When I remember Yom Kippur in my childhood, I remember stiffly-ironed fancy autumn clothes, usually far too hot for south Texas in September. I remember running around the Conservative shul of my early childhood with friends, wearing dresses and tights and black patent Mary Janes, and (re)discovering that the water fountains were turned off because the grown-ups were fasting.
I remember my mother in the car, using a spritz of Binaca to sweeten her breath before going into shul. She was fasting, of course; all the adults fasted, and my Russian grandfather broke his fast with a shot of vodka. But minty breath spray didn't count as breaking the fast, for her. It was just part of ordinary hygiene. She'd offer it to me, too. I remember the scent, the taste of Binaca on my tongue.
On erev Rosh Hashanah this year I was thinking of mom. I went over to the oval mirrored tray ringed with a gilded frame where I keep the cosmetics I never use. One of the items on that tray is a bottle of Bal à Versailles, my mother's perfume. I dabbed it on my pulse points at wrists and neck. Suddenly I was a child again, perched in my mother's dressing room watching her put on makeup before going out.
Scent telescopes time. I let my thumbnail lightly indent this year's etrog, and breathe deep. It's every etrog I've ever held in my hand, the spicy scent linking the sukkah I'll use tonight with every other sukkah I've ever had. I didn't grow up with a sukkah. I love the fact that my kid is growing up with one. His memories will include this little house bedecked with autumn garlands, fragrant with citrus scent.
The day after Yom Kippur I always feel pleasantly wrung-out. If I was able to do my job right, I emptied myself out so that I could be an open channel -- so that music and presence and Presence could flow through me. A friend asked yesterday how I do it. "It's like you're running a marathon, with no food or drink, and with only half a lung!" (That last part is an overstatement, though I continue to navigate some pulmonary challenges this year.) I answered honestly that I don't know how I do it either, and maybe the answer is that "I" am not doing it -- that presence I name as God is doing it through me. I'm just the conduit.
The day after Yom Kippur I work from home. I am slowly tidying the chaos that accrued during these Days of Awe -- taking out the recycling, putting my holiday whites into the laundry -- in between answering congregant emails and scheduling pastoral meetings for next week. I'm grounding myself with physical actions: combining cumin and coriander and cardamom and cayenne and smoked paprika with olive oil and lemon juice to slather on the shawarma now in my slow cooker, carrying Yom Kippur materials back upstairs to my home office so they're no longer cluttering every surface in my living room.
The day after Yom Kippur I recognize that I am getting older. Last night I kept being awakened by foot and leg cramps, leftovers from the 25 hours without water. (Yes, Mom, I hydrated beforehand.) The white canvas shoes that I've worn on this day for years have no arch support, and I'm feeling that now. I think next year I'll need something different, or maybe inserts, I don't know. My voice held up beautifully yesterday, though by the end of the day my asthma was acting up, and today I'm noticing that my chest gets tight after even minor activity. That's okay. It's a good reminder to me to be gentle with myself today.
The day after Yom Kippur, Shabbat is coming. Last night after havdalah, I sang (to the tune of "Shavua Tov") "Tomorrow's Friday -- it's almost Shabbes -- what even is time," and everyone laughed. Yesterday was Shabbat Shabbaton, Shabbat squared, and now it's about to be Shabbes again? Time feels out of joint, somehow. And oh, I am so grateful for this Shabbes even so. I even cancelled a social commitment for tomorrow afternoon. I think that after all of those words and melodies and actions and outpouring-of-self, what I need is restorative quiet, and and a good book, and time to pet my cat, and maybe a nap.
Earlier this summer, I copied down a Chinese proverb, though an internet search suggests that this many not actually come to us from China after all! But the words resonate with me regardless: "Keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come."
It feels like an apt seasonal teaching as we approach the autumn equinox and the darker months of the year. It feels even more like an apt spiritual teaching, especially in the midst of pandemic, in times when it feels like our certainties are shifting beneath our feet.
Making a space for hope in our hearts is a practice, which is to say, it takes work. We need to till the soil, plant the tree, keep the tree alive, and then the bird will come with exquisite liquid song. Hope doesn't come because we're lucky. Hope comes when we make a space for it.
It takes strength -- gevurah -- to cultivate that space in our hearts, especially when the news makes us want to close our hearts tight against anticipated loss and even against each other. It takes strength to have the vision of the singing bird that isn't yet here, the hope that we may not yet feel, the healing that isn't yet.
In this morning's Torah reading we heard רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם / "See, I place before you today..." Yom Kippur calls us to see what has not yet come to pass -- because our choices will determine which future we enter. We get to choose curses or blessings, hardened hearts or opened ones, despair or hope.
In a sense, the whole of 5782 is an opportunity to pause and see what isn't here yet.
Torah teaches that every seventh year should be a shmita year: a year-long Shabbat for the land. We'll learn more about that later this year (so stay tuned for updates on study and action opportunities this winter and spring). As the climate crisis intensifies, how will our choices and our policies and our culture lead us to care for our planet? How can we not only keep a green bough in our hearts, but also preserve and protect the ecosystems of our planet... especially now, when everything feels so broken -- when everything is so broken?
