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 Pexels.com

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.

Everything I need to know about the High Holidays I learned from gardening

Kol Nidre 5781

Contrary to what many people expect, when I tell them I grew up in Texas, I historically would not consider myself particularly outdoorsy. In fact, when most people hear about my Texas upbringing, I am met with a mix of surprise and disappointment. I don’t have an accent. I have somehow managed to avoid deep involvement in football fandom. I never even owned a pair of cowboy boots until I had been living in New York for a solid 7 or 8 years. And I have never once roped a steer. I credit some of this to the fact that I grew up in a suburb of Houston. It was less cowboys and cactuses than strip malls and swamps. Despite the claims of my New Yorker in-laws, I would not call myself a pioneer woman by any measure. 

No, anything I may have retained in terms of wilderness survival skills or interaction with the natural world is mostly to the credit of my grandmother. Every summer, my family would visit my grandparents at their house in Salt Lake City and their vacation home in western Wyoming, known in my family as “the cabin.” Under the guidance of my Grandma, a former girl scout troop leader, my siblings and I were engaged in a wide variety of outdoor activities. 

We would gather and press wildflowers between the pages of books, consulting guidebooks to identify each kind. We made an underwater viewer out of coffee cans and plastic wrap. I learned how to build a fire, how to choose the right wood and how to cook over an open flame. In the evenings, we went for walks to spot animals.

My grandmother was also an avid gardener, both at her home in Salt Lake City and at the cabin. My grandmother would pour out the coffee grinds every morning on the plant beds. She worked in a wide brimmed hat that was affectionately known as the “daffodil” hat, after her Girl Scout name. We would pick cherries, peaches, and pears from the trees in the yard.  

I have been rediscovering some of those long-latent skills recently. As some of you might already know, my family and I moved into our first house this spring. After years of focusing my attention on more interior pursuits, and over a decade of life as an urban apartment dweller, life as a suburban homeowner was going to require a different set of skills. One of the things I was most looking forward to about our move was having some outdoor space of our own – a place for the kids to play and for me to try my hand at gardening. I was eager to expand from my container herb garden. I have been surprised at how much  the memories of my childhood have bubbled up over the past several months. But there has also been a steep learning curve. 

We closed on the house in March, shortly after the pandemic began shutting everything down. Although I had been preparing myself for a gardening adventure for some time, suddenly it seemed that everyone was eager to transform their yards into an outdoor oasis and there was a run on gardening supplies. 

Why is it that so many people are turning to gardening right now, anyway? Some of it may be for obvious reasons – people are looking for something to do with more time at home during the pandemic. With limited options for entertainment over the summer, and outdoor, socially distant gathering the safest choice, many people have a renewed interest in sprucing up their outdoor space. And of course there are the positive benefits that many longtime gardeners cite: you’re getting fresh air, exercise, experiencing nature. There is also the meditative aspect – working with your hands can be a way to turn off the busy parts of our minds. 

All of these are good things and good reasons to garden, but there may be more to it. In many ways, we can see ourselves reflected in the cycles of our gardens. A recent book by Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and spouse of a renowned British gardener, highlights the ways that gardening or spending time in gardens can be therapeutic. The life cycles of the garden can be a metaphor for the cycles of our own lives. Our gardens and our relationship to them – whether you have several acres or a pot on a windowsill – can reveal lessons. But I think the activity of gardening itself is instructive

It occurred to me at some point over the summer, asking myself what I was doing in the sweltering heat knee deep in weeds, that actually the process of gardening can teach us something about teshuva. 

So here it is: Everything I need to know about the High Holy Days I learned from gardening. 

Act I: Making the cut

As we prepared to move in this spring, and faced with nowhere to go and no one to see, I decided to engage the kids in some gardening. The yard had been neglected for some time. The beds were buried in several inches of dead leaves under layers of twisting ivy vines. It was clear that before I could pursue my gardening dreams, a little clean up was in order. 

The vines had grown over everything – winding their way between the boards of the fence, up one side of the house, burrowing underground to re-emerge 20 feet away. They were holding fast to an abandoned porch swing. They had climbed up trees and entangled themselves in the branches of neighboring properties. They had hardened and twisted themselves on trellises into something that resembles what I imagine the staff Moses held up to part the sea.

