2021/5782 Yom Kippur Sermon

Shana tova! Thank you for the pleasure of bringing in the new year with you, and for the honor of offering a few words of Torah today. As I scanned both the landscape and my inner stirrings for what to speak about today, I was struck by just how many threads there are to pull. I could address any number of pressing global issues: the ongoing public health crisis and its economic, mental health, and social aftershocks; the growing outcry for racial and economic justice; the catastrophic weather that practically screams in our ears that climate change is looming closer than any of us feels ready to reckon with; and a society in which the values of freedom and individualism are in mortal conflict with the communal commitment of caring for one another. The world feels like too much to take in, and yet the need to pay attention and take action is more urgent than ever. 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted. Don’t misunderstand me; I am happy with my life and I deeply recognize my many blessings. Yet I often find myself wanting to pull the covers over my head because there is just so much turmoil — calamity everywhere I look. 

And then the question comes to me, over and over: What do we do when we feel overwhelmed and caught in the middle, when the forces swirling around us start to feel like drowning? When is it a moment for reflection, and when is it a moment for action? 

Which is it now?

Of course it is now — and always — both. Our texts for this season point us in both directions, toward introspection and discernment and toward the never ending work of tikkun olam

Both reflection and action constitute a kind of presence to the Divine — whether it is presence to the still, small voice that guides us on our way, or presence with the righteous work that still, small voice calls us to. 

I have been reflecting a lot on both types of presence lately. In this historical moment we are more acutely aware than ever of presence and absence. The great blessing of being in the same space as other people is something whose importance many among us hadn’t fully realized until it became a scarce commodity. All those months of missing people or of seeing them only behind a mask or onscreen lent an air of unreality, of watered-down-ness to our relationships. This past year and a half, I think we have come to realize how much our sense of the presence of others is rooted in seeing their faces. In Hebrew, the word פָּנִים neatly encompasses this idea: its definitions include both face and presence. In the inflected form ָלְפָנֶיך heard so often throughout our liturgy, it means, “before you” — literally in your presence and in front of your face.

Psalm 27, which many of us recite daily from the beginning of Elul through the end of Sukkot, offers a rich meditation on the idea of connecting face and presence. Verse 8 reads: 

לְךָ  אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי — אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ׃

This is a puzzling verse, one which opens up a theological question. A traditional approach to the Biblical Hebrew yields the translation, On Your behalf, my heart says to me, “Seek My face!” and I do seek Your face, o God. The psalmist’s heart advocates on the part of God, imploring for the speaker to seek out the presence of God. The Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra likens the heart to God’s שליח, God’s representative. He sees the heart as a Divine internal compass calling the Psalmist into stillness and searching. However, a more contemporary interpretation of this verse, taking into account modern Hebrew usage, switches the roles around — My heart says to You, “Seek my face!” O God, I seek Your face. In this reading, the Psalmist is asking for God to recognize him, and pledging to do the same. This reciprocal recognition, which posits both God and the Psalmist as seekers, changes the theology, casting the still, small voice as… more of a duet. The next verse continues: אַל־תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי Do not hide your face from me. The stakes are high, located in the fear of not connecting, of all of this searching being met with nothing. Yet the psalmist persists. The last verse reads:

קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהֹוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָה׃

Hope toward Adonai! Keep your heart strong and courageous, and hope toward Adonai! Regardless of who is doing the seeking, the psalm invites us into quiet reflection and hope, even amidst turmoil, asking us to search for the presence of God and wait. 

Our Haftarah for today, on the other hand, demands that we act. This fiery speech from the prophet Isaiah is full of action words, exhortations, imperatives — Build up a highway! Clear the path! Remove the obstacles! You can practically see Isaiah shaking his fists, trying to get his people to pay attention. Isaiah derides the people who fast in body only, while remaining spiritually unmoved. Such empty ritual strips the fast of its meaning and import. Rather, Isaiah says: “This is the fast I desire: to open the bonds of wickedness, shake off the yoke, let the oppressed go free! Share your bread with the hungry, take the poor into your home, clothe the naked! Do not turn away from your flesh and blood!” He goes on to promise that if our fasting and introspection inspire us to do those things, then the presence of God will be with us.

אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח
וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ כְּבוֹד יְהֹוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ

Then your light will burst forth like the dawn, and you will immediately return to flourishing. And your righteousness will walk before you, the presence of God will gather you in.

Where Psalm 27 calls for reflection, Isaiah urges us to press that reflection into service, to take up our sacred task of tikkun olam. The values of stillness and action are not in conflict but rather in dialogue. Our alternate Torah reading for today, from Deuteronomy chapter 29, says: 

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

The hidden things are for God, but the revealed things are for us and for our children, to enact all of these teachings into eternity. So, yes, the quiet matters are between us and God — discerning, reflecting, finding our way. But once we’ve found that way, we must stand tall and translate thoughts into deeds.

The activist Sandra Steingraber wrote, “We are all musicians in a great human orchestra, and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You are not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what instrument you hold and play it as well as you can. You are required to find your place in the score. What we love we must protect. That’s what love means. From the right to know and the duty to inquire flows the obligation to act.”

Steingraber’s words are a summons to righteousness, an echo of the principle from Pirkei Avot that we are not required to complete the work but neither are we free to desist from it. Each of us has a role to play, no matter how humble and incomplete. We need simply to find our place, to do something.

My blessing for you this Yom Kippur is for deep, soul-filling reflection that nourishes you toward action, in whatever direction you are called. 

Gmar chatima tova!

Come learn with me!

I’m teaching another course this fall through Hebrew College’s Open Circles Jewish Learning, and I’d love for you to join the group! We will meet on Sunday evenings in November and early December, from 7:30-9pm on zoom. Tuition is $135 for the series, and generous scholarship support is available.

Course details are below.

A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: Ecclesiastes

This course begins with the passage in Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) that inspired the famous Pete Seeger song, “Turn, turn, turn,” and moves on to consider the emotional, spiritual, and psychological problems and resonances in the Book of Ecclesiastes as a whole. We will study that famous passage and others, slowly and deliberately, in multiple English translations, and relate what we find in the sacred text to our own lives. This is a course for deep thinkers, seekers of meaning, and people who like to consider profound questions from multiple angles. Studying Ecclesiastes offers us the strength and wisdom that comes with taking “the long view” of human affairs. Join us for meaningful study, reflection, and conversation!

Click here to register.

Fade to White

I skipped first grade and spent second grade in New York for my dad’s sabbatical year. Finally, in third grade, I was able to have a birthday party with my school friends. I grew up in a small town and while my experience in the public schools of that town was decidedly mixed, one aspect of it was a great blessing. I had friends of many races and cultures, and in the way of children, I didn’t even notice it as anything special. In early May in my third grade year, I excitedly invited about 20 kids to my house for the Sunday closest to my birthday. I couldn’t wait to play bean bag toss and fake horseshoes and run around my suburban Michigan backyard in my new party dress with my friends.

Then the day came, and all the white kids showed up. None of the Black ones did. I was sad and surprised but my parents weren’t. They didn’t explain it to me; they might not have had the words. It took me decades to understand that as much as my Black friends liked me, they might not have felt safe coming to my house on a Sunday afternoon. Their parents might not have felt safe bringing them to my neighborhood. All the cake and ice cream would have to be weighed against being around all those white people.

As I grew up, my world got whiter and whiter. The last time I had meaningful, everyday friendships with Black people was in graduate school at Michigan. And if I’m being truthful, it’s quite possible that those folks didn’t think of me as a friend as much as I thought of them that way. I probably exhausted them. But I loved them fiercely, as I love all my friends.

There’s real sadness for me about the narrowing of my world. A workshop I attended this week at school, part of a three-day seminar at Hebrew College on Racial Justice, brought up the question of why so many white people’s worlds have gotten whiter and whiter. What are the factors at play, factors that were previewed long ago on an impossibly sunny Sunday in May? 

I was touched by the invitation from activist Tamara Fish, who led that workshop, to rekindle the relationships we used to have when our worlds were more colorful. I’m connected with many of my friends — from childhood through graduate school — on social media. Occasionally we talk or message back and forth. What might it look like to deepen those relationships and to cultivate more such connections? My approach to the rabbinate — as to life — is relational. Why not here too? What might it feel like, post-pandemic, to invite people to my Shabbat table whom I don’t know well, people who aren’t just like me but in whom I’m genuinely interested? And how do I do that without it being A Project To Diversify My World?

How do I move beyond being just another well-intentioned white lady, with all the fragility that implies?

We learn B’shallach this week, the dramatic escape of the Israelites and the crossing at the Sea of Reeds. And I keep thinking about the (not quite) parallel slavery narratives. The miracle for the Israelites was making it through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, leaving the Egyptian oppressors to drown in their own violence and rapacity. When — when — will the miracle come for Black Americans, and what will happen to their oppressors? Which side are you on? Which side am I? 

When the sea opens up for Black liberation, will I cross again, alongside a beloved community I have helped to nurture, or will I drown in my own sins?

My childhood friend, the brilliant soprano Anita Johnson, recorded this moving video in response to the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. Her song perfectly captures what I know is in my grasp. 

Let there be peace on earth.

Let it begin with me too, Anita.

Finding our Way

One week ago today, far-right extremists brought mayhem and bloodshed to the halls of Congress. Some of my fellow Americans, human beings created b’tzelem elohim, had become convinced — contrary to any available facts or evidence — that the election results were fraudulent. They decided, egged on by the losing candidate, to take matters into their own hands. Footsoldiers for a dangerous grifter, they traveled to DC with guns and dreams and righteous indignation. 

What unfolded that day got America’s attention in a way that previous outrages had not. Even as the then-candidate normalized making racist generalizations, assaulting women without compunction and ridiculing people with disabilities, he still got elected. Even as the now-president cozied up with hate groups, doubled down on the ugly racism that has always been an inherent part of American culture, mangled the US response to the coronavirus pandemic, and made a mockery of the office he held and the decorum it demands, a lot of folks didn’t see — perhaps, refused to see — the damage he was doing.

Something seemed to click last week, and many of the people and institutions that had stood by as our very democracy seemed to be decompensating before our eyes finally drew the line and began to abandon their support of him.

And I wondered, why did it take so long to see?

One insight comes in the psychodrama that is the Book of Sh’mot (Exodus). In this week’s parsha, Va’era, Gd begins to bring the plagues upon Egypt in order to secure the Israelites’ freedom. Even before the official plagues began, there was writing on the wall, an indication of the signs and wonders to come:

וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעַשׂוּ כֵן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת־מַטֵּהוּ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין׃

And Moshe & Aharon came to Pharaoh and did just as Gd had commanded. Aharon cast down his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. (Exodus 7:10)

This warning shot serves only to get Pharaoh interested. He strengthens his resolve and waits to see what comes next. And after blood and frogs and lice, after beasts and disease — even when he seems to be coming around, each time Pharaoh hardens his position. 

A few chapters in, Gd instructs Moshe to tell Pharaoh:

כִּי בַּפַּעַם הַזֹּאת אֲנִי שֹׁלֵחַ אֶת־כָּל־מַגֵּפֹתַי אֶל־לִבְּךָ וּבַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמֶּךָ בַּעֲבוּר תֵּדַע כִּי אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ׃

This time, I am sending all my plagues — unto your very self, and unto your slaves, and unto your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land.

Interestingly, this is the first use of the word מַגֵּפָה (plague) in the entire Torah. In other words, the plagues aren’t even called plagues until the seventh one. It can take a while to see what’s happening. 

It feels to me that something similar is happening with current events: not that I am comparing the current president to Gd, as the one sending the plagues. (Quite the contrary!) Rather I am saying that it’s taken things getting this bad — sedition-bad — for the president’s allies to realize how bad it was getting. Today, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president a second time, with ten Republican lawmakers joining the vote to impeach. Institutions with which the president has done business are severing their ties with him. Social media sites are no longer permitting him to use their platforms to serve his incitements. It seems as though the person who once bragged he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight is finally facing some consequences for his treacherous actions.

But just as the seventh plague was not the last one, there is much that remains to do. The flames of white supremacy and extremism have been fanned into an open conflagration, and not just by our soon-to-be-ex-president. We have work to do as a nation to face the truth of our racist past and present. 

For the Israelites, liberation turns out to be a long and agonizing process, replete with reversals and stubbornness and loss. It takes seemingly forever for Pharaoh to realize the game is up, and in the end he only realizes it at terrible cost to everyone. 

Let us pray — and work — to find another way for ourselves.

What can we know?

I wrote this piece for school, as an attempt to synthesize the works we’d been reading in Classical Jewish Thought. Then I got sort of attached to it and decided to share it here, for the few hardy souls who are reading this blog.

אתה חונן לאדם דעת

fourth blessing of the Amidah

You, o Gd, grace us with the capacity to know.

Know what? NO. What?

What can we know? 

We live in an age when we think we can know anything, just by asking the robot inside our phone. Hey Siri, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1984? Hey Siri, how many tablespoons in a gallon? Hey Siri, tell me the temperature in Maui today… in Kelvin? 

Hey Siri, how did the world begin? What was there before? 

Bereishit Rabbah (1:10) comes to teach us that there are things we are not allowed to know. בראשית, Rabbi Levi teaches, the world was created with sharp-edged bet, closed on all sides but one. The tangible, remember-able world is our concern, what came before is above our pay grade. We are not permitted even to peek behind the bet. It’s the boundary, the backstop that keeps us from asking too many questions. It’s the lock on Pandora’s Box. Keep your head in the game. This game.

Bar Kapara drives the point home: look around at this beautiful, miraculous world. This is all you need. Don’t borrow trouble.

What can we know?

Rabbi Akiva reached middle age and found himself with a desire to know everything. Without a shred of book learning to his name, he looked at the stone and the water, and wondered at the way they affect each other. Water wears away stone; stone redirects water. 

What can we know?

What happens when we are faced with unfathomable mystery, with bone-crushing uncertainty, when we are hollowed by the understanding that there really are things we are not allowed to know? 

Ben Zoma tried to open Pandora’s Box. With his world in fragments, he went looking for answers, pushed himself to the brink. Deep in contemplation, he was investigating מעשה בראשית, looking behind the bet, when Rabbi Yehoshua tapped his shoulder, tugged at his sleeve. No answer. A whisper in his ear. Ben Zoma returned with a start! 

What I’ve seen… you wouldn’t believe… what seems so far away is right here. The difference between life and death is a sliver, three finger’s worth. It’s all right there; the horizon is so much closer than you think.

What can we know?

Gnostics say the world is a lie and Gd is the only truth.

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃

exodus 33:20

And Gd said: you must not look upon My face – a person cannot look at Me and live.

Don’t look at Me; look at each other.

See Thy Neighbor

Blessed as I am with friends of many political persuasions and viewpoints, I have been watching as people get more and more upset in the weeks leading up to Election Day. There has always been a touch of caricature — maybe even slander — in our political system. I remember learning in eighth grade history class about that song meant to taunt Grover Cleveland, “Maw, Maw, where’s my Paw? He’s gone to the White House, ha ha ha.” 

An out-of-wedlock pregnancy resulting from sexual assault did not seem to cause Cleveland lasting political harm. Saying harsh things about candidates is just part of the process. Saying harsh things that may or may not be true seems also to be part of the process.

Yet somehow the current social media environment seems to be kicking everything up a notch. It has become impossible to find where the truth actually is. We can read about the same people or events from multiple viewpoints and wind up confused and frustrated. Can one human really be so bad as we are asked to believe? Can the other?

I suppose the success of social media partly rests on everyone being offered a news diet that flatters their preconceived ideas. At this moment, it seems we are being force-fed information that makes the candidates we dislike — and their supporters — into caricatures, into monsters. The vicious cycle escalates as we see more and more stories showing us how awful so-and-so is, and how uncivilized their supporters are. 

I must be clear. I draw the line at violence and hateful speech, at incitement and trampling the rights of others. Yet I do believe that there is room for multiple opinions and approaches, provided those are fueled by conscience and caring. I strive to see the best in people, while firmly condemning the worst.

Will tomorrow’s election bring a clear result, a return to order, a national calming? Will it bring chaos and confusion, violence and misery, militias swarming the polling places to make sure their guy comes out on top? Will it bring riots in the streets? That there are sane people who believe each of these is a genuine possibility puts a chill in my soul.

I think we have lost the capacity to see ourselves as part of a greater whole. I think we have lost the capacity to see one another. 

The sages discuss in Berachot 9b just how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, a prayer that declares the unity of Gd. Some of the rabbis say we need to be able to tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I urge everyone to take a deep breath, stand still for a moment, and see your neighbor. If you believe that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of Gd) then you must believe that each of us has a right to an opinion, thoughtfully expressed. You must count even that neighbor, the one whose flag or lawn sign or Facebook comments raise your hackles. Even that neighbor is in the image of Gd. See them. 

You will still be able to tell a dog from a wolf. But regardless of which “we” we belong to, we must all stop assuming that they are all wolves.

We share a country.