Kol Nidre: Come and Choose

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

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

In the last few years, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

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

A thousand times before:

and yet again, come again, come,

and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...


Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

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

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 

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


One more d'var Torah as the old year is ending

We're almost done with our year of reading Torah through a building-focused lens at Builders Blog. I wrote this week's post -- beautifully sketchnoted, as always, by Steve Silbert -- arising out of parashat Vayeilech. I found two lessons, and one warning. 

Here's a taste:

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...The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us. All genders and gender expressions. The insiders and those who feel like outsiders. The locals and the immigrants. A vibrant and meaningful Jewish future can’t be built only by men, or only by white people, or only by Israelis (or Americans), or only by rabbis. On the contrary: this building work belongs to all of us. Only when all of us are present, and all of us are appreciated for our differences and our unique gifts, and all of us are uplifted into service, can we fullfil the blueprint of a world redeemed...

Read the whole thing here: Keystones: Great for Buildings - Not for Relationships.

And while I'm at it, here's a new year's greeting from all of us at Bayit.  Here's to a sweet new year of building together!


Soft

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My voice teacher this summer, Rabbi Minna Bromberg, begins all of our lessons the same way. She walks me through grounding myself: feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly. The body is a connector between heaven and earth, as the singing that we do in leading prayer seeks to connect heaven and earth. Each week as she walks me through the litany I can feel myself shifting and settling into my body and into a grounded stance. And the first time she said "soft belly," I felt myself flinch. 

Of course, she's right, and I get why she says it every week. Singing is a full-body activity. I can't sing -- no one can sing -- while holding my breath or sucking in my belly to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. And yet I've absorbed decades of voices telling me that as a woman, maybe especially as a single woman, that's precisely what I'm supposed to do: take up as little space as possible. But physically I can't sing if I'm trying to shrink myself. And spiritually, I can't lead others in prayer if I'm hiding.

When I was fourteen, my mother signed me up for modeling lessons. I remember learning how to suck in all of my soft places to make myself as slim and taut as possible, and learning to walk as though my high heels enabled me to float above the runway. (I never enjoyed it, to mom's chagrin, and I never pursued the modeling career she temporarily had in mind.) Sometimes I still suck in my soft places without even thinking. And R' Minna reminds me, every week, that no one can sing in that posture.

Physically, no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. And spiritually no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. The message conveyed by that compulsive clenching is: take up less room. That's a be-quiet message, not a sing-out message! But prayer asks me to be ready to sing out with all that I am -- not just the convenient parts. I can't lead people into a place in prayer where I myself won't go. How can I give permission to be whole if I won't take that permission myself?

Last fall I received a blessing for taking up space in the world -- for feeling able to inhabit my 100 cubits of holy space, like the 100 cubits of the mishkan. That blessing has been reverberating ever since. Learning how to better use my voice in service of leading prayer is one of the ways I'm living into that blessing. And learning how to use my voice also turns out to mean learning how to love my body, including my belly, including the soft places of which I was taught (most of us are taught) to feel shame.

This is not something I expected to learn from my voice lessons. But it turns out that my soft places help me sing. It turns out that my soft places are holy. My body is the instrument through which I offer song and praise, and lead others in doing the same. And I can only do that if I'm willing to be in my body -- my whole body -- whole and holy, exactly the way God remakes me, every single day. Feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly, ready to connect, ready to lift my voice and sing.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Minna Bromberg. 

 


First day of fall

Mom, I'm on my mirpesset
on the first day of fall.
You loved that word --
a little taste of Jerusalem

or Tel Aviv. Two of the zinnias
my son planted last spring
have sent up new buds, like
dancers reaching toward heaven

with palms outspread.
They're trying to bloom
once more before first frost.
I don't think there's time,

but who am I to say I know
when death will come?
All morning I've been practicing
Torah in the golden melody

of the season. Last year
you watched holiday services
from your bed, Facebook Live
on the iPad propped on your lap.

