Sermon Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple
Yom Kippur Afternoon, October 5, 2022
The first emotion mentioned in the Torah—this will probably surprise you—comes six chapters in, well after the stories of the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and all their kin. You might think we’d read about God’s joy in the wonders of creation, or the fear Adam and Eve felt upon their expulsion from Eden, Cain’s jealousy and rage which resulted in the murder of Abel, or Adam and Eve’s grief at the death of their son; but, no. The first emotion in the Torah belongs to God:
וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ
“And God regretted having created humankind on the earth,” a sentiment followed immediately by these words:
וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃
“And with a sorrowful heart, God said, “I will blot out humanity, which I created, from the face of the earth, along with all the beasts, and the creeping things, and the birds of the sky, for I regret making them at all.”1
Maybe it says something about God, regret coming first of all feelings. I think it says more about us: that the authors of the Torah so identified with the feeling of regret that they saw fit to ascribe this emotion first and foremost to God.
For while it is true that the God of the Hebrew Bible is anthropomorphic—that is, described with human form and human features (eyes that see, a mouth that speaks, ears that hear, an outstretched arm and a mighty hand, and even, in one of my favorite Biblical expressions, a “nose that glows,” which is how the Torah describes God getting really angry)—it is even more true that the God of the Hebrew Bible is anthropopathic, meaning, described as having human feelings: a God capable of feeling and acting on love and hate, sorrow and joy, jealousy and rage, disgust and yes, regret.
There’s actually something comforting to me about this image of a God who expresses regret, and so early in the Torah, too. For if God can second-guess having created the entire world; if God can say, “no, I really wish I hadn’t done that,” doesn’t that give us a little permission to live with regretting some of our own (considerably less consequential!) decisions?
Especially on Yom Kippur, this God of regret speaks to me. It won’t be God’s last time, either, by the way. God delivers the Israelites from Egyptian slavery only to find them, time and again, to be unruly, uncooperative, unfaithful; and, more than once, God expresses regret in having freed the people in the first place.
Again, it may say something about the Divine nature, that God can feel regret, wish things had gone differently, but it probably says more about us, that we would enshrine such natural and pervasive human feelings to the Divine.
Another tale from the Torah. It’s a long and complicated story found in the Book of Numbers, complete with a talking donkey and possibly even a cyclops, but here’s the gist. It features an unusually flawed protagonist, a Gentile sorcerer named Balaam. His employer, a fellow named Balak, King of the Moabites, sworn enemy of the Israelite nation, has summoned Balaam to do his dirty work for him: to curse the Israelites so that they will fall in battle.
Balaam shows up for his unholy mission, but not before God gets to him and hijacks his ability to curse the Israelites, forcing him to bless them instead. “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth,” he confesses. “When [God] blesses, I cannot reverse it.” So Balaam stands on the hilltop, gazing down at the Israelite encampment, and instead of damning the people, he graces them with words now enshrined in the prayer book, recited at every morning service. “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael,” “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!”2
While all this is happening, Balaam offers a candid aside. Gazing at the Israelite encampment, he says, “If only I could die a righteous man. If only my fate were like theirs!”3
How human of this fallen spellcaster, how poignant, for him to express regret like this. How real, and how raw, for him to think, “I don’t want my epitaph to say, ‘Sorcerer and Charlatan.’ Let me die the death of the upright. Let me redeem myself in righteousness before it’s too late.”
Balaam is saying a prayer that from time to time probably crosses our own minds:
Please, don’t let me die with regret. Don’t let my frailties and failings define me. Please let me go to my eternal rest feeling good about how I lived my life. Let me share in the fate of the people I admire most, the ones whose names I bless.4
And yet, we all carry regrets, even to the grave, because that too, is what it means to be human. If God carries regret, why not we?
This penultimate hour of the Day of Atonement, this Yizkor hour, is heavy with feeling. Not only because we come to this place and this moment with all our stored-up memories and love—all the sorrow that never really goes away, but just finds a sturdier container within us to hold it—but also because we come here with our regrets.
How could we not? It is true that grief is another form of love; and it is true that the love we shared with our dear ones—a wife, a mother, a father, a husband, a grandparent, a friend, a teacher, a sibling, a child—was never destined to last. But it is also true that our love, like all things human, was not devoid of flaws, was not perfect. It was, and is, a love tinged with regret.
A rabbi I met only once, Sam Karff, was one of the elder statesmen of the Reform Movement and a friend of WRT’s own Rabbi Jack Stern, z’l. Sam died two years ago. Contemplating his own mother’s death, he wrote: “It was not a perfect goodbye which only highlighted that—for all our precious bonding—ours was not a perfect relationship. There are none.”
Hence this Yizkor time together, and on Yom Kippur no less, day of forgiveness. Because today we seek not only forgiveness for the living among us, but forgiveness for our dead as well.
They hurt us sometimes by what they did or said, or what they failed to do or say. They hurt us by leaving us here alone, alone to negotiate our grief and wounds and memories; they left us alone with our regrets. Unfinished business, unspoken words, hopes unmet and dreams unfulfilled.
Come to think of it, we need forgiveness for ourselves, for all that we regret, too. And so we have this Yizkor time, for remembrance, for letting go of regret, this time, an hour before the gates are closed, for picking ourselves back up in order to move forward with renewed hope, into the new year.
When Stephen Sondheim died the day after Thanksgiving last year, you could count me among the legions of fans and admirers who greeted the occasion with mourning, albeit with only one regret, that I never met him. (He was on the short list of “people I’d love to have dinner with before I die.”)
But, speaking of regret—outside of the Torah itself, I don’t think any writer in any genre ever gave better voice to this feeling. “Send in the Clowns” is a masterclass in regret. There are many others. Regret provides the emotional through-line of entire Sondheim musicals: Follies and Merrily We Roll Along come to mind.
And then there’s Company, which many of you saw on Broadway this past year in a bold gender-inverted staging that Kelly and I saw in London back in 2019. Company does something unexpected, at least in Sondheim: it suggests a way to move forward in life and not languish in regret.
Company ends with a song called “Being Alive.” It’s sung by the protagonist, Bobby, a 35-year old bachelor (or bachelorette, in the newest production) who “realizes that being a lone wolf isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” In the song, Bobby “declares that he wants to take the chance, be afraid, get his heart broken—or whatever happens when you decide to love and be loved,” as a reviewer from the Washington Times once described it.
Sondheim actually tried two other songs to close out the show before (reluctantly) settling on “Being Alive,” which moves away from cynicism, toward hope, away from regret, toward renewal. Regret, the song teaches, is no reason to keep us from living most fully.
In the opening stanza, love is just
Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep
By the end, Bobby is pleading:
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I’ll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Death is the price we pay for being alive, and mourning is the price we pay for loving another person deeply, flaws and all.
Being alive means acknowledging our failings and theirs, the things that hurt us and frighten us.
Being alive means accepting that to be human is to live with regret.
Being alive means choosing to live, and to love, despite it all, to move forward, come what may.
May God’s compassionate embrace enfold our loved ones who have died.
May God’s eternal presence comfort us in our hour of need.
And may God’s abiding love move us to give thanks for being alive.
1 Genesis 6:6-7.
2 Numbers 24:5.
3 Numbers 23:10.
4 Special thanks to my teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (recently retired), for his insight into the theme of regret in this Biblical narrative.
