What Can We Do, In Love?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My answers don't actually change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


One Heart: Lessons in Love from Jewish Cuba

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


Wake Up - a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as this whole season nudges us to wake up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we be woken?

 

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


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

Choices

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So which one is it going to be in 5781?

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

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

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

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

 

 


The Courage to Stand Up, With Love

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We know how it feels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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

 

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


Holy at Home, With Love

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

 

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

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

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

And then it was destroyed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L'shanah tovah.

 

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

 


Shine

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Silverware, soaking.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wake up: change is coming

Promise

"...If a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips..." (Numbers 30:3)

It's like clockwork: every year we reach these verses at the start of Matot-Masei precisely as my high holiday preparations kick into high gear. It's July. It's summer. I want to be in the moment, not nine weeks from now. Because you know what's exactly nine weeks from now? Rosh Hashanah.

And every year I spend all winter craving summer's long light and vibrant blooms and exquisite produce and gentle warmth. I don't want to rush ahead to the holidays or to fall or to school. And wow, that feels especially true during this pandemic year.

And yet.

And yet here comes Torah reminding me about vows and oaths and forgiveness. Whether or not I want to hit pause on time, the holidays are on their way. Whether or not I feel ready, the season of inner work is coming.

A vow: Rashi writes, "This is when one says, Behold, I take upon myself an obligation which is as sacred to me as an offering." A vow is a commitment.

What vows do I make to the people in my life; to my family; to my loved ones; to my communities? What promises have I made to the community where I live and pray and celebrate and mourn? What commitments have I made to my nation, to the ideals of America, to liberty and justice for all?

What vows have I made, and am I living up to them?

Our Torah verses today distinguish between the vows made by a man, which automatically stand, and the vows made by a woman, which could be undone if her father or husband said so. Obviously that doesn't sit well with us today. Here's how I've come to understand those verses: when Torah says "woman" here, what it means is "someone who for one reason or another isn't master of their own fate."

It's as if my ten year old promised a friend something that wasn't his to promise -- "I'll have a Zoom playdate with you at 11pm!" I would need to gently tell him, kiddo, you can't have playdates at 11pm, you have to be in bed then. And if he said, "But I promised!" I would have to tell him, "That wasn't your decision to make."

I don't love the fact that in antiquity, women had as little control over their circumstance as does my child now. And, that's what it was. Today, if one partner exercised that kind of control over another, we would call that coercive and unhealthy.

Setting the gender piece aside: if a person makes a vow to God, or takes on an obligation, then we're supposed to live up to it. Sounds simple, right?

In just over ten weeks we'll stand together at Yom Kippur and take a good long look at ourselves and our souls and our choices. Are we living up to our promises? Because if not, now is the time to try to do better. Not just so we can stand before God on Yom Kippur with an easy heart... but because living up to our commitments and our values is what Judaism asks of us.

What promises have we made to each other, to our communities, to God? And are we living up to them? And if not, can we start now?

Because nine weeks from tomorrow I'll be singing the words from Mary Oliver that we always hear on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, from her poem about the goldfinches: "Believe us, it is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world."

It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world. May the promises we make -- and the promises we keep! -- help to bring about repair, speedily and soon. Shabbat shalom.

 

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


Announcing Holy At Home


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I posted a few days ago about the project I've been working on -- Holy at Home, a set of editable slide decks that adapt my machzor into materials designed for screen-sharing / Zoom high holiday services. 

I've been working feverishly on the project because I wanted to get the slide decks into the world in time for other shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) to download them and spend the summer tinkering with the for your own services too. And... today they're available!

Read all about Holy at Home -- including what kinds of things are in the slide decks, and how to preview them, and how to donate in order to receive the editable files -- here at the Bayit website.

These slide decks are in beta; this is version 1.1. We're already receiving feedback and requests for things that aren't yet here, and we are taking that feedback to heart and will release updates / expansion packs in weeks to come. So if the slides work for you as they are, mah tov -- and if not, tell us what you would need us to add in order for them to work for you; we want this to meet your needs as well as our own.