From olam ha-ba I expect
you'll have better picture
and clearer sound. I wish
I could feed you honeycake.

I wish I could sing for you
and know that you hear me.
I don't want to be starting
a year that never had you in it.


Through this year's Selichot door

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

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

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

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

Equinox Selichot [pdf]


Now

 

Suddenly the two stately trees
outside my window are shot through

with sprays of gold. My heart rails
against the turning season

like a child resisting bedtime, but
the trees hear the shofar's call.

Come alive, flare up, be
who you are: let your light shine!

The katydids and crickets sing
the time is now, the time is now.

The last time I visited my mother
I told her "it's okay if you're ready

to go." My heart railed against
her dying, but after one last burst

of color she was ready to rest.
This year the trees' razzle-dazzle

speaks to me in her voice: be here
while you can. Drink every drop

of daylight. And when night falls,
it's full of stars: don't be afraid.

 

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2019

 

(Each year during the month of Elul -- the month leading up to the Days of Awe -- I write a poem to share with family, friends, & blog readers. This is this year's. Those annual poems are online here -- most recent at the top.)


Pursuing justice

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"Justice, justice, shall you pursue." (Deut. 16:20)

Or in the translation of my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, "Resist so that you may exist." Because Torah says we are to pursue justice in order that we may live.

It's not enough to support justice. Agree with justice. Nod our heads about justice. We're supposed to pursue it. To run after it. To seek it with all that we are.

We need to pursue justice because without justice we cannot wholly live.

We need to pursue justice because without justice, life isn't wholly living.

Cornel West wrote that "Justice is what love looks like in public." If we love the other -- and Torah is quite clear that we should: "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated no fewer than thirty-six times in Torah -- the way we are to express that love is by seeking justice.

And where there is no justice, "love" is a hollow word. In the absence of justice, love loses its meaning. If someone says they love you, but they won't pursue justice for you, then their love is at best false and at worst highly damaging. 

What does it mean for us to pursue justice?

It means acting ethically. Always. Without fail. As much as we can.

On a personal level, it means discerning where we've fallen short, apologizing to those whom we've harmed, and pursuing restitution for those whom we've harmed. That's the work of this time of year. (This is classical Jewish teaching; see Maimonides on teshuvah.)

Communally, social justice means "equal distribution of opportunities, rights, and responsibilities" across our differences. [Source.] If the systems of our society prevent any subgroup from having equal opportunities, rights, and responsibilities, that isn't justice. 

A world in which people of color are systematically disenfranchised from voting is not justice. (This week at havdalah when it's time to #BeALight, we might choose to support Fair Fight.) I'll bet we can all can think of other examples of injustice needing to be repaired. 

Pursuing justice means acting with integrity to uplift those who are disempowered -- in Torah's paradigm, the widow and the orphan; in today's paradigm, those who experience systematic discrimination.

This is our work in the world as Jews. This is our work in the world as human beings. This isn't new, but this year it seems more important than ever.

So here's my prayer today:

Please, God, strengthen our commitment to justice. Strengthen our readiness to not only uplift justice but to pursue it, to run after it, to seek it with all that we are. Because without justice, the world is broken.

And with justice -- only with justice -- we can aim to live up to our highest aspirations as individuals and as a society. With justice, we can live up to what God asks of us.

Because justice is what God asks of us. And justice is what we should ask of our government, and our communities, and our own selves. Justice is what we're called to pursue, all the days of our lives.

Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) I followed it with last year's Torah poem: Pursue.


A week of building with Bayit

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Within minutes of arrival, I'm drawn into a conversation about the meaning of the end of the Book of Jonah, its place in the arc of Yom Kippur, and what the ellipses implicit in that ending have to teach us. The guitars come out, and next thing I know I'm saying "wait, wait, show me that chord again," and I'm learning new chord progressions. We talk and sing and we sit by an outdoor fire for a while and I make dinner and we dine around a big table and then we move back outside, to the firepit this time, where we talk and laugh and talk and argue and talk under the wheeling spray of the Milky Way.

