How Does the Song Go? – Kol Nidre 5780 (2019)

Let’s start with Brene Brown’s book of a few years ago ‘Daring Greatly.’ The title comes from a famous Theodore Roosevelt speech – Citizenship in a Republic – presented at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910. Here are Roosevelt’s words:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…

And here’s Dr Brown’s opening take on TR’s stirring words:

This is vulnerability. Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.

And a bit more: Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with out vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.

Tonight, I want to explore vulnerability – yours, mine, ours – with you. I want to dig into Brene Brown’s big categories with you: courage and clarity, fear and disconnection, engagement and vulnerability.

And to get at that web of emotions and values, I want to dip into words that are precious to me, words that, with their accompanying music, have kept me company for many decades. Perhaps they’ve accompanied you on your journey as well…

It’s all on the accompanying handout…

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Robert Hunter z”l – GD’s lyricist and songwriter, author and composer of many of that band’s most beloved songs.

Ripple – a vulnerability prayer. “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken, perhaps they’re better left unsung. I don’t know, don’t really care, Let there be songs to fill the air…”

Also a prayer about yearning and engagement. “Reach out your hand if your cup is empty, if your cup be full may it be again.”

Also a prayer about wonder and mystery. “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hand of men.”

And, finally, a prayer about paradox. “You who choose to lead must follow but if you fall you fall alone; If you should stand then who’s to guide you? If I knew the way I would take you home.”

On RH I shared with you four lunar lessons. Tonight, with Robert Hunter’s help, I’d like to pose four questions for us to take on this road between the dawn and the dark of night.

what I want to know, is are you kind?

what I want to know, will you come with me?

what I want to know, where does the time go?

what I want to know, how does the song go?

Hunter’s fir kashes are all about vulnerability and engagement. The lead in to the 3rd question strikes me as especially important – ‘Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go; ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait, wo oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?’

How does the song go? Our lives are a song, one that we compose as we go. Bruce Chatwin’s great book The Songlines traces the aboriginal practice of walking and singing one’s one songline in an act of self discovery and coming of age. My songline is infused with a whole lot of Robert Hunter’s words.

The Wheel – choice of engagement – ‘You can’t let go and you can’t hold on. You can’t go back and you can’t stand still.’ So we are, each of us, on that wheel. I really don’t know whether Hunter ever read Heschel, but a beautiful essay of Heschel’s focused on Prayer teaches much the same about vulnerability and perspective. “We do not step out of the world when we pray; (prayer too is an act of engagement!) we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. ‘Every time the wheel turn ‘round, Bound to cover just a little more ground.’ Amen!

For much the same length of time, Toni Morrison’s vivid and rich words have also kept me company. As we mark and mourn her passing two months ago, let these powerful thoughts wash over you…

Q: Do you write to figure out exactly how you feel about a subject? A: No, I know how I feel. My feelings are the result of prejudices and convictions like everybody else’s. But I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea. It is not “this is what I believe,” because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is “this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?” Or, “I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.”

“The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge. The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it. The idea of the place despises those forces in academic institutions so fearful of independent thought, so alarmed by challenge they prefer oblivion, irrelevance, rather than shoulder the hard responsibilities of change.”

Back to Brene Brown:

“Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times.”

A lot like Yom Kippur itself, which is about courage and uncomfortable, utterly subversive vulnerability. Brene Brown invites us, though, to consider the alternative which she describes as “standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

Show up this Yom Kippur (and every day after this YK as well) and let yourself be seen by and to yourself. It is only the women and men in the arena, who know great enthusiasms and who strive valiantly, who get to find out how the song goes. None of us knows the way; our only shot at going home is to take one another by the hand and hit the road.

Tonight’s last word belongs to Robert Hunter,  my very favorite of all of his lyrics –

‘Once in while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.’ Perhaps you’ll get shown the light in this strange place on this Kol Nidre. I very much hope so.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו


Kol Nidre 5780 (2019)

Words (and some music) by Robert Hunter z”l

Ripple

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine

And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice come through the music

Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken

Perhaps they’re better left unsung

I don’t know, don’t really care

Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty

If your cup is full may it be again

Let it be known there is a fountain

That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow

But if you fall you fall alone

If you should stand then who’s to guide you?

