Friday, July 15, 2016

On Despair and Hope - Remarks from Shabbat services July 15, 2016

A few weeks ago, when our congregation came together after the Orlando attack, we named each murdered victim among with the names of our own community members before saying Kaddish. We did that because while news reports of 49 murdered people may have helped us to understand the sheer magnitude of the largest mass shooting in our country’s history, the number itself did not bring us closer to those who were murdered along with the countless families and futures forever altered that day -- each soul a doorway to the lives of so many others, each soul a whole world to itself. Our tradition affirms this when the Mishnah* instructs: whoever destroys a single life, it is considered that he destroyed the entire world itself.

And so what does it mean to consider this in terms of the condition of this world of ours, when we know that sadly, attacks like that happen regularly now. Our world is so fraught with fear, anger, and terror. Kazakhstan -7, The United States - 49, Israel - 6, France - 2, Turkey - 44, Bangladesh - 23, Iraq - 290 and still counting, Saudi Arabia - 7, and yesterday’s attack in Nice - 84, (and that is just since June). So many souls cruelly murdered by the hands of radicalized islamic terrorists and their equivalents.

Add to that the challenging times in our country, not just in Falcon Heights and Dallas, but everywhere. Friends, 3-word phrases like All Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter- these should not be in conflict with each other; the terms are not mutually exclusive, and the fact that they have been commodified and politicized, this is a shonda. Put that in the larger, slippery and pervasive proliferation, and seeming normalization of hate all seems too much to handle. I notice within myself a wavering between a growing anger and rage on the one-hand and I think worse on the other, an apathetic acceptance and settling that this is just the norm now. It is hard not to succumb to the pervasive despair that looms large these days.

But in moments like these, I remind myself of the chasidic teaching: "Gevalt Yidden, Seit ich nisht mayesh" - a phrase that the residents of the Bratslav Shtibel had inscribed on their entrance sign in the Warsaw Ghetto -- it means “Jews, You are forbidden to despair.”

Ours is a religion that under all circumstances comes to teach us that we choose life over death, blessing over curse, always. It is why in Jewish tradition, if a funeral procession and a wedding procession cross each other’s path, the wedding procession always has the right of way.**

It is why we are not just permitted but encouraged to override any commandment in order to save a life - because the rabbinic passage equating the destruction of one life to the destruction of the entire world continues: the one who saves a single life, he saves the world in full.

This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel was talking about when he instructed that the key to navigating life comes down to Radical Amazement. You see, Heschel understood that Judaism’s entire purpose was to keep us awake and sensitized to this existence of ours, in its fullest sense. He recognized that in the course of ordinary life, we tend to become numb to or acclimate to the conditions of the world - whether good or bad. And Heschel understood that this condition was the ultimate threat to our existence. On this he said:

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. And When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves.” ***

We cannot permit ourselves to be anesthetized to the darkness. And as such, we cannot permit ourselves to lose hope that we might yet bring light, even if we don’t know if our efforts will be successful.

As the former President of the Czech republic Vaclav Havel once said: "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Each and every time a child is called to Torah as Bnai Mitzvah, each and every time two individuals choose to bind their lives to one another under the chuppah, each and every time we give a child a Hebrew name, each and every time we give tzedakah, smile at our fellow human being, join together as a community in song and prayer, each and every time we come together on Shabbat for a taste of the World to Come, we defy the darkness; we make a profound statement as individuals and as a people: we will not let meaninglessness win. That we will not let fear and hate have the last word, because hope and goodness have that spot reserved.

Thirteen days ago, the world lost one of its great illuminating forces: Elie Weisel. But the light of his legacy will never be dimmed. The fact that this world was able to have and know this man, who not only survived the Holocaust when by all accounts he should not have, but went on to write 62 books, to teach and influence countless people across the world as a professor, activist, nobel peace prize winner, and humanitarian, well, this is an incomparable gift.

