Yom Kippur: Come... and Prepare to Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

 

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

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 


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


Kol Nidre: Come and Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

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

A thousand times before:

and yet again, come again, come,

and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...


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.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Vision of Better: now in video

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

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

 

 

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

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


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

Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Descent for the sake of ascent


2267916_1This is the sermon I offered this morning at Rensselaerville Presbyterian Church. You can read other sermons in their summer sermon series here. This year's theme is "And still we rise."

 

In Hasidic tradition -- in the Jewish mystical-devotional tradition that arose in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s -- there is the concept of yeridah tzorech aliyah. "Descent for the sake of ascent." We experience distance from God in order to draw close. We fall in order to rise.

The term "fall" may have connotations here, in this Christian context, that I don't intend. I'm not talking about the Fall of Man, with capital letters, as I understand it to be interpreted in some Christian theologies. Judaism doesn't have a doctrine of original sin. I'm talking about something more like... falling down. Falling short. Falling away.

The paradigmatic example of descent for the sake of ascent is the narrative at the end of the book of Genesis that we sometimes call "the Joseph novella." We just heard a piece of that story this morning, so here's a recap for those who need it. Jacob had twelve sons, and his favored son was Joseph, for whom he made a coat of many colors. Joseph had dreams of stars bowing down to him, sheaves of wheat bowing down to him, and his dreams made his brothers angry, and as a result they threw him into a pit. He literally went down. And then he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and the verb used there is again he went down: in Hebrew one "goes down" into Egypt and "ascends" into the promised land.

In Egypt, he fell from favor with Potiphar and went down into Pharaoh's dungeon. And there he met the two servants of Pharaoh for whom he interpreted dreams, and he ascended to become Pharaoh's right-hand man.

And because of those things, he was in a position to rescue his family from famine, thereby setting in motion the rescue of what would become the entire Jewish people. Descent for the sake of ascent.

His descendants would become slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. Finally our hardship was too much to bear, and we cried out to God. Torah tells us that God heard our cries and remembered us and brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Because we were low and we cried out, God heard us and lifted us out of there: descent for the sake of ascent.

Coming forth from slavery was the first step toward Jewish peoplehood; receiving Torah at Sinai, and entering into covenant with God, was the event that formed us as a people. Our enslavement led to our freedom which led to covenant and peoplehood: descent for the sake of ascent.

The summer season on the Jewish calendar mirrors this same trajectory. Just a few weeks ago we marked the day of communal mourning known as Tisha b'Av, the ninth day of the lunar month of Av, the lowest point in our year.

On Tisha b'Av, we remember the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE. We remember the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Rome in 70 CE. We remember the start of the Crusades, the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, an incomprehensibly awful litany of communal tragedies that have all, somehow, against all odds, befallen us on or around that same calendar date. On Tisha b'Av we fast, we hear the book of Lamentations, we read poems of grief, we dive deep into the world's sorrow and suffering and brokenness.

And, Jewish tradition says that on Tisha b'Av the messiah will be born. Out of our deepest grief comes the spark of redemption. And every year Tisha b'Av is the springboard that launches us toward the Days of Awe, the Jewish new year and the Day of Atonement, of at/one/ment. Authentic spiritual life demands that we sit both with life's brokenness and life's wholeness. A spirituality that's only "positive," only feel-good, isn't real and isn't whole. When we sit with what hurts, that's what enables us to rise. Descent for the sake of ascent.

The Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim teaches that ascent and descent are intimately connected. When a person falls away from God, the experience of distance from the Divine spurs that soul's yearning to return. Falling down is precisely the first step of rising up. Our mis-steps are precisely what spur us to course-correct and adjust our path. Descent for the sake of ascent.

Looking at the world around us, it's easy to feel that everything is falling apart. Migrant children torn from the arms of their parents and imprisoned in cages. Hate crimes on the rise. People of color killed by police who are supposed to be sworn to protect. Incidents of prejudice increasing: against religious minorities, and against transgender people, and against people of color. Our political system seems to be broken. International relations seem to be broken. There is brokenness everywhere we look.

Our work -- the spiritual work of this moment in time -- is twofold. One: we have to resist the temptation to paper over the brokenness with platitudes and pretty words, "God has a plan," or "everything's going to be okay." My theology does not include a God Who sits back and allows rights to be stripped away for the sake of some greater plan we don't have to try to understand. And two: we have to face the brokenness, even embrace the brokenness, and let it fuel us to bring repair. We have to make our descent be for the sake of ascent.

