The Intentional Downward Spiral

This weekend, America celebrates. And with good reason.

But tonight, I was reminded that in another calendar – OUR calendar – the Hebrew calendar – tomorrow night begins a day of fasting. Sunday is the 17th of Tammuz. Tzom Tammuz, or the Fast of Tammuz, recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the 2nd Temple was destroyed. But more than that, Tzom Tammuz marks the beginning of an intentional period of collective and communal grieving. Between now and the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), for three weeks, the Jewish people spiral downward into grief – on purpose! Though the world is sunny and bright around us, our liturgy and Haftarah portions and fasts and rituals take us deeper into darkness and despair; into Sheol, The Pit. And only as the 9th of Av comes to an end, do we begin to climb back out again.

For someone like me, who has struggled against grief and despair for much of her life (with a disproportionate amount in particular these last 7 years), this idea of an intentional descent into Sheol is both horrifying and facinating. Instead of fighting grief and fighting to overcome grief, we embrace it; we choose it; we immerse in it – knowing that it will not be unending; knowing that at the end of three weeks there will be respite and light and release.

For those of us who know grief well, we know that you never really get to choose when it rears its ugly head, or when it might leave again. Grief is not timebound. It comes when it comes and it leaves when it leaves and you are not in control. And yet, Jewish tradition responds to mourning with timebound structures. You have 7 days to fall apart, and then 30 days to ease back into the world, and then a year to live with one foot in the world of mourning and one foot in whatever else life brings your way. And then an annual day to mark the grief, and remember, before moving on again.

And those of us who know grief, know it’s not that simple. Grief doesn’t follow the Jewish calendar. It doesn’t dissipate just because your 7 or 30 or 365 days are up. And yet, Jewish tradition tells us we have to move forward; choose life; find a way.

Except for these three weeks, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, where we choose grief; choose dispear; choose to spiral intentionally down into Sheol together. And this too, is Judaism structuring our grief – saying yes, the loss of The Temple, or the horrors that our people have endured throughout history – we could mourn them for eternity; we could lose ourselves in the grief of it all. But we won’t. We don’t get to. We get three weeks a year to fall apart and tear our clothes and sit in sackcloth and ashes, and then we have to pull ourselves back together, and pull ourselves out of The Pit. Slowly. Slowly. With comforting liturgy and Haftarot to accompany us along the way as we reeeeeach toward a new year, toward new life.

I’m a fighter. When grief pops up, I want to fight back. Even when it gets the best of me and I’m weeping, weeping in the shower or in the car or in bed, there is always a point where I take a breath and choose to fight and start to dry my tears. I reach for healing Psalms. I call a friend, or my mom. I turn on loud music and force myself to dance. But this period in the Jewish calendar forces me to wonder: what would it look like to embrace grief; to welcome it, for a set amount of time? To allow the Jewish calendar to carve out three weeks where we can weep, unabashedly, about whatever heartbreaks have befallen us along with our people. What if, for three weeks, we just let it all come; let it all come out; let ourselves take up residence in Sheol and just be. For a while. Be with our grief. Accept it. What would that look like?

I think I’m going to try it this year. I’d like to find out.

Not that you’ll find me tearing my clothes. You may not even notice it. Or perhaps you’ll find me a little quieter than usual, a little subdued. Then again, it could be that I will seem more peaceful, more resolved. I’m not sure, I’ve never quite allowed grief to take up residence before and have free reign. But I’m giving it a three-week sublet. We’ll see how it goes.

Three weeks to not appologize for grief. To not hide from it or hide it from view. Three weeks to hold it and know, that all throughout the Jewish world, we are grieving together. Three weeks to not be alone in our grief.

Tomorrow night I will go and watch the night sky light up in celebration. I will marvel with childlike glee at the fireworks, and, I will also start to take steps downward; to let myself sink; to permit a little more despair to take up residence.

It is a little frightening and yet, it is almost a relief.

So I’m giving it a three-week sublet, and we’ll see how it goes.

Solidarity Shabbat: Mourning Our Losses, Celebrating Our Wins

I am daunted by the task of speaking tonight. I feel a great weight on my shoulders.

I feel the weight of nine vibrant lives, snuffed-out. I feel the weight of expectation – the expectations that you, a diverse group with diverse opinions, have of me as your rabbi, the expectations that the Reform Movement – also diverse yet clear in its missions and values – has of me as one of their rabbinic representatives, and the expectations that I have for myself as a rabbi and as a human being.

