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Spiritual Work

September 2016

by Rabbi Weber


“Spiritual work” is a strange phrase. What kind of “work” is it that doesn’t result in a finished product, or even a paycheck? Work which no one can see you doing? Work which doesn’t even have a concrete goal?

“Spiritual work” is the purpose of the High Holidays, of which communal prayer is only one, small part. And because the results are so amorphous, so intangible, it is also the most easily overlooked part of the holiday experience. We can hear and say prayers; we can sing songs; we can see the Torah, the Ark, the shofar, even the bread we cast away during Tashlich. But if the holidays have ever seemed meaningless to you, it may be because you did not engage in the spiritual work which they call us to do.

From Selichot through Simchat Torah, our tradition challenges us to do the difficult, elusive work of the spirit… the soul. Each prayer, each song, each ritual is designed to present another possibility to us: another possibility of how we could see the world, the people around us, our Jewish tradition and, most important, ourselves.

You don’t have to be a rabbi to do this. (Sometimes I think it’s hardest for rabbis – and cantors – because we have to concentrate so hard on all the choreography of the rituals.) All it takes is the willingness to try something new, to learn something new.

How would you begin, if you chose to give a shot at your own spiritual work? Below are two readings which we will encounter in our services this year. Each speaks in its own language; the first modern, the second hundreds of years old. Yet both speak to us about imperfection – the imperfection of others, and the imperfections (plural) we find in ourselves. Because it is in our imperfections that we find our humanity – and our spiritual work.

The first challenges us not simply to tolerate imperfections, but to accept them as an absolutely essential part of life.


What an extraordinary gift it is – what a blessing, what a miracle

to have been raised by imperfect parents who did their very best:

to share our life with a partner no more flawed than we are;

to count as a friend one who understands and accepts us most of the time.

How brave, how hard it is to be “good enough” in our ties to one another:

to give, even when we’re exhausted; to love faithfully;

to receive with grace the love imperfectly offered to us.


Can this night set us free from the tyranny of expectations?

Can this night release us from fantasies impossible to fulfill?


We resolve this night to embrace the practice of forgiveness:

to forgive others who fail to be all we hoped they would be;

to forgive ourselves when we fall short of what others hoped we would be.

We declare this night that we will cherish goodness wherever it is found,

and open ourselves to the gifts that are before us.

The second, from long ago, presents even more of a challenge. It calls us to listen carefully to what we say about others – not simply because we should be kind to them, but because our words tell us more about ourselves than we are usually willing to acknowledge.


A Teaching of the Baal Shem Tov:

Your fellow human being is a mirror for you.

If there is love and compassion in your soul,

you will see the goodness in others.

If you see a blemish in another,

it is your own imperfection you encounter.

Take careful note of the flaws you see in others.

This is a lesson for you:

they are your own flaws set before you,

a reminder of your spiritual work.


As we prepare to begin a New Year, I hope each of us will accept Judaism’s challenge to ask ourselves this question: “What is my ‘spiritual work’ this year?”


I wish you a sweet, healthy and good New Year. Let’s get to work!


                                                                                                Rabbi Don Weber

(Readings above from Mishkan HaNefesh © 2015, Central Conference of American Rabbis)

© 2016, Temple Rodeph Torah

Time Well Spent

August 2016

Rabbi Weber


In June’s Newsletter, I suggested we all use this summer to “get lost” – to find our way to parts of New Jersey that aren’t on the way to anywhere, and to enjoy the adventure. This month I want to suggest that we reconnect to parts of our past that we may have lost.

As you’ve probably heard by now, the holidays are late this year. Really, really late. We won’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah until the beginning of October, and Hanukkah will begin on December 24th (yes, Christmas Eve!). As a result, we have the entire month of September to prepare for the New Year, which is a little easier than trying to wrap our heads around it when the preparation month finds us at the beach in August.

What will we do this year, to take advantage of the extra time we have to get ourselves ready to celebrate the start of a new Jewish year? My suggestion is, visit a cemetery. But not just any cemetery; we should visit the cemetery – or cemeteries – where our family members rest.

For most of us, myself included, we don’t come from here. We are transplants from New York, or from Northern Jersey, or from farther away. While moving to New Jersey was one of the best things I ever did, it means that my family’s cemetery plots are way, way out on Long Island. It’s 83 miles from my house to the place where my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are buried, and those miles are on the Staten Island Expressway and the Belt Parkway, celebrated in art and literature as two of the Gates of Hell. Getting there and back, plus leaving time to visit and care for each of the graves, is a full day trip – one which I seldom have the opportunity to make. But this September I am going to make that trip, and do it when I have nothing else planned; the cemetery will be my destination, not a stop on the way to something else.

What will I do when I am there? Of course, I’ll say kaddish; that’s what we Jews do when we visit the graves of loved ones. But I’m going to bring a folding chair, plus a chair for any family members who are able to join me, and I’m going to sit down and think about each person buried there. Not all of them together as a group, but each one, one at a time. I’m going to remember what we did together, what they did for me and what I did for them, and I’m going to try to focus on the things that make me smile, or laugh, or feel close to them. And I’m going to bring a few small gardening tools to trim the bushes that grow on their graves and the grass that grows beside each one. I know we pay people to do that for us, but since I’m there I am going to do it myself. After all, they took care of me for many years; it seems a very important thing for me to repay a little bit of that while I’m there.

Of course, I don’t need to go to the cemetery to remember my loved ones. They are with me all the time, and my memories can be recalled any time I want to hold them close. But going to the cemetery feels like finding my way back to them: back to my childhood, back to the people who worked so hard and gave so much to create the man who will stand before them when I go. They are part of me now, so it seems right for me to take the opportunity, when it’s not summer traffic or winter cold, to go there and reconnect with them.

Traditionally, Jews wear white on Yom Kippur. Not just white, but the kind of white in which we wrap the bodies of our loved ones when they die. The message is clear, and not at all subtle: Use your time well, because one day you, too, will be wrapped in a shroud. In our antiseptic, institutional world where most people die in hospitals or nursing homes, death may seem very distant, but Yom Kippur reminds us that time is short and each of us has an end. But rather than depressing us, this knowledge serves to inspire us – to do what we want to do, to say what we want to say and to repair what we want to repair now, not later. Because now is a gift, which is why it’s called the “present.”

This fall, we have an additional gift of time. A few extra days before the holidays to reflect on who we want to be in the New Year. I encourage you to use some of that time to visit your loved ones in their final resting place, because they still have more to share with us and to teach us. I truly believe it will be worth the trip.


                                                                                                Rabbi Don Weber

Get Lost

June 2016

From Rabbi Weber

Get lost.

I mean it. This summer, get lost.

Remember driving somewhere before the invention of GPS navigation? Before MapQuest? People would give directions over the phone, we’d dutifully copy them down (usually omitting just one key item), and we’d set off on our journey.

Somewhere around Cape May, we’d pull over at a pay phone (!) and call to find out where we went wrong. When they asked whether we made the left turn at Joe’s Diner, they suddenly remember that Joe’s Diner was torn down two years ago.

It wasn’t the most efficient way to travel, but it did have one redeeming quality: as we wandered the highways of whatever wrong turn we had made, we discovered amazing things. We discovered incredible, never-mentioned little restaurants. We discovered forests, lakes, parks, even whole towns which we never knew existed.

Think back: do you have memories like these?

Would you like to have more of them?

If you would, here’s my recipe for serendipity: On a nice, summer day, fill your gas tank and set out on one of the routes below. When you reach the turn-off point, turn off your cell phone’s navigation. Yes, I said it – turn the thing off. You can leave it on for phone calls, but don’t use it for anything related to telling you where you are. Then just drive.

Don’t drive fast; you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere. Make turns, follow small roads, and most of all, follow hand-made signs for “homemade jams” and such. Take time to get out of your car when the feeling strikes you; walk around a small town, say hello to the people you see on the street, take in the sights and eat somewhere that is not a national chain. It’s possible the food will be simply awful, but there’s also the chance that you will stumble across a “find” that you’ll be talking about for a year. (And think how much fun it will be to bring it up at a party: “Yes, we were driving through the Pine Barrens and we found this tiny restaurant…”)

The advantage of GPS is that whenever you’re done wandering, you can just fire it up and say, “Take me home.” So we have the possibility of getting-lost-but-not-really-being-lost, which is the best kind of being lost!

Here are my recommended starting points for getting lost in New Jersey. If you discover others, please let me know. I love finding new places to get lost in.

  1. Southern Jersey / The Pine Barrens

Take the Garden State Parkway south. Any time between Exit 80 and Exit 60, get off and head West. The Pine Barrens are the largest National Forest east of the Mississippi River – over a million acres of trees with small communities that have been there, undisturbed, for centuries.

  1. Western Jersey / Farms, Towns and Water

Take Route 287 to Route 78 West. As soon as you get on 78, pick your exit and head either North or South. Once you get a few miles away from 78, life takes on a different feel. There are charming little towns like Alexandria, Bethlehem, Lebanon – the whole ancient Middle East without leaving New Jersey!

  1. Northwest Jersey / The “Mountains”

I once gave a sermon about how a trip to the Rockies altered my understanding of the word “mountain,” but for the East Coast we have some really pretty “hills” here in the Garden State. To find them, take the GSP North to Route 280 West, then follow that until it merges with Route 80. From there you can pretty much take any turnoff that leads North, but one of the best is Route 15. Once you find yourself getting into the hills, turn off anywhere and explore.

And what do you do when you encounter unexpected beauty, or unexpected kindness from those you meet? The Jewish answer is, of course, to say a blessing. When we see the beauty of nature we say, “Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, sheh-kacha lo be-olamo” – “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, whose world is filled with beauty.” And when we experience the beauty of human beings we say, ““Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, sheh-asa li nes bamakom hazeh” – “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for the wonder I have experienced here.” With either blessing, or with words of blessing you create yourself at that moment, you re-enact what our ancestors did on each of their wanderings: create a new, never-before-discovered, holy place.

To be clear: I’m not giving up Waze. My Type A personality likes knowing where I’m going, how I’m getting there and when I will arrive. But I have a beautiful greeting card hanging on the wall in front of me in my home office which says, “Life is not a destination, but a journey.” It’s a good thing to remember.

As I begin my 33rd year at TRT, I thank each of you for sharing this journey with me, and for inviting me to share your journeys with you. We have traveled in directions we never expected, but over and over again our journeys have led us to holy places. In that spirit, and wishing you each a wonderful summer, I repeat:

Get lost!


                                                                                                Rabbi Don Weber

© 2016, Temple Rodeph Torah

You Can Do This

April 2016


You. Can. Do. This.

When we hear that there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, there is a temptation to give up and say, “Well, I’ll just try to be a good person. That’s all Judaism really wants.” But it’s not.

Yes, we need more good people in the world. We desperately need more good people! But we also need good Jews, and being a good Jew is about much more than being kind to others. It’s about being commanded – hearing God’s call to be different, to be special, to be… holy. That can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

Pesach presents us – all of us, not just “religious” people – with the opportunity to fulfill one of the major mitzvot of Jewish life: to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, to celebrate the gift of freedom, by eating matzah rather than bread for seven days. And as it says above, you can do this.

Let’s be honest: we will not die from skipping bread and cake for a week. It won’t affect our health, and it’s not even that difficult to do. Yes, it’s inconvenient – especially this year when the kids will have school, most of us will have work, and when no one other than Jews is focused on the holiday. It may take packing a lunch from home, or sticking with salad (no croutons) and fruit for a few days, but it won’t kill us. What it will do is reconnect us with our People – with the whole, worldwide Jewish People – in one of the oldest celebrations on earth. That’s good for the Jews, and it’s good for us, too.

Something happens to us when we do something just because we’re Jewish. There is a satisfaction that we accomplished something which is uniquely our challenge, and we rose to meet it. More important, doing this starts to break down the wall which we created, between us and “religious” people. Because as long as we think that only “they” do Jewish things, we surrender our full membership in the Jewish People and in Jewish life; we surrender our heritage. All because we are unsure that we can commit to doing what Jews are commanded to do.

It’s just not true. If you think there are Jews who follow all 613 mitzvot, you’re wrong; no one does. And if you think that only people who dress in black hats and coats can be “religious,” you’re wrong about that, too. Years ago, I first heard the idea that Jews are not the chosen people; we are the choosing people: When we choose to do Jewishly, we affirm our place in a long line of people who, themselves, chose to do Jewishly.

We can start choosing anywhere, but Pesach offers a ready-made, easy-to-follow path to making a Jewish choice. Even if you don’t sterilize your home or bring out a completely new set of dishes, it is possible – this year – to observe the central mitzvah of Pesach: “Shivat yamim matzot tochelu” – You shall eat matzah (and not bread) for seven days.” (Note to my Orthodox friends: you’re welcome to observe the eighth day of this, but if seven days are good enough for the Torah, they’re good enough for me.)

Yes, it’s inconvenient. And that’s the real challenge for us – for all Jews, now and forever: understanding that mitzvot are, by definition, inconvenient. Arranging a brit milah for a newborn is inconvenient. Shlepping children to religious school week after week and year after year is inconvenient. Taking time off from work for a Jewish holiday is inconvenient. Finding the Hillel on a college campus is inconvenient. Keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, working in a soup kitchen… the list of inconvenient Jewish activities is really, really long. But what would Judaism be without them?

What would Judaism be without you? Yes, it will survive even if you don’t do anything Jewish at all. But it won’t be as strong, or as good, or as likely to be part of the lives of those you love if it’s not part of your life, whether it’s convenient or not. 

Our family’s seder changes every year. We have different people at the table, different discussions, different readings that enhance the words of the haggadah. But two things are constant for us: we have lots of people, and we don’t have bread. Not on the first night, or the second. Or the third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh. And on the eighth night, you’ll find us at the pizza parlor because pizza is the doughiest food we can think of!

The pizza always tastes especially good at the end of Pesach, both because it’s good to eat hametz again and because we know that we, together with Jews around the world, have been given a special legacy to preserve and pass on. There is a deep, fulfilling satisfaction in fulfilling a mitzvah completely, from beginning to end.

You. Can. Do. This!

Shira and I wish you and your loved ones a Pesach filled with joy, health, family, friends, good food and everything else your heart desires… except hametz!

                                                                                               Rabbi Don Weber

© 2016, Temple Rodeph Torah

Happy Purim!!???

February 2016


This is my Purim article. I’m stating this at the outset because it is about the Veterans’ Administration, and it would be funny – hilarious, actually – if it weren’t true. But as a writer once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”


The following story makes no sense, but it is true. It is about trying to obtain VA Survivor Benefits for my mom, who qualified due to the many years of my father’s service in the Army.


Best Hanukkah Gift - EVER

December 2015

From The Desk of Rabbi Weber


“Shopping” is not one of the skills listed on my resume. But I would like to give you a Hanukkah gift idea which will not only be one of the best presents you ever give to someone you love, but will be one which is remembered long, long after every other gift is forgotten.

Our Mothers' Names

October 2015

From the Desk of Rabbi Weber

No, the grave marker pictured is not in honor of Halloween. But it is about honor. ...




Rabbi, Do You Support the Iran Agreement?

September 2015

From the Desk of Rabbi Weber

Over recent weeks, the Iran agreement has been the number one topic of conversation in Jewish circles. Many people have asked me if I am going to speak about it on the High Holidays, and I told them no, I am not. Here is why.

Is the Battle for Gay Marriage Over? Maybe Not…

July 2015

From The Desk of Rabbi Weber

Like many of you, I celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-gender couples are entitled to the benefits of marriage. As a straight man in a heterosexual marriage I don’t feel my relationship has been put at risk by others marrying the person they love, and I’m happy to bid a not-so-fond farewell to DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act which supposedly “protected” my marriage up to this point.

Mishkan HaNefesh, “The Sanctuary of the Soul"

July 2015

From the Desk of Rabbi Weber

“You changed the prayerbook… again?”

Well, no. And yes. Mishkan Tefilah, our weekday and Shabbat prayerbook, is not changing. But we are replacing On Wings of Awe, our High Holiday prayerbook for the past quarter-century, with Mishkan HaNefesh, “the Sanctuary of the Soul.” The new books have arrived and we are busy affixing bookplates to honor the many people who contributed to bringing this important change to our congregation.

Yerusha – the Inheritance

June 2015

From the Desk of Rabbi Weber

I want to tell you about the yerusha – the inheritance - I received from my parents. It is precious beyond words, valuable beyond measure… and it didn’t cost a penny. My hope is that I will describe it well enough for you to create the same yerusha for your family, and do it now.

Marlee's Sermon

June 2015

Our temple youth group created and led Rock Shabbat last Friday.

Here is the sermon given by Marlee Neugass. I want to share it because it is worth reading. And no, I did not excommunicate her afterward... although I told her I would...
I am SO proud of this young woman, and of everyone who created, led and participated in Friday night's service!


May 2015

Old Bridge Airport

As evening fell the heat of the day eased.

Reviving the Dead

April 2015

The Power of Telling Stories

From the Torah to contemporary novels, we Jews know that stories have power. They teach better than most other kinds of lessons because they put the message – the mashal – in the context of real people. No great news flash there.

What I didn’t realize about stories is their power to revive the dead.

Let all who are hungry come and eat

April 2015

Hunger for Meaning

One of the most famous lines in the haggadah is,

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” It’s how we begin our seder – by inviting those who need what we have to share with us.


But this invitation isn’t just about food, and it isn’t just for Passover.

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