When (not) to forgive

Do-not-symbol "Rabbi, is it ever okay not to forgive?"

That question comes my way every year around this season. (I've written about this before.) I find that it is asked most often by women, who may face (as women, and as Jews) a double whammy of cultural messages instructing us to be forgiving even at our own expense. But people across the gender spectrum struggle with this question. 

Many of us know the teaching from Rambam (in his Hilchot Teshuvah, "Laws of Repentance / Return") that when someone has wronged another person, the one who committed the wrong must make teshuvah and seek forgiveness, and the one who was wronged is obligated to forgive. "Obligated" is a strong word. Is it ever okay, Jewishly, not to forgive?

Short answer: yes. Yes, Jewishly speaking, there are times when it is ok not to extend forgiveness.  Longer answer: when the person who wronged you has not made teshuvah (more in a minute abut what that means, and what is implied therein) not only are you not obligated to forgive them, but one could even make the case that granting forgiveness in that circumstance is forbidden. Because if you were to forgive under that circumstance, without their teshuvah, your forgiveness would give cover to the unethical behavior not only of harming you in the first place, but also of choosing not to make teshuvah.

A reminder: teshuvah, which is often translated as "repentance," comes from the root that means turning or turning-around. Teshuvah is the work of turning oneself around, turning oneself in the right direction again, turning over a new leaf, re/turning to God and to the state of righteousness to which we are all expected to aspire. When we miss the mark in our relationship with God, we can make teshuvah and repair the broken relationship. When we miss the mark in our relationships with each other, we can make teshuvah and (maybe) repair the broken relationship. Repair may not be up to us. But our own teshuvah work is.

Here's Rabbi David J. Blumenthal, in his essay Is Forgiveness Necessary?

If the offender has done teshuvah, and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should offer mechilah; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.

The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechilah if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done...

The principle that mechilah ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish "No" to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so. This is the great Jewish "Yes" to the possibility of repentance for every sinner.

If the person who wronged you has done teshuvah and is sincere in their repentance, then tradition asks you to forgive. But that's a big 'if.' How can you tell if the person's teshuvah is sincere? My own answer relies on a combination of factors. For starters, the person who wronged you has to actually apologize (and I mean a real apology.) Ideally that apology should feel sincere to you. But the person's subsequent actions are of greater importance. Saying sorry isn't enough: they also have to take concrete steps to correct the wrong, and they have to show with their actions and their choices that they have changed. 

One rubric says that we can tell if teshuvah is genuine when the person making teshuvah has the opportunity to commit the same misdeed as before, but this time makes a different choice. (That's Rambam again.) Imagine that I harmed you physically by driving over your foot. I would need to not only apologize to you for hurting you, and do what I could to correct the wrong (giving you an aspirin, or perhaps a pair of steel-toed boots?), but also, the next time I was driving my car near where your foot was resting, I'd need to notice your foot, make a conscious choice not to drive over it, and then follow through with that choice. 

But if my apology to you felt insincere -- "Whatever, you're overreacting but I'm sorry you're upset" -- you would be under no obligation to forgive me for the harm. And if I didn't do what I could to make up for having driven over your foot, ditto. And if I didn't take steps to ensure that I never drive over your foot again, ditto all the more. (It's a ridiculous example, I realize. I use it because it lets me illustrate the principle I want to communicate, without getting into the kinds of hypotheticals that might evoke or re-activate the interpersonal traumas that bring people to me with these questions about forgiveness in the first place.)

If someone has harmed you -- whether in body, heart, mind, or spirit -- and they come to you seeking forgiveness, you're allowed to take the time you need to discern 1) whether their apology is genuine, and 2) whether they have done all that they could to remedy the damage, and 3) whether they have done the internal work of becoming a person who would no longer harm you in that same way given the opportunity to do so again. If the answer to any of those questions is no -- and kal v'chomer (all the more so) if they don't apologize in the first place -- then you are not obligated to forgive them for harming you.

Emotionally and spiritually, pay attention to what your heart and soul are saying. If your heart and soul resist the idea of forgiving someone, discern whether that resistance is a case of holding on to an old resentment that you'd be better off releasing -- or whether it's a case of healthy self-protection. If offering forgiveness would serve you, then I support that. But Jewish tradition does not require us to re-inscribe the harm done to us by forgiving our abusers. And as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes in her excellent twitter thread on this, the person who needs to repent can do so whether or not the person they harmed forgives.

And on that note... here's a Prayer for those not ready for forgive by my friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Zimmerman.

G'mar chatimah tovah: may we all be sealed for goodness in the year to come.

 


The Open Invitation

 

Noahs-ark-blueChodesh tov: a good and sweet new month to you!

Today we enter the month of Cheshvan, a month that is unique because it contains no Jewish holidays at all. (Except for Shabbat, of course.) After the spiritual marathon of Tisha b'Av and Elul and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, now we get some downtime. Some quiet time. Time to rest: in Hebrew, לנוח / lanuach. We've done all of our spiritual work, and now we get to take a break. Right?

Well, not exactly.

When we finish the Days of Awe, we might imagine that the work is over. But I want to posit that the work of teshuvah, of turning ourselves in the right direction, isn't something we ever "complete"... and that Torah's been giving us hints about that, if we know where to look.

Last week we began the Torah again, with Bereshit, the first portion in the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos, "and God saw that it was good," the forming of an earthling from earth. Last week's Torah portion also contains the story of Cain and Hevel, the first sibling rivalry in our story. The two bring offerings to God. Hevel brings sheep, and Cain brings fruits of the soil, and God is pleased with the sheep but not with Cain's offering. Cain's face falls, and God says to him, "Why are you distressed?"

It's an odd moment. Surely an all-knowing God understands perfectly well why Cain is upset. This is not rocket science. Two brothers make gifts for their Parent, who admires one gift and pointedly ignores the other one?! Of course Cain feels unappreciated. This is basic human nature. How can it be that God doesn't understand?

The commentator known as the Radak says: God asked this rhetorical question not because God didn't understand Cain's emotions, but because God wanted to spur Cain to self-reflection. God, says the Radak, wanted to teach Cain how to do the work of teshuvah, repentance and return. Imagine if Cain had been able to receive that lesson. Imagine if Cain had had a trusted rabbi or spiritual director with whom he could have done his inner work, seeking to find the presence of God even in his disappointment. But that's not how the story goes. He misses the opportunity for teshuvah, and commits the first murder instead.

That was last week. This week, we read that God sees that humanity is wicked, and God decides to wipe out humanity and start over. But one person finds favor with God: Noach, whose name comes from that root לנוח, "to rest."

And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.

Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message.

The invitation to make teshuvah is always open. The invitation to discernment, to inner work, to recognizing our patterns and changing them, is always open. And to underscore that message, last week's Torah portion and this week's Torah portion both remind us:  the path of teshuvah was open to Cain, and it was open for the people of Noah's day, and it's open now.

Even if we spent the High Holiday season making teshuvah with all our might, the work isn't complete. We made the teshuvah we were able to make: we pushed ourselves as far as we could to become the better selves we know we're always called to be. But that was so last week. What teshuvah do we need to make now, building on the work we did before?

The word kapparah (atonement) implies covering-over, as Noach covered-over the ark with the covering of pitch. What kapparah hasn't worked for you yet? Where are the places where you still feel as though your mis-steps are exposed? What are the tender places in your heart and soul that need to be lovingly sealed and made safe? This week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we still have a chance to do this work. Will we be wiser than the generation of Noah? Will we hear Torah's call to make teshuvah now with all that we are?

Here's the thing: as long as we live, our work isn't done. I don't know whether that sounds to you like a blessing or a curse. But I mean it as a blessing. Because it's never too late. Because we can always be growing. Because we can always choose to be better.

May this Shabbat Noach be a Shabbat of real menuchah, which is Noah's namesake, and peace, a foretaste of the world to come. And when we emerge into the new week tonight at havdalah, may we be strengthened in our readiness to always be doing the work of teshuvah, and through that work, may our hearts and souls find the kapparah that we most seek.

 

I'm honored and delighted this week to be at Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, visiting my dear friend Rabbi Jennifer Singer who blogs at SRQ Jew. This is the d'var Torah I offered there for Shabbat Noach -- which I share with deep gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for sparking these insights.

 


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.

Continue reading "Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


When granting forgiveness is not mandatory

Every year, as the Jewish holidays approach, someone seeks me out because they’re struggling with forgiveness. Maybe this person is the adult child of a narcissist who was a cruel and self-centered parent. Maybe this person feels betrayed by an authority figure, a mentor or teacher who let them down. There are many variations. What they have in common is, they don’t feel able to forgive someone who hurt them, and they’re worried about what their inability to forgive says about them.

What does Judaism teach about the obligation to forgive, and why is this coming up for everyone now?...

That's the beginning of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Read the whole thing here: When granting forgiveness is not mandatory during the high holidays.


Building the world we want to see

Hope

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

That's from a commencement speech called "Applied Hope," by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I'm struck by his assertion that the person who is living in hope is working hard toward creating a better future. It's easy to imagine that hope is a passive stance, but that's clearly not how Lovins sees it. (You can find the whole speech online if you are so inclined. A friend sent it to me a few days ago and there's much in it that moves me.) Lovins writes:

The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it -- tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”

That last sentence really gets to me. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." Despair is often convincing, and almost everyone has reasons for despair at least some of the time. Maybe your despair is personal: your own grief or illness, or a loved one who is sick or suffering, or an injustice in your personal sphere that brings you to tears. Maybe your despair is on a bigger scale: Brexit, the American Presidential election, the realities of hatred and xenophobia. I do not deny anyone's reasons for despair. To paraphrase Hamilton's George Washington, "despair is easy, young man: hoping is harder."

I wrote a d'var Torah last month called Be strong and open your heart that explored the question of hope from a spiritual perspective. I wrote, "hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now." Hope for a better world may seem especially inaccessible to some of us right now. But our spiritual tradition calls us to cultivate hope, and to be galvanized thereby to act toward making that hope a reality. That's the work at hand. That's always the work at hand. 

Returning again to Lovins' commencement address:

So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gôtô-roshi put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you -- relax and keep on going.”

I'm not sure I agree with the "don't let it bother you" part. Our world is badly broken, and that absolutely should bother us. But we shouldn't allow it to paralyze us. And what I take from his Michael C. Muhammad quote is the assurance that if the world is not redeemed, then our work is not yet done. If there is still injustice in the world, then our work is not yet done. If there is still bigotry in the world, then our work is not yet done. If xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, rape culture, and hatred of the Other still plague us, then our work is not yet done. Friends, I have news for you: our work is not yet done. 

Lovins -- like the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (who I quoted in that d'var Torah I mentioned earlier) asks us to imagine the world as it does not yet exist -- to look beyond what is to what could be. Lovins writes, "Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope."  I want to imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, where no one is at risk of sexual assault, where religious freedom is guaranteed and celebrated, where diversities of all kinds are valued. 

Each of us will have her own list of the things that feel most important about the vision of a world redeemed. What matters is that we have the vision -- that we cultivate the vision. This will take work on our parts. We have to dream of the world we need, even when doing so feels vulnerable or scary. We have to imagine the world as we most want it to be, as our hearts ache for it to be. Dream big, and fix those dreams in the forefront of your vision. And then figure out how to take one small step in the direction of those dreams, and another, and another. That's the only way we'll get there. And that's the work we're here in this life to do: to love and to dream, to hope and to build. 

 


Balancing judgment with love

Have you ever been asked the question "if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island, what five books would you take with you?" One of mine would be Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. I reread that book each year at this season.

Here's a short quote from that book, talking about this week's Torah portion:

Parashat Shoftim... begins with what seems like a simple prescription for the establishment of a judicial system: 'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' But the great Hasidic Torah commentary, the Iturey Torah, read this passage as an imperative of a very different sort -- an imperative for a kind of inner mindfulness. According to the Iturey Torah, there are seven gates -- seven windows -- to the soul: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.

On a deep level, says Rabbi Lew, this passage has nothing to do with establishing a system of judges and courts. Rather, it's about mindfulness and teshuvah, that existential turning that's at the heart of this season.

'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' We can't always control what we see. Sometimes we see things we wish we could un-see, or hear things we wish we could un-hear. But we can make choices about how we respond to what we see and hear. Maybe there's political rhetoric this election season that upsets me, or someone in my sphere who's acting unfairly or unkindly. I can't un-hear the offending words or un-see the offending deeds, but I can choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself as I respond to what the world presents to me.

I can choose to cultivate lovingkindness. I can choose to cultivate good boundaries and to say "enough is enough." I can choose to cultivate the right balance between love and judgment. This Shabbat offers an opportunity to do precisely that.

Shabbat Shoftim -- "Shabbat of Judges" -- always falls during the first or second week of Elul. The moon of Elul is waxing now, and when it wanes we'll convene for Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy for that day describes God as the Judge before whom all living beings must appear. On that day the book of our lives will read from itself, reflecting the lines we've written over the last year with our words and our deeds, our actions and our inactions.

But before we get to Rosh Hashanah, we have three more weeks of Elul to go. Our sages read the name of this month as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." Before we stand before God as Judge, we have the opportunity to experience God as Beloved. Tradition teaches that this month God isn't in the Palace on high, but "in the fields" with us. We get to with the Source of All in the beautiful late summer meadows, talking with God the way one might talk to one's most dearly beloved friend.

Because here's the thing about your most dearly beloved friend, the person who loves you most in all the world: that person notices your flaws, sure, but they see your flaws in the context of your good sides. Your best qualities. Imagine someone who loves you so dearly that they can't help seeing everything that's best about you, every time they look at you. During this month of Elul, that's how God sees each of us. That's the backdrop against which the judgments of Rosh Hashanah take place.

This week's Torah portion instructs us to pursue justice, and it doesn't seem to be speaking only to those who do the work of justice for a living. This work falls to all of us. Pursuing justice, and engaging in the work of judgement and discernment, is on all of us. Where are we living up to our highest selves, and where are we falling short of our ideals? As the Iturey Torah asks, what do we want to let in through the gates of the senses, and what words and deeds and facial expressions do we want to let out?

And it's also our task to remember that we emulate God not only when we judge ourselves and others, but also when we cultivate love for ourselves and others -- in fact we are most like God davka (precisely) when we do both. Shabbat Shoftim always falls during this month of Elul, during this month of loving and being loved. The challenge is finding the right balance of love and judgment in every moment. It can be tempting to lean toward one and neglect the other, but that's a temptation we need to resist.

Balancing love and judgment is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If I bring nothing but chesed, abundant lovingkindness, to myself and to the world around me I am liable to spoil my child, turn a blind eye to unfairness, and let myself or others off the hook when I should be expecting better. If I bring nothing but gevurah, boundaries and strength, I am liable to be overly strict, to cross the line from discerning to judgmental, and castigate myself and others when I should be responding with gentleness. 

May this Shabbat Shoftim, this Shabbat of Judges, inspire us to balance our lovingkindness with good judgment, and to infuse our discernment with love.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered last night at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


The day before

Looking back on one's life is not always easy or comfortable. We all have places where we've missed the mark, relationships that fracture, missed opportunities and frustrations. But we also all have opportunities for gratitude, and we all have opportunities to effect repair.

This is a time of year Jewish tradition dedicates to introspection and repair. This weekend we usher in the new lunar month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus writes powerfully about this new month through the lens of psalm 27, the psalm tradition assigns to this time of year. That psalm makes use of a very powerful word: if. Rabbi David writes:

This “If I hadn’t” – if I myself hadn’t seen its goodness, I wouldn’t believe it! – in Hebrew is Lule (לוּלֵא), or literally Elul (אֵלוּל) backwards. This is big: Psalm 27 asks us to enter Elul walking backwards through the ifs – the longing and missed marks – of our messy lives. Psalm 27 asks us to see our ifs not as irretrievably missed opportunities of the past but precisely the opposite, as new possibilities for the future.... The painful ifs that most grab us now are our spiritual curriculum for the weeks ahead.

(Read the whole thing: "If!" -- Walking Backwards Into Elul.)

This morning I sat by the bedside of someone who is dying and we talked about precisely these things. About gratitudes after more than 90 years of life, and about regrets. About relationships in need of repair, and about the gifts of everyday living. Conversations like that one are profoundly humbling, and they remind me that the inner work of Elul is truly our work all year long.

Our sages say that we should make teshuvah -- we should re-align ourselves with our Source, return to our highest selves, turn toward the good and toward God -- the day before our death. Of course, none of us knows when that will be. In the case of the gentleman I visited today, the odds are pretty good that death will come sooner rather than later... but that could be true for any of us. 

It's the day before Elul. A month of introspection and repair awaits. Are you ready to do the inner work of looking at who you are and who you've been, where you've soared and where you've fallen short, where you need re-alignment in your relationships with yourself and your Source?  If you knew that you might die tomorrow, what changes would you want to make? What repair would you want to effect?

What are you waiting for?

 

 

Related: 


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.

Continue reading "The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776" »


Almost Yom Kippur

TeshuvahYom Kippur begins tonight at sundown. We'll wear white garments as a sign of purity, or as a reminder of our mortality. We'll eschew leather, choosing instead to symbolize our conscious vulnerability with soft canvas shoes. (More about both of those here if you are interested.) We'll go without food or drink for 24 hours, subsisting instead on song and praise. (That makes me think of the last time I was with my Jewish Renewal community...)

Yom Kippur is a day set aside from ordinary life -- like Shabbat, only more so. It's a day for reminding ourselves of what's most important. On Yom Kippur we remember that we will die, and we think about what changes we need to make in our lives so that when we do leave this life we will feel that we lived as righteously and as well and as meaningfully as we could. On Yom Kippur we set aside the needs of the body and focus instead on the needs of the soul.

Yom Kippur is a day for intense teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning-around, turning our lives around, turning to face God again, returning to who we most truly and deeply are. Some of us have been engaged in introspection and cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of the soul) since the start of Elul, the lunar month which preceded this one. Some of us have been doing that work since Rosh Hashanah. And some of us may begin doing that work on Yom Kippur, in what feels like the eleventh hour. It's never too late. The great 12th-century sage Rambam (also known as Maimonides) taught that one who makes teshuvah is more beloved to God than one who never messed up in the first place. He taught that one who makes teshuvah rises closer to God than one who has never sinned.

I love Yom Kippur. I have loved it ever since my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur retreat at the old Elat Chayyim, and that love was intensified through the years of Yom Kippur retreats which followed (until I was privileged to begin serving my shul.) I love Yom Kippur because the Zohar teaches that it is the day when God is closest to us and most available to us, when we can most powerfully create repair in our broken souls and in the broken world. I love Yom Kippur because it is a day dedicated to prayer, song, Torah, introspection, inner work -- things I love deeply, and on Yom Kippur I get to share them with others. I love Yom Kippur because it is always a journey, and I never know exactly what it's going to feel like, but I trust that I will emerge on the other side feeling emptied, opened, and purified.

May your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.


Seeking out the goodness: a teaching from Reb Nachman

You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it's your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

That's the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, as translated by Rabbi Art Green. It's one of my favorite teachings from Reb Nachman. My friend and colleague Maggid David Arfa brought it to the first meeting of my congregation's Hebrew school faculty this year, and he began the meeting by reading it to us. It's a text I've encountered many times before, and every time it speaks to me anew.

Honestly, even just the first sentence  -- dayenu, that could be enough for me to meditate on for a while. "You have to judge every person generously." That's a profound spiritual practice. It's easy to see my beloveds through generous eyes -- but someone who has upset me? Someone who has hurt me? Someone who did or said something I find reprehensible -- can I judge that one generously, too?

This is why the Psalmist said, "Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." (Psalms 37:10.) He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they're sinful as can be. By looking for that "little bit," the place however small within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) and by telling them, showing them, that that's who they are we can help them change their lives.

The spiritual practice is looking for that "little bit," the nitzotz Elohut (spark of godliness), in each human being. Every person has such a spark within them, and if I make a practice of trying to see people through generous eyes instead of through skeptical or mistrustful eyes, my very seeing of them will be transformative for them, and they will live out their best selves instead of their worst selves.

That's a powerful theological statement about the power of being truly seen. Imagine if everyone who looked at me saw in me the very best things I have done. Imagine if, looking at me, what you saw was me at my most compassionate, my most kind, my most caring. You wouldn't be able to  impute ill will to me, because you would see my best self... and as a result, my best self would continue to manifest.

Even the person you think (and he agrees!) is completely rotten -- how is it possible that at some point in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is to look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way. Then indeed you will "look at his place" and find that the wicked one is no longer there -- not because she has died or disappeared -- but because, with your help, she will no longer be where you first saw her. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed teshuvah to take its course.

Even someone I think is completely beyond the pale. Even someone who has hurt me profoundly. Even someone who doesn't see the goodness in her or his own self! My task is to seek to see the goodness in that person, and in so doing, to erase my sense of their wickedness or their hurtfulness. My task is to see them anew, because when I see them anew, they become the way I newly see them.

It's a leap of faith. There's a defensive part of me which wants to say, "wait a minute -- how does that work -- surely it can't be true that if I just try to see someone through good eyes, they become their best selves in response to my seeing!" But I think that very defensiveness is a sign that Reb Nachman is on to something. And his wisdom here requires us to take on some substantial spiritual work.

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them -- now go do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: "Take great care: be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression." I've said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. "No goodness at all," you find. "Just full of sin." Watch out for Old Man Gloom, my friend, the one who wants to push you down. This is one of his best tricks. That's why I said: "Now go do it for yourself as well." You too must have done some good for someone sometime. Now go look for it!

I love the turn he takes at the end of this teaching. "Now that you've found some good even in a person who is difficult for you, don't forget to turn those same positive eyes on yourself!" It's a useful thing to read before Yom Kippur, at this time of teshuvah, of taking an accounting of which relationships need repair. It's easy to look at what's broken or damaged and blame myself for what needs re-aligning.

But Reb Nachman says: ah-ah, not so fast. I too merit the same generous eye with which he teaches me to seek to view others. The work of cheshbon ha-nefesh, of taking an accounting of the soul, isn't meant to make us feel bad about ourselves. (And neither is Yom Kippur, for the record.) It's meant to help us illuminate our innate goodness, so that we can enter into teshuvah with rejoicing.

 

 

I blogged about this same text in 2006.

 


The Shabbat of Return

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul...

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, "the Shabbat of Return." This Shabbat invites us to come home to our deepest selves. To join together in that existential move of teshuvah: turning ourselves around, returning to who we most deeply yearn to be.

On one level this season -- especially these Ten Days of Teshuvah -- is a time for taking stock of who we are and repenting for our missteps. We ask forgiveness from those whom we've wronged. We try to learn how to forgive ourselves for the places where we've fallen short or missed the mark.

On a deeper level this season -- especially these Ten Days -- is a time for making teshuvah for our distance from God, our distance from our own souls, our distance from love and from holiness and from our deepest yearnings. Shabbat Shuvah is a time to re/turn to God. To re/turn to ourselves.

What do you yearn for? From what wholeness do you feel exiled? What part of yourself have you been denying? This Shabbat is time to come home. Come home to the Source of All. Come home to your own soul. No matter how far away you feel, you can always return. You can always come home.


On meteors, the night sky, and seeing ourselves in a new light - thoughts for Elul

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A few nights ago a friend reminded us that the Perseid meteors were going to be visible. So around 9pm we turned off all of our lights and went outside and lay on our backs on the deck and stared up at the sky. I knew it would take a while for my eyes to adjust.

From the moment I looked up at the heavens I was awestruck by the sheer number of stars. And I thought to myself: even if I don't see any meteors, dayenu, it's enough, because this is so beautiful. And then I saw one streak across the sky, and it was amazing.

I know that we are blessed to live in a place that doesn't have a lot of "light pollution" -- where we can turn off our lights and really see the night sky. And I know that the reason the stars were so visible is that there was almost no moon.

Because this weekend is Rosh Chodesh -- new moon. Now the moon starts growing again. This is one of the things I love about being attuned to the Jewish calendar: it means I'm also always attuned to the phases of the moon as she waxes and wanes.

The moon will grow for two weeks, and shrink for two weeks, and the next new moon is Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, also known as Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is four weeks from this Sunday. Maybe for some of you that doesn't sound like a big deal. So what? You're not writing sermons or preparing services, so does it really make a difference to you? I want to say today that it can make a difference -- and I hope that it will.

Our tradition teaches that this is a month during which we should deepen our spiritual practices, whatever they may be. This is a month for spiritual preparation, a month during which we look back on the year now ending. Who have you been, since last Rosh Hashanah?

What are you proud of, and what do you feel ashamed of? When were you the best self you know how to be, and when did you fall short? How's your relationship with God these days -- whatever that word or idea means to you?

If we spend these next four weeks in introspection, discerning where we may have mis-stepped and where we forged a wise path, then when we get to Rosh Hashanah we'll experience those two days of prayer and song and story in a different way.

If we spend these next four weeks rekindling our spiritual practices -- be they yoga, or meditation, or prayer, or walking in the woods -- then when we metaphorically call up God on Rosh Hashanah we won't need to be afraid of hearing, "it's been a whole year -- nu, you don't write, you don't call...!"

One Hasidic teaching holds that Elul is the time when "the King is in the fields" -- when God leaves the divine palace on high and enters creation to walk with us in the meadows and listen to the deepest yearnings of our hearts. God is extra-available to us this month. What do we most need to say?

BlogElul+5776Another Hasidic teaching points out that the name of this month, Elul, can be read as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי / Ani l'dodi v'dodi li -- "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine." The Beloved, in this context, is God. We belong to God, and God belongs to us, and what connects us is love.

The stars are there every night, but we can only see them when there are no clouds and when the moon has dwindled. The opportunity to do the work of teshuvah, repentance / return, is there all year long -- but some seasons of the year offer us special opportunities to see ourselves in a new light.

This is a time of month when the night sky is filled with tiny lights. And this is a time of year when we can open our hearts and souls to the light of God's presence as we do the work of discernment and transformation. Imagine what we might see in ourselves if we take the time to let our eyes adjust.

Here's to a meaningful Elul.

This is the d'var Torah (really more of a word about the season) which I offered at my shul yesterday. It's also my offering for the first day of #blogElul. I'm not committing to posting something daily for #blogElul this year, but here's an offering for day 1.


See me: poems for Elul

In fall of 2014 I participated again in #blogElul, posting each day on themes relating to teshuvah (repentance / return) and inner growth during the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Last year, for the first time, I wrote poems in response to each of the 29 prompts.

As a working rabbi, I tend to find Elul pretty busy. But these poems poured out of me. Writing them gave me a touchstone, a sustaining thread of spiritual practice, which helped me connect with my own inner work even as I was preparing for the High Holidays in a practical way.

After the month was over I took some time to let the poems rest, and then returned to them with an eye to revising and improving them. I shared them with some trusted readers. And now I am delighted to be able to share them once again with you -- now in printed and bound form, and also as an e-book.

SeeMe-frontcover

See me: Elul poems

The lunar month of Elul (leading up to the Days of Awe / Jewish high holidays) is a time for self-examination, contemplation, and the inner work of teshuvah, repentance or return. Here are 29 poems, one for each day of Elul, which aim to open the reader up to awe, reflection, and the spiritual experience of being truly seen.

Print edition: $10 on Amazon | £6.25 on Amazon.co.uk | €7.98 on Amazon Europe

E-book edition: $6 on Amazon |  £4.07 on Amazon.co.uk | €5.72 on Amazon Europe

(And if you buy the print edition, you can add the digital edition for 99 cents.)

 

If you are at ALEPH's Ruach Ha'Aretz summer retreat this week, you can buy this book at the shuk! Copies of my collection of Torah poems, 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) are also available at the Ruach shuk.

Elul doesn't begin until mid-August, but I wanted to share word of this collection now. Feel free to buy it for yourself, or for a friend, as an early Elul present! I'll  post about it again as that lunar month approaches. (And if you lose track of this post, you can always find See Me: Elul Poems listed on the chapbooks page of my website.)


Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah

For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity...

These are the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, in my favorite book to reread at this time of year -- This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

For ten days -- ten magical days -- the aseret y'mei teshuvah, "ten days of teshuvah" -- we inhabit a liminal space, a space of in-between-ness. We have entered the Days of Awe through the gate of Rosh Hashanah; we will exit them through the gate of Yom Kippur; but for now, we float in the middle.

For now, if we are fortunate, the experience of Rosh Hashanah (or the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah or the Torah reading or the experience of being with family and friends or the experience of not being with family and friends) has opened something up in us.

If we are fortunate, we are having moments of wakefulness, moments of realizing oh my goodness, this is my life, this is the only life I have. Moments of feeling the urgent tug toward change. Moments of knowing that whoever we have been, whoever we think we are, is not the only way for us to be.

Continue reading "Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah" »


The sweetness of honey; the gates, open

15345560796_e8d6443d17_nAs a child, I loved being able to drizzle my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey. I remember eating leftover challah toast with honey on the mornings right after the holiday. The golden honey pooling on the rich white bread always seemed deliciously decadent, especially in our Pritikin household. I knew that the honey was a kind of prayer -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." (That's what's behind the custom of dipping apples or challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah.)

But I thought that was a one-time thing. Honey on challah, honey on apples: we ate those on the holiday itself, and then maybe for a few days until the Rosh Hashanah challot were nothing but crumbs. I didn't learn until I was in my mid-thirties that there are customs of continuing to eat honey on one's challah, and praying for a year of sweetness, until Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret means "the pause of the eighth day." It's the 8th day of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when (tradition says) after we've lived seven days in our sukkot, God murmurs "this has been so sweet; don't go yet; linger just a little longer?" So we stick around and celebrate one more day of festival together. And though we read during the closing service of Yom Kippur that "the gates (of repentance) are closing," some hold that they remain open until we reach Shemini Atzeret. Hence the tradition of continuing to put honey on our challah all the way until then.

I love the feeling of urgency which comes during the last service of Yom Kippur. The day is almost over; the long day of fasting and prayer and song is almost gone; and what has it gained me? Have I gone deep enough into the liturgy and into my own heart and soul? Is it going to change me? I want to be compassionate and kind to everyone I meet, I want to be mindful -- but have I done the inner work I need to do? The gates are closing, the liturgy tells us. The day is passing. We pray the whole closing service with the doors of the aron kodesh, the holy ark which contains our Torah scrolls, open to remind us that the gates are open and the way to God is open. The sun goes and turns.  Let us enter Your gates!

I appreciate that urgency. (I think I need it. Every year when we reach Ne'ilah, that closing service, it lifts me to a place I couldn't have reached otherwise.) But I also appreciate the teaching that the gates remain open during this whole holiday season -- that we can still sweeten our bread with honey, an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come, until Sukkot is drawing to its close. Even after the dramatic end of Yom Kippur with its long and piercing tekiah gedolah, the gate of teshuvah (repentance / return) remains open to us.

