Hearts and Spirits

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, begins with God saying to Moses:

Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them. (Exodus 10:1)

We are often concerned about what seems like manipulation of the Egyptians, the seeming removal of their free will by God. This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not the first time – in the previous portion, Pharaoh hardened his own heart five times. This hardening of his own accord, made it impossible for him to choose freely in the future. Attributed to God, it’s really his own actions that become reflexive and automatic. Rashi suggests that the reason Moses is to go to Pharaoh is to warn him against the hardening. He needs to notice it, so that he can still use his free will and not be limited by the hardness of his heart.
hearts man hanging
Last week, we learned that the Israelites would not listen to Moses’ message of liberation because of “kotzer ruach” – shortness of spirit. Their crushed spirits prevented them from absorbing the possibility of liberation.

These texts teach us that we need to care for our states of mind and heart. We speak so often of tikkun olam, repair of the world, but it’s not possible without tikkun hanefesh, repair of the soul. As Tracy Chapman sang so clearly, all that you have is your soul.

Pharaoh hardened his heart and lost the opportunity for a different outcome for his people. The Israelites’ spirits were so crushed that they were unable to help themselves. As the Talmud says, “a prisoner is unable to free themselves from bondage. (Berachot 5b). Fr. Greg Boyle (founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention organization in LA) says: “Love is the answer, community is the context, and tenderness is the methodology.” Part of our role as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, is to be tender with each other and care for each others’ spirits so that we might contribute to the healing of each others’ brokenness on the way to the repair of the world.

Yom Kippur Morning – Jewish Responsibility

As long as Jewish spirit
Yearns deep in the heart,
With eyes turned East,
Looking towards Zion.

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two millennia,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

These words were written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, and were adopted, with controversy, as the anthem of the Zionist movement and then of the state of Israel. Controversy? As they say, two Jews, three opinions: it was too religious, it wasn’t religious enough, the melody came from a non-Jewish source, and is it the appropriate song for a country in which more than 20% of the population isn’t Jewish? Nevertheless, these words, and the haunting melody, have become, not only the song of a state, but the song of a people.

HaTikvah – the hope. The hope of two millennia. It had been two thousand years since Jews had a sovereign state. Two thousand years since Rome burned Jerusalem and exiled our people as slaves throughout the Roman empire across Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Two thousand years since Jews had the ability to structure our own society and live under our own laws and leadership.

And what is The Hope?
Lihiyot Am Hofshi B’Artzenu – To Be A People, Free In Our Land.

Taken on its own, “To Be A People, Free In Our Land” is a universal aspiration, by no means unique to the Jews.

The Kurds aspire to exist as a Kurdish People, Free in the land of Kurdistan. The Scottish People seriously considered becoming Free in Scotland. Catalonians, Tibetans, and Palestinians – all aspire to be Peoples free in their lands. Zionism is the Jewish version of this universal aspiration: To be the People of Israel, Free in the Land of Israel.

As written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

This might sound uncomplicated, but nothing is simple. What does it mean to be a People, Free In Our Land?

Let’s look at these four words:
Lihiyot – to be
Am – a people
Hofshi – free
B’Artzenu – In Our Land.

· Lihiyot: To Be
In the 1930’s, graffiti was seen throughout Europe: Jews go home, Jews out. Once again, 70 years later, graffiti against Jews has reappeared: Jews out of Palestine. Suggesting that, for some, the problem is our existence anywhere.

Jewish survival has always been in question – but, after 3000 years of what historian Simon Rawidowicz called: the ever-dying people, we are still here, nearly 15 million of us in the world.

But the question isn’t about survival as individuals, but as a people.

· An Am.
What does it mean to be a part of the Jewish people? What binds us together?

For some, it is our origin story in the Torah. God promises the people in Egypt: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm … I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. … I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.”

Over a century ago, the Reform movement in America stated:
The Jews are not a nation but a religious community…The mission of Judaism is spiritual. Not political. Its aim is not to establish a State, but to spread the truths of religion and humanity throughout the world.

But I think they would not say the same today.

A couple of months ago, we partnered with Cinema Arts to screen a film, the Hidden Jews of Ethiopia. While we were worrying about whether we would have any turnout, Cinema Arts was selling tickets like hotcakes. The film was sold out. Because we know that Ethiopian Jews – who do not look like most of us who are European Jews, who do not practice like us, who may have little in common with us as regards to lifestyle – are our family. Are a part of our people.

28 years ago, I helped to organize the conference of the world conference of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations (now called: The World Congress: Keshet Gaavah) in San Francisco. After Shabbat, the consul general of Israel spoke to us. He said, as I stand before you, Israel is in the process of airlifting Ethiopian Jews out of Addis Ababa to Israel.

It was an extraordinary, emotional, moment. In 36 hours, over 14,000 Ethiopians were rescued from the civil war in Ethiopia and brought to safety in Israel. And they were greeted at the airport by thousands of joyful Israelis.

We are a people.

· Hofshi – What does it mean to be a free people?
In no small part, it’s the ability to carry out our commitments. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “We have learned … that in a life of dispersion not determined by ourselves, we cannot realize Judaism. We can pray here in the Diaspora, but not act; bear witness to God with patience, but not with creativity; praise the jubilee year, but not usher it in…”

And once we have the opportunity, we have responsibility. Viktor E. Frankl wrote:
Freedom is not the last word, freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. The positive aspect of freedom is responsibleness… I recommend that the Statue of Liberty be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West coast.

Israel is an opportunity for Jewish responsibility. For the first time in 2000 years, have we been able to take responsibility for ourselves and our communities – from the sublime to the mundane.

Rabbi Hanan Schlessinger grew up in Deer Park, in a Reform family. By the end of High School he became interested in observant Judaism and is now an Orthodox rabbi, teacher, and passionate Zionist settler. He lives in Alon Shvut, in the West Bank. We are both fellows in Clal’s Rabbis without Borders program, and I have heard his story. He said: When I drive on the roads of Judea, when I walk in the fields, I see the return of the Jewish people to our ancient homeland after 2,000 years of exile. I can look out my back door and see where Abraham walked.

Our connection to the land of Israel goes back to Abraham, when God tells him in the Torah: Take yourself and go – to the land that I will show you. That land, where Abraham settled, where Moses and Joshua led the Israelites out of slavery to freedom, where David and Solomon reigned and built Temples, and other nations conquered and to which we returned again and again – this land, that we longed for all these intervening years and were permitted to settle by other nations who controlled it – solely due to our persecution in the diaspora.

And the State of Israel was born – with hopes and aspirations. The Israeli Declaration of Independence states that:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Does it do all of these things all of the time? No.

