This is the week of reunions.

For many, the holiday of Thanksgiving means a reunion of sorts, a coming together with family and friends who we may only see this one time a year. This is one of the special aspects of holiday time, we not only connect with the spirit of the season, and not only eat special symbolic foods, but we renew relationships that are maintained, even in the age of Facebook, at a distance.

These reunions can sometimes be fraught. Each year at this time we come across magazine articles and blog posts about estrangement, how to navigate complex family dynamics, what to say to your racist uncle, how to graciously deflect questions about one’s own life choices, how to talk (or not talk) about politics, and on and on. The fact that Thanksgiving dinner can be a tinderbox waiting to explode is a cliché, but the power of clichés is that they carry some truth to them.

Thanksgiving falls this week as we turn in our Torah reading to the ultimate story of family estrangement and reunion—that of Jacob and Esau. The twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah were at odds since birth, and grew up with very different personalities and interests. In the Torah’s reading, it doesn’t seem like they ever got along. But things really took a turn for the worse when Jacob convinced Esau (who, though a twin, was technically older), to sell him his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. And later, with the coaxing of his mother, Jacob tricked his aging father to give him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Biblical blessings are big deals—it means Jacob, and not Esau, would be the spiritual and economic heir of Isaac. With this final act, the paths of the brothers fully diverged.

But not completely, for in this week’s reading Jacob is preparing to be reunited with his estranged brother. Both have gone on in life to be successful, to increase their holdings and establish families and clans. Jacob is extremely nervous about what is to come, and sent ahead gifts to  placate a man who (in Jacob’s mind)had every reason to hate him and wish him ill. The text then says,

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low; And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Genesis 33:1-12)

Thus the fear the Jacob had, the anxiety about continued hatred, is for naught. Esau is happy to see him, and does not even want to accept his gifts. Jacob too is deeply moved to see his brother. While the text doesn’t speak of apologies and forgiveness, we can image that these took place. We have an example here of a renewed coming together of family members who were driven apart by their past behaviors.

Not completely, for after the meeting they both go their separate ways. But they have reunited, they have healed the relationship.

To add to this theme of reunions, last week attended my 25th high school reunion. It wasn’t a “formal” reunion with nametags featuring our senior class photos and a big banner announcing the “Class of 1990,” but rather a small informal gathering in the back of a bar in Manhattan organized by some of my classmates. And while I was already going to be on the east coast for the board meeting of my rabbinical association, I wasn’t planning on attending the reunion until a friend who lives in Wisconsin who I haven’t seen in those 25 years announced she was planning to attend.

reunion picture

Reunion group photo. Some folks had left by that point, but this is a good representation. I forgot who took the photo, but thanks for posting it on Facebook!

I met some folks for dinner beforehand, and headed off to the bar. It was a fun experience and I had a good time connecting with some old friends. I am glad I went.

It did give me some further perspectives on reunions and relationships:

One, a solid foundation transcends time. There were a few folks there who I had been friends with in high school, but circumstances and geography led to not keeping in touch so much. But in reconnecting, even after 25 years, it was easy to renew those ties. We were able to share our common experience, but it was more the deep feeling of trust and connection developed years ago that was able to transcend any temporal distance.

Two, the people I talked to in high school are the ones I talked to 25 years later. Probably because of observation number one above, it was easier to connect with those I had been friends with in high school than those I had not. At one point someone joked that it seemed like high school all over again, with groups and cliques forming. But probably more out of familiarity than out of exclusion, as others were also renewing connections based on deep feelings of trust and connection.

And three, the old rules don’t apply. Even though I hung out with mostly my closer friends, I was able to connect with folks who were not part of my social circle back then. We were different people now. Old grudges, when they existed, melted away. The separation and reunion provided new opportunities to establish relationships, to form friendships when they may have not have existed before.

Time is an amazing force. It has an amazing ability to heal and renew, but only if we are committed to that healing and renewal, if we are open to new possibilities, and if we are able to draw on a deep reserve of connection that binds us to others.

This is what Jacob experienced in his reunion with Esau. We can imagine that it was Jacob’s view of the relationship that maintained the estrangement. Jacob was at first unable to allow for the possibility that things could be different. Once he encountered his brother, however, he realized they could be. As brothers, they both had a deep well of relationship and feeling upon which to draw, and the time away from each other allowed both brothers to overcome the divide between them. The past doesn’t change, but it doesn’t determine the future.

We remember this as we move towards our own reunions. As we sit around the Thanksgiving table we may find that we are challenged. Deep seated feelings may arise for us. Differences may seem to outshine the similarities. But if we focus on that which brings us together rather than drives us apart, and remain open to that which may come, then our reunions will be happy ones. We will see in the face of others the face of God. And for that, we offer thanks.

Why I’m Tired of Praying for Peace

This week, once again, I had a turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the My Jewish Learning website. My turn came in the wake of the attacks in Paris after which, I must admit, a deep sense of sorrow filled me. As we float between pessimism and optimism, I offer these thoughts (follow the link to the RWB blog):

Why I’m Tired of Praying for Peace

Finding Expansiveness on a Tuesday Afternoon

Confession #1: You might have already realized this but I didn’t write a column last week. Last week was a bit busy for me, not only with work but with Yohanna being out of town attending a conference, I was solo parenting for a few days. Balancing that fact, along with things at work that needed my attention and the regular preparation for Shabbat, I have myself the permission to not write last week. I know that committing to write a weekly column sets up a deadline for me and an expectation for you, but last week something needed to go.

Confession #2: This Tuesday, I took the afternoon off to go to the movies. In the morning I was invited to speak at the “World Religions” class at South Puget Sound Community College, and rather than return to the office for a few hours, I caught a Spectre_postermatinee of the new James Bond movie, Spectre.  (Little known fact: I am a big James Bond fan). Since no one else in my family was interested in this movie, and since my weekends often make it harder to get to the movies, catching a Tuesday afternoon matinee seemed to be just the thing. Later in the day at home, I was able to attend to some of the more “movable” aspects of my job, and do some writing and email correspondence.

One of the things I like about my work as a rabbi is the schedule. I am present over the weekends of course at Shabbat, Beit Sefer and other activities and events. I am “on call” to respond to illness or death. And at the same time, since I am not 9-5, I can organize my time differently. Even my “day off”—I am, in theory, off on Mondays—is worked into my flexibility. Especially with kids I find it hard to take one full day off a week; I’d rather work some on Monday so I can take off another time during the week to be present at my sons’ schools. Or, if I need a break, I can reorganize my schedule to take a break.

All this falls under the heading of “self care” or “balance,” something that we are told over and over again is so important to our wellbeing. We are told this so much so that ironically it becomes at times another form of anxiety or pressure to be balanced. What I have learned though is that one, this is very important, and two, what this looks like, what constitutes “balance,” looks different for different people.

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we continue the saga of our ancient patriarchs and matriarchs. We read about the death of the first generation—Abraham and Sarah—last week, now the story picks up with Isaac and Rebekah, and their journey to establish themselves and their family. Part of the story we tell this week is Isaac’s desire to dig water wells. His first two attempts to dig wells are met with conflict and contentiousness from his neighbors who also stake claims to the wells. His third attempt is successful and so he names the well Rehovot—“expansiveness”—because, as the text relates Isaac saying, “Now at last God has granted us ample space to increase in the land.” (Genesis 26:22)

In reading this section, I was struck by the name. Names have importance in the Torah, and each name has a meaning. I found the naming of the place Rehovot/Expansiveness to evoke not just a physical description but an emotional one. To name a place based on the feeling evoked by the place feels very powerful. And I saw a parallel in Isaac’s quest to our own. We, like Isaac, pursue our lives only to be met oftentimes with conflict and contentiousness. And this doesn’t even need to be active conflict, sometimes just our responsibilities and needs feel like they are challenging us. Our goal, then is find the expansiveness in our lives—our joys, our wants, our desires—that will lead to balance. That will allow us to meet those responsibilities and needs with renewed strength and vigor.

How do you find your expansiveness? What is it you need to do so you can “increase?” For me, it sometimes means going to see a movie in the middle of the day.

Confession #3: I’m taking this Shabbat off. Monday and Tuesday I will be in Philadelphia to attend the biannual board meeting of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, my professional association for which I am the board secretary. We meet in person in November and June. But rather than travel just for the meeting, I’m going to go a bit early so I can attend a 25th reunion of my high school graduating class (!). I’m looking forward to connecting with old friends with whom I haven’t been in touch for a while. For me, seeing friends, developing social connections, is another form of balance, of finding that expansiveness.

So how do you seek your balance, your expansiveness? You can tell me next week, when I return.


rabin mural

One of the most moving parts of my trip to Israel a few months ago wasn’t even a part of my official itinerary. Once my program of Interfaith Partners for Peace ended, I spend a few days on my own which included a visit to Yohanna’s uncle Eli and his family in Ramat Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is a place I haven’t spent much time, so I was glad to be able to spend a “Tel Aviv Shabbat,” which, since it is the capital of secular Israel, does not involve synagogue and prayer but beaches and socializing. Eli said he would take me on a bike ride, and so we got in the car and drove to a park close to the beach. There we rented two public bikes, much like they have in Seattle or New York, and we set off on a trip into the city.

We rode to the beach and along a promenade, dodging the masses of people walking along the boardwalk or sitting in cafes. We rode along hotels, down city streets along the beach and into Yafo. We then turned and rode deeper into the city, through historic neighborhoods, past landmarks like Independence Hall, where the State of Israel was declared by David Ben Gurion, and the Habimah theater.

It was then I realized that we would be passing Rabin Square, and my heart started to swell. Rabin Square is the large open public square where, following a speech given at a peace rally (it was then called Kings of Israel Square, Kikar Malche Yisrael), Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. That was November 4, 1995—20 years ago this coming Wednesday.

Rabin’s murder is one of those events that I remember where I was when I heard the news. Still buoyed by the hope of the Oslo Accords, the handshake on the White House lawn, the promise of mutual recognition and peace, Rabin’s killing was a shattering blow. To know that it was perpetrated by a Jewish extremist who was against the peace process made it even worse.

Since that time, while I had visited Rabin’s grave in Jerusalem, I had never had the chance to travel to Tel Aviv to be at that spot. When Eli and I rode our bikes, we drew closer to the square and approached from the southern end. We then rode the length of the (large) square to the northern end, under the balcony where Rabin spoke to the steps he descended where he was shot and where a memorial stands today. rabin site

The place where he died is a memorial of misshapen stones. Small bronze circles mark the position of Rabin and the shooter and others at the time of the events. A bust of Rabin overlooks the site, and a memorial wall is just to the north on an adjacent building. It was very moving.

Rabin’s assassination is all the more tragic because in the 20 years since, we have not seen the realization of peace. We have seen increasing cycles of violence, including a rise in attacks very recently.

Every year around the anniversary, I turn back to Rabin’s words. The former military general turned statesman had the power to inspire not just because of who he was, but also because of what he said. On the lawn of the White House in 1993 the day he and Yasir Arafat signed the Statement of Principles, he said in his gravelly voice:

Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians – We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough

It is impossible to tell what would have happened had Rabin lived. Historians and commentators can debate whether or not we would have seen the realization of a lasting peace if he had lived. But we can continue to grasp onto the spirit of his words, a spirit that focused not on the past, but on the future. Not on what was but what could be. Not on hatreds but on hopes.

This week’s Torah portion includes the famous story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son on the top of a mountain as a sign of devotion to God. At the last minute, after the altar has been built, after Isaac has been tied down, after Abraham raises the knife to do the deed, an angel calls out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” (Genesis 22:12) The killing is averted, a ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead.

In other words, the angel calls out: “Enough!”

Let us remember, on this the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, this one word: Enough.

Enough of hatred and violence.

Enough of injustice and dehumanization.

Enough of fear and terror.

Enough of the sacrifice of children.


Noah and Small Injustices

This Shabbat we turned to the story of Noah, and small injustices.

The story of Noah and the flood is perhaps known to us. It is a story that is told to us as children and a story that is a part of the popular imagination. (And recently was a major motion picture.) God, dissatisfied with the world that was created, decides to destroy the world’s inhabitants by flood. Noah is chosen to be the savior of humanity (and animal life) when he is called by God and instructed to build an ark to house him and his family, along with representatives of all the world’s animal species. The floods come, Noah is saved, and once the waters subside all leave the ark to begin the world anew.

Its an extreme story, one that is also not exclusive to Jewish teachings. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example. There was perhaps some ancient catastrophic natural event that led different cultures to develop folklore of a flood story, a fact which makes the story that much more powerful because of its universality. But the key to reading and understanding this story is not to see it as a record of a worldwide catastrophe (although it is hard these days to read the story without thinking of sea level rise caused by global climate change), but to see it as a story of humanity. What are the values present in the story that we as humans are meant to understand?noah wickedness

To think of that question, we turn to God’s reasoning. In the Torah story, the flood was not a random event, but a response. God was responding to the condition of humanity—a condition of evil, a condition of violence. “God saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted having created humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.” (Genesis 6:5-6)

But what, exactly, was the “wickedness” and “evil” that is spoken of? This story comes on the heels of the story of Creation, which ends with the first murder. So perhaps that murder and neglect for human life is what is being described. A midrash, however, comes to teach otherwise:

This is what the people of the age of the Flood used to do: when a person brought out a basket full of beans for sale, another would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth [a minimal amount, too small for legal action], and then everyone would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth, so that the seller had no legal remedy. (Bereshit Rabbah 31:5)

Each person only stole a small amount of beans, but when many people steal a small amount, then all the beans are gone. In other words, It was not the great injustices that led to the destruction of the world, but the small ones. A steady stream of small injustices build to such a crescendo that required a complete destruction and restarting of life on earth.

In recent days we have witnessed an increase in violence in Israel, with seemingly random attacks on Israeli civilians. What is striking to me is the “smallness” of these attacks. During the last intifada, when I lived in Jerusalem for a year as part of my rabbinical studies, the fear was bombings, which would kill numerous people at once. Now the attacks are that much smaller—stabbings in the street, cars driven into crowds. But the smaller attacks join into a larger wave of violence, which must be condemned.

These attacks are carried out in a context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general absence of peace, which is perhaps defined by many small injustices. As Israelis are attacked, we must not deny the small injustices that are carried out every day against Palestinians, who live under an ever-growing occupation, the constant threat and perpetration of violence, the need to negotiate checkpoints and who are generally not in control of their lives.

In our country, the idea of “small injustices” also relates to our conversations around race and privilege. While we note the wave of African American deaths at the hands of white police, we also need to take into account the small injustices faced every day by people of color, who are denied access, who are routinely stopped in their cars, who are watched in stores and who are perceived as a threat while walking down the street.

And as Jews in America we experience small injustices as well. Recently I was asked about the presence of anti-Semitism locally, and while I noted that we haven’t faced any major overt incidents recently, the scheduling conflicts, ignorance of Jewish calendars and customs, and indifference or hostility towards Jewish approaches remind us of our minority status and are just as wounding.

Many of the ills that plague us are defined by small injustices.

But while we speak of small injustices, we really know that small injustices, carried out by many, are both symptoms of and create great injustices. This is the lesson of the midrash on Noah. Small injustices aggregate, they condition societies to hate and hurt the other, they create societies that are, in the words of the Torah, “evil.” Another flood will not come to destroy humanity, that is God’s promise. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing it ourselves.

As we read Noah this year, we take to heart the beginning of the story. We condemn the small injustices.

We condemn violence.

We condemn wickedness.

We condemn evil.

We condemn violence.

We condemn oppression.

Rather, we pray for justice, and we pray for peace.

And we pray to avoid the Flood.

Here We Are Again, For the Very First Time

This was one of my favorite phrases to come out of my recent 18-month program on mindfulness and embodied spirituality for Jewish clergy, run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, spoke them as we came to one of our last mediation sessions of the program.

I echoed these words as I stood on the bimah at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services this year, and I thought of them as we stood with the Torah unrolled at Simchat Torah a few days ago.

Here we are again, for the very first time.

I love the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the singing and the dancing. I love throwing candy to the kids and having a glass of schnapps with the grown ups. I love the spiritual raucousness—the idea of letting loose and having fun in a context of ritual and spirituality.

But it isn’t just fun—unrolling the entire Torah scroll and seeing it held aloft by the members of the community (including those who will celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah in the coming year, standing next to their Torah portion) is to me one of the most moving sights. It is moving because it is so rare—we usually engage with the Torah scroll a few columns at a time in a controlled viewing. It is moving because of the physical beauty of a Torah scroll—the weathered parchment created from natural sources and the careful and exquisite calligraphy. And it is moving because of the ancientness of the words themselves, and how generations of Jews have taken them to heart and made them a part of their lives.

And it is moving because of the fact of it being a scroll. There are no real divisions, the words and verses and chapters and books flow into one another. Seeing the whole scroll reminds us of the fact that we liturgically read the whole thing in order, that we are not able to cherry pick verses or sections we want to read, we must read (and wrestle with) all of it. And seeing the scroll we see that once you reach the end, there is nowhere else to go but back to the beginning.

When we gathered for Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the new year, we gathered at the same time and the same place, but we were not the same people. We had lived a whole year with its joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks, victories and defeats. We were there again, for the very first time.

As we set out to engage with the cycle of Torah reading again, the same is true. The words on the scroll never change. We read the same stories, the same laws, the same ethical teachings every year. But we are different each time we read those words. What speaks to us, what resonates with us, what challenges us will be different this year than it was last. As we approach each portion again this year, we can say, here we are again, for the very first time.

The Torah, like us, ends with death and begins with the creation of life. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses, after having viewed the Promised Land he will not enter, died and is buried. We then go back to the beginning, and read about the creation of the world. Our Torah reading cycle begins anew this Shabbat with Genesis 1.

One of the seeming great ironies of the Torah is that although the narrative arc of the text is the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom and covenant in the Promised Land, the Israelites never make it there. The Torah ends with Moses’s death, with the Israelites still encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The scroll ends with the journey incomplete.

But perhaps this is not an irony after all. Perhaps the story is meant to be incomplete, that it is not so much about reaching where we are going, but the journey to take us there. For really, do we ever really get to where we are going? We may set goals, we may make plans, but their fulfillment just leads to new goals and new plans. Learning leads to learning, experience leads to experience.

Our lives are linear, but they are also cyclical. We grow and return, return and grow. The cycle of the seasons turns, the cycle of the year turns, and each time we meet them new and fresh. Every day an ending, and every day a beginning.

Each day, we say, here we are again, for the very first time.

At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule...

At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule…

Yom Kippur Day 5776: “Jews and Race, in Olympia and Beyond”

My friends, we need to talk about race.

Three months ago, two African American men were shot by a white police officer here in Olympia. The men were caught trying to shoplift beer at the westside Safeway and, after fleeing, were confronted by a member of the Olympia police. Some form of altercation happened, and the two men were both shot. Thankfully they were not killed, although one remains paralyzed by the incident.

And in an instant, the news that we have heard about across this country. The news of police shootings, the news of white officers, the news of black victims. It became our news. Our community became one of those communities.

Much has happened since that night Andre and Bryson were shot by Officer Donald. The evening after the shooting, I along with local clergy held a forum here in this sanctuary, with the presence of the Mayor and Police Chief, to allow members of the community to share their feelings and concerns. At the same time, a protest march made their way downtown. Since that time, as the investigation was underway, there was further organizing and coalescing, conversations and opportunities to speak out. And as the prosecutor released his report, absolving officer Donald of any wrongdoing, yet proceeding with charges against the two men, further protests were mounted.

I have been present for several of these protests. And while marred by the presence of open-carry, white supremacist activists on the one hand and by black bloc anarchists on the other—both it seems looking to provoke and wanting a fight and unfortunately finding it—these have served to peacefully remind us locally of the mantra that is echoing around our nation: Black Lives Matter, and that as a nation, we still need to have a serious conversation about race.

And we, as Jews, need to talk about race. We, as Jews, need to affirm Black Lives Matter.

There is much that can be commented on with our local shooting. As the prosecutor has released his report, and the Olympia Police Department has commenced its own internal investigation, there are questions as to whether or not proper police procedure was followed, and whether or not Officer Donald put himself in jeopardy. There is the issue about the attempted theft of beer by the two men–I can not ethically dismiss this fact though some would like to relegate it to the status of “everybody does it.” But the question of whether or not charges should have been brought is an open one. There is the issue of violence in our country, that we are quick to turn to violence in many situations, and the threat of violence—and the ubiquity of guns in our country leads to the invisible and ever present threat of violence—is another factor which led to this incident.

And even with all of this, it still boils down to physical violence perpetrated by a white person upon a black person. And for this we must make a reckoning. For this we must atone.

This is not to attack Officer Donald. This is not to attack police in general. It is to attack a system that perpetuates an injustice in which African Americans have since the beginning of this country been disadvantaged, which has led to distrust in institutions, suspicions, and fear. The mindsets, attitudes, assumptions about race are at work everyday in ways both conscious and unconscious. We may not know which of these played into the Olympia shooting, except to say that they were.

As the New York Times editorial board wrote, “The “Black Lives Matter” movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police, and is of a piece with this history. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued.” Do all lives matter? Of course they do, that is the fundamental Jewish teaching—that we are all created in the divine image, and that we all descend from a common ancestor, Adam and Eve—to teach that no one can claim superiority over another.

But unfortunately we do claim superiority one over another, and so Black Lives Matter needs to be said.blm sign

The names that gave rise to this movement are etched on our national consciousness: Freddie Gray, Baltimore; Eric Garner, Staten Island (“I can’t breathe.”); Michael Brown, Ferguson; Sandra Bland, Waller County, Texas—all at the hands of police. And then of course the murder of the Rev. Clementa Pickney at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, along with his parishoners, who were engage in sacred study when a man professing racial hatred came in and, after joining them for study and partaking of their hospitality, shot them dead.

And it was perhaps this last one that stands out the most, for the setting was too familiar.

These killings are devastating. And the numbers too are devastating.

Blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites. If you take it by age, blacks ages 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Almost 1 in 3 African American men will be arrested in their lifetime. While People of Color make up 30 percent of the US population, they make up 60 percent of the prison population. People of color are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop. Harsher school punishments, higher rates of juvenile incarceration, lower wages, voting rights challenges, and on and on.

We need to talk about it, and we need to talk about it as Jews. Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama, who recently wrote a book Just Mercy, a story about his commitment to providing legal representation to the most desperate and an examination of an oftentimes unjust system.  He himself is African American. Last year he gave a talk at the Consultation of Conscience, a meeting of Jewish social justice leaders, and spoke of how in Germany, everyone wants to talk about the Holocaust. There is a desire to reckon with the past, to examine that dark chapter in the country’s history. Yet in America, we do not wish to truly examine the effects and slavery, and come to terms with what that difficult chapter in our history means for us today.

We need to begin to identify the attitudes and assumptions that lead to these disparities. That led to black kids getting killed by white cops. We need to examine, for example, privilege, or the fact that with white skin comes benefits, assumptions, advantages that are deeply rooted in a system to sustain them.

And here is where the Jewish piece becomes that more interesting. For where do Jews land on the privilege scale?

Our history is complicated. For Jewish community is by no means uniformly “white.” Jews are ethnically diverse, and not just worldwide. Across the US we have a diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities that prevent us from saying that we are a white community. About 20 percent of the Jewish population in the US is non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Our own Jewish community, and our own families (my extended family includes African Americans, Yemenites, Moroccans) are racially and ethnically diverse.

At the same time, I look at myself for example, I ethnically trace my roots to Central and Eastern Europe, and with that European ancestry comes lighter skin. And a good part of the history of the Jewish community in this country has been coming to terms with what it means to be both “white” and “non-white” where whiteness is both a physical feature and a social construct.

We know that Jews were not always accepted in this country, indeed anti-Semitism has not gone away. Jews have been relegated to the status of “other.” Racism has infected attitudes towards Jews, indeed the term anti-Semitism, coined in Germany in the 19th century, was meant to distinguish the Jew not from the Christian, but from the German, the Aryan.

At the same time, the majority of Jews who trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe have been able to “pass” and to gain entry in the majority population. Historical studies, like The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity by Eric Goldstein and How Jews Became White Folks by Karen Brodkin, trace this development and tension.

And I think that we as Jews understand privilege because, especially here in Olympia, in which we Jews are as much a minority as African Americans, find ourselves not privileged in many of our interactions and societal engagements.

For example, our ability to celebrate our holidays and worship in the way we like is not shared by the majority. So that is why you have curriculum nights at school scheduled on Yom Kippur and this coming spring the first night of Passover falls on ArtsWalk. To come to services today we had to make accommodations with our workplace or school, and sometimes supervisors or teachers are not understanding, or skeptical, or ignorant. Or maybe it comes down to more subtle things, like references and experiences shared within the Jewish community—including food or language—that is not found within the larger dominant community. Or expectations that you represent all of Judaism. Or the expectation that you know what Christmas is but there is no expectation that others know what Purim is. These are the signs that we are at the other end of privilege for much of our existence here in Olympia.

Yet when many of us walk down the street, we are no different than our Christian (or culturally Christian) neighbors. For we fit in in a predominantly white Christian community. And we can adopt to the prevailing norms as we see fit.

This complicated tension, that of being of and outside the majority, is on the one hand a challenge and an opportunity. When it comes to race, it can be seen as pitting two identities—that of majority and that of minority—against each other, unsure where to fit and not fully aligned with either side, leading to questions and doubt. And at the same time, it is an opportunity, because we understand not having privilege, and so can bring that to bear on conversations on race.

Perhaps because of this interesting history that we have found ourselves on the side of civil rights in this country. Julius Rosenwald, the force behind Sears Roebuck who donated much of his wealth to black educational institutions in the south. Jewish refugee professors fleeing Europe who found homes in black colleges in the south. Jewish attorneys who worked for the NAACP arguing such cases as Brown v. Board of Education. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who along with James Chaney freedom riders who were killed by Klansmen. Rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Eisendradth who stood shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King and joined the March on Washington.

The history of civil rights in this country is marked by the participation and active support of Jews, but it can not just be relegated to history. We can not simply live in the nostalgia of the 60s. The challenge now is to continue to pick up the mantle and continue to be allies to the African American community and to engage in issues of race in this country. And while issues relating to African Americans have been at the forefront, we remember too that the picture of race in this country is getting increasingly more complex.

So what might this look like?

Stevenson in the talk I referenced earlier mentions four things to do to confront issues of race and injustice in our country: Get close to it, change the narrative, protect our hopefulness and choose to do uncomfortable things.

Get close to it: we need to listen to the voices of African Americans. We need to listen to their stories, their fears, their concerns, their experiences. Later today at mincha we will read from Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code, and we will read “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”. The problem isn’t the first part, we know we should not stand idly by. The problem is in the second part, in determining who is our neighbor. For too often we have a too narrow view of who is our neighbor.

Learn the ideas of allyship. Just as we Jews have needed allies throughout our history. This could mean reaching out to your neighbor. This means connecting with organizations like SURJ—Standing Up for Racial Justice—an organization of white allies to African Americans. And this means recognizing and celebrating the diversity within Jewish community as well.

Change the narrative: “Our history,” Stevenson says, “is that for decades we humiliated and anguished and injured people of color.” We need to gain perspective on this story, and come to terms with it.

Moses was born in Egypt, and though an Israelite, raised within the Pharaoh’s household. He was, culturally, an Egyptian. As an adult he ended up murdering an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave, he then fled for his life to Midian, another land on the Arabian peninsula. There he married and had a son, whom he named Gershom, or “stranger there” because, as the text says, “I am a stranger in a foreign land.”

Moses the cultural Egyptian, raised in privilege among the majority population, was only able to see difference when he himself had the experience of being the other, the ger, the “foreign one.” And once he had this perspective, it was only then that he was able to return to Egypt and serve as a liberator.

If we can recognize our privilege and recognize our lack of privilege as well, then we like Moses, can gain perspective and then help change the narrative.

Protect our hopefulness. As Stevenson says, “Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.” And we Jews have always been the people of hope. From our long history of overcoming hatred and oppression and genocide to the notion of shearit yisrael—a remnant of Israel—that will always exist to uphold the covenant, we are a people of hope. Any severe decree, as we say in our liturgy in the Unetaneh Tokef, can be overcome with prayer, repentance and righteousness. This is a statement of hope.

And it is a statement of action, for as Stevenson says, we must choose to do uncomfortable things.

One of the most powerful things I read on race recently was Ta-Nahisi Coates unflinching and powerful book Between the World and Me. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It was uncomfortable.  It is written as a letter to his son, in which Coates provides hard truths, deep experiences and dire warnings about growing up as a black man in America.

Coates speaks of the Dream and the Dreamers, but this is an exclusively white dream. And not only a white dream, but a dream built on the back of blacks. This passage stood out:

They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them n slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, and entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to strain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

“Vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we must choose to do uncomfortable things. We must choose to remember, remember our history and the history of this country. We must remember that racism continues to be a persistent threat. We must remember that we have a voice and a presence as another minority in this town.

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we raise the banner of black lives matter, to commit to hear the stories, to be allies, to be in community, to engage. We know we do not have all the answers—I know I don’t have all the answers—but we commit to learn, to grow, to question, to do our own work and to follow when necessary.

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we reject the phrase all lives matter. It is true, but it is not what is needed at this time. And, at the same time, we can not summarily dismiss and devalue institutions like government, or the police, for those, like us, are human, and have the ability to change and grow. We open ourselves up to forgiveness and repair.

And on this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans we commit to justice, and commit to healing. We know it is possible. As we just read in the haftarah from Isaiah,

Indeed, not for all time shall I be quarrelsome,

Not for eternity shall I seethe with rage,

But from me shall my spirit drip like dew.

I shall create the breath of life.

We are vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

“God,” Stevenson says, “uses the weak and the broken to say the things that must be said in a just space.” Moses was broken, Isaiah was broken, we are broken. So we’ll say the things that must be said. We will not forget. We will raise up the fallen. We will stand with the powerless. We will recognize and celebrate and honor the ethnic and racial diversity within Jewish community. And we will use our Jewish perspective, as those who have suffered at the receiving end of prejudice and hatred, as those who glide in and out of privilege, as those whose numbers include many races and backgrounds, to create the breath of life anew in this country, beginning with our streets and our city.

Kol Nidre 5776: “What is Your Purpose? The Time is Now.”

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

If not now, if not now, tell me when.

I don’t know if I am much into signs. I understand the concept of synchronicity—how the proximity of certain events in time can perhaps provide us with an opportunity for examination or meaning making. But in the idea of a sign from God, like the 10 plagues from the Exodus story as signs of divine power and human injustice, I don’t usually buy it. I don’t usually base my actions on signals from beyond, or wait to make decisions until I get a sign from above.

But I’ll share with you something, not a sign per se, but something came up that made me think. I have recently completed an 18 program in mindfulness and embodied Jewish spirituality. It was a study program for Jewish clergy—rabbis and cantors—which was comprised of retreats, text study, yoga and meditation.

At the end of our second retreat, we did an exercise. All that week we were invited to write prayers and place them anonymously in a box. At the end of the week, for a closing circle, we passed around the cards and we all read one of the prayers.

After we read the prayer, we went into the center of the circle where we picked another card. The faculty had prepared these laminated sheets, and on the back was a phrase from during the course of our studies. When it was my turn, I picked my card, and it read “et ratzon.”et ratzon

Now I know this was random, and I know I wasn’t the only one to get this phrase. There were only a few phrases and about 40 of us. But it was the one I chose, based on the randomness of where I stood in the circle and where we started the process of reading prayers. And so I took it not as a sign, per se, but as a kavannah intended for me, to reflect on and try to connect with. Et ratzon.

Et Ratzon means a desirable time, a good time, an acceptable time. It is a phrase from Psalm 69:14:

Vaani tefilati lecha adonai et ratzon Elohim berav hasecha aneyni beemet yishecha

But as for me, let my prayer be to you God at an acceptable time; God in the greatness of your lovingkindness answer me, in the truth of your salvation.

It is a phrase that may be familiar to us, we will sing it tomorrow as part of the Mah Tovu prayer. The Mah Tovu is a collection of four verses from the Bible, put together to create one coherent whole, a prayer for our sacred space. It’s inclusion is meant to be an introduction to prayer. We want our prayer to be worthwhile, heard, answered. The verse is included in Mah Tovu based on its traditional interpretation, found in the Talmud, for what et ratzon, a desirable time, means. For the rabbis in the Talmud it is the time that the community gets together for prayer. That is, if you pray with a community, you are more apt to have your prayer heard. That is et ratzon.

That is a nice interpretation of course. But to be standing there, holding a card with the phrase et ratzon, excerpted from the rest of the verse, I wasn’t thinking about communal prayer. I was thinking, what is et ratzon to me? What is a desirable time?

But first, we can ask, what is ratzon? What is desire?

For the term ratzon is interesting. It means desirable, and it also means will. That which we will, is what we desire. We come across it in our liturgy. Ken yehi ratzon we say sometimes in the liturgy, may it be your will—another way of saying amen. At the end of the Amidah, after we opened up our hearts in prayer, we say Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’go-ali. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heartbe acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer. And we will come across this word tomorrow, when we read the haftarah from the book of Isaiah, the powerful and challenging words, is this the fast I desire? Isaiah in the voice of God challenging the Israelites who observe ritually but neglect to act ethically and morally. A fast desirable to God. Ratzon.

These examples have a common element to them, that they are prayers less about our desire, our ratzon, but about God’s desire, God’s ratzon, God’s will. May it be your will, may it be your desire God—this thing that I have just asked for. May my prayers be desirable to you, may it be what you want to hear, may they be accepted, may they be good, may they be understood.

But we are also taught that we have a will, a desire. And to understand that, we need to turn our attention not to this holiday, but another.

Today is called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the Torah, the day is referred to in the plural—Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements. This quirk of biblical Hebrew leads to an interesting commentary, a pun on the Hebrew, because you can read Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements (from the root kaper, atone) as Yom K-Purim—a day like Purim (the prefix k- means “like” or “as”)

But, it seems, there can not be two holidays so far off in their intention and practice. Purim is a day of pure celebration. We recall the story of the biblical book of Esther, which tells of an averted plot to destroy the Jews. We celebrate by eating and drinking, sometimes to excess, and dressing up in costume. Frivoloity, satire and fun are the themes of the day, and so it is not uncommon to dedicate the observance of Purim to jokes, fun and games.

Yom Kippur meanwhile, is about seriousness. The tunes are more often than not somber. The themes of sin and atonement are heavy. It is a long day, full of multiple services and times for reflection.

But on further reflection, there are elements of the two days that are very similar.

On both days we dress up. Purim it is outlandish costume, we pretend to be something we are not in order to demonstrate the topsy turvyness of the story. And dressing up is fun. On Yom Kippur we also dress up. It is customary to wear white, and not wear leather or other luxuries. Even not eating and drinking is a form of dressing up, for we are pretending on this day, or rehearsing, for death. Again, the topsy turvy ness of life.

Both Purim and Yom Kippur are days of risk. The Esther story with the plotting of destruction, and the near aversion of that destruction, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as Jews. Yom Kippur, with its reminders of life and death in the balance, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as humans.

But the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur may come from that important question, of what is our purpose?

The details of the Purim story are perhaps known to us. It is about the Jewish community of Persia, under King Ahasuerus. The king dismisses the Queen, Vashti, then holds a beauty pageant of sorts to select a new queen. Esther, a Jew, enters and wins, becoming the new queen.

For a variety of reasons, the king’s advisor, Haman, hates the Jews who live in the kingdom and convinces the king to order a decree for their destruction. The date of the destruction is held by lottery (thus pur, or lot) and as the day draws near, Mordechai, Esthers’ cousin and guardian, implores her to use her standing as queen to plea on behalf of the Jews to the King.

Esther, however, is hesitant. She is scared and rightfully so—the law of the castle is that no one may appear before the King unless he or she is summoned. If one does so, and the king does not look favorably upon it by pointing the golden scepter at you, then the punishment is death.

Mordechai’s response to Esther is perhaps one of the most profound verses of Torah. He says to her, “for if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish;” and then, this powerful phrase, “and who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for usch a time as this?”

Who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this. Perhaps this is the sole reason you are here.

And who knows, perhaps you, my friends, have come to your kingdom for such a time as this.

The Book of Esther is a unique book of the Bible, for it is the only book that does not contain God as an actor. It is less about what God does, but about what we do. It is a unique book because it asks us to focus on not what we may be called upon to do by another power, but what we care called upon to do by our humanity.

And so as we gather on Yom Kippur, Yom Kippurim, a day like Purim, we must ask ourselves that same question. The most important question we can ask ourselves. It is less about figuring out what God’s will is. Rather it is figuring out what our will is. What are we here to do? What are we here to contribute? What is our ratzon, our desire, our will. What do we have to contribute? That is the question we must wrestle with on Yom Kippur. Because we all have something to contribute.

A Hasidic master, the Netivot Shalom, offers the following teaching, in the name of the Ari, one of the great kabbalists of Jewish tradition.

from the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. No one can fulfill the mission of the other, to repair that which is required of another. Thus, even the least person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly.

So that is your question this Yom Kippur. What is your unique mission? What are you here for? As Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” We each have a reason for being. And it is part of our role to find out what that is.

For if we do not hold out the possibility and the reality that we have a mission in our life, that we have a purpose, a ratzon, then we deny an aspect of our humanity. Again, the Netivot Shalom:

The principle that emerges from this teaching was expressed by our Master of Kobrin: the worst thing is when a Jew feels that “by him all is right, just how it is”. The problem is when we become so accustomed to the course of our lives that we make peace with how things are. At least regarding sins we feel some regret and movement toward teshuvah. But, when we make peace with our situation we can never turn from it; we get used to our situation and have no aspiration to change, to raise ourselves out of the routine of our lives.

If we make peace with our situation we do not grow. If we say that is just how it is it can never change. Part of our role is to be dissatisfied with the way things are, and find out the way that we can make it different. This is our ratzon, our desire, our will. It is our answer to Mordecai’s question. Who knows, perhaps you are here for this very purpose.

And this response to this question, is one of creativity. In other words, we ask ourselves, what is our creative response to life?

I’ve shared some wisdom from Brene Brown in the past, from this bimah, last year in fact, on vulnerability. On how vulnerability is, while uncomfortable, a key to growth. She has continued with her work, and has a new book out, and recently I heard another interview with her, in which she was speaking of creativity.

In the interview, she dismissed the idea that there are some people who are creative and other people who are not. Rather, she said, there are those who act on their creativity and those who do not. And to not act on one’s creative impulse is harmful. “The only unique contribution we will make in this world,” she said, “will be born of creativity.”

We sometimes don’t act on our creative impulse because of shame, another one of Brown’s research topics. That we feel shame because we do not feel that we are creative, it makes us vulnerable. But this is how we add to the world.

“You are a born maker,” Brown says, “and we need what you can bring to us, because you are the only one who can bring it.”

We as unique individuals are the only one who can offer what we can offer, because it is uniquely ours. Life depends on you offering it. We all have something to bring, a creative impulse in response to life. So what do you have to bring?

There is a story of a king who had a prized possession, a diamond. He kept it protected in a special case, only taking it out on special occasions. On one occasion, he took it out only to discover a small nick, a scratch in the side of the diamond. He was completely distraught, and didn’t know what to do.

He went to everyone in his court, and asked if there was anyone who could restore the diamond. Many examined it, and tried, but could not find a way to make the diamond whole again.

He then went out into the kingdom, to every town and hamlet, asking if anyone would be able to restore the diamond. Everywhere he went, people either didn’t want to try to fix it, because they thought they might ruin it more, or simply didn’t know what to do.

Finally he came to a town on the far outskirts of the kingdom. Again he made his request. No one knew what to do. Until he came to a house, on the outskirts of the town. A small simple home, and home to a craftsman. He examined the diamond, then took it into the back of his shop.

He was gone for quite sometime, finally emerging from the back. “Well,” said the king, “did you fix it?” The artist handed the king the diamond. And there, etched on the side, where the scratch was, was a beautiful engraving of a rose. A rose, that incorporated the scratch in its stem.

What is your purpose? What can you bring to this world? What is your creative contribution to this life. Can you, like the craftsman, see an opportunity, respond with creativity, and do what mission in life is to do? Maybe he was brought to the kingdom for a time such as this.

And when we ask this question of ourselves, when we try to discern our mission, when we suggest, like Mordechai to Esther, that maybe this is why we are here, we recognize that others have that same charge. And while we seek out our gifts, we can also recognize those gifts in others.

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we read: “He [Ben Azzai] would also say: Do not scorn any person, and do not discount any thing. For there is no one who has not their hour, and no thing that has not its place.” (4:3)

Everyone has something to give. Everyone has their hour. We seek to recognize this in ourselves. And we seek to recognize this in others. And when we all recognize that we have something to give, and we act on it, and offer it, then we are all enriched, we are all uplifted. What is your ratzon?

Which brings me back to my first question, what is et ratzon? What is the desirable time? There is no one who has not their hour. When it et ratzon? It is now. The time is now.

Now is the time to begin to change

Now is the time to offer your unique contribution.

If we understand ratzon to be that which we are called upon to do, then every time is the right time. Every time is the desirable time. For as we learn from Esther, it is not always finding our ratzon and going out to create it, although that is certainly one part, it is finding ourselves in a particular circumstance and rising to the occasion. It is the ability to see the life that we have and the circumstances we are given and transcend them, to remake them. It is responding creatively to life.

Et Ratzon—the time is now.

As Rabbi Hillel put it, also in Pirke Avot, “if not now, when?”

As the contemporary singer songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it:

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

If not now, if not now, tell me when.

This Yom Kippur, we commit to find our mission, find our purpose. Because each one of us has one. And that is, how are you going to creatively contribute to this life. We need it. We need your contribution. And we need it now.

Rosh Hashanah Day 5776: “Heeding the Call–Both Papal and Jewish–For Environmental Justice”

This summer, I had the opportunity to head off to Camp Kalsman, a Jewish camp in Arlington, to spend a week as a member of the faculty. A rotating group of educators and rabbis and cantors spends a week to 10 days teaching, leading services, tutoring b’nai mitzvah and providing support alongside the full-time staff.

Faculty were also asked to visit some of the activities, chugim, electives. The first day I was there I joined the “environmental heroes” chug.

The session was led by Tal, an Israeli counselor, who led the kids through a series of games. In the first game, each of the campers was secretly assigned to be a plant, an herbivore or a carnivore. They were then told to wander the field, and at the signal, to find a partner. They then—in rock, paper, scissors fashion—were to battle by revealing their assigned roles. Herbivores ate the plants, and carnivores ate the herbivores. This then repeated for several rounds. If you met one like yourself you were safe, but three times and you died of starvation. Those who were “eaten” sat back down until the winners—three carnivores—were revealed.

We then moved into a game of tag in which a lone camper stood on one side of the field opposite everyone else. The solo camper was the hunter, the rest the wolves, and at the signal each ran towards each other. The hunter’s task was to tag as many of the wolves as he could as they ran across to the other side. Each person tagged would then become another hunter. This went on for several rounds until ultimately, all were tagged and became hunters. There were no more wolves left.

We then returned to the first game, and each camper got his or her secret assignment. This time, the herbivores won, and it was revealed after the round that only a few campers were designated carnivores. All the meateaters were “killed” in the earlier game. And then we played again, and this time everyone lost—everyone, as it turned out, was designated a herbivore, and after three rounds of not finding a plant to eat, we died.

We then got back in a large circle and talked about how the second game, the hunting, in which all the carnivores were “killed” didn’t just affect one species, but reverberated throughout the ecosystem. The lesson was reinforced for these kids—and for me—our choices have vast consequences so we must be responsible for our actions in regards to our environment.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, a time for atonement and self reflection. But we also call this the new year of the world, the day that Creation is renewed for another cycle. We are renewed and the world is renewed. It becomes imperative to link these two themes of the day and spend some time in self-reflection not only with regards to ourselves and our relationship with others, but in regards to our relationship with the earth.

But this is timely not only because of our Jewish calendar, but, if we pay attention more broadly across the spectrum of faith communities, because Pope Francis has recently released an encyclical, a major work on the environment. And while of course directed to the world’s Catholics, there is much in this document from which we can learn. It is a call not just to Catholics, but to the world. In the spirit of interfaith learning and cooperation, we as Jews would do well to heed this call as well.

So let’s learn from Francis:

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

Climate change is real. To tell us this a man of faith puts his faith in science. And throughout the encyclical he adds a second act of faith by imbuing the reality of our environmental situation with the hope, potential and possibility that it can be overcome.  That in order to combat climate change, we need to change.

And not just change what we do. We need to change who we are. Bill McKibbon points out in his analysis of the encyclical in the New York Review of Books, we generally have a notion that technological advancement and progress are the same thing. And while there is much to laud with the advent of new technologies, the Pope challenges us to realize that these must be coupled with a moral advancement as well. He writes, “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.” Technological advancement does not automatically equal progress. It is not progress to simply use the power that we have to do what we want without concern for consequences. It is progress to recognize and act on our responsibility to others and the world. Our contribution to global climate change is a moral problem—it is an unchecked abuse of power in which we see ourselves on top and therefore as having the right to do what we please. If we maintain that attitude then we will not only destroy our environment, we will destroy ourselves.

We need a fundamental change. And the change is not just a new embrace of environmentalism, but an embrace of environmental justice. It is recognizing that we are responsible not just for ourselves, but for others, and that we have a fundamental obligation to care for our environment for the sake of others. That individual abuses lead to societal catastrophes. A midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary, tells of the story of two people in the boat, and one takes out a drill and begins to bore a hole under his seat. The other jumps up, “what are you doing? You are letting water get in the boat, we will sink.” Don’t worry, says the other, I am only boring a hole under my side of the boat.”

And an embrace of environmental justice is to recognize especially that while climate change affects us all, it disproportionately hurts minority populations and those who are economically disadvantaged.

So change we must, and change we can. Isn’t that what we are celebrating today? Our ability and opportunity to change? Our desire to do things differently? Our humility to recognize that there are things we need to change?

Faced with the enormity of the issues, it is hard to think about our ability to make an impact on climate change. But we must do something, even if we can’t do everything. And while there is much to say about what we could do, what we should do, themes I hope we will examine more closely in the coming months, I want to suggest that we as a synagogue community make a renewed effort around the environment.

There is a lot we already do—our use of reusable goods in the kitchen, for example, as opposed to disposables. Aided by the city of Olympia, we participate in composting. Our landscaping is made up of mostly native plants. And this year, during Mitzvah Morning, when we go out into our community to do service work, there will be one opportunity specifically around the environment.

But there is more we can do. Perhaps it is time to take an environmental audit of the congregation, either our own or using the tools provided by faith based environmental groups like Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Earth Ministry to examine our practices and where we can do more. (And we will join together locally with other faith communities through Interfaith Works to read and discuss the encyclical.)

And as one step towards a deeper congregational environmental awareness, I want to propose an idea: that we try as much as we can to move to zero waste in our congregation. Beginning with the Erev Shabbat onegs: ZerOneg. Zero waste is the idea that we can consciously minimize the amount of garbage we create by a more mindful use of resources. That we try to make it so that all food is consumed, and whatever isn’t will either be composted or reused. And that food packaging either be reused or recycled.

As I mentioned, we already do much of this. And I don’t mean to suggest that there are any problems or concerns that we need to fix. The oneg is a special time when we are able to be in community, to share with one another, to offer hospitality after prayer. Thinking zero waste simply adds another intention, an environmental intention, to this already special time, the time when we come together most frequently.

An environmental mindset forces us to be conscious of what we use before we use it—to bring as much as we like but not too much, to eat what we have brought, to pack out what we don’t to either eat at another time or donate. And this will hopefully impact our purchasing decisions in advance, and increase our attentiveness to food and how much we consume. It is mindful eating, it is just eating. And it could be a fundamental change in how we engage with our resources and waste.

This is but one of potentially many examples of what is required of us. One example in which we change not just our practice but our mindset.

Rosh Hashanah is a day of gratitude and humility. We are grateful for all that we have and the past we have followed to this point. And we are humble to know that we didn’t do it all our selves. So too we have a responsibly to be grateful for the world we inherited, and to have the humility to know it is not ours to do with as we please. We have the responsibility, as told to us in our Torah, that the earth is ours “to till and to tend”—in other words, to care it the best we can.

Our job is not to “save the earth.” The earth doesn’t need us to survive. The earth will survive. Even life on earth will survive. But it may look different, and it may not look like us, if we fail in our responsibility to look after what we have been given.

And while the earth doesn’t need us to survive, our fellow human beings do. The earth doesn’t need us, but our future generations do.

On this day we celebrated our renewed lives and the renewal of life of our planet. We also celebrate the renewal of life itself and we welcome and celebrate the generations who will follow us. We will read the haftarah from the book of Samuel, which speaks of the prophet’s birth. It will be read to us by those who have welcomed new life into their families this past year. Then we will bless all our children. So I close with the words of Pope Francis, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who follow us.”

We owe environmental stewardship to ourselves. We owe it to our neighbors. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our children.

It’s not just a game played at camp.

This is slightly different than delivered on Rosh Hashanah, I added a few sentences to clarify my intentions regarding the oneg and zero waste.