Our mystics teach that at the first moment of creation, there was breaking. God's infinite light was too powerful to be contained. The initial vessels created to hold that light didn't have enough structural integrity, enough gevurah, and they shattered. So God tried again, and the second time, creation "held"... but shards of those broken first vessels remain. There is brokenness everywhere we look, and that's not new.
Our mystics also teach that we have an integral role to play in repairing the world's brokenness. When we do mitzvot, we uncover the hidden sparks of primordial light buried beneath the shards, and we lift them back up to their Source. We repair the world. We repair God, as it were.
I love this teaching for two reasons. First: it doesn't sugarcoat the brokenness. Things are broken -- between global pandemic, and inequality and racism and xenophobia, and the climate crisis, and assaults on civil rights and on our democracy -- and our religious tradition is not going to pretend that away.
And second: it empowers us to bring repair. This is our task as Jews and as human beings in the world. We lift up sparks every time donate to the food pantry, or welcome a refugee, or help someone with a uterus get the healthcare they need... and every time we light Shabbat candles or pray or sit in a sukkah, because those mitzvot nourish our souls, and we need that too.
In the words of the sage Leonard Cohen, "There is a crack in everything: it's how the light gets in." We need to see the cracks, the broken places, because pretending them away is spiritually dishonest. And the cracks are also how we see the light shining in. Being able to see both what's broken, and what repair could look like and how we can get there, takes gevurah.
Some of us don't like looking at what's broken. I get that. It's painful for me too. I struggle most when the brokenness is something human beings created or perpetuate.
What brings me closest to despair is the knowledge that a year ago, we stayed apart to protect each other.There was no vaccine for COVID-19. Today we are vaccinated: honestly miraculous! But because so many people believe the lies --that COVID is a hoax; that masks don't offer protection, or that they're a form of government control; that the vaccines aren't safe, or that they're a form of government control -- the Delta variant is raging. Misinformation and disinformation and outright lies are so prevalent that thousands are once again dying every day. Facing all of that takes gevurah.
Some of us have trouble seeing beyond what's broken. I get that too. The brokenness is so vast it can seem insurmountable. Facing what's broken without becoming consumed by that brokenness also takes gevurah.
For me the spiritual question is: what are we afraid of? What are we afraid will happen if we face the brokenness in our communities, in our nation, in our world? And what are we afraid will happen if we allow ourselves to cultivate hope for better?
I suspect we're afraid of facing injustice because we're afraid of despair. I feel that. I know that if I let myself see those things clearly, I am going to need to ask: what am I willing to do, and what am I willing to give up, in order to create change?
And I suspect we're afraid to let ourselves hope because we don't want to be disappointed. If hope is something that just happens, without any agency on our part, that fear makes some sense -- hopes can rise and hopes can be dashed and either way it's not up to us. But in Mariame Kaba's framing, hope is a discipline. Which brings me back to our mystics and their teaching that when we do mitzvot, we lift up fallen sparks. Doing mitzvot also is a discipline. Jewish tradition calls us to do mitzvot, recognizing that in the doing we might rewire our souls and even heal God. And even if we don't feel changed, doing mitzvot still makes the world a better place.
See, I place before you today blessing and curse, says Torah. The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim points out that good and evil have been mixed together since the beginning of our human story, and they are mixed together within us, too. Our task, he says, is to empower our innate goodness. I think he means something like: our morality, our integrity, our attachment to truth. Translator R. Art Green notes that our moral disposition affects how we see the world, especially the actions of others. A tzaddik (a righteous person) is someone whose own goodness causes them to see the good in others, and therefore to treat others with compassion.
It takes gevurah to see the best in others, even when they frustrate or anger us. And not just when we happen to feel like it, but always. Pirkei Avot instructs us to give the benefit of the doubt (literally: to judge with our internal scales weighted toward merit). Rambam explains that the only exception to this is when someone is absolutely known to be a complete evildoer. Keep good boundaries and avoid that person. Otherwise, we must assume the best. Seeing each other through generous eyes takes gevurah! And...how we see each other can impact what actually is.
There are a few people in the world I wouldn't want to sit down with until they did their work, repaired their harms, and showed themselves to have changed. But in most cases, we're what Hasidic tradition calls beynonim -- in-between-ers. We're not perfect, and we're not terrible: we're somewhere in between. It's in that in-between space that I think we can make the greatest difference by giving each other the benefit of the doubt, seeing each other through generous eyes. This isn't a Pollyanna move. It asks a spine of titanium alongside an open, curious heart.
It takes gevurah to build relationships when we disagree, identifying common ground while holding the reality of our differences. It takes gevurah to balance generosity of spirit with holding each other (and ourselves) accountable. It takes gevurah to discern when we should "grade on a curve" and when we should demand better from others and ourselves. It takes gevurah to see each other, and the world, into being better than we have been before.
