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.
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.)
(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory -- expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)
All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon.
The enormity of what's broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: "Who by fire, who by water" lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough -- and there's more.
The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are "essential" and often unseen.
When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn't reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming "personal freedom" at the expense of the collective good.
I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn't seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it's tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it's horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there's more.
Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.
Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We're facing another long winter of mounting death counts -- and it didn't have to be this way.
Between what we're doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was "stolen," it's hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I'm pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she's given up.
I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors' job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity's future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.
Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child's death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar's eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham's eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac's life is spared.
The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can't see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can't find alone.
Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father's altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year's Days of Awe.
We've seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece -- in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU -- in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage.
I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn't watch the Olympics this year. (That's not the courageous part.) I just couldn't get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.
Everyone seems to agree that she's one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can't do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she's more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health.
It takes courage to say I'm not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic -- the world is not okay right now.
Simone Biles said she "got the twisties," a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can't tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it's an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We've lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It's hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all "have the twisties" a little bit this year.
I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn't make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles' "angel" -- the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn't okay and begin to work toward healing.
Because here's the thing: we're not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.
The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. "Hope doesn't preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger," she says. "Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline." She goes on to say:
Hope is a discipline and... we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.
When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it's a practice -- like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah.
5781 was not an easy year. I don't know what 5782 will bring, but I'm pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I'm in need of assistance myself, I'm obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others.
Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on "ugh, who's going to help me through this" sometimes is normal, but it's also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on "how can I help someone else" lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul. If you prefer, here's a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful! And that's true whether we're doing organized volunteer work, or "just" offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom.
Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world.
This is my sermon from the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Each year I choose a theme for the Days of Awe at CBI. Some months ago I chose the theme of gevurah, which means strength, power, heroism, courage, boundaries, determination. People were getting vaccinated. The weather was warming up and we were about to begin offering safe outdoor / hybrid services at CBI. I could already imagine writing my high holiday sermons this year about the strength it took for us to stay apart last year to keep each other safe, and the heroism of medical professionals in every COVID ICU around the world, and how our determination had brought us safely through this pandemic.
"Man plans, and God laughs," the saying goes. Though this year it feels more apt to me to say "humanity plans, and God weeps." I imagine God has been weeping a lot over the last fifteen months. Whatever we hoped for a year ago, I think it's safe to say that we haven't made it there yet, and the path from here to there feels fraught and uncertain.
And our theme for the year couldn't be more apt. Wow do we need gevurah this year.
We need strength: the strength to keep going when the path ahead feels uncertain, when we don't know the right thing to do, when we don't know how to keep each other safe. We need the strength to help each other find hope, especially when the world feels dark. We need the strength to discern what's right, and which voices we should be heeding. We need the strength to forgive ourselves and each other, especially in these difficult pandemic times -- especially because we've moved from "this difficult pandemic year" to something longer and of more uncertain duration. We need the strength to see the world differently than we have before, so that we can live into that vision, making the world better than it was before. (Stay tuned; that's a sneak preview of sermons to come!)
Gevurah helps us be courageous: it helps us strengthen our hearts and keep our resolve firm even when we're frustrated that this pandemic is becoming endemic.
Gevurah helps us have good boundaries. Gevurah reminds us that we never know what difficulty another person is facing, so our sacred task is always ladun l'chaf z'chut, to give one another the benefit of the doubt and see one another through generous eyes -- even as we strive to hold ourselves and each other to the highest ethical standards.
Gevurah gives us strength to speak up for what's ethical and just, and the courage to protect the most vulnerable among us. Gevurah helps us be giborim, heroes, for and with each other as we lift each other up and keep each other safe.
And gevurah is a necessary part of teshuvah: repentance, return, re-alignment, turning ourselves around to live out our best and highest purpose in the year now beginning.
May the spiritual journey of this High Holiday season open our hearts, deepen our resolve, and give us the gevurah we need to make 5782 a year of holiness and strength, a year of community and connectedness, a year of justice and joy.
This is the very brief d'varling I offered at our erev Rosh Hashanah Zoom seder. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Stay tuned for actual sermons in days to come.
It's funny to feel nostalgic for last year. Last year, when we were all locking down, when the Days of Awe had to be all-Zoom for everyone -- how could I possibly miss that? I think what I miss is the sense of certainty. We knew how to keep each other safe: stay home, stay apart, shelter in place. This year nothing seems so clear.
My community is vaccinated -- though not those under twelve. New England is doing better than other parts of the country when it comes to the Delta variant -- though there's been an uptick lately, and schools are starting. I have vaccinated congregants who got breakthrough infections; one is getting monoclonal antibodies today.
I read about ICUs filling up again, about people dying in terrible ways, about health care workers grieving and stretched beyond the end of their ropes. I read about people trying to treat COVID with horse dewormer, and I surf the waves of my own anger at misinformation. I read about governors forbidding masks in schools, and I go numb.
I think the real reason I feel a yearning for last year is that last year, I didn't yet know how long the pandemic would go on -- nor how persistent anti-mask sentiment, paired with the Delta variant, would spark another wave of hospitalizations and deaths. So much heartbreak. And that's without the wildfires and floods and hurricanes...
In recent weeks my small synagogue has adapted our high holiday plan. We surveyed our community and asked folks to rank the services they want most to attend onsite. Everyone who wanted to be onsite will get to attend at least one of their top choice services that way; they'll join other services online. Many are choosing to be all-online again.
We've set up 45 chairs in a space that usually holds 120, separated into pods spaced six feet apart. Everyone onsite will be masked. Doors and windows will be open for fresh air. And I'll offer as robust and participatory a Zoom option as I can, pausing the screenshare regularly so the people onsite can see the people on Zoom and vice versa.
This is my tenth year in congregational service. I'm used to spending my summers working on the Days of Awe; that's just the rhythm of this work! But the pandemic makes everything harder. We need traditions and community connections more than ever, even as pandemic realities call us to reinvent both our traditions and how our communities connect.
I know that our high holiday plan is thoughtful and considered. And I know that we need to be ready to pivot to all-digital if caseloads worsen. Our tradition teaches that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: "all Israel is responsible, one for another." It's a heavy responsibility. This summer, it weighs on every rabbi and synagogue board I know.
Fewer people come to the cemetery service each year. When I began serving this community, ten years ago, we would have at least a dozen. We'd set up a circle of folding chair and pray the afternoon service. And then people would take pebbles and quietly walk through the cemetery, leaving stones to mark their visits to parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. Some members of my shul are fourth or fifth generation; they have ancestors to visit here.
These days only a few people come. Many of those who used to attend the cemetery service each year are now buried in that same cemetery. I like to think that I am still davening with them each year when we convene on a Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. There was one gentleman who always used to come to the cemetery service and then quip, "Rabbi, don't forget, you're doing my funeral!" And I'd always say, "No time soon, please."
Mom's grave. San Antonio.
The custom of visiting our ancestors at the cemetery before the new year feels old-fashioned. It comes from a time when people didn't migrate much. Today most of the members of my small shul are not fourth- or fifth-generation members. They're transplants, like me. I've been here now for almost thirty years (and have served as the rabbi here for a decade.) This is my home, and my son's home. But our beloved dead aren't here.
My mother's parents; my father's parents. San Antonio.
My mother and my grandparents are buried in San Antonio. For great-grandparents, I'd have to cross an ocean. In 1993, we visited Prague (my grandmother's and my mother's birthplace) and we went to see my great-grandparents in the "new" Jewish cemetery from the 1800s. I remember my grandmother's satisfaction at being able to visit her parents' graves again. She told us how they used to picnic there with the ancestors on Sundays.
My grandmother and aunt at my great-grandparents' graves. "New" Jewish cemetery, Prague, 1993.
It feels right to pay our respects to the dead before beginning the new year. To remember that one day we too will return to our Source. This afternoon I will hold a smooth pebble in my hand and I will think of my beloved dead. I'll think of them too when I make challah before the new year: round, like the year, and studded with raisins for sweetness. Their headstones are far away, but their presence is as near as memory.
Top row: T-shirts courtesy of Steve Silbert; the Bayit Board meets onsite and online; kayaking on the lake.
Bottom row: morning davening gear, and our morning davening spot.
When we gather at our VRBO, the first thing we do is kasher the kitchen. We do a massive grocery run at a nearby kosher market and make dinner together. We turn a pile of inspirational stickers into impromptu mad libs. On Rosh Chodesh Elul we daven outside under the spreading trees and the fields of goldenrod and corn, and we sing and laugh our way through Hallel.
We blue-sky dream about what we want Bayit to be and do next. We talk about disruption, innovation, collaboration and creativity, inspiration and design, remix and joy. We talk about Jewish life and what what people need (especially now, amidst pandemic and change). We talk about spiritual tools and technologies, ritual and learning, knowledge and practice.
We talk about problem statements, and use cases, and minimum viable products, and how to know when a new idea "works," and the cycle of trying a new thing, measuring success, revising the thing, trying again. We brainstorm lists of people outside this room whose work we want to uplift, and talk about how to do that. We sing niggunim. We add cards to Trello boards.
We talk about audiences for our offerings / who we serve. We talk about restorative religion and DIY religion and social justice. We talk about ethics, and pluralism, and collaborative creativity and why the collaborative process matters to us, and about bridging between silos and between communities. We talk about our collective strengths and competencies and what we love.
We review our portfolio of existing and possible build projects. We review the builds that are already underway, books and classes and ethics work and liturgy-poetry-art offerings. We let some ideas go. We write down new ideas that are flowing now that we're together -- some of us onsite, some of us on Zoom -- as we talk timelines, workflows, skillsets, middot / qualities.
We sit at the kitchen counter with coffee and we workshop poetry and liturgy, reading lines aloud and offering suggestions, tinkering and uplifting. Over dinner we toss sermon ideas around. We share High Holiday planning. We look at Bayit's mission and vision, and choose which build projects to prioritize. We dream together about collaborations, set new ideas in motion.
In between these conversations we cook meals together. We kayak on a nearby lake. We study the Me'or Eynayim. We sing with guitars by the firepit and I marvel at the miracle that we are here together again, learning and hoping and building. We are rebooting Bayit together, retooling for who we're becoming and for the different needs that the pandemic has revealed.
On Friday we daven with guitar, riffing melodies, singing in harmony, laughing, reaching out to God with supplication and joy. The birds flit from one goldenrod stalk to another. The big maples grace us with occasional raindrops. The crickets and cicadas sing with us. We close with every Psalm 27 melody we know before blowing shofar. The sound rings out over the fields.
At the end of the week we make Shabbes. We gather with guitars by the lake, we daven and harmonize, we sing and rejoice. We take a day to rest and renew -- though honestly, for me, this whole week has been restorative and renewing, even though we got so much done. To have the opportunity to build for the future with such extraordinary hevre: I am blessed beyond measure.
Bayit board, onsite and online.
Cross-posted to Builders Blog, with endless gratitude to the Bayit Board and to all who build with us.
Here’s the thing: the year begins anew
even in the worst of times. The leaves
will turn and fall and then they’ll grow again.
And sometimes we’re afraid, and we can’t know
what choice to make to keep anyone safe.
Uncertainty’s a bear. All we can do
is seek out sweetness everywhere we may
and work to fix what brokenness we find.
The good news is we’re not in this alone.
We’ll help each other hope when light seems dim
and lift the sparks that darker days reveal.
We’ll love each other fiercely: in the end
there is no greater work that we can do.
We who survive will help each other heal.
This is the poem I sent to friends and family as an Elul message / new year's card this year. (It's also part of an ad hoc series, along with this sonnet.) You can find all of my new year's poems here.
I was a writer before I became a rabbi and High Holiday sermons usually come easily to me. Some years I have so many ideas and teachings and hopes to share that I accidentally write more sermons than I need to give.
Not this year. This year I haven’t felt able to begin writing at all.
The enormity of what’s broken in the world feels paralyzing. In recent weeks we’ve seen unprecedented heat and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, a flaming oil spill turning part of the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe. “Who by fire, who by water,” the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, land differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough to still my pen — but there’s more.
Last year, leading High Holiday services via Zoom from home, I spoke about our obligation to take care of each other by staying apart. I turned to the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for his teachings about hope during adversity. I imagined Rosh Hashanah 5782: Surely we would be vaccinated and safely back together!...
Read the rest of this essay at JTA: Rabbis Are Supposed to offer Hope at the High Holidays. What if I Can't?
(Spoiler: in the end, I can. Click through and read the whole thing.)
I don't want to reckon with my choices:
feels like that's all we've done for 18 months
(should I mask, is this safe, what if
we meet outside and never breathe together?)
I don't want to query who will live
and who will die, who by wildfire and who
by flooded subway, who intubated and alone
and who will have enough while others lack.
I just want all of us to thrive: our hearts
at ease, our hopes in reach at last.
Come close to me, God. Comfort me with apples.
Remind me the world is born again each year --
even if I'm not ready, even if this year
I'm not sure I know the words to pray.
Reckon with my choices. The lunar month of Elul, which begins in a few days, launches the season of teshuvah, repentance and return; the inner work of this time is looking at who we are and who we've been, where we've missed the mark, how we can repair what's broken in our relationships with each other, the world, and our Source. Who will live / and who will die, who by fire and who by water... The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite on Rosh Hashanah, asks this question. (Here's a post I wrote about it a while back if you want to know more.) Wildfires and flooded subways come from recent news. Come close to me, God. Tradition holds that during the month of Elul, "the King is in the Field" -- the transcendent sovereign aspect of God, usually distant from us, is with us / near us / accessible to us. Comfort me with apples. From Song of Songs 2:5. Apples dipped in honey are also a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." The world is born again. One of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah reminds us that hayom harat olam, "today the world is born." On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the ongoing renewal of creation.