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?

Continue reading "Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783" »


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

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The author of these words, Charles Dickens, was a virulent antisemite, and his opening words from A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 England might well describe us on this Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783.  

Each year we call Rosh Hashanah a new start, and this Rosh Hashanah falls on troubled times.  Science is taming the pandemic, and gun violence is raging.  Global living standards are the best ever, and Mississippi’s entire capital city just went days without drinking water while one third of Pakistan was under water.  The world is more peaceful than at any time since Charles Dickens, and the Ukraine war threatens global stability. 

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Genuine commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are blossoming, and antisemitism is resurging.  The U.S. just made historic investments in clean energy, and climate disasters are mounting.  Democracy’s guardrails held, and they are at risk.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Both are true.  And the both-ness of our “best of times” and “worst of times,” the emotional and cognitive load of it all, has been a rollercoaster.  We’ve felt afraid, courageous, overloaded, numb, sickened, healed, inspired, disgusted, hopeful, helpless, angry, overjoyed and just plain tired – sometimes in rapid succession, sometimes all in the same day.

Continue reading "Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)" »


Since

since the election
since Nazis marched
in Charlottesville
since the pandemic started
and we ran out of PPE
and that guy suggested drinking bleach

since facts became debatable
(like how viruses work
and whether science is real)
since Kentucky flooded
since the tarmac at Heathrow
melted from extreme heat

since monkeypox
and sly insinuations
since Don't Say Gay
and teachers hiding who they are
and students hiding under desks
since I lost track of school shootings

since that time they said
"it doesn't matter
if we lose, we'll just
claim victory" and then did
since smashed windows in the Capitol
since Confederate flags

since democracy buckled
since I realized
democracy had been buckling
for a long time
since misinformation
since SCOTUS erased rights

since fear-mongering
about "groomers"
about "critical race theory"
since the latest flyer
blaming everything on
hook-nosed yarmulke-wearers

since I realized
how much they hate us
since it became unsafe
to be 
since I realized
it's never been safe

 


I've been poking at this poem for a while. There's a sense that life's just been a lot lately. I'm noticing it in conversations, in pastoral interactions, everywhere I go. So many things are broken. "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," in the words of my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l, so that feeling became the impetus for the poem. 

Tisha b'Av is in a few days. Seems like an apt time to be sitting with what's broken. 

I think a lot about how catastrophe is not a new story for us as Jews. The Jewish people has endured difficult times before, and our tradition gives us tools for navigating times like these with integrity and perhaps even grace. This year I think we're all living in this brokenness, which is why this year I'll be using Tisha b'Av to harness hope. (Join us on Zoom if you are so inclined.)


Not the First

the same poem that appears below, beside a photograph of tealight candles

 

Lately the drumbeat of lies,
the erosion of rights feel like
constant bombardment.
I know incitement of hatred
is never good for the Jews.
I also know we're not the first
generation to live like this.
When bad news batters at the windows
I remember the Jews who fled Europe
and those who couldn’t leave in time.
Aish Kodesh, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto
who buried wisdom in a coffee can
before the Nazis shot him.
I remember Cossacks, Crusades, Rome
all the way back to exile
by the waters of Babylon...
Every Friday night I cup
my hands around twin flames.
Millennia of ancestors stand
behind me. Their hope still burns.
I mean clear-eyed awareness
of just how broken this world is
and refusal to let that be
the last word. Yes, everything’s
shattered, our mystics told us that.
They also knew beneath every shard
is a holy spark nothing can ever quench.

Originally published at Bayit.

 

That's one of the poems I wrote for Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group, to share as part of our collaborative offering for Tisha b'Av this year, which is called For the Sake of Ascent.

This year, it feels like we live in Tisha b'Av -- in the brokenness -- all the time. Between ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, and the stripping-away of rights, there's no escaping what hurts.

This year, we wanted our Tisha b'Av offering to acknowledge the broken places, but beyond that, to offer some meaning and hope despite all of our shattered places... or maybe in them and through them. 