Mariame Kaba asks, "what’s the next best thing you can do from where you are?" Not "how are we going to fix everything," but what is the next good thing we can do from where we are.
Envision a better world, and take one step closer. And then another. As our sages teach, "It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it."
It's tempting to imagine that if we could just feel hopeful, then we'd be energized to repair the world. But I think that's backwards. Our job is to see what hasn't yet come to pass -- the good that isn't here yet -- and then live it into being. We lift up the sparks, we look for the good in each other, we envision a better world and take one step closer to it, because those actions are how we cultivate the ground of our hearts to sustain the green bough where hope can make its home.
This is the sermon I offered at my shul on Yom Kippur morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining for possible exposure to the Bubonic plague? Possibly also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. I assume all of us wrote at least one great masterwork of literature during the last year. No?
Surely at least we started baking with sourdough during the pandemic, creating spectacular loaves and sharing them on Instagram. Or maybe we reorganized our entire storage system, or finished all the home improvement projects we hadn't had time to complete before, or learned a new language on Duolingo.
The idea that we were "supposed" to do something great and meaningful during quarantine has become a meme, a running joke. As though that were the way to "win" at lockdown and isolation amid global pandemic. We laugh, but the laughter is uneasy. On some level, maybe we wonder: if I didn't spend this first 18 months of pandemic doing something I can brag about, am I doing it wrong?
Kol nidrei: all the vows and promises and oaths that we fail to live up to...
Maybe we promised ourselves that 5781 would be the year we would finally start working out, or the year we would actually open those cookbooks, or the year we would learn to bake sourdough or write a screenplay... especially since many of us were sheltering-in-place or working from home, so obviously we had all that spare time, right? And instead it turned out that 5781 was a year that we spent trying to keep ourselves and each other afloat. It was a year that we spent watching millions die, and grieving, maybe grappling with survivor's guilt. And it was a year that we spent watching some people politicize mask-wearing and vaccination, even questioning whether or not the virus is real.
In some ways, the jokes about sourdough and King Lear feel like gaslighting. They ask us to pretend away the inconceivable awfulness of what we've witnessed in the last year. ICUs filling with COVID patients again and again. Crematoria in India working overtime. Vaccine shortages in Asia and Africa, paired with vaccine refusers in our own country. And the climate crisis. And the assault on democracy. Our grief and our fear and our compassion have been in overdrive for so long: many are exhausted, or numb, or overwhelmed. And yet somehow we're supposed to imagine that we're supposed to ignore our heartbreak and fear and be productive,and if we failed at that, we've missed the mark? As though we needed another reason to feel lousy about ourselves tonight!
But feeling lousy about ourselves misses the point of today altogether. Yes, the liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that we missed the mark. Even if we'd spent every minute of the last year trying to pursue justice and act with compassion, human beings make mistakes. But the point isn't self-flagellation, it's promising in community (and as a community) that we will try to do better.
My image of God is not the angry teacher who can't wait to give us demerits for all of our flaws. Yes, we'll spend these 25 hours searching our souls to find the inner work we need to do to be better. But that's because our tradition gives us this holy season for introspection, calling us to become -- not because God is poised to whack us with a ruler. On the contrary. As we heard right after Kol Nidre, "vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha!" And God says: I forgive you, as I said I would!We use the spiritual tools of prayer and contemplation and song to open our hearts so we can feel that forgiveness and be ready to try again.
This year, I also imagine God saying: hey, be gentle with yourselves. One of my friends said to me, at the start of the long cold pandemic winter, that she was grading herself on a curve this year. Some days she felt able to be productive. Other days, it was all she could do to get through the day. And on those days, she gave herself permission to be as she was. What she called grading on a curve, I think of as being gentle with ourselves.
In times of intense grief, clergy and therapists both say to lower the pressure we put on ourselves. I learned this anew when my mother died and grief fogged my vision. When we're living with sorrow or uncertainty or trauma (or all of the above), just making it through the day can take all we've got. Over the last 18 months of pandemic, we've all been in that place, sometimes.
Every year at this season we take a good hard look at our failings, and it's easy to get stuck there -- maybe especially this year. Maybe we didn't take care of ourselves, or we ate and drank too much. Maybe we gave in to despair and doomscrolling, or we turned a blind eye to the world's suffering...
Jewish tradition calls us to look clearly at where we missed the mark, and it also calls us not to cling to our perceived shortcomings. God is always ready to forgive. That means that God also forgives us for not baking Instagram-worthy sourdough or writing a novel or becoming fluent in Hebrew during this second pandemic year.
Tonight asks us to hold two competing truths in balance. One: Jewish values demand that we constantly work toward justice and healing for this broken world. And two: when we really make teshuvah (when we turn ourselves around, when we do our inner work), God forgives all of our failings. We need to be able to forgive ourselves.
