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Divrei  Torah - Rabbi Toba Spitzer

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

Rabbi Spitzer is also writing for ON Scripture – The Torah, a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life. These...Read more...

God & Metaphor

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5773

PDF:  RH1 Talk 5773 - God & Metaphor.pdf



Some of you have heard me say, at past High Holydays services, that I recognize the tension that many people who come to our services experience. In certain ways it’s like being at a play featuring a main character that you may not like very much—or even worse, you question his very existence.  That “character”, of...Read more...

Who Will Live, and Who Will Die

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5773

PDF:  YK Talk 5773 - Who Will Live.pdf

Rabbi Alan Lew, the wonderful writer and teacher, has noted that the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are like a compressed voyage from birth to death.  Rosh Hashanah celebrates birth - the creation of the world, the birth of humanity - and Yom  Kippur is the day we “rehearse” our own death - by wearing white, like the shroud we’ll...Read more...

The Search Party

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5773

PDF: Kol Nidre 5773 - The Search Party.pdf



A few weeks ago, some of you may have heard on NPR an intriguing news story from Iceland.  Here it is:

On a Saturday this past August, a woman who was described as “Asian, about 160cm, in dark clothing and speaks English well” was declared missing somewhere in the vicinity of Eldgjá, in south Iceland. The search went...Read more...

The Place Where We're Perfect

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772

PDF:  5772-erev-rh-the-place-where-we%27re-perfect.pdf

As many of you know, over this past year we had a special Torah of Chesed campaign focused on the inclusion of children with special needs and their families in the life of our community. There is still much work to be done in this arena, but we had a good year in which we did some important learning together, and began to make some...Read more...

Two Paths

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5772

PDF: 5772-rh-two-paths.pdf

In this morning’s Torah portion, we read about two contrasting events. The first is a moment of joy, of celebration-the birth of Isaac. Isaac’s name means “he will laugh,” and we hear Sarah exclaim (p. 483), “God has brought me laughter!”

Yet within a few verses, the mood shifts dramatically. Sarah feels that Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, the son...Read more...

A Soul Accounting

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5772

PDF: 5772-kol-nidre-a-soul-accounting.pdf

Before we begin the signature prayers of Yom Kippur, the Selichot, prayers for forgiveness, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you.

It may have been that I had a somewhat over-active imagination as a young person. Or an odd way of making myself feel better. Whatever it was, when I was a kid I would sometimes imagine my death-bed scene. In this...Read more...

Lessos from Ghana

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5772

PDF: 5772-yk-lessons-from-ghana.pdf

The Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea once described a visit to a city in Texas, on the border with Mexico, where he was lodged in an elegant, high-rise hotel. At night, drink in hand in his fancy suite, he gazed out over the beautiful twinkling lights below. Then he realized that he was looking at shantytowns on the Mexican side, where workers earn a few...Read more...

An Invitation to Prayer

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

PDF:  an-invitation-to-prayer-erev-rh-5771.pdf



There are many things that I love about Rosh Hashanah and about the High Holydays in general. I love that our Jewish new year begins just as the season is beginning to change, as summer gives way to fall; the crispness in the air is Nature’s signal to me to wake up, to think about where I am in my life and where I want...Read more...

At the Judges' Table

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5771

PDF:  at-the-judges-table-rh1-5771.pdf



I don’t watch a lot of TV, but in recent years I’ve become a fan of “Top Chef,” one of Bravo channel’s reality competition shows. In it, a talented group of professional cooks battle to become the “Top Chef. ” Each week they have to prepare dishes under a variety of odd conditions that force them to be creative, to work...Read more...

Two Pockets

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5771

PDF: two-pockets-kol-nidre-5771.pdf

I’d like to share with you a Hasidic teaching that I talked about 11 years ago on Yom Kippur (just in case any of you have really good memories). I’ve decided that after 10 years I’m allowed to recycle a teaching! It’s good environmental practice, so that we don’t have an overflow of rabbinic words clogging up the atmosphere.

But seriously, it’s a...

From Anxiety to Agitation

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5771

PDF:  anxiety-yk-5771.pdf

While many of you know me as someone who practices mindfulness meditation and goes every year on week-long silent retreats, I will admit that this was not always the case. Back when I was in my 20s and early 30s, including while I was at rabbinical school, I couldn’t have imagined sitting quietly for a week. In fact, I couldn’t sit still very well at all. One day I...Read more...

God and Liberation: A Reconstructionist Approach

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Pesach 5770

PDF: God%20and%20Liberation.pdf

The question: How do we understand God’s role in our master narrative of liberation, the Exodus story? In the traditional haggadah, there is no mention of Moses – the emphasis is on God’s miraculous redemptive power. In both the Reconstructionist and many other non-traditional haggadot, we have the opposite: Moses, Miriam, the midwives, and the Israelites are placed front...Read more...

Seven Things About Teshuvah That I Learned from the Game of Baseball

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770

PDF: Erev%20RH%205770%20talk%20-%20baseball.pdf

So here we are, gathered on erev Rosh Hashanah, to begin what are called the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the ten days of teshuvah, of repentance, of turning and returning. I’d like to suggest to you tonight that it’s no coincidence that these awesome days always fall at a key moment in the baseball season—either at the culmination of...Read more...

Sarah, Hannah, and the Prayerful Stance

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5770

PDF: RH1%20Talk-Sarah%20and%20Hannah.pdf

The story of our matriarch, Sarah, and the story of Hannah from the book of Samuel are an interesting pair of stories to have associated with the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Both of these texts recount the story of a woman who has longed for a child and finally gives birth. In the Biblical idiom, each woman is “remembered” by God after a long period of...Read more...

Changing the Equation: A Reflection on God

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5770

PDF: YKtalk5770.pdf

A few years ago, I was attending a retreat for rabbis sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. As an introductory exercise, we were sitting in a circle facing a partner, sharing answers to a variety of questions. The leader asked us: “If money were no concern, and if you had all the requisite skills and knowledge that you would need, what would you be, other than a...Read more...

Sin & Disconnection

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5769

PDF: YK%20talk.pdf

What are we to make of the ancient ritual, the yom hakippurim, ‘day of atonements,’ which we just read about in the Torah? How might we—or can we—connect it to what we are doing here today on our Yom Kippur?

The rituals described in this parasha provide a window into very ancient notions of sin and atonement. The first thing to note is that,...Read more...

Seeing Clearly

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5769

PDF: ErevRHTalk5769-SeeingClearly.pdf

Tonight we usher in the aseret yamei teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. “Teshuvah” means “return,” an image which I love. The notion here is that our challenge at this time of year is not to overcome our true nature, but rather to return to our true nature, to the yetzer tov, the tendency towards good,...Read more...

Seeking Salvation

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5769

PDF: RHTalk5769-SeekingSalvation.pdf

We find ourselves in an uneasy time, this Rosh Hashanah. With the collapse of the financial markets, with talk of recession or even economic depression in the air, with home foreclosures and unemployment on the rise, it is certainly reasonable to feel worried, anxious, even afraid. An uneasy and difficult time.

Yet in this crisis I see some seeds of...

With Truth & Compassion

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5769

PDF: Kol%20NidreTalk1.pdf

In this moment, we are about to enter into our first period of silent prayer and reflection, the first of many Amidah prayers over the course of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is always a fragile time, a time to reconcile with the ephemeral nature of our lives. We sit with awareness of the twists and turns of life that we may not foresee. This Yom Kippur, the world around us seems a bit...Read more...

How Do I Respond?

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5769

PDF: Kol%20NidreTalk2.pdf

I’d like to share two teachings with you. The first comes from the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Hanina ben Papa. Rabbi Hanina is describing the moment of conception, and fancifully imagines an angel taking each little zygote up to God. The angel then says: “Sovereign of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong person or a weak person, a wise...Read more...

Writing Ourselves for Blessing

Rosh Hashanah I 5768

PDF: ErevRHTalk5768.pdf

We just chanted “B’sefer chayim”—“In the book of life, blessing, and peace, and sustenance may we be written and inscribed.” For nearly two thousand years, there has been an association between Rosh Hashanah and the metaphor of books. The first place that I am aware of this image appearing is in the Talmud, in the tractate Rosh Hashanah. There, Rabbi Yohanan, who...Read more...

Broken Vessels

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5768

PDF: KolNidreTalk5768-BrokenVessels.pdf

There are two teachings I want to share with you before we begin the communal Selichot prayers, the penitential prayers unique to Yom Kippur.

The first is from an early collection of midrash, a commentary on the Biblical prohibition of using any kind of blemished animal or utensil to offer a sacrifice. The midrash begins with a verse from the book of...Read more...

Coming Closer

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5768

PDF:  YK5768Talk-ComingCloser.pdf

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the great medieval philosopher (also known as Maimonides), taught:

“Teshuvah is great because it draws a person close to the Shechina…as the prophet Jeremiah states, ‘If you will turn/return (tashuv), Israel’ declares Adonai, ‘to Me you will return.’” Maimonides concludes, “Teshuvah brings close those...Read more...

Seek Peace, and Pursue It

Rosh Hashanah I 5767

PDF: 5767-rh.pdf

This past Thursday and Friday, I had an experience which was new to me: being a call-in guest on two talk radio shows, in New York and Florida. The occasion for this was a letter I drafted in response to the war in Israel and Lebanon, and which—with the help of the Jewish peace organization Brit Tzedek v’Shalom—has now been signed by over 300 American rabbis and cantors. The...Read more...

Telling Our Stories

Yom Kippur 5767

PDF: Telling Our Stories

In the haftarah that we read a little earlier, the prophet Isaiah rails against a whole assortment of injustices: the oppression of workers, violence, neglect of the poor and needy. Isaiah’s words are a call to awareness, to addressing the wrongs of a society that is failing its own members. But how do we become moved to action, today, in response to the critical issues that...Read more...

Seven Things I Learned About Teshuvah from my Sabbatical 5766

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

​​​​​​​How wonderful it is to be back, to see everyone! Many people have asked me about my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to talk with a group back in August . . . Read more...

The Blessings of Uncertainty

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rosh Hashanah I 5766

PDF: 5766-rh.pdf


I feel like I’m hearing a lot about “truth” these days. There seem to be a lot of people, both here in America and around the world, who have a very clear idea about what truth is. Whether it’s folks on the Christian right, or Muslim fundamentalists, or the Catholic hierarchy here in Massachusetts talking about gay marriage, the one thing that seems consistent is...Read more...


Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Kol Nidre 5766

PDF: 5766-kn.pdf

Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to think about ourselves in relation to many things—in relation to ourselves; in relation to the people around us, our family, our close friends, the people we work and interact with on a regular basis; in relation to our larger society, to the world, to the earth; and in relation to that which encompasses and in some way surpasses all the rest—to God,...Read more...

A Community of Practice

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5766

PDF: 5766-yk.pdf

We gather during these Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, these ten days stretching from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, with a focus on renewal. We celebrated the birthday of the world last week, and now today we seek a similar kind of new beginning for ourselves. That is the promise of these days: that change is possible, that we can take new insight, new energy, new commitment into the new year....Read more...

Finding What We Need

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5765

PDF: 5765-erev-rh.pdf

So, I want to tell you a story about toothpaste.

A few months ago, I was in a CVS, and I needed to find some Crest toothpaste. I, personally, do not use Crest toothpaste. But our kids do, and so I was charged on this day with finding a new tube of Crest toothpaste.

Knowing that our kids, like many kids, can be quite particular about what goes into...Read more...

Fri, August 7 2020 17 Av 5780