on WKAR.

90.5 WKAR, copy and paste the link below in your browser.

The feast of Passover arrives Wednesday at sundown. The eight-day celebration is one of the most important events in Judaism, and it’s also significant to

Passover 2020: Finding Triumph In Tragedy
The feast of Passover arrives Wednesday at sundown. The eight-day celebration is one of the most important events in Judaism, and it’s also significant to


A Message From the Rabbi

A message from the rabbi

Dear Friends at KI,

A couple of days ago I came home from a peaceful trip in isolation up north. After seeing nobody for 3 days and being more or less off the grid, it was a shock to return to what felt like a strange new world. One thing immediately became clear: as long as you need to be in self-quarantine, we at KI need to let you know that we are here for you, we are thinking of you, we are praying for you, and the Board and I are in the process of setting in motion quite a number of activities to bring KI to you.

I sent a message earlier about the forthcoming online Shabbat service. I envision that we broadcast all planned services, not to mention classes and social-cultural activities. If I have my way, we will no longer announce that an activity has been “cancelled.’ Through communication technology we can bring nearly everything we do to most KI homes. If you own a computer and have an internet connection, we can help you access simple forms of video conferencing.

We are working to expand bikkur cholim so everyone who is isolated and in an “at-risk” category can get food, supplies, or whatever else you need.

Most importantly, know that KI is here for you. Even though our facilities are closed, Katherine will be working from home to answer your questions and service your needs. The Board and other congregational leaders are working with me to develop programs and activities. And I am completely here for you in this current period of isolation. If you need to talk, do not hesitate to contact me. And hopefully by that time I will have already contacted you.

>From my contacts both in the Jewish world and in the interfaith world, there is an incredible amount of creative and exciting work being done to reach out to congregational members and offer support. There are far more options available than we have the time and the staff to provide, but we will do what we can. I am always ready to provide resources and offer recommendations, but I believe that we can best serve your needs if you let us know what these are. Please contact me with your needs, your wishes, and your suggestions. How can we be there for you, and for your friends in the congregation?

Regretfully neither medical interventions, social isolation, nor prayer will make this pandemic vanish as quickly as it descended on us; at the same time these “weapons” of science, hygiene, and religion will all play a significant role in limiting the number of severe cases. We are all doing our part, and even if we can’t hug one another or tear challah together we can still be a community of love, support, and connection. Our people have survived for thousands of years, enduring the most unimaginable hardships. And we will survive the current scourage, most likely emerging as a stronger, more cohesive tribe than we were before.

With blessings and prayers of health and safety for you and your loved ones,

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman

D’var Torah: Vayeshev

Our parashah this week begins the story of Joseph, a man destined for greatness by virtue of his extraordinary gifts and good luck. It certainly was not his political acumen that got him into power. Quite to the contrary, he repeatedly proved to be his own worst enemy, getting ahead in the world in spite of himself.

The story opens with Joseph bringing bad reports about his brother to their father Jacob. Jacob for his part, with a long track record of a disastrous insensitivity to family dynamics, rewarded the snitch with lavish gifts. Needless to say, his brothers weren’t crazy about him.

When I first visited KI as a student rabbi for Rosh Hashanah, knowing nobody in Lansing or at this shul, a man came up to me after the services and let me know how much he appreciated my d’var Torah. After that he kept smiling at me, to the point that I was almost getting embarrassed. In any case, he could have taught Joseph a lesson that it’s a lot easier to get ahead in the world if you show your appreciation and friendliness.

Joseph next bungled whatever good will he had left by telling not only his brothers, but his father as well, of a dream in which all of them would be bowing down to him. It’s one thing to brag about one’s power, and quite another to quietly demonstrate it. On my next visit to KI after Yom Kippur, a late afternoon Shabbat walk had been planned through Scott Woods, to be followed by havdalah and cider back in the social hall. The plan was to end up at Hawk Island, where cars were parked to shuttle us back to KI. Unfortunately, since we didn’t make it to Hawk Island until after sundown, the gate leading to the county park had been locked for the night. Don’t worry, said a man in our group – you’ll never guess who. He got on his cellphone and ten minutes later a patrol car came around and an officer opened the gate. “Good evening, Mr. Wiener,” the officer said. David greeted him by name, asked about his family, and we were on our way.

