Address to Kehillah Synagogue

The Battle Within: What a Story of Twins Tells Us About the Human Psyche

Delivered November 21, 2015

Simone and Martin Lipman Scholar in Residence

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Eighteen years ago my wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. We did not want to know the gender of our expected child and we told this to our physician. But our physician’s mind lacked stickiness, because when he looked at the ultrasound, he yelled out: “Look! Frick and Frack!” And we turned to each other with a look of “WTF”? This is how we learned that we would become parents of twins. And not only twins, but identical twin boys.   Continue reading “Address to Kehillah Synagogue”

Address to New York Theological Seminary: Answering the Cry in the Middle East






I begin this post with the above image of Jacob and Esau that I found on the web from the artist David Otto  It captures, artistically, one of the questions that the ancient rabbis struggled with in the Midrash – namely, “is the competition between the brothers inherent?”


New York Theological Seminary

October 29, 2014


Spiritual Lessons from Twins:

Jacob and Esau as a Paradigm for Israel and Palestine 

Seventeen years ago, when my wife was in graduate school, we lived two blocks from this building, on 121st street, the section that has now been named after one of my patron saints, the comedian George Carlin. My wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. The physician pointed at the screen and said: Frick and Frack! And this is how we learned that we would become parents of twin boys. Not only twin boys, but identical twin boys. Which is probably why I am obsessed with biblical narratives about twins and why I have come here tonight to tell you that the answer to the question of how we might bring peace to the land of milk and honey is…twins. I speak here of “twins” as a concept, an archetype.  Envision twins in the womb for a second – these are two competing forces, each struggling to obtain nutrients for themselves to survive, and yet they float around in the same fluid and are influenced by the same thoughts, feelings, and hormones of the mother and the broader environment that she lives in. My question tonight is this: What does it mean for twins to co-exist in the womb and beyond it? And how might that spiritual metaphor guide us forward?

Continue reading “Address to New York Theological Seminary: Answering the Cry in the Middle East”

The Gaza War: A Poem

The Gaza War


First the enemy dug under my heart and filled in my arteries with cement.


My mind plays back the aerial footage,


my international center for compassion

bombed into a billion bits of dust.


Every day I erect protective edges.



When the dust clears there is:

A hole.

And buried under the hole? Missiles.

And buried under the missiles?



My ears have been hit by two thousand missiles.

The missile of ‘they could have built a hospital!’

The missile of ‘they kill children!’

The missile of ‘genocide’! The missile of, ‘hey, look at the other genocide!’

And, finally, the long-range missile of ‘why are you mentioning that genocide???’


My eyes hurt from darting back and forth. All around me people are running to shelters. And when they come out they look up to the sky.

To the heavens.

To the scoreboard.

And then they run back again. But I stay up here on the roof, watching the fireworks, listening to the song of shrapnel.


In my veins I can feel the Ebola virus start to spread.

God said it was o.k. to kill them all.

Throw them into the sea.

And the worst of all: You all have to think the way we think or we will hurt you.


I feel dead.

Some vital organ has been kidnapped.

And there isn’t enough room at the morgue.

Because, really, who builds morgues for war?


My skin is on fire.

I mourn for Jerusalem. But more than that I mourn for the dead dreams.

Those dead, baklava-sweet dreams. Cardamom dreams.


And yet, I don’t let go of them.


I cling to them like a human shield.

I wrap my arms around them and crouch down to child’s pose.


O Land of Milk and Honey,

I mourn for your young people.

But most of all I mourn for the folks old enough to remember what could have been.


For in each of them is a dream, a dove ready to fly high above this iron dome.


Human Trafficking: A Jewish Response

TorahSharing the wonderful words of Torah delivered from the pulpit of B’nai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey by my daughter on the occasion of her bat mitzvah:

Listen carefully to this story from the Talmud:

Two people are traveling in the wilderness, and only one of them has a canteen of water. There is only a little bit of water and if they split the water they will both die, but if one of them drinks the whole thing, they will make it back alive to an inhabited area. Rabbi Ben Petura publicly taught:’ Better both should drink and die than that one see their friend’s death,’ but Rabbi Akiva came and taught: ‘Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend’s.

Do you agree with Ben Petura or Rabbi Akiba?

At first I agreed with Ben Petura but then my father asked me an even more difficult question. He said: If I was a mother and my friend was a mother and we both had babies and the babies were both sick and there was only enough medicine for one baby to live. What would I do? I said that I would give the medicine to my child. Then, when I thought about the water, I agreed with Rabbi Akiba who taught that your own life comes first.