Coming soon: Holy at Home

My synagogue decided some weeks ago that for reasons of health and safety, our Days of Awe this year will be streamed / Zoom-based, rather than in person. Ever since then, I've known that I would need to adapt Days of Awe, the machzor / high holiday prayerbook that we use at my shul and that I shared for public adaptation & use some years ago, into a set of slide decks designed for screenshare over Zoom.

I've been leading Zoom davenen since the pandemic began, and over those months I've changed what I do and how I do it. I've learned a lot about what works for me and for my community -- best practices, how best to share materials, and more. I knew that my work this summer would be taking what I've learned there, and applying it to preparations for a High Holiday season like no other we've known.

I know I'm not alone in needing slides like this. So I talked to my hevre at Bayit: Building Jewish, about sharing an editable set of machzor slide decks in return for a (tax-deductible) donation to Bayit. Our mission is to create, curate, and share meaningful tools for "building Jewish." In this pandemic time, when we're all confined to home, a set of machzor slide decks definitely feels like it fits that bill.

(Also, people often ask how they can support the work that for years I've put out into the world for free. Thank God, I have a job and I don't need to ask for your donations for my own support. Instead, I'd rather have folks donate in support of Bayit, the nonprofit that I co-founded. Your support will help us bring more relevant, meaningful, "pray-tested" tools and ideas and practices into the world.)

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This is the first slide in the first slide deck...

Enter Holy at Home, a set of six slide decks: 1) erev Rosh Hashanah (interweaving ma'ariv / the evening service with the Sefardic custom of a seder for Rosh Hashanah), 2) Rosh Hashanah morning, 3) Kol Nidre, 4) Yom Kippur morning with Yizkor, 5) Yom Kippur afternoon (avodah and mincha), and 6) Ne'ilah. All are editable, so each community can customize in ways that will meet their needs.

Much of what’s in these six slide decks comes from Days of Awe. If you've been using Days of Awe, you'll recognize a lot of what's here -- Hebrew and English, readings and prayers, tradition and creative riffs on tradition, poetry and artwork, translations and transliterations. That said, the original material from Days of Awe has also been adapted and improved for these slide decks in a variety of ways:

  1. We’ve made many typo fixes;
  2. Every word of Hebrew is now transliterated and translated (more on that below);
  3. There are full-color images adorning most slides, because that's possible via slides in a way it was not possible in print;
  4. I’ve steered away from prayer variations or settings that are rounds, or that work primarily because of harmony (given that it's not possible to sing simultaneously over Zoom);
  5. And there are also a lot of new things added to these slide decks -- new prayers, new poems, new illustrations, new approaches to haftarah -- that aren’t in the book. 

When Bayit released our volume for the mourner's path, Beside Still Waterswe committed to the promise that there will be full translations and transliterations in everything Bayit puts out. Unlike Beside Still Waters, which took a few years to bring to fruition, these slides were created by me during a global pandemic and I can't promise that I caught every extra space or typo... but I did my level best.

The slide decks streamline what’s in Days of Awe in many ways. The printed volume is rich with additional poems and readings, on the theory that someone who isn't engaged by prayer services might find meaning in thumbing through the pages and running across poems or meditations that speak to them. That doesn't work for a slideshare, where everyone sees the same screen at the same time.

In other ways, the slides remain expansive, offering multiple choices to those who lead prayer. For some prayers, there are multiple options -- e.g. three versions of Ahavat Olam, two variations on the Amidah, three versions of Aleinu. The idea is that once someone donates to receive a download link for the slide decks, they can copy the slide decks, choose which option they want to use, and delete the other slides. 

If this interests you or would be useful to you in your High Holiday preparations, let me know? We're proofreading the slides now, and our hope is to release them sometime next week so that everyone (else) who is (also) planning their Days of Awe now can get the slides, begin imagining how to work with them, begin adapting them as necessary, etc. For now... back to proofreading!


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.