Sermon delivered at Westchester Reform Temple
Yom Kippur Morning, 5783 / October 5, 2022
The smallest known image created by the prolific poet, illustrator, and engraver William Blake (no relation) is an etching measuring two by two-and-a-half inches—smaller than a Post-It™ note—that Blake created for a children’s book called The Gates of Paradise.
Published in 1793, it contains 18 images, each with a short caption. This particular image depicts a small, faceless figure standing at the bottom of an immense ladder that stretches up into a starry sky, leaning against the crook of a crescent moon.
As the figure (a child?) attempts to mount the first rung of the ladder, craning his neck toward the celestial object of his desire, a faceless couple (the parents?) can be seen, standing off to the side, at a distance, clutching each other.
At the bottom, in bold lettering, is the caption: “I want! I want!”
And if there is any depiction of the human condition better than this, I am not familiar with it.
At one time or another—maybe most of the time—we are all that faceless child, reaching for the moon, grasping for what we cannot have, staring stubbornly heavenward while our feet never get off the ground.
“I want! I want!”
Or, maybe we are the anxious couple, standing helplessly off to the side, and all we can do is hold each other as we watch someone we care about want and want, and still not have.
The Rabbis taught: .איזה הוא עשיר? השמח בחלקו “Who is rich? One who is happy with one’s portion.”1 Such a noble aspiration; so difficult to attain.
At best, we are like the angels going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s dream, hovering between contentment and complaint: one minute over the moon, the next, jolted back down to earth.
It could well be that happiness, fulfillment, that thing we’re after (whatever “that thing” may be: to feel loved, to feel seen, to feel understood, to feel valued, to be of service, to have good health, to have better grades, to have a fitter body, to have what my neighbors have, or what I think they must have, to have our loved ones know satisfaction and success and love and good health, oh, and by the way, could my daughter please just meet a nice Jewish boy?—that whatever we’re after, even when we attain a piece of it, even when we do grasp a corner of the moon—that, even then, the happiness such attainment confers proves ephemeral, and sure enough, sooner or later, we lose our grip and wind up right back at:
“I want! I want!”
Satisfaction is rare. Want is universal.
Perhaps my perspective has been unduly shaped by Covid and our turbulent state of public affairs. It seems more likely that Covid and the prickly present moment have combined to amplify our already disconsolate state of mind, but cannot be blamed for its root cause, which is—simply put—the human condition.
That is to say: we do not suffer because of pandemic disease or high inflation or climate change or partisan rancor, but because we are human.2
Like generations of readers, I take solace in the words of the twenty-third Psalm which begins, יי רעי לא אחסר, Adonai ro’i, lo echsar: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” and which includes some of the most indelible images of tranquility and contentment in all literature:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
And “My cup runneth over.”
But all is summarized by the two Hebrew words which lay out the theme of the poem, לא אחסר, lo echsar, “I shall not want,” or, more faithfully translated, “I lack nothing.”
Another way to define suffering, then, is the perception of lack, and another way to define happiness is—permit me an awkward phrase—the lack of lack: when, even momentarily, we do not want, have nothing to want, and, when we look over our lives and our world, despite all the dross and all the mess, we nevertheless can say: “my cup runneth over.”
In these words we also find a framework for understanding how God shows up in our lives: as the tranquility, joy, contentment, that we experience when we “want for nothing.”
“I want! I want!” is the root of so much suffering. Such a mindset—obsessed with lack, hellbent on acquisition—can be seen at its pathological extreme in, say, Vladimir Putin, who must be one of the most miserable men on the planet, despite his inordinate power, wealth, and privilege.
Such an example, while useful for illustrating the concept, is grotesque. We are not like that man. Still, let’s consider, on this Yom Kippur morning, this day of introspection, how the gnawing feeling of “I want! I want!” lodges within each of us, how it shapes our lives, drives our ambitions, and perpetuates our suffering.
Happiness strikes me as fundamental to life, or at least to a life well lived. Jefferson put the pursuit of it, alongside life and liberty, as an “unalienable right.” But notice that he did not view happiness itself as a right, only the pursuit of happiness: the implication being that its attainment is far from guaranteed, and that each of us must seek and find it for ourselves.
Any number of factors may contribute to our happiness—factors like wealth or prosperity, health and physical wellbeing, friendship, companionship, and love, attainment and achievement—but none of these factors necessarily guarantees it.
Our material situation affects our happiness, and financial resources can improve our quality of life, our comfort or convenience, the opportunities available to us, the security of our families; but surely we know people who are rich in dollars but poor in happiness.
Good health may also contribute to happiness. People experiencing chronic pain or discomfort have reason to feel discouraged, depleted, even depressed. But surely we know people in peak physical condition who lack happiness; and surely we know people who are frail or sick and who nevertheless never cease to surprise us with their positive outlook and joyful way in the world.
Good friendships, meaningful relationships, often correlate with happiness. The Torah speaks true when it says, “It is not good for a person to be alone.”2 Few forms of suffering are more painful (or more universal) than loneliness. Companionship, friendship, partnership, love: these add richness, beauty, and joy to life. At the same time, we all know people who find contentment in their own company, as well as people who have deep and lasting relationships and who nevertheless are in an inner state of suffering.
We also often assume that achievement leads to fulfillment. Explicitly and implicitly we teach our children the virtues of setting goals, achieving outcomes. We emphasize advancing in school and employment, pursuing opportunities that often impel us to work harder in order to achieve more and better.
So we work, and work, and work; we set goals and pursue them; we sometimes exceed even our own expectations as we make our way up the so-called ladder of success; and then, one day, many of us wake up realizing that, with every goal accomplished, we still feel an insatiable “I want, I want!” from deep within. Attainment may provide a measure of satisfaction, but it rarely leads to lasting happiness. It is certainly no antidote to suffering.
I wonder what would happen if we tried on a Yom Kippur mindset—and not just for today. What would it feel like to stand before ourselves, our community, and God with only our mitzvot, our deeds, and our middot, our dispositions, and not our résumés, to speak for us? Maybe we’d discover that, rather than deriving from some external condition, “happiness is an inside job.” That happiness, the absence of suffering, the lack of lack, describes an inner state of being.
We can shift our mindset to think of suffering as being in contention with what is, and happiness as what happens when we are not in contention with what is—even if it’s just a temporary reprieve, a momentary state of acceptance, the grace of “lo echsar,” that “I want for nothing.”
Throughout this holy season, it is customary in many Jewish communities to read each day from Psalm 27: “Only one thing do I ask of God; this, my only request: that I might dwell in God’s house all the days of my life.” Its close cousin, Psalm 23, ends on a similar note: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The house of God of which the Psalmist sings is not a real estate listing. It has no physical address, no doors or rooms. It is not to be found at the end of a ladder to the sky. It metaphorically describes a tranquil state of mind, an inner calm and equanimity. To “dwell in the house of God” is to be at peace with what is, for our minds and hearts and souls to align in acceptance of our present state of being.
I find this poetic image of “dwelling in the house” of God a whole lot more relatable than the notion of “believing in” God. For me, “faith” and “belief” are difficult words and difficult concepts. My relationship with God does not emerge from what I believe, much less from the kind of absolute trust or belief conveyed by the word “faith.”
My understanding of God, rather, emerges from what I have lived and what I have learned, what I have experienced and what others—what you—have taught me about your experiences.
I am, therefore, rather inclined to talk about how we experience God, how God “shows up” in our lives, than about how we do or do not “believe” or “have faith” in God.
For me, God shows up when I experience tranquility, contentment, connection, joy, and, above all, when I recognize—even for a moment—that I lack nothing. When the incessant buzz of I want, I want! is quieted just enough for me to hear something deeper, a melody that has been playing all along, beneath the clamor: I lack nothing. I may not have everything I want, but, at this moment, I have everything I need. When we learn to distinguish between what we need and what we want, we begin to approach happiness.
Over my sabbatical, I went back to Hebrew School, enrolling in an online ulpan, or immersive language class. Among the many common expressions we learned is one of my new favorites. In modern Hebrew, if you want to say, “I’m cool with that,” you say, השלמתי עם זה, hishlamti im zeh, the word “השלמתי” being a verb-form of shalom, meaning, “I am at peace with that,” or “I am whole, complete, fulfilled.” I am in a state of shalom.
When, looking over my life, I can say, השלמתי עם זה, I am at peace with this, I am content—even if for a moment—that is when I experience God, the God of the 23rd Psalm, the God of “I want for nothing,” the God who appears not as Avinu, Malkeinu, as Father, or King, or Judge; not the God who appears at Sinai, but, rather, who appears as Shepherd: the God beside the still waters, who restores my soul. In those moments, I can say: “I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
Nothing more. Not judging, not governing, not parenting, not recording or recounting. Just “with me”—in the calm, lucid awareness of hishlamti im zeh, “I am at peace with this.”
In preparing these remarks, I turned to Bible and Midrash, to philosophers medieval and modern, seeking inspiration in sources as disparate as the Hasidic Rabbis and the Dalai Lama.
But I found no better teachers than my twin nephew and niece, Jacob and Shirah, who will turn eleven later this month.
Jakey and Shirah are my sister Rebecca’s younger kids. She also has Samson, who celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah over Labor Day weekend. Samson is what we call neurotypical. Shirah and Jakey were born with cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy, or CP, is the most common childhood motor disability, affecting somewhere between one and four children out of every 1,000. It is believed to be caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects the control of one’s muscles. While CP always affects one’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture, the diagnosis actually encompasses a wide spectrum of disorders. Many children with CP will learn to walk, talk, attend mainstream schools, and go on to lead lives that most of us would think of as “normal.”
When Jakey and Shirah were very little, we would dream that one day, they too would grow up with such abilities and opportunities. But here they are, almost eleven, and they cannot walk on their own; they get around in wheelchairs pushed by others. They cannot speak (with words, that is); they cannot feed or dress or toilet themselves.
Because of their growing needs as they approach adolescence, and following extensive and, at times, agonizing considerations and conversations, our family helped Jakey and Shirah to move, this summer, to a residential community upstate that provides extensive services to people with developmental disabilities.
By all accounts, they are happy there, and, no surprise, the amazing staff of caretakers, educators, and therapeutic professionals all fell in love with them instantly.
I am, truth be told, hard-pressed to think of a time when these two children haven’t been content. Sure, they have their moments. Jakey gets anxious meeting new people, and Shirah, who likes to be the center of attention, makes it known when she is not getting enough.
But, so far as I can tell, Jakey and Shirah might be two of the happiest people I know. They love music and stuffed animals. They love french fries and pizza and afternoons at the pool. They love hugs and silliness. Shirah, in particular, loves it when Aunt Kelly sings to her. They have a big brother who adores them and loves playing with them. My sister, together with Jakey and Shirah’s father, their stepfather, and Grammy and Poppy (my parents) have all been wellsprings of boundless support, love, and connection.
And they have in each other a best friend, playmate, and constant companion. You’ll often find them just giggling or holding hands.
Still, many people see only what Jakey and Shirah lack, and miss seeing what they have. They miss seeing how much delight they have and bring to others. Internally resourced happiness, without dilution or complication. A rare and precious kind of shalom.
And, I think, the reason they are so happy, and have so much to teach us about happiness, is because, unlike most of us, they perceive no lack in their lives. Nothing is missing, from their point of view.
Without words, but with their innermost being, I imagine that Jakey and Shirah are telling us, lo echsar, “I want for nothing.” I have food and clothing, a warm bed and a safe home. I have a family that loves me and people who care for my every need. I have my best friend by my side. If I don’t feel good, or if I’m hungry, or if I’m scared, or confused, or lonely, and I just raise my voice—my distress will be over in a matter of moments. If I do suffer, I need not suffer long. I have all I need.
They remind us that there’s another way to translate lo echsar, which is, “I am not lacking.” I am enough. God does not need me to be anyone other than who I am.
And is there any more Yom Kippur teaching than this?
So let us pray:
With Divine love to shepherd us, may we be at peace with who we are, and want for nothing.
May we wake each day to apprehend and appreciate green pastures, tranquil waters, a soul that feels restored.
When we walk through life’s darkest valleys, even in the shadow of death, may we feel unafraid, safe, at peace, for the Holy One is with us.
May we move forward through whatever life offers us, guided by the comfort of a caring hand.
Even in the presence of those who hurt us or harass us, may we be content with what has been placed upon our table.
May we hold our heads high, and when we lift our cups, filled with the mixed wine of life, may we drink deeply from an overflow of the sweet stuff.
May we walk in awareness of the love and goodness that follows us all the days of our lives.
And may every place we dwell be the house of God.
1 Pirkei Avot 4:1.
2 Kelly pointed out to me that “Life is suffering,” or “the existence of suffering,” is the first of the so-called “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism.
3 Genesis 2:18.
Sermon for Kol Nidre 5783 / October 4, 2022
I’m sitting in the railway station in Przemyśl, on Poland’s southeastern border with Ukraine. It is Monday, March 14th. Today, approximately 150 refugees will stream into Poland, every minute, as they will every hour of every day this week, and for weeks to come. Just three weeks into Russia’s onslaught, the population of Warsaw has already swelled by more than 300,000, three times the total number of Ukrainians approved to arrive in all of the United States. There is not an unoccupied bed within 100 miles of the border: not in private homes, hotels, hostels, civic or religious centers.
I’m sitting in the railway station amid a sea of bodies, bodies pressed close, bodies arranged haphazardly—cross-legged on the floor, leaning on the ticket counter, lying down on benches—bodies belonging mostly to women and children, haggard and sleep-deprived, heavy of cares and light of luggage. Most have brought a single rollaboard for families of four and five and more. Kids tote brightly colored backpacks and clutch stuffed animals and reach for chips and dried fruit that someone got from a vending machine. Women’s faces glow pale in the blue light of a hundred cell phone screens, anxiously awaiting messages from across the border. All husbands and fathers and sons between the ages of 18 and 60 are conscripted men. Many have not been reachable for weeks.
There are millions of them now: refugees in Poland and neighboring countries, millions more internally displaced, having fled the territory under Putin’s siege. By May 27th, the number of people forced to flee violence, conflict, human rights violations, and persecution globally exceeded 100 million for the first time on record, a grim threshold attained by the more than ten million Ukrainians who left.
This is the second time I have addressed the plight of refugees on Yom Kippur. The differences between 2016 and now are noteworthy. Six years ago, I spoke about walls and fences, words that evoked strong feelings and inflamed partisan passions. That rancor wormed its way into every corner of American life, synagogues included, and more than a few congregants at that time conveyed their disapproval of “talking politics” from the bimah, a characterization of my remarks that, respectfully, I do not embrace, given that the obligation to safeguard the refugee is a mitzvah, a religious commandment, steeped in Jewish history and bolstered with the force of Jewish law in countless texts and contexts, from the Torah to the present day.
It is worth noting that this issue may not even seem controversial this time around. Solidarity with Ukrainian refugees is widespread, with good reason. Most Western countries, for starters, are aligned in their distrust and dislike of Vladimir Putin. There is also the not-small consideration that those fleeing Ukraine are mostly White women and children. They look like us. Their children look like our children. They are receiving a sympathetic embrace entirely unlike the xenophobic scrutiny to which millions of Middle Eastern and other darker-skinned refugees have been subjected.
This last point, especially, hit home on our humanitarian mission back in March, consisting of 18 rabbis traveling under the auspices of the UJA-Federation of New York.
While our trip emphasized our responsibility to assist refugees of all backgrounds—irrespective of religion, country of origin, native language, skin color, gender, or age—we could not help but catch a glimpse of ourselves in these Ukrainian refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians (and therefore a significant number of displaced persons) are, themselves, Jews, and many of our own family stories run through this blood-soaked part of the world: through Ukraine and Poland, Belarus and Russia, Hungary and Romania and the Czech Republic.
As we traveled by bus in the dead of night to the Polish city of Lublin—once a seat of Jewish culture and rabbinical learning—many of us remarked that, not so long ago, our not-so-distant relatives left this place and countless nearby cities, towns and villages, with little more than threadbare bags of meager belongings, fleeing state-sponsored violence, or hostile townsfolk, or conscription into the armies of the Czars where Jewish peasants would die by the thousands in the front lines, or of starvation, disease, or hypothermia.
And those who escaped were the lucky ones, for they are not counted among the millions who lie in nameless graves or who boarded one-way cattle cars to the crematoria.
So, to say that our feelings were complicated, here, on the border between Poland and Ukraine, would be an understatement. The national anthem of Ukraine trumpets, “We are the proud descendants of the Cossacks,” name-checking the people usually invoked in Jewish memory for having carried out violent pogroms against Jews.
But if you think that the situation is complicated for me, a third-generation American, imagine how it must be for Evgeny Pavlovskiy, a Shoah survivor we met in Warsaw.
95 years old, frail and infirm, Evgeny was content to live alone in his apartment in the Kyiv area, just two houses away from the entrance to Babyn Yar, where the Nazis murdered 33,000 Jews over two days in 1941. When his son and family made aliyah, moving to Israel earlier in the winter, Evgeny decided to remain in his home. Even as Russian troops, tanks and artillery amassed on the border, he simply could not believe that Putin would attack his country.
“My father did not want to leave Ukraine no matter how hard I pressed,” said his son Mykhailo, who now goes by Moshe. “By the time I finally persuaded him, no one was around to help.” As war broke out, Evgeny made three solo attempts to flee Russian shelling and artillery. His harrowing journey to Poland, a drive that in normal circumstances would have taken eight hours, lasted three days. Along the way he watched his peers die in sub-freezing temperatures while waiting in line for seven hours just to buy a rail ticket across the border.
Meanwhile, his son Moshe was making his own journey back from Israel to meet him in Poland. We caught up with them the day they reunited. They shared their story with tears in their eyes: the son’s, from sheer relief, the father’s, from exhaustion and heartbreak.
The next morning, we sent them off to the airport. And although we smiled and dispensed Purim candy and cheered and sang “Am Yisrael Chai,” inside, my heart was breaking too, because even in his new home, even in Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish homeland, Evgeny Pavlovskiy will live out the rest of his days in exile.
From his story we understand more fully what it means to be a Jew: to have a home, to go into exile from that home, and even when returning home, to carry exile with us.
It has always been like this. With Lech-Lecha, “Go forth,” God sent Abraham and Sarah to a new home, Canaan. Three times in as many generations their family fled famine and became exiles in the land of Egypt. For a time they prospered, but before long, a Pharaoh arose who “knew not Joseph,” and their adoptive home became a place of genocide and slavery.
Deliverance came after centuries of suffering. We were told it was time for exile to end, time to go home. We left for a Promised Land, guarded across the Sea by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; guided through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, every step of the way longing for home.
But many of us, the Torah tells us, felt more at home in Egypt than in the Promised Land. Some even begged, pleaded, insisted on going back. Three tribes of our people elected to raise cattle on the other side of the Jordan rather than try their fortunes in Eretz Yisrael.
An article that appeared ten years ago in Smithsonian Magazine observes that human beings organize space this way: “Home is home, and everything else is not-home.”1
Even though most of us know what it feels like to pack up, leave home, make a new home—the average person moves over eleven times in a lifetime—we still “have an amazing ability to feel nostalgia even for those places that held hardship, bitterness, and heartache,” an observation that Kelly shared in a summer D’var Torah delivered here at WRT. She was referring to Mariam and Achta, the two refugee sisters WRT helped to resettle after they fled genocide in their home country, the Central African Republic.
Home and not-home. We have Mariam and Achta yearning for Africa, Israelites yearning for Egypt, and Evgeny Pavlovskiy yearning for Ukraine. We have 16th Century Jews recently arrived in Italy and Turkey and Morocco and even Eretz Yisrael, longing for Spain and Portugal. What are the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the great Jewish writer and immigrant American who was born near Kyiv, and who died in New York City, and whose most memorable character, Tevye the Dairyman, is immortalized in Fiddler on the Roof, if not the definitive testament of our longing for a vanished world, for a home that was now not-home? A home that took so much, that inflicted such trauma, and yet was always home, even generations after we left. (If you have never set foot in Eastern Europe but still have a taste for pickled herring, or your heart still swells to the sound of the chazzan davenning Kol Nidre, then you understand what I mean.)
In Warsaw, we met Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who until recently served as the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Faced with the choice of supporting the Russian invasion “or else,” he chose to make Aliyah to Israel, with Poland a temporary stop on his escape route. “[O]ver the centuries,” he teaches, “rabbis used to sign their names on documents, not as a ‘rabbi of’ a certain city, but rather ‘as a temporary dweller’ of that city.”2 We understand why.
This, then, is what I have learned from from witnessing these stories of heartbreak and courage, of danger and possibility, of home and not-home:
First, that we should see ourselves in the face of every exile: in the refugee and the deportee, the migrant and the immigrant, the one fleeing violence and hardship and the one seeking new opportunity, in the Jew and and the Gentile, in those who look and dress and talk like us and those who look and dress and talk differently.
“For you know the heart of the stranger,” the Torah reminds us, “having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” There is no Jewish history without exile, no Jewish mission without empathy, no Jewish identity without awareness of our people’s eternal dance between home and not-home.
Judaism does not look kindly on the mistreatment of the human being in exile. To cite a recent example: the cynical exploitation of foreign migrants, relocating them without their consent from the US Southern Border to Martha’s Vineyard, or Washington, DC, or Chicago, runs counter to everything our religious tradition teaches about how to treat other human beings. Judaism does not support playing games with human lives, least of all to score points or stoke partisan grievances.
The other lesson I learned from my encounter on the border, the border between Poland and Ukraine, between home and not-home, is this: That we are all in exile; that we are all searching for home.
Put another way: I am asking us to see ourselves in the face of the refugee, to empathize with the exile; but I am also asking to look within and see the refugee in each of us, to empathize with our inner condition of exile.
For each of us is in exile, each of us searching for home.
As I think back on the last two-and-a-half years, as I take in and do what I can to make sense of all the stories you have shared, our WRT family, a common theme emerges, one summarized by a single word that countless members of our community have expressed: disconnection.
Some of us report feeling disconnected from our places of work, our friends, our parents or children, our loved ones, our families. Many feel disconnected from a sense of purpose, from a sense of agency, from the confidence to move forward in life. And many of you have shared feeling disconnected from this synagogue, from this community, from WRT—this place we may still call “home,” but, lately, we’re less sure.
The Jewish tradition has a name for this feeling: it’s called Galut which means exile in Hebrew. Exile is not only a geographical condition; it’s also a spiritual condition.
The 18th Century Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky, better known as the Me’or Einayim, came from Chernobyl, which we all know is in Ukraine. He taught that even after the Exodus from Egypt, when we went forth from Galut, from exile, something of Galut, something of exile, remained within us.
What we lost in exile, he explained, was our connection to the awareness of God, and, even now, something of that spiritual exile, that disconnection from our holy Source, remains within us. Instead of feeling love for the Divine Source of life and blessing, we have shifted our love to material things and baser desires which may stimulate but ultimately not fulfill.3 Instead of feeling awe at the mystery and majesty of human life and the vast and awesome cosmos, we bow down before power and prestige. Instead of responding with fear and horror at the inhumane treatment of all that is fragile and vulnerable in God’s creation, we recoil only at what injures our self-interest. We are in exile, on the inside, each of us alienated from the Source of life and goodness.
For those of us who have felt disconnected from WRT during these difficult years, first, I want to apologize on this Kol Nidre. Al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha: For the times we failed to meet you where you were, to check in during the darkest hours. For the times we didn’t call, the times we made assumptions, the times we tried and failed. I ask for your forgiveness and acknowledge our desire to connect with you once again, in teshuvah—the process of return, renewal, and healing.
Second, I invite you to join me, my clergy colleagues, our professional staff, and your fellow congregants—this entire holy community—on a spiritual journey, beginning tonight. I am asking us to do what we can to venture out of our exile.
Here at WRT, we have planned a year of connecting and reconnecting, of learning and spiritual exploration, of music and prayer, of celebration and social action, of finding our way back as a community, and finding our way forward.
We are also finding a way back to the Promised Land, literally, as we prepare for our first congregational trip to Israel since 2019, which will take place a year from this December. Enrollment will open later this fall. Whether or not you’ve been to Israel, I hope you will open yourselves to this experience as a kind of homecoming.
In the meantime, I am directly asking that this week’s visit to WRT will not be your last until next year. If you don’t yet know all of the clergy, we can’t wait to meet you. If you don’t know your fellow congregants, please take the initiative to leave Yom Kippur with one new cell phone number or email. If you feel at all disconnected from this place, the people up here, or the people out there, let’s connect, and find our way home together.
But even as we begin our journey back to this home, I am asking us to explore the exile within us, to see how our own internal alienation may be holding us back from finding our truest home: the home within, that central and centered place, where we no longer feel estranged from our higher selves, our higher purpose and our higher Power.
Maybe we are feeling alienated from, or even by, a family member, coworker, or friend. Before lashing out, look within. Ask yourself: how much of this situation do I need to own? How much have I withdrawn into myself instead of connecting? How willing am I to re-engage, or to be re-engaged?
Or maybe we feel disconnected because we hurt so much. The good news is, we’re not alone. As a friend once taught me: “It’s hard to be a person.” If that’s how you feel, would you consider adopting a daily gratitude practice? Make an inventory of the good, what our tradition calls “hakarat ha-tov.” Acknowledge three things to be grateful for each morning before you register your first complaint of the day.
Introspection before projection. Gratitude before grousing. A few attitudinal shifts that might help us address the exile within.
For even as we have learned that, as we left Egypt, we took a piece of exile with us, we have also learned that in every place we were exiled, the Divine Presence went with us. The Rabbis often refer to God as Ha-Makom, meaning “The Place” or “The Omnipresent.” Wherever God is, there is home.
God went down with us, the Talmud says, to Egypt and Babylonia, to Rome and Greece and France and Germany, to Poland and Russia and Ukraine, to all the places of our banishment, all the places we remember as both home and not-home.
And when the Torah promises that, some day, all the exiles will come home, it does not say that God will send back the Jewish people on their own, but rather that “the Holy One of Blessing will return together with us from all our various states of exile.”4
As we come home on this night of promises and possibilities, join me in praying for the more than 100 million human beings in exile tonight, running from violence and persecution, searching for home.
And join me, no less, in turning inward, acknowledging the exile deep within the heart of human experience, the exile who does not remember how to connect, the exile who has felt abandoned by friends and community, even by family, even by this temple, the exile who still yearns for home, who still searches for home, who still remembers home, and who summons the courage to take a first, halting step to return.
Ha-Makom, the One who meets us in exile and who is our Home in every age: grant us—each of us alone, and all of us together—a way back home.
2 Pinchas Goldschmidt, “My First Yom Kippur in Exile,” The New York Times, published October 2, 2022, online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/opinion/moscow-rabbi-yom-kippur.html.
3 See Me’or Einayim, Parashat Shemot, s.v., והנה אחר יציאת מצרים.
4 Quoting and paraphrasing Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a.
SERMON DELIVERED AT WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE, ROSH HA-SHANAH MORNING, 5783
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2022
Eight years ago, a paper based on archaeological findings in Northern Africa, specifically Carthage, Tunisia, rocked the academic world. It concluded that the ancient Carthiginians in all likelihood practiced child sacrifice, and, even more shockingly, that the ritual sacrifice of children may have been fairly common throughout this part of the world—including ancient Israel.1
The burial site in Carthage belongs to a specific type that archaeologists designate with the Hebrew word tophet, a location described in the Bible where people would sacrifice their children as burnt offerings to various gods. It’s also a word for “hell.”
Archaeologists discovered that the tophet of Carthage contained over 20,000 urns stuffed with the cremated ashes and bone fragments of young children, suggesting that the practice took place over several centuries. At its largest, this ritual burial ground covered over 64,000 square feet and spanned nine different levels.2
It looks increasingly credible that infants were sacrificed as burnt offerings to ancient Near-Eastern deities, including Yahweh, the god of the ancient Israelites. Our God.2
Hi. Still with me? Shanah tovah! It’s wonderful to be with you, this first day of a beautiful new year.
So. Child sacrifice. Year in and year out, we meet Abraham and Isaac at Moriah, the mountain of decision, where the fate of son and father (and ram) hang in the balance as precariously as the knife raised in the air. Year in, year out, we find new angles to explore, new meaning to be mined from ancient words. There are some texts, the Rabbis said, that cry out, darsheini, “Explain me!”
For the scholars who have examined the findings at the tophet of Carthage and other similar sites, the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, is a proof-text corroborating the practice of child sacrifice. It is far from the only one. In the Hebrew Bible alone, the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, and Jeremiah all refer to child sacrifice in one way or another, often in the form of laws and proclamations condemning and forbidding the practice—a fact that itself strengthens the conclusion that child sacrifice really did happen in ancient Israel.3
Naturally, we recoil in horror at the thought of the sacrifice of a single child, let alone a cultural practice of this magnitude. It is, as Dr. Josephine Quinn, a Classics professor at Oxford University, has noted, “very difficult for us to recapture people’s motivations for carrying out this practice or why parents would agree to it, but it’s worth trying. Perhaps it was out of profound religious piety, or a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child…. We think of it as a slander because we view it in our own terms. But people looked at it differently 2,500 years ago.”4
That’s a perspective worth affirming. We should always be careful before judging ancient Near-Eastern practices from our 21st-century American vantage point.
Even more, we should ask: How far have we come?
After all, every generation tells itself that it wants to build a better world, not for its own sake, but for the sake of “the children.” Every generation means it, too. Yet, in every generation, we practice some form of child sacrifice, whether we mean to or not.
The Greatest Generation bequeathed a legacy of having vanquished the Nazis and the Axis Powers. It also gave birth to a threat of nuclear annihilation that persists to this day.
The Boomer generation strove to provide a peaceful global order after the Cold War, to give their children unbridled economic prosperity and technological possibility. But each advance has produced unintended perils and problems.
You see, every generation, for all its noble aspirations, for all its hopes and dreams for its children, has practiced some form of child sacrifice. Many undesirable outcomes have arisen, despite best intentions, through plain old shortsightedness: an unfortunate, universal, human defect.
It is not hard to understand the cynicism about the present and the anxieties about the future that many Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Post-Millennials now feel. The growing gulf in resources between those who “have” and those who “have not” (or who “have less”) has made it significantly harder for younger generations to attain the benchmarks of success that came earlier and easier to their parents.
On the altar of individual rights, we have sacrificed our children’s willingness to give priority to the common good.
On the altar of unregulated gun ownership, we have sacrificed our children’s safety and emotional wellbeing in classrooms and offices, in parks and concert halls and supermarkets and movie theaters.
On the altar of partisan rancor, we have sacrificed our children’s faith in democratic institutions and elected officials.
On the altar of technology, we have sacrificed our children’s desire to engage in real, live community.
On the altar of fake news, we have sacrificed our children’s ability to tell truth from lies. (And yes, sometimes, our parents’ ability, too. And sometimes our own.)
And every day that we refuse to take bold action to curb climate change, reduce carbon emissions, and make the sacrifices necessary to invest in renewable energy on a global scale, is a day that we are making a burnt offering of our planet, a tophet, a hell on earth for our children and grandchildren to weather, or clean up—if they can.
Thirty years ago, more than 1,500 prominent scientists, including over half of the world’s Nobel laureates, issued a manifesto titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” They admonished: “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
Author Anthony Doerr (whose recent book Cloud Cuckoo Land is a must-read, by the way) read that manifesto, and here’s what happened.
“I wrote checks to some conservation organizations, replaced some incandescent bulbs and rode my bike to work,” he says. “I also hurtled through the troposphere on hundreds of airplanes (each round trip from New York to London costs the Arctic another three square meters of ice), bought and sold multiple automobiles and helped my wife put two more Americans onto the planet…. I routinely walk up to a podium, open a brand new plastic bottle of water, take a sip and promptly forget that it exists.”
One minute, Doerr will recognize what he calls “the insanity of our trajectory,” and then, the next, he’ll “get swamped by the tsunami of the day: One kid has strep throat, another needs to go to the dentist, I’ve forgotten six or seven internet passwords, the dog just pooped on the rug.”
“Hour by hour, minute by minute,” he concludes, “I make decisions that seem like the right things to do at the time, but which prevent me from reflecting on the most significant, most critical fact in my life: Every day I participate in a system that is weaponizing our big, gorgeous planet against our kids.”5
Perhaps Abraham was all too willing to go through with the sacrifice of his child not so much because he was a malignant parent but because it was the task-at-hand, a pressing matter, a test he could not afford to fail. In every generation, the demands of the urgent, the immediate, the here-and-now, always seem to override the needs of an abstract “future” years or decades or centuries hence.
“So, Rabbi,” I hear you asking, “ what do we do?”
The short answer is, I don’t know. It feels like we could be doing so much, but little will make any difference. How can we make sure that the long view matters as much to us as the demands of our daily lives?
Judaism has some answers to that conundrum. By embracing our Judaism and teaching the next generation why it matters, we will do our part to unbind them from the sacrificial altars of our time.
What we have to offer, with the genius of the oldest living spiritual tradition, is a Jewish approach to living that provides enduring hope, long-range ethical vision, and transcendent purpose.
Three aspects of Judaism lead me to this conclusion. First, that Judaism has always been a tradition that demands sacrifice, not of others but of oneself for the sake of others.
Second, that Judaism has always been a tradition that affirms the possibility of change: that we can change, and that we can change our world.
And last, that Judaism has always been a tradition about choice: choosing joy in the face of suffering, life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair, and, above all, good in the face of evil.
Sacrifice for the Sake of Others
What shall we teach our children about Judaism, and why it matters? Let us remind them that our tradition insists that we sacrifice of ourselves for the sake of others.
The Book of Esther that we read on Purim teaches this value. Upon learning the news of Haman’s impending genocide, Esther, who has up until this point hidden her Jewish identity from the king, initially demurs. “I don’t even have an audience with the king,” she tells her uncle Mordechai, adding that to appear before the throne without an invitation was an offense punishable by death.
“Do not think that you will escape with your life just because you’re in the king’s palace,” Mordechai warns, adding: “If you remain silent, someone else may come along to save the Jews, but you and your family line will perish. Perhaps it is for this very reason that you have attained your position of authority.” So Esther steels her nerve and declares: “I shall go to the king, even though it’s against the law; and if I am to be lost, then I will be lost.”6
This is the true spirit of our heritage, this, the true meaning of Jewish sacrifice: the willingness to do the right thing even at great personal risk, the courage to make painful choices right here and now, not for ourselves, but for the future of our people and our world.
Judaism does not demand that we become martyrs or lawbreakers for our faith. But it does ask us to put our reputations on the line, our popularity or public standing, to do what is right: to stand up for the vulnerable, to raise a voice in protest at injustice and cruelty, at falsehood and the abuse of power. It asks us to do the hard thing instead of the convenient thing, the counter-cultural thing instead of the fashionable thing, the charitable thing instead of the selfish thing, the holy thing instead of the ordinary thing.
A true story. There I was, toward the end of my winter sabbatical, at a Talmud seminar for rabbis in the city, when a call came in from our UJA-Federation asking me to join a delegation of rabbis heading to Poland to meet Ukrainian refugees, three weeks into the Russian onslaught. Honestly, at first I felt conflicted. On the fence. I came back to the study hall and our teacher handed out this passage from the Book of Esther. Sometimes a text cries out darsheini, “explain me!”; sometimes a text speaks for itself. Esther spoke to me with uncommon lucidity and directness, reminding me that Jews do not remain silent in the face of suffering. An hour later, I booked my flight to Warsaw.
Change is Possible
What else shall we teach our children about Judaism, and why it matters? Let us remind them that our tradition insists that change is always possible. In a world where so many of us feel stuck, helpless, powerless to make the changes that this moment demands, to address its perils and evils, let us yet declare that change is possible.
Throughout these High Holidays, our prayers will feature litanies of confession. We will admit our faults and beat our breasts. Amid all this public self-flagellation we may miss the point, which is not simply “repentance.” I bristle at the word “repentance,” which comes from the Old French repentir, meaning, “to feel regret for sins or crimes.” The point is exactly not to paralyze ourselves in regret or shame or self-pity. The point is to begin teshuvah, a word meaning “to turn around.” To affirm that we can change. And that, beginning with ourselves, we can change the world.
Read any story in Torah; the lesson is always this. Take Jacob, who was an incorrigible schemer until he earned redemption through his love of his family. He discovered the meaning of giving of oneself, in love, to others. Greed gave way to generosity. After wrestling with a mysterious messenger in the dead of night, Jacob emerged injured but blessed. His transformation was complete. He became Yisrael, Israel: the one who strives with God and humanity and prevails. The limp was a small sacrifice for what he gained in insight and integrity. It was also a reminder that change is always possible, and often painful.
Judaism does not expect us to be Jacob or Esther or anyone other than ourselves, but, the most fully developed, vital selves we can be. It does not expect us to change overnight—not ourselves, and not the world. It does tell us that we can change, little by little, mitzvah by mitzvah, and leave the world a little better than we found it.
We Must Choose
What, finally, must we teach our children about Judaism, and why it matters? Let us remind them, above all, that our tradition empowers us to choose: to choose joy in the face of suffering, life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair, goodness in the face of apathy and immorality.
How we choose to live this tradition matters. It sends a message to the next generation. We can choose to live our Judaism joyfully and vigorously or we can languish in complacency.
An essay published 36 years ago by historian Simon Rawidowicz famously described Jews, consumed by constant anxiety over antisemitism and extinction, as “the ever-dying people.” Why would the next generation embrace a tradition defined this way? Why light Shabbat candles, or join a synagogue, or observe Pesach, or give tzedakah to support the Jewish community, or raise children Jewishly, if we convey only that Judaism demands the observance of empty rituals, the rote recitation of hollow prayers, the defensive instincts of a perpetually traumatized people?
Let us instead teach that Judaism is—at all times and in every generation—about courageously choosing joy, choosing hope, choosing life, and choosing goodness. For ourselves and our posterity.
In 1997, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote a letter to his newborn son. I have held onto it and cherished it for twenty-five years. In it he writes: “You have made your appearance at the tail end of a century that has broken every record for evil and cruelty. Our era… has collapsed forever the illusion that there is a limit to the atrocities of which human beings are capable. And for human atrociousness there is no cure—except the cultivation of human goodness.”
“You are so tiny, little one. You have so much growing to do. As I cradle you in my arms or watch you sleep in your crib, I pray that life brings you vigor and health, delight and fortune. Like every parent, I want you to do well. But more than anything else, I want you to do good.”7
In a reeling world of limitless choices—many of them harmful or just plain wrong—Judaism teaches us how to choose the good.
Is there any greater gift we can give our children?
Give thanks with me, then, that God has blessed us with a bright and promising new year.
Give thanks to God, for the strength to sacrifice, the courage to change, the wisdom to choose.
Give thanks to God that we can share our good, beautiful, and life-affirming tradition with a generation yet to come, a generation that will inherit the world we leave them.
1 “Ancient Carthiginians Really Did Sacrifice Their Children,” published online, January 23, 2014, at https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-01-23-ancient-carthaginians-really-did-sacrifice-their-children
2 See “Tophet at Carthage,” Atlas Obscura, published October 2, 2017 at https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/tophet-at-carthage
3 See Heath W. Dewrell, “Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel,” in Friends of ASOR, Vol. V, No. 12, December 2017, published online at https://www.asor.org/anetoday/2017/12/child-sacrifice-ancient-israel/
4 “Ancient Carthiginians Really Did Sacrifice Their Children,” published online, January 23, 2014, at https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-01-23-ancient-carthaginians-really-did-sacrifice-their-children
5 “Anthony Doerr: We Were Warned,” The New York Times, November 18, 2017, published online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/18/opinion/sunday/anthony-doerr-we-were-warned.html
6 Esther 4:12-14.
7 “A message to my newborn son,” March 27, 1997, published online at http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/1997/03/27/a_message_to_my_newborn_son/
Sermon Delivered at Greater Centennial AME Zion Church
Mount Vernon, New York
Sunday, July 31, 2022 – 9:30 AM
Good morning, Greater Centennial family!
To you, and to all of our Westchester Reform Temple family who join in this shared worship both here in church and online: good morning and shalom! What a joy it is for me to be welcomed back so warmly by your congregation, to share these words from the pulpit, to be surrounded by this loving and vibrant congregation and to share this altar with my friend, Rev. Stephen Pogue, and with your new Assistant to the Pastor, Rev. Kellie Wofford who officially begins tomorrow, so enjoy your last day of funemployment. To the pastor, his wife, First Lady Iris, and the entire staff and congregation of Greater Centennial — Kelly and I are blessed to enjoy this sacred fellowship. Recently (my) Kelly learned of a friend who passed, and she is singing at his funeral this morning in the city, so she sends her regrets and her blessings to all of you.
Now, back in June, the Pastor spoke at our congregation’s annual Juneteenth service. Well, I say he spoke “at” the service, but actually he was phoning it in.
I am not trying to dis your Pastor. He put all of his heart and soul and might into his preaching as he always does. He was just literally doing it by telephone because his flight from Atlanta back to New York had been canceled.
A routine flight canceled for no apparent reason is, of course, the definition of “a very 2022 problem.” And, with it came a very 2022 solution, one that required a little ingenuity and technology. After two and a half years of worshiping over Zoom, live-streaming services over social media, figuring out how to get the Pastor’s voice from a telephone in Atlanta to a synagogue in Scarsdale proved relatively easy.
What seems to be proving much harder, as we all know, is getting our lives and our churches and our synagogues back to what we think of as “normal.”
Now, I don’t know about how things are with you, Greater Centennial, but it’s no secret that at Westchester Reform Temple and, surveys show, in houses of worship of every faith and every denomination, attendance is down… in some cases, way down. People feel depressed, burned out, lethargic. They’re apparently having a hard time getting their butts off their couches and into the pews.
And I don’t know how things are going in your homes and in your hearts, Greater Centennial, but it’s no secret that, fifteen minutes up the road, and for that matter, wherever you go, people may put on a game face in public but many feel stuck, paralyzed, in a kind of limbo. Spirits are down… in some cases, way down.
Fine time, then, for a spiritual kick in the pants, which comes courtesy of the Scripture reading that Jewish people all over the world encounter this week. In the opening chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, verse six, it is written:
יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֵ֖ינוּ בְּחֹרֵ֣ב לֵאמֹ֑ר רַב־לָכֶ֥ם שֶׁ֖בֶת בָּהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃
The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed too long on this mountain.
Time to get up and move. Move on from Sinai (the Bible’s other, more familiar, name for “Horeb”) and get back to the wilderness. Onward to the Promised Land.
You’ve stayed too long on this mountain. Time to go forward.
Easier said than done. Getting unstuck in life is usually not as easy as just rebooking a flight from Atlanta.
After all, the Israelites got stuck at Mount Sinai, of all places. And this would be only their first time getting stuck on their way to the Promised Land. Time again, we see the Israelites taking the proverbial two steps forward only to take another one or two or even three steps back. Time and again, they seem moved by their mission to enter a land of milk and honey, promised on oath to their ancestors, only to get off-course, to lose their way, to lose their nerve, to lose their faith. Time and again they seem to remember their destination only to forget their Divine Director, to remember their goal only to forget their God.
God offers the people Ten Commandments; they want a golden calf instead. Time to go back and try again.
God offers the people manna from heaven to sustain them in the desert; they want the taste of Egyptian delicacies (and apparently the slavery that came along with the menu) instead. Time to go back and try again.
God offers the people the wise and inspired leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam; the people want the rebel Korach and his followers instead. Time to go back and try again.
And on and on.
And so what should have been a journey of eleven days takes forty years.
And in this way, I think we should find a lot that’s relatable about these Israelites, especially now, with all their stops and starts, all their remembering and forgetting, all their progress and all their backsliding.
Because, how very much like we are they, and how very much like life is this. And then throw in a Covid or two or three variants, and throw in a rapidly heating planet, and more deaths to gun violence than any American citizen can count, and a bitterly divided political climate that results in gridlock and nothing getting done for the good of the people, and, well, you end up stuck, don’t you?
One way of understanding the Israelites staying too long at Mount Sinai is that they simply got stuck there and forgot the way home. For his part, maybe Moses found it a little too easy to stay up at the top of the mountain just hanging with God. Speaking as a fellow leader of the Jewish people, I can confess that many days, if I could spend my time hanging with God, deep in meditation and private communion, on top of a mountain, instead of leading the Jewish people through a desert, well, you probably can guess where you’d find me.
As for the people at the bottom of the mountain, well, it’s hard to move forward if our leaders remain stuck, and don’t we American citizens know a thing or two about that these days.
But still, the time came for all of them to hear, “You’ve stayed too long on this mountain.” Time to move forward. Time to get unstuck. Time to remember the way home again.
The Sufi poet Rumi once said: “What comes into being gets lost in being and drunkenly forgets its way home.” In other words, periodic stuck-ness is a universal feature of life. Psychologist, meditation teacher, and author Tara Brach observes,
As part of the human journey, we each forget the vastness of our awareness and love and become increasingly identified with a limited body and mind. Donning masks to hide the pain of unmet needs and to defend our vulnerability, we further narrow our sense of who we are. We wear the disguise of “busy important person,” “angry victim,” “deficient person,” or “obsessed, addicted person.” Sometimes it’s a depressed person. Or anxious person. Superior person. Loser. Most of us have a closetful of assumed personas. They might help us survive some challenging times, but the problem is we become identified with our masks and we end up believing that these false images are who we really are.
I think we all can relate to this, can we not? Hiding behind our personas? Or, most aptly these days, becoming “identified with our masks?”
Now, for the sake of public health and safety, I am not advising throwing caution and face coverings to the wind. But I am suggesting that for the past nearly thirty months, we’ve gotten stuck in a Covid-induced mentality, and that we’ve “stayed too long on this mountain.” Time to move forward, even if “forward” means back into full engagement with the messiness, trauma, and chaos of the world. Time to remember the way back home.
As we think back over the last 30 months, recall that the thing that first got many of us unstuck from the first phase of pandemic lockdown was the horrific murder of George Floyd and the public activism around his death that powerfully reminded the world a truth long forgotten, perhaps never understood in the first place: Black Lives Matter.
If Covid taught us early on that our faith could in fact thrive in the home and not only in the church or the synagogue–what with our Zoom worship and virtual gatherings for Easter and Passover–then the killings of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and Daunte Wright, and so, so many others–reminded us that faith also needs to take to the streets. God does not want us to find and practice our faith only “on the mountain.” God needs us to take our faith off the mountain, down among the people, out into the wilderness, out into the world. “You have stayed too long on this mountain.” Time to move forward. Time to remember the way home.
And we have to remember that whenever we get stuck in life, God is the Power that moves us forward.
Three weeks after Vladimir Putin began his brutal assault on Ukraine, in mid-March, I received an invitation to travel to Poland with seventeen other rabbis and thousands of pounds of humanitarian supplies, mostly medical relief, to aid the refugees, mostly women and children and the elderly, who, at this time, were streaming across the border into Poland, often at great personal peril, by train or on foot, at the rate of 150 refugees per minute, every minute of every hour of every day.
I believe that my faith calls me to speak up on behalf of God’s most vulnerable children and that the tens of millions of human beings around the world who have no way back home, who have no home to go back to, are chief among these.
It would have been entirely plausible and feasible, and certainly more convenient, to talk about the refugee crisis unfolding in front of our eyes from the comfort of my pulpit, to write an article for the local paper, to post a message on Facebook or a video on YouTube.
But sometimes God reminds us when we’ve stayed too long on the mountain, when God needs us to take our faith with us out into the world, into the heart of human suffering, where God needs us the most.
If you can come down from the mountain of isolation; if you can do the work of cultivating awareness to hear God calling; if you can pay attention to how much the world needs you and the faith you can bring to change the way things are into the way they ought to be; if you can do all this, you might just feel yourself starting to get unstuck.
Let me suggest a simple action item–just one tiny, tentative step forward–that will allow us to put this into practice. Our two congregations–WRT and Greater Centennial–are engaging together this summer in a Voter Registration Campaign sponsored by two larger organizations with which we proudly collaborate.
The program, which consists of getting together in fellowship to write postcards to get out the vote for the critical upcoming election season, is sponsored by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s Every Vote, Every Voice initiative in partnership with the Center for Common Ground’s Reclaim Our Vote Campaign. The Center for Common Ground is a non-partisan voting rights organization led by people of color, that works to engage under-represented voters.
All volunteers are given instructions, a script, key information, voter addresses, and postcards. Having held our first successful event this past Wednesday morning, we will meet again in the social hall of Westchester Reform Temple on Wednesday evening, August 10, from 7:30 to 9:00 pm and again on Wednesday, August 24, from 11 am to 12:30 pm. Masks are encouraged but not required and seating is set up for social distancing. We will also accommodate outdoor seating if requested. We hope you will attend, or, if you can’t make it, please consider donating postage stamps or request your own postcard kit for home. This is a family friendly activity and all ages are welcome! Flyers with all of this information can be found outside the sanctuary here at the church.
This is only one way we can start to get unstuck. Each of us must find our own way forward. Listen to what was written by Václav Havel, the poet, playwright, and political dissident who eventually became the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic. He called this poem, “It Is I Who Must Begin.”
It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.
So my friends. The moment has arrived. God is calling you. You’ve stayed too long on this mountain. Time to begin. Time to get unstuck. Time to get up and move. Time to head for the Promised Land. Time to remember the way home.