If I knew the way I would take you home

 

Uncle John’s Band

Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,

Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.

Think this through with me, let me know your mind,

Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

It’s a buck dancer’s choice my friend; better take my advice.

You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.

Will you come with me? won’t you come with me?

Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?

Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?

Their walls are built of cannonballs, their motto is “don’t tread on me”.

Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,

Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.

It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.

Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.

Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,

Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;

I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,

Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.

Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,

Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.

Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,

Come on along, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.

Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.

 

The Wheel (lyrics by Robert Hunter z”l)

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.

Small wheel turn by the fire and rod,

Big wheel turn by the grace of God,

Every time that wheel turn ’round,

Bound to cover just a little more ground.

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?

We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. [Abraham Joshua Heschel “Prayer” (1945)]

 

…and more Hunter lines:

Well, I ain’t always right but I’ve never been wrong

Seldom turns out the way it does in a song

Once in a while you get shown the light

In the strangest of places if you look at it right…

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,

Other times I can barely see.

Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been…

 

Q: Do you write to figure out exactly how you feel about a subject? A: No, I know how I feel. My feelings are the result of prejudices and convictions like everybody else’s. But I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea. It is not “this is what I believe,” because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is “this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?” Or, “I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.” [Toni Morrison, The Art of Fiction, No. 134, The Paris Review 128: Fall 1993]

The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge. The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it. The idea of the place despises those forces in academic institutions so fearful of independent thought, so alarmed by challenge they prefer oblivion, irrelevance, rather than shoulder the hard responsibilities of change. [Toni Morrison, Princeton 250th Anniversary Convocation, October 25, 1996]

 

Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

Divided. United. Worried. Fragments of a Love Letter to the Jewish People – Rosh Hashanah 2 5780 (2019)

You’ve probably heard this one before.

A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks her profusely and offers to give her a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to.”

Our little story builds on the idea that we Jews are particularly contentious, always debating and disputing with one another, deeply divided. Division, rift, even schism, are the words of the day, all of them common descriptions of either the state of the Jewish people and/or the relationship between American Jews and Israel. 25 years ago, a teacher of mine put out a book called “A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America” and just this week a new volume called “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel” arrived.

Truth be told, we live in a moment of rather extraordinary division, both as Jews and as Americans. You don’t need me to detail really; it’s all around us. American politics; Israeli politics; Fox vs MSNBC; globalists vs patriots; environmental activists and climate change skeptics and deniers; etc. etc.

The story is hardly a new one. Even a cursory reading of the book of Exodus reveals deep divisions among the Israelites, a pattern repeated over and over again in the Bible’s narrative of national life in, and outside of, the land of Israel. And in the post-Biblical world, rifts and schisms abound – Hellenizers and Maccabees; Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes; Rabbis and Priests; Rabbinites and Karaites; Ashkenazim and Sefardim; Hasidim and Misnagdim – and that’s before we get to modern times (and my list is far from exhaustive!).

One way to read and understand the 3,000 year old story of the Jewish people is to recognize that division, rifts, and even schisms, are simply a fact of Jewish life. We debate and dispute, we separate and split off from one another, perhaps we reconnect and perhaps not, a predominant form emerges, and life goes on.

An added element of this tale is that we’re always worrying about it.

In a famous essay, first published in Hebrew in 1948, philosopher Simon Rawidowicz wrote of ‘Israel, the Ever-Dying People.’ “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.” “The threat of doom” Rawidowicz calls it, “an end that forecloses any new beginning.”

One can sub-divide oneself out of existence. That’s today’s version of this age old Jewish worry.

I want to explore the divided-ness and consider some responses to it in two ways this morning. First, I’d like for us to learn a poem together.

