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Yom Kippur Sermon 5783

“Thoughts and Prayers and the Cries of the Heart”

When I think about what I might write about for the High Holidays, I ask myself, “What is the sermon I need to hear right now?”  Another question might be, “what do you, this congregation, need to hear?” But my thinking is one, that I must speak from my heart.  And, also that perhaps what I am wrestling with, you are too. 

It might surprise you to know that I struggle with prayer. Yes, as a rabbi, I probably approach prayer differently than a Jew in the pew.  Stating the obvious, I do it for a living. But I love Hebrew, the language of prayer and of Torah – I love its cadence and its structure. There are certain prayers that are etched in my mind and heart, that connect me to places and people and feelings, because prayer has been a part of me my whole life in different ways. I also find great comfort in services, in a community of worshippers, in having a minyan there that holds one’s sorrows and joys.  At Thursday morning minyan, we grieve together when a name goes from the mi shebayrach list to the list of names I recite before Kaddish. And, recently we rejoiced when someone who had been saying family members names for the mi shebayrach prayer for years didn’t need to say them any more.  There is no question that my prayers are a comfort and a balm, and a link to community and the Jewish people.

But, lately, that has not been enough for me.  I have become uncomfortable with prayers that are just comforting.  I wonder, how do my prayers affect me, change me, change the world?  I have spent a lot of time making ancient prayer more accessible to us modern Jews. But I worry that we’ll leave here today thinking, ok, we’ve prayed, now we’ve done enough to wipe the slate clean.  

I think we are all too familiar with the phrase “thoughts and prayers” which has become, for me and for many of us, I think, hollow and goading. Offering one’s sympathy, one’s attention and compassion is an appropriate response to a natural disaster, like a tornado or hurricane.  Like the devastation that Hurricane Ian wrought, for example.  Offering our prayers is a way to express care, even if we are unable to offer any other support.  

But we know that is not the only way this phrase has been deployed. I remember it first being used in 1999, after the school shooting in Columbine Colorado.  That was the year after I graduated college, my first year living in Philadelphia.  But now my entire adult life has been full of mass shootings, many in schools, but also in workplaces, in malls, on the streets, and in places of worship.  There have been several just this past week, one notably at a Philadelphia school in which a 14 year old was killed.  There are too many to keep track of, too many to offer thoughts and prayers for, and not much else.

I am no stranger to gun violence and death, and I imagine, after so many years of this, you must be too. I was a student in Israel in 2002 when two of my fellow classmates were killed in an act of terrorism at Hebrew University.  My friend Gali, who I knew from that time in Israel, lost her father Rami Cooks in 2012 in a mass shooting at his place of business in Minneapolis in which four others were also killed, just a year after I danced with them at Gali’s wedding.  He died a hero defending his coworkers from a disgruntled employee.  It was the day after Yom Kippur.  And, as many of you know, I lost my dear friend Jerry Rabinowitz in the Tree of Life shooting almost 4 years ago, as he was heading toward the sounds of gunshots in an effort to help others in the synagogue.  And now, as a parent of three precious kids who have attended public school since last year, I am scared and heartsick and angry on a whole new level. 

On Yom Kippur we pay heed to the martyrs and heroes who have died in defense of their faith.  Traditionally we invoke their names and the horrors they withstood to make us think about our own sense of faith and our convictions while we are alive.  But where is our faith? What do we believe?

We call people like Jerry and Rami heroes, but for what cause?  Do their deaths spur us to act, so that our country will be safer, so that our kids will be more protected from gun violence?  Rami and Jerry were not martyrs for any cause – they were simply in their places of worship and business, where they were supposed to be.  They were not sticking their necks out – they were simply being decent human beings.  They should have been safe.  Just like children in school should be safe.

Just saying that last line is surreal.  I remember thinking in 2012 that after Sandy Hook, things would have to change.  But here we are ten years later, and in Uvalde Texas 19 children and 2 educators were murdered in their classroom by a gunman who legally bought $2K of guns, ammunition, and explosives on his 18th birthday two weeks earlier.  Why? How? And why is the only thing people can offer in response are “thoughts and prayers?”

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m pro-prayer.  But when it is used as a cover for inaction, then prayer itself is sullied. And people, understandably, are turned off from prayer and religion. 

One popular Facebook post said recently, “Prayers are dangerous. Prayers are a way for people to convince themselves they’ve done something when they’ve actually done nothing. Prayers seem to absolve people from taking responsibility of demanding change… Prayers ensure that the problem will persist.” 

I think that post is actually a theologically astute critique. Prayer that blesses the status quo and doesn’t lead to individual and social transformation is hypocritical, and it should be called out for what it is.  

The prophets of the second Temple period called out the hypocrisy of those who came before God with their supplications, but who go out into the world and are not good neighbors or are ethical in business.  

The prophet Amos said,
I loathe, I spurn your festivals,
I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.
..Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

We have been witness to so many terrible injustices in this country, and it has taken a heavy toll on our energy, our spirit, and our faith.  A warming planet, pandemic, systemic racism and white nationalism, economic uncertainty, the specter of war.  What kind of world are we leaving for our children?  To witness the magnitude of the problems and the suffering invokes dreadful feelings of helplessness.  Moreover, these problems did not manifest themselves overnight; they are born of decades of festering inaction.  It’s not just helplessness; we live with a deficit of hope.

We have become numb, and that is completely understandable.  Sometimes it feels like the most we can do is to offer thoughts and prayers.  

But I’d like us to do better than that.  I am grateful we have holidays like Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur to encourage us to self-reflect and take a hard look at ourselves and how we got here.  We release the empty, false vows we couldn’t keep with Kol Nidre, we confess our sins collectively as we sing Al Chet, and spend the day limiting the physical needs and desires of our bodies so we can focus on the cries of our hearts. And the Haftarah of Yom Kippur from Isaiah, expressly calls out both our hypocrisy and our sense of overwhelm.

And God said:
Open up, open up, Clear a path!
Clear away all obstacles
From the path of My People!…
For your sin of greed
I grew angry and smashed you,
I even hid My face.
Yet you wander off the path as your own heart,
wayward, takes you.
I see the path you need —- and I will heal you…

Has God been hiding God’s face from us?  If so, where can we find the face of God in this troubled world, peering out, waiting for us to seek God out?  How do we get out of this hopelessness, and wake up to life again?  

Our Haftarah calls, “Cry out aloud, don’t hold back, Lift up your voice like the shofar!” But how do we do that?  And what good would it do anyway?  

Perhaps we need a reset conversation on prayer, because I think that when Jews say prayer, we might think of all the ancient Hebrew prayers in the prayer book that are scripted and ordered and recited at particular times of the day and year.  I want to explore more the function of prayer – what true praying should be and do.

The great exemplar of the prayer-cry is Moses.  In the Deuteronomy 3:1, he beseeches God to let him enter the Land of Israel, after God decrees that as a consequence for a seemingly minor infraction, he will not be able to enter the Land with his people, who Moses has guided through the wilderness for 40 years.  Now, Moses was our greatest leader and teacher, the one who spoke to God panim el panim – face to face; the one who had a relationship with God like no other. And his heartfelt, poignant prayer request is denied.  Repeatedly! 

And here, I think Moses’ prayer is instructive: prayer isn’t about asking for something, and thinking you’ll get your wish.  The early rabbis of the Talmud were amazed: they exclaim how if Moses of all people, being righteous in so many ways doesn’t get his prayer, then who can!  

They then declare: “There are ten terms which can denote prayer, and they are: צעקה, נאקה, רנה, פגיעה,” ביצור, קריאה, נפול, ופילול, ותחנונים שועה” that is: tears, outcry, moaning, song, pleading, seeking refuge, calling out for comfort, falling down, seeking judgment, supplication.

Notice that few of those descriptions are particularly happy, or connote a comfortable experience. The great 20th century Orthodox rabbi and theologian, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits writes that, “In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice…. It is not asking, but coming with one’s burden before God. To pray means to make God the confidant of one’s sorrow and need.”

Taylor McFarlan Miller, a devout Christian and a survivor of a college shooting, writes in her book, When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough, that she never thought of leaving God or religion.  In fact, God was the One who she cried to and yelled at. “I never had to become so intimately close to the God who bottles my tears and binds my wounds. After the shooting, I had to confront God with a lot of questions and doubts and fears. And he met me in every single one. I learned that God is still God when the healing doesn’t come, when the nightmares don’t go away and the prayers are answered in ways you didn’t ask for.”

But what if you don’t have a personal relationship with God or even believe in God?  It can feel pointless or silly to pray when one does not have a sense that anyone is listening and responding.  But I don’t think that should stop a person from really praying.  

Much of traditional liturgy, however beautiful its imagery, reflects a theology of an all powerful God, a King, who can make miracles and can even raise a person from the dead.  Now, I don’t believe in that kind of supernatural God, and I have had more than one person tell me that they actually prefer the prayers in Hebrew, because then at least they wouldn’t have to contend with their meaning! That kind of language can be an obstacle to prayer for someone who doesn’t share that belief.  

