The First and Future Thanksgiving

One of my challenges as a rabbi is to make Judaism relevant across demographics. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that what necessitates how we teach Judaism to kids is different than how we teach Judaism to adults. And very often I find that people who study Judaism as adults are surprised by what they discover because they did not feel the Judaism they were taught as kids spoke to their adult sensibilities, and so were, for a  time, turned off.

Well, of course. Judaism requires life-long study and engagement. What we learn as kids is not going to be the same as adults because what we need, what we understand, what we can grapple with is different as an adult than as a child.

This idea shouldn’t be foreign to our civic education as well since we are oftentimes stuck in a childhood vision of what our early American history and especially Thanksgiving is all about: stories of Pilgirms and Native Americans and a shared feast of mutual respect and understanding.

As adults, though, we know the story is much more nuanced and deeper than what we learn in elementary school. The history of the Native population in this country is a tragic one, complete with the ravages of colonialism, the forced exile, and the persistence of inequality.

Every year, it seems, articles are published to remind us of this. While these articles are of course necessary, they remind me of something—that our education must extend beyond elementary school, and that meanings of events change over time. We tend to forget this. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When we are children we are told simple stories to acculturate us. As adults we are obligated to seek out the more nuanced truth behind these stories. Our mature minds require a mature understanding.

After sitting through our wonderful local Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration this past Sunday, I was struck by the fact that Thanksgiving has a completely different meaning to me now that it did when I was younger. As a child, I was told the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, sharing food in a spirit of fellowship. It was a historical celebration. As an adult, the themes of gratitude and the value of sharing dominate. It is a spiritual celebration.

The story of the “first Thanksgiving” is a myth in the classic understanding of the term—not an untrue story but a story thatexodusgodsandking is meant to convey deeper truths beyond particular events. Myths are not meant to write (or rewrite) history, they are meant to write the future. The mythic story of the Exodus from Egypt (soon to be a major motion picture—again) was not meant to tell the events as they happened, but to tell a paradigmatic story of redemption that is meant to shape our future.

The myth of the “first Thanksgiving” was one of unity and harmony across cultures. It was about an existing population welcoming a newly arriving one. It was about the promise of religious liberty in a new land. On the one hand, this covers up a tragic history. On the other hand, it embodies the ideals for which we hope and strive.

As with the story, so too with the celebration. The Passover seder is not meant to recreate an ancient Israelite meal of days gone by, but rather it is to serve as a symbolic feast of future redemption. That is why we find meaning in the meal, with the symbolic foods of bitterness and redemption not referring exclusively to the biblical story of Egyptian bondage, but to the places we recognize oppression in our own day.

When we sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, we would do well to do the same. The meal is not meant to recreate a historic meal that may or may not have happened. [Though one of the things I find powerful about Thanksgiving is that it is a seasonal celebration as well, and eating seasonal and native foods connects one to this land and time.] The meal is meant to be a time to reflect on where we find gratitude right now, but also where we are falling short as a nation in pursuit of those values of equality, liberty, mutual respect and pluralism.

And we are falling short. The struggles of our Native population persist. We are in a new national conversation about immigration—about who we are as Americans, about the extent of the American dream, and how we as a nation of immigrants treat those newly arrived at our borders.

hands upAnd this week, with the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO to hand down an indictment in the shooting death of an unarmed African-American youth, we are once again confronted by our national legacy of racism, white privilege, and institutional forms of oppression. The failure of our criminal justice system to even be open to the possibility of a trial rightfully inspires anger, fear, suspicion and disappointment.

We have much work to do.

As we mark this Thanksgiving, we do recall that story of the “first Thanksgiving”—but not as some pretty historical gloss. Rather, we recall it for what it really is: a story of promise and pain that contains within it both a devastating history and our highest ideals. Our job is to recognize the all of it, and by doing so, we will be able to transform ourselves and our communities.

Praying (Again) for Peace and Safety

This week’s attack in Jerusalem hit a particularly deep nerve.

If you haven’t heard by now, two cousins, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, entered a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday morning with guns and knives, attacking the people who were there in prayer. Five people were killed in the attack: four rabbis who were there for morning prayer services, and the police officer who responded to the scene. Several others were injured and the attackers were killed.

Photo from (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Photo from (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Three of the four rabbis were American-born, one was British. The police officer was a member of the Druze community in Israel. And one of the rabbis killed was Rabbi Moshe Twersky, who was a grandson of the very influential American Orthodox Jewish thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

This attack strikes a particularly deep nerve not just because of its brutality, and some of the images circulating from the scene were indeed wrenching. And not just because it is an attack on civilians, something we see all too often across the world in the many conflicts raging. But it strikes a particularly deep nerve because it took place in a synagogue, during a time of prayer.

On the one hand, an attack upon people during a prayer service should not be any more tragic than an attack on people at the grocery store, or at the bus stop, or walking down the street.

On the other hand, an attack at a house of worship feels different, a violation of a sacred space. But not only because it is a space we dedicate as holy—set aside for a special and divine purpose, but because as a sacred space it is a place that we hope to feel particularly safe since it is a place we make ourselves feel vulnerable.

Imagine your own experience in services, in prayer. We take our minds elsewhere. Usually we are not focused on the affairs of the world outside the doors of the synagogue; we attend services as a break from the mundane and day-to-day. Services are a time to be with our community. They are a time to sing and be in silence. They are a time to offer up our deepest wishes and hopes, express our most profound gratitude, give voice to our apprehensions and fears. The time spent in prayer is a time to access our deepest humility.

So to have this attack occur in a time and place in which the victims were in a state of spiritual vulnerability feels especially tragic.

We all pray for a world of peace, but we also pray for a world of safety. We wish to feel safe in our homes, our schools (which makes each and every school shooting all the more terrifying) and in our houses of worship. When that safety is violated in one place, it is violated in all places. With this attack we are reminded of our own vulnerability perhaps, and our own feeling of lack of security. We recognize what it is to be targeted as Jews. And we may feel maybe a little less comfortable the next time we attend services.

Seeing images of tallitot (prayer shawls) and siddurim (prayer books) stained in blood makes this particular attack a part of our story. Those are our sacred objects, sacred words, sacred space violated. We offer up our condolences on the tragic deaths of the worshippers, who were speaking words that we speak when they died. And we offer up our condolences to the police officer, who sought to protect those who were targeted.

This Shabbat, in the wake of this attack, I will seek to honor the victims by once again offering up my most fervent prayers for peace—that all will recognize the futility of hatred and violence, and look upon each other as we all should, as created in the image of God. And at the same time I will seek to reclaim the synagogue for what it must be—a space of safety and comfort where spiritual vulnerability is encouraged but physical vulnerability is absent.

The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.

Next up: Liberalism and Conservatism


And a little something from “A Rabbi and a Pastor Walk Into a Bar.” Next conversation is Sunday. Shabbat shalom!

Originally posted on A Rabbi and a Pastor Walk into a Bar...:

The election results are in.

Here are a few things we do know: it is going to be harder to purchase a firearm in Washington State. The Republicans will control both houses of the U. S. Congress. The Washington State delegation will stay the same. The makeup of the Thurston County Commission will change.

Here are some things we don’t know: What this all means moving forward.

We often speak of politics as operating on a continuum of liberalism and conservatism, or their directional shorthand, left and right. Sometimes we talk about religion as operating internally on that same spectrum (i.e., liberal Judaism vs. conservative Judaism). And then there is the intersection of religion and politics. Do religious conservatives naturally hold conservative political positions, and vice versa?

What does it mean to be a liberal and a conservative? Must a political position be one or the other, or can it…

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Wear Your Bike Helmet

Here is my scientific observation based on empirical evidence: while children are susceptible to head injuries and drowning, once they reach adulthood they are immune from such injuries. Isn’t this correct? My evidence is based on the large number of people I see riding their bikes with their kids where the kids have helmets on but the parents do not. The same is for boating: I see kids wearing their personal flotation devices (PFDs) while adults just have them

I’ll think more about this but first, now that the elections are over, the post-election punditry begins.

I’ve been reading some, not a lot, of articles trying to dissect the recent elections. Most of the speculation remains just that—speculation. What will happen with a Democratic President and Republican Congress? We don’t really know until we get there. So many talking heads will speculate, but the reality will need to present itself in time.

I would rather read backwards and dissect what did or didn’t happen on Tuesday. I am very happy that our state took the initiative and supported universal background checks for gun purchases, a landmark vote that will hopefully reverberate throughout the nation—a dedicated citizenry taking steps to create some measure to curb gun violence in our country. The organized Jewish community supported this measure and worked hard to get it to pass.

But aside from that, I read with interest about turnout. This always is an issue for examination, especially during these midterm elections. Analysts examine how many people turn out, who turns out and for whom do they vote, picking apart the electorate by demographic. Voting in midterm elections is notoriously low, and this election was no different.

One of the demographic analyses I read had to do with the “millennials”—those ages 18-30 who turned out in low numbers. Commentators have taken note that the electorate in this past election skewed older, and that if younger voters had turned out, based on the political leanings found within this demographic, the election might have been different.

While I haven’t done the research, this strikes me as different than what happened six years ago when Obama was first elected, when Obama rode the tide of young voters into the White House, and that attracting young voters was a key part of the strategy. Of course, the population of who makes up those “young voters” is constantly changing. Those first eligible to vote in these elections were 12 when Obama was first elected in 2008, and this demographic shift is greater (moving from teenager to adulthood) than say moving from the 30-45 age bracket to the 45-60 one.

[I remember this hit home for me once a few years ago when I was talking to a class at South Puget Sound Community College. I was there to talk about Judaism to a class in world religions, and after my presentation I had an open Q and A session. Most had to do with Jewish practice and belief, but one person asked me if I thought a Jewish person would ever be a candidate for national office. It struck me as odd that he should ask remembering how Joseph Lieberman was the Vice Presidential candidate on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000, until I realized that he and his classmates were probably 9 or 10 at the time of that election.]

It is this last statistic of young voters that is interesting to me, and I would be curious to dig deeper. I don’t know if anyone keeps these stats, but since turn out is generally low in elections, I’m curious as to how many of the parents of these non-voting millennials also didn’t vote. Do non-voters beget non-voters?

My hunch is that there may be a correlation. If kids get the message when they are growing up that public participation isn’t worthwhile or important, then when the time comes for them to take an active role in the political process, they won’t. And I don’t mean that parents must instill a particular ideology in their offspring—that may not work—but if parents have respect for the process and act on the importance of civic engagement, then that message will be passed to our kids.

And we do this by modeling. Back to the bike helmets and the PFDs—by not wearing helmets or PFDs while insisting that our children do so, we are sending the wrong message. First of all, it is extremely dangerous. We know adults can have major head injuries from bike accidents or drown from boating accidents; those who don’t wear protective gear are taking a huge risk. And second, by not doing so, we are passing along these bad habits and conveying the message that “this is for kids, but not for adults.” We can’t just tell our children to do it and not do it ourselves, for when those kids get older, I bet they will also stop wearing their helmets.

And what goes for voting, and what goes for personal safety, goes for Judaism as well. If we want our kids to live engaged Jewish lives, then we need to as well. We can’t just tell them to, or send them off to synagogue when we don’t engage ourselves. We can’t say, “this is for kids, but not for adults.” We need to do it ourselves. There is no one right way to do this, and our children’s Jewish lives may end up looking different than ours, but if we don’t model spiritual connection, meaning making, respect for tradition, engagement with learning, and participation and practice, then our kids will leave Judaism, like their ballot and bike helmet, behind.

And when that happens, we may not like the results.

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 Jaylen’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.