Friday, September 25, 2015

Parashat Ha'azinu

            In this week’s Torah Portion, Moses, the aged leader of the Israelite people, is told his death is near. He sings a song, a farewell to the world, full of love and gratitude for God and all of God’s creations, and chastisement and warning to the People Israel, who is continually ungrateful for God’s miracles. Moses is allowed to have a glimpse into the Holy Land that the people will enter soon, though he is not allowed to enter it himself.
            Moses does not get to enter the land of Israel because God says, “you betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Merivat Kadesh, in the desert of Zin; because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of the children of Israel.” This is in reference to chapter 20 of Numbers, when God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would flow out to give to the thirsty Israelites. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice and water flowed out. It may seem like a small matter, but God was very angry that Moses did not do exactly as God commanded, and says on the spot that for this transgression, Moses will not be allowed to be the one to bring the people into the Promised Land. Now in our parasha of the week, after some time has passed and God has had time to cool the Divine Temper, Moses’s fate remains the same, and his punishment still stands. He may not enter the land, but instead die upon a mountain overlooking the border, and Joshua will be the one to conquer Israel and settle the people.
            We have just concluded our Ten Days of Awe, a time for repentance, prayer, and righteousness: asking for and granting forgiveness, understanding that humans are inherently flawed, praying for the strength to better ourselves, and increased awareness for tzedakah. To come from that perspective, this Torah portion is a bit scary. How many times have we said that the Hebrew word “het” – most often translated as “sin” – really means “missing the mark”? How often do we declare that we are never too far gone to still atone? How much do we remind ourselves that God wants us to learn from our mistakes and try harder? How frequently do we say that the gates of prayer are never closed to us? And yet, for a seemingly small mistake, Moses is punished to not enter the land of Israel.
            But to see it from God’s perspective, how disappointing it must have been to see Moses make that mistake. God and Moses had a very special relationship, such that none after would have. It is even unique in comparison to the relationship God had with the other Patriarchs. Moses alone got to speak with God face to face, was God’s partner in leading the Israelite people through the wilderness, and sometimes they even squabble over who is responsible for the iniquities of the people, throwing back and forth assertions of “Your People,” the way a tired parent might inform his or her spouse, “Your child misbehaved at school today.” Midrashim depicts them further as true partners, lengthening conversations we see in Torah to show how deep and extraordinary the relationship between God and Moses really is. Imagine how God felt when this one person who seemed to really appreciate all of God’s wonders, who really seemed to understand God’s mysteries, didn’t follow God’s instructions. Of all the times the People of Israel are really ungrateful or unbelieving or afraid in spite of all the things they’ve seen God do for them, Moses is always able to mediate and keep the peace. Then it was him to make this mistake, and there was no one to mediate on his behalf for God. So God rules that he will not see the land of Israel. Further, to be fair, Moses was 120-years-old, and it was probably an appropriate time for him to be laid to rest anyway. When Joshua conquers the land of Israel, there’s a lot of fighting involved, and maybe Moses was just too old to handle that. The Midrash of Devarim Rabbah insists that God never really planned for Moses to enter the land of Israel. His destiny was always to prophesy in the land of Egypt and in the wilderness, and that is all.

            The ending of Moses’s story is sometimes confusing. He worked so hard to get the people through the Wilderness, and now he is told in this week’s portion that he can look at the Holy Land, but not enter it, because of some small mistake. But sometimes even little mistakes have big consequences, and sometimes without meaning to we can hurt people’s feelings by not trying harder to understand them and do what they need us to do, and I think that’s exactly what happened between Moses and God. As we draw near to the end of our Torah cycle, and start a fresh year with a clean slate, having done all that self-reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and that repenting on Yom Kippur, let us take special care to acknowledge the wrongs we do by accident. It is too easy to claim ignorance or get defensive over something that was an honest mistake. Let this year be one of responsibility and accountability. That way we can better learn from our mistakes and move forward more informed, with better understanding, and stronger relationships. May we all find the strength to admit our shortcomings and our ignorances, and the wisdom and humility to acknowledge there’s always more to learn. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur Morning 2015 (A Drash for the Traditional Torah reading)

            This morning’s Torah portion consists of the instructions for the service of atonement that would performed by the High Priest in the tabernacle on Yom Kippur. The Rosh Hashanah portions are narratives from Genesis, stories of the morality and values from our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The shift to the ritual descriptions of Yom Kippur, especially for rituals we no longer follow, brings into sharp focus the relationship between ritual and ethics. Both are equally important, but neither means anything Jewish unless they are used together. Our Haftarah similarly draws this into focus, as the voice of Isaiah is used to describe God’s disappointment in empty rituals.
            All year we are hopefully doing our best to be good people. We try to do right, and when we mess up we apologize. We try to learn from our mistakes and move forward with our lives. We try to find time in our busy personal schedules to give back to our communities, to volunteer our time or donate our money to tzedakah. We try to be reflective and sincere with our words. But we cannot do these things all the time, and the High Holy Day season is a particularly convenient time to focus on these things. The New Year is when we take the time for serious self-reflection, to wipe our slates clean and return to our best intentions, to recalibrate our lives and values, to apologize to those we’ve done wrong, including ourselves, to give to charities, to set resolutions to do better in the year to come.
            Not everyone feels the need to come to services, but for those here, clearly you find some value in it. For those friends who cannot or choose not to be here, ritual probably is more significant than they maybe know for themselves as well. Lawrence Hoffman writes in The Art of Public Prayer, “Ritual is how we play out prearranged scripts of behavior to shape specific durations of time,” and that can play out in many different ways. It might be coming to services and praying. It might mean fasting. It might just mean joining with your whole community for a meal, even if you weren’t fasting. It might mean recreating your own Tashlich ritual, or writing New Year’s resolutions, at Rosh Hashanah or on January 1st. Though our personal rituals may differ, we all need them. They help us mark time, and infuse particularity and meaning into certain days or specific events of our lives.
            On Yom Kippur, we cleanse our souls. We purify our hearts. This is ritual and ethical. They are inextricably linked on this day. Teshuvah and Tzedakah are necessary not only for Jewish values, but for all people who value honesty and kindness towards others. To do these things better, we need to take the time to cleanse our souls and purify our hearts. We need to clear the air for all the wrong we’ve done in the past year so that we can move forward. We need to feel at peace with ourselves so that we can find the energy to try harder in the year to come. When children are told that they are bad or stupid, they start acting like it. Likewise with adults. If we believe we have become too corrupt, we will stop even trying to act benevolently. If we believe we can cleanse our souls, be absolved of past evils, and move on, we will continue through the year in gratitude for forgiveness and with efforts to spread goodness.
            On Yom Kippur in days of old, the atonement came for all the people when the High Priest sacrificed animals on their behalf. He had to make expiations for his own sins first, and for those of his household and family, then once he was cleansed he could make the sacrifices on behalf of all the people. Today, we don’t have a High Priest or animal sacrifices. I can’t make expiation for you. You have to do the work yourselves, to apologize to those you’ve wronged, to ask for forgiveness from your friends and family, from the Divine, and from yourself. You fast so that you might feel the affliction of those you have hurt or whose oppression you may have contributed to, even if you didn’t realize it. You fast so that you know to take this day seriously. You pray, whether here in services or in moments of quietude with between your own soul and your vision of the Higher Power, so that you can better communicate with that which makes you a better person. We need these rituals to give meaning to our efforts to repair the world, and we need to be earnest about repairing the world to give meaning to our rituals. They are inseparable.
            I’ve spoken quite a bit this holiday season about wanting to carry the spirit of Teshuvah, Tzedakah, and Tefillah with us through the whole next year. Take a moment now to feel the hunger of your fast, to understand the meaning of the sacrifices we still make on this day. Now that you are fully in touch with that feeling of hunger and sacrifice, and its connection to Tikkun Olam and sincerity, I hope you carry that with you through the year. Every time you are hungry, take a moment to appreciate how near to food you really are, and take the next opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger, or at least volunteer to help make challah for the next Shabbat. Giving back to the community starts at home, and your friends get hungry, too. Every time you feel the Yom Kippur-esque feelings of contrition, be sure to voice them, ask for forgiveness on the spot. Don’t wait for Yom Kippur to come around again, but start right away to fix what you have broken. Every time you feel worried about what may be wrong in the world, do something to make it better. You won’t be able to end all the world’s problems, but you can always do something to improve it. Think of The Starfish Story, and just starting throwing them back in one at a time.

            And when we get to the High Holy Day season of 5777, may we find our rituals meaningful, our hearts and actions purer, and our world a little more peaceful. Amen.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yom Kippur Evening 2015

For these ten days, the gates have been open and the world has been fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again like waves on the sea. Some of these impulses rise up with particular intensity. We may even experience them as afflictions, but they can be the keys to our transformation. Their intensity points to the disequilibrium and dysfunction in us that is in need of transformation.

For these ten days, the field of the mind is like a painting by Kandinsky. Energy and form float in that field and we have the sense that we can shape our lives by choosing where to invest our focus and intention, by choosing which forms to follow and which to let go. This is not a linear process, not something that takes a clear or even discernible path. Rather is happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it may not even seem to be happening at all. But the gates are in fact open, and if our intention is aligned with this spiritual reality, then transformation also opens as a real possibility.
(Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared)

May this dreamlike reminder of the purpose of the High Holy days rejuvenate us as we begin our long fast and the homestretch of our ten days of teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah. May we remember to continue to repent and return to the path of goodness throughout the year. May we find moments every day to give tzedakah or perform a mitzvah. May we find prayer in our hearts as we express gratitude for another year of life.
The recurring theme of Yom Kippur liturgy, and particularly of Kol Nidrei is repentance for the sin of wrongful speech, the sin we are all most likely to commit. This evening as we ask for God’s forgiveness for our wrongful speech, I would like to ask that we also think about rightful speech, and how we can all do more of it. The Quakers have a saying, which has been widely adopted in social justice circles – “Speak Truth to Power.” What is your truth that you wish you were more vocal about? What are the powers you wish understood your truth better?  

May the Ultimate Power of the Universe hear our truths now. Amen.   

Friday, September 18, 2015

The accompanying texts for Shabbat Shuvah at Virginia Tech

 Shabbat Shuvah Discussion Questions
1.      Before looking at the handouts, take a moment to discuss your current ideas about civil rights, social justice, and Jewish values. How, if at all, do they all fit together?

2.      Look at the source sheet with Scripture, Talmud, Halakha, and modern Jewish works. Which verse, poem, song, or picture do you like best or you think best encapsulates Jewish values?

3.      What narrative does this chronology of Jewish life tell? Do you think it is accurate, in accordance with your experience of Judaism and/or social action? If not, where does it divert? What would be a more accurate reflection?

4.      Take a look at the Racial Justice Definitions hand out. Is there anything on there that is new to you? What makes sense and what is confusing? Do you agree with these definitions? Why or why not?

5.      Read the poem by Yehuda Webster and Zahara Zahav. Does it resonate with you? Why or why not? What assumptions can you make about the authors based on their names and poetry alone? Do you think they’d fit in at the Virginia Tech Hillel?

6.      This conversation has been centered on racial justice and the civil rights movements of Black Americans. Does the Jewish community have a similar responsibility to protect other oppressed people? How could you use a similar approach as was discussed tonight to defend the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community?


Leviticus 19:16, 18
You shall not go around as a talebearer among your people. Do stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a false grudge against members of your community. You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a
At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, “I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.”

Rambam (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 6:7
Whoever is in a position to prevent wrongdoing and does not do so is responsible for the sins of all the wrongdoers whom they might have stopped.

Scottsboro (An Excerpt) by Betsalel Friedman (1931)
Liar! You tell our children of freedom,
while day and night you lock them in chains and cells,
choke children on trees beside their fathers.
Lincoln freed grandmothers and grandfathers, you tell.

Children come out of the movies. Sometimes joy is in their eyes,
fooled by lies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
You’ve poisoned the milk that little babies drink,
poured into little hearts hate for Negro millions.

The joy in Black homes is like starved flesh:
Even when a child is born, one spends joy sparingly.
Who knows where a white ruler draws his blood?
Will he choke the neighbor’s son on a tree?

Pale is the tale of ancient Egypt
and the Hebrew children drowned in the river.
It’s 1931 with a frame-up in Scottsboro . . .
nothing like it in the history of slavery.