But I don’t think our ancestors were primitive peasants who wrote prayers so literally.  By that I mean that when we pray the Morning Blessings and thank God for making blind to see, I don’t think they actually believed that God magically makes blindness disappear anymore than God causes blindness.  I don’t think they really believed God was actually some King in the clouds either.  Rather, they used religious metaphors to invoke awe and wonder, to wake us up to the everyday miracles that happen in our lives everyday.

My teacher from RRC, Rabbi Jacob Staub, who came here to Kol Emet for my installation, writes movingly, “The answer to our prayers comes not from a supernatural God but from our own transformed hearts.” Put differently, prayer, it seems to me, isn’t about influencing God so God will change. Rather, prayer is about changing the one who prays.

Most of us turn to prayer only when we are in pain or we want something. But if we exercise the prayer muscle when things are good, and even on the everyday, normal days when nothing spectacular is happening, we might realize that the good really outweighs the bad, that there are so many things to be grateful for, even amazed with.

And, that, some would say this is in fact the most important thing, The great 20th century theologian and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote that “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement, [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Prayer makes us susceptible to becoming amazed and to live life with a sense of awe. Awe motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good, and that is a scientific fact. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities. Participants in the study who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were shown to be more generous to the stranger, cooperated more, shared more resources and sacrificed more for others. Awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger.

We live in an awe-deprived society.  We spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Attendance at arts events — live music, theater, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. A broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. We are a more divided society.

To reverse this trend, insist on experiencing more everyday awe: actively seek out what gives you hope and what gives you goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, the night sky, patterns of wind on water or witnessing the good of others — the teenage upstanders, the mitzvah-makers, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds. 

And pray – express it all, and don’t bottle it up; let God or other people hold your cries and prayers. Pray to feel and pray to live. Pray to be changed. Pray to change the world.

We must never accept that one mass shooting, one lost life, is ever okay.  Our tradition teaches that “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

We cannot bring back the lives stolen from us, but we do have power and agency to prevent further deaths.  Even just one death, it’s a whole world.  I think about the life of my beautiful friend Jerry, and I am in awe at the life he lived, the kindness he exuded, the lives he helped as a physician treating the elderly and those with AIDS, the ways he contributed to his community.  I think about Rami Cooks, who left behind a beautiful, loving family, whose lives he still shapes.  His daughter Gali and her wife Keren had a daughter a few years ago, whom they named after Rami. She was born on Rami’s birthday.  Now that’s awesome.

Gun violence is taking so many lives every single year, with 40,000 deaths on average. After 3500 mass shootings in the last decade, and 27 school shootings this year, it is easy to slip into feelings of helplessness.  

The influential lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill notes that feelings of helplessness benefit the status quo, and we need to resist that. She writes, there is a “concerted effort right now to convince you that “nothing can be done.” It is designed to make you give in to the exhaustion of this moment. Don’t believe it. It’s a lie. We have power if we mobilize it.”

On Yom Kippur, as we sit here today without finery, without food in our bellies, without the distractions of home and work, we are forced to lay down our excuses, our defenses, our accusations, even our laments.  Our memories, our heart’s cries, our prayers are all we have.  

Prayer is the voice of our authentic response to life.  And it is meaningless unless it does not lead not only to action, but also to ultimately take responsibility. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked upon his return from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march with Dr. Martin Luther King, “Did you find time to pray?” He famously answered, “I prayed with my feet.” 

Indeed, that is the kind of prayer I seek. Put down that mahzor, if it holds you back.  Let us pray with our feet, our hands, our voices.  Let us use our pain and our awe to wake up to what is possible in ourselves and in the world.

I’d like to close with a poem-prayer by Amanda Gorman, which she wrote after the shooting in Uvalde:

Everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,|
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.
Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.


Rosh haShana Sermon 5783

On Abortion and the Mystery of Life

I recently went to get my pre-Rosh haShana haircut, and my hairdresser, who is a devout Catholic, was very excited to see me.  She sees it as a good omen when I am on her schedule.  We talk about a few things, our families, the royal family, and then she asks, “So, what are you talking about for the High Holidays?”  I hesitate, not knowing how she is going to react.  “Abortion.” I say.  “Great!” she says enthusiastically. “Why, great?” I ask. She says, “Well, if you can’t talk about it, who can?”

So that’s what I am going to talk about today, I guess!  And here is why I think it’s proper and important to discuss it today, in synagogue, on Rosh haShana, the birthday of the world, in case you aren’t my Catholic hairdresser and are wondering.  Abortion is a religious issue, and one we avoid talking about because it’s become a political issue too.  I’m glad that we as a congregation will be talking about further in a few weeks, to learn a bit more about the Jewish textual sources that underpin our current and historical attitudes concerning abortion.   

But our texts, laws, and history are just part of what makes it a religious issue.  Religion comes into play whenever we talk about the meaning of life and its mysteries.  How did this world come to be?  When does life begin, and when does it end? Why is each creature and indeed every creation on this Earth unique, even ones that share the exact same DNA?  Is there a soul?  What is our purpose in the short amount of time we are granted on this earth? These are fundamentally religious and spiritual questions and in particular, these are the questions we ask during Rosh haShana, when our liturgy declares, “Hayom harat olam – Today the world (or eternity) was conceived.”

One of the main functions of religion is to encourage us to find meaning in the liminal places. Liminal is an adjective from the Latin that literally means, “on the threshold.”  It is that transitional, ambiguous space that can often make people feel scared or vulnerable.   The moment of death is certainly a liminal space, but so it is birth.  Beginnings are fraught with uncertainty, like starting a new year.  The liminal place can be a place of transformation if we are able to open to it – to explore, wonder, and be curious. 

Religion seeks to imbue us with a sense of wonder about those liminal moments.  On Rosh haShana, we tell the story of the creation of the world. And this is the way our Torah begins, “Breishit bara Elohim” – “In the beginning, when God began to create…” Everything was tohu v’vohu, a jumbled mix, and God came and created order from chaos, discerned darkness from light, day from night, sky from earth, and earth from water. And God created life in its incredibly diverse forms and said “it is good.” And that culminated in the creation of human beings, b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Every religion has its account of what happened in the beginning, how the world came into being.  But I don’t believe the Torah comes to tell us what actually happened, or to explain away the mystery.  Rather, I find that the more one studies the text, the more mystery and ambiguity one finds.  Were days then like days now?  Was there a kind of big bang?  

A religious person is drawn into mystery, and to marvel at the mystery of life and its origins.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century prophet and activist wrote about the proper function of religion: “It is not utility that we seek in religion, but eternity. The criterion of religion is not in its being in agreement with our common sense but in its being compatible with our sense of the ineffable.”

I am aware that for others, religion is where they come for concrete answers to life’s big questions and where they find a sense of certainty in a very uncertain and fast-paced world.  But for me, the function of Judaism and religion as a whole is not to build walls of certainty; rather, through Torah, it provides us with a mirror with which to reflect and look deep within the self and in humanity as a whole.  

Take the story that we are reading today for Rosh haShana – the traditional telling of the birth of Isaac after Sarah, having given up on ever becoming a mother, becomes pregnant in her old age.  Subsequently, Sarah convinces Abraham to banish Hagar, the maidservant Sarah gave to Abraham to procreate with so that he would have an heir with whom to build a nation as God promised.  Now Sarah has a son, she feels threatened by Hagar and her son Ishmael, who is older than Isaac.

There are many ways to read this story, as you have heard me share over the course of many years and many Rosh haShanas!  And this year, I see an enslaved woman, whose very name Hagar means “foreigner,” forced to lie with Abraham and then to give birth. She is not given any choice in the matter. Just look at the verbs that get used in the process of her son Ishmael’s conception: 

וַתִּקַּ֞ח שָׂרַ֣י אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָ֗ם אֶת־הָגָ֤ר הַמִּצְרִית֙ שִׁפְחָתָ֔הּ מִקֵּץ֙ עֶ֣שֶׂר שָׁנִ֔ים לְשֶׁ֥בֶת אַבְרָ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ 

So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her enslaved-woman, Hagar the Egyptian—after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years—and gave her to her husband Abram as wife.

She  is taken, and she is given – she is not asked, and she has no agency in the matter.  Then, when we see Hagar and Ishmael pushed out into the wilderness because Sarah does not want Ishmael to share an inheritance with Isaac she again has no voice, choice, agency.  We see Abraham give her a bit of food and water and send her out into the wilderness with no recourse, no means of survival, no way to save her son. 

You could say this is “just” an interpretation, but we always read scripture through the lens of our lives and our concerns.  Enslaved Black people in colonial America read the theology of liberation in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, just as Jews persecuted in medieval Europe read Abraham as a model of absolute faith in the face of crisis. 

Today, as a Jewish woman in a post-Roe America, I see both Hagar and Sarah as women without full personal bodily autonomy fighting each other for supremacy in a world where only men have power and agency.  Of course, in a biblical patriarchal society this is assumed, but from my vantage point  it is poignant and painful to see echoes of their drama still playing out today, even though ostensibly we live in a very different kind of society.

I see women today facing immense pressure and also quietly struggling to become pregnant, and it is not uncommon.  I see women and girls becoming pregnant when it wasn’t their choice, and facing immense social stigma.  I see people of color shamed for having many children, and then also shamed for wanting to limit their family size.  I see women and couples  suffering through miscarriage and stillbirth, not knowing how to handle their grief or even understand their feelings.

Josh and I tried for years to become parents.  Getting pregnant for us wasn’t the hard part – it was the staying pregnant part.  We suffered several miscarriages before conceiving our oldest child, who is now ten.  And we suffered through more miscarriages after her birth as well.  One time, the last time, I suffered what is called a “missed miscarriage” where the pregnancy was no longer viable after a certain point, but weeks later, my body hadn’t receive that message.  

Waiting for a miscarriage to happen naturally when you know your pregnancy isn’t viable can take an emotional toll. And, if the miscarriage doesn’t happen spontaneously, or it happens but incompletely, it can be a dangerous situation for the pregnant person.  So what is the treatment for an early miscarriage?  You could take a pill, which causes your body to miscarry over the course of a few days, but this can be in the comfort of your home.  There is also an outpatient procedure to surgically remove the pregnancy, known as a “D&C.” We chose to have a D&C, because we didn’t want to prolong our grief a minute longer, and so too our healing.

A D&C is a common and necessary procedure, since as many as one quarter of pregnancies result in miscarriage, and a missed miscarriage is also common.  But that procedure has become a political hot potato, because about 90% of early abortions are performed using this procedure.  Doctors now worry whether they will be under scrutiny for recommending or performing any D&C.  A missed miscarriage is just one of a thousand different healthcare scenarios where a D&C might be considered as part of a person’s care. And now, with every state having different laws and those laws being challenged, in-flux, and misunderstood, there is fear, confusion, and despair.

Now, my story is not unique or remarkable.  But it was a very emotionally difficult decision for us to make.  And now I realize how very fortunate and privileged I was – to have a loving and supportive spouse, to be gainfully employed, and to be able to have a D&C as an affordable option not far from my home and to receive full and accurate healthcare information and advice. Even back then, a few years ago, as I bounced around from clinics and offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, I could see an enormous difference in care based on the laws of the particular state.

Reading of Hagar’s  exile and how she cries out to God,  in some ways I feel that tragically not much has changed.  Hagar, the maidservant, gives voice to the people who are impacted most, harmed most, even if their stories are not told, even if they do not make the media as much.  These are Black, Indigenous, people of color, immigrants, youth, people in rural communities, those living below the poverty line; they are trans and nonbinary people.  

Abortion access is about the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. This is a basic human right. The physical, spiritual and emotional burden that comes as part of the amazing ability to grow a human in one’s body that should be able to be shared by one’s community, one’s family, one’s doctor, and one’s God.  It should not be made heavier by societal stigma and shame or frankly misogynistic laws that liken necessary, medically and emotionally time-sensitive healthcare to murder.  

I do realize that for those on the religious right, abortion is a huge issue.  And they are very vocal about it because they believe that life begins at conception and stopping the development of a pregnancy is murder.  And they have every right to be vocal, if they do it legally.

(It must  also be said that Christians hold a multiplicity of attitudes about abortion, which my hairdresser also let me know about.  She, as a devout Catholic, believes that, as a religious issue, abortion is a matter of conscience and shouldn’t legislated by the courts. She also told me to tell you all that she is not alone in this thinking among her Catholic friends and community.)

For what it’s worth, the majority, accepted Jewish position, based on a number of legal texts I won’t get into here, is that life begins at birth.  But I don’t believe the right question here is “when does life begin?” We can never know exactly the moment life begins, no matter what any religion claims.  

Rather, I believe we should be asking “how can we honor life?” Our response to that question will clarify our priorities, spur our actions in our community, and amplify our voice in the public arena.   And Jews should speak just as loudly on this issue, because as my Catholic hairdresser knows, this is a religious issue. 

We should not let one religion claim to be the definitive religious voice on this issue.  And that’s why I am proud to have been asked to serve on the clergy advisory council for Keystone Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit that provides education, programs, and advocacy for youth and adults throughout Central and Eastern PA. 

What might a Jewish religious response to reproductive healthcare sound like?  As with any questions I have, I turn to our holy text.  I read about Sarah’s laughter when an angel first comes to tell her that she will bear a child in her old age.  I also relate to Hannah, who we just read about in our Haftarah, in her tears and distress about not being able to conceive as she bargains with God and fate.  This is a common trope found throughout the Torah, known as the motif of the barren woman – virtually all the biblical matriarchs have difficulty either conceiving or being pregnant.  

Why? What is the message here?  Perhaps the text is telling us: life – it is not in your control; it was never in your control.  The beginning of life and the timing of death are completely out of all of our hands, no matter what science or politics wants to say about it.  Perhaps this is why we read this text on Rosh haShana, of all days.

What does it mean if, like Sarah, you give up on being able to carry a child yourself and decide to use a surrogate? What does it mean if, like Hannah, you can’t get pregnant? What does it mean if you lose the pregnancy, or if it isn’t viable? Or what if you are unable to carry a child to term without great risk to your own life?  Could it mean that God doesn’t intend for you to become a parent, at least at that moment? If this is so, then why were you created?  When the biblical matriarch Rebekah was at last carrying twins after a period of barrenness, and the twin pregnancy was causing her great distress, Rebekah cries out, “Lama anochi? Why am I?”

Why indeed?  Why are we? It is exactly these weighty questions that we must face at the beginning of a new year. And what if you feel that now is not the right time to bring a child into the world, or that you aren’t meant to be a parent at least right now, or that it would be too harmful to continue a pregnancy – those are deeply individual discernments and decisions that aren’t for anyone else to pass judgment on.  Again, that is also why abortion is a religious issue and a right, similar to one’s right to wear a kippah or hijab in public or to circumcise your child.

We typically think of Rosh haShana as the “birthday of the world,” a cosmic birthday party, if you will. But if that were all it was, we should be centering our prayers not so much on ourselves and teshuva but on the natural world and our relationship toward it – to respect, protect and tend to it.  This is deeply necessary work, especially in an age of climate crisis. 

But if you notice, the liturgy of Rosh haShana focuses much more on doing the work of repentance, repair, return.  It centers on teshuva, the idea that you can change your fate and alter the course of your life for the better.  Why is that?  

Because, Rosh haShana is also considered the birthday of humanity. There is a debate in the Talmud about the exact date the world was created.  Some sages maintained that it was the first of Tishrei, that is, today.  But other sages assert that in fact, the world was born on the 25th of Elul, six days ago.  That would make today in fact the sixth day of creation, which is the day human beings were created.

If so, then today is the day we are reminded that all people are created in the image of God. Today we celebrate humanity in all its messy and glorious diversity, and today we celebrate our choice, our freedom, our agency, our lives.  

The central message of Rosh haShana is that you have agency, more power than you know – to make mistakes, to own up to them, and to choose how you live your life in the best way possible going forward. Rosh haShana comes to tell us that you can start anew, you can create your destiny – you are not slaves to your past and thus you have a responsibility to your future, and the future unfolding of the world.  

So, if we must expect this for ourselves, so too must we make it possible for everyone to have agency, to choose the course of their lives, to discern their lives’ purpose. 

When I struggled with miscarriages, one after the other, I questioned if God meant me to have children. Perhaps my true purpose lay elsewhere.  And, then, as Josh held our first child as she cried in protest at being yanked from the comfort of the womb, I sang to her a song that I had sung throughout being pregnant with her. With a look of startled recognition, she instantly quieted down.  In that moment, I instantly saw that my life’s purpose was forever altered.

On Rosh haShana, we examine our lives and we ask: Why are we? How can we honor life? What are we meant to create and to birth into the world? 

The first line of our Torah portion today is Genesis, Chapter 21, “Ve’Adonai pakad et Sarah,” meaning God took note of Sarah as promised.”  On Rosh haShana, we humbly ask that God take note of us, heed our prayers, and help us honor life.  May we be blessed with a renewed sense of life and clarity of purpose. 

Shana tova u’metuka


A Litany for September 11, 2001

On this, the twenty-first anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a litany of remembrance:
O God, remember us for good.
Remember all the lives taken from us far too soon.
Remember the ashes that covered everything and choked the air.
Remember the brilliant blue skies on that Tuesday morning.
Remember the final phone calls.
Remember the families whose lives will never be the same.
Remember the children who have grown up without a parent.
Remember the parents who have grown older while their children have not.
Remember the firefighters, police officers, emergency personnel, and service canines.
Remember those who escaped;
Remember those who could not.
Remember the heroes and helpers, and the politicians and their promises.
Remember the world before that day.
Remember how everything changed and will never be the same.
Remember the vengeful hatred that floods the senses and robs us of our breath.
Remember the love that fills us and surrounds us and connects us all.
Remember the love that makes us both effortlessly strong and astonishingly vulnerable.
Remember how after the flood, You sent a rainbow and promised us that never again would You destroy the world.
Remember us for our losses and be our Consolation, Holy One.
Remember all this, lest we forget.
Remember us for life and for a remnant of peace.
May the memories of the 2977 souls taken from us on September 11, 2001 be an enduring blessing to us all.
Amen.


My Remarks at the Vigil to Unite Against Extremism, Hate, and Violence – Nov. 1 2021 at the Garden of Reflection

Hi everyone, I am Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy. I’m the rabbi of Congregation Kol Emet, which is in Lower Makefield, and I am the mom of 3 children who attend Makefield Elementary which is part of the Pennsbury school district. 

I am also someone who lost a dear friend in the Tree of Life shooting on Oct. 27, 2018. It was the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence of America to date, and American Jews have never been the same since.

Unfortunately, hatred and anti-Semitism has recently surfaced locally in the Pennsbury school district, making national news.  Several Pennsbury school board members (4 of 9 of whom are Jewish) have been receiving hateful emails and phone calls using racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and transphobic rhetoric.  Some of the messages included threats of violence against them and their families.

Sadly, I have direct experience that hate speech, if unchecked, rarely just ends with empty threats. These abhorrent messages must be called out.  This vigil won’t solve all our problems, but tonight we are here to say: This is not who we are, and hate speech towards anyone, much less our community elected leaders will not stand.

It doesn’t matter whether we agree with the decisions of our local leaders.  It doesn’t matter that this vitriol was spewed by a few bad actors, many of whom don’t even live in our area. 

As a community, we must protect our local leaders, regardless of party affiliation, who volunteer their time and expertise to benefit our community, schools, and children.   School board members don’t do this for recognition.  Usually, people don’t even know who their school board members are!  But these are not normal times.  I read an article just today about how school board meeting all over the country are becoming battlegrounds of incivility, where those on the left and right shout each other down about masks, vaccine mandates, and place of race and diversity in public education.

Well, this is not about left or right, this is about common decency.  It is about something we often take for granted until it isn’t there when it should be, and that is civility.  In the Jewish tradition, civility is called chesed – which is simple acts of kindness, derived from the understanding that we are all created in the image of God.  Civility is the basic building block of society.  It means helping each other out, doing the right thing, even when we don’t know one another, even when it is inconvenient or hard.  Civility is what breaks down walls of separation and turns strangers into friends.  

Our school board members embody civility: they do what they do out of a strong sense of civic duty.  They volunteer huge amonuts of time because they feel they this is how they can best serve the community.  Well, I just want to say thank you tonight to the members of the Pennsbury school board for all you have done and continue to do for our community and our kids.

When there is an absence of civility, when the loudest and most extreme voices gain the floor, it has a corrosive effect on a community as a whole, alienating the center – that is, reasonable people who want to take part in civic life in big and small ways, attending PTO or school board meeting, running of public office such as the school board, and yes, even voting.  We must not let that happen.  We always must strive to maintain a strong center. 

We must stay informed, remembering that most of us are good neighbors who want the best for one another.  We must show up to contentious meetings to show support and to be a peaceful presence. We must call out hate speech out whenever it rears its ugly head.  And, yes, we must VOTE.  

We are blessed to live a wonderful corner of the world, and we must not take that for granted.  We need to speak out for what is right and fiercely protect what is good.  Let’s always stand up and protect one another – for the safety of our neighborhoods, our diverse communities that we cherish, and our kids: their well-being, their education, and their future.

Thank you.


My Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5782 – The Great Release: 7 Lessons of Shmita in an Age of Pandemic and Climate Change

When September came, it brought a wave of cool air and clear skies. Bring on apple picking, crisp fall days, and campfire nights! While I managed to squeeze a lot of fun into the summer, I was happy to turn my back on the terrible heat and humidity, and constant storms that often came with flash flood and tornado warnings, ominous signs of climate change and a warming planet.

Like so many of you, I just want release and relief from the enormity of the problems that face us. I worry what kind of life and what kind of planet my children will inherit. We have never truly been the masters of our own fates, but during more stable times we could pretend that we were, at least for stretches of time. We could embark on a career, and plan for our future. We could extract resources from our Mother Earth, and pretend that she could give endlessly. We could elect a new president, and expect a peaceful transition. We could anticipate a vacation, and assume it would happen. We could prepare High Holiday services without multiple contingencies!

But our world has been rocked to its very foundations. This past year, the pandemic upended our ability to plan, and feel safe in so many settings we took for granted only a short while ago. Political instability has riven our democracy and society. And climate catastrophe is rapidly overtaking us, shattering – almost unimaginably – even our ability to trust in the flow of the seasons.

We find ourselves living in extremely disorienting and challenging times. We didn’t want this to be so, nor did most of us expect such a rapid unraveling, but here we are. How in heaven’s name do we move forward?
During the High Holidays we pray that God will help us return. Return us from climate disaster, return us from illness and fear.

But the High Holidays do not promise us a return to normalcy, or to the past. They urge us to wake up to the urgency of the present moment, and the call of the future. These holidays, alas, are not “feel good” celebrations. More than at any other time of the year, the High Holidays urge us to awaken to awe – to the amazingness of life on this planet, but also to how fragile and precious it is. These Days of Awe come to tell us – just as people are constantly changing, the world is changing too. Our work in this season is to awaken to this changing present and future.

But it isn’t just the High Holidays; the whole of Jewish tradition and practice is centered around humility in face of change. It is built into the very rhythm of our existence, our calendar, the cycles of our seasons.

Take Shabbat. Long before the existence of the modern labor movement, the Torah taught us that every seventh day we are required to cease from labor and to relinquish control over those who work for us, both human and animal. Every seventh day we reset our awareness, so that we would remember that we are distinct human beings apart from our achievements, created by God, and that we are fortunate recipients of life, not lords of this earthly domain.

More dramatically, every seventh year our ancestors in the land of Israel observed a sabbatical year. In Hebrew this year is called a Shmita year.
The word shmita itself means to “release,” as in opening up a clenched hand to free what is held there.” Leviticus 25:2-4 states: “The earth shall have a Divine sabbath. Six years shall you sow your field and six years shall you prune your vineyard and gather her produce. The seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to the land, a Sabbath to the Divine.”

Shmita is the seventh year in a recurring cycle of sacred sevens that traces its count back more than 2,500 years. Shmita, like Yom Kippur, is called a Shabbat Shabbaton – a Sabbath of Sabbaths. Rabbi Arthur Waskow says that it is Shabbat to its exponential power – Shabbat to its fullest, Shabbat with your whole soul.

Shmita has not been fully observed according to biblical proscription since the fall of the Second Temple 2000 years ago, and technically its laws would only apply to Jews living in the land of Israel. A form of it continues in Israel in strictly observant communities, but even so taken literally it’s a huge burden, wholly incompatible with modern life.

But aspects of it live on in modern society. It is traditional, for example, for certain vocations, including my own, to take a sabbatical, a period of time for rest and renewal, every seven years. I had a sabbatical, half which was taken just before the pandemic began in January and February of 2020, the other half which was delayed and finally taken in April and May of this year. That period of time was so valuable to me – indeed, I was able to release from old patterns and find a new rhythm that was healthier and more sustainable for me, my family, and this congregation. It was a gift, and I would argue that it is more than valuable, it is necessary. Not just for me, but for everyone, and the planet itself as well.

Well, this year we all get this gift, should you choose to receive it. This year, 5782, starting on Rosh haShana ten days ago, is a shmita year.

Given that we as liberal Diaspora community aren’t bound to the laws of shmita, what might the concept of shmita offer us as a spiritual ideal? Our goal would not be to restore a straight-up seventh-year sabbatical, but to embed and enrich our communal and individual lives with “Shmita-consciousness.”

Shmita lifts up a radical and extraordinary vision; that an entire society can reset itself under more equitable conditions, and that it can even allow cultivated lands that support the society to also rest and revitalize. Perhaps it might offer wisdom about how to live in a more sustainable rhythm with the earth? Maybe it could help us to more gracefully accept losses and changes as the pandemic stretches on? Perhaps it might even teach us how to open to a new, more just, more loving, more holy kind of normal?

Fittingly, I’ve chosen seven lessons we might learn from shmita this year.

1 – Rest!

We need the rest in order for the active parts to have meaning. Resting reminds us that we are more than what we produce. Rest can be generative, it can also allow us to step out of production mode and just be in a sacred state of being.

Rest is sacred and holy. A rest is not a void – we learn this from music! The rest is an essential part of the groove. The late great Charlie Watts, the drummer of Rolling Stones, was a master of pulling back and playing as few beats as possible for what was needed to get people dancing.

Letting things rest can mean giving something permission to emerge.
Cassady Rosenblum, who recently quit her job as a producer at “Here & Now,” a NPR program and went to live with her parents in West Virginia, wrote a great opinion piece last month in the NYT called “Work is a False Idol.” In it she writes, “Here in the hills, the new silence of my days, deepened by the solitude of the pandemic, has allowed me to observe the state of our planet in the year 2021 — and it looks to be on fire, as our oligarchs take to space. From my view down here on the carpet, I see a system that, even if it bounces back to “normal,” I have no interest in rejoining, a system that is beginning to come undone.”

She continues, “In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” My reply, for now, is simple: Sit on the porch. It’s not half-bad. For what is the porch if not a place to chat with neighbors, to marvel at the hummingbird at the feeder, to listen to the wind in the chimes? An altar for cynics, an altar for the erotic, an altar for the future.

Shmita, in its call to rest, is an altar for the future.

2 – Rupture!

