Quiet Wisdom – Shabbat Hol ha-Mo’ed Sukkot 5779 (2018)

Listening to and watching some of yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee pulled me through the full range of emotions in the space of just a few hours. Anger, embarrassment, disappointment, sadness, worry, outrage, pride, disgust, and more, all piled up, sometimes even in the same moment.

Yehudah Amichai’s brilliant rewrite of Kohelet’s famous catalogue of the seasons has been in my head this Sukkot. This Shabbat, we’ll read Kohelet’s words: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…” Amichai writes: “A man needs to hate and to love at the same moment, to laugh and cry with the same eyes, with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, to make love in war and war in love…” To hate and to love at the same moment – b’vat ahat… Amichai adds: “And to hate and forgive and remember and forget, to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest what history takes years and years to do.” History takes its sweet time, but it crashes into one’s reality in an instant, and without warning.

Over this past week, and especially yesterday, I found myself transported back to the summer of 1979, the July and August between the end of high school and the beginning of college for me. So much of what we’ve all heard this past week sounded familiar to me. I grew up in Great Neck, an affluent and mainly Jewish suburb of New York City. It was a place of great privilege whose predominant culture was marked by an abiding sense of entitlement. The public high school from which I graduated in 1979 was, or at least believed itself to be, New York State’s very best. And in the weeks before and after our graduation, my classmates and I spent a lot of time poolside, and at the beach, and at various parties and celebrations at which we were the guests of honor. The world was our oyster, and we knew it.

My next stop was Princeton University, a place of even greater privilege whose predominant culture was marked by an even more grandiose sense of entitlement. I studied hard as a college student, and Princeton was filled with serious minded, hard working students in the early 1980s. We also played hard. I know very well the kinds of alcohol fueled parties and gatherings about which we’ve all heard these past days. I attended my fair share of them, often enough at one or another of my college’s exclusive eating clubs. I felt that I was in elite company, and more to the point, I felt empowered by it. It was a heady time, certainly for me, and I believe for many of my school mates.

That experience of privilege and entitlement is a good sized piece of my truth. It’s something I think about and consider and weigh every day of the week. How much of my overwhelmingly positive experience is tied up with my gender? Do the women with whom I went to high school and college tell a different story? How different? How positive? Or, how painful, traumatic, damaging, abusive?

Among the preliminary prayers in the daily siddur is a line that reminds the worshipper of the meaning of reverence and awe. “Both in private and in public, a person should always be in awe of heaven, acknowledging the truth, speaking truth in one’s heart…” “Your heart shall murmur in awe,” says the prophet Isaiah. Recognizing and articulating truth, at least to oneself, is the means. I trip over that line every single day. Do I really tell myself the truth? Do I, can I, acknowledge what is true? And, perhaps even more importantly, can I hear, acknowledge, absorb, integrate what is true for another?

Coming to terms with one’s own history is never simple or easy. The glare of the bright lights, I imagine, only makes matters worse. Still, I’m aching to hear even a small expression of humility, of introspection, of gratitude. Something to serve as a counterpoint to the bombast, the scripted outrage, the endless political posturing to which we have been witness these past days. Alas, Kohelet’s opening words have been on prominent display this Sukkot: “Utter futility! – said Kohelet – Utter vanity! All is absurd!” Havel havalim; ha-kol havel.

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Blessedly, Kohelet offers us a small but powerful antidote: “Words spoken softly by people of wisdom are heeded sooner than those shouted by a ruler among fools.” (Kohelet 9:17) Maimonides’ Laws Relating to Moral and Ethical Character (Hilkhot De’ot 2:5) serves it up with perfect clarity and simplicity: “A person should not respond quickly nor speak too much. S/he should teach her/his students calmly and pleasantly, without shouting and without being verbose.” I vote for more Kohelet, more Maimonides, more wisdom, more humility.    

  

‘Still Time to Change the Road You’re On’ – Yom Kippur 5779 (2018)

“Every evening the rabbi of Berditchev examined in his heart what he had done on that day, and repented every flaw he discovered. He said: ‘Levi Yitzhak will not do this again.’ Then he chided himself: ‘Levi Yitzhak said exactly the same thing yesterday!’ And he added: ‘Yesterday Levi Yitzhak did not speak the truth, but he does the speak the truth today.’”

Let’s put that into everyday language. ‘I really blew it in this interaction with that person; I really wish I hadn’t said – or had said – that to this person in that moment.’ Or, if you prefer a more mindful version – ‘I didn’t live up to my deepest intention in a number of different ways today.’ That’s round one. Round two, then, would be something like ‘How many days in a row are you going to have the same conversation with yourself; aren’t you tired of making promises to yourself and not following through? Enough already!’ Round three (?) – ‘This time I really mean it!’

There’s a lot that I love about this little story. In its deceptively simple way, it captures some of the twists and turns of what our tradition calls teshuva – usually translated as repentance, but which actually means return. But let’s dispense with the fancy title and the long ethical and philosophical literature that goes with it. Levi Yitzhak is engaging in mindful, thoughtful living. He’s thinking about himself, holding the proverbial mirror up to himself, second guessing his actions, attitudes, behavior, questioning his motivations, analyzing his choices. Each night, Levi Yitzhak examines his life; and that examination is what makes it worthwhile.

