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How to approach life - a Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Limmud

How do you approach life?
After Joseph imprisons Benjamin his brothers come to plead for his release, Parashat Vayigash begins when Judah approaches Joseph. The midrash wonders why Judah “approaches” — he is already there in the room, having a conversation with Joseph. In Bresheit Rabbah the sages suggest different reasons for the use of the verb “vayigash” (he approached).
Rabbi Yehudah said it implies an approach to battle, as in 2 Samuel 10:13: “So Yoav and the people that were with him approached for battle.”
Rabbi Nechemiah said it implies coming near for conciliation, as in Joshua 14:6: “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua.”
Others said it implies coming near for prayer, as in 1 Kings 18:36: “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached.”
Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views, saying that Judah approached Joseph for all three. He imagined Judah saying to himself, “I’m here, whether it is for battle, for placating, or prayer. Wh…

The World Needs Less Empathy - Kol Nidre 5778

The world needs less empathy. 
Not what you were expecting me to say? 
I’m a bit surprised myself; I have stood in this spot before teaching about the importance of empathy — how our experience as strangers in Egypt is supposed to lead us to empathize with other people suffering today and that our empathy should motivate us to work for causes that support the poor, refugees, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, equality, health care and more. But it turns out that inspiring empathy is not the best way to increase moral behavior and that empathy is not enough.
Empathy is often understood to be the root of compassion and moral behavior: if I feel how you feel, if I’m hurt when you hurt, then I will do whatever I can to alleviate your suffering. Empathy can lead to good outcomes — we might be more likely to help someone if we empathize with them — but empathy is not a good enough motivator for moral action, and can not fix the world by itself. To truly fix the world, we need less empathy.
In his bo…

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to My College-Bound Daughter

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This summer at camp there was a family of birds nesting in one of the trees right outside the dining hall. There were a few days early in the summer when we were told to keep our distance — the baby birds were learning to fly and the parents were not thrilled with humans standing next to their tree. One morning, one baby bird plummeted onto the table where we were having a meeting. After some adorable and awkward hopping and flapping the small bird wound up on the ground in the bushes and throughout the meeting we would look over to see if it was still OK. Was it stuck? Did it need help? Where were this bird’s parents? I was worried about the baby bird.
You probably realized far sooner than I had what was really going on. In two days my oldest daughter, Mira, is starting college and leaving our nest. Many of you have been through this before; you know the combination of intense pride and happiness that comes along with a vague sense of loss. In the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca…

Praying with Knives in Wonder Valley

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[This post was co-written with my husband, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, and is also posted on his blog, which can be found at www.NiceJewishArtist.com. Photos are courtesy Rabbi Rick Winer and Bill Leifer.]

It is always a privilege and pleasure to worship and create in a new community — making new friends, gaining new insights, and bringing new works of art into being. This past weekend was such an experience, when we joined Temple Beth Israel of Fresno as the scholar and artist in residence for their 2017 Shabbaton retreat (in Wonder Valley, California).

The heart of the weekend was “praying with knives” — meditating on the Saturday morning prayers and then using knife and paper to explore their meanings.


In our Shabbat morning worship Rabbi Shawna encouraged worshippers to choose a prayer that intrigued them, reflected a personal experience, or spoke to how they were feeling right then, and to focus on it during personal silent prayer: to read it more than once, to connect wi…