“It’s a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backward.”  – Lewis Carroll

Yizkor, Yom Kippur Afternoon, 5780

9 October 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

“Some moments feel so important, we believe there is a perfect recording of them, etched in our minds.”  

So begins actor Emma Stone’s voiceover of a new Netflix mini-series called “The Mind, Explained,” which tackles memory as the subject of its first episode.  

“And yet,” explains neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, “Your memories… are probably not as accurate as you think.  We know about 50% of the details of [a] memory change within a year, even though most people are convinced they’re 100% right.”

Human memory is not like a computer’s memory, where data gets stored and can be retrieved with absolute fidelity.  A sermon I wrote 20 years ago (when I first became a rabbi!) can be called up with a few keystrokes and there it is, word-for-word.  But human memory is simultaneously much less accurate and much more complex. You would think that the purpose of memory is to preserve the past.  But even our most significant memories, we learn—the ones that inform our life-story, our foundational identity—tend to warp and mutate over time. Memories are not perfect recordings.  In fact, as far as recordings go, our memories are fairly unreliable.  


Why does memory work this way—why do our brains twist the past while fooling us into thinking that we’re remembering it exactly as it happened?

This seems a fitting inquiry as any for a service called Yizkor which comes from the Hebrew לזכור, “to remember.”  After all, we come here because of our memories. Yizkor matters because we recognize that memory gives us a certain power over death.  So long as we remember, so long as we can replay in our minds a parent’s embrace, a lover’s caress, a child’s first halting steps, a sister’s favorite recipe, a friend’s laugh, then we possess some of their life-force, their essence, what we call in Hebrew the neshama, the breath or spirit of the human beings who once walked with us on life’s journey.  

And yet, what could it mean that our memories—no matter how vivid or three-dimensional they may feel, no matter how earnestly we might swear by their accuracy—have most likely shifted, deteriorated, and reassembled themselves over time?

A man named Henry Molaison, who went by his initials H.M., suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures following a childhood bicycle accident.  In 1953, at the age of 31, he underwent a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy to resect parts of his brain in an attempt to cure his epilepsy.  Although the surgery succeeded in controlling his seizures, it also produced a severe side effect.  He became unable to form new memories. It was so severe, in fact, that it prevented him from navigating his own house or recognizing the faces of his own doctors.  

His brain, which continued to be examined up until and well after his death in 2008, provided one of neuroscience’s seminal case studies in how human memory works.  (In fact, you can even look up a scientific atlas of his brain, which was uploaded to the internet five years ago.)

H.M. demonstrated how different areas of the brain perform different memory-related tasks, with separate parts of the brain responsible for short-term memory, long-term memory, spatial memory, and motor skill learning. 

My friend Lisa Faden and I met at Amherst College in 1991, when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore.  I wish I could tell you how we met but, here, as with so many other details of our friendship, memory fails me.  I do remember us bonding over a love of wordplay, and in particular a mutual appreciation for bad puns. It was I who pointed out to her that the phrase “in a nutshell” could, with the simple insertion of an apostrophe, now be read as “in a nut’s hell,” and the fact that she actually found this amusing, in a nutshell (or is it a nut’s hell?) tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my taste in friends.

Memory does not fail me here:  After college, when Lisa was teaching up in Newton and I was living in Providence, she came down for a visit and I invited her to dinner on Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy.  After a hearty meal of pasta and gravy and gelato, we took a stroll around the neighborhood. It was a beautiful June evening and lots of pedestrians crowded the streets. Then, Lisa blurted out, “So, hey, I hear there’s a big mafia presence in Providence, is that true?”  I do not remember what happened next because I was too busy fumbling for the car keys and trying to get us into the car and speed off before she could say another word.

Lisa was the byproduct of a Japanese Buddhist Mother and an American Jewish father, and, after she married Rob, and they moved to Ontario where she got her Ph.D., and they had their children, a girl first and then a boy, Judaism again became an important part of her family’s life—indeed, her spiritual anchor.  

I remember that Lisa reached out to me as she became more involved in their lovely little Reform temple in London, Ontario, and soon decided to prepare for what she called her, “big, fat, 40-year old Bat Mitzvah.”

And I remember the August day three years ago, when Lisa emailed to tell me she had been diagnosed out of the blue with metastatic breast cancer, which prompted her to begin a blog reflecting on life with cancer.  But, mostly, it’s a blog about life (with cancer).

Two years in, after surgery, chemo, radiation, and another surgery to remove the lesions from her brain where the cancer had metastasized, Lisa’s daughter celebrated her own bat mitzvah.  Lisa reflected in her blog:

“…I remember [not long after my diagnosis] going to a bat mitzvah and standing in the back, fortuitously next to a box of tissues. As the congregation went through the steps of a normal service, I remember crying the entire time. The girl at the front that day… was a cerebral petite blonde that I could easily see as a stand-in for [my daughter]. Knowing that I would be bat mitzvahed soon and my daughter would be someday, it was like we were all linked by an invisible chain. I was simultaneously watching my 5-year-old daughter, myself, and an amazing young woman. 

Two weekends ago [our daughter] had her bat mitzvah….  The whole ceremony was a reminder about how the past, present, and future connect because you can’t have a future without a present spent connecting to the past.  Plus, you have young adults in the present reading from the past… so that they can carry their learning into the future. And when she read, she read from a Torah that was itself rescued from wartime Czechoslovakia” just like the one we read at WRT this afternoon.

“…Go to a service, in any tradition,” Lisa concludes, “and it is easy to think that there must be something more interesting and worthwhile to do than this.  But is there, really?” (Published online on Lisa’s blog, Breathing in Breathing Out:  Dum Spiro Spero, https://breathinginbreathingout.blog/2019/05/24/can-you-see-yourself/, May 24, 2019.)

Lisa died on Wednesday, June 19th, at the age of 47.  Her children are 13 and 10. I last saw Lisa and Rob about 18 months before she died, over lunch at a cute little café called The Squirrel Cage, in Windsor, Ontario, a short distance from the Detroit area where we usually visit Kelly’s family over winter break.  Kelly had the good fortune to give Lisa, Rob and the kids a backstage tour of Carousel on Broadway last summer when they came to visit New York while I was traveling in Israel.  

Lisa now “belongs to eternity,” to borrow a metaphor I sometimes use at funeral services.  

But, to be honest, I prefer to say, “Now Lisa is committed to memory.”

And here is where the story of the patient H.M. takes on special significance.  

Because, as it turns out, when H.M. had a big chunk of his brain removed, he lost something more than his ability to form new memories.  After his surgery, not only could H.M. not remember the past, he also struggled to answer questions about the future. He had no conception of “tomorrow.”  

The same part of his brain that stored memories of the past also seemed vital to imagining a future – the two are linked, the same way that Lisa’s own Bat Mitzvah, and her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and the old rescued Czech Torah scroll, and the ability to imagine a next generation’s Bat Mitzvah were linked.  

The Hebrew root for the verb remember, Zayin – Kaf – Resh, or Zecher, literally means, well, we’re not exactly sure.  It may mean “to point,” like an arrow; or to pierce, or perforate; or bore down, as with a drill bit.  The point, the amazing thing, is that a deep, Jewish understanding of memory synchronizes almost exactly with a scientific understanding of memory:  that what memory really does is not so much preserve the past, word for word, image for image or note for note, but, rather, link the past, present, and future—a combination of remembering and imagining.  Memory both drills down and points ahead.

Without memory—where we’ve been, with whom we’ve traveled life’s journey, what we’ve discovered along the way—we cannot imagine where we’re going.  Without memory, we cannot realize who we must now become.

The Talmud tells us that God’s memory is perfect.  When we sounded the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah last week, we said, “There is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory.”  

But human memory, the kind of memory God gave us, is different.  It is not perfect.  It bends and breaks down over time.  Pieces drop away and new pieces get incorporated.  Memory and imagination intertwine.  

But in a way, human memory, the kind of memory we bring to this service of Yizkor, may be even better—because it helps us to move forward, we, the living, who have loved so many, so much, and who have had to let go.  

No good comes from memorializing our loved ones in endless pain.  Memory does not exist to keep us stuck in the past.  

We gather up our memories, beautifully imperfect, and let them move us gently forward, to the next uncharted destination.



The Life-Changing Difference between Honor and Dignity 

YOM KIPPUR MORNING 5780 – October 9, 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Here’s a question.  What is the most important verse in the Torah?

One of the most famous Rabbis of his time—and of all time—Akiva, who lived in the first and second centuries of the Common Era, reduced the Torah to one essential principle that could guide a person throughout his or her life:  

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Akiva taught, citing the central verse from Leviticus that we will read this afternoon (19:18).  

“Love your neighbor as yourself” creates a kind of pragmatic social compact, an “I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine” approach to life.  

The verse assumes that most people operate out of self-interest and can therefore use self-interest to relate to others.  If I know what I want for myself, I can apply the same to others and everyone wins.  

Akiva often sparred, academically, with a man named Ben Azzai who wasn’t even a rabbi but whose opinions are nevertheless venerated.  Ben Azzai had a different idea about the most important verse in the Torah. He looked to Genesis, where the Torah teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and belong equally in the family of humankind (Paraphrasing Gen. 5:1.  See Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b.). 

For Ben Azzai, that we are made in God’s image is the key principle of our existence.  We tend to the needs of others, not, as Akiva suggested, in the hope that others will reciprocate and tend to our needs, but because it is the Godly thing to do.  Self-interest plays no role here. We treat each other in accordance with each person’s inherent Dignity, that God-given spark that makes us human, and which, consequently, implies that no human has any more or less “worth” than any other.

While Akiva’s point about loving one’s neighbor as oneself is easily understood and applied, the Talmud ultimately favors Ben Azzai’s view.  

Recognizing the spark of divinity in every human being comprehensively changes our outlook on life.  How we treat other people becomes an exercise not in assessing what we would want for ourselves, but in imagining the world through God’s eyes, as it were, imagining ourselves as equally God’s children.  That act of inspired imagination fundamentally changes our relationship to every other person.

Akiva tells us what to do—love your neighbor as yourself—but doesn’t explain why.  Ben Azzai cannot tell us how to live our lives, but he does tell us that the essential feature of human existence is our inherent Divinity, a quality that we know as Dignity.

Most civilizations have not oriented themselves around this quality of Dignity.  For most of human history, including the present day, we can observe societies attuned to a quality called Honor instead.  Although we often use the words “Honor” and “Dignity” interchangeably, their innermost meanings could not be more different.  Whereas Honor refers to an attribute that one attains, builds, polishes, Dignity is inherent, inviolable, God-given. 

 Now, here’s another question.  Have you ever wondered why Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr decided to duel inof all placesWeehawken, New Jersey?

I have.

The answer goes like this.  In 1804, dueling was in the process of being outlawed in the northern United States.  Both New York and New Jersey had prohibited the practice.  Even Ben Franklin—who was twelve times challenged to a duel himself, and never accepted once—joined the chorus of prominent anti-dueling activists in Revolutionary America.

Hamilton and Burr, like Akiva and Ben Azzai, also often sparred with each other in writing.  But Hamilton and Burr didn’t keep their beefs academic. Refusing to be dissuaded, even by the law (or by Ben Franklin!), they took their duel to Weehawken because New Jersey was not as aggressive in prosecuting dueling participants.  The same site, along the Hudson river, beneath the towering cliffs of the Palisades, hosted eighteen known duels between 1700 and 1845.

In other words, in New Jersey, it was well known, you could easily get away with murder.  

In fact, Aaron Burr did.  After surviving the duel, Burr was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but the charges were later dismissed or resulted in acquittal.  

It took the better part of another hundred years to abolish the practice in America.  It seems that the Civil War induced sufficient fatigue from bloodshed to bring about an end to dueling, once and for all.   

But dueling is just one symptom of a larger phenomenon called “Honor Culture.”  Honor cultures emerge when a centralized state authority is either absent, or deemed illegitimate, or weak, and when people feel materially vulnerable.  Under these conditions, people take offense easily, feel threatened quickly, and engage in higher rates of pre-emptive aggression and vigilante justice to settle their disputes.  They go to great lengths to demonstrate physical bravery and avoid appearing weak.  (I commend to you McCaffree, Kevin. “Honor, Dignity, Victim: A Tale of Three Moral Cultures” (2018), published online at https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/honor-dignity-victim-cultures/, as well as Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking; Black, Donald. 2011. Moral Time. New York: Oxford University Press.)

In the worst-case scenarios, this pre-emptive aggression develops into bloody feuds enveloping whole families, gangs, or tribes.  

Whereas in Europe, the privilege of fighting duels was restricted to aristocratic gentlemen, in America, it tended to be politicians, newspaper editors, attorneysmen whose professions required them to make public remarks or whose public reputations were deemed of the utmost importancewho most often received and accepted challenges to fight.  

In those days, elected officials couldn’t settle their scores over social media, so guns would have to do.  Andrew Jackson challenged his enemies, real and perceived, to duels, more than 100 of them. (One opponent, Charles Dickinson, whom Jackson challenged after Dickinson accused him of reneging on a $2,000 horse bet, even died, a fact that did not prevent Jackson from winning the presidency several years later!)

Gradually, along with dueling, many other hallmarks of Honor Culture in America have waned.  But they have not faded away entirely. Consider:  

The prevalence of dueling in American history gives us some insight into this country’s obsession with guns and the phenomenon of the now ubiquitous mass shooting, in which a grievance is “resolved,” so to speak, in the most horrific way imaginable.  In the South, where Honor Culture has its deepest roots in the US, high school students are more likely to bring a weapon to school, and there have been more than twice as many school shootings per capita (Osterman, L. L. & Brown, R. P., “Culture of Honor and Violence Against the Self,” 37(12) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1611-1623 (2011), available online at https://www.academia.edu/1069747/Culture_of_Honor_and_Violence_Against_the_Self).

Or consider this:  It used to be the case that a man who refused a challenge to duel was humiliated publicly with a uniquely Southern form of punishment called “posting.”  A man who refused to fight would find his name smeared as a coward on a written statement hung in public places and published in newspapers. Nowadays, character assassination has moved online where it can inflict exponentially more damage.

Honor Culture posits that a person’s worth derives from his station in society, his family name, his public reputation, his wealth, his accomplishments.  Such a culture begins with the presumption that “honor” is something one earns, builds, hones, and protects. Consequently, people who occupied lower rungs on the social ladder—people of color, women, the poor, ordinary laborers, the infirm or differently abled—never got caught up in having to defend their honor, because, according to the assumptions of Honor Culture, they didn’t have any to begin with. 

Have we really come that far?  How much moral progress have we really made?  How much effort, how much emotional and material investment, do we continue to place in achievement, clout, social stature?  

The college bribery scandal that blew up this spring suggests that we have not come far from the idea that wealth and privilege, celebrity and influence, status and attainment, academic and athletic credentials, social rank and reputation, matter more to many than, say, equality, fairness, and human dignity.

In such a culture, should any of us be surprised at the shockingly high rates of students going off to college with anxiety disorders, and the similarly high rates of adults of all ages reporting feeling that their lives lack purpose, that their careers fall short of their hopes for personal and professional joy and contentment, that their minds feel overfull and their hearts feel empty?  In such a culture, should any of us be surprised at how easily we substitute net worth for self-worth?

One of my favorite stories begins with a ship sailing through the Atlantic on a cold and foggy day.  Suddenly a voice is heard from somewhere out on the water. It is a cry for help. The captain runs to the side of his ship, only to realize that the fog is so thick he is unable to see exactly where the cry is coming from.  But he can hear a frightened voice yelling, “Save me; I am in a boat that has sprung a leak. Save me!”

The captain quickly grabs a bullhorn and shouts in the general direction of the boat.  “We are trying to get to you. What is your position? What is your position?”

The voice answers back, “Senior Vice President of a bank!  Senior Vice President of a bank!”   

Our inherent, human dignity is the anchor that keeps us moored to our true self-worth, and connects us to our fellow humanity, and, ultimately, as Ben Azzai taught, to God.  Anything else will ultimately fail us.  

The late author David Foster Wallace tapped into this truth when he said:

“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough.  Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you….  Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  And so on” (This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009). 

Dignity is not the same as “honor” or “respect.”  We can command respect in accordance with our positions of authority in the workplace, or our role as parents, grandparents, elders, and so on.  

Society confers honor on us for having attended this or that university, or having won public recognition for our accomplishments, or for our athletic prowess, or artistic talent, for our grades, or our income, or our philanthropy, or our social influence.  

 But, usually, when we say, “I want respect,” what we really mean is, “Treat me with dignity.”  “Treat me as your equal in the eyes of God, because I am.”  

It is concern for human dignity that motivates the Torah to build in societal protections for the vulnerable, the marginalized:  the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, the elderly, the infirm (cf., among many other verses, Exodus 22:21-24, Lev. 19:34 & 25-35, Deut. 10:18, 14:28-29, 15:7-11, 24:17-18, 26:12, 27:19, and 31:12).  

It is concern for human dignity that moves the Torah to demand that the corners of the field are left unharvested and fallen sheaves of grain uncollected, so that the needy could come and take under the cover of nightfall, without having to demean themselves by asking for a handout (Deut. 24:19).  

It is concern for human dignity that prompts the Torah to provide rules of ethical treatment of the other in warfare, even of women captured in battle (Deut. 21:10-14).

It is concern for human dignity that causes the Torah to prohibit insulting the deaf, or placing a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14)… and remember, we’re talking about more than physical disabilities here.  Everyone has blind spots; everyone has tones to which we are deaf. 

It is concern for human dignity that has the Torah insist that the young and able-bodied rise and show deference before the aged (Lev. 19:32)     

It is concern for human dignity that informs the Torah’s rule against accepting a laborer’s clothing in pawn for services rendered, asking rhetorically, in the Torah’s memorable phrasing:  “What else is he supposed to sleep in?” (Exodus 22:7; cf. also Deut. 24:17, which legislates against taking a widow’s garment in pawn.)  

It is concern for human dignity that led the Rabbis to teach that to embarrass another person in public is tantamount to having shed blood (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b-59a).

My friend and teacher Rabbi Shai Held summarizes:  “[T]he Bible cannot inform us precisely what legal protections are needed to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable in our times, but it can tell us—if we listen to it, it *does* tell us—that who we are as a society depends to a great extent on how we answer that question….  The Bible offers no more forceful message than this one: people on the margins matter, and their wellbeing is the responsibility of each of us, and of all of us” (From Held’s forthcoming book, as yet untitled/unpublished. Posted by the author on Facebook, July 19, 2019).

The Bible envisions a Dignity Culture, a culture that puts the inherent, God-given dignity of the other as its foremost concern.  

I believe that the safeguarding of human dignity is at the heart of America’s great promise, too.  The Declaration of Independence, which declared “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” hints at this, even if the transformation from Honor Culture to Dignity Culture in this country has come about slowly and painfully, and has a long way yet to go. 

After all, our founding documents do not recognize the inherent dignity of enslaved Africans, or women, or, for that matter, non-landowners.  

“The moral arc of the universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.”  This is more than just wishful thinking; I believe that the centuries-old American story is, on the whole, a story of moral progress.  And yet, now, again, Dignity is under siege, as our country swings perilously away from this guiding principle toward old ideas about Honor and meritocracy. 

On this Day of Atonement, I implore us to make the restoration of human Dignity our foremost Jewish obligation in the coming year.  

We must reassert the divinity that inheres within every human being, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, age, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, or country of origin.  

Let this restoration of human dignity be our Teshuvah, our turning back to the essence of our humanity and the essential call of our faith.

Today, in this sanctuary, sit dozens of congregants who have quietly undertaken this effort with extraordinary diligence and joy.  

On Yom Kippur, three years ago, we publicly affirmed that WRT had approached the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—HIAS—with the intention to help settle a family of refugees.  Ten days later, during Sukkot, 125 WRT volunteers showed up for our first organizing meeting. By Chanukah, the State Department approved Westchester County for up to fifty refugees, or about eight families, and by the first week of January 2017, WRT had secured HIAS’s blessing as a host congregation.  

It took another two and a half years for WRT to be matched with a refugee family.  At first we thought that we might receive a family fleeing the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.  As the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the US dropped precipitously, Iraq and Afghanistan seemed likely candidates.  But, in the end, it was the little-known Central African Republic that would send us our first two family members, adult sisters named Achta and Mariam.  

The Central African Republic, or CAR, is one of the world’s most atrocious conflict zones.  Mariam and Achta, who arrived this spring, have seen their lives ripped apart by war and genocide, and sought shelter in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad for five years before their approval came through.  They left behind an aging mother, three other sisters, three brothers, and a four-year-old nephew. The other men—their father, husbands, brothers—have presumably either been killed or “disappeared” in war. Our brave sisters squeezed through an ever more restrictive vetting process that begins with the UN and entails authorization by no fewer than five executive-branch agencies, from Homeland Security to the State Department.  They came here as two of only about 22,500 refugees admitted in the last year—less than ten percent of the number admitted in the early 80’s under Reagan, at a time when the humanitarian crisis of refugees now exceeds, in number and severity, any previous era since World War II.  (According to Pew Research Center, approximately 22,500 refugees were admitted in Fiscal Year 2018, when the cap was set at 30,000.  The current administration intends to cap refugee admissions for FY 2020 at 18,000. Historical averages have been about 95,000 refugees admitted to the US each year.) 

They came here with, quite literally, the clothes on their backs and an overstuffed suitcase. And a sewing machine. Achta, the elder, also schlepped a giant satchel of textbooks:  her most precious possession, as a teacher of Arabic language and literature. (I know: I hauled her fraying bag up to their apartment in White Plains on a 95-degree moving day in June).  

Since then, every moment of their lives has been compassionately attended by our tireless volunteers.  Your fellow congregants have restored and protected the basic human dignity that war, and torture, and racial and religious discrimination, and an unfairly restrictive vetting process, would have deprived them.  

Your fellow congregants have brought them to daily English Language classes, fitted them with donated clothes, furnished an apartment rented to them below cost, helped navigate appointments with any number of governmental agencies, translated countless documents from their native French to English, provided much-needed medical care, and have even explained to them how a Con-Ed bill works. 

They have elucidated innumerable cultural differences between Africa and America.  On her first week here, Achta asked Kelly where she could buy a massive stone pylon for grinding seeds and grains into flour.  Let’s just say the education has gone both ways, as is often the case when one does a mitzvah:  the giver finds herself enriched in the giving.  

A few weeks ago, Mariam and Achta, who spoke virtually no English when they arrived just five months ago, secured their first jobs and are now working at Target in White Plains.  One aspires to teach again; the other, to advance in the field of Human Resources. They are highly motivated to succeed, to contribute to the country that welcomed them, to make a better life in America, not only for themselves and their family, but for their community and country. 

You have helped them reclaim their stolen dignity.  Can there be any work more Jewish, more holy, than this?  

At this time, I’d like for us to acknowledge all of our volunteers who have donated time and resources toward this effort.  (Volunteers Rise)

Our Resettlement effort still needs your help.  We ask for your assistance in whatever form you can offer it, as we have taken on the obligation to help our sisters achieve financial independence within a year.  A card has been provided outside the sanctuary for all who want to learn more and support this effort.  

Let me leave you with an image of what restoring human dignity feels like.  Two weeks after arriving in the US, our volunteers brought Mariam and Achta to an Iftara sundown break-the-fast meal held each night during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  To their delight, the sisters met there a couple who spoke Fulbe, their African mother tongue.  Later that night, Mariam sent a text message to our volunteers, on her donated iPhone, enthusing about making new friends here in America.  She wrote (in French, her adopted language; we’ve translated):

“We love you so much, because, thanks to you, we have once again found God’s smile.”

Your dignity, your inherent self-worth, is a precious gift from God.  You did nothing to earn it. But it is yours, to love forever.

On Yom Kippur, remember this:  No matter how far we may stray, our dignity is waiting for us to reclaim it.  

Let us cherish it.  Nurture it. Acknowledge it in our fellow human travelers.  Do our part to help those whose dignity has been neglected to reclaim theirs.

To do all this is to see God’s smile.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah

May you be sealed for life and blessing

From the Ruin to the Road: Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning, 5780



There we stood, forty-three of us, on the deserted rail platform, where no train had come or gone for decades.  We came as mourners, bundled against the unseasonable chill on the afternoon of the 2nd of May, carrying a matchbook and small candles, six of them, one for every million Jews murdered by the Nazis, there to kindle flames of remembrance on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Gleis Siebzehn, Track 17, the Berlin-Gruenwald Station where, from 1941 to 1945 more than 50,000 Jews were deported from Berlin, first to the Polish ghettos at Litzmannstadt and Warsaw, then, directly to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. 

When we first announced this temple trip, many asked, “Why Germany?  Why would you want to go back there, after what they did to us?” What sense did it make for a rabbi, a rebbetzin, and forty-one congregants to go back to “the scene of the crime?”

To understand the meaning of our pilgrimage requires that we take a long, hard look at where we were coming from.  Our country. Home.

The day we left for Berlin—the last day of Pesach, six months to the day after the Pittsburgh massacre which murdered eleven (and inspired in part by its perpetrator, Robert Bowers)—19-year-old John Timothy Earnest, another virulent Anti-Semite, White Supremacist, Neo-Nazi, domestic terrorist, stormed into the Chabad of Poway outside San Diego, and, firing from the foyer, wounded Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and murdered 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who died shielding her rabbi from the gunman.

Bowers and Earnest are not lone wolves.  They operate within a larger movement, emerging from the Internet’s shadowiest realms where they have sheltered for years, taking to the streets in places like Poland, where, this summer, Israeli students were assaulted after leaving a Warsaw nightclub; France, where Yellow Vest demonstrators have embraced Anti-Semitic language and endorsed violence against Jews; and here in the United States.  

This neo-Nazi flavor of Anti-Semitism, long festering beneath the surface of Western society, now thrives in the daylight of the same social forces that are forcing democracy into retreat while emboldening autocracy, that are promoting White supremacy and demonizing communities of color while trafficking in fear-mongering about immigrants and refugees.  

This ancient Jew-hatred—that the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler’s brownshirts enacted in violence—that neither warfare nor activism nor legislation can pull out, root and stem, once and for all—is very much alive today, and we must confront it head on.  

And, like a weed, it keeps emerging, stubbornly, indiscriminately.  Once a phenomenon relegated to the farthermost margins of the right, Anti-Semitism has begun to creep closer to the center of American life—from both right and left.

The BDS movement, a global effort to harm Israel through Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, has Anti-Semitism written all over it.  Even though many of its supporters vigorously deny that Jew-hatred has anything to do with their anti-Israel activism, consider their record and form your own conclusions:

BDS singles out the world’s only Jewish State for opprobrium.

They traffic in the language of “peace” and “justice,” but when it comes to the only peaceful and just resolution to the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, BDS proponents speak not a two-state solution, but rather of one state, Palestine.  They coerce rather than compromise. Unable to convince the Israeli electorate of the merits of their views, BDS activists demonize Israel and call for outsiders to punish her citizens until they capitulate. 

BDS creates toxic college campus environments, polarizing students and faculty who might otherwise feel encouraged to enter into constructive dialogue about the best approaches to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

Jewish students—note well, Jews, not Israelis—are targeted with propaganda and abusive language.  Jewish lecturers with even tenuous support for Israel are shouted down and prevented from speaking.  Jewish voices are silenced when, for instance, BDS resolutions are presented for a student council vote on the first night of Passover.

And BDS was very much the agenda of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s intended visit to Israel this summer, only the latest in a disturbing pattern of messages from the freshman Congresswomen.  Putting aside for a moment—if we can—Israel’s ill-begotten choice to bar their entry, let’s not forget that the two Representatives chose not to join a bipartisan congressional delegation to Israel in favor of a trip arranged by Miftah, an organization that has accused Jews of using the blood of Christians in the Passover ritual, engaged in Holocaust denial, and praised terrorists who attack Israeli civilians.  

 Here’s the bottom line.  Anti-Semitism isn’t a right-wing thing or a left-wing thing.  It isn’t a Republican Party thing or a Democratic Party thing, despite the efforts of many to paint it that way.  In fact, Anti-Semitism doesn’t even need Jews to breathe, as evidenced by the prevalence of Anti-Semitic attitudes in places with scarcely any Jews, like Japan and Indonesia.

When we politicize Anti-Semitism, using it to smear our political enemies—when we tar entire groups with the charge of Anti-Semitism—we distort the truth and dismiss the pain of the victims.  If you cannot recognize that no one political movement, party, or “side” of the fractured national conversation has a monopoly on Anti-Semitism, then you simply aren’t looking hard enough.  

Anti-Semitism is too serious to be exploited in the interest of scoring points with voters.  We reject the politicization of Anti-Semitism, whether it involves the misappropriation the term “concentration camps” to describe the wretched condition of detention centers on our southern border, or the charge of “disloyalty” in reference to American Jews. 

And the US-Israel relationship—premised, as it is, on vital economic, military, and technological support, shared intelligence, and common democratic values and geopolitical goals—is too important to be sacrificed on the altars of ego and election prospects.  When alliances forged to eradicate Anti-Semitism fall apart over this or that political squabble, everyone loses: Israelis, Americans, and Jewish people everywhere.

The story is told in the Babylonian Talmud of Rabbi Yosi, the great second-century Sage, who, while walking along the road, chanced upon one of the ruins of Jerusalem, which the Romans had sacked twice:  once in the year 70, destroying the Temple, and again, in the year 135, after the failed Bar Kochba rebellion, at this time exiling the Jews into diaspora.  

Drawn to the ancient ruin, Yosi entered to pray.  Upon completing his prayers, he discovered the Prophet Elijah guarding the entrance to the ruin.  “Greetings to you, my Rabbi,” said Elijah.  

“Greetings to you, my Rabbi, my teacher,” replied Yosi.  

“My son,” said Elijah, “Why did you enter this ruin?”  “In order to pray,” answered Yosi.  

“You should have prayed on the road,” Elijah admonished.  

“I was afraid that my prayers might get interrupted by travelers,” and I’d be unable to focus, said Yosi.  

Elijah answered, “You should have abbreviated your prayers,” rather than pray inside of a ruin (Berakhot 3a).

If you study the surrounding passages, you’ll learn about the dangers of such places.  Apparently, ruins were known to attract bandits, prostitutes, and even demons, who would lurk, waiting in the shadows for their prey.  Elijah’s reprimand seems warranted on strictly pragmatic grounds.  

But something deeper is at work here, something about the allure of ruins, the human desire to sanctify such places, to turn ruins into holy places.  

This tendency is well demonstrated throughout human history and we Jews, no less than others, have enshrined our ruins.  After all, what is the Kotel, the Western Wall, the retaining wall of a massive platform where the destroyed Temple once stood, but the greatest ruin in Jewish history?  

Here, then, is one interpretation of the passage:  Judaism discourages us from hunkering down in our tragedy, fetishizing our devastation, making a shrine of our suffering.  

Prayer should be joyful, purposeful, transformative.  Prayer can give comfort, lift the spirit, refine our moral commitments, realign our spiritual priorities.  Praying in a ruin—metaphorically speaking—locates our Jewish identity in tragedy, hardship, and pain, building our Jewishness on a foundation of sorrow, the rubble of anxiety.

What does it say about Jews today that the landmark Pew Research Center survey of Jewish identity reports that remembering the Holocaust is, by far, the number-one attribute that Jews consider essential to being Jewish?  Not living an ethical life, which came in a distant second, or caring about Israel, or being part of a Jewish community (which actually ranked well below “having a good sense of humor,” so there you go).  

Without a doubt, Judaism cherishes memory—and the memory of the Shoah can and does impel us toward the Jewish values of justice and compassion.  But remembrance of our past devastation cannot substitute for our investment in a joyful, transformative Jewish present and future. 

What does it say about us that the average age of a Pittsburgh victim—that is to say, the average age of a synagogue-goer on what started out as a typical Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life Congregation—was 74 years old?  How can we expect the generations of our children and grandchildren to stand up against anti-Semitism if they don’t feel a connection to the Jewish tradition or the Jewish People today?  

Have we done enough to share our own joy in Judaism with our generations?  Have we taught them that those Shabbat candles aren’t going to light themselves?  Have we ever shared with them our own reasons for caring enough to be part of a synagogue, a community of faith and action?  Have we inculcated a sense of joyful responsibility for the welfare of our people, for tzedakah and mitzvot?  Have we given them reasons to feel that their Judaism is a treasured inheritance and not an anxious burden—or, worse, a hollow and meaningless practice, a tired obligation, a going-through of the motions?  

We give a lot of time and attention to the anti-Semites who want to harm us.  Have we given the same time and attention to the tradition that binds us together?

I know it all feels so discouraging—heartrending, really.  But I come here today to tell you that there is a sunlit pathway from the ruin back to the road.  Like all chapters of adversity in our long and storied history, we will meet this one with a mixture of anguish, courage, determination, and yes, that most quintessentially Jewish of all human qualities, hope, tikvah.

Today, I want to share with you why I feel hopeful.

The reason is you.  This congregation, this WRT family, you, and I, all of us, together.  We are the reason I feel joy in our present and hopeful about our Jewish future.  We, who showed up in this sanctuary, 600 strong, the Friday after Pittsburgh, to say that hate has no place in our synagogue, and that we are not afraid.   

You know who makes me feel hopeful?  The almost fifty twelfth graders who came with us to Israel over the last two years, where we ate too much falafel and danced with Israeli Reform Jewish teens at Shabbat dinner and crocheted baskets with Eritrean asylum-seekers and where our biggest dilemma concerned how to recover a student’s credit card that an Israeli ATM decided to swallow twenty minutes after landing at Ben-Gurion airport.

Here’s a ray of hope.  Last Wednesday, in our 10th grade Confirmation class, we had a frank conversation about dating and relationships and the challenges of living in an interfaith world.  Every student in the class declared it important to create a Jewish family and a Jewish home. (One student added, helpfully, “My dad said that my mom will kill me if I don’t.”)  

Hope, to me, is officiating at a wedding of a bride or groom whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I conducted, whose Confirmation we celebrated.  I have thirteen of those this coming year. 

I feel hope because WRT is going to Poland early next summer.  It will break our hearts to stand at Auschwitz. But hearts will mend when we dance at the 30th annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.  Last year, they had a band called “The Honorable Mentshn,” get it?  And how great is that?  

I spent Friday morning in this sanctuary with our preschoolers, singing Bim-Bam and playing the shofar, and hanging out with our official ECC mascot, a giant stuffed dinosaur who, any of our children will tell you, loves challah.  That dinosaur gives me a lot of hope for the Jewish future.  

So does the four-year-old who, in the video montage of last year’s graduating preschoolers, declared that when he grows up, he wants to be a “white collar crime lawyer.”  Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. There were a lot of students who said they want to become teachers just like the ones they adore here at WRT.

And all of you adult learners inspire me.  Nothing gives me greater joy and satisfaction than discussing the Jewish view of the purpose of humankind, as we did last week in our new Melton curriculum, or when a veteran Torah study participant asks me if I happen to know any ancient Egyptian grammar, because it might really improve her understanding of the text.  We have some really smart congregants here, you know. Come to one of our classes sometime. You’ll leave feeling better about the Jewish future, too.

And then there are all of you who show up on a Monday morning to chop vegetables into soup for our hungry neighbors.  And the Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids who follow up a long day of school by going down to Mount Vernon where they help first graders with spelling and math.  And all of you who’ve taken the time to figure out why we have four separate receptacles for tossing your food waste and why the one marked “Trash” is almost always empty… because here at WRT, we model a world in which nothing goes to waste, and almost everything we consume can be reused, recycled, or composted.  And that gives me a lot of hope. 

Oh, and so much hope comes from the nearly 100 volunteers who have helped to rebuild the lives of two women who have come to the US from the Central African Republic, a major humanitarian resettlement effort about which I will say more on Yom Kippur.

And let me tell you about the hope I feel when we pray together.  You really do get it, WRT. You get that prayer is an act of love, a shared practice that brings us joy and stirs our souls and makes us want to sing.  Prayer is kids running up to the front of the room at Sharing Shabbat, to join in the choreography of “V’shinantam”; and prayer is the couple that chose to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary with a Friday night aliyah to the Torah; and prayer is all the soul-stirring voices and instruments that Cantor Kleinman leads and brings together on these glorious High Holidays, and prayer is our awesome outdoor harvest festival, Sukkah Slam, in just under two weeks, and if you’re not there, under the moonlight, with the live Middle Eastern band and the food trucks and the spirits-tasting, then, well, I give up, because you’ve missed my whole point!

Listen closely.  We are the antidote to the anti-Semitism infecting our world.  We won’t win this fight just by reinforcing our facility and training our staff and volunteers in cutting-edge security.  Yes, we’ve done that, with diligence and seriousness.  

But, if you really want to stand up to anti-Semitism—if you really want to make a difference—then you have to live so as to proclaim that being Jewish matters; that Judaism is a noble and beautiful heritage worthy not just of safeguarding but of living, really living, with joy and vigor; that the Jewish People are our family, deserving of our love and support; and that Judaism gives us powerful tools for addressing the ills plaguing our aching world. 

So here’s my advice.  Hold your heads high. Lift your voices with joy.  Stop obsessing over Anti-Semitism, and start getting down with some fellow Semites!  


Now, come back to Berlin with me for one last moment, because I never told you what we were doing there in the first place.  

Most of us understood that it was important to return to “the scene of the crime” in order to understand our history and the threats that have imperiled us.  What most of us did not expect was to meet Dalia Grinfeld, age 24, whose family had fled Ukraine and who has just been named Assistant Director of European Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.  Her Jewish activism began in university, when she established a German Jewish Students’ Union that quickly grew into a nationwide network of over 25,000 students and young professionals. 

Or Anja Olejnik, a former child refugee of the Bosnian War, who is now raising a Jewish family in Berlin while directing all of Germany’s programs for the Joint Distribution Committee, the global Jewish rescue service;

Or Nina Peretz, a young woman who met and fell in love with an Israeli living in Berlin, converted to Judaism, and who now serves as the first female temple president in Germany.

We went to remember.  We returned with stories of Jewish life reborn.  The German Jewish community, now 250,000 strong, will not content itself to pray inside a ruin.  They have decided that the best way to live out the meaning of “never again” is to live openly and Jewishly, to build new synagogues, new Jewish community centers, new Jewish performance venues, out of the ruins.

Late one afternoon, our group arrived at the Villa at Wannsee, a serene lakeside country-home about a half-hour outside Berlin.  On January 20, 1942, fifteen senior Nazi officials convened at Wannsee to devise what came to be known as “The Final Solution.”

There, on the manicured front lawn, a certain tree stump caught Kelly’s eye.  It had been a magnificent specimen, the many rings proclaiming generations and generations of stored up history.  How many leaves had once crowned its great trunk, no one will ever know. How many people had once sought shelter in its shade, we cannot say.  The tree had been sawed off clean just above the roots, which, you could tell, still went deep and spread wide.

But—and this is what moved Kelly to examine it—new shoots were growing out of the stump, bright green tendrils of life, thriving:  stubbornly, joyfully, reaching for the light. 

It’s the first beautiful new morning of a beautiful new year.  Let’s do what our people always do—insist on thriving: stubbornly, joyfully, reaching for the light.

Shanah Tovah