Our small tale also aptly describes the ways in which we have and process regrets. ‘I missed the mark today’ is an expression of regret. “Levi Yitzhak will not do this again,” pushes a bit farther. I regret what I did or didn’t do, and I intend to fix it, to do it differently next time, to make a better choice tomorrow. When tomorrow rolls around and I fail to make that better choice, I arrive at a second, perhaps deeper, level of regret. I have made a promise to myself and then I have failed, or neglected, to keep that promise. Now there’s yet another choice to be made. Do I wallow or beat myself up or declare myself a terrible person? Or, do I follow Levi Yitzhak’s lead and recognize that a second (or third, or hundredth, or thousandth) chance lies just around the next bend. New moment, new opportunity, new me. Take a deep breath and start again.

… Yes, there are two paths you can go by

But in the long run

There’s still time to change the road you’re on

And it makes me wonder…

We all know that 20th century expression of the same idea. There is still time to change the road you’re on. There is always still time to change the road you’re on. That’s what Levi Yitzhak means to teach us. Tomorrow is another day; so too the day after, and so on, forever. Since first hearing those 20th century words as a teenager, I’ve always been perplexed by the next phrase. Wonder about what? What makes me wonder?

Enter an ancient poetic expression of the same idea, the words of a prophet/poet named Isaiah, the opening lines of the dramatic haftarah for this Yom Kippur day.

וְאָמַ֥ר סֹֽלּוּ־סֹ֖לּוּ פַּנּוּ־דָ֑רֶךְ הָרִ֥ימוּ מִכְשׁ֖וֹל מִדֶּ֥רֶךְ עַמִּֽי׃

[The Lord] says:  Build up, build up a highway!  Clear a road!  Remove all obstacles from the road of My people!

Rashi spells out Isaiah’s intent – ‘clear yetzer ha-ra’ from your road.’ ‘Remove the stones – the evil thoughts – which slow down your feet.’

First, what’s this thing called yetzer ha-ra’? Usually, and badly, translated as ‘evil inclination’ the yetzer ha-ra’ is that inner voice that knocks one off course, the impulse or instinct to engage in behavior that we know isn’t so good for ourselves or for others. The obstacles on the path are the yetzer ha-ra’.

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There are stones in the road and they slow you down. Anyone who has spent even a few minutes on a hiking trail knows this well. So, what would a hiking trail look and feel like if it had no stones, no obstacles, nothing to slow one down? Pretty boring and uninteresting, I’d say. Handling the rocks is half the fun; maybe more than half!

The Midrash understands Isaiah’s promise to be messianic. R. Simon compares yetzer ha-ra’ to ‘a protruding stone at the crossroads, a stone over which people stumble.’ How to handle that stone in the here and now? Remove it one bit at a time, קמעה קמעה. ‘ad she-tavo ha’sha’ah va-ani ma’aviro min ha-‘olam – ‘Keep chipping away at the stone until the time comes for me to have it removed entirely from its place.’ (P’sikta d’Rav Kahana 24:17)

It’s that chipping away at the stone that interests me. Every choice is an opportunity to chip away. Small example – I got into the car the other day at exactly 10 am. Good, I thought, I’ll catch the news broadcast. The radio, however, was tuned to XPN, and as I reached to the console to change stations, the opening notes of Jeff Buckley’s gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – instantly recognizable – came on. I caught myself, thought about it, and chose to forgo the headlines in favor of the music. Really good choice. It actually shaped the next few hours for me. Staying with the music helped me to remain focused on how and who I wanted to be on that day. Hearing the headlines – while tempting – would likely have aggravated and distracted me. It’s a tiny example, one moment of choosing among hundreds, if not thousands, in the course of a day. There were, in that small instance, two paths I could go by; I chose well, at least that time.

In all of that decision making – and researchers suggest that adults make as many as 35,000 decisions in a day! – how much actually choosing do we do? In my little radio drama, I got lucky in catching myself and then having the conscious thought about which listening experience better suited my goals that day. How many times have I made the same, or the opposite, choice without so much as a thought? The truth is, I’ve slept through that moment, and more like it, thousands, maybe millions of times in my life. You can’t chip away at the rock in the crossroads if you’re not aware of its presence! So wakefulness really is step one. That’s what Rosh Hashanah was really about – ‘uru yisheinim mi-sh’natkhem – Sleepers! Awake from your slumber… – writes Maimonides in his explanation of the meaning of shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah then is the wake up call; Yom Kippur is our initiation into mindful choosing. A centerpiece of Jewish thinking about choice is that we have complete and total free will. Hear Maimonides on the topic: “…each person can be as righteous as Moses our teacher or as wicked as Jeroboam – wise or foolish, compassionate or cruel, miserly or overly generous – likewise with all the traits. No one forces her or decrees her destiny, pulling her in one of these two directions. He himself willingly chooses the path he wishes to follow.” (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 5:2) Yes, there are two paths you can go by – you and you alone choose. ha-koah b’yed’khem says Maimonides; the power is in your hands. It is ‘ikar gadol and ‘amud ha-Torah v’ha-mitzva – an essential and great foundation of Torah and mitzvot.

