Chayei Sarah 5779: Response to Pittsburgh Massacre

REMARKS DELIVERED FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2018

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

The Torah portion we read this Shabbat is called Chayei Sarah, which means “the life of Sarah” but whose first verse records the matriarch’s death.  No cause of death is announced, but there it is, staring us in the face—the first death to touch the first Jewish couple.

The Rabbis looked around for a cause of death, and found it in the verses immediately preceding this week’s opening line—that is to say, the last verses of last week’s portion.  That portion concludes with the harrowing story of the Binding of Isaac, and the last thing we read is that Abraham returned to his tent alone.  Maybe Isaac, traumatized by the near-death experience, went off on his own, without his father, without his mother.  All we know is what happens next—Sarah dies.  Midrash makes it possible to conclude that Sarah died of a broken heart.

This week, we understand how Sarah felt.  Every heart in this room is staggering to carry the weight of the grief and anger and bewilderment that we feel at the murder of eleven of our brothers and sisters as they sat in their synagogue, the Tree of Life congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, last Shabbat. 

They had come to shul to pray, to celebrate Shabbat, and to welcome a newborn boy into their community.  They were just like we are.

Like broken-hearted Sarah collapsing at the news of her traumatized son, each one of us must now grapple with the reality that this is what can happen to Jewish people in the United States of America in the year 2018.

Over the last week, too many have described last Saturday’s atrocity as “senseless.”  Of all the adjectives befitting this crime, “senseless” does not come to mind.  Sadly, it makes all too much sense, given current realities.

We must understand that, in America in 2018, this nightmare is not some random aberration, but a sign of the times in which we are living, a representation of three larger forces that are colliding to make violence against Jewish communities a predictable phenomenon:

First and foremost:  a resurgence of anti-Semitism.  In its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, ADL found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017 – the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.  This is not a politically one-sided issue.  Anti-Semitism finds expression on the left among supporters of BDS (the Boycotts, Divestment, & Sanctions movement) and in surging anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses and in the media.  Virulent demagogues like the unrepentant antisemite Louis Farrakhan have enjoyed increasing support from prominent public figures over the last year, including activist Tamika Mallory, national co-chair of the Women’s March.   On the right, Anti-Semitism has been taken up with new boldness by a loose coalition of white nationalists and anti-immigration zealots who have exploited nativist fears of foreigners in order to foment hate.  And of course Anti-Semitism currently finds a hospitable audience abroad, both in Europe and in the Middle East, particularly among jihadist extremists And their sympathizers.  We must recognize that, in 2018, when a person declares “All Jews must die”—in speech, or on Facebook, or by tweet—this must be interpreted as a statement of intent.  That person should be taken at his word.  In my lifetime, we have never had greater cause to be vigilant than at this moment.

Secondly, a fractured national conversation.  When hateful and divisive speech is given a public platform, we should not be surprised when violence follows.  It is heartening that, following the Pittsburgh attack, the President of the United States vigorously called out Anti-Semitism as a “hateful poison,” a sentiment echoed by many of our elected officials.

Still, history has shown that whenever nativism and xenophobia are given the ability to flourish, it often ends badly for the Jews.  There is a direct line between neo-Nazis marching on Charlottesville in August 2017 and the mass murder perpetrated by Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh in October 2018.     

It is true:  not all nativists are Anti-Semites.  But, the inverse is also true:  most hardened Anti-Semities hold strongly nativist views.  The murderer at the center of the Pittsburgh massacre, we now know, channeled his rage into demonizing foreigners, immigrants, and refugees.  In this regard, the criminal was given aid and comfort by all who espouse similarly toxic prejudices.    

In such a divisive climate, It is only a matter of time before some deranged and disaffected individual, whose wrath and sense of grievance has been stoked to a white-hot flame, takes a gun and acts on his worst impulses. 

And that takes us to the third reality:  unchecked access to dangerous weapons, by dangerous people.  We are the only first-world country that regularly experiences mass shootings.  More than 30,000 Americans die each year by bullet.  We have done too little to enforce and strengthen existing laws, and we have done too little to create legislation that could require safe and responsible use of firearms (see how Israel does this for one compelling example).  We have failed to use promising new technologies to create safer firearms, like fingerprint-recognizing weapons.  And we have continued to allow lobbyists and elected officials to tell us that the answer is more guns. 

So, that’s the reality.  The question now is, what can we do?

First and most importantly, you are here.  You came tonight.  You came because you always come to Shabbat services; or because you read about our fantastic rabbi-in-residence, Jeff Salkin who will join us and our Jewish Learning Lab families throughout the weekend for family education; or because you are celebrating a simcha like a Bat Mitzvah or a forthcoming wedding and your synagogue is where you mark the meaningful moments of your life; or because you needed to mourn; or because praying for healing for others does a lot to heal our broken spirits, too; or because you discovered that millions of people, in churches and mosques and communities of every kind, are also with us tonight in love and in prayer; or because you saw the hashtag #showupforshabbat and you did; or because you don’t know why, but you needed to be in your synagogue tonight, and here you are.  You are here.  You are where you belong.

Secondly, we have prepared a resource packet so that you can direct your funds, your energies, and your activism toward some of the people and organizations that need you most, in Pittsburgh, in the Jewish community, and in the world.  Please take one on your way out tonight.  But above all, the best way you can turn your thoughts into action is to get up on Tuesday morning and go out and vote—and tell your children and grandchildren of eighteen years and older that they must also vote. 

Finally, there is one last thing we all can do, right now.  Months ago, we designated this Shabbat service as a night for honoring our civil servants—our police officers, firefighters, ambulance corps, emergency responders, and so many others who give of themselves and who put themselves in danger in order to create a community that is safe, joyful, and thriving.  As I ask all those who are here tonight to be recognized to rise, I also ask the congregation please to take a moment to join me in thanking our civil servants for their tireless work on behalf of our community. 

In their moment of need, the Tree of Life congregation immediately received the support of brave civil servants who came to their rescue and were wounded in the effort, who evacuated and treated the injured and who brought the accused into custody.  Here at WRT we are grateful every single day for all that our civil servants do to keep us safe and to allow us to continue to mark the moments of our lives, great and small, in our shared spiritual home.  Thank you.

Our portion this week reminds us that we have endured much trauma as a people.  Too many Jewish lives have ended in violence.  Too many Sarahs have collapsed in horror, grieving children who never came home. 

And yet, at the end of this most difficult week, we stand together, resolute, grateful, united, determined that our enemies will not be given the last word, that we have too much holy work left to do, too much light left to bring into a hurting world, to be scared away from our synagogues.        

Let this Shabbat Chayei Sarah—this Sabbath of mourning for all the slain, of praying for healing for all the hurting, be also a Sabbath of love and solidarity for the Jewish people and all people of goodwill, and let us say, Amen.

Advertisements

Shabbat Vayera 5779: On Michael Chabon’s Beef With Boundaries

SERMON DELIVERED FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2018 – CHAI SOCIETY SHABBAT

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

In May, a distinguished guest speaker made quite a stir with his remarks at the graduation ceremonies of the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion Los Angeles campus.  That speaker was Michael Chabon, celebrated author of critically acclaimed novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue and Moonglow, as well as non-fiction such as Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son

Chabon’s speech, entitled, “Those People, Over There,” offered a stinging rebuke of the time-honored Jewish project of setting and enforcing boundaries.  He described Judaism this way:  “The whole thing’s a giant interlocking system of distinctions and divisions and the means—through prayer and ritual, narrative and commentary—of drawing them. The whole story begins with three mighty acts of division: day from night, heaven from earth, sea from land.  After that it’s all boundaries and bright lines, from the bookended candle-lightings of Shabbat to a woman’s monthly mikveh, from circumcision to the bar mitzvah ceremony, from the Four Questions to the bedikat chametz [the ritual search for, and extermination of, leaven before Pesach], from the shearing of a bride’s hair to the intricate string-webs of an eruv [the physical boundary of a Jewish neighborhood]. This night is not all those other nights. This is a woman, no longer a girl. We are not those people, over there.”

It is a fascinating and not-inaccurate portrayal of our religious enterprise.  Learning to distinguish day from night, right from wrong, holy from profane, kosher from treyf is quintessentially Jewish.  The act of Havdalah, which means to separate or distinguish, is not reserved only for Saturday nights when we mark the sunset boundary between the Sabbath and the new week; Havdalah is a Jewish approach to living.  A Havdalah mindset has enabled us Jews to define ourselves as distinct even as we have endeavored to find the best ways to get along in diverse societies for thousands of years.  Particularly in America, we Jews have struggled to locate the best balance between fitting in and assimilating, between honoring our distinctiveness and excluding ourselves from the opportunities of modern life.     

Chabon said:  “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers.” Elaborating:  “I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders and the preposterous history of Barack Obama. I am for the hodgepodge cuisines of seaports and crossroads, for sampling and mashups, pastiche and collage. I am for ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity, muddle, complexity, diversity, creative balagan [a great Hebrew slang word meaning ‘mess’ or ‘chaos’]. Even when it comes to my own psyche, the only emotions I really trust are mixed emotions.”

So far, so good, right?  But the controversy erupted over what came next, as Chabon made his case in favor of intermarriage (“An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two”), and against Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank (“Security for some means imprisonment for all”).  Some of those in attendance walked out.  Reform Jewish leaders continue to experience blowback over the choice of commencement speaker.  And the September issue of Commentary Magazine ran an article called “Saving Judaism from Michael Chabon.” 

I, for one, am all in favor of provocative, respectful speeches and think they give us an opportunity to lean into challenging conversations.  I’d much rather hear what a Michael Chabon has to say than to silence anyone with a controversial point-of-view. 

Having said that, I found Chabon’s argument—as I find much of Chabon’s writing—entertaining, provocative, mind-stretching, and, at times, maddening.  Especially frustrating for me was his curious refusal to explore the positive value conveyed—sometimes—by walls and barriers, by separation and distinctiveness, instead hewing strictly to a simplistic, binary logic:  borders bad, commingling good.  I would have hoped and expected a writer and thinker as gifted and nuanced as Chabon to acknowledge the good in preserving our Jewish uniqueness (without devolving into the worst tendencies of tribalism).  That would have been refreshing.   

We should celebrate both Jewish distinctiveness and the Jewish ability to thrive in diverse environments by adapting to new cultures and traditions.  We should celebrate Israel’s wildly multi-ethnic demography and its uniquely Jewish character, acknowledge Israel’s need for extraordinarily vigilant security and the long-term moral and strategic detriments conferred by its ongoing presence among millions of Palestinians in the West Bank.  (One can wholeheartedly desire Palestinian self-determination and still conclude that Israel acts justly when it erects walls in self-defense.)  Why does it have to be a binary choice?  Why can’t we Jews express concern for the universal welfare of all humankind, irrespective of nation or ethnicity, creed or doctrine—and at the same time, preserve and cultivate what’s unique, beautiful, and inspiring from within the Jewish tradition?

This week’s parasha, Vayera, manages to identify this tension—making a strong case for both the universalistic and particularistic dimensions of Judaism.  It’s a long parasha, a kind of anthology of adventures in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, starting with their celebrated hospitality to three wayfaring strangers who turn out to be divine messengers, who announce Sarah’s pregnancy at the improbable age of ninety (Abraham was 100!); going on from there to the famous confrontation between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (and if ever there were an example of Jewish people reaching past their tribal boundaries on behalf of others, this story is it); proceeding from there to the miraculous birth of Isaac and concluding with the harrowing binding of Isaac story. 

The emotional heart of the Torah portion comes when—shortly after Isaac’s birth, circumcision, and weaning—Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence, drives the Egyptian handmaid Hagar, together with their son Ishmael, from their tent, out into the wilderness.  The story then reverts almost immediately back to Isaac, and Ishmael will become a bit player in the story of the Jewish people, but not before God gives this assurance:  “Your descendants will be designated through Isaac, but the son of the handmaid I will also make into a great nation, for he is also your seed.”  That son, Ishmael, by the way, will be identified by the Qur’an as the progenitor of the Muslim people—a patriarch to them as much as Isaac is to us. 

Such is the destiny of Abraham, and such our destiny as his descendants:  to exist in relationship with many peoples and yet to have a particular interest in one people, the Jewish people.  The two relationships, our relationship with the other peoples of the world, and our own people, do not mutually exclude.  They coexist.  We are both a nation among the nations and a light unto the nations, both citizens of humanity and a unique people among humanity.    

I have sometimes opined that Judaism has no monopoly on religious Truth with a capital “T.”  Plenty of other spiritual pathways, philosophies and practices have divined meaningful avenues on parallel roadways to the Divine.  I have experienced what can only be called spiritual communion listening to Bach in Carnegie Hall, hiking in the Rockies, and reading Shakespeare.  But the reason we do not get up on Shabbat mornings and open Hamlet, inspired as the literature may be, truthful as it may speak when it comes to the deepest understandings of the human condition, is because we have our own beautiful and inspiring literary heritage, and we call that Torah.  I won’t stop reading Shakespeare, listening to Bach, or praying from mountaintops, but I also need my synagogue, my Torah, and the music of our prayers.

I can only imagine that Abraham and Sarah, father and mother of the Jewish people, but also parents of a multitude of peoples, would want nothing less for their children.

Shabbat Shalom!

  

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5779

Reclaiming Mechayeh Ha-Meitim

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, September 19, 2018

Mechayeh is one of those great Yiddish words that occasionally comes up in casual conversation among Jewish people in the know.  If, after a day schvitzing in sweltering heat and humidity, you walk into an air-conditioned room, or dip your feet in a swimming pool, or take the first sip from a glass of ice water, you might say, “Ah, what a mechayeh.”  When you taste the kugel tonight after more than 24 hours of fasting, or when you finally take off your heels after coming home from your in-laws’ break-fast in Great Neck, you might say, “That’s a mechayeh,” literally meaning, something that has brought you back to life after having died, or, colloquially, anything refreshing or revitalizing.    

Rabbi Julian Sinclair observes that the phrase may reflect a Jewish penchant for “dramatic self-expression, where others might simply say, that was nice.”  We say, “What a mechayeh.

Mechayeh derives from the Hebrew chai, meaning life (as in “L’Chayim”).  It’s a verb form of chai – something best translated as “to give life” or “to enliven.”  The Hebrew pronunciation is מחיה.  It’s actually a word that comes up a lot in our prayers, specifically in the Gevurot prayer which, in our Reform Jewish tradition, concludes, Baruch Ata Adonai, mechayeh ha-kol, Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to all.  

However, that’s not how the original prayer goes, and if you grew up in a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, or if you’re paying attention to the words in parentheses in our Reform prayer book, you’ll see:  Baruch Ata Adonai, mechayeh ha-metim, Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead.  

It comes as a surprise to many modern-day Jews—Reform Jews especially—that the doctrine of resurrection of the dead is actually part of the Jewish tradition.  In fact, no less an authority than Maimonides codified a belief in techiyat ha-metim, that eventually the dead will be resurrected, as the last of his Thirteen Articles of Faith.  

The reason many of us remain unaware of the whole idea of bringing the dead back to life is because the Reform Movement officially spoke out against this belief more than 150 years ago, deeming it a superstitious relic of a less enlightened era.  Early Reformers worked diligently to expunge such language from our prayer books and religious school curricula.  But in many cases they couldn’t get rid of it entirely—so widespread and well-known were these prayers—so instead they altered the wording of the second prayer of the Tefilah so that the phrase mechayeh ha-metim, “…who gives life to the dead” becomes mechayeh ha-kol, “…who gives life to all.”

This service is called Yizkor, Remembrance, a fixed ritual that the Jewish calendar gives us four times a year in order to keep our dead before us long after they have died.  The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, in particular, seems a good time to reflect on the meaning of mechayeh ha-metim, this curious and, at least in a Reform Jewish setting like ours, controversial phrase that has stirred up such strong feeling, that Jews have both embraced and rejected.  Over the past year or so, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the language of mechayeh ha-metim and have restored it to my personal prayer practice.  And I want to show you why.

On her travels with the National Tour of The Sound of Music three years ago, Kelly picked up a bonsai plant of a Persian Desert Rose that was more than thirty years old and had been meticulously cultivated and nurtured.  While driving home from a performance in Florida, with the plant safely nestled in the back seat of her Toyota, she stopped for a few hours and left the bonsai in the car.  By the time she got home, she discovered that the leaves had turned brown, burnt by the Georgia sun and withered by the greenhouse effect.  

Over the coming weeks, Kelly did everything in her power to nurse the bonsai back to life, but within days, the predominantly brown leaves turned dry and brittle and many of them fell off the branches, leaving the bonsai denuded and altogether sad, as were we.  I, for one, was ready to say Kaddish but Kelly insisted that with proper care, there was cause for hope and we should not give up so easily. 

PersianDesertRose

The photograph above was taken earlier this summer.  It is one of the reasons I now say mechayeh ha-metim, because I want to acknowledge that in God’s world, regeneration is possible, new life and growth is possible, and everywhere in Nature we can see life and death not as a finite line but rather as an infinite circle, one leading to the other and back again—forever.

Mechayeh ha-metim has other metaphorical meanings, too.  The Shulchan Aruch, the most extensive code of Jewish law, instructs us to recite Baruch Ata Adonai, Mechayeh Ha-Metim when we are reunited with a dear friend after twelve or more months without contact.  I imagine some of us, without even knowing, have had cause to recite this blessing upon entering the sanctuary these Holidays, as we reconnect with members of our extended WRT family whom we haven’t seen since last year.  And how beautiful is that?  I love that the Jewish tradition likens the experience of human connection and re-connection to the resurrection of the dead.  How powerfully it reminds us that human contact is precious, that welcoming people back into your life after a long time apart is a kind of rebirth, that renewing a relationship gives life and sustains life.

We have spent these High Holidays grappling with the terrible realities of life and death—coming to terms with a year that, for reasons beyond our ken, took more than it gave, sundered us from so many.  In our congregation, we have laid to rest not only the aged, sated in years and crowned with blessing, but also the much too young, claimed by insidious disease, self-inflicted harm, accidents and just plain bad luck.  Every heart in this room beats with love and longing for our own family members and cherished friends with whom we can never share a long-awaited reunion.  Every heart in this room is heavy, carrying the shared burden of our congregational family’s losses.

As we approach the closing of the gates, the exquisite Ne’ilah service suffused with the light of the setting sun, as we gather at this Yizkor hour, with empty bellies and heavy hearts, with eyes that have done their share of weeping, might we yet be moved to acknowledge the possibility of life after death, life in the face of death, life for the sake of our dead?  

Could we say, Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Mechayeh Ha-Meitim:  Blessed is the Power that fills the Universe, that brings life into the world, that gives us the power to live even when we mourn our dead?

Blessed is the Source of Life, that gives our dead the power to live every time we share their words, every time we are reminded of their kindness and generosity of spirit, every time we remember how the world was forever changed because they were here….

Blessed is the Source of Life, that carries the DNA and the wisdom of our ancestors inexorably forward….

…That implants the power of life within the seed, that falls to the earth encased in the dying fruit, that itself nourishes the earth, that gives rise to a new tree….

…That brings us light from distant stars long after they have met their deaths in a supernova of energy, an explosion that sends forth into space all the elements of the known universe, among them the hydrogen and oxygen and carbon that comprise all that lives and breathes on earth….

…That gives hurting human souls the power to heal, to turn our wounds and our losses and all our sources of pain into gifts of love….

…That gives us the ability to give life to our dead by championing the causes they cherished, and cherishing all the more the living whom they so loved in life….

For all these, we say Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Mechayeh Ha-Meitim:  Blessed are You, Eternal Source of Life:

Who renews hope and possibility where once we felt only despair and yearning; 

Who renews us to life even when we grieve our dead;

Who renews our dead unto life, in our hearts, in the world, and in eternity.

Escape, Pause, and Return: A Look at Jonah

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Yom Kippur Afternoon 5779, September 19, 2018

I never entertained the idea that I would be standing before you on the afternoon of Yom Kippur to introduce the Book of Jonah.  Every summer, when I would approach our congregant and teacher Rabbi Aaron Panken with the invitation, he would humbly accept, and then warn me, “Just so you know, I’m accepting for this year, but I never know exactly where I may be next year.”  

I never really took him seriously, and, more to the point, I never read into that statement anything other than a reasonable comment about the many demands on the schedule of the President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, one of the foremost Jewish leaders of our time.  

Now, in hindsight, his disclaimer “I never know exactly where I may be next year” takes on new meaning.  We are all missing our friend, his wisdom, his humor, his joy in teaching, his love of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people and the human family.  We are all with Lisa, Eli, Sam, and Aaron’s extended family in our prayers and memories on this Yom Kippur.  And we are all still illuminated by his inextinguishable light, as a human being and as a guide on the often tortuous pathway of life.  

May he rest peacefully.  And may we continue to learn and study Torah in his name.  Indeed, there could be no more poignant and potent way to perpetuate his life’s work and his legacy.

And that, of course, is why I look to Jonah, this text that, here at WRT might as well be synonymous with Rabbi Aaron Panken—his ability to draw out new insights with each successive Yom Kippur was nothing short of astonishing.  It almost became a game:  what’s Aaron going to say this year?  So today, as Aaron would have, let us find something new in this ancient book. 

I’ve been looking through the Book of Jonah, and I happened to notice that one word appears three times, and that is the Hebrew verb livroach, which means “to escape.” 

It comes up twice in the first chapter and once in the fourth or final chapter, and each time it announces a central plot point:  Jonah’s attempt to escape—livroach—from God’s command, to go to the sinful people of Nineveh with God’s warning of impending doom.  Jonah thought he could escape from God, which may be the ultimate fool’s errand.  God told him to go to Nineveh in the East; instead Jonah attempts to escape to what was the westernmost point in the known world.  

The first time, the narrator tells us Vayakom Yonah livroach Tarshisha, that Jonah, upon hearing God’s word, started to escape to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3).  Later in the chapter, when the sailors of the storm-tossed boat interrogate Jonah, he confesses his purpose, and we learn Ki yad’u ha-anashim ki-mi-lifnei Adonai hu voreach, that the men learned that he was escaping from God (Jonah 1:10).  And finally, in the fourth chapter, after the Ninevites repent and God retracts the punishment, Jonah says in utter exasperation … “Al ken kidamti livroach Tarshisha,” “This is the the reason I tried to escape to Tarshish in the first place!” (Jonah 4:2) — in other words, he’s upset that God’s prophecy of destruction will now not come true, and he would have been better off going to Tarshish.  

According to the Rabbis, the Scripture cannot contain even one extraneous word, so any time a word is repeated, it must mean something.  

So I’ve been thinking about this threefold mention of Jonah’s escape, and I’ve decided that it probably has something to say to us on this day of Atonement.

At the same time, over the last year or so, I’ve become something of an enthusiast on the subject of mechanical timepieces—watches in particular.  Not quartz watches, in which a  battery sends electricity to a sliver of mineral quartz crystal through an electronic circuit. The quartz crystal oscillates—that is, vibrates back and forth—at a precise frequency:  exactly 32768 times each second, which makes quartz watches much more accurate than mechanical timepieces.  

But, mechanical watches—whether the old-fashioned manual-wind kind, or the more modern automatic models, which translate the movements of your wrist into energy for the watch’s mainspring and therefore do not need to be wound, so long as they are worn regularly—well, these watches, while less precise, tend to be more desirable, more collectible, and more valuable, or at least more expensive. 

In any case, it turns out that every mechanical watch features a part called the “escapement.”  The escapement is the mechanism that transfers energy to the timekeeping element and allows the number of oscillations, those essential back-and-forth vibrations—to be counted.  The escapement takes the energy supplied by a tightly wound mainspring and causes the watch’s gear train to advance or “escape” with that energy by a fixed amount, which in turn moves the clock’s hands forward at a steady rate.  It’s not as accurate as a quartz watch, but a well-made escapement can keep time to within plus or minus a couple seconds a day, which is pretty amazing, when you remember that no electronic parts are used.  

The escapement—this part that allows the energy held in the spring to escape, to be released steadily and thereby power the watch—can be thought of as the “beating heart” of the watch.  Right now, I’m actually wearing a watch with a cutout in the dial that reveals the escapement, so I can watch my little watch heart beating even as you are also counting the seconds until it’s time to break the fast.

Escapements, it so happens, are used elsewhere as well.  Manual typewriters used escapements to move the carriage as each typewriter key was pressed.  The ancient Greeks used escapements to power the basins that would wash their clothes, and the medieval Chinese used liquid-driven escapements in water clocks.  In a piano, the escapement is the mechanism that enables the hammer to fall back as soon as it has struck the string, so that the music won’t get stuck on a single held note, and the next note can resound distinctly.  

In all these settings, we see “escape” as a way of moving things forward—driving the action.  The same is true of Jonah.  Without Jonah’s escape, there is no book of Jonah—had he not attempted to flee to Tarshish, had he dutifully headed off to Nineveh, there’s no plot here.  

It does seem to me that escape is an important theme to consider on Yom Kippur, because even as an escapement drives a watch, and Jonah’s escape drives the story, so too does the theme of escape—and, critically, of return—drive these high holidays; indeed, it drives our human endeavors.  

After all, what are these holidays but an invitation to return following escape?  There is, in each of us, a Jonah—a part of us that wants to defy and deny the inevitable.  Over the course of a Jewish year, we escape our plans and priorities and call it “procrastination.” We escape our responsibilities and relationships and only on the brink of estrangement do we sometimes recognize how distant we feel.  Like Jonah, we escape our obligations to our fellow human beings, rationalizing that they’re not really like us, that they are “other.”  We even attempt to escape the inevitable, hard realities of life—through emotional detachment, diversion and distraction, self-medication (they don’t call all of these “escapism” for nothing)—only to realize that, when it comes to reality, there really is no escape.

We are all called to the one and only life we are given.  What has happened, what we must now endure, no one can change.  We must meet what life gives us with courage and affirmation even when it is excruciating.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

To this end, the Book of Job uses the verb livroach in a revealing way:  “My days fly swifter than a runner,” says Job.  “They escape without seeing good” (Job 9:25).

The beauty of the Jewish tradition, I think, is that it proposes a return for every escape, a way back home, no matter how far we’ve strayed.  Jonah’s escape was dramatic but short-lived.  Our escape, enacted over the last year, from our truest selves, from our innermost divine spark—need not be irreversible.  Yom Kippur says:  Come home.  You can always come home.

My watch—which is more charming than precise—says about ten minutes have elapsed since I started my talk.  In that time, the escapement has been releasing all that energy to move these little hands forward.  But for every push forward, there’s also a momentary pause, when a tooth catches on a little pallet, returning the escapement to its “locked” state.  That’s what generates the characteristic constant “ticking” sound in a mechanical watch—think of the “60 Minutes” clock.

Escape, pause, and return—the energy that powers the story of Jonah also powers a watch, and above all, it powers our spiritual lives.  

Escape, pause, and return—the dynamic that keeps us moving forward toward our best possible selves and a world made better—one tiny tick forward at a time.

  

Yom Kippur 5779: Grasshoppers and Giants

September 18-19, 2018, Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake

This story goes back to when Kelly was preparing for her conversion to Judaism, back in our graduate school days. 

One Shabbat after services at Cincinnati’s Rockdale Temple, Kelly introduced herself to one of the “regulars” and happily explained why a Kelly McCormick was hanging out at a temple on Shabbat.  Now if you know anything about people who go every single week to services—and this is true at any synagogue I’ve ever attended—or, if you know anything about… Jews, you know that they tend not to hold back in expressing their opinions, so Kelly was treated to one elderly woman’s unvarnished, if well-meaning, response to her news:

Why on earth would you ever want to become Jewish?  Don’t you know how much the Jewish people have suffered throughout history?  How much we have endured prejudice and discrimination, torture and genocide, just for our beliefs?  Aren’t you aware of how a small minority we are?  Why would you want to be a part of… that?

For Kelly—who had come to Judaism by way of the joyful prayer and music and wisdom and community of friends and teachers she had found at Hebrew Union College, singing in the choir of the late Bonia Shur on Shabbat mornings—the well-meaning lady’s warning was jarring and bewildering.  What wasn’t great about being Jewish?  Kelly wondered.  Why would anyone wish to frighten away an eager newcomer?  

Some of our gentlewoman’s emotional plea may be explained as a function of her generation:  if you are old enough to remember the Shoah, to remember the precarious first many days of the newborn Jewish State, to remember armies invading Israel on all sides, then the theme of survival in the face of victimhood may reasonably comprise your primary orientation toward Judaism.  Tevye the Dairyman summarized this view in his exasperated plea to God:  “I know, I know, we are the chosen people.  But once in a while, can’t you choose somebody else?”   

In my experience, the Jewish youth growing up here in Westchester and, in many cases, their parents, do not embody the same anxieties about Jewish identity that their parents and grandparents and Tevye do or did.  If anything, growing up here, in the nexus of Jewish success, they feel pride, joy, and belonging, and an unshakable optimism about the future of the Jewish people.

Still, it seems to me that the classic narrative of victimhood has curiously long arms, and a strong grip that still exerts an outsize influence on our outlook.  

To understand the Jewish victimhood mentality, we might go all the way back to the Torah, to the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13.  Moses has sent twelve Israelite spies on a mission, to scout out the promised land and report their findings:  What kind of land is this?  Are its towns walled or unfortified?  Is the soil rich or poor, the produce abundant or meager?  The spies dutifully report back, and while all twelve agree that the land does indeed flow with milk and honey, that its natural resources abound and its fruit is lush, fully ten of the scouts return in a full-blown panic.  “We saw giants there,” they exclaim, breathlessly.  “The land we explored devours its inhabitants.  All the people we saw were massive.  We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have seemed to them” (Numbers 13:1-20, 33).

We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have seemed to them.  This tells us everything we need to know about victimhood. The perception creates the reality.  The way we choose to see ourselves shapes our identity.  

Please do not mistake my meaning:  people have endured abuse and betrayal.  Their lives have been forever marked by physical, emotional, and psychological trauma.  Families have been torn apart, flesh afflicted, friendships broken.  Every marginalized and oppressed people across the world and throughout the ages has a legitimate claim to victimhood.  

The question is, what then?  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “The answer is that uniquely—this is what makes us Homo sapiens—in any given situation we can look back or we can look forward.  We can ask:  ‘Why did this happen?’  That involves looking back for some cause in the past.  Or we can ask, ‘What then shall I do?’  This involves looking forward, trying to work out some future destination given that this is our starting point’” (“On Not Being A Victim:  Re’eh 5778,” Covenant & Conversation, available online at http://www.rabbisacks.org).

Liberated from Pharaoh’s enslavement only recently, the ten spies who entered the promised land and came back looking like grasshoppers were irretrievably stuck in an Egypt of the mind.  They could not envision a future that did not perpetuate their ingrained sense of victimhood.  Only Joshua and Caleb—the two spies who dissent from the majority report, who say, “we can indeed overcome” any obstacle and take the land as our inheritance—only they can see themselves not as objects acted upon by forces outside their control but rather as subjects, human beings imbued with the power to choose their way forward.

This summer, I visited Israel and the West Bank with a delegation of twenty American rabbis under the auspices of the American Israel Education Foundation, the educational charity affiliated with AIPAC.  In the Ramallah offices of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, we met with Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian political scientist and pollster who spends several months each year teaching at Brandeis.  Among the most interesting findings of his recent polls of both Palestinian and Israeli society, Dr. Shikaki asked us to consider these:

1.  That over the last twenty-five years, there’s been significant erosion in support for a two-state solution.

2.  That mistrust between the two peoples has never been higher.

3.  That each side predominantly thinks that it wants peace, but that the other side does not.  

What exerts a stranglehold on the peace process?  Is it Palestinian terrorism?  Corrupt and failed leadership?  The threat of jihadist Islam from Gaza? Israel’s omnipresent security apparatus across the West Bank?  Its right-wing government?  Its policies on hot-button issues like settlements and the status of Jerusalem?  

I would like to suggest that something more potent than all of these has deflated hopes for peace between Israelis and Palestinians:  a pervasive mindset of victimhood.

The Palestinian side gives evidence of this mindset everywhere.  Israeli scholar and peace negotiator Dr. Tal Becker, who addressed our group the next day, goes so far as to describe a mindset of victimhood as the defining characteristic of Palestinian identity.  That is to say, Palestinians cannot conceive of themselves, cannot present their narrative, without rooting it in their conflict with Israel.  If a Palestinian leader were to emerge today saying, “What we need more than anything is to live in peace with Israel,” that leader would not be taken seriously by his own people, so pervasive is the mindset of victimhood, the self-image of “grasshopper.”

And, to a lesser but significant extent, Jewish Israelis continue to embrace a grasshopper mindset of their own.  As Becker memorably put it, “Israeli Jews are a majority with the mindset of a minority”—they see themselves surrounded by a sea of Arab nations ever seeking to eradicate them—“while American Jews are the inverse, a minority with the mindset of a majority.”  In other words, American Jews may represent only 2% of the population—grasshoppers, statistically speaking—but possess a giant’s self-confidence.  

As for Israelis, the “victim mindset” seems to me at least partially responsible for the controversial and needlessly provocative “Nation-State Bill” which passed by vote of the Knesset in July, and which forcefully asserts the Jewish character of the Jewish state—to little actual effect, other than an unprovoked black eye to the one in every five Israeli citizens who is not Jewish.

So we have two societies deeply committed to their own narratives of victimhood.  The dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians is playing out on college campuses all over the US where we are witnessing a kind of “Oppression Olympics”—pro-Palestinian activists promulgating propaganda intended to highlight only the suffering of Palestinians, while the response of the Jewish community typically points out the Palestinian embrace of terrorism, and down the spiral we go, until inevitably someone says, “And what about the Holocaust?” and any hope for a productive conversation goes out the window.  

How can we administer group therapy to two entire societies?  Rather than focusing on borders and security, embassies and settlements, policies and policing, we might want to start with mindsets, helping Israelis and Palestinians to become more receptive to the possibility of change.  

Becker suggests this could happen by reframing the conflict not in terms of “justice” but rather in terms of “fairness.”  The difference is more than semantic.  In a “justice” paradigm, your side is trying to win, trying to make up for what you perceive to be the wrongs and harm inflicted by the other side.  In a “justice” paradigm, you actually need the other side to continue to oppress you in order to feel that you’re winning!  You need to be a victim to be a victor—and that’s a paradox where no one wins.  Pursuing justice keeps the narrative focused on historic injustices.  It roots the dynamic between these two societies in their grievances over the past, each convinced that the other has perpetrated the greater wrong. 

An alternative narrative would need, rather, to look to the future.  A paradigm of “fairness” rather than “justice,” says Becker, could do this.  Such a narrative would validate each side’s legitimate claim to the land, but would also insist that each side ought not assert its claim to all of the land, in the shared interest of peace.  The conflict would then become about “what’s fair” going forward, as opposed to “how does my side get justice” for what happened in the past.  A “fairness” paradigm could break the victim mindset, allowing both sides to feel less “grasshopper” and more “giant.”

In ways simultaneously different and yet no less consequential, we see similar dynamics playing out today in our country.  We’ve heard much about the polarization within American society.  We might benefit from exploring how mindsets of victimhood perpetuate and widen the divide.  

In the last year we have seen a dramatic rise in the phenomenon of “wokeness” — a word that signals one’s awareness of systemic injustices and willingness to call them out.  People and communities that are “woke” are attentive to America’s ongoing racial injustices [of the sort Rabbi Levy detailed in his sermon last night] in policing and incarceration, to the indignities visited on people of color all over the world, to the abuse and discrimination experienced by the LGBTQ community, and so forth.  

The phenomenon does not belong exclusively to the left or the right.  On one side we have “wokeness,” and on the other we hear narratives of victimhood as well, which inform Americans’ views about the potential dangers that immigrants pose to jobs or neighborhood safety or the economy, and the perceived threats posed by diversity or dialogue or “political correctness.”  It seems that a vast number of Americans these days are single-mindedly obsessed with how someone else has screwed them over. 

The phenomenon of “wokeness” illuminates how many people and groups have endured abuse, physical, emotional and psychological torment, the deprivation of opportunity and the kinds of traumas that persist from generation to generation.  The ongoing marginalization of minorities; the hopelessness felt by working-class Americans; the helplessness felt by families touched by addiction, spiraling debt, wage stagnation and skyrocketing healthcare costs—these are all real.

But it’s not enough simply to identify all these injustices.  David Brooks recently wrote that “The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation—building a wall between you and the problem— not a solution.” 

Observing that “most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat,” Brooks goes on to urge that we confront the great sins of society as opportunities for meaningful change, not as chronic wounds, lesions of endless pain and indignation.

He’s talking about a shift in mindset, from victim to victor, from grasshopper to giant, from merely calling out great and historic injustices to working constructively on fair and forward-thinking solutions. 

“We can ask:  ‘Why did this happen?’… Or we can ask, ‘What then shall I do?’”

Where even to begin?  The work ahead seems daunting.  Maybe we can identify with those spies who said it would be better to go back to Egypt, or die in the wilderness, than to enter the promised land.  Maybe we don’t feel ready, just yet, to go out from this sanctuary and change the world.

Maybe all we can begin to do today is work on changing our mindsets—and maybe, for today, that will be enough.

It feels like the right work for Yom Kippur, doesn’t it?

Let us, then, in the spirit of this holiest day of the year, take a little time to reflect and ask ourselves:

      • Where in my life do I see myself as a victim?
      • How much time do I spend rehearsing my own unhappiness? 
      • Can I validate hard events in my life while committing to forward motion in my own growth?

I’ve heard it said that most of us are driving through life holding on to the rearview mirror, thinking it’s the steering wheel.  What would it feel like to let the past be the past and turn the wheel toward the future?  

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neuroscientist who survived Auschwitz and went on to write Man’s Search for Meaning, insisted that even in the death camps, where the Nazis took everything we had, there remained one thing they could not take:  our freedom to choose how to respond.  “When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves,” he said (Man’s Search for Meaning.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006. p. 112).    

And so John McCain emerged, bent and broken, from a Hanoi torture camp, and established a second career as a public servant.  Malala Yousafzay survived a Taliban ambush that put a bullet in her skull and dedicated her life to female education.  Nelson Mandela endured twenty-seven years in prison before negotiating the end of apartheid rule and presiding over South Africa’s transition to a multicultural democracy.  

In his dank cell, night after night, Mandela took comfort in William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” which concludes:  

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul. 

There could be no more relevant or consequential message for Yom Kippur!

To be a Jew is to be the captain of your soul.  

To be a Jew is to exercise your freedom of choice to rise above fate.  

To be a Jew is to choose a life of holiness no matter what life hands you. 

And to be a Jew on Yom Kippur is to harness the power of forgiveness to move forward and not stay stuck.  

Forgiveness of your past.  Forgiveness of the people in your life who have hurt you.  Forgiveness of God for not handing you the life you always wanted, the life you felt you deserved.  Forgiveness of your dead, who now cannot atone for their own shortcomings, who left you alone with ragged wounds and memories, inadequacies and unmet needs.  And forgiveness of yourself, for all the ways you have not yet become the person you want to be—not yet, but still could.  

Forgiveness isn’t giving the other guy a free pass.  It’s releasing our burden.  Forgiveness is deciding to loosen the stranglehold that we allow what this person said, or that person did, or this person failed to do, or say, to exert over our thoughts and our lives. 

No one knows who said this first, but whoever did, said it best:  “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” 

So here we are:  human beings, flawed and fallible, scared and scarred—but still capable of greatness.

Will we see ourselves in the year to come as grasshoppers or giants?  

Of all the things out of our hands in this mad and mixed-up world, that one choice is ours, and ours alone.  

ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING 5779 / 2018 TO FEEL THE QUESTIONS THAT HAVE NO ANSWERS

The battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, fought in the winter and spring of 1945, were among the bloodiest in the Pacific Theater of World War II.  

Among the US infantry sent to the front lines of these hellish campaigns was the First Marines Division, nicknamed “The Old Breed.”  

And among The Old Breed was a 30-year old Jewish combat medic born in the Bronx, educated as a pharmacist at Rutgers, and hailing from Trenton, New Jersey, named Harry Garb, but everyone called him “Acky.”  After surviving the war, Acky would return to Trenton, to the pharmacy, to his wife Edna, and to his daughter Jane who was born during the war.  Two years later, along would come Marjorie—my mom.

My Pop-Pop Acky never really talked about the War.  He certainly never thought of himself as a hero.  The real heroes, he would have told you, were the ones who never came back.

Acky loved his family, the New York Yankees, a warm bagel toasted almost black, cold brisket with Gulden’s mustard, and golf.

When Acky was 74 years old, after an afternoon golfing in Pompano Beach, Florida, while walking at twilight, he was struck by a passing car and died of massive head trauma. 

Frederick Beuchner, a 92-year old American writer and ordained Presbyterian minister, is famous for having said that “[all] theology… is essentially autobiography.”  In other words, what we come to believe about God boils down to personal experience.  Even professional theologians—that is to say, religious philosophers, people whose job is to think about God—cannot help but be molded in their views by personal experience.  

Over the years I have come to believe that all theological writing, all our prayers, our midrash and Talmud, our law codes and folklore—even the Bible, even the Torah itself—are, in the final analysis, just creative attempts to put into words a personal encounter with the sacred.  

Some words, to be sure, get it better than others.  Some personal experiences come to us filtered through unhealthy minds, warped perceptions, and backward social mores.  One of the authors of the Bible perceived the image of God within every human being.  Another author declared that God had a problem with boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.  One called God “endlessly patient, loving, and true.”  Another called God “A Man of War.”  One had God describe to Abraham a promised land and a multitude of descendants.  Another wrote of a God who told Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Oh well.

But in the end, all theology is autobiography.  

The sudden and brutal death of my grandfather, and the cruel irony of it—that this veteran, this soldier who had braved historic battles, would meet his death so haphazardly—taught me a lot about God, and it is probably no coincidence that around that time, at the age of 15 or so, I became a professed atheist, a condition from which I am still recovering, having, over the last thirty years, made my peace with the fact that the God who filled my childhood imagination with fantasies of a world governed by a just and compassionate ruler who cared intimately about me, and everyone else, would now have to give way to a God no less transcendent but considerably less concerned with my feelings.

So this morning is about the haphazardness of life, and about where God fits in, or does not fit in, to the picture.  And because all theology is autobiography, while this is a conversation about God, it is even more about you, and me, and about how we fit in to the big picture.  

On Rosh Ha-Shanah it is written

On Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass on

How many shall come to be

Who shall live and who shall die

Who shall reach ripe age and who shall not

Who by fire and who by water….

We do not know who wrote this prayer or what experiences may have prompted it.  Legends ascribe it variously to Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, who chronicled the massacre of the Jews of the city of York, England, in 1190, or to the 11th-Century figure Rabbi Amnon who was given a choice by the Archbishop of Mayence:  convert to Catholicism or have your limbs amputated.  After three days, the legend goes, Rabbi Amnon was sent home, with his severed extremities, on a knight’s shield.  

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is, in all likelihood, many centuries older, and God only knows what originally moved the author to imagine a Book of Life and an all-knowing God who “writes and seals, records and recounts” every human deed.  

What we do know is that the prayer gained popularity in the Middle Ages, following the massacres of Jewish communities during the Crusades, the wholesale expulsion of Jews from Medieval European communities, and the various atrocities visited upon our people during that period.  It makes sense that a prayer acknowledging that death can, at a moment’s notice, just drop in, would become popular in such precarious times. 

Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst…

Who by his own hand and who by another’s

Who by cancer and who by heart attack

Who by stumbling down and who by slipping away

Who by gunfire and who by airplane crash…..

We demand a certain reasonableness from life and death.  From earliest childhood we learn what’s fair and what’s not, what should and should not happen.

And we project onto God those selfsame attributes of fairness, of should and shouldn’t.  We imagine a God who is “judge and arbiter, counsel and witness,” the ultimate standard-bearer of what’s right and fair.  

And we do so, I think, in utter defiance of how the universe actually works.  That is to say, all our life experience teaches and re-teaches us that God’s world is not calibrated to human notions of fairness.  We wish for fairness, and even sometimes comfort ourselves with a belief in a God who is keeping it all in order.  But look at things.  That can’t be so.  Day in, day out, year in, year out, over a lifetime, we encounter a randomness Hamlet would have called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  

What I say is no heresy.  The Book of Deuteronomy proposes a simple formula for life and death, blessing and curse:  live by God’s law and God will reward you.  Disobey and face God’s punishment.  The righteous will prosper, the wicked be damned, and all the rest is commentary.  Doesn’t this sound like what, as children, we all learned from grownups?  

A little while later, along came a Biblical author with a very different perspective, a different literary agenda, a different autobiography and a different theology.  “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job,” his story begins.  “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  He had seven sons and three daughters, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 donkeys, and so many servants that this man became the wealthiest and most powerful in the East” (Job 1:1-3).  Every day, Job praises God with sacrifices and offerings and, above all, by keeping far from sin and wrongdoing.

On a whim, God accepts a dare from an angel named “Ha-Satan,” the Adversary or the Satan as he’s better known, and strips Job of everything.  His wealth vanishes, his herds perish, his children are murdered, his robust health gives way to chronic sickness and pain.  He suffers without warrant or recompense.  His friends insist:  “You must have done something wrong to invite this torment.”  For thirty-seven chapters, Job maintains his innocence and demands God answer him.   

The Book of Job gives a black eye to the theology of Deuteronomy, arguing that blessing and joy, life and health do not necessarily correlate to a person’s righteousness; that death and suffering do not necessarily correspond to moral waywardness; that God’s motives are not so easily fathomed.

“What did I ever do to deserve this?”  Job demands.

Finally, God answers, materializing out of the whirlwind.

The answer is not comforting.

“Who is this who speaks without knowledge?” God thunders.

“Stand up and carry yourself like a man.  I’ll do the asking now, and you’ll tell Me the answers.”

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” God roars at Job.  “Speak, if you have understanding.”

“Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place?”

“Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?  Have the gates of death been disclosed to you?  Have you seen the gates of deepest darkness?  Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth?  If you know of these—tell Me” (Excerpted from Job 38:1-18). 

In the end, God restores Job’s fortunes and resurrects his family but the message is permanently shattering:  You want to know why good people suffer and die?  Well, what do you know of how God’s world actually works?

Job is a brutal book.  Parts of it seem designed to disturb—I mean, a God who bargains with Satan?  Who blithely rips apart an innocent man’s life?  Really?  

Much has been made of the cruel and capricious God of the Book of Job.  But what if the Book’s theology is just a window into an autobiography, one human being’s reckoning with the universal human condition? 

Job speaks true in reminding us that we human beings are so small and our universe so vast.  Job speaks true in its recognition of how unreasonably we suffer.  Job speaks true in realizing that life has no upper limit to the pain it can inflict.  

No logic can explain this seemingly relentless law of life, that would exact the price of sorrow for each of its joys, the penalty of loss for each of its gifts.  

Why does life hurt so much?  Why would a human being die before her time?  How to account for the tsunami and the earthquake, leukemia and lymphoma, suicide and genocide, the air crash and the car crash?  How reconcile these with the mountain and the sunset, the ocean and the wind, the mystery of consciousness and feeling, the love of family and the joy of friendship, the glory of nature, the marvel of civilization?  

Well, where were you when the foundations of the earth were established?

In the end, some questions echo back only a silence as deep and ominous as the grave.  

And yet, it is human—maybe the most human thing of all—to ask why, anyway. 

One of my favorite films is A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers.  I first saw it at an advance screening with, of all people, Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory.  

The movie is basically a modern retelling of the story of Job.  Larry Gopnik is a mild-mannered physics professor—that is to say, someone whose job it is to figure out how the world works—who has thrust upon him all manner of suffering.  His wife leaves him for another man; a disgruntled student blackmails him over a bad grade; his bar-mitzvah age son is definitely smoking reefer; and why is his doctor asking for him to come in right away after a routine checkup?  

Larry reacts as most of us would, utterly bewildered that his life is falling apart so absurdly.

Over the course of the movie, he seeks advice from a rabbi.  Three rabbis, actually, one of whom says, “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry.  Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Gopnik cries:  “But why does he make us feel the questions if he won’t give us the answers?”

And if ever there were a more heartbreaking and eloquent description of the human condition, well, I have not heard it.  

“Why does he make us feel the questions if he won’t give us the answers?”

The rabbi shrugs and says, “He hasn’t given me the answer to that.”  

How to give voice to that terrible human yearning, the way we feel the questions that have no answer?

Because in the end, there really is no good answer to the great and terrible why of human suffering, no adequate response to why bad things happen to good people—except to go on living as vigorously and beautifully as we can.  

We ask the wrong question. We ask why the world is the way it is when we should ask why we are the way we are, and how we can be the most fully realized versions of ourselves that we can be.  Rather than ask “Why?” of life, we might ask “Now what must I do?  Who must I become?” 

Of course we can give up on life, and sometimes people do.  Sometimes the weight and the agony of feeling overtakes the ability to live with hope or joy.  

And of course we can conclude that it’s all random; that life has no meaning; that there is no God.  The only problem is, to live by the nihilist’s creed also hinders our access to life’s immense potential for beauty, for joy, for purposeful action, for holiness.

The real answer is not that life is meaningless, nor that life is meaningful.  It is that life’s meaning is not inherent; we assign meaning to it. 

Life is not good or bad, right or wrong; there is no divine blueprint for each human life, no plan for what might befall us on any given day.  We make the meaning of our life.  We paint the canvas of our days with whatever brushes and colors we’ve been given, with whatever imagination and wisdom we can summon, with whatever help we can get, for as long as we can do it.  Life isn’t meaningful or meaningless.  We decide what meaning to give it.  Life’s meaning is not inherent; we assign meaning to it.

Now that we know that, we might find it harder to get out of bed in the morning.  Or, we can swallow the bitter pill of uncertainty and get on with our day, trying to fill it with as much earnest love, eager learning, honest labor, and healing mitzvot as we possibly can.  

When all is said and done, this is really the only choice. 

The celebrated Sages Hillel and Shammai had an argument.  Given the seemingly endless supply of human suffering, they asked:  “Would it have been better for humankind never to have been created at all?”  In the end, Shammai’s opinion prevails—uncharacteristically, because Hillel wins almost every debate—“All in all, it would have been better for humankind never to have been created,” Shammai says, where the Hebrew word for “better,” noach, literally means “easier” or “more comfortable.” 

Given the choice between existence and non-existence, between Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,” non-existence, “not to be,” is obviously the more comfortable option, the easier way. 

But Hillel gets the final word:  

“Now that we have been created, let each of us examine our deeds.”

So here we are, at the beginning of this ten-day journey of self-examination.  

Whatever our autobiography, whatever our theology, whatever doubt or certitude, whatever belief or unbelief we bring to the table, it belongs here, in this sanctuary, on this new year’s day.  

Because what unites us is Judaism’s insistence that our lives matter, and that because our lives matter, our deeds matter. 

So now that we’re here, we might as well examine them.

And as we embark on this ten days’ voyage from here to Yom Kippur, let me share with you a thought that might serve as our north star.  The phrasing comes from stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, who, until 2016, was married to Michelle McNamara, author of a recently published best-selling book about the search for the Golden State Killer.

The worst day of his life, Oswalt tells his audience, is not the day he woke up to find that his wife had died in her sleep at age 46 of an accidental overdose of prescription medications.  It was the day after, when he had to explain her death to their seven-year-old daughter.  “I had to look at this little girl that was everything to me and take everything from her,” he says.

Over the past eighteen months, as he has had to rewrite the script of his life around this awful turn, Oswalt has ruminated on what it all means.  

In his latest show he explains that he and his wife used to have a debate.  He would say, “I don’t believe in an intelligent creator, per se, but I think that there might be a latticework of logic and meaning to the universe that maybe we’re too small to see.”

Now, having written at length about horrific real-life crimes, the cliché his wife hated the most is, “everything happens for a reason,” so she responded, “It’s chaos.  Be kind.  That’s all you can do.  It’s chaos.  Be kind.”  

Meaning, the randomness of life may just as well senselessly rip a loved one away from us as offer us success and happiness.  The only way to live with that terrifying chaos is to be as compassionate as we can, no matter what happens.

From time to time they’d go back and forth in this heated philosophical debate, Oswalt says, “And then she won the argument in the worst way possible!”

So maybe she was right.  Maybe it’s all chaos.  Maybe Shammai was right—it would have been easier never to have been created in the first place.  Maybe the God of Job was right—“What do you know of how My world works?

It’s true:  the universe is not calibrated to human notions of fairness.  Fairness comes not from out there, but from inside us.  It’s our moral imperative to bring human reason, human fairness, human compassion, into an unreasonable, unfair, often merciless world.  Kindness is the ultimate antidote to the chaos of the universe.  

That’s the most important thing we could affirm on this first morning of a new year.  

And even if I’m wrong—it couldn’t hurt, right? 

Shavuot/Confirmation 5778: Are You Paying Attention?

Dear Confirmation Class of 5778,

A true story.

Fifteen years ago, the year most of you were born, just days after beginning my new job as the Associate Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple, I was invited to participate in a conversion ceremony.  It takes three rabbis to make one Jew—that is to say, a panel of three rabbis is convened to authorize a conversion to Judaism—so I joined my WRT colleagues, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, and our conversion candidate, at the local mikveh, the ritual bath, just two miles up Old Mamaroneck Road at Temple Israel Center in White Plains.  

I was walking back to my car when I noticed a plume of dark smoke streaming from a nearby building.  I turned and said, “That building is on fire.”  Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Buchdahl immediately identified the burning building as our neighboring congregation, Bet Am Shalom on Soundview Avenue.  We rushed to the adjacent parking lot and met the firefighters, police officers, staff and congregants managing the evacuation.  Moments after the fire had been extinguished, but before an all-clear had been issued, Rabbi Jacobs, Bet Am Shalom’s Rabbi Les Bronstein, and their Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller, approached an officer and rushed into the smoldering synagogue pushing hospital stretchers, emerging minutes later with the miraculously undamaged Torah scrolls that they had rescued from the sanctuary.

In that moment, I felt deeply connected not only to my colleagues, to our neighboring synagogues, and to these sacred scrolls that had been saved from danger, but also to Abraham, the first Jew.

Another story, also true—although only metaphorically speaking—this one told by the ancient Rabbis about Abraham:

An ordinary man was going about his business, traveling from one place to another, when he noticed a palace all in flames.  This man, Abraham by name, exclaimed, “Why is no one doing anything?  How can it be that there is no one to look after this palace?”  Suddenly, a voice calls out from the highest balcony—itself almost engulfed in the inferno—saying, “I am the owner of the palace.”  At that moment, the midrash goes, God selected Abraham to bring the Jewish people into the world, and to lead them (adapted from Bereshit Rabbah, 39:1).

The Rabbis wrote this story to answer the question, “Why does the Jewish story start with Abraham?”  What special qualities did our ancestor possess that merited his divine election?  In other words, what did God see in him?  

The answer, according to the parable of the burning palace, is that Abraham walks with eyes open, that he pays attention, that he notices the fire; but it is also that Abraham wonders aloud why this is happening, why is no one else paying attention, why is no one doing anything; and then he demands a response.  What makes Abraham special is that he sees things not only for what they are, but for the way they ought to be, and that he roars out his objection.  

Sir Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains:  “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.  It is in that sacred discontent that Abraham’s journey begins.”  

Perhaps even more fascinating in this story than the character of Abraham is the character of God.  Is God in fact powerless to save the palace?  Or is God, by remaining hidden inside, insisting that the palace will continue to burn until some ordinary traveler notices a plume of black smoke; asks, “What’s going on here?” and demands a response?  

I think the Rabbis wanted to teach that only after human intervention comes divine intervention.  Only after we pay attention does God answer—not as a magical savior, but rather as the One who comes to say to us:  “Thank God you showed up.” 

Out of this little parable emerges an exceptionally deep and insightful understanding of Judaism and the ultimate mission of the Jew, and so I share this story with you today, Confirmation Class of 5778, because the world is on fire, and God—so to speak—is waiting for you to pay attention, to speak up, to demand a response.  Or, more to the point, to be the response.

The world is an inferno.  

Are you paying attention?

The fires of toxic discourse, moral corruption, meanness of spirit, and obstructionism have consumed the last shred of civility in American political life.

The flames of violence and bloodshed continue to lash the Middle East, and so many neglected corners of the world.

The smoke of ignorance and deception suffocate those who are subjected to a daily stream of lies masquerading as the daily news.

The combustion of gunfire has claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives—another mass shooting, just two days ago—in American classrooms, offices, nightclubs, concerts, and public spaces.

The flares of anti-Semitism have grown into conflagrations of white supremacist hatred in places like Whitefish, Montana and Charlottesville, Virginia, even as they have kindled ugly confrontations on college campuses in the form of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions directed against Israel.  Student activists and student governments now routinely single out Israel for special condemnation among all the nations of the world, lobbying school administrators and boards to subject Israel to public excoriation by withdrawing all support—financial or otherwise—for the Jewish State. 

And the scorching heat of racism continues to burn through our country like a fever.

The world is an inferno.  

Are you paying attention?

I wouldn’t blame you for the impulse to look the other way.  After all, we have all learned that the response to a fire is “stop, drop, and roll”—not, “run into the inferno.”  

And I wouldn’t blame you for the impulse to stay in place, aghast but paralyzed as the fire rages.  These are difficult times, and to lead today requires the courage to risk being ridiculed for your beliefs, antagonized for your refusal to accept the status quo, condemned for your willingness to defy authority, to stand up even against your teachers, principals, elected officials—even your clergy.  

When high school students staged walk-outs all over America this spring to protest our epidemic of gun violence, teachers and school administrators were willing to support you, up to a point.  By the second walk-out, they had changed their tune.  “Time to get back to class and pay attention.”  What they missed is that you have been paying attention, which is why you walked out.  And it’s why you’ll have to keep walking out, even when it becomes much more uncomfortable for you, even when the stakes are higher.

Confirmation Class of 5778:  Your rabbis and cantors have loved teaching you this year, and I will confess that one of the reasons we have loved having you in class is because, by and large, you are a class full of rule-followers.  You were so nice!  So caring and thoughtful!  So easy!  Maybe it’s just you; maybe it’s that WRT’s post-B’nei Mitzvah program self-selects for the most eager learners, the students who just really like coming to temple, and we are so grateful that you do. 

But, for the right reasons, at the right moment, would you be willing to speak up — even to your teachers, even to your temple, even to your rabbis and cantors?  To challenge authority?  To defy courtesy and comfort and compliance in the service of a higher cause?  Are you willing to be part of the “Youthquake,” the word that Oxford English Dictionaries crowned as its word of the year back in December, defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people?”  Are you paying attention?

I think everyone in this sanctuary knows that 2018 has been an excruciating year for our community.  We began the new year with the horrific news of the crash of a small airplane in Costa Rica that killed 12 people, including an entire WRT family.  Ever since we have collectively grieved the loss of Bruce and Irene, Zachary, William, and Matthew Steinberg whose bright lives, so filled with promised, were extinguished in an instantaneous inferno.  

I want to share a few words composed for his Confirmation in 2015 that Will Steinberg shared with our congregation from this bimah exactly three years ago, as part of a personal statement entitled “Defending our Faith,” which he offered right before the Shema.  Will said:  “I believe that as a member of the Jewish community, it is my duty… to remember my ancestors and follow their traditions.  It is also my duty to help protect and advocate for all Jewish people around the world….  As a Jew, I cannot wait idly by while the Jewish People are subjected to anti-Semitism daily.  I believe that as a result of my years spent at WRT, the traditions in which I have continued to partake, and my support and love for the State of Israel, I have developed a strong Jewish identity, which I can utilize for the betterment of the Jewish People.”

Will followed in the footsteps of Abraham.  Will paid attention.  In the face of the fire, Will stood up and spoke out.  Will you?  

No sooner had we begun to pick ourselves up from the shock and sadness of the Steinbergs’ deaths, did our community suffer another terrible blow just two weeks ago, when we learned of another small aircraft disaster, this one claiming the life of Rabbi Aaron Panken, who was a beloved member of WRT, whose wife Lisa served as president of our congregation, and whose children Eli and Samantha have been role models for Jewish learning and leadership, including participating in Confirmation in recent years.

Rabbi Panken was the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where all Reform Rabbis, Cantors, and other Jewish professionals train on four campuses, in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.  At the beginning of this sermon I taught you that it takes three rabbis to make one Jew, but did you know that it takes only one rabbi to make another rabbi or cantor?  Rabbi Panken, in his role as President of HUC-JIR, would, each year, place his hands on each student, and in that moment of blessing, he or she would take on the title of rabbi or cantor.  The ritual of s’micha or “laying on of hands” is one that we rabbis and cantors never forget, and our hearts both rejoice and mourn with one of our newest Rabbis, our Intern Eliana Fischel, who received the hands and the blessing of Rabbi Norman Cohen, standing in for Rabbi Panken, at her Ordination ceremony just two weeks ago today. 

Every single one of your rabbis and cantors at WRT, past and present, is a graduate of HUC-JIR, the College-Institute that Rabbi Panken led with boldness and vision, and always with the aim of producing Jewish professionals who would lead with intellect and compassion.  His death is a tremendous loss for his family, for WRT, for the Reform Movement, for the Jewish People, and for humanity.

Just five weeks ago, Rabbi Panken sat on this bimah to help WRT celebrate our 65th anniversary, participating in a panel discussion with other Reform Jewish leaders.  When I asked him “What keeps you up at night,” he answered without hesitation.  He said:  “There is a leadership crisis in this country which, I think, is an emergency.”  “We’re missing vital, important opportunities to stand up for what we need to stand up for,” he said.  He spoke unflinchingly about the mistreatment and unfounded suspicion of immigrants and refugees in Israel and the United States.  He spoke of the challenges faced by people living in poverty—again, in Israel and the United States—and of the plight of poor Israelis alongside the plight of Palestinians.  These are not uniformly popular opinions; for a rabbi to speak openly from a bimah about them is to invite criticism and even anger.  Nevertheless, he spoke.  

Rabbi Panken followed in the footsteps of Abraham.  He paid attention.  In the face of the fire, he stood up and spoke out.  Will you?  

Will you join the youth who have made the shooting in Parkland, Florida, their “never again” moment?

When you turn eighteen in just two or three years, will you exercise your freedom to vote for leaders whose vision of America is not the way things are, or the way things used to be, but the way things could be?

When you head off to college, will you be an Abraham for Judaism, for the Jewish people, for Israel, for those on the margins of society, for those whose lives don’t matter as much in our society, for those whose voices might otherwise not be heard?

Confirmation Class of 5778: Outside this safe and beautiful House of God, an inferno rages.  Are you paying attention?

A final thought.

In Hebrew, “pay attention” is worded in a beautiful and meaningful way.  When we want someone to pay attention, we say, “Sim Lev,” literally, “Put your heart in it.”

Sim Lev, Confirmation Class of 5778, Sim Lev, and the Holy One of Blessing will emerge from the fire to pay attention to you, to put God’s own heart into all that you will do.  

And then God will say:  “Thank God you showed up.”