I feel the weight of Tradition – the Reform Jewish tradition of social activism, of speaking out for justice, and the Jewish traditions that I deeply believe bring meaning and purpose to my life.

I feel the weight of the prophets standing at my back. Men and women of God who took to the streets and decried their understanding of God’s will, whether the people found it popular or repugnant. Who carries on their legacy, if not me?

And I feel the weight of Torah – the yoke of the Law, as it has been called – heavily weighing me down. How do I live with it’s values and its contradictions?  How do I reconcile its ideals with the reality of the world around me?

And finally, I feel the weight of the Priesthood, whose legacy I also carry forward – the legacy of men who enacted sacred rituals and rites in order to comfort their people.

I am daunted by the these tasks. I do not venture into this sermon easily tonight.

In the wake of tragedy, each of us struggles to respond. What are our obligations? What is our role? What are we capable of? What are we not capable of? How do we live in a world that one day is abhorrent to us and the next day inspires us?

Even when I don’t have all the answers, I seek to comfort and be comforted. But in the wake of last week’s inexcusable tragedy, I find myself floundering. Each one of us finds comfort in different ways. Some find comfort through action, while others find comfort in faith, in tradition, or simply in the loving arms of another. For me, each of these responses brings a measure of comfort, and thus, I feel torn as to which path to choose tonight.

I want to act. I am angry.

Religious intolerance, racial discrimination and hate-motivated violence have no place in our society, which aspires to be a haven for people of all faiths, races and ethnicities.

I want to do something – do whatever it takes to repair our world, to bring it one step closer to the dreams we have for it, and for ourselves. I know there are many possible actions and responses to choose from, and none of them is perfect. There are no easy answers. No action, no advocacy, will solve all our many problems. And yet, especially on this historic day of long awaited progress, how can I stand here and say that it is better not to act, even if acting is only one step, is only one problem solved at a time?

I want to preach.

I want to stand up, as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jill Perlman did, this week, at a prayer vigil at an AME church. I want to teach, as she did, about Moses, who in last week’s parasha, called out to his brother, Aaron, get your fire pan and run – run into the midst of our people. “And Aron ran,” she wrote, “He rushed in and he stood among the people…he literally stood between the dead and the living – Vayamod bein hameitim uvein hahayyim – Aaron stood between the dead and the living in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, to prevent more people from perishing from the advancing plague.”

Rabbi Perlman goes on to teach the midrashic tradition that Aaron fought the Angel of Death on behalf of his people that day. “He stood his ground, he stood between life and death – and the plague was checked.

I want to stand my ground, like Aaron.

I want to stand next to my friend Jill – stand between life and death – and speak out against the plagues in our own society. The plagues of hate and ignorance, intolerance and complacency. I want to demand that we take more responsibility – not as as a society, not as a government, but as human beings, for providing care and help for those with mental illness, and for providing better education to counter ignorance, and I want to demand that we, as human beings, care more about the right to live than we do about the right to own.

I want to weep.

I want to wrap my arms around the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church community, around those nine bereaved families, around anyone who has ever had someone they love ripped from their arms because of hate, because of ignorance, and yes, because of guns. I want to share words of condolence, such as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jen Gubitz, wrote this week, when she shared these words:

Dear Mother Emanual, we are so profoundly saddened for your loss. We are so profoundly saddened for your losses. For thousands of years, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing of a death, we recite these words – Baruch Da’ayan Ha’emet, Blessed is the True Judge. And we tear Kriyah – we tear, rip, rend our clothing to expose our hearts. We expose our hearts breaking for you and, dare I say, with you.

I want to write sympathy card after sympathy card. I want to tell them how sorry I am and how sad I am. I want to say that while I will never understand what it is like to be African American, or to be hated simply for the color of my skin, that I do know what it is like to be a minority and to carry the weight of a history of oppression and hatred. My people too, have been enslaved. We have been hunted and murdered. We have been hated for our identity and our beliefs and our bloodlines.

I know what it is to fear that I and my loved ones might be targeted for these things. I know how it feels to want to keep my synagogue doors open and welcoming to the stranger, but to choose to keep them locked instead for fear of another Dylan Roof wandering into our midst – armed and hateful.

