What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

DeathThis is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? "You may ask yourself, how did I get here? ... You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)

I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It's clean, and clear, and polished. It's about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It's about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that's the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year's theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.

And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn't feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what's urgent.

I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.

There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day's gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day's grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don't feel especially urgent, either. They're part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.

That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.

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The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

SeenIt was four in the morning on Shavuot in the year 5770, also known as 2010. I was on retreat at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center in northern Connecticut. My son was seven months old.

My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn't be able to hear Reb Zalman (z"l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.

But it turned out that my son didn't like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.

Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.

Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.

"Why didn't you kill your bird?" asked the Sufi master.

"I tried to do as you asked," said the student. "But no matter where I went, I couldn't find a place where no One could see me."

Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.

That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, "awe" or "fear of God." Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.

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A Vision of Better: now in video

A few folks asked whether there is a video or audio recording of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning

Here's video (and audio) -- taken from the synagogue's Facebook Live stream, so the quality isn't fantastic, but I'm happy to share.

 

 

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it here.)

May our journey through these Ten Days of Teshuvah clarify our vision and strengthen us to do our work in the world.


A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779

Better

There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

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Descent for the sake of ascent


2267916_1This is the sermon I offered this morning at Rensselaerville Presbyterian Church. You can read other sermons in their summer sermon series here. This year's theme is "And still we rise."

 

In Hasidic tradition -- in the Jewish mystical-devotional tradition that arose in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s -- there is the concept of yeridah tzorech aliyah. "Descent for the sake of ascent." We experience distance from God in order to draw close. We fall in order to rise.

The term "fall" may have connotations here, in this Christian context, that I don't intend. I'm not talking about the Fall of Man, with capital letters, as I understand it to be interpreted in some Christian theologies. Judaism doesn't have a doctrine of original sin. I'm talking about something more like... falling down. Falling short. Falling away.

The paradigmatic example of descent for the sake of ascent is the narrative at the end of the book of Genesis that we sometimes call "the Joseph novella." We just heard a piece of that story this morning, so here's a recap for those who need it. Jacob had twelve sons, and his favored son was Joseph, for whom he made a coat of many colors. Joseph had dreams of stars bowing down to him, sheaves of wheat bowing down to him, and his dreams made his brothers angry, and as a result they threw him into a pit. He literally went down. And then he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and the verb used there is again he went down: in Hebrew one "goes down" into Egypt and "ascends" into the promised land.

In Egypt, he fell from favor with Potiphar and went down into Pharaoh's dungeon. And there he met the two servants of Pharaoh for whom he interpreted dreams, and he ascended to become Pharaoh's right-hand man.

And because of those things, he was in a position to rescue his family from famine, thereby setting in motion the rescue of what would become the entire Jewish people. Descent for the sake of ascent.

His descendants would become slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. Finally our hardship was too much to bear, and we cried out to God. Torah tells us that God heard our cries and remembered us and brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Because we were low and we cried out, God heard us and lifted us out of there: descent for the sake of ascent.

Coming forth from slavery was the first step toward Jewish peoplehood; receiving Torah at Sinai, and entering into covenant with God, was the event that formed us as a people. Our enslavement led to our freedom which led to covenant and peoplehood: descent for the sake of ascent.

The summer season on the Jewish calendar mirrors this same trajectory. Just a few weeks ago we marked the day of communal mourning known as Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the lunar month of Av, the lowest point in our year.

On Tisha b'Av, we remember the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE. We remember the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Rome in 70 CE. We remember the start of the Crusades, the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, an incomprehensibly awful litany of communal tragedies that have all, somehow, against all odds, befallen us on or around that same calendar date. On Tisha b'Av we fast, we hear the book of Lamentations, we read poems of grief, we dive deep into the world's sorrow and suffering and brokenness.

And, Jewish tradition says that on Tisha b'Av the messiah will be born. Out of our deepest grief comes the spark of redemption. And every year Tisha b'Av is the springboard that launches us toward the Days of Awe, the Jewish new year and the Day of Atonement, of at/one/ment. Authentic spiritual life demands that we sit both with life's brokenness and life's wholeness. A spirituality that's only "positive," only feel-good, isn't real and isn't whole. When we sit with what hurts, that's what enables us to rise. Descent for the sake of ascent.

The Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim teaches that ascent and descent are intimately connected. When a person falls away from God, the experience of distance from the Divine spurs that soul's yearning to return. Falling down is precisely the first step of rising up. Our mis-steps are precisely what spur us to course-correct and adjust our path. Descent for the sake of ascent.

Looking at the world around us, it's easy to feel that everything is falling apart. Migrant children torn from the arms of their parents and imprisoned in cages. Hate crimes on the rise. People of color killed by police who are supposed to be sworn to protect. Incidents of prejudice increasing: against religious minorities, and against transgender people, and against people of color. Our political system seems to be broken. International relations seem to be broken. There is brokenness everywhere we look.

Our work -- the spiritual work of this moment in time -- is twofold. One: we have to resist the temptation to paper over the brokenness with platitudes and pretty words, "God has a plan," or "everything's going to be okay." My theology does not include a God Who sits back and allows rights to be stripped away for the sake of some greater plan we don't have to try to understand. And two: we have to face the brokenness, even embrace the brokenness, and let it fuel us to bring repair. We have to make our descent be for the sake of ascent.

