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Speaking Truth to Power

Rabbi Max Chaiken

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jonah the prophet. It probably started the day my parents gave me my Hebrew name—mosheh yonah, or Moses Jonah, and it grew throughout my life for good reason: It’s a fantastical story—fleeing God’s word, tossed to the sea, swallowed by a whale, and still he survives to complain about his success! The chutzpah!
 
I particularly appreciate that we return to this story every year on Yom Kippur, because every year I find new ways to think about the tale, and apply its wisdom to my life.
 
This year, I am thinking of Jonah’s role as a prophet; as one who speaks truth to power.
 
In many ways, that’s what all of our Hebrew prophets did: they spoke God’s word, and used the call of the Divine to call out the political and economic powers in their society for their lack of ethical and moral behavior; for their lack of attention and compassion for the least well off in their society. By definition, prophets are truth-tellers, somebody who hears the voice of God and amplifies it into the world.
 
And like Jonah, many of our prophets are reluctant at first. Even Moses, who our Torah calls the greatest prophet in our history (Deut. 34:10) pleads with God at the burning bush, “who am I to go to Pharaoh” (Ex. 3:11) he asks, and he even begs, “send somebody else!” (Ex. 4:13)
 
But Jonah takes reluctance to a whole new level: upon hearing God’s commandment, he gets up immediately and goes the opposite direction! He’s afraid to speak truth to the people of Nineveh—even though he thinks he’ll be successful, and he knows God is forgiving.
 
I take comfort in knowing that even a prophet who knew he’d be successful was afraid. Because sometimes I’d like to run too. It seems easier to flee from the urgent and dire challenges our society faces; to escape into the depths of a ship and fall asleep as Jonah did, amidst the storm raging outside.
 
Yet this day of atonement calls us to return—lashuv—to do the work of turning ourselves into the best selves we can be. And as Jonah’s story ultimately reminds us, that means speaking truth to power even when it’s terrifying, and even when, unlike Jonah, we don’t know if we’ll be successful.
 
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to you about seeking out the truth, and defending its very existence. But we also have to learn how to speak our truth in the public, and speak to power in ways that will effect change.
 
So today I’m going to share a few examples of modern day truth-tellers, perhaps even prophets—people who have spoken truth to power and who have inspired me by doing so. Their stories remind me the importance of raising my voice.
 
On Monday, September 23, just a few short weeks ago, the world heard the voice of one such truth-teller. Her name is Greta Thunberg. For those who haven’t heard Greta’s story, she’s a 16-year old climate activist whose protest inspired millions of students around the world to take action in protests as well. In September she made headlines for her bold words attacking the failure of international leaders to take adequate action against climate change. She said the following:
 
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you're doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.[1]
 
Now there may be a range of ways to understand her activism, her policy prescriptions, and the impact that her truth-telling will have. But Greta has modeled for the entire world the type of boldness we need when we speak truth to power. In the words of Rabbi Jill Hammer, this might even be a type of prophecy, as she speaks with (quote) “inspiration that comes from somewhere larger than ourselves… that is not intimidated by violence or power or wealth or societal disapproval.”[2]
 
We don’t yet know how Greta’s words and actions will impact policy. But I am inspired by her commitment to speaking truth to power, and by the boldness with which she has called world leaders to account.
 
Another truth-teller who inspires me, particularly amidst the recent surge in anti-semitism in the US and around the world, is Deborah Lipstadt. She’s a history professor who fought holocaust deniers in the British court system and won. Her story was told in the 2016 film Denial, where she was played by Rachel Weisz, and she too models for us the tenacity and persistence needed to speak truth to power.
 
In 2005, Professor Lipstadt published a book internationally called “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” and was promptly sued by a prominent holocaust denier in the UK for libel. And while she might be able to ignore such a lawsuit here in the U.S., the laws in Britain put the onus on the defendant in such cases. So she went to court to prove, with ample evidence and keen legal reasoning, that the revisionists and holocaust deniers were, in fact, liars.
 
Professor Lipstadt reminds me that sometimes speaking truth to power will require teams of people, working together, and being vigilant over the course of years. She won her case not only because the facts, and the history, were on her side, but because she had the courage to meticulously defend her convictions. Hers is a reminder to us to call out anti-semitism when we see it, on either side of the political aisle, and for us, too, to be vigilant so that we will not allow “anti-Semitism, racism, [and] prejudice [to parade] as rational discourse.”[3]
 
Now I know you have seen many truth-tellers around the world, and I expect that you have your own contemporary examples to whom we can look towards to learn more about the qualities needed truth to power, but I’ll share just one more this afternoon.
 
It has been just over 18 months since students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland Florida had to bury 16 students and a teacher, whose lives were taken by an episode of gun violence, and sadly there have been hundreds of mass shootings since.[4]
 
It would have been easy for the surviving students and families to flee like Jonah; to try to return to life as normal after their mourning and grief had ebbed, but instead many of them found ways to turn their mourning into action. David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and so many others turned their pain into a protest, and co-founded the March for Our Lives. Some of you may even remember joining me in the march with members of our Kol Ami community, marching alongside thousands just weeks after the tragedy.
 
And their work continues to this day. The protest they organized became the largest single-day protest against gun violence in U.S. History. They went on tour, registered hundreds of thousands of voters, met with hundreds of mayors, put together a peace plan, and helped to spur a 47% increase in youth voter turnout for the 2018 midterm election over the 2014 midterms.[5] The students who founded the March for Our Lives continue to work to end gun violence, and to bring about common-sense gun reform, despite continued risk to themselves: becoming the target of conspiracy theories to speak truth the powerful forces of the gun lobby in this country. Their actions remind us yet another important aspect of speaking truth to power: we are stronger together, and we must never give up.
 
Speaking truth to power has never been easy. Jonah ran from his destiny. The stories of Greta Thunberg, Deborah Lipstadt, and of David Hogg and his co-founders of the March for Our Lives are but three examples from our own times of truth-tellers whose words and actions offer us reminders for how to speak up without running: be bold and direct with our words, like Greta. Be vigilant and persistent like Deborah. Work together, dream big, and never give up hope like the students from Parkland. Have hope and faith that speaking our truth to power matters more today than it has ever mattered before.
 
As we near the end of this day of communal confession, I pray that we will not be guilty of the sin of silence. I pray that each one of us here will find ways to live up to our name—Kol Ami—to be a voice of our people, and to use our voice boldly, vigilantly, and with hope. We are justified in dreaming for a better world, and we are justified in speaking out to make that happen. May we move forward together in this new year, remembering the message of our prophets, and our truth-tellers, ancient and contemporary. G’mar chatimah tovah.
 

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/09/23/greta-thunberg-tells-un-summit-youth-not-forgive-climate-inaction/2421335001/
[2] https://feminismandreligion.com/2019/09/24/the-prophetess-greta-thunberg-global-warming-and-the-legacy-of-prophecy-in-our-own-day-by-jill-hammer/
[3] https://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_lipstadt_behind_the_lies_of_holocaust_denial/transcript
[4] https://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-ne-mass-shooting-victims-since-parkland-20190805-6ctfi6lmmjdaphnxgghi4eyhiu-story.html

We Are More Than Our Mistakes

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

On Apologies

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Sermon by Rabbi Denise L. Eger Kol Nidre 5780  On Apologies

 
It’s never too late to apologize. To say I am sorry.
It may take many years to do so. And it may take many years for us to receive an apology for an insult, or wrong done to us.
 
Here’s a story about just that. It appeared in the Oregonian, Portland’s newspaper and tonight I share it with you in hopes that it inspires you to think about apologies, forgiveness and hope.
 
Larry Israelson  walked out on his favorite teacher's class with no explanation. Decades later, Larry mailed Mr. Atteberry a letter that he hoped would change everything.
When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor—he was, after all, a kid. But in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize. But the teacher seemed to have vanished. Over the decades, the boy—Larry Israelson, now a man—occasionally turned to the Internet, typing the teacher’s name into search boxes. He never found anything. But he never quit looking. Last year—by now nearly 39 years after the event happened—he got a hit.
Stunned, he started reading a story by Journalist Tom Hallman. He had written in the Oregonian about a program that helps at-risk kids. He studied an accompanying photograph and recognized his teacher, who was a volunteer. He then e-mailed the journalist, Tom Hallman;
You published an item involving retired teacher James Atteberry. Mr. Atteberry was a teacher of mine in the early ’70s, and I wish to apologize to him for a regrettable incident that occurred when I was his student. Would you be willing to serve as an intermediary and deliver a message on my behalf
Hallman contacted Atteberry. Intrigued, the teacher told the journalist to respond to this former student and see what happened. Shortly thereafter, the journalist, received an overnight package containing a sealed envelope, which he then forwarded to Atteberry, the teacher:
Hallman wrote: When I mentioned this letter to people, they all reacted in the same way: They each had someone they wished they could apologize to. And they told me that by the time they realized that truth, it was too late.
I realized why Israelson was so intent on finding Atteberry. It was all about getting a second chance.
As James Atteberry read the letter, he was brought back to 1973, when he was a middle school history and composition teacher in Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles. He was 37, got great reviews, and was well liked. He was also a gay man.
“If a teacher was found to be gay, his contract would not be renewed,” Atteberry said. “Gay teachers kept their mouths shut. People of this era might not understand it. But it was an intense time. An art teacher in the school made a stupid mistake, and that was the end of his career. I never talked about my life.” said Atteberry.
And yes, he told Tom Hallman, that he remembered Larry Israelson.
Here is what Israelson wrote to his former teacher:
 I am truly sorry for asking to be transferred out of your seventh grade social studies class during the 1972–73 school year. I don’t have many memories from school, but at the top of one of my assignments you wrote “You will go far in life. Your command of the English language is exceptional.” Looking back on my younger self, I am certain that I reveled in being one of the teacher’s pets. As comfortable as I was in a classroom, however, the boy’s locker room was something else entirely. Now I am six feet five inches and I played water polo in high school and in college.
“But when I was 12,” he said, “I was a scrawny little kid who was into books. A lot of the athletic guys loved to tease those of us who were weak. You know what it is to feel powerless?”
Hallman writes: Some students suspected Atteberry was gay. A boy in class asked Atteberry what he thought about a proposed law banning gay teachers. This was the days of the Briggs Initiative.    When Atteberry asked the boy why he’d posed the question, the student said his father had specifically told him to ask Atteberry. The teacher chose his words carefully.
Israelson was one of his best students. Bright and articulate, he submitted essays that Atteberry thought were remarkably good. “I would praise Larry in class,” Atteberry said. “That was his downfall.”  In the locker room, boys began picking on Israelson.
“They started saying ‘Larry’ and then ‘fairy’ and rhyming it with ‘Atteberry,’” Israelson recalled.
When he pleaded with them to stop, he was challenged to a fight.
“I took a couple of hard punches,” he said. “I gave up.” Said Larry.
The teasing intensified, with the taunts becoming more sexually explicit and graphic. Israelson told no one. One day, when he could no longer stand it, he showed up at the principal’s office and said he needed to leave Tayberry’s class. The principal couldn’t understand why, but he eventually signed a transfer slip and handed it to Israelson. The student walked into Atteberry’s classroom, interrupted the lesson, and handed Atteberry the slip. Without a word, Israelson gathered his books and walked out the door.
“There was no goodbye, no explanation,” Israelson said. “I just disappeared. I never talked to Mr. Atteberry again.
Israelson had been writing an imaginary letter to Atteberry for over 30 years. But now he struggled to find the right words. He was “truly sorry” for asking to be transferred, he wrote. “I know my age was a mitigating factor, but when I replayed this incident in my adult head, it shamed me.”
He sealed the envelope and sent it to me to be forwarded to Atteberry. He expected nothing more. He had done what he had set out to do, and now it was over.
When Atteberry read the letter,  he, too, remembered what it had been like to be a boy. Like Israelson, he had been bullied. Two athletes had grabbed him when he was walking home, forced him to pull down his pants, and whipped him with a belt. Shamed, he told no one, the matter made worse when the athletes tormented him by demanding each day that he turn over his lunch money to them.
In a strange way, this letter allowed Atteberry to come to terms with his own past. He was not alone.
Atteberry had always wondered why Israelson had left his class. Was it something he did or said to this student? Now he knew.
He set the letter aside, went to his computer, and typed Israelson’s name into a search box. He found the address and a telephone number.
One thousand miles away, a phone rang. A man answered.
“Larry,” a voice on the other end said, “this is your teacher.”
Recently James Atteberry and Larry Israelson met after 40 years. The former teacher arrived early at the hotel lounge. He sat peering at everyone to see if he could recognize his old student. Then he spotted a tall man ambling toward him. “What happened to that little guy?” he asked, smiling.
“He grew up,” said Larry Israelson.
After a long hug and some catching up, Atteberry jumped into the subject that had brought them together in July— “I was puzzled why you left the class. I knew it wasn’t because you were rotten,” Atteberry said with a laugh. “It was survival. In junior high, it is survival of the fittest.”
Their story was published by Tom Hallman in the Oregonian, and then covered by NPR, Reader’s Digest and many other outlets. 
Both men voiced surprise over the attention the article had received—the calls, letters, and e-mails sent their way from around the world.
“The takeaway is optimism,” reasoned Israelson. “There are universal themes of an apology sought and forgiveness granted.”
At the end of their reunion—which included lunch with Israelson’s wife, Conny—Israelson accepted an invitation to visit Atteberry and his partner next year.[i]
It took nearly 40 years for an apology to made and for an apology and forgiveness to be accepted. 
 