When we feel our distance from the divine Beloved, there's a yearning to draw near. Our hearts cry out, "I miss Your presence in my life, God, I want to come back to You." Or in the words of psalm 27, the psalm for this season on the Jewish calendar, "One thing I ask of You, God, this alone do I seek: that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life!"

When we feel our distance from the world as it should be -- a world where no one goes hungry, where bigotry has vanished like morning fog, where every human being is uplifted and cherished as a reflection of the Infinite divine -- we yearn to bring repair. When we feel what's lacking, we ache to fill that void. Feeling how far we've fallen is precisely what spurs us to seek to rise. This is built into the very order of things. And that's where I find hope during these difficult days.

This is the work of spiritual life as I understand it. There are times that feel like a descent into the pit, a fall away from God, even imprisonment in Pharaoh's dungeon. This is true both on the small scale of every individual human life, and on the broader canvas of the nation or the world at large. But the thing about hitting bottom is, there's nowhere to go from there but up.

Our job is to inhabit every broken place, every spiritual exile, and let them fuel us to ascend closer to God and closer to the world as we know it should be. Then those who have sown in tears will reap in joy. Then those who went out weeping, carrying the seeds of the tomorrow in which they could barely find hope, will return in gladness bearing the abundant harvest of everything they need. Kein yehi ratzon: so may it be.


Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

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

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

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

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

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Because of course, we are all dying.

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After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The gates are closing: short words for Ne'ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don't feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.

 

As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.

 

Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI's tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It's incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

"Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?"

"No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home."

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.

 

The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn -- teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source -- to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.

 

[Image source.] Also posted to my congregational blog.


Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

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I don't know how many of you are MASS MoCA fans, but many of you have probably seen the building of LeWitt wall paintings -- yes? It will be on view until 2033, so if you haven't seen it, you still have time.

My favorite floor is the middle floor. The ground floor features works in pencil and chalk; the top floor features works in psychedelic colors so vivid they almost hurt my eyes; but the middle floor features geometric works in colors that are bright but not painful. That's the floor where I spend the most time.

I've said for years that someday I should paint a LeWitt on a wall in my house. How difficult would it be? All one needs are dimensions and instructions. This summer it occurred to me: I could actually do it. I could make a LeWitt, and have something big, bold, vivid, and colorful to brighten my home through the winter.

Maybe it's because of timing: I began work on my faux LeWitt during Elul, as we began the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. But as I worked on the canvases, I couldn't help thinking about teshuvah, that word so often translated as "repentance" though it actually means "return." The work to which we dedicate ourselves today.

Teshuvah is a process of discernment. Who am I, who have I tried to be, where have I fallen short, what kind of course correction do I need, how can I do better next time? Painting, at least for an amateur like me, has a similar trajectory. I sketched on the canvas where I wanted the different colors to be. Some of the lines needed to be erased and drawn again. And then I looked at my brand-new box of paints and realized I would need to learn how to mix colors. That took trial and error, and often the result wasn't quite what I had imagined.

Just so in the work of teshuvah. We draw lines around what we want our behavior to be. Sometimes the lines aren't in the right place and need to be re-drawn. Sometimes they need to be drawn more firmly, because we lose track of where they are. Sometimes we accidentally paint over the lines, and then have to let the paint dry and go back over it with white paint to try to obscure the brush strokes -- though it's unlikely that we ourselves will forget our missteps, even if we're able to obscure them from everyone else's view.

Continue reading "Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Let-go

We're not here in this life to be small. Our souls yearn to expand, to live into the fullness of all of who we can become. Yom Kippur is here to help set us free.

Tonight we let go of broken promises. "כָּל נִדְרֵי  / Kol nidrei..." All the promises, and the vows, and the oaths. The promises we made that we failed to live up to. The promises we made that it turns out we couldn't keep. 

Unkept promises, both those we make and those made to us, become a weight holding us down. What would it feel like to let that weight go?

My teacher Reb Zalman -- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory -- wrote a script for releasing ourselves from our promises. The petitioner says:

"In the last year I have from time to time made vows, sometimes speaking them out loud, or had an intention, a resolution to change something in my actions, behavior and attitude in my mind. Some of these are in relation to myself, my body, my mind, and my soul. Some of these deal with the way in which I conduct myself in relation to other people. And most of all, there are those that deal with my relation to God..."