When we make teshuvah, we sweeten the year to come. Not because we gain any control over what's ahead, but because we've created a shift in ourselves which will allow us to experience more sweetness. That's the message I hear in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we sing on the days of awe each year. Who will be contented, and who will be restless? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? We can't know what the new year will hold. But when we practice teshuvah, tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (giving to others), we can ameliorate whatever is to come, because we create change in ourselves. We can't change what will be, but we can change how we experience whatever comes our way.

Of course, teshuvah doesn't happen only during this time of year. Teshuvah can be an every day journey, an every-week journey, an every-month journey. And I believe that God is always waiting with open arms, ready to welcome us with love, any time we turn away from our misdeeds and try to orient ourselves in the right direction again. Our liturgy teaches that "we are loved by unending love," and that's always true, not only during the holidays.

So what does it mean to say that the "gates" are open, or closing, or closed? Maybe the gates are our own. Maybe they are the gates of the season. Once we make it to the end of Sukkot, we will be spiritually worn-out from the intense emotions and intensive holiday journey of this time of year. We will need to close the door on this chapter and move into what's coming. We can't live all year in this state of heightened intensity. We are the ones who close the gates.

The gates which are now open are the gates of our hearts and souls. What do we want to draw forth from ourselves as we move through these gates? When the time comes for us to close the gates on this season, who do we want to have become?


Returning in love: short thoughts on Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Here's the brief d'var Torah I offered at yesterday morning's Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

If you only take one thing away from this morning's Torah reading, let it be this: that teshuvah is a two-partner dance, and that God is always ready to turn to us in love.

This week's Torah portion speaks in terms of blessings and curses. We might call those "good outcomes" and "bad outcomes." We know that our choices come with consequences, and that sometimes our poor choices lead us to unpleasant consequences. And we know that sometimes we receive outcomes we didn't wish for, even when we've chosen as wisely as we could.

Torah teaches that when we consciously choose a life of mitzvot, connective-commandments, blessings will be open to us. This doesn't mean that if we abide by the mitzvot then nothing painful will ever happen to us. But it could mean that if we weave the mitzvot into our daily lives and into our practice, we'll have more resiliency when the painful outcomes happen, as they sometimes do.

And Torah teaches that when we make teshuvah and turn-toward-God, God is always already turning-toward-us in return, with love.

We've all had the experience of hurting someone's feelings, and then feeling reluctant to apologize for fear of how that person might react to seeing us again. People are complicated. Sometimes we respond from a place of reactivity. But the guiding force of the universe isn't like that. When we make teshuvah, says this Torah portion, God responds to us in love.

If you've paid attention to the Torah readings we've been encountering over the course of this whole year, you might feel inclined to argue with that. It's true that in Torah, God does not always seem to respond with love. Personally, I think that one of the things we see in Torah is the children of Israel learning how to be a people, and God learning how to be our God.

Like any new parent, God seems to respond out of anger sometimes. But if we remember that the name God gives to Moshe at the burning bush is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming," maybe that can help us understand God as constantly growing and changing. God is in the very process of growth and change.

Here is one thing I know for sure: ahavat olam, neverending love, is an essential part of God. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that we read this portion each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, precisely at the time when we might be getting most anxious about our journey of teshuvah. "Don't worry," the Torah seems to be telling us. "It's going to be okay. God will greet you with love, no matter what."

On the heels of that teaching comes one of my very favorite passages in the whole Torah:

11Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

This mitzvah, this connection, this instruction, is not beyond us. It doesn't require us to be someone that we're not. It doesn't demand that we change altogether before we even attempt to take it on. This is a mitzvah which is already sweet in our mouths, already encoded in our beating hearts. Place two fingers on a pulse point and feel for your heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub: you turning toward God, God turning toward you. You reaching out, God reaching back.

Make teshuvah. Turn in the right direction again. Align yourself with your highest dreams and hopes. And you will be received with infinite, neverending love.


Ki Tetzei: on right relationship with each other

Here's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday. (More or less -- when I offered it aloud, I extemporized and added some bits, but this is where it started out.) (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


 

This week's Torah portion is filled with instructions. Here are some of them which speak most to me this year (lightly paraphrased):

If someone works for you, pay them right away. You never know when someone might need payment desperately. Don't shame them by making them ask.

This is a time of year when requests for dues abatements and Hebrew school tuition abatements come across my desk. These verses in Torah remind me how important it is to respond to these requests lovingly.

If someone's children misbehave, try not to judge the parents. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Parenting can be difficult.

If someone's parents have done wrong, try not to judge the children. We are not responsible for the actions of those who came before us.

When the Torah speaks of not putting people to death for the sins of their parents or children, I hear a message about the importance of responding to people with generosty of spirit.

Maintain perspective about the difference between wants and needs. Remember that you don't need to own everything. Practice sufficiency.

Whatever abundance comes your way, be sure to share it. Cultivate a sense of trust in the universe which will allow you to give freely.

Though most of us no longer have fields or vineyards in which those who are hungry may glean, we can still choose to share with others, and to train ourselves to trust that we don't need to hold on to everything for ourselves.

Always remember the hard places and tight straits which you have known, and let those memories impel you to kindness and generosity.

We're almost halfway through with the month of Elul. This is the month during which we prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe. This is a time of teshuvah, the spiritual work of re-orienting ourselves in the right direction again.

One tradition teaches that we should seek to repair our relationships with each other during Elul, so that during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we can focus on repairing our relationship with our Source.

The mitzvot enumerated in this week's Torah portion are mitzvot bein adam l'chavero, mitzvot between people. Directions for right action in our relationships with each other.

May we be strengthened in our intentions and in our practice. May these mitzvot become engrained in us, engraved in us, channels through which our behaviors naturally flow. Kein yehi ratzon.

 


A poem for #blogElul 11: Count

Blogelul2014-1COUNT (ELUL 11)



September ticks by. Count
your way through. It's time
to get the year's bill, measure
what the soul has spent. Turn
over your hands, see each day
marked on your palms anew.

Remember sharpened pencils, new
backpacks, how you would count
the hours of school's first day?
When we learn to resent time
an Eden is lost, a turn
we can't undo or measure.

Now how do you measure
your heart's response to new
beginnings? And in turn
do you remember to count
kindness given or received, time
to pause and breathe each day?

This is the day
that God has made: let us measure
ourselves against the marks time
has drawn on the doorframe. New
means that "before" doesn't count:
consult the old maps, turn

toward your yearnings. Return
to a clean slate each day.
Stop, this instant, to count
blessings. Who could measure
the gift of your body made new,
trees shifting colors, time

eddying like a river? It's time
to forgive yourself. Turn
around and make it new.
The sages say repent the day
before death, but who can measure
what's left in the glass? Count

your time a gift every day.
Turn toward mercy. Take the measure
of your soul anew. Make it count.


Today's poem takes me back to one of my favorite poetic forms, the sestina. (There's a whole sestina category at this blog, because I've posted so many of them over the years.) This form, which relies on six repeated end-words, seemed appropriate for today's prompt.

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.


New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah

Last spring, just before Shavuot, I brought two classical midrash about the giving of the Torah at Sinai to my Hebrew school class, and one of my students made some fannish connections.

Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. (Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

I brought this midrash to my class, and one of my bar mitzvah students -- a big fan of the television show Doctor Who -- raised his hand and said, "It's like the TARDIS was there, translating!" I knew exactly what he meant.

TardisWith some prompting he explained to the class that the TARDIS is a time machine. It appears to be an iconic blue police box, though it is famously "bigger on the inside." And it contains a translation circuit which ensures that no matter where or when its inhabitants travel, everyone can be understood. I told him I thought that drawing an analogy to the TARDIS was an interesting way to think about the teaching that everyone heard Torah in a language they could understand. The tradition also teaches that "Torah has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Arguably the Torah too is "bigger on the inside" -- always containing more than we imagined.

Then we moved to the second midrash I had brought:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. At the Red Sea God appeared to them as a mighty man waging their wars, at Sinai God appeared to them as a teacher, as one who stands upright in awe when teaching Torah; in the days of Daniel, God appeared to them as an elder teaching Torah, for the Torah is at its best when it comes from the mouths of old men; in the days of Solomon God appeared to them as a young man in keeping with the youthful spirit of Solomon’s generation. At Sinai, then, when God said, I am Adonai Your God, appropriately God appeared to them as a teacher teaching Torah. (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 12)

This, too, made my student think of the Doctor, because the Doctor also appears in different guises at different times: young and old, warrior and scholar. He was so enthusiastic about drawing out these lines of inquiry that I promised him that he could speak about this at his bar mitzvah if he were willing to do a bit of extra learning with me, a bargain which he eagerly accepted.

As I worked with him over the summer on his d'var Torah ("word of Torah" -- the spoken-word teaching he would offer at his bar mitzvah which would relate Torah and Jewish tradition to his own life), we talked both about how he understood his Torah portion and its relevance to his life, and about how these midrash evoke his favorite pop culture hero. (Of course we also talked about how Jewish understandings of God are different from the Doctor, because that matters too.) When he spoke from the bimah, he spoke about his Torah portion; about his participation in one of our congregation's social action projects; and about how he related Doctor Who to his understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Continue reading "New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah" »


Reparations and teshuvah

I want to call your attention to a remarkable essay published last week in the Atlantic, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called The Case for Reparations. It is long, and it is tremendously worthwhile. Here is one very brief quote, to pique your interest:

Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

Once you've read it, I commend to you the following specifically Jewish responses:

Ask yourself | Jewschool. "Once you read this very long piece (very long but read it) and nod to the facts and shake your head at the horrific racism at all levels most likely, most probably, you will think: But my family didn’t live in the U.S. when it engaged in slavery. But that doesn’t matter. Anyone living in the United States benefits from the economic realities built on slavery. Every white person has been enriched by the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and Federally insured lending practices. This goes well beyond being afraid anytime the police stop you or having people cross to the other side of the street when you pass at night."

 The Jewish Case for Reparations -- to Blacks by Emily L. Hauser in the Jewish Daily Forward. "In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet... We learn in Pirkei Avot that while we aren’t required to complete the task of righteousness, neither are we free to desist from it. Otherwise, we run the risk of (in Coates’s words) 'ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.'"

Late in the essay, Coates writes:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

Coates is calling us to a process of what my tradition calls teshuvah -- the internal work of discernment, atonement, and creating change.

I hope his essay sparks a major American communal conversation. And I especially hope that it sparks a conversation in the American Jewish community (or, more accurately, American Jewish communities -- we are many and varied!) about racism, about our complicity in racist systems, and about teshuvah.