Thursday, September 24, 2015

One Heart: Kol Nidre 5776

“The Place Where We Are Right”

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.[i]

I confess that I have been carrying these words, from renowned Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, in my heart for some time now. I share with you that as we move into this new year, I worry about the divisiveness of our world, the chasm’s expanding breadth. I worry about our fixation on being right and just how dangerous such a habit can be, the toll it takes on each of us, the damage it does to our hearts.

Just a few moments ago, we recited the Vidui – the public confession in which we name aloud the litany of sins we’ve committed in the hopes of finding forgiveness. The second one in the list reads:

“al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev.
For the sin we have sinned against you through hardness of heart.”
Listen to that translation once again: “For the sin we have sinned against you through hardness of heart.”

This Yom Kippur, this Kol Nidre – the most soul-stirring night of our Jewish year - I invite us to listen and consider not through the everyday lens of our mind and predilection for the rational and quantifiable, but rather to listen and consider through a more soulful filter – from our heart.

Think back to the last time you had a sustained, civil disagreement with someone on any matter about which you and that person cared deeply but viewed differently. Perhaps you cannot even remember it at all. So certain we are of our place of rightness that we often cannot even countenance exposure to the view of the other side and what, from our side, appears to be their self-righteousness against our authentic understanding of what is actually True.

The role of social media as a so-called vehicle for connectivity and dialogue among those who disagree is particularly problematic because for so many, this has become our preferred mode of communication. A comment box presents us with just the right amount of perceived immunity as well as permission to “justify our own views” so as to tear any relationship apart. We can practically write a treatise on how right we are and how wrong, ignorant, or inept another is, all without a second thought.

From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.

Nothing in recent memory has set the Jewish community against itself like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action– better known as the JCPOA or the “Iran Deal.” I, personally, have never experienced anything as hurtful or antithetical to what it means to be a part of our people than this, and the saddest part is that we have done it to ourselves. When the U.S. ambassador to Israel is subjected to death threats and called a “kapo” for supporting the Iran Deal[ii]; when Representatives who oppose the Iran Deal are accused of “dual loyalty,”[iii] a borderline anti-Semitic euphemism; when otherwise well-intentioned Jews go on nothing less than witch hunts to determine if their clergy signed whatever petition represented the opposite of their views —well, we do not need much more proof that we have hardened our hearts to one another.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.

We live in a world where we thrive on confirmation bias – the intrinsic desire to seek out evidence that will be compatible with beliefs and assumptions we already hold. This kind of thinking makes it extremely difficult for us to integrate information that challenges our definitions and assumptions.[iv]

Renowned family therapists Richard Chasin and Margaret Herzig, themselves Jews and founders of the incredible resource on civil discourse called Public Conversations, write that ideological opponents often resemble families stuck in chronic conflict. In such battles, supporters of each side “believe they hold the high moral ground and are prey to unprovoked attacks from the other side, which they see as power hungry, self-centered, destructive, and perhaps even deranged…[E]ach find[s] ‘proof’ of their own innocent victimhood and of the other’s unwarranted attacks and wrongdoing.”[v]

Theologian Martin Buber’s words from half a century ago ring so true today: “The human world is… split into two camps, each of which understands the other as the embodiment of falsehood and itself as the embodiment of truth...Each side has assumed monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into night, and each side demands that you decide between day and night…”[vi]

At a time when technological advancement enables us to be more connected than ever before, how is it that we are so deeply fractured, that the chasm of ideological, political[vii], economic, racial[viii], even spiritual division grows wider with each and every sunset? How is it that we find ourselves siloed into filter bubbles of the confirmation blind, the like-minded, anesthetized by the dull hum of agreement, that is, until opposition forces us to harden our hearts with even greater urgency?

“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals, we are meant to search as much as to find,” observes one of my teachers. He continues: “After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite…? The fact is that there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.”[ix] [x]

The only real Truth we know about anything is that there is some truth in everything.
Consider physicist Neils Bohr’s paradoxical teaching: “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Take, for example, something called wave–particle duality, a fancy physics idea that explains how light works. The concept teaches that the elemental particles, the “stuff” that makes up light, are defined, at once, as opposite states of being - they are both particle and wave. This means that light in its most rudimentary form cannot be fully one thing or fully its opposite, but in fact, functions as both. On this understanding, Einstein – physicist and also a pretty famous Jew, wrote: "We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do."[xi]

It sounds like a relatively modern idea, but over 2,000 years ago, our rabbis taught that the world cannot function if we only see it in black and white, right and wrong, with rigid boundaries rather than a more subtle shading. They taught: "If you desire the world to endure, there can be no absolute justice, while if you desire absolute justice the world cannot endure.... Unless you forget a little, the world cannot endure."[xii]

Listen again to that sentence:
"Unless you forget a little - the world cannot endure."