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I wake to coffee. The sunlight on the lake is dazzling. There is yoga, expertly led. There is impromptu davenen on the pier, sunlight shining through my sheer rainbow tallit, my feet dipping into the waters of the lake. We do a core values exercise and talk about what animates us. We sit outside in the sunshine on Adirondack chairs and make giant lists of our hopes and aspirations, what we want to get out of the week, what's on our priority list, dreams and goals for Bayit and for ourselves. We spend a few hours combing through the pages of Doorways one by one. And then we go kayaking.

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We look at plans for our Sketchnoting Jewishly book. We cook. We talk about working with college students. We study texts about masculinity and grace, and begin brainstorming modalities of menschlichkeit. Giant sticky-tab pages proliferate on the walls, covered with words, drawings, diagrams, charts, and ideas. We break for ice cream. We talk and laugh and sing and learn. I learn new melodies for prayers I know and love. The number of guitars in the room multiplies. Whoever finishes the coffee in the pot starts a new one. Whoever didn't cook, does dishes. We laugh and harmonize.

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We talk about board functions, about growing our build teams, about how our different projects (should) interrelate, about growing from a startup into what follows. We take a break to walk all the way around the lake, past houses and summer camps, exclaiming over the softness of pine needles underfoot and the beauty of the woods around us. The walls of the living room fill up with more ideas, and pages, and bright yellow post-it notes. We praise each others' recipes. We bring all of the guitars out to the firepit with the Adirondack chairs and we sing and laugh under the stars.

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We kayak onto glassy water, pause our boats under an arched stone bridge, and sing. We talk about the innovation pipeline and what we hope Bayit can accomplish next year. We come up with a new plan for Builders Blog, and learn how to use Trello. We break for mincha (afternoon prayer) overlooking the lake, two altos and a tenor with a drum and a guitar; the ashrei feels like heaven. The fabulous R' Wendy Amsellem teaches us Talmud on taking diverse opinions into our ears and hearts, on making our insides match our outsides, and on creating communities where it's safe to speak.

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At the end of the week I make challah, and we work on high holiday sermons under the trees, and some of us do mikvah in the lake, and then we gather outdoors with guitars to welcome Shabbat. There is nothing quite like Shabbes at the end of a week like this -- a week of brainstorming and kayaking, visioning and singing, planning and building. I am so grateful for this week. It's been sweet and song-filled, intense and real. And now I'm ready to return to my kid... knowing that my Bayit hevre and I will continue the work of building Jewish together, in all of the different places we call home. 


Off I go!

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In my car: a case of wine, my suitcase, giant sticky-tab pages, markers, a dry erase board, more markers, guitar, tallit and tefillin, siddur, Sfat Emet book, water shoes, sneakers, sun hat, computer bag, bentschers, non-perishable groceries for the dinner I'm cooking on Monday, and half a bottle of fig arak left over from Shavuot. It must be time for Bayit: Building Jewish's annual visioning / strategic planning / learning for its own sake / HiHo prep / vacation week!


Star light

Mom, tonight
after I got
the kid to bed
I stepped outside

onto the balcony
-- the air cool
without a robe
already, late

August preparing
to give way --
and the Big Dipper
gleamed above me,

and Cassiopeia.
I forgot to say
"Star light, star
bright," but

God knows
all the things
I wish for,
including

you listening
for these missives
lofted skyward
for you.

 


Plant a tree: on action, and compassion, and bringing repair

Plant-a-tree

Reading this week's Torah portion, Eikev, the verses that leapt out at me were Deuteronomy 8:3-4:

"God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years."