Strange Fruit By Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol (1937)
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

“The Hope of How”
By Yehudah Webster and Zahara Zahav, JFREJ leaders
 “My insides are churning”
A most sacred home in flames deemed worthless, disposable
A pastor and worshipers slain, heads bowed, in the sanctuary
A mother sits in the street where her son’s soul was poured out
A world turns its back again, again, again – there is none to comfort her
A people shown their Black bodies, tears, families do not matter
How have we fallen to such disgrace?
How long will we slink away from justice?
How do we allow?
How do we hope?
How do we dance when so heavy with grief?
How do we turn to face each other?
A woman climbs where no one dared, tears down a flag of hatred
A mother refuses to back down, power yields to her demands
A wave of clergy rise up to meet resounding call for a different world
A movement plants seeds everywhere, sprouts flowers over burial ground
A black man’s cry, “I can’t breathe” amplified in the streets for all to hear
With this hope we pray that we do not reach the point of total destruction
We pray that we desist from senseless hatred and brutality
That sacred places remain holy, unstained from the blood of racism
That we do not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, taking instead honest account of our obligations
We pray that community, allyship and love forge new bridges of understanding and trust
That we continue to hope and believe in each other
Demanding as one that black lives truly do matter
All these things we pray in solidarity together
And let us say,


Shabbat Shuvah at Virginia Tech: Jewish Response and Responsibility to Civil Rights

            Jews have a history of oppression. In almost every age, in almost every country, we have been dehumanized, had our rights limited, were relegated to ghettos or kicked out of countries altogether, and in the worst of times and places, were even subject to large scale violence. Thankfully, the United States has long been a friend to the Jewish community. Although antisemitism is definitely no stranger here, the institutional discrimination we have faced in this country has been fairly limited. In 1790, George Washington issued a letter to the American Jewish community of the time, located in Newport, RI. He said he appreciated their support and made a point of acknowledging the similarities of the Children of Abraham and that we are all equal citizens of the United States:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

            The great irony of this, of course, is that while this kind of support for a Jewish community was unprecedented and monumental, this statement completely erases the existence of the class of people in the United States that were still not awarded any human rights or recognition. This country, though still often problematic in its treatments and expectations of Jewish Americans, has afforded us never before enjoyed privileges, while denying those privileges to others. As Jews, we understand oppression. We experienced it. We recognize it. We know all the ways in which it is wrong and hurtful. But as American Jews, we don’t have to face oppression to the extent our parents or grandparents or great grandparents did in the countries they came from, or to the extent people of color have had to endure right next to us. And that gives us a unique perspective through which to look at racism in the United States.
            I want to pause here to acknowledge the habit of Euro-centricism which the American Jewish community, myself included, is often guilty. I have heard more than once “Jews are white now,” and anthropologist Karen Brodkin even wrote a book entitled, “How the Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America,” which is the say that the racialization of Judaism is less prevalent in modern America than it has been historically or may still be globally. This does not mean that all Jews are actually white. White-skinned Jews have now, for the most part, been afforded the privileges other white people have in our society, privileges previously denied us. Jewish people of color are still by and large denied those privileges. We are all still Jewish. We are all a part of the same community, and if for nothing else, Jews have a responsibility to fight racism for the sake of our own brethren (who are equally our brethren whether they were born into a non-white Jewish community, were born to interfaith/interracial families, or became Jews by choice) who still experience institutionalized, often violent, oppression.
            That said, there are bigger reasons to fight racism than how it might affect our fellow Jews. Our scriptures tell us to be welcoming to strangers, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It tells us to treat others kindly and with respect, as our father Abraham did for the messengers that visited his camp. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Tradition tells us that the whole of the Torah can be summed up as “That which is hateful to you, do not to others.” Jews have understood oppression, understood it to be hateful, and have an explicit responsibility to not allow it to be done to others. We have a responsibility and a tradition for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.  
Furthermore, Jewish culture, especially in the United States, has a strong history of leftism and social justice advocacy. Modern Yiddish poetry in the early 19th century was primarily written by immigrants who had been associated with anti-czarist movements in the Old Country, and focused on Labor Movement issues, such as protecting sweatshop workers and ethnic minorities. They wrote poems in which they identified with Black Americans and the violent racism they faced. The song, “Strange Fruit,” a hauntingly beautiful tune about southern lynching made famous by Billie Holiday was actually written by a Jewish man named Abel Meeropol in 1937. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched on Selma alongside Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and said of that experience that he was praying with his feet. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath less famously also marched with them, and can be seen in the front row of the march, carrying a Torah, in one of the famous pictures of the era. Today, there are many Jewish efforts to continue this legacy and fight the racism that persists today. One such effort is the organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in NYC. They have put together many resources for Jews invested in understanding racial inequality and how we can better fight oppression.

You are here tonight because you have an interest in Jewish leadership on campus. In the weekly Torah portion for this week – the one on the regular cycle, not the holiday readings we read on Rosh Hashanah or will read on Yom Kippur – Moses transfers his leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. Tonight, and for those of you joining us, the retreat tomorrow, your staff at Hillel would like to transfer some leadership to you. Civil rights and large scale activism might not be the right place for you to exhibit your Jewish leadership, but in being willing to grapple with these topics and to engage with them Jewishly you are showing that you are ready to take on more Judaism and more responsibility in your own community. On your tables, there are several handouts. First look at the Discussion Questions and begin the conversation with your friends and neighbors on how you can use Jewish values to understand oppression in 21st century America. Use the other materials at the table as needed to continue the conversation. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rosh Hashanah 5776 Day 2

            The story of the Akidah – the binding of Isaac – that we read today, affirms the covenant between Abraham and God. It is not a comfortable story but it is an important one. It reminds us of the fragility and sometimes absurdity of life. An overarching theme throughout the high holy days is that we may be sealed this week in a Book of Life or a Book of Death, and we won’t know which one. We recite on Yom Kippur the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that asks, who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water. On Rosh Hashanah we remind ourselves and God of the mutual covenant between us and begin a cycle of teshuvah so that we might circumvent harsh judgment. Isaac is given no warning, no time for teshuvah, and honestly hasn’t done anything that seems to warrant needing to do teshuvah. In yesterday’s portion, we read that he is still a small child, and suddenly today he is sentenced to death.
            But sometimes life is like that. It is absurd and tragic and fragile. Recently, the news and social media have been flooded with horrifying images of children screaming, crying, or dying. Of parents clinging and pushing. Of people trying to securement in the Book of Life, despite having done nothing to warrant their apparent seal in the Book of Death. In the Torah, God intercedes at the last minute to save Isaac. In life, no one interceded at the last minute to save Aylan Kurdi, the washed ashore little boy whose picture went viral. It feels really hard to see images like that, to read that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and then to still continue praying to a God that allows or even commands these hardships to occur. To continue to believe in an order to the Universe when something so ridiculously unfair happens.
            Abraham does as God commanded. Abraham, the great litigator who was willing to argue against God on behalf of all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, is not willing to argue with God on behalf of his own son. Perhaps he had faith that God would intercede and not really allow such a thing to happen. Many people believe Abraham knew all along this was just a test. After all, though Abraham was not able to find any righteous people to warrant saving Sodom and Gomorrah, God was willing to listen and give him the opportunity. How could the Judge of all the Earth, who strives for justice, allow such an unjust death?! Others say Abraham did not know he was being tested, and he failed the test. He should have argued with God, he should have protected his son as he did for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is why it is an angel who stays his hand at the last minute, rather than God. God is too disappointed to talk to Abraham at that moment. He failed the test.
Perhaps the injustice we see in the world today is again a test, and we are all failing. We fail when we don’t act to correct the injustice. We fail when we turn a blind eye to it. We fail when we are apathetic to oppression or cruel to our neighbors. We fail when we are willing to allow such violence to continue. Maybe Abraham was so horrified by what he heard from God that he went into shock. Maybe he was unable to process what was happening and his body just started acting out of his own sentient control. Maybe we are likewise numbed to what we see on TV or Facebook because it is so horrible we can’t even begin to know how to help.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel tells the story of his learning the story of the Akidah in Hebrew School, he says he cried at the moment that the angel shows up. His teacher asked him why he was crying, since everyone knows that Isaac lives, and he replied, “What if the angel came a second too late?” His teacher said, “An angel cannot come too late.” Rabbi Heschel concludes his story by telling all of us, his readers and spiritual disciples, “An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may.”
It’s hard to say what is too late. It’s too late for Aylan. It’s too late for a lot of individuals. But it’s not too late for humanity. Yet. I don’t think. Anyway, we’re still here now, so let’s assume it’s not too late. Let’s begin this New Year of teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah with putting more tzedek (justice) in tzedakah. Practice radical empathy. Give to humanitarian charities. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Be the angel interceding on other people’s violence, be the change you wish to see in the world. Reaffirm the covenant with God to follow the mitzvot, which our great rabbi Hillel summarized as “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” And may we find 5776 a little bit more peaceful than 5775. Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776 - Day One

            Rosh Hashanah is the day we are remembered in heaven, as God remembers Sarah in today’s Torah Portion. Chayim Nahman Bialik, a 19th century poet, says, “Before God there are yet other languages than those of words: melody, weeping, and laughter. They are the possession of all who are alive …. They are the manifestations of the very deep levels of our being.” Sarah communicates with God in laughter. She laughs when she overhears that prophesy that she will have a baby, and when Isaac is born she says, “God has brought me laughter.” Hagar and Ishmael communicate in weeping and silent cries. The Torah says that Hagar burst into tears, and follows with “And God heard the cry of the boy,” but we never read that the boy cried as well. Thus, says Rabbi Mendel of Vorki, a Hasidic master, “We learn that God can hear the silent cries of the anguished heart, even when no words are uttered.”
            On the chapter about Rosh Hashanah in his book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew writes: “On Rosh Hashanah, the gates between heaven and earth are opened, and things that were beyond us suddenly become possible. The deepest questions of our heart begin to find answers. Our deepest fear, that gaping emptiness up ahead of us and back behind us as well, suddenly becomes our ally. Heaven begins to help us.”
            Heaven helps even if we don’t know how to articulate the ask. Heaven hears each voice in the multitudes reciting the Rosh Hashanah. Heaven may be God, the Unnamed Power of the Universe, or your own intuition and instinct. Whatever Heaven is, Heaven hears you in whatever language you are using. Heaven understands your laughter and your weeping, your praying and you singing, your speech and your silent meditations. But when Heaven gives you an answer, are you listening? Are you ready to make the changes necessary to move forward, to adopt a High Holy Day attitude for the whole year?
            In our Torah portion, Sarah behaves pretty shamefully. She makes unfair demands on Abraham and casts out innocent people, nearly condemning a helpless child to death. It is hard to reconcile that this woman we consider our matriarch, a woman who communicates with God in laughter, could be so petty and jealous and afraid of a child. But we also know that it is important to the narrative. We know that God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael as well and provides for them. We know that God reassures Abraham that listening to Sarah is the right thing to do and that all of Abraham’s children will be cared for. Can we give ourselves that reassurance? In the absence of direct conversation with God such as the Biblical characters have, can we still open our hearts to hear the messages of forgiveness and reassurances that we are doing the right thing? 
            Lew also said in his Rosh Hashanah chapter, “What would happen if every time we did something we disapproved of, we opened our heart to heaven? What would happen if every time we felt an impulse we didn’t like we acknowledged its Divine origin?” What would happen if we acted with the decisiveness of Sarah, even if we didn’t know that our actions were the right decision? What would happen if we rolled with the punches like Abraham and tried to keep peace with our friends and family and neighbors, no matter what crazy thing they ask of us?
             I’m not advocating we go around giving in to the base instincts of ourselves or others. I am not saying that it is okay to cut people from your life because they seem suspicious to you, nor that you shouldn’t reprimand friends and family who behave harmfully. Of course, use your common sense and act in accordance with your own conscience. But, know that you will mess up sometimes, and that’s okay. Know that you don’t need to deliberate over every option because whatever you end up doing is right for you for that moment. Even when it’s wrong, it will give you an opportunity to learn a lesson, to accept your own humanity, to know how to do better next time. If we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, than even our flaws and faults are reflective of God.
            “The real work we have to do at this time of year,” Alan Lew postulates, “is to find compassion no matter what. But we have to find it for ourselves before we can be of much use to others. The real work is to look at who we really are, and to contemplate Who made us that way.” We have to be willing to live with the choices we make, including the ones we wish we’d made differently. We have to be willing to learn from those we wish we made differently and actively work toward making different decisions in the future. We have to be willing to accept that we won’t always do right, but we can always do our best. We have to be willing to be honest with ourselves so that we can hear our own laughter and weeping, singing and prayer, speech and silent meditation.

            And when we are ready to achieve that self-compassion and that self-awareness, may we find ourselves able to behave year round in accordance with our Rosh Hashanah souls. Amen. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

Say Hello to Tishrei and 5776 with a good old fashioned New Year’s Eve ball dropping. May it be pleasing before you, Adonai our God, and God of our ancestors that we are renewed for a good and sweet year! [count down from 10 and drop a whole apple into a bowl of honey].