Our ancestors were fearful of absolutes because they understood that anytime we attach ourselves so firmly to an idea that we place our rightness over our relationships, we set ourselves up for a fall.

Can we possibly emerge from our constricted caves of rightness to release, to forget just enough of what we are so sure is right in order to see the vastness of the universe, its diversity in all its forms? Can we remember that it is not our rightness, but our demystified assumptions that birth the greatest learning and much greater truths?

This is, actually, one of the key truths that Kol Nidre comes to tell us each and every year. Have you ever read its translation? It says: “Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.”

It means: for all those things we assume to be true and operational, and around which we base our lives and our promises, should it turn out that what we thought to be real, true, and undeniable actually is not, we don’t have to be left holding the bag. We don’t need to let our pride get in the way. We can admit we saw it wrong. We can change our minds. We can evolve, expand our field of view, and grow as a result. It is not about being right or wrong – the truth is we are always both. Kol Nidre comes as the first thing we say each Yom Kippur because Jewish tradition has always understood that any hope we have of becoming better people, of evolving, demands the hard work of teshuvah - the repentance and returning that starts with the operational assumption that we were wrong about something.

But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.
We do not have to agree with each other’s opinions; nor do we have to shy away from discourse and disagreement. But, on this Day of Atonement, which if you pull it apart is really a day of At-One-Ment, the truth is: we must strive to have one heart.

There is an early Rabbinic teaching that depicts the rival academies of Hillel and Shammai sharply disagreeing on matters of Jewish law. “If the Torah is given by a single God, then how can there exist such differing interpretations?” The Rabbis answer: “Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the words of the house of Hillel, both the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit.”[xiii]

On this, the renowned pluralistic Rabbi David Hartman explained: a Jew must become a “person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul.... a... person who can feel... conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty.”[xiv]

We must make a room in our heart for the other view, and place it right next to the room that holds the view we hold most dear. We must make a room for the Iran deal, and a room against it, and place them right next to each other. We must make a room for #alllivesmatter and a room for #blacklivesmatter. We must make a room for each perspective, each right and wrong, each truth. We must make a room for each other’s hearts within our own heart.

On Yehuda Amichai’s poem, author and educator Parker Palmer says the following: “Many of us who differ…love the same things — our children and grandchildren, our country, the natural world. Many of us who differ … harbor the same doubts — that what's being done (or not done) to care for the things we love is the best or the right thing to do….But what if instead of starting by arguing over solutions — over "the place where we are right" — we began by sharing our loves and doubts? I suspect that our ...conversations would be much more productive because they would proceed from common ground.”[xv]

This is one of the incredible lessons taught by Rabbi Hannan Schlessinger, an orthodox Israeli settler and Ali Abu Awwad, a West Bank Palestinian peace activist, through their work together to foster co-existence and peace between Israeli’s and Palestinians. You will have the opportunity to learn from both of them when they speak at NSCI on October 20th. Through their work, they bring together people from both sides to listen to each other’s narratives and to absorb one another’s truths. Through getting to know and understand each other, to see each other not as enemies but as human beings, Awwad and Schlessinger write: “Then maybe we can build a system that will enable our politicians to sit together and arrive at some sort of a solution.”[xvi]

People can learn to speak with genuineness, listen with respect and curiosity, and see both self and others as whole, complex human beings, even across chasms of disagreement.

It is exactly our diversity of opinion, our uniqueness, according to Martin Buber, that is the key to our enlightenment. “We are created along with one another and directed to a life with one another. Creatures are placed in my way so that I, their fellow creature, by means of them and with them, find the way to God. A God reached by their exclusion would not be the God of all that lives, in whom all is fulfilled.”[xvii]

When we allow ourselves to encounter each other, when we allow our Truths to be impacted, softened by others’ truths, our hearts soften too.

When explaining why the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, the physical dwelling place of God, was destroyed, instead of citing reasons such as the enemy army's strength, Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed on account of our own moral failures, the most well-known narrative rooting the cause of the destruction to something called sinat chinam -- most often translated as baseless hatred among each other. The hearts of our ancestors were so hardened against one another, so closed off, that they could not even recognize that they were the ones destroying one another.[xviii]

From the place where we are right,

Flowers will never grow in the spring.

The place where we are right,

Is hard and trampled like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world,

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place,

Where the ruined House once stood.

I often wonder if we could go through our days entirely open-hearted? I wonder if our hearts could sense the echoes of isolation, fear and despair that our ears cannot perceive? I wonder if we could find a way to hold each other with increased sensitivity and compassion? I wonder if we could heal the brokenness in each other's hearts with our own? And if we did so, I wonder what sort of Dwelling Place for the Divine might we build, together, again?

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May we be inscribed for goodness in the Book of Life.

[i] Amichai, Yehuda. “The Place Where We Are Right.”
[iv] See Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking Fast and Slow for more
[v] “Creating Systemic Interventions for the Sociopolitical Arena.” Richard Chasin and Margaret Herzig, in The Global Family Therapist: Integrating the Personal, Professional, and Political. Edited by B. Berger Gould and D. Demuth.
[vi] Buber, Martin. “Hope for this Hour,” The Human Dialogue: Perspectives on Communication, edited by F.W. Matson and A. Montagu. pp. 221.
[vii] Pew Survey about Liberal versus Conservative - each moving farther to their respective sides:
[viii] Pew Survey about Liberal versus Conservative - each moving farther to their respective sides:
[ix] Kula, Rabbi Irwin. Yearning. pp. 4,5.
[x] In her well known TED talk, sociologist Kathryn Shulz, shares her findings on our human tendency to fixate so much on being right, she notes the behaviors we employ to assure ourselves of our rightness. “If we believe we are right, we believe our beliefs perfectly reflect reality. But then we have the challenge of how to address all of those who see the world differently than we do. She notes the three-leveled rationale we humans employ around the assumptions we make about the others who disagree with us with whom we have to deal: Our first assumption is that they must be ignorant not to see what we do. But when we find out they are in fact not ignorant, but quite aware, our second assumption is that they not capable of fully understanding our so-called Truth because of what must be their lack of intelligence. And then if and when we find that in fact they are neither ignorant nor stupid, we move to the third and most dangerous conclusion: they must be evil.”
[xi] Einstein, Albert. Infeld, Leopold. The Evolution of Physics. P. 263
[xii] Genesis Rabbah 39:6
[xiii] Tosefta Sota, 7:12
[xiv] Hartman, Rabbi David. A Heart of Many Rooms. p. 21.
[xvii] Buber, Martin. Between Man and Man. p. 60
[xviii] Yoma 9b

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"What Does It Remember Like?"

The following is the sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning 5776.

Shanah Tovah.

This being the 14th High Holy Days that we’ve shared together, I hope you’ll indulge a personal reflection.  I think back all the way to the first High Holy Day sermon I delivered here.  It was Yom Kippur. The year was 2002 or 5762, if the Hebrew calendar is more your style, and I was a freshly minted rabbi straight out of seminary.  I remember the moment vividly: standing up as the ark was closing, walking from my seat over there across the bema, arriving at this very spot. I remember looking up to see all of your faces.  Faces that were unknown to me before that moment, with no history or memories yet cultivated or shared. And the rest, as they say, is history.  Now, 14 years later, I am ever so grateful for all the times we’ve shared and the multitude of memories we’ve made together.  

The power of memory: let’s start there.

In his beautiful book Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer writes about the special place memory holds in Jewish consciousness:
“Jews have six senses:  Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … [and] memory. While [others] experience and process the world through the traditional senses...for Jews, memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer.... It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.  When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”[i]

Not “What does it feel like?” but “What does it remember like?”  An inherently and uniquely, I believe, Jewish question.  But to fully understand it, we must first distinguish memory from history.  

To demonstrate, an example from my family – some of you have heard me share this before:

When my son was three, we took him skiing with us in Colorado.   It was a disaster.  He hated ski school, his boots hurt, the snow was slushy, and his skis kept getting stuck along the very small bunny hill run. Because the experience was so bad, we assumed that that would be our first and last family ski trip. History.

But something funny happened when we printed out our pictures from the trip about 2 weeks later.  Our son started recalling how much fun he had had on our first ski trip.  That he was proud of himself that by the 4th and final day the boots didn’t hurt as bad and he couldn’t wait to go skiing again.  Memory.  

History is something to which we are witness, over which we have little to no control. Memory, on the other hand, is something we shape ourselves.  History is passive, and it navigates in the past. Memory, on the other hand, is active, innately more personal, and helps us construct identity. Memory is not just about the past, but the present and the future as well.