Through Joseph’s naïve boasting and bungling, he nearly got himself killed. While it was only good luck that saved his hide, his extraordinary managerial powers got him a position as caretaker for a prominent Egyptian official. And even though house-slave is usually considered a dead-end job, Joseph managed to rise to a position of increasing responsibility, prestige, and benefits. At this point, our two stories converge for a while. On my next monthly visit to Lansing, I picked up a copy of City Pulse, intrigued by the cover story, “Is this the most powerful man in Lansing?” The article suggested that the quiet man with inside connections had more going for him than I realized. It also depicted man behind the mayor in words reminiscent of the retired volunteer who has given so much to this congregation:

The mild-mannered David Wiener has become a familiar face in Lansing over the last ten years.

Former Mayor David Hollister said. “It was really important for me to leave someone behind who could keep the continuity that we had built in the city, and David was that person. He understands the big picture when it comes to politics and this city.”

He has emerged as more of a public figure. During the Capitol Loop controversy, for example, Wiener was clearly running the show for the city. Such activities smack of political ambition. “The idea of running for office has been brought up from time to time,” Wiener said, “but in order to run for office, I would have to give up what I’m doing, and that’s just not what I’m looking for right now.”

His announcement comes as welcome news to his supporters, especially the leadership of neighborhood groups who say that Wiener has become an integral part of their relationship with the city.

“We know that we can go to Mr. Wiener, and that he’ll make every effort to get things done,” said Anita Beavers, president of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association.

“He’s always got a handle on everything,” Benavides said. “He knows this city inside and out and he’s incredibly committed.”

Incredibly committed might be putting it mildly. Wiener says that he spends an average of 12 hours per day doing his job.

“It’s not all at the office. I do a lot of reading and writing at home and I also spend a lot of time out with the neighborhood groups and other city organizations,” Wiener said.

In the public arena, any kind of corruption or scandal can ultimately be disastrous to one’s career. Joseph understood this, so he wisely kept his distance from his boss’s gorgeous wife. Unfortunately the usually clever and calculating Joseph did not cover his bases and let Mrs. Potiphar hold on to circumstantial evidence that landed him in prison. Many commentators have pointed out that the florid Torah trope sign on the word meaning “but he refused” her seductions suggests that Joseph hesitated. Also, the side commentary in the Torah text “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” suggests that he may have in some way provoked the woman’s advances.

What a different story when we talk about a man with 150% integrity, as this excerpt from the City Pulse article makes clear:

In the little spare time he has, Wiener says that he and his wife enjoy ballroom dancing and traveling, especially to Lansing’s sister cities.

“And by the way, we all pay our own way when we visit sister cities, unlike a certain other publication reported,” joked Wiener.

Note here that unlike Joseph, when a ludicrous accusation was thrown at David, he could easily make light of it because he was so obviously beyond reproach.

Like our former KI president, Joseph remained as active off the job as he was on the job. Instead of just festering in prison, he made himself available as counselor and dream interpreter. David still shows up at KI nearly every day, whether it’s to replace light fixtures, tutor our b’nai mitzvah candidates, lead great books discussions, roll the Torah scroll, or spread de-icing salt in the parking area. Unlike David, however, Joseph boasted to the point of playing God. As he told the cupbearer before interpreting his dream, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” David’s bearing is more like Gideon in our haftarah. He showed up incognito at the enemy camp, let the others play the role of the brilliant interpreters, and left them to draw their own conclusions when his dream prophesized their defeat. This kind of low key approach, empowering others to excel and giving them room to find their way to a solution, was typical of David’s leadership style as board president.

Finally, our parashah suggests that Joseph was a political opportunist. When he recognized that the cup bearer would soon be returned to power, Joseph used the man’s influence to secure his own release from prison. That much is understandable; we would all do the same thing if we were in his predicament. But what I find striking in contrast is that after he gave the chief baker a terrifying prediction of his future, he broke off contrast with the poor guy. Just imagine what a state the baker must have been in after hearing he would be impaled in three days. After the workshop I just took at the rabbinical convention on dealing with trauma, it’s clear that one can never just walk away from someone who has received such shocking news. Here I picture David taking the time to sit with him, listening patiently and with equilibrium as the baker unleashed waves of distress, rage, and powerlessness, and letting him know that he cares about him and, if there were anything he could do, he at least would try.