That doesn't mean there are no standards and anything goes. Gevurah -- our theme for this year -- asks us to maintain accountability for ourselves and for others. There are behaviors that are simply not okay. Torah is clear that lying, or cheating, or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others is flat wrong. Tomorrow afternoon's Torah reading will remind us that God asks us to feed the hungry and care for the powerless, to pursue justice without bias, to love our fellow human beings. That Torah reading also reminds us to offer tochecha, corrective words, if we see our fellow human beings acting unethically -- because if we let unethical behavior stand, we become complicit.
And it is also a spiritual truth that sometimes it's all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. When we're living with uncertainty or trauma or grief, even the simplest tasks can be monumental. Sometimes we can't offer tochecha or work toward justice because just completing life's requisite tasks takes all we've got. And that's okay.
Gevurah also can mean healthy boundaries. Sometimes the boundary we need to draw is one that says: I'm doing the best I can, and this is all I can do, and for now it's going to have to be enough.
This is part of why we live in community. At any given time, some of us are struggling just to make it through the day. In these times of pandemic and climate crisis, that may be even more true than it used to be. We need to help each other through and remind each other that putting on one's own oxygen mask first is not only okay, it's necessary. And at any given time, some of us are doing well enough to make things better for someone else. That's when it's our job to be angels for each other, as I said on Rosh Hashanah.
So let's go gentle into this Kol Nidre night. Let's promise to help each other through the challenges of 5782. Let's refrain from comparing ourselves to other people, even if their sourdough loaves look magazine-worthy. And let's show up with open hearts and commit ourselves to trying to be better, because that's what we're here for.
God can forgive us for barely holding it together -- even for not being "productive" during the pandemic. Can we forgive ourselves?
This is my sermon for Kol Nidre this year (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Ordinarily on Shabbat Shuvah I would talk about teshuvah, return -- turning our lives around, returning to our Source and to our highest selves. This is, after all, the work of the season. But I think that in this second pandemic year, there's no shortage of time for introspection -- a lot of us have been too alone, or turning too inward. So instead I want to talk today about what connects us with each other, and what it might mean to return to each other and to community.
Over the summer I had the opportunity to co-teach a pioneering rabbinic school class on doing Jewish digitally, with my friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi David Markus. We covered a lot of ground, ranging from the nature of prayer and ritual, to wise use of visuality, to creating spiritual and tangible "runways" into the digital ritual experience. And in one of our sessions, we opened with some classical texts about what makes a minyan.
Rambam wrote in the 1170s that "[c]ommunal prayer always is heard [by God]. … Thus, one must join oneself with the community, and never pray alone whenever one is able to pray with the community." (Mishneh Torah, Prayer 8:1.) This is part of Judaism's fundamental communitarianism. Can one talk to God alone? Of course! But it's not good to separate oneself from community. The community needs us to show up, because in coming together to make a minyan, we also come together to make community.
Alongside that, we studied a text from the Shulhan Arukh, written in 1563 by Joseph Karo:
All 10 must be in one place, and the prayer-leader with them...One standing behind the synagogue, and in-between them is a window – even if it is several stories high … – and [whose] face is visible to them from there, joins them to make 10. If a few of them are inside and a few are outside, and the prayer-leader is in the doorway, the prayer-leader connects them [into one minyan]. (O.C. 55:13-15)
The simplest way to make a minyan is ten people in one place, including the prayer-leader. That seems pretty clear. But then he goes on to say: if one person is outside the room, but can be seen from inside, that person can be included. And if some are in one space and some are in another, they can all be included. So long as the prayer leader can see them, that being-seen connects them into one community, even if they can't all see each other.
As soon as I read that, I thought: welcome to Zoom / hybrid / digital services, y'all.
Joseph Karo could not have imagined Zoom services or the hybrid services we've been holding all summer, with some participating onsite and others participating online. But he was already wrestling with this question that's live for us now: how do we create sacred community when we're not all in the same physical place?
For Karo, community arises when we can see each other. If I lead a service and it's broadcast on television, the people watching it might or might not have a meaningful experience -- but they can't be counted in a minyan together, because there's no two-way connectivity. I can't see them, and they can't see each other. I think he's right, which is why I've made a practice of including periodic "face to face" slides where we stop the screenshare and meet each others' eyes.
I think he's on to something in a deeper spiritual sense, too. What makes us a community is not whether or not we can convene to pray in the same room at the same time... because if that were the case, then anyone who doesn't show up to pray ceases to be part of the community! and if that were the case, then our community would have evaporated when the pandemic hit and we, along with so many others, started sheltering in place at home.
We become community when we see each other. I would go further: we become community not just when we glance at each others' faces, but when we try to see each other fully. When we see what matters to each other. When we see what enlivens each other. When we see not only each others' faces but each others' hearts.
It turns out that when we see each other, something in us changes. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire their electrical pulses both when we do a thing, and when we see someone else do that same thing. This was first observed in monkeys in an Italian lab some thirty years ago: electrodes in their brains showed neurons firing when they handled food, and when they saw someone else handle food -- even when they merely heard the sounds of food being handled outside of their line of sight. Some researchers think that mirror neurons explain why we can have strong emotional reaction to characters on TV or in movies: because when we see them, we feel-with-them.