I want to turn to Torah and to the Wise Traditions of my people.

I want to learn from this week’s Haftarah portion, where a man named Jephthah makes a terrible vow. Jephtah wanted victory over his enemy so badly – or maybe understandably, he wanted to defend his land and his people, his home – so badly, that he makes this terrible vow: If You, God, will deliver my enemy into my hands, than in return, whatever comes forth first from the doors of my house to meet me when I return, I shall offer it up to You as a burnt offering.

Jephtah’s enemy is delivered into his hands, and when he returns home, it is his beloved daughter who first comes forth from his house to meet him. His daughter, whom he must then sacrifice in accordance to his vow.

The Torah teaches us that we must protect ourselves from those who wish to kill us. But the Torah also teaches us, here, in this story of Jephthah’s daughter, that protecting ourselves, our homes, even perhaps our very lives, can come at a steep price.

It seems almost unfair sometimes, that Jewish tradition holds, above all, the value of pikuach nefesh, the value of life. Our Sages taught: “He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe”. And yet, it is unfair, because the very same value of pikuach nefesh justifies the decision to arm ourselves against our enemies. He who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the world. How are we supposed to live with this contradiction? How are we supposed to understand it?

I wonder, with deep humility, if the trick isn’t to figure out how to do both – protect life and save life – as safely and as considerately and as fairly as possible.

The right answers are never the easy answers and Judaism has much to say about the cost of one life for the sake of the many, and about when it’s okay to kill another and when it is not. I could write a sermon a week and it would take years to work through it all; to come to some clarity. Torah is not meant to give us quick or easy answers. Torah is meant to be wrestled with; To be studied over time. We must protect life and we must figure out a way to make the world a place where we can safely turn our swords into plowshares.

And finally, I want to find comfort in faith.

I want to remember where Mother Emanuel’s name comes from. Emanuel, in Hebrew is prounounced, im anu El, God is with us. I find comfort in that, even in the darkest of times. Perhaps God can not change this world, but God has given us the ability to change it. And while we struggle to do so, Im anu El, God is with us.

Though last week was terribly dark, today’s Supreme Court decision to make Marriage Equality a reality for all Americans, affirms my faith in our ability to fight for what we believe in and, by doing so, make the world a better place.

Maimonides said, Ani Ma’amin, I believe with a perfect faith. Faith is terribly hard to hold on to, especially in the wake of so many challenging issues, especially when humanity looks in the mirror and is ashamed of what we see. But today we looked better in the mirror – more equal, less hateful. More humane.

And so – yesh li Tikvah – I have hope. And so – Ani Ma’amin – I have faith.

And so, in the end, I will act on my conscience. I will stand up for what I believe to be true and just, but not without first consulting my sacred texts and tradition, and struggling with the complex and sometimes contradictory messaging therein. And in the meantime, I will seek to comfort and be comforted. To cling to my fellow man, and to God – both of whom I believe in, even when they let me down.

My colleague Rabbi David Widzer wrote today, “The work of equality, in all realms, is never done. We both mark its darkest moments and celebrate its triumphs with the faith that we are always called to the pursuit of justice.”

I want to do all these things. I want you to do them too.

Yir’defu Zedek – Let us pursue justice unabashedly.

Yir’defu Yichud – Let us pursue solidarity, remembering always that our commonalities are far greater than our diversities.

v’Yir’defu Shalom – And through both our pursuits of justice and solidarity, let us come to finally know peace.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

A Eulogy for Today

This day makes me sad

Friends mourn children

who never came to be while

others

turn their children into monsters

such that we celebrate their death sentences.

How can I mourn

for murderers

while Jewish potential died on train tracks

this week?

The world is filled with those who hate

(and those who love, surely)

while the innocent are

buried

under rubble

so much human waste

and I know which side I’m on

but I fear

I fear

that when I tell my teenage sister

“sometimes love just isn’t

enough”

I’m not merely speaking about her latest boyfriend drama

it’s the human drama I fear

Hate is in the lead today

I don’t believe in vengeance and yet

I sometimes wonder what it would take to get the world

(humanity)

the clean slate we so desperately

need

 

If I could immerse us all in a mikvah…

dress us all in pure priestly white and make us

observe

the Yom Kippur fast…

 

Ah, but I can’t even fill my own pews.

