Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Screen Shot 2022-09-22 at 12.44.24 PM

The author of these words, Charles Dickens, was a virulent antisemite, and his opening words from A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 England might well describe us on this Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783.  

Each year we call Rosh Hashanah a new start, and this Rosh Hashanah falls on troubled times.  Science is taming the pandemic, and gun violence is raging.  Global living standards are the best ever, and Mississippi’s entire capital city just went days without drinking water while one third of Pakistan was under water.  The world is more peaceful than at any time since Charles Dickens, and the Ukraine war threatens global stability. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-22 at 12.44.31 PM

Genuine commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are blossoming, and antisemitism is resurging.  The U.S. just made historic investments in clean energy, and climate disasters are mounting.  Democracy’s guardrails held, and they are at risk.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Both are true.  And the both-ness of our “best of times” and “worst of times,” the emotional and cognitive load of it all, has been a rollercoaster.  We’ve felt afraid, courageous, overloaded, numb, sickened, healed, inspired, disgusted, hopeful, helpless, angry, overjoyed and just plain tired – sometimes in rapid succession, sometimes all in the same day.

Continue reading "Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783: The Sacred "And" (co-written with R. David Markus)" »


D'varling for Ki Tetze: Who Do We Choose to Be?

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 9.34.27 AM

If you look up at the sky this weekend, you might notice that the moon is becoming full. This weekend brings the middle of Elul – the final month of the old year; the month that leads us to the Days of Awe. During this month, our mystics say, “The King is in the Field.” 

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 9.34.35 AM

Here’s the metaphor: imagine that God is a King who lives in a vast and distant palace. Unreachable! So far away! Probably guarded by armies of angels! We’d never get an audience with such a sovereign. But this month, the King is in the field. God leaves that palace and walks with us in the meadow. During Elul, God is right here with us, so close we could almost reach out and touch. “The King is in the field” means that God is completely accessible to us. If we open our hearts, we might feel God’s presence, ready to hear whatever we need to say.

Of course, I believe that God is always accessible to us – that we can pray whenever and wherever and however we need to, and we will be heard, even if we don’t get an answer. But I love the idea that during this last month of the old year, God is extra available. We might even say, “Whoa: God is in this place!” Because every place can be a place of holiness, and justice, and love, a place where we connect with something beyond ourselves. Except we’re human and we keep forgetting. And then we remember again. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 3.17.03 PM

Elul is when many of us start thinking about teshuvah again. Teshuvah literally means either “answer,” or “turning around.” Often it’s translated as repentance or return. Teshuvah can be a year-round practice: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again. We can do that all the time. Regardless, that work intensifies now, as the holidays approach.

If teshuvah is an answer, what’s the question? I think the question is very simple: who do we choose to be?

Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 3.17.11 PM

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.” He lived in the 5th century BCE, around the same time that the Torah was written down in its final form.

He said we become what we choose, what we think, and what we do. My teacher Reb Zalman z”l did say “the mind is like tofu: it takes on the flavor of whatever you marinate it in.” Our thoughts definitely can impact us. Then again, Judaism doesn’t generally treat thoughts as sins. We’re much more concerned with choices and actions – and their impacts. 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of mitzvot – commandments. Some of them cry out to be reinterpreted, like the instructions for how to “marry” a captive in wartime. Others still ring clear. Here are four that jumped out at me this week:

  • Don’t abuse someone who works for you. (Deut. 24:14)
  • Don’t subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. (Deut. 24:17)
  • Leave the gleanings of the fields for the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan -- in other words, those at most risk of harm. (Deut. 24:19)
  • Always remember the story of our enslavement and then our liberation – and let that ancestral memory fuel how we treat others. (Deut. 24:22)

What would it look like to live up to these mitzvot? Not abusing our workers. Not subverting or abusing the rights of the vulnerable. Feeding the hungry. Remembering that the Jewish people has known hardship before, and therefore it’s on us to help those who are now in tight straits. Honestly, it sounds like a recipe for a pretty great society, if we can pull it off!

