blessed with everything 


Friday night, the Rabbi of my small congregation was out of town for Thanksgiving, and I was honored to be allowed to lead Erev Shabbat service with our song leader. It had been quite a few years since I’d led an Erev Shabbat service, and leading the service in my own religious community really was a nice experience! 

Being the geek that I am, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about the week’s Torah portion!  So I did some studying last week and drafted the sermon below. It’s not earth-shattering, but it coordinated well with the baby-naming that we had during the service. After my words, I asked our song-leader to play and sing “Return Again” by Neshama Carlebach, and I’ve attached a YouTube link for it below.

Here’s my sermon:

This week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah, a portion in which we learn: First, that Sarah has died, which leaves Abraham weeping and mourning; and second, that Abraham has to send a servant to find a wife for Isaac, because Isaac — the son through whom Abraham is to become a great nation –- is 37 years old and unmarried.  When I think about how Abraham must have been feeling in the midst of these circumstances, I imagine Abraham would not be in the best of emotional spaces . . .

And yet, the Torah tells us, in one simple verse dropped between these two stories– “Abraham was old, advanced in years, and Adonai had blessed Abraham with everything.” Genesis 24:1.

When I read that verse, I immediately wondered – “Everything???  If a man who just lost his wife and has no chance of grandchildren has been blessed with everything . . . what is everything?”

I checked my Torah commentaries and found one from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who said Abraham had been blessed with everything because he “attained peace.” (1)

Rabbi Nachman further explained the verse tells us that Abraham was both old and advanced in years because the Hebrew word for “old” (zaken) is not just a reference to someone’s age; it also implies a person has “obtained wisdom.”  Abraham had “delve[d] deeply into [Life’s] mysteries and deepen[ed] his understanding of Godliness.” Through the heavenly wisdom that Abraham thereby gained, he obtained peace … and, thus, was blessed with everything.

And Rabbi Nachman explained one more thing about Abraham’s wisdom: It “devolves” or flows from “a person’s imagination and faith.”

imagination and faith…

When I think of imagination and faith, I think of children . . . . Unlike adults, young children see the world around them without a filter of pre-conceived expectation and judgment. They are not self-conscious or anxious. They simply live in each moment with emotional honesty and integrity – they are themselves, and they don’t feign being anything or anyone other than who they are.

And this, I think, is what Rabbi Nachman was saying about Abraham’s wisdom and peace flowing from his “imagination and faith” . . . that Abraham was an adult who, like a small child, was present in each moment and lived with emotional honesty, so that he could look at the world with a sense of wonder and awe, and was open to experiencing the miraculous.(2)

This mindset – this “living in the presence of Gd” – brought Abraham peace, even as he faced life’s challenges — and that, indeed, is being blessed with everything!

May we each strive to be more like Abraham, to be present in each moment and see the world through the eyes of a child, so that we may obtain supernal wisdom and live with peace…

Neshama Carlebach Return Again

(1) All the Rabbi Nachman explanations and quotes are from Rebbe Nachman’s Torah (The Berkowitz Edition), Genesis at 197-198 (Breslov Research Institute 2011).
(2) Phrasing based on language by Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing, page 31 of 231, Jewish Lights e-book (“When we look at small children, we see their sense of wonder, their openness to the miraculous.”).

Hillel Zeitlin’s Yavneh


Hillel Zeitlin was a Jewish philosopher, writer, and publicist who lived in Eastern Europe from 1871 until 1942.   Zeitlin called for the creation of a new Hasidic movement that would return to the Baal Shem Tov’s embodiment of love for Gd, Israel, and Torah. Zeitlin dreamed of establishing a community that would live according to the ideals he espoused, and he called that community “Yavneh.”
In 2012, when Rabbi Arthur Green published translations of numerous texts written by Zeitlin, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote the Foreword, in which he discussed the importance of Zeitlin and his dream of creating Yavneh. As Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi explained:

Those who wish to live a committed and purposeful life in the presence of the living God have always known that they need a societal “container” in which inner ideals can be freely expressed and shared . . . and in which one does not need to apologize for one’s longing to live the life of one’s ideals.

Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Foreword at xix (Paulist Press 2012).
Until I again opened the Zeitlin book last night for that quote, I had not realized that Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi explicitly connected Zeitlin’s dream of a community called Yavneh to the emergence of Jewish Renewal, but he did… Foreword at xix …And though I had not known he connected them, I have been referring to my Shabbat at P’nai Or Philadelphia, which Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi founded, as “six hours in Yavneh.”
My experience led me to write the following text, which I dedicate to Hillel Zeitlin . . . may his dream of Yavneh continue to inspire Jews for thousands of generations . . .

Six hours in Yavneh,
Now my heart longs for more…

I want to find my own story wandering inside our ancient texts, and I don’t want to have to worry what emotion I display next, as I open my soul and reach for my Gd, surrounded by others who in prayer and song are reaching for the same Truth we all know is there, the Truth of the Unity, the ‘parent’ we all share, of Infinite Eternal Love and a Sukkah of Peace, that travels with us as we wander and protects us from grief while we watch for other wanderers who may have lost their way and invite them to travel with us…



P’nai Or Philadelphia 


screenshot from P’nai Or website
Saturday, I celebrated Shabbat with P’nai Or Philadelphia, a community affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement. It was a truly wonderful Shabbat unlike any other I’ve ever experienced!!

The congregants were warm and welcoming. The atmosphere at Torah study was so calm and respectful that, as layers of the ancient text were unpacked, individuals could unpack a bit of themselves to connect more deeply to the story.  And the prayer service . . . it certainly wasn’t the same service I’m accustomed to attending in the Midwest!!  There were percussion instruments, uplifting melodies, vocal harmonies, and an insightful (and practically-useful!!) d’var Torah from one of the congregants.

If you want to learn more about P’nai Or or Jewish Renewal, you can find information on P’nai Or’s website…

I feel very blessed to have spent time with them, so …if you ever find yourself in Philadelphia for a weekend and have interest in experiencing a spiritually-moving service designed for progressive Jews… I recommend you stop by to pray with them!!

shavua tov, jen

Congregation Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia 


I’m out of town for work and taking advantage of the opportunity to attend Shabbat service at an American synagogue that was established in 1740 — Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.   

According to the website, the congregation has changed only a few aspects of the service since its founding: the sermon is now in English, they no longer pray for the English monarch, and they now include a prayer for Israel.  

I’m genuinely happy to be celebrating Shabbat in a new town, and I hope everyone else has fun Shabbat plans as well!!! 

Shabbat shalom, jen 

for my anxious son


My little guy tends to be a lot like I was at his age — he worries a lot, about everything.  He wants to be able to “fix” it all, now.  And he gets frustrated and sad about his inability to “right” everything that he sees as “wrong.”   

As he and I colored together this past weekend, the picture above reminded me of Creation, and I colored it to be a “visual aid” that might help him understand his role in this world, so that he might not be as worried.  

You see . . . 

Creation wasn’t a one time event that happened forever ago; it’s an ongoing process that occurs at every moment.  

There’s always the darkness and chaos of the void swirling in the background.  

And into the middle of that void, Gd continually radiates Love and Light that emanates out into all of Creation . . . which includes lots of really wonderful stuff — like amazing colors, beautiful flowers, and loving people. 

The only thing that my son (or any of us) can do is:  (1) look for a ray of the Light that generates beauty and Love; (2) stand in that Light and grow in strength and wisdom; and then (3) become an agent of Light and Love, so that more Light shines for others to see and to stand in.    

All the rest is out of our control, so we must leave it to Gd . . . 

Shavua Tov!!


I arrived home last night to find a new two-volume set of Torah commentaries in my mailbox.  They were sent by a friend with whom I study telephonically, so I wasn’t expecting these particular books to arrive.  It was a very happy surprise!!  

The surprise was made even sweeter by the fact that the commentaries are based on the writings of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (d. 1810) — who just might be my favorite Hasid.  He was known “for his ability to see the best in people and for his intimate relationship with God, whom he saw and experienced everywhere.”  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Intro at xxxv, Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing 2004).   Here is the English translation of a song the Berditchever Rebbe is said to have sung in his native Yiddish:  

Where I wander –You!
Where I wonder–You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!
When I am happy–You!
When I am sad–You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!
You above!
You below!
In the beginning–You!
In the end–You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!

Rabbi Shapiro, Hasidic Tales at 177.

shavua tov -a good week- to all!!  May we, like the Berditchever Rebbe Levi Yitzhak, be blessed with glimpses of The One as we reside here amongst the many, jen