Thursday, December 23, 2010


15 Tevet, 5771
December 22nd,
     Staples, like every other retail outlet in the U.S., is now playing nothing but nonstop Christmas carols in their stores. I’ve long since resigned myself to the corporate connection between “holiday spirit” and buying as much as humanly possible, so I’ve learned to tune these out.*
      But then Neil Diamond starting singing Christmas carols. Not a foofy one either, like “Jingle Bells,” but a real one: “Hark Hear the Angels Sing.” And my ears perked up. For two reasons.
      The first is because of that inimitable warble he’s got (you know what I’m talking about). And the second is because he’s Jewish.  
      How to relate to Christmas in this country will always be a question, for we are a minority. And because interfaith families who are active and full members of our community confront it head on, it is a particularly poignant one.
      The question is a difficult one. I readily confess that I enjoy Christmas. Not retail Christmas, religious Christmas. I was on a peace march that coincided with Christmas in Nazareth, no less. It was beautiful. Hearing Neal Diamond sing about the virgin birth, however, grated against me, which means that I have some internal line drawn in the sand. 
      I have no straightforward answer about how Jews should or should not engage Christmas, especially not for interfaith families. Rather I have a question, which has helped me in a world where identity is so malleable. Our Talmud teaches that one should bless over not only miracles that have happened to our entire people, but also over miracles made for individuals. The question is asked: who should bless over such individual miracles: the person him/herself? That person’s family? That person’s friends?
      The Rashba, a brilliant teacher of the Talmud, teaches that one should bless if one was as a partner in that miracle – if, as a result of that miracle, you are here. So this, I think, is the question as we engage the world around us: is this my miracle? Is this my children’s miracle? If yes, then we have the obligation to bless it, to celebrate it, to let its light shine. If not, then we celebrate the devotion of others, living their own lives of meaning.

Shalom u’Vrakha,
Peace and Blessing,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

*For those interested in the longstanding connection between conspicuous consumption and religion in this country, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains a classic. For a lighter but still profound take, check out Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping –

Friday, December 17, 2010



9 Tevet, 5771
December 16th, 2010

A midrash teaches: An incident occurred, that a man died and left instructions in his will that "My son should not inherit anything of mine until he becomes a fool.
Puzzled, the son brought the will to court for an explanation. The provision perplexed the rabbis there, and they brought it in turn to one of the great teachers of their age: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha.
“When they arrived at [Rabbi Yehoshua’s] place they hid from his sight because they found him crawling about his hands and knees with a straw in his mouth waddling after his young son. After he had finished playing with his son, they approached him and asked him if he could interpret the will. He began to laugh and said to them: "By your lives, the matter of which you have come to inquire, just this past moment I had been demonstrating (that the man's son would not inherit anything until he became a father)." From here we learn that when a person becomes a parent, s/he becomes a clown."' (Midrash Tehillim 92:13)
            Would that we all had people to instruct us in the wisdom of foolishness. I am lucky, because our ECC kids try to remind me of this Torah every day. To live in complete seriousness is to miss the essence of life. To laugh, to sing, to cry, to be creative, to jump in piles of leaves – these things are necessary. The dry cleaning is not. This is the truth that wise people live.

            May we all be blessed with holy foolishness.

Special thanks to our ECC Moms for learning this Torah with me during Mom’s Shmooze.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


יום ז' לחנוכה
1 Tevet, 5771
December, 8th 2010

To the endangered species of our world, let us add another: the vanishing American religious male. While he’s not near extinction, he’s definitely PBS-special worthy. His disappearance isn’t just within Judaism – his lack of participation extends to every religion in the American landscape. And rabbis, priest, pastors, imams, demographers, and sociologists are trying to understand why.

            The far reaching Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey ( indicates that women outclass men in all the most important indices for religious belief and participation. It is actually quite stunning how much misogyny still exists in American religion, considering how many more women than men engage in spiritual practice.

            What concerns me most is the distance that many men hold from Torah and Judaism.  What worries me is that, as Thoreau wrote, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” but do not see Torah as a vessel to ascend beyond their frustrations. “…they go to the graves with the song still in them.”

