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What Can We Do, In Love?

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I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.

 

A few weeks ago, a congregant said to me: you know, it's weird. Sometimes, especially reading Facebook, it feels like life is normal. We're seeing everybody's first day of school pictures, even if school is "from home" this fall. There are pictures of new kids or grandkids. Life seems to be continuing. And then other times I wake up and I'm immediately swamped by fear about the future of democracy, despair about the pandemic, and anxiety about totalitarianism, and nothing feels normal anymore at all.

I was really struck by that description of the disjunction between first-day-of-school pictures and creeping anxiety about what our world might be becoming. 

I think we've all been living in that disjunction. It's a normal day -- and here are the latest case numbers in the global pandemic. It's a normal day -- and the news headlines are so outrageous that I feel numb. It's a normal day -- and nothing feels normal at all... As Rafia Zakaria wrote recently, "We live constantly with the weight of these juxtapositions between the banal and the utterly devastating."

In pastoral conversations over the last six months, I've heard a lot of anxiety. About illness and covid-19 and our children and everything that's happening in our world. About the coming election, and fears of authoritarianism, and the future of democracy, and a sense that everything could be about to unravel right before our eyes, and about whether this nation is a safe place to be Jewish, and whether anywhere in the world is safe. Colleagues who are therapists tell me they're hearing all of these anxieties, too.

Several of you have asked me: if things really are that bad, then what can we do?

Here's my answer: if things are really that bad, then we take care of each other. We protect the most vulnerable among us. We stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And we cultivate hope for a better world, and do what we can to get closer to that ideal in our lifetime.

And what if things aren't that bad? If our democracy is actually pretty robust, and there isn't going to be a civil war, and we're not staring down the barrel of totalitarianism, and modern medicine finds an excellent vaccine for covid-19 and good government policies make it available to everyone, and together we can pursue the dream of a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all?

My answers don't actually change.

We still need to take care of each other. And protect the most vulnerable among us. And stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And cultivate hope, and do what we can to build a better world. That's our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, in the worst of times and in the best of times.

Over the last year, several friends and I have been studying the writings of the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, sometimes known as the Piazeczyner.

The Piazeczyner was writing under incredibly difficult circumstances. The community he served was confined to the ghetto and their rights were being continually diminished. (Eventually, of course, they would be rounded up and taken to the camps... though he didn't know that when he was writing these weekly commentaries.) Although he wrote these divrei Torah some eighty years ago, I have found his words to be deeply relevant to the spiritual needs of this moment.

The Piazeczyner writes that when times are tough, we feel "exiled" or distant from God, and those times are precisely when we feel the most powerful longing for God. (Aish Kodesh on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, 1941.) I think we can understand this as: when times are tough we despair, and we feel frightened about the world around us, and we yearn for safety and hope.

And, he says, when we "accept the yoke of the mitzvot" -- when we accept our obligations to each other and to God -- we grow in holiness. And when we do, it's as though God's own self becomes greater and more active in the world, because in our spiritual growth we become greater and more active in the world.

He could have said, these are terrible times. The world is broken, and we are not safe, and God has abandoned us. Instead, he said: the world is broken, that very brokenness arouses our yearning for a better world, and our yearning is the first step toward making it real. He said, remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember the story of walking into the waters of the sea. Only when the waters reached our nostrils did the seas part.

The story of crossing the sea reminds us that we have to keep going "day and night." We have to keep trying, and doing mitzvot, and building a better world. Even in times of pain and fear. Even -- he wrote this in 1940 -- when we're confined to home and "commerce is brought to a standstill and businesses are closed, God forbid." (Aish Kodesh on Beshalach, 1940.)

Torah tells us that when our spiritual ancestors wandered in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud went before us by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Piazeczyner teaches that this isn't just a literal teaching, but also a spiritual one. The fire that we need to light our way forward is here for us, if only we will open our eyes. We need to hold on to our Source of strength and hope, and that will carry us through. In the words of Psalm 27, which we read each year at this season, "Keep hope in the One. Be strong and open your heart wide, and keep hoping in the One!"

I know that for some of us the word "God" is ... complicated. Maybe we don't believe in a God Who will step in and save us. Early in the pandemic, my son overheard me studying the Piazeczyner late one night with some colleagues. We were reading a commentary on how when the Israelites cried out in the hardships of slavery, God heard our cries and saved us. And my kid came into my study and said, "Mom, if we're still the children of Israel, why isn't God saving us from covid-19? Are we just not crying out enough?"

So we talked about whether God reaches into the world and changes things for us, or whether God acts in the world through our actions, or whether we find God -- as Mister Rogers famously taught -- "in the helpers," in the doctors and nurses and scientists working to help people with covid-19. And I remember thinking: this may be the moment when his childhood theology falls away.

Even so, the psalmist's instruction to be strong, open our hearts, and keep hoping is good spiritual medicine. And so is the Piazeczyner's reminder that we have the inner resources to get through even the most difficult of times -- and that the "yoke of the mitzvot" makes us responsible for and to one another. The mitzvot ask us to "be the helpers."

As my friend and study partner Rabbi David Markus teaches, love is an action, not just a feeling. This is why the mitzvot commit us to taking care of each other: because love reaches its fullest potential when we not only feel, but also act.

Memory too is an action. The traditional silent Yizkor memorial prayer includes an explicit invitation to act. It says that we will give tzedakah in the memory of those who have died: tzedakah, not "charity" but a kind of giving that is rooted in tzedek, justice.  (The version of the prayer we will say this morning pledges to "live justly and lovingly" in their memory.) That's the Jewish way to remember: giving, and justice, and action.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg z"l died on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. During these Ten Days of Teshuvah many of you have shared with me your grief at her passing, and your heightened fear of rights being eroded now that she's gone. I feel those things too.

Justice Ginsburg will be remembered for standing up for the rights of women, from the right to have a credit card in my own name to the right to control my own body. She'll be remembered for dissenting against stripping federal protections from voters of color. She'll be remembered for asserting the full humanity of people with disabilities. What kind of giving, justice, and action might we undertake in her memory?

In the days since her death, I keep returning to these words that she offered to law students:

If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill—very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.

That's our Jewish obligation and our human calling: to do something that makes life better for people less fortunate than we. That obligation feels more important than ever before.

So many of the prayers we recite today are written in the plural: not "I," but "we." Torah also frames our obligations to each other in the plural. No matter what comes, we have responsibilities to each other.

Whether or not the world is spiraling out of control, our work of repairing the world, caring for the vulnerable, and pursuing justice doesn't change. And maybe in fulfilling our obligations to each other, we can become for each other the pillar of fire that the Piaceczyner evoked: a beacon shining in the darkness, lighting each others' path.

 

This is my Yom Kippur morning sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


One Heart: Lessons in Love from Jewish Cuba

 

I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.

 

When I gave the sermon tonight I began by noting that every year I seem to write at least one extra high holiday sermon -- a sermon that I write and then don't give for some reason. This year that extra sermon was Oops, We Did It Again: on choices, momentum, and change. I wrote it, and then I realized: y'all don't need me to tell you about the pandemic or the climate crisis or antisemitism. You know those things already. That won't take us anywhere new or open our hearts tonight. So I wrote and offered this sermon at Kol Nidre, instead. (And if you want to read the other sermon, now you can -- it's linked above.)

 

The first things I saw on the tarmac at José Martí international airport were palm trees and military vehicles. That's when my friend Rabbi Sunny, the head of Cuba America Jewish Mission, reminded us not to photograph soldiers -- in fact, not to photograph anything at all until we had cleared the airport, just to be on the safe side. Right, I thought. I'm in a Communist country. Note to self, don't photograph the army.

Last November, with Temple Beth-El of City Island in the Bronx and with Cuba American Jewish Mission, some CBI members and I spent ten days traveling around Jewish Cuba, from Havana to small cities and towns across the countryside.

Everywhere we went, we brought bags of medical supplies: everything from aspirin, vitamins, and prescription medications to anti-fungal cream and tubes of toothpaste. The synagogues there run pharmacies, and they make these pharmacy supplies available to anyone in need, whether or not they are Jewish. When we arrived, there had not been a mission like ours in six months, and their pharmacy shelves were close to bare.

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Havana is incredibly beautiful. The sea crashes up against the wall on the Malecon, the main thoroughfare. One day we saw people clustered at that wall, throwing roses into the sea in remembrance of Camilo Cienfuegos, who died in a plane crash over the sea after the revolution. The sunlight was golden on stately buildings with sometimes cracking plaster and peeling paint. There was extraordinary music, everywhere. Young musicians there learn music on the state's dime; they play in bands and on rooftops and in the streets. It's facile to say that when one lives with hardship, the gifts of music and of spiritual life are more palpable. But I kept having that thought anyway.

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As we moved deeper into the countryside, we started to encounter people who would come up to us with a hand out. They weren't asking for money. They were asking for soap or shampoo. Everyone in Cuba is guaranteed health care, which is pretty extraordinary. But once we left the city for the provinces, a lot of people didn't have soap. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like a fantasy to us," said one person who had traveled abroad and had seen American big-box stores and pharmacies.

I've thought of that often since the pandemic began. And when Stop and Shop in North Adams started running out of things, early-ish in the pandemic -- you remember: for a while there, we couldn't buy flour, or dried beans, or toilet paper -- I thought of the mostly-empty shelves in the Cuban stores we visited.

In the spring when here in the US we faced simultaneous food shortages and produce rotting in the fields, I remembered stories of Cubans going hungry after the Soviet Union fell. They told us about eating grass to try to fill their bellies while citrus fruits rotted in the fields because there was no gasoline to transport them. And I thought of how our Cuban cousins must be doing now, as the combination of pandemic and trade embargo keeps their shelves even emptier, and keeps their Jewish cousins from abroad away, with our tzedakah and our care and our desperately-needed duffel bags of aspirin and soap.

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And yet when I think of the Cuban Jews we met last fall, what I remember is not what they didn't have, but what they did: their warmth and their kindness, their connectedness and their pride. I remember the music, everywhere. I remember their beautiful synagogue sanctuaries: the Patronato in Havana, which seemed plucked right out of the 1960s just like the classic cars that serve as taxis, and the beautiful little painted synagogue in Santa Clara where we celebrated the coming-of-age of a Cuban bat mitzvah -- rebuilt with tzedakah from the Cuba America Jewish Mission and travelers like us.

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Most of all, I remember their love. One day we visited Rebecca Langus in the provincial city of Cienfuegos. The entire Jewish community there is eighteen people. They meet for services in her living room, on white monobloc plastic chairs that otherwise sit stacked on her tiny mirpesset next to her laundry line. She teaches the Hebrew school, which is currently three children, using books donated by Jewish visitors from abroad, like us. She works tirelessly to keep her community alive. After her prepared remarks, the four rabbis on the trip chatted with her. We asked her how she does it, and what gives her hope.

"Everything I do, I do for love," she said simply. That could not have been more clear: her love for her community, for our shared traditions, for Jewishness itself, shone from her like light.

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She told us that when they meet for Shabbat, they always have a minyan. I thought: there are only fifteen Jewish adults in this city of 150,000. Two-thirds of the Jews in town need to show up if anyone is going to say kaddish. And... they do. And if there is a fuel shortage, which often there is, they catch a ride on a donkey-pulled cart, or they walk. Because of love: for our traditions, for community, for each other.

Love brought the Jews of Cuba together to celebrate a bat mitzvah while we were there. Many walked miles, some for days, because new US sanctions had contributed to another fuel shortage. Our tour bus was able to secure fuel, but most locals weren't. So they walked. Because it was worth it to them to be there for each other.

I felt that same extraordinary sense of community love on our final stop in Cuba, the Spanish colonial city of Camagüey. That community meets in a rented house, where they have a beautiful tiny sanctuary with a hand-painted ark, and a little social hall where we gathered to learn from them and to share songs together. There are 32 people in the Jewish community there. We sang "Am Yisrael chai" -- the people of Israel yet lives! -- which took on a new poignancy there, where for so long the state forbade the practice of any religion at all.

That visit to Camagüey was our last day of the trip, and after a meal with the community there, I listened as my friend and colleague Rabbi David -- who is fluent in Spanish -- asked a young man why he has chosen to stay in Cuba. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere. But the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than whatever money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

Ten days does not make me an expert on the Jews of Cuba. (I suspect that ten years would be insufficient.) But our trip still resonates in me. The Jews I met in Cuba inspired me with how proud they are to be Cuban and to be Jewish. They inspired me in how they show up for each other. Even in a place where for so long it was illegal to practice any religion at all. They inspired me with their love for our traditions, their love for community, their love of country, their love for each other.

The Jews of Cuba live with profound hardship. That was true a year ago; it is even more true now. And yet... when the pandemic began to rage in the US, they reached out to me via Facebook to make sure that we were okay. Because their love and care flows so naturally, even toward we who have so much.

Tonight they too are hearing the words of Kol Nidre, words that release us from the vows we won't be able to live up to. But I don't want to be let off the hook for my promise to keep our connections alive across borders and differences.  Communist or capitalist, Cuban or American, rich or poor, we are part of one Jewish family.

Because of the pandemic, it will probably be a long time before we can gather together again in person in physical space. And... the pandemic also highlights how deeply interconnected we are, even when we're apart. Covid-19 spread around the world because the whole world is interconnected: what happens there has an impact here. What happens to me has an impact on you. This is a deep spiritual truth. It's also a practical one.

And covid-19 is also teaching us other forms of connectedness. Over these pandemic Days of Awe, we've davened with members of our community who live in other places... and with far-flung friends and family who maybe never felt connected with our little shul before. What if we keep all of these connections vibrant and alive in 5781? Imagine the strength and hope and courage we could share with each other through the pandemic winter that is coming. We can be there for each other as our Cuban cousins are there for each other -- and we don't have to walk miles to do it: our connectedness is as close as the click of a computer key.

For that matter, we can be there for our Cuban cousins, too. Rabbi Sunny tells me that right now it's almost impossible to send tzedakah to Cuba. As of this week, a wire transfer sent in July via Panama and Israel has yet to materialize, and a package of much-needed medicines has been missing for sixty days. But we can support the Cuba America Jewish Mission so that when it becomes possible to directly bring help to Cuba again, there are tzedakah dollars to bring.

Talmud teaches that all of Israel is responsible for one another. Our Cuban Jewish cousins live that truth -- not because it's in Talmud, but just because of who and how they are. This Yom Kippur, may we find uplift in the knowledge that under unbelievably difficult circumstances they are praying these words with us too. May we go the extra mile to be there for each other in community, as do our Cuban cousins. And may we find uplift in the knowledge that we share one tradition; that we share one heart; that love connects us all.

 

This is my Kol Nidre sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Wake Up - a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

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כְּנֶ֙שֶׁר֙ יָעִ֣יר קִנּ֔וֹ עַל־גּוֹזָלָ֖יו יְרַחֵ֑ף יִפְרֹ֤שׂ כְּנָפָיו֙ יִקָּחֵ֔הוּ יִשָּׂאֵ֖הוּ עַל־אֶבְרָתֽוֹ׃

Like an eagle who rouses their nestlings, gliding down to their young, So did God spread God's wings and take [us], Bear [us] along on God's pinions. (Deut. 32:11)

This verse from this week's Torah portion, Ha'azinu, leapt out at me this year. The metaphor of God bearing us on eagles' wings, lifting us out of slavery to Pharaoh and out of our constricted places, is not a new one. But what struck me here was the word יעיר, to arouse or to wake up.

Rashi says this image is meant to evoke an eagle who doesn't want to scare its nestlings, so the eagle flaps its wings a few times before coming in to the nest, to wake the young ones up and ensure that they feel strong enough to receive the eagle's coming.

Later in the passage, Rashi says an eagle carries its young on its wings rather than in its claws, because the eagle reasons, "if there is an arrow, better the arrow should pierce me than pierce my young" -- the eagle protects its young, and that's the quality of love that God has for us.

I love the idea of God carrying us on vast eagles' wings, seeking to protect us and uplift us. But even more than that, this year, I'm moved by this language of awakening or arousal.

God's love for us is both protective and a little bit pushy. Torah here imagines God carrying us and keeping us safe -- and also nudging us to wake up.

Just as the shofar's call nudges us to wake up.

Just as this whole season nudges us to wake up.

The commentator known as the Or HaChayyim agrees: "Moses uses the simile of the eagle to show that just as the eagle rouses its young first, so G'd rouses the children of humanity to warn that we have to put our spiritual house in order." This is the season for doing exactly that.

Shabbat Shuvah is our wake-up call. God is the eagle hovering over the nest, flapping mighty wings to urge us to rise up with all our strength and to do what's right. God is the shepherd taking account of each of our lives as we pass beneath the staff, reading the Book of Life that we have written with our choices. God is in the shofar's call -- which sometimes sounds like triumph, and sometimes sounds like anguish -- begging us to wake up.

Not because Yom Kippur begins tomorrow night, although it does.

But because the world needs us to wake up. Our community needs us to wake up. Our souls need us to wake up.

To what do we need to wake up at this moment in our spiritual year?

To what do we need to wake up at this moment in our national life?

Much is going to be asked of us in this new year. We need to wake up. We need to strengthen our souls and strengthen our resolve to stand up for what's right.

God is here to wake us up. To rouse us from our sleep. To arouse in us the yearning to do what's right. To enflame our hearts with a passion for righteous acts and justice: on a personal scale, on a communal scale, on a national scale.

Will we be woken?

 

This is the d'varling I offered on Shabbat Shuvah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Oops, We Did It Again (On Choices, and Momentum, and Change)

Choices

I mentioned a while back that I wrote an extra high holiday sermon. I wrote this for Kol Nidre, and then I decided I wanted instead to offer gleanings from our trip to Cuba at Kol Nidre -- there's plenty in the service itself on these themes. So I'm sharing this now, before Shabbat Shuvah, instead.

 

"Oops, I did it again!" That's Britney Spears.

"Oops, we did it again." That's our liturgy. Communal, not individual. At Kol Nidre we'll stand before God far above or God deep within or the God we're not sure we "believe in," and admit that collectively, we have not lived up to who we meant to be.

And right away, with ahavat olam / unending love, God will forgive us. Immediately after Kol Nidre, I will sing: vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha! "And God says, I have forgiven you, as I said I would." What do we do with that?

We can't let ourselves off the hook while we keep doing the harmful things we've been doing, or enabling or ignoring the harmful things taking place around us. Maimonides compares that to taking a dead lizard into a mikvah: it defeats the whole purpose. And if we do that in the name of our religious tradition -- "see, Judaism says everyone's forgiven, it doesn't matter what we do!" -- that's spiritual bypassing: using the veneer of spirituality to cover over actions that are wrong. That's not what we're here for.

But if we hold on to every place where we missed the mark, then we're stuck. And self-flagellation is not the Jewish way. Yeah, I know, in a few days we're going to spend 25 hours in fasting and prayer and contemplation, but the point isn't to beat ourselves up, it's to open ourselves up. Our task on Yom Kippur is to wrestle with the radical idea that God has already forgiven our screw-ups -- and we need to love ourselves enough to forgive our screw-ups, too. Because there is work to do, and we can't do that work if we're still stuck on the old year's failures.

Letting ourselves off the hook doesn't mean forgetting what we did wrong. It means embracing the radical hope that we can choose differently. It means seeing ourselves through God's loving eyes, eyes that see the best in us and know that we can change.

Our behaviors and feelings, and the patterns that we unconsciously live out over and over again, come from somewhere. They're the products of causes: I feel this because I did that. (Or maybe: I feel this because long ago someone else did that.) Our actions and choices and feelings and patterns have momentum. And that momentum plays a large role in shaping our world.

The coronavirus pandemic is happening because of choices and momentum. Some were unwitting choices, the actions of asymptomatic carriers who had no idea they were spreading a virus around the world. Some  were conscious choices, the actions of people who thought the virus was hype. Many were systemic choices: hospitals in poor communities and communities of color tend to be under-resourced. Poor people and people of color are likelier to be in service industries, or meatpacking factories, or prisons, where viral spread is worst. The pandemic "is what it is" because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.

The climate crisis is happening because of choices and momentum. Some were unwitting choices, like the enormous bright blue gas-guzzling Buick my parents bought in 1975. Some were conscious choices, the actions of people who thought they weren't really impacting the whole. Many  were systemic choices: giant corporations acting with impunity, a government uninterested in conservation choosing to gut existing environmental protections. The climate crisis "is what it is" because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.

Antisemitism happens because of choices and momentum. Today QAnon peddles the ancient antisemitic hatreds in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document purporting to "prove" that Jews intend to take over the world.  The first open QAnon supporter will likely be elected to Congress in November. Antisemitism and conspiracy theories flourish in our world because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.

But momentum can be changed. Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur, are fundamentally about the truth that we can change our patterns. The past does not need to be prologue.

Once a large ship is moving through the ocean, its own momentum helps to carry it forward -- and yet with effort even the largest of ships can be turned. The course of a nation can be turned. The course of our world can be turned. The first step is our own turning: in Hebrew, teshuvah. Teshuvah offers us the radical turn of recognizing that we can choose differently.

Maimonides asked, how do we know if someone has truly made teshuvah? His answer is: when the person is faced with the opportunity to sin in the same way as before, and this time they make a different choice. This is evergreen: Maimonides wrote it around 1180! But it has never felt so impactful to me as it does now. The stakes have never been higher.

We are living through the worst global pandemic in living memory. Spread, in part, through a deadly combination of the close quarters of poverty, systemic injustice that keeps people working even when sick, and the interconnectedness of our globe. The climate crisis plays a part too: rising seas and searing droughts drive poverty, which in turn drives migration... and drives the desperation that leads people to work in unsafe conditions.

That same interconnectedness could be our greatest strength, if we could harness it to bring change -- along with clean running water, and soap, and access to health care, and humane labor policies.

So which one is it going to be in 5781?

God forgives us because God's loving eyes see us not only as we are but as we can become. God can see us already living-out our highest selves, our most ethical choices, the actions that will create patterns of goodness and justice, uplift and hope. We need to see ourselves into being better -- and then make that vision real. We need teshuvah: that internal turn that enables us to turn the ship.

This year especially, I think teshuvah calls us to take the risk of cultivating hope. I know that hope can be painful. When we open our hearts to hope, we have to face the brokenness of the world we've got now. As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz often says, "This world is super broken."

This world is super broken. And building a better one is our job, as Jews and as human beings.

Our actions and choices and patterns shape our world. Will we do the work to change our choices, to reverse our momentum, to build a better world in the year to come? 

 

 


The Courage to Stand Up, With Love

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I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded this version to go live on my blog around the same time I was offering it at Zoom services. If you want to watch the video, it's embedded above and is here on YouTube. Or, if you prefer to read it, you can read on, below...

 

Do you remember how you felt when you heard the news about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting?

I remember feeling shock and horror and disbelief. I remember feeling grief. I remember our synagogue sanctuary filled with members of the Northern Berkshire community who came together for a vigil in grief and remembrance.

And I remember coming to shul the very next Shabbat -- with a prickle of anxiety running through my veins -- and stopping short when I saw the "graffiti love-in" all around our front door.

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I knew it was coming. Someone I did not know had reached out to me earlier that week, saying that a group of non-Jewish allies wanted to organize a show of support for us. They didn't want to surprise us in a way that would compound our feelings of un-safety, so they asked first.

But even though I knew they were doing something, I couldn't picture what it would be. I didn't know how it would feel to drive up to our shul one week after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and be greeted with chalk art and signs and cards and banners proclaiming that the North Adams community values us and wants us to be safe and wants us to be here.

Their gift made me weep tears of joy -- because we are seen, and cherished, and uplifted. And not just by other Jews but by non-Jewish people, by people who are not part of our community or part of our covenant. But they saw that we were afraid, and they stood up for us and said, "you matter; we want you here; we've got your back."

There's a reason that the most oft-repeated commandment in Torah instructs us to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thirty-six times Torah tells us to love the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the vulnerable population, because we know how it feels to be in those shoes. The instruction is in the plural: v'ahavtem et ha-ger, y'all shall love the stranger. This isn't an individual commandment: it's a communal mitzvah. Together, we love the stranger because we know how it feels.

We know how it feels.

And that's why I have two signs on my condo front door. One is a blue mogen David that says "Chai Y'all!" I want it to be clear to anyone who drives by that I am Jewish, I am here, I am visible, and I am welcoming! (And I say y'all.) The other is a sign that says Black Lives Matter.

I know that some Jews are uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter movement because of real or perceived connections between BLM and pro-Palestinian sentiment. I empathize with that discomfort. And there are many intellectual conversations we can have about BLM and Israel / Palestine. But I believe that Jewish values call us to stand up for Black lives even if we feel some discomfort. We need to "de-center" ourselves, because right now this isn't about us -- it's about standing up for the victims of prejudice and violence. And that's work we do with our hearts and our souls, not just our intellect.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a grassroots coalition of many organizations, focused on saving the lives of Black people and people of color by changing how we do public safety and policing.

The vast majority of people protesting or holding vigils or putting signs on their lawns are not thinking about international issues (including the Middle East). They're thinking about George Floyd who died gasping "I can't breathe" to the officer kneeling on his neck. They're thinking about Eric Garner who died gasping the same thing to the officer holding him in a chokehold. They're thinking of Tamir Rice, killed at twelve because an officer mistook his toy for a gun. They're thinking about Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Atiana Jefferson and Stephon Clark and Botham Jean and Philando Castile.

And maybe they're thinking about the Greensboro Four, brutally beaten for daring to sit at a Woolworth's lunch counter. Or Emmett Till, lynched because someone thought he smiled at a white woman. Or the countless Black souls ripped from home and brought to this nation in chains. Or the reality that Black people are dying of covid-19 at rates far higher than white people. Or 400 years of communal experience and communal trauma showing them just how little Black lives have mattered on these shores.

Just as we need non-Jewish allies to stand up for us when there are attacks on Jews, Black people in this country need allies to stand up for them when they are under attack. 

And it's not an either/or. There are many Black Jews who feel keenly both of these forms of oppression, both antisemitism and racism. Not in our little rural community, but in the broader Jewish community. We owe it to them to stand up for them.... and we need to stand up for non-Jewish Black lives, too.

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein, who serves as a police chaplain, expresses the needs of this moment with a policing metaphor from Sergeant Dan Rouse: "If we get a call about a domestic violence incident [at a particular address], we don't stop at every other house along the way. If you go to a fundraiser for breast cancer, you don't stop at every other fundraiser along the way and say all cancers matter. Right now, Black lives are hurting." That's the call we need to answer.

Remember how it felt to see those signs of support on our synagogue doors? I hope that's how it feels for Black people to see a Black Lives Matter sign. It signifies that someone who sees their trauma and their fear is willing to stand up in the name of their safety. It means that someone who maybe doesn't look like them nevertheless wants for them basic human rights and human dignity.

I mentioned earlier the discomfort that I know some of us feel around the connection between Black Lives Matter and support for the Palestinian cause. I honor the discomfort, and I understand it. And... I think our discomfort is part of our spiritual work in this time of American reckoning with institutionalized racism. I think part of our work as white-skinned Jews is saying: what you're enduring is untenable and we stand with you against it, and any disagreements we might have about politics can wait.

We need to stand up for each other even when we feel discomfort. Safety and basic human dignity are the birthright of every human being, no matter what -- or at least, they should be, and if they're not, then we have work to do. And standing up for one another's safety and dignity is a moral imperative more important than any political disagreement.

In her book Braving the Wilderness, social scientist Brene Brown notes that the English word courage is related to the French coeur: heart. Having courage means having heart. Having courage means listening to the heart and acting from the heart.

It takes courage to stand up for our fellow human beings when they are under threat. It takes courage to stand up and say: I will fight for your human rights and your dignity and your right to live safely. Even if your skin looks different from mine. Even if your politics are different from mine. 

Standing up for Black lives is an act of hope that we can build a better America, an America where everyone truly enjoys the rights that our Declaration of Independence enumerates, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, when that Declaration was written, the only people who merited those rights were white men! Thank God our laws no longer enshrine those injustices. But those injustices persist, and our work is not complete.

Standing up for Black lives asks us to confront our own stuff that might get in the way. It asks us to do our own inner work, and to learn how to be actively antiracist -- to resist and change the subtle and pervasive racism that's baked in to our nation's history and its present.  That kind of inner work is exactly what this season of teshuvah, repentance and return, is for.

Remember the kindness our non-Jewish North Adams neighbors extended to us after Pittsburgh? Standing up for Black lives is how we can "pay it forward."

Torah asks us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt and we know how it feels. We know how it feels! And we know how it feels when our neighbors stand up for us. May our knowledge move us to stand up for Black lives with hope and courage and heart.

 

 


For further reading: from the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, Black Lives Matter, American Jews, and Anti-Semitism: Distinguishing Between the Organization(s), the Movement, and the Ubiquitous Phrase [pdf] 2020.

 

This is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi Blog.)


Holy at Home, With Love

Here's a recording of my sermon if you'd rather watch it than read it. (It's here on YouTube.) Or, read below...

 

Screen Shot 2020-09-18 at 9.44.44 PMNot quite two thousand years ago, the Roman army sacked the second Temple.

That's a tough place to begin my words to you on erev Rosh Hashanah! But in a way, it's where tonight's story begins.

The Temple was the center of our universe. It was our axis mundi, the holy connection point between this world and God.

And then it was destroyed.

Judaism could have ended when the second Temple fell. The Temple was the site of our daily offerings to God. Our whole religious system was built around it! We could have given up hope. That could have been the end of the Jewish people and the Jewish story.

Thank God, it wasn't. That destruction sparked a paradigm shift in how we "do Jewish." Jewish life become portable, something we could take with us into every corner of the globe. The center of Jewish life became the synagogue, which aspires to be a beit knesset (house of community gathering), beit midrash (house of study), and beit tefilah (house of prayer) all in one.

And, some would say: the center of Jewish life became the Shabbes table. Tradition teaches that the table where we celebrate Shabbat each week is a mikdash me'aht, a tiny sanctuary. The home table replaces the altar of old; the twin loaves of challah replace the doubled Shabbat offerings on that altar; and holy space becomes... wherever we make it.

Never has that seemed so true to me as it does right now... or as necessary.

Six months ago when we began sheltering-in-place to stop the spread of covid-19, we hoped that a few months of disciplined quarantine would quell the pandemic and that we would be back together again in person by Rosh Hashanah. Instead here we still are: making Rosh Hashanah in our homes, keeping each other safe by staying physically apart.

Our synagogue is still a house of gathering, a house of study, and a house of prayer... and right now all three of those houses are our own houses. Our challenge is learning how to create sacred space here at home where we are. Learning how to create community together when we can't embrace or sing in harmony. Learning how to find holiness in our everyday spaces, and how to feel community connections even when we're apart.

It turns out that Judaism has some spiritual technologies designed for exactly these purposes. The Shabbes table is one of them -- a white tablecloth, maybe some flowers, the Shabbes candles burning to remind us of the first light of Creation and the light of revelation at Sinai. These are tools for making sacred space.

Another is tzitzit, wearing fringes on the corner of our garments to remind us of the mitzvot -- that's a tool for mindfulness, and for community connection. Our community's tradition of making bracelets each year serves the same purpose. For several years now we've printed silicone bracelets for the Days of Awe. This year's bracelets read:

Love ♥ Ahavat Olam ♥ Rebirth ♥ Courage ♥ Resilience ♥ Teshuvah ♥

There are two transliterated Hebrew words or phrases. One is teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning ourselves in the right direction again. That's the fundamental move of this season, and that word has been on our bracelets every year we've gotten them printed. The other is ahavat olam, a phrase from daily liturgy. It means unending love, or forever love, or eternal love. Our tradition tells us that God loves us with ahavat olam.

For some of us "the G-word" is a stumbling block. Which God, what God, what do we mean by God -- God far above, God deep within, Parent, Sovereign, Creator, Beloved? And for some of us "the L-word" might be equally challenging. The word love gets so overused it becomes almost meaningless.

"Wait 'til you hear this song, you're going to love it!"

Fiddler on the Roof: "Do you love me?" ("Do I what?!")

My son would tell you that he loves Minecraft and plain vanilla soft-serve. That's not the same thing I mean when I tell him that I love him.

When I say I love my child, I'm talking about something profound and soul-expanding. If "I love ice cream" is a five on the love scale, maybe "I love my child" is 500... and ahavat olam is infinity. And I think in this pandemic year, we need connection with that sense of infinite ahavat olam more than ever before.

That's why love -- ahavat olam -- is our theme for this year's Days of Awe. And our four cups tonight at our Rosh Hashanah seder represent different facets of love.

The first cup was for creative love. One of my favorite teachings holds that God created the universe of love, because God yearned to be in relationship with us.

Our second cup was for courageous love. Love asks us to risk disappointing each other. To risk speaking difficult truths. To act with courage and integrity, even when we feel as though we're in the wilderness.

Our third cup just now was for resilient love. In this season of teshuvah, love asks of us the resilience to honestly turn our lives around.

And before Mourner's Kaddish we'll bless a cup of tears, evoking love that remembers.

Tonight we're celebrating Rosh Hashanah while sheltering-in-place. We're making our home spaces holy, and learning how to feel connected as a community from all the various places where we are. These are actions that we take to protect each other, to prevent viral spread, to care for those who are medically vulnerable and immunocompromised. They're actions we take out of love.

Our bracelets this year also say rebirth: because tradition says that today the world is reborn, because this season is our chance to begin again. They say resilience, because the new year calls us to resilience; because the pandemic calls us to resilience; because authentic spiritual life calls us to resilience. And they say courage, because starting over takes courage. And living during a pandemic takes courage. And as Brene Brown reminds us, "courage" has its roots in the French word coeur: heart. Courage takes heart. Which brings us back once again to love.

May these Days of Awe strengthen our resilience and our courage and our heart. May they help us find holiness at home, here in all the physical places where we are. And may we emerge from this sacred season more able to give and receive love in all the ways that our world most needs.

L'shanah tovah.

 

This was my brief d'varling from tonight's Erev Rosh Hashanah Seder (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Shine

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Silverware, soaking.

 

It's the week before Rosh Hashanah. I have a million things to do, there's never been a High Holiday season quite like this pandemic one, and I'm... polishing silverware. Somewhere in the afterlife my mother is cheering, "Attagirl!" 

A few days ago I was looking for a photograph of apples and honey to put on my synagogues's Facebook page. I found one. And I also found photos from seven years ago, when mom was well enough to travel and my parents were here for the holidays.

There are photos of my mom (of blessed memory) cooking in the kitchen of my old house. She managed somehow to look elegant even in a borrowed apron wielding a knife over a head of cabbage! And there is a photo of my dad polishing the silver.

Because my mother was not pleased with the amount of tarnish on my silver, so she asked Dad to polish it while she cooked. I remember being half-amused and half-embarrassed. I remember thinking: well, I guess it gives him something to do.

Mom is gone now. This will be my second High Holiday season without her in this world. I'm endlessly thankful that through the alchemy of mourning, my once-sharp grief has transmuted into gratitude and fond remembrance, at least most of the time.

She'll still be at my table. I have her monogrammed white napkins, which I used at our little family seder, and which I will use again on Friday night. I have her silver napkin rings, each one different from the others. And I have her wedding silver.

It's my everyday silverware now. When I moved out, I took Mom's silver with me, and I decided to use it for everyday. I didn't want to spend money on another set of flatware, and besides, what's the point of having beautiful things if not to use them?

But my silverware is once again tarnished. Mom would not be pleased. So in between testing my high holiday slide decks on different devices, I'm lining my roasting pan with tinfoil and filling it with silver and boiling water and baking soda.

And then I'm rinsing away the slippery baking soda-water and patting the pieces dry with torn pieces from a soft old t-shirt. Rubbing their tarnish away and returning them to their places in the silverware drawer, ready once again to shine. 

It feels like a metaphor for the work of the season. (Early-autumn cleaning always does.) Finding our tarnished places and cleaning away the grime left by the old year's misdeeds so that our souls can be ready once again to shine. 


Liturgy for Sukkot in times of covid-19

Before Tisha b'Av, I gathered a group of liturgists to collaborate on a project that became Megillat Covid, Lamentations for this time of covid-19.

In recent weeks we've gathered again -- in slightly different configuration -- to build something new for this pandemic season: a set of prayer-poems for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which we've titled Ushpizin. That's the Aramaic word for guests, usually used to refer to the practice of inviting ancestral / supernal guests like Abraham and Sarah into our Sukkah... though this year, what does it mean to invite Biblical guests when many of us don't feel safe inviting in-person guests? That's the question that gave rise to the project.

The prayers / poems that we wrote arose out of that question and more. What does it mean to find safety in a sketch of a dwelling in this pandemic year? With what, or whom, are we "sitting" when we sit in our sukkot this year? What about those of us who can't build this year at all? And what can our Simchat Torah be if we are sheltering-in-place, or if our shul buildings are closed, or if we are not gathering in person with others? 

For Megillat Covid, we each wrote a piece and then I collected them. This time our creative process was different. Four of us collectively wrote nine pieces, and then we met to workshop them and revise them together, in hopes of creating not just nine individual prayers but a whole that would be more than the sum of its parts. And then we wrote the tenth prayer-poem together as a collaboration... and Steve Silbert offered a couple of sketchnotes, too.

You can click through to Builders Blog to read excerpts from our ten poems and to download the whole collection as a PDF, and I hope you will -- I'm really proud of this collection, and humbled and honored to have convened the group that brought it to life.

 


Just like always

Every year I write an extra high holiday sermon. Not on purpose! It just happens. Every year, it seems, I write my three sermons... and then realize that one of them is predictable, or trite, or doesn't say anything new, or doesn't speak to the unique needs of this moment. I could publish a book of the sermons I never gave. (I won't. But I'm amused that I could.)

In that sense, preparing for the Days of Awe this year has been just like every other year. I make an outline for every service, trying to balance Hebrew with English, song with spoken-word, familiar with new. I thrill to cherished ancient melodies. I practice singing, and I jot musical motifs on Post-it notes so I don't lose track of which melodic mode we're in. Just like always.

And who am I kidding: preparing for the holidays this year has been unlike any other, ever. I translated my machzor into a slide deck, adding images and artwork and embedded video, adding new readings and prayers for this pandemic moment. I made it much longer! and then I cut, ruthlessly, because services need to be a manageable length for Zoom, and they need to flow. 

I'm trying to help my kid get ready for school. He's growing like mint, like a sunflower. There is a stack of new notebooks and pencils on his desk. There's also a school-issued Chromebook. The year will begin with two weeks of remote learning before we enter a "hybrid model" phase. The juxtaposition of normal and unprecedented is itself becoming our new normal.

My kitchen counter is heaped with beautiful lush heirloom tomatoes from the CSA where I've been a member since 1995. I eat them sliced, on toast with cream cheese; cubed, with peaches, topped with burratini and a splash of balsamic vinegar; plain, like impossibly juicy apples. Any minute now their season will end, and I will miss this late-summer abundance fiercely.

There's a gentle melancholy to this season for me, every year. The changing light; the first branches turning red and gold; the knowledge that the season will turn and there's nothing I can do to stop it... I sit on my mirpesset, arms and legs bared to the warm breeze, listening to late-summer cricketsong. I know their song isn't forever. That, at least, really is just like always.

 

 


Blessing and curse in pandemic times

Blessing-and-curseLast week my son and I were watching the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix. There's a moment where two teenagers are kissing on a bench, and with a flick of her wand, Dolores Umbridge separates them by several feet.

We've seen this film several times before. But this time, six months in to the pandemic, my son joked, "Look, Mom, social distancing!" And we both laughed.

The laughter feels complicated for me as a parent. I know he's layering this pandemic experience over what he sees in movies or on tv because it helps him process needing to stay apart. It breaks my heart that he has to do that. And I'm also glad that he can find a way to make sense of what's happening, and even to joke about it, as we stay apart from loved ones in order to keep each other safe.

In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses says: I want these six tribes to stand on this mountain for a blessing, and those six tribes to stand on that mountain for a curse. Reading that verse this year, my mind made the move my son keeps making: "look, it's social distancing!" Okay, obviously not. But then I thought: actually, this matter of blessing and curse does feel relevant.

Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark." Literally, moving someone's landmark means causing them to be lost. Spiritually, this verse resonates for me as a teaching about gaslighting. One who claims that the pandemic is hype, denying the reality of more than six million cases in the United States alone, is denying reality's landmarks.

Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way." In a literal sense, this teaching seems obvious. Spiritually, I think of the claims about quack remedies for covid-19, from hydroxychloroquine to drinking bleach. Remember when emergency rooms started reporting an uptick in people who poisoned themselves by blindly following that bad advice?

Torah teaches, "Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow." In Torah's paradigm, this is a way of saying "the powerless." Torah here condemns the one who disenfranchises or harms those who are vulnerable. I don't think that one requires any translation. Literally and spiritually, it's a clear instruction for this pandemic moment. 

And then Torah says: the curses aren't our only option. If we observe the mitzvot and act in accordance with God's commandments, we will experience the opposite outcome. We'll be blessed in our homes and in our fields, our flocks and our herds, in city and country, in our comings and in our goings... if only we observe the mitzvot and do not deviate from them.

In years past I've struggled with the blessings and curses articulated in Torah. The curses seem so punitive. I don't believe in a God Who sits on high and throws punishments at us like lightning bolts from Mount Olympus! Many of you have told me over the years that that's not your theology either, and that encountering it each year in Deuteronomy is challenging. For me, too.

But this year I'm reading these verses through the lens of global pandemic. This year I don't see these as teachings about divine punishment at all. I'm reading them as teachings about our power to shape the world in which we live. I think Torah is reminding us that we bring about the blessings or the curses by dint of our choices. (And suddenly it feels like Yom Kippur.)

If we gaslight each other, if we misdirect each other, if we subvert each others' rights -- those actions themselves are curses, and they carry their own consequences with them. They harm the fabric of community. They damage trust. And in this pandemic moment, they contribute to the spread of the virus that continues to ravage our interconnected human family across the globe.

And if we do what's right -- if we persist in the discomfort of our masks and strict social distancing in order to protect each other and especially to protect the vulnerable -- those actions themselves are blessings, and they carry their own consequences with them, too. When we choose to act in those ways, we bless each other with our mutual concern and care.

May we continue to bless each other with our mutual concern and care, through this pandemic and beyond.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)