The day after

Open-the-heart-doors...It's the day after Yom Kippur. If you're feeling overwhelmed, strangely emotional, thin-skinned, like the hustle and bustle and injustice of the world is more than you can bear today, you're not alone. Some people call this a vulnerability hangover. I think of it as the thing that happens after an immersive spiritual retreat experience.

We spent yesterday feeling a lot of feelings: facing where we'd missed the mark, facing where our communities have missed the mark, maybe where our nation has missed the mark, maybe where our world is missing the mark. The long day of prayer, introspection, singing, prayer, laughter, prayer, tears, prayer, poetry, prayer is designed precisely to open the heart. To remove the covering that usually protects us from feeling.

Usually we protect our hearts from feeling a full range of emotions, like gratitude, love, awe, grief, horror at injustice, the losses that come with mortality. It's hard to live in the world if we're letting ourselves feel all of that all the time.

Yom Kippur is designed to open us to all the things we usually strenuously avoid feeling. It's designed to give us an opportunity to encounter all of those feelings: gratitude and love and awe and grief and loss, and culpability for the places where we haven't done enough (as individuals or as a society) to make the world a place of more justice and love.

The good news is, if you're feeling overwhelmed today, like your skin is too thin, like the world is too much to bear -- that's great! It means you allowed yourself to fully experience Yom Kippur.

And... be gentle with yourselves today, friends. It can take a while for enough skin to grow back to make the world feel bearable again. Take care of you.

There's a teaching that says that on each of the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we go deeper into integrating whatever opened up in us during Yom Kippur. Give yourself a few days to let Yom Kippur soak into you, and see what new thing emerges by Sukkot. (One tradition speaks of this as a new "name of God" coming down into creation for the new year. If that language works for you, run with it. If not, find a metaphor that does.)

Next up: Sukkot, the festival of harvest gratitude and impermanence, when we "dwell" in little "houses" that are really only a sketch of a house, a frame of a house, with leafy roof through which we can see the stars. Think of the sukkah as an opportunity to begin growing some covering again that can protect your heart -- but not too much covering; just enough to sketch walls and a roof.

May these awesome days continue to resonate in us and through us. May we grow and change in all the ways we need to grow and change. And may we take permission to protect our tender hearts as we integrate this year's Days of Awe.

 

Also posted as a Twitter thread.

 


Yom Kippur: Come... and Prepare to Go

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A few days before my mother died, I sat by her bedside with my phone in my hand. It had been a tough morning. Even with the oxygen cannula in her nose she had struggled to breathe. She was anxious and she was clearly suffering, and she kept asking, "when will the pain stop?" We gave her morphine, and we gave her morphine again, and eventually she drifted into sleep.

For about two years I'd been working on editing a volume for mourners called Beside Still Waters. We were almost ready to go to press. I had the manuscript on my phone, and while my mother slept I pulled up the section of viduim, confessional prayers to recite before death. I whispered, in Hebrew and in English, words of deathbed confession on her behalf:

"Grant me and the beloveds of my heart, whose souls are bound with mine, the grace to accept this turning of the wheel of life. Before You, God of Mercy and Grace who pardons iniquity and does not destroy, I forgive all who harmed me in my life. May their hearts be at ease, as I release all anger and pain from them into the dust of the earth. As I have forgiven, so may You forgive me all my shortcomings. By this merit, preserve my soul in peace..."1

And when I was finished with the words on my screen, I sat there for a while just praying the same thing over and over: please God let it be gentle.

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. Some of us wear white, symbol of purity, like the white shrouds in which all Jewish dead are buried. Some of us fast from food and drink and sex, life's temporary pleasures that the dead no longer enjoy. Some of us eschew leather shoes -- a custom also practiced during shiva -- because stiff leather shoes represent what protects our tender hearts from the world, and at Yom Kippur and during shiva alike, our hearts are meant to be soft and open.

On Yom Kippur we all recite a vidui prayer. We recite it evening and morning and afternoon and again before nightfall, affirming together that we know we have fallen short, alphabetizing a list of our missings-of-the-mark. On Yom Kippur we recite the vidui in the plural: we have sinned, we seek forgiveness. Before death, the vidui is recited in the singular.  I have fallen short... And from the awareness that I have missed the mark comes the next step, so necessary before leaving this life: I forgive. I ask forgiveness.

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. It's also a day of recognizing our losses: today is one of the four times of the year when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers, reconnecting with the memory of those who have died. It's a day of facing mortality, not only our own but everyone's. And despite all of these, it's meant to be a day of profound joy. Because this day is the culmination of the season's journey of inner work, and by the close of this day we're supposed to know ourselves to be forgiven.

How do we square that circle? How can today be a day of preparing for death, bracing for loss, and also a day of exultation and joy?

My answer to that question this year comes from my mother, of blessed memory, and what she taught me in her final days of life.

A few days before my mother died, I was sitting with her in her room and I seized the moment. We were alone together, and I didn't know if I would get another chance to speak with her without my dad or my child or another family member in the room. So I knelt next to her wheelchair and I said something like: Mom, I'm so glad that you were my mother. And if you're tired and you're ready to go, it's okay -- we'll be okay.

She got weepy for a minute. (We both did.) She said "I should be thanking you!" And then she straightened in her chair and said, "Let's go downstairs, it's cocktail hour."

That was my mom. She texted her children when she entered hospice, reminding us not to be maudlin. She didn't want us to be sad; she wanted us to celebrate.

I can laugh about it now, "it's cocktail hour," "don't be maudlin," but my mom was teaching me something. On that last Friday of her life, the day that began with her struggling to breathe and needing morphine again and again -- the day when I whispered the deathbed vidui on her behalf, afraid she might not be verbal again -- she rallied in the early evening.

To everyone's surprise, she came downstairs, where all five of her children and one of her grandchildren were gathered for Shabbat dinner. With the oxygen cannula in her nose she drank wine, and she ate steak, and she visibly enjoyed being with us.

That night, as she lay back on her pillows, she murmured, "It's been too short, but it's been sweet." My son and I were leaving early the next morning, and I thought: maybe she means our visit... and maybe she means the last 83 years. I didn't ask. I told her I loved her one more time, I kissed her goodnight, and I went downstairs. We left Texas at the blessed crack of dawn. Four days later, we returned for her funeral.

I learned from my mother in her last days to "make hay while the sun shines." To enjoy what life gives me to enjoy while I am here to enjoy it. To be grateful for what's good, and to let go of what's not. Because no matter how long we live, life is too short to do otherwise.

Ten years ago when my son was an infant, my mother came with me to a rabbinic school residency to take care of the baby while I was in class. She befriended some people, because that was Mom: always interested in, and curious about, those around her. And one evening she said to me, with an air of amazement, "Rachel, I think everyone here is a spiritual seeker!"

I said, "Of course they are, Mom. They're in rabbinical school."

And she said, "I don't think I've ever searched for anything my whole life!"

I don't actually believe that, for the record. I think that for a variety of reasons she was invested in seeing herself as an ordinary person, not "spiritual" or "a seeker" or "on a journey." But I think she was all of those things. I think we all are.

Come, come, whoever you are; wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving...

We're all wanderers. Arami oved avi, "My father was a wandering Aramean" -- so says Torah, and the traditional haggadah begins our fundamental story of liberation there, with the wandering that led to our enslavement in Egypt. My mother was a literal wanderer, from her birth in Prague to a lifetime in the United States. But even those of us who never leave our hometowns are on a journey of growth and becoming and discovery. That's what spiritual life is. That's what life is, if we're paying attention. And oh, today is a day for paying attention.

We're all worshipers: in Hebrew, mitpallelim. The Hebrew l'hitpallel, "to pray," literally means "to discern oneself." We pray in order to discern who we most deeply are. Each day, or each week, or even if it's only once a year: we speak the words of our liturgy, words of awe and gratitude, words of supplication and hope, and we see how the words feel in our mouths and how the words feel in our hearts. Maybe we've changed since last time we spoke these words. And maybe in some ways we haven't changed at all.

And we're all lovers of leaving. Or, at least, we all leave -- like it or not, ready or not, we will all die, someday. We all enter this life, and we will all leave this life. In between... well, what we do in between birth and death is up to us, isn't it?

Jewish tradition instructs us to make teshuvah, to repent and return and turn ourselves around and do our inner work, the night before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die... so there's a custom of making teshuvah every night before bed. Pausing every night before bed to think back on the day, on who we've been and what we've done. Making amends for the places where we missed the mark. Forgiving those who harmed us, and asking for forgiveness from whose whom we've harmed. In this way, if we should die before we wake, we've done what we can do.

I learned that from studying texts of our tradition. And from studying the text of my mother's living and my mother's dying, I learned the wisdom of looking back on a life and choosing to see the good in it. She could have focused on life's disappointments and hurts -- I know for a fact that her life included them, as every life does. But she chose to uplift what had been good, and let go of the rest. From Mom's last days, I learned the wisdom of trusting that we're forgiven, and the wisdom of actively seeking joy and connection until the end.

Today, on this Yom Kippur, I invite all of us to practice what I learned from my mother's dying.

What would happen if we looked back on the last year and choose to see the good in what we've done and who we've become? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to trust that we can be forgiven -- indeed, that when it comes to God, we always already are forgiven, no matter what? What would happen if we approached this day with a sense of joy in our connections that can't be broken -- with those whom we've loved (even if they've left this life) -- with our own souls -- with our Source?

I think that's how we get from sorrow at our mortality, and our imperfections, and rehearsal for our death, to the joy that today is meant to hold. It's not an either/or: it's a both/and. Today we prepare to die, and we also rejoice that we've lived. Today we face our shortcomings, and we also affirm that we can be better. Today we hold on to what's important, and we let go of all the rest.

Today when we say the Yizkor prayers, I'll say the memorial prayer for a parent, which is still new on my tongue. And then I'll go under my tallit, and I'll talk to Mom, wherever she is now. I'll thank her for teaching me, both in how she lived and in how she died.

May this Yom Kippur journey of wandering, and worshipping, and preparing ourselves for leaving, bring us closer to our Source and closer to who we're meant to become.

 

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours is not 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 ...

 


1. These words come from an interpretation of the deathbed vidui by R' David Markus, published in Beside Still Waters.


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 ...


Return

ReturnIt's Shabbat Shuvah -- the Shabbat of Return. The Shabbat of turning and returning, in this season of turning and returning. "Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul." What kind of return does your soul yearn for?

My soul yearns to return to comfort. My soul yearns to return to hope.

My soul yearns to return to a world where I don't have to brace myself every time I open up the paper, afraid to see today's new abuse of power or harm to the vulnerable or damage to the environment.

For that matter, my soul yearns to return to a world where my mom is alive and healthy.

I can't call Mom on the phone this afternoon and tell her about my morning and ask her about hers. Well: I can, after a fashion. And I do. But it's not the same as having her here in life. Some of the return that we yearn for just isn't possible.

And some of it is. Right now I dread reading the paper because I'm afraid to see what new harm has been unloosed upon the world since last time I looked, but there's a fix for that: change the world.

Change the world into one where those in power will uphold human rights and protect the vulnerable and take care of our irreplaceable planet. Change the world into a world without mass shootings, a world without discrimination or bigotry, a world where every human being is safe and uplifted.

One of our tradition's names for that world is Eden. The Garden in which, Torah says, God placed the first human beings. At the beginning of our human story, says Torah, we inhabited Eden. And in our work to repair the broken world, we seek the kind of teshuvah that would enable humanity to return to that state of safety and sweetness.

The Hebrew word Eden seems to mean something like "pleasure." In the book of Genesis, when Sarah learns that she will become pregnant in her old age and in Abraham's old age, she laughs to herself: "will I really know pleasure again, with Avraham being so old?" And her word for pleasure is עדנה / ednah –– Eden.

When someone dies, we say "may the Garden of Eden be their resting place." We imagine that the souls of those who have died inhabit that Garden now: a place of sweetness and comfort, where all needs are met.

Shabbat is sometimes called "a foretaste of the World to Come," or "a return to the Garden of Eden." When we take pleasure in Shabbat, we glimpse the original state of pleasure into which Torah says humanity was created.

Every Shabbes is an invitation to return. Return to our roots, return to our spiritual practices, return to rest and to pleasure, return to Eden... so that when the new week begins, we can be energized in the work of repairing the world.

And this is The Shabbat Of Return. It's labeled in giant glowing golden letters: This Is The Door Of Return! Walk This Way! God is waiting for us to come home. Our souls are waiting for us to come home.

In just a few short days, we need to be ready for Yom Kippur to do its work on us and in us.

Tradition teaches that during those 25 precious hours, God is closer to us -- more accessible to us, more reachable by us -- than at any other time. On that day we can pour out our hearts and feel heard, feel seen, feel known. And if we're willing to take the risk of going into that day with all that we are, we can come out of it transformed.

What kind of return does your soul yearn for? To what do you need to return, this Shabbes, in order to prepare yourself to crack open and to change, to return, so that you can emerge from the work of Yom Kippur feeling reborn?

 

This is the d'varling I wrote for Shabbat Shuvah. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don't need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis -- carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children -- attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill's opponents took an "America First" approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for "our own" rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President's own cousin testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator -- who would later become one of the nation's leading segregationists -- amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b'Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: "We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move... We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, 'when will mommy come get us?' I don't know what to tell them."

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation's southern border. (I literally couldn't find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as "comparable to torture facilities."

This is not okay. It shouldn't be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn't be okay with us. 

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation's current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It's a human right, guaranteed by international law -- law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today's migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low.

It's easy to think that this doesn't impact us directly. After all, we're not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone -- whether it's a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say "hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it's not our problem if someone else's home is on fire" is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are "invading" this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being "invaders." 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as "invaders" taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs... and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we've heard before. Maybe you're thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh's mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh's chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph's family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That's the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel "swarmed" like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah's exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don't want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it's a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who's not like us. To love people who don't look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won't be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that's a tough ask.

But that's exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color... and, still, the refugee. That one hasn't changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn't this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it's genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It's tempting to say "this isn't America." No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother's funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was "Taps," in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were "Jerusalem of Gold," because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and "America the Beautiful," in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Some have said that "give me your tired, your poor" should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is "Come, come, whoever you are." Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always. 

And of course "Come, whoever you are" is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, "red" or "blue." Political means "having to do with the polis," the community. To say "come, whoever you are" is to say "the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah's imperative to love the stranger."

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah's repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that's been us, that's been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say "come, whoever you are" not only because our people's story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that's the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation's civic life today. It's not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God's creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation's challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I'll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

 

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 ...

 

This is my sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Through this year's Selichot door

Tonight many synagogues will hold Selichot services -- an evening liturgy that usually includes prayers, piyyutim (poems), and some of the musical liturgy of the Days of Awe. At my shul, Selichot services are a first opportunity to immerse ourselves in the melodies of the season. I love how returning to those melodies feels like it awakens a dormant piece of my soul.

And for several years now at my shul, we've taken time during our service to write down anonymously on index cards the places where we feel we've missed the mark in the last year, places where we feel we need to make teshuvah and ask for forgiveness. Some of our written responses will be woven into a prayer for the community to recite on Yom Kippur morning.

This year Selichot falls on September 21, more or less the autumn equinox, which to me makes it feel all the more poignant. The equinox is a hinge, a doorway between seasons. And Selichot has always felt to me like the doorway into the high holiday season. So tonight is a doorway in at least two ways at once. Selichot is the mezuzah we hang on tonight's doorway in time.

If you don't have a Selichot service to attend tonight, or if you're not in a position to leave home this evening, you can still harness the spiritual energy of this moment in the year with a Selichot experience on your own. Here's the short booklet we'll be using tonight at my shul, and here are melodies for the season. Feel free to use them wherever you are.

Equinox Selichot [pdf]


What the labyrinth helps us see

40065048_10155360643331330_2440611845942280192_nA few weeks ago, while the Al and Frances Small Memorial Labyrinth was still under construction, my eight year old son was with me at synagogue and ran outside to explore it. He immediately wanted to walk its spiraling path. And I asked him whether he knew what made a labyrinth different from a maze.

He thought about it for a moment, and then said, "You can't get lost in it."

He's right. A maze is designed to confound and confuse. Think of the hedge mazes on elaborate European estates, or the placemat mazes that challenge you to draw a path from entry to exit without lifting your pen. A labyrinth is something else entirely.

In a labyrinth, there's only one path. It goes all the way in, and then you turn the other way and it goes all the way back out. The purpose of a labyrinth isn't to see whether you can figure out where you're going, because there's only one footpath. The purpose of a labyrinth is to attune you to where you're going, and how you're going, and how the path twists and turns.

As some of you have seen, we have a beautiful new meditation labyrinth outside our sanctuary. It was designed by Lars Howlett, a professional labyrinth designer -- yes, that's an actual profession -- who came to CBI and walked our land and selected a shape that is suited to our grounds. Deepest thanks to Bill Riley for transferring the design to the ground, to Valerie Ross and Josh Goodell of New England Lawn and Garden Care for stonework and installation, and to Cheryl Small for her generosity.

Our labyrinth has seven circuits, which is a traditional shape for Jewish labyrinths. Seven is a meaningful number in Judaism: the seven days of creation. There are seven colors in the rainbow. There are seven qualities that we and God share, which we meditate on and cultivate during the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot -- and some of us do this during the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, too. In a Jewish wedding, the partners make seven circuits around each other, and we hear seven blessings. At a Jewish funeral, the pallbearers pause seven times en route to the grave.

Some look at our labyrinth and see the Tree of Life, another one of our tradition's great metaphors for divinity: we enter at the roots and walk all the way into the crown. Some look at our labyrinth and see the crenellations of the human brain. All of this informed the design of our labyrinth.

A labyrinth serves to remind us to pay attention to the journey, not the destination. If I wanted to reach the center of the labyrinth quickly I could walk across, from one stepping-stone to the next, directly inward. Four or five big steps and I'd be there. But that defeats the purpose. It's not about how quickly I can get there. It's about the feeling of my feet on the pavement, and how the view changes as I move along the path. It's about how sometimes it feels like my goal is tantalizingly close, and then the path swerves and I'm heading in an entirely different direction from what I expected. It's about surrendering to the journey.

I have to pay attention to where my feet go on the path, and that serves to mostly keep me in the moment, in this place, in this here-and-now. And even if I can see the journey's end when I begin it -- even if I lift up my eyes and see the switchbacks and turns that await me before I reach the center -- I don't know how it will feel to walk the path until I actually do it. And I don't know how walking it this time might feel different from walking it that time.

A meditation labyrinth is an embodied metaphor for spiritual life -- for all of life, because all of life is spiritual whether or not we call it so. Here are four things that our labyrinth keeps teaching me:

1) How we get there is as important as where we are going.

2) Every journey has unexpected twists and turns. We may think we're headed in one direction -- a job, a marriage, a happily-ever-after -- and then it turns out we're headed somewhere entirely different.

This is true not only on an individual level, but a collective one.  Of course, on a national level the metaphor breaks down, because we aren't locked in to a single labyrinthine path. But the emotional experience of being an American these last few years has felt a little bit like walking the labyrinth -- wait, you mean we're going this way? -- and it demands some of the same patience as walking the labyrinth. There are no short-cuts to the center. The only way to get where we need to go is to keep on walking.

3) The labyrinth reminds us that we can't hold still. Everything passes. Sometimes this is grief-inducing: I'm so happy right now, and I never want that to go away, but I know that it will. And sometimes it's a profound relief: I'm in the narrow straits of despair right now, but I know I won't be here forever. But if we work at it, we can learn to draw comfort from the fact that everything changes.

4) What we see depends on where we are. In a physical sense, this means that our view changes depending on how much of the labyrinth we've walked: we're gazing at the mountains, no, at the gazebo, no, at the wetland, no, at the shul. In a metaphysical sense it's equally true.

Yom Kippur is like a labyrinth. You can't get lost in it: there's only one path through. It began last night and it will end tonight. Over the first half of the day we're moving ever deeper in, and over the second half of the day we're moving slowly back out again.

It's the same path every year. We start with Kol Nidre. We end with that final tekiah gedolah. In between we reach the same touchstones, the same stories and Torah readings and prayers.

And every time we walk it, we are different. We bring the sum total of our life experiences to Yom Kippur, and every year we have grown and changed since the year before.

If you think about Yom Kippur in terms of where it "gets you," it may not seem like much of a destination. It's not a cruise or an adventure, a birth or a wedding or a promotion. But if you think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to see yourself more clearly, then it's an entirely different kind of journey.

After our closing song we'll break until 3pm when we'll gather for contemplative practice, followed at 4-ish by mincha and a talk from Hazzan Randall, followed at 6:30 by Ne'ilah, our closing service. I hope that some of you will choose to stick around, or to return early, or to take advantage of the break before or after mincha -- so that you can walk the steps of our beautiful new labyrinth, and see what unfolds in you on this holiest of days and most beautiful of places. May the rest of your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet.

 

This year my shul's theme for the Days of Awe is Vision. My sermons reflect and refract that theme in different ways. This isn't one of my three formal sermons, but it touches on the theme even so.

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

DeathThis is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? "You may ask yourself, how did I get here? ... You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)

I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It's clean, and clear, and polished. It's about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It's about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that's the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year's theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.

And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn't feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what's urgent.

I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.

There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day's gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day's grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don't feel especially urgent, either. They're part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.

That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.

Continue reading "What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

SeenIt was four in the morning on Shavuot in the year 5770, also known as 2010. I was on retreat at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center in northern Connecticut. My son was seven months old.

My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn't be able to hear Reb Zalman (z"l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.

But it turned out that my son didn't like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.

Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.

Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.

"Why didn't you kill your bird?" asked the Sufi master.

"I tried to do as you asked," said the student. "But no matter where I went, I couldn't find a place where no One could see me."

Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.

That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, "awe" or "fear of God." Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.

Continue reading "The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre " »


When (not) to forgive

Do-not-symbol "Rabbi, is it ever okay not to forgive?"

That question comes my way every year around this season. (I've written about this before.) I find that it is asked most often by women, who may face (as women, and as Jews) a double whammy of cultural messages instructing us to be forgiving even at our own expense. But people across the gender spectrum struggle with this question. 

Many of us know the teaching from Rambam (in his Hilchot Teshuvah, "Laws of Repentance / Return") that when someone has wronged another person, the one who committed the wrong must make teshuvah and seek forgiveness, and the one who was wronged is obligated to forgive. "Obligated" is a strong word. Is it ever okay, Jewishly, not to forgive?

Short answer: yes. Yes, Jewishly speaking, there are times when it is ok not to extend forgiveness.  Longer answer: when the person who wronged you has not made teshuvah (more in a minute abut what that means, and what is implied therein) not only are you not obligated to forgive them, but one could even make the case that granting forgiveness in that circumstance is forbidden. Because if you were to forgive under that circumstance, without their teshuvah, your forgiveness would give cover to the unethical behavior not only of harming you in the first place, but also of choosing not to make teshuvah.

A reminder: teshuvah, which is often translated as "repentance," comes from the root that means turning or turning-around. Teshuvah is the work of turning oneself around, turning oneself in the right direction again, turning over a new leaf, re/turning to God and to the state of righteousness to which we are all expected to aspire. When we miss the mark in our relationship with God, we can make teshuvah and repair the broken relationship. When we miss the mark in our relationships with each other, we can make teshuvah and (maybe) repair the broken relationship. Repair may not be up to us. But our own teshuvah work is.

Here's Rabbi David J. Blumenthal, in his essay Is Forgiveness Necessary?

If the offender has done teshuvah, and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should offer mechilah; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.

The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechilah if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done...

The principle that mechilah ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish "No" to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so. This is the great Jewish "Yes" to the possibility of repentance for every sinner.

If the person who wronged you has done teshuvah and is sincere in their repentance, then tradition asks you to forgive. But that's a big 'if.' How can you tell if the person's teshuvah is sincere? My own answer relies on a combination of factors. For starters, the person who wronged you has to actually apologize (and I mean a real apology.) Ideally that apology should feel sincere to you. But the person's subsequent actions are of greater importance. Saying sorry isn't enough: they also have to take concrete steps to correct the wrong, and they have to show with their actions and their choices that they have changed. 

One rubric says that we can tell if teshuvah is genuine when the person making teshuvah has the opportunity to commit the same misdeed as before, but this time makes a different choice. (That's Rambam again.) Imagine that I harmed you physically by driving over your foot. I would need to not only apologize to you for hurting you, and do what I could to correct the wrong (giving you an aspirin, or perhaps a pair of steel-toed boots?), but also, the next time I was driving my car near where your foot was resting, I'd need to notice your foot, make a conscious choice not to drive over it, and then follow through with that choice. 

But if my apology to you felt insincere -- "Whatever, you're overreacting but I'm sorry you're upset" -- you would be under no obligation to forgive me for the harm. And if I didn't do what I could to make up for having driven over your foot, ditto. And if I didn't take steps to ensure that I never drive over your foot again, ditto all the more. (It's a ridiculous example, I realize. I use it because it lets me illustrate the principle I want to communicate, without getting into the kinds of hypotheticals that might evoke or re-activate the interpersonal traumas that bring people to me with these questions about forgiveness in the first place.)

If someone has harmed you -- whether in body, heart, mind, or spirit -- and they come to you seeking forgiveness, you're allowed to take the time you need to discern 1) whether their apology is genuine, and 2) whether they have done all that they could to remedy the damage, and 3) whether they have done the internal work of becoming a person who would no longer harm you in that same way given the opportunity to do so again. If the answer to any of those questions is no -- and kal v'chomer (all the more so) if they don't apologize in the first place -- then you are not obligated to forgive them for harming you.

Emotionally and spiritually, pay attention to what your heart and soul are saying. If your heart and soul resist the idea of forgiving someone, discern whether that resistance is a case of holding on to an old resentment that you'd be better off releasing -- or whether it's a case of healthy self-protection. If offering forgiveness would serve you, then I support that. But Jewish tradition does not require us to re-inscribe the harm done to us by forgiving our abusers. And as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes in her excellent twitter thread on this, the person who needs to repent can do so whether or not the person they harmed forgives.

And on that note... here's a Prayer for those not ready for forgive by my friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Zimmerman.

G'mar chatimah tovah: may we all be sealed for goodness in the year to come.

 


A Vision of Better: now in video

A few folks asked whether there is a video or audio recording of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning

Here's video (and audio) -- taken from the synagogue's Facebook Live stream, so the quality isn't fantastic, but I'm happy to share.

 

 

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it here.)

May our journey through these Ten Days of Teshuvah clarify our vision and strengthen us to do our work in the world.


A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779

Better

There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

Continue reading "A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779" »


Sweet

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In the produce section
late peaches bump hips
with early apples

all of them blushing.
Summer and fall kiss
and then part, but

one of these days
summer's going to decide
it's time to let fall

spread its robe...
Where the seasons meet
the new year crowns.

Crisp apple slices bathe
in honey, liquid gold
like Torah's highest song.

May we all merit
this unabashed sweetness
replete and satisfied.

 


 

[L]et fall spread its robe... See Ruth 3:9

Crisp apple slices bathe / in honey... A traditional food for the new year among many Ashkenazi Jews.

Torah's highest song... During the Days of Awe, the Torah is chanted with a special cantillation. The melody lilts and lifts, bringing heart and soul with it.

 

L'shanah tovah u'm'tukah -- here's to a good and sweet year.


A renewed haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah

Over the years I've posted a few different poems that riff on the haftarah (the reading from the Prophets) that tradition assigns to the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which is a text from 1 Samuel, the story of Chanah who poured out her heart in prayer. 

I'm delighted to be able to share that I have a new resource to offer this year on that front. This is a revision of one of my Chanah haftarah poems, co-created with Rabbi David Markus, who has also set it to haftarah trope and recorded it.

You can find it in on the Builders' Blog at Bayit: Your Jewish Home in the Festival Year category, or by clicking through right here: Chanah in poetry and trope.

If you wind up using this in your Rosh Hashanah celebration, let us know how it works for you!


Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

 
YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control." 

And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world. 

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.

Continue reading "Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

KNBefore he died, Reb Zalman -- the teacher of my teachers -- made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community's tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of "dress rehearsal" for your own death?

I've got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your death. Does that sound strange? It's a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it's not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we're "doing it wrong.") Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying.

Continue reading "A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre" »


After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

Continue reading "After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah" »


Benediction on making the culinary combination

For food dipped
    in honey, say
        "your love leaves

my fingers fragrant."
    Don't rush to wash.
        Let sweetness linger.

For savory dishes
    with stone fruits
        say "may the year

balance my sweet
    with your salt."
        Let your mouth water.

For nubbled citrus
    steeped in vodka,
        recite the verse

"as a deer thirsts."
    Close your eyes.
        Savor every drop.

 


 

I ran across a machzor (high holiday prayerbook) from 1931 recently. The first thing in the table of contents is "Benediction on making the culinary combination." The thing itself is pretty prosaic -- it's just a prayer for the practice of eruv tavshilin. (Click on the link to learn more about that.) But it sparked my poetic imagination. 

[A]s a deer thirsts. See Psalm 42, verse 2

[N]ubbled citrus / steeped in vodka. See Etrogcello.

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


When granting forgiveness is not mandatory

Every year, as the Jewish holidays approach, someone seeks me out because they’re struggling with forgiveness. Maybe this person is the adult child of a narcissist who was a cruel and self-centered parent. Maybe this person feels betrayed by an authority figure, a mentor or teacher who let them down. There are many variations. What they have in common is, they don’t feel able to forgive someone who hurt them, and they’re worried about what their inability to forgive says about them.

What does Judaism teach about the obligation to forgive, and why is this coming up for everyone now?...

That's the beginning of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Read the whole thing here: When granting forgiveness is not mandatory during the high holidays.