Lessons from My Parents

The observances of Mother’s and Father’s Days in May and June have me thinking about Avot, literally, in Hebrew, parents, (and also ancestors). A section of the Mishnah, known as Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers/Parents, is a series of short verses of advice, ethics, and wisdom. Thinking about my avot brings a few of these ancestors’ sayings to mind.  

My father is known to be a man of integrity. In his final professional position, at a major investment firm, he was asked to recommend a stock that he did not feel comfortable endorsing. When he refused to comply with the request, he was fired. But that was not the end of the story, or of the job. Many of his colleagues in the industry called his company in protest. Some of them must have had leverage, and his position was restored to him.

This verse applies to him:

Rabbi Shimon said: There are three crowns: the crown of torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name supersedes them all. (Avot 4:13)

My mom, despite having advanced Alzheimer’s, is the warm, kind person she has been her whole life. She smiles at people and laughs and leans in to give and receive kisses. She speaks very little, but she thanks her caregivers after they bathe and dress her.

She used to quote her father, my sweet grandfather, who would say, “if you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Another piece of good advice I got from her was, “don’t put it down, put it away.”

This verse applies to her:

Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little but do much; and receive each person with a pleasant countenance. (1:15)

When I was a child, my parents and a group of their friends sponsored a family of Vietnamese refugees. It was not as easy as they thought it would be. They anticipated that the people would live in our homes for a couple of weeks, and that the larger community would pitch in and help them find housing and work. But there was little help, and the process took months. But the friends worked together and eventually the adults got employment and children went to school and they found a house and were able to build lives in the US. Today, most live in Houston and the child of the boy who lived with us is a doctor.

A few years after that, a friend of my dad’s lost their house and they, too, came to live with us for a time. (That was harder).

This verse applies to them:

Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem used to say: Let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. (1:5)

I am grateful for the lessons of my parents. And I know that I am lucky to have had parents who taught me what to do, and not just what not to do (although there’s that, too, of course). So this verse applies to me:

One who learns from their friend one chapter, or one halakhah, or one verse, or one word, or even one letter, is obligated to treat them with honor….(6:3).


What Does it Take to Be a Tzaddik?

Presented to the Board of Reconstructing Judaism, Sunday, May 22, 2022

This week’s portion, the final in the book of VaYikra, being called, describes terrible things.

Bechukotai details what will happen to the people if the community does not follow the way they are called. These consequences are fearful, describing drought, famine, war, devastation & desolation.

Sadly, horrifically, the war, drought, plague, and exile detailed do not seem far away from our current realities. Not some ancient prophecy, but the news.

What would bring about these disasters? The Torah repeats:  וְאִם־תֵּֽלְכ֤וּ עִמִּי֙ קֶ֔רִי

If you walk with me קֶ֔רִי, or בְּקֶֽרִי. Rashi offers two explanations for this word, which appears 7 times in our portion, and only here. One way, and how it is typically translated, is “if you walk in opposition,” or “if you remain hostile,” or “contrary.” And, drawing from Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, he offers another meaning: haphazardly, by happenstance.

Terrible things happen, both because people intentionally do them, or because we don’t pay attention to what we are doing and live thoughtlessly.

In the counting of the Omer, in the Kabbalistic formulation, this is the week of Yesod.

In the Book of Proverbs (10:25), we’re told:

צַדִּ֗יק יְס֣וֹד עוֹלָֽם׃

the righteous is the foundation of the world

Well, that’s lovely, and, while I do know one person whom I really do believe is one of the lamed-vavniks, the 36 hidden righteous persons upon whom the world depends, she seems to come by in naturally, and I don’t know how she got that way and wonder what it takes to become a tzaddik.

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who was the student of the founder of Hasidim, the Baal Shem Tov, brings another verse from Proverbs:

כִּי שֶׁבַע יִפּוֹל צַדִּיק וָקָם

For a tzadik will fall seven times and get up (Proverbs 24:16)

He asks:

Why does it say tzadik AFTER yipol?

They’re a tzaddik after they fall?

And, of course, answers his own question:

What makes one a Tzadik is that they get up.

Let us not delude ourselves: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was not making light of falling. He knew from terror and from suffering. This isn’t “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”

Back to our Torah portion: it sure feels that our society, our world, is in free-fall. As individuals, as a community, as a country, we have to get back up. But how? How does one become get-back-up-per? How do we become Tzadikimot? Our ancestors, who lived through times such as ours, and worse, offer answers:

Said Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, to become a tzaddik, you imagine you are one.

That sounds even more simplistic than “dust yourself off”!

Religious imagination is built into our tradition. The last verse of yesterday’s portion – and in most years read together with this week’s – reminds us to keep Shabbat. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote: “on Shabbat, it is not really that one is forbidden to work, it is that all is perfect, there is nothing to do.” Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. On Shabbat, we imagine that our world is complete. This offers us both the vision and even the experience of wholeness – so that, when we make Havdalah and move into the week, we can build towards something we know.

Harvey Milk’s final campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, wrote: “What set Harvey apart….was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.” Milk would have been 92 today had he not been murdered. And he, too, was no stranger to suffering nor was he naïve about the risks to his life. And yet, his motto was: “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

A Tzadik can get up because they have hope.

Yet hope is not enough. Adina Abramowitz said yesterday during the Torah discussion at Dorshei Derech, we need:

Radical Planning. Which brings us back to our verse: We must not walk keri. We must have intentionality. If you don’t prepare for shabbat, it’s going to be pretty hard to much of a world-to-come experience. And if we don’t plan otherwise, if we do not organize and mobilize, terrible things are just as likely to happen as anything else.

We get up because we have put structures in place that support us, that enable us to lift ourselves.

Finally, the quality of Yesod is about connection and, in the words of political theorist Michael Walzer: “There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

Tzadikim raise each other. Tzadikim reach out for the hands of others to get up again.

So how do we become tzadikim? How do we build a foundation of righteousness in this world? How do we avoid the curses of our portion?

  • We envision the future and believe we can achieve it
  • We work to build that future
  • We do it hand in hand, in love (and today is chesed of yesod) and solidarity with each other.  

And here’s a song: You Fall Down You Get Back Up

Yom Kippur Morning: The Torah Demands Equality

Yom Kippur calls us to action, as we read in the powerful haftarah from Isaiah:

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 him,

And not to ignore your own kin.(Isaiah 58:6 & 7)

The concern for those in need was the focus of the prophets at all times. And it was not theoretical, or voluntary. The Torah mandated specific ways of making sure that every member of the community had their basic needs met, such as leaving the corners of your fields unharvested, so that those in need could gather.

Last week, I spoke about Shmitah, the year of release that the Torah commands for every 7th year, and its call to let the earth and ourselves rest.

But Shmitah is not only about rest. It is not solely about letting the land lie fallow and getting a break from the work of agriculture. It was one of the ancient methods of assuring that the vulnerable have what they need, and further, it was about repairing inequality.

A key aspect of the Shemitah year is Shmitaht kesafim, “release of monies:”

Every seventh year you shall practice release.… every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his friend or relative, for the remission proclaimed is of the Eternal. (Deut 15: 1-2)

In this remarkable passage, the Torah directs us to surrender any and all

financial claims we have against others in the Shemitah year.

The Torah anticipated that we would be hesitant about this:

Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy relative and give them nothing….Give to them readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. (Deut. 15: 9-11)

Release of debts was to happen every 7 years, and every 7 cycles of 7 years, the Torah says:

You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to their holding and each of you shall return to their family. (Leviticus 25:10)

This return is not just for a family reunion. It is a redistribution of wealth. In an agricultural society, land was wealth. The return to their holding meant that as the people returned, the land would go back to ownership of the original tribe and clan. People could buy and sell and amass wealth (or lose it) for 49 years, but then it would revert. The wealthy would give up everything extra they had accumulated during the previous cycle, and the poor would get back the solid life they had lost.

This redistribution has been on my mind and heart for months now, as I and heard and read about the economic impact that COVID has had on so many people. So many people lost jobs or had to leave them due to not having childcare. 15% of our neighbors in Nassau and Suffolk counties are behind on their rent. And many of these people are those caring for us: it’s the service jobs that were lost during the shutdown and beyond, not the white-collar workers who could work from home. If we are not in office buildings, they don’t need so many janitorial staff. If we’re afraid to sit near someone we’re not getting our hair cut or our nails done or going to the movies or sitting inside restaurants. The coffee shop near the Huntington train station closed this year – no commuters, no morning coffee. Just one of many losses.

I have been so worried about what will happen to these families if they are evicted. While I am grateful that the eviction moratorium has been extended to January, and also that it is a priority of our new governor to make sure that the Emergency Rental Assistance Program established to support those in need will actually get to them and their landlords, it does not solve the basic problem: that so many people live on the edge.