Being together on Zoom is not the same as being together onsite. We can't sing in harmony on Zoom, or hug each other, or have that feeling of being together in a room. But when we see each other, our mirror neurons still work their magic.
For Joseph Karo, one of the roles of the shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader) is to see all the souls in the room -- and in seeing them, to constitute them into community. This is not a rabbinic job per se. Any adult Jew who learns the liturgy can lead the community in prayer. And any one of us who makes an effort to really see the other souls in the room can create some of the cohesion that makes us a community.
As you've heard me say several times this year, our theme for this year's Days of Awe is gevurah, which means strength and power. It means boundaries. It evokes resilience and courage, too. It takes gevurah to really see each other, to be mindful of where I end and where you begin, to honor our differences without diminishing what connects us. It takes gevurah to connect with each other in these pandemic times when we may feel overwhelmed or despairing, or we may find the technologies of Zoom opaque. It takes gevurah to create community.
An invitation: to see each other deeply.
To awaken our mirror neurons as we see each other.
To create community together by seeing each other where we are, as we are, in all that we are.
Today our exploration of gevurah comes via the Torah reading for this morning.
Our mystics taught that God's infinity is revealed in creation through a series of sefirot, divine qualities or emanations. These are the channels through which God's infinite energy flows into the world, and we associate each one with a quality that we and God share. Like chesed, lovingkindness -- last year's high holiday theme. And gevurah, boundaries and strength and power and discernment -- this year's theme.
When our mystics look at the figures in Torah, they associate different characters in Torah with each of the sefirot. Abraham is associated with chesed, lovingkindness. His tent was open on all sides, he rushed to prepare a feast for visitors, he represents flowing love. And his son Isaac is associated with gevurah.
One of the reasons why Isaac is associated with this spiritual quality is surely the story we just heard, the "binding of Isaac." How do we see Isaac's strength in this story? Arguably, what we see is him holding still and letting himself be bound. Maybe he feels powerless, or overwhelmed, or out of control: we don't know, because Torah doesn't tell us! But to me, his gevurah has a kind of stoic, silent perseverance to it. He holds still and trusts that he will make it through somehow.
Abraham showed tremendous gevurah earlier in Torah. In midrash, we learn that his father was a builder of idols, and young Avram smashed them. It's a great story: Terach comes home, all of the idols in his shop are smashed save one, and the biggest one has a stick in its hand. And he yells, what did you do?! and Avram says, "oh, it wasn't me, dad, the big one did it." And his father says, "You know they're just stone. They can't move!" and Avram retorts, "so why do you worship them, then?" It took gevurah to stand up to his dad.
Or earlier in Genesis, when God disclosed intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, Avraham pushed back: what if there are fifty righteous there, what if there are forty, all the way down to ten. But when it comes to Sarah casting-out Ishmael in yesterday's Torah reading, Avraham doesn't do much. He tells God he doesn't like it, but he doesn't challenge it. And in today's story, God makes an outrageous request and Avraham just... does it. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes, he's a hero when it comes to the outside world, but with his own sons, he falls far short of offering the protection they need.
One of my favorite ways of reading Torah is to place ourselves in the shoes of everyone in the story. Through the lens of Torah we can see ourselves refracted in new ways. And in empathizing with everyone in Torah's story, we strengthen our capacity to stand in the shoes of another.
How does it feel to empathize with each figure in today's story, to feel-into where they are?
Maybe Isaac's kind of gevurah resonates for us, eighteen months into this pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted so many ways we aren't in control. We don't have the power to make COVID-19 go away, and we don't have the power to require other people to do what's right. But we can use our strength to accept our circumstances and make the best of the hand we're dealt.
Isaac must have also felt fear. His father had the knife raised for the strike before the angel intervened. We too feel fear in these pandemic times. What might it mean to follow in Isaac's footsteps and do what life's situation asks of us, even when we feel afraid?
I don't especially want to empathize with today's portrait of Avraham. But like Avraham who followed instructions in today's story, we too hear voices -- day and night, over the internet and cable news and social media -- telling us what to do and why. We may be more like Avraham than we want to realize.
Today's Torah reading begins with the words, "After these things, God tested Avraham." in English we call this the "Binding of Isaac," but Torah calls this a test. I've always felt that Avraham failed the test: he should have pushed back. He didn't exercise the discernment to recognize that God's instruction here was wrong. Discernment is part of gevurah, too.
Gevurah asks us to discern when the voices we're listening to are giving us good advice and when they're not. Sometimes the voices we hear are self-serving or toxic. Some voices today declare that the masks we wear to protect against airborne infection are "muzzles" that take away our freedom. Other voices proclaim that as human beings in a society we have a responsibility to take care of each other. What voices will we heed in 5782?
