Let There Be Light! – Shabbat Bereshit 5777 (2016)

I love the opening verses of the Torah. Their combination of mystery and majesty move me. To my eye and ear, Bereshit’s first words bespeak both grandeur and endless possibility.

 

Let’s take a closer look. Famously, the Torah begins with this phrase – bereshit bara elohim et ha shamayim v’et ha’aretz. That first verse is not quite a sentence; indeed most modern translations read it as either a headline or as the first clause of a longer sentence which carries through the next two verses. More than likely, it means something like “When God began to create heaven and earth…”

 

So what happened “in the beginning of God’s creating…?” How did this thing that we call the universe start? The Torah’s second and third verses provide the Biblical author’s answer. Verse 2 sets the scene. The earth was “unformed and void” (NJPS), or “wild and waste” (Everett Fox), or “welter and waste” (Robert Alter), or “shapeless and formless” (Richard Elliot Friedman), in Hebrew – tohu va’vohu. This wild shapelessness exists in absolute darkness – v’khoshekh al p’nei t’hom – “darkness on the face of the deep.” Something’s there, it just has no form and can’t be seen. Even more, the Torah posits a divine presence in this moment before the beginning, a ru’ach elohim, that hovers over the water.

 

That hovering ruach – breath, rushing-spirit, wind in the various translations – conveys movement. Even at the beginning, the universe is in motion. Then comes the bang, arguably the biggest of all time. Vayomer elohim y’hi or, va’y’hi or – God said ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. The great 13th century Kabbalist (and likely lead author of the Zohar) R Moshe de Leon describes that moment this way: “This is the beginning of all the hidden things, which spread out from there and emanate, according to their species. From a single point you can extend the dimensions of all things. Similarly, when the concealed arouses itself to exist, at first it brings into being something the size of the point of a needle; from there it generates everything.”

 

Spread out, emanate, extend, generate…Having begun from that one single point of light, the universe continually expands. How beautiful is that? I can hardly think of a better expression of constant growth and endless possibility. That idea, I suggest, stands at the heart of creation. That’s the central message. A single point of light brings the whole universe into being. A single point of inner light can open up our individual universes without end as well.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

A Personal Reflection on U’Ntaneh Tokef – Florence Manson

Un’taneh Tokef through a mindfulness lens

 

I dread reading the Un’taneh Tokef prayer. Each year it brings me to tears of both sadness and terror. I feel as if it pushes me to look into the abyss of sorrow and suffering. I listen to the list of potential life outcomes and feel shaken to my core. Especially this year…I am experiencing more difficult symptoms from the rare auto-immune condition I contracted two years ago. What will this year bring? I think of the many others also struggling with illness, loss, heart-wrenching difficulties. My head has tried to reassure me that the prayer is about the truth of impermanence. “A person is like…a passing shadow and like a vanishing cloud…” My heart knows I need to look deeply into the experience of constant change realizing there is no solid ground. The prayer asks me to sit with and face my anxiety and fear. How then do I come back from the edge of the abyss? How do I wrestle the possible loss of self into a fearlessness that strengthens and gives my heart the courage spoken of in Psalm 27? Can this prayer help open me to an awareness that helps me/us “choose life so that I/you may live” (Deut. 30:19)?

 

Below is my offering, an attempt to read a portion of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer with a mindfulness lens and a good amount of liberal translation-

 

On Rosh Hashanah (the day we “change our head”) it is written and on Yom Kippur (the day of recognizing At-One-Ment) it is sealed

How many will be caught up in the past, and how many will be transformed as if created anew

Who will live with moments of clarity and peace, and who will be dead to this moment distracted by busyness and cravings

Who will feel at the “end of their ropes,” and who will be able to cultivate patience

Who will be burned with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, and who will drown in despair and doubt

Who will suffer as if pierced with a sword of anger, and who tormented by the beasts of one’s own imagination

Who will hunger for recognition and material possessions, and who will thirst after desires that cannot fill the void

Who will be shaken by earthquakes of broken relationships, and who will be plagued by pangs of loneliness

Who will feel suffocated with boredom, and who will feel stoned by shame and fear into silent suffering

Who will rest in moments of Shabbat-like wholeness, and who will feel restless, spinning with worry

Who will experience stillness and quiet, and who will feel torn apart with confusion and grasping

Who will have calm and tranquility, and who will suffer while struggling with hindrances

Who will feel impoverished by stress and tension, and who will be enriched with wisdom and insight

Who will feel dejection, low in spirit, and who will feel uplifted with joy, kindness and generosity

 

But Teshuvah (turning inward), and Tefilah (turning to the One) and Tzedakah (turning outward) help us to get through how hard it is when we feel cut off, alone and separate

 

Practice Instructions:

 

Rabbi Jonathan Slater writes in A Partner in Holiness: “This is the movement of mindfulness practice: noting our own suffering, bringing compassion to our own pained hearts, in order to become free to notice the suffering of others and respond with compassion to them.”

At some moment during the Yom Kippur service, or wherever you are that day, when the mahzor, sermons or chants no longer hold your attention, sit and just breathe. Let your body and mind grow quiet. Let your tense places soften.

Gently allow Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah to enter into your awareness.

What is Teshuvah this moment for you? (breathe this question into your heart)

What is Tefilah this moment for you? (breathe connecting to the Source of all)

What is Tzedakah this moment for you? (breathe in kindness for yourself, breathe out loving care for others)

Let these practices hold and support your sensing that each moment can be a return, a prayer and a reminder to generate compassion and loving kindness.

 

When you are ready, offer yourself a blessing-chant or say to yourself “ahavah, v’rachamim, hesed v’shalom”-love, compassion, loving kindness and peace/wholeness.

Then offer this same blessing to others.

 

May we emerge from this Yom Kippur with insights that support our becoming wholehearted. May we live with more peace and ease. May we acquire an open heart to be an agent of kindness and healing for ourselves and for others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reach Up & Touch the Sky – Yom Kippur 5777 (2016)

Good morning. In an effort to keep things light this Yom Kippur I’d like to begin with a simple question. What does it mean to be human? That question, in that form, has been rattling around my brain for the past few months, ever since I learned about a Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibit called Human Origins which explores the evolution of our species. The question I began with is the exhibit’s subtitle. The exhibit itself offers a handful of intriguing, and I think compelling answers. A number, but not all, of the essential characteristics of human-ness are shared with other animals – we walk upright, we utilize tools and have long domesticated our food. Our bodies and brains have evolved over many milleniums to enable us to adapt to new climates and circumstances. We live in groups – families, communities, villages, tribes – and have developed quite complex ways of communicating with one another constantly expanding our systems of language and symbols. And, finally, human beings have changed the world, sometimes in damaging ways, more often in quite good ways. To put it simply, we leave our mark. On the concrete level, then, that’s what it means to be human.

The material level, however, doesn’t really satisfy me; I’m in search of a deeper, more spiritual answer to the question. What does it mean to be human? My search took me to one of my favorite sources for answers to large questions. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy teaches us that the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years is 42. Needless to say, no one knows what that ultimate question might be, but the answer is clear. 42, then, is what it means to be human. I know that sounds crazy, but I actually mean it and am happy to explain. It won’t take 7.5 million years; more like a few minutes. Hear me out.

We all know the story of the Exodus. Our ancestors left Egypt and slavery behind, wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, and the made their way into the land God had promised them. That’s the big story of the Torah. Among its obscure details – found in a fully spelled out itinerary at the end of the book of Numbers – is that our ancestors’ journey involved 42 encampments – tahanot – over the course of those 40 years. A Hasidic tradition equates those 42 stops with the stations and milestones in a life’s journey. Our ancestors encamped and departed 42 times; we each do the same in the course of our lives. Enter the Netivot Shalom, R Shalom Noah Berszhovsky of Slonim, a 20th century rebbe and thinker.

Quoting an earlier Hasidic master, the Netivot Shalom teaches that “the worst thing is when we hold that we are alright just where we are, when we accept our situation.”  Listen to that statement for a moment. Standing still is not all right. Resting on one’s laurels simply won’t do. Reb Shalom Noah goes on: “Beyond all of the normative things that apply to Jews is their obligation always to travel through the forty-two stations that make up a life’s journey. We are to move along, proceeding higher and higher, degree after degree, journey after journey.”  Higher and higher – l’eila u’leila. The prime exemplar for us is none other than Abraham who “always moved on, journeying degree after degree.”  So what’s the upshot, the goal of the enterprise called life? What does it mean to be human? “It is our purpose and role to move constantly forward, adding steps, increasing in light…That is why the blessed Holy One implanted in creation an eternal structure of times of renewal, from time to time, from season to season, as every renewal is a time of advancement and journey. Every day is a renewal of creation…the blessed Holy One renews each day the whole of creation so that we might renew ourselves…” All that from the number 42! Not too shabby… The Netivot Shalom’s powerful point? To be human means to strive, to aspire, to keep growing and stretching, to embrace the power and possibility of renewal each and every day. mosif, v’holeikh, v’or – “adding, moving, illuminating,” in Reb Shalom Noah’s words.

The baseball fans among us know 42 to be Jackie Robinson’s number. It’s hard to imagine a better example of the Netivot Shalom’s idea in our time. 42 is the answer.

Last night I made mention of the scientific quest to hear the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein 100 years ago. The godfather of that aspirational reach on the part of modern physicists was John Wheeler who studied with Einstein and then taught at Princeton for 40 years. Wheeler sounds a similar note in his autobiography – “Now, in my eighties, I am still searching. Yet I know the pursuit of science is more than the pursuit of understanding. It is driven by the creative urge, the urge to construct a vision, a map, a picture of the world that gives the world a little more beauty and coherence than it had before.”

We all have that urge; it is, I suggest, the thing that makes us human. Last week I invited you to find a partner and to share your worries. This morning I have a different assignment. Find someone sitting near you, preferably someone you don’t yet know so well. Say hello, check in, and then share an aspiration or two for the coming year. What do you hope will be the next station on your journey? What does your map look like? How do you wish to stretch and grow in the coming year? Ready? Go!

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

(Robert Frost “Stopping By Woods on Snowy Evening”)

Promising is the way in which we humans articulate our aspirations. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche calls human beings the “animal entitled to make promises.” And on this Yom Kippur day, we still have a few miles to go before we eat. And presumably before we sleep as well! What then are the promises that we wish to make to one another and to ourselves and how shall we make them?

We began Yom Kippur last evening with Kol Nidre, a prayer which focuses on words spoken, vows made, and oaths taken.  Kol Nidre recognizes that we don’t actually keep all the promises that we’ve made. At the same time, Kol Nidre clears the deck so that we can again, on this Yom Kippur and in the year ahead, make new promises to ourselves and to one another. Kol Nidre actually invites us to aspire more, to promise more, to stretch ourselves more, to dream.

Another prayer, less well known perhaps, offers us a similar invitation. In a little while, we’ll hear the words of tefilat kohen ha’gadol – the prayer of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The words in our mahzor are based on older talmudic versions of the kohen gadol’s prayer and different communities in the middle ages had their own renditions. They all describe hopes and aspirations, and they all mix spiritual and practical desires. One might think of the Prayer of the High Priest as something of a strategic plan for the people of Israel, presented each year on Yom Kippur! More about that in a minute; first a few lines from the various versions of the prayer. The kohen gadol hopes for a year of abundance and of blessing, of good fortune, bountiful harvest, prosperity and success. His aspirations also involve a year of song and fulfillment, of atonement and forgiveness, of abundant joy, of peace and tranquility. The medieval French rendition begins with a marvelous pair of lines. kakh hayta t’filato shel kohen gadol – “This was the prayer of the High Priest; and we too, in like fashion, pray before You.” – v’khen anakhnu mit’pal’lim l’fanekha. Ancient and contemporary collide. The aspirations of antiquity and the desires of the current day are one and the same.

So what are our promises? What are our aspirations? How are we expressing our human-ness?

As a sacred community we’re answering some of those questions with our strategic plan. The beautiful brochure on your seats invites you to learn more about the plan. Please take it home, please read the whole plan, and please, please get involved. One of our shared aspirations is wall to wall participation in the life of our synagogue family. As the title of our plan makes clear, we aspire to build meaningful Jewish lives together!

A few words of uplift to conclude, some more high brow than others. The Grateful Dead’s song “The Wheel” catches the essential idea this way:

The wheel is turning

and you can’t slow down

You can’t let go

and you can’t hold on

You can’t go back

and you can’t stand still

If the thunder don’t get you

then the lightning will

Won’t you try just a little bit harder?

Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

Won’t you try just a little bit harder?

Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

Or if you’re more of a Jersey shore type, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ hit “I Don’t Want to Go Home” squeezes it down to one brief phrase: “I know we had to try to reach up and touch the sky!”

And if Eleanor Roosevelt is more your speed: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” 

And so, a final word of prayer for us on this Yom Kippur. Sovereign of the Universe, give us the wisdom and the courage to pursue the deepest and most enduring part of our humanity. Help us to add, to move, and to illuminate. Inspire us to try a little bit harder and a little bit more. Embolden us to reach up and touch the sky, to dream beautiful dreams, and to work together to make them real. v’khen anakhnu mit’pal’lim l’fanekha – So too do we pray before You. Ken y’hi ratzon – May it be Your will. Amen.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teikhateimu – May we all be inscribed and sealed for year of song, joy, peace, and beautiful dreams.

Turn on the Quiet – Kol Nidre 5777 (2016)

Picture a beautiful summer evening on Cape Cod. Toward the end of a clear bright day, Rosie and I joined a kayak tour along the Herring River in Harwich, Massachusetts. (Yes, that’s the river’s real name, and, no, we didn’t spot any herring – not in cream sauce, not in wine sauce, not in any form.)  After fifteen minutes or so, we got the hang of maneuvering our tandem boat, and I’m happy to tell you that Rosie did her fair share of paddling and steering. Slowly we made our way inland following the looping course of the river. Our group included a number of avid bird watchers, and so our guide made it a point to identify a variety of winged creatures as we paddled. Hearing their evening songs was moving and lovely. It called to mind a beautiful poem written by a 16th century rabbi and poet name Israel Najara.

Birds wake the world chirping aloud, a talent instilled in them by God.

Might I, too, learn from those who fly and be instructed by this animal cry

to acclaim the One who created me and who planted a soul within my body.

You endow birds with the talent to sing Your name; I, too, desire the same.

Tired people, looks to the birds flying in the sky who daily sing to the creator on high.

None tires, none fails to do what the maker asked; none is diverted from the appointed task.

Human beings too can plant seeds with songs and morning and evening for nothing more need long.

Take instruction, sing to God, bend your will, and so a priestly role fulfill.

You endow birds with the talent to sing Your name; I, too, desire the same.

The gentleness of that summer evening on the Herring River enabled us to hear the priestly voices of a variety of birds singing their maker’s name.

The chirping of sand pipers and others reminded me of another chirp heard this past year for the very first time. Perhaps you read about it. While on vacation I was immersed in a truly stirring book about modern physics called Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space. Here’s the story that author Janna Levin tells.

A century ago, Albert Einstein published his famous paper on General Relativity which theorized the existence of a thing called a gravitational wave. Gravitational waves result from the collision of two black holes which circle one another and become one. The fireworks of that event produced waves that have echoed across the universe ever since. Figuring out how to “hear” the evidence of explosions from billions of years ago has been one of the great quests of experimental physics for the past 50 years.

40 years ago, a group of scientists from Cal Tech and MIT teamed up to build a listening device that could do the job. The biggest National Science Foundation project ever, the device – known as LIGO (which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) consists of two sets of L-shaped vacuum tubes, each two and a half miles long lined with high intensity mirrors. By projecting the purest possible form of light, laser light, into the tubes from both ends, it becomes possible to detect, at the right moment, a gravitational wave, the lingering evidence of an explosion from the beginning of space and time itself. Pretty wild, no?

There are two LIGOs in the US, one in Louisiana and one in Washington State. On September 14th last year, both detected a gravitational wave at exactly the same moment. The wave produced a sound much like a chirp. I encourage you to find it online and simply to sit and listen. You’ll be hearing the sound of the earliest days of our universe. Nothing more, and nothing less, than two black holes chirping aloud.

