At the start of this week's Torah portion, God says to Avram,
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
Lech-lecha / go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ / Lech-lecha -- can you hear the same sound twice there? That could be translated as "Go, really go!" Or we could translate it as, "Go from yourself," or "Go for yourself." In this verse, God is inviting Avram into a journey. It's a journey of growing up: it's time for him to leave his father's house and become his own person. It's a journey of discovery: figuring out who he is and who he's going to become. It's a literal journey of exploring new territory, and at the same time, an internal journey of becoming.
In this week's Torah portion God and Avram enter into a brit, a covenant -- a sacred agreement. God gives him a new name, Avraham, and promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. God promises to be in relationship with Avraham and his descendants, always. God promises that though Avraham's descendants will go down into Mitzrayim, God will lift us out of that Narrow Place. In return, Avraham gets instructions about mitzvot, commandments. Those are our part of the brit.
Toward the end of this week's Torah portion, God says to Avraham,
הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים
Walk in My ways and be tamim. (Gen. 17:1)
The word תָמִֽים / tamim can be translated as blameless, or pure, or whole, or perfect. A few verses later God gives the mitzvah of brit milah, so a lot of commentators say that that mitzvah is how we become "perfect." But Rashi (d. 1105) thinks God is saying, "walk in My ways and be wholehearted, even when life is difficult and you feel like I am testing you." And Ramban (d.1270) points out that לְפָנַ֖י / l'fanai means, "before Me." For him, the verse is God's way of saying, "follow the path that I will show you."
What does it mean to walk in God's ways, or to follow God's path? I think it means listening for that inner voice that says לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ / lech-lecha -- go forth, always keep learning and growing, life is a journey. It means choosing a life of mitzvot, and doing our best to follow that path with all our hearts. This is what it means to be a Jew: we're always learning and growing, we're always going forth into something new. The mitzvot are our roadmap, our way of walking, and they're our end of our covenant with God.
These two instructions are like bookends, and here's the other thing I notice this year. At the start of the parsha, God says "Go forth to the place that I will show you." In the beginning, God is showing us the way. God isn't a person who has a body, but it's as though God were walking in front of us. And at the end, God says הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י / hithalech l'fanai, "walk before Me" -- now we're taking the lead and God is our backup. God is letting us chart the course, and trusting us to know where and how to go.
This is what a good parent does. First, a good parent shows their child where to go and how to be. Here's the the map, these are the instructions, this is how to keep your spiritual life flowing and how to be an ethical person in the world. And then, as the child matures and becomes ready to make informed choices, it's the parent's job to step back and let their kid lead the way. Not stepping too far back -- still there to offer support or guidance -- but giving the kid an opportunity to make choices and to shine.
This is the d'varling I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
I have to be my own Jewish mother
even without a stainless soup pot.
No: I need to be
a better mother to myself --
one who wouldn't say
"put on a happy face!"
Reasons to weep
are as numerous as the stars.
Every bodyworker knows
the muscle that cries out
is the victim: something else
has tightened into immobility.
But when it's the heart
that cries out --
how can I delaminate
years of fused-together sorrows?
I had hopes of working on a new poem during Shabbat, but my body had other plans. I spent most of Shabbat lying on a heating pad, remembering that when the sciatica flares up, poetry is hard to come by.
The world becomes very immediate. Past and future both recede. I'm firmly in the now of pressing into the heating pad in hopes that spasming muscles and pinched nerve will yield into release.
I remember an on-call shift when I was doing my chaplaincy training some fifteen years ago now. I was having an allergic reaction to a drug I didn't yet know I shouldn't take, and as a result I was unwell.
In those pre-parenthood days, sleep wasn't so precious. I used to stay awake on hospital overnights. They were my opportunity to tend to people, and I didn't want to miss anyone who might need me.
So when my pager buzzed, I would go where it called. And when no one had an emergency need, I would just make my rounds again. Visit the ED again, or one of the ICUs. Someone always needed an ear.
I remember how humbling it was to discover that I couldn't walk the hospital halls in search of people in crisis. Instead I held still on the twin bed in the chaplain's room, praying no one would need me.
I'm thankful that no one needed me yesterday. I'm working on being thankful that my body is reminding me that I need to make time to stretch. This Shabbat was for gentle yoga and for lying very still.
In the beginning, or in a beginning, or as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, everything was תוהו ובוהו / tohu va-vohu / chaos and void, and the breath of God hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. And God said יהי אור / y'hi or / let there be light, and there was light...
Over the summer, my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz pointed out something I had never noticed about this verse. Before creation, there was already תוהו ובוהו / chaos. The first act of creation, יהי אור / let there be light is an act of gevurah, differentiating between light and darkness, between one thing and another. But before the beginning, before that act of distinction, chaos already was.
Here we are beginning again. Beginning a new year. Beginning a new Torah reading cycle. And I'm feeling a certain resonance with chaos right now. Maybe you are too.
There's a certain scrambled feeling that comes with making it through the holiday season. We've just gone from Elul to Rosh Hashanah to the Ten Days of Teshuvah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah and whoosh, where did the last six weeks go, what day is it, who am I again? That one happens every year, but that doesn't make it any less real.
There's also a unique scrambled feeling arising for many of us this year in particular. There was the pandemic, obviously, and then last spring as vaccines became available we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don't need to belabor, it's increasingly clear that we're once again in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet. There was the election, and then there was January 6, and then maybe we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don't need to belabor, it's increasingly clear that we're still in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet.
תוהו ובוהו: a mess, empty and upside-down, "in a chaotic state." Does that feel to you like it describes the reality of the last year? Yeah, me too. And we're not alone. My colleague Rabbi Michael Latz, in Minneapolis, calls this last year "immense tohu va-vohu." Not just chaos, but immense chaos. Sounds about right.
How do we begin again from this place?
I think this morning's Torah verses offer a blueprint. Yes, everything is chaos. So what does God do? God draws a boundary. And God speaks light into being.
New beginnings take gevurah. They always have, ever since The Beginning.
What boundary do we need to draw between the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us, and the new beginning that we're called to create? What boundary do we need to draw between ourselves and the relentless bad news and drumbeat of news coverage? (Here's a thought: how can keeping Shabbat help us draw that boundary?) What boundary do we need to draw around behaviors -- our own behaviors that maybe don't serve us well going forward, or the behaviors that we as individuals and as a community deem unacceptable?
Without a boundary, without gevurah, everything is s תוהו ובוהו / chaos.
And then what light can we speak into being? Every morning we bless God Who speaks the world into being. Our sages point out that we who are made in the Divine image and likeness can also speak worlds into being. Okay, I can't say "let there be coffee" and cause the coffee to manifest in my hand like Janet from The Good Place. But our words shape realities. Our words impact other people. Our words impact our own internal landscape, too. We can choose to use our words to bring light and uplift and hope, or to perpetuate chaos and falsehood and despair.
This week we begin again. The world begins again. Our story begins again. May we begin the new year the way God begins creation: with gevurah, and with words chosen to bring light into dark places and uplift to counter despair. As my friend and colleague R. Mark Asher Goodman writes,
God made meaning out of the chaos -- something beautiful and wonderful -- and we who are created in the image of God can do the same.
Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so.
This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Beginning / created God. See Genesis 1:1. The opening words of Torah can be rendered as "In the beginning, God created," or "With the quality of beginning, God created," or "In a beginning, God created..." In Hebrew syntax, the words appear in the order beginning, created, God.
The chaos / that preceded/creation. See Genesis 1:2. Tohu va-vohu can be rendered as "unformed and void," or "wild and waste" -- in a word, the chaos that preceded order.
Write poetry instead of doomscrolling, I said to myself, and this poem is what happened. From the chaos of this political moment, will light emerge?
It's time to bring the potted plants indoors.
It's time to find the wooden crate of socks
and figure out which ones are pairs. To use
the bundt pan Mona handed down to me
for apple cake; to look up how I roasted
delicata squash last year. It's time
to pause the New York Times again, to frame
the tweet from Kelli Agodon that says,
"Write poetry instead of doomscrolling."
It's time to take the sukkah down, return
the decorations to their bin, and watch
crabapples reddening across the field.
It's time to place my trust in what endures,
seek sleepy comfort in the growing dark.
Apple cake. Apples and honey are a symbolic food at the Jewish new year. (I'm partial to Deb's mom's apple cake.)
The tweet from Kelli Agodon. See it here.
What endures. See my most recent blog post.
The view from inside my sukkah.
Sitting in my sukkah this year, I've been thinking a lot about what endures. That might seem counterintuitive: after all, a sukkah is the opposite of that. It's temporary structure. Its roof is made from organic matter, casting some shade but also letting in the raindrops and the light of the full harvest moon. A sukkah begins falling apart almost as soon as it is built. And yet...
And yet the sukkah will be rebuilt, next year. And the year after. The practice is perennial. When I sit in my sukkah on my mirpesset, drinking coffee and lifting my etrog to my face to inhale its scent, I remember every year I have ever sat in a sukkah. I think of generations before me who built sukkot. I imagine the generations after me who will do the same.
I like to imagine our descendants figuring out how to observe Sukkot in the stars someday, in the science-fiction future where we emigrate to other planets. What would it be like to build a sukkah on the decks of a starship? To build a sukkah on another planet? How will our relationship to our ancient stories and practices shift in those imagined future generations?
Closer to home, and far more sobering, is the question of how Judaism will adapt to our changing planet as the climate crisis intensifies. How will our practices shift as our planet warms? Sukkot reminds us of the impermanence of our structures, metaphysically and spiritually, but how could I say that to those who have lost their homes to wildfire and hurricane?
One morning in the sukkah this year our conversation veered into American politics. I used to believe that the structures of democracy would protect us from demagogues. I thought it was generally accepted that government's function is to serve everyone, to protect the vulnerable, to ensure and uphold human rights and dignity. That structure feels fragile now.
The American experiment is only a few centuries old -- an eyeblink in the span of human history. It may prove to be temporary. Some argue that it's already over, that our constitutional crisis is already here and democracy as we have known it is already falling to gerrymandering, insurrection, cult of personality, and the terrible persistence of the Big Lie.
I think of the later stories in Ursula K. Le Guin's Orsinian tales, where her fictional European country has become an Eastern Bloc nation. In those stories the government can't be trusted. Privations are the norm. And yet people continue to live and love, even when multiple families share a single apartment, even under surveillance. Isn't that what human beings do?
And that brings me back to the sukkah. Jews have built sukkot in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of places, under all kinds of regimes. (We celebrated Sukkot during World War I. We celebrated Sukkot in the Warsaw Ghetto...) Each individual sukkah is temporary and fragile, but the practice endures. The mitzvot, both spiritual and ethical, endure. And so do we.
Last year my Yom Kippur sermon was about our obligation to take care of each other. Whether or not the world is falling down around our ears, our task is to protect the vulnerable, to give aid to those in need, to help each other hope, to build a better world. To feed the hungry. To find housing for the homeless. To raise the next generation to be ethical and kind...
Love endures. Hope endures, even though we have to help each other cultivate it. Our obligations to each other endure -- some even say, from one lifetime to the next. Our spiritual practices endure, no matter what the future holds. And right now, the leaves on the roof of my sukkah are rustling, and I know that Sukkot will come again: the cycles of time endure.
From A Hallel for Sukkot, written in 2016 but still resonating for me. (I hope you'll click through and read the whole thing.)
Chag sameach, friends.
When I remember Yom Kippur in my childhood, I remember stiffly-ironed fancy autumn clothes, usually far too hot for south Texas in September. I remember running around the Conservative shul of my early childhood with friends, wearing dresses and tights and black patent Mary Janes, and (re)discovering that the water fountains were turned off because the grown-ups were fasting.
I remember my mother in the car, using a spritz of Binaca to sweeten her breath before going into shul. She was fasting, of course; all the adults fasted, and my Russian grandfather broke his fast with a shot of vodka. But minty breath spray didn't count as breaking the fast, for her. It was just part of ordinary hygiene. She'd offer it to me, too. I remember the scent, the taste of Binaca on my tongue.
On erev Rosh Hashanah this year I was thinking of mom. I went over to the oval mirrored tray ringed with a gilded frame where I keep the cosmetics I never use. One of the items on that tray is a bottle of Bal à Versailles, my mother's perfume. I dabbed it on my pulse points at wrists and neck. Suddenly I was a child again, perched in my mother's dressing room watching her put on makeup before going out.
Scent telescopes time. I let my thumbnail lightly indent this year's etrog, and breathe deep. It's every etrog I've ever held in my hand, the spicy scent linking the sukkah I'll use tonight with every other sukkah I've ever had. I didn't grow up with a sukkah. I love the fact that my kid is growing up with one. His memories will include this little house bedecked with autumn garlands, fragrant with citrus scent.
The day after Yom Kippur I always feel pleasantly wrung-out. If I was able to do my job right, I emptied myself out so that I could be an open channel -- so that music and presence and Presence could flow through me. A friend asked yesterday how I do it. "It's like you're running a marathon, with no food or drink, and with only half a lung!" (That last part is an overstatement, though I continue to navigate some pulmonary challenges this year.) I answered honestly that I don't know how I do it either, and maybe the answer is that "I" am not doing it -- that presence I name as God is doing it through me. I'm just the conduit.
The day after Yom Kippur I work from home. I am slowly tidying the chaos that accrued during these Days of Awe -- taking out the recycling, putting my holiday whites into the laundry -- in between answering congregant emails and scheduling pastoral meetings for next week. I'm grounding myself with physical actions: combining cumin and coriander and cardamom and cayenne and smoked paprika with olive oil and lemon juice to slather on the shawarma now in my slow cooker, carrying Yom Kippur materials back upstairs to my home office so they're no longer cluttering every surface in my living room.
The day after Yom Kippur I recognize that I am getting older. Last night I kept being awakened by foot and leg cramps, leftovers from the 25 hours without water. (Yes, Mom, I hydrated beforehand.) The white canvas shoes that I've worn on this day for years have no arch support, and I'm feeling that now. I think next year I'll need something different, or maybe inserts, I don't know. My voice held up beautifully yesterday, though by the end of the day my asthma was acting up, and today I'm noticing that my chest gets tight after even minor activity. That's okay. It's a good reminder to me to be gentle with myself today.
The day after Yom Kippur, Shabbat is coming. Last night after havdalah, I sang (to the tune of "Shavua Tov") "Tomorrow's Friday -- it's almost Shabbes -- what even is time," and everyone laughed. Yesterday was Shabbat Shabbaton, Shabbat squared, and now it's about to be Shabbes again? Time feels out of joint, somehow. And oh, I am so grateful for this Shabbes even so. I even cancelled a social commitment for tomorrow afternoon. I think that after all of those words and melodies and actions and outpouring-of-self, what I need is restorative quiet, and and a good book, and time to pet my cat, and maybe a nap.
Earlier this summer, I copied down a Chinese proverb, though an internet search suggests that this many not actually come to us from China after all! But the words resonate with me regardless: "Keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come."
(Image source: madebychook.)
Keep a green bough in your heart; the singing bird will come. Or as we heard from Mariame Kaba on Rosh Hashanah, hope is a discipline.
It feels like an apt seasonal teaching as we approach the autumn equinox and the darker months of the year. It feels even more like an apt spiritual teaching, especially in the midst of pandemic, in times when it feels like our certainties are shifting beneath our feet.
Making a space for hope in our hearts is a practice, which is to say, it takes work. We need to till the soil, plant the tree, keep the tree alive, and then the bird will come with exquisite liquid song. Hope doesn't come because we're lucky. Hope comes when we make a space for it.
It takes strength -- gevurah -- to cultivate that space in our hearts, especially when the news makes us want to close our hearts tight against anticipated loss and even against each other. It takes strength to have the vision of the singing bird that isn't yet here, the hope that we may not yet feel, the healing that isn't yet.
In this morning's Torah reading we heard רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם / "See, I place before you today..." Yom Kippur calls us to see what has not yet come to pass -- because our choices will determine which future we enter. We get to choose curses or blessings, hardened hearts or opened ones, despair or hope.
In a sense, the whole of 5782 is an opportunity to pause and see what isn't here yet.
Torah teaches that every seventh year should be a shmita year: a year-long Shabbat for the land. We'll learn more about that later this year (so stay tuned for updates on study and action opportunities this winter and spring). As the climate crisis intensifies, how will our choices and our policies and our culture lead us to care for our planet? How can we not only keep a green bough in our hearts, but also preserve and protect the ecosystems of our planet... especially now, when everything feels so broken -- when everything is so broken?
Our mystics teach that at the first moment of creation, there was breaking. God's infinite light was too powerful to be contained. The initial vessels created to hold that light didn't have enough structural integrity, enough gevurah, and they shattered. So God tried again, and the second time, creation "held"... but shards of those broken first vessels remain. There is brokenness everywhere we look, and that's not new.
Our mystics also teach that we have an integral role to play in repairing the world's brokenness. When we do mitzvot, we uncover the hidden sparks of primordial light buried beneath the shards, and we lift them back up to their Source. We repair the world. We repair God, as it were.
I love this teaching for two reasons. First: it doesn't sugarcoat the brokenness. Things are broken -- between global pandemic, and inequality and racism and xenophobia, and the climate crisis, and assaults on civil rights and on our democracy -- and our religious tradition is not going to pretend that away.
And second: it empowers us to bring repair. This is our task as Jews and as human beings in the world. We lift up sparks every time donate to the food pantry, or welcome a refugee, or help someone with a uterus get the healthcare they need... and every time we light Shabbat candles or pray or sit in a sukkah, because those mitzvot nourish our souls, and we need that too.
In the words of the sage Leonard Cohen, "There is a crack in everything: it's how the light gets in." We need to see the cracks, the broken places, because pretending them away is spiritually dishonest. And the cracks are also how we see the light shining in. Being able to see both what's broken, and what repair could look like and how we can get there, takes gevurah.
Some of us don't like looking at what's broken. I get that. It's painful for me too. I struggle most when the brokenness is something human beings created or perpetuate.
What brings me closest to despair is the knowledge that a year ago, we stayed apart to protect each other. There was no vaccine for COVID-19. Today we are vaccinated: honestly miraculous! But because so many people believe the lies -- that COVID is a hoax; that masks don't offer protection, or that they're a form of government control; that the vaccines aren't safe, or that they're a form of government control -- the Delta variant is raging. Misinformation and disinformation and outright lies are so prevalent that thousands are once again dying every day. Facing all of that takes gevurah.
Some of us have trouble seeing beyond what's broken. I get that too. The brokenness is so vast it can seem insurmountable. Facing what's broken without becoming consumed by that brokenness also takes gevurah.
For me the spiritual question is: what are we afraid of? What are we afraid will happen if we face the brokenness in our communities, in our nation, in our world? And what are we afraid will happen if we allow ourselves to cultivate hope for better?
I suspect we're afraid of facing injustice because we're afraid of despair. I feel that. I know that if I let myself see those things clearly, I am going to need to ask: what am I willing to do, and what am I willing to give up, in order to create change?
And I suspect we're afraid to let ourselves hope because we don't want to be disappointed. If hope is something that just happens, without any agency on our part, that fear makes some sense -- hopes can rise and hopes can be dashed and either way it's not up to us. But in Mariame Kaba's framing, hope is a discipline. Which brings me back to our mystics and their teaching that when we do mitzvot, we lift up fallen sparks. Doing mitzvot also is a discipline. Jewish tradition calls us to do mitzvot, recognizing that in the doing we might rewire our souls and even heal God. And even if we don't feel changed, doing mitzvot still makes the world a better place.
See, I place before you today blessing and curse, says Torah. The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim points out that good and evil have been mixed together since the beginning of our human story, and they are mixed together within us, too. Our task, he says, is to empower our innate goodness. I think he means something like: our morality, our integrity, our attachment to truth. Translator R. Art Green notes that our moral disposition affects how we see the world, especially the actions of others. A tzaddik (a righteous person) is someone whose own goodness causes them to see the good in others, and therefore to treat others with compassion.
It takes gevurah to see the best in others, even when they frustrate or anger us. And not just when we happen to feel like it, but always. Pirkei Avot instructs us to give the benefit of the doubt (literally: to judge with our internal scales weighted toward merit). Rambam explains that the only exception to this is when someone is absolutely known to be a complete evildoer. Keep good boundaries and avoid that person. Otherwise, we must assume the best. Seeing each other through generous eyes takes gevurah! And...how we see each other can impact what actually is.
There are a few people in the world I wouldn't want to sit down with until they did their work, repaired their harms, and showed themselves to have changed. But in most cases, we're what Hasidic tradition calls beynonim -- in-between-ers. We're not perfect, and we're not terrible: we're somewhere in between. It's in that in-between space that I think we can make the greatest difference by giving each other the benefit of the doubt, seeing each other through generous eyes. This isn't a Pollyanna move. It asks a spine of titanium alongside an open, curious heart.
It takes gevurah to build relationships when we disagree, identifying common ground while holding the reality of our differences. It takes gevurah to balance generosity of spirit with holding each other (and ourselves) accountable. It takes gevurah to discern when we should "grade on a curve" and when we should demand better from others and ourselves. It takes gevurah to see each other, and the world, into being better than we have been before.
Mariame Kaba asks, "what’s the next best thing you can do from where you are?" Not "how are we going to fix everything," but what is the next good thing we can do from where we are.
Envision a better world, and take one step closer. And then another. As our sages teach, "It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it."
It's tempting to imagine that if we could just feel hopeful, then we'd be energized to repair the world. But I think that's backwards. Our job is to see what hasn't yet come to pass -- the good that isn't here yet -- and then live it into being. We lift up the sparks, we look for the good in each other, we envision a better world and take one step closer to it, because those actions are how we cultivate the ground of our hearts to sustain the green bough where hope can make its home.
This is the sermon I offered at my shul on Yom Kippur morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining for possible exposure to the Bubonic plague? Possibly also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. I assume all of us wrote at least one great masterwork of literature during the last year. No?
Surely at least we started baking with sourdough during the pandemic, creating spectacular loaves and sharing them on Instagram. Or maybe we reorganized our entire storage system, or finished all the home improvement projects we hadn't had time to complete before, or learned a new language on Duolingo.
The idea that we were "supposed" to do something great and meaningful during quarantine has become a meme, a running joke. As though that were the way to "win" at lockdown and isolation amid global pandemic. We laugh, but the laughter is uneasy. On some level, maybe we wonder: if I didn't spend this first 18 months of pandemic doing something I can brag about, am I doing it wrong?
Kol nidrei: all the vows and promises and oaths that we fail to live up to...
Maybe we promised ourselves that 5781 would be the year we would finally start working out, or the year we would actually open those cookbooks, or the year we would learn to bake sourdough or write a screenplay... especially since many of us were sheltering-in-place or working from home, so obviously we had all that spare time, right? And instead it turned out that 5781 was a year that we spent trying to keep ourselves and each other afloat. It was a year that we spent watching millions die, and grieving, maybe grappling with survivor's guilt. And it was a year that we spent watching some people politicize mask-wearing and vaccination, even questioning whether or not the virus is real.
In some ways, the jokes about sourdough and King Lear feel like gaslighting. They ask us to pretend away the inconceivable awfulness of what we've witnessed in the last year. ICUs filling with COVID patients again and again. Crematoria in India working overtime. Vaccine shortages in Asia and Africa, paired with vaccine refusers in our own country. And the climate crisis. And the assault on democracy. Our grief and our fear and our compassion have been in overdrive for so long: many are exhausted, or numb, or overwhelmed. And yet somehow we're supposed to imagine that we're supposed to ignore our heartbreak and fear and be productive, and if we failed at that, we've missed the mark? As though we needed another reason to feel lousy about ourselves tonight!
But feeling lousy about ourselves misses the point of today altogether. Yes, the liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that we missed the mark. Even if we'd spent every minute of the last year trying to pursue justice and act with compassion, human beings make mistakes. But the point isn't self-flagellation, it's promising in community (and as a community) that we will try to do better.
My image of God is not the angry teacher who can't wait to give us demerits for all of our flaws. Yes, we'll spend these 25 hours searching our souls to find the inner work we need to do to be better. But that's because our tradition gives us this holy season for introspection, calling us to become -- not because God is poised to whack us with a ruler. On the contrary. As we heard right after Kol Nidre, "vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha!" And God says: I forgive you, as I said I would! We use the spiritual tools of prayer and contemplation and song to open our hearts so we can feel that forgiveness and be ready to try again.
This year, I also imagine God saying: hey, be gentle with yourselves. One of my friends said to me, at the start of the long cold pandemic winter, that she was grading herself on a curve this year. Some days she felt able to be productive. Other days, it was all she could do to get through the day. And on those days, she gave herself permission to be as she was. What she called grading on a curve, I think of as being gentle with ourselves.
In times of intense grief, clergy and therapists both say to lower the pressure we put on ourselves. I learned this anew when my mother died and grief fogged my vision. When we're living with sorrow or uncertainty or trauma (or all of the above), just making it through the day can take all we've got. Over the last 18 months of pandemic, we've all been in that place, sometimes.
Every year at this season we take a good hard look at our failings, and it's easy to get stuck there -- maybe especially this year. Maybe we didn't take care of ourselves, or we ate and drank too much. Maybe we gave in to despair and doomscrolling, or we turned a blind eye to the world's suffering...
Jewish tradition calls us to look clearly at where we missed the mark, and it also calls us not to cling to our perceived shortcomings. God is always ready to forgive. That means that God also forgives us for not baking Instagram-worthy sourdough or writing a novel or becoming fluent in Hebrew during this second pandemic year.
Tonight asks us to hold two competing truths in balance. One: Jewish values demand that we constantly work toward justice and healing for this broken world. And two: when we really make teshuvah (when we turn ourselves around, when we do our inner work), God forgives all of our failings. We need to be able to forgive ourselves.
That doesn't mean there are no standards and anything goes. Gevurah -- our theme for this year -- asks us to maintain accountability for ourselves and for others. There are behaviors that are simply not okay. Torah is clear that lying, or cheating, or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others is flat wrong. Tomorrow afternoon's Torah reading will remind us that God asks us to feed the hungry and care for the powerless, to pursue justice without bias, to love our fellow human beings. That Torah reading also reminds us to offer tochecha, corrective words, if we see our fellow human beings acting unethically -- because if we let unethical behavior stand, we become complicit.
And it is also a spiritual truth that sometimes it's all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. When we're living with uncertainty or trauma or grief, even the simplest tasks can be monumental. Sometimes we can't offer tochecha or work toward justice because just completing life's requisite tasks takes all we've got. And that's okay.
Gevurah also can mean healthy boundaries. Sometimes the boundary we need to draw is one that says: I'm doing the best I can, and this is all I can do, and for now it's going to have to be enough.
This is part of why we live in community. At any given time, some of us are struggling just to make it through the day. In these times of pandemic and climate crisis, that may be even more true than it used to be. We need to help each other through and remind each other that putting on one's own oxygen mask first is not only okay, it's necessary. And at any given time, some of us are doing well enough to make things better for someone else. That's when it's our job to be angels for each other, as I said on Rosh Hashanah.
So let's go gentle into this Kol Nidre night. Let's promise to help each other through the challenges of 5782. Let's refrain from comparing ourselves to other people, even if their sourdough loaves look magazine-worthy. And let's show up with open hearts and commit ourselves to trying to be better, because that's what we're here for.
God can forgive us for barely holding it together -- even for not being "productive" during the pandemic. Can we forgive ourselves?
This is my sermon for Kol Nidre this year (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Ordinarily on Shabbat Shuvah I would talk about teshuvah, return -- turning our lives around, returning to our Source and to our highest selves. This is, after all, the work of the season. But I think that in this second pandemic year, there's no shortage of time for introspection -- a lot of us have been too alone, or turning too inward. So instead I want to talk today about what connects us with each other, and what it might mean to return to each other and to community.
Over the summer I had the opportunity to co-teach a pioneering rabbinic school class on doing Jewish digitally, with my friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi David Markus. We covered a lot of ground, ranging from the nature of prayer and ritual, to wise use of visuality, to creating spiritual and tangible "runways" into the digital ritual experience. And in one of our sessions, we opened with some classical texts about what makes a minyan.
Rambam wrote in the 1170s that "[c]ommunal prayer always is heard [by God]. … Thus, one must join oneself with the community, and never pray alone whenever one is able to pray with the community." (Mishneh Torah, Prayer 8:1.) This is part of Judaism's fundamental communitarianism. Can one talk to God alone? Of course! But it's not good to separate oneself from community. The community needs us to show up, because in coming together to make a minyan, we also come together to make community.
Alongside that, we studied a text from the Shulhan Arukh, written in 1563 by Joseph Karo:
All 10 must be in one place, and the prayer-leader with them...One standing behind the synagogue, and in-between them is a window – even if it is several stories high … – and [whose] face is visible to them from there, joins them to make 10. If a few of them are inside and a few are outside, and the prayer-leader is in the doorway, the prayer-leader connects them [into one minyan]. (O.C. 55:13-15)
The simplest way to make a minyan is ten people in one place, including the prayer-leader. That seems pretty clear. But then he goes on to say: if one person is outside the room, but can be seen from inside, that person can be included. And if some are in one space and some are in another, they can all be included. So long as the prayer leader can see them, that being-seen connects them into one community, even if they can't all see each other.
As soon as I read that, I thought: welcome to Zoom / hybrid / digital services, y'all.
Joseph Karo could not have imagined Zoom services or the hybrid services we've been holding all summer, with some participating onsite and others participating online. But he was already wrestling with this question that's live for us now: how do we create sacred community when we're not all in the same physical place?
For Karo, community arises when we can see each other. If I lead a service and it's broadcast on television, the people watching it might or might not have a meaningful experience -- but they can't be counted in a minyan together, because there's no two-way connectivity. I can't see them, and they can't see each other. I think he's right, which is why I've made a practice of including periodic "face to face" slides where we stop the screenshare and meet each others' eyes.
I think he's on to something in a deeper spiritual sense, too. What makes us a community is not whether or not we can convene to pray in the same room at the same time... because if that were the case, then anyone who doesn't show up to pray ceases to be part of the community! and if that were the case, then our community would have evaporated when the pandemic hit and we, along with so many others, started sheltering in place at home.
We become community when we see each other. I would go further: we become community not just when we glance at each others' faces, but when we try to see each other fully. When we see what matters to each other. When we see what enlivens each other. When we see not only each others' faces but each others' hearts.
It turns out that when we see each other, something in us changes. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire their electrical pulses both when we do a thing, and when we see someone else do that same thing. This was first observed in monkeys in an Italian lab some thirty years ago: electrodes in their brains showed neurons firing when they handled food, and when they saw someone else handle food -- even when they merely heard the sounds of food being handled outside of their line of sight. Some researchers think that mirror neurons explain why we can have strong emotional reaction to characters on TV or in movies: because when we see them, we feel-with-them.
Being together on Zoom is not the same as being together onsite. We can't sing in harmony on Zoom, or hug each other, or have that feeling of being together in a room. But when we see each other, our mirror neurons still work their magic.
For Joseph Karo, one of the roles of the shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader) is to see all the souls in the room -- and in seeing them, to constitute them into community. This is not a rabbinic job per se. Any adult Jew who learns the liturgy can lead the community in prayer. And any one of us who makes an effort to really see the other souls in the room can create some of the cohesion that makes us a community.
As you've heard me say several times this year, our theme for this year's Days of Awe is gevurah, which means strength and power. It means boundaries. It evokes resilience and courage, too. It takes gevurah to really see each other, to be mindful of where I end and where you begin, to honor our differences without diminishing what connects us. It takes gevurah to connect with each other in these pandemic times when we may feel overwhelmed or despairing, or we may find the technologies of Zoom opaque. It takes gevurah to create community.
An invitation: to see each other deeply.
To awaken our mirror neurons as we see each other.
To create community together by seeing each other where we are, as we are, in all that we are.
Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.
Today our exploration of gevurah comes via the Torah reading for this morning.
Our mystics taught that God's infinity is revealed in creation through a series of sefirot, divine qualities or emanations. These are the channels through which God's infinite energy flows into the world, and we associate each one with a quality that we and God share. Like chesed, lovingkindness -- last year's high holiday theme. And gevurah, boundaries and strength and power and discernment -- this year's theme.
When our mystics look at the figures in Torah, they associate different characters in Torah with each of the sefirot. Abraham is associated with chesed, lovingkindness. His tent was open on all sides, he rushed to prepare a feast for visitors, he represents flowing love. And his son Isaac is associated with gevurah.
One of the reasons why Isaac is associated with this spiritual quality is surely the story we just heard, the "binding of Isaac." How do we see Isaac's strength in this story? Arguably, what we see is him holding still and letting himself be bound. Maybe he feels powerless, or overwhelmed, or out of control: we don't know, because Torah doesn't tell us! But to me, his gevurah has a kind of stoic, silent perseverance to it. He holds still and trusts that he will make it through somehow.
Abraham showed tremendous gevurah earlier in Torah. In midrash, we learn that his father was a builder of idols, and young Avram smashed them. It's a great story: Terach comes home, all of the idols in his shop are smashed save one, and the biggest one has a stick in its hand. And he yells, what did you do?! and Avram says, "oh, it wasn't me, dad, the big one did it." And his father says, "You know they're just stone. They can't move!" and Avram retorts, "so why do you worship them, then?" It took gevurah to stand up to his dad.
Or earlier in Genesis, when God disclosed intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, Avraham pushed back: what if there are fifty righteous there, what if there are forty, all the way down to ten. But when it comes to Sarah casting-out Ishmael in yesterday's Torah reading, Avraham doesn't do much. He tells God he doesn't like it, but he doesn't challenge it. And in today's story, God makes an outrageous request and Avraham just... does it. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes, he's a hero when it comes to the outside world, but with his own sons, he falls far short of offering the protection they need.
One of my favorite ways of reading Torah is to place ourselves in the shoes of everyone in the story. Through the lens of Torah we can see ourselves refracted in new ways. And in empathizing with everyone in Torah's story, we strengthen our capacity to stand in the shoes of another.
How does it feel to empathize with each figure in today's story, to feel-into where they are?
Maybe Isaac's kind of gevurah resonates for us, eighteen months into this pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted so many ways we aren't in control. We don't have the power to make COVID-19 go away, and we don't have the power to require other people to do what's right. But we can use our strength to accept our circumstances and make the best of the hand we're dealt.
Isaac must have also felt fear. His father had the knife raised for the strike before the angel intervened. We too feel fear in these pandemic times. What might it mean to follow in Isaac's footsteps and do what life's situation asks of us, even when we feel afraid?
I don't especially want to empathize with today's portrait of Avraham. But like Avraham who followed instructions in today's story, we too hear voices -- day and night, over the internet and cable news and social media -- telling us what to do and why. We may be more like Avraham than we want to realize.
Today's Torah reading begins with the words, "After these things, God tested Avraham." in English we call this the "Binding of Isaac," but Torah calls this a test. I've always felt that Avraham failed the test: he should have pushed back. He didn't exercise the discernment to recognize that God's instruction here was wrong. Discernment is part of gevurah, too.
Gevurah asks us to discern when the voices we're listening to are giving us good advice and when they're not. Sometimes the voices we hear are self-serving or toxic. Some voices today declare that the masks we wear to protect against airborne infection are "muzzles" that take away our freedom. Other voices proclaim that as human beings in a society we have a responsibility to take care of each other. What voices will we heed in 5782?
Recently, as I was studying this story again, my son asked me what I was learning. His Hebrew name is after my maternal grandfather, Isaac -- in Hebrew, Yitzchak, the name of the son whom Avraham almost sacrificed. I realized he didn't really know this story yet. So I told it to him, in outline, curious to know how it would land with him.
(And yes, he gave me permission to tell this story to you today.)
His first reaction was: God -- He, or She, or They -- probably isn't giving us the full story here. "God is giving us pieces and parts to figure out for ourselves, but God might overestimate or underestimate us." And then he said, "Loyalty to God is a good thing, but Abraham could have found a loophole. We have choices. We need to feel in our jellies when we're treating people wrong or making a wrong choice."
I said, "You mean, we need to learn to use our discernment?" Yes, he said. That's a good word for it.
We need to use our discernment to know when the voices we're following are aligned with our highest values -- and when they're not. Discernment is another way of saying, gevurah.
It's also noteworthy who's not in this story. Sarah appears nowhere in this part of the narrative. The next thing we read, after this story, is that Sarah died at 127. From that juxtaposition one midrash imagines her hearing the news from afar, perhaps in a garbled form indicating that her husband actually sacrificed their son, and dying on the spot.
After the way we saw Sarah behave yesterday -- banishing Hagar and Ishmael into the desert -- I don't especially want to empathize with Sarah, either! But when I place myself in her shoes, I can feel her grief and horror at the news of her child's death. (Of course, that news turns out to be wrong. Fake news, as it were. But she still grieves -- and dies.)
It takes gevurah to place ourselves in someone else's situation. It takes gevurah to rein in our own reactivity so we can empathize with someone's heartbreak even if their past behaviors made us angry. Empathy might seem like an expression of chesed, lovingkindness -- but I think it requires our gevurah.
Maybe this feels a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe we don't want to empathize with people who we perceive made bad choices. That's a very human response. To our ancestors, it was also an angelic one!
We see this in a midrash on part of the Exodus story. When we crossed the sea, Talmud says, the angels rejoiced when the waves crashed in and washed away the Egyptians. This is Pharaoh and his army we're talking about. They had caused unimaginable suffering. And God says, "the works of My hands are dying, and you want to sing praises?!" Like -- what's the matter with you; develop some empathy, would you?! For this reason we pour out drops of juice or wine, symbol of joy, from our second cup at seder. We diminish our joy because someone else suffered in our journey to liberation.
Not wanting to empathize with someone we don't like or don't agree with is a very human reaction... and that midrash comes to teach us that Jewish values ask us to rise above that reaction.
Gevurah is how we balance between feeling our righteous anger, and reining in our anger so that we don't lose empathy. Gevurah is in how we exercise judgment, especially when it comes to which voices we will heed and amplify. Gevurah is in the strength to be still and trust sometimes, and the strength to take bold action sometimes, and the discernment to know which times are which.
And gevurah is what allows us to be alert for possibilities of hope that we hadn't previously considered -- like the ram that appears at the last second in today's Torah reading, the source of hope that was waiting just outside our vision's frame.
This is my d'varling from the second morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)