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Bon Appétit

A large part of my soul has lied dormant. I write for the first time in nearly a year. When did that happen? How did it fly by? Who knows. Not worth asking.

My world is now reshaped, reformed, a new place a new life, a new world. Same girl. I’m so lucky. Same dog too.

And as I walk the halls and the pathways, I run in to so many ghosts. Carmelitas, I learned today, is now Cansuelos. WTF indeed.

But the streets are unchanged. The faces so much the same.

And everywhere, ghosts.

I remember when you were just a kid, I hear as I sit down to discuss dollars and cents and the future of humanity. I was with her when she got the call, they say, right before asking for an update on operations.

Three years ago, I left. And life moved on. It moved on so well. And so terribly. For me there, and for them here. And now I’m back. And it’s as if it should have remained the same, stagnant, frozen in time. But it didn’t. And, really, I left 20 years ago. It’s another world.

Dickens should rest comfortably tonight.

It seems that we have two options in life, either to be surrounded by our histories or to be devoid of them. I’ve startled both options over the years, wading through the thick of memory and pain and joy, or frolicking through an empty expanse of possibility.

Given the choice, I choose the former.

Maybe I’m trying too hard to be profound.


But the smells of a delicious dinner waft up to this writer’s keyboard. I’m being drugged; tainted by the comforting scents of love and giving and care and concern.

Not too bad.

So, for now, I set this hobby aside, comfortable that, 11 months later, I’ve finally found the capacity to put letters onto a laptop’s screen. Confidant that there is what to say and what to discuss.

Because though I’ve returned to the land of the care-free, there are so many cares, so many tasks, so much important work to be done. Because there’s pew. And there are pews. And there is pewter.

The ghosts, they’ll stay silent. And, frankly, they make this all that much more meaningful. And painful. But worthwhile nonetheless. And the need will keep growing, until we can fundamentally reshape the present and the future.

But dinner smells delicious. And my partner stands downstairs waiting. And that’s what really matters.


I had the honor last week of joining more than 150 members of our community, among them more than 40 Shearith congregants, on the Jewish Federation’s BIG One Community Mission to Israel. For seven days we toured the country, spending time in Tel Aviv, visiting our partnership region in the Northern Galilee and enjoying time in Jerusalem. We met with political leaders and entertainers, paid homage to history and our brethren at sites like Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem, and connected with lone soldiers devoting their young lives to protecting the Jewish State.

But in all our touring and learning, one thing that stood out for me on this fabulous trip with the Dallas Jewish Community, was learning about salt.

Yes, salt.

That is, I was astounded to learn about Israel’s recent advances in desalination. I read Israeli news vociferously, and yet I had absolutely no idea that, in the last decade, Israel has opened five desalination plants that turn ocean water into drinking water at such a rate that now almost half of the country’s water comes from the Mediterranean. Israel, for the first time in its history, unique among the nations, has created a water surplus. The Kinneret’s water level is rising, and natural underground aquifers are refilling because Israel is now, essentially, no longer dependent upon rain for its water needs.

Israel is a land that has long been obsessed with water. One of the unique peculiarities of Jewish prayer is how interconnected and interdependent our liturgy is with the weather of the Land of Israel. Between Sukkot and Passover we add a special request for rain into each utterance of the Amidah. Our agrarian ancestors knew how dependent their lives and livelihoods were on rain in a place as arid as Israel, and translated that dependency into prayers that we recite to this very day.

Even as we have learned over the centuries that weather may have less to do with God’s will and more to do with things like wind patterns, water evaporation and solar flares, we continue to include our prayers for rain in the Amidah as a way of connecting with the Land of Israel and appreciating its ever-persisting water-insecurity.

But what if Israel wasn’t short on water anymore?

Today, it is not. We live in an age, it seems, in which Jewish innovation has satiated one of the most enduring Jewish desires. Mayim, mayim, mayim, mayim, we sing in the Israeli folk dance tradition. Water is now aplenty in the Land of Israel.

Herzl taught us, “If you will it, it is no dream.” He could not have been more correct.

Israel is a land of dreams, where ingenuity and dedication have allowed a people, our people, to accomplish the impossible: to rebuild our nation and to make the desert bloom, with salt water; to create a bounty in the wilderness. And that is something for which we all, every Jew, should be incredibly proud.

On Fear, and Ebola

Ebola seems be a thing of the past here in Dallas, but the ripples it has sent through this town will remain for a long time.

As the disease continues its rampage across West Africa and inevitably finds its way into more and more American cities, I pray that others may learn from our experience. Because while Dallas seems to have won against Ebola, I fear that we lost an even more important battle.

I am no doctor or scientist. I am a rabbi. All I know about Ebola I have read in the paper or studied on the internet. But I do know that it is in times of crisis like this one when the very ideals upon which our societies are built are tested – and I am terrified that we are failing.

Just a few miles from where I live and work, the family of Thomas Eric Duncan was kept confined to their tiny apartment for days, imprisoned in inhumane conditions among contagious waste without reprieve. I continue to learn of families still refusing to send their children to school because one child’s parent is a nurse. The radio waves are filled with stories of Africans here being ostracized, treated across the board as Ebola-carriers.

Now, attention has turned to the Northeast with the arrival of Ebola in Manhattan. Already, leaders have attempted to put in place draconian rules to quarantine any health worker arriving home after treating the disease. Kaci Hickox, the brave nurse traveling through Newark after performing harrowing work in Sierra Leone was celebrated upon her arrival with seven hours of imprisonment and isolation following two days of travel without more than a granola bar. Now she’s had to fight for her freedom. And she’s not even sick.

Fear will ruin us, if we let it.

The Bible is filled with many esoteric and seemingly-irrelevant rules and laws that my colleagues and coreligionists take pains to derive meaning from in modernity. One such group of teachings concerns the treatment of leprosy, a disease which the Bible knows to be highly contagious. This section has often been derided as obsolete. We now know better.

Upon diagnosis, the biblical leper is immediately removed from society – as he should be – for the protection of the general public. But this attention also serves to protect the leper from the punishment of imprisonment and isolation within the community. The leper leaves, heals outside of the town, and then comes back. This is a paradigm to be modeled.

There is a fine line between separating a sick person from the healthy and punishing a person for potentially being sick. If we do the former, we are prudent. If we do the latter, we are cruel.

If someone is infected, let us treat them to the best of our ability and do everything in our power to protect the rest of society from exposure. But if our actions stem merely from anxiety over a person’s possible exposure to a virus scarier in our imaginations than in reality, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that these people are still human beings and treat them as such.

We should be judged as a society by the way we protect the weakest among us. As much as I fear Ebola, I worry more about the speed with which we are rushing to ostracize and punish those whom we fear may carry the disease.

Solla Sollew

solla-sollewThese holy days, we may find ourselves feeling like children.

We’re told when to sit, and when to stand. We wade through pages of text that many of us don’t understand. We’re reminded that our destiny is controlled by someone, something, else, that we are almost powerless, that we are being judged on high.

It’s no coincidence, then, that these past few years I have spent time exploring lessons learned from children’s stories. I’ve spoken from this pulpit about cancer and death, and loss and fear and loss anew. I’ve spoken about love, and giving, and gratitude. We’ve explored the essence of unfairness, of life gone askew, of bewilderment and the very tragedies that have befallen so many of us in the past year, or last year, or the one before that, through the simple magnificence of children’s stories.

Today, as we stand on the precipice of a new year, I want to follow my old trope once more; because I believe that through the simple naiveté found in the lessons that we teach our children we find ourselves most-open to the most demanding, the most soul-wrenching of lessons.

Children bring to life a curiosity and imagination so real that they see a world filled with possibilities and miracles, where fantasies can become real, and that vantage point opens them to lessons big and small taught through the most dream-like of stories and poems. As we grow, we find ourselves much more cognizant of what is not, versus what might become. But the holidays are a time for dreaming – dreaming of our future, dreaming of who we can become, dreaming like the optimistic child inside each of us of the ways to route out our greatest challenges and troubles lest they multiply into deeper issues in our lives.

And on this Rosh Hashanah, in this period of teshuva, of reflection and return, I worry a great deal about something I fear is so pernicious and pervasive in our adult selves, a trajectory and impulse that I fear is leading us from one Rosh Hashanah to the next without a moment left to pause and seriously reflect. This is a reality which is running us dry, letting days turn to months turn to years, stealing from us the opportunity for true return to a better path – because we are so busy chasing after a false God that we don’t even realize we left the path behind long ago.

You see, I have been thinking a lot about something of late.

Seven weeks from this Sunday, I will marry the woman I love, a beautiful blonde Texan who has changed my life, who you all were kind enough to connect with me as perhaps the greatest job perk in all of human history, a woman who has made me happier than I have ever been before.

I met Danielle on my first Shabbat here at Shearith (in this very room). There is, in fact, a video recording of that very moment – every service in our sanctuaries is video recorded, so, Jewish mothers, pay attention: if you want a record of your child meeting his or her partner, set them up on Shabbat! I have known for some time now, almost two years, that Danielle is the woman who would be my life partner.

But a cloud has cast its shadow over my joy since our day one. Looming thunderously is the memory of my mom’s illness, of my mom’s tragic, painful, untimely death, and, specifically, the fact that the one and only moment when she and Danielle occupied the same space on earth was at her funeral. The magnitude of my joy has felt tempered by the pain of longing for something else, a world in which my mom and the woman I love met.

How is it fair, I’ve wondered, that my mom got sick then, of all times, days before I moved to another state, and took a new job, and met my beshert?

And over and over and over again in my head, I’ve replayed the images of my mom’s last days on this earth, wishing I could rewrite the script, have Danielle there, and let them meet. I try as hard as I can to forge a new reality in which they spoke, or even texted, or touched hands.

But I can’t.

Every time, I end up empty-handed, unresolved, standing on a grave of nothingness and regret.

This is the messy space where the sidewalk ends, where dandelions grow over our greatest hopes and wishes. We’ve all been here, wanting to go back and change decisions we’ve made, rewrite the past, move forward and find a place free of the pain we now feel. So we think through the “if onlys”, and yearn for a different way, wishing we could undo what is, or find a way to cure it.

But we can’t. Though that does not stop us from trying.

We have been primed to pursue happiness. It is in our blood, it is as American as apple pie. Our Declaration of Independence enumerates three God-given unalienable rights: Life; Liberty; and the Pursuit of Happiness; three self-evident truths that make up the very fabric of who we are.

Life and liberty seem obvious. But the pursuit of happiness?

Is that a worthwhile pillar upon which to build our society, an appropriate compass for our life’s direction?

You see, on this Rosh Hashanah, I worry that the pursuit is a dangerous trek, one which leaves us ever empty-handed, disappointed, and yearning for more, one which consumes our lives with perpetual wandering, like an Israelite tribe that never reached the Promised Land.

Because, so often, the pursuit of happiness manifests itself in an unending attempt to free our lives of pain and of trouble. It manifests itself in an insatiable search for the best. It manifests itself in a blind disregard for the blessings that fill our lives.

There is a book, one perhaps obscure to most, which was brought to my attention over, and over and over anew this past year, and which has much to say on this futile search.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is a story Dr. Seuss tells in the first person by a young man in pursuit of happiness. That magician of words offers us, in Solla Sollew, the very gift of perspective which we so need these holy days.

Once there was a boy… Who lived a carefree life in the Valley of Vung. And suddenly, this boy finds his life overridden with troubles. He was happy. Life was good. And then it was not.

He stubs his left nail;
and he’s stung by a Skrink.
On his neck,
and his toe,
and he cries a big stink!
How many of us have found ourselves in his position before? Maybe you stand there today!? How many of us have found ourselves in that valley just this year? Suddenly, without warning, life seems to go wrong. The good turns to bad. We feel helpless, or confused, or angry.

And what do we do?

So often we go looking, searching for something better, off on a metaphorical journey in pursuit of happiness, believing we can find a place that will numb the pain, a place where things will be easier, where life will no longer be like this.

Dr. Seuss writes:

There I was,
All completely surrounded by trouble,
When a chap rumbled up in a One-Wheeler Wubble.
“Young fellow,” he said, “what has happened to you
Has happened to me and to other folks, too.
So I’ll tell you what I decided to do…
I’m off to the City of Solla Sollew
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo
Where they never have troubles! At least, very few.

“It’s not very far.
And my camel is strong.
He’ll get us there fast.
So hop on! Come along!”

Solla Sollew, a place free of worry, free of pain and anxiety and mishap. A place without troubles, at least, very few. It is an Emerald City, we need but follow the Yellow Brick Road and find ourselves safe, and care-free, no witches to worry about, no want, nothing missing.

We are inundated in life with the lie that Solla Sollew exists, that there are pacifiers for all of our problems, and that if only we do something, or go somewhere, we’ll solve them, and then we’ll be happy.

How many of you already bought an iPhone 6? But wasn’t the iPhone 5 supposed to cure all our terrible cellular troubles 2 years ago? I took time away from writing this sermon to buy the iPhone 6 on the day it came out. And you know what, I think the 5 was better, so I returned it. But, I promise you, in another year or two the iPhone 7 will finally rid the world of mobile phone evil. And we’ll buy it up.

We are primed to believe that the pursuit of happiness can lead us to a happy place, so we perpetually search. But what happens when we get there?

Seuss’s boy finds Solla Sollew eventually, and he boasts:

There it was! With its glittering towers in the air!
I’d made it! I’d done it! At last I was there!
And I knew that I’d left all my troubles behind
When a chap at a doorway that shimmered and shined
Waved me a wave that was friendly and kind.

“Welcome!” he said as he gave me his hand.
“Welcome, my son, to this beautiful land.
Welcome to sweet, sunny Solla Sollew,
Where we never have troubles.
At least very few. 
As a matter of fact, we have only just one.
Imagine! Just one little trouble, my son.
And this one little trouble,
As you will now see,
Is this one little trouble I have with this key…

“There is only one door into Solla Sollew
And we have a Key-Slapping Slippard. We do!
This troublesome Slippard moved into my door
Two weeks ago Tuesday at quarter to four.
Since then, I can’t open this door any more!”
And I can’t kill the Slippard. It’s very bad luck
To kill any Slippard, and that’s why we’re stuck
And why no one gets in and the town’s gone to pot.
It’s a terrible state of affairs, is it not!

After all his journey, there is no entry into Solla Sollew. The pursuit of happiness took our boy on a long trek, only to lead him to a facade built by a Key-Slapping Slippard, a lie staring him in the face. Yet, the journey continues.

“And so,” said the Doorman of Solla Sollew,
“My job at the door here is finished. I’m through!
And I’ll tell you what I have decided to do…

“I’m leaving,” he said, “leaving Solla Sollew
On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo,
Where we never have troubles, at least very few.
And I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball
On the banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall,
Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!
Come along with me,” he said as he ran,
“And you’ll never have any more troubles, young man!”

How many of us spend our lives searching for that magical place free of troubles? How many of us thought that we would find it in 5774, but now it’s 5775, and we’re sitting back here, in the same seat, living the same life. The pursuit of happiness is dangerous, because it can lead us to believe that happiness demands the escape from trouble, that there is a garden-like place, somewhere, if only we can reach it.
We may look out at our community, and feel surrounded by a room full of others who don’t have it nearly as bad as we do, wishing that our life could be as care-free as someone else’s, wishing that things could be easier, things could be better, things could be different, and if only they were then we’d be as happy as we want to be.

If only I were as skinny as she;
If only I were as wealthy as he.
If only I’d done that, then how great I would be!

Solla Sollew does not exist. Nor does Boola Boo Ball. Nor does the Garden of Eden. The problem with journeying towards Solla Sollew is that the quest is unending; a search for El Dorado that cannot succeed. These places appear as an oasis in the distance, but as soon as we near them, they fade away into nothingness.

And the happiness that we’ve sought with them does not materialize.

Let me not be misunderstood – Judaism values happiness.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that one should strive to be happy at all times. We work tirelessly to fill our lives with joy, our holidays with glee, our Shabbats with enjoyment.

But Judaism’s understanding of happiness is rather different than what we may have come to expect. Judaism begs us to see happiness as the symptom of a life filled with meaning, filled with purpose, and filled with devotion, rather than an item we can obtain by accomplishing specific tasks, reaching certain places, or undoing past errors.

Ours is tradition that asks of us to see the world as it is and dream of the world as it should be and then agitate in the messy dissonance between those two conflicting realities to make change in this world. Our texts push us to imagine a world free of slavery, and war, and bloodshed, but never do they give us a simple path to ending any of these maladies. We are left to be the change we want to see in this world, something which we can accomplish by embodying the best of our tradition, its ideals and its values, and manifesting them in our lives.

That is what it means to live a life of Torah.

The first Psalm begins:

 אַשְׁרֵי־הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב

Happy is the person who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners or joined the company of the insolent. Rather, the teaching of God is her delight, she studies that teaching day and night. She is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades.

This happiness, the happiness derived, gleaned from a life filled with meaning, a life committed to Torah, is a happiness of balance – one rooted in our tradition, a happiness that allows for introspection, and perspective. Our tradition teaches us that happiness is the result of our actions and the way we choose to view the world, not an abstract ideal that we should pursue.

These holy days are a time for us to seize the opportunity before us to return to a path of perspective, to realize that the only changes we need in life are ones that we can accomplish, today – if we choose to repair our relationships, if we choose to atone to God, if we choose to see the blessings in our lives and be grateful, rather than bemoan those curses that plague us.

Let 5775 be the year in which we stop pursuing happiness elsewhere and, instead, find happiness in ourselves, in the place we already are. Yes, each of us lives life walking down a broken, messy path, filled with sharp edges and pits and cracks that hurt us deeply, that disappoint us, crush our spirits and question our faith. Life is hard. Life can be unfair.

But today the Book of Life is opened; let us choose how to read the story found within its pages.

This is a lesson that I learned only recently. You see, I’ve been telling my story wrong these past years. Three weeks ago, standing at the foot of my mother’s grave, I learned another way to write my story. With proper perspective and a change in focus, I found a new way to understand the absurdity and irony of this thing we call life.

So let me tell you my story again:

Two years ago, my mom got sick, I left my home and family and my friends and came to this great state. And five months later my mom passed. I said goodbye to the world that I knew.

And it just so happens, and I thank God for the beauty of this fact, that at the very moment in my life when I was most abandoned by the world, when everything that I knew to be real and secure fell apart, when I was most in need, felt most alone, I met the woman of my dreams, a girl who has held me up and pushed me to build anew, the cute blonde Texan who I will marry seven weeks from this Sunday.

And on that November afternoon, when the glass shatters beneath my foot, I’ll remember the pain, I’ll remember the sadness. But I won’t let it keep me from feeling good, from feeling lucky, from feeling happy.

I stood at the place where the sidewalk ends, that nebulous crack of pits and faults. And there I found a giving tree that held me afloat, that shaded me from the hot summer’s sun. For the last two years, I’ve wandered toward Solla Sollew, wishing to rewrite the pain of the past, to find a way out of troubles, find a way for my mom and my fiancé to meet. They can’t.

But I won’t let that keep me from being happy.

Happy because at the moment that my mom’s life began to fade, when she could no longer be there for me, I met the one other person on this planet who most can.

It took me two years to learn that. It will take introspection, perspective, and constant teshuva in order to remember the story this way.

All it takes for any of us to achieve the happiness we pursue is to choose a new lens through which to look at our lives in order to write our stories in the Book of Life differently.

Each of us, at one point or another in our lives, will be hurt, will meet sadness, will be dealt unfair hands. We cannot inoculate ourselves to troubles any more than we can choose to stop breathing. We do not have the free-will to author the books of our lives – our world is filled with too many characters, protagonists and antagonists, to narrate by ourselves.
But we can choose how to tell our stories. We can focus on the positive, on the good, on the funny and meaningful and holy.

On this Rosh Hashanah of 5775, two roads lie before us:

We can live our lives in the constant pursuit of something better, something less troublesome, something external, we can live our lives in the constant pursuit of happiness out there, or we pursue the happiness we deserve in here, internally, through a steady dose of reflection, commitment, and teshuva.

The distinction between those two paths is nuanced, but crucial. One path leads us to the doors of Solla Sollew, ever in pursuit of something better, something else, something that does not exist. The other leads us to the Gates of Teshuva, up the path of focussed attention to deliberate appreciation for what is; gratitude for what we do have.

This is the day when our names are written in the Book of Life. This is the moment, that we are included in that fateful tome. But the content of the page’s story, the narration of the epic that is our life, its highs and lows, is ours to write.

Happiness is ours if we want it, we merely need realize that we already posses the tools to find it. Shanah tovah, umetukah. May your new year be sweet, and good, and happy.

Rosh Hashanah  5775
Rabbi David Singer

Without You

There are days where the hours pass by, where the world spins on its axis, the birds chirp, the cars pass by and day turns to night. There are days where the warm summer breeze flows care-free, where 2014 is no different than 2004, or 1982.

And then there are days when December 21 is always.

There are days when that day’s magenta sunset still blankets my life, frozen in time, stuck. There are days when the weight of loss is as oppressively heavy as it was back then, when the truth feels brand new, just as shocking, just as unnerving, just as confusing, days when the world is askew, life is not real, memories seem made up.

There are days where I learn again, over and over and over and over, that I live life without you.

Without you here by my side, or on the other end of the phone, without you to nag and pester and love and adore.  Days when I shake my head in disbelief that nearly two years have passed without you on this earth.

Five hundred and ninety three days.

593 without your dark hair. 593 without your smile. 593 without your hug, your voice, your love. Gone. Has it really been that long?

Do you know what I’ve been up to? Do you know what I’ve felt, how I’ve ached, how I’ve soared, how I’ve loved and grown and triumphed? Do you know what I’ve done? Where I’ve gone?

All without you.

But the globe keeps on spinning. The axis is upheld. And I am here.


What does it mean to move on without others, to sludge forward, head up high, without a corner of their very being? How do we transcend the gap, ever-appreciative of what was rather than mournful of what no longer is?

I’m still learning.

And man, it’s tough.

You forgot to teach me that lesson, mom. You thought you had a few more decades to do so.

Today is one of those days, one of the ones where the Texas heat seems unending and like a veil of absurdity has fallen over real life. This isn’t normal. But it used to be.

But that’s myopic.

This is life. This is real. The new now, but not so new anymore. Here. Life.

That’s it.

Without you.