And Jewish memory ups the ante on just how much potential it has to form and shape what is possible in the world!  One of the unique gifts of Judaism is its insistence that memory is nothing less than the driver of creativity, inspiration, and transformation.

One of the most repeated commandments, appearing more than 120 times in the Torah alone, is Zachor/Remember, and it is not just an ancient biblical notion; it is a critical tenet for us in our day too: that we remember our past and affirm who we are in order to navigate into the future. Zachor/Remember.

Want to know something interesting?  In the original form of Hebrew, there is no word for “survival.”  Think about this for a minute.  How is it possible, for a people who has undergone such tragedy and in so many ways prided itself on its miraculous ability to survive, that there is no original Hebrew word for survival!?

Over and over again, in the face of imminent danger and destruction, we have instead responded with, what former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks, rightly calls, “a burst of creativity!”[ii] It was the destruction of the First and Second Temples that gave birth to the creation of the Talmud.  It was the Spanish Inquisition that gave birth to rich mysticism of Tzfat.  And as Rabbi Sacks himself writes: “The Holocaust, in human terms the worst tragedy of all, led to the single greatest affirmation of the collective Jewish will…the birth of the state of Israel. Jews recovered, [and] turned tragedy into creativity because they refused to see themselves as victims.”[iii]  In reflecting on what has happened to us, we have always chosen to remember, not with the lens of victimization and despair, but instead with operating assumptions of agency and hope.

This idea is woven into the critical three part narrative that is our Jewish master story:

1. They tried to kill us.
2. We thrived instead.
3. Let’s eat.

But too often in our day, we remember only the “they tried to kill us” part of the story.  And we let that singular viewpoint color and shape who we are as Jews. This, my friends, is what I view as the greatest existential threat to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood in our time. Not Iran.  Not Hamas.  Not anti-Semitism in Europe.  Not the Republicans or the Democrats.  But what seems to be the Jewish community’s singular obsession with Jewish survival as the end all and only metric that matters.   Google the phrase: “Jewish survival” – it will come up 26,500,000 times! But a Judaism that is obsessed only with its survival is a Judaism that will not survive.

Renowned Scholar Jacob Neusner addresses this issue when he writes: “... The major concerns of the Jews retain the obsolete qualities of the siege-mentality… And for the average [American] Jew, the chief Jewish issue is phrased in wholly ethnic terms: whether children marry Jews is [too often] more important than whether they build Jewish homes, [and] whether people live in Jewish neighborhoods matters more than whether the neighborhoods in which they do live are places of dignity and commonplace justice.”[iv] And in a country in which Jews are more assimilated and better accepted than they have ever been at any other time in history, we cannot, nor should we, expect that our children will be satisfied when we answer their question of “Why be Jewish” with a fear driven statement evoking a narrative about the Holocaust or worse, with a passive statement about “that’s just how it’s always been.”  These answers, thankfully, no longer satisfy.  Survival is not enough.

Look up survival in the dictionary, and you will see it defined as: “remaining alive after the occurrence of some event.” It means having a pulse, it means “not being dead.” There is no Jewish word for “survival” because this, in and of itself, from a Jewish view, is not really living.

Judaism is concerned not with surviving, but with thriving. We must shift our concerns away from how many people with a pulse we can get to fill the seats, and focus on getting people enlivened by Judaism.  Getting people’s hearts to race faster with the electric pulse of Jewish wisdom, inspiring them to, at once, connect with the generations before them and to see themselves as inheritors and progenitors of a faith and practice that calls them to do nothing less than heal the sick, clothe the naked, help the poor, pursue peace, love each other, to animate the Divine in themselves and others so that they can transform the world from the way it is to the way it can yet be.   

Should we be concerned with the external threats that loom?  Yes, of course we should.  But if we let fear be the sole driver for that concern, if the only reason for our worry is to continue a Judaism that exists in name only, well then, what’s it all for?  

Let me speak for a moment to those of you who are here today even though you really would rather be somewhere else.  Why are you here?  Maybe you were dragged here – either by the living forces of family or community or the voices of ages past that stir a guilt inside you that needs to be silenced.  Maybe you are here because of Jewish survival. Because of what our ancestors sacrificed for you to be here. Maybe you don’t even know why you are here. But nevertheless, you are here.  

Despite cynicism and skepticism, despite alienation and marginalization, you are here.   And I believe that one of the reasons you are also here is because in some part of yourself, you remember that here, today, is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, something will happen. That you might feel less alone, that you might feel awakened, enlivened.  That you might be brought more fully into your life, the life of community, the life of the world.  With your questions of transcendence, your struggles over life’s meaning and your purpose in the world – you are here.  We are here.

Sure, the first thing that may come to your mind in remembering is the “they tried to kill us” part of the story, but I also think that each and every one of us deep down carries the deeper moral and message. Part two and three of the story: “We didn’t just survive – we thrived.” And then, “Let’s eat!”

Deep down in our kishkes, this is the root of our profound pride. Jewish population studies may report low percentages of religious affiliation, but the percentage of Jews who feel proud to be Jewish soars higher than it ever has before.  

And in this, we see what is undeniably the greatest opportunity beckoning the Jewish community at this moment in time: We Jews are on the precipice of the next great burst of creativity: the next great American Judaism, a Jewish renaissance revitalized for our time.

We are more than just cells and oxygenation, more than metabolism and response to stimuli.  As the great 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik puts it: “Man is born an object and dies an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator... Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”[v]

Did you know that Rosh Hashanah is not the original name for this day we observe today?  Long before it was Rosh Hashanah, it was Yom HaZikaron - the Day of Remembering.  And then later, it became Yom Harat HaOlam - The Day of the Birth of the World.

On this first day of the New Year, this Yom Harat HaOlam - this Birth Day - this day that insists that what is at stake is nothing less than the rebirth and renewal of ourselves, our relationships, and our world, and on this Yom HaZikaron, this Day of Remembering - of reframing, widening and deepening our memory to encompass the fullest and best version of who we’ve been, who we are, and who we can yet and once again be, I invite you to remember:

What does being a Jew remember like?  
What does being a part of this community remember like?
What does being part of the people whose eyes are always open to what is yet possible remember like?

Remember with me the story of Creation – the story we celebrate this day.  We are likely familiar with the Genesis “In the beginning God created” story. It puts each phase of creation neatly into one of 6 days and names the 7th day the day of rest.  A friend of mine likes to call that story the Container Store creation story because everything fits nicely and easily into pretty little structures that are easy to understand.  In it, we, humans, are the passive recipients of God’s creation and need to respond accordingly – God’s “yes-men” as it were.    
But I want to let you in on a little secret.  This isn’t actually the first creation story. There is a story that comes before that story, originating in the Jewish mystical tradition.  This is the one I want you to remember:  Your soul will remember it even if your mind does not.

In the beginning, God’s presence filled the universe and there was only light. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, God needed to make space for it, so the Divine contracted itself.  From that contraction, darkness was created. But the light and the darkness were totally separate.  So God sent vessels of the Divine light, like a fleet of ships, into the darkness to create the universe.  But the vessels were too fragile to contain the powerful light. They burst open, shattered, and all the holy shards were scattered across the cosmos.[vi]

That is why we were created: to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. And to put them back together so the vessels can sail all the way home. When the broken vessels are restored, tikkun olam, the repair of the world, will be complete.  We were not created to be “yes-men.”  We were created to restore the unity of all things.

That is what it remembers like:
An engaged, challenged, charged responsibility and opportunity, even destiny, to make ourselves, our relationships and our world whole.
Our faith, our culture, our tradition was not designed for stagnation, to serve solely as the anchor of a vessel never intended to be put to sea. But more as a wide, billowing sail enabling it and us to thrive as we traverse and discover more of the endlessly revealing cosmos of which we are an integral, covenantal, evolving part.  

Will you be fearless and join us as we remember, re-imagine and reanimate what a 21st century synagogue can become?  A community that is substantive and consequential, a community in which everyone is invited, a community that recognizes the Divine spark in each and every person and invites them to learn, interpret, and demonstrate the impact of Judaism in their own lives? In the lives of others?  And in our world?  A community that is at once broken hearted for the pain of our world AND open-hearted, hopeful for the potential for healing? Will you join us in remembering our faith in the possible?

Hashiveinu Adonai Aylecha vNashuvah.  Chadeish yameinu K’kedem.
“Return us to You, O Source of All, and we shall surely return.  Renew our days as they were in days of old.”

In a New Year of abundant blessing, goodness, and possibility for us all,
Shanah Tovah.

[i] Foer, Jonathan Safran.  Everything Is Illuminated. pp. 198, 199.
[ii] Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan.  To Heal a Fractured World. p. 181
[iii] Ibid.
[v] Rabbi Joseph Soloveithchik, “Kol Dodi Dofek,” in Bernard Rosenberg and Gred Heuman (eds.), Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust. Pp. 54-5
[vi] Based on Isaac Luria