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.

Transforming Anger

Sermon for Rosh haShanah Day 1 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statement on Poway Chabad shooting

We are heartbroken, and angered, to write you again concerning the shooting at another synagogue, this time at the Chabad in Poway California, exactly six months after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. Truly, it is a unique form of evil to shoot people while they are praying. We are sickened to see yet another house of worship attacked and we mourn the loss of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, a pillar of the Chabad Poway community.  The shooter in Poway has also claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a nearby mosque last month. Americans, Jewish and all others, deserve to be safe.

The attack occurred on the final day of Passover, our festival of freedom. There is a curious passage in our haggadah called “V’hi sheh-amda” which declares that “in every generation our enemies have tried to destroy us, but God has saved us from their hands.”  If we are really free, why are we singing about unending violence against us? After this attack, it is a sobering acknowledgement that though we are no longer slaves, we are never fully free from so many other evils. We must continually rely on God’s saving power and our own strength to keep going. Singing this line becomes an act of resistance: in spite of ever-present evil, we are still here. They will not destroy our spirit.  We refuse to accept such violence as normal.

But the sobering new reality is that Jewish communities in the United States now must reckon with the possibility, however remote, of terrorist attacks directed at us.

At Kol Emet, enhancing our security measures is a vital part of our response. Since Oct 27th we have been continually making improvements, and additional security cameras are being installed this week. 

But security cannot be our only answer to the rising expressions of anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry we are seeing today. Minorities of all faiths, colors, and backgrounds are vulnerable. We must continue to stand for what is right and good, comfort those in pain, build strong relationships with our neighbors, and show up for one another. This Passover, the bitterness of hatred still lingers in our mouths, but we stand together, clear in our resolve to bring more light into this world. 

On Shabbat morning at Kol Emet, we celebrated a beautiful festival service and surrounded ourselves with the memories of our loved ones as we honored them with our Yizkor (memorial) prayers.  On Sunday morning, our Kadima/Mechina classes met downstairs, while upstairs adults gathered to learn with Fran Fried about the Holocaust and its lessons for today. Our mourning, celebrating, learning, and growing is continually intertwined. In this very real sense, Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel live.

In a moving video clip, Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein, who was injured in the shooting, suggested that one thing that we can all do is to show up for Shabbat next week. We have a Heymish Shabbat scheduled for Friday night, and I hope you will choose to join us to share a Shabbat dinner together and hear Jonathan Snipes talk about food insecurity and sustainability.  

These acts of terror will not stop us. May our resolve only increase as we stand with our community and bring more love into our fractured world.  

Leviticus on danger and evil

I am thinking about evil more often than I’d like to these days. The death of Samantha Josephson, the college student who was murdered by a man she thought was her Uber driver, hit very close to home. Her funeral was held at Beth Chaim, just across the river in New Jersey. Also, two of our members are connected to her family. One person said to me that, for her, the case wasn’t about someone getting into the wrong car, it was about a person intent on evil.

I am not naïve enough to think that each of us doesn’t have the potential to do something terrible. But we are taught right from wrong, love and commitment, responsibility and kindness. I don’t believe more people have evil in their hearts today than in days gone by, but I do think, however, that there is more of a permissibility granted these days for incivility and isolation. And that leads directly toward violence.

For the ancient Israelites, the sense that God would save them from evil and danger was quite literal. I often think of the classic book “Purity and Danger,” in which the sociologist Mary Douglas discusses how the book of Leviticus is really a manual about how to keep people safe from harm. It is often viewed as entirely anachronistic; we no longer do sacrifices, so why read Leviticus? But sacrifices were the way to ensure that God would remain with the community, thereby protecting it from danger and evildoers.

Wandering in the desert as they were, life was fraught with danger and uncertainty for the ancient Israelites. Today, I search the book of Leviticus, not to re-create some ancient protective technology, but to reflect how I might ensure that divine presence and Godliness remain in our midst, enabling me and our precious community to feel more safe and whole. 

On the eve of Adar’s 7th birthday weekend, something I wrote for her birthday parsha, Tetzaveh

Seven years ago, my oldest daughter, Adar, was born in the early morning hours of Shabbat Tetzaveh. Josh and I had decided that her first name would be for the Hebrew month of her birth, but we weren’t sure what or if she would have a second Hebrew name. We went back and forth with names, unable to commit. But, when little Adar was in my arms and I read the first words of this Torah portion for guidance, I knew. 

Moses is told by God, “You shall further command the sons of Israel to use pure olive oil for kindling the light of the lamps. Aaron shall set up this light to burn continuously in the sanctuary. It will serve as a light for God for all generations.” (Exodus 27:10)

It is no small thing, this commandment. Where would the Israelites procure the oil? How could they be prepared to have this special pure oil continuously available so that this light would burn eternally?

When I think about the responsibilities we take on, how many of them do we commit to in perpetuity? In this day and age, we can let go of almost everything. We can sell the house. We can get divorced. And even religious obligations don’t seem to carry the same weight as they used to, no matter how hard we religious leaders try. But parenthood is a sacred responsibility we can never be relieved of. No matter what happened, I would never un-become a mother. My heart would forever live outside my body; my greatest commitment would always be to her and any children that would come after her.

So, Adar’s second Hebrew name is Meirah – light. This week, I invite you to consider your most eternal commitments. What lights you up and gives your life purpose and meaning? How do you ensure that you are prepared to keep your sacred fire burning? 

May your fire burn strong and bright, without fail.

Rabbi Anna

On Parshat Vayakhel and gratitude

After much anticipation and many detailed instructions, the building of the mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle begins in earnest. Moses again calls for contributions from the people, both in wealth and in skill, from all whose heart so moves him or her.  Israelite men and women respond so fully and generously that Moses is forced to ask them to stop bringing gifts.

Imagine that. Imagine such generosity, such overwhelming abundance, and–with regularity. The text says, “And they brought additional contributions every single morning. (Exodus 36:4)

While there is much that I could write about the importance of giving, especially with several special and amazing fundraising events coming up in our congregation (Designer Bag Bingo, Candy Bingo, Make Me Laugh Comedy Night). I want to focus on something else.  How do you properly give thanks for something when is offered every day without fail? 

People give all the time in our community, in big ways, but mostly in small ways. We give $18 to honor a loved one’s yahrzeit. We offer to come to help set up for an event. We fill in at the front desk. We bring food. We pick up someone’s else’s kids after school. The list goes on and on. As someone in the building all the time, I see it all. One can become inured to it and take the regularity of the giving for granted. 

It is humanly impossible to say thank you every time.  But it isn’t enough to say thank you once and move on. Don’t just say “thanks for dinner.” Appreciate the time and effort it takes to plan a meal, shop for groceries, peel and chop the vegetables, and stand over the stove on tired feet.

It is easy to give one time, but it is much more difficult to give with regularity, and even more so, every single day. How difficult and how beautiful. I am struck, once again, by all the detail in this parsha about the gifts and the mishkan, and it occurs to me that perhaps the giving of these details are the Torah’s way of reminding us that God sees and appreciates all the work and every single offering, no matter how simple or how ordinary. 

Let us grow in our awareness and gratitude of all the little and most regular gifts in our lives. And, so too, let us be aware of God’s constant appreciation that even our smallest contribution builds up our community, our families, and our world. 

Talk at Macedonia Baptist Church MLK Day, January 21, 2019

Thank you to Deacon Phyllis Teat and Reverend Lillian Gail Moore for inviting me to speak tonight, and to Susan Millner and Jeanlu Ryersbach for such a loving introduction. I feel very honored and humbled to have the opportunity to reflect on the legacy that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bequeathed all of us and to share my thoughts with you.