That’s a lifetime for some.
 
But you shouldn’t wait a lifetime. Not your lifetime or those who you have insulted or hurt.
 
There is no time like the present.
 
On this Kol Nidre night we are reminded that the process of teshuvah is exactly  about this idea of apologies to made and accepted.  Of forgiveness granted.
Our tradition calls us to examine our own behaviors and to make amends at this season.
In the Shulchan Oruch Oruch Chayim 606:1 It states:
Transgressions between people are not subject to atonement on Yom Kippur unless the offender appeases the offended party. Even if one aggrieved another with words alone, this appeasement is necessary. If one cannot effect appeasement at first, one must return a second and a third time, taking along three people. If the offended party will not be appeased after three visits, one may desist.
 
In other words, we are required to try to make an apology. It is part of recognizing our responsibility for the harm we have caused. And for the sin we committed.   
 
It might not all work out as well as it did between Larry and his teacher Mr. Atteberry.  Because there is also an art and science of how to apologize
 
According to Dr. Harriet Lerner, who wrote an important book called On Apology:
“A good apology is deeply healing while an absent or bad one can compromise and even end a relationship.”[ii]
There are actually rules to help us know a good apology from a bad one.  According to Lerner.
 
“I’m sorry” won’t cut it if it’s vague, insincere, blame-reversing, or a quick way out of a difficult conversation. (im sorry) And obviously an apology is empty if you keep repeating the very behaviors you’re apologizing for.” [iii]
 
Lerner echoes Jewish tradition here.  Teshuvah is only complete if you don’t repeat the behavior that got you in trouble in the first place.  And Judaism encourages you to apologize by taking responsibility for your actions
 
According to Maimonides the great Rambam, there are 4 steps to a good apology and to proper teshuvah:   (4 steps)
 
  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).
 
Lerner reminds us: Don’t add the dreaded “but “or worse the “if” to an apology. Like “ I’m sorry I forget your birthday, but I was stressed out with work” or " I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you”,  These will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all.[iv]
Or even worse yet, is bringing up their transgression… I am sorry but you also offended me at the meeting.
 
Don’t reverse blame as part of your apology I am sorry, I didn’t know this was so such a sensitive issue for you.
 
When you apologize according to Lerner do so sincerely.  Don’t keep score. Acknowledge the hurt you have caused. Listen to the harmed party express their pain. And make reparations as needed.  This is the only way to begin to restore trust in a relationship.
 
And if it the violation, was really egregious, a deep betrayal, injury or insult then Lerner teaches us that “High-stakes situations calls for an apology that’s a long distance run—where we open our heart and listen to the feelings of the hurt part on more than one occasion.” [v] It may take several apologies to authenticate our remorse and to hear and hold the pain we have caused. 
 
Our Jewish way demands this of us as well. 
The apologizers must continue to come to the person to appease him:
The Mishneh Torah, Rambam states:
If his fellow doesn't want to forgive him, he brings a group of three of his friends and they approach him and request [forgiveness] from him; if he [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should bring a second and third [group]. If he [still] doesn't want [to forgive him], he may leave him, and the one who refuses to forgive is the sinner. But if [the wronged party] was his teacher, he should go and come to him for forgiveness even a thousand times until he does forgive him.
 
We have to keep trying. At least three times in our tradition to apologize sincerely and it also means that the one who was harmed must share their hurt with the individual.
 
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting nor in Jewish tradition does it mean that everything will go back to the way it was. It can’t. Some relationships will be changed forever.  But the burdens of the sin, and the anger of the wronged can be diminished. 
 
Our Christian neighbors and friends have a different approach to forgiveness. They turn the other cheek.  We Jews demand turning our own lives around so we do not commit the error again.  That is teshuvah.
 
 So on this holiest night, of the holiest day in our Jewish year. Take some time to assess. Who have you wronged? Who should you be apologizing to? Who did you apologize to insincerely and need to do so again? Who do you need to listen to and hear how the hurt affected them? And whose apology do you need to accept and move on?

We live in a time and in a world where fragile egos refuse to apologize. To acknowledge the harm they cause. We live in a time when those who do so are insincere often deflecting the pain they caused and harm they have done. 
 
But Judaism teaches us a different path. Of humanity, responsibility and humility.
 
On this holy night. May we rise to follow the teachings of teshuvah. To apologize with sincerity, to accept responsibility for our failures, and may we not wait unitl it is too late and for those of us who are hurting may we have the strength to accept a sincere apology so that we can turn toward each other once again.
 
May we strive for this tonight, tomorrow and all through the year. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
 
 

[i] https://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/39-year-apology/ (ADAPTED) Tom Hallman, Jr., is the author of A Stranger’s Gift: True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Places and Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask.
[iii]  ibid
[iv] ibid
[v] ibid

Fighting Truth Decay

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780, Rabbi Max Chaiken

Shanah tovah! A great sage once said that “the truth… is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” That sage was not Rabbi Akiva, or Rabbi Yohanan; not even our great sage Hillel. No, that sage was in fact the wizard Albus Dumbledore, who spoke these words to Harry Potter at the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone. “The truth… should… be treated with great caution.”
 
And while we are not wizards, and we do not have magic wands to make our world better on her 5780th birthday, these words offer us a warning as we begin this new year. Because the truth is indeed a beautiful thing—perhaps even something divine, and yet truth is under attack, and it should be a siren of caution for us all.
 
It comes as no surprise to you that we live in a time where fake news and fake science parade around in masks of truth. We live in a time where people can distort photos and videos to mislead us more easily than ever. Bad actors can even create the appearance of events that did not happen. We live in a time when faith and opinion get mistaken for fact, and where manipulative forces plant uncertainty and doubt in fields of our minds. And in turn, this doubt—this inability for us to conduct rational, fact-based discourses in society—threaten our ability to address the very real problems facing our world.
 
This morning, as we celebrate the creation of this world, the shofar calls out to us: take caution! Seek out truth! It cries out with a warning that now is the time to fight for facts, and restore rational discourse as a non-partisan principle in our society.
 
One non-partisan institute, the RAND corporation, has been studying this deterioration of truth and facts. They call it Truth Decay. But you can’t go to the dentist for this one. They define it as “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”[1] Valiantly, RAND is committed to fighting this disease through research and analysis of both its causes and impacts. The causes include cognitive bias—believing ideas and stories that we are pre-disposed to believe, regardless of their veracity, along with the rise of social media as a primary source of news, and the increasing levels of social and political polarization.
 
In part, the truth can be vulnerable to this decay because human beings are not perfect judges of truth. Our senses can be deceived. Our perceptions, our understandings of the truth, are often incomplete. Our minds can be manipulated by others, and even by ourselves. Scientifically, this relates to the fact that our brains must constantly interpret so much data: from our basic sensory perceptions and caring for our physical and emotional safety, to judging the veracity of new stories and sources. There’s a lot for any one of us to process in every given moment, and we don’t always get it right.
 
But Truth Decay has also impacted us at a societal level. In my life, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer stories that challenge my pre-existing beliefs; more and more time, scrolling and scrolling through a “news” feed full of click-bait, deception, and misleading appearances; more and more time reinforcing a social and political bubble. I imagine that you’ve all noticed Truth Decay in different ways in your own lives, and it impacts us at a global level as well.
 
For decades, scientists have produced evidence that human activity contributes to climate change and global warming. We can read stories about retreating arctic ice and the acidification of our oceans. We see the devastation from extreme weather events, both abroad and here in Southern California, as the fire season seems to get longer every year. The fact of climate change—the truth of this reality is as well established as any scientific truth can be. NASA puts it this way:
 
The current warming trend… is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and [is] proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia. Earth-orbiting satellites … have enabled scientists to… [collect] many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.[2]
 
These are not uncertain terms. The data is robust and clear. While this truth may be inconvenient, as Vice President Al Gore warned us 20 years ago, it remains the truth. And still we find large percentages of the general public, scarily including policy makers, who deny the evidence outright; who reject the truth.
 
According to California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, these “climate deniers” succeed in convincing people by, and I quote, “[spreading] misinformation about the science” and “[casting] doubt on well-established findings and conclusions. Their goal is to create confusion and uncertainty, thereby preventing meaningful action to remedy the problem.”[3] In other words, truth decay sows doubt, calls facts into question, and leads us to collective inaction, which, at least in this case, threatens life on this planet for us and generations to come.
 
We see another symptom of Truth Decay in the highest elected office in our land. (white house) Even setting aside the most recent political developments in Washington, an August article in the Washington Post calculated that President Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading claims since taking office. That’s more than a dozen each day, on a wide range of topics, from whether-or-not he is building his border wall, to the state of the U.S. economy, and even to the track of a hurricane being observed by NASA meteorologists.[4] This administration even became known, back in the first months of his presidency, for coining the phrase “alternative facts.”
 
To be clear, this estranged relationship with truth and facts did not begin with Mr. Trump, and it is not exclusive to one party or the other. The non-partisan organization Politifact has been around since 2007, fact-checking statements made by journalists and politicians alike, on all sides of the political aisle, to determine their truthfulness.
 
But we have a role to play as well. We must hear the shofar calling us spiritual and communal action: because to fight the creeping of lies into the realm facts, we need more than organizations committed to the cause. It will take each one of us, working together, using our minds and our voices to hold ourselves and our society accountable to Truth.
 
Luckily, our Jewish tradition has quite a bit to say about Truth. We are warned in the book of Exodus to “stay far from falsehood,” and our 10 commandments demand that we do not “bear false witness.” The prophet Jeremiah says that “God IS Truth,” (Jer. 10:10), and our sacred poetry of Psalms remind us that “God’s teaching,” our Torah, “is Truth.” (Ps. 119:142)
 
In fact, the Hebrew word for truth is emet, composed from the first, middle, and last letters in the Hebrew aleph bet—alef, mem and tav. One way to understand this, then, is that there exists nothing that does not fall subject to the boundaries of Truth. We may have to seek it out, but our tradition does not mince words: there is such a thing as Truth, and we are responsible for seeking it out and honoring it.
 
Our medieval philosophers, Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides, among others, understood our minds as the most incredible gift from our Creator. We have brains and senses that we can use to perceive the world around us, to test out hypotheses, and to refine our knowledge itself. They taught that our ability to engage in science represents a gift from God, and in turn, we are capable of, and responsible for the continuous unfolding of knowledge, of Torah, and of truth.
 
In one particular midrash—an interpretive story about the creation of humanity, we see Truth itself personified as an angel along with Compassion, Justice and Peace. These angels are making arguments before the Holy One about whether or not to create human beings, when Compassion says “create them, for they will do acts of loving-kindness.” But the angel named Truth replies, “do not create them, they will be full of lies.” Justice chimes in, “create them, for they will do acts of justice,” but Peace, the angel Shalom responds “do not create them, they will be full of strife.” So what did God do in this tale? The Holy One took the angel Truth, emet, and casts them to the ground, deep into the earth. The story reminds us, then, that Truth does not live in heaven, but exists within our grasp here on earth, ready to be found by persistent, patient humans who would dig it up, and help it to grow and flourish.
 
Sometimes truth remains hidden. Our knowledge is limited, yes, and new information can (and should) change what we previously thought of as truth or fact. Just ask Galileo, who’s commitment to truth in the 17th century eventually caused the entire world to recognize that the earth is not in fact at the center of our solar system. But the limitations to our knowledge should prompt us to keep digging, to keep pursuing truth as best as we can know it. After all, we human beings are the inheritors of our mythical ancestor Eve, who ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and whose eyes opened with knowledge and wisdom. She bit the fruit, she tasted its power, and today we follow in her footsteps. We too have the capacity to pursue truth, to discern fact from fiction, and build our world of compassion from a foundation of truth.
 
So how do we bring about a world where, as the psalmist says, “truth will grow from the ground?”
 
We work together. We speak out for the truth and its role in our lives and the life of our society. We build strength in our numbers. We question the world around us and use our rational faculties to test our observations. We do not rely on my individual senses, or yours, but on scientific processes that help us make sense of our world.
 
This will take strength and courage. It requires that we have the strength to question our own knowledge, our biases, our bubbles. And it requires we have the courage to speak out when facts are clear. It requires us to cultivate a measure of both humility and hubris. Humility in the face of our limitations; wisdom to remember that perception and reality do not always align perfectly. And hubris to declare that there are such things as facts—that our climate is changing, that lies are lies, and that we can hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to truth.
 
Upon hearing the news of a person’s death, one traditional response is “Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” We say these words, at least in part, as a recognition of the ultimate truth: all life comes to an end. This season brings that particular truth into stark perspective. This blessing typically refers to God, our Master of all Truth. But in this era of Truth Decay, as we engage in the work of teshuvah, of returning to our truest selves and aspiring to be like the Holy One, I think we should reclaim this blessing for one another.
 
“Blessed is the judge of truth.” Blessed are each of you when you seek out and discern what is true. Blessed are each of us when we question our own assumptions and biases. Blessed are all who refuse to allow themselves and others to be manipulated by misinformation, doubt and uncertainty into decisions that harm others, and damage our world. “Blessed is the judge of truth.” Blessed are you when you report fake news stories in your social media feeds, and when you call out a friend for posting an inflammatory, click-bait article written 10 months ago as if it were news. Blessed are we all when we hold our politicians, our journalists, and ourselves to account, on every side of the aisle, demanding that they speak the truth.
 
May the words we speak in this new year create a world of truth. May we celebrate all who have the strength and courage to seek truth and defend it. May we have that strength, and courage, as we fight Truth Decay together. And may we find ways to restore the path of truth in our lives, our society, and our world.

From Despair to Hope

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 by Rabbi Denise L. Eger

The world is broken.  But you already knew that. You didn’t need to come here to understand the fragile nature of the times we are in.
 
We just have to look around us to see the world is on fire. Literally and figuratively. The Amazon is burning. Truth is under attack. Totalitarianism has reared its ugly head. Children are in cages. Anti-Antisemitism is palpable.  You can taste despair with every breath.
 
When we sat here together last year at the holy days, we couldn’t have imagined Pittsburgh and Poway.  Violent attacks on synagogues and fellow Jews. Anti-Semitic violence is a growing menace.  We can’t comprehend the growing gun violence.
But now in their aftermath, exhausted by the constant assault on our senses and our institutions, I see despair and sadness and grief creeping into our collective psyche. We thought Charlottesville with Nazis marching in the street was shocking and disturbing.
 
But now two years later, the increase of anti-Semitism fueled by a president who continuously reinforces anti-Jewish stereotypes and dog whistles along with the blatant racism and homophobia and islamophobia can crush our souls.  This is not the world we imagined. It is not the world we prayed for.
 
The truth is you didn’t need to come here to see the despair in our world.
You just had to drive under any freeway to see the bulging homeless tent cities on our streets.
 
Or the growing prison population including those who are truly refugees from even worse conditions in their own countries.
 
You didn’t need to come here to know that many are struggling financially to pay for their insulin, or to get off of the opioids that were prescribed to them.  Yes, even in our own temple community that struggle is real.
The despair is real. Each day there is a desperate sense that hope is fleeting for our nation, for the planet and sadly despair eats away at many of us
 
And even as we try to maintain our sense of outrage and righteous indignation at what is happening and even as we try to maintain our will to protest and work for
change, I can see the despair creeping in.  The awareness of the deepening crises leads us to feeling burnout and exhaustion. I don’t know about you, but I can’t listen to talk radio anymore.  I stopped listening. I need my soothing music to help me rebuild my spirit to fight another day.
 
I see many who are mired now in sadness, depression and despair. A sense of hopelessness about the future.
 
No. You didn’t need to come here to make a list of the world’s pain, the tzoris in front of us.
 
But the New Year has arrived, and our tradition teaches us that to deal with despair and hopelessness we have to face it head on.
 
As Carl Jung taught: People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.[1]
 
Despair is something that happens to all of us at one time or another in our lives. It is a common human experience. We all have highs and lows in our personal journeys. We may despair about jobs or family or relationships or yes, the state of the world around us. But for most people this will dissipate over time.
But for others, this deep despair will haunt them and harm them exerting control over their lives.
 
This deep clinical despair often leads to a horrible end. it can lead to recklessness, addictions, self-harm or even suicide.  In our society today suicide is rampant among white middle age men and in the Western US and has become epidemic.[2]  It is rampant among teens and college age students:
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the now the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in more than 4,600 lives lost each year (CDC, 2015).
 
Also, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center ranks suicide as a leading cause of death among college students (SPRC, 2015).[3]
 
In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25[4]
 
 And according to a number of regional and national studies, LGBTQ adults and youth face an extraordinarily elevated risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior. LGBQ adults have a two-fold excess risk of suicide attempts compared to other adults.[5]
 
While older adults, seniors only account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 18 percent of suicide deaths, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Additionally, this risk increases with age; 75- to 85-year-olds having higher rates of suicide than those who are between 65 and 75, and individuals 85 or older have the highest risk yet.
 
This level of hopelessness, loneliness that would cause someone to take their own life is something we must look at. We cannot turn away.
 
If the pain of living is so great that the only seeming solution is to end living the conditions around us require our attention.
 
And so, we must not hide from our own despair or that of our loved ones. When we are feeling such deep despair and sadness, we dare not ignore it. And we cannot and must not stigmatize those who have died by suicide and their families nor any who have attempted it.
 
There are real warning signs: When people talk about unbearable pain. When the talk about being a burden to others. When they talk about killing themselves. 
 
These are real signs of a potential suicide.  When their behavior changes by withdrawing from activities, increasing use of drugs and alcohol, sleeping too little or too much, giving away prized possessions-these are warning signs of great despair and potentially suicide. When there are rapid mood swings, rage, anxiety, irritability, depression.  All of these can be warning signs of suicide.
 
As we can see by the numbers the despair is real and it is deeply affecting so many of us in society to the point of no return If you are feeling such despair, I am here for you. Your temple is here for you. And we urge you to talk to us. Or call the Suicide prevention hotline. The number is here on the screen.
 
But this is not a new phenomenon.  We can look in our Torah and find examples of even our greatest leaders who fell into the depths of despair. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares:
 
We can see it in Moses in the book of Numbers, the Children of Israel are complaining bitterly. They have forgotten the horrors of slavery. They complain that they miss the food of Egypt. And the people are at their negative and whiny heights. God is angry and Moses is in the depths of an emotional breakdown.
He cries out bitterly to God:
 
“Why have You brought this evil on your servant? Why have I failed to find favor in Your eyes, that You have placed the burden of this whole people on me? Did I conceive this whole people? Did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, ‘Carry it in your lap as a nurse carries a baby?..’ I cannot carry this whole people on my own. It is too heavy for me. If this is what You are doing to me, then, if I have found favor in Your eyes, kill me now, and let me not look upon this, my evil.” (Num. 11:11-15)
 
Moses feels utterly defeated. Hopeless. Angry. Annoyed. Bitter. He feels like a failure.  He is isolated and feels completely alone. And yet, Moses doesn’t succumb to his despair. He confronts it through his service to God and to leading the people.
Other leaders of our people, articulate similar feelings of hopelessness.  Even Elijah the prophet, (1 Kings 19:4), and the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 20:7-18) and of course, Jonah (Jon. 4:3) whose story we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon all cry out to God and pray to die. In the Book of Psalms, especially those attributed to King David, are filled with deep despair and utter hopelessness at times, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2). “From the depths I cry to You”
(Ps. 130:1). “I am a helpless man abandoned among the dead … You have laid me in the lowest pit, in the dark, in the depths” (Ps. 88:5-7).[6]
 
Even our greatest leaders, give voice to despair that creeps into life.  But what is the difference? Between their depths of pain and despair and those of whose statistics I recited.
 
It is a Jewish difference. The difference is our faith’s focus on creating a better reality.  Even when it is hard. Even when it seems impossible.  Judaism puts the emphasis on building a new world, not just for the Jewish people but for everyone.  Judaism puts the emphasis on resilience.  Judaism puts the emphasis on hope.
 
A favorite story is from Rabbi Hugo Gryn, He was a well-known British rabbi in the Reform movement. Rabbi Gryn was born in a village that at the time was part of Czechoslovakia, and now is in the Ukraine. As a young boy his family was sent to Auschwitz. For a while he and his father shared a barrack. One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded them that it was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. His father constructed a little menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform. For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard. If he were caught lighting the menorah, he would have been severely punished – perhaps even killed. Beyond the risk, Hugo protested to his father at the “waste” of precious food. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it? Then his father said something he would always remember: “Hugo, both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But a person cannot live a single day without hope.” Hope sustains. It allows you to live with meaning, dignity and purpose, and defined Rabbi Hugo Gryn throughout his life.
 
So, you see, you needed to come here tonight to be reminded that we are to imagine a world that is not broken. A world healed of its pain and trouble.  We came here to imagine a world and future of hope. You needed to celebrate this New Year with hope in your hearts. It’s why we come together as a Jewish people to commit to lifting our world from despair to hope, and we begin by lifting up one another.
 
Our Talmud in Berakhot 5b teaches “A prisoner cannot generally free themselves from prison but depends on others to release him from his shackles. Tonight, we must help one another be released from the shackles of despair.
 
Because on Rosh Hashanah that is what we do.  We begin to let go of the pain and suffering we have experienced this past year. The sin we have caused, and disappointments we have lived through.
 
On Rosh Hashanah we imagine a new world. A world reborn. A new chance to take all the brokenness inside of us and the brokenness inside the world and rebuild our lives and rebuild our world.
 
Tonight –we take the dark abyss of our discontent, the grief that has accumulated, the fears that haunt us and we turn it over to God. We let the New Year wash over us to lift us from the despair toward a new day of hope.
 
When we celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the sound of the shofar-we are being called to awaken our souls from the dark night that haunts us, and we let the sounds of the t’kiyah lead us to toward renewal and revitalization. Its sounds remind us to preserve in the face of adversity. The prayers we recite help us build grit.
 
Though ours is an ancient tradition, The Young Adult and Family Center (YAFC) at the University of California, San Francisco also believes that “grit”—or the ability to persevere in the face of adversity—is key to preventing such tragedies such as death by suicide. (YAFC, 2015).[7]
 
At the University of Chicago, the work of Dr. Alex Lickerman, assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services, focuses on building hope and resilience in those who despair. So important is fostering such resilience that Dr. Lickerman has developed and tested a unique curriculum designed to help young people build resiliency.
 
The Resilience Project covers a series of important topics (The Resilience Project, 2015) including:
– Leveraging the power of expectations
– Resisting discouragement
– Using the power of habit to achieve individual goals
– Self-modulating in the face of adverse events
– Learning to accept unpleasant feelings/outcomes and to move beyond losses
– Expressing gratitude for personal gifts and opportunities
– Defining one’s mission in life
 
Lickerman notes that short-term analysis of his resilience training shows reductions in anxiety and depression among youth of 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively.[8]
 
We may not be members of Lickerman’s Resiliency Project but you have something even more enduring to help you build such resilience. During these ten day of repentance we are in the boot camp of building your grit, refilling your resilience quotient for the year.
 
In our Jewish way of life are the tools necessary to persevere in the face of adversity.  We have it in our very DNA as Jews.  We have experienced so much trauma through the centuries. So much hatred of our people. But we have taken those experience through the centuries and woven them into being Jewish with skills and traditions that help prevent us from succumbing to despair and hopelessness.
 
So, here is our Jewish antidote to living with despair and hopelessness for these horrible times; To building a life of resilience and grit.
First and foremost; be with others.  One of the greatest fuels of despair is isolation and disconnection.  We have a mirage of interconnectedness through social media—but in truth our disconnection has never been greater. We are divided more deeply than ever.
 
Our tradition teaches us to show up. We need a minyan to pray with each other. We gather for holy days and holidays.  And it is our obligation to do so.  These are part of the great antidote to developing resilience to the despair around us. And we are to show up for one another.  We are to visit the sick, comfort the mourner and dance with brides and grooms.  Be with others in their moments of vulnerability. We are to include the lonely, the widow, orphan and stranger in our midst.  These are not just random acts but acts that are incumbent upon us.  WHY? Because each of these acts builds deep connections and thick bonds of community. Each of these help lifts the person who is alone into the family of community.  No one will preserve Jewish life unless it begins with you. Show up, be counted, build relationships in your temple community.
 
In our story about Moses, God acts as Moses’ comforter.  He is not alone in his leadership or in his life.  As so too, God is with us as we walk through life.  And if we are living up to the mitzvoth of our Judaism, we will have others to be with us in our times of loneliness and despair.
 
Second is expressing gratitude.  When we take time to express gratitude for personal gifts and opportunities, we place our lives and situations in a greater context.  As Jews we say “Modim Anachnu Lach.”  We thank you God. For our souls which are in your hand and our lives which are in your keeping.  Thank you for our very life and breath.  Gratitude for what you do have, no matter how small should be a habit! Take a moment to focus on the people and memories and opportunities that you have. And appreciate and let that gratitude fill you up with a nod toward hope. It is only by looking through the magnifying glass of gratitude that we can begin to change our focus from despair to hope.
 
Third, is resisting discouragement and negative talk.  Jewish teachings tell us that even as we recognize we are dust and ashes; the whole world was made just for us.  We thank God each day for making us in the Divine Image. In our humanity, we possess a nobility of being.  Just by living.  And in our tradition, we are not measured by our wealth or prestige our titles or educational attainments.  Instead just because we exist and breath, we human beings are holy beings, sacred vessels made in the image of God!  This is what Judaism believes. And God believes in you even when you are struggling to believe in God.
 
And as Jews our entire calling toward our covenant lifts us up to even more sacred being as our covenant with God calls us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The mitzvoth we do refine our souls to even greater heights. The mitzvoth help us build not only the right frame of mind and heart but the right framing for our souls.
 
Through prayer and repentance and yes, tzedakah, acts of charity and justice we are building the grit to face the bleakness of the world and to recharge our batteries
On this New Year 5780 let us recommit to living with resilience. To shaping our souls and our hearts through these sacred acts of living. They will help us build grit and resiliency.
 
Let us persist in our pursuit of hope. Heeding the shofar’s call toward hope, to repair the brokenness around us.
 
So that we will be able to say the age-old prayer: of hope Od Yavo Shalom alienu val kol Yisrael v’kol yoshvei tevel imru amein.  Let there yet be peace that is in us and spread over us, over all the people Israel, over all who dwell on earth.
And Let us Say: Amen.

The God We Imagine

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Given Yom Kippur Morning 5779 - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Shanah tovah. Do you remember how old you were when you first learned anything about God? If you’d like, you can close your eyes for a moment, because I want you to try to imagine God the way you did when you were a child. Do you remember where you were? Do you remember who it was that first taught you, or how it came up? Do you remember what you thought about God, or how you imagined God at that time?
 
For many, these kind of details may be fuzzy. Yet I’m willing to bet that for some of you, that God of your childhood looked something like an old-man in the sky.
 
It wasn’t quite the same for me. I remember having an early idea about God, maybe when I was about 4 or 5, maybe just barely in kindergarten, and this is what imagined when I would hear the term “God”.
 
Yes, that’s right. Instead of a bearded, old, man in the sky, for me it was a handsome, clean-shaven, green giant who protected his vegetables, and encouraged you to eat more of them on the television.
 
Another year or two older, and my image grew a little bit as well.
Yes, laugh away. My first kindergarten image of God as the Jolly Green Giant gave way to my second-grade image of God as “Mr. Clean.”
 
I know they say cleanliness is next to Godliness, but somehow I don’t think that’s what they mean. So I feel lucky that eventually I realized the tricks my imagination was playing. Still, in many ways, my imagination failed to grow with me. Sure, I may have left the Jolly Green Giant and Mr. Clean behind, but despite active participation in Jewish life throughout high school and college, I was never truly challenged to explore, imagine, and articulate the kind of God I do believe in until I went to Rabbinical school.
 
And I don’t think my experience is all that unique. Many adults aren’t asked to use our imagination about anything, let alone about God. But by sparking our imagination about the Divine, we can cultivate understandings that will help us cope with life’s challenges, and direct us to be Holy as we imagine God to be. Finding new ways to imagine the Divine should enable us to better understand the type of holiness that we are trying to bring into our own lives and into the world we inhabit. (imagine word cloud)
 
So how do we re-engage our imagination in the task of describing the Indescribable?
 
Judaism offers various tools for this task, but this morning I’m going to focus on the tools of language: on words, on stories, and on poetry.
 
From the first act creation in our Torah, we learn that words themselves have creative power. God said “let there be light,” and there was light. As being created in God’s image, moreover, we can understand ourselves to share at least some fraction of that creative power with our words. We know this to be true when it comes to our words towards one another. A single word can be shot like a bullet to wound, or used as a band-aid to heal. And the creative power of each and every word also applies when we are talking about God. The names we use for God—the very words we use—each convey different aspects. By carefully choosing different names for God, we are literally creating the possibility for us to imagine God in different ways.
 
And our tradition has myriad names for God: Holy One of Blessing, Almighty One, Creator, Merciful One, God of our Ancestors, Breath of Life, Spirit of the Universe—each name offers a different aspect, and igniting our imagination in new ways.
 
Take the four-letter name for God—yud-hay-vuv-hay. We most often use the euphemism Adonai to speak this name, because we do not actually know how it may have once been pronounced. But Adonai does not convey the meaning of those four letters in Hebrew. You see, Adonai literally means “my master.” It refers to the element of sovereignty that we often ascribe to The Almighty, especially at this time of year, in the term Melech or Malkeinu, our Ruler or our King. Yet those four letters, yud-hay-vav-hay, actually constitute a verb—they refer to that which was, hayah, which is, hoveh, and which is yet to be, yihyeh. In other words, Being itself, Existence, is another one of God’s very names.
 
Now imagine how this understanding of just one word—one of God’s names—might adjust the meaning of some of our deepest prayers.
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One” becomes a statement about God’s Existence and the Unity of All Existence—“Hear, O Israel, Our God Exists, and All Being is One.”
What a change! Instead now of imagining a singular entity like that “old-man-in-the-sky” image, or my own childish spin of the Jolly Green Giant, by adjusting my understanding of just one word I can now imagine God-self as a Process—as a Life-Force present through all space and time. Jewish thinkers, and those of other faiths, have come to call this type of theology “Process Theology,” in part because it insists that God can be understood as a Process, rather than as an unchanging entity. What appeals to me most about this type of theology is that I do not need to assume that God is all-knowing, or all-powerful. Instead, God can be that Life-Force that pervades all space and time, guiding me to make the best choice I can in any give circumstance.
When we move from one word to many, we invite stories and poetry to help spur our theological imagination. And especially here in Hollywood, we know better than to underestimate the power of good stories.
 
As individuals, we are constantly in the process of telling and retelling our own stories. Sometimes we engage in this process consciously—crafting a resume to highlight the relevant experience for the job; sharing a special meal on social media. Sometimes this process takes place sub-consciously: we recall things differently as time goes on; the sting of a hurtful moment gives way to the importance of the apology.
 
As a people we do the same with our Great Story; learning and re-learning Torah year after year. And Even God uses stories to help us understand God. My favorite example of this can be seen in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moses noticed that this bush was burning and not consumed, and when Moses approaches, God reveals Godself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). Of all the ways that God could have introduced Godself to Moses, our Torah suggests that God chooses the mode of storytelling. God places Godself into Moses’ story! The God who “appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and established a covenant with them” (Ex. 6:3-4) is the same God who promises to “be with” Moses to give him strength to speak truth to Pharoah’s power.
 
As a tool for provoking our theological imagination, we can use narrative too. We can share from our own experience of the Divine Presence, and from our own struggles with Divine Absence. This works for our personal stories too. When we tell stories about our triumphs and our tragedies, and when we listen to others share their stories, we are engaging in a process of revealing ever-more Torah. If each one of us contains spark of the Divine, sharing our experiences, and being present with one another as we do so, helps to release that light of goodness into an often dark world.
 
One story I like to share about experiencing the Divine Presence took place during my summers at camp. One of Camp Harlam’s iconic prayer spaces is our “Chapel in the Woods” where we pray each Shabbat morning.
 
Before the Torah service we would sing the opening liturgy to Debbie Friedman’s S’eu Sharim… The melody would repeat and grow to a climax where some 700 people would sing at the top of their lungs “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheinu.”
 
In that moment, week after week and summer after summer, I felt God’s presence in two ways. First, I felt it within, in the form of the tingles down my spine, a sort of electricity pulsing through me. Yet simultaneously there was also something beyond me. An awareness of that Force, that Process far greater than myself, and greater even than the sum of the souls praying sh’ma in the woods of Pennsylvania.
 
Sharing that memory helps me share one of the most basic elements of my belief in God: that God is both within us and beyond us; within our world and beyond it. Both aspects are now central to my understanding of the Divine, but I don’t think I could have ever come to appreciate that without recalling a memory, and turning it into part of my story.
 
Poetry also helps open the gates of discourse on the Divine. Writing and reading poems draws our attention to the aesthetic, the beautiful, the artistic elements of language.
 
And when it comes to imagining God in new ways, metaphor represents one of poetry’s greatest gifts. Comparisons between things challenge us to think about the ways that the comparison works, and the ways it does not. One particular prayer at this season reminds me of the importance of metaphor. Ki Anu Amecha begins with the phrase “for we are your people, and you are our God”—straightforward enough. But it continues with what can be described as a list of metaphors: “we are your children, You are our Parent; we are your servants, and You are our master … flock, and Shepherd; vineyard, and Vintnor.” And so when I return to this prayer, year after year, I cannot help but think of whoever it was that first set it down on paper. I imagine the person leaning over a page on a candle-lit desk, late at night, just making a list of all the things that they imagined God to be sort-of like! “Oh, maybe God is like the Shepherd, and we’re the flock” and then immediately saying “well, you know, that’s not quite right. Maybe its more like a nation and its King…” But the resulting prayer then remains effectively a list of metaphors, all of them working in some ways, at some times, for some of us, and all of them still somewhat incomplete.
 
One metaphor that really works for me is that of God as breath, or air. We breathe in air—this invisible substance all around us. That air quite literally transforms us, providing our cells with oxygen and sustaining our bodies. And in never-ending cycle, we exhale. We send that breath back into the universe. In this way we are continuously linked with all creation, as the very air we breathe flows both within us and beyond us at all time. As the Breath of the Universe, then, God too is at once within us all and far greater than us.
The creative power of language may be one of the most fundamental ways that we find ourselves created in the Divine Image, and our words, stories, and poems can help us prod our theological imaginations to catch up to our rational faculties. This year, I hope to use poetry and storytelling as a community to explore what God has been throughout our lives, and to dive into the things we don’t yet know about the Divine. Because poetry helps us use words to create beauty, and telling our stories—both the sacred, and the more mundane—helps us do the same. When we use these tools, we can activate our imaginations to think about God in new ways, and this, I pray, will propel us to think differently about ourselves, about the world around us, and about the work that we must do to leave this world better off than we found it.
 
Yom Kippur calls our attention to Avinu Malkeinu, a name for God that brings together the image of a parent and of a ruler. But as we enter the new year, I challenge you to imagine and experiment with a new name for God. Find a story to tell about a moment when you felt God’s presence; or a moment when you wish you had. Write a poem, or even just find one metaphor that helps describe an aspect of your faith. And once you’ve done even one of these, go out and share it with others. This year, may our words, and particularly our words about God continue create worlds of meaning.

You Shall Be Purified

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Given Kol Nidrei 5779 * Tuesday, September 18, 2018

There was the story of the man who was driving through the Sinai desert on his way to Eilat. Much to his chagrin the car broke down in the middle of his journey, so he decided to walk off the road and look for help. Before long he came upon a remote monastery. He asked the good monks if they happened to have a vehicle he could borrow. The monks explained that they did not own any motorized vehicles, but they would be happy to let the man borrow one of their mules. 
 
Eager to find help, the man jumped on the animal, kicked his legs, and bellowed “Giddy Up!” the mule refused to move. The monks quickly explained that if he wanted the animal to move forward he needed to say, “Thank you, Lord”, and if he wanted the mule to stop he should say “Amen.!”
 
So the man immediately exclaimed “Thank you Lord. Thank you, Lord, thank you Lord!” and the mule took off running for his life! The rider held on for dear life and he soon realized the animal was heading toward the edge of a cliff. Just a few feet before they reached the precipice, the rider screamed “Amen” and the mule stopped inches from the overhang! Wiping his brow, the man looked up to heaven and said (Loud enough for the mule to hear) “Thank you Lord!”
 
Sometimes we all go over the cliff.  We didn’t mean to… but we cause ourselves to fall over the edge. And we fall. Not by someone else’s doing. But by our own words. Our own actions.  And sometimes because of what we feel about ourselves.  Sometimes our sense that we aren’t good enough, aren’t strong enough, that we aren‘t desirable enough, aren’t pretty enough, thin enough, beautiful enough, attractive, rich, powerful, smart, you fill in the blank… we fall over the cliff sometimes bringing others with us because we believe deep down inside—we aren’t enough. We care more for others than ourselves because we feel unworthy or unlovable.  Who could possibly like the real me? So instead I will be someone else that others will like. Sometimes we rage against others to protect ourselves; or maybe we withdraw and isolate because someone might really see the real me, the bad me; we complain and start fights and pick on others and bully them because deep down inside we feel badly about who we are; we have a secret-that we hold on to.  But that deep inner secret—is what brings us over the edge.
 
My friends, when we feel badly about ourselves—that is shame that is usually talking. 
 
The son of a rabbi went to worship on the Sabbath in a nearby town.  On his return his family asked,” Well, did you learn anything different from what we do here?”  “Yes”, replied the son, “I learned to love the enemy as I love myself.”  The parents responded, “That’s the same as we do here.  So how is that you learned something new?”  He replied, “They taught me to love the enemy within myself.” 
 
This story tells the same thing that the great Carl Jung) tells us in in “Memories, Dreams and Reflections: “That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy…these are undoubtedly great virtues… But what if I should discover that the poorest of beggars and the most impudent of offenders are all within me, and that I stand in need of my own kindness; that I myself am the enemy who must be loved? What then?”
 
What is that enemy within?  It is shame. That feeling that you are not enough, and that everyone, including God will see the real you.  The lesser you.
At its core, Dr. Brene Brown says, shame “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. She explains expertly:
 
“We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring.”
 
Dr. Brown is a Social Worker, professor, researcher and storyteller at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has become well known for her research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and particularly for her research on shame and how we might build shame resilience.
 
She is the author of several bestsellers. Including, Rising Strong, The Gifts of Imperfection and most recently Braving the Wilderness. These books are on shame and overcoming its effects and living in authenticity. She has a widely read blog, appeared numerous times with Oprah and given several Ted Talks of which one is in the top 5 viewed around the world!
 
Shame stays inside of us and can control our thoughts and behaviors and cause us and others great damage.   When you are ashamed of yourself, for who you are in the world, (or rather who you imagine yourself to be in the world) it can destroy you bit by bit and it can eat away at your relationships and skew your mind.
 
Brown states simply “Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” [i]And when that feeling happens we become flushed, sometimes sweat, tunnel vision can be what we see, and the negative self -talk starts yammering in our heads and won’t let go.  Brown describes the moment when shame take hold of us as a shame spiral.
 
A shame spiral (maze) is a condition. -It is a term that was coined originally by clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who described it as “A triggering event occurs. … a person is suddenly enmeshed in shame, the eyes turn inward, and the experience becomes totally internal, … The shame feelings flow in a circle, endlessly triggering each other … causing the sense of shame to deepen … until finally the self is engulfed.” 
 
Out that those feelings of self-loathing we can drown in our own self–hatred. We isolate. Cut our selves off because who could ever want to be our friend, our partner.  The shame lives and thrives in “secrecy, silence and judgement” says Brown. Our shame thrives when we fear the judgement of others.  How we will compare?  And if our secret will be found out we will die.  The Jews had a term for it—a Shanda- shame — an embarrassment, that we don’t measure up, will never fit in, be a pariah.  When a shanda happens it brings embarrassment to all who know.
 
Shame doesn’t appear from nowhere. It’s a form of conditioning that inhabits your mind, heart, body, and spirit. Maybe you were somehow made to feel ashamed of yourself when you were young – ashamed of who you are, your level of intelligence, your body. Maybe you feel shame because you violated your ethical standards.
 
If we turn to the Torah the classic story of shame-comes in the opening chapters of Genesis. There we see that shame has plagued us since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit and realized they were naked. Their first instinct was to hide from each other and God (Gen 3:7-11).  That is what shame does.  Isolate us from ourselves and our God.  We just want to hide.  They had one commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Not to eat the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And yet they ate from it.  They violated the one rule, the one commandment they had to guard against.  And once they ate of the fruit of the tree, they became embarrassed and aware of their own nakedness (which is a metaphor that they had the awareness that they did something wrong. They felt bad about it. And no wonder. They now stood guilty before God and were vulnerable to each other.  They believed that they were bad.  Not just that they did something bad.  And that is different between shame and guilt.  Guilt is what happens when you violate a commandment, a sin or you are found guilty because of crime in court.  But shame is how you feel about yourself.  There is a distinction between being culpable because of your behavior and the way you feel inside in your inner being.
 
While the first couple’s punishment for their guilt is to leave the Garden of Eden, leave paradise, the Jewish interpretation is vastly different from that of Christianity.  In Christianity, Adam and Eve’s sin taints humanity forever and human being are bathed in that original sin.  Humanity is bad from the start.  Human beings can only become good when they are saved in Christianity. To be human is to be bathed in shame in Christian thought.
 
Judaism rejects that.  Human beings aren’t bad intrinsically. Rather we are created in the divine image, B’tzelem Elohim. We have the capacity to think and we have free will according to Jewish thought. We can do good or we can do wrong.  But we are not stained from birth from some original sin.
 
And in fact, we give each other permission to pray with those who have sinned.  We try to take away the stigma. A kind of shame reducer. Just before the chanting of Kol Nidre.  We said that we consent to pray and be in community with one another even though we have sinned.  Judaism is much more concerned with ensuring your right action, living up to our values, teaching and mitzvoth than shaming you for who you are. Or who you think you are.
 
Tonight, is the night of discovering and loving ourselves enough ourselves to banish the enemy within.  On this day of Yom Kippur, we will get rid of guilt for our trespasses; our failures of our actions, words and deeds to live up to our standards of behavior. But for our teshuvah to be complete we must seek forgiveness from those we harmed to try and repair relationships.  
 
But how to banish shame?  “The victim of our crime or sin may have forgiven us, but inside we still feel defiled by the knowledge that our name has been disgraced, our reputation harmed, our standing damaged. We still feel the stigma, the dishonor, the degradation,” said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of England[ii].    This is the link between guilt and shame---we may have done things that make us feel badly about ourselves. And we may be ashamed of our behavior.  And sometimes when we are ashamed of our actions, it helps us remember not to do it again. While guilt and shame are very different they often have a complex connection to one another.  It is part of the process of repentance, to feel ashamed for who we became in the process of committing those acts.  Our Teshuvah, is only complete when we can acknowledge what we have become through our actions, and express true remorse, through confession, prayer and charity and asking for that forgiveness, and then resisting the next time we are tempted to repeat that act.
 
So while this holy season is for confessing our guilt- and being forgiven from our trespasses Yom Kippur also has another role to play in our lives. These holy days are also here to purify and renew you-by washing you clean of shame.
 
Yom Kippur is for cracking open your heart to help you heal. To banish the secrets and self-judgements, the feelings of shame that eat at you and control your thoughts and actions.
 
The antidote to shame is uncovering the truth of who you are.  Being your authentic self and letting it shine is the only way to overcome shame. 
 
You see that is why we come out about being gay or lesbian.  When we share who we really are—there is no shame even if others try to shame us.  When we admit we were powerless over drugs or alcohol, it is the first step to removing the dark secrets that dwell in our hearts, the pain that has accumulated through the years.  When we speak about what we are ashamed of we begin to reshape our world.  That has been part of the power of the #MeToo movement.  Those of us who are victims of sexual abuse, rape, molestation- have been sharing openly that for which we have been made to feel ashamed. 
 
And coming out about the secret is the antidote and part of developing shame resilience. The stories strengthen us. You see Healing from shame invites radical honesty.  And when we share our true stories we build empathy in ourselves and others.  And that empathy is the key to overcoming the sickening brew that is shame.  When others acknowledge our story and are empathetic to us, it takes the shame away bit by bit.  And it is then that we realize we are not alone at all.  This is why confession matters—because we must be honest about what happened to us and what we caused in others.  This, this is how we banish the shame from inside us. 
 
A word about perpetrators—if you shame others or embarrass them our tradition sees this as a great sin.  Our tradition is very critical of those who bully or embarrass others. In fact, this is seen as a murder. Murder of a reputation.  Some of our commentators even say it more heinous than murder. With murder you destroy a life once but with shaming you destroy a life repeatedly.  Our Sages teaches us that if the humiliation took place in the presence of others, make your apology in their presence, as well as in private. Otherwise the victim has the right to say, “You shamed me in front of others, and now you want to apologize in private. Bring me all the people who heard you embarrass me, and then I will accept your apology. [iii]
We can and should hold people accountable for their behavior, but we also ought to remember the line between acknowledging guilt and shaming people for who they are.  And so it is important to be careful in our language.
 
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, teaches this:
 
Judaism is a religion of hope, and its great rituals of repentance and atonement are part of that hope. …. Hence the elaborate ritual of the scapegoat that seemed to carry away the tumah, the defilement that is the mark of shame. It could only be done on Yom Kippur because that was the one day of the year in which everyone shared at least vicariously in the process of confession, repentance, atonement and purification. When a whole society confesses its guilt, individuals can be redeemed from shame.[iv]
 
On Yom Kippur afternoon-the High Priest would in ancient days send the scape goat-to Azazel.  That poor goat was sent forth with our shame, our busha, in the wilderness so we could purify our hearts and souls.  This act-didn’t just take our sins to the wilderness, in truth this was to take our shame away and purify the people.  That is why the High priest would immerse in the mikveh many times before this sacrifice and entering the Holy of Holies.  The uncleanliness wasn’t physical at all—these rituals of immersion were to wash away the shame in the recesses of the soul.  Purity, spiritual purity, was the way to restore the heart and open it to God and being in relationship with others.
 
And when the Kohen Gadol the High Priest, was done, and he would emerge from reciting God’s holy Name in the Holy of Holies he would bless the People. And he would say that the people would be “lifnei Adonai titharu” – you are purified before Adonai [v]
There is no High Priest to send the goat away, no Holy of Holies from which to emerge and receive the blessing of purity in our time. But the prophet Ezekiel taught:  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. [vi]. This is the essence of this day.  A day for giving you a new heart-without shame.
 
The purity we seek is here. In the words and rituals and melodies of Yom Kippur.  Let them wash over us and open our hearts to receive the healing and purification.  As our prayers say: V’taher libenu L’avdecha  b’emet—Purify our hearts that we may serve You in truth. Let the shame be banished, our guilt atoned. And forgiveness requested from God and all those we have harmed. Let us make complete teshuva, repentance, turning around.
 
On this complex Atonement Day, Yom Kippur which we have begun tonight calls us to recognize our guilt, our culpability for our sins.  But this holy day also comes to purify and help us overcome and rid us of our shame. Our tradition developed these deep spiritual and psychological rituals to help us know we can be forgiven from our sins and errors and be purified from any shame so that we can go back to our daily lives in this new year and live lives of contentment and wholeness and yes, goodness.  The fasting isn’t punishment-it’s a spiritual technique for purification of your soul.  The notion that you must go to individuals and seek forgiveness and meet eye to eye (not just blanket apologies on Facebook) means that you must have a human encounter of accepting responsibility and also restoration of your standing in the community.
 
The liturgy- the prayers of this day point us to being in communion with God and each other in a way that is supposed to lift us to worthiness once again.  And when we hear the last blast of the  shofar-at the close of Neilah tomorrow-with that final tekiah gedolah-we will know that God has heard our confessions and prayers, and we will know that we have been purified and cleansed and our teshuvah, our repentance accepted. And our guilt washed away, and we will have our hearts made whole.  We will have kept ourselves through this holy days, from going over the edge. We will know inside that indeed we are enough.
 
[i] Brown Brene “The Gifts of Imperfection”
[ii] https://www.ou.org/torah/parsha/rabbi-sacks-on-parsha/th\
[iii] Yalkout Shimoni, Hosea 14
[iv] ibid.
[v] Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, Yom Kippur sermon 2003
[vi] Ez 36:26

A World of Imagination

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Given Rosh HaShanah Morning 5779 * Monday, September 10, 2018

 

Shana Tova Happy New Year to you all. Welcome home to the annual meeting of the Jewish people.  There are no proxies accepted! Showing up matters here. The High Holy days is the time we Jews around the world gather together to connect to our past and our history, to feel the connection to one another in our present time and to imagine the future together.  Our collective future and our individual futures. On Rosh Hashanah we imagine the world we want. We begin to imagine who we want to be and work toward becoming the person we want to be. We even write that vision down in Sefer HaChayim, the Book of Life!
 
Imagination is a wonderful thing. It can provide inspiration for us, help us dream big dreams and unlock the mysteries of our minds.  When we use our imagination, we free ourselves from the strictures that keep us imprisoned in the same old routine. The same old habits. Albert Einstein even said “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
 
For it is our imagination that unleashes a power of creativity and insight in our minds.  And often allows and opens us up to invention!  And that is what we do here, today. This holy season. We are to open ourselves through the process of teshuva to re-invent yourself, the way you do things. We are to re-invent the world through our imagination. Rosh Hashanah marks the birth of the world, Yom Harat Olam—but in truth, the Rebirth of your world!
 
When we use our imagination, we see in our minds eye-the possibilities.  Imagination as Einstein meant it isn’t fantasizing or mindless day dreaming.  Imagination is literally visualizing what we hope to see, feel, and be.  When we use our imagination, we can visualize in our mind what is yet to happen in reality.  An original virtual reality if you will. 
 
Some may call this day dreaming but there is a difference in imagination and day dreaming.  Too often day dreams are used as an escape from our problems or come from our woundedness.  Dreams of course are symbolic in nature. Dreams are a way to vent our anxieties or fears and our desires that often come from our deep sub conscious minds.  We have no control of our dreams. And our day dreams are typically about the feelings and often are stimulated from within seemingly without cause. But imagination is a conscious effort to encounter new ideas, a method of experimentation and to visualize the world or ourselves as we hope to become.  Daydreaming allows your mind to wander at will, but when you visualize and focus on something specific you are putting intention behind the idea or entity.  Visualization is about seeing yourself in the new situation or new place.
 
And using our imagination to visualize new places and people help us prepare our mind and our being for new experiences in real life.
Another great scientist, Nikola Tesla, like Einstein, understood the power and importance of using his power of imagination.  He used visualization to help him imagine new things, new places and new people.  Tesla writes in his autobiography “My Inventions”:
 
“Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start out on my journeys - see new places, cities and countries - live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances and, however unbelievable, it is a fact that they were just as dear to me as those in actual life and not a bit less intense in their manifestations.
 
“This I did constantly until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind.”
 
Tesla was a prolific and unparalleled genius, giving us AC electricity and the electric car. He developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances. He spoke eight languages and held over 300 patents.
 
 Now we all aren’t scientific geniuses like Einstein and Tesla.  But we each are born with this capacity to imagine. As Gloria Steinman said: Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.
 
It’s part of what makes us human. Our capacity to see a different world, a different alternative, to use our creativity, to be excited to build new inventions, hear and compose new music, paint new vistas; all of this comes from our ability to use our complex human brains and imagination.
 
Dr. Naomi Lavelle writes about this brain development in relationship to using our imagination:
 
Our early ancestors, the hominids, showed basic levels of imagination in their tool making abilities, cooperative hunting skills and social interaction and colonization.
 
As modern humans evolved, scientists have reported an increase in brain size, advances in technical skills and creativity, and a development in social complexities. Farming, sophisticated tool making, complex language development, the performance of rituals and the development of art and crafting all required a complex development of thought and mental interaction… Imagination!
 
A more developed neural network within the brain, connecting the different areas of brain function, must have had some part to play in all this. In other words, our beautiful big brains, and the way the right side and left side talk to each other, builds our imaginative skills.
 
For many years scientist thought the right side of the brain was the creative side, and the left side of the brain the base of logic. But now in several studies our imagination and creativity have been shown to come from multiple parts of our brains working together in harmony. 
 
As Christopher Bergland shared in Psychology Today:
 
Researchers at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences were curious to discover “what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?” They found that imagination stems from a widespread network of brain areas that collectively manipulate ideas, images and symbols. This (is called the) "mental workspace."
 
Creativity and imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain.
Working with amazing symmetry, 11 different brain areas within the four hemispheres are able to consciously manipulate images, deconstruct symbols, come up with new ideas and theories and give humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems.     
 
The imagination-uses our whole brain.  Not just some small part of it. And what we are learning is that in the whole brain is a whole world! The limitless world of creativity, invention, artistry, expression, wonder, and awe. Our imagination has the power –the brain power to transform our lives.
 
One dramatic example of the power of vivid imagination is that of  Air Force Colonel George Hall. He was a POW locked in the dark box of a North Vietnamese prison for seven grueling years. Every day Hall played a full game of golf in his imagination. One week after he was released from his POW camp he entered the Greater New Orleans Open and shot a 76.
 
He visualized his game. Everything from getting dressed, to the course, wind conditions and each hole.  He imagined himself playing on his imagined course that he called Pebble Beach. Yes, it provided structure, discipline and an escape from the grueling and horrifying circumstances he was in at the Hanoi Hilton.   But it also strengthened his mind and heart and soul.
 
Colonel Hall trapped in that small horrid cell of limited space and cruel conditions, through his imagination, escaped the boundaries of his prison.  Our imaginations can help us escape the limitations that we have placed upon ourselves. Our imagination that we use today on Rosh Hashanah and through Yom Kippur and atonement we can transform our errors, sins, and transgressions that have limited our lives and relationships and help us begin to imagine a different way of being in the world.
 
On Rosh Hashanah we begin the process of imagining our new selves for the New Year.  But to do that we have to honestly look at who we have become since last we gathered together.  We must examine our hearts and mine our souls for the ways in which we censored our hopes and dreams, foiled our attempts at self-healing, and sometimes really screwed up. Rosh Hashanah invites us, in this time of examination and reflection, to a use our imagination—to imagine our best selves.  The self we strive to be.   
 
Today on Rosh Hashana let us begin to visualize, to use our imagination to imagine the world we want to live in.  Today let us begin to visualize and use our imagination to imagine the person we can yet be.  That is what our prayers help us do.  
 
Jewish prayer is a form of meditation, and visualization.  When we pray for a world at peace—we are imagining the world at peace.  When we pray for health of body and spirit for those who are ill, we are imagining their wellbeing and health. When we pray to atone for our sins and alleviate our guilt for the damage we may have caused in relationships, we are confessing and confronting the errors and sins we have committed as a way to imagine a new reality-free from those situations that trapped us.  If you can say I am sorry then you can imagine that you can be different, relieved from the burden of the negativity you help create. And our prayers lift our imagination higher that we might become and stand fully open to receiving love.  Imagination helps us diminish and eliminate the perception of obstacles. That is what we are doing here together.
 
At Rosh Hashanah we are trying to diminish the obstacles to become a better a you. At Rosh Hashanah we are trying to diminish the obstacle to create a better, more whole, and peaceful world.  This is the power that God endowed us with.  The spirit of the Holy One that moves inside of you. 
 
In the words of that great wizard, JK Rowling… “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”   That empathy is the connective tissue that binds us together as the human family.
 
That is why on this holy Day of Rosh Hashanah when we recite the Avinu Malkeinu Prayer- it begins with a plea to God to hear our voice—Shma Koleinu… To be heard, to be acknowledged, and in truth we use our imagination as we stand before the Holy One to imagine and give voice to a world filled with compassion for us and our family.  We use our prayers and our voice and our imagination to the see the end of sickness, war, famine and anguish.  We use our imagination to see the world and the new year as one of goodness!  You see that is what our prayers really our—visualization of how we hope the world to be—and how we hope ourselves to be. The best self we can be.  Not a perfect self.  We recognize our imperfection—but a becoming self.  And we admit to our errors, in confession, so we can start afresh and become the person you visualize. Today we begin this process of imagining a new you, becoming a better you!       
 
One such story is that of Vera Fryling, M.D.  She was a Jewish teenager on the run from the Gestapo, she lived undercover in Berlin during the Holocaust. During this time, she imagined that she was a doctor, a psychiatrist in a free land.  She used her imagination to keep her hope alive which in turn helped her stay alive. Overcoming the Nazis, the Soviet army and a bout with cancer, Fryling ended up on the faculty of the San Francisco Medical School.
 
“Imagination,” she said, “can help one transcend the insults life has dealt us."
Imagination in Jewish tradition had a rich legacy.  The Rabbis of the Talmud utilized their imagination on every single page.  They lived long after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Most lived far from the land of Israel. Nor had never set foot in the land of Israel and had no idea what the temple, the Beit HaMikdash looked like other than a few meager descriptions in the Tanakh, the bible or in the Mishnah.  But they used their imaginations to travel to the lands of our ancestors. They used their imaginations to develop the stories of our people.  The visualized the ancient temple and saw themselves there. They saw a rebuilt Temple and the priests practicing the ancient rituals.  Why did they do this? They did so because they wanted it to rise again from the ashes.  They imagined the Temple rebuilt and renewed.  A land of the Jewish people.  And that longing, that imagining fueled our people.
 
So much so that we never gave up imaging and visualizing and praying:  Next year in Jerusalem.  We could see ourselves there whether in our shtetl in Poland or Brooklyn or right here in Los Angeles.  Pure imagination. 
But yet that imagination, those visualizations gave way to building a new Zionism that led to the creation of the State of Israel 70 years ago.
 
Our Sages used Midrash to imagine all kinds of things, what God believes and feels and thinks. They used Midrash to explain Moses actions and motivations. They use Midrash and aggadah, story, to fill in the blanks when the Torah is silent. They used imagination and visualization to write a different outcome than what the Torah says.   
 
As the great modern Talmud Teacher and former MK (Ruth at podium) Ruth Calderon writes in the introduction to her amazing book A Bride for One Night:
 
The aggadic landscape at first seems very different from the world we know. It is wild and topsy-turvy, frightening and funny. It is a world in which the impossible happens: God asks to be blessed by a human being; the head of a talmudic academy marries a woman for one night in a strange city; a mortal steals the knife of the Angel of Death; the wife of a Torah scholar dresses up as the most famous prostitute in Babylonia; and a kindergarten teacher causes rain to fall. These stories are the Arabian Nights of the Jewish people. The reader is drawn from story to story by the promise of pleasure and the lure of longing. From image to image and from vista to vista, the view becomes increasingly familiar. It soon becomes apparent that for many of us this wonderland is in fact the homeland we never knew. (intro xiv)
 
The Rabbis of the Talmud weren’t afraid of imagining a different Judaism for different circumstances. They weren’t afraid of imagining God asking for a blessing from us.  They used their imaginations to change their worlds.
Why am I talking to you about imagination this year?  It is because I want you to imagine a new way of being. I want you today to visualize a new world. A new way for our world.  Part of resisting the Violence, racism, misogyny hatred and bigotry of our day is to imagine a different reality.  Oh make no mistake, we have to work for it.  It isn’t just going to be handed to us on a silver platter. But the world we want to see with the values we articulate is possible.  A world of equality; a world of liberty and freedom and justice. Whether in Israel or here at home –we have to imagine it first. Visualize it.  See it in your mind’s eye. People living in peace. Loving their neighbor. Even if that is not the reality around us. YET! 
 
The first step to resist the irrational, sicknesses of our time, the first step to resisting the bullying that is coming at us from politics.The first step to resisting the moral decay that infects our world, the first step to stemming the corruption around us is to imagine the world we want.  Imagine the world and the people in it. People who listen to one another, respect one another.  We have to visualize THAT world.  And then…. We have to let that vision, that imagination inspire us to create it in reality.  And we have to do it together.  It is not something that can be done alone.   It must be done collectively. 
 
Because the vision is so big. And the forces of evil so strong—because you see they are imagining too—a world of hate. A world where the rich get richer and the poor and the brown and black folks, and the Jew-and the lesbian, and trans and gay person and the immigrant, the Muslim, the Buddhist, anyone who isn’t like them…. They are imagining a world with a different set of values.  A world built on fear.
  
And so we come together on the Rosh Hashanah to imagine the world we want. And to assert it in our prayers and our actions.  Through our civic engagement efforts---there is a table in the foyer—register to vote… Did you move recently? Not voted in a while? Let Kol Ami’s Tzedek Council, our justice team help you register to vote. Are you going to be sure to vote in November or are you simply saying well it doesn’t matter we live in California?  Fill out a pledge card that you will vote this year.  And help our team by phone banking and canvassing with us to create the world of our imagination.  I am looking for a minyan of people-ten more volunteers that will help the efforts of our Justice Council and the Religious Action Center through our phone banking, canvassing and lobbying to get our neighbors to register. Won’t you consider being part of of this effort?
 
We imagine the world we want by strengthening and protecting our Jewish heritage—a noble heritage of valuing life against the forces that promote death.  We imagine the world we want by deepening our engagement as a Jewish community.  As a temple family.
 
Now more than ever is the time for us to imagine the strength of our Jewish people, and yes, our very own synagogue. Now is the time to imagine for yourself and your family and friends, the world we want. And now with the call of the Shofar, let its sounds help us visualize the world we want, and then stir us into action as we bring about this new you, this new world, in this the New Year. A new Year of peace for all the world.
 
Ken Yehi Ratzon. 

Why Be Jewish?

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Given Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779 * Sunday, September 9, 2018

 “Why be Jewish?” Three words and a question mark startle and surprise me. My classmate had just asked our entire community of rabbinic students and faculty this shocking question. At first, I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. “Why be Jewish? Aren’t we in rabbinical school? What kind of question is that?” I had never been asked so directly why I was Jewish. And to be fair, it may seem like a bizarre question to many of you too. But this year, it is the question that the shofar calls us allto answer with vigor, creativity, and imagination.
 
Some of you might argue that you didn’t choose to be Jewish. “I was born Jewish. There was no choice involved.” You respond that you’re Jewish because your parents were Jewish, and your grandparents before them. Being Jewish is just a part of you—the religious and cultural heritage that you never chose, much like you never chose your eye color, or your place of birth. 
 
If you became Jewish through conversion, of course, you might have a different answer. After all, converting to Judaism typically requires a lengthy process of learning and self-discovery, before you ever set foot in the immersive waters of the mikveh. You observed holidays and tried out new rituals. You spoke with many people, possibly including bewildered family members, and definitely including long-winded rabbis. And after all that, you still decided to commit yourself to Judaism; to cast your lot with the Jewish people. So I imagine you could articulate why.
 
And regardless of whether you have Jewish ancestry, you might respond to the question  “Why be Jewish?” by sharing that you want to ensure the survival of Jews and Judaism. You root for us Jews as an underdog of history, the perpetual survivors of persecution! That response is what Emil Fackenheim calls the 614th commandment: not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory,[1] and it may resonate with many of you.
 
But my friends, as true as any of these answers may be, our sacred tradition will not survive in the 21st century if we cannot clearly articulate why it should. Whatever Jewish journey has led you to this room tonight, make no mistake about it: we are all Jews-by-choice. Think about it: instead of tonight being any ordinary Sunday night, you chose to bring in the Jewish New Year. You chose to reconnect with community, and with the Spirit of the Universe. But I’m guessing that many of you didn’t stop to ask yourselves: “Why be Jewish?” 
 
My classmate suggested that answering this question requires us to state the “value-proposition” for being Jewish.The business world uses “value-propositions” to describe the valuethat customers get when from purchasing a good or service. Applied to Judaism, it refers to the value that being Jewish and doing Jewish can bring to our lives. And while I don’t usually like to think of Judaism as something to be consumed, or transacted in, the fact of the matter is that our communities and institutions have a lot of competition in American society today. So we must be able to advocate for and demonstrate the meaning and value that Judaism brings to us, and to the world. 
 
Don’t worry. In a few moments, I am going to share with you three of my answers to the question, because the stakes are too high to obfuscate, or engage in that classic rabbinic pastime of answering a question with another question. But before I do, I want to recognize that some of you still may not quite agree that you have a choice.
 
“Jews haven’t always had a choice about being Jewish,” you think, “we’ve always been a persecuted minority, kicked out of nearly every country we’ve ever lived in. Who would choose such a thing?” Sadly, you can read our history this way. We need look no further than the horrors of the 20th century! The Nazis did not care how one defined herself. Anybody with a Jewish grandparent was a Jew, whether they practiced Judaism or not! Our people were the targets of hatred and violence merely because of their heritage. And I acknowledge that today in the United States, this argument may even deserve new scrutiny, as we have seen a resurgence in anti-Semitism casting a long, dark shadow on our ability to “choose” our Jewishness. 
 
But there’s another way to read our history, too. Because being Jewish—doing Judaism, and using it to bring meaning to our lives—has always required a choice. In the times of the Maccabees, many Israelites took Greek names and customs as their own, effectively converting out. In the middle ages, and later during the Spanish Inquisition, many chose conversion out of Judaism, rather than risking their lives to maintain their Jewish practices. So those who maintained their customs most certainly chose Judaism.
 
Our sacred texts also insist on our need to choose, even when it comes to choosing Torah—our very covenant with God! You see, the logic goes that if we hadn’t chosen the covenant, we would have no incentive to keep it! Why stay in a relationship that you didn’t want in the first place?! One Talmudic tale suggests the Israelites were coerced, b. Shabbat 88a, but the rabbis’ response reveals just how highly they valued our freedom to choose.
Newly freed from Egypt, we wandered through the desert to our first stop: Sinai. But the revelation at Sinai describes a terrifying scene! Our leader has to ascend the mountain, which itself was surround by lightning and thunder, clouds and even the sound of the shofar. And the text also states, Ex 19:17, that when Moses led us from the camp towards God’s presence at the mountain, we stood “b’tahtit hahar” – literally underneath the mountain. With all of these frightening images, one rabbi taught that this phrase, “underneath the mountain” meant that God held the Mount Sinai itself literally held over our heads, coercing us to accept the covenant, or accept the grave. Sounds like an offer we couldn’t refuse!
 
But even the appearance of coercion leads the very same narrative to continue, that in the time of Esther, the Jews willingly and freely accepted the covenant once again. We once again chose to be Jewish.
 
And today in the United States of America we have more choice than ever in history! We live in a time and place of unprecedented fluidity and flexibility in religious identity. Five years ago, when the Pew Research Center published its landmark survey of Jewish American identity, it found that among American Jews born after 1980, some 30% of them identified as “Jews-of-no-religion.”[2] And the very same study reminds us that “this shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation.” These Jews-of-no-religion might identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” or they might embrace merely their cultural Jewish heritage, which leads them to crave Matzah Ball soup on Passover, and Chinese food on Christmas.  But effectively, they are not choosing Judaism.
 
So for us Jews-by-choice—who believe that Judaism should not only survive, but can thrive in the 21st century, we must return to the question, however uncomfortable it may be: Why be Jewish? What IS the “value proposition” for Judaism in the contemporary world? Only by answering this question for ourselves will we be able to advocate for the survival of Judaism, or any given Jewish institution—including our very own Congregation Kol Ami. 
So without further delay, here are three of my personal teshuvot, or responses, to the question.
 
First, “Judaism helps me create holiness in time.” 
 
From the very first chapter of Torah, our sacred text gives meaning and order to time. Our creation myth describes an order of “days,” really epochs, of creation, which lead to God blessing time itself, and resting—the first Shabbat. In turn, our practice of Shabbat, and our cycle of holidays reflect this process. Our holy times and seasons offer us the chance to appreciate the spark of divinity in our creating, our making, and our doing, and they remind us to pause and focus our time also on being. 
 
Compare this with American culture today. We work and work and work, rarely resting. We take fewer vacation days than most other developed nations of the world.[3] We are continuously pushed to produce deliverables and quantify every minute we’ve put into the job. We are so busy with doing and making and producing that we all-too-often forget to focus on being. So Judaism offers a powerful antidote: make time holy. Recognize its finite nature, and refuse to take it for granted. Our time on this earth is limited, but do not despair. We can celebrate and choose life by marking holiness in the passage of our precious time on this planet. 
 
In his classic work The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it this way: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique… and endlessly precious.” We don’t need to feel lonely or rudderless as we navigate the waves of life in search of purpose and direction. Our sacred times and seasons offer us a compass, helping us actively create meaning as we sail the ocean of our lives. 
So “why be Jewish?”  Because Judaism helps me create holiness in time. 
 
The second value-proposition I offer for being Jewish is that “Judaism insists that we question and interpret.” Our struggles and questioning of God are even built into one of our names, Yisrael. In a moment of solitude and fear, Jacob found himself alone, wrestling with a strange figure, who blesses him with the name Yisrael, because he has “struggled with God and with people.”
 
But questioning God is just the beginning. We’re the people of the Talmud—a text that’s more interested in good questions than good answers. Our tradition has long wondered about the gaps in our holy texts, and those musings led to interpretations and the development of new texts and traditions. Our most cherished historical figures—from Maimonides to Einstein—propelled questions and critical thinking as ways to improve ourselves and the world around us.
 
But the culture we live in prides itself on knowledge; on always being “right.” We are often afraid to ask questions if we think we ought to know the answer already. We seclude ourselves in ideological silos--bubbles that reinforce our pre-existingbiases and ideas. It has become rare to interact with, let alone have a meaningful conversation, with people that think differently than we do. But our sacred tradition calls to question what we know; to challenge our assumptions and sharpen our minds to help improve the world around us.
So,  “Why be Jewish?” Because Judaism insists that I question and interpret. 
My third answer may be the most fundamental of all. “Judaism requires strong relationships.” Our tradition cannot be practiced alone. Of course, we value each and every human being, each one created in the Divine image, each one infinitely precious, each one an entire world. Yet Judaism insists that when we build relationships with one another, we bring with us the Divine presence itself. We become something greater.
 
But sadly, this value is also lacking in American society today. Everything caters to the individual, everything becomes a customizable commodity, delivered at the precise time and in the precise quantity you need. Pretty convenient, but also pretty isolating. Social media is perhaps the biggest culprit. The culture of social media teaches us to express ourselves, to brand ourselves, to hope we go viral. It does not teach us to listen to others; to look into the face of the person next to you, to hear their story, and to love your neighbor.
 
So for a third time,  “Why be Jewish?” “Because Judaism requires strong relationships.” In a society where we are often tempted to go it alone, Judaism reminds us to double down on relationships and community. 
Those are three of my value-propositions for Judaism, boiled down to a sweet, simple syrup. 
 
1. Judaism helps me create holiness in time. 
2. Judaism insists that I question and interpret.
3. Judaism requires strong relationships. 
 
Our tradition offers a unique approach to each of these, and throughout the generations our ancestors propelled Judaism to survive not just for survival’s sake, but because they knew that our sacred tradition contained such powerful ideas.
 
This year, I imagine a world where we take these values, along with our own answer, and recommit to choosing Judaism. I imagine a community built from these foundations, in which all of us are able to answer “Why be Jewish?” with confidence, and pride. 
 
These very values have already guided me in my work with The Open Yad Project. As many of you know, one of my roles as your Assistant Rabbi has been helping to launch The Open Yad Project—our program for building community amongst folks in our 20s, 30s and 40s here in West Hollywood, Hollywood and the East Side. 
 
From the beginning of my rabbinic internship two years ago, when Rabbi Eger first charged me with focusing on young adult engagement, we knew that creating strong relationships had to come first. We knew that in order to build something meaningful and sustainable, it had to start with the most basic building block of community: friendship. That process takes time. It takes attention to the rhythms of our own lives, and concern for the various seasons in the lives of others. 
 
What’s more, over the past several months, as we’ve organized and officially launched our efforts as The Open Yad Project, we’ve used these the values of marking holiness in time and the importance of questioning to guide the development of our programs. 
 
In August, for instance, we hosted our first Havdalah event in what we hope will become a monthly spiritual experience. The only purpose of Havdalah is to mark the passage from one moment to the next. Havdalah literally means separation in Hebrew because separates between two moments in time. It’s a ritual to mark the passage from a Shabbat of rest, or of being, to a week of doing and making. So in choosing to use Havdalah as our signature ritual program, we are trying to role model the uniquely powerful way that Judaism marks holiness in time. 
 
Similarly with the importance of questioning, we are planning to launch a series of pop-up learning events. While these programs will aim to extend an open hand, literally an open “yad” to new prospective participants, the concept grows naturally from our Jewish cycle of questioning and interpreting. 
 
The further I go along this path of building community, and developing The Open Yad Project, the more grateful I am that I have stopped to ask myself “Why be Jewish?” Because when we ask ourselves that question, we give ourselves permission to imagine new answers, and to imagine ourselves and our world transformed by the beauty and wisdom of our sacred tradition. As we usher in this New Year, I pray that you too will ask yourself “Why be Jewish?” I hope that you will explore your own answers to this vital question, and that your presence here tonight will be the first choice in recommitting to choose Judaism, and use our sacred tradition to bring meaning to your life.
 
Yes, I hope that Judaism, and the Jewish people, survive, and I believe that we work towards that vision when we remind ourselves and our loved ones whywe oughtto survive. As we bring in the new year 5779, let us recommit to passing our tradition l’dor vador, from one generation to the next, and let us do that by responding with certainty, love, patience, and imagination when we are asked, “Why be Jewish?”
Tue, October 22 2019 23 Tishrei 5780