What does this story have to do with slavery?

This story teaches us about the choices that people have to make in a world where there isn’t enough food or water for everybody. Before we had refrigerators and supermarkets and Costco and huge farms, people learned to feed their families first in order to survive. They didn’t care very much about people who were not part of their families and they feared people who were not part of their family. This is what I call living in a “survival mode” and it helps you understand that in a life or death situation you would probably pick life even if it costs a death to someone else.

The first humans, to get food, had to hunt and to gather. There was a scarce amount of food and they would steal from others or kill others to get food. This changed when people started to cultivate land and domesticate animals.

People started to settle down in one place. As a result, some people settled in better lands and they became wealthier than others and classes were created. Some people lived in what I would call a “relax mode” instead of a “survival mode”. Because people had a lot of land and bigger houses, they wanted people who were not in their family to work for them.

Slavery was an easy way to do this. If you had land and lived in “relax mode”, you found a person in “survival mode” and traded food, shelter, and water in exchange for a person working for you. The best situation was having slaves who stayed with you a long time and learned how you did the chores and worked hard. How would you get slaves?

If people were homeless, they wanted food and goods. You could say: “be my slave and I’ll take care of you.” If people tried to make war against you and they lost, you could take them as slaves. The children of the slaves would also become your slaves.

The people with the money and the most resources controlled the slaves. This was mostly men. Men formed a patriarchy to control women and slaves. This happened in nearly every ancient civilization.

What happens if your slave does not do their work?

You could say “you don’t get any food!” But if you did that, the slave would become weak and sick. So in order to keep slaves in line, people would physically hurt them to change their behavior. You would beat them. And if that didn’t work, you would kill them and get a new slave if you could afford it.

Things would be even worse if there is a famine. If there isn’t enough food, you would probably want to save your own family first. If you free your slaves, they might form an army and take your food. So you might have to start by killing your slaves. Does this sound like a familiar story that we read each year? If you are thinking about the Hebrews experience in Ancient Egypt right now then you understand why slaves might become a threat.

Now you might be thinking to yourself – Wait!!!!!! Killing innocent people is not o.k. !!!! They didn’t do anything – which is what innocent means!

The first person to have laws about not killing your slaves was Hammurabi. He said that slaves were property. That may sound bad, but it was actually kind of good!

Here is an explanation from Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel.

Imagine that you own a coalmine. You could hire people for $10 an hour to mine coal. You wouldn’t care about their health because you hire different people everyday. But if you had ten slaves working the mine, you would care more about their health. They are your property. They benefit your life!

Hammurabi was thinking that slavery would always exist, but that laws would help people protect slaves.

The Torah takes this idea even further.

In my parsha, we read that you cannot kill a slave and you cannot injure a slave. God does not want slaveholders to be able to kill or injure their slaves!

There are also special laws for Hebrew slaves. If the slave is a Hebrew, then they are freed in the seventh year of their slavery. If they don’t want to be freed then they get an earring in the top of their ear as a mark that they are now property of the owner.

Also, if you are very poor, you can sell your daughter as a slave but there are laws to protect her. Your daughter would become a wife of the buyer, but not a slave. She can’t be sold off to someone else. If her new husband chooses to have another wife, he still needs to give her the resources she needs to survive.

In general, I think that the Torah’s laws were trying to give the slaves protection. However, I disagree with one of the Torah’s laws.

In the Torah we read: If you hit your slave and the slave dies the next day, you are liable. But if the slave dies two days later, you are not liable. Two days is not a good standard. They probably died because of the rod. If it was longer than that, like a week, it might have been something different that killed them. But really, people shouldn’t be hitting their slaves to begin with.

The big question is: Why didn’t the Torah outlaw slavery?

The Torah did not ban slavery because as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, g-d knew that people couldn’t change drastically and change so quickly, so therefore g-d “sets into motion” the ideas that will lead people to abolish slavery later.

Today, all nations have laws that abolish slavery, yet it is not abolished. We still have many people who are living in “survive mode” who are taken advantage of.