Here’s the thing. For the LIGO to work properly, any and all extraneous noise had to be pushed out of the system. White noise, background noise, chatter, human sounds, animal sounds, all of it might obscure the chirp of the gravitational wave itself. Janna Levin writes, “Noise is a big topic.” If you want to really hear, noise is the big topic. Scientists in Washington and Louisiana heard the first ever gravitational wave on September 14, 2015 because they succeeded in turning on the quiet. Again, Janna Levin’s words: “Student after student pushed the floor of the noise down, giving a chance for a real signal to compete with the background racket. But still, noise was hundreds of thousands or even millions of times louder than any expected sounds of space.” Hearing the fundamental sounds of the universe requires quiet, lots of quiet.

On that beautiful summer evening just a few weeks ago, Rosie and I heard the evening prayer of the sand pipers for precisely the same reason. The quieter it got, the more we could hear. A few twists and turns upriver later, we heard the most amazing thing. A bit farther from the ocean, the marsh grasses grow thicker. As the sun began to set, a slight breeze kicked up, and we heard it – the song of the grasses! Swaying and pulsating, the tall grass, the summer breeze, the growing quiet of early evening, a gorgeous symphony.

Nahman of Bratslav writes of the songs of the grasses –

Every shepherd knows different tunes, appropriate to where the sheep are pasturing and appropriate for the grass growing there, for every kind of grass has a distinctive song. The song the grass sings inspires the shepherd.

Would that I might be able to hear the song and the praise that the grasses sing, how each blade sings to the creator without hesitation, without the interference of any foreign thoughts and without any expectation of reward. How beautiful it is to hear their song. How wonderful is their service to God. If I could hear their songs, my heart would be filled and I would sing the most beautiful song to my beloved, my God.

Nomi Shemer, the great Israeli singer/songwriter, transformed Nahman’s teachings into a beautiful song. Its words are at your seats. If you know it, please join us. If you don’t know it, please join us!

Shirat ha’Asavim

A prayer for us all to conclude – This YK may we have the patience and the courage to turn on the quiet. And in that quiet, may we be blessed to hear the song of the grasses and of the birds, the chirp of the universe’s origin, and the still, small voice of our innermost selves. Help us, God, to turn on the quiet, so that we might truly hear Your voice.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teikhateimu – May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet and good year.

National Coming Out Day & Yom Kippur

Haverim –

This past year, Beth Am Israel formally joined the JProud Consortium whose purpose is to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for the diverse needs of the Jewish LGBTQ community in greater Philadelphia. We are, proudly, one of seven synagogues, and the first in Lower Merion, to have joined the Consortium.
As part of our commitment to JProud’s goals, I want to note that today – October 11th – is National Coming Out Day.
The juxtaposition with Yom Kippur is striking. Teshuva, I wish to suggest, is all about clarifying and declaring one’s truest and deepest identity. On Yom Kippur, we all come out to ourselves, to one another, and to God. The focal point of self identification is the vidui – the prayers of confession that we repeat multiple times throughout the fast. Wedged between the best known confessions, ashamnu and ‘al khet the Mahzor preserves these words: “What are we? What is our life? Our goodness? Our righteousness? Our achievement? Our power? Our victories?”
Today, as we each ask searching questions about ourselves, let us pause to celebrate friends, neighbors, and family members whose explorations of those very same questions have led to courageous moments of coming out.
Wishing us all a truly introspective Yom Kippur on this National Coming Out Day. May we all be sealed for a sweet, good, and healthy year.
Rabbi David

Our Huge Bag of Worries – Rosh Hashanah 5777 (2016)

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a delightful kids’ book called The Huge Bag of WorriesWhile not written for the current election campaign – the book was first published in the US in 1996 and then came out in 2011 in Great Britain – it fits our moment. The Huge Bag of Worries tells the story of a girl named Jenny. Here’s her story –

“Jenny had always been happy. She had a lovely mum and dad, a great brother (well, most of the time…), she had a best friend at school and she liked her teacher. And then, of course, there was Loftus (her dog).

“But recently she had been getting gloomier and gloomier. It wasn’t just one thing; it was everything. She worried that she was getting too fat, that Loftus had fleas, and that her best friend was going away. She worried that she was getting bad marks at school and she thought she heard someone whispering about her in the playground…she worried when her mum and dad had an argument…she even worried about wars and bombs…until one day she woke to find…a HUGE BAG OF WORRIES.

“The bag followed her everywhere…to school, to swimming, to the toilet, and it stuck by her even when she was watching TV. She tried ignoring it…but it didn’t work. She tried throwing it away…but it always came back. She tried to lock it out, but when she got back to her bedroom, there it was, waiting for her. It was like a horrible shadow she couldn’t get rid of. What could she do?”