So in next week’s episode, Joseph will rise to become the number two man in Egypt, accountable to no one except pharaoh himself, kind of like being executive assistant to the mayor. As we’ll read in two weeks, the way Joseph used his power wasn’t always pretty. In contrast, our congregation, like our city, can be grateful to have been guided by the most humane, compassionate, gentle, and life-affirming of leaders. David is reminiscent of the sun in the Aesop fable about the sun and the wind trying to get a man to remove his cloak. Soft power is a very Jewish thing. It empowers others to be the change they want to see, and creates no collateral damage.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
December 2018

D’var Torah: Tzav

Inspired by Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms*

Ascent # 1:
There are glimpses of a lost spiritual heritage in Jewish practice. We find it in the psalmist’s glorious depictions of nature and the cosmos, and in the mysteries of the sacrifice. Our practice was established to enable us to remain in constant intimacy with Divinity. We have lost that divine intimacy nowadays; many of us don’t even believe that a Divinity exists with which we could be in intimacy. And still, we struggle to keep the ancient practices alive, not always certain if they are accomplishing what they are supposed to, or for that matter, what it is that they are supposed to accomplish. Yet we do understand that our lives are fraught with tensions and uncertainties, that life in modern society is grossly out of balance, and that these imbalances may drive the world to economic collapse and environmental disaster. And so, we seek solace, we seek wisdom, we seek to reconnect with the part of us that has not forgotten what we were seeking for in the first place. Chadesh yamenu kekedem.

Ascent #2:
Seeking requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is scary. When we offer up our first fruits, there’s no guarantee that these won’t be our last fruits of the season. To offer the Shlemah, the sacrifice of well-being, we place on the altar, with our own hands, the breast that had cradled the living, beating heart of a creature that we had fed and cared for. When crisis in our lives causes us to bottom-out, to seek help and change our ways, we may need to abandon our friends, our sources of pleasure, and all that’s familiar. Our Torah reading repeatedly threatens us with being cut off from our kin, and indeed, anyone who goes forth on a journey of purpose and discovery, who, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit leaves his pipe and easy chair to go on an adventure, may encounter a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Min hametzar karati yah.

Ascent #3:
The world can be a scary place. There have always been enemies, highway robbers, and malicious beasts. Today we live in gated communities with encrypted unrememberable passwords on our software. The nightly news keeps us apprised of spectacular meteorological threats, serial killers, and suicidal terrorists. Yet statistically we face far greater danger every time we get behind the wheel of a car…and for the most part we do this without fear and in the vast majority of situations we reach our destination unscathed. In a scientific age, it may seem preposterous to speak about guardian spirits, and yet we experience making perilous car trips without fear when fear is not called for, even though we immediately snap into defensive mode to deal with genuine threats in the road. Somehow we know how to find repose despite potential dangers. We are nourished when we find this repose in wild places, rather than on I-96. There’s a special tranquility in nature at night, fearing nothing, yet poised to react at the first stirrings of a potential cougar or copperhead. Esa einai el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri.

Ascent #4:
After describing the proper preparation of the well-being sacrifice, our Torah reading tells us that a pure person may partake in the sacrificial offering. However, “the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his or her kin.” In other words, it’s not enough to do the right thing in the wrong state of mind. We may recite our prayers in perfect Hebrew, unaware what the words mean, and say them so fast that no one else can understand them. And we’re likely to be rewarded with as much blessing as we put into the prayer. To quote Marjan’s commentary on Ascent IV: “Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.” Vetaher libeinu l’ovdecha be’emet.

Ascent #5:
The courage borne of authenticity is extremely energizing. In our Haftarah, the formulaic form of action is described as “defrauding God,” going through the motions without doing the hard work. In contrast, we do authentic work, such as providing food to those in need, the floodgates of the sky open up and blessings pour down. Hafachta mispadi lemachol li pitachta saki ve’te’azreni simchah.

Ascent #6:
It has become something of a cliché to speak of atonement as “at-one-ment,” yet the language is compelling. Feeling in harmony with one’s self and one’s world is a joyful state in which self-care and ethical action become inseparable, in that the same impulse of maintaining and deepening homeostasis expresses itself in relaxing tight shoulders, taking seconds on salad and avoiding the dessert table, picking candy wrappers off the floor, and serving meals to the homeless. Ashirah l’adonai be’chaiyai.

Ascent #7:
Many believe that claims that introspection and contemplation have no place in Jewish observance. The examples of Jacob, Elijah, Daniel, Shimon bar Yochai, and the Baal Shem Tov suggest otherwise. It is only by going deeply into our souls that we find the insight to repair the world and the courage to act upon that insight. Re-entry is difficult; when we come down from the mountain and see how others are living, our first impulse may be to smash the tablets. After twelve years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon was so disgusted by the unexamined lives of his fellow Israelites that he fixed his gaze on everyone he saw and knocked them dead. He therefore needed to spend another year in the cave to develop compassion. It is this compassion that enables us both to shed a tear and to burst out in laughter when we encounter human foibles, to dedicate our new strength and insight to the benefit of others, and to reconcile our differences. In the closing words of our haftarah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, March 28, 2015

* Commentary on Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms

Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra

Ascent I speaks of disquiet and leave-taking—of choosing a path seemingly at odds with what is familiar and comfortable. Drawn from unease by the mysterious Other of the insistent birdcall, the music establishes a determined pace of escape and ascent, marking the beginning of exploration and discovery.

Ascent II presents a pause in the climb. Here, a first backward glance suggests tender regard for the simplicity and goodness left behind. Opposing this sweetness, however, fear, insecurity, and doubt come to dominate a surreal soundscape where turning back is no longer possible. The flute struggles in this eerie atmosphere, ultimately overcoming fear by boldly singing its own echo of the birdcall. Terror passes, and the movement ends quietly, although unsettled and cautious.

Ascent III unfolds while the protagonist’s energy is at rest. The music hints at a realm of guardian spirits where love never slumbers and where the wakeful Spirit watches over all wandering.

Ascent IV reiterates with a vengeance the terrors of the second movement. Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.

Ascent V begins by startling the almost broken character of the flute back into intense wakefulness. The entire brass section resounds in a tumultuous but ambiguous fanfare, to which the flute responds by almost jokingly transforming march into dance. Redemption is close at hand.

Ascent VI crosses a threshold into a world unforeseen. An encircling Presence arises from the fundamental chant of the earth and all souls resident and nearby. Here, music leads to the edge of Silence.

Ascent VII pours irresistibly out of the sixth movement. The flute hurls itself headlong into a joyful re-imagination of everything previously encountered. This music speaks of hope and laughter and joy, of return and renewal. The mountaintop, after all, is only a resting place. Life does not end. The music goes before us to say that all is well. That all shall be well.

©2014 Marjan Helms

D’var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1

To celebrate Kehillat Israel’s “Year of the Jewish Story,” I decided, rather than deliver a d’var Torah this morning, to read a story I wrote for the occasion. It is inspired in part by a recent poem by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner (find a copy here). The story is a midrash; in other words, it elaborates inventively on the biblical narrative.

Just to quickly summarize the context: Sarah, who could not bear a child, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child in her name. When Hagar’s son Ishmael was born, Hagar became scornful of Sarah, so Sarah treated her harshly. After Sarah’s son Isaac was born, Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the wilderness, where Hagar had a divine revelation. In today’s haftarah, Peninah and Hannah were both married to Elkanah. Peninah had two sons and she taunted Hannah for not being able to conceive. Hannah prayed at the shrine of Shiloh for a son, making the pledge to offer this son for divine service at Shiloh. This led to the birth of the prophet Samuel, and later to three additional sons.


Once upon a time, Hagar, Hannah, Peninah, and Sarah rented a cottage along the lakeshore for a girlfriends’ getaway. Peninah, who makes a mean cosmopolitan, drove up with two gallon jugs full of the mix. Hagar, who knew a pizza and Middle Eastern place in the nearby town run by a couple from Egypt, ordered three veggie pies topped with zucchini and eggplant, and because she charmed them with stories of the old country, the owners threw in a couple of tubs of baba ghanoush and ful medames on the house. By the time the old girls devoured two-and-a-half pizzas and consumed who-knows-how-many rounds of cosmo mix, the party was in full swing: kvelling competitively over their kids, ripping through suitcases to try on each other’s beachwear, the co-wives giggling wickedly together over intimate secrets. It was then that Sarah popped open a dresser drawer and triumphantly pulled out a Gideon Bible.

“Here it is,” she proclaimed. “The whole story of those awful years; complete with fabrications to make each of us come off as revolting as possible.”

“Not exactly each of us,” said Peninah. “Little goody-goody over there just keeps weeping and praying while big-bad-wife-number-one was lording it over her.”

“Give me a break, Peninah,” said Hannah. “Do you think I want to be remembered as a whiny wimp? You know what a knockout I was in my younger days. I drove old Elkanah wild, and we loved each other. Let’s face it; he married you for family connections and for no other reason.”

“So you want to get nasty, Hans?” retorted Peninah. “You were always the pretty little flower. You never did a stitch of work around the house and no matter what role I gave you, you were useless in the family business.”

“Some business,” said Hannah. “A sleepy souvenir shop catering to nonexistent tourists while your sons played poker in the corner. If we had used my connections in Shiloh instead, I could have gotten us contracts for temple ornaments and sacrificial paraphernalia. Those priests paid good money. I’m just glad I got Samuel out of our house and hooked up with the House of Eli.”

“Disgusting!” said Peninah. “Drinking and carousing with those lazy priests, making a fool of yourself until you got so drunk that you pledged your son to slave labor at the shrine.”

“Three thousand years and you two still can’t settle your differences,” said Sarah. “Why, Hagar and I, after all we’ve been through, are still Facebook friends and get together regularly for mah jongg. Whatever happened in the old days, we’re the only ones still around, and life’s too short to hold grudges.”

“But Sarah, dear,” said Hagar, “let’s be honest. It’s taken us a couple of thousand years to get where we are now, and mostly it’s because it was all so long ago, we can’t really remember what all happened. In fact, just for the fun of it, could you remind me what it says in that book of yours about me?”

Sarah read from the Gideon Bible, “‘And when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.’ Come to think of it, you were pretty snotty in those days.”

“Give me a break, Sarah,” said Hagar. “You have no idea what it’s like to be born a slave, to have nothing, and then to suddenly have your mistress throw you into her husband’s bed in some bird-brained scheme to work out their marital problems. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. How could you expect me to respect you after you forced me into harlotry and somehow thinking that this would be in your own best interest!”

“Soooo,” said Peninah. “Now this is getting juicy. And you girls got after Hannah and me for not settling our differences. Go ahead; show us how it’s done. But first have another cosmo.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Sarah. “But if your plan was to get us rip-roaring drunk so two jealous women could entertain you with a bit of reality TV, I’m not playing along.”

“Really, dear,” said Peninah. You don’t mind going down in history as the mean old hag who tormented the innocent young thing?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” said Sarah. “The text really did give me a pretty bad rap: dealing harshly, casting her out twice, and all.” “But isn’t that exactly what happened?” asked Hagar.

“I’ll admit I wasn’t as patient as I might have been,” said Sarah. “But the text doesn’t mention how you were going around saying you wanted to get out of there, that you were hearing divine voices sending you to the wilderness, that you and your son had some grand destiny. I was all too glad to give you what you wanted.” “You sure were,” said Hagar. I told you in confidence about one dream I had and that gave you all the excuse you needed to shove me out of the way.”

Hannah then jumped in. “Hey, this is kind of interesting. It’s just like what they talked about in that postmodern religious criticism class I took at the Lifelong Learning Center last year. See, a text creates its own reality. And so do personal narratives. You each have your own story, and there’s no objective truth outside of that.”

Then Peninah said, “Oh, now the sweet little mother of the prophet has become a literary critic. If you’re so smart, Hans, why don’t you give us an analysis of the varying narratives from Jewish and Islamic sources?” “Yes, that’s a fascinating question,” said Hannah. “Muslim scholars understood Hagar to be the courageous and heroic matriarch of the Arab peoples, the mother of God’s chosen one, and Abraham’s beloved. The rabbis in Midrash Rabbah made her an Egyptian princess. They also claimed that after Sarah died and Abraham married Keturah, it was actually Hagar in disguise.”

“Yes, everybody wants to put in their two cents about me,” said Hagar. “They create texts, and try to tell me that’s who I am, and that I’m wrong if I don’t follow the script. All I know is that Sarah treated me like dirt and almost got me killed in the wilderness.” “And all I know is that this impudent hussy kept trying to humiliate me and put her child higher up the totem pole than mine,” said Sarah.

“Enough of this war of words,” said Hannah. “Let’s do something completely wild, like jump in the lake with all our clothes on.”

They dashed out of the house, sprinted down the beach, and plunged into the refreshing water, laughing and splashing one another. In their excitement and their drunken stupor, they didn’t notice the little boy playing in the sand. While the girls were frolicking in the water, he lay down in the sand and started to make snow angels with his arms and legs. Then he floated up into the sky, flapping his arms like wings. He hovered over the four women and cleared his throat.

Everyone turned silent.

Finally, Hagar said, “I remember you. You came to me when my son was about to die from thirst in the wilderness.”

Sarah said, “I remember you. You and a couple of friends came to our tent. You predicted I would have son.”

Hannah said, “I remember you. I got a glimpse of you the night that Elkanah and I conceived a son.”

Peninah said, “I remember you. You were hovering around our house almost constantly since that time that Hannah prayed at Shiloh for her first son. And what brings you tonight to visit four drunken, squabbling, water-fighting women?”

The angel replied, “I’m hungry. What have you got to eat?”

Hagar said, “I think there’s half a pizza left on the table. And a bit of baba ghanoush.” The angel said, “The pizza would be just perfect. I’ll wait up here and you can bring it out.”

Hagar ran into the house. Two pizza boxes were lying on the floor near the trash can; the other one rested slightly ajar on the table, with cheese and tomato stains on the side. Hagar grabbed the box, closed it shut with her fingers, and brought it out. The other three were waiting for her on the shore, wet and shivering. Peninah opened the box in Hagar’s hands and gasped. The pizza was cold, hard, and broken into at least forty crouton-sized pieces. The four women gazed for a few moments. Then they understood.

Sarah, being the eldest, took the first piece. “I cast off the misdeed of forcing Hagar to have sexual relations with my husband.” She hurled the pizza crumb into the waves.

Hagar took the second piece. “I cast off the misdeed of acting with contempt and haughtiness toward Sarah.”

Now it was Peninah’s turn. “I cast off the misdeed of mocking and humiliating Hannah.” And when Hannah took her first crumb, she said, “I cast off the misdeed of poisoning my relationship with Peninah through jealousy and resentment.”

Over the next several minutes, they took turns recalling ways they had hurt one another and casting them off, until the pizza box was completely empty. The angel was no more to be seen; neither was the imprint in the sand from where he was making snow angels. Sarah and Hagar looked one another deeply in the eyes, hugged each other tightly, and became consumed with tears; Peninah and Hannah did the same. They returned to the house, cleaned up the mess they had made, returned the Gideon Bible to the dresser drawer, and poured the remaining cosmopolitan mix down the sink. Then they all fell into a deep sleep.

When they awoke the next morning, the sun shone brightly. Peninah and Sarah challenged Hannah and Hagar to a game of water polo before breakfast. Then the four women took a slow walk along the lakeshore. No words were necessary. At the opposite end of the globe, a group of men were sitting around the table signing a peace treaty. And the earth heaved a great sigh of relief.

—Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Rosh Hashanah 5774
September 2013

Message for Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 2012

Once, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Zusya heard a cantor in the House of Prayer, chanting the words: “And it is forgiven,” in strange and beautiful tones. Then he called to God, “Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how would such a song have been intoned before you?” (paraphrased from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)

While we might marvel at Rabbi Zusya’s chutzpah, his audacity, his remark touches an interesting issue. Imagine God looking down at humanity and seeing all the warfare, all the environmental damage, all the cruelty, all the people struggling in desperate poverty while a handful of others are hoarding extraordinary wealth, all the hatred fueled by the very religious doctrines that God gave us in love, all the failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, all the ways people shield themselves from the suffering of others. And still, God continues to bathe humanity with blessings: the sun rising every day, the cycles of living things providing abundant nourishment and indescribable beauty, sufficient material resources to meet the needs of every being on the planet, the intellect to solve insurmountable problems, the presence of family and community, the emotional capacities to love them and care for them, the power to express our love in the creation of new life. Why doesn’t God burn out? What sustains God to keep giving so much to a species that has so misused God’s gifts and is likely to continue to do so?

Zusya’s answer is truly ingenious. The more broken people have made God’s world, the more beautiful and passionate will be our song of repentance. Our tender music sings out in stark contrast to the shrill screeches of human misery and neglect; the sinewy lament flowing arrhythmically from our hearts offers a welcome interlude from the lockstep heavy metallic thud, thud, thud beating of what we call progress. The music of our prayers is beautiful in and of itself. But beyond that, our prayers proclaim that kindness, reflection, and hope cannot be muffled by the noise of human folly. For this, God can be deeply grateful.

OK, I know that this is not what we like to hear about at Thanksgiving, broken world and all that. Shouldn’t we instead focus on how incredibly blessed most of us are in this society? Most of us enjoy adequate food, clothing, and shelter, a decent standard of living, personal freedom, and access to resources and access to resources and opportunities. We can, and we should, acknowledge how fortunate we are and give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives. In Jewish tradition we don’t limit this kind of thanksgiving to a single Thursday in November; rather we are told to include the following blessing in our prayers at least three times a day:

We thank you for our lives entrusted to your hand, our souls placed in your care, for your miracles that greet us every day, and for your wonders and the good things that are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night.

If we truly lived with these words implanted in our consciousness, we would live enchanted lives. No matter what happens, we would never forget that the glass is not half empty; it is, in fact, at least 90 percent full.

The trouble is, we don’t seem to be wired to experience this level of fulfillment. We ignore at least 40 percent of the nectar in our glass, and then bemoan that it is still half empty. In the eleventh century, a rabbi named Bachya ibn Pakuda taught that there are three causes for our lack of gratitude. First of all, once we get attached to material possessions; we keep wanting more. If we enjoy our Ipad 2, we now want an Ipad 4, and no matter how happy we’ve been with our Ipad 4, we just can’t live without a Mini. The second problem is that we take all the good stuff we’ve got for granted. Even our new Mini soon becomes just another tool, while our old Ipad 4 sits idle on a shelf alongside the laptop, smartphone, and CD player that we’ve owned since the Pleistocene era. The third problem, according to Bachya, is the one that concerns me the most tonight. This is that we tend to focus on our disappointments, failures, and hurts, and then lose sight of our blessings altogether. Who cares about a little Mini when the rich kid down the street got a sports car for her seventeenth birthday? And what’s the use of having a new car if you knock your back out working out at the club so you are immobilized for the next two weeks?

To be sure, physical pain is something we all would rather be free from. Getting turned down for a job opening or a date does nothing to lift one’s spirits. And even though we may read the newspaper as a leisure activity, the headlines usually don’t do much to brighten our day. But, as the sages of all religious traditions teach us, we have a choice how to react to these events. So let’s say, for example, my insurance premium has doubled, a lab test came out positive, or that stench comes from a raccoon’s nest in the basement. Our rabbis taught that we react positively or negatively to events like these because we assume that they will lead to either good or bad outcomes. But none of us are clairvoyant. We actually have no idea how things will turn out.

Alan Morinis, in his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, tells the true story of a man condemned to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Unlike countless others, he survived this ordeal and fled to Uruguay. Decades later, he escaped from the political instability and guerilla warfare in Uruguay and emigrated to the United States with a comfortable fortune. It turned out that in the concentration camp he was forced to make soap; eventually this experience enabled him to become the largest soap manufacturer in Uruguay. These twists of fate demonstrate how the consequences of the events in our lives cannot be predicted. Therefore the Talmud tells us to say a blessing if something good happens, and to say a blessing if something bad happens, because we don’t really know which is which.

To be sure, life sometimes throws situations our way that are truly catastrophic and lead to extreme suffering. Yesterday I met a woman who has survived multiple illnesses deemed to be imminently terminal, and in addition she lost her husband to suicide a year and a half ago. She told me how important it would be for me to mention extreme situations such as hers in this talk, to let people know how her difficulties have compelled her to live every day as if it were her last, to speak authentically and passionately, even if it defied social mores and expectations, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to cry, even if this made people uncomfortable. From tragedy and painful confrontation with death emerged a passion for life, a sense of gratitude for each day, and at the same time a sensitivity that her words and deeds, no matter how freely expressed, must never cross the line of causing physical or emotional hurt to others.

But beyond our personal tragedies is the realization that we live in a broken world crying out for repair. The kabbalistic master Yitzchak Luria taught that God initially created a world so perfect that everything was enveloped in radiant divine light. But this light got so bright and intense that the earthly vessels created to hold the light could no longer contain it. All the vessels got shattered. Like Humpty Dumpty, all the elements of a whole and perfect world lie in shambles. It is up to us to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our human task is to assist God in the work of creation by reassembling all the broken pieces. How do we do this? By feeding the hungry; by struggling for justice; by restoring the damage we’ve wrought on the environment; by ending war and violent hatred once and for all. This is the work of repairing the world, of tikkun olam. As we gather here tonight to pray together, we are repairing the world. When Muslims, Jews, and Christians come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are repairing the world. When we do not allow the bitter struggles that divide our peoples to stand between us, we are repairing the world. And when, ultimately, we sit down together at the conference table to resolve our differences, sensitive to each other’s point of view and compassionate to each other’s suffering, our world will be about as close to being fully repaired as it has ever been.

Tonight, more than anything else, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to engage with all of you in this work of repair. I thank God for bringing me to a community where I can interact with, learn from, and befriend my Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai counterparts. Through the efforts of good people in this community and in countless other communities around the world, may warfare and genocide vanish from our midst and may the seeds of compassion and forgiveness germinate in fields long infested with the bramble of fear, prejudice, and hatred.

Before I spoke this evening, Father Mark recited one of my favorite Psalms. It is the lament of a man engulfed in brokenness, a man who has fallen into a pit of despair. In Psalm 30 this man recognizes that it is easy to be grateful when one is on a roll:

Va’ani amarti v’shalvi kol-emot l’olam.
And as for me, in the ease of my prosperity I said that I would never be shaken.

But to sustain as a healthy attitude in tough times requires a broader perspective:

Ba’erev yalin bechi v’laboker rinah.
In the evening weeping may set in and abide for the night, yet in the morning there are shouts of joy!

What’s the secret of going from weeping to joy? It’s in the verse

Hafachta mispadi l’machol li pitachta saki va’t’azreni simchah.

The King James Version translates this as:

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing:
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness…

If we look carefully at the original Hebrew, we find that the secret of turning mourning into dancing is likened to the miracle of giving birth:

You transmuted my wailing into its opposite, into the exquisitely writhing ecstatic pain of the pangs of birth;
You opened my sack and filled my girth with joy.

Our work together of repairing the world is like giving birth to new life. The process may be difficult and sometimes painful. We may not bear the child we had hoped for; sometimes the baby may not survive to breathe its first breath. And still, whatever the outcome, our efforts to create a better world bring purpose to our lives. We know why we were created, and how we are connected to humanity as a whole. For all this, we cannot help but be filled with gratitude. This is why our Psalm concludes:

L’ma’an y’zamercha chavod v’lo yidom adonai elohai l’olam odecha.
You blessed me with the joy of new life so that glory might sing out to You and never be silent.
Adonai, my God, I shall give thanks to you forever.

East Lansing, Michigan
November 19, 2012