            We wonder why our Torah teaches, ve’ahavta – and you will love, rather than ve’he’emanta – and you will believe. It is because belief is not Judaism’s fulcrum, but rather closeness. The secret to living a life of Torah is holding it close, and letting it give expression to our souls. We men need to ask ourselves why it feels so far away.

Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. Deuteronomy 30:12-14

I would appreciate any thoughts from our community, from both men and women, as to why they think men feel less connected to religion. This piece is not meant to invalidate, in any way, the many and real spiritual struggles that women face. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Light and Darkness


26 Kislev, 5771
December 2nd, 2010

            The thing about having known the experience of light is that we all, inevitably, will have to step back into darkness for a time, and cope with light’s absence.

            Our midrash teaches that human beings were born knowing light.  According to our rabbis, the entire saga of the garden and the expulsion happened in a matter of hours on the sixth day. We never saw a garden without light, and, also according to the midrash, the first Shabbat was entirely filled with light.
            But when Shabbat left on the evening of the eighth day, human beings knew darkness for the first time, and Adam and Eve were afraid. They thought, “maybe God has abandoned us for good?”
            But then the Holy One took two flints, and showed the first people how to strike them together so that light would come out. To this day, we light the Havdallah candle in memory of that moment, when God taught us to create light.
            It’s telling that Hannukah, Hag Urim – the Holiday of Lights – begins in darkness. If and when you find yourself in darkness beyond the physical, let the candles remind you that you are not abandoned. God, with more than a little help from those who love you, will show you how to create light again.

Hag Urim Sameah,
May your Hannukah be filled with light and joy

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Living in The Modern World is Difficult

Parshat VaYishlah
11 Kislev, 5770
November 18, 2010

We’re going to dredge up some of what we were taught in Philosophy 101. Yes, I know the class met unconscionably early. Yes, no college student should have to get up at 10:00 am. I promise it won’t hurt too much.

This piece of college trivia is about Aristotle’s four causes. Every object has these four causes. A chair, for instance, has a material cause (wood), a formal cause – the pattern of its construction (the shape of a chair), an efficient cause – what caused it to be made (a carpenter, tools), and a final cause – the reason for its existence (something to sit in). Every thing we own, every car we drive, every piece of food we eat, the jewelry we give – literally every material object can be defined in these four ways.

What’s confusing about contemporary life is that the efficient cause of things – how they get made and who makes them – is found very far away from us. There is often good reason for this: my beloved coffee grows much better in a South American climate than it does here.

But my delicious bean’s distance from me also means that the conditions of production can be easily obscured. And opacity makes injustice a whole lot easier. The following is from a French traveler in the 18th century (this is an old story):

“I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America [the Carribean in that time] has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa [which provided the slaves] has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.”*

There was a time in which rabbis in the 19th and early 20th centuries protested the first matza-making machines (of all things), because of their effect on the poor in their communities (matzas were traditionally made by the Jewish poor). But in that case, the problem was right next door. We live in the world of globalism, and have to shoulder the added burden searching for justice at a distance.

But perhaps this is the reason for our most oft-quoted of Torah texts: Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut 16:20) Justice is elusive. One has to run after it.

For those who are interested in fighting this good fight, the work of Jewish World Watch (Adat Shalom is a member synagogue) on minerals and gems from conflict regions is extraordinary. P
Please get involved at

For those coffee-lovers who are worried about the efficient cause of their beans, look for the Fair Trade label.
*as quoted in Uncommon Grounds, by Mark Prendergast (17)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Parshat VaYetzei
2 Kislev, 5771
November 9th, 2010

If you pass by my office on particular mornings, you’ll see me studying Talmud with a good friend. It may also look, at first glance, like we’re trying to kill each other.
There is a kind of learning relationship that, superficially, doesn’t make any sense: it involves a lot of pacing, contradicting, occasional shouting. Our body language would say to any outside observer: “conflict;” unless, of course, you watch our faces, which are often smiling.
That hour that we spend together is one of the most life-giving of my week. It’s space for unfettered curiosity, where every question is fair game; it’s a space of honesty, where opinions are not held back for fear of offending one’s partner – when we think the other is right or wrong, we say so, when there is evidence to contradict, we do so; it is a time to work together to answer difficult questions, to be intellectually and spiritually creative, not to hold back. It is, in short, amazing.
But relationships of this intensity are also exceptionally fragile, and the only way that havruta (learning partners) are able to sustain them is by creating boundaries that keep the interaction, as well as the two people interacting, safe. One of the biggest is that the relationship is about Torah, not about our individual selves – being in shared service to a larger ideal places ad hominem attacks outside the pale. The other is learning partners strive for radical equality within the boundaries of learning – hierarchy doesn’t work when one isn’t holding back.
The point is that real relationships – in which the content is authentic and alive – require real boundaries. The center cannot hold when such interactions have no frame. Respecting the boundaries of another person or of an important relationship is a precious gift, and it is the only true way to let real connections grow between people.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Country Music is Amazing


