Being Change (A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah)

"Think of Rosh Hashanah as the stem cells of the year." So says my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known to his friends and students as Reb Zalman. Stem cells can become anything as they mature and grow; they contain infinite potential. This day on the Jewish calendar is the same way.

The old year has become fixed in time. We know what happened; our memories, both bitter and sweet, are already formed. But we don't know what the new year will contain. The shape of 5773 depends on what we decide to grow out of the stem cells of this day.

The Jewish mystics we know as kabbalists teach that today the door of wisdom and insight opens for us. Tomorrow, on the second day of this holiday, the door of discernment and understanding swings open, too. These are the origin points of our year, our springboard into whatever's coming next.

And who decides what's coming next?

We do.

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Three poems of teshuvah (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last.

Kenyon’s poem is set at the end of the summer, on the cusp of the transition to fall. The trees are sere; the barn is full. The harvest has been brought in, and though the grasses intend to grow, they are headed for their fallow time, their sleeping-time. In just a few days, at Sukkot, we will celebrate our harvest: and for those of us who no longer farm, who most likely don’t even make hay, the harvest must be metaphorical. What emotional and spiritual riches can we gather to salt away for the winter which is coming? What might we be able to harvest today, on Yom Kippur, from our time together?

“We are shorn / and purified,” Kenyon writes: the grass is shorn and somehow we come away feeling that our excess too has been trimmed away, that the falling rain has made us pure. What is shorn away from us on this day of atonement? What would it take for us to feel pure?

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Unexpected Joy (a sermon for Kol Nidre)

I’m going to let you in on a secret: this is one of my favorite days of the year.

It’s not that I enjoy being hungry, or standing up here at the front of a room as my body grows increasingly weary, or reminding myself of all the ways in which I’ve missed the mark over the year we’ve just completed. And yes, all of those are part of Yom Kippur.

But those aren’t what’s truly central to this holiday. Here’s what I love: Yom Kippur is the day when we get to focus most on being in connection with something beyond ourselves.

In my love of Yom Kippur, I'm in good company. We read in Mishna Ta'anit that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, "there were no yomim tovim (holidays) in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur." On both of these days, the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards dressed in white, and call out to the unmarried men to join them.

What makes these two days special? Why were they days of dancing and courtship and joy? On each of these dates, God gave us clear signs that God had accepted our repentance. Yom Kippur is understood as the anniversary of the day when Moshe returned from atop Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets of the covenant, a sign that God had forgiven us for the idolatry which caused the first set to be shattered. On Yom Kippur, we experience our bond with God anew.

Most of the time, we have to balance the desire for spiritual life with the mundane realities of cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to daycare or school. Not today. Today, we only have one job: reaching out beyond ourselves to connect with the source of blessing. Jewish tradition, of course, names that source “God.”

The Jewish mystics teach that we connect with God all the time without even knowing it. God’s abundance flows down into creation all year long. Wisdom and understanding, mercy and judgement: we find all of these in God, and we find God in all of these. God is a fountain of blessing, and blessing flows from that divine spigot without ever stopping. Ideally, we receive that blessing every day in our ordinary lives.

But over the course of a year, the channel through which God’s blessings flow becomes shmutzdik. It gets clogged with our spiritual detritus. Our inattention, our frustrations, our mistakes, the hasty words we wish we could retract: everything we do wrong over the course of a year is spiritual sediment which blocks the conduit through which blessings are meant to flow. Our job today is to clean out those spiritual pipes so that divine abundance can flow freely into our lives again.

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Spiritual Lessons of the Arab Spring (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)

Last winter there was a revolution in Tunisia. It began on December 17, in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

A policewoman, seeking a bribe, confiscated the illegal vegetable stall of an unemployed man named Mohamad Bouazizi. For years, the police had been routinely confiscating his wheelbarrow of produce, demanding bribes. On this day, he had already gone into debt to buy the vegetables he needed to sell to feed his family. And now his vegetables, and his street cart, were impounded, and he was harassed and humiliated by a city official and her aides. Bouazizi tried to see the governor to beg for his cart and his weighing scales, but the governor refused to see him.

Out of despondency, or out of desperate desire to make a statement, Bouazizi set himself on fire. This was not an act of violence against others, but a way of protesting and showing his despair. On December 17, the day when Bouazizi self-immolated, protesters took to the streets. They posted videos of their marches on Facebook. After 23 years of dictatorship under the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian people were fed up with corruption and misrule. Al Jazeera broadcast this smalltown Tunisian revolution throughout the Arab world. Less than a month later, Ben Ali stepped down from power.

That same month, a revolution unfolded in Egypt. Protests took place in a Cairo square called Tahrir—“Liberation.” More than a million people took to the streets and the square, rallying behind the aims of free speech, an end to police brutality and corruption, and an end to the state of emergency law which had persisted since 1967. They protested high unemployment and food price inflation. They demanded free elections, a say in the management of Egypt’s resources, and justice.

The protestors faced police willing to use tear gas and rubber bullets to drive them back. Ordinary people who lived near Tahrir opened their homes so that protesters could shower, and showed up in the square to cook food and sing songs. You may have seen news footage of Egyptian Christians linking hands to protect Egyptian Muslims as they prostrated themselves in prayer—a prostration which is akin to what some of us will do, later this morning, during the Great Aleinu.