Let’s take a moment to recall the most famous sentence in the US Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These self-evident truths weren’t even seen as self-evident for the signers – the people with full rights were white, land-owning men. Women, the poor, people of color, natives – none of these were entitled to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. And some might say we still have not achieved this vision.

David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, said: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”

Israel is, in so many ways, a normal country, with the opportunities and challenges of real life. Many of the issues it faces are similar to those we struggle with here in the US:

Those Jews rescued from Ethiopia (which only a sovereign state could have achieved) now face racism in Israel, including concerns about police brutality.

In the 2015 Israeli elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that “Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves.” In the elections of this past spring, Israelis concerned about voter suppression have organized to drive people to the polls. For example, there are no polling places set up in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. More than 1,400 Israelis collectively donated tens of thousands of shekels to help bring
Israel’s Bedouin citizens to the polls. The organization hired fifty minibuses that then shuttled citizens to the polls.

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that the US and Israel have the worst inequality in the developed world. In the U.S., the richest 10% of the population earn 16.5 times the income of the poorest 10%. In Israel, the richest 10% earn 15 times that of the poorest.

Israel is currently host to more than 33,000 asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea. Many of the African asylum seekers entered Israel through the Sinai after a life-threatening journey at the hands of human traffickers. Their ability to exercise basic human rights, access asylum, and live in dignity and safety in Israel has been an ongoing challenge for over a decade. Government policies and legislation are mostly focused on deterring migrants from entering the country and encouraging those who are seeking asylum to leave the country. Detention and deportation are a constant threat. Although some refugees have been in the country for several years and speak Hebrew fluently, they still have no prospects of local integration and lack stable immigration status and access to basic rights.

The extremely low recognition rates of the Israeli asylum system (less than 1%) make it nearly impossible to be recognized as a refugee and granted the rights that refugee status entails. To date, only seven Eritreans and two Sudanese have been granted refugee status. By comparison, the global recognition rate of Eritreans is over 80% and that of Sudanese is over 60%.

Sound familiar?
HIAS is working in Israel to help refugees, just as they do here in the US, and have helped so many of our families.

Israel has become, in so many ways, a normal country. This is not how it tends to be perceived in the world. And it’s not how we always want to see it. For some on the right: Israel can do no evil, and any criticism is racism. For some on the left: Israel is the root of all evil, and any defense of it is oppression.

But it’s a country, with success and failures. With aspirations that it has achieved and which lie beyond it. Just like the US.

I’d like to invite you to come and see for yourself. To explore the land – to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and to see the cities that are being built today. To hear the voices of those on the breadth of the political spectrum – Jews and Palestinians. To explore contemporary Israeli culture and to eat some of the best food in the world.

Kehillath Shalom is planning a trip next Winter, 2020-21.

Come meet the people who live there, walk on the land, see the history, explore the issues and connect with those working to achieve the vision set out in the Declaration of Independence: “the redemption of Israel.”

I hope you will join us. And we will make true the wish we will sing tonight: Next Year in Jerusalem.

Kol Nidre – Do Not Despair!

The world we live in can be very frightening and upsetting, perhaps even more so in recent times.

The litany of things facing us:

As human beings:

global warming that many experts are saying is inevitable, even if we were to eliminate all carbon emissions today – and climate refugees already exist in the millions

As Americans:

  • We’re in the midst of impeachment hearings, and it doesn’t feel like a cataclysm.
  • Separation of children from their parents on our border and the death of a number of them in our custody
  • Income inequality is at its highest in 5 decades
  • We are extremely polarized, and growing more so

As Jews: we are experiencing anti-Semitism from every level of society:

  • From the highest level where our loyalty as Americans is questioned
  • To swastikas drawn in schools and parks in our own communities
  • To neo-Nazi rallies where people chant: Jews will not replace us.
  • To shootings in synagogues.

My first position out of rabbinical school was with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Philadelphia. My role was to support inter-group relations (I staffed the Black-Jewish Coalition, developed the Latino-Jewish Clergy Coalition, worked on domestic public policy – like gun safety – and supported the local Jewish community. Synagogue security was then, as now, a concern. People would call about whether and what levels of security they should have at their synagogues for the High Holidays. Then we could, and did, say: never has there been a shooting in a synagogue.

Until this year, I have not seen the need for armed guards. This year I feel differently.

It would be easy to despair in face of these challenges, these horrors. They are not new to us:

Our people’s history is one of living in a broken world.

The story, as told by Genesis, begins with the fratricide of one of the first children born to humanity. We know that violence, jealousy, fear, and division seem to be built into our human nature.

As Jews, our literary tradition says we were slaves in Egypt, referred to as vermin, oppressed, and murdered. And then there is the history we can document, beginning in Biblical times and continuing to the present: exiles, crusades, ghettoization, pogroms, genocide, terrorism.

We have always faced difficulties. Yet we have survived and not succumbed to hopelessness. What is the wisdom of our tradition for our situation today?

We always recognized that this world is in need of repair.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.

We always knew that there would be more repair to do than we could complete in our lifetimes. We always knew that we live in a broken world.

The response has always been: Have Faith, Build Community, Take Action

Have Faith

Faith is not, as Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland: believing in six impossible things before breakfast.

The Hebrew word for faith is emunah, and we see an example of it at one of our previous difficult times. The Israelites, recently out of Egypt, were hungry and exhausted and were attacked at the rear by Amalek. A battle ensued and as the book of Exodus (17) tells it: “whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.

וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה

Emunah here means steady. And that’s what faith means to us: steadiness. Not a belief in dogma. We have always had an aversion to dogma. Maimonides wrote a creed – the 13 principles of faith – which were controversial at the time and generally ignored for centuries after. Later they were set to music and the hymn Yigdal was created. But we sing this as a song, and do not recite it as an affirmation of belief.

Having faith means being steadfast, not losing our heads to fear and anxiety, and being able to carry on.

So how do we do this?

Jewish tradition has always prescribed prayer, study, and Shabbat.

Prayer, which, in Hebrew, is reflexive: leHITpalel – to judge oneself, to clarify for oneself. It’s an internal process -like meditation. Whatever is going on in the world or in your life, is better and probably more skillfully handled after a few minutes of quiet centering.


Our people has thousands of years of seeking to address the questions that are alive for us today. You don’t have to figure out all the answers on your own: there is tremendous wisdom coming from our community and beyond.


The rabbis said Shabbat is “a taste of the world to come.” We are invited to enter into a space created by the imagination of our ancestors and continued by ourselves: to believe, for 25 hours a week, that the world is perfect. That nothing need to be fixed. That, as we read last week in Genesis: God saw all that God had made and behold, it was very good.