And this year, the holiday falls on Shabbat, so it will be observed the following day, which is actually the tenth of Av -- and the first day of the reverse Omer count, the 49-day journey toward Rosh Hashanah.

That's the hook on which our offering hangs. The lowest point of our year is also the beginning of uplift: from rock bottom, where else is there to go? We respond to what's broken with building back better.

The theme for Bayit's Tisha b'Av collaboration this year is Descent for the Sake of Ascent. This is a Hasidic idea that I deeply love. In a word, our falling down is precisely the first step of our rising up.

Anyway: I hope you'll click through to read the whole collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Tisha b'Av, available both as a PDF and as google slides: For the Sake of Ascent - Tisha b'Av 5782.


Titanic

Unfortunately I did not manage
to solve gun violence today.
Instead I soaked a cup of beans
-- big plump ayocote negros --
and simmered them with a mirepoix
of shallot and celery, peppercorn
and bay. Tonight I'll peel and fry
the blackest plantain, dusting
ginger and red pepper flakes
over its sweet insides.
Probably more people were shot
today, somewhere, many of them
with weapons that do damage
no surgeon can repair. Also
the Supreme Court keeps
stripping rights away, and
people say that's only the start.
Did you know there's a megadrought
in the southwest, the worst
it's been in twelve hundred years?
Armageddon isn't included
in my theology, though
that doesn't preclude collapse
of climate, or government, or
everything I hold dear. Still
I offered a prayer for gratitude
when I got out of bed, cooked
black beans, prepared for Shabbes.
I may be rearranging deck chairs
or conducting the string quartet
on the Titanic, but the thing is
this life is the only boat we have.
There might as well be beauty
and a meal, a prayer and a song.


 

with weapons that do damage / no surgeon can repair - See What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic

the Supreme Court keeps / stripping rights away - See What Rights Could Be Next?, Politico; The End of Roe Could Be Just the Beginning, GQ

Did you know there's a megadrought - See Megadrought In the Southwest Is Now The Worst In At Least 1200 Years, Study Confirms, State of the Planet. 


Glimmer

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Not yet twilight.


We were sitting on the deck, as we often do on summer evenings. My son had brought his portable bluetooth speaker outside and was quietly listening to his favorite songs on Spotify.

The sky darkened, and I marveled at its changes, as I always do. We spotted the crescent moon. "Is it waxing or waning?" my son asked.

"Waxing," I told him. "This is the new moon of Tamuz, the month just started." I remembered the printed list of beloved things that my mother left in her files for us to include in her obituary. The moon was on that list. 

Then my kid squinted into the gloaming. "What is that?"

I stood up and looked out toward the stand of trees on the far side of the expanse of condo lawn. "What is what?"

"Those little... sparkles."

"Those are fireflies."

"Wait, really?"

A tiny spark. Another one. Flickering pinpricks of light across the lawn's expanse.

I wanted to snap a picture, but my phone's camera couldn't make them out. The naked eye could, though. Little glints of light, like flecks of gold in the evening air.

I have a vague idea that fireflies are more rare now than they used to be, a casualty of light pollution and our changing climate. I remember an antique children's book in Czech about fireflies that used to be displayed in my parents' library. I wonder which of their descendants has that book now. My mother loved fireflies, too. 

"Awesome, right?" I asked my son, and he agreed enthusiastically. We made a shechecheyanu, sanctifying the moment and our aliveness in it -- and the fireflies' aliveness, too.

There's so much that I don't know how to fix. But I am grateful for moments like these, even though I can't hold on to them.

Every moment sparkles, if I look at it right. Every moment slips free from my cupped hands and is gone.


Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now

 

Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now
In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (
Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, "If only we had died in Egypt!"

God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old fashioned map of the United States featuring Biblical place names

The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah's stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don't have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)

For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land -- and that the Mohican people are still around!)

Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.

My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.

And yet we know that America's promise of liberty and justice for all wasn't originally "for all" -- only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.

Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol... and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn't believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.

