Found in Translation.

Jewish blessings begin with a formula of six words: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam,” which are often translated as “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,” or “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe.” But every translation is an interpretation and creative interpretations can reveal new layers of meaning. So, seeing as the expansive history of Jewish textual tradition often draws seemingly infinite meaning from a single word, let’s use the creative license that is our spiritual inheritance, shall we?

Blessings for Mitzvot

One of the most common blessings we recite is that which precedes a mitzvah, a particular act or ritual specified by Jewish tradition. In this kind of blessing, the six word formula above is followed by four more: “Asher Kid’shanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu — Who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us to…,” and then we fill in the particular ritual we are about to perform, like lighting Shabbat candles, putting on a tallit, or studying Torah.

Why do we recite such a blessing before taking part in ritual? I think it has to do with mindfulness. We may light candles for any number of reasons; we put on all kinds of clothing; we (hopefully) frequently read, reflect, and study. Reciting a blessing before doing so this time reminds us that these relatively mundane acts are about to take on significant meaning.

Mitzvot are an invitation to experience holiness in our lives. Not every moment is ripe for holiness; not every mitzvah will resonate with spirituality every time. But the odds are markedly better when we do them. Mitzvot connect us with the generations who came before us and offer a vision of generations to come. They bind us to a larger Jewish community that spans the entire globe. And, at some level — however we understand commandedness — they have the potential to connect us to a Force, a Presence, a Spirit greater and more powerful than ourselves.

So I’m partial to the translation: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us opportunities to experience holiness, specifically this morning/day/evening by…”. I wish I could cite from whom I learned this particular approach (perhaps my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman?), but it’s become so ingrained in my approach to the formula and mitzvot that I honestly can’t remember.

Blessings of Thanksgiving

If blessings for mitzvot are about mindfulness, then blessings of thanksgiving are about awareness. Tradition challenges us to recite 100 blessings a day. That’s a lot of blessings no matter who you are, if you’re not paying attention to the world around you. But if you are paying attention, then opportunities abound: For that rainbow, for this food, for that unique individual, for the glimpse of the ocean I so often take for granted. There is so much in the world for which to be grateful — including, when the world isn’t such a beautiful place, the sacred opportunity to be God’s partners in making it better.

Lab/Shul in New York City describes itself as “an everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.” One of the ways they’ve reached me is with this translation of the blessing formula: “In the presence of the Infinite, I pause with gratitude for…” Sit with that for a moment. Isn’t that beautiful? With this translation, giving expression to our gratitude becomes a deeply spiritual activity — perhaps even a mitzvah, an opportunity to experience holiness.


This will be my last “KKBE Connection” for a little while as I leave shortly for some sabbatical time. The concept of sabbatical derives from a mitzvah in the Torah to allow the land to lie fallow every seven years and be renewed. And so as I prepare to go, I say: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us opportunities to experience holiness, this summer by tending to my spirit and returning to you, my congregation, refreshed and renewed.

As for blessings of thanksgiving, well… my journal is prepared, and I intend to fill it.



Landmark ACLU cases depicted in film*

*a work in progress!

This week I picked up a fascinating new book, written in about the only kind of format I can digest at the moment — very short pieces. Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases is edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and features contributions from a wide array of well-known authors from Geraldine Brooks to Viet Thanh Nguyen to Jacqueline Woodson. After a brief summary of each landmark case, one of the writers provides a reflection on that case, each taking a different approach. Some share background about the individuals involved in their case. Some share how the decision rendered in the case has had an impact on their own lives. Some reflect upon how far we’ve come, or how far we still have to go. All are outstanding writers bringing their considerable skillsets to bear on significant milestones in U.S. history.

And it got me to thinking: Significant milestones in U.S. history often find their way into the movies. And given the fact that there are still no professional sports on TV (no, as far as I’m concerned, auto racing does not count), I don’t know about you, but we’re watching a lot more movies than we usually do. We’ve already exhausted pretty much all of the highlights of the 1980s and 1990s. So… I’ve tried to put together a list of the films that tell the stories behind these important cases. Some are dramas; some documentaries. Some were made for TV; some for the big-screen.

And I’m sure it’s incomplete! So, please let me know what I need to add. And with all of the blanks on the chart, if you know any producers, let them know, too. As David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU, writes in the introduction to Fight of the Century: “Michael Chabon’s story of the creative tactics employed by the ACLU’s Morris Ernst in challenging the seizure of James Joyce’s Ulysses as obscene … is so engagingly rendered that the movie version feels inevitable.” How do we make that happen??

Happy watching!

Stephanie (who happens to share a birthday with Thurgood Marshall)



Stromberg v. California (1931) The Land of Orange Groves & Jails (in production)
Powell v. Alabama (1932) and Patterson v. Alabama (1935) Heavens Fall (2006)

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2001)

Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (1976)

United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” (1933)
Edwards v. California (1941)
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
Korematsu v. United States (1944) Of Civil Rights and Wrongs (2001)
Hannegan v. Esquire (1946)
Terminiello v. City of Chicago (1949)
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader (2015)

Thurgood (2011)

The Town Before Brown (2007)

The Battle for America’s Schools (2004) Separate But Equal (1991)

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) Defending Gideon (2013)

Gideon’s Army (2013)

Gideon’s Trumpet (1980)

Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
Lamont v. Postmaster General (1965)
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
Miranda v. Arizona (1966) The Right to Remain Silent: Miranda v. Arizona (2014)
Loving v. Virginia (1967) Loving (2016)

Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996)

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
Gregory v. City of Chicago (1969)
Street v. New York (1969)
Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
Cohen v. California (1971)
New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)
Roe v. Wade (1973)

Doe v. Bolton (1973)

Roe v. Wade (in production)

AKA Jane Roe (2020)

Roe v. Wade (1989)

O’Connor v. Donaldson (1975)
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
Bob Jones University v. United States (1983)
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)
Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (1995)
Reno v. ACLU (1997)

Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004)

City of Chicago v. Morales (1999)
Zadvydas v. Davis (2001)
Immigration and Naturalization Service v. St. Cyr (2001)
Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
Rasul v. Bush (2004)
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005)
Schroer v. Billington (2008)
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013)
United States v. Windsor (2013) To a More Perfect Union: United States v. Windsor (2017)
ACLU v. United States Department of Defense, et al. (2018)


Discipline in This Difficult Moment.

Parashat Naso

A boy was late coming home to his mother.

“What kept you so long?” his mother asked.

“I saw my friend whose doll had broken. She was crying, and I stopped to help her.”

“And what do you know about fixing dolls?”

“Nothing…. But I could sit with her, and help her cry.”

There is so much that is broken right now, so many things in need of repair. And then there is that which never even had the chance to be whole, built as it was on a broken foundation, around a broken core.

Our inclination is to fix. It’s one of the most beautiful things about people. And we saw that this past Sunday morning, when hundreds of people showed up with brooms, boards, and dustpans as manifestations of their love. The broken windows and buildings of our city can be fixed, and they either were or will be. But so much of the pain and grief we’re feeling in our country right now is not the kind of brokenness that can be fixed with hammers and nails. And misdirected love and concern runs the danger of making the pain worse.

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that when a person wishes to consecrate themselves to God, they take upon themselves the vow of a Nazrite, distinguished by two main characteristics:

    1. Abstaining from wine and strong drink.
    2. All the days of his vow, no razor shall come upon his head.

Leaving aside the fact that many of us have gone without haircuts for quite some time now, how else does this text connect to our current moment, to the events of our day? 

The most famous Nazirite was Samson, a biblical persona known for his tremendous strength and considerable power. Yet his power, his connection to the divine — like all Nazirites — derived from what he didn’t do. His power came from his restraint.

“The discipline not to act,” as I’ve seen it put. Perhaps that is what this moment asks of us above all us. Not to be bystanders, no. Not to remain silent about injustice. But there are certain reactions that have become so ingrained in difficult moments that center around race — and this is about as difficult as it gets. Can we have discipline? The discipline not to act out of fear? The discipline not to rush to judgment? The discipline not to call the shots; not to say what we think is appropriate; not to tell a grieving person, a grieving group, a grieving nation how to grieve?

Think of the boy whose friend was grieving her broken doll. We all know people — the most well-meaning, loving, caring people — who say all of the things he could have said:

“It’s just a doll.”

“Why don’t you try this?”

“I know you’re upset, but crying isn’t going to help.”

And, of course, he could also have just walked by. Those of us with privilege and power, we always have that choice. Turn the channel, wait it out, walk on by. But the discipline not to act isn’t about ignoring a problem. It’s about staying put, sitting down, listening and learning. It’s about trying to understand, and centering voices and emotions other than own.

A Nazirite’s vow doesn’t last forever — it’s an oath taken for a certain duration of time — and our inaction shouldn’t last forever either. Far from it. Once we’ve listened; once we’ve learned more than we currently know and understand ourselves better; once we’ve sat with our discomfort; once our eyes are opened to the foundational history of racism in this country; once we can empathize with even a fraction of the anger, pain, and fear of the African American community; once we can hold up the cause and passion of protest, full stop, without qualifications about how, when, or where it should be done; once we can affirm not, “It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop,” but rather, “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men and women has to stop;” once we can prioritize the right part — then, by all means, we need to act.

Participate in a campaign.

Familiarize yourself with the goals of the Movement for Black Lives. 

Demand a racial bias audit of the North Charleston Police Department, like the one that was conducted in Charleston.

Use your power to enact change.

Just after the description of the Nazirite vows in this week’s Torah portion, come the well-known words of the Priestly Blessing. We recite them at our Shabbat tables and under the chuppah; at baby namings and for the community as a whole. Birkat Kohanim is the way that one Jewish generation blesses another. And we use different melodies for different occasions. Some are soft and simple; some upbeat and joyful. One of my favorite renditions sounds like a lullaby. But tonight we need the “big one” — the one that calls down the power of a God on high; a fixing God; a God who hears, and holds, and repairs.

God, You’ve been there for every generation before us. They felt Your power and sensed Your presence. Be there, we ask, for us now. Be with us — act in us, and through us. Help us to be still; to hear and hold the deep pain of others. Help us do better for You and one another.

In our Shabbat evening liturgy we ask for a Shalom Rav — a great peace — not because we’re greedy, but because that’s what we need; that’s what it’s going to take. A great peace that lasts longer than a curfew. A great peace that is more than just the absence of violence. A great peace that extends to all people; in all places; of every hue, ethnicity, and creed. A great peace that cannot be undone by the whims and ignorance of those who refuse to see the problem, much less be part of the solution. A great peace that reflects the beauty and glory of Your spirit, the spirit You have implanted within every single human being.

Pirkei Avot (1:18) teaches: “When truth is spoken and justice is done, then peace is established.” There simply are no shortcuts. So even as we call out to God, let us commit to what we need to. As Rabbi Sally Priesand expounds: “For truth to be spoken, each of us must learn to listen, opening our ears to hear one another’s truth and our hearts to understand it. For justice to be done, it must exist for everyone. … [Then, and] only then, can we find the wholeness that [is] true peace.”

Y’varechecha Adonai v’yism’recha

May God bless us and keep us

Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha v’yichuneka

May God enlighten us and be gracious unto us

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom

May God always look favorably upon us and may we be blessed with peace