When we feel our distance from the divine Beloved, there's a yearning to draw near. Our hearts cry out, "I miss Your presence in my life, God, I want to come back to You." Or in the words of psalm 27, the psalm for this season on the Jewish calendar, "One thing I ask of You, God, this alone do I seek: that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life!"

When we feel our distance from the world as it should be -- a world where no one goes hungry, where bigotry has vanished like morning fog, where every human being is uplifted and cherished as a reflection of the Infinite divine -- we yearn to bring repair. When we feel what's lacking, we ache to fill that void. Feeling how far we've fallen is precisely what spurs us to seek to rise. This is built into the very order of things. And that's where I find hope during these difficult days.

This is the work of spiritual life as I understand it. There are times that feel like a descent into the pit, a fall away from God, even imprisonment in Pharaoh's dungeon. This is true both on the small scale of every individual human life, and on the broader canvas of the nation or the world at large. But the thing about hitting bottom is, there's nowhere to go from there but up.

Our job is to inhabit every broken place, every spiritual exile, and let them fuel us to ascend closer to God and closer to the world as we know it should be. Then those who have sown in tears will reap in joy. Then those who went out weeping, carrying the seeds of the tomorrow in which they could barely find hope, will return in gladness bearing the abundant harvest of everything they need. Kein yehi ratzon: so may it be.


Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

 
YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control." 

And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world. 

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.

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A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

KNBefore he died, Reb Zalman -- the teacher of my teachers -- made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community's tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of "dress rehearsal" for your own death?

I've got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your death. Does that sound strange? It's a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it's not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we're "doing it wrong.") Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying.

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After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

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The gates are closing: short words for Ne'ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don't feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.

 

As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.

 

Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI's tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It's incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

"Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?"

"No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home."

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.

 

The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn -- teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source -- to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.

 

[Image source.] Also posted to my congregational blog.


Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

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I don't know how many of you are MASS MoCA fans, but many of you have probably seen the building of LeWitt wall paintings -- yes? It will be on view until 2033, so if you haven't seen it, you still have time.

My favorite floor is the middle floor. The ground floor features works in pencil and chalk; the top floor features works in psychedelic colors so vivid they almost hurt my eyes; but the middle floor features geometric works in colors that are bright but not painful. That's the floor where I spend the most time.

I've said for years that someday I should paint a LeWitt on a wall in my house. How difficult would it be? All one needs are dimensions and instructions. This summer it occurred to me: I could actually do it. I could make a LeWitt, and have something big, bold, vivid, and colorful to brighten my home through the winter.

Maybe it's because of timing: I began work on my faux LeWitt during Elul, as we began the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. But as I worked on the canvases, I couldn't help thinking about teshuvah, that word so often translated as "repentance" though it actually means "return." The work to which we dedicate ourselves today.

Teshuvah is a process of discernment. Who am I, who have I tried to be, where have I fallen short, what kind of course correction do I need, how can I do better next time? Painting, at least for an amateur like me, has a similar trajectory. I sketched on the canvas where I wanted the different colors to be. Some of the lines needed to be erased and drawn again. And then I looked at my brand-new box of paints and realized I would need to learn how to mix colors. That took trial and error, and often the result wasn't quite what I had imagined.

Just so in the work of teshuvah. We draw lines around what we want our behavior to be. Sometimes the lines aren't in the right place and need to be re-drawn. Sometimes they need to be drawn more firmly, because we lose track of where they are. Sometimes we accidentally paint over the lines, and then have to let the paint dry and go back over it with white paint to try to obscure the brush strokes -- though it's unlikely that we ourselves will forget our missteps, even if we're able to obscure them from everyone else's view.

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Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Let-go

We're not here in this life to be small. Our souls yearn to expand, to live into the fullness of all of who we can become. Yom Kippur is here to help set us free.

Tonight we let go of broken promises. "כָּל נִדְרֵי  / Kol nidrei..." All the promises, and the vows, and the oaths. The promises we made that we failed to live up to. The promises we made that it turns out we couldn't keep. 

Unkept promises, both those we make and those made to us, become a weight holding us down. What would it feel like to let that weight go?

My teacher Reb Zalman -- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory -- wrote a script for releasing ourselves from our promises. The petitioner says:

"In the last year I have from time to time made vows, sometimes speaking them out loud, or had an intention, a resolution to change something in my actions, behavior and attitude in my mind. Some of these are in relation to myself, my body, my mind, and my soul. Some of these deal with the way in which I conduct myself in relation to other people. And most of all, there are those that deal with my relation to God..."

You might imagine that he wrote these words for Yom Kippur. Actually, he wrote them to recite before Rosh Hashanah. There's a custom called התרת נדרים / hatarat nedarim, "untangling of vows." Here's how you do it. You assemble a beit din, a rabbinic court of three. And then each person takes a turn being the person requesting release, while the others serve as judges empowered to grant release.

The ritual acknowledges that resolutions are a kind of vow, and that when we fail to live up to our intentions, we need a mechanism for forgiveness. What moves me is the response from the court of friends: "hearing your regret, we release you."

To release ourselves from the promises we couldn't keep, the first step is to name them, with genuine regret. We speak our mis-steps to someone we trust, and that someone whom we trust says "it's okay, you can let it go." Then? We have to believe them. That last step may be the hardest part. 

That ritual is a kind of practice run for the work we're here to do over the next 24 hours, together.

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The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

ChangeRosh Hashanah is often translated as "head of the year." That translation isn't incorrect. Of course rosh means head, and shanah means year. The headwaters of a river are where the river begins, and the head of the year is where the year begins. But Hebrew is a deep language. Words that share roots are variations on a theme. And because of that, "Rosh Hashanah" also has a deeper meaning.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program, wrote a book called The Path of Blessing. (That book is in our congregational library.) In The Path of Blessing, she dedicates a whole chapter to each of six Hebrew words: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam.

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here's a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

Maybe you're thinking "blessed." As in, "Blessed are You, Adonai our God..." But baruch also relates to berech, knee. That means baruch can suggest a posture of willingness to be humble before the person to whom I am speaking. Baruch also relates to breicha, a flowing fountain. So baruch can suggest both the cosmic flow of abundance, and the flow of spiritual life. This is why Reb Marcia often translates "Baruch atah" as "A Fountain of Blessings are You..."

Just as baruch holds hints of berech and breicha, hints of bending the knee in grateful humility and drinking from the fountain of divine abundance, shanah holds hints of another word in its word-root family tree: shinui, which means change.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

I've known this linguistic teaching for years. But it speaks to me in a new way this year, my first Rosh Hashanah as someone whose marriage has ended. That's a pretty profound change.

Here are some things I have learned about change since the last time I stood before y'all to offer a high holiday sermon.

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Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776

I'm doing something new with our b'nei mitzvah kids this year. (Credit where it's due: this is an idea I adapted from my friend and teacher Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Bay Area.) It's called Mitzvah Experimentation.

I brought this to our seventh graders in our first Hebrew school class of the year. The first thing we talked about was, what's a mitzvah. Some of them said "good deed," which is a fine answer, though not a direct translation. Others said "a commandment," which is what the word mitzvah means. A mitzvah is something which we are commanded to do, or to not do.

Commanded by whom? The most traditional answer is God. That word raises some eyebrows. Not all of my students are certain that they believe in God. What if you don't believe in God -- does that scotch the mitzvot?

There's a story about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, faced with someone who didn't believe in God. He asked that person to tell him about the God they didn't believe in. Because "maybe the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either!" Over the millennia we've thought about God, talked about God, and described God in all kinds of different ways. Some of those ways work for me. Some don't. Some might work for you; some might not. The name "God" can mean a lot of different things. And if my students want to talk about that, I'm happy to do so.

But when I go deeper into the question, what I hear is: if I don't believe in God, do the mitzvot matter?

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The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.

That's a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.

Either way, I think it's equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.

If only I'd taken that job...
If only I hadn't hurt her feelings...
If only I'd married someone different...
If only I'd known then what I know now...

We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn't been dealt a particular hand of cards.

The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it's as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. "She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long..."

There's nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That's what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it's easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it's easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.

Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my "if onlies," what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?

Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?

It's not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination.

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I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of "God bless." I began with "God bless Mom and Dad," then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless "all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen."

I'm not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn't want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There's a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

"May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen."

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל -- "and all who dwell on Earth." Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: "and everybody else, amen."

Why am I so invested in praying for "everybody else, amen"?

Continue reading "I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776" »


Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.



"Y'all shall be holy, for I -- Adonai your God -- am holy."

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we're supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we're holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There's chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God's holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week's Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don't render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don't hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I've been studying the Torah portion, I've also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie's funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I've seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie's death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping "I can't breathe." I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It's facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week's Torah portion can speak to us today.

"You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey's neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah's system of gleaning aimed to do?

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich." Do residents of Freddie Grey's neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

"You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself." This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week's Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך -- "neighbor" or "other" -- meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah's voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.

 


Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)

The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, "Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat." (She didn't say "tush," but the word she used isn't exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn't, or isn't only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn't there yet.

Over the years I've learned a variety of techniques for times when I don't "feel like" writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time -- "thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else." I can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I'm committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can't wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I'm on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It's remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the "real world," where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There's a reason we call them "practices" -- because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn't necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn't necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it's arguably better if you don't.

Continue reading "Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)" »


Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)

 

Do you know what it's like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it's an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you're the only one who didn't know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don't belong. And it's hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it's even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don't fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn't speak the language and couldn't find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, "I just want to go home"?

Or maybe you've felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you've yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you've yearned to return to the childhood you didn't have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem "Great Blue Heron:"

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels "loneliness for each other." And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith -- if we believe -- real connections will exist, "at the edge," rooting us down "in the mud where the truth is."

Continue reading "Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)" »


Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)

 

The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We'd been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. "I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!" I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y'all have known me for a while now, so you're probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child's pose, you've had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you've had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It's a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God's hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

"Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear." I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it's always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah's jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

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