A few days ago I attended a funeral for a wonderful man, the father of a dear friend of mine. At the funeral, his daughter passed out buttons that said, “Why Be Normal?” because he wasn’t normal and she wasn’t normal and that was ok. Perhaps it’s time we all figure out how to be okay with not being normal. Shmita forces a rupture, upending what we might grow accustomed to thinking is normal, perhaps so that a new paradigm can emerge.

In a beautiful piece in the Financial Times last year, entitled ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’ Arundhati Roy asks: “What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world. Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

The pandemic, in a way, has been a sabbatical for us. It has humbled us, forced us to simplify our lives and consider what the most important things in life are. It has been a gift in that sense.

3 – Reframe!

Let’s be clear: the way we’ve been doing things is not sustainable. We are tied into an economic system that glorifies private ownership and that rewards greed. Both our society and our natural world are teetering as a result. The gap between the rich and the poor grows obscenely out of balance, and the balance of nature itself has now become so disrupted by our greed that we are beginning to experience the catastrophic results.

For the Torah, the concept that people can own the earth is the height of hubris, an absurdity and a desecration. The idea that the land out of which we are formed is ours to exploit and extract from endlessly is an obvious recipe for disaster. And so the Torah insists that, if we do not provide the land with its regular sabbaticals, and maintain a right relationship with it, then there will be natural consequences. The land will no longer sustain us: Lev 26:43 warns “The land will spit you out, so that it can make up for the sabbatical years that you denied it.”

4 – Return!

Shmita calls us to return to the land, to each other, and to God. The Torah recognizes that it is human nature to forget that God truly provides for all we have. In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to the Israelites: Be careful when you come into the land that I God am giving to you. In the euphoria of arrival and your quick successes, the defeat of your enemies, the fertility of your flocks, the rain watering your fields, you’ll soon forget My role in bringing you here. You’ll get haughty. You’ll look around and say aloud “I alone did THIS.” And you’ll be wrong.

But this is not about God’s ego. This is about the damage we do to ourselves when we believe it is only thanks to our individual strength, fortitude and wisdom that we achieve success. Because when things don’t go the way we want, we sometimes shoulder the responsibility and forget to look for help. We forget that we are inextricably linked to family, friends, community, and God.

Shmita calls us to return to one another, to share our burdens, and to be humble in our blessings. This year, we can make the choice to shift the focus from one of individual accomplishment, acquisition and entrepreneurship, to one of community, faith, and collective responsibility, a far more sustainable model than the trope of the “self-made man” – for us and for future generations.

5 – Release!

Shmita envisions a year of radical release, releasing fields from cultivation and letting the land lie fallow, eating only what grows on its own, releasing debts, so that anyone who had been indentured due to their debt was freed, and redistributing food so all can access. A farmer’s fields are open to all.
You might think this is an impossible feat, especially in today’s world. But shmita challenges us to trust in the earth’s abundance, in one another, and in God. Shmita calls for us to release our tight fist – ultimately, for me it is a spiritual practice of acknowledging our vulnerability and humanity, and to keep our greed and fear in check. To neutralize our greed, amassing and hoarding the earth’s produce, we are to take only what we need, and share whatever the land spontaneously grows with all who wish to eat—rich and poor alike as well as domestic livestock and the native wildlife. By letting go in all these ways we may come to recognize that, without the land belonging to us, it can still produce, to quote Gandhi “enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.”

Our tradition recognizes that greed is inherent in human nature. Deut. 15:9-10 warns us: “Beware lest you harbor the selfish thought, ‘the sabbatical year is approaching’ and you refuse to give to your needy kin. Rather, give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return YHVH your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” A commentary on this text (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #43) states: “Human beings rebel against God only from satiety.” And this is what we must guard against. Accumulation of wealth leads to entitlement and arrogance. When we are greedy, we stop up the flow of blessing in which we all share.

It is tempting to stock up on toilet paper or whatever seems to be cleaned out of the shelves at the grocery store (these days it is dairy products), but we must not let fear or greed get the better of us. Even in our individualistic, capitalistic society we can practice shmita-consciousness, sharing our abundance and generously giving what we can.

Beginning October 10, I will be teaching a three-part class called “A Generous Spirit” in which we will discuss Jewish values and money, scarcity and abundance, and mitzvah of giving. I hope you will join me!

6 – Relief

We must give the earth relief from human overuse and depredation, and that’s a huge task, but it can be addressed one mitzvah at a time. I am excited that our Tikkun Olam committee has chosen to focus on shmita as its theme for the year, as we explore ways as a community we can do more with less, feed our neighbors, and be better stewards of the land. We’ll have dinner in the sukkah on Sept 25 with Cathy Snyder, Founder and Director of Rolling Harvest Food Rescue. We will learn about shmita and how we can incorporate its concepts into local farming and feeding. And on October 9 we’ll have a gleaning event at the Gravity Hill Farm as we learn about the mitzvah of gleaning fields to share with our neighbors in need. Lastly, I invite you to check out the Buy Nothing flyer in your Shana Tova bags, which is a great way to practice doing more with less and being stifled with all that we have. There are so many ways to bring shmita-consciousness into our individual and communal practice – it is very exciting to explore all the opportunities!

7 – Restore!

Lastly, and perhaps the most challenging – Shmita calls us to forgive all debts. Everyone should be able to reset, particularly the stranger, the immigrant, the servant or low-wage worker, the orphan and widow (see Deut. 15). Shmita is the biblical path out of the cycle of servitude and poverty.

Life today is vastly different than in biblical times, but we are still sadly quite familiar with the burden of debt ,whether it is our mortgage on our homes, college loans we have been repaying for decades, or the medical bills piling up. This concern is especially concerning during a global pandemic, which tests the strongest health care systems – even as tens of millions of Americans remain un- or under-insured, and billions around the world struggle with inadequate resources.

A modern shmita practice would challenge us to reduce our own debt and the debt of the neediest among us. Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, is working on abolishing the equivalent of $2.5 million in medical debt. By raising $25,000, they would eliminate $2.5 million in health care bills because hospital systems sell unpayable debt at discounted rates.

Imagine having no debt, and the kind of freedom it would enable on every scale. When one isn’t burdened by debt, one is less concerned with the need to make money at a certain level or inhibited to follow one’s dreams regardless of what one could earn. One can plan for the future proactively and build a more sustainable future.

Isn’t that what we desperately need? I believe these extraordinary times call for the radical vision such as shmita. I pray that we come out the other side on this pandemic stronger, wiser, and more interdependent. I pray that this sabbatical year brings us closer to a sustainable human presence on the earth. I pray that perhaps we can also release one another, on this Yom Kippur Day, from any accumulated resentments, any sense of being owed something.

Today, let us remember who we are and whose we are; that we are here but for a short time, and that the most enduring aspect of our lives is not what we consume but what we leave behind.

Tzom Kal – May you have a meaningful fast and a transformative holiday.


My Rosh HaShana Day 1 Sermon 5782 : Expanding the Tent

Ma Tovu ohalecha yaakov – how beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…it is an amazing blessing to be sharing this tent with you this morning. If you knew all the work over the last month that went into making this set up work…it is wonderful to see you all here, and here (wave to zoomers) this morning.

I have talked about the ingenuity and resilience of our community over the past 18 months, but I must say that from where I stand now it feels in a way like it was preparation for the last month, a month when we realized that in spite of all the mask wearing, isolating, and vaccinating this thing is not over. And yet, here we are. I need to express my gratitude to everyone who, in their own way, kept us together over this year and a half, and really made us stronger than ever. Adversity does indeed inspire creativity and it has revealed a strength in our community as well.

That is not to say that we are not exhausted and heart worn. Life for me feels more out of my control than ever before. The High Holidays come this year with a message: Accept your losses, accept help. We can’t do it alone. Have a little faith and let God hold you sometimes. In the past year and a half the importance of community is clearer to me more than ever. Amidst these challenging times, as a Jewish community we ground ourselves in the transcendent – in prayer, tradition, respect for humanity, acts of kindness and justice.

And the pandemic had its own message – don’t continue to do things the way you always have because “tradition.” You must respond to the present moment, to the needs of your community. More than just being responsive, you must live into the future and who you want to become if you are to thrive. And this too is the central message of the HHDs. You must expand your tent. And so I’d like to explore what that means for us as a community today

Kol Emet is a beautiful tent. Our beauty is not just aesthetic, though we are blessed with our beautiful grounds and sacred space. Our tent is exemplified by kindness, and a love for meaningful, evolving, creative Judaism. It is a living Judaism, a doing Judaism, a Judaism for our times, where we respond to the present moment with honesty and nuance, drawing from the deep well of Jewish values. As a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, we are inspired by our tradition but not bound by it. And as much as I am your spiritual leader, our members govern our community and truly drive its Jewish vision and mission.

Let me share an example of this. Kol Emet, since its inception, has welcomed and included interfaith families in a way that was pretty radical 30 years ago. And I’d say we’re still ahead of the game. We invite everyone in our community to be involved, have a voice, and get involved in our committees regardless of their religious background or how much they know. We allow any adult to come up to the bimah for a Torah honor. We count every adult in a minyan.

It is not that we are blind to difference. We at Kol Emet have long recognized that people who weren’t raised Jewish bring their own religious and personal perspectives to bear in the Jewish community that are important and beneficial. We know that it is important that we seek diversity in our committees, even and especially in religious matters. Our Ritual Committee invites the perspectives of those who weren’t raised Jewish, or who have young kids at home to make services and holidays accessible and relevant to everyone.

I want to point out that this is more than just Kol Emet policy; over time it has shaped our identity and our synagogue culture. Rather than being united by an assumption of our shared background, we have evolved into a congregation that is united by our values, by how we treat one another, and by our spiritual practice.

But naturally, we have boundaries – as every community or congregation should. We must have boundaries to protect our community norms, our progressive Jewish values, and our sacred tradition. We must stand for something even when, or especially when it feels hard. However, as a Reconstructionist synagogue, we are much more focused on our positive mission and than in erecting walls to keep the wrong people out.

But we also must set boundaries for our physical safety. Unfortunately this is the world we live in and we need to think in this way. The sad reality is that 59.1% of all hate crimes motivated by religious bias in the US in 2020 were anti-Jewish (https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/facts-and-statistics). I could give a whole other sermon on anti-semitism, or racism, and I have. The reality is that we always need to balance being welcoming and accessible with looking out for our safety, and this is not just a challenge unique to Kol Emet.

But it must be said that communities also set boundaries in ways that are more unspoken, implicit, reflexive, even unintentional. And it’s important that we acknowledge this so that we can become aware of our unconscious biases and fears. For example, if somebody comes in that we don’t recognize, we might come up to them and talk to them and try to find out about them. If we somehow feel that something is off, we might start getting worried.

But how do we determine whether someone fits in, or doesn’t, in a synagogue setting? That is often a more subconscious process of looking for something recognizably Jewish, like a star around a person’s neck, or a Jewish sounding last name, or even facial features that look familiar.

I say this with great compassion for those of us who grew up with Jewish people and Jewish community looking or behaving in a certain way, or sounding or eating in a certain way. Certainly, in the United States, Ashkenazi culture, ritual, language, and food have been the norm for over 100 years. Between 1880 and the onset of restrictive immigration quotas in 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America. The character of American Jewry was transformed, as the Eastern Europeans became the majority. Before that time, interestingly, the American Jewish community largely adhered to Sephardic ritual customs particularly in Jewish hubs including Newport, R.I., New Amsterdam (later New York), Philadelphia.

Now, again, in the last thirty years, while we weren’t looking, the American Jewish landscape has transformed yet again. Just look at our community – Jewish last names are no longer reliably Rosenbaum or Katz; they are also Boswell, O’Rourke, and Santarsiero. This is indicative of the changing face of the Jewish community in America as we continue to integrate into the diverse fabric of American society.

The recent 2020 Pew population study (https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/) gives us some perspective on these changes. 72% of Jews married since 2010 are married to non-Jews. That is compared an 18% intermarriage rate of Jews who married before 1980. Now, this is not necessarily bad for the Jews. The adult Jewish population in America has been fairly stable in percentage terms, while rising in absolute numbers, roughly in line with the growth of the U.S. population. And, as one might expect, like the overall U.S. population, Jews appear to be growing more racially and ethnically diverse as one might expect with intermarriage.

Now, approximately 1 in 10 Jews identify with other racial or ethnic categories. Among Jews ages 18 to 29, however, the share who identify as a race or ethnicity other than white rises to 15%. Overall, 17% of Jews surveyed – including 29% of Jewish adults under the age of 30 – live in households in which at least one child or adult is Black, Latinx, Asian, non-White multiethnic, or multiracial. I should note that Jewish families of color and Jewish interfaith families are not necessarily the same thing, though there may be some overlap.

That diversity is reflected at Kol Emet, and especially so in our religious school. And I write this sermon because of them. Our kids are awesome – they learn in many different ways and have wide-ranging abilities and talents. They also have diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, and gender and sexual orientations. We need to ensure that every part of them is seen, welcomed and appreciated in our community.

Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, who was also a student of sociology, wrote about assimilation, that word so often used in a negative sense in describing Jewish integration into American society. (“Active, Not Passive, Assimilation” article in A Different Light ed. by Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre with excerpts from “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,” 1937) He wrote that it actually means two opposite things. In one sense, to BE assimilated is to passively integrate into the dominant culture, leaving one’s particular heritage behind. But in another sense, to actively assimilate means to take the best of the principles and ideals of the greater society into one’s particular heritage or culture or religion. Jews have actually done this for millenia. We’ve taken European foods like kugel, challah, and bagels and made them Jewish food. American Jews have integrated Eastern practices like yoga and meditation into our spiritual practice in congregational life.

So yes, we are engaged in active assimilation here at Kol Emet. We bring Jewish values and ancient wisdom forward to address the changes and challenges in American society. And we bring American values and practices into our rhythm here at Kol Emet. That’s why our tagline is “Judaism for today’s world.”

But yes, to answer the critics, with all this assimilation there is a danger of staying true to our heritage. But then, there is also a danger of our heritage remaining static as everything changes around us. One hundred years ago, Rabbi Kaplan was greatly concerned about Jewish practice remaining stagnant and prayer being done by rote while American values of democracy, pluralism, and egalitarianism were embraced in the public sphere. We have to change with the times, regardless, and this is something the Reconstructionist movement has always recognized.

And so, seeking home in synagogue life are people – adults, kids – who are interfaith, multiracial, multinational, LGBTQ. And just as we are demanding that our Jewish selves be embraced fully in American life, they expect no less – that the Jewish community welcome every part of who they are as well.

By they, I really should say “we” – after all, my own family is interfaith, bi-racial, and multinational. And I would not be a rabbi, or maybe even Jewish at all, if my then-Christian, Swiss mother and my Jewish New Yorker father weren’t accepted in the Jewish community at every step of their journey. But I myself have been told in Jewish spaces, and after services that I have led, that I don’t look Jewish, and that my daughter is too blond to be Jewish. I have been questioned about my “exotic” Jewish heritage, which is not Ashkenazi, but Sephardic, as my grandmother was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. I have experienced the assumption that I should know Yiddish or least have heard it in my home growing up. In fact, I heard Hebrew of Western Sephardic vocalization mixed with Judeo-Spanish, or Ladino, (and of course a lot of Patwa and curse-words if you were blessed to know my grandmother).

I bring up my experience because unfortunately these experiences are not unique to me. Jews come from all parts of the world – we speak different languages, speak Hebrew with different accents, have different musical and culinary traditions. But somehow there is an implicit assumption in too many Jewish spaces that Jews are Ashkenazi and that they are white. Indeed, unfortunately these “othering” experiences are more pronounced for Jews of color. This spring, at our Shabbat services, we had the blessing of hearing from Zohara Armstrong, my study partner and a Jew of color, about her negative and positive experiences in Jewish spaces.
Just a few weeks ago another landmark study called “Beyond the Count” came out, which surveyed the experiences of 1000 Jews of Color in the US. (https://jewsofcolorinitiative.org/what-we-do/research-field-building/) The good news is that a slight majority of Jews of Color do feel that they belong in Jewish spaces, and it is clear that being Jewish is important and meaningful to the respondents. The majority of them also indicated that honoring their Jewish identity and their racial or ethnic identity is meaningful to them. And, encouragingly, many respondents felt most comfortable expressing the fullness of their identities around their Jewish family members.
However, a full eighty percent of respondents indicate experiencing discrimination in predominantly white Jewish spaces, ranging from racist microaggressions to outright challenges to their Jewish status. And the majority of respondents feel that the organized Jewish community is not doing enough to address it.
This is very concerning, but it is also energizing. The Beyond the Count study did offer concrete recommendations for advancing the work of building an increasingly inclusive and diverse community that represents all Jews, not just some.
So what can we do at Kol Emet? Aren’t we a welcoming, loving community as we are? I would say emphatically, yes. However, I believe that if we also expand our tent intentionally, we won’t just be reacting or responding to our current reality, we will be building consciously toward the future and our kids’ future.

An insightful article came out recently in the online journal eJewish Philanthropy, called “Expanding not diluting: Embracing Jewish+ families,” co-written by Jewish educators Alison Weikel and Rachel Weinstein White. In it, they share personal stories of feeling “less than” in spite of being career Jewish educators because to their interfaith, interracial marriages. They also take on certain terms we’ve become accustomed to, namely the terms “interfaith family” and “non-Jew.”

The term “non-Jew” they argue, frames a person in the negative, focusing only on what the person is not. They also point out that the word “interfaith” is not an accurate way to describe a family who only celebrates Judaism, or another family where the non-Jewish partner is of no faith. And, while “interfaith” works for some, is a challenging term for others because it has been used in a pejorative sense by those who disparage interfaith marriage. They offer instead the terms “Jewish adjacent” and “Jewish+ family” which I will try out with you now.

While it is certainly true that some “Jewish+ families” move away from Jewish community life, it is also true that Jewish adjacent family members inspire their Jewish counterparts to live more Jewishly in profound ways. This is what happened with my own parents in their journey of raising my brother and I as Jews. I’ve witnessed it over and over again wherever Jewish adjacent partners are fully welcomed. At Kol Emet, our Jewish Adjacent parents raise Jewish children, celebrate Jewish holidays at home and at shul, and yes, ask Jewish questions that raise our awareness and question our assumptions. They add to the Jewish experience and narrative, and I would argue that you do not dilute the Jewish experience; you are making it richer.

Now, I am not wedded to one term or another, it is more important to me that we as a community consider the words we use carefully in our informal conversations, as well as at our meetings, services, on our forms and website. Indeed, language holds such power and words frame our communal attitude and action.

But of course it’s not just words; we need to walk the walk. We need to have those conversations about our experiences, positive and negative. We need to listen open heartedly and learn from one another about how we can enrich the Jewishness of our community for everyone and how we can better engage the diversity of our community.

Why bring this up now, on Rosh Hashanah, of all times? Rosh Hashanah is a beginning; the precipice of a new year. We reflect on the past and commit to doing better, and we marvel at the endless possibilities that await us in this new year. And interestingly, Torah and Haftarah portions for this day help us to reflect on both the entrenched, generations-old biases we hold and assumptions we make, and challenge us to become more aware, to become more loving and more accepting.

We just read about Sarah and Hagar – the two wives of Abraham who were in competition with each other for yerusha, which is more than inheritance – it is the family line. It was Sarah and her son Isaac vying for supremacy versus Hagar and Ishmael, who was the older son of the two. But Sarah was the primary wife, and when she told Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out, he did so. It is a painful story of exclusion and it is a lesson to all of us about the power we have to shape the future of the Jewish people.

And, we read in the Haftarah about a priest named Eli who saw a woman Hannah acting unusually in his temple. Eli assumed that Hannah must be drunk and spoke harshly to her. But Hannah was simply there, praying fervently for a child, as if her life depended upon it. Thankfully, Hannah didn’t leave the temple when she was chastened, she spoke up and corrected Eli. And when he realized his error, he apologized. The son Hannah would have, Samuel, would himself become a priest and would become one of the most important prophets in Israel. By holding Eli accountable, Hannah maintained that not only did she and her prayer have a rightful place in the temple, but that her son would also have an unquestioned place in Israel.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that, “Judaism is less about believing and more about belonging. It is less about what we owe God and more about what we owe each other, because we believe God cares more about how we treat each other than…about our theology.” (To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner) This Rosh Hashanah, let’s consider what binds us together and what we truly owe one another. May we be blessed with a sweet new year, ripe with possibility, joy, and openness to expansive growth.

Shana tova u’metuka!


On Despair (and Dissent)

Yom Kippur Sermon for 5781

On Erev Rosh haShanah, just after a wonderful dinner and as I was about to take Adar up for bedtime, I made the mistake of checking my phone.  I stared at the headline, frozen, informing me that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had passed away.  Adar ran up to me, from the other room, concerned: “Mommy are you ok?”  I must have screamed.

We have the children’s book “I Dissent” about RBG’s life. Adar could understand my sadness, but not the cry of despair.  So we sat down and I explained to her about the balance of power and how Supreme Court Justices get a lifetime appointment.  Then, we went to bed.  I lay there next to my sleeping daughter, my phone lit up in the dark, scrolling through the articles and all the reactions from friends and colleagues, tears rolling down my face.  

One rabbi wrote, “Now I have to tear up all my sermons!” I thought about my own sermon on hope, yet to be delivered, and said to myself sardonically, “Well, if your sermon has to be torn up now, maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with!”  I decided that a sermon on hope was needed now, perhaps more than ever.

But I do think a follow up is warranted.  I think it worth talking about despair. I referenced the difficult and often dark history of the Jewish people last week – do we really think we always clung to hope, never giving up no matter what?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the brilliant Hasidic master who led an extremely difficult life wrote his seminal text Likutei Moharan about the importance of not falling into despair, that even should you fall into the belly of Hell, like Jonah, you should not despair (Part II 78:7). In this passage he went on to say, “There is no such thing as despair.” 

With all due respect to Reb Nachman, I think that’s taking it a bit far.  Without a measure of despair, hope can consume us and lead us to reject possibilities all around us, because we think there might be something better to come. Sometimes it is important to admit that our dreams aren’t going to materialize. 

We cannot change the past, but we can free ourselves from it so that we can pursue a different future. We do not forget the loss, but we allow it to stop tormenting us. We stop hoping for what will never be. 

So if Rosh haShanah is about hope, as I’ve argued, then Yom Kippur is about despair – letting go of we must, releasing what no longer serves us, so that we can step wholeheartedly into the future. The rituals of Yom Kippur – abstaining from food and drink, dressing in white (a color that evokes a funeral shroud) – are meant to push us to feel close to death, grieving our lives, enabling us our regrets and what no longer serves us so that we can truly begin again.   

Kol Nidre ve’esarei…  All these vows that we have made…may they be nullified.

We began last night by absolving ourselves of vows that hold us back.  Yom Kippur is about release.  Today our confessions, our beating of chests, are our heartfelt effort reshape our beings and our lives into ones that have less armor and heart, less blame and more responsibility, less posturing and more humility, less cynicism and more wonder.

On Yom Kippur we come together to face our losses, acknowledge the relentless passage of time, and forge a path forward.  In naming these losses we begin the long, complex process of doing teshuvah, of changing ourselves. Life is not perfect – we tried, and sometimes we have failed.  Today, we release ourselves of guilt, regret, unfulfilled, impossible promises made.  On this day, we can let ourselves feel despair together.

Despair is a human emotion, one that we have all felt at times.  And I think it is important to acknowledge the grief and despair that many of us feel these days.  We are holding a lot of loss these days, much of it ambiguous and uncertain.  Hope isn’t going to be something that we can always access.  So I am here to say, it is ok to feel despair. We must make room for it too.

The process of teshuvah, in some ways, begins with recognizing our own loss.  Sometimes teshuvah involves grieving – the self we might have become, a relationship that will not be what you hoped it would, a future that cannot be any longer.  Teshuvah involves grief, loss, anger, and yes, despair.  Despair is a necessary element of teshuvah if we are to really reckon with our current circumstances and piece together realistic future.

In rabbinic law, despair is an important facet of the laws concerning lost objects.  The rabbis of the Talmud spend an excessive amount of time discussing, an entire tractate of the Talmud called Bava Metzia, discussing lost objects.  According to halacha, Jewish law, if someone finds an object, they have an obligation to try to return it to its owner as long as the owner still hopes to find it. It is an important mitzvah in the Torah to return lost objects.  Concerning the return of a neighbor’s lost animal Deuteronomy teaches: “Do not remain indifferent” (Deut. 22:3).  Based on this injunction, the rabbis of the Talmud explored a litany of scenarios involving lost objects and finally creating an elaborate ritual to be performed when looking for a lost object.

But at some point, lost objects are really lost, and the time comes for us to give up looking for them. It’s at that point that we come to a place of ye’ush – despair – acknowledging that it is gone forever.  Because it spite of all the rabbis efforts, there is no foolproof system that can ensure that everything can be found, no matter how thorough you are. Some things cannot be returned. Some losses are final.  Despair is inevitable.

Only when we get to the point of despair, when we truly let go of ever retrieving the object, can we free ourselves from it. It enters into the public domain and it is no longer ours. It’s at that moment that we relinquish hope for a dream that is lost, when we acknowledge to ourselves that we have to let go and walk a different path. This is the redemptive aspect of ye’ush.

Why were the rabbis so obsessed with returning lost objects?  Perhaps because it is part of the human condition to lose things – like socks, or keys.  For me, it is earrings.  I still ache over the memory of losing a beloved earring.  

But maybe the rabbis were laying a foundation for a discussion of loss and despair in general. Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, drawing on the teachings of Dr Marjorie Lehman, posits that the losses of our rabbinic sages were much more profound than keys or socks. They were mourning the loss of their holy Temple, of their community, of their authority – the very foundation of everything they knew. 

I think the example of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem is instructive for us today.  It was a permanent destruction; the Temple was never rebuilt.  But that calamity paved the way a completed new form of Judaism.  Our religious practice transformed virtually overnight from one of animal sacrifice overseen by priests to one of prayer and torah study, legislated by rabbis.  

It is incredible to consider that we survived the destruction of not one, but two Temples.  How did we do it?  How in the world did we manage to rebuild after such a catastrophic loss, the loss of our spiritual center and exile from our home? I would argue that despair played a key role.

There is a famous story recorded in the Talmud of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who would later become one of the leaders of rabbinic Judaism.  Ben Zakkai was a young pacifist in Jerusalem in 68 C.E. when the city was under siege by General Vespasian. Unable to convince the Zealots who controlled Jerusalem to surrender to Rome, ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his disciples smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. They carried the coffin to Vespasian’s tent, where ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin. He told Vespasian that he had had a vision (some would say, a shrewd political insight) that Vespasian would soon be emperor, and he asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavneh (near modern Rehovot) where he could start a small school and study Torah in peace. Vespasian promised that if the prophesy came true, he would grant ben Zakkai’s request. Vespasian became Emperor within a year, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. The school ben Zakkai established at Yavneh became the center of Jewish learning for centuries and replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinic council.

Ben Zakkai did the unthinkable – he abandoned Jerusalem.  The coffin he was carried out in was the metaphor for his accepting the death of what was.  It was ye’ush – despair.  His brilliance was that he also had a vision for what could take the place of Jerusalem, and in this way Yavneh became the point of rebirth for the Jewish people. 

Now, I am not suggesting that if things aren’t working for us; that we should necessarily throw up our hands.  I think we should be inspired by the example of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who set an example of dissent.  Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt eulogized her on Friday saying that “And even when her views did not prevail, she still fought. In recent years Justice Ginsberg became famous for her dissents.  Despair was not an option.”  Rabbi Holtzblatt quoted Ginsberg herself as saying, “Dissents speak to a future age…the greatest dissents do become court opinions, and gradually, over time their views become the dominant view.” We learn from Justice Ginsburg that even when it is clear we won’t be on the winning side, it is important to actively speak out and dissent.  Despair is releasing ourselves of an impossible; it does not mean that we are silent or passive in the face of it.

Going into ye’ush enables us to see in a new way, to recognize that a different story can be written, a different future can emerge, a different journey can unfold. We give ourselves permission to disengage from the suffering that we cause to ourselves. 

Yom Kippur starkly reminds us that we are imperfect human beings. We let ourselves down, we fail ourselves. We hold onto dreams instead of being fully here, now, in the present. 

On Yom Kippur we create a space to discover who we really are. Not who we wished we were. Not who we hoped we would become. But to see ourselves candidly, honestly, genuinely. 

On this Yom Kippur, let’s gather together so we can find what we have lost. Let this be a time of real discernment. Let’s bravely embrace ye’ush, despair, death. And then let’s live. Really live. Live with intention, with meaning, with awareness of who we really are, with all of our imperfections. 

Gmar chatimah tovah.


On Hope

Rosh haShanah Sermon 5781

Hope.  These days it’s been in short supply.  I think that when this pandemic reached our shores, people rushed to the grocery stores, whisked it from the shelves along with stores of food, but it never was restocked. 

2020 has been unreal – so hard, so exhausting, so bitterly sad.  As a country, as a planet, we were already facing huge challenges and social divisions, and when the pandemic started, we had to make major changes to our daily lives in a short space of time, with very little time to plan or adjust.  And with the science being very new with regard to COVID-19 we just had to make the best decisions we could with what information we had, as we did our best to keep our heads above water. 

At first, even amongst the fear and uncertainty we could see the silver linings.  It was nice to work from home, to be with the kids more, but the novelty has now worn off. As the seasons turn, I am very present to all the losses – no camp, no visiting grandparents.  Now the summer has passed and kids are in school, albeit in a very different way.  We treasure what we have, but we have endured so much, and at what cost? 

And I say all this as a person who has so much; indeed, one who has more than most.  What of the people for whom this is more than an inconvenience?  I am glad that this pandemic has exposed inequalities and injustices long hidden in our society, but the suffering in this country is palpable.  As I read the news about the politicization of this pandemic, racial violence, fears around voting access, growing anti-Semitism amidst the surge in popularity of right-wing conspiracy theories, and the continuation of the climate crisis: in addition to feeling outrage and heartache, I also feel a deepening sense of responsibility from my privileged perch. In 1972, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

But what to do?  Of course we must continue to put one foot in front of the other and work to fix what we can, but where is our faith in the future and hope for a better tomorrow, for ourselves and for our children? 

I understand that is important to have hope – but to be honest, it is just hard for me to have it these days, and normally I consider myself an optimist.  I see the darker side of society and human nature winning a lot these days. And who could not feel pain and even despair as we follow the headlines, that being present to what is happening in the world causes. 

We aren’t equipped physiologically to be delivered catastrophic or confusing news 24/7. I have to remind myself of this; that is okay take in news just once a day. Because the news headlines are not the full story of us, which is focused on what is catastrophic, corrupt, failing. We have a responsibility, I think, to strive to live toward a narrative of hope, healing, goodness. When you don’t have hope, can’t see the good, it is sign that we need to step back if we are able to, and find something that gives us hope. 

Practices like observing Shabbat and being engaged in community help us step back from the aches of the world.  And, having a consistent gratitude practice is crucial.  Saying thank you, being grateful, giving in the ways that we can – these are subtle but powerful practices that are not just nice things to do, they help keep us sane and balanced.  We cannot give in to grief and despair – yes, feel it, but not to let it rule us.

Hope at this point might seem laughable to some of you, but hope is exactly what we need.  It’s certainly what I need, if I am to inspire you to not during these holy days, but to really focus on the problems and believe that they are fixable. 

Taking about hope today was the sermon that I needed hear.  And, Rosh HaShanah is all about hope – that this coming year might be better than the one before it; that this year we might truly turn ourselves around.

Hope is what motivates us not only to vote, but to get others to vote and engaged. Hope is not is not a panacea needed to make ourselves feel good; hope is a belief that around the corner, there is possibility. A true sense of hopefulness engenders curiosity and openness.

I think it is important to examine what exactly hope is and is not.  Hope is not just resilience (which I’ve spoken about before on Rosh HaShanah) or perseverance, thought is surely underpins them. It is more than being persistent or strong.  Hope, as I’ve conventionally thought of it, is a belief, a feeling that things will get better.  In a sense to be hopeful is a kind of faith or existential optimism.

Rebecca Solnit, the author of “Hope in the Dark,” (2016) writes that hope is not simply optimism; that everything is going to be fine. To have hope, she says, means to embrace a sense of uncertainty – to come to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, and that there is room for us to intervene. She says that if we are to have hope, we have to let go of the certainty that people seems to love more than hope.  We live a very surprising world – one in which saw the creation of the State of Israel, the Berlin Wall falling, a Black president getting elected in America, and yes, Trump becoming president. Unexpected things will happen, and that is certain. 

Rabbi Leora Frankel posits that hope is central to Judaism. Hope, she writes, “sustained our people through 3,000 of wandering, expulsion, and eventually return. Like a baton passed down through the generations, it was hope that emboldened Abraham to first follow God’s call and leave behind everything he knew, and hope that flickered to Moses from the burning bush, igniting our Exodus from Egypt. Hope produced our written Torah in Babylonian exile and transformed Judaism into a portable religion when the Romans torched the Second Temple. Through countless inquisitions and pogroms, through the horrors of the Holocaust, our ancestors held fast to hope and it nourished them. Of course, there is no greater, more tangible manifestation of hope in Jewish history than the modern State of Israel. It is no surprise that Israel’s national anthem is simply named HaTikvah, ‘the hope.’”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of England, would even say that we Jews invented hope – a belief that we can be free if we have faith, that we can look toward a messianic age, a time when there will be no poverty or strife.  “To be a Jew,” Sacks teaches, “is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate.” 

It is amazing to think of our forebears sustaining hope in ghettos and concentration camps. I think that truly a deep faith of God and miracles was essentials for many of them.  But what if we don’t have that same kind of faith or belief?  I think it was Mel Brooks, a good secular Jew, who sang, “No way of knowing, which way it’s going – hope for the best, expect the worst…” (That is more my husband’s approach.)

Here is my approach: Hope is part of our human condition to strive for something better. Hope is a uniquely human quality because it is future-focused, forcing us to squarely face the facts of life and then seeing something past them.  It is like memory, only it is directed toward our future, not the past.  So, I would say: Hope is the story we tell about our future.  It is our vision of what is possible.

The author and teacher Brene Brown teaches that hope is a function of struggle.  It is not an emotion, but a cognitive behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity.  So, in other words, if you have lived through something hard and have gotten out from under it, you know it is possible to get through hard things.  This strengthens one’s sense of hope for yourself and for others.

We won’t always know how to get from under that hard place though.  Some things are going to feel insurmountable. But it is natural, human, to feel that sense of inadequacy or helplessness. So, rather than give up, we need to learn to accompany each other in this inadequacy, despair, and then to focus on what we can do, and the long view.  In the words of Krista Tippett, who hosts the wonderful radio show called onbeing, “Hope is a muscle that we have to flex, it is a vigorous choice to see what needs repair and attention and also to keep our hearts and imaginations oriented toward what we want to build, what we are walking towards.”

It is tempting to want to get on an airplane and just leave, so that we don’t feel the burden of America’s problems so personally. Tippett believes that we in the United States are in the midst of culture shift and that we must embody how we want to live in contrast to the awfulness – systemic racism, family separation, climate change.  She says, “if we want to build a world of justice, of joy, then we must embody joy and justice. We must be present to frailty and suffering but also to see what is generative, what you can engage with.”

What can you hope for in this New Year?  What can you build?  I think that is the central question and challenge of Rosh Hashanah.  How will you be partners with God in the holy work of recreating this world?  We need to locate our hope, and live inside it, not admire it from a distance.  Flex the muscles of hope daily in whatever way works for you – whether it is prayer, journaling, gardening, or acts of justice, kindness, and giving.  Recognize the good, focus on it, and build it. This is part of our covenant with God that we are affirming today.

So this Rosh Hashanah, with the gates of heaven open and waiting, let us take a few minutes of personal reflection, to consider this question: What would it mean for you, in your own way, to truly live this New Year with hope in your heart?

Shanah Tovah U’metukah, wishing you a year of good health, of sweetness, and of hope.


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.