Within days President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and a new chapter of Egyptian history began.

Since last December, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; a civil war in Libya; uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen; protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and in Gaza and the West Bank. Over the summer, unprecedented numbers of Israelis too have taken to the streets, setting up tent cities and protesting inequities in Israeli life, inspired in large part by the Arab Spring. A vast tectonic shift is underway. The world is changing.

It’s become popular to analyze the Arab Spring in terms of how social media—like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook—played a role in the organizing of protests and the disseminating of information. (Indeed, my husband Ethan has given many lectures on this very subject!) These technologies and their use worldwide have enabled a profound change in how people communicate. As those who were once voiceless connect with each other, they find strength in togetherness, and new possibilities arise.

Others look at the Arab Spring and ask: what does this mean for Israel? Let me be honest: I don’t know yet. I don’t think anyone does. But Israel’s security does not, must not, depend on a status quo where the inhabitants of neighboring countries live under oppression and repression.

The Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel says that Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture[.]” These are lofty aims. As a rabbi, and as a Jew, I yearn for the day when every woman, man, and child everywhere in the world knows these rights and cherishes them as their own.

For me the most interesting question is what the Arab Spring tells us about the human spirit. What can we learn from these stories as we enter into the Days of Awe? On this Rosh Hashanah morning I’d like to offer three spiritual lessons I find in the unfolding of the Arab Spring.

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A sermon in poetry for parashat B'ha-alot'kha

Here's the sermon in poetry which I offered at Temple Beth El and at Temple Chai this past Shabbat. One of the poems is a revision of a Torah poem from a few years ago; one is a Torah poem which appears in 70 faces; and the rest are brand-new, written for this occasion. Enjoy!


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand." —Numbers 8:1-2

One for each day of creation
and a seventh for Shabbat,
the pearl in the crown
the flowering apple tree
the culmination.

One for each blessing
your children will recite
beneath the chuppah
marveling at what they find
in one another's eyes.

Colors of the rainbow,
weeks of the Omer,
days of mourning.
In this menorah you'll find
the bush which burned but remained.

Even now, with our portable
dwelling-place for God
long vanished irretrievably
into the attic of memory,
these lamps still shine.

This week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha, begins with the instruction to kindle seven lamps in the portable Tabernacle. The Torah is filled with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled among us. Of course, even if the mishkan's construction is a historical reality rather than a spiritual and literary one, centuries have passed since it was built. What can this verse about a golden lampstand tell us about our spiritual lives today? When I look at the verse through the prism of poetry, I find metaphors which hold meaning.

The tradition of responding to scripture with our own creativity -- writing interpretive texts which explore questions, close loopholes, and ponder implications -- dates back at least as far as the third century of the Common Era. We call these stories midrash, from the root lidrosh, to seek or inquire. One midrash holds that the Torah is written in black fire on white fire: the black fire are the letters, and the white fire the holy spaces between the words. Our own creative responses to Torah are part of that white fire.

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The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah

In years past, our visiting cantorial soloist has offered a "sermon in song" on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah. This year, I'm doing something along the same lines, but in my own home genre: I'm offering a "sermon in poetry."

My sermon -- a set of ten linked poems -- centers around the Torah reading for today: the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It's a powerful story, and a difficult one. I hope that these poems may offer you some new ways of thinking about this story at this moment in the year.

At some later juncture I may post about how I wrote these, and about the references and allusions in them, but for now I want to just place them before you. Read, and let me know what you think. Shanah tovah.

Edited to add: these poems can now be found in my collection of Torah poems, 70 faces, published by Phoenicia Publishing in 2001. (Click on the link to read more and/or to purchase a copy.)

The Akedah Cycle

1. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these things

—the hidden ache of infertility,
their marriage straining at the seams
beneath everything unspoken—

Sarai's desperate play for control,
claiming she wouldn't mind
if Avram slept with the maid

—then watching Hagar's belly swell,
how she carried unborn Ishmael
as though she were dancing—

after jealousy arose between them
like brackish water, after Hagar
spoke with the Almighty

—after Avram changed their names
and circumcised his heart,
after the angels came—

after Avraham argued with God
and Lot offered his own daughters
to a mob of angry men

—after Avraham and Sarah moved
to Abimelech's lands, desperate
to escape their own story—

after they returned home
and Sarah became pregnant
and they named their son Laughter

—after Sarah had laughed
to think of milk flowing
from her withered breasts—

after Sarah saw the boys at play
and fury overwhelmed her
and she sent Hagar away

—after Avraham, distraught,
accused Abimelech of stealing
his source of inspiration—

after the men made a treaty
and planted a tamarisk
and they stayed there a while

—after Avraham had forgotten
Sarah’s exhausted radiance
when she first held their son—

after these things
the sweet and the bitter
God tested Avraham

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Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Some folks have asked to see the text of the sermon I gave this morning, so I'm posting it here. Astute readers of my blog will recognize several of these ideas, metaphors, and references -- the sermon draws heavily on a few blog posts I made early in the month of Elul, and surely benefits from the thoughtful and engaged comments and questions y'all posed. Enjoy!

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