Parshat Toldot
27 Heshvan, 5771
November 4th, 2010

I have absolutely no natural connection to Nashville. I am everything that a country music fan is not supposed to be: a pure-d, citified, left-coast, Hollywood-bred, not-making-living-with-his-hands kind of guy. I do not own a truck. But I absolutely love country music.

Let me explain.

            Country music has a special kind of Torah. It, as well as bluegrass and the blues (my true favorite genres), makes an art of the plain. It celebrates the beauty of the simple and the emotionality of everyday life: how much he loves his truck; the view of his wife and kids from his front porch looking in; being young and dumb, driving fast and in love; the pain of heartbreak.

            Country music celebrates real things. It believes that everyday things are deserving of song.

            The insight that the everyday can be made holy is the root of a powerful spirituality. For those of us who hold on to this mode, realizing the holiness of simple things is more than a suggestion – it is an imperative. More Torah and mitzvot and prayer than most people realize are grounded in this realization. The challenge of this path is to turn the time we spend in holy community into a crucible for the everyday, in which the basics of our lives are questioned, exalted, transformed, celebrated. “…take your shoes from off your feet for the ground you are standing upon is holy” (Exodus 3:5)

            May we all be blessed with a country kind of life.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


19 Heshvan, 5771
October 27th, 2010

I believe that we live in a time of anger. It is not, I think, that the beliefs that people hold are so radically different than those they’ve held in ages past, but that the expression of those beliefs is quick to extremism, that it flares hard and with vitriol. Every day I hear politicians screaming at each other. I see religionists whose finest expression of faith is to cause as many deaths as possible. I see a church whose divine messages are: “God hates fags,” “God hates Jews,” “God hates Muslims” grow popular. You can see its members too, mocking the funeral of an American soldier near you. These are some of the signs of our times.
 In the past month, three gay teenagers have committed suicide, all as a result of either school bullying, or, in the case of Tyler Clementi, massive public humiliation. Though such bullying has been around for a long time, I believe that their deaths are connected with the cycle of our anger. Collective anger is acted upon by a society’s youth, who have far fewer inhibitions about putting what they’ve learned into practice. When kids and teenagers abuse and demean they are enacting what they’ve absorbed from a broader society.
When the mark of our times is that we are quick to anger, lacking in patience (the opposite of God’s virtues, as an aside), we have a special responsibility. Our Talmud calls us rahmanim bnei rahmanim – the compassionate children of compassionate parents. We also say that one who is compassionate to cruelty, will end up being cruel to those who deserve our compassion. The arc of our compassion must increase dignity and deny cruelty. As long as there are gay and lesbian young people who feel that death is their only option, we are not as we have been blessed to be. 

Friday, October 22, 2010


14 Heshvan, 5771
October 22nd, 2010

Two scenarios.

Scenario the first: a non-Jewish man is engaged to a Jewish woman, and has been flirting with conversion but cannot seem to pull the trigger. During the wedding itself, said man wears a tallit during the ceremony because it is personally meaningful.*
Second scenario: a group in Israel, known as Women of the Wall, regularly meets at the back of the Western Wall plaza. These women, as a sign of their deep commitment to Torah and God, wear tallit and tefillin, and read from the Torah. Their presence often incites the Ultra Orthodox Jews around them to throw both animal and human feces at the Women of the Wall, and occasionally to attempt physical violence.

These two scenarios are not alike - the second defaces human dignity - but they are linked by a central symbol and they ask the same question: to whom do powerful symbols belong?