The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen -- some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.

None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.

But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe... and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government's ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn't looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.

So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope's not a feeling, it's a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year -- or how necessary.

Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer: 

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught 
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise 
passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching 
together.
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it's easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.

But look again closely at that verse in this week's Torah portion. "We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes." We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us -- and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.

We might not get all the way "there." But that doesn't absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.

The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we -- in Torah's language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself -- so fragile and full of life.

MLK quote: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice

Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it's aleinu -- it's on us -- to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most. 

 

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


Announcing From Narrow Places

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Co-creating new liturgy for these difficult times is one of the things that has brought me spiritual sustenance over the last eighteen months. I'm honored to have convened this extraordinary group of artists, liturgists, and poets, rabbis and laypeople alike, and I'm humbled by the knowledge that our work has uplifted hearts and souls in many places.

I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book, and I hope that what's in it will sustain you.

Now available for $18 -- From Narrow Places: liturgy, poetry and art of the pandemic era from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Allie Fischman, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz PhD, Steve Silbert, R. Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, writes,

For too many, prayer is a vending machine experience and so unsurprisingly it no longer works. And then there are the poets and liturgists in this heart opening collection From Narrow Places who know prayer is a powerful way of consciously surrendering to the mystery and exquisite bittersweetness of Life. This collection of prayers will inspire and enchant you – the real job prayer is supposed to get done.

And Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, professor at University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual, writes,

From Narrow Places gives language and imagery to the Jewish spiritual creativity that is still holding us up through the pandemic. I pray that speedily in our days we will look back at this volume as a testimony to how Jews of one era weathered a crisis and emerged even stronger. For now, it chronicles how the richness of Jewish living, full and fluid, is holding us up in these challenging days. I will confess: each page unlocked doors to my unexamined disappointments, sorrows and even deep joys. Many tears, but good ones.


Abundance and dreams, resilience and hope: Miketz and Chanukah

Banner (1)Pharaoh's dreams (artist unknown); an oil-lamp chanukiyah.


This week we continue the Joseph story. In this installment, Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams. In one dream, seven happy fat cows emerge from the Nile, followed by seven emaciated cows who eat the fat ones. In the other, the same thing happens with ripe ears of corn and shrunken ones.

No one in his court can interpret the dreams. And then the cupbearer pipes up: I was in your prison a while back, and there was a Hebrew prisoner who interpreted dreams! So Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who says, the dreams mean that seven good years are coming, followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph tells Pharaoh to set someone wise in charge of his storehouses, someone who can save during the years of plenty so there will be food to eat in the lean times. Pharaoh promptly promotes him, saying, "Could we ever possibly find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

(Or in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Hey yo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man.")

Pharaoh's dreams are about guarding our resources. When there is abundance, set some aside and save it for when there won't be. And this isn't just about individual households saving what they can; Joseph sets aside grain for the whole nation, so the government can make sure everyone makes it through. 

Every year, we read this at Chanukah. As my b-mitzvah students learned this week, there are different stories we can tell about Chanukah. One is the story of oppression and war in the books of Maccabees -- which were not canonized into the Hebrew Bible, though they are part of some Christian Bibles.

Another is the story of the sanctified oil that lasted for eight days. That narrative comes to us from Talmud, and it's the one our tradition chose to enshrine. That Chanukah story is a story about hope, and enough-ness, and the leap into faith when we don't feel like we have enough fuel to keep hope burning.

Sometimes we feel like we don't have enough. Maybe we feel that we ourselves aren't enough. Maybe life feels overwhelming, and in the words of the poet William Stafford, "The darkness around us is deep." The Chanukah story asks us to kindle light exactly then. That's when we need hope most.

This week Torah says: don't use everything up -- resources are finite! Save some of what you have so you can help everyone make it through the lean times! Meanwhile the Chanukah story says: kindle the eternal light, even if you're going to run out of oil! So which one is right? They both are.