Last week, I attended Shabbat services at my home synagogue- Temple EmanuEl in Dallas - a day after the horrific attack that left police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa dead and 7 more more officers and 2 civilians injured and the entire city, no less country reeling. The clergy shared words of mourning, consolation and a call to not give in to despair, and my rabbi David Stern shared the following story that Elie Wiesel often told of observing Simchat Torah in the camps:

It was Simchat Torah in the Barracks in Auschwitz - but there was no Sefer Torah to be found. A man looked over and saw a young boy and called him over.

“Do you remember anything from cheder?” - he asked.

“I remember the Shema” the boy responded.

“Recite it”

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Shema Yisrael - It will be enough.”

And then the man lifted the boy up, as the Sefer Torah and in Auschwitz, on Simchat Torah, they danced.

Shabbat Shalom

* M. Sanhedrin 4:5

** TB Ketubot

*** From a 1971 interview

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Am I My Brother's Keeper? Strengthening the Bonds between the African-American and Jewish Communities

(These are my remarks from the Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Stone Temple Baptist Church on Monday, Janurary 19, 2015)

Thank you so much Bishop for your kind words and for your graciousness in hosting this community gathering today. To the Jewish United Fund, to Pastor Phil and the Firehouse Community Arts Center, the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, and to the Sinai Health System whose work continues to be a powerful example of ongoing partnership between the Jewish and African American communities for sponsoring today’s gathering as we honor the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When an emptiness so profound in the soul of one man caused him to murder his own brother, the question, which arguably became the most important question for humanity throughout time, was “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the resounding answer to that question, echoing still in our day, remains: Yes. We are each other’s keepers, and we are all in this together.

And so, together, let us listen to Dr. King’s words from March 17, 1966 whose message rings so true today as well: “…in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to …say not only have we come a long, long way, we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved in our country…we need only to turn on our televisions and open our newspapers and look around our community….We must learn to live together or we will perish together as fools.”

On this day commemorating what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday just 4 days ago, 50 years after the march at Selma, we come together to acknowledge that although we have come a long way, indeed we still have a long way to go. In this age of “colorblindness,” as Michelle Alexander, the author of the critically important book The New Jim Crow calls it, we build walls not with bricks but with zip codes and school districts; we create distance and impose borders with words like South Side or North Shore - good neighborhood or bad as if those terms somehow justify our disparate standings. When the wealth gap between white and black America is greater today than it ever was in Apartheid South Africa[i], when 1 in 3 black men will end up incarcerated at some point in their life[ii], when we know so deeply that although all lives matter, this is the moment to name the fact that #BlackLivesMatter because we can’t breathe anymore, we must ask ourselves: what does it mean to be each other’s keepers and to act as such in the world today?

One of my teachers, Rabbi Jack Stern of Blessed Memory, served as a student rabbi in Greenville Mississippi in the early 1950’s. He gave a sermon on “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man” - everyone loved it. Sometime later, he proposed to the synagogue president that the congregation should hold a clergy Institute where all the clergy in town could gather to study and break bread together.
President: All the clergy?

Jack: yes.

President: White clergy and black clergy breaking bread together? Jack: Yes

President: Well that will never happen.

Jack: But just last week, I gave a sermon on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and you thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread?

President: It was a great sermon, but you have to be careful when you get specific.

Friends, we are here together today to get specific.

Throughout his life, Dr. King often drew inspiration from the specifics of the story of the flight of the ancient Israelites from bondage to freedom. Picture it:

Behind them, an advancing army. Before them an expansive and impassible sea. Trapped, Moses cried out to God, but God rebuked him: “Why do you cry to me? Tell the Children of Israel to move forward.” Forward where? The Israelites hesitated, until a leader appeared willing to step ahead into the rushing waters with faith that his actions could make a difference. This leader, teaches Jewish tradition, was not one of the headliners of the Exodus narrative, not Moses or Aaron, not Miriam or Joshua, but instead, was a man named Nachshon. Wading through the rising tide, only when the waters rose all the way up to his nostrils, the story tells us, did the Sea part.[iv] Nachshon was willing to take risks for a better future for his people, for his faith in the promise of freedom from On High, and in doing so, he catalyzed the Israelites’ redemption.