Recently, as I was studying this story again, my son asked me what I was learning. His Hebrew name is after my maternal grandfather, Isaac -- in Hebrew, Yitzchak, the name of the son whom Avraham almost sacrificed. I realized he didn't really know this story yet. So I told it to him, in outline, curious to know how it would land with him.
(And yes, he gave me permission to tell this story to you today.)
His first reaction was: God -- He, or She, or They -- probably isn't giving us the full story here. "God is giving us pieces and parts to figure out for ourselves, but God might overestimate or underestimate us." And then he said, "Loyalty to God is a good thing, but Abraham could have found a loophole. We have choices. We need to feel in our jellies when we're treating people wrong or making a wrong choice."
I said, "You mean, we need to learn to use our discernment?" Yes, he said. That's a good word for it.
We need to use our discernment to know when the voices we're following are aligned with our highest values -- and when they're not. Discernment is another way of saying, gevurah.
It's also noteworthy who's not in this story. Sarah appears nowhere in this part of the narrative. The next thing we read, after this story, is that Sarah died at 127. From that juxtapositionone midrash imagines her hearing the news from afar, perhaps in a garbled form indicating that her husband actually sacrificed their son, and dying on the spot.
After the way we saw Sarah behave yesterday -- banishing Hagar and Ishmael into the desert -- I don't especially want to empathize with Sarah, either! But when I place myself in her shoes, I can feel her grief and horror at the news of her child's death. (Of course, that news turns out to be wrong. Fake news, as it were. But she still grieves -- and dies.)
It takes gevurah to place ourselves in someone else's situation. It takes gevurah to rein in our own reactivity so we can empathize with someone's heartbreak even if their past behaviors made us angry. Empathy might seem like an expression of chesed, lovingkindness -- but I think it requires our gevurah.
Maybe this feels a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe we don't want to empathize with people who we perceive made bad choices. That's a very human response. To our ancestors, it was also an angelic one!
We see this in a midrash on part of the Exodus story. When we crossed the sea, Talmud says, the angels rejoiced when the waves crashed in and washed away the Egyptians. This is Pharaoh and his army we're talking about. They had caused unimaginable suffering. And God says, "the works of My hands are dying, and you want to sing praises?!" Like -- what's the matter with you; develop some empathy, would you?! For this reason we pour out drops of juice or wine, symbol of joy, from our second cup at seder. We diminish our joy because someone else suffered in our journey to liberation.
Not wanting to empathize with someone we don't like or don't agree with is a very human reaction... and that midrash comes to teach us that Jewish values ask us to rise above that reaction.
Gevurah is how we balance between feeling our righteous anger, and reining in our anger so that we don't lose empathy. Gevurah is in how we exercise judgment, especially when it comes to which voices we will heed and amplify. Gevurah is in the strength to be still and trust sometimes, and the strength to take bold action sometimes, and the discernment to know which times are which.
And gevurah is what allows us to be alert for possibilities of hope that we hadn't previously considered -- like the ram that appears at the last second in today's Torah reading, the source of hope that was waiting just outside our vision's frame.
This is my d'varling from the second morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory -- expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)
All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon.
The enormity of what's broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: "Who by fire, who by water" lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough -- and there's more.
The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are "essential" and often unseen.
When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn't reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming "personal freedom" at the expense of the collective good.
I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn't seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it's tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it's horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there's more.
Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.
Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We're facing another long winter of mounting death counts -- and it didn't have to be this way.
Between what we're doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was "stolen," it's hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I'm pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she's given up.
I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors' job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity's future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.
Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child's death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar's eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham's eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac's life is spared.
The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can't see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can't find alone.
Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father's altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year's Days of Awe.
We've seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece -- in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU -- in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage.
I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn't watch the Olympics this year. (That's not the courageous part.) I just couldn't get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.
Everyone seems to agree that she's one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can't do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she's more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health.
It takes courage to say I'm not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic -- the world is not okay right now.
Simone Biles said she "got the twisties," a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can't tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it's an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We've lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It's hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all "have the twisties" a little bit this year.
I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn't make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles' "angel" -- the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn't okay and begin to work toward healing.
Because here's the thing: we're not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.
The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. "Hope doesn't preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger," she says. "Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline." She goes on to say:
Hope is a discipline and... we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.
When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it's a practice -- like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah.
5781 was not an easy year. I don't know what 5782 will bring, but I'm pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I'm in need of assistance myself, I'm obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others.
Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on "ugh, who's going to help me through this" sometimes is normal, but it's also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on "how can I help someone else" lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul.If you prefer, here's a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful!And that's true whether we're doing organized volunteer work, or "just" offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom.
Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world.
This is my sermon from the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Each year I choose a theme for the Days of Awe at CBI. Some months ago I chose the theme of gevurah, which means strength, power, heroism, courage, boundaries, determination. People were getting vaccinated. The weather was warming up and we were about to begin offering safe outdoor / hybrid services at CBI. I could already imagine writing my high holiday sermons this year about the strength it took for us to stay apart last year to keep each other safe, and the heroism of medical professionals in every COVID ICU around the world, and how our determination had brought us safely through this pandemic.
"Man plans, and God laughs," the saying goes. Though this year it feels more apt to me to say "humanity plans, and God weeps." I imagine God has been weeping a lot over the last fifteen months. Whatever we hoped for a year ago, I think it's safe to say that we haven't made it there yet, and the path from here to there feels fraught and uncertain.
And our theme for the year couldn't be more apt. Wow do we need gevurah this year.
We need strength: the strength to keep going when the path ahead feels uncertain, when we don't know the right thing to do, when we don't know how to keep each other safe. We need the strength to help each other find hope, especially when the world feels dark. We need the strength to discern what's right, and which voices we should be heeding. We need the strength to forgive ourselves and each other, especially in these difficult pandemic times -- especially because we've moved from "this difficult pandemic year" to something longer and of more uncertain duration. We need the strength to see the world differently than we have before, so that we can live into that vision, making the world better than it was before. (Stay tuned; that's a sneak preview of sermons to come!)
Gevurah helps us be courageous: it helps us strengthen our hearts and keep our resolve firm even when we're frustrated that this pandemic is becoming endemic.
Gevurah helps us have good boundaries. Gevurah reminds us that we never know what difficulty another person is facing, so our sacred task is always ladun l'chaf z'chut, to give one another the benefit of the doubt and see one another through generous eyes -- even as we strive to hold ourselves and each other to the highest ethical standards.
Gevurah gives us strength to speak up for what's ethical and just, and the courage to protect the most vulnerable among us. Gevurah helps us be giborim, heroes, for and with each other as we lift each other up and keep each other safe.
And gevurah is a necessary part of teshuvah: repentance, return, re-alignment, turning ourselves around to live out our best and highest purpose in the year now beginning.
May the spiritual journey of this High Holiday season open our hearts, deepen our resolve, and give us the gevurah we need to make 5782 a year of holiness and strength, a year of community and connectedness, a year of justice and joy.
This is the very brief d'varling I offered at our erev Rosh Hashanah Zoom seder. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Stay tuned for actual sermons in days to come.
It's funny to feel nostalgic for last year. Last year, when we were all locking down, when the Days of Awe had to be all-Zoom for everyone -- how could I possibly miss that? I think what I miss is the sense of certainty. We knew how to keep each other safe: stay home, stay apart, shelter in place. This year nothing seems so clear.
My community is vaccinated -- though not those under twelve. New England is doing better than other parts of the country when it comes to the Delta variant -- though there's been an uptick lately, and schools are starting. I have vaccinated congregants who got breakthrough infections; one is getting monoclonal antibodies today.
I read about ICUs filling up again, about people dying in terrible ways, about health care workers grieving and stretched beyond the end of their ropes. I read about people trying to treat COVID with horse dewormer, and I surf the waves of my own anger at misinformation. I read about governors forbidding masks in schools, and I go numb.
I think the real reason I feel a yearning for last year is that last year, I didn't yet know how long the pandemic would go on -- nor how persistent anti-mask sentiment, paired with the Delta variant, would spark another wave of hospitalizations and deaths. So much heartbreak. And that's without the wildfires and floods and hurricanes...
In recent weeks my small synagogue has adapted our high holiday plan. We surveyed our community and asked folks to rank the services they want most to attend onsite. Everyone who wanted to be onsite will get to attend at least one of their top choice services that way; they'll join other services online. Many are choosing to be all-online again.
We've set up 45 chairs in a space that usually holds 120, separated into pods spaced six feet apart. Everyone onsite will be masked. Doors and windows will be open for fresh air. And I'll offer as robust and participatory a Zoom option as I can, pausing the screenshare regularly so the people onsite can see the people on Zoom and vice versa.
This is my tenth year in congregational service. I'm used to spending my summers working on the Days of Awe; that's just the rhythm of this work! But the pandemic makes everything harder. We need traditions and community connections more than ever, even as pandemic realities call us to reinvent both our traditions and how our communities connect.
I know that our high holiday plan is thoughtful and considered. And I know that we need to be ready to pivot to all-digital if caseloads worsen. Our tradition teaches that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: "all Israel is responsible, one for another." It's a heavy responsibility. This summer, it weighs on every rabbi and synagogue board I know.
Fewer people come to the cemetery service each year. When I began serving this community, ten years ago, we would have at least a dozen. We'd set up a circle of folding chair and pray the afternoon service. And then people would take pebbles and quietly walk through the cemetery, leaving stones to mark their visits to parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. Some members of my shul are fourth or fifth generation; they have ancestors to visit here.
These days only a few people come. Many of those who used to attend the cemetery service each year are now buried in that same cemetery. I like to think that I am still davening with them each year when we convene on a Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. There was one gentleman who always used to come to the cemetery service and then quip, "Rabbi, don't forget, you're doing my funeral!" And I'd always say, "No time soon, please."
Mom's grave. San Antonio.
The custom of visiting our ancestors at the cemetery before the new year feels old-fashioned. It comes from a time when people didn't migrate much. Today most of the members of my small shul are not fourth- or fifth-generation members. They're transplants, like me. I've been here now for almost thirty years (and have served as the rabbi here for a decade.) This is my home, and my son's home. But our beloved dead aren't here.
My mother's parents; my father's parents. San Antonio.
My mother and my grandparents are buried in San Antonio. For great-grandparents, I'd have to cross an ocean. In 1993, we visited Prague (my grandmother's and my mother's birthplace) and we went to see my great-grandparents in the "new" Jewish cemetery from the 1800s. I remember my grandmother's satisfaction at being able to visit her parents' graves again. She told us how they used to picnic there with the ancestors on Sundays.
My grandmother and aunt at my great-grandparents' graves. "New" Jewish cemetery, Prague, 1993.
It feels right to pay our respects to the dead before beginning the new year. To remember that one day we too will return to our Source. This afternoon I will hold a smooth pebble in my hand and I will think of my beloved dead. I'll think of them too when I make challah before the new year: round, like the year, and studded with raisins for sweetness. Their headstones are far away, but their presence is as near as memory.
I was a writer before I became a rabbi and High Holiday sermons usually come easily to me. Some years I have so many ideas and teachings and hopes to share that I accidentally write more sermons than I need to give.
Not this year. This year I haven’t felt able to begin writing at all.
Last year, leading High Holiday services via Zoom from home, I spoke about our obligation to take care of each other by staying apart. I turned to the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for his teachings about hope during adversity. I imagined Rosh Hashanah 5782: Surely we would be vaccinated and safely back together!...
I don't want to reckon with my choices: feels like that's all we've done for 18 months (should I mask, is this safe, what if we meet outside and never breathe together?) I don't want to query who will live and who will die, who by wildfire and who by flooded subway, who intubated and alone and who will have enough while others lack. I just want all of us to thrive: our hearts at ease, our hopes in reach at last. Come close to me, God. Comfort me with apples. Remind me the world is born again each year -- even if I'm not ready, even if this year I'm not sure I know the words to pray.
Reckon with my choices. The lunar month of Elul, which begins in a few days, launches the season of teshuvah, repentance and return; the inner work of this time is looking at who we are and who we've been, where we've missed the mark, how we can repair what's broken in our relationships with each other, the world, and our Source. Who will live / and who will die, who by fire and who by water... The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite on Rosh Hashanah, asks this question. (Here's a post I wrote about it a while back if you want to know more.) Wildfires and flooded subways come from recent news. Come close to me, God. Tradition holds that during the month of Elul, "the King is in the Field" -- the transcendent sovereign aspect of God, usually distant from us, is with us / near us / accessible to us. Comfort me with apples. From Song of Songs 2:5. Apples dipped in honey are also a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." The world is born again. One of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah reminds us that hayom harat olam, "today the world is born." On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the ongoing renewal of creation.
One of my friends said that to me last night, and I groaned. "Wait, what? It's Tamuz already?!"
I've had a few things on my mind. Preparing my shul community to shift from all-digital to hybrid / multi-access. Supporting my kid through the final days of his fifth grade year, a school year unlike any other. It makes sense that I lost track of time.
But it's a new lunar month. Once again, I bump into the disjunction between the secular calendar and our sacred one. On the secular calendar, summer is just beginning: jump in the pool! fire up the grill! Jewishly, later this month we'll be mourning.
And once again I grapple with the tension between now and coming. I struggle every year with winter's cold and darkness. I count the days until they start lengthening again. I crave summer's greenery, the profusion of produce, the long golden light.
That season is finally beginning... and my professional life calls me to think about three months from now, when summer will be waning, when we'll gather (onsite? online? hybrid? plan for all three and see what happens?) for the Jewish New Year again.
It's new moon. It's the start of Tamuz. Four weeks until Av. Then four weeks until Elul. Then four weeks until Rosh Hashanah. It's twelve weeks until the Jewish new year, friends. I don't want to think about it either! I want to revel in the now, at last.
Our sacred calendar is always tugging us forward. In deepest midwinter we celebrate Tu BiShvat and yearn toward the Purim and Pesach that will be our stepping-stones into spring. And now it's barely summer, and our calendar points toward fall.
In my line of work, that means thinking about services and sermons -- and, this year, questions of masks and pandemic and building capacity and airflow. But for all of us, clergy and laypeople alike, this moment points our hearts toward the horizon.
It's not time for the Elul work, the teshuvah work, the facing-our-missteps work, quite yet -- but we can see it from here. What do you need the next few months to hold so you can feel ready to do the work of returning again and beginning anew?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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, 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?
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.
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.
Here's a recording of my sermon if you'd rather watch it than read it. (It's here on YouTube.) Or, read below...
Not 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.
This was my brief d'varling from tonight's Erev Rosh Hashanah Seder (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)