I want to dedicate my words tonight to my three beautiful, strong daughters, two of whom were born the day after Martin Luther King Day three years ago. This auspicious weekend, every year, is always a women’s march in my house.

My remarks tonight are also given in memory of my friend Jerry Rabinowitz, who was brutally murdered along with 10 other innocent souls at Congregation Tree of Life on October 27, 2018 by a violent anti-Semitic white supremacist.

There is so much I want to say, so much I feel… Jerry was a beautiful light, extinguished without mercy. It is shocking that such hate and anger exists against someone who treasured softness and goodness, and who lived it every day of his life. Jerry was the kind of person who regularly set up for services before others came in, who as a doctor recognized the dignity in each one of his patients. In the 1980s he held the hands of his AIDS patients. After he died, his friends and community, including myself, found out many amazing things he had done because he never sought recognition for his everyday kindnesses or accomplishments.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr lived a much more public, pulpit centered, in the spotlight, Nobel peace prize winner, kind of life than Jerry, but it appears that they were equally vulnerable to the murderous violence that hate begets. And I am sorry to say it, but it is getting worse out there. I’m not sure if it is the times we live in, or perhaps because I’m a mother to young children, or because I am a rabbi, but I am really feeling the so-called “ten plagues” of our society:

-the plague of poisoned water and absence of nutritious, affordable food for all
-the plague of people dying because they are avoiding the expense of seeing a doctor or getting medication
-the plague of addiction
-the plague of fear and demonization of foreigners and outsiders and those look or behave differently
-the plague of being silenced, disbelieved and shamed
-the plague of depression and isolation
-the plague of infighting and division within movements, fracturing of a shared vision
-the plague of hatred and violence
-the plague of lack of leadership
-the plague of human complacency and denial in the face of rising waters and temperatures.

There are actually more than ten – but I will leave it there.

We need Dr. King’s full-throated message of racial and economic equality, as well as basic human decency and his vision of the Beloved Community now more than ever. We are gasping for it.

These past weeks, Jews around the world have been rereading the story of our liberation from Egyptian slavery. And it began with a cry. In our narrowness of spirit, the Israelites could not bear it anymore, and they cried out from their immense burden. And God heard their cry. The whole premise of the Exodus story is that God hears our cries and, like a parent, responds fiercely.

Oh God of mercy, hear us as we cry out to You today! Help us carry our burdens more lightly, and share with us a vision of your peace. Encourage us to see what must be done, and rouse us.  

We are suffering from more unabashed and openly expressed hatred, more racism, more anti-Semitism. And it is no coincidence – from my vantage point, I see that the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the past few years strongly correlates with the deadly uptick in all forms of racism and bigotry. African-Americans remain the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the U.S.; Jews are the most common religious group so targeted. But rises in recent years of hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQ, and other minority communities have become commonplace.

Truly, when the safety of one minority group is threatened, all of us are in danger. The irony here is that hate, ultimately, is indiscriminate.

It is worth sharing King eloquent, prescient words at this point. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written 56 years ago, he wrote these words, which are truer today than ever: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

We have got to turn this around.

Let us make justice a threat to injustice everywhere.
Let us make love inescapable, let us make love our single garment of destiny.
We cannot afford to see anyone outside the bounds of this love.
Let our love be indiscriminate.

If King’s words are true, then let us commit to love because it will surely affect us all, if not directly, then indirectly.

I will be specific: I have been on the receiving end of this boundless love, and it has been transformative. After the Pittsburgh shooting, this community responded with an outpouring of love – towards me, towards my synagogue and to the Jewish community as a whole. Strangers were giving me hugs, and I know I was not alone. At our synagogue Shabbat dinner the following weekend, we were joined by people of so many faiths – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and
people of no faith who wanted to express their support. It was incredibly moving, humbling, and healing.

And I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who reached out in support and kindness.

And that is what we need to do for one another – show up. Show up in a mosque to stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer, show up at a funeral for someone you didn’t know personally but was somebody’s baby, show up at a vigil for victims up gun violence regardless of how you feel about the Second Amendment, show up at an AME church no matter what color skin you have. We need to cross those barriers, even though it may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first. Not because those differences are not real – we must not be blind to the very real differences between us that impact our everyday lived reality. But if we stay only in our own houses, we will never know and appreciate one another’s uniquenesses, and we will never fully grasp our interconnectedness and shared vulnerability.

In May, when a group of people from Kol Emet decided to go to a local mosque to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters whose families were directly impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the so-called “Muslim ban,” some others in my congregation thought it was crazy.  (Luckily they didn’t tell me until much later!) Because, you see, previously, when Jews were victims of anti-Semitic attacks, it was rare for anyone to stand with us or around us. But I had gotten the idea from another synagogue in New York City that has offered flowers and support to Muslim worshippers entering for Friday prayers EVERY week for the past TWO years.

And so, when those same Muslims who we stood with at their mosque showed up at our synagogue the week after Pittsburgh, it was humbling. I was at a loss for words. We knew we were not alone. It gave me courage, strength, healing and hope.

You see, the hope that I see is the flow from deep networks of interconnectedness with our neighbors of many faiths and backgrounds today. What happened here in Bucks County in response to the attack in Pittsburgh was replicated all across the North America; thousands of communities organized multi-faith vigils. Such acts of solidarity are more than random acts of kindness. They are INTENTIONAL acts of kindness, and they reflect deep connectivity among our faith communities that has been built over many decades.

When we and they show up for each other as a normal part of our civic lives and religious responsibility, when we work together to confront the explosions of hate crimes and hate rhetoric, we are modeling our vision for America.

And that vision began with King. He is the one who said that it is critical and fundamental for us to show up for one another. In that same letter from the Birmingham jail – he wrote this in jail, folks! – he continues, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”

Standing together doesn’t mean you always agree with one another – indeed sometimes these alliances can be painful, or at least inconvenient. We are diverse, we are not always going to agree on how we get to the Promised Land– but we know that we need one another to get there. We must always keep the vision first. We live in a time where there is no one visionary leader like Moses or Miriam or Dr. King to carry us out of oppression – we each must carry one
another’s burden and lift each other up. We must find ways we each can lead.

With this realization, after Pittsburgh, I decided to throw my passion and energy into interfaith justice work. I, along with fellow clergy across Lower
Bucks, began a local chapter of POWER: interfaith, a faith-based advocacy group for peace and justice. It is a Philadelphia based group that is expanding into the Philly surrounding areas. My passion for POWER stems from the realization that we cannot transform our communities for the better if we are not united. Yes, individually we can feed the hungry, but if we are to address the systems that allow hatred and injustice to fester, we need to come together to offer a different vision and work toward it. It starts with listening to the cries within our neighborhoods and townships. We pray, God, that we will hear and heed the calls. I invite you to join me in this holy work.

I want to share a deep teaching based on the other holiday that fell today – and that is the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. It is popularly known as the Jewish New Year of the Trees. We have several new years in Judaism, and this one is ecological – knowing that even though is frigid outside, deep inside the trees are the first signs of renewal. On Tu Bishvat, the sap deep within the tree is beginning to rise. We can begin to count the days until spring.

There is a story from the Talmud that is often associated with Tu Bishvat, that of a man named Honi. He was walking one day, and saw an old man planting carob seeds. Now, a carob tree takes 70 years to bear fruit. He asked the man, “How can you be sure that you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?” The man replied, “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

We do not know how and when the seeds we plant will bear fruit. We plant with the faith that they will indeed. Justice is a long term project. We must have patience. We must take it step by step. Hold onto your vision, and when it feel tenuous, lean on your community to remind you of the promise you seek. Dr. King promised us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I want to close with the prophetic, prayerful poetry of Mary Oliver, who died last week. This is her poem: Song of the Builders, from the book “Why I Wake Early” (2004).

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.