There were countless Nachshon’s in the Civil Rights movement whose specific actions and partnerships demonstrated their deep understanding that we are in fact each other’s keepers. So many African American and Jewish partners, known and not, who marched the road of justice together. Take Fannie Lou Hamer and Heather Booth. Born in Mississippi, Hamer grew up as a sharecropper. In 1961, she was sterilized against her will as a part of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. When, at a 1962 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting she learned blacks could vote, she raised her hand immediately to volunteer, despite the grave risks she would face, as many were beaten or even lynched for attempting to register. Hamer quickly became a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, fighting for dignity and the right to vote, and was a true hero of the civil rights movement.

Heather Booth, an 18 year old Jew, who after visiting Israel and making a commitment at the Yad VaShem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice, went to Mississippi to volunteer at the Freedom Summer Project. Booth’s synagogue actually funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest. It was during Booth’s volunteering that she met Fannie Lou Hamer and was inspired by her activism, moving forward herself to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform, along with becoming very involved in the women’s movement, in particular here in Chicago.

The time for us to get specific is now. In our day, we can no longer assert that proof for a living Jewish and African American communal partnership is demonstrative through the many Jews and African Americans who marched together half a century ago. We must not claim that because our communities come together one day a year to remember Dr. King that we are somehow fulfilling the best of his and his activist partners’ vision for a just world. There is so much more we can do together, and there has not been a better moment in the last 50 years for us to envision what is yet possible together.

Who will be our Nachshons today, stepping bravely forward into the rushing waters, risking for each other, for freedom, with faith that we can yet create hope and change?

· Because the work of social justice is not the sole reserve of the students who attend a social justice school.

· And the prospect of education, employment training and opportunity is not the sole reserve of organizations tasked with that singular mission.

What can each of us do to get specific when it comes to the holy work of keeping each other?

Will business owners commit to hire kids from Lawndale for internships this summer?

Will students ask themselves, can I organize my community at my school to demand equal access to quality education?

Will churches and synagogues from all over our community partner with each other, eat together, pray together, beyond this day once a year?

Will we find new ways to know and see each other, to learn from each other, to be sensitive to our assumptions and words, to listen to each others histories and stories so that we are actually keeping each other in the highest expression of that ideal?

The sages of my tradition tell a story about a man who goes out on a boat with his friends and, once offshore, starts to drill a hole under the bottom of his seat. His friends ask him to stop, but he continues, “The hole is only under my own seat and not yours.” His companions cry out, “But if you continue, the boat will sink and we will all drown. Don’t you understand that we are all literally in the same boat together?”

As the great human rights activist Lilla Watson famously said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Because not one of us is free until every last one of us is free. Indeed, let us work together, my brothers, my sisters. We are each other’s keepers.


[i] Kristof, Nicholas. “Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5” New York Times, November 29, 2014
[ii] Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, August 2013
[iv] Exodus 14:15. Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meaning and Meaninglessness

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, January 9, 2015)

In this past week, we’ve once again watched a scourge of horrific violence and terror wreak havoc, death and destruction around our world: from the senseless bombing of the Colorado Springs NAACP office, to the unconscionable and brutal attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the murder of 12 innocent people, including 2 police officers, to the horrific acts that played out today at a Paris Kosher grocery store.  And all of it can leave us feeling terrified, angry, bewildered, and wondering how people can do such horrible and senseless things?  Where is the meaning in any of it?

And in times like this, we first ask questions like those that involve us looking outside of ourselves for meaning, but often afterwards turn to look more internally, and ask ourselves what our existence means in the grand scheme of things when so often everything can seem so meaningless? And the truth is, both these and those questions come not only to characterize our responses to traumatic moments, but rather, they  actually characterize what is perhaps the ultimate and quintessential human pursuit.  And for millennia, scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, talk show hosts and many others have offered theories and advice on how to find the meaning that we, as humans, so desperately seek.

And so, David Brooks’ op-ed from Monday “The Problem with Meaning” caught my interest.   In his well-articulated, somewhat vitriolic critique, Brooks asserts that this yearning for meaning has actually become most problematic in our time. He rightfully observes that “how meaningful something is” has become a standard metric for how we gauge whether something is worth our while.  In general, we seek meaningful relationships, we want to use our time meaningfully, we want our learning and growth to be meaningful.   But whereas in its purest sense, meaning is what you feel and find when you’re serving that which is beyond yourself, today we have instead commodified “meaning,” using it as a vehicle for serving ourselves instead.  

In Brooks’ words:
"As commonly used today, the word [meaning] is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life...Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time."

Put more simply, meaning is what should result as an ancillary benefit of a life grounded in a totally different, much more fixed force - morality -   asserts Brooks.  He concludes: “Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is a pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

But I think Brooks misses something in his relatively black and white analysis, something he should have been taught when he was in Hebrew School growing up.  When it comes to this battle of meaning versus morality, from the Jewish vantage, there actually is no battle at all as the two forces not only navigate the same ground, but in fact, blend together so as to strengthen each other.  

Morality, living according to a set of culturally or communally agreed-upon principles about right and wrong, might actually prove a little less fixed than Brooks assumes. Sometimes we may not know what the absolute right or wrong thing to do is in a given situation, but we will still have moral foundations to serve as guidelines.  As an aside, this premise is the basis for the entire structure of the Talmud.   Morality, from a Jewish sense, establishes the ground upon which we navigate in the world, but if we lose the understanding that everything, every experience, every relationship, every act, every breath, is imbued with the potential for deep, impactful meaning in life, we diminish both in the process.  

As Rabbi Geoff Mittleman of Sinai and Synapsis puts it: Meaning is how we make sense of the world; ultimately, it is how we figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” So it is meaning that can help us discover how we can best bring our best gifts and talents to better not only our own lives, but our communities and our world.  And one of the great gifts of Judaism is the understanding that our ethical choices and grounding, our morality, is in and of itself a form of making meaning.  

Victor Frankel, the famous neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the masterwork “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recounted a life-changing decision. With his career on the rise and the threat of Third Reich looming, Frankl was granted a visa to America in 1941. Frankl knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis came to take his parents away, and that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety.

Frankl was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, "Should I leave my parents behind?... Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?" Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a "hint from heaven."When he returned home, he found a piece of marble from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment from the 5th Commandment: honor your father and your mother. Frankl decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.  He later wrote about the relevance of the wisdom he derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering. "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is."*

Those who would choose to use violence and terror, those who murder in their perverted understanding of what they claim as their religion and their god, poison the moral good in society and prove nothing more than heathen idolators whose actions truly merit no meaning in the construct of our existence.  We, those unwittingly subjected to their crimes as witnesses, can choose whether or not we will permit the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of innocence, to fall into meaninglessness as well.  Victor Frankl so rightly said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Our faith calls upon us not to be silent or complacent because the task is too daunting, not to accommodate oppression because it is easier that way, but rather because our lives and our world are filled with meaning and potential even in the darkest moments, to move forward with moral courage, clarity, and clear resolve.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Pharoah issued an edict of infanticide intended to destroy the future of the Jewish people, commanding the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Jewish male infants upon their birth, or risk their own execution.  The Torah tells us though that because, "the Hebrew midwives feared God, they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live.”  A profound example of courage and defiance, morality and meaning.  Today too, we are called upon to make meaning out of the meaningless, and so we must act too to defy oppression in any form, to bring justice and healing to each other and our world.    

*As told in Victor Frank: A Life Worth Living by Anna Redsand

Friday, December 26, 2014

History and Memory - The What and How of Remembering

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, December 26, 2014)

As January 1st proves only a few days away, I imagine many of us find ourselves considering the transition from 2014 to 2015, how we want to shape the coming year for ourselves, our community and our world. And although at first, we might think that this secular New Year proves quite different from our Jewish New Year, the truth is the wisdom we apply to one most definitely can be applied to the other, specifically when it comes to Cheshbon ha Nefesh - our tradition of taking an accounting of our lives, the positive and the negative, as a conscious exercise to help guide us in to a better tomorrow,  because knowing where we've been can serve as a key asset in helping us determine where we are going.

But the process of reflecting on the past is not always an easy one, and too often we jump right in to the realm of history, solely addressing what we assume is the operative question: what happened? When really, if we want to approach our evaluation of the past as a vehicle to lead us into the future, the real question we should be asking ourselves is not only about the what -what happened in history - but also about the how - how will I remember what has happened in the past? How will I choose to shape my memories?

There is in fact a critical difference between history and memory.  History, the branch of knowledge dealing with past events, relies on empirical demonstration and rational thought.
Memory, on the other hand, has to do with our mental capacity for retaining or reviving impressions and it dwells in the non rational architectures of mythology.  History is something we are witness to, over which we have little to no control.  Memory is something we shape ourselves, sometimes consciously, sometimes not..

To demonstrate, let me share with you this example from my family.
When my son was three, we took him skiing with us in Colorado.   It was a disaster.  He hated ski school, his boots hurt his feet and legs, the snow was slushy, and his skis kept getting stuck along  the very small bunny hill run.  Each day, about 2 hours in, the ski school called us to tell us that Josh did not like skiing and that we should come pick him up.  The s’mores offered at 3:30pm each day when ski school was over were no incentive for him to keep trying.  And so, based on our analysis of the events at the time, of course, 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 after we returned home.  When he saw the pictures, Josh 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.  That eating s’mores after we were done skiing was great!  And then he asked us when we were going skiing again because he couldn't wait.  Memory.

Jewish tradition has in fact always stressed the need for us to understand both history and memory when considering how to both navigate our present and forge ahead into our future.  In fact, the presentation of the Exodus narrative in the Torah itself is a powerful example of this idea.   The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers serve as the “historical” account of our ancestors enslavement, redemption and arrival at the border of the Promised Land.  The narratives are told from the perspective of those who were there experiencing it first-hand.  But then the book of Deuteronomy comes along and repeats the whole story again.  But not verbatim.  Where as many of the historical points are reiterated, the Deuteronomic telling re-frames many parts of the story to raise up certain ideals and teachings.  Why?  Because the contents of the book of Deuteronomy are what was told to the generation of our ancestors who weren't slaves ever, who weren't at Mt. Sinai themselves.  Deuteronomy is the story that we know best.   Deuteronomy is all memory. And it is because of that that it allows for intentionality; it has slant as well as direction.

Let’s look at this on a more personal level.  When something significant happens in our lives of which we feel we need to take note, something that we perceive may afford us an opportunity to break out of a negative pattern, we declare we will remember, we will not forget. We assume that recalling the event or experience as it occurred will be enough to help us change our behavior, our relationships, our choices.  But all too often, we find ourselves back in our same negative patterns, despite what we believe were our best efforts.  Because remembering history alone without the added value of memory remains a passive act, and doesn't actually allow us to do much of anything.

This is not to say that we do not need history.  If everything were left to dwell in the domain of memory alone, we would risk falling victim to what renowned Jewish historian Yehuda Kurzter calls “memory anxiety”, finding ourselves waxing so nostalgic about the past that we have no will to navigate into the future because it appears so dismal.

But when we combine the two, we find that firm grounding in history with an openness to the potential of memory to form and shape our understanding can yield ripe ground for transformation.

Take the Joseph narrative that we've been reading in the Torah for the past few weeks.  You know the story: Joseph’s brother’s, jealous of Joseph’s favored place in their father’s heart, throw Joseph into a pit and sell him into slavery.  Through a series of events, Joseph ends up second in command in Egypt, ultimately forgiving his brothers, being reunited with his beloved father, and saving the Jewish people.  

Toward the end of the story, Joseph and his brothers return to their home to bury their father, and a midrash describes that en route, Joseph sees by the side of the road that same pit where his brothers threw him so many years before.  He stops and spends quite a while staring into the pit.  When the brothers see this, they assume that Joseph is remembering all of the horrible things that they did to him so many years previous, and they fear that Joseph will seek out retribution since his memories have been stimulated.
Joseph does in fact recognize the pit and its painful associations, but instead of seeing that through a lens of bitterness, he now sees it as the source of blessing: without his brother’s throwing him into that pit, his incarceration in Egypt would not have happened, he would never has risen to power, he would never have been married to his wife and had his children; and, most importantly his would not have been able to help his family when famine struck their homeland.

In the words of a renowned Biblical scholar: “[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he re-reads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.”(Aviva Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319) 

When rooted in history, memory does not permit us to rewrite history, but rather to re-read it. And how we re-read may indeed be one of the most powerful abilities we have to determine how we live our lives and how we relate to other people.  We may not be able to control what happens to us or even what we remember, but in remembering that we can control how we remember, we can in fact shape our thoughts, assumptions, beliefs.  And now is just as good of a time as any.  But if you aren't ready for that yet, the good news is that memories are available to most of us whenever we want to call them up.   We just need to remember that we are their owners, holders and shapers, and they have the potential to impact our choices and actions for the better, for ourselves, our community, our world.

Wishing you all a new year of great potential and blessing.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Awakening - A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775

Thanks to recent conversations with my doctor friends, I’ve learned a litany of jokes about anesthesiologists and rabbis. Here are a few:

What’s the difference between a rabbi and an anesthesiologist?
They both do the same thing, but a rabbi can do it to 1000 people at once!

Or how about this one:
What’s the difference between a rabbi and an anesthesiologist?
An anesthesiologist needs drugs to put you to sleep!

There’s one more:
What do anesthesiologists and rabbis have in common?
They both share the same motto: putting them to sleep is the easy part, waking them up is much more challenging!

As it happens, we tend to take the field of anesthesia for granted since it’s so routine today, but, up until even the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most patients regularly chose to take their chances over enduring the pain of a surgical procedure.  This has made our modern ability to diminish or even eliminate pain perhaps the most significant medical innovation of all time. 

But the challenge, as we all so deeply know, is that the pain we experience in life is not limited to the walls of the operating room, and, just like with physical pain,  it often feels too much to bear. The crushing conditions of our world can leave us feeling so overwhelmed, that we will do anything to numb ourselves to the distress they create.

Now sometimes, this is necessary. There is a reason people go into shock when something devastating occurs. It is our body’s way of protecting us from the otherwise too harsh impact, and it softens the blow. Although this sort of sedation is not meant to be a regular part of our daily existence, it is not hard to understand why it has become just that.

Take the ubiquitous 24/7 news feeds of the television, internet, and social media that on the one hand leave us no reprieve from the horrors of our world, but ironically, on the other, shorten our attention spans and ultimately desensitize us to whatever is actually happening. Remember Malaysian Air flight 370? Or the 191,000 now dead in Syria? Or closer to home, the state where the latest school shooting took place? It was North Carolina, 4 days ago. [ii]

In the 1960’s, psychologists explored our human tendency to habituate by measuring ordinary people’s nervous system responses to the repeated ringing of a loud bell. Although everyone reacted strongly initially, their reactivity became somewhat weaker for the second bell, and increasingly diminished, until finally they did not register any response at all.  It turns out that we can become so accustomed to our experiences that we reach a point where we just don’t notice them anymore. They just become imperceptible to us. [iii]

The truth is, out of self-preservation, we numb ourselves all the time. As a society, we know the destructive and unfortunately expansive nature of the disease of addiction. But no matter the method of distraction - with pills or alcohol, working non-stop or even with our faces lost in our hand-held devices and screens - we end up with the same sense of detachment.

Perhaps even more troubling is that we sedate ourselves even in anticipation of something that might hurt later. On some deep inner level, we humans tend to fear the fullness of our potential. We think that if we love deeply, we risk the possibility of that love not being reciprocated or one day losing that love. If we strive for our deepest desires, we might still fail, so we settle for the confines of our self-imposed limitations.

We numb ourselves too with our defensiveness, our guarded or half-apologies, unwilling to admit full accountability for fear that we might actually have to feel the weight of our hurting someone else. We do this as well with our withholding of forgiveness; frightened to make ourselves vulnerable for fear we might get hurt again.

And even in common conversation among friends, we tend to prefer dulled agreement to the discomfort of true dialogue and debate. We watch the news that matches our own opinions and belief, surround ourselves with like-minded allies, labeling anyone who disagrees as ignorant, or worse idiotic.  And by so doing, we protect ourselves against the uncomfortable confrontation of divergence and challenge.

But whatever the reason, willed or not, individually or communally experienced, what is certain is that this emotional blunting does not actually protect us. In an attempt to shield our hearts, we end up hardening them, and in so doing, we actually remove ourselves from our lives, relinquishing ourselves, our relationships, and our world to the currents of chaos.

The real world is full of heartache and despair.  Many say that the world of religion offers a reprieve, something to take us out of this world and into the world of heaven.  It is not a modern idea.  Two centuries ago, Karl Marx penned his infamous critique.  Religion, he said, is “The sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”[iv]

Even though Marx was a Jew, either he didn’t listen very well in Hebrew school, or perhaps he slept through the rabbi’s sermons. When it comes to Judaism, Marx couldn’t be more wrong. Judaism is not, nor has it ever been, a religion that reconciles us to the world as it is, that sets out to dull our experiences. Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and all around brilliant teacher Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this in his powerful book, To Heal the World. He writes: “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance, but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be…Its aim is not to transport the believer to a private heaven.  Instead, its impassioned, sustained desire is to bring heaven down to earth. Until we have done this, there is still work to do. ”[v]

Remember that motto from earlier? Putting them to sleep is the easy part, waking them up is much more challenging? Turns out it’s not just for anesthesiologists and rabbis. It is a fundamental and binding truth, not reserved only for the orthodox or the folks who come to services every Shabbat, but for any and all of us who call ourselves part of the family of the Jewish people.  I want you to hear that: this is for all of us.

Jewish practices are designed consistently to open our hearts and direct our awareness towards our world, each other and our souls. They stir us out of our everyday rhythms and unconscious living. Sacks again: “However free or affluent we are, on Passover we eat the bread of affliction and taste the bitter herbs of slavery. On Sukkot, we sit in shacks and know what it is to be homeless…To imitate God is to be alert to the poverty, suffering and loneliness of others. Opium desensitizes us to pain. [Judaism] sensitizes us to it.” [vi]

And make no mistake: these Days of Awe are designed to be the annual wake-up call for our hearts and souls. This is the whole point of why we blow the Shofar; its heart piercing call literally wakes us up to ourselves, our lives, our world. And as it turns out, we’ve been self-sedating for a long time.  Listen to the words renowned philosopher and commentator Maimonides wrote 900 years ago about the purpose of the Shofar that we still read each Rosh Hashanah: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers… Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. 
Look well to your souls and consider your deeds….”[vii]

And if there was ever a single day designed to shake us out of the stupor of our everyday lives, it is today. Yom Kippur challenges us to snap out of our routine lives by literally putting us in the most raw and uncomfortable situation we can imagine. And it’s not just the fasting, intended to awaken our awareness of the pain of thirst and hunger. Or the beating of our chests, beckoning us to crack open our otherwise locked-tight hearts.  Yom Kippur, its rituals and liturgy all facilitate a process that is nothing less than a spiritual near-death experience. No sedation allowed. On Yom Kippur, we spiritually die in some way to awaken us to our lives as they are, so that we might, at the day’s end, re-enter our lives reborn, heart more open than ever before. Truly, Yom Kippur is meant to turn our lives and our world upside down.

The Talmud records a curious incident. Joseph, the son of Rabbi Joshua, fell into a coma. Everyone thought the boy wouldn’t survive, but one day, he woke up. And upon reviving, he said: “Olam hafuch ra-iti: I saw an upside-down world. The people who are on the bottom here were on the top there, and the people who are on the top here were on the bottom there.” His father, astonished at his son’s vision, declared: “My son, olam barur ra-itah, What you saw was the clear world.”[viii]

To be Jewish is to believe in the possibility of an upside down world, that there is a difference between the world-as-it-is and the world as it ought to be, and our lives-as-they-are and our lives as they ought to be; that the world-as-it-is is not a clear world, but it could be one day. And that, according to Judaism, is up to all of us, if only we can remain awakened to that awareness.

Consider this powerful story about the man who invented dynamite.  One day, his older brother died, but the newspaper printed his obituary instead, giving him the unusual experience of reading his obituary while he was still alive. The title read: ‘Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday….’ Like a cold bucket of ice water had been poured on his head, he threw down the paper.  “I’ve never thought of my life that way! That’s not how I want to be remembered. That’s not what’s important to me.”  And right then and there he decided to direct his entire fortune into rewarding people for bettering this world and bringing it closer to peace.[ix] The inventor of dynamite is the creator of the Nobel Peace Prize!  What is done cannot be undone – but we can be awakened, our hearts can be unlocked, and our wounds can be healed; our pain can even become the instrument for our healing, but for that to happen, we have to feel, even if it hurts.

For in truth, the angst we have about what might happen pales when we realize the unmet potential of our lives.

The fear we sense from withholding repentance diminishes when we understand that without real teshuvah, our lives and relationships are left in limbo, actually held in an anesthetized state.

The threat we experience when opposition confronts us abates when we awaken to understand that the Truth is only revealed when contrasting perspectives flourish.

We are not permitted to seal our hearts and abandon hope. When we see pain and suffering, we must not turn away; we must open our hearts and let them sense the echoes of isolation, fear, and despair that our eyes and ears cannot perceive. And then, we must dare to bring comfort and healing. In fact, it is our very experience with pain that actually gives birth to empathy, compassion and, true comfort!   18th century Chassidic teacher Reb Shlomo of Karlin once said, “If you want to raise a person from the mire and darkness, it is not enough to reach your hand down and pull that person up. You must go down into that darkness and with great strength pull yourself and your friend up.” True for healing the pain of our world; true for healing the pain of our lives.

When Yom Kippur ends this evening, we will sound the shofar one last time. The resonating and greatest blast of all, Tekiah Gedolah, will fill the vast air of this holy space and echo in our ears, hearts, and souls.   Did you ever wonder why we end these High Holy Days with the shofar? Why do we need to hear it again if the Holy Days are now over?  Because the real work of awakening is only just beginning.  When we return to our homes and ordinary lives, you can bet that the sedating ringing of our everyday existence will still be there, just as it always has been.  The challenge for us is to take our now open hearts, awareness and and yes, even our pain with us into the New Year, enabling us to act against and above the currents of our existence as-it-is, and by doing so, awaken and transform our lives and our world.

In this New Year of awareness, compassion and healing for us all. Shabbat Shalom. Shanah Tovah.

[i] This sermon is inspired by the life-changing lessons I’ve been taught by my teachers at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  I am forever indebted to them for opening my eyes and heart to the most compelling and profound currents of Judaism and Jewish practice that I have ever known.
 [ii] Even Jewish legal principles have demonstrated this propensity to tune out or habituate to what was once only an exceptional threat of danger but has become the constant and thereby normative existential peril we face daily in our world. Previously, Jewish law permitted the overriding of normal legal and moral restrictions in the case of something called "hora-at sha'ah" - an exceptional moment. The age in which we live, with the constant threat of terror, forces one to essentially adopt the notion that every moment in every day is hora-at sha'ah. But making every moment an emergent moment essentially normalizes such urgency, thereby nullifying the entire exceptional purpose of hora-at sha'ah in the first place.
[iii] Lew, Alan. Be Still and Get Going. p.16.
[v] Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. pp.18, 20. 27
[vi] Ibid. p. 28.
[vii] MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4
[viii] BT, Psachim 50a

[ix] As told by Rabbi Alan Lew in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared