The God of Small Things: Reflections on experiencing the Divine Presence in the interpersonal

As part of my rabbinic training, I completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education several years ago. One of our assignments was something called “Theologial Dynamics,” in which we were invited to explore our own theology in any way we chose. I’m not sure why it occurred to me to do this, but as I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I decided to do a little doodling in a digital drawing app on my tablet. I fiddled with the drawing and painting tools, starting with an image that captured my lack of certainty on how to proceed and writing what was in my heart. And somehow, the process began to unfold on its own. Vignettes from my visits with clients came to mind, and I sketched them using my fingertips. Add block

The images below are what I created for that assignment, based on real interactions I had with older adults during my unit of elder care CPE. Names have been changed to protect their privacy. I am grateful for the opportunities I had to learn from them, and for this assignment that challenged me to express how I understand and perceive God or the divine presence in the world. It also allowed me to rediscover and explore avenues of creativity. Although the sketches are rough, it feels true to the organic nature of the process of creating and working through a theology that is dynamic and changing. I find that there is a richness conveyed by the combination of image and text that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the years since, I have been inspired to explore this art form through the work of comics/comix creators and children’s book illustrators. Although these media have often been seen as juvenile or illegitimate, I find in them great beauty and depth that is unique to these art forms.

Resisting the Memory Hole: Parashat Pinchas 5781

Before it was cool again, one of my favorite books that I read in high school, was George Orwell’s 1984. A close friend and I found the novel so compelling, that we even wrote a satirical screenplay inspired by the plot, set in our high school. In our post-9/11 Texas public high school, we saw connections between own world and Orwell’s imagined one, particularly in the ways in which information and diversity of thought could be treated as a threat. 

In 1984, the government, run by a possibly-fictitious Big Brother, tightly controls the official narrative. The nation is constantly at war with an ever-shifting enemy. The Party controls the population through surveillance and requires them to participate in public rallies where they chant hate slogans directed toward the proclaimed enemy. Information is always subject to revision; facts that are no longer accepted are sent down a literal “memory hole,” physically destroying the evidence that another version of events ever existed. 

Orwell’s work articulates questions that continue to be relevant. It highlights how easily can be manipulated, the role that control of information can play in creating a repressive society, and, in contrast, how essential the free-flow of information is to an open society. 

In contrast, the Torah, and much of Jewish text and tradition, I would argue, presents a vision of a society that is an anti-1984. We glimpse elements of this alternative vision in this week’s Torah reading from Parashat Pinchas.

Following the events of the Israelites’ apostasy at Baal-Peor and the plague that struck the community as a result, God instructs Moses to take a second census of all of the tribes. Interestingly, it is not just a list of numbers. Interwoven among the enumeration of each tribe is a narrative of events that have occurred over the course of the people’s travels in the wilderness. In particular, the text highlights the events that we might prefer to forget – the rebellion of Korach and his followers (Num. 26:9-11); the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who perished when offering alien fire (Num. 26:61); and the story of the scouts who convinced the people not to enter the land, resulting in God’s decree that the people would wander for 40 years and a new generation would arise before they would be permitted to enter. 

Now, think about what an Orwellian editor might do with the text of our parasha and with the Torah as a whole. The impulse to censor, to tidy up a story in order to present our own community and leadership in the best possible light, is so common that it is actually shocking how much the Torah and later Jewish tradition preserve the most difficult moments in our sacred history as well as the successes. It isn’t whitewashed. 

This sensibility, a commitment to presenting truth even when it isn’t flattering and allowing for multiple voices, is one of the things that I value most deeply in Judaism and is what drew me to find my home in this community. 

Our tradition as it developed, beginning with the foundational document of the Torah itself, allows criticism even of the individuals who are considered to be prophets, and the founders of the Jewish people. Criticism is not seen as heresy; rather, we understand that even our most respected figures are human beings with all their foibles and imperfections; that they, like us, can learn from their mistakes, and that we preserve the past, warts and all, to chart a better present and future. 

The impulse to censor is one that we see continue to see around the world, and even in our own country. Those who wish to hold onto power often seek to suppress information that would challenge that power. 

Our reading of the Torah serves as a reminder to strive for honesty in the telling of history and to demand truth. Our foundational narrative provides us with a model of a different path than that we see taken so often by leaders –  a path that embraces the messy reality, rather than suppressing inconvenient truth; that responds to suffering and wrongdoing not by ignoring or denying it, but by acknowledging it and seeking to do better.

(Based on a d’var Torah given 7/3/2021)

A Poem before the Sabbath

It is a tangled knot
Strings woven within and around one another.
A thread of blue runs through
Techelet, the color of the sky
To remind us of the heavens
To remind us of the commandments
A white thread, 
And a thread of crimson.

A cat bats around the strings
Playing them around one another
Tangling the strands
Choking hope for her own amusement.
With one slash of a claw
She could, at any moment,
Snap any or all of them apart.  

I gingerly pull one loose end and the knot tightens.
What have I done? 
If only I could pull it out just so
Without breaking, releasing the binding
And the threads would be seen for what they are
Not one hard knot
But singular stories.

Between Belief and Truth: Parashat Naso

Since the beginning of the recent exchange of rockets and bombs between Hamas and Israel’s military, I have been reliving the summer of 2014, as I prepared to go to Jerusalem for several months of study. It’s hard to believe it was almost 7 years ago. I was watchful as the rockets rained down, wondering if they would stop before I was scheduled to go. I also saw the body count in Gaza rise. I had acquaintances who shared lists of names of the daily casualties, Palestinian and Israeli, on Facebook. It was sad, but somehow I was not able to fully internalize the horror. It still felt very distant. From far away, I had to rely on the reports of others to understand what was happening. Which sources were credible? Who should I believe? Wouldn’t all of this just end if Hamas stopped shooting rockets? 

My experiences of living and traveling in Israel and the West Bank, and speaking with Israelis and Palestinians of many viewpoints complicated the narratives I had heard in many American Jewish communal settings that presented Israel as the peacemaker and upholder of democracy in the Middle East, and Palestinians as uneducated terrorist sympathizers who would have a state if they stopped refusing to accept the presence of Jews in the land. 

There wasn’t just one story. There were multiple threads to disentangle, multiple life experiences and histories to grapple with, and territory that meant different things to different people and where the past was still present. I began to ask: Whose narrative do we believe and why? And who bears the consequences? 

We read this week about the ritual of the sotah, an ordeal brought on when a man is consumed by jealousy about the possibility of his wife being with another man. 

The Torah describes the circumstances, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 5:

(11) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (12) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him (13) in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her— (14) but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself. 

According to the Torah, this can be based on real or perceived infidelity on the part of the wife. It is the husband’s perceptions, whether real or imagined, that set the process into motion. He doesn’t need evidence. He doesn’t need to bring proof, or witnesses. He merely perceives, speaks it, and it becomes reality. 

The passage describes each stage of the ritual in detail: The woman is brought to the priest. Her husband brings a meal offering – the offering is described in Hebrew as minchat k’naot hu, minchat zikaron mazkeret avon  – “a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance, recalling sin.” 

The priest takes earth from the floor of the mishkan, and mixes it with water in an earthen vessel, bares her head, puts the meal offering on her hands, tells her what will happen. If she is guilty, her thigh will sag and her belly distend, but if she is innocent she will be physically unharmed.   The priest then writes the curses down and scrapes them into the bitter waters. He offers the meal offering on the altar, and then gives her the waters to drink uvau bah hamayim ham’ar’rim l’marim – so that the spell inducing waters may enter into her for bitterness.

The passage concludes by stating:  “V’nikah ha-ish meavon, v’haisha ha-hi tisa et avonah” – the man will be clean of guilt, but the woman will carry her guilt (v. 31). We could read this as referring only to a case in which the woman is in fact guilty. But there seem to be no consequences for the man for having inflicted this on his wife, even if he turns out to be wrong. 

From the perspective of contemporary readers, this text is painful to read. It seems so clearly unfair. It places the blame and responsibility solely on the woman. It legitimizes the husband’s concerns, even if they are based only on his own anxiety and not in reality. And at the end of all of this, the woman loses no matter what. If she is guilty, she will be a curse among her people. If she is not, she has still been exposed, subjected to an ordeal, and victimized by her husband. She may not be cursed, but can the bitterness ever go away? Will the taste of the bitter waters always be in her mouth? How can she forget? It is difficult to imagine that their relationship can ever be the same after this. Nor, in a just outcome, should it be. 

Meanwhile, throughout the process we never hear the woman’s story. She doesn’t even get to offer a defense. It is as if the text is written from the echo-chamber of the man’s mind. His jealousy so overtakes him that he is unable to see anything else. Whether true or not, he feels it, so it becomes his reality. 

Over the past few weeks, those of us who have been following the news in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank have seen competing narratives. The communities we are a part of, our personal networks, the sources of information we read, all shape which narratives we are exposed to. Some of them may be familiar or even comforting – they affirm our existing beliefs. And some of them may seem so far from what we believe to be true that we cannot engage, or we are provoked to anger. 

The Torah’s telling of the sotah ordeal challenges us to think carefully about how we know what we think we know. As the episode of the husband propelled by jealousy teaches us, feeling something is true doesn’t actually make it true. And acting on beliefs and feelings has serious consequences, as we see in the wife who must live with the bitterness she has endured for the rest of her life. 

Will we choose to accept comfortable narratives – because we feel they are true? Do we know where we get our beliefs from? Are they based on evidence, or are they a projection of our fears? And when do our beliefs get in the way of meaningfully engaging with the narrative of the other?

If there is a narrative or perspective that we find it hard to hear: let’s ask why. What is it about it that makes us uncomfortable? 

When we confront a narrative that challenges our own, it can be terrifying. Because it threatens to undo what we thought was secure, because taking in new evidence that conflicts with what we thought we knew about ourselves, our people, our history, challenges our core identity. The process of unraveling and reconstructing our identities can be incredibly painful. 

But I believe we have a moral responsibility to take seriously the voices of Palestinians, who have their own histories of loss and who continue to suffer both from acute violence and the everyday limitations on their freedoms and livelihood in Gaza, the West Bank, and within the borders of the State of Israel. Even, and perhaps especially, if it leads us to uncomfortable truths. 

I know this isn’t easy, but we are up to the task. The Jewish people, after all, are called Yisrael. We are people who wrestle – with God, with ourselves, with our received traditions. Asking questions is at the core of who we are, and it is what has enabled us to remake ourselves anew, over and over again. 

I will conclude with sharing the words of someone I consider to be a modern day prophet, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: 

The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.

Entering Shabbat with Israel on Our Minds

Whenever a major crisis occurs in our country or in the state of Israel, I feel a pressure as a rabbi to react swiftly. The task can be daunting: to sift through the various news sources to reach conclusions about what is happening, and then to process that information into a coherent message to share with a community of people with diverse needs and orientations. The issue of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular, is supercharged, and must be handled with care. 

Meanwhile, I’m a person too, trying to make sense of all of this for myself. And right now, I feel disconnected from the discussion I see playing out. When I scroll through social media or my newsfeed and see a post with updates about what is happening in Israel, I feel a pit in my stomach. Because I know that most of the statements I see reflect only a piece of the story. 

Each statement makes a demand: Show us you’re on our side. You’re either with us, or you’re against us. Demonstrate your loyalty by saying the right words. 

I’m not going to do that this time. I’m breaking the fourth wall, so to speak. I’m going to write what is in my heart and mind right now, with the acknowledgement that whatever I say is by necessity incomplete and in formation. 

My heart breaks for the citizens and residents of Israel who have to take refuge from rockets, whose loved ones who have been killed or injured in the attacks.

My heart also breaks for those who have been killed by Israeli military strikes in Gaza. 

For those who have been violently attacked because they are Jewish, and for those who have been violently attacked because they are Palestinian. 

For the painful daily experiences of those Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusualem whose movements are controlled and freedoms limited, and for those who live under blockade in Gaza under the leadership of Hamas. 

For the fact that we can’t even talk about what is happening on the human level, because of how quickly it gets politicized. How the conversation about a resolution to this conflict – this particular episode, and the one that has lasted for years – can so easily turn into an evaluation of whose lives matter more. 

How what should be a season of joy for the Muslim and Jewish communities in Israel and Palestine – the conclusion of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr this Wednesday, and the Jewish celebration of receiving the Torah on Shavuot next week – has instead become a time of fear, violence, and grieving.

I know that the words I offer can never be enough for those who are suffering. 

We pray for the safety of all our family and friends in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and for a swift end to the current violence. We wish comfort to all of those who are mourning the death of loved ones, and a speedy and complete healing for those who have been injured. And we pray for peace and justice for Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors. 

Shabbat Shalom.

(Originally posted to the KH listserv, Friday, May 14, 2021)

Today in Iconoclasm: Beyond Image

I was scrolling through Instagram the other day and found myself admiring the work of others who have creatively used their accounts as a platform for their professional lives. I noticed the sleekness of the images, their ability to convey meaningful teaching and information in an aesthetically-pleasing way. It took about 30 seconds for my thoughts to turn to self-criticism: 

I don’t have the charisma/beauty/talent/tech-savvy/(whatever) to be successful like them. 

I know I’m not the only one who experiences this. 

We live in an image-saturated world. Visually-oriented social media platforms have opened new and creative modes of expression, but they also exert their gravitational pull over everything else. You now have to add a picture to any blog or Facebook post (like this one) to increase the likelihood that it will be seen – “for the algorithm.”  An overemphasis on images can also exclude people with visual disabilities who are a part of online communities.

Picture of kitten sniffing a flower….for the algorithm. Photo by Alex Bargain on

I don’t want to diminish the creative and meaningful work people are sharing on Instagram and other platforms. But, I also want to nurture the continued existence of other ways of being, expressing, and connecting .

Jewish tradition offers an alternative mode of experiencing the world that is not centered around that which we can see. 

Starting in the Torah, God chooses to reveal Godself primarily through speech, rather than physical manifestation. In the story of the creation of the world in Genesis, God speaks and the world comes into being. God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, and utters the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. In our morning and evening prayer services, Jews declare: 

“Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – Listen Israel – Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. 

Jewish teaching recognizes that images are powerful and attractive, and advises us to be cautious and mindful of the ways we respond to them. In steering us away from a focus on images, our tradition invites us to attune ourselves to what is not immediately apparent and to recognize the many ways that the divine presence is revealed in the world. 

I’m probably not going to be an Instagram rabbi – and that’s OK. We all have different gifts and talents that we can share, and different ways of expressing ourselves. 

And in case you need the reminder today: you are so much more than your image. Your social media presence does not and cannot capture the fullness of your being. 

How can we work together to recognize and lift up the diverse beauty we bring into the world? 

Chasing Crumbs: The Life-changing Magic of Cleaning for Pesach

As I have been preparing my home for Pesach this year, I have felt that somehow I am cleaning up more chametz than ever before. 

Now, it’s true that crumbs are always a reality of life for families with young children, but the sheer volume of what I have been finding is unusual this year. No matter how many times I seem to run a vacuum or wipe down a surface, it seems like the crumbs have started multiplying of their own accord. It’s like playing a game of Pesach cleaning whack-a-mole. 

Where did all of these extra crumbs come from? 

If Pesach cleaning feels more challenging than usual this year, I suspect it is because we’re dealing with the accumulated detritus of a year lived in the pandemic. More time spent at home, especially over a particularly snowy winter, has meant more meals eaten at home, which means more post-meal cleanup. With no guests to look forward to I have even less motivation to keep up with the constant grind of cleaning. And, while attempting to parent while working from home, I’ve noticed a sharp drop in restrictions on where and how snacks can be eaten.

Even as I have lowered my expectations about finding every last Cheerio that might be lurking in a corner, I have found it extremely satisfying to watch the chametz being sucked up by my dustbuster. I would definitely not call myself a neat freak, but there is a distinct pleasure to be found in performing the mitzvah of biur chametz. 

Many of us are familiar with the Torah’s commandment to avoid leavened products and eat matzah throughout the Pesach holiday. But there is also a separate commandment to remove and destroy anything leavened in our homes. Ideally, according to Jewish tradition, this should be done by burning. 

Those who have the means often leave their homes on Pesach and spend the holiday at a resort or vacation home. This is certainly easier in many ways, but it also means missing out on one of the core observances and experiences of the holiday. You don’t have to go overboard to experience this as a meaningful exercise. In fact, I found something very freeing in focusing on the process itself, rather than the end result. 

There is so much about this past year that didn’t meet our hopes or expectations, so much that has been put on hold as we have struggled to contain the pandemic. In the process of preparing for this Pesach, I have tried to embrace the mitzvah of biur chametz as a way of letting go of the disappointments of the year that has passed and releasing the need to be perfect. Although Pesach cleaning has a reputation for inducing anxiety, it comes with a built-in mechanism for releasing ourselves from responsibility over that which we cannot control. After searching for and removing and destroying any chametz in our possession, we say the following formula: 

All chametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, whether I have destroyed it or not, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

We make our best effort, but even so, we acknowledge that there are factors out of our control and we might not have gotten everything. It’s a fact of Passover, and it’s a fact of the rest of the year, too. 

I know we all hope that this Pesach will be the beginning of a new season of freedom for all of us. I hope it can also be a reminder that we can find moments of joy and celebration when things don’t go as planned, too. 

Wishing you and your loved ones a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach v’Kasher

(Written March 26, 2021)

And the bush was not consumed – Parashat Shemot 5781

January 8, 2021

This week, something sacred was attacked. In this very unusual of times, after 10 months of enduring a pandemic, and after a very tumultuous election season, we experienced yet another unprecedented event in our country. 

After a long period of shocking events, this still had the power to shock me. I wasn’t surprised by the people who gathered in our nation’s capital to protest the results of the presidential election. I was horrified and shocked by how unprotected the capitol building was, the place where our elected representatives meet, by how easily it could be breached. And I was shocked by how eagerly American citizens would tear apart the space that is the seat of American democracy, a government by and for the people. 

I felt that sacred space had been violated. 

In this week’s parasha, Moses also enters into sacred space. 

We read at the beginning of Exodus, chapter 3:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.

Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”

And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

The Torah lingers over this moment, when Moses first sees the burning bush. We, the readers, know it is God’s presence in the flames. Moses is first captivated by the sight. He is so struck by it, we even hear his words or his thoughts – I have to turn and look at this amazing thing. 

This sight seems to suspend the laws of nature. Moses is drawn to look by the fragility of it. In a desert climate, I imagine this bush as a dry, brittle thing, something that could easily catch fire and burn. It appears to be delicate, and yet it can withstand the flames. 

Now you might say, we know the fire is supernatural. The Torah told us it was an angel of God! But I wonder, if we can understand it differently.

Perhaps the fire itself is a completely natural phenomenon. That bush really was on fire. What would have happened if Moses simply walked on? Maybe it would have burned to ashes. 

The Torah tells us though that he stops and notices. He notices it and looks with intention. He says I have to turn and look at it more closely;  he expresses curiosity about it, asking, why doesn’t it burn up?  

And it is then, the moment when God sees that Moses has turned aside and is fully engaged with understanding this bush, that God calls out to him. God then tells him to keep his distance, to remove his sandals, because the place where he is standing is holy ground. 

As was illustrated again so vividly this week, our country, our democracy, the institutions that we depend on, are so fragile. They can be consumed so easily. We have been made aware of this fact, over and over again, particularly over the course of this very difficult year. 

If we ignore them, if we are disengaged, they can easily go up in flames. 

It is our responsibility to take notice. Like Moses, when he sees the bush aflame, to turn aside and really look, to seek to understand. It is only then that God’s presence is revealed and I would argue, that the bush is able to withstand the heat. 

Our engagement, and our commitment to be present, and to remain engaged are what will give our country the strength it needs to continue on. And in fact, despite all of the challenges we have endured, our people and our country have shown our resilience. I was encouraged and inspired by our representatives and senators, who after undergoing a frightening experience on Wednesday afternoon and evening, reconvened and finished their task of certifying the results of the election. That took courage and strength. And it took courage for those who had sought to stop the certification to publicly say that they were wrong and to change course. 

I was  horrified to see the depths that some in our country could come to, but I was so proud to be an American, and proud of our country, when I learned of the commitment, resilience, and courage of our elected officials. 

We have something worth saving. And even at the point when it seemed that it could all be consumed, we have what it takes to withstand the fire. 

God is waiting for us to turn and look. And when we do, we reveal the divine presence and understand that we, too, are standing on holy ground.  

Chag Sameach – Happy Sukkot

14 Tishrei 5781/October 2, 2020

As we descend from the spiritual heights of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, we head immediately into the holiday of Sukkot. Starting this evening, we have the opportunity to ground ourselves and reconnect with another dimension of our Jewish practice. While we focus on our heads and hearts on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with intensive prayer and introspection, Sukkot gives us an opportunity to re-engage with our bodies. The experience of Sukkot is multi-sensory: We spend time outdoors in the changing fall weather. We decorate our sukkah to enhance its beauty. We hold the lulav and etrog in our hands, feeling their textures and taking in their scent. The physical and tactile experience of Sukkot can help ground us back in the physical world.

It is the great wisdom of the Jewish tradition that recognizes a multiplicity of ways that we can express our spirituality and Jewish identity. We are all unique and each of us will connect with some modes of practice more than others. Some of us feel most spiritually attuned when we have time for quiet prayer, meditation, or reflection. Some of us are most connected when we gather together in community. Others find their Jewish expression through study, or through acts of lovingkindness. And some of us connect through our experience of the senses, whether it is building the sukkah, waving the lulav and etrog, baking challah every week, or smelling the sweet spices at havdalah. 

All of these are available to us. The cycle of the Jewish year offers us the gift of change, an opportunity to experiment with these different forms of connection and find what “clicks.” 

I hope your experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was meaningful, even as it was not what we might have expected it to be. If you joined the KH community through our KH BaBayit program over the holidays, I am so glad you were able to be with us. May we all be blessed with health, happiness, connection, and discovery this Sukkot and in the year ahead.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Remembering and Resilience: Yom Kippur 5781

In the early stages of the pandemic, I remember having conversations with friends and acquaintances about whether it was ok to do things that might seem silly, given the amount of suffering in the world. There is a sense of guilt that has hung over many people I know. For those of us who have been relatively fortunate – who have remained healthy, who have homes and jobs, and the resources to ride this out, there is an awareness that others have it much worse. That given how lucky we are, we have nothing to complain about. Underlying this there seems to be a deeper question: is it ok to experience joy during this time? If we have a choice, should we actually avoid doing things that seem to be frivolous or callous given the suffering that surrounds us? 

It is not only not wrong; it can be essential. In our most challenging times, it is important to have something to live for, to nourish our spirits so that we are better able to cope. Not that we should turn away from suffering, but it is important to sustain ourselves so that we can come out the other side. 

On Yom Kippur we set aside time to remember – for remembering our own family, friends, and loved ones who are no longer with us. Traditionally, it is also a time when we recall the sacrifices of our ancestors who lost their lives because of their Jewish faith.

Remembering the people we miss and recounting these stories of martyrdom may fill us with sadness. It is important to remember, and we should honor our grief.  We should honor our grief. But we have already lost so much this year, and grief weighs extra heavily this year. 

Some of us have suffered from illness, or watched our friends or family suffer. Some of us have lost people close to us to COVID-19. We have all had our lives upended in one way or another. Some of us have lost our jobs and our sense of financial security. We have had to rethink and reorganize the way we work, care for our families, and live our daily lives. We might be mourning the loss of the pleasures of life that we used to take for granted – the ability to socialize with friends, or to safely visit relatives who live across the country or the world. We may long for a sense of normalcy and miss dinners in restaurants, going to the theater or a baseball game, or visiting museums. We might be isolated and hungering for human connection. 

I miss being able to let my children play freely with their friends and neighbors. I miss my parents visiting to see their grandchildren. I miss traveling. I miss being able to go to a grocery store or the gym without worrying that I will carry a deadly virus with me that could make me, or someone I love, seriously ill. 

And it is hard not to be together in person, as a community. It was very difficult for me to accept that the holiday experience this year would be so different from years past. I miss hearing all of your voices joining together in song. I miss being able to walk around the room following the Sefer Torah, shake hands, and wish you a Shana Tova. I miss being able to see your faces when I stand up here to speak. 

We are mourning our way of life, and trying to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next, or whether anything will return to “normal.” 

We come into this day carrying with us all of the pain, distress, and fear of the last several months. We have all lost something. Over the past several months, as our lives have been reshaped by a pandemic that we are likely to be dealing with for a long time, we have all tried to find our own ways to cope – with our anxiety, fear, stress, loneliness, hours spent at home, loneliness, anxiety. When we are asked on this day to sit with the memory of our loved ones, the painful parts of Jewish history, and the losses of the past several months, it can feel like too much to bear at once.  

The memories of loss, destruction, and rupture that we recall as part of the Yizkor service and traditionally later in the musaf service as well, are an important and ever-present part of our history, but there is another dimension to these stories. These darker episodes in Jewish history illuminate all the more the amazing resilience and creativity of our people; the ability of our ancestors to rebuild and create anew. As much as Jewish history is a history of destruction, it is also a history of resilience and reimagining. 

We can also draw strength from this history – from the ways that the Jewish people have found ways to survive and reinvent in the face of suffering and displacement, and from the individual strength and courage of the people we have known personally. 

I want to share a few stories with you today, of incredible people who survived terrible trauma  There are countless incredible stories of survival and resilience – too many to share here – that deserve to be remembered, too. How do we cope in this moment? How can we draw on the experiences of our ancestors and memories of our loved ones, to inspire us and build our resilience?

The words that traditionally introduce the recollections of Jewish martyrs capture the depth of emotion that we might be bringing with us into this Yom Kippur:

Eileh ezk’rah v’nafshi alai eshkfah, al koroteinu hamarot einai zolgot dimah

These I recall, and my soul melts with sorrow; for the bitter course of our history, tears pour from my eyes.  

In the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy, we read stories of the aftermath of the crushing of the Jewish revolt by the Roman authorities. The martyrology describes in some detail the deaths of the leaders of the Jewish community, who are forbidden from the public practice of Judaism. They hold onto their commitments until the very end, continuing to teach Torah even at the risk of death at the hands of the Romans. The practice of Judaism itself becomes an act of defiance. 

But these, too, we remember…

In the midst of persecution and out of the ashes of destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai charted a new course for himself and the Jewish community. After his attempts to mediate between the Jewish rebels and the Romans failed, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that the Temple would be destroyed, and with it an entire way of life. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai arranged for his students to smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a casket. From there, he went on to the city of Yavneh in the North, and established it as a new center of Jewish leadership and teaching. 

The impact of the destruction of the Temple cannot be exaggerated. To many Jews living at the time, it would have felt that the heart of the Jewish people’s connection to God had been ripped out, and that now we were left untethered in this world. For Judaism to survive, it would have to be transformed. 

“Once as Rabban [our rabbi] Yohanan ben Zakkai, was leaving Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua who was following him, looked back, saw the Holy Temple in ruins, and remarked in despair. [Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, The place that atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!

[Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: My son, do not grieve. There is another form of atonement equal to it. And what is it? Performing Acts of lovingkindness, as the prophet Hosea declared, “For I desire acts of lovingkindness, not sacrifice.” 

Without Rabbi Yochanan’s bold re-envisioning of what it meant to be in relationship to God, there would be no Judaism as we know it today. Out of the ashes of destruction, he gathered the courage to prepare for the days ahead and to chart a new course for himself and his community. 

This, too, I will remember. 

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the ending of Jewish political power, Jews strengthened and established new communities all over the world. As we know, this too was a tumultuous history – Jewish communities flourished in Western Europe, until they were destroyed through violence or exile. Exiled from England and France, Jews moved east to Germany and south to Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Pushed from Germany, they settled in Poland and eastern Europe. Exiled from Spain and Portugal, they dispersed to Holland, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. 

Donna Gracia Mendes was born into a family of Jewish converts to Christianity in 16th century Lisbon, Portugal. When her husband, a banker and gem dealer died, she left Portugal with her family to settle in Antwerp, Belgium where she helped aid families of forced converts  to flee the Inquisition. She then moved to Venice, where she was denounced by her own sister as a crypto-Jew and imprisoned. Freed from prison by the diplomatic intervention of her nephew Don Joseph Nasi, she then went to Ferrara, Italy where she reclaimed her Jewish identity. She then moved to Constantinople, bringing her nephew with her as a business partner. She became a patron of Jewish religious life in the Ottoman Empire, helping to establish synagogues and yeshivot.

Her life was disrupted numerous times, and yet she was able to fashion something new in each place she went. At each point in her journey, she took the next step she needed to survive and to ensure others’ safety as well. 

This, too, I will remember.

Earlier this year, the world lost a great woman, Fanny Freund, who I was privileged to know. I got to know Fanny when I was working in the administrative office of Congregation Shaare Zedek in New York. Fanny was one of the heads of the shul’s Sisterhood, and so I would often see her in the building dropping off supplies for sisterhood events. Whenever we needed volunteers to stuff envelopes for mailings or assemble Purim packages, Fanny was always ready to volunteer. And while we worked, she told me a little bit about her life. 

Fanny was born in Vienna in the 1920s to a religious and cultured family. She was involved in a Zionist religious youth movement as a teenager. When the Nazis came to power in Austria and her father was threatened, the family knew they had to leave. Fanny moved to Israel, then Palestine, on Youth aliyah in 1939, while her parents and sister traveled to France. The young Fanny attended a farm school and learned to speak Hebrew, and possibly fought in the Haganah. Her father and sister were deported to Auschwitz where they were killed in 1942; her mother had somehow gotten separated from the family and never boarded the train. She survived the Shoah and Fanny reunited with her in France after the war. They were sponsored by a cousin to move to the United States, settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She met her husband Nathan there and they were married for over 60 years. They raised their children in German Jewish community Washington Heights, building a thriving business and a loving family. She was always a welcoming and smiling face, happy to do what she could to help others well into her 90s. 

All these, and many more, we will remember. 

What do these survivors have in common? What is it that helped them keep going and to build their lives anew – sometimes more than once? How were they able to cope with the losses of their lives? What can we learn from bearing witness to their lives? 

When we look back at the life of someone and ask ourselves how they could have survived, how did they get from where they started to where they ended up. And the answer is always by putting one foot in front of the other. 

We survive by taking the next right step. There was no way for these survivors to know what would come next, but at each turning point they found a footing where they could and took that step. Like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, who left everything they knew behind to find a new life; like our people leaving slavery in Egypt behind to head to a promised land – we might not know where we are going or if we will even get there. All we can do is focus on the moment we are in, right now, and taking the step that we can see.

In our most difficult moments, we can draw from the well of wisdom of the Psalms to give words to what we feel – our deepest expressions of fear and uncertainty, our crying out for help, strength, and support. In several Psalms we imagine the support we need in the form of being steadied on our path:

Psalm 23 

God makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me besides still waters;

God renews my spirit; God guides me on the right path as befits His name.

Gam ki eilech b’gei tzalmavet, lo ira ra ki atah imadi.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me.

Psalm 91 speaks of this guidance as angels lifting us in their hands lest we stumble. I think of this not as being carried, but the way that a parent or caregiver holds the hands of a child who is learning to walk. The toddler takes the steps themselves, but there is someone there to offer a steadying support when it is needed. 

The key image here is that we don’t need to do it alone. There is so much uncertainty – in our lives as individuals, in the world. It can be difficult, from wherever we are on our path, to feel secure and stable.  What if we visualize that we are not doing it alone? Whose memory, whose strength and resilience are walking alongside you? Whose words or steadying presence can you call on when you need it?  

May we always remember, and let our memory give us the courage to take the next right step.

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