I have been reading a wonderful, life-changing book. It describes the paths one can take toward fulfillment in life. Within its pages are awe and wonder, the ability to slow down time, a blueprint for looking deep within oneself. It connects us to community and to nature, to creation. I get lost in its pages, and can close my eyes and visualize what’s within. Reading it helps me remove myself from the world of the material, and helps me in my quest to be a more humble person. It is a book of challenge and of joy.
So what is this magic book? No, it’s not the Bible. It’s Peninsula Trails. This book is a guide to more than 500 miles of hiking and biking trails on the SF Peninsula.
We are aspiring to walking in all the parks in the Peninsula Trails Book. So far, we are at six. The last walk we took was at MonteBello State Park, off Page Mill. As we came to a clearing with on a hill overlooking a dale and hundreds of beautiful trees, I stopped and asked my daughter, “Isn’t this beautiful?”
And she said, “you know whenever we go out like this, you say weird things.”
“How is it weird to say how beautiful things are?”
“Well, not weird, but you talk differently.”
I do. While I can usually describe what I see in fairly accurate detail, I find it hard to do so when I’m facing the immensity of nature. How do we not feel awe when we are amidst redwood trees that are hundreds of years old? Spiders spin huge webs only to have them destroyed, then rebuild them in a day. Walking along the San Andreas fault and seeing the power of the earth’s shaking as trees grow horizontally, and on the ground cracks. Seeing the burn marks in trees from lightning strikes. Thinking about how many trees have not been hit by lightning. It is all simply awesome.
Being in nature makes it easier to feel moments of awe. But it is incredibly important to find moments of awe all the time. There is a new study out from the GSB at Stanford in which their research showed that moments of awe can change how we perceive time. The study ran three different experiments, all of which showed that the groups that were exposed to more awe-inspiring images and thoughts perceived that they had more time to do things.
They asked 63 students to watch a 60-second television ad. One group watched a commercial depicting people encountering “awesome” images — waterfalls, whales, and space exploration. The other group watched a commercial, which showed individuals crossing paths with a parade of happy, brightly dressed people tossing confetti. Afterwards, they all rated their agreement with a series of beliefs, including four key variations on the idea: “I have lots of time in which I can get things done.”
Consistently, subjects who had watched the “awe” commercial agreed more strongly with the statements relating to ample time than those who had watched the “happy” ad. “When you feel awe, you feel very present — it captivates you in the current moment,” says lead author Melanie Rudd. “And when you are so focused on the here and now, the present moment is expanded — and time along with it.”
So outside of taking long hikes, how do we create awe? First, start with our daily guidebook, the siddur. The very word siddur means order, and our Siddur is organized in an ingenious way. It begins by focusing us on what we have: clothing, sight, life itself, before having us ask for what we don’t have. Prayer frees us to celebrate all of our gifts rather than bemoan our wants. When I add up all of the things that I have in life, I should be filled with a sense of awe; a roof over my head, beautiful family, a community I love. But too often I don’t stop to add these up. Heschel talked about life being filled with moments of awe and wonder, but how many of us do stop to experience those moments?
Just like when we see a rainbow, and we stop to say our prayer, or when we say the shehecheyanu, we carve out a moment in time to recognize our awe. There is a Chassidic saying that one should say 100 blessings every day. It sounds like a lot. But think about the effect that would have on our lives, even if we only said a small percentage of them. Even if we only said one. Saying a blessing transforms us by uniting us with our awe, and reminding us to feel blessed. And when we feel truly blessed, we feel joy.
Shortly after I moved from New York to LA, I was driving down the 110 from downtown to Redondo Beach. Well, driving is a bit of hyperbole; I could have walked more quickly than my car was moving. I looked to the east, and there was the most vivid rainbow that I had ever seen. Two arcs, parallel to each other stretched from the ground all the way through the sky, disappearing into the buildings of east LA on the other side. I must have had eyes like saucers as I looked at these collections of color. But then I noticed something very disturbing. Nobody else was noticing the rainbows. I wanted to honk and point, although that probably would not have been wise. Nobody noticed the rainbows.
What is the opposite of being religious? Is it not believing in God? Is it not doing righteous acts? Is it not keeping Kosher or resting on Shabbat? According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, a person who isn’t religious is the one who does not notice all of the amazing things around us. As Ed Feinstein puts it, the opposite of being religious is being bored. The religious person marvels at the beauty of a sunset, the power of a thunderstorm, the beauty of a rainbow, the kindness of a stranger.
But our lives are so quick, so packed with stuff, with our kids’ activities, with classes to take, with Stanford football (or Cal), dinner reservations to keep, that we sometimes lose our ability to notice things. I didn’t miss the L.A. miracle of the rainbow, but I’m sure there have been other rainbows or other miracles that I have missed because I am too busy. Too busy living in the future or reliving the past. Too busy to recognize that I am here right now. The antidote to this can be found in a word that comes up over and over again during these holidays, and which Rabbi Ezray will expound upon in the upcoming days. The word is Hineini, here I am.
The Machzor has a powerful and moving prayer, Hineni, in which the Cantor says, Here I am, and please let me pray on behalf of these people. We, the congregation, have a hineini prayer also. Open your books to page 143. The Unetaneh tokef is our Hineini.
The holiness of the great and terrible day is proclaimed. The Great Shofar sounds, a still small voice is heard, and even the angels tremble. LIke sheep, we pass before our shepherd, and on this day, it is written who shall live and who shall die, who shall have quality of life, and who shall suffer. Ten days from now, on Yom Kippur, the decree will be sealed. Our deeds come under review, and our fate is determined. The image of a stern-faced God, holding a pen and reviewing each of us is scary, and frankly troubling.
So in West Orange, New Jersey, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can tell you one young man who was snapped from his adolescent behavior into compliance with his parents. Take out the garbage? No problem. Clean my room? Already done! Talking back? Never again! Of course, that lasted about a week and a half. Then, it was back to normal. It is a scary image: the shepherd, our creator, with a pen- Yes, Yes, Yes, No!!! - deciding our life or death. Of course that is a simplistic way of reading unetaneh tokef, but many of us have read the prayer literally.
So Unetaneh Tokef is a part of the Machzor that we struggle with. Together with the story of the Binding of Isaac, it is perhaps the most difficult piece of liturgy from a theological standpoint that we confront. And yet, it is not a literal composition but a poem, and as a poem, it is brilliant. Once a year, we are forced to think about God. Once a year, we figure out who our God is, how we relate, do we relate?, do I believe or have a relationship with God? One of my friends recently said to me that he is in a “tug- of-war” with God. But he is in the minority- most of us don’t spend a lot of time on God. And through our thinking about God, we think about our relationship with ourselves, with those around us, and with the world. Once a year, we say Hineini, to ourselves and to God, as we account for our actions, and set the course for the year to come.
The climax of Unetaneh tokef is: U’tshuva, U’tefilla, U’tzedaka Mavirin et Roa haGezera. But Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedaka transform the harshness of our destiny. Why did the poet choose these 3? Couldn’t we just have said, Torah, Avodah, Gemilut Chasadim? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner asks, What about Mitzvah, Talmud Torah and Tikkun Olam?
I believe that the triumvirate of Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedaka are the way that we say Hineini. In the poem above, we hear about the things we cannot control. But Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedaka are all within our control. We look at the past, present and future, and say Hineini. When I engage in Tshuva, return, I say Hineini to myself. Here I am, honestly, stripped bare of pretense and of fooling myself. I see myself as I really am, my core, my essence. I ask myself how can I improve? I think about how I missed the mark, and vow to be more present for myself, my family, my community.
All our blessings, except for one, are in the present tense. Tefilla allows me to say Hineini in the present, to God, to express my gratitude for, and awareness of, my world. When I see a rainbow, Baruch.... Zocheir haBrit v’ne’eman bi’vrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro. My bracha was WHOA! But Whoa when it comes from the soul is a bracha. The point is that my soul is affected.
Tefila also lets me say Hineini to others around me. Every Friday night, I put my hands on my daughters’ heads and recite the priestly blessing on them. Even if you don’t have kids, use those words to bless the important people in your lives. Especially when you’re mad at your kids (or each other).
As we do teshuvah, looking into ourselves, scrutinizing our pasts, and vowing to make changes, and as we rely on the everyday guidance of our Tefila, looking to God, family and community, we then look to the future, to fulfill our sacred mission. Tzedaka is our connection to the outside world, to healing the world through selflessness; caring; tikkun olam. It is our need to address the world’s pain in Darfur, New Orleans, Somalia, Israel.
But it may be the other way around. It may be that it is our giving of tzedaka that allows us to do teshuva, to return to ourselves. It is often a lot easier to do than to think and pray. We don’t always know what to say to ourselves, and we frequently don’t know how to pray. Maybe teshuva and tefila are bound up in the acts of tzedaka. We think of Heschel again, who said “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.”
All of our deeds are under scrutiny, and judgment is to be rendered. Our past will serve as the basis for the future. But it is the present that can transform the decree of the future. In the present, the here and now, we can do these 3 acts that will change us and those around us. The Book of Life is ours to author through our saying Hineini, engaging in Teshuvah, Tefila, Tzedaka.
And so I suggest that we start with a simple blessing, that we use this Tefila as a way for us to say that Hineini. It is perhaps the most powerful prayer in our entire canon; as a piece of liturgy there is no more eloquent statement. It is a prayer that can change your life. It is the prayer we said at the beginning of my talk, Shehecheyanu.
Why is this prayer, this simple bracha that we say not infrequently so powerful? The head of the Stanford Chaplaincy, Father John Hester, spoke here several years ago, and discussed the shehechiyanu. We have at least 10 people involved in chaplaincy at Stanford, people who pray with their feet as well as their hearts and mouths. Father Hester told us that he envied us, the Jewish people, because of this blessing, one which Christian faiths do not have.
Praised are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who gives us life. Who sustains us. Who brings us to this time. The shehechiyanu is a unique prayer of the present. It is a prayer of the right now. It is a prayer that we desperately need because too often, we live in the other tenses. The past not only informs us, but also it mires us. We look to the future, bypassing where we are right now.
Tefilla, prayer, is a way for us to focus on the present. It’s not just the Shehecheyanu; with only one exception, every one of our blessings is in the present tense. Judaism forces us to be present. When we say blessings, we have to think of the world in the here and now. And we get to marvel at the world. In a moment, we will recite shehecheyanu again, at the end of Kiddush, and I hope that it penetrates each and every one of our souls. I pray that this will be the first of many moments of Hineini that enter your soul this year, and that each of us may notice many rainbows. Shana tova Ticateivu, May it be a good, sweet year for all of us.
Havdalah: The Ritual of Separation
One of my most vivid Jewish memories is from when I was 16 at Camp Ramah, celebrating Havdalah on the sundeck. All our voices rising together, staring at the flame, enjoying the warm evening under a canopy of stars. Havdalah literally means separation. As we are familiar with, Havdalah consists of a series of Biblical verses followed by blessings over wine, spices and fire, and concluding with a blessing in which we enunciate separations: of light and dark, holy and not holy, Israel and the other nations, Shabbat and the days of creation. I want to look at one aspect of the Havdalah that captures important themes of these holidays and gives us perspective on who we can become.
The Havdalah prayer is based on Leviticus 10:10. God tells Aaron to teach the Israelite people L’havdil bein kodesh l’chol, bein tamei v’tahor, to divide, to make a separation (L’havdil - the same word as Havdalah) between the kodesh, the holy, and the chol, translated as profane, but probably better as mundane, ordinary, or in the words of Rav Kook, the “not yet holy.” And to separate between the tahor, the pure and the tamei, the impure.
Judaism makes very clear distinctions. The pure and the impure, the holy and the not holy are distinct, not to be mixed. We separate things. But why the need for separation? I would argue that making distinctions is vital to our identity and to our ability to preserve our peoplehood. Distinguishing between pure and impure, between holy and not holy makes clear statements about how we live our lives and how we behave. L’havdil, but this can be very difficult for us to do. In discussing this verse, Richard Elliott Friedman quotes Rabbi Simcha Weiser: “The problem with American Jews today is that they know how to make Kiddush, but they don't know how to make Havdalah. That is, they do not know how to distinguish between the holy and the secular.” Our rituals of eating point us toward kashrut, which should lead us to ethical eating- we don’t wantonly eat anything we can get our hands on. And of course, kashrut needs to lead us to eating ethically raised animals. We need to speak with holiness, honoring divergent points of view. When we give criticism, it is done positively, building up rather than tearing down.
What is the power of Havdalah? The power of Havdalah is in taking the holiness and awe of Shabbat and turning it forward to the rest of the week. And even if we’re not yet observing Shabbat, Havdalah tells us to look forward, not backward. At the end of Shabbat, let’s not think about what wasn’t, but what could be for the coming week. I would like to suggest today that whether we observe Shabbat or not, doing Havdalah can have a great impact upon us. It is a way that we give a beginning to our work week, a way to create a holiness that begins the week. There is a power in marking beginnings; in Judaism, we do so through beautiful rituals. We mark new beginning on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, as we start anew with a clean slate. We mark beginnings in lifecycle with Brit Milah, Simchat Bat, Bnei Mitzvah, wedding. There is perhaps no more powerful spiritual act than the ritual of mikveh, when we use water as the substance of separation. Havdalah is also a celebratory act, one which can be transformational. In other words, it’s through this celebration that we lift ourselves up. . Our celebrations, the rituals, are intended to create mindfulness within us, to help us to elevate ourselves and those around us.
Heschel: "People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions.
We can create transcendence by the very act of lighting that strong candle, smelling those spices, and singing together. We celebrate the act of separation, of the holy from the notyet- holy. Yitz Greenberg points out that in doing Havdalah, we also celebrate the ability that we have to continue the creation that God started. When we sing the Kiddush, we celebrate God’s creation of the world. When we sing the Havdalah over the wine, it is as if we are making a Kiddush for the rest of the week; this is our time to create, to finish the job that God started, to make the not-yet holy into the holy. It is the very act of separation that allows us to begin to create a unity in the world.
But we can easily see separation as a pejorative, a setting apart, a standoffishness; perhaps we should use the word uniqueness instead. Even then, it is difficult to assert our uniqueness. As one who teaches pre-teens and teens, I can tell you that most 11-14 yearolds don’t want to stand out. They want to blend. One of the most uncomfortable things for a young person is to be seen as “different”. I would expand this: most people don’t want to be seen as different.
The problem is that Judaism not only encourages us to be different, it demands it of us. The blessing in Havdalah says clearly that Israel is different from the other nations; it is based on Lev. 20:24- I have set you apart from the other peoples. But is that Torah concept true anymore? Are we really different?
On a practical level, how do we observe our religion when there are so many external forces making that difficult? How do we assert the importance of Shabbat while still letting our kids play soccer during junior congregation? Choosing the path is not straightforward. Rabbi SR Hirsch writes that not everything that is good is sweet, nor is everything bad bitter. Not everything right is easy, nor is the wrong path difficult. In fact, we face these decisions every day, in matters great and small.
We especially face these decisions when it comes to our spiritual and our Jewish lives. For most of us, it is far easier to continue the work week into Shabbat than it is to rest. I remember when I was in the corporate world and I shut my computer down on Friday afternoon and turned off my cell phone right before we lit candles. I’d like to say that it was really liberating at first, but it wasn’t- it was stressful! What if a client called? Or a candidate? Even after doing it for awhile, it was still difficult sometimes to resist the siren call of just a little peek at my email.
It’s not easy to miss even 1 day of high school or middle school, much less both Thursday and Friday for Rosh Hashanah. It’s certainly not easy to miss school and explain that you did because it is a Jewish holiday, standing out even more. How do you explain to your boss that you missed the morning of work because you were shaking your lulav? It isn’t easy to explain why you’ll only eat a meatless salad when you’re out with friends. But these acts of self-identification are critical to our maintaining our identities as a particular people. In a society which is different, we become hyper-aware of who we are, and why that is important.
So we begin with the particular, that we as the Jewish people have a sacred task to fulfill, and we move to the universal, to the global. Separation is not isolation nor is it aloofness. It is why we are not inward focused, why we respond in such large numbers to rebuild homes in New Orleans, provide relief in Haiti, and fight for the rights of Darfur. Ultimately, though the dichotomies are very clearly defined, our ultimate goal is the removal of the distinctions. Our goal, the object of tikkun olam, is the move from the not holy or the not yet holy to the holy through our ritual and ethical actions. The unity that we are beginning to create is the fulfillment of the last line of Aleinu- Bayom Ha-hu Yihyeh Adonai Echad U’shmo Echad- In that day, God will be one and His name will be one. The embracing of our differences now, and the celebration of the sacred task that entails, will move us to that day when we won't need to have differences anymore. At the end of Havdalah, we sing Eliyahu Hanavi, a song that expresses our hope for the perfection of days, for a time of unity.
I invite you to make a Havdalah from the year gone by to the year awaiting us through the words of the liturgy that we will encounter over the next two days. From my personal lasting image of Havdalah at Camp Ramah, I bring us to one of the lasting images of this community, the Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur. The Havdalah we do next week is a unique celebration, a transcendent community moment. I invite you to next week’s havdalah when we will gather on the bimah with all our children, singing the Havdalah, swaying together as we chant, seeing the awesome imprint of the flame, blowing our shofarot together. I invite you to make time for Havdalah this year, whenever you can, to use that ritual of separation to create holiness for every day.
May this year be a year of celebration for all of us, a year of ever increasing holiness in which the not-yet holy reaches to the level of the sacred. Amen. Shana Tova!
Midbar – The Path Back
Many people have asked me, What was the highlight of your time off? The ride, of course! And what was the highlight of the ride? Oy, so many! And I of course responded, See my blog! But as I have thought about and reflected on my experience, there is one particular part of the ride that really stands out. It was on Day 4, after a much-needed, refreshing Shabbat. I was in the middle of Makhtesh Ramon, the great crater-like formation of the Negev Desert, fully 1 kilometer in front of and in back of my nearest fellow riders.
Mile after mile. Actually, km after km rolled away. And only the whirrr of the chain, the crunch of tire on pavement, the clicking of the gears, the squeak of the handlebars, my breathing. A little self-contained space traveling through as but a part of something vast, the Midbar. From without, the sound of the wind, and the whoosh of the car or tourbus as it neared, then passed. Sometimes its horn too. The wind, as it rustled, actually swept across the desert gently, but noticeably, carrying clouds with it to mitigate the sun. But otherwise, silence. No ipod, no phone, no “city noise”. I was in the Midbar, the desert, the wilderness. My senses felt incredibly acute. All the stimulus of daily life that dulls us, that removes our ability to see, to discern, was gone.
In our tradition, we read that the Prophets and the Rabbis knew this well. They wanted us out of the cities. Cities were places which caused distance from the proper way. Our sages recognized that the Torah was given in the Midbar for many reasons, not the least of which was that we would have to hear it, and not be distracted or think there was a higher priority at the moment. The Talmud is filled with references to Midbar: We are told to make ourselves into a desert, the kavana being that we will be able to absorb the lessons of Torah better when we don’t have the clutter that encompasses us. (Eruvin 54a) In the Makhtesh, my sharpening of senses led me to a Chassidic practice called Hitbod’dut. Literally, Hitbod’dut is “Self-seclusion”; Rav Nachman of Breslov interpreted Hitbod’dut as a time in nature that is “alone time for spiritual practice.” When a person meditates in the fields, Rav Nachman wrote, all the grasses join in his prayer and increase its effectiveness and power," I felt the same way about the sands and the rocks and the dust. Riding on a bike was like meditating in the fields, and the Midbar joined me in my prayer. It was pure Hitbodedut: spiritual alone time. The Midbar allows us to probe deeply our feelings, our thoughts, our innermost designs.
In preparation for my trip, and upon returning, I have read a remarkable book. Joseph Wood Krutch was a writer, critic, and renowned naturalist in the mid-20th century. He writes in The Voice of the Desert, The contemplative realizes that the desert is “the last frontier” in more senses than one….It brings man up against his limitations, turns him in upon himself and suggests values which more indulgent regions minimize. The desert is a place of tests. We confront that which is hard to confront. That is the work of hitbodedut. And that in turn leads to Teshuva.
In a more normal setting, our tradition makes us do this every day, and at this time of year, very intensely. Confronting that which is hard to confont is the very basis of teshuva, and few tasks are more difficult than Teshuva. We always think of going to each other for forgiveness, or to God – al Chet. But do we go to ourselves? Do we acknowledge honestly those places where we fall short? And when we do, what is our response? Do we try to break through our limitations? If we’re unable to, then what? Do we beat ourselves up, or can we be forgiving? I couldn’t ride my bike down a hill. The first time, I was ashamed. I kept trying. But I just couldn’t do it. It was getting in the way of what I was really trying to accomplish. Nothing shatters your hitbod’dut like failure! By the last time, I resolved not to let my fear get in the way. I jumped in the van and reveled in the midbar as it passed by, before I joined everyone at the bottom. I forgave myself.
If we can forgive ourselves, we can be gentle on others too. The desert is a great equalizer, a place where we realize our place in the world, as flawed characters, and when we return to “civilization” it will be in a community with other flawed characters, each of us striving to do our best, and to help each other along the way. Krutch: One no longer asks, “What’s in it for me?” because one is no longer a separate selfish individual but part of the welfare and joy of the whole.
This is a very nice description of the Midah, the characteristic, of Anava. I always strove for anava in my life, for humility. In the Midbar, I came face to face with it. Not just through my failures, but through looking at the vastness of my surroundings and feeling but a small part of them. My teshuvah has been a return to mysel in dealing with my failures. It has also been a return to something more elemental, to creation itself. For the next 10 days, we will be doing intense spiritual work, using the prayers as our guide. Prayer is a reminder to us, a daily checkin to recognize that the mystical, the miraculous is all around us and “normal”. But to feel that point, however, we have to see, to experience the wonders first hand, and then we can use prayer to reconnect, day after day, with those wonders.
As Rav Nachman would do, supplement these days of prayer by experiencing nature. Nature gives us an opportunity. For this year, find a place in which you can listen to your innermost voice, your Midbar. Separate from normal, city life. Edgewood Park, out on the ocean, on a bike, go for a walk. Engage in nature. This will hopefully connect us more intimately with God. Heschel taught that awareness of divine begins with wonder. Practicing hitbod’dut, going into nature can reawaken in us a sense of wonder, and reconnect us with the Creator of such wonders, helping us to transform ourselves.
After the ride, as I contemplated the role of the desert in receiving Torah, I read this by Rambam: What is the way that will lead to the proper love and fear of God? When you contemplate God’s great, wonderous works and creatures and from them obtain a glimpse of divine wisdom. One can find renewed evidence of the divine, of God. A few months ago, in the Midbar, I reconnected on a real level with the wonder that is our magnificent world. I quote from Joseph Wood Krutch again: God looked upon the world and found that it was good. How great is the happiness of being able, even for a moment, to agree with Him!