Reading these verses, I thought two things:

One -- what an extraordinary teaching about trust. Moshe is reminding the children of Israel that during their forty years' wandering in the wilderness, God gave them everything they needed. God gave them something entirely unprecedented and new, this foodstuff called manna. And God kept their clothes from going threadbare, and kept their feet nimble and comfortable. This is a teaching about trusting that if we are open, the universe will give us what we need.

And two -- holy wow, I wish we had access to that right now.

This has been an extraordinarily difficult week to pay attention to the news. There's talk of detaining refugee and migrant children indefinitely. The Amazon rainforest, the "lungs of the earth," is literally on fire -- and not because of an accident, but because people are intentionally clear-cutting forest and burning the stumps to make room for more profitable cattle-grazing land, even though without that rainforest our planet may not survive.

God, we could really use some manna. And we could really use a miraculous rainstorm to put out the Amazon's fires. And we could really use a boost in humanity's capacity for compassion. Our compassion and our readiness to act need to not wear out, the way our spiritual ancestors' shoes didn't wear out. On the contrary, we need for our compassion and our readiness to act to be strengthened, because the needs of the world are so great, and it looks like they're only going to get greater.

I poured out my heart to God asking for those things, and here's the answer that came to me:

Manna isn't on offer these days. And God doesn't send floods to save us from our own avarice. That's not how God works in the world. God works in the world through us. As we sang earlier tonight, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." 

We have tools at our disposal to help us cultivate and strengthen our compassion, our love for the other, our willingness to extend ourselves to the migrant and the refugee, our readiness to care for the holy temple we call planet Earth. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual practices designed for exactly that purpose. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual technologies designed to refine our souls and boost our readiness to do what's right.

Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah can help us respond ethically to the current administration's attacks on the Flores settlement that protects the rights of refugee children. And to the burning of the rainforests and the greed that fuels those choices. And to every need there is. These are our tradition's core spiritual technologies: are we using them?

In just over five weeks, we'll come together for Rosh Hashanah and we'll hear the majestic words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. (I've written about that prayer before.) We'll remind ourselves that we never know, in the year to come, who will die by fire and who by water. And we will affirm that tefilah, and teshuvah, and tzedakah, avert the severity of the divine decree.

Tefilah: prayer, meditation, spiritual practice writ large. Teshuvah: repentance, atonement, turning ourselves around. And tzedakah: righteous giving, giving to the other in a way motivated not by "charity" but by our core sense of justice. That's how we mitigate whatever comes our way. That's how we take care of each other. That's how we take care of our world.

Prayer and repentance and tzedakah can't necessarily change what is. (Though sometimes they can. And if you have a few dollars to spare, donate to a worthy cause at havdalah, and #bealight to make the world a better place.) But tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change what we do about what is. We can "believe in God" or we can choose not to believe, but either way, Jewish tradition demands that we do what's right. Jewish tradition demands that we act. Prayer and teshuvah can strengthen us to act.

We're entering into Shabbes-time: the one day each week when we get to set the cares of the world aside. Let our worries and our griefs run off our shoulders. And when the new week begins, it'll be on us to do what we can to build a better world. Even if we know we can't do enough. The only unacceptable choice is despair and inaction.

In the rabbinic text known as Avot de Rabbi Natan (page 31b), we read,

If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.

If you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is healed, the traumas of the world as we've known it are over, there's no more war or bloodshed or hurt -- plant the sapling before you celebrate. And I think this also means: if you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is destroyed, that the world is burning and cannot be redeemed -- plant the sapling before you mourn. No matter what, plant the sapling. Plant the seeds of hope. Engage in an act of compassion. That's what it is to be a Jew.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Hair

The alligator clips
for holding a hank of hair
while the rest is blown dry

wait patiently
for you to return
and need them again.

In your last years
you joined the ranks
of little old ladies

who let the beauty shop
wash and style.
Like your mother used to.

I always thought
they needed the bowl dryers
to set their curls.

I never understood
it was because arms
couldn't reach anymore, or

ports or open wounds
couldn't safely handle
the sluice of a shower.

