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Divrei  Torah - Rabbi Toba Spitzer

These divrei torah have been delivered on High Holydays and on other occasions.

With Uplifted Hearts: Our Building Project — Yom Kippur 5784

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

When I was in 5th grade, my family began attending services at the recently formed Fabrangen Havurah, in Washington DC. It was a member-led community that had no rabbi, although there were a number of rabbis and learned lay people in it.  I was actually the first young person to have a b-mitzvah at Fabrangen, way back in 1976, a personal point of pride! Ten years later, when I moved back to DC after college, I started going to...Read more...

Betting Against the Angels — Kol Nidre 5784

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

One of the central images of the High Holydays is that of a cosmic book, a kind of ledger, in which we are "written" and "sealed" for the new year – we asked to be "written" for a good year at Rosh Hashanah – saying to one another, "l'shanah tovah tikkateivu" – and then, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, we wish one another g'mar chatima tovah – that we be "sealed" for good.

The meaning of this book metaphor is not...

Hayom Harat Olam: Opening to Darkness — Rosh Hashanah 5784

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

These holidays are called many things in our tradition. Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Din, the Day of Judgment, and as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are called Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah. They are also called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe – or, more literally, the "Awe-full Days," and the double meaning is intentional. An experience of "awe" was not...Read more...

Teshuvah and "Turning" — Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Tonight we kick off the Jewish new year, 5784, and also the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Over the years, I've had fun – inspired by my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Richard Hirsh – to come up with a variety of topics to plug into the formula, "7 Things about Teshuvah that I've learned from…" — including what I've learned from the game of baseball, from getting progressive lenses, from riding a bicycle, from my...Read more...

The Road to Reparations - Yom Kippur 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

On Yom Kippur in 2017, a few months after the horrifying white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville, VA, I gave a talk on “slavery and its atonement.” I was wrestling with how our failure as a country to properly reckon with and atone for  the foundational sins of Native American genocide and the enslavement of Black people had led us to that terrifying moment. 

It's revealing to reflect on what...

Already Forgiven - Kol Nidre 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In a moment, we will enter into the collective Selichot prayers, where we ask, in a variety of  ways, for forgiveness. There is a famous rabbinic teaching that the rituals of Yom Kippur do not grant forgiveness for harm that we may have done to other people. The fast day does not substitute for the person-to-person work of teshuvah, repentance and repair. Yom Kippur, the rabbis teach, brings healing between us and the Source of...Read more...

What Do We Do With Avinu Malkeinu? - Rosh Hashanah 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

[With gratitude to the anthology Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father, Our King, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Jewish Lights, 2015, from whence I gleaned much of the information in this talk.]

Sometime in the 2nd century C.E., around the year 100, there was a great drought in the land of Israel. According to a story in the Talmud, one of the leading rabbis of the time, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, gathered the community...Read more...

Hello to Here - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

So here we are, back where we used to be – and nowhere near where we used to be. Back in our “regular” High Holydays sanctuary space, as we’ve been for so many years – but this year, we are wearing masks. This year, we are able to beam in folks from across the country via YouTube. This year, we are in our third High Holydays season marked by the coronavirus pandemic. The same; and different. Here we are; and what, exactly, is...Read more...

Transforming Grief: Climate Catastrophe & Us - Yom Kippur 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

The High Holydays, these Ten Days of Teshuvah, are fundamentally about life and death.  On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the birthday of the world and of humanity.  We sing “Hayom Harat Olam,” “Today the world is created.”   The Rosh Hashanah Torah and haftarah portions tell stories of birth – the birth of our ancestor Isaac, the birth of the prophet Samuel. We celebrate...Read more...

The Power of "We" - Kol Nidre 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In a few minutes, we will recite the “Aleynu” prayer, that begins with these words: “Aleynu l’shabe’ach la’Adon hakol, la-tet gedulah l’yotzer bereshit” – “It is up to us to praise the Source of all, to declare the greatness of the Creator.”  This prayer was originally composed for the Rosh Hashanah service some time in the early rabbinic period, two thousand years ago, and then at some...Read more...

A New Mitzvah - Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

It’s both strange and remarkable that our Torah reading this morning contains a story that portrays our founding ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, in such an unpleasant light.  Sarah, trying to protect her son Isaac, demands that Abraham cast Hagar and their son Ishmael out into the wilderness, and Abraham goes along with this heartless act.

It’s actually sort of strange that this story of Hagar and Ishmael is in the Torah...Read more...

In Praise of Hopelessness - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Back in June, as I began musing about what I might say during the High Holydays, I imagined a talk along the lines of, “Seven Things I have Learned from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” with the thought that while the pandemic wouldn’t be entirely over, its disruption of our lives would be largely in the rearview mirror.  With that distance, I could begin to discern useful lessons for the new year.  Alas....Read more...

Out of the Rubble - Kol Nidre 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Near the beginning of the pandemic, as Dorshei Tzedek and every other congregation shifted to a completely new way of doing things, my colleague Barbara Penzner remarked to me that she had heard another rabbi refer to this as a “Temple destruction moment.”  This felt, and continues to feel, very apt, on many levels.

So, what is a “Temple destruction...

Fire of the Heart - Yom Kippur 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

I have had a clear, visceral sense of being in God’s presence very few times in my life.  One such time occurred when I went to another synagogue for a daily evening minyan on my father’s yahrzeit.  It was a small gathering, and the service was simple and straightforward. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to occur. Then, during the silent Amidah, I was suddenly struck by an intense feeling of being...Read more...

Godly Positioning System - Rosh Hashanah 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In the Torah portions that we read over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, people hear God speaking to them in a variety of difficult situations. Heartbroken at Sarah’s demand that he kick Hagar and Ishmael out of their home, Abraham hears God instructing him to do what Sarah says.  Out in the wilderness, afraid her son is about to die, Hagar hears the reassuring voice of a divine messenger, telling her that she and her son will be fine....Read more...

Four Cubits - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

I’d like to share with you tonight a story told by Congressman John Lewis, may his memory be for a blessing, in his memoir, Walking In the Wind:

“[A]bout fifteen of us children were outside my aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified…

Aunt...

The Journey of the Soul

Rabbi Toba Spitzer


Sixteen years ago, in May of 2003, I was teaching the second session of a class on Death and Dying in Jewish tradition.  I got a message after the class that Gina, my spouse, was trying to reach me, and she had asked me to come right home after the class.  When I got home, she told me that my father, Bill, was gone; he had died suddenly of a heart attack a few hours before.  He was 64.


Getting Lost

Rabbi Toba Spitzer



A few weeks ago, I read a wonderful op-ed in the Boston Globe by a writer named Tim Cockey.  He writes:                               

“Here’s what I hope to do on my upcoming trip out West: Get lost. And not just once, but over and over again.

“Why?...

Ahavah Rabah - Transformative Love

It is both intriguing and confounding that the section of Torah chosen to be read on Rosh Hashanah are the chapters that we read today and tomorrow, Genesis 21 and 22.  Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham expelling them into the wilderness, Hagar placing Ishmael under a bush to die, Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac—these are difficult stories.

Of course, there are also redemptive...

Tipping the Scales

Rabbi Toba Spitzer


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that a good portion of the TV that I watch are reality cooking shows - Top Chef, Masterchef, Masterchef Junior.  This summer, I returned to watching a show that used to be a favorite of mine: Restaurant Impossible.  For those of you not familiar with it, the recipe for Restaurant Impossible is fairly straightforward, and is...Read more...

Seven Things I’ve Learned about Teshuvah From Household Appliances

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

PDF:  Erev RH Talk 5779-Teshuvah & Appliances.pdf

There are many ways my life has changed in the two years since my spouse, Gina, passed away. I recently realized that this is the first time in my life that I have been the sole person responsible for the upkeep of a house.  Until the year I turned 40, when I acquired my first mortgage with Gina, I had always lived in someone else’s...Read more...

Finding Faith

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5779

PDF: RH Talk 5779-Finding Faith.pdf

This past July, during a visit with my mother in Maryland, we happened upon the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, on the Eastern Shore.  Established just a few years ago, the Park has a wonderful visitors’ center, with a great exhibit about Tubman’s life and the activity of the Underground Railroad in Maryland...Read more...

Lovingkindness and Truth Will Meet

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5779

PDF: Lovingkindness and Truth Will Meet.pdf

In 1974, when I was in 7th grade, my teacher took our class to a Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill.  We sat in a small room on wooden benches, listening to the testimony of a very elderly man, one of the very few survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  The hearings were about a proposal to pay reparations to survivors and descendants...Read more...

Water, Place, Voice

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

PDF: Erev RH Talk 5778 - Water-Place-Voice.pdf

So here we are, entering a new Jewish year, a time that in our tradition is seen as one both of hope and of trepidation.  Hope, because we are celebrating the creation of the world as if today were that day - everything lies new before us.  Hope, because we are given an opportunity to turn the page, to write a new chapter in our personal...Read more...

Reconstructing "Peoplehood"

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5778

PDF: RH1 Talk 5778 - Reconstructing Peoplehood.pdf



I have a friend and former employer, Jerome Segal, who a number of years ago wrote a book about the Torah called Joseph’s Bones. I love the first paragraph of his introduction - it goes like this:  “Imagine a book club that has only one book. When the club members finish their book, they return to the beginning...Read more...

Slavery and Its Atonement

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur  5778

PDF: YK Talk 5778- Slavery and Its Atonement.pdf



In the Yom Kippur Torah service, we heard from two of the central models of leadership in the Torah: the priest and the prophet.  The priests oversaw the rituals that were designed to allow God’s Presence to dwell among the Israelites, via the sacred space known as the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary.  The priests were...Read more...

After the Death

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5777

PDF: After the Death



This morning’s Torah reading begins with the words, acharei mot–“after the death.”  This verse refers to an odd and upsetting episode from a few chapters earlier in Leviticus.  Aaron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought the wrong kind of offering into the Mishkan, into the Holy of Holies, and were zapped by a deadly fire.  This...Read more...

Your Purpose is Everything

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

PDF: Your Purpose is Everything



Over the past few years, I spent a fair bit of time at Mass General Hospital, accompanying my spouse Gina on various appointments.  In each of the examination rooms in the cancer center, on the inside of every door, there is a sign that says this:

 “Confirming your identity will be a repetitive process while here...Read more...

Active Hope

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5777

PDF: Active Hope



Rosh Hashanah is traditionally understood as the day that God sits in judgment over all of creation.  The great medieval scholar Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, writes that this “judgment” takes the form of a scale, weighing human transgressions against good deeds.  For each person, if our positive deeds outweigh our...Read more...

Our Path Together

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5777

PDF: Our Path Together



On my various rabbinic listservs, there has been some discussion, as you might imagine, about how and if we rabbis will be addressing the presidential election over the High Holydays.  Due to the tax exempt status of our congregations, we are legally barred from telling people to do everything in their power to keep a misogynistic, racist, narcissistic...Read more...

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784