Engagement and Connection
I have a wonderful Chevruta, study partnership. We sit with a page of Talmud and we turn it over and over and over. During one of our study session, we got into a discussion about prayer, and my Chevruta said something striking: “When I’m in a good place spiritually, I can deviate from the words of the prayers and connect using my own words. But when I’m feeling a little more unsteady, like my life is out of balance, I find the words of the Siddur very necessary and very grounding.”
I sat with that statement, I was thinking about how my partner was using our prayerbook to deal with his adversity. His approach to difficult spiritual and emotional times is to engage. He uses the words of our tradition, set down many years ago, as a way to connect back into himself. God knows we have faced a lot of adversity as a people, but that is not what defines us. Judaism gives us many ways to confront our adversity, and to overcome it, because ultimately Judaism is a religion of joy.
Too often, however, when adversity hits us, when we are in that unsteady, imbalanced place, we abandon or dismiss, we turn away from Judaism. When things go wrong, it is easy to abandon faith, or to look elsewhere. Our rituals help us restore a sense of balance and of happiness to our lives. Our fixed prayers, those words in your books, are a source of stability for us, a guide that helps us return to equilibrium from the adversity that drives us out of balance.
Prayer focuses us and points us in God’s direction as a way to help us look inward and change. The prayers tell us to talk to the Almighty to help us to deal with adversity and overcome the obstacles in our path to spiritual growth. We have prayers for wisdom, for healing, for protection from bad friends- almost every case where we face obstacles in life is covered in our siddur.
Our liturgy on these Days of Awe is filled with language that encourages us to return, to make Tshuva. The Machzor has sections on memory, on affirmation of God’s sovereignty. It tells us that we don’t have complete control of our lives, that fate intervenes at times. We stand with each other and say words of confession, which encourage us to change for the better, together. My teacher, Dr. Saul Wachs, taught that the purpose of prayer is to make the statement that “I can change- I can break out of destructive patterns.” Prayer is in many cases a response to adversity.
As I thought about it, I realized that it is not only our prayers, but in fact so much of our sacred literature that is devoted to overcoming adversity. Think about the Bible: from the very beginning, Adam faces exile from Eden. The stories follow: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, the Prophets, Ruth. And of course, Job.
We find guidance in how our ancestors dealt with misfortune in these stories. Isaac lives through the trauma of nearly being sacrificed by his own father to become a patriarch of our people. He learned to pray, to love, to make peace. Joseph is thrown into a pit, enslaved in Egypt, yet rises to become the Prime Minister of Egypt. He learned humility, and how to forgive and be forgiven. Ruth loses her husband and leaves her home to stick with her mother-in-law, and finds happiness with Boaz. She embodies loyalty and learns how to pick up the pieces of her life through her friendship. Job suffers through unimaginable physical and emotional pain and loss, and confronts God- How can You do this to me? But he doesn’t run away or abandon his faith. He responds by engaging in conversation with God, keeping his faith even while being angry for what has befallen him. The lessons that we learn come through engaging in study; by turning things over and over and over, and gleaning messages that are so basic to our lives.
That connection to prayer and study help us to realize that the most important part of our tradition is what we do – our actions. When faced with the adversity in the world, we respond, and that response what we call Tikkun Olam. The Kabbalist Isaac Luria coined the phrase Tikkun Olam to describe the true role of humanity in the ongoing evolution of the cosmos. Luria brought the concept of Tikkun Olam in connection with a world that had been complete, but was now shattered.
We all know that Tikkun Olam is our imperative to repair the world. By definition, Tikkun Olam tells us that we have adversity to overcome. This has to be taken on by each of us, working together. The Mishnah tells us: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor; v’lo ata l’hibatel memena; The work of perfecting the world is not for you to finish; but you are not free to refrain from doing it. The foundation of Tikkun Olam is doing mitzvah, and so we have the guidelines of prayer that connect us with our values, and we have the mitzvot to direct us in our repair of the world.
It is impossible to talk about Tikkun Olam and not revisit at least briefly the situation regarding food and Kashrut. I asked everyone to buy more local organic foods, and to have an eye toward sustainability. Many, many responded to that call. Last year, I stood before you with a call to action about Kashrut. I asked you to reclaim that ethical imperative of Kashrut offers, that meat sold has kosher meets the ethical requirements with which that mitzva should be associated.
Unfortunately, as bad as we thought it was then, we now know how much worse it actually is. The alleged criminal acts at Agriprocessors have caused a crisis in the Jewish community as we try to come to terms with how a holy process became so unholy. Now I want to be careful- nothing has been proven in a court of law, and no convictions have been handed down. But the evidence that we have seen so far has been overwhelming. The ethical abuses have caused us so much dissonance, such an adverse reaction that we are looking at whether we can overcome our shock and disgust. We look at the abuse inherent in a ritual and see the hypocrisy in it. It is so easy to look at the situation and conclude that Kashrut is an archaic ritual that has no place in current society, and that the ethics of it are questionable at best.
From this terrible news, however, and from the adversity within the Jewish community, there are signs of hope. I talked last year about the initiative of the Conservative movement to address the exploitation of Kosher meat workers, and the expansion of a Hechsher Tzedek, a co-certification that insures producers are following ethical standards. This work is progressing and galvanizing the movement. Just last week, responding to allegations of worker abuse at the nation's biggest kosher slaughterhouse, an organization of Orthodox Jewish rabbis announced that it was forming a task force to craft Jewish principles and ethical guidelines covering the kosher food industry and business in general.
The Rabbinical Council of America said it would publish the results in a detailed guide. Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, president of the council, said in a statement, "In taking this step, the RCA seeks as a practical matter to reinforce ethical values and corporate policies, while ensuring a reliable and affordable supply of food products for the kosher consumer."
The response of both the Orthodox and Conservative movements is to make changes to ensure that rituals and ethics go hand in hand. The intent of Kashrut is so holy and uplifting, not to eat blood, not to mix meat and milk as a symbol of not wanting to mix death and life, treating animals as humanely as possible. It is a ritual that can lift us up, and I ask that our response to adversity in our religious lives not be one of abandonment or dismissal; rather we should respond by affirming the rituals as giving us a holy purpose and helping to work toward making that reality.
Next week, as a community, we will say together the Al Chet, and together we examine what we do/allow to happen that misses the mark, and we pledge to improve our behavior. We make Tshuva. Tshuva does not mean repentance, and tshuva is not only about going to others and to God to say we’re sorry. Tshuva means return, and it is about dealing head on with what causes us to minimize who we are and working to lift ourselves up.
And when we do our Tshuva, when we return, it is with a feeling of cleansing that should bring us great joy. Again, so many of our rituals are about bringing a sense of joy to our lives. Study, prayer, this gathering on High Holidays are such times of joy.
Tonight, I propose that you engage, not dismiss. Last year was a call to action for food and the environment, this year is a call to action of your souls. Engage. Don’t abandon. Find connection. Take your practice of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the world, to a whole new level. Set up tents or dine with our guests at IHN; support eco-Kashrut- join our new sustainability committee; engage in dialogue about Israel no matter where on the political spectrum you are; plant a garden, start to compost; build a sukkah; vote this November. And so we begin our annual check-in with ourselves, with our community, and with God. We come together to support each other through our personal adversity, and to feel supported. We commit to confronting the adversity that faces us as individually, as a community, as the Jewish people, and as citizens of the world. And we begin anew a year dedicated to creating joy for all.
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Contact Bill Futornick by email or at 650-366-8481.