Lea Goldberg ‘Pine’

אורן/ לאה גולדברג

.כָּאן לֹא אֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל הַקּוּקִיָּה

,כָּאן לֹא יַחְבֹּשׁ הָעֵץ מִצְנֶפֶת שֶׁלֶג

אֲבָל בְּצֵל הָאֳרָנִים הָאֵלֶּה

.כָּל יַלדוּתִי שֶׁקָּמָה לִתְחִיָּה

 

צִלְצוּל הַמְּחָטִים: הָיֹה הָיָה

,אֶקְרָא מוֹלֶדֶת לְמֶרְחַבהַשֶּׁלֶג

,לְקֶרַח יְרַקְרַק כּוֹבֵל הַפֶּלֶג

.לִלְשׁוֹן הַשִּׁיר בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה

 

 – אוּלַי רַק צִפֳּרֵימַסָּע יוֹדְעוֹת 

 – כְּשֶׁהֵן תְּלוּיוֹת בֵּין אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמַיִם 

.אֶת זֶה הַכְּאֵב שֶׁל שְׁתֵּי הַמּוֹלָדוֹת

 

,אִתְּכֶם אֲנִי נִשְׁתַּלְתִּי פַּעֲמַיִם

,אִתְּכֶם אֲנִי צָמַחְתִּי, אֳרָנִים

.וְשָׁרָשַׁי בִּשְׁנֵי נוֹפִים שׁוֹנִים

 

Leah Goldberg ‘Pine’

Here I will not hear the cuckoo’s voice.

Here the tree will not don a turban of snow,

But in the shade of these pines

My entire childhood comes back to life.

 

The chiming of the needles: Once upon a time—

I will call the distance of snow a homeland,

The greenish ice that fetters the brook,

The poem’s language in a foreign land.

 

Perhaps only birds of travel know—

when they hang between land and sky—

This pain of the two homelands.

 

With you I was planted twice,

With you I grew, pines,

And my roots are in two different landscapes.

 

Χαλέπιος_πεύκη_Σούνιο_1963.jpg

——————————

 

I first learned this poem from Achinoam Nini’s brilliant musical version. Hear it here.

Highlights of Goldberg’s poem:

Image of a bird that travels great distances – hanging/hovering between land and sky (eretz and shamayim) – earth and heaven.

הכאב של שתי המולדות

the ache of two homelands…

נשתלתי פעמים

twice planted

שורשי בשני נופים שונים

my roots ‘on both sides of the sea’

——————————————-

Current big divide within the Jewish people – American Jews and Israeli Jews – relatively new. Turn the clock back 150 years (a mere second in the long stretch of our history!) to 1880. Then, 3% of the world’s Jews lived either in North America or in the land of Israel. Today 80% or more of the world’s Jews live in one of those two places. And both of those communities are amalgams, mixing religious, cultural, secular, Sefardi, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi, in distinct ways.

Daniel Gordis, whose new book ‘We Stand Divided’ I referenced a few minutes ago, labels these two large Jewish communities as distinct ‘projects’ each with its own underlying assumptions and trajectories. In his shorthand, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” describes the American Jewish ethos, while the opening word’s of Israel’s declaration of independence – “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people” – points to Israeli Jewry’s central purpose. American Jews – universalistic – Israeli Jews – particularistic – that’s the difference in a nutshell. Gordis’s binary is too neat and clean in my view. Both expressions of Jewishness are complex and both communities are replete with myriad internal divisions. I know plenty of Israeli Jewish universalists and plenty of American Jewish particularists. And as Leah Goldberg’s resonant poem suggests, more than a few of us have roots on both sides of the sea.

I like Gordis better on the remedy side of the equation. What’s needed, he writes, is “an overdue conversation between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, to deepen our understanding of each other’s differences, successes and vulnerabilities, in the hopes that we can learn from the best that each has to offer. In a world that is darkening for the Jews once again, we need each other now more than ever.” Hear, hear. Not original – Rav Kook called for the same 85 years ago; but well said.

The same is true within each of our large and complex communities as well. Fania Oz-Salzberger in a brilliantly creative piece imagines a sextet of early Zionist thinkers on a road trip in contemporary Israel. Herzl, Max Nordau, Jabotinsky, Berl Katznelson, Bialik, join Ahad Ha’am on a ten day tour of Israel’s cultural centers and periphery. Ahad Ha’am – the leading voice of cultural or spiritual Zionism is able to see that his writings are still being studied by groups of young people in Jerusalem and even in Tel Aviv, in classes and informal gatherings, “with kipot and without them.”“He might be pleased to know this,” Oz-Salzberger imagines, “but more than he would be pleased, he would be disconcerted by the rainbow of Jewish types parading through the streets of the capital, the one having nothing to do with the other, and no love lost between them. And he would worry.”