Who do we choose to be? I hope we will choose to be people who do teshuvah: noticing our actions and our patterns, checking whether we messed up and need to make amends, doing inner work so we won’t make the same mistakes again… and then, from that place of inner transformation, doing what we can to bring repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I gave at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


A week with the Bayit board

Beaver

I load my car with my guitar, my computer, tallit and tefillin, giant note pads and brightly-colored markers, a pair of shofarot, and drive north -- for a while. This year's gathering spot for our annual Bayit board retreat is a lakeside cottage by Lac-St.-Pierre, in western Quebec's "cottage country."

We brainstorm. We bring in a few board members via Zoom, though spotty rural internet means sometimes we use speakerphone instead. We sit around with guitars and an occasional ukelele. We enjoy the water, the cricket-song, the calls of ducks (who seem to me to quack ouai, Quebec-style.) 

We talk about where the last year has taken us -- books and liturgical arts and a blog and slides for sharing and spiritual games -- and brainstorm what we want to build in the year to come. What tools and systems do people need? What ideas can we incubate, playtest (or praytest), refine, share? 

52307307060_83e0f5fcac_c

We daven by the lake: sometimes with our feet in the clear water, sometimes in boats, sometimes in the lake joined by darting fish and intrepid ducks. We sing Adon Olam to the tune of "O, Canada." We roast kosher marshmallows over a crackling fire and watch the sparks soar. We laugh a lot. 

We talk about Bayit's mission and vision. About books. Ethics. Essays. Liturgy. Art. Music. Games. We talk about the power of convening across difference, and what can flow from that. We study Rav Kook on teshuvah. We talk about Jewish spiritual technologies for getting through difficult times.

We walk down to the dock at night, and lie on our backs, and marvel at more stars than most people ever get to see. We can see the Milky Way stretching out ahead of us. It is spectacular. I think it could entice people who don't normally think about God to think about Mystery and meaning.

52309146090_0c5b52495c_c

We spend an afternoon with human rights activist Michelle Douglas, who ended "the Purge" of LGBTQ+ people in the Canadian army, talking about justice and reparations and repair. We sit with Michelle and a diverse group of local Jewish leaders to talk about justice and the spiritual work of allyship.

We teach each other new melodies. Sometimes the red squirrels chitter along with us or the loons trill in response.  We sit on a deck surrounded by cedar and pine forest, and plan Kabbalat Shabbat services for Capital Pride. We talk about building an ethic of social justice, and writers who help us get there.

After board meetings and vision sessions, after roundtable community conversations, after plans and action items, we segue into Shabbes. Harmony and prayer, leisurely learning and music, a "foretaste of the world to come" -- not least because it caps such a sweet a week of preparing to build anew.

 

 

Cross-posted to Builders Blog

 


Who Are We? Lessons from D'varim for Now

 

"אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן…"

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deut. 1:1)

Banks-of-the-jordan-river-1839-munir-alawi

Photograph by Munir Alawi, 1839: the banks of the Jordan.

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, and the opening words of the book of D'varim, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books. If we're starting Deuteronomy, then the Days of Awe must be just around the corner.

(They are.)

This is the moment in our ancestral story when we pause and take stock. The children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- in Torah's language, a lifetime.

So we encamp by the river, and Moshe tells the story of the wilderness wandering. He's speaking to the generation born in the wilderness -- those who experienced the Exodus are now gone. When he's done retelling the story, he will cross over into whatever comes after this life. The people will cross over into the next chapter of their journey. And we will cross over into 5783, a new year full of unknowns.

For Moshe and the children of Israel, this is a moment to pause and take stock of where we've been, who we've been, and what we want to carry forward. Of course, the same is true for us every year when we reach this point in our story.

It's a little bit like the moment in Disney's cartoon Amphibia where the protagonist Anne looks at the blank page inscribed, "Who am I?"

Tumblr_354f61b851495ba01af557588fabf656_782d02f0_1280

Asking the question of herself helps her realize that she chooses to be someone who does the right thing. As Jews, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Some of us nightly before the bedtime shema. Some of us weekly, before Shabbat. All of us annually, before the Days of Awe. Which is to say... now.