We know that’s not the case. We know brokenness is part of the way things are; but we must imagine how the world might be if we want to work to make it so. We envision it and then work into that vision.

Also, we need rest. We need a break from all the bad news and the horror. We need to find some ease in our souls – not to put our heads in the sand, but to refresh and renew, so that we can get back to work.

The Jewish tradition itself can be a source of strength and support.

Perhaps you saw the article in the Times two weeks ago about a shofar that was blown in Auschwitz on Rosh HaShanah. This shofar is now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. This is the story:

Chaskel Tydor was a longtime prisoner entrusted as work dispatcher at one of the more than 40 Auschwitz subcamps. On Rosh Hashanah 1944, he contrived to send some religious prisoners out on a distant detail where they might make a minyan for prayer. He did not know that they carried something with them. But when they returned one confided to her father that a shofar had been produced and blown.

The following January, 1945, the Germans hurriedly began dynamiting Auschwitz and emptying the camp as the Russians approached. Mr. Tydor and some 60,000 other survivors were herded on a 30-mile march to another subcamp. But the night before they left another prisoner came up to him and pressed on him a rag-wrapped object. It was the shofar.

The man said: “I’m going to die on this march. If you live, take this shofar. Tell them we blew the shofar at Auschwitz.”

Chaskel Tydor survived the march and ended up back in Buchenwald where he was liberated by the American Army on April 11, 1945. Later that year, he joined a group of former concentration camp prisoners and other freed Jews aboard a steamship to Palestine, then under British mandate, and soon to become Israel. Off the coast of Haifa on Rosh Hashanah 1945, he blew the shofar.

This is one of many stories of extraordinary acts of faith – steadfastness – performed by Jews in the camps. Not because people believed that they would be punished by Heaven for failing to observe in these circumstances, but because their observance was an act of resistance to those who would dehumanize them and deny them the ability to be true to themselves and their tradition. Truth – emet – is the same root as emunah, faith. Faith is being true to who we are.

John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, who was beaten senseless on the first march from Selma to Montgomery, what became known as Bloody Sunday. He was interviewed a few years ago by Krista Tippett, director of the On Being Project and host of a radio show and podcast of that name. He spoke of faith and of the community that made it possible.

Of his work in the civil rights movement, Congressman Lewis said:

I discovered that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened…you live as if you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you it is already there. And during the early days of the movement, I believed that the only true and real integration for that sense of the beloved community existed within the movement itself. Because in the final analysis, we did become a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters. So it didn’t matter whether you were black or white. It didn’t matter whether you came from the North to the South, or whether you’re a Northerner or Southerner. We were one.

The first step was to live as if the vision were reality. Then to create it in the community of activists. This essential aspect of emunah is learned from our story: Moses’ hands remained steady because Aaron and Hur held them up. We need each other for strength and support.

In these times, as in the time of the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, we must come together. Change is not made by individuals alone. And it is always the time to make change.

As the political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote in his book, Exodus and Revolution, the basis of the Jewish story is that:

— first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

— second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

— and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

We can join together as a Jewish community. In these hard times, we need each other for support. Take advantage of the fact that we are here. You don’t need to struggle alone. Together, we can work to be a presence in our geographical area, a force for good.

And we can, and must, connect with our broader community. We can do that right here. As we feel a rise in anti-Semitism, there are others who are experiencing increased bias as well: immigrants (who are labeled as criminals and drains on the economy), gay and lesbian people (just today the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether people can be fired for being gay, lesbian, or transgender), and people of color (who are told to “go back where they came from,” as though this is not their home). Let us follow in the holy footsteps of John Lewis and build the beloved community. If we do that right here, maybe it can grow beyond.

How do we do this? Let us take action, and we can begin right here:

  • We are hosted here each year by the St. Hugh’s community. They host a number of social ministries and would welcome our support. We could help with their literacy programs, their food pantry (and you are invited to contribute food and finances to it), English as a second language. By doing so, we could contribute to the needs of our community and get to know our neighbors at the same time.
  • On January 12, we will hold an activism training for children and adults that will prepare us to more effectively make our voices heard and have an impact on our elected officials.
  • On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we will host a day of service.

In the meantime, we might follow the advice of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: when you’re feeling overwhelmed about how much injustice there is, and how big the problems are:

1) Make a list of 5 things that you could do that would help, in whatever way.

2) Pick one thing that you could do today. And one this week.

3) Revisit the list next week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel joined the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Reflecting on his experience, he said that he felt like his feet were praying.

Which brings us back to faith. One version of the Al Chet includes:

for the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair. Terrible things are happening. We may not be able to prevent them. But we can try. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who taught that joy is a mitzvah and that it is forbidden to despair, also taught that: If you believe you can destroy, you must believe you can repair.

Chaskel Tydor’s daughter, Dr. Judith Tydor Schwartz said: “If it’s one thing I know from all the thousands of survivors I interviewed, it’s that the impossible was possible, both to the bad and the good.”

Tomorrow night we will blow the shofar one last time this holiday season and recite the age-old expression of Jewish hope — “next year in Jerusalem.” Next year, in a world at peace. Let us believe it can be so. Let us work to make it so.

Kein yehi ratzon.

Rosh HaShanah 1 Morning – There Will Be No One To Come After You

HaYom HaRat Olam – Today the World is born.

Some say that Rosh HaShanah is the sixth day of creation: the day the human was created. The Human – אדם, Adam. The Hebrew word from human is the same root as the word for land: Adam and Adamah. A better translation would be earthling and earth. Or human and humus.

The very first thing the Torah tells us about our role as earth-beings is to care for the earth:

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃

The Eternal God took the human and placed them in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it. Or to serve it and guard it.

The midrash tells us: When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God took them and led them round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.” Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1

For over a thousand years, Jewish tradition has called us to care for the earth and warned that it is possible to destroy it.

This is not so different from what we have been hearing from a 16 year old girl from Sweden: Greta Thunberg. As I’m sure most of you know, Greta is a climate activist who began her efforts last year when she decided to not attend school until the Swedish general election after the heat waves and wildfires during Sweden’s hottest summer in 262 years. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and she protested by sitting outside the Swedish legislature every day for three weeks during school hours with a hand-painted sign reading: School strike for the Climate. After the elections, she continued to strike on Fridays. Other young people have noticed and joined her and, 10 days ago, FOUR MILLION PEOPLE took to the streets in the Global Climate Strike.

gretaSo many things about the evolution of this movement is astonishing, not least the story of Thunberg herself and the impact an individual can have. In many ways, she herself is extraordinary.

This is a young woman many would call “special needs.” She has struggled with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism, and an eating disorder. She is on the autism spectrum. There were months when she would not get out of bed, eat, or speak. She shared her fears for the earth with her parents who, affected by Greta’s passion, made a number of lifestyle changes. She saw that she had an impact on her family’s habits and this gave her hope that she might make a difference and it gave her the strength to act. And 13 months after beginning her school strike, she is the face of a movement of millions, and is speaking to governments and heads of state and the whole world.

She has said: “I see the world a bit different, from another perspective. I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest.”

The rabbis of the Mishnah taught that anyone who causes a single life to perish is deemed as if they had caused a whole world to perish; and one who saves a single soul is deemed as if they had saved a whole world. Individuals are infinitely valuable and have potential beyond our wildest dreams. A good thing to remember as we celebration the creation of humanity.

Over Labor Day weekend, I went to Philadelphia to visit my daughter, and the daughter of a colleague happened to be celebrating her bat mitzvah. Her name is Dasi Weinmartin and she is the founder of the Northwest Philadelphia chapter of the Sunrise Movement, an international youth-led movement to stop climate change. She taught powerfully about the work of this season of teshuvah:

“T’shuvah is repentance, which is essentially the process of acknowledging mistakes and returning to our best selves. Maimonides breaks teshuva down into three steps: 1) confessing your wrongdoing, 2) regretting your actions, and 3) vowing not to repeat whatever it was you had done wrong.

Let’s take a moment to use the lens of teshuva to look at the issue of the climate crisis with a little guide I like to call: “Dasi’s T’shuvah Assessment.”

First, transgression. We, the human people, have created significant damage in our past, building up an economy based on fossil fuels, which has seriously harmed the climate, and severely impacted many communities across America. It is time now to fix that before these gates close.

Second. Acknowledge and apologize. Each day we are developing a clearer understanding of climate change and acknowledging the impact of the problem. Climate scientists say that we only have up to the year 2030 to transition to a sustainable way of living before the damage that has been done to the earth is irreversible, or until our gates close. But when it comes to apology, how does one apologize to the earth? You can’t simply go up to the nearest tree to apologize and say “Sorry tree, I’ll try harder next time.” You must act.

This leads to the third element of teshuva – action, or taking steps to repair. That means it’s time to do some personal, country-wide, and global t’shuvah.

I hope, in… this time of T’shuvah, you can all begin to do your part in t’shuvah for the earth. Everything counts in working towards a cleaner, greener, just world.”

She concluded saying: “The ancient Rabbis designed teshuva as an architecture for change.” And she pleaded: “Help change our system today. When millions of us strike in every town and city in the country, the power of our movement will be impossible to ignore. Politicians will see that if they want to win in 2020, they have to listen to the youth.”

Yes, she’s a pretty special kid. She also has some yichus, some lineage. It was noted that she might be the first bat mitzvah in the world whose father, uncle, and grandmother are all rabbis!

We must do teshuvah for the earth. We must stop causing damage and we must repair. While much of the change that must happen is on the public scale – everything we do to prevent more greenhouse gases from entering the environment makes a difference. As individuals and as a community, we can act.

Kehillath Shalom has begun the formation of a Green Team and taken a few steps. We have purchased glass plates and cups and no longer need to use disposable plates and plastic for our food service. It’s a small step, but we are using fewer resources and putting less waste into the landfills. We could consider more: what other ways might we reduce our environmental footprint?

On this Yom Truah, day of sounding, let us raise our voices like the shofar, and cry out – to those who we have elected to power to make the life or death decisions.

A famous Talmudic story is from about 400 of the common era:
One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants. Taanit 23a

So many of us are here, in synagogue today, because of our parents and grandparents. We need to be here, to pray and commit and act in the world, for our children and grandchildren and great -grandchildren. Otherwise, the world will not be livable for them.

In the words of Greta Thunberg:
“…the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”

Let us plant hope through our actions. greta

Erev Rosh HaShanah – Mah Nora HaMakom HaZeh/How Awesome

We call these days the Yamim Noraim.
The word Nora is typically translated as awe, but also means fear, terror.

Why the connection? How are these the same word?

Awe is directed at objects considered to be more powerful than the subject, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Grand Canyon, the vastness of the cosmos, or God. Often, we think of awe Sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.

The days of awe, the days of terror: this is the journey we’re on for the next 10 days.

Why are these the Yamim Noraim? What is the terror?

One aspect of the holiday is reflected in tomorrow’s Torah reading: the creation of the world. The Torah begins:
When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth was tohu va’vohu.

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם

This is a very interesting phrase, often translated “unformed and void’” a lot of ink has been spilled trying to understand it.

Rashi said: tohu va’vohu signifies astonishment and amazement, for a person would have been astonished and amazed at its emptiness.

The 13th Century scholar Chizkuni interpreted tohu va’vohu as chaos.

Looking into the void is scary. Chaos is scary. I might be astonished an amazed, but not necessarily in a good way.

But the verse continues: ruach elohim – spirit of God or wind of God – hovers over the face of the water.
וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

What is this ruach elohim?
Rashi: The throne of Divine Glory was standing in space, hovering over the face of the waters by the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be God, and by God’s command, even as a dove hovers over its nest.


The terror of the day is in our liturgy. Tomorrow the choir will sing and we will recite Unetaneh tokef – On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die. This is a recognition of the truths of our lives: some of us won’t be here next year. Some of our loved ones won’t be here next year. These are the realities of the cycle of life – and we find it terrifying.

There’s a story about this fear in the Talmud:
Rava said to Rav Naḥman: Master, appear to me in a dream after your death. And he appeared to him. Rava said to him: Master, did you have pain in death? Rav Naḥman said to him: Like the removal of hair from milk, which is a most gentle process. But nevertheless, were the Holy One, Blessed be God, to say to me: Go back to that world, the physical world, as you were, I would not want to go, for the fear of the Angel of Death is great. Moed Katan 28a

Not that death itself is bad; the fear of it is terrifying.

I recently heard of a woman with an serious illness being asked:
What’s it like to know you’re dying?
She responded: What’s it like to pretend you’re not?

The truth of life is that our life spans are limited. Life is a temporary experience – and it’s hard to face.

One of our ancestors, Jacob, is an example of terror turning to awe.
Having tricked his brother out of his inheritance, Jacob flee Beer-Sheva for Haran. He fears for his life, because his twin, Esau, has threatened to kill him.

He camps for the night and has a dream in which a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God stands beside him and blesses him, saying: “I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac…I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Jacob awakens from his sleep and says, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
Awed, he says, “Mah nora hamakom hazeh. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.”

Nora – awesome, terrifying.

What’s with this place? Perhaps it was always special and he didn’t notice because he was wrapped up in his own drama – fleeing from his brother who’d threatened to kill him. Or maybe there was no difference between the place before and after. Maybe what was different was Jacob himself.

This Torah portion begins:
Va’yetzei Yaakov – often translated: Jacob went out, or Jacob left.
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃
Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.

But my rabbi and teacher Yoel Kahn translates it: and Jacob came out – just as yetziat mitzrayim is coming out of Egypt.
Jacob was unable to recognize the holiness in the place around him until he was able to recognize the holiness within him.

Jacob came out from the fear of his brother. He came out from his mother’s tent. He came out from the shadow of his father and grandfather’s relationship with the Divine into his own. He came out from not knowing who he would be and what was his role in the world. When Jacob came out, he was transformed, and so was everything around him.

These Days of Fear and Awe are also called the Ten Days of Teshuvah, of turning. As we do our cheshbon hanefesh, our accounting of the soul, we might come up against another scary thing about these days: here we find ourselves again and again, like in years past, struggling with the same issues. We fear we might never make the changes, see the growth, that we’d like to make. Let us think of these days as for turning to ourselves, for coming out, coming into ourselves, for being whole. We, too, are mystery.

The rabbis of the 1st centuries referred to God as HaMakom – the Place – how awesome is this Place. Perhaps the spaces around us are reflections of the Place within us: when we make our own connection with that Place, with our fears and sorrows and joys, our goodness and our faults, we can more fully connect with see the depth in the world around us. All places have the potential to be awesome, gates of heaven.

The Ruach Elohim hovers over the emptiness, the chaos. The Spirit of the Place hovers over us like a dove over her chicks. Let us turn from the fear of the chaos of our lives, terror about that which we cannot control, to resting in The Place. Let us move from terror to awe, from fear to holding the mystery with open hands. This life is so much bigger than we are.

Tomorrow afternoon, at 4 pm at the Halesite Dock, we will enact the ancient ritual of Tashlich, Casting Away. I invite you to join us in casting away whatever you need to let go of, your old anxieties about yourself, your fears of the unknown. Cast them off and cross through the Gates of Heaven.

Yom HaZikaron, Remembering Who We Are

The Talmud (BT Niddah 30b) tells us what is going on when the fetus is developing in the womb: an angel is teaching it all of Torah, all the secrets of the world, the mysteries and wisdom of existence. When it comes time to be born, the angel touches the baby above the lip (do you know what that spot is called?: the philtrum) and all is forgotten.

Suggesting that:
All of life is a reconnecting with what we once knew, what we really know, in the depths of our souls, with who we really are.

That’s why this time period, the 10 Days of Teshuvah, are a time of RETURN. We are invited to return to our deep, authentic, true selves.

When I was adopted 5 months from the NY Foundling Hospital, my parents were told: “her background is like yours.” And Sicilian-American mom was very surprised to get a blond baby – she wondered why they bothered to take photos!

I was adopted by Roman Catholics who were very involved in the renewal movement taking place in the Church in the early 70’s. My earliest memories are of the “guitar masses” my mom used to lead, singing “This Little Light of Mine.” They were part of what we would call a “chavurah,” a small church community. In fact, they called it “the Community.” This was a group of about a dozen families who met regularly after church and discussed the readings. Eventually, as a group, the community sponsored an extended family of Vietnamese refugees. The grandmother and an aunt lived with us for 2 and a half months. This is one of my most formative experiences; it taught me that faith isn’t just what you do in church – it’s about action in the world.

When I was ten, I wanted a bible for Christmas, I was going to read it from cover to cover. And I did! I fell in love with the stories of the Hebrew bible. The characters are so complicated, so human! I was raised with saints, and here are real people, who are also holy people. Leah, who is jealous of her prettier sister and…King David! Who falls in love with a woman and has her husband murdered so he can marry her. This is King David! And Solomon is their son!

When I was 14, I read The Source, by James Michener, and learned that these stories have a history, a people, a land. I wanted to know all I could. So I studied whenever I could, selecting electives that would enable me to explore Jewish themes: in HS I wrote a paper on “Women in the Babylonian Talmud” and “The American Women’s Movement and its Impact on Reform Judaism,” and, in college, Hebrew every single day for two years.

In college, I was searching religiously. I spent time with Reform Jews at Columbia, sang in the choir of the Catholic Campus Ministry, spent time with a Protestant Women of Faith group (that evolved into a coven). In junior year, I began to search for my birth parents. (New York is still a closed-record state). The first thing was to write to the New York Foundling to ask for non-identifying information. And what jumped out at me in a moment I’ll never forget, was the second paragraph, that began:
Father, 26, German Jewish, ……. I thought: Oh, this is why I’ve been taking Hebrew every single day, and studying all that I have for the past ten years! This was right before Passover. I got myself invited to a seder where I was the only one who read enough Hebrew to ask the 4 questions! I joined a synagogue, eventually formally converted, went to Rabbinical school, and continued to search on and off for years.

Then the internet came along. In the late ‘90s, I found an adoption bulletin board online, and posted all my information. In 2003, my birthmom went to the library, took out a book about how to search, and found me 2 hours later. As we began our correspondence, and she learned I am a rabbi, she wrote to me: Oh, Lina, this is soooo weird…. She told me the story of her own mother, whose mother worked for the phone company in NYC, became pregnant, and her co-worker said: my sister can’t have kids; she’ll adopt your baby. Ann was adopted by this Irish Catholic couple, but her birth mother was Jewish. So I’m Jewish on my paternal and maternal sides.
Ann reconnected to her Jewish heritage and wanted to be buried as a Jew in a Jewish cemetery to honor her mother and asked me to conduct her funeral, which was my honor. And my birthmom, Janis, took a Hebrew name, Yocheved, because, as she said: Yocheved sent her son down the Nile and I sent you to Long Island!

Learning about my heritage clued me in to who I was and why. I used to say it was the collective unconscious, kind of jokingly. But maybe it’s no joke.

Carl Jung developed the concept of the collective unconscious as a type of genetic memory that can be shared by individuals with a common ancestor or history. He suggested that the collective unconscious consists of implicit beliefs and thoughts had by our ancestors. He wrote: ‘The form of the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him, as a virtual image’ (Jung, 1953, p. 188).

Like the story of the angel implanting the fetus with the Torah. I think my ancestors planted a passion for Torah in me.