God knows, there’s plenty to worry about.

—————————————

My love letter to the Jewish people would include these lines –

שורשי בשני נופים שונים – my roots are on both sides of the sea…

לקה אחד מהן כולן מרגישין Just as a ewe feels pain in all parts of its body when one part is hurt, so does all Israel feel it when one Jew is hurt…[Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai]

Let us be known by the general name of the people of Israel, not by the name of a party or a camp. Let us know that in each camp there is much to be mended, and much light and good that one can receive from the other. [Rav Kook, 1933]

(נתודע איש אל אחיו בשם ישראל הכללי, לא בשם מפלגתי ומחנתי. נדע שיש לנו בכל מחנה הרבה מה לתקן והרבה מה לקבל מהאור והטוב זה מזה…)

Lay aside anger, learn to look at each other, party to party, with the eyes of compassionate brothers cast together into great trouble, willing to unite for one sacred goal: the common good, its dignity and sacred service… [Rav Kook, 1935, his last public letter]

(הרפו מאף, התלמדו להביט איש אל אחיו, מפלגה על מפלגה, בעינים של אחים חומלים, הנתונים יחד בצרה גדולה, והמוכנים להתאחד למטרה קדושה אחת: עזרת הכלל כולו, כבודו ומשמרתו.)

Nahman – 

לְעִנְיַן הִתְחַזְּקוּת לְבַל יִפֹּל הָאָדָם בְּדַעְתּוֹ מֵחֲמַת רִבּוּי הַפְּגָמִים וְהַקִּלְקוּלִים שֶׁקִּלְקֵל עַל־יְדֵי מַעֲשָׂיו, עָנָה וְאָמַר: אִם אַתָּה מַאֲמִין, שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְקַלְקֵל, תַּאֲמִין שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְתַקֵּן

On the topic of hitchazkut (encouragement)—that a person should not fall into despair on account of the many blemishes and harm his actions caused: If you believe it is possible to destroy, believe it is possible to repair!

If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, believe that you can heal. (Check out this spectacular presentation of Nahman’s teaching courtesy of Oren Kaunfer!) 

I believe that we can fix; I believe that we can heal. Let’s get to it.

Fly Me to the Moon – Rosh Hashanah 1 5780 (2019)

Let’s sing…

Fly me to the moon, Let me play among the stars

Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars

In other words, hold my hand, In other words, baby, kiss me

 

When the moon is in the Seventh House

And Jupiter aligns with Mars

Then peace will guide the planets

And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius

Age of Aquarius, Aquarius, Aquarius

 

Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance

With the stars up above in your eyes

A fantabulous night to make romance

‘Neath the cover of October skies

And all the leaves on the trees are falling

To the sound of the breezes that blow

And I’m trying to please to the calling

Of your heart-strings that play soft and low

And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush

And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush

 

My summer soundtrack has been the NASA Moon Tunes Playlist on Spotify. Along with a whole lot of folks, apparently, I have a nasty case of moon fever. This summer marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Both have been very much on my mind and in my ears for the past few months. Along with millions, I watched the moon landing on television, likely at my grandparents’ home in the Catskills. Just a few weeks later, and just a few miles away, the Woodstock Festival – “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” – unfolded.

In July of 1969 the Eagle landed on the moon’s surface and Neil Armstrong famously took ‘one small step for man’ and ‘one giant leap for mankind.’  In August, 400,000 plus folk converged at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY for what is now seen as the iconic rock music festival. Mr. Yasgur’s words to the crowd camped in his backyard bear repeating: “I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world.” Some time later, Yasgur reflected that “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.”

Woodstock, by the way, took place on the new moon, in the first days of the month of Elul in 5729.