My 5 year old and I waded into the vines, pulling back the tangled stems to try to uncover what was beneath. He was a very enthusiastic participant in this, and it was really the perfect activity for someone his age. Let loose with a pair of clippers, I let him hack away indiscriminately.  This was the first cut – anything else – before planning, or even thinking about planting something, we first had to find out what was there, lying beneath the overgrowth and possibly several years worth of fallen leaves and twigs. 

There was something so satisfying and cathartic about clearing away the vines. It felt that as I pulled free handfuls of tangled leaves that I was clearing away the clutter in my mind and heart, too. When we engage in teshuva, we are participating in an act of spiritual decluttering. We have to clear out the overgrowth, the mental and emotional weeds, to know what lies beneath. We have to know what we’re dealing with before we can make a plan for what needs to be done. Until we are honest with ourselves about what we need to change, we cannot really begin the process of teshuva. 

Even in the muck of things you might discover something useful – I found fully functional and apparently undamaged gardening tools buried in the vines that I am fairly confident had been there for years. When we take stock of everything, we know what we need to let go of and what resources we have to work with. 

Having tackled the ivy, I moved onto the next challenge: the bushes. Ah…the bushes. 

Like the vines, I had no clue what I was dealing with.

As everything bloomed in the spring, I was dazzled by the beauty of the dogwood and cherry tree and the flowering shrubs on the side of my driveway. But when I looked closely, I realized that behind those distracting blossoms lay a tangled mess.Like the flowerbeds in the back, the  ground was littered with leaves. I found cigarette butts and wrappers under there, a rusted bicycle chain, straggly-looking roses that appeared to be growing out of old stumps. 

Heavy with blooms, the branches were dangling over the driveway, prepared to hit someone in the face. They crossed over each other, tangled together in a mass about 12 feet in the air, roped together by yet another mysterious vining plant. 

And don’t get me started on the giant shrubbery blocking our view from the driveway and access to the sidewalk. 

(Yes, I said shrubbery. There have been many Monty Python jokes since.)

I puzzled over what to do with these. The indiscriminate hacking approach that I took with the vines was less likely to work in this case. Initially, it was overwhelming and I was intimidated to jump in- I don’t know what I’m doing! But I knew it had to be done and waded in anyway. What if I did it wrong and killed the plant?  It was clear that I needed the right tools and the right information for the job. 

I began reading gardening websites and even ordered a book about pruning written by Cass Turnbull, founder of an organization called “Plant Amnesty” whose mission is “working to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs.” It sounded like exactly what I needed. 

The most helpful thing I learned from the fine people at Plant Amnesty was that a lot of what we are responding to when we see an overgrown plant is messiness, which can be immediately addressed by pruning out the deadwood. But clearing out the deadwood, cutting out the parts that are no longer growing, you achieve a few things: It improves the overall appearance, without doing anything else. By taking out the dead parts, the leftovers, the stuff that you don’t need anymore, you are better able to see the structure and beauty of the rest of the plant. To see the good that is already there. 

Secondly, clearing out the deadwood is healthier for the plant. It isn’t carrying the weight of extra stuff that is no longer needed, literally weighing it down. It allows air to circulate and light to reach the interior that had previously been in shadow. This allows for new growth. It gives sustenance to the young shoots that are trying to survive. Without cutting back on what is unneeded, you can stifle the growth of exactly what it is you’re trying to cultivate. 

When we can let go of the deadwood, the thoughts, grievances, grudges that are taking up space and not serving us well, we let the qualities that we want to cultivate breathe and grow. We can better appreciate we might discover strengths or parts of ourselves that we forgot were there. We make space to grow into the people we want to be.

Act II: Welcome to the Jungle

I had thought the bulk of my work was done early in the spring, just trying to get things cleaned up. I cleared a patch of land and planted vegetable seeds. I was in for a surprise when the spring and summer growth really got started, when what I had believed to be a bunch of dead ivy suddenly sprouted like crazy with leaves that I didn’t recognize. 

By July, with steamy hot days, I felt like I was living in the midst of a jungle. Any time I tried to whack the vines back, it was as if they sent out 10 foot long runners overnight. It was woman vs. nature. 

I don’t know at what point the weeds took over the grass, but it took me by surprise. I was hot. I was tired. I was frustrated. It didn’t seem to matter how much time I spent cutting back, clipping back the branches that just didn’t look right, pulling weeds, untangling the vines that threatened to take over. It just didn’t seem like I was making much progress. 

By mid August I had declared detente- I had put in a summer’s worth of effort. I had made some mistakes early on, and I was going to have to wait for the next growth cycle to see what would become of them. At a certain point, I had to accept that there was only so much that I could do right now. I was starting with a situation that I didn’t create, trying to work as best I could with what was there. The spring and summer in my garden, like my experience of the world in the pandemic, were an exercise in accepting uncertainty. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what would grow until it did. I didn’t know what anything was, whether it would bloom, how it would behave until I was in that moment. I could do my part to guide things along – watering, providing sunlight, maybe assisting with some pruning or weed removal as needed. But I had to accept that there were parts of this situation that were beyond my control. I could rip everything out and start from scratch, but I wanted to give things a chance to grow, to see what could be rehabilitated, what could become beautiful with just a little extra TLC. 

The High Holy days, and the process of teshuva can be like this, too. We can work, and do our part, but at a certain point we have to come to terms with the parts of ourselves, our circumstances, and others that we cannot change or control. We have to lean into not-knowing, and give permission for some uncertainty in the process itself. If we release, we can also allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised by what emerges. What new insights will grow, that we never would have known were there? What unexpected beauty will we discover? 

This is the first year I have found myself actually looking forward to fall. 

Summer has generally been my favorite time of year. I look forward to the warmer weather, and longer days. I love spending time at the pool or the beach and sitting outside on warm summer evenings. My heart lightens. 

But this year I have a new appreciation for the arrival of the cooler seasons. I am more in touch with the cycles of growth and death. The crisp scent of new growth in the spring, the steaming of vegetation at the height of the summer, the sweet decay as leaves curl up and dry. After a long summer of labor, I’m ready to put the garden to bed. 

It’s strange, but in a way I’m looking forward to cutting back the wilted stalks this fall and leaving what is there to rest. I think of the layers of leaves and mulch gradually breaking down through the winter, feeding the soil so that it can be even better next spring. As the seasons turn, I am taking this time to reflect on what I learned this year, prepare for the fall, and think ahead to next spring. 

I will have to wait to see the results of my efforts. The payoff of all of the time I spent pruning might not be for months, or possibly years. Like gardening, the process of teshuva, of repairing and transforming into who we want to be, takes time. It requires patience, periods of activity and periods of waiting. And of course our task is never done – there is always maintenance to do and more to learn. 

So let’s use our time together this Yom Kippur to clear out the overgrowth, remove the deadwood, accept what is, and to have patience to allow something new and even more beautiful to flourish from the work we do this holiday season.

Racial Justice Teshuva Begins with Us

(Lo Tirtzach/Thou Shalt Not Murder art by Rachel Stone)

Rosh Hashanah, II Tishrei, 5781

Long, long ago, in the days before COVID, we used to do things like see movies in crowded theaters. 

A few years ago, I went with my family to see a movie. I don’t remember which one it was, but it must have been a recent release because the theater was packed. I remember it was winter time, because we were all doing that thing that you do with coats in a theater – no one wants to either put their coat on the floor, or hold it through the entire movie, so everybody designated a seat in their row as “the coat seat.” If you looked up and down the rows, you would see every few people, a seat buried in mountain of coats and scarves.

Now, the seat next to me was someone else’s coat seat for awhile. I think. 

As the theater filled up, the ushers asked us to move our coats, and to raise our hands if we had an empty seat next to us. In my peripheral vision, the shape next to me was a coat mountain. So I raised my hand. And then I heard a voice that made me turn, and I saw that there was next to me, not a pile of coats, but a person. A black woman. I remember being flooded with embarrassment and shame at realizing that I had somehow neglected to even be aware of the presence of a human being sitting a foot away from me. I didn’t even see her. I of course apologized immediately, but I spent the entire movie wondering how that could have happened. 

I have revisited that incident over the years. Could you explain this as an honest mistake? It was dark. There were all the coats. There had been a pile of coats next to me for awhile, hadn’t there? I couldn’t be certain. But what I was certain of were the woman’s eyes, when I finally turned and saw that she was there. I can’t forget her eyes. Something about the way she looked at me told me this wasn’t the first time she had been invisible to a white person. And I know my experience, my not-seeing, is part of a much bigger problem.

I can’t go back in time and do it over again. But I am doing my utmost to really see the people around me, and to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. 

When we don’t see people, we dehumanize them. We disregard them. And the consequences of that cumulative disregard can be deadly. 

Over the summer, since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, there has been a greater reckoning the realities of race in this country. George’s death was not the first or last of its kind, but it occurred at a time when many more of us in this country were primed to take notice. With the stresses caused by the pandemic, George’s death was like lighting a match and throwing it on a haystack. 

Some of us had already been in a process of examining our own relationships to race and our understanding of racism in our country. For others of us, the protests sparked have caused us to ask questions that we haven’t asked before about the nature of American society and our relationship to inequality. And there may be others among us who are feeling distressed and angry, as we watch some protests turn into looting and violent confrontations with the police. We may be experiencing a mixture of these feelings at one time. 

These are not easy questions to grapple with. We want to live in a country where anyone can succeed with hard work. We want to believe that the past is in the past, that old wounds have been healed. The recognition that our society does not treat all people as created equal and give us equal opportunities can shake our core beliefs about ourselves, about our successes, and about the world we live in. And so we protect ourselves from the horror of knowing and the responsibility to act. 

It is incredibly painful to confront the idea that, perhaps unwittingly, we may have participated in actions that have caused others harm or benefited from privileges that have been denied to others. I want to acknowledge that feeling. 

Our identity as Jews adds an additional layer of complexity. We are keenly aware of the ways we have been othered, how the calculus of race has been turned against Jews. But the existence of Jews as a minority in this country and the fact Jewish oppression throughout our history can get in the way of our reckoning with the realities of race today. We can distance ourselves from responsibility for slavery and Jim Crow because most of our ancestors were not directly involved or may not have even been in the country yet, and because the same hate groups that have terrorized black people in this country are also deeply anti-Semitic. 

And yet, in the recent history of our country, many Jews have been extended some of the privileges of whiteness that were once denied. In any social hierarchy, it is clear that if given the choice, most people would choose to be near the top. In a caste system, as historian Isabel Wilkerson describes it, that places whiteness and the top and blackness at the bottom, we all know on some level that proximity to whiteness improves our chances of safety, security, and success. 

We are all shaped by the societies that we live in, and our society inculcates a certain set of beliefs and norms around race. Quite frankly, it would be more surprising for someone who has lived a significant portion of his or her life in this country *not* to hold racial biases on some level. 

Those biases cause harm not only in the most virulent forms –  the people in white hoods, the crowds jeering as black children try to enter a school. It also exercises itself in more subtle ways, ways we are not consciously aware of. Consciously, condemn discrimination in all forms. I actively seek out stories and perspectives different from my own. I have been taught, officially, about the dangers of prejudice. And yet, what happens when I really start paying attention to my gut reactions? Not my mind, not my heart – that part of me that has learned the unofficial lessons of living within a racial caste system: 

That initial pang of anxiety at seeing a young black man approaching on the street, the internal voice that whispers “danger”.

The times when I have, without intending it, disregarded or been completely unaware of the presence of someone who was black.

It is in little burst of surprise at seeing a black or brown person in a position of power – at the head of the university classroom, or the doctor’s office, or the Oval Office. Even if it is pleasant. Even if we pat ourselves on the back for being so open-minded because our dentist is black, or our favorite college professor is black. 

Now, my mind immediately jumps in and overrides my gut. But I would be lying if I pretended that the initial reaction wasn’t there. I am working hard to undo those patterns, but it takes time and effort to unlearn a lifetime of training, that is all the harder to work against because it is usually unspoken.

These may seem like small things, but they add up. As the number of people of color who end up dead after encounters with the police can tell us, unexamined biases can have serious consequences. We may not be personally at fault. But we are responsible.

To recognize our biases and to unravel them is an ongoing process rather than a single moment of realization. It is something that one must actively work toward, to root out the stumbling blocks and carve new mental pathways. 

In this season of Teshuva, we are called to engage in precisely this type of reflection and discernment. To look honestly at ourselves and our communities and to ask deeply: where have we fallen short? To search and discover within our own hearts things we didn’t know were there, the parts that don’t often see the light of day.  And then to ask: what can I do to make it right? 

Teshuva is a multi-stage process:

  1. Becoming aware – Recognize what we’ve done wrong – without that, there is no teshuva
  2. Actually experience remorse or regret, and desire to make it right. 
  3. Ask forgiveness of the person that you have wronged
  4. Do what needs to be done to make it right, to the extent possible

We have to begin somewhere, and the first step in this process is often the hardest. I am inviting all of us to participate in some study and reflection today to begin a conversation about race and what a process of teshuva could look like. You might not agree with all of the perspectives offered here. They are meant to challenge and to prompt us to ask questions. What I ask is that we approach this with open minds and hearts, with curiosity. 

Here’s how it will work: The texts for study are included in the packets that you may have picked up in person. A digital copy was also sent out via email and posted to the KH website. I will introduce the texts in two sections, with some guiding thoughts or questions. Then, either individually or with others, we will take a few minutes to read and consider them. We will come back together and I will introduce the next set and repeat the process. At the end, we’ll join back together for some concluding reflections. 

The first two texts, from Michelle Alexander and the Rev. Anthony A Johnson are focused on the first stage of teshuva –  cultivating awareness. 

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2010

Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions – victims, perpetrators, and bystanders – know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide, torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

Questions for reflection or discussion:

  • Do you relate to the idea of “knowing” and “not-knowing” at the same time? 
  • What steps can you take to consciously “know”? 

2. Rev. Anthony A. Johnson, June 3, 2020, Atlanta Jewish Times

Those of us who seek to once again re-establish black-Jewish relations in Atlanta have to learn how to prioritize one another’s efforts. And in order for our respective cultures to understand one another’s needs, there must first be “real” dialogue, real understanding. Understand that each and every day, every one of your black friends in Atlanta and across America, including me, lives with the reality of being killed by police officers. Many Jews are passing as white. Black Atlantans need you to be proud kippah-wearing Jews and stop passing as white (to those who it applies to) and experience the “inconvenience” of being people of color (which is what you are) even if you’re Ashkenazi. My black is beautiful. And YOUR black is beautiful.

Atlanta, we know that there is power in numbers. The truthful acknowledgment of Jews in Atlanta, throughout the Southeast and around the world as people of color will not only allow you to be your authentic selves, a proud people who protested and subsequently defeated Pharaoh of the Torah/Old Testament, but it will cause a deep, transformational change in your hearts toward your black brothers and sisters, understanding the plight of blacks in white Atlanta and white America feeling with “empathy” versus “sympathy” because we have the same Pharaoh in common.

Questions for reflection or discussion:

  • What do you make of Rev. Johnson’s assertion that Jews are “passing” as white? 
  • Is identification with the Black experience necessary for a commitment to pursuing racial justice?

The idea of simultaneously knowing/not-knowing captures why it is often so hard to accept what the evidence suggests to us. I would argue, as I mentioned earlier, that not-knowing is a protective stance – a way to cope with the painful reality. The horror of fully knowing may be painful to bear and lead us to feel guilty.

Johnson also talks about knowledge, specifically in the relationship to Jews and racial justice. He makes a number of claims that are somewhat provocative and that you may or may not agree with, but for Johnson, full knowing of our identity as Jews can lead to a deeper empathy with the struggle of other people for justice and equality. 

The following two texts, from Maimonides and Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, deal with the next stages in the process of teshuva – repairing the harm and seeking forgiveness. 

3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuva 2:9

Neither repentance nor the Day of Atonement atone for any save for sins committed between a person and God, for instance, one who ate forbidden food, or had forbidden sexual relations and the like; but sins between a person and his or her fellow, for instance, one injures his neighbor, or curses his neighbor or plunders him, or offends him in like matters, is not absolved unless he makes restitution of what he owes and begs the forgiveness of his neighbor. And, although he makes restitution of the monetary debt, he is obliged to pacify him and to beg his forgiveness. Even if he offended his neighbor only in words, he is obliged to appease him and implore him till he is forgiven by him. If his neighbor does not want to forgive him, he should bring a committee of three friends to implore and ask of him; if the neighbor is not convinced by them, he (the offender) should bring a second, even a third committee. If he still does not want (to forgive) he may leave him to himself and pass on, for the sin then rests on the one who refuses forgiveness. But if it happened to be his master, he should go and come to him for forgiveness even a thousand times till he does forgive him.

4. Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, “In Jewish Tradition, Racism is a Sin,” Forward, June 8, 2020

Repentance is not a private act carried out between a sinner and God, nor is it completed when the sinner has mended his ways. Rather, according to Rabbi Isaac Hutner, one of the 20th century’s most intriguing rabbinic thinkers, repentance means a basic rededication of one’s life to discovering and rectifying the cascading ways that a single act of violence has transformed and broken the lives of others, and therefore the world:

“As long as the destructive effects of a sin remain in the world, a penitent is obligated to repair them, so that the evil and brokenness of the sin remain only in the past. Just as abandoning the sin prevents the sin itself henceforth, so too the repairing of what is broken cuts off the branches of the sin that reach into the future.”

The consequences of our actions race ahead of us, into the future: when a car is wrongfully impounded, a parent can no longer commute to her job, a family is evicted, children lose access to school (and with it, lunch), carrying trauma and missed developmental milestones into their adult lives. Repentance is the act of cauterizing the future against the rupture that metastasizes from the sins of the past. It is important to reform the policies by which vehicles are seized, but it is not repentance: repentance is mending the physical and psychological scars left on those whose lives were upended by the old policy. This isn’t always possible; this potentially-tragic aspect makes repentance an example of what philosophers call a ‘regulative ideal,’ one towards which we must strive even though we will never attain it, like complete fairness or perfect rationality.

Past sins are never confined to the past, but are always woven into the very fabric of the present. This is why we must, as Coates put it, consciously exert an opposite force. Repentance means not only admitting that past actions were wrong, but also reckoning with the fact that, because of those actions, the current state of the world is wrong as well.


In his code of Jewish law, Maimonides describes both the need to both make restitution- to repair the damage done – and to actively seek forgiveness from the one who was harmed. As Rabbi Rubenstein describes, drawing on the work of Rabbi Hutner, Teshuva involves a continuous process of seeking to repair the effects of the sin. It reframes our approach to life- we cannot be satisfied by a single action and conclude that we have fulfilled our responsibility. This suggests that we need to concern ourselves not only with root causes but also with the effects that radiate out from past harms. 

I know this was not enough time to give each text a fair treatment. My hope is that the opportunity to learn together helps us to open our hearts and look inside ourselves. Even if we think we know ourselves inside and out, the reality is that we are all complex.  

In one of the prayers we sang together earlier this morning, we describe God as one who bochen levavot – examines our hearts, goleh amukot – reveals our depths; yodea machshavot-  knows our thoughts and tzofeh nistarot – uncovers mysteries.  God as described here knows everything about us – even the things we may not yet know about ourselves. These images might parallel our own process of reflection. We might also feel that we are digging into our depths, or discovering mysteries. We might encounter resistance, too, or parts of ourselves that are just too tender to touch. That is also a part of the process. 

Being honest with ourselves is hard work, but we don’t have to do it alone. In our tradition, the process of teshuva is not only individual, but communal. We take on responsibility for the things that everyone in our community has done, knowingly or unknowingly, we hold one another accountable, and we lean on each other for support. We’re in this together. We don’t have to achieve perfection or have it all figured out by the end of Yom Kippur. The hardest part is just to begin. 

To paraphrase the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, “It is not upon us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.” 

I’ll conclude with the words of James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 

Of Fairy Godmothers and Theodor Herzl: Imagining the Impossible

Rosh Hashanah, I Tishrei 5781

When I was growing up, my family had a VHS tape recording of the 1965 version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made for TV Cinderella musical starring Leslie Ann Warren. My younger sister and I used to watch it over and over again, memorizing all the lyrics and staging our own re-enactments. As Cinderella’s fairy godmother sings, “Because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, Impossible things are happening everyday.”

Reflecting years later, I realized that Cinderella’s fairy godmother and Theodor Herzl actually have a lot in common in their embrace of the impossible. Herzl, a leader in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Europe, is often quoted for his statement in reference to the goal of establishing a Jewish state: Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah. Usually translated if you will it, it is no dream. More accurately, if you will it, it is no fairytale. To most people in Herzl’s day, the idea of creating a Jewish state would seem about as plausible as Cinderella’s grandmother transforming a pumpkin and mice into a horse-drawn carriage. And yet, a group of people believed so strongly in the idea that they willed it into existence, despite those who said it couldn’t be done.


Our present reality is itself something that would have seemed nearly impossible just a short time ago. 

Over the past several months, I have experienced the feeling of living on a precipice, that just a slight shift in the wind or a tremor could send us off the edge. It is terrifying. 

If you had told me a year ago that there would be a worldwide pandemic that would kill millions of people, force us all to stay home and socially distance for months, and lead to an emerging industry of designer masks, I would have found it difficult to believe. 

The pandemic has created a dramatic rupture, that touches on nearly every aspect of our lives and on the structures and systems that we rely on: The suffering and deaths of millions of people infected with COVID-19, and the mourning of their families and loved ones. The overwhelm of our healthcare system as the infection rate climbs. The exposure of the inadequacy of healthcare insurance and access in this country, and the failure of our leadership to anticipate and respond to this crisis. The impact on supply chains in the early days of the outbreak. The impact on the economy, as millions of Americans were unable to safely work and businesses are forced to close. The exposure of deep social and economic disparities, that leaves those of us who can work remotely and with resources better able to cope and protect ourselves, while others must deal with unemployment or make the decision to put themselves and their families at risk by going back to work in service sector jobs.  

It all sounds like a great set up for a dystopian novel or movie. 

Truth is stranger than fiction

Beginning in my teens I have been drawn to dystopian fiction, or more broadly speculative fiction, dark fantasies of what-if. What if Big Brother is always watching? What if the United States became a theocracy? What if children were trained in the art of war as part of a plan to wipe out an alien race? What if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president? if the box office success of the Hunger Games series and proliferation of adaptations on streaming platforms are any indication, dystopias, and other kinds of speculative storytelling, have increased in popularity in recent years.  As our reality has drawn closer to the worlds these tales envision, it all feels a little too close to home. Perhaps we will lose our appetite for them. But what is it about these kinds of stories that is so compelling to us? What do these stories do for us?

Storytelling allows us to explore and push our boundaries in a way that is safe. When we tell stories, we show a mirror to ourselves and feel out the dangers. We can test out the possibilities for our future and dream of successes, too. Telling stories is also a part of how we make sense of our present and construct our future.

As Jews, we know a lot about the power of stories. Storytelling is central to our tradition as Jews. We are instructed by the Torah – v’higadeta l’vincha – to tell the Passover story to our children every year, to repeat and teach the words of the Torah in the shema. We read the entire Torah over and over again, retelling our sacred story. And Jews were never content to stop with the Torah – over centuries we have developed a rich literature of midrash and legends that continue to revisit and expand on those foundational stories. The Jewish people has always been in a process of creative reimagining. It is not only to preserve or keep the stories alive, but the process of writing those stories has helped us adapt to changing realities and to recreate what it means to be Jewish in different times and places. 

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intimately connected with the storytelling process, in a deeply personal way. In this season of teshuva, or repentance, we look back at the year that has passed and reflect on who we are. We are invited into a process of telling our own stories – where we have been and where we want to go. One of the powerful images of these Days of Awe is of the divine Book of Life open – in the Unetane Tokef prayer, we imagine God reviewing all of our deeds and inscribing us in the Book of Life:

B’rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv-yom tzom kippur yechateimun

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on yom kippur it is sealed. 

In this moment, at the peak of the service, we are filled with a mixture of emotions. The words of these prayers capture our fear and trembling, our uncertainty about what is to come. The anxiety of not knowing is very familiar to us this year, as we have confronted so much uncertainty throughout the last several months – constantly changing information information about the virus and how best to protect ourselves, changing policies, the limits on our ability to plan for the future – whether it is a week, a month, or even a year from now. 

Through this intensive process of teshuva we actually have the possibility of re-writing our story. This time is not only a time of reflection on what has passed; it is also an opportunity to reimagine the possibilities, to reconstruct our stories and to invent a future for ourselves. This is a deeply personal process, but it is also a communal one. Although we are not all in one place this year, we are joining together for prayer and reflection to imagine what could be. We press pause on what is happening outside, to enter into an alternate reality, a laboratory where we can create and experiment and where anything is possible.

We are living in unprecedented times, a time in history of our country, and our world, where the path forward is difficult to discern. We are asking serious questions about the future. Whatever happens, we will be dealing with the long term impact of the pandemic and the questions it has raised for years to come. And with our world so altered, things will almost certainly be different than the way they were. The question is, what future do we want to build? What story do we want to write? 

Imagine for a moment that you are a future historian, writing from the year 2050 about the year 2020 and what came after. What would you say? 

Here’s the story I want to tell: I imagine one of my children writing their doctoral dissertation on the history of the pandemic and what came after: 

The year 2020 was a time of great crisis around the world and in our country. The global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus revealed a number of structural and socioeconomic problems that were lying just below the surface. It became impossible to ignore them any longer. Although the effort to contain the spread of the virus in the United States initially lagged behind the response of other nations, with resulting loss of life and great hardship, the country was brought together around a common purpose. The coronavirus forced a reckoning; the result was the largest effort to expand access to and restructure our healthcare, education, and transportation systems in decades. Forced to innovate in order to address the crisis, we realized that we did not have to take for granted the way things were and that real transformation was possible. Previously we believed that it was impossible to allow workers to work remotely; we found it was not only possible, but also allowed us to do things we never thought possible before. We realized the importance of public health not only to the safety of individuals, but for the wellbeing of the entire nation. We understood that access to the internet was a public good, essential to educate our children and create job opportunities in a global economy. It took time, but the United States emerged from the pandemic with a new identity, an orientation toward focusing on community and strengthening the wellbeing of its citizens. 

Perhaps you think this all sounds hopelessly idealistic and naive. It is easy to fall into despair about the state of the world or to feel powerless. I know I often feel that way. 

I don’t know what is going to happen. None of us do. 

We have an opportunity now to rewrite our story. More than that – we are living through a defining moment in the history of our country and of our world right now, and if we don’t write that story someone else will. 

The Torah does not allow us to be complacent. Jewish teaching challenges us to envision something better – not only for ourselves, but for all people in the societies in which we live. Our tradition demands that we recognize the dignity and worth of every person as created b’tzelem elohim, in the imagine of God. That we have compassion towards the vulnerable in our society. That we provide for the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. That we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. 

The future is in our hands. If we want something different, if we are committed and serious about our values as Jews, we have to be active participants in envisioning and rewriting the story. 

Don’t let the thought that something seems crazy or impossible paralyze you. What world do you want to live in 10 years from now? 20 or 30 years from now? What world do you want your children to live in? What would it take to make that happen? What action can you take now to make that story a reality? Can you find other people who are committed to working for that vision and join with them?

One of the messages of Rosh Hashanah and this season of Teshuva is that we have the ability to transform our destiny. We say during our prayers: 

U’Teshuva  ut’fillah utz’dakah ma’avirim et roa hagezeirah – that teshuva, prayer, and giving of ourselves have the ability to avert the harshness of the decree. 

We can make the impossible possible. 

Let’s write our own story and make it come true. 

Shanah Tovah!

September 18, 2020 / 29 Elul 5780

Dear friends,

Shalom, shalom larachok v’lakarov amar Adonai. 

Shalom: shalom to those who are far off, shalom to those who are near, says Adonai.

(Isaiah 57:19)

These words of welcome, included at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah evening service in the mahzor our community uses, feel particularly bittersweet this year. While we may always be mindful of the people who are not with us on the holidays, this year we are especially aware of the people who are far away, who we long to have near to us. We are unable to gather close together as a community in the way that we might like. Our celebration of the holidays will look very different this year. 

A socially-distant Rosh Hashanah may not be what any of us would have chosen, but our situation has been an impetus for creativity. Though physically far apart, we are finding new ways to connect and to join together in a community. Through our virtual experience, we are able to connect with friends and neighbors who may be joining us for the first time. I wish we could offer you a warm, in-person welcome, but we extend you a hearty virtual bruchim haba’im (welcome!) and hope we will have the chance to connect in person soon.

I have attached a digital copy of the Guide to the High Holy Days at Home that was distributed with the physical copies of the mahzor. We will be using study texts found in the packet on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, so please have them handy if you are planning to join us for the service. If you would like to be sure to have a physical copy available, please feel free to print before the holiday. 

The packet also includes resources to support your celebration of the holidays at home. You will find a guide to holiday rituals and traditions, suggestions for prayer at home, and additional readings that we will use on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I hope you will find them useful and meaningful. And look out for a surprise at the end of the packet to keep things interesting!

On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all find meaning, connection, and renewal for the year ahead. 

L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. 

%d bloggers like this: