Monthly Archives: October 2019

On Memory

Kol Nidrei Sermon 5780

One of my favorite memories as a child was going to see the Nutcracker with my family.  We lived in a college town, and the performance brought together the university community and the townsfolk.  As I remember it, we went every year.  

So, when I became a mom, of course I wanted to create that tradition with my children.  Adar and I have been now twice to see the Nutcracker, just us, a mother-daughter date.  Last winter around Chanukah time, my parents came to visit, and it so happened that their visit coincided with my planned Nutcracker date with Adar.  So I told them, “We are continuing the tradition you started with me!”  And they said, “What tradition?”  My mother had absolutely no memory of ever seeing it with me.  My dad was a little better… “Maybe we went once…” he said.  I was crushed!

Isn’t it amazing how things stick in your mind though?  What was a cherished memory for me, a formative memory in terms of how I viewed parenting, traditions, and creating memories, was something that I largely created in my mind.  We probably went once, maybe twice, to the Nutcracker, but for me, the feeling of going someplace special with my family stuck.  We did not often go to see shows often, and so the significance of the event outweighed the actual history of what actually took place.

And this begs the question: What is memory? What do our memories tell us about ourselves? And, how does it shape us – both in constructive and positive ways, and how does hinder it us or harm us?

These holy days put central importance on the value of memory.  One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom haZikaron – the Day of Memory. And tomorrow on Yom Kippur we will recite not only Yizkor, the Memorial Service, but also Eleh Ezkerah, the service in memory of those who were killed because they were guardians of our faith.  Zikaron, Yizkor, Ezkerah – all evoke the root zachar, to remember.  But, what are we supposed to remember?  Is it the past year?  Our whole lifetimes?  Our deeds? Our sins?  Our connection to our people to our faith?  

Perhaps it is because the role of memory is critical to the process of introspection. Indeed, memories are how we explain who we are today, in light of who we were once upon a time. Memories are more than the sum of their parts – the events, places, people, or emotions of our lives.  No two people will remember the same event the same way – we all see life through a uniquely personal lens.

We are a people who revere memory.  No word in the Jewish language is revered more than the word “zakhor” – remember. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his now classic book, “Zakhor,” notes that “only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.”  We hold Yizkor services four times a year, including on Yom Kippur, which are devoted solely to remembering our loved ones who have passed on.   We are bidden in the Ten Commandments to “remember” the Sabbath day and sanctify it (Exodus 20:8).  In multiple places in Torah we are told to “remember” that we were slaves in Egypt lest we forget ourselves…. Indeed, the word zakhor appears in the Torah 169 times.

In fact, one could argue that the Torah is our collective memory – it is more than history, it is not simply a collection of stories, or laws.  Biblical scholars and sages have long noticed the Torah is full of gaps in the narrative and apparent contradictions.  For example, we have different Creation stories – the six days of Creation, and then also the account of the Garden of Eden.  How can we understand this other than to suggest that our Torah is a collection of our people’s dearest memories?  

While history is objective, memory is subjective – it is personal.  Rabbi Lisa Rubin writes, “Where history is about facts and timelines, memory is about transmitting stories and culture.  Where history seeks certainty, memory is flawed and fragile.  History is thorough; memory is selective.  History is cerebral; memory is sensory.”

So, if we can’t say that every word of the Torah is provable fact; surely we can state that it is true according to our people’s lived experience and memory.  And everyone remembers things differently.  

Truly, Jews are less interested in dry facts than living, breathing experiences. It is for this reason that much of Jewish tradition and ritual draws on reenactment. We don’t just commemorate, we remember. The entire Passover seder can in some sense be seen as a symbolic reenactment of a historical moment.  One of the central themes of the seder is that “in each and every generation let each person regard themselves as though they had emerged from Egypt,” thus enforcing the fusion of past and present. 

Memory, however, is often elusive and selective, as my personal example of my family’s Nutcracker tradition illustrates.  But that doesn’t mean it lacks integrity. Our memory informs who we are and how we see the world.  Everything about us, essentially, is a function of our memory.  

Rabbi Amy Perlin writes of the dangers of living in a fast-paced world where we place so many of our cherished memories in a virtual Cloud.  She warns, “We live in a world with a vast array of readable material, which we usually read only once.  We read by skimming or reading for overall meaning, not always remembering exactly what we read or where.  We sacrifice quality of memory for quantity of resources… we externalize memory, meaning that we outsource, because we can.  We leave everything to digital recall.”  That is to say, why remember something when you can google it? Why remember phone numbers when there is speed dial?

But, God, God remembers us, even when we forget ourselves.  God sees us and knows all of us.  While we just remember fragments, God remembers us with great compassion. Today, we ask God to remember us for life – zochrenu le’chayim

Isn’t it curious though, this request – how can God, who created us and remembers us completely also forget us?  With this liturgy, aren’t we really asking ourselves to remember that life matters, that we are unique and finite and precious and irreplaceable? Today we pray that just as God remembers us, we can remember ourselves and come back to who we truly are meant to be.

But there is a danger of being so attached to memory – memories of the past, memories of who we once were, memories of regret and shame, and memories of trauma.  Jews could also be accused of living too much in the past, of living only to keep memory and past traditions alive.  We cry, “Never forget!” the six million murdered, the atrocities our people suffered in the Holocaust.  We can never forget, and we must always honor the millions dead and survivors, but nor can we stay in the past.  We must remember in order to live, in order to focus our direction forward.  Avraham Burg, a prominent Israeli politician wrote a provocative book entitled “The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from its Ashes.”  In it he writes that by living in the shadow of the Holocaust, Jewish society fails to define itself by its positive attributes, which inhibits its ability to move forward.  As a child of Holocaust survivors, he urges Jews not to isolate themselves by constantly mourning the past and fearing the future, but rather by reconnecting to and remembering our unique humanistic perspective and our core values.

But to do this, any therapist will tell you that you have to deal with your trauma and face the past.  This is also key to our inner work during the High Holidays.

It is critical that we strive for this balance between not drowning in memories of the past, and also not being so forward-thinking that we forget who we are.  I would argue that this was the main concern of Moses as he prepared the Israelite people to enter the land of Israel.  He wants to ensure that they will be successful in quest to take the land and dwell in it but his worry is two-fold:  1) that they will be stuck in the traumatic past of slavery and won’t have faith in themselves or God, and 2) that they might become too successful and forget that God is the reason for their success.   

Leading up to the High Holidays and through this season, we read the book of Deuteronomy.  This is a book where Moses goes on and on to the children of Israel about what need to do and remember once they enter the land of Israel.  He also reviews with them many of the things they experienced together during their wanderings through the desert.  In a sense, Deuteronomy is a book of Moses’ memories of what they have been through.  

But why the need for such an extensive review?   Rabbi Francine Roston, a rabbi out in Montana, encourages us to understand Deuteronomy from a trauma informed perspective.  She points out that, even after all that God had done for them, the Israelites were stuck in their trauma of having living through slavery and all kinds of oppression.  Thus, they still were fearful of every threat, imagined or real, and unable to accurately understand the situation before them. 

And that is why Moses needs to walk the Israelites through each of their experiences together, so that they could reflect on them and reframe their narrative. And, so that as they encounter new experiences and challenges in their new land, they could see the promise therein, and not only danger and threat.  

But the other side of the coin is that they then could actually succeed in conquering the land, and then what?  What if, in their success, in their comfort, they forget what God has done for them?  Deuteronomy 8 warns, “Be careful that you do not forget Adonai your God, failing to observe God’s command, law, and degrees…. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt… You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember Adonai your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”  In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Moses is warning the Israelites, perhaps counterintuitively, that the real test “is not poverty, but affluence, not slavery but freedom, not homelessness but home.” 

Prophetically, Moses sees that the biggest danger facing the Israelite nation (who is us today) is that as they (we) became more wealthy and comfortable, they (we) would forget our past, forget God, forget our humility, forget our values and our sense of social solidarity, our responsibility to one another.

And so this is the balancing we must do during these Days of Awe: to reexamine our lives, taking the memory of what we have experienced in order to move forward with intention, clarity, and purpose.  We need to heal, to learn from our mistakes, to figure out how to repair, and finally, to forgive.

On this sacred day, we come back to memory – of our most authentic selves, of God and God’s central place in our world, and of our responsibility to one another and generations yet to come.  As we begin a new year, let us commit to create loving memories, memories of Shabbat with family and community, memories of holiday traditions, memories of Nutcracker outings, with our community and our children that shape our present and serve to guide us joyfully and meaningfully into the future. 

Shana tova and Tzom Kal – May you have an easy fast and reflective holiday.

Teshuvah for the Earth

Yom Kippur Sermon 5780

A story, one I loved as a child: 

“Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples… And when he was tired he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree very much. And the tree was happy. But time went by. And the boy grew older… The tree was often alone. Then one day the boy came to the tree, and the tree said ‘Come Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy.’ ‘I am too big to climb and play,’ said the boy. ‘I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me money?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ said the tree, ‘but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and then you will be happy.’ And the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away. And the tree was happy.” 

I’m sure you know it – it is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  The boy stayed away for a long time and the tree was sad. And then the boy/man came back and cut the tree’s branches to make a house… and then her trunk to make a boat… until finally, there was almost nothing left of the tree. The story ends with an image of a very sad old man sitting on a tree stump… with the words: “And the tree was happy.” 

Now, that story makes me terribly sad. I can’t think the tree was happy, and I don’t think the grown-up boy was truly happy either. How is one truly happy to continually take from another, never giving anything back in return, and reducing a proud tree to a stump?  

Today I can’t bring myself to read that story to my children, though I so treasured it as a child.  I realize that today, we are that boy/man, usurping the natural beauty and resources of our planet.  Soon there will be nothing left… for us or for our children. 

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the “birthday of the world.” Today, on this Yom Kippur, we face ourselves and contend with the grim consequences of our actions on this precious and only world we have. 

The reality is that we are destroying everything that we claim to celebrate. After a September that was the hottest one yet on record, I hope I don’t need to convince any of you that global warming is real, though we may differ its causes. I am not a scientist, so I am not here to prove anything to you.  We have all seen the headlines, and maybe out of fear we’ve seen the headlines but have skipped past reading the articles themselves.  They warn not just of melting glaciers but of plastics filling the oceans and the oceans becoming increasingly more acidic and warming, causing more volatile weather.  Recent hurricanes have done more than damaged homes; they have rendered large areas uninhabitable and under water.   We have read articles about climate refugees, homeless because of hurricanes, fires, and droughts.  We have heard about whole populations of penguins in Antarctica and birds across North America disappearing because their food sources are inaccessible.  We have read about the rate of species going extinct, which is now 100 times faster than normal.  This phenomenon is being called the sixth mass extinction.  Imagine in a few decades children not recognizing the animals depicted in the Noah’s ark story. 

But what is scarier to contemplate, is that if we keep up with this destruction, we will make our world inhospitable to human life.  The late Reverend William Sloane Coffin wrote in his 2004 book “Credo,” that “It is not really the world but the human race that is fragile, and getting ever more so as it is far from certain that we care enough for future generations to pay the price for their survival.”

It strikes me that our planet and all its life forms are both equally fragile.  This idea that we humans can live out our lives merely sitting on top of the earth, divorced from the reality that humans and the natural world are completely interdependent, is an unsustainable fiction.  

This is all terrifying stuff, stuff we would rather not talk about.  But we must.  And the one encouraging thing is that finally we humans seems to be paying attention, learning about sea levels rising and why we should care, and what we each can do to save our planet. Four years ago, none of the presidential candidates were talking about climate change, now they are.  And, in less than a year, the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has sparked a global movement to force world leaders to commit to major environmental initiatives.  

She spoke at the UN Climate Action summit in New York a few weeks ago, saying, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

I stand before you, on this holiest day of the year, as a fellow polluter, someone who enjoys shopping and my many conveniences provided by my first world life.  Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha – for the sins I have committed before You, O God… My carbon footprint is enormous.  I need to learn alongside all of my fellow Jews and earth dwellers what I can do, and we need to support one another to change. 

This is not a partisan, political issue; it is a religious issue, a moral issue, a Jewish issue.  If we Jews claim to practice teshuvah, repentance, the process of admitting our wrongs and changing our ways, then let’s get to work and begin again together.  Let’s commit to doing teshuvah for the earth.

This requires many steps, but first as Jews, we need to shift our mindset. There is a midrash (rabbinic commentary) on the book of Ecclesiastes that is often cited in defense of the environment: “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it'” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13) This is a lovely midrash.  However, in light of climate change, the idea that the world was created for humanity is something I believe we need to question. The world is not ours to do with it what we desire, it belongs to God. 

Another text I am now view differently because of climate change is that part of the Shema that we recite in every service that ] instructs us to do God’s bidding.  Then God will give rain in its appointed time, and grass on the field to feed our animals, and we will eat and be content.  But if not, the earth will cease to function as it should and we would be forced to leave.  For generations this text was viewed as God acting in a supernatural kind of way, punishing the wicked and rewarding the pious.  But the climate crisis has me seeing this text from Deuteronomy as a warning we should live in deep connection with the earth and the diversity of life that it holds, humbly and gratefully appreciating their gifts to us humans and in turn making sure we are responsible stewards.

But, unlike the relationships we have with other humans, we don’t have a mutual relationship with the earth such that if you hurt it, it will let you know.  And we can’t apologize to the planet and have it forgive us.  This is no ordinary teshuvah process. But it is possible.  A midrash from the Talmud, Pesachim 54a, even says that “Repentance was created before the world was created.”

We humans operate in the here and now – it hard to accept responsibility for and figure out how to change decades and centuries misuse and abuse.  It also requires deep change, change on a global level. For this reason it is so difficult to face the reality of climate change. 

Let’s also admit that this is a deeply scary, anxiety producing topic. It is easy to fall into denial. And so, denial is a form of self-defense (much like anger, which I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah.) It is soothing and makes normal lives possible, otherwise we might never be able to sleep with all the fear and anxiety.  Being in denial helps us to enjoy the present time, which for us is the realest thing.   

The writer Jonathan Franzen, wrote a frank and hard hitting essay in the New Yorker last month on climate change entitled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?”  He writes about the apparent inevitability of climate change, our ongoing denial of it, saying that, “psychologically, denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death…. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.” (“What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, September 8, 2019)

But this problem isn’t going to go away.  Sometimes we will be awake and present to the fear and uncertainty of the future.  Sometimes we will dip the sleep of denial.  Let us be aware of our human nature and keep a balanced perspective as best we can.  

The reality is that the problem of global warming did not start with us and will not end with us. , Ethics of our Ancestors, Pirkei Avot 2:21 says, “It is not upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” 

Our feelings of guilt will not serve us, nor the planet.  And neither can we say that this is an inevitable, insurmountable problem, so why bother?  

But Judaism commands us to always choose life. Here again I will quote from the Shema, “I have placed before you blessing and curse. Choose life, that you may live, you and your seed!”

But what does that mean, choose life, for us, in this time of climate crisis? Choosing life is about having hope.  And I don’t mean a hope that is simplistic, thinking somehow that “everything just works out for the best.”  To hope is to dare to act in a positive way in spite of a challenging situation.  Jim Antal, author of the 2018 book Climate Church, Climate World, writes that, “Hope is the most important contribution people of faith can and must make as humanity confronts the climate crisis. To become a people of hope we must be willing to stare reality in the face.” (Climate Church, Climate World, p.157)

Choosing life means that every good deed, every mitzvah, no matter how small and seemingly trivial, has immense and immeasurable significance. We act in the righteous, ethical way not because we expect a particular outcome, but because it is the right thing to do regardless of what happens or whether anyone recognizes what we do.  

We can never know the full impact of our deeds, either in the present or for future generations.  No act is trivial. The great medieval sage Maimonides writes in his laws of repentance that every person should consider themselves as perfectly balanced between good and bad and the world as perfectly balanced between good and evil. The next action you do–however trivial–can tilt you and the whole world toward the side of good and life or to the side of evil and death. 

This is what it means to choose life. You have no way of knowing the full impact of your actions on this and future generations. So: let’s commit to buy less new things, to reuse and recycle more, to cut down on using plastic, to conserve water and fossil fuels in every we can, to plant trees and create homes for living creatures, to buying food locally and eating what we buy instead of letting it go to waste.  Instead of being overwhelmed at the amount of actions we must take, let us be grateful for all the myriad ways, large and small, every one of us can make a difference.  

The Tikkun Olam committee has chosen climate justice to be Kol Emet’s tikkun olam theme for the year.  Its kickoff event is appropriately on the eve of Sukkot – we will have a potluck dinner in the sukkah, watch a movie and have a discussion, which will be moderated by Tom Wells, a local climate activist. As a community, we will learn more about this issue over the course of the year, and I am excited to see the change we can make as a collective force. We will learn together, question together, grow together, and support one another toward change.

This is the moment we must rise to: We must align our personal teshuvah with a teshuvah for the earth.   On Rosh HaShanah I shared the wisdom of taking a breath to restore the souls, and we need to do this on a global level as well.  We breathe out what the trees breathe in. The teshuvah that we are called to do in our time is to restore the breath of the world.  

I want to close with a bit of Jewish eco-theology by the late Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who was the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Chester County and who passed away a few months ago.  He was mensch and a brilliant eco-theologian.  He wrote a piece called “10 Teachings on Judaism and the Environment,” a kind of Ten Commandments for the earth.  So if the regular ten commandments are ten basic ways we should behave with one another (honor your parents, do not lie, etc) these eco-ten commandments are ten basic ways we should live in concert with the earth.  They are ten measures for our teshuvah of the earth, and they are:

1. God created the universe.

2. God’s Creation is good.

3. Human beings are created in the image of God.

4. Humanity should view their place in Creation with love and awe.

5. The Sabbath and prayer help us to achieve this state of mind.

6. The Torah prohibits the wasteful consumption of anything.

7. The Torah gives an obligation to save human life.

8. The Torah prohibits the extinction of species and causing undo pain to non-human creatures.

9. Environmental Justice is a Jewish value.

And 10. Tikkun Olam: The perfection/fixing of the world is in our hands.  

Rabbi Troster quotes the Aleinu prayer in which we ask that the world soon be perfected under the sovereignty of God (l’takein olam b’malkhut Shaddai). Tikkun olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, is usually described as an activity that must be done by humans in partnership with God. 

In our ignorance and our greed, we have damaged the world and silenced many of the voices of the choir of Creation. Now we must fix it. There is no one else to repair it but us. May our prayers today be heard and answered, and tomorrow let us go out partner with God and one another in the task choosing life for ourselves and for our planet. Aleinu – it is up to us and it is in our hands.

Tzom Kal – Wishing you an easy yet transformative fast.

Transforming Anger

Sermon for Rosh haShanah Day 1 5780

I heard a story on the radio this summer that stopped me in my tracks.  Content warning: It contains violence that may be hard to hear, but it does have a happy ending.  It was about a woman in Austria, who was out for a bike ride and was hit intentionally by a driver.  He got out of the car and continued to assault her.  Then he hauled her injured body into his vehicle, he took her to his remote house where he tied her up and proceeded to find various ways to hurt and maim her.   She later told reporters that she thought he would kill her, saying, “He was full of hatred.”  

But the thing was, she had just become a mother 14 weeks earlier, and her little son was waiting at home for her.  So she drew upon every bit of her wits and observed her surroundings.  She noticed that there were orchids all over the house and so she complimented him on them. It changed everything – he became nice to her!  He told her that he was a gardener and started talking to her about his difficult life – the death of his father, his alcoholic mother, and the girlfriends who had betrayed him.  He told her that he had done what he did because he needed to vent his anger through violence.  

She had taken some courses in psychology and knew enough that she should express sympathy for where he was coming from.  She listened to him.  And when she saw an opportunity, she suggested a way out of their predicament; that they pretend the whole thing was an accident if he would simply let her go.  He agreed, and actually went so far as to drive her home.  It was only after she was safely inside with the doors locked that she called the police.  (Source: Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung, August 1, 2019)

This story is amazing to me because it is a miracle.  As a parent, I know I would fight like she did to escape her ordeal and return to her child.  And, also as a mom of two 3-year olds, I know how difficult it is to get through the storm of anger.  This woman saw a window, a way of possibly returning to her baby boy, and she grabbed it.  But there was no guarantee that it would work – she just had to try.

And so it is with us.  We are living through a storm of anger in this country and in this world.  We are witness to the kind of rage, darkness, and hopelessness that impels people to take up firearms and kill innocent bystanders.  The kind of anger and fear of immigrants that enables a horrible kind of callousness, permitting to be families to be separated and little children neglected in crowded detention camps. The kind of anger that makes permissible bullying, hate speech and acts of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. This is the kind of anger that kills, just as it killed my friend Jerry and ten other Jewish souls at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. 

And if I may: we have a president who was elected in part because he understood and tapped into the anger many people were feeling in this country.  And now, with the impeachment proceedings, his opponents, who have been incredibly frustrated and angry at his behavior, are gleefully and hungrily waiting for him to go down. It is a cycle of anger; a continued storm of fury.  

I cannot guarantee how or when it will pass, but like the woman who was captured, we have to be ready for the windows of opportunity as they present themselves to deescalate the situation, to show empathy, to present solutions that may or may not work. 

How do we transform anger, whether it is someone else’s or our own? 

I am reminded of the classic 1976 movie “Network,” where the character Howard Beale, a newscaster, is played by the actor Peter Finch.  Here is a bit of his famous monologue:

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad… It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter…We know the air is unfit to breathe, our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad. Worse than bad… It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in a house as slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster, and TV, and my steel belted radials and I won’t say anything.” Well I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad. … You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being. G-d Dammit, my life has value.” So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!””

We laugh, because this all still feels terribly relatable today. And that anger he has, that righteous anger, it is powerful and it is good.  But while anger can be a necessary and healthy response to injustice, it is dangerous to remain angry or resort too easily to anger. It is not a new thing, this anger in our country, but the level of it has been rising for decades – imperceptibly but surely as the seawater levels.  I feel we are now at a breaking point.  Being ignorant or becoming numb is only an option for the most privileged among us.  But hopefully, there are windows of opportunity if we act with skill, love, purpose. 

Let’s talk about anger, yes today of all days, because Rosh haShanah, the head of the year, is such a window, calling us to reflect on and challenge the cycles of destructive behavior that we have become accustomed to over the course of time.  Now is the time for change. 

Anger is right here, in our Rosh haShanah Torah and Haftarah readings that we read every year.  The backdrop of our Torah portion is that, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had long been frustrated that she could not bear a child.  Her maidservant Hagar had a son by Abraham, which incensed her.  So, Sarah mistreated her, and Hagar ran away as a result, and then came back.  Now finally, Sarah conceived and bore a son, and this is where our parsha today begins.  But Sarah, even though she celebrated and felt joy at Isaac’s arrival, wanted Hagar and son gone. Abraham, though troubled, allowed it to happen because God assured him that Ishmael will live and will be the head of a nation. Sarah’s jealousy and rage toward Hagar sets the entire drama in motion.  Imagine if she could have somehow allowed Hagar and Ishmael to stay – would today the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael be adversaries?

And in our Haftarah, we will hear of Hannah’s infertility and how she prayed to God and made deals with God in order to have a child.  She is driven to the God’s temple to pray in sadness, desperation, and yes, anger, at her plight.  The text explicitly uses the word ka’as – anger – multiple times to describe Hannah’s feelings.  Not only was she sad about not having a child, but her husband’s other wife Peninah would frequently provoke her because Peninah had children and lorded it over poor Hannah. Hannah would then get so upset she would cry and could not eat. When God at last did grant her a child, she promised her son Samuel to God’s service as a priest.

Here we have two very different models in our holy texts for how to deal with anger. It is not for me to judge whether their anger was justified or if one approach was more right than the other, but I do find it interesting that their anger is not usually discussed in traditional commentaries.  I think there is a reason for that.  Classical Jewish texts instruct us to avoid anger and keep it in check.  A few actually liken it to idolatry.

Here is a well-known example from the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 105b: 

R’ Shimon Ben Elazar said in the name of Chilfa bar Agra, who said in the name of R’ Yochanan Ben Nuri: One who tears his clothing in anger, or who smashed vessels in his anger, or who scatters money in his anger – he should be in your eyes like an idolater. For this is the way of the evil inclination: Today it tells him to do this, and tomorrow it tells him to do that, until it tells him to worship idolatry, and he goes and worships.

That is to say, that terrible storm of anger that makes you see red?  It is a strange god that threatens to overpower you and leads you to make poor choices at best; destructive choices at worst.  In psychological terms, anger is created by ego, an image of our esteem or importance.  Anger is a byproduct of the ego feeling threatened.  

But anger, in my view, should not be dismissed; it is an important indicator that our boundaries, our healthy limits, might be under attack.  Sarah was angry because she felt her son Isaac’s future was being undermined.  And we may rightfully be angry when someone breaks into our home and steals our stuff.  Anger is a healthy response to a violation or trespass of any kind.

However, anger is not a primary emotion.  Psychologists will tell you another feeling always gives rise to anger.  For example, say you were cut off on the road, and you felt angry at the other driver.  But in the exact moment the accident almost happened, there was, even for a split second, another emotion, and that was probably fear.  Anger comes, actually, to soothe.  Just like in the case of the man who assaulted the woman biker, he used anger as a way of soothing his loneliness and sense of rejection and powerlessness.

Many of us are self-medicating with anger against all sorts of psychological pain.  It hardly gives us a sense of inner harmony, but anger does help give us a certain comfort.  After all, we’re not wrong, or bad, or selfish or inconsiderate – it’s our spouse, our child, our neighbor, our co-worker.  It’s that bigoted or naive person on the other side of the political aisle. In the face of a sense of powerlessness, anger helps us feel more in control.

And so in that way, anger can be a drug, an addiction, indeed, an idol we erect.  It is so easy, so tempting to resort to anger and to blame.  If we let anger numb us, if we let anger control us, we lose ourselves, we lose our soul.

The second century mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in his work Metok miDvash, describes how anger chips away at our souls. He says:

The Hebrew word for “soul” is neshama; the word for “breath” is “nesheema“. This explains why breathing exercises affect the soul. It is also the reason why anger – called “kotzer ruach“, or “short breath” – weakens the soul by affecting the breath. Another name for “anger” is “af ” which means “nose”. Anger is expressed by the snorting of the breath in the nostrils. Controlling anger with a long breath reasserts the soul. 

We must figure out how to respond to anger, to transform it and use for good.  In this way we can reclaim our soul.

Anger, when honored, has something deeply important to tell us about ourselves and about the concerns or needs of another person.  When you are angry, it is telling you something – so, what is it saying?  Perhaps we can ask it, “Why, anger, are you here?” And then listen.  

In his book, simply entitled “Anger,” Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, instructs us that listening without judgment or blame is the quickest way for the anger to dissipate.  This kind of intentional listening is deeply compassionate and humane, restoring a person’s sense of dignity.

It may seem counterintuitive, because we may instinctively want to push away or dismiss anger, either our own anger or that of another person.  In our haftarah this morning, when Hannah, in her anger and pain, came to pray at the temple, the priest Eli misjudges and scornes her.  He accuses her of being a drunk. But Hannah wisely names and honors her anger. She says to him, “No sir, I am a woman sore in spirit, and no wine have I drunk. For I was only pouring out my soul to God…I was just speaking out of great preoccupation and anger.”  Eli then joins her in prayer, saying “May the God of Israel give you what you ask.”

Anger is neither bad nor good, it is energy – it is telling you something valuable about yourself – your limits, your values. To ignore it is to ignore your voice, your values.  But it cannot have the last word.

The poet Maya Angelou famously wrote, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

So the next step is to talk back, with love, to our anger. Anger must be responded to proactively, lest we become bitter or resentful.  When someone treats you badly, we must find a healthy, constructive way to respond.  Maybe you decide to speak with the person, or maybe you resolve not to engage in that behavior yourself.  With sacred intention, we can use anger to create a better, loving world. In this way, anger is essential to our healing and also to our teshuvah process, our path of returning to God.

In our daily life we run continuously.  We rarely give ourselves the capacity or opportunity to stop and look deeply into our life and our feelings.   But if we can take time for reflection and sit with anger or other difficult feelings, they will speak to you.  

Like Hannah, you can ask yourself, “What positive action can I take to transform my feelings of anger?” For her, it was prayer; for ourselves, it could be meditation, writing, speaking out, or acts of social justice or compassion.  This High Holiday season, let us give ourselves that gift – to breath, to pray, to sit, and hopefully to take constructive action.  

Lest your anger become an idol, you must take your anger and transform it into something healthy and positive.  Proverbs 16:32 encourages us not only to be slow to anger, but to master our passions.  This Rosh HaShanah let us remember that our true power lies in mastering our passions – understanding our anger and our desires and responding to them with our truth. When we are able to live and serve others in connection with a vision of a world fulfilled we will not become bitter and we will naturally be slow to anger. 

Keyn yehi ratzon – may it be so.  Shana tova.