There are two truths about symbols that we should recognize. The first is that every symbol that means anything at all is honored by a community, not just by an individual. Symbols take on profound meaning precisely because they are shared between people. To publicly claim a symbol in a way that grates against its common understanding can be quite painful for the community which loves it.

But it is also true that communities do not own their own symbols - they live in the public domain. Almost every creative, inspiring advance in Torah or religion at all has come through the reinterpretation and re-expression of central symbols. The dictation of their expression by force or by degradation is an anathema.

There is always another person on the other end of a symbol that we find meaningful, another set of eyes, another heart. They join us together, join us to God. These are the things we have to remember to use them well.

*Tallit, in Torah, is specifically a sign of the acceptance of all the commandments laid upon Jews.


8 Heshvan, 5771

Jerry Springer's career just won't die, destroying the possibility of rational thought in the universe. He has a new dating show called, "Baggage," whose hook is that people choose partners not by what's most attractive, but by the baggage and hang-ups that they bring into the relationship. 

 This show is evilly brilliant, and not only because it expands the frontier of how gleefully people will humiliate themselves in front of a camera. It also exposes a truth of life: that baggage is really important. Much of loving another person means accepting their baggage. Indeed, it reveals just how much our own issues and trauma set the course of our lives.

The Rambam teaches in the Eight Chapters that all human beings are free, that none are born either good or evil but have the obligation to direct themselves; but how can we be free knowing that what is imposed upon us from the outside, especially when we're young, has so much to say about how we live our lives? Especially when those impositions are negative and hurtful, they leave an imprint upon us forever.
Freedom lies in how every person responds to his or her own trauma. What hurts us demands a response, but it does not dictate what that response will be. What is put upon us is not in our hands, but our response to our baggage is. Our baggage is what we make of it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Be Here Now

13 Tishrei, 5771

Every time I need inspiration, I go over to our ECC.  It’s a special place (and not just because Eva, her staff, and our parents are unbelievable). It’s actually rare to be able to interact with young kids in this world, and I’ve forgotten what gifts their presence brings to our lives.

So giddy and more than a little fatigued after Yom Kippur, I trooped over to visit. And what I thought, seeing them play, was that we’ve all just done a very adult thing. To be bohen levavot – searching our hearts – introspecting for over a month, diving into our own complexity, managing the demand that our lives be propelled forward with the need that we change their course – I can’t think of a more mature thing to do.

Watching these kids play, though, was a totally different experience. They are all now; they are all here; at most they are yesterday but certainly not twenty years in the past nor ten in the future.

It made me think of Sukkot (I apologize for that, but it’s a professional hazard). Rabbi Akiva teaches that sukkot are supposed to evoke annanei hakavod – clouds of glory. After the splitting of the sea, Midrash teaches that God carried us to Sinai in these clouds, which kept our clothes ever clean and new, prevented our shoes from wearing out, and other such miracles. The point being that inside the clouds of glory it was always now, always here: there was not the urge of the future, not the need to replace worn out things, no errands, groceries, etc. It was a world that moved without the consequences of movement.

And that’s what, ideally, life inside a sukkah is meant to be.

I’m not advocating that we use Sukkot to act like we’re in nursery school – there are some rather obvious downsides to that strategy; but rather that we enjoy what Dr. Bruce Powell once called simplicity on the other side of complexity. It isn’t that we’re being childish, not examining our lives, but rather realizing that the point of self-examination is to introduce a beautiful simplicity into our lives.

The urges of the year press: things to do, kids to school, programs to plan, work to finish. But for just a moment, let’s be here now. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Yamim Noraim 5771, Part 4: Context


21 Elul, 5770

Imagine that the big day has arrived: Rosh HaShannah is here (what, that's not the big day you were thinking of?). You are surrounded by hundreds of people. What are you thinking about?

That's the rub, see. It's so hard for us to know how to be on the High Holy Days. What is it, exactly, that we are meant to be doing? Most of us end up critiquing your neighbor's sense of style. This is not the holiest idea, but it is highly addictive (don't deny it).

Most Jews step into the Yamim Noraim as if it was controlled anarchy. There is an experience to be had, something occurring around us, something profound; however, it seems so difficult to access the experience itself. How do we move from the outside to the inside? The Ben Ish Hai (our teacher from a few columns ago), has a suggestion.

Look around you, he says. Notice that everyone surrounding you is either younger or older than you are. Think to yourself something like this: "that person, older than me, must have so much extraordinary life experience, wisdom that I do not yet have, has accomplished things which I have not;" or, alternatively, "that person, younger than me, has not made as many mistakes as I have, has more youthfulness and innocence than I do, more of life ahead of him."

The truth of these assertions is irrelevant. The point is, in a very humble way, to figure out who we are when we step into that room. One of the gifts that other people bring us is that of context: where are we in our lives? how far have we come? how far do we believe we have yet to go? And from that moment of essential location, we can step into what is happening around us.

May this Yamim Noraim bring us in touch with who we are.                   

Kol Tov,
Only Good,
Rabbi Perlo

Friday, August 27, 2010



Parshat Ki Tavo

My short time as the rabbi of Adat Shalom has been one of immense theological growth and newly gained insight. 

Why? There is a concept in the Psalms and Torah of the “enemies of God.” This idea has always been deeply problematic for me: if God created everything, how can there be enemies of God?

But now I understand. There is such a thing as an enemy of God, and I have discovered its name: spam email. After years in existence before me, the rabbi@adatshalomla email has the apparent distinction of traversing from one spam list to another and another. Every day brings a fresh barrage.

The vast majority of the spam we get seems to flow straight from the id of a late middle-aged Italian gangster: porn, fake Viagra, the occasional bogus stock tip, and rolex watches. I also receive near constant viruses attempting to invade my computer under false pretenses.

What’s fascinating -- and this is the real point -- is that spam offers the worst things in the world. Not the most evil, simply the worst: the most base; the most confused; the least sophisticated and intelligible; the most likely to defraud you in small ways (and sometimes big ones); the least likely to satisfy us in any real way. Spam is the externalized real form of the all the little evils that inhabit the world.

Yet the messages keep coming. The larger email servers, who employ increasingly effective spam filters, report that they block over two billion spam messages a day and still many get through. My concern is not for the moral degradation of society (these paltry impulses have always been there), nor for the way that spam might lead us astray (do we really think we’re getting a genuine Rolex?), but simply for the fact that we’re being numbed by an overwhelming tide of small evils. And small evils are so much harder to effectively address than great ones. Kierkegaard writes:

“What I complain of is that life is not like a novel where there are hard-hearted fathers, and goblins and trolls to fight with, enchanted princesses to free. What are all such enemies taken together compared to the pallid, bloodless, glutinous nocturnal shapes with which I fight and to which I myself give being.” Either/Or p.45

 What Torah demands from all of us is to ever enlarge our acuity of perception; to become more sensitive, not less: “and God will circumcise your hearts...” Devarim 30:6 It is not clear how we can attain such sensitivity in the midst of such numbness, and thus I think of spam as an enemy of God. Far be it from me to suggest political action, but I would vote for an anti-spam bill in a heartbeat. And after Shabbat, I’m buying a better spam filter.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yamim Noraim 5771, Part 3: Making Tikkun


Parshat Ki Tavo, 5770
Of the panoply of terms rabbis throw around, tikkun, being one half of tikkun olam, is one that has true saturation in the minds of Jews. Tikkun means “fixing,” and it has special relevance when talking about another one of those terms we throw around, teshuvah.

Teshuvah is a long process, beginning with the recognition of the need for change and the desire to effect it, and ending with our full internalization of that change into our lives. Within teshuvah lives the process of tikkun, in which we identify and engage in the right behavior that will push us towards the change we seek. Tikkun is the lever that moves teshuvah.

An example: during the first night of Shavuot, the celebration of the Giving of Torah, Jews stay up all night studying. This process is called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, “the Fixing of Shavuot Night.” So what is it fixing?

Rabbi Hanina said: In the third month the day is double the night, and the Israelites slept through two hours of the day, as sleep on the feast of Shavuot is pleasant, as the night is short. And Moses went forth and came to the camp of the Israelites, and he aroused them from their sleep, saying to them: "Get up! God desires to give you the Torah! Already the groom wishes to meet the bride and enter the marriage canopy (chuppah). The hour has come for giving you Torah!" Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, 41 

It turns out that we overslept the Giving of Torah, which would be comparable to almost sleeping through your own wedding.

Only the Jews.

So every year we put in place a tikkun, a fixing, to prompt us towards greater presence, greater wakefulness to the wonder waiting for us in the morning. The challenge is for each of us to discover the tikkun for the change we wish to see: to know the lever and the fulcrum of our psychology, and then to shift the burden accordingly. Don’t waste time engaging in sisyphean endeavours; don’t despair if the method you’ve chosen isn’t working; before you start down the path of effecting teshuvah, make sure you find your tikkun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010



Parshat Ki Tetze, 5770

Rabbi Harold Kushner thinks there’s too much anger in the world*, and I believe him.
He’s not the only one: more and more thinkers, scholars, therapists, and even humble rabbis adopt worried tones when commenting on the anger they’re picking up on out in the world.

These days, we experience most of our anger in a blare: from whichever partisan news channel happens to be on; from whatever political pundit holding forth on the radio; from the almost defiant conversations other people have around us, or that we sometimes have ourselves.

Righteous anger is a good sign in a human being – the ability to be stirred to passion is a blessing. But its perseverance will destroy us all. Anger is the sign of a problem, not its solution.

Rav Kook writes about the phenomenon of persistent anger: “In regards to anger, we must hate it with all the depth of our being. With great anger, but one that is measured and settled, we need to hate spiritual anger, which scrambles the mind…When we see some group or party that speaks always in anger, this is in fact a sign to us that they have no real knowledge, and no content to fill their emptiness, and in fact they are angry at themselves…  (Orot haKodesh)

The surety that we hear in the angry voices around us, especially of those with whom we agree, is illusive. The warmth of anger may seem comforting, but we should not draw too close to the fire that is its source.

*His excellent talk on his new book, Conquering Fear, can be heard on the Big Ideas podcast:

Yamim Noraim 5771, Part 2: Introspection Is Only Part of It


7 Elul, 5770

This is the season of examination. This is the time to look within, to ask important questions of ourselves, to prepare to become the people we want to be but are not yet. This is the time for introspection.


The extraordinary Rav Kook reminds us that, although the first step is look within, to remain solely within is a mistake.

One of our great problems as human beings is that we often do not love enough. Think of the litany of life areas in which we would like to be better: spending more time with our kids, appreciating our spouses more, being kinder, being more patient; all these are expressions of love, directed either at others or at ourselves, which we should engage in more.

Ironically, not loving enough will also prevent us from making real teshuvah. Because we struggle to love, we are unlikely to look at ourselves with love. We will often assess behavior that is perfectly acceptable, or needs minor adjustment, with an eye that is far too critical. In his words, “do not call a sin all that the imagination calls a sin… [rather have] ‘just balances and just scales’” (Leviticus 19:36). And while our eyes are focused on our illusory faults, what really needs to change will be left behind.

Introspection alone may lead us astray.

So, says Rav Kook, we need to turn to something external. Something constant, even eternal, that stands outside of our emotional ebbs and flows. We need to find something that is a “just balance” and a “just scale,” against which we can measure our perceptions. And we need to find something that has, mixed with its judgment of what is right, a great deal of love for humanity.

First we need to look within; then we need to learn Torah.

Yamim Noraim 5571, Part 1:Introspection: Beginning the Process


My teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson sometimes won’t teach people certain texts. They’re called mussar, which is the Jewish practice of self-discipline and radical self-actualization: essentially the practice of how to change.
            She, being one of the most sincere, committed people I know, quite surprised me with this revelation. I had expected that she’d be all about hardcore teshuvah.
When I asked why she has these rules, she explained that there are times when deep introspection can be unhealthy; it can destabilize our psyche rather than strengthen it; merely disassembling someone’s heart is pain without point.
The month of Elul, the month that begins of introspection and self-correction called teshuvah, begins tomorrow. Even morning we will blow shofar to wake ourselves up, to stir ourselves to be better; however, that process can only begin if we have a strong sense of the goodness of who we are, if we are able to look at our lives with joy.
The Ben Ish Hai – the brilliant leader of Baghdadi Jewry of the 19th century, teaches that excessive sadness itself is a transgression for which we must account on Yom Kippur. It is critical to look towards the process of our own change with joy, for the potential to always become better is in truth a gift; moreover, a gift whose preciousness gives to us as long as we draw breath. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that there are few days of joy to compare to Yom Kippur, for when else do we so fully celebrate the possibility for renewal?
May we receive the season of teshuvah in joy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Parshat Shoftim, 5770

Let us speak in praise of anxiety.
It’s practically its own Jewish value, considering how prevalent it is in the psychology of most Jews, and we’ve devised a thousand stratagems, pharmacological or otherwise, to manage it so that it does not overwhelm our lives. The paralysis it can bring is real and not to be underestimated.

But for a moment, let us talk about its worth: for the pure root of anxiety is concern, and the ability to be concerned is the root of a mature morality. According to the psychologist Eric Fromm, the ability to be concerned for the needs of others and the needs of one’s own self is the very definition of psychological health. When one adds God’s needs into the equation, we call such a person a tzaddik – a righteous one; we have no greater praise.

In the midst of a completely tangential issue, the Talmud teaches an extraordinary phrase, “Our rabbis were anxious for the requirement of the daughters of Israel…” (Ketubot 2b) In this instance, our teachers chose to make law based on the needs of others – they gave in to holy anxiety.

May the Holy One bless us to direct our sometimes overflowing anxiety. May it find its home in concern for real needs: our needs; others’ needs; the needs of this world; what God needs of us.  And may pharmacology, not excepting that it is rather helpful at times of true exasperation, never replace for us the gift of concern.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Loving the Questions

Parshat Re’eh, 5770

Being a teacher means constantly asking yourself about the point of education. We teachers often have to get quite creative about this process. The thousandth time that student has forgotten what was taught the day before can be quite disheartening (though such forgetting is, in truth, the most natural of processes).

Moreover you learn as a teacher that information, even demonstrable facts, are only the raw material of education, as useless and as unappealing to students as a pile of bricks abandoned at a construction site.

Learning is about the art of the question. The masters of our tradition were not only masters of information (a lower level of proficiency), they were masters of the asking.

This does not obviate knowledge. There are such things as poor questions, and their poverty is often founded on a lack of information. Rather, it is to praise the way that they employed knowledge. Much of time we assemble information to reinforce opinions that we already hold. The brilliance of our teachers was that they arranged what they knew to explore what was unknown to them. 

The hope of every teacher, especially of those who teach young adults, is that their minds may learn to dance in the space between what they know, that learning do more than confirm what they already believe, that it open worlds that they barely suspect. The Talmud teaches that “there is no comparison between one who studies a text a hundred times and one who studies it one hundred and one times.” (Hagigah 9b)  I assure you, the text is no different on that 101st review; what we ask of it is.

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train your for that - but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don't hate anything. 
- Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to A Young Poet

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Parshat Ekev, 5770

We are a society that fiercely values personal independence and self-sufficiency. It’s part of the American mythos – the great story that we tell ourselves about who we are. Paul Revere, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Calamity Jane – they are the raw material of the American heart.

What is stunning, then, is just how much we rugged individualists expect that other people produce for us.  This demand goes far beyond material goods, for which we are wholly dependent upon others at this stage in our civilization. We also expect that other people will provide us with emotional care (therapy), exciting and challenging experiences (adventure travel), even, especially, spiritual connection on demand.

That we should ask these things of others is not unreasonable: we cannot live without other people; their care and blessing is the stuff of life; we are not islands; however, what troubles the mind is that we often place the burden of the success of these ventures upon their shoulders. The psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp (he wrote, If You Meet the Buddha on The Road, Kill Him!) says about this mode, “It is as if [the patient] comes into the office saying, ‘my world is broken and you have to fix it.’”

Our midrash teaches us that one of the names for the human soul is yehidah: the solitary one, the unique one. It is not our bodies or our ways of living that are unique - we are more similar to each other in these regards than we are different. What is unique is the particular twist of our own heart. Life is made richest in the midst of the care of others, but only we, in the end, carry the responsibility for our own souls.

Shalom u’Vrakha
Peace and Blessing,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Comfort of Transience


Parshat VeEthanan, 5770
Shabbat Nahamu – The Shabbat of Comfort

One of Martin Luther King’s habits was to quote Bible verses without indicating that he was doing so. Without that pause for ascription, those words would flow with the thunder with which they were originally created, adding the strength of the Divine to the strength of his own words.

At the climax of his “I Have A Dream” speech, King says, I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

 The quote is from this week’s haftarah, the first after Tisha b’Av. We call this Shabbat Nahamu – the Shabbat of Comfort, meant to comfort us after the pain of the last weeks. Its first words are, “Be comforted, be comforted my people, says Your God.” (Isaiah, ch.40)

Why, though, is raising up valleys and leveling mountains an expression of comfort? It is,I believe, because of their restatement of a firm truth: all things change; Even mountains and valleys, in their seeming immutability, are not permanent. In the eyes of the earth itself, they are but a passing phase.

When craggy peaks and chasms in our lives seem immutable and insurmountable, I bless us with the wisdom that King Solomon found so profound he inscribed it on his seal: Gam Zu Ya’avor” –  This too shall pass. To that we add an article of our faith: that they will change for the better.

Friday, July 16, 2010


4 Menahem Av, 5770
Shabbat Hazon – The Shabbat of Vision
Parshat Devarim
We have a long memory (deservedly) when it comes to those who have persecuted us over the centuries. It is perhaps harder to remember, though, when we have brought suffering upon ourselves.

Our people revolted against the Romans in 66 C.E., but the era was beset as much by internal Jewish strife as it was with conflict against the Romans. The civil situation had deteriorated such that Jews assassinated others in the streets of Jerusalem. When the Romans finally recaptured Jerusalem in 70 C.E., it meant the destruction of our way of life up that point.
Our Rabbis ask the question of why it happened, why the Temple was destroyed. And the surprising answer they find is that our leadership lacked vision.
Our own story of the destruction begins with a man who is publicly and deeply embarrassed by his enemy, a la Romeo and Juliet’s Tybalt. At the silence of our rabbis in the face of his shame, he vows to destroy their leadership (for the full story go to wikipedia).

As he puts his plan into action, one rabbi, Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avkoles, prevents his colleagues from responding at all, for good or for ill. The great teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, comments bitterly that it was because of Rabbi Zekhariah’s great humility that the Temple was burned, Jerusalem destroyed, and our people sent into exile (Talmud Gittin 56a).

There is a mitzvah of vision – a commandment to see forward. In the face of impossible options, there is a mitzvah to find a third way.

But this mitzvah does not devolve upon an individual alone, rather an entire community. In the inevitable times when tension and strife arise, in the times when we act against our own best interest, in the times when we are on the verge of destroying ourselves, people must step forward with the option that lies between impossibilities, to find the solution that no one has yet seen. And for all the rest of us, our mitzvah must be the courage to listen to those with courageous vision.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Unwanted Inheritances

מטות-מסעי תש''ס
Mattot-Masei 5770

The lovely thing about relationships with family is that they are permanent. Our parents, our children, our siblings – they will remain so forever, even beyond our own lives.
But the paradox of permanent relationships is that they can hold far more bitterness than those that can be broken. Because they are forever, their memory is long and pain and contention accrete in a way that does not happen elsewhere in our lives. In my experience, time only heals some wounds. Others remain exactly the way we left them.

This close to Tisha b’Av, the commemoration of the Temple in Jerusalem’s destruction on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, the mind of Torah stops to think about pain and bitterness, and to teach.

And what the prophet Jeremiah teaches is that pain and disappointment can have a long future: “’And therefore I will continue to fight with you’, says God, ‘and fight with your children’s children.’” (2:9) This verse from this week’s haftorah, the second in a series of three leading up to Tisha b’Av, is a warning that contention unresolved can become a permanent commodity so real that it is an inheritance handed down to children.

But the only thing with a longer future than such contention is the potential for resolution: “’If you return Israel’, declares God, ‘if you return to Me…in sincerity, justice, and righteousness – nations shall bless themselves by you, and praise themselves by you.’” (4:1-2)

Pain is strong, but redemption is always stronger. And what is reached after the resolution of contention is greater even than the place in which the relationship started. “Said Rabbi Abahu, ‘The place where those who have returned stand, even the completely righteous cannot stand there.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 99a)