Shmitah was designed to fix that. It’s a radical system. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist political thinker, wrote that:

“The Shmitah/Jubilee idea…aims that society should, periodically, institute a great fundamental social revolution; that it should equalize all classes; that it should take from the wealthy and give to the destitute.”

But it is not communism: Jabotinsky continues: “after such a revolution, every man is free to start anew his social battle, free again to aspire, to utilize his energies and talents according to his desire. …This concept of repeated economic upheavals is an attempt to correct the ills of economic liberalism, not to forestall them. Quite on the contrary, this concept is clearly based on the conviction that free economic competition is one of the most powerful motivations in life. Let people struggle, lose and win.

It is only necessary to cushion the arena with soft grass, so that whoever falls will not be too painfully injured. This cushion is the Sabbath [and Shmitah], the gleanings, the tithes, all the various means by which the State takes pains to prevent use from turning into exploitation, and poverty from becoming destitution.”

(The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky: Selected Writings)

As secular thinker Jabotinsky understood that Shmitah would “equalize all classes,” so, too, did 19th Century German rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer write that “the Torah ordained that all should be equal during the seventh year….” So, for a year, equality, not of “opportunity” but in actuality, in status, wealth, and power would be renewed in the whole society.

Scholars disagree whether the redistribution of land was ever fully carried out. But as an ideal, a goal, and a demand, it has lasted until this very day. Shmitah radically re-imagines how we relate to one another. It asks of us to see ourselves as family, as one people, as connected.

But we are moving further apart. Economic inequality in our country, and around the world, is increasing. In a study published before the pandemic, the Pew Research Center found that:

  • Over the past 50 years, the highest-earning 20% of U.S. households have steadily brought in a larger share of the country’s total income.
  • Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest of all the G7 nations
  • In the U.S., black-white income gap has held steady since 1970
  • The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016
  • Middle-class incomes have grown at a slower rate than upper-tier incomes over the past five decades

And beyond the US:

If we proportioned down the world’s population to 100 people, fully “50 do not have a reliable source of food and are hungry some or all of the time; 40 do not have access to adequate sanitation; 26 live in substandard housing or are homeless… 19 struggle to survive on $1 per day or less, and 48 struggle to live on $2 per day or less.”

(Statistics are from Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C., “Globalizing Solidarity: Christian Anthropology and the Challenge of Human Liberation,” Theological Studies 69 (2008), pp. 250-268, at pp. 255-256.)

I don’t have an easy solution to this. But I do know that our tradition tells us it is not right. It tells us that equality is our goal, and that structures must be put in place to achieve it. Shmitah is such a structure.

It is difficult to imagine that we might create such a system in our society. But as poet Aurora Levins Morales said: “In order to build the movements capable of transforming our world, we have to do our best to live with one foot in the world we have not yet created.” This is what Judaism invites us to do. To stand in the world that is and envision the world that might be.

Then, as the words of our haftarah proclaim:

Then shall our light burst forth like the dawn/And our waters of healing soon flourish again

Then shall our light shine in darkness/And our darkness shall be like noon

We will be like a well-watered garden,/Like a spring whose waters do not fail.

And we will be called “repairer of bridges, restorer of lanes for living.

Shanah tovah.

Kol Nidre Sermon: Teshuvah, Calling Out & Calling In

Last spring, I felt buoyed by Governor Cuomo’s daily COVID updates. I know people who rearranged their schedules around them. He talked about New York being “tough smart united disciplined loving.”

His weird poster of the COVID mountain (remember that?) had at its foundation the words:

Love, Community, Support

and at the top it read: Love Wins.

It was so beautiful to hear our state’s highest elected official essentially echoing Rabbi Akiva, that ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha, loving our neighbors as ourselves, must be the foundation of all we do, and that through applying it, we will take care of each other and get through the hardest of times. His message, his confidence in New Yorkers, his leadership, sustained me and others through the initial months of the pandemic.

So, for many of us, it’s been heartbreaking to see what has happened since:

  • It seems he obscured the true number of COVID deaths by not counting people who died anywhere other than hospitals
  • It seems he pandered to the nursing home industry, which led to policies and practices that may have contributed to more deaths

And, as we all know, it was the accusations of 11 women of sexual harassment and assault that forced his resignation.

With the Attorney General’s report and the Governor’s resignation coming in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, I could not help but connect the time period, our consideration of our lives and relationships, our journeys of return and repair, and what he did and was going through so publicly.

Now, some of you may say: accusations aren’t proof and he did a good job as governor, he should not have resigned, and I’m still a Cuomosexual, no matter what. And others may say: he’s a power-hungry, “ends justify the means” scumbag and always was. I think that the truth about him, and about all of us, lies somewhere in the middle.

Most of us do good in our lives and also cause harm. It can be hard for us to hold these truths at the same time, and it seems there is an increased tendency to put people into categories of “good” and “bad”.

This has me thinking about King David, whose psalms we still recite and about whom we sing:

David, Melech Yisrael, David, King of Israel, lives and endures.

What did he do that endures? Well, he saved Israel from the Philistines by killing Goliath, conquered Jerusalem and set it as the capital of the Israelite nation and the center of worship. And you can still visit the City of David today.

And yet; David was pretty complicated. Once he was king, he saw a woman he was attracted to, took her to his bed, and when he discovered she was pregnant, he had her husband sent to the front where he arranged for him to be left unprotected and killed so that David could hide his actions. And what Batsheva thought of any of this goes entirely unmentioned.

Neither the Bible nor Jewish tradition hide King David’s transgressions. He is presented to us, warts and all. Despite committing atrocious crimes, he continues to be revered. Why? Why can we take him in in his wholeness and have trouble doing that with others?

David’s own actions make all the difference: he is held accountable and takes responsibility. But not on his own.  

The prophet Nathan came to David and told him a story:

“There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

When David heard this, he flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As the Eternal lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.”

And Nathan said to David, “That man is you!” and laid out the comparison, to which David responded: “I stand guilty before the Eternal!”

David did not say, I didn’t do it, not my fault he died. He owned up. This is the first step in teshuvah.

Jewish tradition lays out a specific process to true repentance:

First, is owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly)

Second, do the work to become the kind of person who doesn’t do harm – this is an inner process

Third, make restitution for harm done, to the person harmed, in whatever way possible

Fourth, THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim

And finally, when faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, don’t do it. Make a better choice.

David did not do all of these steps, but he acknowledged responsibility, accepted his many and severe punishments, and became a more humble person who lived a more righteous life afterwards. (Neither the Torah nor tradition seem to ask whether, if, how, the wrongs against Batsheva and her husband were ever compensated).

There is a balance that we, as individuals and as a society need to find: to

hold ourselves and others to account, and to recognize that part of being human is screwing up, sometimes in a big way. Seeing our beautiful, flawed, transcendent selves, does not mean there are no limits. There are boundaries, and Jews have used them. Our own movement’s founder Mordecai Kaplan was excommunicated by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, who held a cherem, excommunication, ceremony at which his 1945 prayer book was burned. He was not the first. In fact, the Mishnah, a nearly 2000-year-old text, makes it seem commonplace. It describes the communal process for reconnecting when people would come up to Jerusalem, the City of David, on Festivals:

People would come into the Temple Mount and circle it clockwise, except for those to whom something had happened since last there. That person would come in from the other side and walk in the opposite direction.

People would ask: “Why do you go round to the left?”

If they answered, “Because I am a mourner,” they would say, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.”

If they answered, “Because I am excommunicated,” Rabbi Meir said they should say: “May the One who dwells in this house inspire them to draw you near again.”

But Rabbi Yose objected: you make it seem as if they treated him unjustly. Instead, they should say: “May the One who dwells in this house inspire you to listen to the words of your colleagues so that they may bring you close again” (Mishnah Middot 2:2).

Rabbi Meir seems to think that the community must reintegrate the person.

Rabbi Yose objects and says that the person has to do the work. Of course, both are true. This is why we come together. We can’t do the work alone. The sins, the errors, that we recite on Yom Kippur range from the daily, perhaps more minor things that many of us commit regularly, to the most serious, from the unintentional to the deliberate. We recite the confessions in the plural, taking responsibility as a community, for ourselves and each other.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; (John Donne) – we live and learn and grow in community. There is an extraordinary contemporary story of the importance of relationship and teshuvah.

You may have heard of Derek Black. He was raised in a white supremacist environment, and not just any white supremacist environment: his father was the founder of Stormfront, one of the largest online gatherings of racism and Holocaust deniers in the world. Derek is the godson of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He had some serious white nationalist yichus.

And it wasn’t only his origins: Derek followed in his father’s footsteps and aided his work. He created a page on Stormfront’s website for children. He joined his father’s radio show, promoting their beliefs. He ran for public office to try to set policy based on the supremacist agenda. Then he went to college.

It was his first time away from home, exposed to different points of view. It didn’t take long for his classmates to discover who he was, tremendous controversy ensured. Some students organized a petition calling for him to be expelled, others disagreed.

Matthew Stevenson lived directly above Derek in the dorm. An Orthodox Jew who regularly invited guests for Shabbat dinner, he invited Derek – and was explicit that people were not to discuss his background or white nationalism at the table. It was to be an opportunity to build relationships. These dinners continued for 2 years. True friendships were made. And his friends began to ask him about his beliefs, and challenge him.

Often, when the story is told, it jumps from here to Derek’s renunciation of white nationalism. But that is not the whole story. Derek himself says: “I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong. It wasn’t just these conversations.” It was also knowing that “I would never have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with….. the outrage alone would have made me a more firm adherent to being a white nationalist. But the quiet conversations couldn’t have happened without the outrage.”

We need community and our communities need us to be held accountable. We cannot go around hurting people, even unintentionally. For a few years, folks have contrasted calling out and calling in. Calling someone out is a public denunciation of their behavior. Calling someone in is, in the words of – Ngọc Loan Trần (pronounced nyop lo-awn chun):

a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do screw up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes…. (adapted)

In a few moments, we will recite the first confession of this Day of Atonement. We do so together, holding our limitations in gentleness and understanding and love. There’s a Zen saying: Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish each other. Let us make each other beautiful.

Rosh HaShanah Morning: Let it Rot

Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip that features the conversations and adventures of a 6 year old boy and his sardonic stuffed tiger. One conversation reflects the theme of this time period. Calvin says:  “When a kid grows up, he has to be something. He can’t just stay the way he is. But a tiger grows up and stays a tiger. Why is that?” Hobbes responds: “No room for improvement.” Calvin says: “Of all the luck, my parents had to be humans.” Hobbes replies: “Don’t take it too hard. Humans provide some very important protein.”

Today is the second of the ten days of teshuvah – of return, repentance. It is also called Yom HaDin – the day of judgment. The message of the season is that our responsibility for tikkun olam, repairing the world, begins with tikkun hanefesh, repairing the soul.

Every year, the message seems to me to be:  work harder! Improve yourself! Change already! Try harder! This year, instead of motivated, I felt exhausted.

It can be easy to come to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and feel that our tradition tells us that humans are very messed up and need to get our acts together. And we are, and we do. But that is not only what we are.

We read in the Torah reading this morning that God says at the end of every day of creation, ki tov, it is good, and after the 6th day, the creation of humanity, ki tov me’od, it is very good – as it is, without any need for “fixing” it, or doing anything.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we not take responsibility for our actions, fix what we have broken and repair our mistakes – we must, and I’ll speak more about that at Kol Nidre.

We are entering a Shmitah year – a time tradition commands that the land lie fallow so that it will renew itself. As the Torah says:

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

Recently, unwillingly and unplanned, we have seen a bit of what might happen when we let things rest. We had six months or so when much of the world was shut down. With less travel, fewer cars and airplanes, less shipping and trucking, and factories on hold, air and water quality measurably improved, animals returned to land and marine habitats, and ecology began to restore itself. It seems that what climate scientists have been saying (begging really) is accurate: if humans suddenly cease the activities that cause smog and other air quality issues, it turns out that those issues do improve. When the Earth lay fallow, it began to heal.

Businessman Tim Ferriss recently interviewed mycologist Giuliana Furci on his podcast. A mycologist is someone who studies fungi. She seemed to know about the importance of practicing Shmitah when she said: “I would really like to invite people to think about how important it is to let things rot.… If we don’t let things rot, then cycles don’t start, don’t flow.… We can’t decompose to be able to recompose. We can’t degenerate to be able to regenerate. I would really like to invite people to think about how even the most glorious moment of an old tree’s life is when that tree falls to the ground and starts decomposing and turns back into soil. Let’s not be afraid about decomposition. There’s a lot of hype around regeneration, and that can’t happen if things don’t rot. You’ve got to let it rot.” https://tim.blog/2021/07/29/giuliana-furci/ 

What if we, within ourselves, took a lesson from this? Might we also become richer, more nourishing, and able to provide sustenance for ourselves and others? Might letting ourselves just be help us grow as well?

Shemitah is difficult. Our inclination is to keep planting and reaping all the time. If we stop working, what will happen? How will we feed ourselves and our families? What would we do? Who would we be?

Despite the fact that we call ourselves “human beings,” a better moniker might be “human doings.” We are focused on what we do, not who we are. Or, what we do seems to be who we are. When we first meet people, we ask them: “what do you do?” as though that is the most important thing about them.  

After Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics, she tweeted: “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” We don’t need to be the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time, to struggle to feel worthy in ourselves for who we are and not what we do. And what might we do, if we did not feel the need to prove our worth at all times?

But how do we make the shift? It’s not easy to silence the voices in our heads that we have received from this American culture that tells us that the busier we are, the less vacation we take, the better.

The Zohar, one of the foundational texts of Jewish mysticism, offers an answer. It says: Shabbat. Why? Because “When the Shabbat enters, She unites and separates from the Sitra Achra, the Other Side. All the judgments are removed from Her, and She remains united with the holy light and becomes adorned with many crowns before the Holy King.” (2:135a-b).

Shabbat, of course, means ceasing, and the Shmitah year is called Shabbat.

שַׁבָּ֖ת לַה וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ

But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of Adonai

Shabbat rest and renewal allow us to separate from that critic inside our head that tells us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not successful enough. Because the shabbat of the week and the shabbat of the years require cessation from productivity, we take a break from the voice that tells us that we need to achieve more, make more money, exercise harder, produce more. That we’re not worthy of love unless we do more. On these Shabbatot, we are invited to cease our effort.

Dinah and I recently saw a sweet Pixar film called Luca, about friendship and authenticity and courage. Luca’s newfound friend Alberto encourages him to adventure by silencing the fearful voice in his head by yelling at it: “Stop, Bruno!” I thought that was fun, and maybe useful to adopt, until I compared it to another approach taught by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: when the judgments arise, we might greet them, “Hello, Old Friend.”

The רָזָא דְּשַׁבָּת, the secret is that with Shabbat rest comes the removal of all this judgment. The unification of Shabbat with the Oneness of the world allows no space for all this negativity.  There is no need to shout or to fight. We cannot beat ourselves into submission. We cannot shame ourselves into growth. Our teshuvah must be gentle – with ourselves, and with others. When we embrace and incorporate all that is, we find peace.

The word for this removal is מִתְעַבְּרִין and has something to teach us: it comes from the same root as “עובר”, a fetus. We weren’t born with these judgments — they are gathered message by message as we walk through life, layered upon us, slung at us, drenched in our culture, dripped into our subconscious. The aspiration of Shabbat is to take us back to that nascent state where we can just be and that is more than enough. Nobody expects a fetus to do anything except grow.

Perhaps this is the state we recall when we sing hashiveinu, as we will do shortly when we return the Torah: return us, Adonai, to you, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

We are weekly and cyclically invited to create space for rest, from which, naturally, comes renewal. Let’s let the soil of our souls lie fallow. Let’s let things decompose to be able to recompose, to degenerate in order to regenerate. Let it rot.

Rosh HaShanah Evening: The Shmitah Year Begins

Tonight, Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year, the first moments of 5782, begin a year of Shmitah. Shmitah means: release, rest. Shmitah is for the land, for the people, and for society:

Shmot 23:10-11

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield׃ but in the seventh you shall release it/let it rest תִּשְׁמְטֶ֣נָּה  and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

Shmitah is not only about the land; it is also about economics – both systems of credit:

Deuteronomy 15:1-2

 At the end of seven years, you are to make a Release [Shmitah].  Now this is the matter of the Release: he shall release, every possessor of a loan of his hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of the Lord has been proclaimed!…

And at the end of seven cycles of seven years, there is a redistribution of wealth:

Leviticus 25.8-10

And you are to number yourselves seven Sabbath-cycles of years- seven years, seven times so the time of the seven Sabbath cycles of years will be for you a total of nine and forty years. Then you are to give forth on

the shofar a blast, in the seventh New-Moon, on the tenth after the New-Moon, on the Day of Atonement, you are to give blast on the shofar throughout all your land. You are to hallow the year, the fiftieth year, proclaiming freedom [dror] throughout the land and to all its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee for you, you are to return, each-man to his holding, each man to his clan you are to return.

In these first moments and days of the Shmitah year, I’ll use our time together to explore how the concept of Shmitah offers a framework for many of the challenges we face: as individuals, nations, and a global community.

On Wednesday morning, the second day of Rosh HaShanah, I’ll speak about what it might mean to let ourselves “lie fallow.” In this time of emphasis on working on ourselves, perhaps letting our internal soil rest might renew it more fully than intensive tilling.

At Kol Nidre, we’ll look at how Shmitah is also about responsibility. In this season of teshuvah, of returning to how things were, we are tasked with fixing the damage we caused, intentionally or otherwise.

On Yom Kippur morning, we’ll look at the economic model that Shmitah offers to repair wealth inequality. The Torah, and our people, have long understood that charity is not the way to take care of each other. Our word, tzedakah, means justice, and it is not based on giving as we are moved to give, but on building a society where people’s needs are met.  

Shmitah is big! Imagine, an agricultural society asked to not farm for a whole year. What would they eat?  This must have been terrifying!

The Torah anticipates this:

“Now if you should say to yourselves: What are we to eat in the seventh year? For we may not sow, we may not gather our produce!

God says: Then I will dispatch my blessing for you during the sixth year so that it yields produce for three years; as you sow the eighth year’s seeds, you shall eat of the old produce until the ninth year; until its produce comes in, you shall be able to eat what-is-old.” – Leviticus 25.19

Shmitah is about uncertainty, something we have become very familiar with, if, somehow, we had not been previously. We might have hoped to return to “normal,” but not only have we not returned to an old normal, there does not seem to be a new normal. It has been a terribly difficult year and a half, and the current moment is as challenging, perhaps even more so, than last year.

The pandemic continues, and people suffer in our own communities and in the larger world. Our hearts break for those in Haiti and Afghanistan. But there have not only been sorrows. The vaccine is a miracle. Many people have rallied to meet the tremendous needs we have seen. People continued to love each other, to help each other, and new lives have been born. Suffering and joy are both a part of the fabric of our lives. And we cannot control our lives to promote one and eliminate the other, nor can we dictate the timing.

Shmitah teaches us that we always live in times of radical uncertainty. There is never a guarantee that we will have a successful harvest, even when we do everything in our power to make that happen. It invites us: let’s see what happens when we release our effort and let it all be.

This is not only a personal process. While we each must let our own farms lie fallow, Shmitah is communal: the only way to get through these difficult times is together.

On Rosh HaShanah, we say “today the world is born” – but with creation being an evolving process (6 days or billions of years) – which actual moment are we celebrating? Tradition says that today is the anniversary of the 6th day, the creation of humanity. The Torah tells us,

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ

“it is not good for a human being to be alone,” and a second human joins the first. Isolation is not healthy, and has been one of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic. Many of us have been separated from friends, parents, children, grandchildren. Some were alone in their homes for more than a year.

The Kehillath Shalom community has been supporting each other throughout this hard time, sustaining and nourishing each other’s spirits. We have enabled our community to gather, although virtually, on almost a daily basis, for the past 19 months. We must not stop now. The pandemic not over, and the challenges each of us face in our lives will always continue. Please continue to reach out, and to be there for one another. Shmitah is about trust: allowing ourselves to rely upon each other and upon the world in which we dwell.

So, too, does the world sustain us. When we were not able to gather with friends, our source of sustenance was the beauty of nature outside our windows and in our backyards. When we honor this world, when we let the land rest, and we cease our tilling and turning of the soil, might it renew itself and yield even more in the coming years?

There was a time when we Jews were deeply connected to the land. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught: “Know that when a person prays in the field, then all of the grasses/plants together come into the prayer, and they help them, and give them strength within their prayer.” LM 2:11

And not only do the plants of the earth help us, we also help them! Our relationship is mutual and inter-dependent relationship. Rebbe Nachman wrote:

Know that every shepherd has a unique melody/nigun according to the grasses and the place where he herds, for every animal has a grass unique to her that she needs to eat. For every grass there is a song (a shirah) which it speaks, … and from the song of the grasses is made the nigun of the shepherd. …. And since the shepherd knows the nigun, by means of this, he gives strength to the grasses, and so there is something for the animals to eat…. LM 2:63

Every one of us has our own sacred song. Together, we are a symphony. In this holy season, I invite you to look within, to hear the melody of your own soul. And to look around you, in this room or in the zoom boxes, and open your ears to the melodies of the souls around you. That we may sing together, uplift ourselves and one another. I am glad to be traveling through this Awesome Time with you.

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