In preparation for these remarks, I spoke with Keeli Sorensen, the Director of National Programs of the Polaris Project, the largest organization in America dealing with human trafficking. When people say trafficking many people get confused, as it is a hard subject. I have learned from my interview that Trafficking affects so many people and not just girls, but boys and trans gender kids. Trafficking is when a person is forced to either have sex with someone for money or work under slave like conditions. Work trafficking is when you work on a farm, or as a maid, or sometimes at a hotel and don’t get paid for your labor. If you didn’t catch on, this is modern day slavery, and is happening even in New Jersey. Finding a way for these people to speak up is very hard. The Polaris Project helps by having a hotline and then rescuing people. They help with a place to live, education, and programs that restore people’s self-esteem. Government agencies also help the Polaris project and other groups in the U.S. and around the world. The great thing is that you can help. Visit Polaris

In my Torah reading today, one of the harshest penalties is reserved for a kidnapper. Stopping those who traffic in other humans – those who kidnap and enslave in our world, should be a priority for all of us. Many people ask,
“How can I help I am either too young or lost.” You can help whatever age, even if you are just a little kid, tell your friends,” Nobody has the right to hurt you”. You can help out as a teenager by starting a group at your school, or getting your friends to get the apps Eat-Shop-Sleep and Free2Work that help you learn about businesses with labor violations. Teens can help by speaking out and showing that they care about the subject, not just smile and nod. Wink Wink. Adults you have a big one you need to be the mentors, teach kids about the hard subjects and educate yourself on how to help, and make sure that our police enforce the ban on trafficking. The biggest problem all these organizations have is funding. The Polaris project wants to help people but when you don’t have the funding it gets hard. I have chosen myself to give a donation to the Polaris project organization as part of becoming bat mitzvah. This makes me feel that I am impacting lives and getting the world to learn about big issues that people may be scared of.

Address to Adath Jeshurun, Minnetonka, Minnesota

Shabbat Shalom. First off, I want to express my gratitude to three men who made it possible for me to wake up in Minnesota. Lon Rosenfeld, who called me in my office in New York and said that I had to come. Rabbi Kravitz, who welcomed me to the bima and to Minnetonka with open arms, and my friend from college Donovan Hart, who let me crash on his sofa. Donovan is not Jewish – but he and his wife Rama and their children are members of the Unitarian Church that bought Adath’s old building – and apparently the place still smells like gefilte fish.

I want to start with a few questions addressed to the middle school students who are here that I want you to answer to yourself. In your mind or your heart.

I know that you are all highly intelligent. You know that as Anya steps forward for her bat mitzvah it is a ritual about becoming a Jewish woman. That it is a recognition that one is no longer a child in the Jewish community. You also know that on a physical level, the body is maturing and preparing for procreation. Not that we encourage that sort of thing. Please wait til grad school.

You also know that religiously, the bat mitzvah is taking hold of the responsibilities outlined for adults in the Torah – to lead a life that honors the traditions, rituals, and ethical teachings of Torah within a community of shared responsibility.

But I want to ask you — what does it really mean to go from being a girl to being a woman?
What challenges do you need to face?
What experiences do you need to have?
What do you need to learn?
What do you need to feel?

And this brings me to my topic. What does it mean to go from being a boy to being a man? In the ancient world, I imagine that answering this question was much simpler. Want to be a man? Go kill a bear or a lion. Gut it, and wear the fur. Nobody will mess you. Or better yet, go kill some big man from that tribe we don’t like across the valley. Wear a necklace made of his bones. We won’t question your manhood.

So much of Jewish tradition has been defining Jewish man against the savage. Our patriarach Yakov, whose name is Yisrael – the name of our people, sits in tents, cooks lentils, and listens to his mother. His brother Esav…he goes out and kills things. We trace our line back to Yakov. But after we were enslaved in Egypt, and Jewish men had to come back to reclaim our ancestral lands in Israel, we looked to our warriors, to Joshua, and later to David. We began to think differently about who we were and what kind of men we needed to be in the world. We became poet-warriors, we built cities. We expanded our borders. But then we were exiled from our land. So we adapted. For over two thousand years, Jewish men focused not on military power, but on law and poetry and diplomacy and medicine and trade. Most Jewish men found ways to succeed without being like other men. After the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, we started to rethink everything. The men of Europe were threatened by us, some of them wanted to expel or to even to destroy us. So at the start of the Twentieth Century, very bookish-guys like Max Nordau started encouraging Jewish men to become “muscle Jews” to return to Olympic competition. Early kibbutzniks embraced this machismo…this return to the poet-warrior type Jewish man of King David.

Meanwhile, Jewish men in America were thinking about what it meant to be an American man. White American men were quiet. They didn’t express emotion. They were independent, tough, cowboys. Some of us tried to be cowboys. And we looked at African-American men. They had style. They were cool. They could dance. Some of us tried to be like them. And then came feminism. Women started doing things that were once reserved for men. And all of a sudden, guys didn’t know what we were supposed to be like. Were we supposed to share our feelings now? Were we supposed to censor our thoughts now? Was being cool still cool? Were we supposed to be more feminine?