            You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream. Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness. A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.
            Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. The time of transformations is upon you. The world is once again cracking through the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth creaks open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once again, and your name is written in one of them. But you don’t know which one.
            The ten days that follow are fraught with meaning and dread. They are days when it is perfectly clear every second that you live in the midst of a chain of ineluctable consequence, that everything you do, every prayer you utter, every intention you form, every act of compassion you perform, ripples out from the center of your being into the end of time. Anger and its terrible cost lie naked before you. Grievance gives way to forgiveness. At the same time, you become aware that you also stand are the end of a long chain of consequences. Many things are beyond your control. They are part of a process that was set in motion long ago. You find the idea of this unbearable.
            Then, just when you think you can’t tolerate one moment more, you are called to gather with a multitude in a great hall. A court has convened high up on the altar in the front of the hall. Make way! Make way! The judges of the court proclaim, for everyone must be included in the proceeding. No one, not even the usual outcasts, may be excluded. You are told that you are in possession of a great power, the power of speech, and that you will certainly abuse it – you are already forgiven for having abused it in the past – but in the end it will save you. Fir the next twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death. You wear a shroud and, like a dead person, you neither eat nor drink nor fornicate. You summon the desperate strength of life’s last moments. A great wall of speech is hurled against your heart again and again; a fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly until you are broken-hearted and confess to you great crime. You are a human being, guilty of every crime imaginable. Your heart is cracking through its shell to be reborn then a chill grips you. The gate between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close. The multitude has swollen. It is almost as if the great hall has magically expanded to include an infinity of desperate souls. This is your last chance. Everyone has run out of time. Every heart has broken. The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time. You feel curiously lighthearted and clean.
            Some days later you find yourself building a house; a curious house, an incomplete house, a house that suggests the idea of a house without actually being one. This house has no roof. There are a few twigs and branches on top, but you can see the stars and feel the wind through them. And the walls of this house don’t go all the way around it either. Yet as you sit in this house eating the bounty of the earth, you feel a deep sense of security and joy. Here in this mere idea of a house, you finally feel as if you are home. The journey is over.
            At precisely this moment, the journey begins again. The curious house is dismantled. The King calls you in for a last intimate meal, and then you set out on your way again. [Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared]
            May this dreamlike reflection of the high holy days carry us through the next ten days as we contemplate the meanings of teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah, of repentance and returning, of righteous giving and charitable lovingkindness, and of heartfelt prayer. Moreover, ten days from now, let us not forget these contemplations. May the spirit of the high holy days remain in our hearts and minds all year, that we may really find ourselves ever striving to improve ourselves and our world.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Parashat Nitzavim, "God, the Devil and Bob," and Finding a community that teaches you to speak your own truth

         This is my first Shabbat back at Temple Beth Emeth, where I am returning for a fourth, non-consecutive year as the rabbinic intern. This Shabbat is also the first day back at Hebrew school for the kiddos. 

            I can’t read Parashat Nitzavim without thinking of a scene from a short-lived cartoon that was briefly on air when I was in middle school. It was called God, the Devil, and Bob, and its plot was that a Jerry Garcia-looking God ponders that perhaps humanity has lost its way and it’s time to start over again. He decides to give the world one more chance by giving one man the opportunity to speak to his friends and neighbors and change the course of their lives. And of course, God allows the Devil to choose the man. He chooses Bob Allman, a regular Joe Schmoe with no religious affiliations or humanitarian ambitions (get it? All-man? Because he’s the everyman?). In one of my favorite scenes in the 13-episode series, Bob asks God what it is he’s supposed to do, what would make God happy. God exclaims, “This is not new stuff! It’s written in scrolls, books, stone tablets! What do you want me to do, scribble it on a bar napkin?!” It is such an echo of Moses’s word in this week’s Torah portion: “This is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea… The word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
            And yet, sometimes even the things in our hearts and minds, the things we seem to instinctively know, still need to be teased out of us. They need to be awoken, refined, or articulated in ways that we can’t do alone. That’s why we have community to help us. Why we have religious school and services to teach us. Why we need teachers and rabbis and families to lead us. To form the right words to the thoughts we knew were already buried inside. We don’t need God to scribble out exact instructions on a napkin, we do need to have some guidance, and it’s important to find a community that really does guide you to live out your own truth.

            It is such a pleasure for me to be back in a community that I think does that for me. It’s so nice to be back in a place where I think I can be a part of that support for the young students we are welcoming back today for first day of Religious school. I am thrilled to be standing among you again today, just as the whole community of Israel stood together in our parasha this week. As we begin a new year together, may it be one of standing together in a holy community, learning and growing together, finding holiness right here among us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.