Meeting my birth parents helped me feel whole. Like I’d been missing a piece of myself, like the final puzzle piece was placed. It’s also helped my birth family – Janis took a Hebrew name, Yocheved, “because she sent Moses down the Nile and I sent you to Long Island!” And my biological grandmother asked that I would officiate at her funeral and that she be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so that she could honor her birth mother and Jewish heritage.

Maybe your story isn’t so dramatic, but your soul has a story. You, too, may have missing pieces that could use a little attention and exploration.

Maybe that’s why so many other people, adopted or not, are seeking out their genetic history. Millions of people are seeking more information about their background through ancestry.com and 23andme. And perhaps you’ve also watched Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are – tv shows that explore celebrities’ family trees.

We are looking for who we are.

Which is why we take these personality quizzes on Facebook – what color are you? What food matches your personality? “This Mermaid Test will Reveal your Personality.” We do these like they’ll tell us something we don’t know! And even though we know that they exist to gather information on us.

Because we are looking for who we are.

Rabbi Zusya was ill and his students came to sit with him. As he neared death, Rabbi Zusya became frightened. His students said to him, “Rabbi, you have nothing to fear! You were like Moses!” Rabbi Zusya replied to them, “The Holy One, Blessed Be, will not ask me if I was like Moses. G*d will ask if I was Zusya.”

This journey of discovery, of revealing and uncovering, is life-long. Until the day of our deaths.

On this Yom HaZikaron, Day of Remembrance – may we remember who we are, and who we might be.

Thank you for joining us at the start of this ten-day process. I hope you’ll stay with us, as we take this annual opportunity for introspection and return.

Yom Kippur: If this were our last year

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not….

Who shall live and who shall die.
Some of us will not be here next year. Some of our loved ones will not be here next year.
This is not a threat of judgment, but a fact of life.
There is a time to be born and a time to die, and all of us will die.

Sheila/Paul: I feel like I’m dying. You are!

We are all dying.

And yet, some months ago, when my teacher, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, decided to stop treatment for the glioblastoma that took her life her two weeks ago, her doctor gave her some advice she found very helpful. She said: You are not dying. You are living with a terminal illness.

As we are all living.

On Yom Kippur, we add to the fearful awesome life and death words of the Unetaneh Tokef we recited as well on Rosh HaShanah by our actions. The traditional practices of Yom Kippur (fasting, etc.) are meant to take us out of our physical bodies and from the activities of daily life. I am wearing the kittel in which I will be buried. We are rehearsing our death.

The words are powerful, and today we try to embody them, to truly take in a sense of life’s preciousness and precariousness, so that we might live accordingly.

Would you live your life differently if you knew this was your last year?

Last year, BBC presented the film: A Time to Live. Sue Bourne interviewed many people with a terminal diagnosis and, over and over, she heard how that terminal diagnosis had been a changing point in their lives, and how they were glad for it.

Glad for it?!?

In the words of one person profiled: “Being told you have months to live doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It can actually be a live sentence.”

How would you live, if you knew your time was limited? Which, of course, it is.

There’s an app that was recently created to do for the broader community what Yom Kippur offers to Jews. On a daily basis, 5 times a day, it will send you a text that says: “You will die.” The app is called: We Croak.

Last week, for research (😊), I saw the movie: The Bucket List. Perhaps you saw it when it came out. It’s about two men, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, unlikely roommates in the hospital, who receive terminal diagnoses and develop a list of the things they’d like to do before they die. They set off on adventure. They skydive, they go to the Riviera, the Pyramids, the Himalayas.

Thanks to the movie, the term “bucket list,” a list of things you want to do before you die, is very common. Some say that bucket lists are very helpful. They make you stop and think what you actually want to experience in this lifetime. They remind you that life is short and we should live it to its fullest. They even increase our happiness because they help us cultivate both hope and curiosity (qualities that support human flourishing).

Do you have a bucket list? What’s on it? Is your list filled with travel and adventure, or do you have other goals?

In Sue Bourne’s film, A Time to Live, those with one year to live didn’t all of a sudden pick up and go see the world. And after their adventure, the Morgan Freeman character just wanted to go home and reconnect with his wife and children. In fact, his “bucket list” was less about adventure and more about connection and experience:
• Help a complete stranger
• Laugh until I cry
• Witness something truly majestic

And, for both characters, the most meaningful thing on their list is reconnection with family.

The movie is fiction, but this holds true in real life as well. On a blog that asked the question, what would you do if you had 24 hours to live, most people wanted to spend time with loved ones. Perhaps the most poignant answer came from a woman who said she would patch up a rift with a sibling, they used to be very close. “When I die I’d like to have everything, all my relationships in a good place.” She paused and dabbed at her eye. “What am I waiting for?”

What are we waiting for?

Leonard Cohen, of blessed memory, wrote a song based on this prayer:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

Today we are called.
A story from the Talmud:
Rabbi Yehoshua asked Elijah: When will the Messiah come?
Elijah answered, Go and ask him. Rabbi Yehoshua asked: Where is he?
Elijah said, You can find him at the gates of Rome. He sits among the lepers. They unwind all of their bandages at the same time and then cover their sores with clean bandages. The Messiah is the only one who unwinds and rewinds his bandages one at a time, thinking, I want to be ready at a moment’s notice if I am called.

Rabbi Yehoshua went to the gates of Rome and approached the Messiah and said, Peace be upon you, my master and teacher. The leper looked knowingly at him and replied, Peace be upon you, son of Levi. Rabbi Yehoshua asked him, When will the master come? Today, said the leper. Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah and said, He lied to me, saying, Today I will come. But he has not come. Elijah said, No, he did not say that he would come today. Rather, he was quoting a Psalm verse to you: Today, if only you will listen to His voice (Psalm 95:7). (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)

What is the messiah? Most of us don’t think an actual person will come, riding a white donkey, we pray for redemption, not a redeemer. So what is redemption? When our lives are filled with meaning and purpose and love.

And in the words of Danny Siegel:
If you always assume / The one sitting next to you
Is the Messiah
Waiting for some simple human kindness –
You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.
And if the Messiah chooses not to be revealed in your time – It will not matter.

The metaphor of these days is the Book of Life:
The Cantor will soon chant:
It is You who shall open the book of Remembrance, but its contents shall speak for themselves, for it bears the imprint of us all – our signature is on the page.

The 11th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher Bachya ibn Pakuda wrote: “Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”

Let us, out of our lives, write beautiful books.

Kol Nidre: We Pray with the Sinners

We began the service tonight with the odd statement:
We permit ourselves to pray with the sinners.

Or, as our interpretive translation softens the harsher Hebrew text:
We accept into our midst whoever seeks to pray.
Whether righteous or unrighteous, all shall pray as one community.