Well, eventually, the kindly old lady who lived next door comes to the rescue. Her solution? “Now let’s just open it up and see what’s inside!” Jenny resists, but the old lady persists. “Nonsense,” said the old lady firmly. “There’s nothing a worry hates more than being seen. If you have any worries, however small, the secret is to let them out slowly, one by one, and show them to someone else. They’ll soon go away.”

“So Jenny opened the bag. The old lady sorted the worries into groups. Jenny was astonished to see how small they looked when they were out in the open. Half the worries disappeared because lots of worries just hate the light of day. As for the rest, the old lady put some in her shopping basket to deal with herself; some she sent packing because she said they belonged to other people; some she just blew a kiss to; and some she said were worries that everyone had, even Jenny’s family, her friends and her teacher.

And as for the bag…?” (Empty now, it just flies off, taken by the wind on a clear day).

So, what’s in your bag of worries? Time to start to unpack it; right here, right now I invite you to share a worry or two with someone beside you, preferably not someone you know well. Say hello, swap some worries, let them out slowly, and let’s see if we can make at least a few of them go away.

Dr. Marty Rossman of Healing Mind fame  says that there are three kinds of worries: Good, Bad, & Not Sure. “I invite people to write down all the things that they’re worried about. Get them out of their head. Just write down big things, little things, clarify what you’re worrying about. And then to sort them into basically three columns. One is things that you might potentially be able to do something about. [Second], things that you’re powerless to do something about. And then a middle column of things you’re not quite sure. You can’t tell whether you can do something about that or not.”

Here’s where Avraham Avinu enters. I’ve long been haunted by the Abraham of this morning’s Torah reading. He strikes me as a deeply conflicted individual facing momentous decisions and challenges. Truth be told, I relate to him, even identify with him. Perhaps you do as well.

Sarah makes a clear and absolute demand of her husband – גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ – “cast out that slave-woman and her son.” The language is forceful and purposeful. It’s not “ask her to leave,” but rather “cast her out.” And, devastatingly, the child in question is “her son.” Sarah knows full well that Abraham is Ishmael’s father. Not on this particular morning; today’s he’s “her son.”

The Torah hints at Abraham’s inner turmoil. וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃ – “the matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.” Notice – a son of his, not just hers. וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד – the matter distressed him greatly. How to understand the Torah’s cryptic language? Abraham is worried, we get that. What’s underneath his worry? What drives it; what is it really about?

One of the great medieval commentators, R. David Kimhi – known as RaDaK – offers some tantalizing suggestions. Radak reminds us that Abraham loved Ishmael, his first born, and that Abraham had “taught him the way of God.” Convinced that Ishmael “was on a good path having grown up” in his home, Abraham felt great distress at the thought of expelling Ishmael. Going a bit further, Radak notes that God’s words of assurance to Avraham include mention of Hagar: “God knew that expelling Hagar who had served him for years and with whom he had a child also distressed him…God knew his heart.”

Radak deftly captures the accumulation of worries held by Abraham; there’s more there than meets the eye. Abraham’s blue bag of worries is plenty big.

I wish to suggest that Abraham is really us and this his worry in this liminal moment reflects and exemplifies the Huge Bag of Worries that we as Americans, as Jews, as thinking, feeling, striving people carry with us at this confounding moment. Avraham Avinu’s worries sit in that middle column. Maybe he can do something about them, maybe not. How do we make sense of him, and, by extension, of ourselves?

We might understand Abraham as an exemplar of ambivalence, one who sees good and value on both, even many, sides and wants it all. We might understand Avraham as a victim of cognitive dissonance, one who hears the words of his beloved wife Sarah and who cannot align those words with what he knows in his heart to be true and good. We might understand Abraham as an individual struggling with his own freedom, aware that he has the power to choose and at same time deeply concerned about the consequences of his choices. Avraham Avinu might as well be right here, right now, in these early years of our still new century, one of us.

Let’s start with ambivalence…

An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, God will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, infinite wisdom, or infinite beauty.

Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.

“Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning.

Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light.

One of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.”

The dean sighs and says, “I should have taken the money.”