The moon, whether observed from the Lunar Module, or spotted from a muddy field in upstate NY, has been the object of intense fascination and curiosity since antiquity, perhaps since the beginning of time. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) depicts the first human being, Adam ha-Rishon, as a sky watcher, minutely attuned to the shortening and lengthening of days, to the patterns of darkening and brightening skies. Charting the longer nights and shorter days of autumn for the first time, the first human worries out loud – אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו – “Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder.”  We’ve been focused – intensely and inquisitively – on the moon (and the sun and the stars) ever since.

A beautiful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC highlights some of that fascination in more recent centuries. The exhibit begins with Galileo’s great and revolutionary book Siderium Nuncius ‘Starry Messenger.’ It’s the first work of modern astronomy based on observations made with a telescope, and Galileo’s hand drawn pictures of the surface of the moon are stunning. For 19 nights running in 1609, Galileo trained his telescope on the moon and discovered that the lunar surface, much like that of the earth, was marked by hills, valleys, craters, mountains, and more. Hardly the smooth, perfect orb imagined by the ancients. Four hundred years later, courtesy of Apollo 11 and the missions that came after it, we have ample photographic evidence of what Galileo first saw in the early years of the 17th century.

 

tumblr_olfe2lKMoW1rn3gulo1_1280

[Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius, 1610]

 

Four hundred years before him, Moses Maimonides, knew, and wrote, much the same about the moon. Maimonides inherited his fascination with all things lunar from the rabbinic tradition; the moon – its pattern of waxing and waning in particular – shapes the rhythm of Jewish life in its entirety. We bless the arrival of each new moon, and sanctify it with song and dance once it arrives. Our major festivals – Sukkot and Pesah most notably – fall on the full moon exactly half a year apart from one another. Maimonides also inherited the scientific and mathematical traditions of the ancient Greeks and of medieval Islamic civilization. Brilliantly, Maimonides presents both sets of understandings side by side in his major work of Jewish law and practice. In Jewish life, the moon serves as both timekeeper and signpost. For Maimonides, and for us to this day, the moon and its regular movement really matters.

Rabbinic thought presents a claim, a prohibition of sorts, that delegitimizes our very human tendency to engage in speculation about what might exist outside of our felt and experienced reality.  כָּל הַמִּסְתַּכֵּל בְּאַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים, רָאוּי לוֹ כְּאִלּוּ לֹא בָּא לָעוֹלָם, says the Mishnah – Whoever speculates upon four things, it would have been better had s/he not come into the world. And those four things are? – מַה לְּמַעְלָה, מַה לְּמַטָּה, מַה לְּפָנִים, וּמַה לְּאָחוֹר – what is above, what is beneath, what came before, and what came after.

Beginning with the Talmud itself, Jews have long ignored the Mishnah’s advice. Says the Gemara – OK, fine with regard to what’s above, what’s beneath, and what will come after; but with regard to what has come before, מה דהוה הוה – what has happened has already happened! Thus, Maimonides, and many others besides, could speculate about what’s above.

The Mishnah’s rule may make sense in a settled, calm time. But these are truly not normal times, and in times like these, I suggest, we actually need to extend beyond our normal limits and to ask ourselves what’s above and what’s below, what came before this difficult moment, and what might tomorrow look like.

מַה לְּמַעְלָה – what is above? In this moment we need to broaden our perspective.

מַה לְּמַטָּה – what is beneath? In this moment we need to examine what lies beneath more deeply and with greater honesty.

Next week, on Yom Kippur, we’ll venture underground together. Today I wish to keep our eyes up, our focus on what is above, our gaze on the moon, and on what it has to teach us at the start of this new year.

The moon has many lessons to teach. This morning I wish to focus on four of them.

Today is the first day of the month of Tishrei – the new moon that also marks the beginning of a new year. Our practice is to announce each new month on the prior Shabbat with a prayer called birkat ha-hodesh. Every month, that is, except this one. Rosh Hodesh Tishrei, aka Rosh Hashanah, never gets announced. Why? A well known legend explains that the reason is to confound Satan – ha-Satan in Hebrew – the demonic force that means to do us harm, especially at this moment of judgement and introspection. If Tishrei isn’t announced, then Satan doesn’t know that Rosh Hashanah is here.

A new moon is a hidden moon; we get to see only a sliver of it. Most of the moon, most of the time, isn’t visible; it’s dark. If you have Pink Floyd’s great album, particularly side 2 (yes, I’m that old!!!) running through your mind right now I forgive you; it’s running through my head too. ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon…’ But recall that record’s closing words – “There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it’s all dark.” The moon comes to teach us that so much of our experience, so much of our world, is actually hidden, not in plain view, not right before our eyes. And what’s dark isn’t to be feared; to the contrary, it’s there to be sought out, to be explored. Physicists now believe that 85% of the universe consists of dark matter. To really understand more, to really grow, we need to recognize how much we don’t know, how much we don’t get to see. The power and importance of hiddenness; that’s lunar lesson number one.

The moon teaches us perspective. The late, great Robert Hunter catches it with these lovely lines: “Standing on the moon I see a shadow on the sun; Standing on the moon the stars go fading one by one; I hear a cry of victory and another of defeat; A scrap of age old lullaby down some forgotten street…””Standing on the moon where talk is cheap and vision true; Standing on the moon but I would rather be with you; Somewhere in San Francisco on a back porch in July; Just looking up to heaven at this crescent in the sky…” Think of the famous photograph of the earth taken from Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon for a moment. Seeing our planet from afar – its beauty and fragility – shifted the perspective of many, among other things giving rise to the modern environmental movement.

 

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Lea Goldberg, the great mid-century Israeli poet, captures it in a few elegant lines –

אני היחוד במרום, אני הריבוי במצולה תשקיף מן הנחל אלי דמותי, דמותי הכפולה

אני האמת במרום, אני הבדיה במצולה, תשקיף מן הנחל אלי דמותי בכזב גורלה

למעלה – עוטה דומיות, הומה, מזמר במצולה אני במרום – האל, בנחל אני התפילה

‘The Moon Sings to the Stream’ – I am the unity on high, I am multiple in the pond, looking up to me from the stream, my image, my double…Above I am wrapped in silence, whispering, singing in the pond. On high I am divine, in the stream, I am the prayer…

And that broader perspective, hopefully, gives rise to humility and a sense of appreciation and wonder for the universe’s grandeur. Maimonides put it best. At the end of a long chapter (Guide for the Perplexed 2:24) explaining the intricacies of the heavenly bodies and their movements, a passage in which he declares Aristotle to have gotten it right, Rambam offers these words: “However, regarding all that is in the heavens, man grasps nothing but a small measure of what is mathematical…the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions, and the causes of the heavens…this is the truth.”

The moon bespeaks connectedness. Our tradition preserves a not so widely observed ritual called Kiddush Levana/Sanctifying the Moon which takes place a week or so into the month. It’s a brief service – a few blessings, a couple of psalms – accompanied by singing and dancing, including reaching and jumping up toward the moon. The Talmud’s description of Kiddush Levana (Bavli Sanhedrin 42a) likens blessing the new moon to welcoming pnei ha-shekhina – the Divine Presence – and reports that two of the greatest Babylonian sages, Maremar and Mar Zutra would hug one another while they recited the blessing. Fly me to the moon really does mean hold my hand!

מה למעלה? – – What lies above? What moves and inspires us this Rosh Hashanah? What are our aspirations? Seek out the hidden darkness; Develop perspective; Appreciate grandeur and majesty and beauty with humility and gratitude and joy; Get and stay connected with one another and with God. Undertake renewal.

Two more songs – one you may not know; one you almost certainly do:

Julie Gold’s ‘From a Distance’ – join me:

From a distance the world looks blue and green

And the snow capped mountains white

From a distance the ocean meets the stream

And the eagle takes to flight

From a distance there is harmony

And it echoes thru the land

It’s the voice of hope

It’s the voice of peace

It’s the voice of every man

From a distance we all have enough

And no one is in need

There are no guns, no bombs, no diseases

No hungry mouths to feed

From a distance we are instruments

Marching in a common band

Playing songs of hope

Playing songs of peace

They’re the songs of every man

God is watching us

God is watching us

God is watching us, from a distance

And finally Shlomo Artzi’s beautiful love song called simply ‘Yareah‘ (Moon). Listen well. Here’s the punch line:

אתמול היה טוב ויהיה גם מחר…   !Yesterday was good; tomorrow will be too

The moon, after all is said and done, bespeaks hope.

We can dream, we can connect, we can renew, we can keep hope alive. That’s what this new moon of Tishrei and this new year of 5780 come to teach us. Today, this week, this month, this year, let’s heed the lessons of the moon. Yesterday was good; tomorrow will be too! L’shana tova tikateivu v’tekhateimu; May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.   

‘In your heart…’ – Shabbat Nitzavim 5779 (2019)

My teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner once shared a challenge that he and a fellow rabbinical student extended to one another to write full sermons based on window signs that they had seen in the neighborhood near the Jewish Theological Seminary. The sign that I remember hearing about from Rabbi Kushner read “Help Wanted Inquire Within.” 

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Punctuation matters. Those words can be read in more than one way. ‘Help Wanted. Inquire Within.’ means one thing, while ‘Help Wanted? Inquire Within.’ conveys an entirely different message. Let’s stay with version two. Where might I find help? Habitually, and perhaps logically, we tend to look outside of ourselves for help of various kinds. Counter-intuitively, says our sign, ‘inquire within.’ It’s a beautiful message for this last week of Elul and this final Shabbat of 5779. 

My teacher, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appel understands our parasha, Nitzavim, as an extended word of encouragement to have (or find) the confidence that “what we need is what we already have.” The guidance and wisdom we seek is not “beyond reach” – neither “in the heavens” nor “beyond the sea” in the Torah’s words. “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) In Rabbi Bendat-Appel’s lovely formulation, “it’s all there in my lived experience.” Help wanted? Inquire within!

“In your heart.” Vaclav Havel, playwright and political leader extraordinaire, makes a powerful claim. “…the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better…” Salvation comes from within, says Havel. That’s the heart of the matter. The Torah agrees and invites each of us to inquire within in search of wisdom, comfort, hope, and wholeness. 

Lo ba-shamayim hi – It is not in the heavens.” Rather it is “in your mouth and in your heart.” Inquire within. Search on!

 

Shabbat Shalom & Shanah Tovah. 

Starting Over – Shabbat Ki Tavo 5779 (2019)

Here’s a radical idea. “With each and every breath we receive renewed vital force (from God)…with each breath we are made a new creation.” That’s Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev’s answer to his own question – “How can we experience each day as if it were new?”

It’s a perfect query for the middle of Elul, just a few weeks from the end of the current year and the beginning of a new one. Behind Levi Yitzhak’s question is the thought that renewal isn’t just an annual exercise. It isn’t even just a daily exercise. Renewal happens constantly, breath by breath, or at the very least it can. Why? Because every inhalation delivers hayyut – Divine life force – directly to each one of us. And with that infusion of vitality, we can begin again.

Levi Yitzhak’s concept of constant and continual renewal reminds me of a line from one of Solomon Schechter’s ‘Seminary Addresses’ which speaks of “a present which forms a link between two eternities, representing an answer of Amen to the past and an Opening Prayer to the future…”

 

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That’s the moment we occupy now. That’s the moment we eternally occupy. It is always now and it can always be new if we allow it.

My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, sees in this insight the inner logic and wisdom of teshuvah. “Over and over we are offered another moment in which we can transform our hearts, our intentions, our lives. What are the conditions under which we will be able to awaken to God’s presence in the world? How will we attain a balanced, meaningful life?…When we step back from our habitual responses, we give ourselves the space to see an alternativeway of behaving. We experience the possibility of becoming someone new.”

Or, as my teacher, Rabbi John Lennon, famously put it, “It’ll be just like starting over.” Amen to the past, Opening Prayer to the future. That’s where we stand right here, right now. So, take another breath and draw in the Divine life force. It’s happening today, everyday, always.

Shabbat Shalom

Boundaries & Borders – Shabbat Shoftim 5779 (2019)

lo tasig g’vul rei’ekha – Don’t move (or move back) your fellow’s landmark.

So begins the Torah’s statement regarding the inviolability of boundary markers. Here’s the full verse: You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” [Deuteronomy 19:14]

Maimonides summarizes the Talmudic understanding of this norm: “If a man removed his neighbor’s landmark and included some of his area into his own, even as much as a finger’s length, he is deemed a robber if he did it forcibly, and a thief if he removed it secretly. If he removed a landmark in Eretz Yisrael, he has broken two prohibitions: robbery or theft, and: ‘You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks’ (Deuteronomy 19:14). This last prohibition is applicable only in Eretz Yisrael, since it is written in the same verse: ‘In the inheritance which you will hold in the land…'” [Laws of Theft 7:11]

 

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[Border stone from 1763 between Norway and Sweden, located in the Arctic]

 

Our tradition, as is its wont, also reads this command in metaphorical terms. Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that “in halakhic literature this admonition against encroachment was widely expanded to encompass other types of misappropriation, such as wrong attributions of rabbinic dicta, and eventually to copyright violations.” [JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, p. 183]

I’m inclined to follow that impulse to read figuratively, and to recognize in the Torah’s command a very suggestive piece of guidance and direction. There are many ‘types of misappropriation’ to ponder from the political to the personal and beyond. National borders and their significance certainly come to mind. Personal boundaries, their protection and their all too frequent violation, come to mind as well.

Respect for appropriate limits is part of the foundation of rabbinic thinking and Jewish ethics. Honoring one another’s boundaries is the starting point of ethical living; knowing one’s own limits is the starting point of healthy living. Hasagat g’vul – litererally ‘the moving of landmarks’  – is the rabbinic phrase for boundary violation writ large. One short verse in the Torah; one very large ethical concern that touches our lives on every level, every day.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rosh Hodesh Elul – Shabbat Re’eh 5779 (2019)

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

These famous words from Song of Songs describe the culmination of a shared search by two lovers for one another’s affection and attention. And the poet’s announcement is clear: they have found one another and are now reciprocally connected.

Medieval philosophers read Song of Songs as an allegory for the spiritual quest. Michael Fishbane brilliantly summarizes the idea that “the self now asserts the Beloved’s reality in its soul. It feels the growing inwardness and actuality of this truth and proclaims this in terms of spiritual mutuality: I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine…The double formulation (being loved and giving love) confirms an entwined spiritual relationship and a sense of the Beloved’s presence – as emotional reality and personal truth.”

Kabbalists associated the Song’s famous line with the month of Elul, the last of the year, and the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of a new year. R Haim Yosef David Azulai (known as Hid”a) – an 18th century mystic and scholar – may have been the first to articulate the connection. “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li is an acronym (rashei teivot) for ELUL. In the month of Elul, the Holy One desires the people of Israel and becomes ‘Beloved’ (dod) to them in order to draw them near in repentance; God is close to those who call to God in this month.”

 

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Hid”a notes that the last letter of each of the words in the Song’s famous line is the letter ‘yud’, which both figures in God’s name and carries the numerical value of 10. The message of the four ‘yuds’? God desires connection and is available to us “not only in Elul which marks the end of the year but also during the ‘Ten Days of Repentance’ which mark the beginning of the New Year.” Forty days of maximal connectivity.

ELUL begins on Sunday. Consider Elul’s beginning as an invitation to us to focus on relationship and connection – with ourselves, with others, with particular special others, with our families, with our people, with God. Song of Song’s best known line can serve as a powerful guide for that journey of reflection and discovery. Start with ‘ani.’ Who am I? And how do I desire to connect with myself and with others? What, really, does l’dodi mean? Lamed can mean with, for, belonging to; which is it for me? Who/what is my beloved? And what of the vav (and) at the center of the phrase? What does mutual and reciprocal relationship look like?

ELUL is high season for that spiritual and personal quest. It begins now.

Shabbat Shalom. Hodesh Tov.

And may we each be inscribed and sealed for a new year of entwined spiritual relationship and maximal connectivity.