We come here from so many places and backgrounds – Jews and lovers of Jews, believers and non-believers, intellectuals and spiritual people, old and young, religious, non-religious and even anti-religious.

So many of you are here for your only time in synagogue all year. What brings you here?

And what brings our “regulars” here, today and so many times every year?

Why are we all here tonight?

We connect with who we are, our history, our family, our traditions.
We connect with community.

Judaism calls us together tonight.

What is it calling us to do?

Our ancestors who wrote the Bible, who created rabbinic Judaism, were trying to create a society, a community, that gave meaning to their lives, helped people live together in a just way, and helped us reach beyond ourselves to connect with the Source of All.

Ultimately, I believe that Judaism is a technology of repair. Repair, Tikkun in Hebrew. Probably you’ve all heard the term tikkun olam – repair of the world. Even Mr. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, said that “We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ (tikkunei olam) repairers of creation.”

Tikkun Olam is what a lot of people think about when they think about what’s important to them about Judaism. And it is important. Tomorrow, in our haftarah reading, on this most synagogue-based and liturgy-filled day of the year, we will read these words from the book of Isaiah, imagining the words of G!d:

Is this the fast I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them, And not to ignore your own kin.

It is so powerful that the rabbis of our ancient tradition included these words in our liturgy today. They’re not saying: don’t fast, but that our rituals have a purpose beyond themselves – and beyond ourselves.

Judaism is a technology of repair. And not only tikkun olam, repair of the world, but also, tikkun hanefesh, repair of the soul.

Judaism teaches us gratitude – tradition invites us to say 100 blessings a day, not so that we mumble to ourselves all the time, but so that we notice the miracles of our daily life. Like the first brachah tradition gives us to say in the morning – the blessing for going to the bathroom. People usually laugh about this, but if you think about it, it’s really extraordinary. As the blessing states:
humanity is with wisdom, and created
within us are many openings and many cavities.
It is obvious and known …that if but one of them were to be ruptured,
or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive . It invites us to say:
Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

Judaism encourages mindfulness and presence. When you make a brachah, a blessing, you notice, call attention to, pay attention to (in Hebrew: titen lev, give heart) to what you are doing. So often, we are mindless, multi-tasking and so not paying attention. How many times have I eaten lunch at my desk and not noticed what I’ve eaten, or even that I’ve eaten. I’ve looked into my bag for my apple or next thing, only to find that it is gone, eaten, and I have no memory or awareness of doing so. And what a gift, to have sufficient, healthy, nutritious and delicious food to nourish my body. And what an amazing thing, that food gives me energy to do the things I want to do. And what a loss to not even notice.

When I pay attention, give heart, to this, it transforms my perspective on the moment. It opens my heart. It makes the ordinary extra-ordinary. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: there are two ways to live: one is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle. What a joy to notice the beauty of the moment. What a gift to be present to our experience.

You could do this by yourself, but Judaism isn’t a solitary tradition. We don’t advocate individual practice, escape to the top of a mountain to commune alone with nature, ourselves or the Divine. Why?

I find that in community I’m reminded of the values that are important to me. I can get distracted (more multi-tasking!) and am reminded by the examples of the beautiful people around me about what’s important to me. There’s a saying in Zen that, like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish each other. I think that’s true beyond Zen monks.

We are all the “sinners” mentioned at the beginning of our service – we are all people who miss the mark. We are all “righteous” and “unrighteous.” On those days when I miss the mark, someone else is there as a model, a guide, an example. And as a friend. Judaism considers friendship to be essential.

I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Jim Ponet, who led Yale Hillel for nearly 40 years, that there is a blessing to be said when you haven’t seen a friend in some time. More blessings!
What brachah might you imagine?
It is the traditional blessing that concludes the second prayer of the Amidah:
Blessed is the Holy One, who gives life to the dead.
How is that?
Because our friends, our intimate relationships, draw out parts of ourselves that we cannot draw out alone. We come more fully alive in relationship.

The book of Ecclesiastes, which is mythologically attributed to King Solomon, it is written, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up the other; but woe to the one that is alone when they fall, for they have not another to help them up” (4:9-10).

Doing stuff on your own is not the same as doing it with a community.

You can’t write yourself a get-well card like one Kehillath Shalom member writes to everyone in our community who is ill.

You can’t, on your own, create an experience for your child and family in a community of families like our dedicated volunteers do.

You can’t bring yourself a meal after surgery.

You can’t comfort yourself after a death.

You can’t share your joys and sorrows with your mirror.

One of the most important sayings of the great first-century sage Hillel is: al tifrosh min hatzibur. Do not separate yourself from the community. The tradition understands the ancient punishment of karet, exclusion from the community, to be literally a fate worse than death. They believed that death was temporary, but separation from the community could be forever.

When we finish reading a book of the Torah, the congregation stands and calls out: Hazak, hazak, v’nitchazek. Strong, strong, and let us strengthen each one other.

Let us love one another.

Let us strengthen one another.

Let us support each other in good times and bad.

Let us give heart to our moments, our days, and to each other.

As synagogue community is traditionally referred to as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community:

Let us sanctify life for each other.

Shanah tovah.

Rosh HaShanah Morning

The Torah reading this morning is one of longing and despair and power and fear and jealousy and ruthlessness. It is a human story and is also the story of the start of the Jewish people.

To summarize:
Sarah and Abraham couldn’t have a child
Sarah had a maid, really an Egyptian slave, and gave her to Abraham to be a surrogate mother. Hagar was not consulted.
When Hagar (whose name means “the stranger”) became pregnant, her status changed, and Sarah feels that Hagar disrespected her. Sarah abuses her and she runs away. This single, pregnant slave risked the harsh desert over the intolerable situation.
Where an angel met her and sent her to go back.
She had a son, Ishmael – whose name means “G!d will listen.”
Today, we read:
Sarah finally has a son, Isaac. Some years later, she sees Ishmael and Isaac playing and fears for her son’s safety and inheritance and again expels Hagar, this time along with Ishmael. They are sent into the desert with only 1 skin of water, which of course runs out.

I find this story so painful. Our holy ancestors, our patriarch and matriarch, are abusive slaveholders who rape an African woman to breed her. That may be a harsh way to read narrative, but I think it’s not inaccurate. This is a complicated story, and I wonder, with which character is the Torah asking us to identify? With Sarah’s pain in her infertility and fear or with Hagar’s suffering and powerlessness? With Abraham’s ambivalence and passivity? Are we to feel relief in the clarity of Isaac’s inheritance or joy when Abraham and Hagar are reunited after Sarah dies?

The Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman, asks similar questions about identity and identification. Based on a true story, it is the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who infiltrated the Klan. He couldn’t actually show up to Klan events, so he recruited another policeman to be him in person. In the movie, Flip, the “other Ron,” was Jewish.

While primarily a film about blackness and anti-blackness, BlacKkKlansman is a most profound and moving meditation on Jewish identity, responsibility, and survival. In one scene, Ron and Flip are arguing over difficulties in the undercover operation and Ron tries to point out that Flip, as a Jew, has “skin in the game” in the crusade against the Klan. Flip, in a rare moment of vulnerability, begins to talk about his life as an American Jew in the latter half of the 20th century. “I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be,” he says. No Jewish rituals, no deep education about Jewish history, not even a bar mitzvah ceremony — “I was just another white kid.” But something is changing, something primal and maybe genetic. “I never thought much about it,” he says of being Jewish. “Now I think about it all the time.”

To what do we owe this awakening? Well, Flip started talking to Klansmen, and if that won’t accelerate your awareness of being a member of a minority group, nothing will. And like Hagar with Abraham and Sarah, he wasn’t known by his name in the Klan.

Flip Zimmerman didn’t have a sense of Jewish identity and identified with his white colleagues – many of whom were racist and perpetrated racist acts. He was “just another white kid.” He did not identify with people of color or other minorities. He had to be schooled by the black cop.

With whom do we identify? Do we, most of us Jews of European descent, do we identify with other white Americans? Do we see ourselves as white? What if we’re white to ourselves but not to others? Flip Zimmerman certainly wasn’t white in the eyes of the Klan and neither are Jews in the minds of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

For much of his life, he “passed,” as “just another white kid.” How much do we pass? Many Jews have more than one name – I’m Lina Zerbarini, but I’m also Liba Rut Leah bat Meir v’Yocheved Noa. My Jewish name is not the same as my everyday, public name. That’s probably true for most of us. Were we named this way so that we weren’t so obviously Jewish? In the words of Mordecai Kaplan, Our emancipation will not be complete until we are free of the fear of being Jews.

Because many Jews are “white,” we have the choice of how public to be about our Jewishness. However, “white” is not exactly a skin color, but a category marking power. American Jews do have power, and are also often viewed with suspicion (look at our own history in Cold Spring Harbor); and having power is no assurance of protection. According to FBI hate-crime statistics, the majority of religiously motivated hate-crime offenses are committed against Jews each year. This has been the case every year since the FBI first began reporting hate-crime statistics in 1995, when more than 80 percent of religiously motivated crimes were against Jews. These days, that percentage is closer to 50 percent—a sign not that Jews are safer, but that other groups have been increasingly targeted.

Conversely, what if we’re white in the eyes of others but not in our own eyes? Much of the American Jewish community has experienced much success and holds true power: (at about 2% of the US population, we are disproportionately represented in government: 7 senators, 22 representatives, 3 justices on the supreme court, and are leaders of industry: finance, real estate, tv, film, journalism, social media). We have been able to assimilate and achieve in this country. We are, at the same time, both powerful and at risk. We are a privileged minority.

Race and racism are among of the most challenging aspects of American society, and Jews have been involved on both sides. As slavers and slave owners, as leaders of the Confederacy, as slumlords and as people who use slurs to speak of black people. And as abolitionists and freedom riders and marchers and civil rights workers and as activists for racial justice.

And all of us carry unconscious bias absorbed from the society and culture we live in. So how do we see ourselves? And with whom do we identify? Are our anxieties reflected in those who fear the browning of America (there will be no majority racial group in 25 years)? Or do we see ourselves as a part of the diversity of this country? Whose struggles are our struggles?

In the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, are we asked to identify with our ancestors, or with their slave? I think we’re asked to open our eyes to the humanity and complexity of all of them. To see them and, thus, to see ourselves.

The Torah stories we read today and tomorrow are stories of not seeing: Hagar and Ishmael are about to die of thirst when her eyes are opened and see sees a well in front of her. Avraham is about to slaughter his son Isaac in blind devotion to G!d when his name is called and he lifts his eyes and sees the ram in the thicket. Why did not each of these see what was right in front of them? Was Hagar’s blindness a result of her trauma and fear? Was Avraham’s due to his laser focus on his task and unwillingness to look around him? And Sarah – was she able to see nothing but her own struggle?

Hagar, the Egyptian slave, is the first in the Bible to name G!d. She calls G!d: El Roi – the One who sees me. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t see her – in fact, they called her only “the slave girl.” But G!d saw her and saved her.
May we be like G!d, seeing and helping others see.

May we be like Flip Zimmerman who, through his experience, found the courage to claim his Jewish identity, fight white supremacy and stand for people of color.

May we be like Ron Stallworth, fighting for what is right and leading others to do so as well.

In the movie, black radical Kwame Ture, the man formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, surprisingly utters a few sentences familiar to many of us: the three questions of first-century sage Hillel. As Ture puts them, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Then he caps it off with a fourth question, one that sums up Lee and his writers’ message: “And if not you, who?”

Tisha B’Av: Transforming Suffering into Love

As Jewish days begin at night (“and it was evening, and it was morning, the first day”), tonight begins Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av. This day commemorates many calamities in Jewish history, including and especially the destruction of both the First (in 586 bce) and Second (in 70 ce) Temples in Jerusalem.

It’s a day of mourning and fasting about the disaster of the destruction, the loss of sovereignty in Israel and the exile of the Jewish people.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, the possibility of Jews to return to our historical homeland, how is Tisha B’Av relevant? Why should we make ourselves uncomfortable for events of the distant past?

The destructions of Jerusalem were cataclysmic events, on the scale of the Holocaust. You can read the heartbreaking descriptions of suffering that people experienced the first time in the Book of Lamentations, which is read in synagogue tonight and tomorrow morning. What does this have to do with today?

I observe the fast because Tisha B’Av invites me to reconnect with the anguish of my people so as to stay aware of the tremendous sufferings of so many people that I might otherwise try to avoid really thinking about. The reason the Torah says over and over again: “remember you were strangers in Egypt” is because “you shall love the stranger as yourself.” The stranger is the most vulnerable member of a community. The memory of our own suffering is to lead us to love and compassion for others.

In my Thursday meditation class, we began to practice tonglen meditation – connecting with our suffering and that of others so that we might transform it to compassion.

Some say that the 2nd Temple was destroyed due to people hating each other for no reason – our time seems to have resonances with the 1st Century. May all our sufferings be eased, may we see each other as friends and not strangers, and may the world grow in kindness.