Here’s the part I don’t get; if I were that Dean, I’d have hesitated plenty. All three choices appeal to me; each has its virtues and value. There’s even a version of the story that substitutes honor for beauty. That would entice me as well. How can the Dean choose with no hesitation at all?

Our Dean’s quick decision turns out to be a bad one. Ironically, he chooses quickly but not with wisdom. A little ambivalence would have done him good. “Ambivalence,” writes Kenneth Weisbrode in a charming little book on the topic, “results from a basic desire to have it both ways.” Weisbrode claims that “it began with Adam and Eve. Do we or don’t we eat the apple?” This morning’s Avraham Avinu might have been an even better choice. Abraham would truly prefer not to choose; desperately he wants it both ways. After all, he loves Isaac AND he loves Ishmael. And yet, choose he must. Indeed, we all do, at least once in a while.

As you know, I’m a both/and kind of guy. Abraham makes total sense to me. In an ordinary election year, I’d be finding value and virtue in both major party presidential candidates, for example. And as you know, I believe that we need a good deal more in the way of both/and thinking in our lives and our world. That’s among the reasons that Shimon Peres z”l has long been an inspiration to me and to many, many others. Build up Israel’s defense capabilities AND pursue peace with Israel’s neighbors; keep yourself grounded in day to day reality AND dream great dreams about what the future could look like; take great pride in the Jewish people and our accomplishments AND promote universal values and cosmopolitan connection. Former President Peres made decisions, often momentous and difficult ones, but always with his both/and tendency intact. Avraham Avinu, the same; we, I hope, the same as well.

Abraham’s dilemma also feels like a case of cognitive dissonance to me. Let’s consider that angle for a moment. The theory of cognitive dissonance, developed by 20th century social psychologist Leon Festinger, describes the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. It’s something that we all face in the course of our lives. Here’s a trivial example. I never met a baked good that I didn’t like, especially if it came from one of a long list of very favorite bakeries. I know I shouldn’t have that croissant each morning, and somehow I always (or at least often) do.

Abraham’s dissonance is, needless to say, much more serious than the question of almond croissants and raisin danish (my two favorites!). How can he line up his loyalty to Sarah and Isaac with his loyalty to Hagar and Ishmael? How can he kick out one at the behest of the other? How can he live with the agony of this moment?

Festinger teaches that an individual who experiences the discomfort of cognitive dissonance will try to reduce it and will actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it. He sketched a number of ways to get there, all involving some measure of manipulation and/or rationalization.

My friend, Rabbi Lauren Berkun, suggests another way – recognize that each of the clashing beliefs or ideals derives from its own moral ground. You and I hold a different opinion not because I’m dumb and you’re smart – even though that may be true! – but rather because we begin from different values, each of which we agree is important and good. If we can recognize that, then there’s a chance we can actually talk to each other, and maybe even get along. Near the top of my bag of worries is our inability to see and hear and converse with those with whom we disagree.

One more angle on Avraham Avinu – Contemporary Israeli rabbi and teacher Shlomo Wolbe asks a sharp and uncomfortable question: How often do we make use of our freedom? Not very is his equally sharp and uncomfortable answer. Rather “personal disposition, education, habit, and interests maintain almost absolute rule over us from childhood to old age.” Ouch, and probably correct. Here’s Wolbe’s big point: freedom is “one of the noble virtues which one must labor to attain.” It requires “great effort” over the course of a lifetime. Does Abraham freely choose to hear Sarah’s voice? Is he aware of his “maximal responsibility” and of the “knowledge that (he) can create worlds and destroy them” as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches on the same subject? Abraham faces his worries mindfully and, I believe, does make a free and responsible choice. Do we in the face of our worries? Mindful attentiveness to our power to choose feels like a beautiful way to address the many things that keep us up at night.

Abraham, much like Jenny’s neighbor, comes to teach us how to handle our worries. Stay appreciative of value and goodness on all sides, talk through your dissonance and discomfort, and don’t be afraid to exercise your freedom of choice. Nothing less than the destruction and creation of worlds hangs in the balance.

A prayer for us on this worried and worrisome Rosh Hashana: May our experience mirror that of the great Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain who said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  Ken y’hi ratzon! So may it be for all of us.