Kol Nidre for the Ambivalent
The writer Erica Brown tells a story about Kol Nidre. “It was late afternoon. Congregants in white began to crowd around the entrance of the synagogue. ‘Rabbi, why are you standing in front of the doors? We can’t get in.’ Everyone was anxious to find a seat and begin the service.
‘I’m sorry. We’re full,’ responded the rabbi. ‘There is no room in the sanctuary for you.’ ‘Rabbi, that’s not possible. We’re all standing out here. I can see through the window,’ said one of the elders, ‘that not one person is in the building.’
‘Trust me, it’s full,’ said the rabbi. ‘It’s so full of promises and vows you made and never kept that there is no room for anything else, even for you.’
That’s the traditional way of explaining Kol Nidre. A few minutes ago, singing the plaintive melody that moves us so, the Cantor reminded us that we have made vows and promises and not kept them. The song was intended to exorcise any feelings of guilt we might have. The text ended triumphantly, on a joyous note—our promises shall not be considered promises.
I’m reminded of a rabbi I know who says that her mother was also very much concerned with vows and promises. Her mother always told her, “Don’t make promises.” She now says the same thing to her own children, because she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone, and because she is a breast cancer survivor and knows that there are no guarantees. Don’t make promises.
If that phrase works for you, if it reminds you that making promises is a serious business, I’m delighted. But I think we need a new, “post-modern” understanding of vow and promise making. Let me explore with you very briefly how this might work for 21st century, liberal American Jews.
I want you to imagine a man named George (not his real name). He is forty-five years old, highly educated, interested and serious about Judaism, a sometimes participant in synagogue life, but hesitant to commit himself to deeper involvement here. No one in the synagogue has ever taken the time or effort to discuss it with him.
The synagogue leaders can’t decide if George is less—or more—committed than the Feinberg family (also not their real name), who volunteer each year to do one or two things for the synagogue, but seldom follow through.
The question is, how can the synagogue help anyone to decide what might be appropriate next steps for them to take Jewishly? And what lies behind anyone’s attempts to evade, or fail to carry through, on commitments once made?
It won’t come as a surprise to you when I say that a lot of Jews are ambivalent about synagogue life. Many of us have reservations. An old joke: How do you know that a restaurant is a Jewish restaurant? Because when the maître d’ stands in the entryway and asks, “Do you have a reservation?” the answer is, “Yes, I do have a reservation: the food here is too salty!”
It’s clear to me that even those of you who come on a regular basis to TBEMC have a measure of ambivalence about deepening your synagogue involvement. If you did not have that ambivalence, we would never lack ten for a minyan, and every committee would have plenty of participants. We may as well admit our ambivalence. That’s the reality of the situation. It’s something we need to come to grips with.
Please try to understand what I’m saying. I’m not disparaging your commitment or your level of participation in the synagogue. Whether you come here once a week or once a year, I will be glad to see you and honor your choice. Look, nobody has to love being in synagogue all the time! I don’t. Nobody has to love being Jewish all the time. I don’t. Nobody wants to be asked all the time to make a contribution of time or of money. I don’t.
Conversely, Judaism doesn’t have to be perfect for us love it. Nor do a congregation and its leaders need to be perfect in order for us to cherish them. I’m sure you have memories from your childhood synagogue, wherever it was—not only the “good” memories but also “the bad and the ugly.” Perhaps, with the passage of time, some of your negative experiences became more palatable. Maybe it’s even fun to remember them. Several of you have told me about being sent to the rabbi’s office when you were in religious school. Somehow that didn’t stop you from ever coming to shul again.
Because I’m a rabbi—and because rabbis have a certain reputation—let me be clear about my intention. I’m not trying to get you to become “more Jewish.” I am not trying to induce you to become “more observant.” Rather, I’m trying to help you wiggle a little bit and move beyond your ambivalence, beyond your reservations. My hope is that we all might be a tad more able to make a free choice—that we might recover the ability to make fair and wise decisions for ourselves and our children about Judaism, instead of being stuck in our old patterns, wasting our time and energy trying to avoid any sort of discomfort. That’s my agenda. I want us all to take some small risks, no matter how involved or uninvolved we may be in synagogue life. I want us to try something new. To paraphrase a biologist, if we’re not growing, we’re dying.
For years now, when people have come to me and said, “Rabbi, maybe I’ll come to Shabbat services sometime,” I have generally replied, “Just do it, you don’t have to make a lifetime commitment, think of it as an experiment. Haven’t you ever tried on clothes to see how they look—if they don’t fit, you don’t have to buy, or you can have them altered. The same goes for the synagogue—you can try it on for size before you make a final decision.” When I say that to people, they usually give me a puzzled look, but later on, they sometimes thank me, because they learned something. They learned that they had to stretch themselves in order to grow. And they learned that taking on a new commitment does not necessarily mean a life “totally tied up in commitments.”
Perhaps another reason for our ambivalence, for our keeping a distance, is the feeling that there is always something better somewhere else. The grass is always greener. Are you holding out for the perfect rabbi and the perfect cantor and the perfect congregation, or are you willing to work with imperfect ones? Or is it that you won’t budge an inch from your sofa unless you feel 100% confident that you will benefit from coming to the synagogue? Are you waiting for all of the conflicting thoughts and feelings inside of you to resolve themselves before you come on a Shabbat morning, or join the Men’s Club or Sisterhood, or volunteer to serve as room mother in your child’s religious school class?
Then consider: your ambivalence will probably never go away. Never! Because when we keep synagogue involvement at arm’s length on the grounds that nothing is perfect, if we stay away because we don’t know if we’ll get complete satisfaction, we may be granting our perfectionism a power over our lives that doesn’t serve us well.
I’ve had some interesting conversations with religious school parents over the years. Some say that the Judaism of their childhood was hollow; it never touched the spiritual side of their lives. So it’s hard for them to imagine that their children might find something sacred, intimate and moving in the synagogue. But surely their job as parents is not to reproduce their childhood for their children in every single way. Perhaps the children can find something richer, something deeper, something that touches them in the synagogue, even if their parents did not.
A year or two ago, a bat mitzvah parent asked me why we were bothering to teach the children how to put on tefillin. She said that her daughter would never find any use for them. But how could she be so sure that her daughter would never find any value in a three thousand-year-old ritual that many spiritual seekers, both men and women, find enormously powerful? Even if her daughter simply put the tefillin on a shelf as a reminder of her becoming bat mitzvah, that itself might have significance. It could be a reminder of a very special time in her time.
At the very least, it seems to me, ambivalent parents can try to take an interest in what their children are learning in religious school. They can try to draw them out by asking, “What did you learn in synagogue today, tell me all about it.” They can walk into the synagogue at 9:00 am on a Sunday and enjoy the Cantor’s singing with the kids. They can show their children that they care.
We understand that you’re busy. You have a job, you schlepp the kids to religious school, to music lessons, to sports. That’s why we will make it easier for you—for example, we will have family Shabbat dinners here. You won’t have to cook. You can just come here and enjoy dinner and meet people and participate in an early, abbreviated service with the kids.
But, ultimately, if you want to venture beyond the four corners of your life and see if things might be different, you will have to carve out some time for the synagogue. There is no other way. It may seem like a risk to you. But the risk likely to pay off because, deep down, you already know that you need to root yourself in something more substantial than watching football games on TV and adding more Facebook friends. You need to root yourself in a place where you can have meaningful, face-to-face relationships with people of all ages. You need to live a disciplined and committed life that will help you develop your natural energies and your innate spirituality. A place that can provide a measure of stability and order to your life. You know what place I’m talking about—this place.
I wonder: Is it perhaps that you fear making a commitment to the synagogue because you don’t feel entirely safe here? There are not many places, I suspect, where people feel free emotionally, free to cry if we want to. We bring only parts of ourselves to most encounters. Even with our friends, we don’t always let our real feelings be known. But I can tell you that people do cry here. And laugh. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I have been in this community long enough to know that you can bring your authentic self here–your pains, fears and hopes. You may have to take a risk. But try it, bring yourself here, see what happens.
Let me conclude by going back to the Kol Nidre formula we recited this evening. Like Yom Kippur itself, Kol Nidre has a magical power. Like visiting the Kotel, the Wall, in Jerusalem, or immersing yourself in the waters of the mikveh, the ritual bath, Kol Nidre carries you along with it. It is transformative.
Can we reinterpret Kol Nidre, so that it might nudge us out of our comfort zones? Can we reclaim the word neder, vow, and interpret it as a freely chosen commitment? Despite our natural ambivalence, can we make a neder tonight to take on some new Jewish practices, some new involvements, in the coming year?
Gmar hatimah tovah. May this be the year we move out of our comfort zones and give the synagogue and Jewish life a second chance. Amen.
Talking Jewish in an Election Year
Some months ago, in my previous congregation, a few of the students in the religious school—a mixed group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders—came to me and asked if I would discuss current events with them. I was happy to do so. Every week or two, they would come to my office to talk about the news for twenty minutes. We had conversations about Israel and Iran, the Syrian refugees, and the Supreme Court. I was impressed by the students’ knowledge and their maturity.
One week, they asked if we could discuss the presidential primaries. When I related this to the chairperson of the school committee, she became quite agitated. “Rabbi, “ she said,” you can’t do that! It’s not appropriate to talk politics in the synagogue. Please promise me that you won’t!”
I told her that I had no intention of endorsing a candidate or a political party. I simply wanted to ask the youngsters what issues were on their minds. What did they think the candidates needed to address? But I could not convince her that my approach was kosher, and she insisted that I not talk about the election at all. I reluctantly went along with her.
I’ve given the matter some thought, and it seems to me that this little anecdote speaks volumes about how American Jews relate to politics. We are afraid to talk politics in the congregation, because we think politics is polarizing, which it often is. We think that people will get angry, and they often do.
We know that allegiance to political party and ideology is usually passed down from parents to children. One of the kids in my discussion group—a fourth grader—told me that if Trump lost the election, America would be doomed. I’m sure he got that apocalyptic rhetoric from the dinner table at home. Because party loyalty is practically genetic, we are afraid of the possible repercussions if we talk politics in shul. It’s so easy to give offense to people.
The lawyers among us are also worried about the possibility that we might lose our tax-exempt status with the IRS, although that fear does not seem to deter evangelical churches from making political endorsements.
So, rabbi, feel free to talk about anything you want—except sex and politics. Talk about religion instead.
I think the real reason why we are afraid of politics in shul is that we never learned how to talk Jewish fluently. What I mean is, we Jews have our own values and vocabulary. To be a Jew is to learn how to speak another language. It’s a distinctive way of looking at the world. I want to speak this morning about what it means to talk Jewish in an ugly election year.
It’s easy for us to talk American—that is, to speak as Republicans or Democrats —we’re used to it, that’s the language we learned at home. But truly Jewish political speech is rare. We think we know the Jewish language, but the truth is, we never put in the effort to speak it fluently. If we knew how to speak Jewish, instead of talking about darkness, desperation, death, destruction, catastrophe and fear, we would be talking about the slow but steady arc of the moral universe. We would be talking about hope and peace. Instead of talking past one another, we would be breaking down binary oppositions and looking for goals that different groups of people can share together.
Let me recommend a book to you: A Failure of Nerve, written in 1999 by the late Edwin Friedman. Ed Friedman was a Reform rabbi and a renowned family therapist. With prophetic foresight, he describes the impact of chronic anxiety on a society. Over time, an anxious society will produce leaders who can’t differentiate themselves from the anxiety of the system. They perpetuate the anxiety through over-reacting, blaming, and offering quick fixes.
In contrast, Friedman says, a healthy leader acknowledges people’s anxiety without giving in to it. He or she names it accurately without stirring it up, or exploiting it for power and control. The healthy leader transforms society by maintaining a non-anxious presence. Like a good parent, the leader’s goal is to help society to mature. So he/she doesn’t blame and harangue others. He/she focuses on strengths, not weaknesses; on imagination, not reaction.
Now that’s talking Jewish. The Jewish way is not to panic. If our people had panicked during centuries of oppression, they never would have survived. They managed to stay centered by living a life of mitzvot. They knew that the (non-Jewish) state could not give them freedom, justice and peace, so they had to enter fully into their own local Jewish communal life and find safety and happiness there with their own people. They were realistic about their vulnerability, but they did not despair; they were, as the prophet Zechariah put it, asirei tikvah—prisoners of hope. They knew that people cannot live without hope.
I’m convinced that if we could teach ourselves to talk Jewish, we could have an influence on the culture around us. Jews and Judaism are widely respected in America. So I want to suggest a few things that we can do, simple things, that might make an impact on American society.
At the very least, the things that I am going to suggest to you might help you regulate your own anxiety. Because you really need to do something to keep from waking up in the middle of the night in sweaty horror.
First: Why don’t you invite the neighbors over for dinner? Invite those who are not like you. You know, the family with the bumper sticker on their car that you find so obnoxious. Perhaps they will agree to come over. They’ve probably never had a chance to share a meal with you. Talk to them, not to pass judgment on them or set them straight, but to find out why they think the way they do. Don’t ever think you know exactly who they are. You might come to appreciate some things about them.
I’m not naïve, I know that some people are dangerous and you should protect yourself from them, but not everyone who displays a sign or a bumper sticker that you find offensive falls into that category. If more people in America shared meals together, a lot of good would come of it. They are your neighbors, after all. We need to learn how to negotiate our differences at a very basic, grassroots level.
Second: For your mental health, stop watching cable news day and night. News channels like Fox, MSNBC and CNN are toxic to your soul. They prey upon nothing more than fear and blaming. They sensationalize stories and revel in political blood sport. They don’t care what they are doing to polarize our society as long as they are making money.
These networks give an adrenaline rush. Believe me, I know, because I was once addicted to them. But you can wean yourself away. I used to watch cable news every day, but now I tune in only on occasion. Refuse to watch and you’ll sleep much better. You can find out what’s happening in the world in other ways.
Third: Stop posting so much on Facebook. You won’t like my saying this, but you can probably do without Facebook altogether. Of course, you can still use it to share family news and pictures of your dog, if you wish. But there are so many people who are totally hooked on Facebook; they seem to spend much of their time living through moments other people are living, rather than attending to the moments they are living.
I have a Facebook account, and I sometimes post to it. But it is not a net gain for our society in an election season like this. Facebook has become a theater for political histrionics. It never seems to lead to dialogue on complex issues.
So here’s my suggestion: You should start taking long breaks from it. Why don’t you begin this Yom Kippur and see if you can fast from Facebook for a week or two?
Fourth: Teach yourself the middah (the Jewish character trait) of savlanut, patience. You don’t have to give into the urge to respond instantly whenever you receive a text or an email that you find belligerent. The simple act of waiting an hour may soften your view of what the other person was saying. At the very least, waiting before you respond will change the tone of your response for the better. I wish we could teach our politicians to wait awhile before they make caustic responses to one another.
Fifth: Pick someone to forgive. This is the season for forgiveness, isn’t it? Who do you need to forgive? It might be a family member. It might be someone in the synagogue, the rabbi or the cantor or a layperson. It might be a friend or a colleague. It might even be someone whose politics you find antagonistic.
Forgiveness is not easy. Some people are chronic abusers and should not be forgiven. But why are you letting the people who offended you control your life? As it has been said, unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
It seems to me that it’s impossible to establish intimacy with a person if you can’t learn to forgive. If you can’t forgive your parents for how they raised you, how are you going to treat your own children? If you can’t forgive your ex-husband for what he did to you, how will you love your new husband? That is why forgiveness is essential. Pick someone to forgive. See how they react when you tell them that they are forgiven. It is possible they did not even know that you cared about whatever they did to you. Maybe they will surprise you by showing you that they have the ability to change.
Sixth: Attach yourself to the synagogue. Not because you should feel guilty that you’ve stayed away, but because there is no version of healthy social life that does not involve learning to live in loyalty to a small group of people over a long period of time.
It’s hard to find roots and stability in our mobile American society. But here you will find people who care about you. Everyday I see people give support to one another here. Don’t let anything deter you from getting involved—not your unfamiliarity with Jewish practice (you can learn), not the kids’ sports (do you really think they will grow up to be professional soccer players?), not your disappointment with the rabbi or the cantor (they are not the only reasons to affiliate), not your conflicts with other members (conflicts are inevitable, don’t you want to learn how to get along with people?). The synagogue is not perfect, it is a work in progress—and you are not perfect, you are a work in progress too.
Don’t let anything stand in the way of your committing yourself to the community over the long haul. You will grow as a human being through your long-term commitment, and reap the harvest of love and care that you have planted. Stick around.
Seventh: Be generous. Find nonprofit organizations that are doing good work in your community and support them with your time and money. Look for organizations that are not tied to a particular political agenda. Try to find something that moves you—homelessness, hunger, refugees, addiction, disease. So much of the progress that is being made in the world comes from the local, non-governmental, not-for-profit sector. Find a cause and give yourself over to it. You want to change the world? Get involved at the local level.
Eighth: Vote in November, by all means, vote! Vote for the candidate that best reflects your bedrock Jewish values. Values like fairness (tzedek), faith (emunah), generosity (nedivut), honor (kavod), lovingkindness (hesed), orderliness (seder), mindful speech (shemirat halashon), hospitality (hachnasat orechim), and pursuing peace (redifat shalom). And many other good traits. No one person embodies all of these values all of the time, but they are the best way to judge character. And character is important. We want to be able to look up to our political leaders.
At the same time, you should realize that your vote is not the most precious thing you have to give. The most precious thing you have to give is your own capacity to connect with people and bear their burdens. This has nothing to do with presidential politics, but it needs to be emphasized today. It may be a close election, so vote. But after you vote, focus on what will really change the world—your giving of yourself.
My friends, I could suggest one or two other things for you to do in the next few weeks, but I’ll stop here. I don’t need to list ten commandments; Moses might have been more effective had he stopped at seven or eight.
I still think about those students who, at such a young age, are already identified with political parties and ideologies. I think about the many Jews who think that politics should be completely out of bounds in shul. And I think about our failure to talk Jewish among ourselves and in public. Talking Jewish does not mean endorsing a candidate. Rather, it means endorsing a way of life.
We pray: God, hold us fast through this endless election season. Help us learn to talk and live in a Jewish way. May this be a year of renewal for us and for all of America. Amen.
A Mantra for the New Year
Next week, we’ll do something different. I’m inviting you to submit questions to me, and I’ll answer some of them in my Yom Kippur morning sermon. Whatever you wanted to ask but were afraid to—questions about Jewish theology, prayer, or practice, or about our own synagogue in this transitional year.
If you don’t submit questions, it will be a very short sermon! So please email me your questions or call the office. Your name will not be mentioned in the sermon.
Fortunately, I’ve already received a couple of good questions, and I want to respond to one of them today. The question is: Rabbi, what is your favorite quotation from the Hebrew Bible, and why?
I love this question. My first thought was, how about Ve-ahavta et ha-ger…..ki gerim hayitem be-eretz Mitzrayim, love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
It’s a huge challenge to show love to people who are different from us, which is probably why the Torah tells us only once to love your neighbor, while it tells us thirty-eight times to love the stranger. Thirty-eight times!
When the actor Gene Wilder died a few weeks ago, I thought of the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where he played the Waco Kid, a gunslinger. The black sheriff, Bart, played by Cleavon Little, is insulted by a white woman. Wilder says to him: “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny?’ ‘Make yourself at home?’ ‘Marry my daughter?’ You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know…morons.”
Well, I’m not saying that we are “morons”. I do not think that the people here this morning are bigots. But have we taken the time and effort to listen to what black people have to say about their experience? Let’s face it, we can go out most of the time, pretty well assured that we will not be stopped by the police. Whether we use checks, credit cards or cash, we can count on our skin color not to work against the appearance of our financial reliability. We’re not bigots, but we benefit from the place of white privilege that we have inherited.
I don’t want you to feel guilty about this, but I also don’t want you to be complacent about it. We need to talk more about race and privilege.
Now I believe that most police officers are diligently doing their jobs and keeping us all safe. Painting with a broad brush would be inaccurate, and can lead to tragedies such as the shooting deaths of the police officers in Dallas. But there are many innocent victims of the police, people who were not armed or should never have been stopped in the first place. Doesn’t this relate to the commandment to love the stranger—doesn’t love involves offering protection to those who are not like us?
When I see on TV thousands of wretched refugees fleeing the war in Syria, I feel helpless. When I see people in this country who want to keep immigrants out and expel many of those who are already here, I am horrified. I wish I knew how to get Americans to overcome their fears. I think, however, that I would know where to start if I was allotted a stranger and required to establish a relationship with her or him. I think that over time my stranger would stop being a stranger and would become my neighbor. Perhaps if we could all remember the phrase “love the stranger” it would push us out of our comfort zones and give us a dose of courage.
As I said, “love the stranger” was my first thought for a quotation to live by. It’s a message we need to hear today. Nevertheless, upon further reflection, I have decided to offer a different scriptural text as my favorite. It comes not from the Torah, but rather the prophet Micah.
“What does God ask of you? Only to do justice, love kindness,and walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)
This is my favorite quotation because it speaks of more than just love. It lists three things—justice, kindness, and humility. If justice is not balanced by kindness it can be cruel—shame them, punish them, make sure that they suffer for their injustice! But kindness all by itself is sometimes nothing more than a veneer of politeness; justice is required if we are going to show real respect for people and meet their needs. And I love that phrase, “walk humbly with your God.” When people do things in a spirit of absolute certainty and self-righteousness, evil is often the result. You need some tentativeness, some uncertainty, even (or especially) when you are traveling with God.
Do you folks know what an elevator statement is? Imagine that you’re in an elevator with someone. You have only the time of an average elevator ride to say something to that person to sell yourself to him or her. A very brief statement of who you are and what you stand for. I think Micah’s brief statement is perfect for the elevator. If I had only 30 seconds to express my core values, I would quote the prophet Micah.
And now I can get to the heart of my Rosh Hashanah message. I think we all need to develop elevator statements for ourselves. We need to remind ourselves why we were placed here, what we have to offer, and what we aim to do in life.
And we especially need to do this today, because of the high anxiety we feel. There is so much uncertainty, so much that we don’t have control over. Who will win the election? What will happen to the economy? What will happen to Israel? Will we suffer more terrorist bombs and mass shootings here at home? And we all have our personal concerns. What will happen to my health and that of my loved ones? Will our children and grandchildren find happiness in life? Will our marriages and close relationships prosper, or stagnate, or deteriorate?
What do we have control over? Just this: We have a measure of control over ourselves. We don’t have to flare up in anger or pull back in fear, we can learn to tolerate our uncertainty and pain. Instead of worrying what life is going to be like tomorrow, we can focus on something that is meaningful to us right now, something that will engage us and keep us moving. We don’t need a detailed business plan with twenty things that we can to do to improve our situation. All we need is an elevator speech, a simple reminder that we are people with mitzvot to perform, people who get our primary satisfaction in life from doing good things. The way to survive anxiety is to maintain a clear sense of direction and to exercise patience.
This also applies to synagogue life. As you know, I am the transitional rabbi here. My job is to help prepare the way for a new, settled rabbi, who will arrive in a year or two. I don’t have a lot of time, so I feel that everything I say is a kind of elevator speech.
Synagogue life today is very challenging. I hear people say that they are worried about the shul’s lack of growth and its chances for survival. But we have to ask: Growth of what? Survival of what? Are we counting the right things? We count the number of members, but this is an age when younger people do not readily become dues-paying members of synagogues, and are looking for different ways to affiliate Jewishly. We count the number of people at services, but isn’t it healthier that people come here not out of mere habit or conformity, but rather out of a sense of spiritual need? We count the budget figures, but we forget that our assets are not only financial—our members’ skills, experiences, education, interests and passions are also resources that can be used to further our work.
The main point is this: Businesses are focused on profit, but we are focused on service. If our task is to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God, then we ought to be counting our outputs—all the things we provide the world, such as the way we support each other through difficult times and how we are creating wonderful young Jews in our religious school and how we enjoy a joyous and loving Shabbat here every week. Our success should be measured not by the number of bagels consumed at kiddush or the number of spaces in the parking lot, but rather by the number of people whose lives we change. Even a dwindling congregation can be beautifully alive in its dedication to its mission. I think if the world hears about that mission, the congregation will grow again.
I think our weekly announcement sheet at the synagogue should say something like this: “This week three of our teenagers are volunteering at a food pantry. The rabbi and cantor are visiting the sick. The Men’s Club is supporting projects in the Religious School. The Sisterhood is helping to sponsor rabbinical and cantorial students at Jewish Theological Seminary. Several of our members serve on the boards of organizations that provide hope and healing to others. Let us remember the victims, their families, and the rescuers who have been affected by this week’s explosion.” Let’s highlight what really counts.
We can start doing this right now. If you liked my little elevator speech, why not adopt it as the synagogue’s New Year’s resolution? Why not adopt it as your personal mantra for the year to come? It will probably work better than what many of us do at Rosh Hashanah, making an overwhelming and disconnected list of all the things we want to change.
Would you repeat these words after me:
What does God ask of you? (all repeat)
Only to do justice, (all repeat)
love kindness (all repeat)
and walk humbly with your God (all repeat).
Let’s all say those words together: Do justice… Love kindness… And walk humbly with your God.
These words of Micah are so simple. You know those words now. Set them as a notification on your smartphone, so you’ll be reminded of them everyday. Place them in your wallet with all the credit cards. Put these words in your hearts and minds and carry them with you wherever you go.
Some of you may be thinking that I don’t fully appreciate how difficult it is for you to stay afloat at home or how hard it is keep the congregation in business. That I’m too idealistic, a dreamer. Guilty as charged—those are my character faults. But I’m not asking you to pull hope out of thin air. All I’m asking is that stop worrying abou things that are largely out of your control and refocus yourself. The way to thrive is to focus on the right things.
Instead of counting all of the wrong things and kvetching about the synagogue not being exactly the way it was twenty years ago, are you willing to take another look at this place, a fresh look, and be inspired by our many outputs? Instead of staying up all night worrying about the election in November and whether your children will find good jobs and what the doctor is going to tell you at your next appointment, can you start thinking of yourself as someone who has important work to do and can’t wait to do it—to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God?
So now you know my favorite biblical quotation. Why not devote yourself to it, and share it with others? Make it visible, audible and tangible. Whenever you come to shul and indeed wherever you are in the world, on an elevator, or anywhere else. To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.
Q & A
I invited the congregation to submit questions in advance that I would try to answer on Yom Kippur. Neuroscientists report that when you ask questions, you can increase the shape, size and number of neurons in your brain and the connections between them. This paves the way to greater intelligence, and maybe even wisdom.
So I hope your brains lit up as you thought of these questions. Here we go!
Q: (I have shortened this question somewhat): Rabbi, to start off your Rosh Hashanah sermon discussing white privilege and to equate Jewish people and current situations is preposterous and highly polarizing no matter what your intentions. Few, if any Jews, would ever deserve to be saddled with the term white privilege as Jews are still falsely labeled a race by much of the world. Black people make up about 7% of the United States. Jews, on the other hand, make up only about 2-2.25% of the United States and are hands down, one of the smaller minorities of our country. Our congregation is made up of not only affluent professionals, but of Holocaust survivors, manual laborers, children of mothers who grew up on welfare (such as myself), and other less than privileged people who have worked hard for everything they have despite still feeling the effects of anti-Semitism both professionally and personally.
Finally, if you do not already know, the modern usage of the term “White Privilege” was utilized by Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley College in a 1988 opinion article; yet has only come into vogue over the last several years. Why? In my humble opinion because it is a stunningly terse polarizing phrase that generates all types of histrionic emotions…
A: I realize that discussing such issues on the High Holy Days will not sit well with everyone. But I was talking about the challenging commandment (repeated 38 times in the Torah) to “love the stranger” and I thought my comments on Rosh Hashanah fit that context.
Moreover, the liturgy and Torah readings on the High Holy Days have a lot to do with our ethical responsibilities as Jews. Today’s haftarah from Isaiah is the best example of this; Isaiah screams at the people who fast and pray but then return to their lives unchanged, with no self-reflection about how they act in the world.
Perhaps I erred in labeling the issue as “white privilege.” It is a very complicated matter. But most of us here today do occupy a place of privilege, not only as whites, but specifically as middle or upper-middle class whites in relation to lower-class people of color. Most of us, myself included, are part of a privileged class. You don’t feel that you’ve achieved a position of privilege in America? OK, maybe not. But I’ll bet that many people in this country would gladly trade places with you.
Yes, Jews are still thought to be a race by some non-Jews. Antisemitism is still a major issue that we have to deal with, and the antisemitism of some in the Black Lives Matter movement is very troubling. Jews were of course instrumental in the civil rights movement. But that does not give us a free pass on racism. Did you see the YouTube video a few years ago of drunken Jewish college students flinging racial epithets at President Obama? Did you happen to see the front page of the New York Jewish Week this past week? There was a story there about Jews of color (black, Latino, Asian) who say that the Jewish community discriminates against them. Their stories were pretty convincing.
I would love to discuss these matters further. We simply don’t have time today. We really should have a forum in the synagogue sometime. I will recommend two books about the African-American experience: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. These are two of the best books I’ve ever wanted not to read. These books are guaranteed to make you feel uncomfortable as you confront the feelings of black people. The fear blacks feel walking or driving on the street. Or sometimes just the opposite, as when they experience utter invisibility. Rankine describes a scene where she is in line at the drugstore and a white man walks in front of her and puts his things on the counter. “Oh my god, I didn’t see you,” he says. “You must be in a hurry,” she replies. “No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.”
Either he had turned his eyes away from her instinctively when he saw that she was black; or as a black person she was so insignifcant to him that she was no different than a piece of furniture or the wallpaper, and he completely forgot that she was there. She gives other examples of this phenomenon. It is foolish of us to think that we never act this way.
Let me conclude these brief comments this way. My cat likes to sit in a cardboard box. From a spiritual perspective, we all sit in boxes. Some sit closed in, others open their boxes, in the hope of establishing a relationship with the outside. When we are in the box of fear we will want to exclude all those who are different from us. Rather than pay any attention to them, we will mock them. But that won’t help as it will only reinforce our fear. The only thing we can do is crack the box open.
I would apply this analogy not only to Latino immigrants and Syrian refugees and black Americans, but also to rustbelt white Americans, many of whom are locked into troubled, even hopeless lives. Can we look out of our comparatively spacious and privileged box and see these people who sit in other boxes and listen to them and try to educate ourselves about the lives they lead?
Q: Rabbi, if our destiny is sealed on Yom Kippur, why should we change our lives being that it wouldn’t make a difference?
And why can’t we question God as to why the life of a young child is ended
before they can really experience life and yet the life of a person who cares
only for themselves, who will cheat a poor person of a living for their own
gain, who will steal, kill, and maim has their life extended? I have not heard any
rabbi explain this one.
A: Thanks so much for the easy questions! I’m joking, of course.
Do you know what a guided meditation is? Let’s say you want to relieve your stress. The therapist asks you to close your eyes and imagine a peaceful beach scene, or a tranquil lake. You’re not actually at the beach or the lake, but you can imagine that you are.
You might choose to understand the Unetaneh tokef prayer as a kind of guided imagery. However, instead of calming us down, the prayer speaks of a Book of Life and asks, Who shall live and who shall die; who in old age and who in youth; who by sword and who by beast, and so on. What is the purpose of scaring us so? The purpose is to make us aware of our vulnerability. Life is a tough game. We usually repress or deny that knowledge, we don’t want to think about it at all. But today we can stretch ourselves to look over the precipice. We can allow ourselves to wonder if there is anything to be learned by getting real.
We begin the guided meditation with God as the all-powerful judge and prosecutor. Even the angels are terrified—and if they are, who know no sin, we should be even more so. But then it says, “God opens the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own hands have signed the page.” This is meant to empower us. We messed up, we made mistakes, we signed the page ourselves. There is something liberating about that idea, because if we have no one to blame but ourselves, we can also take control of our lives, we can change. That is really a very encouraging idea, the idea of teshuvah.
And then Unetaneh tokef gives us hints of God’s mercy and love. It says that God is like a shepherd who gathers his flock; clearly, that is supposed to make us think of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and other passages such as Ezekiel 34, where God says, “As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so will I care for my sheep and deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a dark and gloomy day.” In other words, God actively searches us out.
And not only is God merciful, but teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah can make easier our pain. The new translations don’t say “annul” the pain, they say “lessen” the pain, which may in fact be closer to the meaning of the Hebrew. Connecting with God—crying out to God, sharing the tzoris, the frustration, and the hope—can help to free us. The community can give us hugs and reassurance. And we can occupy ourselves with mitzvot.
The language is ancient, but I think this guided meditation is still very useful; it can still help us take stock of ourselves. I certainly don’t want you to take Unetaneh tokef literally; please understand that this is poetry, not the directions from IKEA for putting a piece of furniture together. You are not required to believe that there is actually a big book in the sky.
Now, as for your specific question why an innocent child should suffer while an evil person prospers, just what kind of an answer are you looking for? When I was a young rabbi, I worked with Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Note the title—it’s not why bad things happen to good people but when. He doesn’t claim to tell you why; in fact, he doesn’t think anyone can give a philosophically coherent explanation. Rather, he wants to help you cope with trauma. One day thirty years ago when Harold was out of the office I took a call from a woman in India who had heard about the book. She tearfully explained that her child had been trampled by an elephant. Why, she asked? All I could do, all any of us can do in such a situation, is to offer our heartfelt sympathy.
But there is a theology that works for me—whether it will work for you, I don’t know. My personal belief is that God is not all-powerful, and I suspect that most people who say they believe in a God who controls everything, really don’t believe it either. A God who could spare the life of a dying child, or who could prevent a hurricane or an earthquake, but chooses not to, is not a God that I can love or worship. I want my God to be good.
To me, God’s power is not the power to scare us, but rather the power to lure us, to entice us, to transformation. God’s power is the power of hope, of a new future. God loves us and helps us see fresh possibilities, no matter how difficult things may be.
Moreover, to say that, if God cannot prevent suffering, then God is of no use, is like saying that if parents cannot save their offspring from all suffering, they are of no use. God does not prevent suffering, and often suffering is terribly unjust, but it can be endured more easily when we know that it matters to God.
This liberal theology is called “process theology,” it has numerous biblical and talmudic precedents, and many rabbis accept it today. If you come to shul often enough, you will surely hear me discuss it. Or ask me out for coffee and we’ll talk about it. The point is, there are alternatives to thinking of God as a cruel tyrant. You don’t have to conceive of God the same way you did when you were ten years old. There are much better ways of relating to God.
Q: Rabbi, our congregation has gone through a lot of turmoil. Whether it is the fault of the clergy, or the lay leaders, I don’t know. Probably both. But there is a lot of pain in the synagogue. How do you plan to address it?
A: Some of you might question my judgment in deciding to answer this question today, when people come to shul to be inspired. But I know that this is the elephant in the room and we need to acknowledge it. I’ve had conversations with people who were literally in tears because of their pain over recent events, and I know that some congregants have resigned their membership. I have no interest in casting blame on anyone; blame is not useful, it will get us nowhere. But crisis = opportunity. We now have an opportunity to start afresh as a community, just as the High Holy Days are a time for personal renewal.
Here’s how we do it. First, as I said on Rosh Hashanah, we need to pay more attention to the wonderful things that are happening here, from our warm and intimate religious school, to our beautiful Shabbat services, to the support we give our members who suffer illness or loss. And, by the way, compared to many other congregations, we are not in danger of going out of business. Let’s stop focusing on scarcity and start to count all of our assets, both financial and human. If we are creative, there is a lot that we can do with what we already have.
Second, to heal the pain will require more than just treating each other kindly—we need to seek and give forgiveness. To those of you who are angry about things that have happened here, whatever those things were, we say to you that we are genuinely sorry. We know how much this shul means to you.
But, as Ann Landers said, hanging on to resentment is letting someone who hurt you live rent-free in your head. Demanding that the past should have been different is a really good way for you to stay miserable. If you want a better future, you to forgive people. And what of they don’t come to you asking for forgiveness? You forgive them anyway.
Third, the problem with the congregation is not that there is too much conflict. The problem is that there is not enough cooperation. Let’s recall the many times in the past when people worked together to overcome problems. The times when we put aside trivial issues of power and status and stopped thinking “I” and started to think “team.” When we accepted responsibility but “the team” got the credit, not “I.”
Fourth, we need to start a visioning process. As Rabbi Yogi Berra put it, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else. We need to start to develop a picture of what we want to see here in the future, and then find a strategy to make that vision real. What we focus on will become our reality.
It’s not impossible to do these four things: to pay attention to the good, to seek and give forgiveness, to recall moments of collaboration, and to develop a vision for the congregation. If I did not think that these things were possible, I would not be here. I look forward to a productive year with you, a year of fresh hope and determination.
Thank you for your questions! Keep asking them all year long.