Courageous Thoughts

Let’s return briefly to the questions which plagued author Sebastian Junger, in his suburban Boston youth, and set him a path that eventually led him to write Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
Tribe, p.xiv
(See “Covenant and Liturgy” for full citation and more)

Previous posts explored the concept of “sacrifice” and how it translates into Judaism. Here are a few notes on “courage.”

Ometz Lev

Like “sacrifice,” the word “courage” comes into English from Old French (corage) based on Latin (cor = heart). In Hebrew, the expression is “ometz lev [אַמִּיץ לֵב]” —   “to strengthen or reinforce [ometz]” one’s “heart [lev].”

One Jewish high school offers some useful remarks on how this value [middah] in Judaism might operate at different points in our lives:

Ometz Lev is the courage that allows us to accomplish goals in face of opposition. Often enough, that opposition comes from within us. The need for Ometz Lev (courage/ bravery) is not limited to outward challenges, but also to challenges from within. For example, neurological studies seem to suggest that in comparison to adult brains, adolescent brains have a tougher time maintaining long term focus. Conversely, the middle-aged brain is slower than the adolescent brain in starting a new task. It might take a bit of ometz lev to deal with pushing past natural inclinations.
— from “The Middah of Ometz Lev

Moving Traditions,” another teen-focused program, offers four texts for four types of courage people of all age could profitably consider:

Text #1 The Courage to Be Yourself

When the daughters of Yitro mistakenly called Moses an “Egyptian” Moses kept quiet. This is one of the reasons why he was not allowed into the Promised Land.

Moses cried out to the Holy One: Please, if I cannot enter the land in my life at least let my bones be buried there beside the bones of Joseph.

The Holy One said: Even when Joseph was captured, he said that he was a Hebrew.?But you pretended to be something you are not.

—Tanhuma Buber, 134


Text #2 The Courage to Control Impulses

Ben Zoma taught: Who is mighty? Those who conquer their evil impulse. As it is written: “Those who are slow to anger are better than the mighty, and those who rule over their spirit better than those who conquer a city.”

—Pirkey Avot 4:1


Text #3 The Courage to Question Authority

The finest quality of a student is the ability to ask questions that challenge the teacher.

—Solomon Ibn Gabirol


Text #4 The Courage to Rescue Others

Why do you boast yourself of evil, mighty fellow? (Psalms 52:3). David asked Doeg: “Is this really might, for one who sees another at the edge of a pit to push the other into it? Or, seeing someone on top of a roof, to push the person off? Is this might? When can someone truly be called a ‘mighty person’? When there’s an individual who is about to fall into a pit, and that someone seizes the individual’s hand so that he/she does not fall in. Or, when that someone sees another fallen into a pit and lifts the other out of it.”

—Midrash Tehillim 52:6

More Sacrifice

In the list of general obligations that closed the previous post, the concept of “sacrifice” per se does not appear. This raised the question for me: Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

A few notes from a brief further exploration:

The substantial entry on “sacrifice” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, as a central example, focuses on the ancient system of ritual and interpretations, through the ages, of that system. Only three paragraphs in the 15,000-word article speak of non-ritual understandings of “sacrifice.” These are based on ancient ideas that study, prayer, and good deeds replace the Temple sacrifices.

Sacrifices are alive and well” in My Jewish Learning begins with the origin of the term :

The term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” The most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)in terms of “making something holy,” saying that the “most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)

In this piece, originally published by the Union for Reform Judaism, Deborah Gettes concludes:

Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must put forth the effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we must put forth the effort to study Torah and attend worship services. As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. Sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

“Prayer is the heart…of significant living,” Gettes notes, quoting Rabbi Morris Adler.

This brings me back to the “heart map” and prayer as an avenue to making Judaism’s “counter-cultural” message and covenant a part of our being. In particular, it puts me in mind of one comment incorporated into the map:

“Why fixed prayer? To learn what we should value…” (a teaching from Rabbi Chaim Stern included in the 1975 Gates of Prayer and in newer Reform prayerbooks.)

Sacrificial Notes

“Sacrifice” has been an important concept in baseball since the 1880s and a Christian concept for far longer. The term came into English from Latin, via Old French, and is generally defined as giving up one thing to obtain another.

“Sacrifice” in Hebrew

The word “sacrifice” is sometimes used by English translators of the Hebrew bible, as when Noah performs a ritual action right after leaving the ark:

וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה; וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר, וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת, בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ.
And Noah built an altar [מִזְבֵּחַ] to the LORD and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered [sometimes: “sacrificed”] burnt offerings [וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת] on the altar.
–Genesis 8:20

The Hebrew word for “altar” “mizbeach מִזְבֵּחַ” is linked with “zevach זְבֵּחַ,” one word for biblical sacrifice. But the Torah also uses other words, depending on the purpose and disposition of the offering:

minchah מִנְחָה” — “gift”
olah עֱלָה” — burnt offering, from “going up,”
sh’lamim שלמים” — “complete (or peace)” offering,
chatat חטאת” — “sin” offering, and
asham אשם” — “guilt” offering.

There are also offerings known by their content: “first fruits (bikkurim)” or “wave/sheaf (omer),” for example. Probably the most general term is “korban קָרְבָּן,” from the root for “becoming near.”

“Sacrifice” in Judaism?

A Jew’s obligations to oneself, to other individuals, and to the community are myriad. Here are a few of the most general:

  • We are warned to be for ourselves as well as for others (Avot 1:14)
  • We are told that “All Israel is responsible, one for the other [Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh]” (Shavuot 39a), and
  • We are reminded that caring for the poor and practicing lovingkindness are among the obligations without limit (Peah 1:1).

Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

Stay tuned and/or share your thoughts.

Covenant and Liturgy

A pair of questions disturbed journalist Sebastian Junger as a young suburban Boston resident, living “in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever happened,” he tells us in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
— Tribe, p.xiv

I found these oft-quoted lines baffling, and I was not alone in this reaction:

I am tempted to remind Junger that sacrifice and courage are necessary in many fields of life, from parenting to volunteering in refugee camps. He could also join a solidarity movement. That is what he claims he is seeking, after all.
Joanna Bourke in The Guardian

His analysis of life in Boston and its suburbs, for example, totally overlooks the sacrifices made by teachers, nurses, or those fighting for social justice, workers’ rights, against racism or other social ills in his own or other communities as well as the dangers experienced by African Americans or the poor in nearby Somerville or Boston itself.
Suzanne Gordon in Washington Monthly

But Rabbi Danny Zemel, in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Micah (DC), explained that he finds these questions “paramount,” understanding them somewhat differently in Jewish terms:

How do we become counter cultural? How do we become breakers of idols?”

Zemel points out that “[the Jewish] covenant commands us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and argues that the synagogue should be a “place where we can learn and absorb” a “counter-cultural” message in a world that can seem to applaud self-interest over group interest. He asks:

How do we learn this call – actually more than just learn it, but feel it in our being? How does it become “us?”

How does it become “us”?

For me, one clear answer is the liturgy, which I tried to express in the “heart map” below. Another is ensuring that we recognize, and regularly celebrate, the many opportunities to prove one’s worth to the community highlighted by Bourke and Gordon above. I remain confused by Junger’s youthful state of mind and join critics of Tribe who find that his “danger” focus led him to glorify war and miss abundant examples of courage.

As it happens, this year’s National Blog Posting Month theme is “Type your heart out.” Look for more daily posts on courage, heart, Judaism, and covenant as November unfolds.


Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging NY. Sebastian Junger. Hatchette Book Group, 2016

Heart map inspired by Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry.

“You Didn’t Build That” Ben Zoma Style

“How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped…But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready for me….How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment…How many skilled craftsmen are industrious and rise early to their work. And I arise in the morning and all these things are ready before me.” (Y. Berakhot 9:2)

This musing, part of a longer teaching on gratitude, is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (AKA “Yerushalmi” or “Palestinian Talmud”). It is attributed to ben Zoma. Judith Abrams explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them.”

Ben Zoma is one of the four who (later, presumably) entered Pardes, the one who “looked” and went mad as a result. It is, in fact, a fine detail that sends him over the edge. In the passage above, however, awareness of details seem to contribute to what Abrams calls “an elevated state of awareness of all the gifts one has while one has them, almost as if he sees everything through a microscope.”

— from The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012)

Note: The same story appears in the Babylonia Talmud, Berakhot 58a.
Continue reading “You Didn’t Build That” Ben Zoma Style

A Mountain Called Zion…

“Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion…”

These messianic words startled me when the congregation was asked to recite this unfamiliar passage the other day:

The good in us will win…
Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion,
and that all of the sufferings will gather there and become song,
ringing out into every corner of the earth, from end to end,
and the nations will hear it,
and like the caravans in the desert will all to that morning throng.
— p. 241 Mishkan T’filah (“Hugh Nissenson, adapted“)

The Shabbat morning services I regularly attend ordinarily skip this passage. Moreover, our siddur study group has noted numerous Reform liturgy revisions to avoid messianic vision, and we had recently discussed early reformers’ aversion to “Zion” language. (See, e.g., David Ellenson’s commentary on p. 159 in My People’s Prayer Book, v.2, The Amidah.) So this very specific, if metaphorical, reference definitely caught me by surprise:

“…beat with certainty”? How rarely do our prayers insist that we, as a group, are certain of anything! And the thing we’re certain about is a future vision centered on a specific, dangerously contested, location?!

I like change of pace in the worship service, and I do not expect every word we read to be in concert with my own beliefs. I’m even in favor of an occasional jolt: better to be awake and a little disturbed than to sleep-walk through prayers. But this reading did prompt me to further consider the whole idea of “Zion” and what it means in prayer.
Continue reading A Mountain Called Zion…

In Need of New Language

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) needs new God-language and is asking for input. Here are two cents, which I hope will be useful to the CCAR and all who happen upon them.

Searching for Reform perspectives on the Amidah, I stumbled upon a “RavBlog” post relating to one of the blessings. Rabbi Leon Morris, a member of the editorial team for the Reform movement’s inchoate machzor, asked: How “Current” Should a Prayer Book Be?

His post raises a number of questions, ones I’m not sure the author intended but ones the CCAR — and the rest of us — would do well to consider.
Continue reading In Need of New Language


The last word of the Torah is ישראל (Yisrael), making the final letter of the Torah ל, lamed. The first word is בראשית [“in the beginning”], with the initial letter ב, bet. This leads many commentators to suggest “reading backward,” from the final word of Deuteronomy to the first of Genesis, seeing Torah as the “heart” [לב, lev] of the Jewish people.


Another commentary connects the final lamed to the initial bet through the act of beginning a new reading, as at Simchat Torah when the one reading cycle is completed and a new one begun. The “heart,” then is in the continual striving to re-read and re-glean. This perspective also celebrates the the “white space” between letters of the Torah, through which each generation learns to understand and live the text.

ל >>>>>>> ב

Throughout November, as part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), “A Song Every Day” has offered daily posts with some connection, however tangential, to the number 30. And lamed, as it happens, is also the number 30 in Hebrew counting.

Note, please, that the motto of National Blog Posting Month is “Type Your Heart Out,” and that December (like Jan, Feb,….) is also NaBloPoMo.



“Goodbye,” Part 1

Pre-script: The 30 days of National Blog Posting Month are coming to a close, and Temple Micah‘s Siddur Study group is studying the closing blessings of the Amidah [standing] prayer. So a few (OK, quite a few) words on the first of Avodah [worship] blessing. (The version in Mishkan T’filah happens to consist of 30 words.)
Continue reading “Goodbye,” Part 1

Grateful Thanksgivakkah

In honor of this odd confluence of holidays — 30 Days of Dead, Chanukah, and Thanksgiving — I offer these thoughts on Jewish worship, text study and the Grateful Dead. It is not necessary to know anything about the (Grateful) Dead or to like them, musically or culturally, to explore this analogy. I’ve been told by fans and non-fans that it is helpful. I hope you enjoy and find it useful and welcome comments.

The material was originally shared at Temple Micah (DC) for Shabbat Shelach in 2011. Here’s the introduction from that dvar torah.

Not Just for Dead Fans

How the Grateful Dead, Jewish Text and Worship Explain One Another and Raise Interesting Questions.”

Continue reading Grateful Thanksgivakkah