Free will and the power to choose, yes, but what about habits, whether of the vice or virtue variety, let alone compulsions and addictions? Do we really exercise free will at every moment and with each step? Closer to the truth is that we often ‘fly on auto-pilot’ hopefully habituated to good, wise, healthy choosing, but certainly not always. I don’t know about you, but that’s my reality. My friend and teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe writes about this in words taken directly from my experience. Rabbi Jaffe, you see, is a late night snacker. Once he opens the bag of chips, he knows that he’s going to finish it. The active choice happens, if it happens at all, with the opening of the bag. The decision to eat each chip, well, that’s auto-pilot. It just happens; and it will happen every time. Once that bag is open there may really not still be time to change the road your on.

Habits are the stones in the road. How to chip away at them? Is it even possible? The key insight of the Mussar tradition, and of the practice called Tikkun Middot, is that it is possible. Mussar – which literally means ‘instruction’ invites us to ask some pointed questions of ourselves: How can we shape our quotidian engagements and encounters in a soulful way? How might we serve as a ‘vessel for holiness’ every day? Tikkun Middot – which means ‘the cultivation of personal attributes’ is the method. I work on one attribute at time – things like patience, confidence, humility, orderliness – aiming to expand my awareness and in turn my capacity to make active, conscious, mindful choices. Habits, in that equation, aren’t a bad thing; neither is the yetzer ha-ra’. They’re simply part of my reality; a piece of the reality of the world. They’re the stones in the road.

…in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on. Here we are in the middle of Yom Kippur day. We’ve prayed a lot, with a lot more to go. It’s a long, long run. Can we change course in the middle, this far down the road? Or is the bag of chips already open and we’re just destined to wolf down the whole bag? Levi Yitzhak – you do remember Levi Yitzhak? – has an answer.

“We must always try to bring to our consciousness that from moment to moment the Blessed Creator, in great love and mercy, instill in us new vital force; from moment to moment the Blessed Creator renews our very being.” This is an astonishing and utterly liberating idea. Levi Yitzhak spells it out even more: “…when we raise this thought to awareness, from moment to moment we actually are created new as a new creature.” It is never too late to change the road you’re on because every moment is the first moment, a new opportunity to begin again. kol ha-neshama t’hallel yah, hallelujah – Let all that has breath praise Yah, hallelujah! (Psalms 150:6) Or, with every single breath, with kol ha-neshima, praise God, for with each breath you are a new creature. Chip away at your obstacles, one breath at a time.

Among the verses whose gematria adds up to this year’s number of 779 is this phrase from the 30th chapter of Proverbs – דֶּ֤רֶךְ הַנֶּ֨שֶׁרthe eagle’s way in the heavens, one of three things too wondrous to fully understand. שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה הֵ֭מָּה נִפְלְא֣וּ מִמֶּ֑נִּי – “Three things are beyond me…” – דֶּ֤רֶךְ הַנֶּ֨שֶׁר ׀ בַּשָּׁמַיִם֮ – “how an eagle makes its way over the sky…” דֶּ֥רֶךְ נָחָ֗שׁ עֲלֵ֫י צ֥וּר – “how a snake makes its way over a rock…” דֶּֽרֶךְ־אֳנִיָּ֥ה בְלֶב־יָ֑ם – “how a ship makes its way through the high seas…” Says the Midrash – no one knows the eagle’s destination, the snake’s direction, nor the ship’s path. (Midrash Mishle 30)

אין אדם מכיר את מקומואין אדם מכיר את דרכהאין אדם מכיר את דרכו

We don’t know what might be around the next bend. We get to choose. So this Yom Kippur day, take a deep breath, see yourself as a new creature, chip away at the rock in the crossroads, catch yourself in the moment, and make a mindful choice. I don’t know your exact location or route; no one does. I do know this – you’ll make the right choice.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu…

Transgressive Community – Kol Nidre 5779 (2018)

בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה
וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה
עַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם
וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל
אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין
לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים

By the authority of the court on high,
And by the authority of this court below.
With Divine consent,
And with the consent of this Congregation.
We grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.

A little while ago, just before Kol Nidre itself, we chanted those words along with Hazzan Harold, and just to be clear about it, we said them three times. With that formulation, which seems to have entered into the Mahzor sometime in the 13th century, we transformed our sanctuary into a courtroom. “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! Court is now in session.”

The first two lines set the scene – there is a heavenly court and this earthly one, presided over by God – ha-Makom – and by this congregation – ha-Kahal – respectively. Our practice at Beth Am Israel is to gather our congregation’s past presidents to represent the congregation, the kahal, and to participate in calling this court into session. With grandeur and solemnity Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, Yom ha-Din, the day of Judgment, begins.

 

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[Maurycy Gottlieb ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur’ 1878]

 

Grandeur and solemnity aside, there’s something disquieting and disconcerting about the declaration’s culminating and climactic line.

Anu matirin l’hitpallel ‘im ha-‘avaryanim
“We grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.”

I have a lot of questions.
Who are “we”? And to whom are “we” granting permission?

“We” seems to refer to, well, we, the members of this congregation at this moment. We who are present here right now. And “we” grant ourselves permission to pray with those who have transgressed.

So, now, the much harder question. Who, exactly, are the transgressors with whom we have just granted ourselves permission to pray? Here, there are at least two possibilities.

The “transgressors” and “we” are one and the same. I’m a sinner, you’re a sinner, we’re all sinners, either now or in the future, and “we” need permission to be here as part of this sacred congregation at this auspicious and holy time.

Or…I am not a transgressor but you may be, and with this declaration I, and the other non-sinners in the room, grant one another permission to pray alongside you on this Yom Kippur.

As Rabbi Mordecai ben Hillel, a 13th century Ashkenazi sage, explains: “People entered into the synagogue and were given permission to pray with any person who had violated a communal ordinance, even if the person involved did not request it.”

Or, in the words of Rabbi Shimshon bar Tzadok, the Tashbetz – another 13th century Ashkenazi sage: “We give permission that if there is any sinner among us, we may pray with them.”

So to all the sinners here tonight, please know that we non-sinners are permitted to pray with you. And to all the non-sinners here tonight, please know that you are permitted to pray with me and the other sinners in our midst. Don’t worry; I’m not taking attendance this evening. I promise, no non-sinners will be outed at Beth Am Israel this Yom Kippur!

Wisecracks aside, what is going on here? What do these strange words with which we began our worship together this evening really mean to convey?

A 14th century law book known as the Tur (Orah Haim 619) connects our declaration about ‘avaryanim – transgressors or sinners – with a fascinating Talmudic teaching. Says R Hanna b Bizna in the name of R Shimon Hasida, “any public fast that does not include the sinners of Israel is not a proper fast…” (Bavli Keritot 6b)

The proof for this remarkable claim is the Torah’s recipe for incense. Bear with me – this is more than a little technical, but I promise it’s worth it. Four ingredients make up the incense burned in the Mishkan and the Temple. One of those ingredients – helb’nah in Hebrew; galbanum in Latin – is a gum resin native to the eastern Mediterranean that emits a profoundly disagreeable odor when burned on its own. The holy incense, to be kosher, must include this foul smelling resin. No acrid odor, no incense, no Temple service. And the analogue: no sinners, no proper public fast. You get the picture. And incense, I remind you, was an essential part of the Yom Kippur Temple service about which we’ll read tomorrow more than once.

The chemistry of incense is quite interesting; so are the dynamics of public fasts in ancient Israel designed to pray for rain. But what’s really at stake here is the meaning of community. How do we define community? Who’s in? Who’s out? Is our tent large and expansive or is it focused and small? And as a statement about community, our opening declaration this evening is truly remarkable. Community – ha-Kahalmust include those who transgress. It’s well past reaching beyond one’s comfort zone to hear another perspective. Kol Nidre invites us, maybe even commands us, to sit in the same tent with people we may really not like. I may believe that you have stepped over the line; you may believe that I have stepped over the line. Kol Nidre’s community concept says, ‘pray together.’ A friend of mine calls it ‘community in all its iniquitous glory.’ Following the metaphor of the incense where the foul smelling herb in combination with the sweet smelling herbs adds pungency and strengthens and improves the whole, the presence of we sinners here tonight actually makes this community stronger and better.

So, I irritate you; you irritate me. Now, let us pray, together, side by side, with common purpose, as members of one gloriously transgressive community.

On each of the days of the Yamim Nora’im I’ve been sharing a verse or phrase from Tanakh – from the Hebrew Bible – whose gematria, or number value, adds up to 779, this year’s numbers. Here’s another, a phrase taken from King Solomon’s prayer shared in the presence of the entire people of Israel at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

וַיַּסֵּ֤ב הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֶת־פָּנָ֔יו וַיְבָ֕רֶךְ אֵ֖ת כָּל־קְהַ֣ל יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְכָל־קְהַ֥ל יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עֹמֵֽד׃
Then, with the whole congregation of Israel standing, the king faced about and blessed the whole congregation of Israel.

His prayer reached its climax with this statement:

בְּהֵעָצֵ֥ר שָׁמַ֛יִם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה מָטָ֖ר כִּ֣י יֶחֶטְאוּ־לָ֑ךְ וְהִֽתְפַּֽלְל֞וּ אֶל־הַמָּק֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ וְהוֹד֣וּ אֶת־שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וּמֵחַטָּאתָ֥ם יְשׁוּב֖וּן כִּ֥י תַעֲנֵֽם׃
“Should the heavens be shut up and there be no rain, because they have sinned against You, and then they pray toward this place and acknowledge Your name and repent of their sins, when You answer them…

The Talmudic rabbis derives rules regarding the direction of prayer from Solomon’s prayer. (Bavli Berakhot 30a) The words v’hit’pallu el ha-makom – with a number value of 779 – undergird this piece of prayer practice: One who was standing in the Temple, should focus his heart toward the Holy of Holies. And then the Talmud goes broad, sermonic even:

נמצא עומד במזרח מחזיר פניו למערב במערב מחזיר פניו למזרח בדרום מחזיר פניו לצפון בצפון מחזיר פניו לדרום נמצאו כל ישראל מכוונין את לבם למקום אחד

Consequently, one standing in prayer in the East turns to face West, and one standing in the West, turns to face East. One standing in the South, turns to face North, and one standing in the North, turns to face South; all of the people of Israel find themselves focusing their hearts toward one place, the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

Tonight, each of us, all of us – transgressors and righteous, impious and pious, impure and pure – m’khavnin et libeinu la’makom ehad – “we” focus our hearts toward ONE place, THE place, the Holy of Holies, the space where God dwells. In all of our iniquity, how glorious is that?

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu. May “we” – sinners and saints – all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet, joyful and community filled new year.

The Ever-Dividing Jewish People – Rosh Hashanah 2 – 5779 (2018)

Let’s start with the haftarah for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, a series of pronouncements about the future delivered by the prophet Jeremiah. Born in Anatot, a small town in the territory of Benjamin, near the border with the former northern kingdom of Israel, Jeremiah spent his career predicting the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. His challenging message – that his fellow Judeans ought recognize their fate as God’s will and at the same time place their hope and faith in an eventual restoration – rendered him unpopular in the extreme.

Historically speaking, Jeremiah’s prophecies got it right. In 586 BCE the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and marched the Judeans into exile. Two generations later, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, many exiles returned and began the building of a second Temple in Jerusalem. Exile and return; or, fragmentation, dissolution, dislocation, restoration; or, coming apart followed by coming together again. It just might be the oldest of all of our Jewish narratives. And it’s a story, the story, that we keep telling and re-telling.

Our haftarah picks up the tale at the ‘hope for eventual restoration’ scene. Speaking to a fractured people, half of whom had already been exiled, the other half of whom faced imminent conquest and another round of exile, the prophet begins by referencing our peoples’ founding moment, the Exodus from Egypt. His reassuring word conveys the idea that the relationship between God and the people of Israel is permanent, forever. “Eternal love I conceived for you then; Therefore I continue My grace to you. I will build you firmly again, O Maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels And go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.”

וְאַהֲבַ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ אֲהַבְתִּ֔יךְ – with eternal love I have loved you, and,

ע֤וֹד אֶבְנֵךְ֙ וְֽנִבְנֵ֔ית – rebuilding is right around the corner…

That rebuilding will reunite the two estranged halves – Ephraim and Judah – “Again you shall plant vineyards On the hills of Samaria; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them. For the day is coming when watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, To the Lord our God!”

The moment’s despair is real, as Jeremiah’s best known and most poignant image, that of Mother Rachel weeping for her lost children makes clear. “Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah—Wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children, who are gone.” 

ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ – a voice is heard in Ramah…

 Jeremiah responds to the people’s despair with an equally real and deeply powerful expression of hope. “Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor—declares the Lord: They shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future—declares the Lord: Your children shall return to their country.”

יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙  – there is reward for your labor, and

וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ – there is hope for your future…

A few lines later, just after the conclusion of our haftarah, Jeremiah spells out that hope. “See, a time is coming—declares the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” 

וְכָרַתִּ֗י אֶת־בֵּ֧ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאֶת־בֵּ֥ית יְהוּדָ֖ה בְּרִ֥ית חֲדָשָֽׁה׃ – a new covenant made with both the House of Israel and the House of Judah.

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[Michelangelo – ‘Jeremiah’ – Sistine Chapel Ceiling (Rome)]

Disruption and dislocation, while truly terrifying, also serve to clear the deck, offering up an opportunity to clarify, to dig deep, to articulate what matters most. Jeremiah’s animating ideas – God’s love is eternal, rebuilding can happen at any moment, there is, always and forever, hope for the future, and renewed commitment and connection can and do take place – are also the generative ideals of Jewish life and Jewish history. It is Rosh Hashanah after all; renewal, repentance, return are the themes of the day. Coming together follows coming apart follows coming together as day follows night which follows day.

Twentieth century Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz, in a celebrated lecture turned oft-reprinted essay, colorfully describes the phenomenon this way: “The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.”

Exhibit A: the Book of Jeremiah. Exhibit B: this summer’s screaming headlines about the fractured relationship between American Jews and Israel.

First came the AJC 2018 SURVEY OF AMERICAN AND ISRAELI JEWISH OPINION with some stunning findings. Here are just a few:

  • “78% of Israelis and 69% of U.S. Jews agree that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, while 15% of Israelis and 17% of American Jews disagree.”
  • “79% of U.S. Jews and 87% of Israelis agree that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, while 17% of US. Jews and 6% of Israelis say it is not vital.”
  • 40% of Israeli and 39% of American Jews view each other as extended family.
  • 28% of Israeli and 12% of U.S. Jews view one another as siblings.
  • 10% of Israeli and 15% of U.S. Jews consider each other as first cousins.
  • And 22% of Israelis and 31% of American Jews consider the other as not part of their family.

And then we get to politics…

“77% of Israeli Jews approve of President Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. A majority, 57%, of U.S. Jews disapprove, while only 10% of Israelis do.”

As Lawrence Grossman, AJC’s Director of Communications, puts it, “The message of the AJC survey is clear. If the concept of a global Jewish community – am ehad – is to retain any meaning, each of its two major components must develop a greater appreciation for the priorities and needs of the other. If not, the next AJC survey will find even more American and Israeli Jews writing off those in the other country as ‘not part of my family.’”

A few weeks later, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy, writing online in Mosaic Magazine, put it in the form a rather challenging question. “Can American and Israeli Jews Stay Together as One People?” Here’s their up-to-date snapshot of the Jewish people, circa 5779: “clashing frequently, arguing intensely, but for the most part unwilling to call it quits.” “The present moment,” say Troy and Sharansky, “is especially volatile…On both the American Jewish and Israeli scenes, our era of bad feelings has fed a deepening pessimism about any prospect of a shared Jewish future.”

‘Not part of my family’ and ‘deepening pessimism about any prospect of a shared Jewish future’ are powerful tokens of disruption and fragmentation. Our people, “dying for thousands of years” (another of Rawidowicz’s provocative phrases), seems to be dying yet again. So, we need a Jeremiah to remind us of essentials, to set us straight, to help us chart a path forward. Or, to put it in good Leninist language, ‘what is to be done?’

Already this summer, much digital ink has been spilled in an early effort to articulate solutions and plans. There’ll be a great deal of debate and argument to come – this is the JEWISH people we’re talking about! – but a few large themes have already emerged and are worth noting.   

Ronald Lauder, longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, in a full page ad in Sunday’s New York Times (how better to talk to the American Jewish community?), spells out “four basic principles.” 1. We are One People. 2. Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israel Lies Must be Fought. 3. We Should Never Have to be Afraid to Practice our Faith. And 4. We Must Never be Silent – ‘When people of any faith are assaulted, we must speak out.’ I accept all of Mr. Lauder’s principles and yet they feel inadequate to me, not far-reaching enough, and more than a little defensive.

More needed, in my view, is an affirmative, forward looking vision and concept. Yehuda Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute is on the right track.  “…what if we told a big enough and concrete enough story about what it means to live at this moment at Jewish history…a story that could translate into a program for the Jewish people? Can narrative once again save Jewish peoplehood?”

Narrative has always saved Jewish peoplehood. Narrative, I would argue, created the Jewish people. It is, it has always been, a shared story that connects us to one another – land of Israel Jews and Babylonian Jews, Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews.

What reworked version of that story, of our story, do we need to tell now? Kurtzer, again, points us in a productive direction. “A serious American Jewish Zionism would also articulate twin meanings of home for American Jews (here) and homeland (there), unconvinced by the arguments that the one invalidates the other.” And lest you miss the ‘hope for the future’ element of the current moment, Kurtzer adds this uplifting thought. “The contemporary moment offers unparalleled possibilities for a rich Jewish future offered by two thriving Jewish civilizations, as well as the unique opportunity to improve on the legacy of the Jewish past.”

I got to hear two powerful renditions of our shared story just in the past few weeks. I’d like to share them with you.

Last week, our son Josh was given the opportunity to speak about his personal experience of ‘aliyah and army service at his unit’s annual Rosh Hashanah gathering. Representing the lone soldiers in his unit – the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territiories – Josh delivered his words in quite beautiful and flowing Hebrew. Here’s some of what he had to say. “We left behind a lot – family, friends, opportunities, familiar culture – in order to fulfill our Zionist identities.” He went on to share that growing up with Hebrew at home and at school, learning Tanakh and Jewish history, personal experience in Israel, clarified that the Zionist part of his identity had the deepest meaning. For our son, connecting American Jewry and Israeli Jewry in his very person is what it means to be alive at this moment in our people’s history.

A week earlier I had an opportunity to meet and hear Michal Uziyahu, who lives and works in one of the communities on the Gaza border. One of three speakers at a JNF event whose aim was to share the experiences of Israelis living within range of rockets and incendiary kites launched from Gaza, Michal spoke about her pride in her Israeli identity and history.  She then shared that a few years prior she had come to Colorado as a shlicha (an official ambassador and emissary from Israel). It was here in America, Michal said, that she discovered Judaism and grew a Jewish identity. Listen to that formulation! Israeli comes to Denver where she finds, and falls in love with, Judaism. Like our son Josh, Michal embodies a powerful and meaningful set of connections that bind American Jewry and Israeli Jewry to one another.

Prophetically perhaps, Rawidowicz intuited all of this in the State of Israel’s infancy, nearly 70 years. “The two parts of the Jewish people may be destined to live under different flags…yet they will always have one heart and one spirit. They may have two national anthems, but one song will live in their hearts…”

The Torah describes itself as a song that we, the people of Israel, are commanded to write for ourselves. כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את The great task of our generation of ‘last Jews’ is to write and sing that new Torah and to teach it to one another. It will be a song of unity, a teaching of deep respect and affection for the two broad streams of Jewish life in our time, a narrative of connection, commitment, and honest relationship. That shared story, our shared song of Torah, can indeed ‘save Jewish peoplehood’ in this most extraordinary moment in our history.

Yesterday I shared with you the centuries old practice of adopting a Biblical phrase whose gematria adds up to the current year’s number value. A verse from 1 Chronicles (17:21), part of a prayer offered by King David, fits the bill – וּמִי֙ כְּעַמְּךָ֣ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל גּ֥וֹי אֶחָ֖ד – And who is like Your people Israel, one unique nation? The people of Israel, one people, yesterday, today, tomorrow. Ken y’hi ratzon – may it be the Divine will.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet new year. 

Standing on a Wire – Rosh Hashanah 1 – 5779 (2018)

Picture this.

It’s a muggy morning. A group of us, all members of the education staff – tzevet hinuch in camp lingo – come together to take on the high wire challenge course, known at Ramah as the Etgar. I’m the lone male in our cohort, and four of the seven women are Israeli staffers in their early to mid-20s. You’ll see why that matters in a minute. To participate you have to wear a helmet and a secure harness, the latter of which insures – or so say the Etgar staff – that you can’t fall off. Dangling in mid-air is possible; falling is not.

After receiving our instructions we climb up to the challenge course’s second level, approximately 45 feet above the ground. Looking down is not recommended. Setting one’s sights up and across are far better alternatives. Our first task is to travel together walking on half inch thick cables, able to grab onto six foot long pillars which are also suspended in the air, along the way. Working together is the only way across and most of our conversation ends up happening in Hebrew. My fellow teachers panic in Hebrew, they describe their fears in Hebrew, they yell and scream at one another in Hebrew. Slowly, we begin to cross. I’m the last of our group to step out onto the cable, and I’m the first – and on this day the only – of our group to lose footing and to fall off the cable. Somehow, I remain calm; at least outwardly so. With a little help from my friends, I manage to get back on, and with a whole bunch of sweat and cursing – I learned a few new words that morning! – we make it to the Etgar’s middle platform.

The second element involves cable and thick rope. Again we have to work together to stay balanced and to continue to move to the other side. Less panicky now, and with less colorful language, we inch our way across and triumphantly gather on the course’s final platform. Remember that we’re still 45 feet above ground and we have to get back down. After all, it’s nearly lunchtime! Descent – with a fair bit of dissent thrown in – happens courtesy of a zip line which ends in a nice soft pile of wood chips directly in front of my cabin. All you have to do is jump off of the 45 foot high platform and then let go. No problem. By the way, I have photos and video clips to prove all of this! By now, a steady rain is falling, so there’s no more putting it off. With a gentle, but firm, nudge from a member of the Etgar staff, I jump, let go, shriek, land, and fall directly on my rear. What a blast! It was, hands down (or should I say, rear end down?), the best hour of my summer.

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There’s a lot to be learned from the Etgar. For starters, it takes a village. The only way for any one of us to get across was for all eight of us to get there. And we did it by continually communicating and learning from and about one another. And one lesson more – stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is a good and valuable thing. Standing on a wire 45 feet in the air is my metaphor. It was way, way outside my comfort zone. 

We’re in it together; we need, really need, to talk to one another; and to make it work we need to step out of our self defined boxes and find ways to connect. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to be gained, from making the effort. 

A couple of days before conquering the Etgar, I paid a visit to Liberty, NY, which is my mother’s home town. My grandparents lived at 456 N Main St (you really can’t make this stuff up!) for half a century, and August 1st would have been my bubbeh’s 107th birthday. My chosen project on my day off from camp was to deliver flowers to my grandmother’s house in honor of her birthday. Today, Bub and Zayd’s house is a state owned group home for developmentally disabled adult women. It might be the best kept house in the whole town. Liberty has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Were it not for my family history, it’s a place I’d never choose to visit. Walking up and down Main St. was outside of my comfort zone. And meeting some of the residents and staff of my grandparents’ house turned out to be an extraordinary blessing. Stretching outside of my normal box paid off.

Thirty miles up the road from Liberty lies another Catskills town that has seen better days. Hancock NY, the nearest town to camp, is where L (not her real name!), a long time member of Ramah’s housekeeping staff, went to high school. L is a character and she loves razzing me and other long time camp staffers. One morning I brought my guitar with me to class, so that I could play a few things for my students. L came by on her golf cart and stopped to listen a little. And then, she shared with us that she played the accordion, loved all kinds of music (except opera and jazz), and that when she got to Hancock High, the music teacher wouldn’t give her lessons because she was self taught and had some habits and techniques that the teacher found unacceptable. One thing led to another and before long my students had gotten a complete history lesson about the early settlers of Wayne County, PA. from a pretty unlikely source.

My summer meanderings got me thinking about my comfort zone –  things like NPR and the fairly narrow collection of sources that populate my phone’s newsfeed. The truth of the matter is that I spend most of my time seeing, hearing, reading, viewing from a very particular perspective, that of people a whole lot like me. I’m not alone. Listening to All Things Considered on August 23rd I learned that the news coverage on that particular day – the day of Paul Manafort’s conviction and of Michael Cohen’s in court plea arrangement – revealed the existence of two distinct sets of facts.  Jason Schwartz, a reporter for Politico, articulated the phenomenon well. “Flipping between Fox News and CNN and MSNBC, you’d think you’re living in two different countries. The set of facts as they’re presented, the reality presented rather, is just totally different.” 

A day later, a PEW study was released – very much in my comfort zone, by the way – that suggested that we actually don’t agree on what is and isn’t a fact.  “Nearly eight-in-ten Americans say that when it comes to important issues facing the country, most Republican and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts. Ironically, Republicans and Democrats do agree that partisan disagreements extend to the basic facts of issues…About eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (81%) say Republican and Democratic voters disagree on basic facts of issues. A similar – albeit slightly smaller – share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (76%) say the same. Just 18% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats say that voters of the two parties can agree on basic facts even if they disagree over policies and plans.” There really are ‘alternative’ facts (or multiple sets of facts). At least we’re able to agree that we disagree. Perhaps that’s a worthwhile opening!

Into that opening, I’d like to inject a core underlying principle of Judaism’s Mussar tradition. Mussar is a path of introspection and self examination and evaluation that aims to help us as individuals ‘work on’ our character traits. In the world of general philosophy, what Jews call Mussar is known as ‘virtue ethics.’ Aristotle is one of that tradition’s founding figures. In Jewish thought, Pirkei Avot, the ‘Wisdom of the Sages’, is one of the foundational texts of Mussar.

Who is wise? asks Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot. His answer? The one who learns from all people. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, one of the founders of the Lithuanian Mussar movement of the 19th century, offers a telling riff on Ben Zoma’s words. “Every person that has a special feeling for a certain endeavor will be extremely sensitive when she sees any little thing having to do with that endeavor. For example: when a tailor meets someone he will immediately look at his clothing; the shoemaker – at the shoes; the milliner – at the hat. A merchant will be very sensitive to words and actions that might impact her merchandise. Another sort of person will not see or hear any of these things – his heart is not given to inquire or investigate these matters as he has no desire for them…”

Wisdom, in Simcha Zissel’s telling, requires curiosity blended with humility. The humility to recognize that what one knows is forever only part of the story, along with the curiosity to inquire, to discover, to learn more. In Mussar-speak, this quality, or Middah, is called hit’lamdut which means something like a continual desire and willingness to learn from all experiences and from all people.

Rav Simcha Zissel hones in on a prevalent reality: we see what we already know; we hear what’s already familiar, we sing what’s already comfortable. His teaching means to encourage us to consider what it might look/feel/sound/smell like if we stepped outside of our zones of comfort and familiarity? Alon Goshen-Gotstein, one of Israel’s leading lights in the world of inter-religious dialogue and encounter, offers up a tantalizing piece of practice for us to consider. Arguing that Rosh Hashanah is really about the fate of the world, far more than it is about our individual soul work, Goshen-Gotstein suggests that we take this day, this moment, to pray for a world leader. And he has a particular list of leaders in mind, the very mention of whom drags me well outside of my comfort zone. So try this today and over the coming week. Say a prayer for Rodrigo Duterte, or for Kim Jong-Un, or for Vladimir Putin. Quite a challenge, no?

My summer began on a warm evening in June, seated in the last row of the Wells Fargo Center. At center stage, directly across the arena from Nomi and me stood a man with a guitar. The familiar opening notes elicited a roar from the crowd, and all 20,000 of us sang along. The fifty plus year old words felt as if they could have been written yesterday. Indeed, when he first sang them, the singer was very young. This was the encore of his farewell performance. Like us, you know them by heart…

“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never shared. And no one dared disturb the sound of silence.”

I’m really not sure what Paul Simon was thinking about when he wrote and first sang those words in 1964. But I have a pretty good idea of some of the current realities to which his iconic lines might apply. So let’s unpack his words a bit.

How does one talk and at the same time fail to speak? 

How does one hear and at the same time fail to listen?

And, at the risk of tinkering with a classic, I’d even add a clause, a whole category, to Mr. Simon’s list. Is it possible for people to look without seeing?

The arc of our Rosh Hashanah tefillah serves as an ongoing invitation to us to listen, and to look, and to speak. In this morning’s Torah reading,  God urges Abraham to listen, to really hear, his wife Sarah – sh’ma b’kola. A few lines later God invites Hagar to lift up her eyes so that she might actually see the well of water that has been in front of her the entire time. And a sentence after that, the Torah reports that God hears Ishmael, ba’asher hu sham, exactly and precisely where he is at that moment. This morning’s haftarah features Hannah whose earnest plea and prayer goes unheard by Eli the priest; he recognizes that Hannah is speaking, but he doesn’t really listen or hear. And finally, toward the end of our tefillah we’ll join in the special blessing for the shofarot section of Musaf, praising God as the One who – shome’a kol t’ruat ‘amo yisrael b’rahamim! – hears the splintered cries of the people of Israel with compassion.

What all of those moments have in common is that they stir up a measure of un-ease; they push the characters in the stories beyond their familiar spaces and places, and, in turn they push us beyond our zones of comfort as well. The liturgy of this day beckons us to greater curiosity and openness to discovery, to an abiding spirit of inquiry, to an unexpected level of comfort with uncertainty, and, most importantly, to step out of our comfortable and familiar boxes and to risk something different and new.

An old Jewish practice involves identifying a Biblical verse or phrase whose gematria – whose letters’ number value – adds up to the current year’s number. Annually, my teacher and friend Daniel Matt collects such verses and I’m privileged to be on his email list each year. Two of the Bible’s phrases that add up to 779 via gematria beautifully point toward hitlamdut – that mix of curiosity, humility, and desire to learn.

The poet of Psalm 25 calls out to God asking אֹ֖רְחוֹתֶ֣יךָ לַמְּדֵֽנִיteach me Your path! ‘Teach me’ writes on medieval commentator, ‘so that I might actually know.’ And the author of Psalm 119 asks of God to ‘give me understanding that I may learn Your mitzvot’ – הֲ֝בִינֵ֗נִי וְאֶלְמְדָ֥ה מִצְוֹתֶֽיךָ. The Midrash likens that verse to a wine barrel which one treats with pitch before pouring in the wine. The pitch is ‘understanding’ – an openness to the world around us and a humble desire to learn from all things and all people –  while the wine is ‘learning itself’ or talmud. Applying pitch is the dirty and hard work; well outside of most comfort zones. The wine is the payoff. Much like falling off the half inch thick cable in order to be able to land, joyfully, on one’s rear end an hour later. Take the risk; it’s worth it.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet, healthy, and learning-filled new year.