Your Impact Is a Blessing

This week we are introduced to Abraham.

Our Torah portion this week, Lech Lecha, begins with God calling Abraham, and inviting him to go forth from his homeland to a new land. But the call to move geographic locations is simply a physical manifestation of a deeper, more spiritual move: Abraham is changing the direction of his life in order to become God’s representative on Earth, to enter into a covenant with God.

Part of this “call” has to do with a blessing. God says:

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase. What does it mean that those who bless Abraham will in turn be blessed? What does it mean that others in the world will bless themselves through Abraham?

God is telling Abraham, here at the beginning of his mission, that he has the potential to make an impact. That he is going to make change in the world, and through his righteous action, that change is going to be overwhelmingly positive. He will be a blessing.

Righteous action brings change and makes an impact. Righteous action is a blessing.

The time has come again for us to demonstrate that we can bring change and make an impact. Election Day is upon us. We in Washington State, of course, have had our ballots for two weeks now as we vote by mail and so the day itself has less of an impact. But the fact of our voting, participating fully in our democracy, is something that should not go unnoticed. At a time that voting rights are being challenged, and the ability to easily vote curtailed, we are mindful that the ability to vote in our system is a blessing. Our acting on that ability makes our actions a blessing.

While it is a “midterm” year as they call it, vis a vis the presidential election, every election is important. This year we vote for Congress, several local elections and the usual slate of referenda and initiatives. One ballot measure, though, jumps out this year: I-594, which will make background checks mandatory on the sale of all firearms.

It jumps out not only because of the plague of gun violence that is sweeping our nation, but because of the plague of gun violence that is sweeping our local communities. The latest school shooting (and even to have to say “the latest school shooting” seems beyond the pale) took place right here in Washington State, in Marysville, north of Seattle. The details are continually being revealed, but 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg premeditatedly invited his friends and cousins to meet him for lunch in the cafeteria where he proceeded to gun them down. Two people died, three wounded and Jaylen committed suicide.

We may never know all the details, the hows and whys of what Jaylen did. The reports are that he was a good kid, played football, was elected a homecoming prince. Reports are that he was in a dispute over a girlfriend (adding elements of domestic violence to this shooting). No indications of mental illness.

And the gun was legally purchased. This last factor will lead some to beg the question, would I-594 have even done anything? Indeed, that is one of the arguments against the initiative: that it still wouldn’t prevent criminals from obtaining guns.

First, while it may not do everything, it will do something, and that is important. If every piece of legislation had to solve every problem completely, then we would not pass any laws.

But irrespective of what it actually does regarding gun control, passing this initiative sends an important message. By passing this initiative we say this: that as a society, we will not let gun culture go unchecked. That guns are not just about individual rights, but communal responsibilities. That as we honor an individual’s right to own a firearm, we also honor an individual’s right to be able to go to school without fear.

For whatever Jayson’s motivation, he was clearly comfortable with firearms. We need to stop saying as a nation that we are comfortable with guns. Guns shouldn’t be “comfortable” or “normative.”

A few years ago a mentally ill man attacked the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one person and wounding several. For this reason, among others, the organized Jewish community in Washington has come out in favor of I-594. And if you recall, last year at Rosh Hashanah I gave a sermon on the subject drawing on Jewish sources, you can find it here.

When Abraham set out on his journey, he knew that he had the potential to bring blessing or curse. And that blessing or curse would have wide impact. So I invite you to exercise your ability to make an impact. First, vote. No matter for whom you vote, no matter how you vote on the initiatives, just vote. It is the simplest, most powerful act we have to be engaged citizens of our community.

And I invite you to join me in voting for I-594. Let’s take a step towards tighter controls on guns. For some it doesn’t go far enough. For some it may go too far. But anything we can do to send the message that the right to gun ownership must come with responsibilities, and that measures are needed to ensure public safety, can only be for a blessing.


Now that the holidays are over, its time to get back to my regular weekly posting.

We are at the end of the month of Tishrei, which is chock full of holidays: the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year and the Day of Atonement; the fall harvest festival of Sukkot and the celebration of Simchat Torah. This weekend is the beginning of the new month of Cheshvan.

Cheshvan is traditionally also called Marcheshvan. “Mar” in Hebrew means “bitter” (think of maror–the bitter herb–from Passover), and is called such because there are no holidays or special celebrations during the month.

Bitter? Maybe. But after a month full of holidays Cheshvan can seem like a welcome break. But a month of no holidays following a month full of holidays has its own challenge. How to keep the spirit of the holidays going? Sometimes we treat holidays as a distraction, or a break from the rest of our lives. But our Jewish holidays aren’t meant to be completely separate from our usual day-to-day. Yes they are a change from the ordinary–we don’t fast every day nor do we sit in the Sukkah for more than a week. But the themes of the holidays are meant to inform us through out the year.

So: How do we take the intention-setting of Rosh Hashanah, the repentance and self-improvement of Yom Kippur, the connection to nature and reminder of the fragility of life of Sukkot, and the joy of endings and new beginnings with Simchat Torah, and make those values we connect with throughout the rest of the year?

That is our job for the next month. No holidays may make Cheshvan bitter. But the ability to continue the holidays of the past month make it sweet.

Yom Kippur 5775: “What About Palestine!?”

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you may have heard about this incident. I did put it up on my blog as well:

I don’t normally walk by our corner sign, on the corner of 8th and Washington. Since our parking is on the other side of the building, I’m usually parking there and entering the building by our office doors. But being located where we are, should I have someplace to be downtown I tend to walk. So a few weeks ago, after a morning coffee appointment downtown, I walked back down Washington, crossing over to our building, and as I passed the sign I notice someone had written, in marker, not big, in the metal frame that surrounds the reader board, “What about Palestine!?”


And my heart sank.

My heart sank first off because we know this has been a difficult summer with the hostilities in Israel and Gaza, and although at the time of the graffiti hostilities had been put on hold, reading those words took me right back to those heartwrenching days of a few months ago.

My heart sank because during the summer’s fighting we saw anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head once again, primarily in Europe but also closer to home, where Jewish institutions were targeted and historic anti-Jewish tropes replayed and regurgitated. People directing their frustration over the war and directing it to all Jews. And while the graffiti could have been worse, it was enough to see that we, as a Jewish institution, were being targeted.

And my heart sank because of what happens here in Olympia. Where we are still reeling from the events surrounding the troubling Olympia Food Coop boycott of Israel four years ago when the concerns of the entirety of the Jewish community were not met, and when a beloved local institution did not show the sensitivity one would expect to a minority population in this community.

So I collected myself. I took out my phone and took pictures of the graffiti, went back into the Temple and printed them out. I then walked down to the police department and filed a report. I had a constructive conversation with the officer assigned—although I knew there was nothing to be done about it, I just wanted to have it on record—and handed over my pictures.

I learned though channels (there was another guy in the lobby of the police department at the time who worked for a cleaning company and overheard my conversation) that the best way to remove the graffiti was with a product called “Goof-Off,” and so after a quick trip to Olympia Supply for a bottle and a wire brush, I returned to the Temple and started scrubbing. After a few applications, the graffiti was removed.

And I did the next natural thing one does these days—I put it on Facebook.

I posted the pictures I took, and here is what I wrote:

To the person who wrote graffiti on the TBH sign:
1. Targeting non-Israeli Jewish institutions about Israel/Palestine is highly problematic, if not anti-Semitic.
2. If you want to talk about Israel and Palestine, I’d be happy to meet with you. You can email me at, rather than tag our building.
3. We have filed a police report with the Olympia Police Department.
4. You owe me $7.59 for a bottle of Goof-Off and a wire brush.
5. Since this is the season of the High Holidays, if you wish to make amends, explain yourself and apologize, I am willing to forgive.

Well, no one has come forward, yet.

So this incident has passed, and nothing has happened since. But it still is present in my mind. I’m reminded of it whenever I see the sign. And even prior to that graffiti, I had always been fearful that something may happen here.

We know it is not easy living as Jews in Olympia. Even today, as we gather here to celebrate our most sacred day, outside Olympia is holding its Fall Arts Walk—a major community celebration. The scheduling conflict (and I should remind you that Yom Kippur is a lot older than ArtsWalk) for this or other events, school, exams is common, we deal with it all the time. And when we mention a conflict it elicits an acknowledgment and apology at best or hostility at worst. Every year, and not just at this season, we are in the difficult position of having to explain ourselves, make our case why we need to reschedule, or miss something. We have to put ourselves out there. The ability to not have to do that, to indeed just expect that your calendar and your concerns will be taken into account, is a privilege the majority in this community enjoy. And it is not easy living as a Jew in Olympia around Israel.

And yet, that question still is there “What about Palestine!?” and so I thought I should at least do the courtesy and think about the question, even if the way it was delivered was so problematic.

And I should say, that I am not the only one in my position who is thinking about this question, or talking about Israel over these holidays. It is not just the graffiti on our sign that is prompting these thoughts. Indeed, just prior to the High Holidays a flurry of articles came out debating not only the various points one can make, but merits of even talking about Israel over the High Holidays.

There was in Ha’aretz Peter Beinart’s article “American Rabbis, these High Holidays talk about Jewish texts, not the Jewish state.” Rabbis pushed back in their own articles of why they should, including Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah (Rabbis for Human Rights). The New York Times ran a piece called “Talk in Synagogue of Israel and Gaza Goes From Debate to Wrath to Rage.” And then in Religion Dispatches: “Too Hot for Shul: Rabbi Seek Healthy Israel Dialogue After Gaza.”

And I had the debate myself, whether I wanted to talk about Israel this year. On the one hand I agree with Beinart. I am not a pundit. I have my opinions, yes, and I have read my fair share of articles and analysis, I am sure there are others who have read more and have better things to say. My training and expertise lay elsewhere. And besides there is so much I want to talk about: God, spirituality, the environment—even up until a few days ago I thought of using this time to speak about environmental justice.

But I know it is probably on your mind, or has been at least earlier this summer.

The articles did not exaggerate—this is a question we rabbis ask all the time. Should we and how do we talk about Israel. For it is so sensitive and a hot topic in our communities. For with regards to Israel, if you perceived as too critical you are labeled as disloyal, if perceived as not critical you are labeled as immoral. This is especially hurtful when it comes from within the Jewish community. I could probably eat a ham sandwich in a church on Yom Kippur that I paid for by stealing money from the tzedakah box, and my commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people would not be questioned. If I don’t say the right thing about Israel, I will be seen as a traitor. And this labeling is not just confined to rabbis, everyone is subject to this.

What underlies this, I believe, it is the distinction between particularism and universalism. Are we concerned with our group? Are we particularists? That is the loyalty argument. Or are we concerned with all of humanity? Are we universalists? That is the morality argument. But it is a false distinction. As Jews we need to be concerned with both. We are committed to Jewish tradition, Jewish spirituality, the Jewish people and yes, that means the Jewish state, a contemporary manifestation of Jewish peoplehood. On the other hand, our values of compassion, justice and peace must extend to all peoples. We are both particularists and universalists.

And this is the tension we find ourselves. Why I think it is so difficult to address this especially here in Olympia, when there are strong voices who don’t understand this tension, or who wish to exploit it, or who force us to choose one at the expense of the other. But it doesn’t work that way.

And it is in this spirit, of living in the tension, that I think about the question: “What about Palestine?!”

Because I do believe it is a question that we as Jews need to ask.

Earlier this summer a number of my colleagues travelled to Israel on a study tour organized by my rabbinic association. I had desperately wanted to go, but unfortunately I was already committed to attending a retreat at the same time. It was one of four retreats I am attending as part of the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I had been accepted to and began this program months before, and so was unable to join my friends and colleagues. And I deeply regretted it. And interestingly, while obviously it was not planned, the study tour—and my retreat—were taking place during the time of the hostilities.

On retreat, part of the day is spent in silence, and as part of the overall experience, the group of rabbis and cantors from all denominations I was with on retreat took upon ourselves the silencing of phones and cutting off contact with the outside world.

Things were escalating in Israel when I turned off my computer and phone, and I had hoped that perhaps, maybe, things would have calmed down by the time I turned on my phone upon my return. I discovered to my dismay that the opposite was true; things have gotten worse.

The raging violence hung like a shadow over the retreat, and though it wasn’t originally part of the schedule, we did take an evening of reflection and sharing of our thoughts and feelings. And since this was a retreat focused on spiritual practice, we did so with an intention of contemplation and prayer.

We gathered one evening and sat in a circle. In the middle was a smaller circle. We were asked to write down the answers to two questions regarding the conflict: What is at the heart of the matter for me? And, where do you experience doubt or confusion in your position? Then we took turns in smaller groups sitting in the middle of the circle and offering our responses. I invite you to think about your own answers to these questions for a moment.

What came to my mind is that I began to realize that the Israel of my youth, or even of 20 years ago, is no longer the Israel of today. We need to celebrate all the good that Israel was, is and has yet to be. At the same time, let us as American Jews accept the challenge that Israel provides. The intensity of the fighting this summer has awakened in me a moral challenge and a question, that why does the dream and necessity of Israel come with such a high cost to bear.

I do not deny that Israel is under real threat. Rockets continuously fired, tunnels dug, all to carry out indiscriminate violence. And I do not deny that Hamas is guilty of their own human rights abuses, using human shields, putting their own people at risk.

And yet, I find the blame game so unsatisfying. Who did what to who when is so unproductive. For when I think about Israel’s ongoing repression and occupation, and read the death toll numbers for which Israel is responsible, including the number of children, I am in such pain. I am in such pain. And it is because of, not despite, my love for Israel that it hurts me so much.

I don’t know how much more I can say at this moment. Others report and parse the facts, others report from their immediate experiences, other dissect the political situation. I know my words will ultimately dissatisfy. But my experience at the retreat moved me, and I thought that one step to take is to simply be able to pray for and hold in compassion all those in pain.

On retreat (and oftentimes at TBH) we include in our prayers not only the children of Israel, but the children of Ishmael. [We are also going to be spending the year looking at this term, “Israel,” in its multiple manifestations over the course of Jewish history and thought.] That we pray not only for our community, but all communities. As Jews we need to pray for ourselves, yes, and we need to be able to pray for the Palestinians. And specifically, not “I feel pain at the death of Palestinians, but…”—rather “I feel pain at the death of Palestinians, period.” And I hope that those on “the other side” will pray for “our side;” can recognize and pray for the hopes and dreams of Israel. And if we do this, we can eliminate the notion of “sides” altogether.

For that was so difficult for me watching things unfold this summer during the conflict between Israel and Hamas: the increasing taking of sides, both outside and within the Jewish community.

In the Torah on the High Holidays we read the story of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Sarah unable to conceive allows Abraham to have a child with her concubine, Hagar. This child is Ishmael, and after Sarah does have her own son, Isaac, she seeks to banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Abraham does so, not without distress, but God promises to look after them, and God does. Ishmael we are told becomes the founder of a nation.

Now reading this story as an origin or paradigm for contemporary political events is just as dangerous as reading the Torah to determine the borders of a modern nation-state. But I bring this story to illustrate what it is at its core: two people, bound together, at conflict, both seeking the same thing.

The Torah does not relate any relationship between Isaac and Ishmael after this event, after Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the wilderness, save for one moment: when Abraham dies, both Isaac and Ishmael join together to bury him.

What happened between Isaac and Ishmael and their parents happened. There is no undoing the past. But they were able to come together to do what needed to be done to forge a shared future.

That is what I pray for. That is what I will work for.

On retreat, after we offered our thoughts on the two questions, we prayed. Anyone who wished to could enter the smaller circle and offer whatever prayer they wanted. I didn’t offer a prayer during that session on retreat, nothing concrete came to my mind at the time, at least nothing concrete enough to say aloud, but I have thought much since that time about what my prayer would be.

And I have thought of this: Rather than concern ourselves with meaningless labels like “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian;” rather than lay the blame solely on Hamas as ruthless terrorists or Israel as the sole oppressor; rather than hold one narrative to the silence of another; rather than deflect scrutiny at one’s own conduct by pointing out that of another; rather than picking a side, let’s just pray to the God of all sides:

God of All Sides, help us break down the barriers that divide us.

Let us, God, be on Your side.

The side of peace.

The side of compassion.

The side of love.

The side of children.

The side of unity.

The side of coexistence.

The side of friendship.

The side of burying the past.

The side of a shared future.


Thank you for praying with me.

The enemy of peace is not one people or the other, but it is extremism. We see that today in the renewed rise of anti-Semitism, towards which we need to be vigilant. We see that today in the mass deaths taking place in Syria and across the Middle East. We see that today in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. These are sad times we live in. The innocent are suffering at the hands of extremists.

As Jews we need to be concerned with the safety and well-being of our people, both here and abroad. And as Jews we need to be concerned with the safety and well-being of all people. That is not an easy road to travel. But is a road we must travel.

And we begin by opening our hearts and our minds.

“What about Palestine!?” It is a question we, as Jews, need to ask.

Kol Nidre 5775: “We are Vulnerable”

There is a section of the Yom Kippur liturgy that is so esoteric, so challenging, so removed from our own contemporary day to day life, and so removed from our contemporary conceptions of spirituality, that we do not even do it here at TBH.

Yes, I know, you are thinking…the services are so long already, what is it that we are possibly leaving out? Well you don’t know from long.

This section, found in traditional liturgy and found in our mahzor as well albeit in a contemporary, interpretive format is called the avodah service. Avodah means service, worship, and this is a recounting of the atonement ritual in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The traditional liturgy retells the story about how the High Priest would on this most sacred of days dress in special refinements, enter into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred and central spot in the Temple—entry to which for anyone else was forbidden—and perform the sacrificial rites of atonement.

Wrestling with these ancient rituals is nothing new; the conflict is as old as Judaism itself. Reading the Torah we are introduced to a system that is so far removed from how we understand spirituality. The way to connect to the divine, as told in the Torah, is through a system of proscribed sacrifices offered by a hereditary hierarchical class of priests on behalf of the people. You want to say thanks to God, you kill a goat. You want to ask God for something, you kill a goat. You want to apologize for a wrongdoing, you kill a goat. You want to celebrate Shabbat, you kill a goat.

The rabbis of the Talmud also had a struggle. Living in the generation that immediately followed the destruction of the Temple, they needed a means to reconcile what the Torah ordained to a new societal reality. How to worship God in the absence of sacrifices and no Temple?

We have words.

Our words, our prayers, take the place of sacrifices. It was the rabbis who instituted the system of prayers that we have now, and specifically the 3 prayer services which make up traditional Jewish practice. And each of these services—evening, morning and afternoon—corresponds to a specific sacrifice. Thus the original sacrificial framework is maintained, albeit in different ways.

On Shabbat and festivals there would be an additional sacrifice to mark the specialness of the day. This additional sacrifice was called the “Musaf” offering—literally meaning “additional.” Usually it contains a second Amidah (standing silent prayer) and some additional prayers unique to the day. It is within this section of the service that we find the Avodah service mentioned.

Contemporary Reform and Reconstructionist liturgy does away with Musaf either in whole or in part for both aesthetic and theological reasons. Theologically, a service that specifically recalls the sacrificial system (and traditionally included prayers for its reinstitution) feel far removed from the contemporary experience. We don’t hope for the Temple’s return. While we cleave to spirituality and seek a closeness with the divine, we have found other means to do this. And aesthetically, removing a theologically problematic section also results in a shorter service, and may, based on your inclination, flow better.

Because of the importance of the day, we maintain some semblance of Musaf on Yom Kippur. Some of the unique prayers that are found in this section are retained or at least alluded to. And it is here that we find, traditionally, the Avodah service. And it is here, that we struggle with its meaning.

The story, the ritual, goes like this: the High Priest, after ritually washing and trading in his regular garments for special white ones, takes a bull that will be sacrificed on behalf of himself and his family. He then takes two goats and would cast lots over them—one is designated “for Azazel” and the other designated “for God.” The bull would be sacrificed, its blood sprinkled as the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant. He would then emerge and he would sacfirice the goat designated for God. The other goat, upon which the High Priest would confess all of the sins of the community on its head, would be sent out to the wilderness. All the while he would recite words of prayer and confession including pronouncing the name of God, which was only spoken on that day by that person. We also tell this story during our Torah reading on Yom Kippur.

On the one hand, good riddance. Who wants to sacrifice goats? Who wants to turn over our spiritual work to others. On the other hand, how beautiful. How simple. To find an easy course of action.

We of course don’t follow this ritual these days. But, like the High Priest of old, we abstain from our daily life, we dress in white clothing, we enter into the holy sanctuary. But where are the goats?

And that is the scary part. For while we are the High Priest, and this is the Temple, we are also the goats for the offering. As our ancestors brought their sacrifices, so too do we bring our offerings, our selves, our souls, to bear on this Yom Kippur.

The Torah teaches that sacrifices were supposed to be tamim, perfect. Whole. An animal without blemish. Anything less was unacceptable. But who among us is whole? Who is not without blemish?

Leonard CohenWe struggle with this; how can we then offer ourselves? There is a contemporary commentary that speaks to this. A song by Leonard Cohen called Anthem, and the beginning of the chorus goes like this,

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

We rang the bell, last week at Rosh Hashanah when we blew the shofar. We announced this call to repentance. We called this gathering to order. We stirred within ourselves this awakening to heshbon hanefesh, to soul examination, to introspection. And now we come with our offering. But we are not tam, we are not whole, we are not perfect. And as Cohen sings, forget it.

Forget it. For as humans we are tam in our own way. Not perfect in deeds, but perfect in intention. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read, “You shall be wholehearted before Adonai your God.” Can we bring our whole selves? Can we be honest with ourselves? Can we accept our imperfections? That is what it means to be wholehearted—not to be perfect, but to be honest, and open, and willing to look deep inside.

The rabbis of the Talmud already understood the sacrificial system as a large metaphor. The physical performance of the rituals was confined to the past, but the meaning behind them had a message for the present—theirs and ours. And they read deep meaning into the intricacies of the Temple and the sacrificial system, they had to, it was contained within the holy words of the Torah.

In the Holy of Holies, that the High Priest entered, was stored the Ark. We have the legend of the Holy Ark—the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movies. That the Israelites were told to construct an ark that would house the tablets of the covenant—the 10 commandments like we have adorned on our ark—these would be put in this special receptacle and carried at the front of the Israelites as the moved forward, eventually finding a permanent home in the Temple.

In Exodus we are told the dimensions of the ark. It is 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits. And what is the significance there? The half-cubit. There is imperfection built into the very fabric of the Ark—it wasn’t built to whole numbers, but to a fraction, a part of a whole, and this our tradition teaches is so show us that to be fractured, to be a part, to lack perfection and wholeness is part of the normal condition. So much so that the sacred tablets of the covenant are said to be contained within a vessel that is, in a way, less than whole.

Forget your perfect offering, Cohen sings. We don’t have one. We only have ourselves.

Ring the bell that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

According to the story, in the Ark that was built around the half-cubit were stored the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain, the tablets inscribed with the 10 commandments.

But these tablets, as we remember from the Torah story, were not the first tablets that Moses brought down, but a replacement set. And what happened to the first? When Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets after communing with God and receiving the Torah, he found the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf. And what did Moses do? In his anger, before he destroyed the calf and before he thinned out the ranks of the community of the sinners, he threw down the tablets on the ground, and they broke into many pieces.

But what happened to those pieces?

Jewish tradition teaches that the Israelites gathered them up, and put them into the holy Ark. The Ark contained both the whole pieces of the covenant, and the broken pieces. What travelled with the Israelites at the front of their procession, what was treated with such care and carried by a special group of priests, what found a resting place in the most central, the most sacred part of the Temple contained within it both wholeness and brokenness. Contained within the Ark, built with fractions, was imperfection, struggle, conflict and sadness.

There is a crack in everything. Including us. Especially us.

And what does it mean to be cracked? It does not just mean to be imperfect, though it does. It does not just mean that there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, though it does. What it truly means to be cracked is to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable. For we are here on Yom Kippur not just to acknowledge were we have sinned, and how we can do better. But we are here on Yom Kippur to acknowledge that we are vulnerable. That is the essence of the human condition. Not to be sinful, but to be vulnerable. And we must embrace our vulnerability.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the work of Brene Brown. She has a few bestselling books, and some very popular TED talks. I heard her first on the wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippet, an examination of issues of faith and values. She does her work in the field of shame and vulnerability and has over the years conducted extensive interviews and research into how people perceive and relate to issues of shame—or low-self worth—and vulnerability.

Vulnerability, she notes, is often confused with weakness. But this is a dangerous myth. It is not weakness. Vulnerablity, she defines, is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

How many of us, then, are not vulnerable? Think back to your past year—when were you most vulnerable? In her research, Brown asks people to finish the sentence, “Vulnerability is…” How would you finish this sentence?

We come here each year and recite a litany of sins—the vidui—in which we confess our sins collectively. What was it that we did or didn’t do last year that made a negative impact on the world, ourselves, others? We rise and we say it in the plural because we have all done these things—maybe not each one of us all of them, but all of us some of them and so we say it in the plural, to provide cover and support for those confessing, and to acknowledge that we as a group have transgressed.

This vidui: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi—we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have deceived—these are the things we have done, our actions. And we should also stand here on Yom Kippur, the day in which we are most raw, the day in which we confess our sins, the day in which we are judged and judge ourselves, and confess our vulnerabilities.

Yi, de, di, di, di, yidededididi, yidededididi

We have a friend dying we don’t know what to say when we visit.

We have an unpopular opinion.

We started a new project and we don’t know if we will succeed.

We wrote something on our blog.

We lost our job.

We let down our kids.

We are in the hospital with cancer, or meningitis, or a bad back.

We went back to school after 20 years.

We don’t know how to ask for help.

We ask for help and don’t know what the response will bring.

We are minorities in our communities.

We fell down and it took longer to heal, so we know we are getting older.

We fell in love.

Vulnerability is feeling, Brown writes, and “to believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.” These are instances in which we feel, we are exposed, yes, uncomfortable, maybe, but not weak. Simply vulnerable. Simply in a place of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

Think of how vulnerable we are even right now in this moment. We are fasting. We wear white, we open up our mouths and sing in public. We speak words we may not understand or agree with. We see people and we don’t know how to act. Yom Kippur is one big act of vulnerability. But showing up on Yom Kippur is not a sign of weakness. To lay oneself bare on this day is not weakness. Yom Kippur is about vulnerability. Yom Kippur is about uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

But how does it feel to be vulnerable? Not good. It can be uncomfortable. It can be scary. Brown noted in her research that a word that kept coming up when she asked how it felt to be vulnerable, after asking about vulnerable situations, is “naked.” Felt “naked.”

There are a few things in our tradition which when we teach them to our Hebrew school kids we risk juvenile humor. Balaam and his talking donkey for one, when it is translated, as it was when I was in Hebrew school, as Balaam’s talking ass.

And another is Adam and Eve, naked in the garden

The famous naked people in our tradition are Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, the dwellers in the garden of Eden, tadam and evehe first humans. “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” A bit later on they meet the snake, and you know what happens next. The snake tempts them into eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, one of the two trees that God had forbidden them to eat. They then realize that they are naked, and cover up.

When they eat of the Tree, their eyes were open. Their nakedness was exposed. For in that moment, Adam and Eve exposed their vulnerablitity.

There is a crack in everything. Adam and Eve discovered themselves to be exposed. And so do we. We too are naked and exposed. We too are vulnerable. So now what?

Ring the bell that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Because ultimately, our vulnerability brings us to renewed strength. That is how the light gets in. That is one thing Brene Brown speaks of in her work, that through her research the vulnerability is how we get to innovation, creativity and change. Our willingness to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there, even if it hurts, even if it is hard, even if it is uncomfortable, is what allows us to grow and achieve great things. If we can be honest with ourselves, and acknowledge when we are vulnerable, then we can transcend it. Then we can make real connections with one another and become the people we hope to be.

She says, “Vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up I think those are the most powerful meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are.”

Adam and Eve needed to realize they were naked. Their realization was not comfortable. That interaction with God could not have been more uncomfortable, as we read in Genesis:

They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”  Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?”  The man said, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”  And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”

Not a comfortable situation.

But once they realized they were naked, they had awareness of their vulnerability, and were then able to grow. There is a fascinating word play in the Torah. The snake, who is usually made out to be the bad guy, is described as arumim, or “shrewd” or “clever.” The snake knows things. He knows things about the tree, he knows what will happen if you eat the tree, he knows about Adam and Eve and the nature of human curiosity. So while on the one hand you can say he was “clever,” perhaps the way to understand this word is “aware.”

When Adam and Eve are described in the Torah as naked, the word in Hebrew is arum. Arumim, arum. The words for “awareness” and “naked” are sound-wise related.

Nakedness leads to awareness.

Vulnerability leads to awareness.

Awareness leads to growth.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Adam and Eve saw their vulnerability and with that they were able to move forward and do great things. Exile from the Garden wasn’t punishment—it was the necessary next step. For the world was not created in the Garden, the world was created outside the Garden. That is where we see the all of life—discord, sickness, pain, death yes, but also love, connection, community, harmony, compassion, mercy, justice, peace, friendship.

Not only is understanding and acknowledging our vulnerabilities not weakness, it is the key to moving forward, like Adam and Eve.

Vulnerability is, as Brown writes, the seat of courage. The cracks let the light in.

Another time we see “naked” in our tradition is in our morning liturgy, birchot hashachar, the series of morning blessings we recite; blessings meant to evoke each of the little steps it takes for us to get going in the morning, like the checklists we make for our children so they do everything they need to do to get to school on time. And one of these blessings is we thank God for “clothing the naked.”

This interesting image, God clothing the naked.  Yes, we get up and we put on clothes and so this is a prayer of gratitude. And we are mindful of those who do not have clothes to put on unless we do something about it and so this is a prayer of justice.

But there is a deeper spiritual significance here. Why would we reach out to God to clothe our nakedness? Why are we thankful for this step? Because we are all naked. We are all exposed, and open. It is an acknowledgement of our spiritual nakedness, for to be naked, is to be vulnerable. And so this is a prayer to cover our nakedness, to move beyond our vulnerabilities with greater insight and renewed life.

This is why we should not fear our vulnerabilities. This is why vulnerability is not a weakness. The question is, can we take our brokenness, our uncertainty, our exposure, and make it into something great? This is the great spiritual drama that plays out on Yom Kippur. Not just acknowledging sin, or mistakes—but our vulnerabilities. And not just making the commitment to do better, to make amends—but to transcend our vulnerabilities to a place of greater strength. And it is not just acknowledging our vulnerabilities of the past year, but to embrace them in the coming year. To find our ways to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there, to expose ourselves and be exposed, and see what happens.

“The ability to hold something we have done or haven’t done up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive,” Brown says, “It is uncomfortable, but it is adaptive.”

That is the drama of this day now. And that’s the drama of this day then. That is the drama of the goats. The two goats, for Azazel and for God, that were used during the ancient Yom Kippur ritual.

The goat “for Azazel” is the sins. It is the transgression we wish to get rid of. We want to send them out into the spiritual wilderness and never see it again. We want our transgressions and our past poor behaviors and bad habits to go off and die in the wilderness like the goat, never to be seen again.

The goat “for God” is where we feel vulnerable. But we don’t send that away, we acknowledge it. And we send it up to God. God doesn’t want our sins. God wants our vulnerabilities. And what does it mean to send it up to God? It means we are humble, that we seek meaning, and we seek connection.

We use this time to give voice not only to our failings, but to our vulnerabilities. Because if we articulate them, if we can understand them. And if we understand them, we can grow from them. We look through the cracks at the light streaming through.

Anne Lamott has a wonderful new book, Help. Thanks. Wow. It is her reflection on prayer. She divides prayer into essentially three categories: Help, petition; Thanks, gratitude; Wow, awe. And in it, in the “Help” section, she describes a practice she has of writing notes to God and sticking them in a box. These are her petitions, her asks. And, while she doesn’t categorize it as such, her vulnerabilities.  This is part of her spiritual practice, her prayer practice, like putting notes in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

For we tend to think of prayer only as the words in the book you are holding right now. Or the songs we sing. That is a form of prayer. Opening your heart to whatever needs to enter, that is prayer. Opening your mouth and letting whatever needs to come out, that is prayer. Singing is prayer, movement is prayer. And writing is a form of prayer.

She writes, about her writing notes to God into a box:

The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn through pain that some of the things we thought were castles turn out to be prisons, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take. The response probably won’t be from God, in the sense of hearing a deep grandfatherly voice, or via skywriting, or in the form of an LED lit airplane aisle at your feet. But the mail will come, or an e-mail, or the phone will ring; unfortunately, it might not be later today, ideally right after lunch, but you will hear back. You will come to know.

You will come to know.

This is what happens when we put it out there, when we are exposed, when we take the risk. This is living with and through our vulnerabilities. When we acknowledge them, when we embrace them, when we articulate them, then we will come to know.

We the High Priests, will come to know. We, in the Temple, will come to know. We, the goats, will come to know.

We will come to know that we come here imperfect but wholehearted. We will come to know that our vulnerabilities make us who we are, and are our source of courage and strength, and will help determine the next step to take.

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Downtown Crime Report: Our Etrog Was Stolen

Someone stole the etrog from our congregational sukkah.


On Wednesday afternoon I left a lulav and etrog, along with an information and how to sheet, in the Temple Beth Hatfiloh sukkah so that anyone who wished to perform the ritual of waving the lulav and etrog could. I peeked in Thursday morning and interestingly the etrog was gone. The lulav was still there.

I poked around the sukkah and didn’t find any trace of it. I did find some cigarette butts, food in a plastic bag, various other items of trash and a hypodermic needle.

This was depressing, also too because it followed on the heels of a theft at our own house. Yohanna’s car was prowled the night before, with a variety of items stolen: my guitar, a car organizer full of papers and miscellany, and a school bag with algebra book.

Through the great power of social media we have been able to connect with our neighbors and alert them, and also learn about the trend of crime spreading over our neighborhood. And we were even able to recover some of the stuff: the organizer, bag and math book were tossed into a neighbors’s yard. What wasn’t recovered (yet, hopefully), in addition to the guitar, was Yohanna’s beloved Rabbi’s Manual, which belonged to late father.

It is these two pieces, the Rabbi’s Manual and the etrog from the Temple, which hurt the most. I’m assuming people were looking for stuff to take and sell to then use to buy drugs or some such. But to take objects which clearly have no monetary or resale value means that someone took these things on a whim, or to deliberately hurt someone, or as a joke. Stealing objects of value is a crime, but at least a utilitarian crime. Stealing these other objects does nothing more than cause pain to another person.

There is a tradition which connects the four parts of the lulav and etrog with parts of the body. The etrog is equated with the heart. With the missing etrog, a bit of my heart is missing this Sukkot. The temporary nature of the Sukkah as shelter is meant to remind us of the fragility of life. This year it also reminds me of the fragility of our interpersonal relations. Regardless of our social standing or status, we have the power to heal and the power to hurt. And recently I have been at the receiving end of the latter.

10 Ways to Celebrate Sukkot/Simchat Torah

Our busy month of holidays continues. Sukkot begins Wednesday at sundown, ending with Simchat Torah next Thursday night. Here are some ways to celebrate!

What to do with an etrog after the holiday? Make etrog vodka of course. This is last year's batch, ready to drink this week!

What to do with an etrog after the holiday? Make etrog vodka of course. This is last year’s batch, ready to drink this week!

Dwell in the Sukkah: Building and dwelling in a sukkah is one of the traditional mitzvot (sacred obligations) associated with the holiday; we build a temporary structure to remember both the wanderings in the desert and to connect us closer to nature. It is to be sturdy enough to stand, but not permanent, and the roof is to be made of natural materials and is supposed to let in the elements. “Dwelling” is a relative term: some just eat meals in the sukkah, some sleep out in it. If you don’t have your own sukkah, that’s fine—come on down to the Temple Beth Hatfiloh sukkah with your lunch (or dinner, or breakfast, or snack) and make a picnic. It’s open all holiday!

Wave the Lulav: The other traditional mitzvah associated with Sukkot is the waving of the lulav and etrog, a collection of four different species of plant: willow, myrtle, palm and citron. These four plants are meant to represent all plants found in nature, and when we pick them up we are mindful of our connection to nature and our dependence on it. We ritually wave them in all directions acknowledging that we are surrounded by the divine and the power of nature. The four plants also symbolically represent all of humanity, and so we pray for the unity of all life. There will be a lulav and etrog (and directions as to how to fulfill the act) in the TBH sukkah, so come on down and give it a wave.

Look at the Moon: The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and Sukkot (and Passover in the spring) falls on the full moon. The full moon gives the greatest light, and it is fitting for a harvest holiday to maximize the light. If the sky is clear, look at the moon. Taking a moment to look at the full moon is another way to connect with the cycles of time and the seasons. And this year, a lunar eclipse on Sukkot will create a “blood moon.”

Enjoy the Harvest: Sukkot is the fall harvest festival, so during the holiday take a particular interest in the bounty of fall. Whether it comes from your garden, or the farmers market, or somewhere else, enjoy some fall fruits and vegetables. Make some seasonal foods. In my family Sukkot is when we make our annual visit the pumpkin patch to run in the hay maze and pick out our pumpkins for carving and seed roasting.

Be Happy: Sukkot is called zman simchateynu, the time of our celebration. Why this particular designation? Sukkot follows right on the heels of Yom Kippur, just five days later. On Yom Kippur we fast, we look inward, we atone for our sins—it is both physically and spiritually taxing. It would be hard to just re-enter our regular lives. Aside from being a holiday in its own right, Sukkot thus serves a “buffer” between the High Holidays and the rest of the year. And also reminds us that while life can be difficult, we also need to take the time to simply celebrate, rejoice in and be grateful for what we have, and have fun!

Remember the Homeless: One reason for the holiday of Sukkot is as a reminder of the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom, the wandering in the desert for 40 years as recounted in the Torah.  We are told that the Israelites built temporary structures to provide shelter along the way before settling into their permanent home. One social justice message of Sukkot is to remember those in our own communities who seek shelter, and so we turn our attention to homelessness. As we express gratitude for what we have, we also reach out to those who lack.

Bless the Water: There is an ancient tradition that in the Temple in Jerusalem the priests would offer a prayer for water in a special water drawing and pouring ritual. This was probably connected with the onset of the rainy season. We in the Pacific Northwest are familiar with the onset of the fall rainy season, so this idea of a prayer for water is understandable. In our contemporary liturgy Sukkot is a time to offer a prayer for rain, and so whether you use the traditional words or your own, offer a prayer of thanks for the rain—and perhaps for water in general—recognizing how so dependent we are on this simple substance.

Make a Pilgrimage: Sukkot was one of three “pilgrimage festivals” in ancient days, when the entire community would go to the Temple in Jerusalem to make their offerings and sacrifices. While today we all don’t converge on Jerusalem, Sukkot can be a time to make a pilgrimage. One way is to simply make a point of joining together with the Jewish community—make a pilgrimage to TBH or whatever community you find yourself near. Another is to take a pilgrimage outdoors, and spend some time in a natural setting that is important to you—a walk on the beach, a hike in the woods, a trip to Mount Rainier.

Unroll the Torah: The Jewish liturgical practice is to read the Torah in order over the course of a year, each Shabbat a different section (or parashah). On Simchat Torah we celebrate this practice and the Torah and renew the annual cycle of reading by reading the last part of Deuteronomy and the first part of Genesis. Some (including us at TBH) have the custom of unrolling the entire Torah during the Simchat Torah celebration, so we can take in this beautiful document, and remind us how we are “surrounded” by our traditions and values contained within.

Commit to Learn: At the TBH Simchat Torah celebration we honor our students who are beginning their studies this coming year. But we are always learning. So commit to a new course of study this year, whether formal (I’m doing a professional certificate in nonprofit management) or informal. Online or in-person. Read one book on a subject or check out them all from the library. Or learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. The cycle of learning is continuously renewing itself.

Chag sameach!

10 Ways to Mark Yom Kippur

  1. Fast—it is customary to not eat or drink (even water). If we don’t need to worry about our basic needs, then we will be more focused on the task at hand. And plus, fasting is uncomfortable just as doing the work of repentance is uncomfortable.
  2. Don’t Fast if you Can’t—If for health reasons you must eat, please do. Your health is more important than observing the Yom Kippur fast. And that’s not just me saying that, Jewish tradition teaches that.
  3. Abstain—In addition to fasting, it is also customary not to bathe for pleasure, anoint oneself, wear leather shoes or have sex. We take off the trappings of luxury and limit our bodily pleasures as we humble ourselves on this day.
  4. Wear white—We wear white, just as we cover the sanctuary in white, to symbolize the blank slate we hope to create going into the new year.
  5. Atone—This is the spiritual work of Yom Kippur. We focus on where we messed up in the past year. Really take the time to think about this.
  6. Reach Out—Judaism teaches that Yom Kippur only atones for sins that you did between you and God. In other words, only your behaviors that may not have affected another. In other words, if you have some repair work to do with a friend, neighbor, colleague, etc., you can’t just pray about it. You need to do it.
  7. Remember—On Yom Kippur we have a special service called Yizkor. It is a memorial service for those who have died, whether recently or long ago. We are mindful of our place as a link in the chain as we remember and honor those who came before. It is customary to light a yartzeit candle on Yom Kippur, even if the yartzeit of the person you are remembering is on another day.
  8. Tune Out—While all holidays last all day, Yom Kippur is one of the few times where in community we carve out space for the whole day. Yes there are services throughout the day. But there are also quiet times for you to find your own space, or come and go, or rest, or study. The TBH building will be open all day on Saturday. Use it to tune out what is going on around.
  9. Hear the shofar—Yes, we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But we also blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur to signal the end of the fast. This, to me, is the “shofar of release”—it is a relief after the physical and spiritual difficulties of the day and truly announces the new year to come.
  10. Build the Sukkah—Sukkot follows just a few days after Yom Kippur. It is customary to begin building the sukkah the night when Yom Kippur ends (at least a ceremonial hammering of a nail). Thus we rush to simply celebrate after the spiritual heaviness of the High Holidays, ready to enjoy the harvest, and also not quite ready to give up all the wonderful communal time we spent together.

As Yom Kippur approaches, my wish for you is that you be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness, health and peace. And may the work of teshuvah (repentance) you do over these days carry forward throughout the days and months ahead. May this be for you a season of transformation.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775: “The 7 Things I Learned About Life from Legos”

I have, as many of you know, faced my share of physical challenges over these past few years. I have had to face surgery twice, both requiring about a month-long recovery with physical discomfort. And I suffered from serious illness, also requiring hospital stays, pain medicine, IV, antibiotics and a longer than hoped for recovery.

But I can tell you, with certainty, that these do not compare to the excruciating and debilitating pain I have felt when stepping on a Lego in the middle of the night.

With my two boys, we have our fair share of Legos. These wonderful, imaginative, building toys are ever present in our house, and they make their way to lots of little place, under the cushions of the couch, under rugs, behind furniture, all over the car, and into the folds of the carpet. And during a late night excursion I have, on more than one occasion, stepped on a stray piece of Lego. And boy does that hurt.

But I wouldn’t have it another way, for I love these toys. I played with Legos as a child, and watching my boys play with them is pure delight. I have been known to “help” as needed, but also take a few pieces myself on occasion and put them together. Over the years we have amassed many a Lego, from the tub of Legos we found for $5 at a garage sale, to different sets collected on birthdays and Hanukkah, and even the big set we got for Ozi the day we brought his brother home from the hospital to soften the blow.

We have seen the Lego Movie, watched homemade stop animation on Youtube, viewed Lego TV shows. We have been to Lego activity centers, LegoLand in California and Lego conventions in Seattle and Portland. I even have, as a nod to my kids, a Lego compatible iPhone case.

So these toys are ubiquitous in my life. And as with everything in my life, both chosen and unchosen, I see what surrounds me as a learning opportunity. And so, as we are here on this most auspicious night, the beginning of the new year, another opportunity for reflection and examination, I present to you, as I have in the past, a bit of lessons gleaned from my life. Whether it be having a child, hitting a car in a parking lot, a decade in the rabbinate, planting a garden, having brain surgery, that backhoe hitting my house, you have been with me as I have journeyed through these life learnings and lessons.


So tonight, I offer you the 7 things I have learned about teshuvah, and life, from Legos.

1. Every piece fits.

When we visited Legoland in California, one of the fascinating pieces of trivia I learned about Legos is that since the time that the first Lego brick was patented in 1958, every single Lego brick manufactured since will fit with that original design. In other words, if I pull out a brick made this year, and I take a brick made 60 years ago, they will fit together.

So while over the course of its 6 decade history Lego has continually reinventing itself and adding new things, new themes, new colors, new sets and variations on its core design, every Lego today is compatible with what came before.

As we gather here this evening, we are reminded that we are part of a long and rich Jewish tradition. Stories, texts, rituals, values all stretching back centuries, millennia. And we are also mindful sitting here today that the Judaism we practice must look very different than it did in the past.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud, the ancient work of commentary, law and lore, which imagines Moses sitting with God on the top of Mount Sinai as God is writing out the Torah. The Torah tells of Moses’s ascent to the top of the mountain to receive the Torah and God writing out the laws, but this story imagines what that must have been like since the Torah is light on detail. This story is a classic midrash—a “filling in the gaps”—in the Torah narrative.

God is writing out the Torah and putting little “crowns” on some of the letters. If you have seen the inside of a scroll you would know that some of the letters have flourishes, crowns on the top as decoration. Moses asks God, “what is with all these crowns on the letters? What do they mean?”

God replies, “many years from now there will be a scholar named Rabbi Akiva. And he will make lots of meaning from those crowns.”

“Who is this man?” asks Moses. “Can I see him?”

“Turn around,” says God.

So Moses turns. And all of a sudden he is no longer on top of a sandy, wind-swept mountain peak, but in the back of a classroom, a lecture hall. The benches are filled with Talmudic rabbis listening to a lecture by none other than Rabbi Akiva. The rabbis were discussing a point of Jewish law but the content and the arguments were foreign to Moses. The rabbis spoke of torah, but Moses did not understand a single thing they said, and he was very distressed by this. Until finally one of the rabbis in the room asked, “Rabbi Akiva, how do you know the basis for this law?”

And Rabbi Akiva answered, “It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.” And with that, Moses understood and turned back around.

Rabbi Akiva is one of the leading figures of the Talmud, and the authors of this story are making a connection between the work that they do, and the Torah, by imagining Moses at the beginning of a long chain of tradition that they are the inheritors of. And now we can imagine Rabbi Akiva in the back of our sanctuary, completely baffled by what is going on, until something reminds him that he is also at the beginning of a chain of tradition.

Where we are in our tradition may seem so far afield from what came before. While it might seem different, and it is, it is 100 percent compatible with what came before. We—you, me—are all the next link in a very long chain. And we fit.

2. You never know when you will need a particular piece

There is a great sound that I don’t think I can replicate, but if you know it, you can imagine it. It’s the sound of sorting through a big bin of Legos. Can you hear it?

Imagine a big bin of Legos. A big jumble of so many pieces of different sizes and colors. Some basic blocks in their various lengths, some specialty pieces: a chair, a steering wheel, a window. All a mix of various sets from the past and random pieces. Then that sound.  I hear that sound often as the boys play with Legos.

When digging through that big bin, sometimes you have an idea of what piece you need. And sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for, you are just browsing, and maybe a piece strikes your fancy and you get an idea. Or maybe both, in the process of looking for a particular piece you find another one, and the car you were building becomes an airplane. That is the joy and the magic of the bin of legos—it holds promise, opportunity, creativity. And when you open it up you don’t know what you will find.

Think of your Judaism is a big bin of Legos, full of all of these little pieces. A teaching here, a ritual there, a memory there, a food here. It’s all there, waiting for you to dig through. Maybe you need something specific, or maybe you don’t know what you need. Or maybe you look to Judaism for something specific and come up with something else. The point is there is so much there to discover.

And it doesn’t matter if you look through your bin every day searching for something. Or if the bin has sat in your closet for 50 years and you are just taking it out now. Or you are new to using Legos. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you opened the lid and looked through.

You might not know what you need, but do know that all the pieces are there waiting for you to be discovered for you to build them into something that is meaningful, special, unique. All you need is open the bin, stick in your hand, and sift through. You will come up with something. That’s why that sound is so sweet.

3. Save the instructions, and the box

While we do have big bins of Legos, we also indulge in specialty sets. These sets come with carefully crafted instructions as to how to build the complicated projects. Erez insists with each new Lego set that we save the box it came in. And I will admit, I think the packaging of Lego is great. Vivid recreated scenes of the set inside, a clear indication of how many pieces are contained within, the age range made explicit, always a source of pride for when Erez is gifted a set for which he is technically too young, yet is able to finish. And a clear indication of which minifigs—or “Lego guys”—are contained within.

The instructions and the box provides a reference, a guide, and a clear vision about what things will look like once completed. The instructions provide specific steps to build, and the box provides an overall picture of how things will come together.

We are rooted in the instructions, in the box, the guide. We are the people of the instruction book.

Our tradition is defined by sacred text. There is so much wisdom contained within the words of our long train of textual tradition. Every generation reads and interprets text, learning is a paramount value. Each Shabbat morning here we investigate a different text and it couldn’t be more rich—Torah, mussar, Talmud, contemporary spirituality. Currently I am engaged in a new study program, the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and I have been, really for the first time in my life, studying, closely and deeply texts from the Hasidic tradition. Both on retreat and in a weekly hevruta I am examining a new aspect of our tradition, and I am continually surprised and amazed by what I find.

So if your rabbi can learn something new, you can learn something new.

There is always something to discover in our tradition, in our sacred texts. Commit yourself to a new course of learning this year. Discover something new. See what surprises you. There is no such thing as knowing enough, and there is no such thing as not knowing enough to begin. See what the instruction book says to you this year.


4. You do not need the instructions to build something awesome

One of the events we try to get to every year is BrickCon—a gathering that happens every year at the Seattle Center in October. BrickCon is a gathering for adult hobbyists, and while the attendees meet in private workshops and gatherings for some of the time, over the weekend the exhibit hall is open to the public to view what people have built.

And they are awesome.

The expo hall at Seattle Center is filled with creations, both large and small in a wide variety of categories: space, medieval, contemporary scenes. A Space Needle that towers over everyone, a city with working trains, large Lord of the Rings-type battles, space stations, a Lady Gaga concert complete with sounds and music. Also, this past summer when Erez and I went to NY we visited a Lego center in Westchester complete with a permanent display of New York landmarks including, and this is true, a model of MetLife stadium complete with the Seahawks beating the Broncos in the Superbowl.

None of these creations had instruction books. None of these were pre-packaged sets. They were planned, designed and built with only the use of imagination and patience. And while we may not want to design large-scale creations, we can take the Legos that we are given—even ones that are originally part of a specific set—and create our own awesome thing.

We have been given the instruction book containing the values and mitzvot, sacred practices, which are meant to guide our lives. But we also meet Torah where it is based on where we are, and enter into a dialogue about how we can make meaning with what the tradition gives us. We have the instructions and the vision of how things could be. But we also have the ability to modify, to make variations with the same set of pieces (or practices) we have been given. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, taught, “the past has a vote, but not a veto.” Tradition informs us, but so do we inform tradition.

And while we may play around with different practices which we may connect to, it is our minhag (custom) here to examine and study together different practices and how we may observe and honor them as a congregation.

One of the foundational practices of Judaism is Shabbat. The idea of a day of rest, a day set aside to renew ourselves, to reset ourselves, to dial it back if just for a short time, is fundamental to Jewish practice and observance. It is one of the 10 commandments. We rest in remembrance of creation, when God rested, and we rest in remembrance of the story of the Exodus, when we were slaves in Egypt, and didn’t have a chance to rest.

Shabbat reminds us of the need to take a break, which is increasingly difficult in our hyper-connected 24/7 world. Shabbat is a day of justice, and reminds us of those who are unable to achieve such a day.

But how do we do it? We have been given a vision of a traditional observance of Shabbat. How do we engage with this. Is this our vision of what Shabbat is or could be, or do we have a different idea of what it means to not work/rest?

I invite you to engage with this question—what does Shabbat mean for you? And how do you observe it? It is a question we are going to engage with this year as a congregation, through a series of hosted and facilitated community conversations: What does Shabbat mean to us, and especially how do we want to observe and honor Shabbat in our community. We will study, we will practice, we will debate (I’m sure), but we will do so with an eye towards making this fundamental aspect of Jewish practice meaningful in our lives.

5. If you are going to build up, build out

As I mentioned that part of our Lego fandom in our house is travelling to a variety of Lego-themed attractions and events. And many of these provide opportunities for free play. It seems, based on my very crude anthropological observation of Lego conventions, that when you have a seemingly unlimited number of Lego bricks at your disposal, there is a strong desire and inclination to build a tower. More specifically, the biggest tower one can build.

Of course as any engineer will explain, you can not build tall without a solid foundation. The same is true for Legos, without a solid base, the entire tower will quickly become unstable.

We think of what we build, and the need for a solid foundation here. What we are building, altogether, is community, connection. We are building a vibrant Jewish life so that individuals will find meaning, children can be educated, we can explore ideas and culture, see films, read books, eat, play ball, study Torah, pray, sing. And in order to build this, we need a foundation.

75 years ago our forebears took a leap and established a Jewish congregation and built a building to call home. A decade ago we, their inheritors, took an incredible leap, buying and renovating the building that serves and will serve as the central Jewish address in the South Sound for years to come. It was quite a journey and an undertaking for us. And the time has come to shore up that project, by making sure we can continue to maintain what we have.

We know that we are more than the bricks and mortar that house us. But we also know how important it is to have a central gathering place to sing together, pray together, laugh together, learn together, cry together and eat together. This valuable asset maintains our attention so that it will be here for us and for the generations that come after. Our building is modest by comparison as some other places perhaps, but still requires a large amount of care.

So we continue to build out—the foundation—of the tower of spiritual life. You will be hearing soon more about our “Building Strength” campaign—a capital campaign to create an endowment that will make sure this building is cared for into the next several decades. A campaign that will result in stability, sustainability and security for our community.

6. You can fix it

Here is a typical scene at home. Building a big Lego, maybe a set, or maybe just free play. Then a cat comes, or an attempt is made to force two pieces together that don’t quite fit, or the creation wasn’t perched safely on the shelf and then it breaks. And following the break are screams, maybe tears, anger, frustration and venting, maybe a swear word or two. Then silence and contemplation. And then the words, “I can fix it.”

Instructions are consulted, or original vision modified as sometimes needs to happen, and pieces are reattached. It is fixed.

But that is a phrase that we need to remember: “I can fix it.”

While life does not come with instructions, we do make plans, we have ideas as to the way things will work out. And we know that they don’t always work out the way we want. Some of these challenges are beyond our control, and we accept them, often with difficulty.

And there are breaks that are within our control. We can work at repairing our relationships. We can try new habits and lose old ones. We can break the cycle of toxic behaviors which hold us back. We did someone wrong, we can apologize. Someone did us wrong, we can forgive. This is our power to fix it. This is the essence of teshuvah, why we are all here now. That we have the ability to fix that which is broken.

And yes, there will be screams, maybe tears, anger, frustration and venting. Maybe a swear word or two. That is ok. But then we pause, we contemplate, and admit to ourselves that we can fix it.

But not only that we can, but that we must.

7. Legos were much better then than they are now (but not really)

Legos have gotten quite fancy than when I was a kid. I remember when it was just a big box of different size pieces. And then themes began to emerge: space, city, and different kits would come with specific instructions as to how to make them. Now, that has become the norm, and even more specific—the sets are meant to resemble almost exactly a building that exists in life or in the movies. The space Legos I had made generic space ships, now you have Star Wars Legos which recreate scenes from the movies.

With these developments come the usual laments. “These specific sets stifle imagination.” Or “these sets are too contrived.” And inevitably, ”things were much better when I was a kid.”

But were they? One might say that the Lego past was better, because then there were no fancy sets with specific results, only crude pieces that one would use to build anything one wanted, according to the dictates of one’s imaginations.

But the thing is, that is still true. Yes there are fancy pieces and elaborate sets. But that still does not mean that we can’t build what we want.

This is one of our challenges, we tend to idealize the past. We think the past was better, or simpler, or easier than where we are now. But that kind of thinking holds us back. Especially around our work of teshuvah. We get stuck and say, if only I didn’t make that decision, or if only I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

But guess what? You did make that decision. You did do that. And where are you right now? Here. You are here. In this room. Tonight.

Every single one of your decisions led you to this room tonight. I don’t care if you come to services every year or this is your first time. You are here now. And that is what matters. So, listen. I will tell you now as your rabbi that every single choice you have made was the right choice. How do I know? Because it was your choice. And you have the strength and determination to live with it. Because it made up part of the story of who you are and because it brought you here.

We are gathered here tonight and over the course of these High Holidays to declare, as we do each year, we have made our choices, and we will live with them. And we will commit to make more choices in the future. Some better, some the same, and some the result of which we have no way of knowing. Some we will actively choose. Some choices will be made for us. We have the power to choose, we have the power to change, and we have the strength to confront the inevitable.

Yes, we look to the past, but we don’t live there. We are right now the sum total of the choices made and paths taken or not taken, and reliving them is not going to change where we are. What will change, what can change, is what we do next.

Rosh Hashanah is about knowing we have the instruction book but we also have our imagination. It’s about knowing we are part of a long tradition that we then inherit and add to. Its about continuing to build a strong foundation for what comes next. And its about about knowing whatever we build can easily break, but we can fix it. It is about knowing the important vision of the past is simply knowing it brought us to this moment. And it is knowing the 8th thing I have learned fromLegos:

Whatever you build, no one has ever built before

So there it is. You have in front of you a big bin of Legos. Find your brick. And together, creatively and carefully, let’s build.