You might imagine that he wrote these words for Yom Kippur. Actually, he wrote them to recite before Rosh Hashanah. There's a custom called התרת נדרים / hatarat nedarim, "untangling of vows." Here's how you do it. You assemble a beit din, a rabbinic court of three. And then each person takes a turn being the person requesting release, while the others serve as judges empowered to grant release.

The ritual acknowledges that resolutions are a kind of vow, and that when we fail to live up to our intentions, we need a mechanism for forgiveness. What moves me is the response from the court of friends: "hearing your regret, we release you."

To release ourselves from the promises we couldn't keep, the first step is to name them, with genuine regret. We speak our mis-steps to someone we trust, and that someone whom we trust says "it's okay, you can let it go." Then? We have to believe them. That last step may be the hardest part. 

That ritual is a kind of practice run for the work we're here to do over the next 24 hours, together.

Continue reading "Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre" »


The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

ChangeRosh Hashanah is often translated as "head of the year." That translation isn't incorrect. Of course rosh means head, and shanah means year. The headwaters of a river are where the river begins, and the head of the year is where the year begins. But Hebrew is a deep language. Words that share roots are variations on a theme. And because of that, "Rosh Hashanah" also has a deeper meaning.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program, wrote a book called The Path of Blessing. (That book is in our congregational library.) In The Path of Blessing, she dedicates a whole chapter to each of six Hebrew words: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam.

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here's a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

Maybe you're thinking "blessed." As in, "Blessed are You, Adonai our God..." But baruch also relates to berech, knee. That means baruch can suggest a posture of willingness to be humble before the person to whom I am speaking. Baruch also relates to breicha, a flowing fountain. So baruch can suggest both the cosmic flow of abundance, and the flow of spiritual life. This is why Reb Marcia often translates "Baruch atah" as "A Fountain of Blessings are You..."

Just as baruch holds hints of berech and breicha, hints of bending the knee in grateful humility and drinking from the fountain of divine abundance, shanah holds hints of another word in its word-root family tree: shinui, which means change.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

I've known this linguistic teaching for years. But it speaks to me in a new way this year, my first Rosh Hashanah as someone whose marriage has ended. That's a pretty profound change.

Here are some things I have learned about change since the last time I stood before y'all to offer a high holiday sermon.

Continue reading "The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning" »


Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776

I'm doing something new with our b'nei mitzvah kids this year. (Credit where it's due: this is an idea I adapted from my friend and teacher Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Bay Area.) It's called Mitzvah Experimentation.

I brought this to our seventh graders in our first Hebrew school class of the year. The first thing we talked about was, what's a mitzvah. Some of them said "good deed," which is a fine answer, though not a direct translation. Others said "a commandment," which is what the word mitzvah means. A mitzvah is something which we are commanded to do, or to not do.

Commanded by whom? The most traditional answer is God. That word raises some eyebrows. Not all of my students are certain that they believe in God. What if you don't believe in God -- does that scotch the mitzvot?

There's a story about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, faced with someone who didn't believe in God. He asked that person to tell him about the God they didn't believe in. Because "maybe the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either!" Over the millennia we've thought about God, talked about God, and described God in all kinds of different ways. Some of those ways work for me. Some don't. Some might work for you; some might not. The name "God" can mean a lot of different things. And if my students want to talk about that, I'm happy to do so.

But when I go deeper into the question, what I hear is: if I don't believe in God, do the mitzvot matter?

Continue reading "Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776" »


The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.

That's a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.

Either way, I think it's equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.

If only I'd taken that job...
If only I hadn't hurt her feelings...
If only I'd married someone different...
If only I'd known then what I know now...

We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn't been dealt a particular hand of cards.

The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it's as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. "She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long..."

There's nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That's what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it's easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it's easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.

Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my "if onlies," what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?

Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?

It's not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination.

Continue reading "The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776" »


I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of "God bless." I began with "God bless Mom and Dad," then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless "all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen."

I'm not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn't want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There's a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

"May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen."

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל -- "and all who dwell on Earth." Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: "and everybody else, amen."

Why am I so invested in praying for "everybody else, amen"?

Continue reading "I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776" »


Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.



"Y'all shall be holy, for I -- Adonai your God -- am holy."

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we're supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we're holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There's chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God's holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week's Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don't render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don't hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I've been studying the Torah portion, I've also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie's funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I've seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie's death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping "I can't breathe." I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It's facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week's Torah portion can speak to us today.

"You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey's neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah's system of gleaning aimed to do?

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich." Do residents of Freddie Grey's neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

"You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself." This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week's Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך -- "neighbor" or "other" -- meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah's voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.