In the midst of this, here comes Moshe in this week's Torah portion, retelling the story of the scouts.

Screen Shot 2022-08-04 at 8.06.23 PM

 

Remember Shlach? The giant grapes? Mirror illustration by Steve Silbert.

Remember, twelve men went into the Land. They retrieved giant grapes. They said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw there. When they came back, ten of them said "we can't do this," and only two said "sure we can." And the people believed the ten who despaired.

So God said, if the people don't have faith, they won't enter the land. This whole generation that knew slavery is going to die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.

Moshe tells that story more or less the way we heard it the first time. But he makes one significant change. "Because of you," he says, "יהו''ה was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either."

Hold up. That's not the reason Torah gave for why Moshe won't enter the land!

DQli11309745

An artist's rendering of what actually kept Moshe out of the Land of Promise.

God makes that call when Moshe angrily hits a rock to make it produce water, instead of speaking to it as God instructed him. We might quibble with that decision-making. Was it really fair for God to punish Moshe that much for one moment of anger? But fair or not, that's definitely how the story went.

And now Moshe's changing it up. He's conveniently forgetting that the reason he won't live to enter the Land is because he chose violence instead of speech. It's because of his own actions and choices -- not because the people lost faith.

As our ancestral story pauses on the banks of the Jordan, we're at the edge of a new year. Because it's human nature, maybe we're tempted to do what Moshe just did: to retell the story of the last year in a way that avoids taking responsibility.

Where do we want to pretend away our own poor choices? How often do we want to say, "it's their fault," pointing a finger at someone else because that feels more comfortable than admitting that we messed up? 

It's okay to feel the impulse to do what Moshe did. It's not okay to actually follow in his footsteps here. Our spiritual tradition asks us to do better than that. 

This is the inner work of teshuvah -- repentance; return; turning our lives around. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that there are five specific steps to repentance work:

1. Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly) / 2. Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn't do harm (which requires a ton of inner work) / 3. Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible / 4. THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim / 5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice

(I can't wait for her new book on this subject, On Repentance and Repair, due just before Rosh Hashanah.)

Unfortunately we don't get to see Moshe doing this kind of repentance work. He blames his misfortune on somebody else -- the scouts who brought back a negative report. Tradition teaches that the scouts returned with that negative report on Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight -- though it's Shabbat, so we'll observe the day on Sunday instead.

Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning. In addition to being the anniversary of the scouts' screw-up, Tisha b'Av is the date when Babylon destroyed the first Temple, the date when Rome destroyed the second Temple, the date when the first Crusade began in 1096. Also the date of many other tragedies visited on the Jewish people through our history.

Tradition also teaches that the 9th of Av is the day when moshiach will be born -- the messiah, redemption, ultimate hope, or maybe the age or era when the work of healing creation will be complete. It's as though recognizing that wow, the world is really broken can be the first step toward repair.

(It can.)

On Sunday we'll take first steps toward the repair inherent in a new year, full of new possibility. We'll begin the reverse Omer count -- 49 days until Rosh Hashanah. In the spring, after Pesach, we count seven weeks of the Omer as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. Now, as fall approaches, we count seven weeks as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year.

So much has happened in the last year that it may feel like a lifetime. 

Who have we been, over the lifetime of the last year? When were we hopeful, and when did we despair? What do we feel proud of, and what do we wish we could pretend never happened (or wish we could blame on someone else)? What's the inner work we need to do, in order to do the outer relational and healing work that others can see?

Rosh Hashanah begins seven weeks from Sunday night. Who have we been this year, and who will we choose to become?

D3F0R6ll

 

This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at the new CBI website.) 


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

Choices

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So which one is it going to be in 5781?

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

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

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

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

 

 


Who's to blame?

Depositphotos_5078728_original-300x336"These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deuteronomy 1:1)

The book of Deuteronomy is in large part a retelling of everything that happened during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. It's Moshe's farewell speech. Before they cross the river into the Land of Promise, he reminds them where they've been and what they've done.

And notably, in Moshe's retelling, everything becomes the Israelites' fault. Even God's decision that Moshe will not enter the Land of Promise. Remember that the first time we read that story, God said that because Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it gently, he would not enter the Land. God didn't say anything about blaming it on the children of Israel -- but that's how Moshe retells it.

Now, we could have a whole conversation about what the striking-the-rock thing means, and whether it's fair, and how we understand it. But what really jumps out at me this year is how, in the retelling, Moshe blames his situation on the Israelites for being quarrelsome and for having insufficient faith in God. He places all the blame on someone else.

This Shabbat -- the one right before Tisha b'Av, our communal day of mourning -- is called Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of Vision. It invites us to turn our vision inward. To notice how we retell the stories of our lives, and where we elide responsibility. It's a very human thing to do. It's normal. Even Moshe does it, in this week's parsha. And... it's a pattern we need to break.

Where do we fall into the trap of blaming others? Do we look at our body politic and blame those who voted for the "other side," or those who didn't vote at all? Or closer to home: where our family systems might have some dysfunction, do we blame it on the other members of the family without looking at how our own actions contribute to recurring patterns? 

That's normal. It's human. And I believe that authentic spiritual life asks us to do better. It asks us to take responsibility.

Rabbi Alan Lew z"l teaches that the journey of teshuvah -- of repentance and return -- begins with the low point of Tisha b'Av. Then the updraft of this spiritual work carries us through the Days of Awe and into who we'll be in the year to come. He teaches that every year the seasonal calendar calls us to face our unconscious patterns and the recurring issue in our lives.

On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the Temples. Rabbi Lew points out that in a historical sense, the Temples fell because of massive military might -- first Babylon, then Rome. But our spiritual tradition ignores that.

Our spiritual tradition teaches that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality (which I understand as unethical boundary-crossing), and bloodshed, and the second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. These teachings ask us to take responsibility for our part in what happens to us. It asks us to take responsibility for what happens to our community.

I have a lot of empathy for Moses. He's been leading the children of Israel through the wilderness for forty years, and they've often been ungrateful and quarrelsome and afraid. I have empathy... and I wonder what would have happened if he'd retold their story in a way that recognized the community's struggles and took responsibility for his part in their imperfect situation. If instead of saying, "I don't take responsibility at all," he'd emphasized that we're all responsible for how our community functions, how might Torah's story have been different?

And what happens if we tell our story that way? If we tell the story of our community -- our shul, our county, our nation, our world -- with the assumption that we all take responsibility? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l taught that "one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

May this Shabbat Hazon move us to see our responsibility for each other, and with that vision, to build a better world.

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services this Friday night. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Vayigash: choosing again

ThinkstockPhotos-177537390In this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, there's a poignant moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Last year I was struck by the beautiful Hebrew word להתודע, "to make oneself known" or "to reveal oneself." This year what leapt out at me is the precursor to Joseph's revelation of self. Before he could make himself known to his brothers, he needed to know that they had changed. He needed proof of their genuine teshuvah, their repentance, their turning-themselves-around.

But how could he get that proof? He couldn't exactly ask. So he demanded that they abandon their youngest brother Benjamin in Egypt. Judah's response -- "I promised our father that we would keep him safe. He's already lost one beloved son; if he lost this one too, it would kill him; take me instead" -- proves to Joseph that Judah, at least, is different than he once was.

Judah has learned from the brothers' mis-steps. He understands now that their scheme to get rid of Joseph caused incredible harm to their father... and presumably also to Joseph, though he doesn't yet know that he's speaking with the brother they sold down the river. Presented with the opportunity to make a similarly damaging choice a second time, Judah chooses differently.

Heraclitus famously wrote that one can't step in the same river twice. But Rambam argues that we can. In fact, that's precisely how he says we can tell if our teshuvah -- repentance and re/turn -- is genuine. When we are presented with the same opportunity to miss the mark, and we choose differently, then we know that we've really made teshuvah. We've done the work to actually change.

Conventional wisdom holds that "[w]hen someone shows you who they are, believe them." In general I think that's a good rule of thumb. Our actions and choices show who we are, and sometimes they reveal realities we might not want to admit. We can say all kinds of pretty things about who we imagine ourselves to be, but when push comes to shove, our actions will speak deep truths about who we are.

If someone says they value kindness, but they act in ways that are unkind -- if someone says they are truthful, but they act in ways that are mendacious -- if someone says they are ethical, but they act in ways that are power-hungry or abusive -- I'm inclined to say, then believe them. Their actions show who they have chosen to be. It's reasonable to expect their choices to continue.

And yet -- Judaism stands for the proposition that change is always possible. As is written in the CBI Board covenant, which is posted in our social hall, "We acknowledge that things can always change; can always be better than they have been." Things can always change. People can always change -- if we put in the hard work that's required in doing so. But we have to choose to change.

Change isn't easy. Our actions and our choices carve grooves of habit on heart and mind, and it's difficult to become someone new. Difficult, but not impossible. Authentic spiritual life asks us time and again to do what Judah did: to face our mis-steps, to apologize and make things right, and when our lives lead us to the same river again, to choose other than we did before.

Judah's teshuvah leads to their family becoming whole again. It leads to plenty and prosperity instead of famine and sorrow. I believe that doing the work of teshuvah can open us to abundance too. Not necessarily a full pantry and a family reunited -- but surely the comfort of knowing that we're doing the work and "walking our talk." That we are living up to who we say we are.

I have the sense that the coming year will challenge us, repeatedly, to do our inner work -- and to live up to the values we say we hold dear. What are the values we want to embody this year... and what tools can we use to keep ourselves honest, so we're not just paying lip service to Jewish values but actually taking action to live them, every day? 

 

 

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

 


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.)


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.)

 


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

Featured-10

"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?


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

30074684-make-promise-in-sky

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.

 


When (not) to forgive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Open Invitation

 

Noahs-ark-blueChodesh tov: a good and sweet new month to you!

Today we enter the month of Cheshvan, a month that is unique because it contains no Jewish holidays at all. (Except for Shabbat, of course.) After the spiritual marathon of Tisha b'Av and Elul and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, now we get some downtime. Some quiet time. Time to rest: in Hebrew, לנוח / lanuach. We've done all of our spiritual work, and now we get to take a break. Right?

Well, not exactly.

When we finish the Days of Awe, we might imagine that the work is over. But I want to posit that the work of teshuvah, of turning ourselves in the right direction, isn't something we ever "complete"... and that Torah's been giving us hints about that, if we know where to look.

Last week we began the Torah again, with Bereshit, the first portion in the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos, "and God saw that it was good," the forming of an earthling from earth. Last week's Torah portion also contains the story of Cain and Hevel, the first sibling rivalry in our story. The two bring offerings to God. Hevel brings sheep, and Cain brings fruits of the soil, and God is pleased with the sheep but not with Cain's offering. Cain's face falls, and God says to him, "Why are you distressed?"

It's an odd moment. Surely an all-knowing God understands perfectly well why Cain is upset. This is not rocket science. Two brothers make gifts for their Parent, who admires one gift and pointedly ignores the other one?! Of course Cain feels unappreciated. This is basic human nature. How can it be that God doesn't understand?

The commentator known as the Radak says: God asked this rhetorical question not because God didn't understand Cain's emotions, but because God wanted to spur Cain to self-reflection. God, says the Radak, wanted to teach Cain how to do the work of teshuvah, repentance and return. Imagine if Cain had been able to receive that lesson. Imagine if Cain had had a trusted rabbi or spiritual director with whom he could have done his inner work, seeking to find the presence of God even in his disappointment. But that's not how the story goes. He misses the opportunity for teshuvah, and commits the first murder instead.

That was last week. This week, we read that God sees that humanity is wicked, and God decides to wipe out humanity and start over. But one person finds favor with God: Noach, whose name comes from that root לנוח, "to rest."

And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.

Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message.

The invitation to make teshuvah is always open. The invitation to discernment, to inner work, to recognizing our patterns and changing them, is always open. And to underscore that message, last week's Torah portion and this week's Torah portion both remind us:  the path of teshuvah was open to Cain, and it was open for the people of Noah's day, and it's open now.

Even if we spent the High Holiday season making teshuvah with all our might, the work isn't complete. We made the teshuvah we were able to make: we pushed ourselves as far as we could to become the better selves we know we're always called to be. But that was so last week. What teshuvah do we need to make now, building on the work we did before?

The word kapparah (atonement) implies covering-over, as Noach covered-over the ark with the covering of pitch. What kapparah hasn't worked for you yet? Where are the places where you still feel as though your mis-steps are exposed? What are the tender places in your heart and soul that need to be lovingly sealed and made safe? This week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we still have a chance to do this work. Will we be wiser than the generation of Noah? Will we hear Torah's call to make teshuvah now with all that we are?

Here's the thing: as long as we live, our work isn't done. I don't know whether that sounds to you like a blessing or a curse. But I mean it as a blessing. Because it's never too late. Because we can always be growing. Because we can always choose to be better.

May this Shabbat Noach be a Shabbat of real menuchah, which is Noah's namesake, and peace, a foretaste of the world to come. And when we emerge into the new week tonight at havdalah, may we be strengthened in our readiness to always be doing the work of teshuvah, and through that work, may our hearts and souls find the kapparah that we most seek.

 

I'm honored and delighted this week to be at Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, visiting my dear friend Rabbi Jennifer Singer who blogs at SRQ Jew. This is the d'var Torah I offered there for Shabbat Noach -- which I share with deep gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for sparking these insights.

 


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" »


When granting forgiveness is not mandatory

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

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

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


Building the world we want to see

Hope

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

That's from a commencement speech called "Applied Hope," by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I'm struck by his assertion that the person who is living in hope is working hard toward creating a better future. It's easy to imagine that hope is a passive stance, but that's clearly not how Lovins sees it. (You can find the whole speech online if you are so inclined. A friend sent it to me a few days ago and there's much in it that moves me.) Lovins writes:

The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it -- tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”

That last sentence really gets to me. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." Despair is often convincing, and almost everyone has reasons for despair at least some of the time. Maybe your despair is personal: your own grief or illness, or a loved one who is sick or suffering, or an injustice in your personal sphere that brings you to tears. Maybe your despair is on a bigger scale: Brexit, the American Presidential election, the realities of hatred and xenophobia. I do not deny anyone's reasons for despair. To paraphrase Hamilton's George Washington, "despair is easy, young man: hoping is harder."

I wrote a d'var Torah last month called Be strong and open your heart that explored the question of hope from a spiritual perspective. I wrote, "hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now." Hope for a better world may seem especially inaccessible to some of us right now. But our spiritual tradition calls us to cultivate hope, and to be galvanized thereby to act toward making that hope a reality. That's the work at hand. That's always the work at hand. 

Returning again to Lovins' commencement address:

So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gôtô-roshi put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you -- relax and keep on going.”

I'm not sure I agree with the "don't let it bother you" part. Our world is badly broken, and that absolutely should bother us. But we shouldn't allow it to paralyze us. And what I take from his Michael C. Muhammad quote is the assurance that if the world is not redeemed, then our work is not yet done. If there is still injustice in the world, then our work is not yet done. If there is still bigotry in the world, then our work is not yet done. If xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, rape culture, and hatred of the Other still plague us, then our work is not yet done. Friends, I have news for you: our work is not yet done. 

Lovins -- like the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (who I quoted in that d'var Torah I mentioned earlier) asks us to imagine the world as it does not yet exist -- to look beyond what is to what could be. Lovins writes, "Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope."  I want to imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, where no one is at risk of sexual assault, where religious freedom is guaranteed and celebrated, where diversities of all kinds are valued. 

