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"?

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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.

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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."

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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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On gratitude and thanks: a sermon for the UU community of Montreal

This is the sermon I offered this morning at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. Thanks so much for welcoming me, UU community of Montreal!


Il_fullxfull.364236236_kx72On Gratitude and Thanks


מֹודה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיָך, מֶלְֶך חַי וְַקּיָם, ׁשֶהֶחֱזְַרּתָ ּבִי נִׁשְמָתִי ּבְחֶמְלָה. ַרּבָה אֱמּונָתֶָך!

"I give thanks before You, living and enduring God.
You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!"

This prayer is part of Jewish morning liturgy. It's in our prayerbook, and is often recited at the beginning of communal morning worship -- though in its most original context, it's meant to be recited before we even make it to synagogue in the morning. Modah ani is something we're meant to say upon waking up, first thing.

Some of you may have grown up reciting the 18th-century classic "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep" before bed. That prayer has its roots in the Jewish custom of the bedtime Shema. Before bed, we say a prayer reminding ourselves that we place our souls in God's keeping while we are asleep. And when we wake again in the morning -- and, mirabile dictu, we're alive again! -- we offer this prayer of gratitude. Thank You, God, for giving my soul back to me! Great is Your faithfulness!

I'm often struck by that line. "Great is Your faithfulness." Often we think of faith -- in Hebrew, אמונה –– as something we're meant to have. We have faith in God. But in this prayer, it's the other way around. God is the one with emunah. God has faith in us.

There's something very powerful for me about asserting that, first thing in the morning. Today is a new day, rich with possibility. I am awaken and alive; I am a soul, embodied. And, my tradition teaches, God has faith in me and in what my day might contain.

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Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b'Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather --
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

"I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals." I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b'Av: if we aren't also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is "enough" even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life's work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah's words, and I know that he is right.

There's a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y'all are doing isn't enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don't act justly, then it doesn't matter one bit whether you're doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn't enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today's world. But I don't think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it's our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It's incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly -- and also to hear God's call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b'Av I sat with a group of y'all here and we talked about Isaiah's furious words. Two days before Tisha b'Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

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Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)


This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can't blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don't remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn't enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything's going to be okay.

So that's what I do. I tell him it's all going to be okay. I tell him it's only thunder, it's only lightning, it's not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it's the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it's the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I'm going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here's the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what's with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

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Creating Community (A sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)


For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God... It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement.

That's Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, known colloquially as Rav Kook. Let me say part of that again:

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God...

We might reasonably ask: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is "the building"?

Often in Jewish tradition when we hear reference to a building, especially when it sounds like it might be a Building-With-A-Capital-B, the text is speaking of the Temple. The first Temple was built in Jerusalem in 957 BCE, and was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second Temple was begun some fifty years later; it was sacked by the Romans in the year 70 (C.E).

But Rav Kook is speaking in the future tense, about something which will be built. He might mean the Third Temple -- for which, I should note, the Reform movement officially does not yearn! But the idea of a rebuilt Temple implies a time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete; the messianic era. Perhaps that's what he's speaking of. Perhaps he means Olam ha-ba, the World to Come.

But I don't think he has to be speaking about a literal construction project at all. I think he's talking about Jewish community.

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A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale

This is the sermon I offered this morning at my synagogue.

 

Once there was a man named Jonah, "Dove," son of Amittai, "Truth."

And God spoke to him and said, Go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to make teshuvah, otherwise I will destroy them for their wickedness. And in response, Jonah fled.

This is a familiar story. We'll read it again this afternoon during mincha, and we'll look at some fascinating modern commentaries during our Torah study afterwards. But I want to lift up a few details now, because some of you may not return for mincha, and there's something powerful about encountering this particular story on this particular day of the year.

Jonah flees from God, onto a ship bound for Tarshish. He heads in precisely the direction God didn't tell him to go. An actual Wrong-Way Corrigan. Does he really think he can escape from the Holy Blessed One, the King of Kings, Who can see him anywhere he goes?

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a Sufi story about a great teacher whose disciples wanted to learn his mystical wisdom. Okay, said the teacher; here is a dove; go someplace where no one can see you, and kill it, and when you come back, I will teach you what you want to know.

Of his 12 students, eleven came back with dead birds, and he sent them away. One returned with the living dove. "I couldn't find a place," said the student, "where no One could see me." It was to that student, who understood God's omnipresence, that the teacher chose to transmit his blessing and his wisdom.

But our Jonah, our dove, forgets that. He flies from his calling, flees from God.

Once his ship is at sea, a mighty storm arises. The sailors are in a panic. And Jonah is sound asleep belowdecks. This is comedy. Imagine the ship rocking wildly from side to side, sloshing with seawater and in danger of foundering: and our hero, or perhaps our anti-hero, is sound asleep!

It's also a deep spiritual teaching. How often, in our lives, do we hide from what we know we're meant to be doing? How often are we spiritually asleep?

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Kol Nidre Sermon: What Are We Here For?

Once there was a great rabbi named Yekhiel. Reb Yekhiel could discern the deepest truths in a person's soul just by looking at them. He would gaze at your forehead for a moment, and then tell you the history of your soul in all of its incarnations.

Some people sought him out, wanting to know who they had been before. Others avoided him. Some would pull their hats down over their faces to try to hide from him. Which was ridiculous, because surely a man who can gaze into the history of your soul just by looking at you can also gaze through a bit of leather or cloth!

It was said that Reb Yekhiel turned every day into Yom Kippur. In a good way! Because he was able to see into the depths of people's souls, and help them understand where they had gone wrong, and how to correct their mistakes in this life.

One year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Yekhiel saw an apparition. He recognized the man immediately: it was the cantor who used to chant so beautifully in Reb Yekhiel's hometown. "What are you doing here?" asked Reb Yekhiel.

"Surely the holy rabbi already knows," replied the soul of the hazzan. "On Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life. With every deed, we inscribe ourselves in that book. God looks at our sins and our good deeds, and weighs them both in the balance. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be born -- and to which family? During this night, souls are also judged to be reincarnated once again. I am just such a soul, about to be reborn."

"So tell me," the rabbi asked, "why are you being sent down into the physical world again?"

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