I'd give anything
to talk over the hum
of your blowdryer again.

 


Tisha b'Av, and parenting, and responsibility, and change

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"I'll be at synagogue for Tisha b'Av," I tell my son. What's that, he asks. "It's when we remember that we used to have a Temple in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed. So we built it again, and it was destroyed again. It's a time for thinking about all the things that hurt -- in our history and in the world now." That doesn't sound like a holiday, says my son. That sounds sad.

And then he asks, why can't we just have holidays for the happy things? "Lots of our holidays are joyful," I point out. "Most of our holidays are joyful! This is the one where we let ourselves feel the things that hurt." His response makes me clutch at my heart: he says, simply, but I don't want to feel sad. "You're a kid, you don't have to," I assure him.

It's age-appropriate that he doesn't want to feel sad. (Especially now, a scant few months after his first grandparent's death. We're both still navigating that.) It's age-appropriate for him not to want to engage with the world's brokenness, how bad things happen to good people, the fall of the Temples, any of it. Right now he needs a sense of safety, not a broken heart.

It's easy to knock "pediatric" theology -- childlike theology that doesn't (yet) engage with theodicy and suffering. If we never grow beyond that, our spiritual selves and our relationship with tradition will be stunted.  We might choose to throw away relationship with God and tradition altogether because the simple version we got as kids doesn't speak to life's challenges.

And yet... for a kid, simple and sweet theology is appropriate. I'm grateful that my kid has the luxury of not living with tough questions of theodicy and suffering on a daily basis. I keep thinking about the children whose testimonies make up this prayer. I wish every child had the luxuries my child enjoys. I wish the suffering in Lamentations didn't still look so familiar.

Of course, there are adults who never outgrow reluctance to feel sadness or difficult emotions. I empathize: celebrations are plenty more fun than funerals. But when we want religion to be a source of happiness and light, but don't want to feel loss or sadness or culpability, our spiritual lives get out of whack. That's spiritual bypassing. Tisha b'Av is the opposite of that.

Tisha b'Av calls us into uncomfortable relationship with loss and sadness and culpability. Loss is hard-baked into the human experience: we can embrace it or we can ignore it, but we can't avoid it. But the sense of culpability -- taking responsibility for our role in the brokenness; facing our complicity in the patterns that lead to brokenness -- that one's up to us.

And to me that's the most fascinating thing about Tisha b'Av: how the tradition makes the spiritual move of saying: yeah, it's our fault. Tradition says this is the anniversary of the date when the scouts brought back a false report, a fearful report, dooming their entire generation to wander in the wilderness. Because we didn't trust, our homeless wandering continued.

Tradition says the Temples, destroyed on this date, fell because of our transgressions -- the first one because of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, and the second one because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, which teaches us that senseless hatred is equivalent to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b.) That's a hell of a teaching.

As R' Alan Lew notes, in his Tisha b'Av chapter in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, any historian can tell you that we couldn't have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire, or for that matter Babylon before it. But the tradition says: that historical truth is irrelevant. What matters here is the spiritual truth that calls us to take responsibility.

In a way it's a victim fantasy. We want to believe that what happened to us must have been our fault, because if it were, then we can act differently next time and protect ourselves from the trauma recurring. But in another way it gives us agency. It reminds us that we can always choose to behave differently, to make teshuvah, to be better people than we were before.

And even if teshuvah doesn't protect us from sorrow and loss, the inner transformation might be its own reward. Because on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition says, the messiah will be born. We find hope even in our darkest places -- especially in our darkest places. As an adult I find profound comfort in that teaching. It's like the hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.

The thing is, in order to get to that hope -- in order to get to the uplift of Tisha b'Av afternoon -- we have to be willing to go into the loss and grief and sense of communal responsibility that comes before. Where are our Jewish communities falling into senseless hatred, failing to be welcoming and inclusive?  Where are our national / secular communities doing the same?

Tisha b'Av is the hinge that turns us toward the Days of Awe. It's 7 weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We have 7 weeks to take a good look at our selves and souls, our (in)actions and choices. That inner work won't protect us from trauma and loss, personally or nationally. But it might change who we are and how we respond. And isn't that what spiritual life is for?


Return

Not sure what I fear more:
that your house will feel the same
or that it won't. The wheelchair
and hospital machines will be gone, but

the books in the library will still
be arranged by color, abstract
modern art constructed from their spines'
gradations. The heavy crystal bowls

of roasted nuts for cocktail hour
will still adorn the living room
where you used to hold court with
vodka soda and lime in hand, where

you let us take a family photo
that last Shabbat. I was shocked
you let us bring out the camera:
your hair was wild, unwashed.

You smiled as though nothing hurt.
You knew it was our last chance. Mom,
I don't know how to visit a Texas
that doesn't have you in it.

You're not there anymore. You're
not anywhere. But I want to believe
you're watching. Not all the time,
but maybe you feel a tug

when I'm thinking of you. Maybe
you were there when I went shopping.
I bought a dress for the trip.
It's deep yellow, like a loquat,

like your lacquered kitchen cabinets.
I chose it to show off your necklace.
You'd like it because it's bright,
it's vivid, like something alive.

 


New on Builders Blog: building lessons from D'varim

I had the profound pleasure of coauthoring this week's Builders Blog post with my friend and colleague Rabbi Bella Bogart. In studying this week's Torah portion together, we discerned some important building lessons. And we also discovered that when we were rabbinic students, we had parallel but opposite conversations with mentors, who taught us -- by example both positive and negative -- an important lesson about how to relate to those whom we serve.

Here's a taste:

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...First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present...

(Sketchnote by the marvelous Steve Silbert, as always.) Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Building lessons from D'varim

(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)


All our vows: on making promises, seeking justice, and taking refuge

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This week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with instructions concerning vows. Torah's not just talking about little promises; it's talking about swearing, as in "I swear to God" -- or "I swear by God." Torah takes oaths like these very seriously. So does Jewish tradition writ large. In Hebrew, they're most often called nedarim and shavuot. If those words don't ring a bell, try hearing them this way: "Kol nidre, v'esarei, v'charamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei, u-shavuot..." I don't know about you, but when I sing the first line of Kol Nidre I quake in my sandals. I feel like: oh God it can't possibly be time for that yet.

I'm not ready to face the end of summer. (Can't we have another month of July before we move on to August?) I'm not ready to face the Days of Awe and all that they ask of me, not just as a rabbi but as a human being. I'm not ready to face everything I need to repair in my life or in the world. I'm not ready to face the ways in which I've inevitably fallen short. Well: ready or not, here it comes. Tisha b'Av is next weekend, and that spiritual low point places us firmly on the onramp to the Days of Awe. This week's verses about vows and oaths come eight weeks before the new year. The time for taking stock is on its way.

So I read this week's Torah portion, which opens with verses about making vows. And then I turned to the Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master Yehuda Lieb Alter of Ger, whose writings I'm studying this year with my Bayit hevre. The Sfat Emet cites the prophet Jeremiah, "You shall swear by the living God in truth, in justice, and in righteousness." And then he explains that these three qualities of truth, justice, and righteousness map to the three ways we are instructed (in Torah / in the V'ahavta) to love God: "with all [our] hearts, with all [our] souls, and with all [our] being." 

The Sfat Emet looks at these two triplets -- truth / justice / righteousness, and hearts / souls / being -- and connects them. He links "truth" with our souls, the life-force that animates us. He links "justice" with our hearts, because the heart needs justice in order to incline in the right way. He links "righteousness" with our very being, as though to remind us that we're called to embody righteousness in all that we are. And then he says that in order to truly receive words of Torah, we need to seek to heal or restore our whole selves, body and soul. I want to unpack that a little bit, because there's something beautiful here.