The Torah teaching is about things we can touch: protecting our natural resources, not eating all the grain, making sure we can feed people when there's famine. The Chanukah teaching is metaphysical: it's not about oil, but about hope. It's about kindling hope in our hearts, and keeping hope burning.

Earth and water and air and trees and food are finite, and we need to steward them carefully and share them equitably -- that's a big one, we're working on that. But hope provides its own fuel. And like love, it doesn't diminish when we share it. Being a Jew -- for me -- means living up to both of these truths.

We need to be wise with our resources, and help people who live at sea level, and nations that don't yet have enough vaccines. That's never been more true than it is now. And we need to keep hope kindled in our hearts, even when the world seems hopeless, especially when the world seems hopeless. 

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman (b. 1772) struggled with depression. And yet he taught that despair is a sin. Because despair means the complete absence of hope. And that means we've given up on each other, and on ourselves, and on God. And if we've given up, we won't work to repair what's broken.

That's another thing it means to me to be a Jew: tikkun olam, repairing our broken world. We are God's hands in the world. It's aleinu, it's on us, to build a world of greater justice and love and hope -- and not to give up. 

 

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


Leaves

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On Veteran's Day my son led me on a walk. He'd gone exploring with a friend, past the hayfields behind our condo neighborhood, and found a marked ski trail that he wanted to show me. As we walked, we saw someone on a tractor in the distance -- haying one last time before the rains, maybe.

Though most of the deciduous trees here are bare now, in this sheltered curl of hillside there were still some leaves on the trees. They tinted the sunlight golden and orange and rust. Someone had made a lean-to out of sticks, though it was too small for my tall son to crawl inside.

I had to go slower than I wanted, and I sat down on fallen trees several times to breathe, but I made it there and back. On the way back to the condo, my son talked about how lucky he feels that there are woods like this walkable from each of the places where his parents live.

Today the skies are heavy. Rains come and go, as do high winds. I suspect the autumn leaves we marveled at yesterday are on the ground now, beginning their journey toward becoming mulch. Challah dough is rising, soon to be shaped into a spiraling six-pointed sun or Jewish star.

I wonder whether we will look back on these years as the end of something, or the end of many things. The end of when we could have stopped the global warming juggernaut, the end of the myth that "red" and "blue" America actually understand each other -- or even want to try.

I think about climate grief and rising authoritarianism and mistrust. I'm so ready for Shabbat, for 25 hours of setting worries aside. All I can do is trust that when I make havdalah, I'll be ready to pick up the work again. That the fallen leaves will sustain growth I can't yet know.

 


The Strength to Help Each Other Hope: Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5782

 

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(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory -- expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)

 

All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon. 

The enormity of what's broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: "Who by fire, who by water" lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough -- and there's more.

The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are "essential" and often unseen.

When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn't reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming "personal freedom" at the expense of the collective good. 

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I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn't seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it's tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it's horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there's more.

Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.

Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We're facing another long winter of mounting death counts -- and it didn't have to be this way.

Between what we're doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was "stolen," it's hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I'm pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she's given up.

I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors' job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity's future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.

Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child's death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar's eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham's eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac's life is spared.

The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can't see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can't find alone. 

Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father's altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year's Days of Awe.

We've seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece -- in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU -- in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage. 

I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn't watch the Olympics this year. (That's not the courageous part.) I just couldn't get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.

Simone

Everyone seems to agree that she's one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can't do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she's more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health. 

It takes courage to say I'm not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic -- the world is not okay right now.

Simone Biles said she "got the twisties," a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can't tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it's an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We've lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It's hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all "have the twisties" a little bit this year. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn't make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles' "angel" -- the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn't okay and begin to work toward healing. 

Because here's the thing: we're not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.

Hope

The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. "Hope doesn't preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger," she says. "Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline." She goes on to say:

Hope is a discipline and... we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.

When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it's a practice -- like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah. 

5781 was not an easy year. I don't know what 5782 will bring, but I'm pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I'm in need of assistance myself, I'm obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others. 

Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on "ugh, who's going to help me through this" sometimes is normal, but it's also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on "how can I help someone else" lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul.  If you prefer, here's a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful!  And that's true whether we're doing organized volunteer work, or "just" offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom. 

Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world. 

 

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


Sustainable

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The first part of the drive was on familiar roads, the same roads I take daily to get my kid to camp over the border in Vermont. What was different was that this time, I kept going. East Mountain Farm is only a few minutes from my house, but it's further down Henderson road than I had driven before. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful: contented brown and white cows resting in the shade, rolling hills and pasture, a series of red barns. I was there to pick up chicken to put in my freezer, and eggs to eat.

Two springs ago, when the pandemic was new and our grocery supply chains got fouled, there were anxious months of going to the grocery store not knowing what I might find on the shelves. I know how lucky I am that I never experienced that until my mid-forties. Even so, the unpredictable absence of staples like flour and dried beans and toilet paper was deeply unsettling. Chicken, too, was hard to find for a while there -- because of COVID outbreaks in the places where poultry is processed. 

I know how lucky I am that I live near farms. I've been a member of Caretaker Farm (the local CSA) for almost thirty years, which means I get an abundance of beautiful local produce. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford that, too -- and now to be able to afford sustainably-farmed meat. I feel good about supporting a local farmer in his desire to honor the land and its animals. I feel good knowing that these chickens lived well. I feel good knowing that I will have plenty to eat next winter.

I know that my support of this local farmer doesn't do a thing to repair the harms caused by big agribusiness. I've read about the harms that factory farms perpetrate on animals and on their ecosystems. Then again, there's something wrong with the whole idea that our individual purchasing choices or habits (to recycle this soda can, or not to recycle; my personal grocery budget) will make or break the planet. We need large-scale change, corporate change, systemic change. And how likely does that seem?

I pull my mind back from that rabbit hole. Thinking too much about agribusiness and corporate greed and political gridlock will lead me to despair, and despair does not help anyone -- not those whom I serve, not me, not the world. I return to a mantra from an old REM song: not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It is not my job to carry the weight of the world. It is my job to do the best I can with what I've got, and right now the best I can do is to support a local farmer and his flock. 

 


A prayer in a casserole dish

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I am making enchiladas for dinner. The recipe I use didn't come with me from Texas, but it could have. There's a Tex-Mex chili gravy (red enchilada sauce) made with a light roux, a ton of hot chili powder, some cumin and oregano and garlic and salt. This enchilada sauce tastes like the enchiladas I grew up eating. Every time I make it, it transports me.

This is the time of year when I would ordinarily be taking my kid back to my birthplace -- to see family, to breathe the air of where I come from, to enjoy Mexican breakfast at Panchito's and big fluffy Texas-sized pancakes at the Pioneer Flour Mill. In this pandemic year, there's no trip to Texas. The last time I was there was for mom's unveiling.

Knowing that most of Texas is suffering cold and snow and rolling power outages, making these enchiladas feels like a kind of embodied prayer. When I make challah on Fridays I sing while kneading the dough. Tonight I am praying for Texas as I simmer the chili sauce, as I dip the corn tortillas in oil, as I tuck each rolled enchilada into the baking dish.

I spoke with family there this morning, and texted with them again later in the day. Like most of Texas, they didn't have power or heat. Southern homes aren't build to keep out the cold -- they're designed to retain cool. A lot of Texans don't own warm winter clothes; why would they? Often at this time of year, it's warm enough to wear short sleeves.

I could talk about why Texas has its own power grid, or the outrage of wholly preventable tragedies, or the importance of a robust safety net and good infrastructure in all neighborhoods, or the climate crisis that inevitably feeds worsening weather patterns. Instead I'm rolling enchiladas and praying that somebody can get the power up and running again.


Vayetzei: the earth in our hands

Earth-in-our-hands5Jacob left Beersheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him and He said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. (Genesis 28:10-13)

These are the opening verses of this week's parsha, Vayetzei. Jacob dreams of a stairway rooted in the earth and reaching the very heavens, with angels going up and down. And when he wakes, he exclaims, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" What an amazing story of spiritual awakening. And this isn't just something that happened to "him" back "then" -- it also happens to us now. We fall spiritually asleep, and then something wakes us into wonder.

This has long been one of my favorite stories in Torah. This year, though, I'm reading it through new eyes -- thanks to our speaker on Wednesday night.

Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is the founder of Shomrei Adamah ("Keepers of the Earth"), the very first Jewish environmental organization, which came into being 30 years ago. She came to CBI to speak about her new haggadah, The Promise of the Land,  which offers an earth-centered and environmentally-focused path through the Passover seder.

And one of the first things she said blew my mind. The Hebrew word aretz -- land, earth, ground -- appears 2000 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Often, when we think of "land" in Torah and Jewish tradition, we think of one specific land -- Israel. But what happens if we broaden our sense of aretz to mean all land -- every land -- in other words, the whole earth?

Torah has clear instructions for how we're supposed to treat the land. Torah tells us to care for the land in specific ways, and to behave ethically in specific ways, lest the land spit us out. Seen through the lens of a specific piece of land, those teachings are instructions about how to care for that land, and how to treat each other in that land, lest we become a stateless people again.

But if we read those verses as a teaching about not just that land, but all land -- the whole earth on which we live, the planet that is not only "my land" or "your land" but everyone's land -- and in fact is truly God's land, lent to us only as long as we can care for it responsibly...? Then Torah feels unspeakably prescient. We need to do right by the earth, or the earth will spit us out. 

Treat the land with respect. Don't pillage the land. Give back to the land, let the land rest, don't suck all the resources out of the land. Treat the land properly. Treat each other properly and ethically. Don't poison and pollute our community life or our home. Because if we do, the land will spit us out -- the earth will become uninhabitable. Is this sounding familiar?

Granted, Torah doesn't say the planet will warm beyond repair, the ice caps will melt, the seas will rise, the farming systems will fail. Torah doesn't speak in scientific terms. Torah uses the language of ethics and morality, the language of poem and story. Torah just says, "do what's right, or the earth will spit you out." But any newspaper today can give us the horrifying details.

In this week's parsha, Jacob dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth ascending all the way to the heavens, with angels going up and down. And in Jacob's dream, God is right there with him. God says: the ground on which you are lying is yours to care for.  Or as Rabbi Bernstein teaches, this entire earth is yours to care for, you and your generations. This planet is in your hands.

Later in his story, Jacob, "the Heel," will gain the new name Yisrael. We are his spiritual descendants, the children of Israel. Like our ancestor, we're spiritually asleep a lot of the time. This week's parsha invites us to wake into wonder. To see the holiness of this place. To recognize that "we've got the whole earth / in our hands" and that it's our job to protect it and give back to it.

In early 2020, we'll be forming the CBI Green Team: a group of congregants, clergy, and staff committed to mitigating the effects of climate change and making climate justice and preservation of the earth core values of our community. The earth is in our hands. Let's wake up to God's presence in every holy place, and together take care of this earth, our irreplaceable home.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI on Shabbat, offered with gratitude to Rabbi Ellen Bernstein for her teaching and her wisdom. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Kol Nidre: Come and Choose

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Ordinarily on Kol Nidre night I speak about forgiving the vows we've broken to ourselves and to God. (Broken vows made to each other require not only an apology and teshuvah, but also reparations -- making amends for any harm we caused.) But this year I keep thinking about the implicit vow we make to future generations about leaving them a planet that's capable of supporting life.

Our planet is burning... and our nation is pursuing policies that seem designed to fan the flames.

In the last few years, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. Restrictions on power plant emissions, and on carbon pollution from cars and trucks, have been loosened. The New York Times reports that climate change is already heating the oceans and altering their chemistry in ways that threaten our food supply, fuel extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods, and pose profound risk to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

"People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction... For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight."

Many of you probably recognize those words from Greta Thunberg, the teenaged activist who spoke at the UN a couple of weeks ago. A lot of people are calling her a modern-day prophet. (I think they're right.) In Jewish tradition, a prophet isn't someone who tells the future -- it's someone who speaks uncomfortable truths to prod us to teshuvah and action.

Of course, it's easy to praise her and call her a prophet. She's also a child who's had her childhood stolen by fear of the consequences of the world's inaction. I wish with all my heart that she didn't feel the need to take on these adult concerns. I wish with all my heart that the adults who came before her had done a better job of creating change.

Greta points out that even if we were on track to reduce global carbon emissions by half in ten years, that would only offer a 50% chance of keeping the planet's warming below the "safe" threshold of 2.7  degrees F above preindustrial levels. And we are not on track.

In the words of Rabbi Alan Lew -- this is the title of his book about the spiritual journey of this season -- "this is real, and you are completely unprepared." Climate change is real, and I don't feel prepared.  Alan Lew's point is that spiritually we may never feel "prepared" for the work of the holidays, and that these days call us to inner work anyway. But when it comes to the climate crisis, I don't think we have the luxury of feeling unprepared.

We learn in Pirkei Avot (2:16) that "It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." That teaching is one of Judaism's tools for all kinds of big spiritual tasks. Like teshuvah. And justice. And -- in our era -- the climate crisis.

Tonight, itself, is another tool that can help us in this work. Kol Nidre night asks us to face the work we haven't been doing. The inner work, and also the work we do together: building community, seeking justice, creating change.

Tonight asks us to face our broken promises. And that includes the promise that when we die, the earth will still be livable. Right now, that promise is in pieces.

I mentioned, when I sang Kol Nidre tonight, that I was changing our usual words. The version we usually sing asks God to annul, in advance, all the vows and promises and oaths that we know we'll fail to live up to in the year to come.

This year is not like other years. This year, the stakes feel different.

This year I sang the version that pleads: God, forgive our broken vows from the year that's already over. Because we don't have the luxury of letting ourselves "off the hook" on our vow to do something about the climate crisis in the year to come.

All season we've been singing, "...It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows / a thousand times before / And yet again -- come again, come..." We've all broken our vows to ourselves and to God. That doesn't disqualify us from being here, or from trying to be better. On the contrary: failing and then trying to do better is the work of being human. Teshuvah asks us to affirm that we are flawed, and that we can be better than we have been. Yes, we missed the mark: the planet is burning. This year we must do something about it.

Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong famously said, "We either live with intention or exist by default." Are we here tonight by intention, or by default?

I'm hoping we're here by intention. Each of us could be out to dinner, or at the movies, or working late -- but we've chosen otherwise. That choice counters some strong assumptions in the culture that surrounds us: that there's nothing more important than profit, or pleasure; that we aren't obligated to anyone or anything; that we don't need to grow. We chose to be here tonight. How will that choice fuel our other choices in the new year?

Making teshuvah also is a choice. That fundamental move of Jewish spiritual life -- re-orienting, turning-toward-God, embodying our highest selves -- is a choice. We could always choose not to make teshuvah. We could always choose an unexamined life. For that matter, we could always choose to ignore the climate crisis. But Judaism calls us to do otherwise. Judaism calls us to turn, to awaken, to choose to do (and be) better.

It's a truism that in Judaism action matters more than belief. Now, if someone comes to me and says, "Rabbi, I don't believe in God," I want to learn more about what they mean.  As the saying goes, "Tell me about the God you don't believe in, because maybe I don't believe in that one either!" And yet our texts and traditions are less concerned with "belief" than with action.

Believe in God or don't, but the hungry still need to be fed. Believe in God or don't, but the climate crisis still demands our action.

Mystics and rationalists alike can find common ground in the doings of Jewish life. Judaism is about choosing, day after day, to do things. To feed the hungry. To work toward justice. To make Shabbat. To build the future. To give tzedakah. To hear the wake-up call of the shofar and live up to what the shofar asks of us, what God asks of us, what our anguished, burning planet asks of us.

What can we do about the climate crisis? We can do all the little things we already know: reducing, re-using, recycling, consuming less, flying less, moving to renewable energy.   They're not enough, but they're still worth doing. We can learn from the wisdom of our tradition's Shabbat practices: setting aside one day out of every seven for not consuming, for regenerating our souls and also letting the planet rest from endless production.

And we can volunteer, and canvass, and fundraise, and vote for public servants who take the climate crisis seriously. The Hebrew word לבחור means "to choose" -- and it also can mean "to elect." If we believe that our planet is in crisis, then we need to choose wisely who we will uplift to positions of decision-making power. And we can work to make sure that no one is disenfranchised and that every vote is counted.

Maybe even that isn't enough. Maybe we should be in the streets. Maybe we should be  hounding our elected officials night and day. That's more or less what the historical prophets did. (Of course, that works better when our elected officials believe that science is real.)

The Washington Post reports that even if we keep things where they are, we may see a rise of 7 degrees F by the end of the century. That's the same as the difference between 1990's norms, and the last Ice Age. It's easy to feel paralyzed by the enormity of the work ahead. I feel it too. And... we don't have the luxury of giving in to that paralysis. Our tradition calls us to choose, to build, to repair. We need to build systems that will provide food for the hungry when global agriculture changes, and housing for the displaced when the oceans rise.

A few days ago I was studying the writings of R' Shalom Noach Berezovsky, known as the Slonimer, on last week's Torah portion, Vayeilech. In Vayeilech we read: when we screw up, God will be far away from us, hidden from us by our misdeeds. (Deut. 31:17) We can read this as descriptive, not prescriptive. It's not that God hides from us because we err. Rather: when we err, we feel as though holiness were hidden from us. When we do things that are wrong, or fail to do what's right, we experience a withdrawal of holiness from our world. And when that happens, it's easy to shift into despair.

The Slonimer teaches: our yetzer ha-ra, our "evil impulse," wants us to despair when that happens. Because when we despair, we'll give up.

But there's another option. Vidui is always open to us: naming what we've done wrong and taking responsibility for it. Teshuvah is always open to us: returning to doing what's right. And with those tools, we can build a new way of being in the world.

Yes, the future of our planet looks pretty dark right now. But the Slonimer reminded me that Torah speaks of darkness and smoke and cloud at the time when Torah was given. Moshe went into the cloud where God was. And that means that the darkness isn't devoid of God. On the contrary: when we're willing to face the darkness, that's precisely where we'll find hope and the strength to build a better world.

The Jewish value of tikkun olam, "repairing the world," comes to us from our mystics. R' Isaac Luria imagined that at the moment of creation God's infinite light was too great to be contained. The vessels made to hold it shattered, leaving brokenness and holy sparks all over our world. Our mystics teach that with every mitzvah, we uplift a spark of divine light and bring healing. In today's paradigm, that repair work feels all the more literal -- and all the more urgent. The planet is burning. What will we do to soothe Earth's fever?

Come, come, whoever you are. Come and live with intention, not by default. Come and choose to act. Judaism offers us philosophy, theology, liturgy, poetry  -- and Judaism is not a tradition of "thoughts and prayers." Judaism is a tradition of action. Judaism asks us to make blessings, to make Shabbat, to do teshuvah, to repair the world.

Come, come, whoever you are. Come and immerse in Yom Kippur to do the inner work of re-aligning your soul, but not for the sake of solipsism or self-satisfaction. On the contrary: we do our inner work so we can be strengthened to go out into the world and do the outer work of pursuing justice for every human being and for our planet.

It's okay if we aren't sure we can live up to this. It's okay if we feel afraid. What's not okay would be using our doubts as an excuse not to even try. It's Kol Nidre night. The season is calling us to choose. The planet is calling us to choose. How will we answer?

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before:

and yet again, come again, come,

and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...