 

We all fall. We all fail.

I know with morning there will be joy

(the Psalmist tells me so)

and hope

and new children

But today makes me sad

 

I know You’re out there

but I feel You not.

Come back to us.

Help me make it through this day

through the darkness and back into the light

Help me have the strength to lead others even when I know not where we’re going

Help me to find my way back to hope and faith in humanity

(faith in You is so much easier than faith in Us).

 

Help me to remember that today, too, has been given a death sentence

So that tomorrow might be better.


-EKG’15

Together Is Better: The Case for Religiosity

I’ll admit it, I get lonely sometimes.

It can be really hard to feel alone, especially during the holidays; especially this year, being more distant than usual from my family.

When I have shared this loneliness with members of our temple community, I have been met with the same wonderful and uplifting response: “Don’t be lonely, you have us!” And indeed, when I am here with you all, loneliness is the farthest thing from my mind.

And I know that I am not the only one whose loneliness is allayed by community. In fact, I suspect that many people who come here regularly come because they are lonely, or because they would be lonely if they didn’t come regularly.

That’s part of what community is all about. The word community implies togetherness, it connotes sharing and commonality;

Last month when we invited members of this temple to participate in Parlor Meetings many of you shared with us why being part of this community is important to you: “This (temple) gets me out of myself,” one of you said, “I feel involved (in something more than my own immediate life and concerns)”. “(Being part of the temple gives a) rhythm to my life”, said another, and someone else said, “(when I’m at temple) I can cry, and someone always gives me a hug”.

One of our most basic human instincts is to seek out others – for survival yes – but also for company and for context, since communities help us to know who we are in relation to others.

Religions have been characterized by “the three B’s”: Believing, Belonging, and Behaving. When it comes to religions, these three are inseparable. Believing and behaving don’t require one to be affiliated with a religion. But having a community where we belong – with others who believe and behave in the same ways and according to the same values – is something that only happens within the context of religion.

These days, many people shy away from the term religious. According to the latest Pew report, almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, as Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in a recent Time Magazine article, “they have some feeling, some intuition of something greater (than themselves), but feel allergic to institutions.”

Rabbi Wolpe explains that spirituality is an emotion while religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes while religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself while Religion is dissatisfied with the world, and provides actions for us to take in response to this dissatisfaction. Being spiritual makes us feel good, but spirituality in and of itself doesn’t push us to better ourselves and our world. However religion does.

Our values and our sense of right and wrong don’t exist in a vacuum. We need to be part of a religious community in order to give our values a context and a structure, in order to balance our human flaws with scriptural guidance, and in order to have something and someone against which to measure ourselves.

And yes, these communities can bring with them frustration and, dare I say it, an expectation of commitment. You might even be asked to sit on a committee or attend meetings!

Then again, as Rabbi Wolpe writes, “there is something profoundly, well, spiritual about a committee meeting. It involves individuals trying together to sort out priorities, to listen and learn from one another, to make a difference…

Institutions…frustrate,as do families and every other organized sector of human life. If you want frictionless,” he concludes, “do it alone.”

Then again, even if we find reasons to overlook the challenges of religious institutions, there may still be inherent flaws with religion itself. Rabbi Joshua Heschel once wrote about the decline of religion, remarking on how it is commonplace to blame science and philosophy for what he calls, “the eclipse of religion in modern society.” He felt it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.

“Religion declined not because it was refuted,” he writes, “but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive (and) insipid. When faith is completely replace by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit…when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

Heschel is acknowledging that religion can be problematic. It can be misunderstood, misconstrued and manipulated. Its intent can be hijacked and misdirected by those with intentions of their own. But when religion is practiced with good and pure intent; when faith and meaning and compassion are at the fore, it can be beautiful. It can add something of value to our lives.

And yes, faith and meaning and compassion can all be practiced without being part of a religion, but not if we want to share these things with others, and not if we want to have a structure and a context in which to place our beliefs and values.

Religion is spirituality, belief and practice PLUS community and structure.

Take Judaism, as an example.

I once heard it explained that spirituality opens our hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience. Our religion does the same thing, but it grounds these practices and experiences in Jewish mystical, textual, and historical traditions.

What are these very High Holy Days if not a spiritual accounting of our souls? But without the structure of our Holy Day worship services; without the teachings and traditions of our religion, would we be able to account for our souls in the same way? Without a community in which to gather, who would we share this spiritual journey with?

There are very few forms of spirituality that don’t involve a communal practice of some kind. Even when people meditate they often do it in a room together. This is because there is an energy in communal spirituality that is lacking in the spiritual moments we seek out by ourselves.

Judaism understands this. It is first and foremost a religion of community. Jews are often referred to as the “Jewish People”, the “People of Israel” and “The Tribe”, all of which convey belonging. Judaism is a “Belonging-Based Community”

In his book, Becoming Jewish, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben explains how “the same concepts of believing, behaving and belonging apply to Jewish identity, except Jews value a slightly different order and importance. For Jews,” he writes, “identity does not spring from belief…Instead, what gives us identity is belonging.”

He points out that since belonging is what gives us the foundation of our religious identities, the behaviors of Judaism – acts like eating matzah on Passover or fasting on Yom Kippur or even speaking Yiddish (Oy Gevalt!) – are behaviors which strengthen the feeling of belonging. Judaism includes more than just the aspects we think of as religious. It includes language, literature, art, history, music, and a shared homeland.

“Most Jews you meet,” Rabbi Reuben writes, “experience their identity primarily through what most people see as Jewish culture…It’s (why) we feel Jewish when eating a bagel…when we hear jokes or read stories about Jews. It’s why we feel Jewish pride when we hear a Burt Bacharach song, watch an Adam Sandler movie, see a (Streisand) concert or witness Steven Spielberg walk away with yet another Academy Award. We’re even proud (in a motherly way) of Howie Mandel.”

We don’t usually think of these feelings, experiences and behaviors as being religious, but Rabbi Reuben is arguing that, in fact, they are.

There is a generally accepted stereotype that the term “religious” refers to those who are observant on a regular basis. But religious, as Rabbi Reuben concludes, “isn’t a label that is reserved for those that frequent a temple, church, or mosque. It’s a broad category that includes striving to make sense out of difficult times and the struggle to impart values that move the world closer to our collective dreams.”

That is why I think of all of us who are here as religious even though many of us might see ourselves as primarily cultural or spiritual. I say this because we are here, sharing in that desire to make sense of the world and our place in it; because we felt it important, for whatever reason, to be a part of the Jewish community on this most sacred of days; because we share at least some, if not all, of the values and beliefs of the Jewish religion, and because by being here, we express our desire to share those values and beliefs with others who value and believe the same.

Being religious isn’t dependent on observing specific rituals, services, ceremonies, holidays or customs. Rather, it’s an all encompassing approach to life, people, family, relationships, and the world’s well-being. We express that approach to life in a number of ways. Some of those ways, as Rabbi Reuben explains, include the rituals that Jewish tradition has developed. “But the main point isn’t the rituals or the prayers,” he writes; “it’s the values they symbolize. (They) are cultural reminders of our…historical events and ethical values – they are group-building symbols that help bind us together”.

Take Shabbat as an example: I once read about a woman named Renee, who shared this reflection about growing up in a Jewish community: “My parents were divorced,” she explains, and my family life was splintered, so I spent much of my time with my Jewish friends. My best friend….came from a devout Jewish family. I spent much of my time with her, and I recall every Friday her family observed the tradition of (Shabbat) dinners (and) I would join them regularly. (It) was a welcomed sense of family, a sense of tradition and belonging.”

The tradition of observing Shabbat in the way that Renee is describing, is a religious tradition. But more than that, it is a tradition that binds us to community through common practice.

Take gratitude as another example: You don’t need to be part of a religion to express gratitude. Most spiritual disciplines promote an awareness of gratitude. However Judaism has had its share of challenges, and its traditions and teachings emphatically promote gratitude despite life’s griefs and sorrows. It is too easy, Jewish sources say, to fall back on being dissatisfied with life and focusing on what you lack. Taking time to recognize what you have in life is one of the uniquely beneficial rituals we can undertake.”

Thus, an awareness of gratitude is both a religious ritual and a spiritual discipline. It is spiritual because it requires a degree of personal reflection and introspection, and because when we experience gratitude, we feel connected to that which is beyond us; and it is religious because our religion encourages us to do it and suggests words and rituals to aid us in endeavoring to do so.

Spirituality alone might promote an awareness of gratitude and we may value gratitude regardless of what Judaism teaches, but Judaism gives us a tradition of appreciation in which to root ourselves – a context in which to measure what we have in relation to others, and a community in which to express and celebrate that for which we are grateful.

As a final example, take belief in God: You can believe in God – in something beyond yourself – without being part of a religion. However there is something lost by seeing your beliefs as a purely “personal truth”, something you can explore by yourself and keep to yourself. To do so, is to deprive others of the ability to learn from your experiences and the conclusions you have drawn from them; To do so, is to deprive yourself of the textual history and interpersonal dialogue that, in my experience, are such a crucial part of theological development.

For those of us who believe in something greater than ourselves, we need a community among which to search and struggle with those beliefs. When I had my theological crisis in rabbinical school; when all the things I thought I believed about God were called into question and challenged in the most painful of ways, it was only through speaking with others and through plumbing the depths of our religious tradition, that I found my way out of the darkness of grief, anger, and the painful sense of separation from God.

Jewish tradition names that dark place I was experiencing.  It is called Sheol – the pit, the place where God is absent. The Psalms are filled with descriptions of Sheol, and filled with the experience of descending there, and also filled with the experience of being lifted out. Sheol is not permanent, Judaism told me, and having a religious context in which to place and name and affirm my experience was profoundly comforting. I was not the first to feel what I was feeling. I did not have to feel guilty about what I was feeling. I was not alone.

I have heard the claims that a spiritual life, a life imbued with solitary spiritual discipline – yoga, meditation, a daily writing practice or what-have-you – enables a state of bliss that communal religious practice cannot achieve.

I couldn’t disagree more.

To me, the opposite of loneliness is bliss. And while I love the peace and relaxation that meditation bring me, for me, that sense of bliss is something I mostly only feel when surrounded by my community; when we’re singing Debbie Friedman in harmony; when our eyes meet and we smile at one another; when I am touched by the liturgy, or see how it is touching someone else.

I feel spiritual bliss when I gaze into the ark and sing Avinu Malkeinu, or Aleinu, or Adonai s’fatai tiftach, with all my voice and emotion behind each word – “O God open my lips that my mouth may praise your name!” This verse moves me because it hints at an important truth – the importance of active participation in prayer. We cannot praise God’s name if our mouths are not open; if our hearts are not in it.

Last week, I shared an earlier draft of this sermon with my mom. In responding with her feedback, she remarked on her own experiences: “When I let the words and sounds (of prayer) and the community of voices get deep inside me, it is meditative,” she said. “I feel it, and I feel moved and refreshed, (but) if I just read the words and sit and stand on command, I feel like a part of the community but not that I have let it really touch me. I have to make a conscious effort, but it is there, within the Jewish liturgy for me to find if I look for it.”

Now granted, my mom was married to one rabbi and raised another, but she’s not a rabbi herself, she’s not an expert in Jewish liturgy, she’s not a fluent Hebrew speaker. She’s just a Jewish woman who goes to services often enough to know that doing so is a spiritual practice in and of itself, and that like any other spiritual practice, it takes focus, discipline and intention.

Jewish tradition calls this intention kavanah and without it the prayers are just words on a page. Only when we add our own personal intention; only when we seek to connect to the words in a way that is personally meaningful to us, and to connect with the people and the God beyond the words themselves, will we feel spiritually elevated. Only when we stop worrying about whether what we’re doing is religious or not or whether we are religious or not, will we let go, and begin to feel something more than our own fears, insecurities and judgements.

Today is the Day of Atonement. For Jews, it is arguably the most religious day of the year. And since you are here, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are, at least somewhat, religious.

And maybe you’d be moved to atone for your sins even if you weren’t here; Maybe you feel your inclination to do good has nothing to do with your Jewishness.

“If (it’s) the spirit (that) moves you to goodness,” Rabbi Wolpe writes, “(then) that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls (doing the hard) work (of repairing the world in accordance with their beliefs).

Join in.” Rabbi Wolpe instructs us.

Embrace your religiosity.

“Together is harder, but together is better.”
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it Be God’s Will.

Elul 3: Bless

The 3rd Day of Elul instructs me to Bless. 

As a rabbi, I’m always suggesting that people bless the everyday moments and things in their lives. Our sages told us to say 100 blessings a day. I’m not sure I’ve ever made it to 100. I should take their advice though. I should take my own.

Here are the blessings of today:

I am blessed to have animal companions who fill my life with laughter and love.

I am blessed to have a car to transport me to where I need to go. It seems a small thing, but when you think about how many people in the world don’t have the independence and opportunities afforded to them by owning a car, it’s really quite miraculous.

I am blessed to have the resources to travel. Not everywhere I want to go. Not every time I want to go. But I can get to the important moments in life and have a little fun to boot. I am grateful for this.

I am blessed to sleep with a roof over my head. I only sleep under the stars when I choose to. I am grateful for even uncomfortable beds.

I am blessed to have a family. We’re not perfect. No family is. But I’d much rather have them then not have them.

I am blessed to have friends who understand me and who share the ups and downs of life with me.

I am blessed to be able to reconnect with friends after a time apart.

I am blessed to have food to eat when I am hungry and I am blessed to have the resources to contribute to the hunger of others on a regular basis.

I am blessed to be a Canadian citizen.

I am blessed to be a rabbi who is invited to share in people’s happiest and saddest moments in life. 

I am blessed to be Jewish. It brings so much meaning to my life.

I am blessed to have the opportunity that Elul affords me – to reflect on what I am grateful for and to bless.

Elul 1: Do

This year I’m a little resentful of Elul

It shows up demanding spiritual discipline

          Drop everything! Begin T’shuva! It declares

But I am not ready

I am very, very not ready

I am exhausted.

          Relaxing summers are for children and the retired

          (and I suppose, the wealthy)

There are sermons to write and laundry to do and a suitcase

(yes, another suitcase!)

to pack

Weddings to attend,

a long drive ahead (and back)

A family to love and struggle with

School to begin, services to prepare,

a community to lead day-to-day

          It feel’s like madness.

Elul asks me to be calm;

to look inward; to reflect; to apologize; to forgive

But I am not ready

I am very, very not ready

I am exhausted.

          Breathe.

          It’s only Day 1

          There’s time yet

Do the things that need to get done;

Create the space that needs to be made;

Go and come back;

Clean house;

Breathe.

Do.

And then,

          maybe,

we’ll be ready.

Dear Liza, Dear Liza

One of my favorite childhood songs, is a silly tune about a hole in a bucket – maybe you know it?

The song is a dialogue between a woman and a man. The woman, Liza, wants the man, Henry, to fix a hole in a bucket, but every time she makes a suggestion of how to fix it, Henry informs her of a new problem that prevents her solution from being viable.The straw she suggests he uses to fix the hole is too long and needs to be cut; the knife needed to cut the straw is dull; the stone needed to sharpen the knife is too dry, and now the problems come full circle when Dear Henry can’t fetch water to wet the stone because, of course, there’s a hole in the bucket!

Sometimes the problems of the world seem unending and overwhelming. Even when we think we have a plan or solution, there’s always another problem popping up. It’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. No wonder apathy, frustration, exhaustion and depression are rampant in society.

Just a few minutes of your news network of choice, or of your Facebook feed, or daily newspaper, or even the PSA commercials on TV, are enough to make it feel like World War III is around the corner or that a global pandemic or economic crisis, or mass starvation are inevitable, if not already underway.

It is easy to turn off the news, hide the papers, ignore Facebook and fast forward through the PSA commercials. It’s tempting to bury our heads in the sand – after all, what can any of us do in the face of all these seemingly insurmountable problems. What’s the point of trying to fix the hole in this one bucket when the world if full of buckets with holes, and straw that is too long, and knives that are too dull, and stones that are too dry…and there we are, back to the hole in the bucket again!

 

When Jews are faced with questions about how to address the problems of the world, we are told to turn to Torah, and that the answers will be found within. However this week’s Torah portion might, at first, leave us feeling more confused and frustrated than we were to begin with!

In Parashat Re’eh  this week, we hear God’s concern about poverty and the resulting instructions to the People of Israel to help those in need. But a quick read of the verses leaves us with a seeming contradiction. First we are told,“There shall be no poor among you,” but a few verses later we read, “If there is a poor man… in your gates,” and not long after that the Torah states, “(indeed) the poor shall never cease… therefore I command you… open your hand wide.”

So how can it be that “there will be no poor among you” while at the same time “the poor shall never cease”?

Our sages teach that this text is progressing (or regressing) from the ideal vision of the world to the actual reality of the world in order to teach us that the process of eliminating economic and political deprivation is an on-going struggle.

Although it may end only in a time yet to come and difficult to imagine, nevertheless we continue working toward the day when everyone, everywhere, will eat, be satisfied and bless God.

But we also know it’s not that simple.

Even if we continue to do our part to feed the hungry and provide for those in need, what about the rest of the world’s problems? The violence? The wars? The terrorism? The racism? The hatred?

Rabbi Steve Denker, from Ohio, in a recent D’var Torah, asks how, “given the present increase of violence from Mosul, through the Middle East and all the way to Missouri…how can we stem the afflicting tempest blowing across the planet, when even the efforts of powerful world leaders cannot keep fear and terror at bay?”

He suggests two answers:

First, Jewish tradition teaches us to uphold the value of each and every life.This concept is not limited to acts of pekuach nefesh (saving a life in a moment of imminent danger), but rather, it means that each life can be redeemed through righteous conduct, and each person can, by acting righteously, change history and the world.

Even if we find ourselves doubting that the small acts we are able to do ourselves are enough, Judaism teaches us that each and every act is still cosmically significant. And of course, when we combine our actions with the actions of others, the results are far easier to see and have farther reaching effect.

If only one person shows up for a rally, they won’t have achieved much despite their best intentions. But if 100 or a 1000 or 100,000 individual people show up, then the message they are trying to send is louder and has greater impact.

The second Jewish teaching brought forth by Rabbi Denker comes from Pirkei Avot and is one that I often reach for in times of feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand. “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena”, which, loosely translated means, just because you can’t finish a job on your own, does not mean that you are ‘off the hook’ – you must still participate.

You can’t fix every hole in every bucket, but you also can’t ignore the holes and hope that Dear Henry figures out how to fix them on his own.

And who knows, maybe that one bucket will make a difference after all.

Rabbi Denker writes, “There really is evil in the world and we know that the ‘incubator’ that allows evil to spread and recruit followers, is the deadly combination of economic and political deprivation. Where there is general contentment, evil finds few followers, social entropy can be reversed and Yeshuv Ha-Olam (the advancement of civilization) can take place.” If he’s right, and I believe he is, then this week’s Torah portion is all the more powerful and it is all the more important that we follow it’s commands.

By lessening economic and political deprivation we can lessen opportunities for evil to take root. One well fed, well educated person is one less potential desperate target who might be taken advantage of, manipulated, propagandized or paid-off to commit or participate in heinous acts around the world.

It might be hard to see the global impact from our limited range of vision, but both Jewish tradition and human sciences tell us that our actions matter. Whether you prefer Kabbalah or the Butterfly Effect, our actions matter.

This Shabbat marks the coming of the new month of Elul, whose Rosh Hodesh will be observed later this week. Biblically, Elul is the sixth month but, since Rosh HaShannah follows it, we think of Elul as the last moon of the year and the time to begin our contemplation of how we might work to better the world in the year ahead.

Often, during Elul, I suggest spiritual exercises to ready ourselves for the emotional journey of t’shuvah, repentance and renewal. This year, I’m going to push us all to do a little more than to just think about how to ready our souls. This year, I’d like us to act.

I’d like each one of us to pick one organization that is working to address the economic and political deprivation in our world, and to make a financial contribution, or to help them spread the world about the important work they do through volunteerism or advocacy, (or perhaps you might do all of the above).

Elul is traditionally a time for giving tzedakah, and if you haven’t been keeping up with this tradition than I’d like to suggest to you that this is the year to begin or to begin again. It might feel like just a drop in a bucket, but it will be a drop in a bucket that’s hole is smaller than it was before you helped with your time, money and/or advocacy. And if each person from this community contributes at the same time, in the month between now and Rosh Hashanah, then the impact will be that much greater.

On this Shabbat, as we turn away from the year that has passed, a year that we can no longer do anything about, let us turn toward the coming year with hope, optimism and faith that we can do something to lessen the suffering we feel all around us.

Maybe you know the story of the boy who is seen throwing starfish back into the ocean. The beach on which he stands is covered in thousands and thousands of them.

The boy is asked, “do you really think you can make a difference? You can’t possibly save them all.”

The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back in the water and replies, “it made a difference to that one.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon.