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.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776: “The 8 Things I Have Learned about Life and Teshuvah from the Seattle Seahawks”

There are many things that come with growing older. As I completed my 42nd year this past July, I continue to note the changes that occur as we get older. Our bodies don’t bounce back like they used to, our hairlines don’t bounce back like they used to.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that despite the conventional wisdom that we become more set in our ways as we grow older, there is the reality that our tastes do change. Things that were once avoided or ignored are now embraced.

Take, for example, lemon bars. I used to not be fond of lemon desserts. But now I love the tart and the sweet together. And so while I don’t think I will ever eat peas, I do have an affinity for desserts I used to avoid.

And another change in taste I have noticed as I get older, is a more deeply felt fondness for and an appreciation of the game of football.

As you know, I am a fan of the game of baseball, growing up with the Yankees and also turning my attention, regretfully perhaps, to the Mariners. Football was never my game. And though every Sunday my father would turn on the television to football—the Giants and Jets especially—I wouldn’t particularly pay attention. I would drift in and out of the den on those Sundays, and generally reserve my interest in football to the annual viewing of the Super Bowl, which was more a party than anything else.

In the past few years, however that has changed. Spurred on perhaps by the ascendance of the Seattle Seahawks, combined with our smaller Pacific Northwest community which results in a more tightly held relationship with its professional sports teams, I have become intrigued by and enamored of the game of football. I have found myself doing interesting things, like recording games when I needed to be at Sunday school or another commitment. Or listening to the game on the radio. Or watching highlight videos over and over again. And while mindful of the risk and violence involved in the game, where once there was indifference, I now marvel at the strategy, the athleticism, and the teamwork of the game of football.

On this Rosh Hashanah, this time that we examine where we have come and where we are going, how we have grown and how we have yet to grow, it is perhaps enough to say that with the passing of the years we do change. We do develop new interests, our capacity to learn and adapt is ever present. We are not set in our ways. But there is more to it than that. For we have the ability to learn as well, to glean from our experiences, our observations.

And so, as is my wont, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I like to share with you things that I have learned about life and about teshuvah (repentance) in the past year.

I have stood here in the past and shared lists with you what I have learned from having a child, from having a backhoe hit my house, from hitting a car in a parking lot, from planting a garden, from Legos, from taking a sabbatical, from having brain surgery, from 10 years in the congregational rabbinate and so on. The list keeps getting longer.

And so, and with apologies to those who don’t like sports or feel that maybe sports analogies are too cliché, I present the eight things I learned about teshuvah, and life, from the Seattle Seahawks.

Photo from seattlepi.com

Photo from seattlepi.com

Number one: No one play makes the whole game. I will get this one over with quickly, but we can recall the final play of the Super Bowl. The Seahawks were down 28-24, and with 26 seconds left had the ball on the Patriots’ 1 yard line, a touchdown would have won the game, giving the Hawks their second consecutive championship. Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and threw the ball into the endzone, right into the hands of Malcolm Butler of the Patriots for an interception. Game over, the Seahawks lose. It was an excruciating moment.

It is easy to say that the Seahawks lost the game on that final play, and we can debate if they should have given the ball to Marshawn Lynch to run it in (hopefully) to the end zone. But it is important to remember that the game was lost not on that final play. It was lost because of the sum total of everything that had transpired over four quarters of play. Every turnover, every score, every running play, every pass contributed to the final outcome. And while we can say, “if only…” about that last play that could have changed the outcome, we can ultimately say “if only” about any play of the game.

Our lives, too, are made up of many decisions, choices. No one action defines us. We commit on these holidays to do more, to grow, to move forward, to make better and different choices. Teshuvah is the act of saying what happened in my past is a part of who I am but does not necessarily define who I am. What defines me is how I write the whole story of my life, and not just one episode. No one play makes the whole game.

Number two: Play your position. Most sports have “positions”—players play a particular role on a team. But it strikes me that football has more specialized positions. While in baseball for example players play both offence and defense, in football players play either/or. And there are different types of defenders, for example. And beyond that, there are the special teams, even more specialized positions, people who are good at punt returns, or ball holders for place kickers.

Each player, then, has the ability to specialize. To find what he is good at and work to perfect it. And the teams work better when each player is individually able to perfect himself at his position. Rookie Tyler Lockett will work to become the best wide receiver, he won’t try to become the best quarterback, or offensive lineman, or even all around football player.

We can’t do everything, we all have our positions to play. We in our lives should try to specialize: There are things that we are good at, and things that we are not so great at. Our job perhaps is to find out what those things are, and work towards them. We try to become the best us we can be—that is, in part, the work of these High Holidays.

There is that famous story of Rabbi Zusya, the Hasidic master, which comes to mind: when he was on his deathbed he drew his disciples near and told them about the particular fear he felt. He said to them, “when I die and meet God, God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses.’ Rather God will ask, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?’”

Or as Richard Sherman was recently quoted as saying, in a New York Times article about the Seahawks and their mindfulness practice: “It’s simple here: Be yourself, play hard, and you’ll be fine.”

Find and play your position. And then learn and grow and strive to be the best at it.

And similarly, number three: While you should play your position, sometimes don’t. For me, the highlight of this past season was in the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter with the Seahawks down 16-0. The Seahawks lined up to kick a field goal, attempting to score their first points of the game. After the snap, punter Jon Ryan, who was there to hold the ball for the kick, instead picked it up, broke left and ran with the ball, lobbing a pass to tackle Garry Gilliam for a touchdown.

It was a trick play, in which the Seahawks did something that was unexpected, a surprise. And it worked because those who carried it out were willing to break out of their traditional roles and positions to do something different. Punters usually don’t throw passes, and tackles usually don’t receive passes (indeed, their position names give pretty clear indication about what they do). But with ingenuity and practice, they were able to transcend these usual positions, do something different and score.

So too, as we find our positions in life, we sometimes need to transcend those positions to do something different, to grow in new ways. We need to move beyond our comfort zones in order to discover new things about ourselves and what we are capable. And that may be hard. But as I learned recently, there is no growth in the comfort zones, and no comfort in the growth zones. We have our roles to fill, but sometime our greatest successes come from the unexpected, by doing something differently and pushing ourselves.

And sometimes we are forced into new positions by circumstances. We may spring the unexpected on others, but sometimes the unexpected finds us. Here too we must remain flexible enough to do things differently when we need to, to respond to life’s challenges.

That play during the NFC championship might not have been the prettiest play, but it worked. And sometimes life isn’t pretty, but we make it work.

Number four: Play for your teammate. Thinking back on this past season and its successes, we may tend to forget that the Seahawks did not start out so strong. While they had a winning record after the first 10 games, they were at 6-4 and struggling. After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs to get to 6-4, there was a turn around, and looking back on the season, many credit the turn around to a team meeting that occurred after that game.

At this meeting, two things happened: one, some of those players who had not normally taken vocal leadership roles spoke out to rally the team. And two, the message that came out of that meeting was not just play better, or do your best, or try harder, but, simply, “we play for each other.” Keep your egos in check and “play for each other.”

Regarding that meeting, Coach Pete Carroll was quoted at the time: “We made a real nice shift and took a nice step forward to getting to where we want to get. Guys were totally giving themselves to one and another and they played for each other and it showed up. It was something that was most powerful in an team setting and everybody felt it.”

And after that meeting, they won the next six games.

In this life, we play for each other. We have our own paths, our own journeys. But to think that we are doing this alone is a fallacy. We live for ourselves, yes, but that is not all for whom we live. People depend on us and we depend on others. We live in community, in relationship. This is important to remember when we are struggling, because we know we are able to reach out for help and support. But this is also important to remember when we are succeeding, because we must remember that our success is not due solely to our own effort, but to the many people who have brought us to where we are, either directly or indirectly. We play—we live—for each other. Who do you live for? And who lives for you?

And as we play for eachother, we pray for each other. As we enter these holidays, we note that so much of the liturgy is written in the plural. We, not I. We have sinned, we atone, we reconcile, we commit, we thank. We.

Similarly, number five: the 12th man is just as important as the other 11. We may be familiar with the culture of the 12th Man: flags adorned with a big number 12 signify Seahawks fandom, jerseys with the number 12 are as available as that of any player’s number. The 12 signifies the Seahawks fan base—as there are 11 players on the field at any one time, the 12th Man—the fan collective—is the 12th person on the field and is meant to be as important as any other player. In other words, the team is complete not with 11 but with 12.

This is manifest in many ways. Although I haven’t been to a game at CenturyLink Field yet, the noise levels at the stadium are, from what I understand, tremendous, enough to throw off opposing teams. But in addition to this particular manifestation, the simple idea that the fan base is as much a part of the success of the team as any of the players on the team is a way of building connection, community and support.

Similarly in Judaism we have the notion of the 10th person. The tradition of the minyan—Ten Jews needed to make a prayer community—has ancient roots. It is not to say that one could not pray without 10, but 10 are needed for certain fundamental prayers such as the Mourner’s Kaddish–the prayer for those in grief–and to read the Torah in community. It is therefore a special mitzvah to be the 10th person, the one who completes the quorum, who makes the community.

But you can not be the 10 without showing up, and you can not be the 10th unless nine others also show up. We need to live our lives in community, each member of the 10 is as important as any other.

Aim to be the 12th Man, aim to be the 10th. Do not distance yourself from your community. For it is by showing up in community that we are fully realized.

Number six: Even if your suspension is lifted, it doesn’t mean you are innocent. Ok, so this one isn’t about the Seahawks, but about the Patriots. As you may have heard, this year the NFL confronted “Deflategate” a story so big it even made the Israeli newspapers when I was there a few months ago. Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots was accused of deflating footballs to be used in the AFC championship game, keeping them below the limit of air pressure in order to make them easier to throw, and thus gain an advantage. The NFL through an inquiry determined that the Patriots had deflated the balls, and determined that Tom Brady, while he may not have deflated the balls himself, knew about it and covered up evidence. And, along with further punishment levied against the team, Brady was suspended for 4 games.

Upon appeal, a judge overturned the suspension on a technical point having to do with the players agreement and the league. But the question still remains about what happened. And while Brady got what he want—reinstatement—many others didn’t get what they want, an honest accounting of what happened.

The reinstatement is a technicality. It is not teshuvah. For teshuvah is less about external consequences as it is about internal reckoning. When we stray, when we do wrong, oftentimes there are external consequences. But sometimes there are not external consequences. But just because we may not get punished, or we may evade censure, that doesn’t mean our teshuvah is complete. To fully bring about teshuvah we need to be honest with ourselves, the inner work is the most important work.

When we are accountable to ourselves, we do that we will be able to make amends with others. When we are accountable to ourselves, it won’t matter if there were external consequences or not. If there are, we will be able to handle them. Because things internally would have been made right.

Number seven: Punting is OK. Football is unique in that it is part of the strategy and normal course of play to turn the ball over to the other team. In baseball each team takes turns in the field and at bat, hockey and basketball possession changes hands regularly. In football, you can choose to punt—to kick the ball to the other team to give them the opportunity to try to score.

One doesn’t just punt for the sake of punting, of course. A team will punt if they are in bad field position, unable to make a first down, or advance the ball downfield enough. To punt is saying its safer to give the ball away then try something too risky. To punt is to say, we have tried, we did not succeed, so we need to wait until another opportunity in which we have a better chance to score.

We too are going to try, and we are going to fail. It is a natural part of our lives. We are going to come up short, miss the mark, be in a bad position. And that is ok. We are going to need to punt—to give up, to modify our goals, to accept difficult outcomes, to admit that the course we have been pursuing is not going to work for us, and we need to do something different.

Punting is not quitting. Punting is a reorganization, it is a strategic decision in response to certain events, it is saying I need to regroup, my current course of action is not fruitful, so I need to minimize the risk so that I can find a new course to pursue.
Don’t be afraid to punt. It just might be what you need to do to ultimately be successful.

And the eighth and last thing I learned about life from the Seattle Seahawks: Football is a game of yards, except when it is a game of inches.

Yards, the unit of measurement (3 feet), is the fundamental measurement of football. A football field is 100 yards long. As one tries to get the ball downfield to the end zone to score, yards are fundamental. Ball position is based on the yard line. It is 10 yards to a first down to be able to continue play. Plays are measured by how many yards are gained. And individual statistics are measure in yards: passing yards or rushing yards or kicking yards.

One hundred yards is a long field. The greatest plays are those that gain the most yardage. Football is therefore in many ways a long game.

We too, play the long game. When we examine our lives, we can recognize and see the changes we have undergone, especially if we look over a longer period of time. We are not the same people we were ten years ago. And when we get stuck, when we begin to feel bad about where we are, we can also recognize that we will not be in the same place ten years from now. We need to take the long view of who we have been, who we are and who we can be. Change will come, teshuvah will work—we recognize this if we take the long view.

There are sometimes, however, when football is measured in inches. Sometimes, when a team advances the ball towards a first down and comes up just short, within one yard, the ball position is said to be 2nd down, for example, and inches.

Football is measured in yards. But there are sometimes when it is measured in inches.

And so too with us. Life is also a game of inches. While we look at the long narrative, and see how we grow and change over time, we also remember that those long narratives are made up of small moments. Every small moment is an opportunity for transformation. Every moment is a decision about how to act, a weighing of choices, and opportunity to do what is right or not.

There is a passage from the Talmud, found in our Mahzor, appropriate for this:

Each one of us should always consider ourselves evenly balanced, that is half sinful and half righteous. If we perform one mitzvah we should be joyous, for we have tilted the scales towards righteousness. If we commit one sin we should be remorseful, for we have tilted the scale toward sinfulness.

The small moments we create make a difference. And the small moments that happen to us also make a difference. We don’t know what can change our lives. A chance encounter. A story on the radio. These are little discrete moments have the power to fundamentally change who you are—something you learned or someone you met can change to course of your life, but only if you are open to it.

Play the long game, write your life’s narratives over a (hopefully) long time, remembering that just as things are now, does not mean they will continue to be. This is the work of teshuvah, that we can always reinvent, redo, renew.

And play the short game as well. We do what we can to affect change and teshuvah—in ourselves and in our world—when we make every moment, every inch, every encounter matter, and see each as a chance to learn, to grow, to change.

So, on these High Holidays, we echo another motto of the Seahawks: “I’m in.” I’m in.

Take the long view. Play your position. Break the mold. Be there for others. Show up. Go inside. Punt if necessary. And make every moment count.

Because every moment counts.

It’s Rosh Hashanah. Don’t Drop the Ball.

The New Year is upon us.

Tonight at sundown we will welcome in 5776. As a child celebrating the secular new year, it would become an annual challenge to stay up until midnight to watch the ball drop from Times Square in New York City. I would get anxious and excited waiting for that fateful hour.
Rosh ball
Now, I get anxious and excited as we draw to the Jewish New Year, hoping I don’t drop the ball. The work of self-reflection and repentance, combined with the necessity of facing the deep mystery of not knowing what the new year will bring, is so daunting and challenging.

But it is what we are called upon to do. We enter a new year grateful for all the goodness that came from this past year, and ready to accept what the new year will bring. And we are strengthened by the fact that we do this work together.

Thank you for being on this journey with me. Thank you for reading my words, for sharing them, for writing back. I look forward to continuing this journey with you.

(I’m tempted, but I’m not going to give a teaser for the messages that I will be sharing over the High Holidays–I hope to see you at shul–but I will be sharing them in this forum after the holidays.)

To all of you, I wish you a year of health and happiness, of strength and support, of peace and comfort. And of not letting the ball drop.

L’shana tovah!

“What Do You Have to Declare?”

Anyone who has gone through customs coming from an international trip has had to respond to the following question, “What do you have to declare?” Our government levies taxes and tariffs on particular goods, and tries to keep certain goods out of the country, so the question is meant to elicit an honest response on the part of one entering the country. We must declare the goods that we are bringing back.

My most humorous customs story (well, I don’t have that many) comes from when I was returning from Israel following my year of living there during rabbinical school. I was on my own—Yohanna and Ozi had returned two weeks earlier—and I was tasked with packing up our last things, cleaning the apartment and transporting back to the US the two cats we had adopted.

The process to get these cats ready for travel to the US is a story in and of itself, requiring trips to the vet and other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, including a visit to a “government vet” who sat in a sparsely decorated office in a Mandate-era building who barely looked at my two animals before stamping the requisite papers.customs form

All documents in hand the flight to the US was uneventful, and when the flight attendants passed out the customs forms we were to fill out on board to get us ready to go through customs I dutifully checked off the question about “agricultural items,” since I felt it was the closest language to covering these two living creatures we got from the streets of Jerusalem. (At the time, the form has changed since then.) Handing off my form when it was my turn at the customs agent, he looked it over and asked, “what agricultural items are you bringing in?”

“These two cats,” I replied.

“But you don’t have any fruits or vegetables?”

“No, just the cats.”

“Ok. Welcome home.”

And that was that. I could have been bringing in the most diseased animals onto American soil, but as long it wasn’t an apple, I guess it was ok. (And I never had to show all the paperwork I acquired.) But, I dutifully told the truth and made my declaration.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains another declaration. In the reading, Moses is describing a ritual that is to take place once the Israelites are settled in the land. When they are settled to the point of growing crops, and they have enough crops to bring to the Temple for donation, they are to enact the following ritual as recounted in Deuteronomy 26:

When you enter the land that God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where God will choose to establish God’s name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say, “I acknowledge this day before God that I have entered the land that was sworn to our ancestors to assign us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of God. You shall then recite as follows before God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the God of our ancestors, who heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O God, have given me.” You shall leave it before God and bow low before God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household.

Here then is another “declaration.” (This time of true agricultural products!) One is to honestly assess the first fruits of the harvest and bring them to the Temple as a sign of gratitude. The declaration includes brief retelling of history, of the hardship that it took to get to the point of being able to bring the first fruits. It is only after the ritual that one is able to enjoy the bounty.

We are now preparing to make our own declaration. As the High Holidays come upon us, we are going to need to do our own admission. We must come to terms with the ways we have come up short and have failed ourselves and others, we make firm commitments to improve ourselves in the future. As the month of Elul is drawing to a close, our first task—just as we fill out those customs forms before the plane touches down—is to do an honest assessment of what we need to declare so we will be ready when the holidays come.

And this declaration, like the one in Deuteronomy, requires an honest accounting, an understanding of where we have been and an expression of gratitude for all that we have been able to accomplish. It is only after this that we will be ready for the year ahead.

So, as the High Holidays are almost here: ”What do you have to declare?”

“Welcome Home” to Elul: A View from Camp

I’m spending this week at Jewish summer camp. I have returned this year to URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington, WA to serve a week as faculty–a week filled with leading services, teaching and engaging with kids during activities. Camp Kalsman is one of the two main summer camps that kids from my congregation attend–Camp Solomon Schechter being the other–and it is nice to go to support them and our greater Jewish community.

But I go for other reasons as well. I find it personally fulfilling to be at camp. I connect with other clergy and educators in the area who are also serving on faculty, I do things that I don’t normally do in my congregational job and I learn about new programs, songs and stories. A recent article about why you should send your rabbi to summer camp pretty much sums it up.

When you come to Camp Kalsman, whether you are a first time guest or returnee, you are greeted with “Welcome home.” That greeting instills a spirit of openness and community–camp is a place you belong, camp is a place that is familiar, camp is a place to which you return. Camp is a place that welcomes you with open arms and support.

 I feel that way at camp. It is also somewhat of a retreat for me to be here. While I’m not totally off the grid and “out of the office”–I do respond to email and am reachable by phone in case of emergency (and close enough if I need to return)–it is a good opportunity to get away to be able to do some reading and thinking. And as I am spending my faculty week now in August during the last week of camp, the time is giving me good time to think about and plan for the High Holidays.

This week at camp overlapped with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the new month of Elul. And since Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it is therefore a time to prepare for the important spiritual work of the High Holidays. During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the beginning of the new year and the Day of Atonement, we are called upon to self-reflect, do heshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul), identify the times we went astray, and make commitments to do better in the future. It is a time to focus on making amends with those we have hurt. This is hard work, and so our tradition teaches that we begin not on Rosh Hashanah, but on Rosh Chodesh Elul.

During Shabbat at camp, we read from and studied parashat Re’eh. The portion opens with the words, “See, I put before you blessing and curse.” Within the context of the Torah, it is an admonition from Moses to the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land. But it is also important words for us to hear. As we read and studied this (I had the opportunity to lead Torah study with the 7-8 graders) Moses is stressing the fact, though we are bound to the covenant, we do have free will. We have the power to choose between blessing and curse. But with free will comes the consequences–we must live with the results of our actions. As the text goes on: if you choose blessing, things will go well with you, and if you choose curse, things will not. We understand that we make our choices and must deal with the results.

The work of Elul is to examine the choices we have made, the results we created, and how that has impacted our lives and relationships. And while difficult and daunting, it is empowering to know that our tradition gives us the means, the opportunity and the support to do this work. The work challenges us, but it is comforting that that we have the ability to do it.

Elul has come upon us again. Welcome home to Elul. For Elul is a time that is familiar, Elul is a time to which we return. Elul is a time that welcomes us with open arms and support.

Jon Stewart–and Moses–on Bulls**t

I watched Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for the last time last night. And while the show began with a different host and will continue under a different host, it is hard to imagine it without Stewart behind the desk.

Stewart, during his 16 year run on the “fake news” show on Comedy Central, turned a cable television comedy show into a fixture of political commentary. An entire generation came of age watching him and his presentation of the news. And while I was already politically aware by the time he came on the air, and while I did not watch him as religiously as some (and did not, as some have reported to, use him as my sole source of news), I always appreciated his commentary and humor. (And the fact that he often identified himself as Jewish, and tinged his comedy with Jewish references and phrases, didn’t hurt.)

He would oftentimes deflect this status granted to him as an important political commentator, noting he was just a comedian. But it is hard to deny the impact he had on our political discourse; satire is one of the most serious forms of commentary.

from Comedy Central

from Comedy Central

For me, some of his most hard hitting forms of commentary would come when he would juxtapose video clips of people saying two different things at two different times, or saying one thing while they act differently. In these moments, he would not even need to say a word, but simply offer a knowing look.

His last broadcast was mostly a celebration of his tenure, as he welcomed back many of his on-screen talent from the past 16 years (some of whose careers were started on The Daily Show), celebrated all those who worked behind the scenes to put on the program and finished off with a musical set by Bruce Springsteen.

During his last broadcast he did turn serious for a few minutes, and offered a last bit of straight commentary. It was, in many ways, a meta-commentary on what he has been doing for the past 16 years and a final message to his viewers as they face life without him. And, as usual for cable TV in general and Jon Stewart in particular, it was tinged with obscenities:

Bullshit is everywhere…There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been infused with bullshit…there is the more pernicious bullshit, your premeditated, institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract. It comes in three flavors. First, making bad things sound like good things…The second way, hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit…And finally, it’s the bullshit of infinite possibility…we can’t do anything because we don’t yet know everything…So I say to you tonight friends, the best defense against bullshit, is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

Don’t just accept what is told to you by those in power, says Stewart. We have a tendency as people to deflect and obfuscate, and we should be on the lookout for this. In our society things aren’t always what they seem, or what we say they are. We have to be mindful that there are other forces at work that we need to recognize.

In our weekly Torah reading, we are in the Book of Deuteronomy, parashat Ekev. The book is a long speech by Moses who is charging the Israelites as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land. Moses, who has led the people up from slavery, will not be entering into the land with them—he is destined to die on the eastern side of the Jordan River. He is therefore compelled to make sure that the Israelites know what they need to know to be successful in the next stage of their journey. The oration that is Deuteronomy is part history-telling, part rule-reminding, part pep-talk and part warning.

In chapter 8, Moses issues this warning and charge to his followers as he prepared to exit the stage:

Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep the commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end —and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case.

What Moses is saying, in other (Stewart-esque) words, when you get to the land and you prosper and you think you did it all by yourself—that’s bullshit.

We do have the tendency to obscure and distract, and not just others, but ourselves. When we arrive at a particular high point on our journey, we may tend to forget that we made it to where we are not despite the challenges of the past but because of them. And when we succeed, we may tend to forget that there are other forces at work—conditions, privileges, people, good fortune –at work to help us along, in addition to our own talents and persistence.

Moses’ final call is both a plea to the Israelites not to forget their history and their God, and to face their future with a measure of humility. It is a plea to us as well: we need to not forget from whence we came, that we are a part of something greater than ourselves and to have our own measure of humility as we move forward in life.

To do otherwise doesn’t pass the smell test.