Bar mitzvah in a time of Covid

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View from the bimah.


In a way, I started imagining this weekend the moment I became pregnant. I've made a conscious effort all along not to become attached to any particular vision for who my kid will be. Still, I couldn't help picturing a celebration of b-mitzvah. This tradition is so core to who I am, who I've chosen to be.

Of course, I couldn't have imagined the years of pandemic that preceded this weekend. The b-mitzvah celebrations with exactly 10 in the room, six feet apart, masked and distanced... It's not like that now -- though now most people test at home, so we don't really know what the numbers are anymore.

One of my kid's best friends tested positive this morning and won't be able to join us. Of course the worries mount. What if someone I love gets sick at this celebration and doesn't recover? (What if I get sick again and this time the impacts on my longterm health are worse?) What if, what if...?

We've asked everyone who's traveling to test before coming. We all tested again this morning. Masking protocols are still in place at my shul. We're all vaccinated. We've done everything we can to keep each other safe. "Breathe," R. David said to me this morning. "Let yourself celebrate. Your son is 13."

I've been so focused on pandemic protocols and on logistics -- from ordering kippot to setting up chairs -- that I haven't let myself do that, yet. Three of my parents' siblings will be here. Three of my own siblings will be here! And many people whom we love. After these last years, that feels miraculous.

Tonight when we welcome Shabbat, I'm going to do everything I can to let go of the logistics and the pandemic anxieties. What matters is that my son is becoming bar mitzvah, and I feel so lucky to be his mom. We can only walk through this doorway once. I want to be as present as I can.


The moments in-between (Hayyei Sarah 5783)

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In this week's Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah, I was struck this year by this little fragment of a verse:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב

"Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening." (Gen 54:29)

That's how Sefaria renders it. But lasuah doesn't mean walking. It means conversing. Who was Isaac talking to as he walked at twilight? According to Talmud, he was talking to God, and in this moment Yitzhak established minhah, the afternoon service.  (And Avraham established shacharit, morning prayer. And Jacob coming "upon a certain place" and stopping for the night, established ma'ariv.)

Are these associations between patriarchs and our standard three prayer-times in the plain Torah text? Of course not! But with this interpretation (which hangs on Hebrew wordplay) Talmud is signaling what our rabbinic forebears thought was important. Prayer is an enduring tool in our spiritual toolbox. It's part of our inheritance, and it's been a part of Jewish life since the days of the patriarchs. 

About 500 years later, Rashi (11th c. CE) agreed that lasuah means "to meditate" or "to pray." Ibn Ezra (12th c.) offered that it might mean "walking among the trees to meditate." Notice how now there's a nature component. The Sforno (16th c.) says that Isaac had detoured from his regular path to stroll in the fields on that day so he could pour out his heart to God. Maybe he needed solitude. 

Centuries later, Reb Nachman (d. 1810) taught the practice of hitbodedut, walking in the forest or the fields and speaking out loud with God.  Reb Zalman z"l used to imagine Shekhinah in the passenger seat of his car, and as he drove, he'd speak out loud to God. (When I'm alone in the car, I do too.) In the forest God feels lofty and grand to me. In my car, it's more like pouring out my heart to a friend.

In this week's Torah portion Sarah dies, and her family comes together to bury her. And later Avraham dies, and the family comes together again to bury him. And Isaac gets married, and it seems clear that the generations will continue, even with the matriarch and patriarch gone. There's sadness, and also continuity and joy. These are all big moments with a lot of emotions in any family, then or now.

And in the midst of all of these big emotional moments, Isaac talks to God alone in the fields. Torah is reminding us that we need space for quiet and for spiritual practice, whatever those words mean to us. This could take a lot of forms. Daily prayer services, sure. Or a walk along a dirt road, a forest, a field. Or yoga or meditation, or gazing at the stars or the moon, or walking our synagogue's labyrinth...

This is true whether or not we "believe" in "God." Even if we're just naming what we feel and listening for that still small voice within, that practice can make a difference. Life is marked by big lifecycle events: births and deaths, marriage and divorce, becoming b-mitzvah. But it's also made up of all the tiny moments in between. And those small everyday moments can also be holy.

May our spirits be nourished by the forest and the fields, the twilight and the trees,

and the time to take them in, this Shabbat and always. 

 

This is my d'varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Photo by J. A. Woodhouse.

 


Be Like Avraham (Vayera 5783 / 2022)

 

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The Dead Sea (called the Salt Sea in Hebrew.) Some connect these salt flats with the story of Sodom and Amora, in which Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. 

 

As Jews we trace our spiritual lineage back to Avraham. We call him "Avraham Avinu," Abraham our Father. What was it that made Avraham worthy of being the progenitor of the entire Jewish people? Hold that question; we'll come back to it. First, a quick recap of one story from this week's parsha.

God says: the outcry from these cities is so great! If it's as bad as I hear, I'm going to wipe them out. Avraham pushes back: c'mon, God, is that fair? What if there are 50 righteous people? Or 45? Or 40? and he bargains God down to 10. For the sake of a minyan of righteous people, they'll be spared.

This isn't the first time God has gotten angry at humanity for wickedness. Though last time (the Flood) was a "gonna erase the Earth" kind of thing, a reboot of humanity. This time God's considering destroying a smaller subset: two towns from which apparently there is an outcry of suffering.

Anyone have theories on what the sin of Sodom was, to merit this kind of response from God?

In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, around 580 BCE, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.” That's a pretty damning indictment... and is still all too real.

Another interpretation is that Sodom really didn't welcome the stranger. When two messengers of God (aka angels) arrive to check out the scene, Lot urges them not to sleep outside. Sure enough, come nightfall, men bang on his door demanding that he hand over the strangers to be raped.

(Lot says, "Oh, no, don't do that -- take my daughters instead." Um... not actually an improvement.)

In the end, ten righteous souls can't be found, and the towns are destroyed. But this story is one of the reasons why God blessed Avraham to become the father of the Jewish people. Faced with God's initial plan, Avraham demands, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"

Avraham stands before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, God Almighty, and insists that God live up to God's own standards of righteousness. And God agrees. Sometimes I think of much of Genesis as God learning how to be in relationship with us. Like a new parent, finding that children are unpredictable.

Midrash speaks of angels created before us. But unlike the angels, we have free will. I like to imagine that God was pleased when Avraham pushed back. Maybe God was happy that one of God's children had become ethically aware enough to legitimately challenge God on a decision like this one.

Later in this parsha, God will make a different ask of Avraham and Avraham will not push back. That's the story of the binding of Isaac. To me, that was not Avraham's finest moment. And after that story, God never speaks to him again, which to me is an indication that yes, Avraham made a mistake.

Maybe there's comfort in knowing that even our greatest spiritual ancestors made mistakes. But pushing God to act justly is a move worth emulating. And readiness to question God, to rage against injustice, and to demand better for our world, is a very Jewish thing. It's a hallmark of who we are.

Avraham argued with God. And Moshe, Elijah, Jeremiah -- all of them disagreed with God, or pushed back, or asked God to change a divine decree. The Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev famously put God on trial, arguing that the Jews deserved better than what we'd gotten.

Perhaps consciously following in those footsteps, Jews in Auschwitz did the same one Rosh Hashanah. They called God to judgment for the horrific suffering of the Holocaust. Both stories end the same way: after declaring God guilty, they prayed and said Kaddish, proclaiming God's sovereignty.

Pushing back against injustice doesn't mean giving up on God or on hope. As Jews, we're called to argue with God and to decry injustice. Far from damaging our hope in a better future, that outcry is precisely how we move toward that better future. We demand justice, and we build it ourselves.

Being a Jew means being willing to call things what they are. It means speaking truth to power, even to God. And it means pursuing justice and doing what's right. Feeding the hungry, protecting the vulnerable. No matter who wins elections, those mitzvot are our covenant and our work in the world.

 

This is the d'varling Rabbi Rachel offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Almost time

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A sliver of the invitation.

 

It's strange to be approaching a lifecycle event with my parents gone. They would have been so excited about my son becoming bar mitzvah. I still sometimes have the urge to call to tell them what we're planning -- and then I remember. I speak to them when my house is empty, but it's not the same.

It's strange to be approaching a lifecycle event that isn't death-related. The most recent times I've gathered with my extended family have been Dad's funeral (in early March of 2022), the unveiling of Mom's headstone (February 2020, just before Covid began), Mom's funeral (11 months prior.)

I was so shell-shocked at the funerals. We all were. They were sorrowful occasions in which we found occasional sweetness. This time it's the other way around. A sweet reason to gather, tempered by the sadness of the fact that the patriarch and matriarch are gone. They would have loved this so much.

It's strange to be approaching a lifecycle event that's been so long in the planning. When my son was six, he went with me to Rhode Island so I could preside over the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a dear rabbi friend (so he could simply be Abba / Dad that day, instead of also being The Rabbi.)

I explained this to my six year old. Without missing a beat, he asked, "so when I have a bar mitzvah, will you have another person be the rabbi so you can be mom?" I told him that yes, that was my plan, and asked if he had any suggestions. "Obviously," he said, all but rolling his eyes. "Uncle David!"

I remember texting David in that moment to tell him that my son wished to engage him for a bar mitzvah some seven years hence, and laughing. (After all, my son was only six. Another seven years was more than his whole lifetime over again.) And now here we are. It's three weeks away.

I'm excited and sad and scattered. There are so many details and logistics, hotel reservations, caterers, the whole megillah. And my parents aren't here, and I'm not sure that will ever stop aching. And yet my son and Judaism are two of my greatest joys, and I can't wait to celebrate them together.

I've been working on what I want to say to him when we offer parental blessings toward the end of Shabbat morning services. There's so much I wish I could convey -- about our traditions, about who he's becoming, about my dreams for what his life might be. I'll only manage to say a little of it. That's ok.

It's strange to be approaching a lifecycle event that's a milestone in his life, not mine. It feels huge for me because I care so much about this and about him, but this is his journey of making Judaism his own. My job is to rejoice, and to bear witness, and to breathe deeply and do a little more letting-go.


Whistling in the dark

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When the pandemic began here, right after the unveiling of Mom's headstone, I remember feeling an odd sort of gratitude that she was already gone. Her lungs were already compromised. If she'd gotten Covid, she would have wound up on a ventilator. Her death would have been far worse than it was. 

When a mob stormed the United States Capitol, I remember feeling deeply grateful that she was already gone -- and that my dad was by then in the grips of some dementia, which meant he wouldn't read about it in the paper, or if he did, he'd forget. They would both have been so horrified.

Today in New York Times headlines, there's this: Between Kanye and the Midterms, the Unsettling Stream of Antisemitism. Surely this is only "news" to people who are not Jewish. My grandparents fled from Hitler in 1939, with my mother in tow. This country was their safe haven. And now...?

For Jews in America, things are tense indeed. Next week’s midterm elections feel to some like a referendum on democracy’s direction. There is a war in Europe. The economy seems to be teetering. It is a perilous time, and perilous times have never been great for Jews.

In some way maybe this makes my rabbinate more like others throughout history. (Aside from, you know, things like my gender.) Was it an anomaly to grow up at a moment when it seemed as though antisemitism were disappearing? I don't want to believe that, but I can't rule out the possibility. 

Today it's normal and expected for rabbis and synagogue leaders to enroll in active shooter trainings, so we have a better chance of protecting our communities and perhaps surviving if an antisemite with a gun finds his way into our synagogues. (And it's usually "his.") It's just part of the job.

"This isn't why I went to rabbinical school, but here we are," I joke. "I'm learning a new skill eleven years in!" It's an attempt at a whistle in the dark. My friend and colleague R. Mark Asher Goodman wrote recently, "Should I feel creeping dread about next Tuesday? Is that normal?" I replied, "It is now."

And I thought: living with dread has become normal. Antisemitism continues to rise. Trans lives are under attack. Election denial -- "if we lose, it must have been rigged" -- is rampant. Most Americans believe the founders intended this to be a "Christian nation." These are not "good for the Jews."

A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2021 found that almost a quarter of Republicans agreed that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child-sex trafficking operation.”

By now we all recognize that as QAnon propaganda, which is deeply antisemitic. We all laughed at "Jewish space lasers" because laughter is a defense mechanism, but as those views become less fringe and more mainstream, it's become harder for many of us to laugh around the clench of panic. 

As a child, I used to lie in bed before sleep and think about what I would take if we had to flee in the night. (My diary. A lovey. Could I find a way to save my cat?) That's not particularly healthy, but it seemed normal, at the time. I had read The Diary of Anne Frank more times than I could count.

My mother loved this country fiercely. She believed in the dream of America. And yet she also insisted that every Jew should always have a passport in case we need to flee. I used to tell her she was being paranoid, that would never happen here. I wouldn't say that now. But where would we even go? 

Europe is again war-torn. Israel's elections this week returned a right-wing government to power. If this nation isn't safe for us, I'm not sure anywhere really will be. And besides, what about those who don't have the resources to flee? Don't we have an obligation to stand up for them?

"[Our area] is a place people are going to flee to," a local pastor remarked to me a few days ago. "Get that air mattress now." We were talking about the climate crisis at the time. But it might be true for other reasons too. Bodily autonomy. The freedom to practice one's own religion -- or no religion.

I think what I really want to say is, if you're feeling anxious, you are not alone. Meanwhile, having written this, I'm letting it go before I make challah. I can't wait for Shabbat: an opportunity to tune out the anxiety and tune in to something deeper, something that endures even in the worst of times.

 


A new essay in a new parshanut series!

...So does Lech-Lecha mean “go into yourself,” or “go forth from where you are”? Of course the answer is: it’s both.

Because of our calendar, we always read these lines with the Days of Awe reverberating in our souls. And that seems just right to me. The spiritual work of the high holidays takes us on a journey of introspection – that’s “go into yourself.” Now, as the new Torah cycle gets underway, that introspection fuels “go forth from where you are,” a journey of building a better world...

To build an ethic of social justice into our lives and our Judaism, we need to find balance’s sweet spot. We need to journey inward enough to see where we’ve fallen short and what work we need to do. And we need to journey outward enough to take the next action, however small, in lifting each other up – pursuing justice – mitigating climate crisis – helping someone in need...

That's an excerpt from my latest blog post for Bayit: Building Jewish. We've started an ongoing parshanut series that explores Torah through an ethic of social justice and building a world worthy of the Divine, and this is my first offering, written for this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha. I hope you'll read the whole thing: Journeying Inside and Out.

 


Don't Be Like Noah

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Here's the thing I can't get past this year. God tells Noah that the human experiment has failed. Humanity has become corrupt and lawless. So God instructs Noah to build an ark and use it to rescue his own family and all the animals of the earth. And after some description of what the ark is supposed to look like, Torah tells us, "Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did."

Why would I have a problem with Noah doing exactly what God told him to do? Imagine a great environmental crisis is coming, and all living beings on Earth are going to perish. So you build a spaceship and you take a genetic seedbank and your own family and you set off into space. But what about all of the other human beings? (And for that matter, the other beings on Earth, too?)

Later in our ancestral story we'll meet Avraham. And God tells Avraham that God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. (We'll talk another week about their fundamental sin, which seems to have been a combination of selfishness, violence, and rape.) Hearing this, Avraham argues with God. He bargains: what if I can find you 50 good people? 45? 35? Even 10!

Avraham pleads with God to find a way to spare a couple of towns. In contrast, Noah learns that God is going to wipe out literally every other human being, animal, and plant on the surface of the earth, and he doesn't say a thing. And maybe this is why our sages argue about what Torah means when it says that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. Personally I like Rashi's second theory:

בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).

This may be one reason why we don't consider Noah to be the first Jew, though Noah heard directly from God and followed God's instructions to a T. To be a Jew is to question, to argue, to push back when something is unethical. To be a Jew is to be Yisrael, a Godwrestler -- one who wrestles with the Holy, with our texts and traditions, with what's right and what's wrong: not a silent follower.

To be clear, I don't believe that the climate crisis is a punishment for human wickedness the way Torah says that the Flood was. The climate crisis is the natural consequence of generations of collective human choices made by the industrialized world. We broke it, and we're going to have to fix it. But I do believe that the story of Noach has something to teach us today, to wit: don't be like Noah.

Noah protected his own family. I have empathy for that. It's natural to want to save our own loved ones. But that should be the start of our work, not the whole of it. And I believe that Judaism asks of us much more than that. Torah calls us to pursue justice, literally to chase it or run after it. And in the words of my friend R. Mike Moskowitz, justice can't be for "just us".

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that that because Noah was so bad at tochecha -- rebuke, as in telling one's fellow human beings that they are acting unethically -- Noah's soul was reincarnated into Moses... who spent most of his life wandering in the wilderness with the children of Israel, grousing at them for being stiff-necked and stubborn, rebuking them every time they made a poor choice!

I love the idea that our souls return to this world as many times as they need, to learn the things they most need to learn. Have you ever heard someone say, "What did I do in my last life to deserve this?" It's a kind of pop culture version of karma. Jewish tradition frames repeated lifetimes not as punishments (e.g. "I screwed up last time so now I gotta do it again") but as opportunities for growth.

What are the qualities we need to strengthen, the patterns we need to shed -- and how can we each use that spiritual curriculum in service of helping each other? Noah could have argued with God, or urged his fellow human beings to make better choices, or helped other people build boats too -- but he built a boat for his own family and the menagerie, and kept to himself. I believe we can do better.

In this era of climate crisis and misinformation, we have to do better. The mitzvah most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah tells us to feed the hungry, to pay fair wages, to meet the needs of the disempowered. So no, building a boat (or a spaceship) just for us isn't sufficient. Our task is to care about each other -- to care for each other. 

And in so doing, together we can build a better world.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

Shared with extra gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors for Torah study this week.


Untitled poem

 

This hillside is still
copper and rust flecked gold,

the rest bare and barren
a foretaste of what's to come.

Why does this light
still shine

when the rest
have let go?

The leaves aren't hope.
The trees don't mind.

Sometimes it lifts,
the sense of endless loss

and sometimes it settles in
like early winter.

 


This poem came to me while I was driving. It's not inspired by this specific hillside, but this one is close enough.

I've considered several titles: Fall. Rust. Grief. Let go. To live in this world. (The titles themselves make a small poem.) What would you title it?


A mezuzah in time

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Today we touch a mezuzah in time.
Behind us: a road glittering with holy days.

Look back over your shoulder and see 
a week in the sukkah, and before that

the fierce intimacy of Yom Kippur,
Rosh Hashanah's gilded majesty, and

before that the still waters of Elul,
the grief and uplift of Tisha b'Av...

Ahead: a fallow field scattered with leaves.
Time to integrate our changes.

Shemini Atzeret is a day for pausing,
the silence after the chant.

Today God asks us to linger a little longer.
Seven days of Sukkot have ended, but God says,

"won't you stay in the sukkah with Me
one more day, beloveds?" And we do.

 

 

If this speaks to you, you might also enjoy Seven songs, a poem cycle commissioned by Temple Beth El of City Island a few years ago, and A Sestina for Shemini Atzeret.


Absurd

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Sometimes it feels like we're living in an absurdist novel. "And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth." (Yep, that's Orwell.) Many today declare lies to be truth. And it's entirely possible that they're succeeding. "I can declassify documents with my mind" is literally absurd, and yet here we are.

Also absurd is the claim that "antifa" was responsible for the January 6 insurrection, when evidence makes abundantly clear that the Capitol was stormed by supporters of the former President and he knew he'd lost. What really worries me is that people who accept "The Big Lie" may be unswayable by evidence, and many of them are avowed Christian nationalists. (That's never good news for us.)

There's a tactic used by domestic abusers known as DARVO: Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. (The term was coined by professor Jennifer J. Freyd.) It feels like an apt description for a lot of what's happening the public sphere lately. Did it begin with the reversal of, "No, you're the puppet"? I'm not the first person to make this comparison, but I've been really struck by it lately. 

There is an abusive-bully quality to so many of today's interrelated abuses of power. There's an abusive-bully quality to the authoritarian disdain for diversity. There's an abusive-bully quality to the love of power -- after all, when you're a star, you can do anything to people who have less power than you. And when that's how you treat the disempowered, it makes sense to be afraid of losing power.

Sometimes I wonder how worried we should be that the party of election deniers really admires Viktor Orbán. Orbán proudly champions Christian nationalism. Under his rule, Hungary is no longer a democracy. Authoritarian, nativist, homophobic, wants white Christian men to rule -- how awful and regressive. I tell myself that won't happen here. But it may already be happening here.

What does any of this have to do with Judaism, I imagine you asking. Why are you writing about this, rabbi? Because in naming what is, there is agency. Because the only response I can bear is to double down on our values: truth (there's no such thing as alternative facts), diversity and inclusion, care for others (especially for those in need), equity and justice. Even, or especially, if everything falls apart.

 

I found the image that accompanies this post via a beautiful essay at On Being: The Absurd Courage of Choosing to Live. The image is by Olivier Otelpa, and the essay by Jennifer Michael Hecht is worth reading.


Rain


By the edge of the lake
of large red pines

I learned my name
calls out for rejoicing

though it's almost
time to pray

for rain. Beneath
heavy clouds

red-gold flags flutter.
Sometimes watering

looks like weeping
when we're one stiff wind

away from barren.
Teach me

to remove the stone
blocking your lips.

 


After the festival

after Jack Kornfield

 

After the festival, the laundry.
After the festival, exhaustion
and punch-drunk laughter.

Collapsing into the armchair
and absently petting the cat.
After the festival, silence rings.

There's so much to do -- building
and repair, a new name for God,
making all our promises real.

But not today. Today, gratitude
for the washing machine, swirling
my Yom Kippur whites clean.


Balancing Life and Death: Yom Kippur Morning, 5783


Let me take you back to a few short weeks ago, when I was sick with Covid. I was idly poking around Twitter. I was feeling lousy, couldn’t really focus on books or even TV. And then someone I don’t know well posted that she was in shock. 

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A friend of hers, who’d had Covid a few months prior, had kept a lingering cough from the virus… and had just died of a pulmonary embolism. Out of the blue. She seemed fine, aside from the cough, for which doctors kept giving her cough syrup and sending her home. But we know that Covid is often associated with surprise blood clots. Boom: pulmonary embolism, and gone.

I responded with Jewish tradition’s usual words of comfort, on autopilot. What I couldn’t help thinking was: wow, Yom Kippur came early this year! I meant, the reminder to take stock of my life and confront mortality.

Yom Kippur is sometimes called a day of rehearsal for our death. We wear white, like our burial shrouds. Many fast from food and drink, like the dead who need nothing. We recite the vidui confessional prayer, as tradition teaches us to do on our deathbeds. And we do big cheshbon ha-nefesh work — taking an accounting of our souls. Who have I been? Where did I fall short? If I’m lucky enough to keep living, what do I need to change? If I died tomorrow, what words would I want to have said – what amends would I want to have made – in order to leave this life with a clean slate?

I don’t expect to die of a surprise pulmonary embolism. But none of us knows how much time we have, Covid or not.

Pirkei Avot (2:15) teaches us to “Make teshuvah the day before your death.” But who among us knows when the day of our death will be? Therefore Judaism calls us to make teshuvah everyday. To do the inner work of self-reflection, and the outer work of changing and making amends, all the time.

i am dust and ashes / for my sake was the world created

The cards we gave you on Rosh Hashanah read, “The world was made for me,” and “I am dust and ashes.” Holding both of those truths at once is the quality we call Tiferet, our holy “and” of heart-centered balance. (And the theme of this year's Days of Awe.)

These awesome days themselves recapitulate and balance those truths

“The world was made for me” – that’s Rosh Hashanah. Hayom harat olam, “Today is the birthday of the world!” On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the renewal of all creation.

“I am dust and ashes” – that’s today. I am dust and ashes means we are mortal. So what do we want to do with what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life”?

a heart in the middle of Texas

At the end of February, my son and I flew to Texas to say goodbye to my dad. He was eighty-seven and already pretty frail, and Covid hit him hard. By the time we flew down, we knew the end was near.

I remember at first being shocked at how much he’d changed. He floated around in time. Words weren’t always available, or they came out scrambled. He was often confused. He opened his mouth to be fed, like a baby bird.

And then I started to notice where my dad’s soul was shining through the fog. He couldn’t always come up with words, but he would look at my son and smile with a glint in his eye, and then tilt his head to the right until my son did the same, and then tilt his head the other way until my son mirrored him, and repeat until they were both laughing. It was like the physical comedy in old silent films. In those moments he couldn’t talk, but he could still tell his grandson a joke.

He had a favorite caregiver, a Black woman named Eddie. Sometimes he was lucid enough to tell me that she had reared ten children and had been through a lot. Other times he said she was his best friend and he’d known her for years. (He hadn’t.)

“This here’s my daughter,” he rasped to her one day, gesturing at me. “You know what she does?”

Eddie smiled at him fondly. “No, what?” she asked.

There was a momentary pause as he reached for words. Finally he blustered, “Well, ask her!”

He couldn’t remember what I do for a living. The word “rabbi” was missing from his brain. But he remembered that I do something that matters, something worth kvelling about.

“If I weren’t in jail, none of you would be here,” he said to me one morning. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail, and he shrugged.

At first I thought he meant the assisted living facility, but then I realized: he could have meant his failing body. His body that was giving out on him in so many ways had become his soul’s prison, and he was getting ready to go free.

waves on the shore

As they were dying, each of my parents showed something about who they most fundamentally were, deep down, when everything else is stripped away.

With Mom, it was her joie de vivre and her motto, “make hay while the sun shines.” With Dad, it was a deep care and sweetness, coupled with that confident glint in his eye. What do we hope will persist in us to the end? What qualities do we hope will shine through?

In the book of Exodus, Moshe asks Pharaoh to let his people go, and Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart and says no. At a certain point, the text shifts, and says that God hardens his heart. Which at first blush might seem sort of unfair: why would God do that? Our sages teach: when Pharaoh hardened his heart, over and over, he created that pathway in himself. He carved it deep with his own actions. All God had to do was let Pharaoh be who he already had chosen to be.

With every action, with every choice, we’re making internal pathways. And those paths inform who we are and how we are. If I walk an inner path of trying to cultivate balance, that path becomes well-worn and clear and easier to follow. If I walk an inner path of resentment, that too becomes self-perpetuating after a while.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of the old saying, “If you keep making that face, you’re going to get stuck that way.” If we keep making that face, we’re going to get stuck that way. So what face do we want to make in 5783? Okay, I’ve pushed the metaphor too far. But the truth within it stands: who we say we are is irrelevant. What matters is who our actions show us to be.

Dying tends to distill us to our essence, and we don’t get to choose what that essence is – except we actually do. We don’t get to pick something that looks nice, like choosing a sweater out of a catalogue – “You know, I’d like my inner essence this year to be pink and happy in the spring, and amber-colored and contemplative in the fall.” But we do get to make choices, and our regular daily choices will inform who we are and how we respond when push comes to shove.

Teshuvah

None of us can control when we die, but we do have some control over who we are in this life. The idea of teshuvah – that we can repent, can make amends, can do the work of change – means that who we’ve been doesn’t have to be who we’ll become. Balancing who we’ve been and who we’re becoming – there’s Tiferet again.

And, there’s no magic short cut. No game hack that gets us a high score we didn’t earn. Anyone can make teshuvah – and anyone who wants to make teshuvah has to do the work. And there’s no time like the present. Indeed, some say there’s no time other than the present. Now is all we have.

What changes would we need to make in order to be remembered the way we want to be remembered?

I’m not talking about the kind of new year’s resolutions some of us make on January first – “I want to be bikini-ready by summertime!” I’m talking about how we treat each other. What character qualities we bring to the fore. How we treat “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” – the people most at-risk and vulnerable. (Maybe today it’s the trans kid, the disabled person, and the refugee.) Whether or not we’re doing something to make the world a better place. How we treat the barista or the Stop and Shop employee – or that person we don’t like who really gets on our nerves.

Because those are the face we show to the world. No matter what our self-image might be, everyone else experiences us through our actions and choices. And those actions and choices are how we’ll be remembered, when we’re gone.

pamphlet about the soul in Judaism; a yahrzeit candle

Earlier this summer a congregant came into my office, and we chatted about one thing and another. And just as she was about to leave, she held up one of the little Life Lights pamphlets from the rack in the back of the room, and she asked me, “Does Judaism believe in a soul?”

The one-word answer is yes. Yes, Judaism teaches that we have souls, and that while our bodies are temporary, our souls endure.

“No one ever told me that when I was growing up,” she said. “Honestly it would’ve sounded goyische.” As though Christians had a monopoly on spiritual discourse. Y’know what, they’re so focused on “saving our souls,” we’ll downplay souls altogether. And in some ways the early Reform movement did that, stripping out a lot of the mystical and supernatural language because it felt outdated, “Old Country,” not rational and modern – and yeah, maybe too evocative of our proselytizing neighbors.

But Jewish liturgy is full of references to the soul. The choir this morning sang a beautiful setting of אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. – “My God, the soul that You have placed within me is pure!” Usually the soul is described as something that God gives to us, or guards for us overnight while we are sleeping and returns to us when we wake. Notably, our liturgy insists that our souls are fundamentally pure: no matter how we’ve screwed up, the light of the soul never dims. It just gets a little schmutzed-up by our mistakes, and teshuvah is how we clarify the soul so its light can shine.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every Jew necessarily believes in an eternal soul or any kind of afterlife to which that soul might journey. “Two Jews, three opinions,” as the saying goes. If you’ve never heard this before, or if you don’t believe any of this, that’s okay, you still belong here. Even if you don’t believe in God, you still belong here! (Though remind me to send you R. Brent Spodek’s beautiful I (don’t) believe in God.)

As far as what happens to that soul once the body dies…? I can tell you that I have a book called Jewish Views of the Afterlife, and it’s several inches thick. Over the last 3000 years Judaism has offered many different visions of what might come after this life, ranging from blissful Torah study in the Garden of Eden, to reincarnation when a soul still has work to do or things to learn.

I find all of this endlessly fascinating. And in some ways it’s all beside the point. The question beneath her question was something like: is my beloved still here? I believe the answer is yes.

Many Jews believe that our dead remain accessible to us. Some say we can speak to them as we speak to God. Some say we can ask them for help, or to intercede with heaven on our behalf. Some say we may receive their answers in dreams, or in the world around us. Some say we may feel their presence in the wildlife that graces our path. (Rabbi Pam Wax has an extraordinary poem about that in her book Walking the Labyrinth.) And, of course, the silent Yizkor prayers we’ll say in a moment are a time when many of us go beneath our tallitot and connect with those who are gone.

“I am dust and ashes” doesn’t mean we’re trash. It means our time is fleeting. So what will we do with it? What do we hope will shine through us to the end? If we knew we were going to die tomorrow, what amends would we rush to make, and what words would we need to say… and how about doing those things today, every day, so we’re always ready to return to the Source from whence we came?

 

This is the sermon that I offered on Yom Kippur morning at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Toward Transformation (Or The Holy Atonement Reset Button): Kol Nidre 5783

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In the melody of Kol Nidre, I hear aching. I hear yearning. I hear the heartbroken cry of a soul who knows they’ve missed the mark. How the melody descends – and descends again – and then rises in hope!  It’s such a powerful piece of music, I suspect most of us don’t think much about the fact that it’s a setting of… a legal filing. 

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In that legal filing, we ask to be released from “all the vows, promises, and oaths we make with God, the things we say only to regret them, the things we promise and forget, the resolutions we fail to keep.” We make this request in front of a beit din, a rabbinic court – symbolized by the rabbi or cantor flanked with two Torah scrolls. But really we’re making this request in front of the ultimate Judge. The Kadosh Baruch Hu – the Holy Blessed One. God on high. 

This is not usually my go-to image of God. I like to imagine Shechinah, the immanent, reachable, intimate aspect of God, sitting in my car in bluejeans and listening to me pour out my heart as I drive. I like to connect with God as Creator, as Beloved, as Source of Life. But Kol Nidre invites me into a different kind of dialogue with the sacred. It invites me to open myself to the metaphor of God as source of Justice.

Tonight I imagine God in judicial robes. I can’t quite imagine God’s face – the image flickers between every face of every human being who has ever been or ever will be – but I imagine an expression at once serious and kind. Both gentle and solemn. Ready to give us the benefit of the doubt, and also able to see right through us to the things we don’t want to admit.

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Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783

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Last month, the Academy of American Poets shared a Poem of the Day by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza called “The Sunset and the Purple-Flowered Tree.” Here’s how it begins:

I talk to a screen who assures me everything is fine.
I am not broken. I am not depressed. I am simply
in touch with the material conditions of my life. It is
the end of the world, and it’s fine...

The poem reminded me of so many of our conversations over the last year. We are not broken. We are simply in touch with the material conditions of our lives.

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Long Covid continues to mystify doctors. Apparently polio is back.  Election denial corrodes our civic life. There are heartbreaking stories out of states where reproductive health care is now banned. And don’t forget school shootings, 29 of them so far this year. And Putin trying to take over Ukraine. And this year has brought a rise in laws designed to abridge the rights of LGBTQIA+ folks, and antisemitism, too.

And then there’s the climate crisis. Floods like the one in Kentucky – or in Pakistan, or in Chad. Wildfires (when I wrote this, there were 624 wildfires burning in eighteen states, plus many more around the world.) Extreme heat melting airport runways

As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz sometimes says, “the world is super broken.” I know that many of us are struggling. Some are languishing, living with “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.” (per Adam Grant in the New York Times.) And for some of us, languishing can slip into hopelessness.

Our liturgy proclaims: hayom harat olam: today the world is born!

Okay, but how do we celebrate the world’s birthday when things feel so hard?

This is not the first time the Jewish community has lived through collective crisis.  The question I’ve been asking is: what spiritual tools did our forebears use to get through hard times? What did Judaism’s toolbox offer them, and what can it offer us?

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