Each of us will have her own list of the things that feel most important about the vision of a world redeemed. What matters is that we have the vision -- that we cultivate the vision. This will take work on our parts. We have to dream of the world we need, even when doing so feels vulnerable or scary. We have to imagine the world as we most want it to be, as our hearts ache for it to be. Dream big, and fix those dreams in the forefront of your vision. And then figure out how to take one small step in the direction of those dreams, and another, and another. That's the only way we'll get there. And that's the work we're here in this life to do: to love and to dream, to hope and to build. 

 


Balancing judgment with love

Have you ever been asked the question "if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island, what five books would you take with you?" One of mine would be Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. I reread that book each year at this season.

Here's a short quote from that book, talking about this week's Torah portion:

Parashat Shoftim... begins with what seems like a simple prescription for the establishment of a judicial system: 'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' But the great Hasidic Torah commentary, the Iturey Torah, read this passage as an imperative of a very different sort -- an imperative for a kind of inner mindfulness. According to the Iturey Torah, there are seven gates -- seven windows -- to the soul: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.

On a deep level, says Rabbi Lew, this passage has nothing to do with establishing a system of judges and courts. Rather, it's about mindfulness and teshuvah, that existential turning that's at the heart of this season.

'Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.' We can't always control what we see. Sometimes we see things we wish we could un-see, or hear things we wish we could un-hear. But we can make choices about how we respond to what we see and hear. Maybe there's political rhetoric this election season that upsets me, or someone in my sphere who's acting unfairly or unkindly. I can't un-hear the offending words or un-see the offending deeds, but I can choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself as I respond to what the world presents to me.

I can choose to cultivate lovingkindness. I can choose to cultivate good boundaries and to say "enough is enough." I can choose to cultivate the right balance between love and judgment. This Shabbat offers an opportunity to do precisely that.

Shabbat Shoftim -- "Shabbat of Judges" -- always falls during the first or second week of Elul. The moon of Elul is waxing now, and when it wanes we'll convene for Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy for that day describes God as the Judge before whom all living beings must appear. On that day the book of our lives will read from itself, reflecting the lines we've written over the last year with our words and our deeds, our actions and our inactions.

But before we get to Rosh Hashanah, we have three more weeks of Elul to go. Our sages read the name of this month as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." Before we stand before God as Judge, we have the opportunity to experience God as Beloved. Tradition teaches that this month God isn't in the Palace on high, but "in the fields" with us. We get to with the Source of All in the beautiful late summer meadows, talking with God the way one might talk to one's most dearly beloved friend.

Because here's the thing about your most dearly beloved friend, the person who loves you most in all the world: that person notices your flaws, sure, but they see your flaws in the context of your good sides. Your best qualities. Imagine someone who loves you so dearly that they can't help seeing everything that's best about you, every time they look at you. During this month of Elul, that's how God sees each of us. That's the backdrop against which the judgments of Rosh Hashanah take place.

This week's Torah portion instructs us to pursue justice, and it doesn't seem to be speaking only to those who do the work of justice for a living. This work falls to all of us. Pursuing justice, and engaging in the work of judgement and discernment, is on all of us. Where are we living up to our highest selves, and where are we falling short of our ideals? As the Iturey Torah asks, what do we want to let in through the gates of the senses, and what words and deeds and facial expressions do we want to let out?

And it's also our task to remember that we emulate God not only when we judge ourselves and others, but also when we cultivate love for ourselves and others -- in fact we are most like God davka (precisely) when we do both. Shabbat Shoftim always falls during this month of Elul, during this month of loving and being loved. The challenge is finding the right balance of love and judgment in every moment. It can be tempting to lean toward one and neglect the other, but that's a temptation we need to resist.

Balancing love and judgment is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If I bring nothing but chesed, abundant lovingkindness, to myself and to the world around me I am liable to spoil my child, turn a blind eye to unfairness, and let myself or others off the hook when I should be expecting better. If I bring nothing but gevurah, boundaries and strength, I am liable to be overly strict, to cross the line from discerning to judgmental, and castigate myself and others when I should be responding with gentleness. 

May this Shabbat Shoftim, this Shabbat of Judges, inspire us to balance our lovingkindness with good judgment, and to infuse our discernment with love.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered last night at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


The day before

Looking back on one's life is not always easy or comfortable. We all have places where we've missed the mark, relationships that fracture, missed opportunities and frustrations. But we also all have opportunities for gratitude, and we all have opportunities to effect repair.

This is a time of year Jewish tradition dedicates to introspection and repair. This weekend we usher in the new lunar month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus writes powerfully about this new month through the lens of psalm 27, the psalm tradition assigns to this time of year. That psalm makes use of a very powerful word: if. Rabbi David writes:

This “If I hadn’t” – if I myself hadn’t seen its goodness, I wouldn’t believe it! – in Hebrew is Lule (לוּלֵא), or literally Elul (אֵלוּל) backwards. This is big: Psalm 27 asks us to enter Elul walking backwards through the ifs – the longing and missed marks – of our messy lives. Psalm 27 asks us to see our ifs not as irretrievably missed opportunities of the past but precisely the opposite, as new possibilities for the future.... The painful ifs that most grab us now are our spiritual curriculum for the weeks ahead.

(Read the whole thing: "If!" -- Walking Backwards Into Elul.)

This morning I sat by the bedside of someone who is dying and we talked about precisely these things. About gratitudes after more than 90 years of life, and about regrets. About relationships in need of repair, and about the gifts of everyday living. Conversations like that one are profoundly humbling, and they remind me that the inner work of Elul is truly our work all year long.

Our sages say that we should make teshuvah -- we should re-align ourselves with our Source, return to our highest selves, turn toward the good and toward God -- the day before our death. Of course, none of us knows when that will be. In the case of the gentleman I visited today, the odds are pretty good that death will come sooner rather than later... but that could be true for any of us. 

It's the day before Elul. A month of introspection and repair awaits. Are you ready to do the inner work of looking at who you are and who you've been, where you've soared and where you've fallen short, where you need re-alignment in your relationships with yourself and your Source?  If you knew that you might die tomorrow, what changes would you want to make? What repair would you want to effect?

What are you waiting for?

 

 

Related: 


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" »


Almost Yom Kippur

TeshuvahYom Kippur begins tonight at sundown. We'll wear white garments as a sign of purity, or as a reminder of our mortality. We'll eschew leather, choosing instead to symbolize our conscious vulnerability with soft canvas shoes. (More about both of those here if you are interested.) We'll go without food or drink for 24 hours, subsisting instead on song and praise. (That makes me think of the last time I was with my Jewish Renewal community...)

Yom Kippur is a day set aside from ordinary life -- like Shabbat, only more so. It's a day for reminding ourselves of what's most important. On Yom Kippur we remember that we will die, and we think about what changes we need to make in our lives so that when we do leave this life we will feel that we lived as righteously and as well and as meaningfully as we could. On Yom Kippur we set aside the needs of the body and focus instead on the needs of the soul.

Yom Kippur is a day for intense teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning-around, turning our lives around, turning to face God again, returning to who we most truly and deeply are. Some of us have been engaged in introspection and cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of the soul) since the start of Elul, the lunar month which preceded this one. Some of us have been doing that work since Rosh Hashanah. And some of us may begin doing that work on Yom Kippur, in what feels like the eleventh hour. It's never too late. The great 12th-century sage Rambam (also known as Maimonides) taught that one who makes teshuvah is more beloved to God than one who never messed up in the first place. He taught that one who makes teshuvah rises closer to God than one who has never sinned.

I love Yom Kippur. I have loved it ever since my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur retreat at the old Elat Chayyim, and that love was intensified through the years of Yom Kippur retreats which followed (until I was privileged to begin serving my shul.) I love Yom Kippur because the Zohar teaches that it is the day when God is closest to us and most available to us, when we can most powerfully create repair in our broken souls and in the broken world. I love Yom Kippur because it is a day dedicated to prayer, song, Torah, introspection, inner work -- things I love deeply, and on Yom Kippur I get to share them with others. I love Yom Kippur because it is always a journey, and I never know exactly what it's going to feel like, but I trust that I will emerge on the other side feeling emptied, opened, and purified.

May your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.