When the Sfat Emet talks about receiving Torah, he's talking about something beyond just hearing or reading the words of our sacred text. L'kabel, "to receive," isn't passive. It's a whole-self spiritual practice of receptivity to the flow of blessing and wisdom from on high. (It's the root of the word "kabbalah.") He's talking about taking the words into ourselves, taking them on, taking them in, being transformed by them. So that when we say the shema, we're not just singing a nice song: we're experiencing fundamental oneness. So that when we say the v'ahavta, we're embodying love with all that we are.

And in order to do that, we need restoration of our whole selves. We need to do the inner work of repairing our relationships with body and soul, with the physical world and the spiritual world. And we need to pursue not only inner repair, but outer repair: truth, and justice, and righteousness, those qualities that Jeremiah cites. Because inner repair without outer repair is at best insufficient, and at worst deeply damaging. If we use navel-gazing as an excuse to shirk our responsibility to heal the broken world, that's spiritual bypassing -- using the trappings of spiritual life in order to avoid facing what hurts.

So far, so good. But then the Sfat Emet says something that really surprised me. He says it's okay to take an oath to fulfill the mitzvot, because making a promise out loud can help us live up to who we aspire to be. Our tradition regards oaths as serious business, not something to be entered-into lightly. The classical tradition frowns on them altogether! And yet, I know that making a promise aloud can change me. If I say to my child, "I promise I will do everything I can to take care of you," those words express an inner truth and they strengthen my commitment to that truth, because I've spoken it aloud.

What kind of commitment are we willing to make to the mitzvot? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to spiritual practice and the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re-aligning ourselves with God? And -- because inner repair without outer repair is flawed at best -- what kind of commitment are we willing to make to feeding the hungry, protecting the powerless, welcoming the stranger? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to truth, justice, and righteousness? What would our lives look like if we took those commitments seriously, receiving and embodying them in all that we are?

Making commitments is risky. We might fail to live up to them. (Which is why the classical rabbinic tradition frowns on making vows in the first place.) But I've got a secret for you. Yom Kippur is coming, and when it gets here, we're all going to discover that we've fallen down on our promises. Because we're human, and we always do. We're bound to fail sometimes. I don't think that's a good reason to not even try. Yes, making commitments is risky. But a life without those commitments -- without even trying to live by standards of love and justice, truth and righteousness -- would be worse.

And this is where I want to bring in another Hasidic rebbe, the Slonimer, on a passage from the end of this week's portion. He's writing about the establishment of cities of refuge where those who committed manslaughter could be safe from retribution. He goes into some detail about the cities of refuge, and about the spiritual implications of having done something terribly wrong. And then he says that in our day we can take refuge in faith, and in community, and in the shema, and in Shabbat which is the source of holiness and the time each week when we can rekindle our God-connection.

Community is always available to us, if we choose to seek it, and in community we can be inspired to be our best selves even if we know we've fallen short. The shema is always available to us, and we can pray it every day. Shabbat is available to us every week. Even if we've done something wrong, even if we've broken our vows, even if we've fallen down on the job of being the people we want to be, we can take refuge in community and in spiritual practice and in Shabbat. And then when the new week begins, we can try again to live up to all our vows, and to be the people we know we are called to be.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). I share it here with gratitude to all of my hevruta learning-partners, and with gratitude to (and for) the spiritual practice of study.

 


A new prayer for Tisha b'Av

I've curated a new prayer for Tisha b'Av that interweaves quotes from Lamentations with quotes from migrants and refugees on the United States' southern border today. In reading the prayer aloud, we put the words of refugees -- parents separated from their children; children separated from their parents; human beings suffering in atrocious conditions -- into our own mouths. May hearing ourselves speak these words galvanize us to action.

Here's a taste:

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son?...

The prayer is online (and also available as a downloadable PDF) at Bayit's Builders Blog, and you can find it here: Lamentations (Then and Now).