A year ago, when I first started working full-time on the idea of a national program for Jewish teen boys, I realized that a lot of guys are just plain confused about what they should be, as guys.

Is a guy supposed to express his emotions or be chill?
Can a guy have friends that are not men?
Is he supposed to be tough or to be sensitive?
Should he hide his love for his mother or his father?

These are extremes, of course, but they all raise the larger question: What are the gender expectations that we have created in the various worlds that we inhabit and how are they limiting, stifling, suffocating, our potential to be fully human?
And more specifically, how are these expectations damaging young men, at a time when young men are seeing men behaving badly in politics and sports, are questioning their academic abilities vis a vis the smarter girls, and feeling like men are in decline? Today many men are socially isolated. They do not have friends. They feel more confused about their role as men than ever before.

I am the father of two teen boys, both of whom have very strong Jewish women in their lives. As my sons are playing Halo Reach on their Xbox, watching smosh TV videos on their laptop, and watching ESPN sportcenter, they are thinking about what it is to be a man. A year ago, it became clear to me that young men needed a positive, male-affirming approach to manhood. They need to have the space to think about what it means to be a mensch and the Jewish community can provide that space for every bar mitzvah boy.

When I was thirteen, I was clueless. On the plus side, I had stopped giving wedgies to my little brother and I had survived my first phone call with a girl. This is back when people talked on the phone. Not text – actual talking, on the phone. On the negative side, I was bored in school, I was too short to make the basketball team, my friends from the track team and I sat around playing on computers (the Vic 20 for those who remember) and I was up most nights worried that I didn’t have any underarm hair.

But that is all fairly superficial. On a deeper level, a lot was going on. I lived in a state of fear of “cool guys” in my school. To prove their coolness, they physically abused the weaker guys in gym class, and although I wasn’t on their list of number one targets, there were times when I was ridiculed and harrassed. Maybe what was worse was watching other kids, like the tall an awkward kid Joey, getting beat up and not really being able to do anything about it. I was unhappy, but I did not have the language to express my unhappiness. I found a few friends, but they were not close like my friends from elementary school. And although I liked girls, I had no idea what to say to them when I was actually, like, standing next to one of them. They were all so smart and witty and judgmental and I was probably wearing the wrong shirt.

So maybe bar mitzvah shouldn’t be at thirteen. Maybe it should be sixteen, or eighteen. Maybe twenty-one.

Why thirteen? What do we mean in the Jewish community when we say that you are an adult at thirteen?

The concept of thirteen as the age of adulthood began in the Talmud. The idea sprung from a legal question: Whose words are valid? If a child makes a promise, say, for example, that they promise to water your apple tree while you are on vacation, and then fails to keep that promise, are they liable for damages? Do they have to pay you for the lost apples? The rabbis determined that at age thirteen, a person should be able to back up their words. If you say something now, you understand what it means and what it requires of you. You are liable. So parents at a B’nai Mitzvah are released – as it says in the blessing, she’petarani mai onesh zeh , you are released from liability and punishment that falls on your child’s shoulders.

But there are other reasons for the age thirteen. There is a midrash that says that Jacob, the tent dweller, and Esau, the hunter were indistinguishable for their first thirteen years. At thirteen, Jacob developed the spiritual sensitivities that we label as “yetzer hatov” a selfless sense of goodwill. Esau remained in the place of self-satisfaction, he remained all yetzer harah – a bad will.
What does it mean that Esau cannot break from his boyhood tendencies?
Think of a two year old boy whose Thomas the tank engine has been cruelly stripped from his hands by, say, some other two year old. He will likely scream, cry, bang the floor, throw something, until he gets what he wants. Until we are thirteen, we are basically throwing a long temper tantrum. After thirteen, when we are throwing a temper tantrum, we are kind of on automatic pilot from childhood. But something is different. What is different? At thirteen, we start to see a bigger picture. It is the age when we step outside ourselves and begin to reflect on our childhoods. And deep inside, we can think about where we are hurt, and if we try, we can find what it is that we want to say.

At Moving Traditions, the Jewish organization that I have the honor to work for, we focus exclusively on the coming-of-age period – what happens between the ages of 11 -18, those seven dangerous and adventurous years. My colleagues and I have trained over 1,000 mentors across the country – educators and volunteers – to ask these questions to teens and we hope to train many more.

So what kind of men would we like young men to be? Our goal is not to throw away traditional male ideas such as toughness, independence, loyalty, or calm and just produce young men who are really nice and like to share their feelings. Our goal is not to make men more masculine or more feminine. In fact, we think those categories are not helpful. Rather, our aim is to inspire teen boys to expand their definition of what a man should be. Men should be both tough and fragile. Men should be able to be aggressive and to be peaceful. Men should know how to be quiet and how to be expressive. Maimonidies taught “A man should not be to quick to be angry or to slow. A man should not be too proud or too humble.” The righteous path is to understand your inclinations and to understand how you must grow in order to obtain balance.

I conclude with a question: Is 13 the right age to begin this work? I think it is the perfect age. At 13, young women and men are saying goodbye to childhood and beginning that journey to adulthood. It is a moment both of loss and of promise. We celebrate that moment, we celebrate it today, and we say – as a community – “we are there for you.” Shabbat Shalom.

Poetry: Kadosh Baruch Hu


Open my lips, I whisper, closing my eyes to look for you.
But all I see is the inside of my eyelids,
screen of the 19 inch black and white television of my childhood,
the knob stuck on a channel that doesn’t come in.

And yet, I turn to you.
Not turning really, but
I back-float and you hover above me,
I am staring out the window of the train at the seagulls
and the passing mounds of municipal waste and you follow me like the moon.

Kadosh Baruch Hu.

That is your name.
Not translated “holy, blessed”
but set apart, revered.

Kadosh Baruch Hu.
Set apart, revered.
It must be lonely.

Kadosh Baruch Hu,
To be alive in your world is to be umbilical corded and to be belly-buttoned and to be umbilical corded again.

Kadosh Baruch Hu,
You are like a Spanish love song in which presence and absence
pass by one another on the sidewalk and exchange glances.

And speaking of music, I thank you for being just a song away. Birds, frogs, squirrels, bats, all creatures who contributed ingredients to the first human song, how that all happened, rhythm and melody, yeah, if that was what you were aiming for, wow, and even if it wasn’t, just an unexpected byproduct, still, wow, wow, wow and thank you.

The things I am supposed to say to you: You gird me with strength, you remove slumber from my eyes, you support my steps, you lift me up, give me energy when I am weary.

What I really say before you: that there is nothing to say.

Please accept my humming and off-key melodies, my sighs and my silence.

And when my lips open to say:

Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,

May I elevate just a little closer to your distant and dreamy kingdom.

– Daniel S. Brenner

Top Ten Jewish Folktales: The Wagon Driver

The Rabbi of Pinsk and the Wise Wagon Driver

The Rabbi of Pinsk was a man of moderate wealth, and he had enough money to hire a servant to drive his horse and buggy to Pichniev. The servant was a very poor man, who dressed only in rags, his feet wrapped with burlap because he had traded his shoes for food during a moment of destitution. He was hungry, and the rabbi noticed that he had nothing to eat for the long journey. Most wagon drivers would sing or hum a tune to pass the time, but this wagon driver was quiet, a sad look on his face.

When they pulled over to give the old horse a rest, the rabbi shared his bread and jam with the servant. The servant began to weep. “Thank you for your kindness,” the servant said, “It has been so long since I have been treated with dignity.”

The rabbi thought for a moment and then said: “I have an idea!”

The rabbi took off his fine coat and hat and gave it to the servant. Then he took off his shoes and gave them to the servant. When the servant removed his rags, the rabbi donned the rags, even wrapping his feet. “Let’s switch places” said the rabbi.

The rabbi of pinsk drove the wagon into Pichniev. When he got to Pichniev he announced that the great rabbi of Pinsk had arrived to provide counsel to the Jewish community.

The townspeople greeted the servant, who they all thought was the rabbi, with a feast. The servant had soup, fish, and even chicken, something he hadn’t eaten for years. He even had a nice piece of rugelach.

Then the townspeople began to tell the servant about a very difficult dispute in the town. One man began to argue that he was right because of a particular Talmudic passage, the other man said that he was right because of a passage in another section of the Talmud – it was a bitter argument and it divided the entire town.

The servant stroked his chin and closed his eyes. Then he said:

“My friends, the questions that you ask, they have been asked before in other towns. You may think that they are complicated, but actually they are very easily understood. In fact, I believe that even a lowly wagon driver could answer these questions for you!”

At that point, the rabbi, disguised as the wagon driver, walked in and began to answer the questions of the townspeople.

In the morning, the servant and the rabbi left Pichneiv and switched clothing. But now, the servant began to sing as he drove the wagon.

Adapted by Rabbi Daniel Brenner