Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Am I My Brother's Keeper? Strengthening the Bonds between the African-American and Jewish Communities

(These are my remarks from the Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Stone Temple Baptist Church on Monday, Janurary 19, 2015)

Thank you so much Bishop for your kind words and for your graciousness in hosting this community gathering today. To the Jewish United Fund, to Pastor Phil and the Firehouse Community Arts Center, the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, and to the Sinai Health System whose work continues to be a powerful example of ongoing partnership between the Jewish and African American communities for sponsoring today’s gathering as we honor the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When an emptiness so profound in the soul of one man caused him to murder his own brother, the question, which arguably became the most important question for humanity throughout time, was “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the resounding answer to that question, echoing still in our day, remains: Yes. We are each other’s keepers, and we are all in this together.

And so, together, let us listen to Dr. King’s words from March 17, 1966 whose message rings so true today as well: “…in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to …say not only have we come a long, long way, we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved in our country…we need only to turn on our televisions and open our newspapers and look around our community….We must learn to live together or we will perish together as fools.”

On this day commemorating what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday just 4 days ago, 50 years after the march at Selma, we come together to acknowledge that although we have come a long way, indeed we still have a long way to go. In this age of “colorblindness,” as Michelle Alexander, the author of the critically important book The New Jim Crow calls it, we build walls not with bricks but with zip codes and school districts; we create distance and impose borders with words like South Side or North Shore - good neighborhood or bad as if those terms somehow justify our disparate standings. When the wealth gap between white and black America is greater today than it ever was in Apartheid South Africa[i], when 1 in 3 black men will end up incarcerated at some point in their life[ii], when we know so deeply that although all lives matter, this is the moment to name the fact that #BlackLivesMatter because we can’t breathe anymore, we must ask ourselves: what does it mean to be each other’s keepers and to act as such in the world today?

One of my teachers, Rabbi Jack Stern of Blessed Memory, served as a student rabbi in Greenville Mississippi in the early 1950’s. He gave a sermon on “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man” - everyone loved it. Sometime later, he proposed to the synagogue president that the congregation should hold a clergy Institute where all the clergy in town could gather to study and break bread together.
President: All the clergy?

Jack: yes.

President: White clergy and black clergy breaking bread together? Jack: Yes

President: Well that will never happen.

Jack: But just last week, I gave a sermon on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and you thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread?

President: It was a great sermon, but you have to be careful when you get specific.

Friends, we are here together today to get specific.

Throughout his life, Dr. King often drew inspiration from the specifics of the story of the flight of the ancient Israelites from bondage to freedom. Picture it:

Behind them, an advancing army. Before them an expansive and impassible sea. Trapped, Moses cried out to God, but God rebuked him: “Why do you cry to me? Tell the Children of Israel to move forward.” Forward where? The Israelites hesitated, until a leader appeared willing to step ahead into the rushing waters with faith that his actions could make a difference. This leader, teaches Jewish tradition, was not one of the headliners of the Exodus narrative, not Moses or Aaron, not Miriam or Joshua, but instead, was a man named Nachshon. Wading through the rising tide, only when the waters rose all the way up to his nostrils, the story tells us, did the Sea part.[iv] Nachshon was willing to take risks for a better future for his people, for his faith in the promise of freedom from On High, and in doing so, he catalyzed the Israelites’ redemption.

There were countless Nachshon’s in the Civil Rights movement whose specific actions and partnerships demonstrated their deep understanding that we are in fact each other’s keepers. So many African American and Jewish partners, known and not, who marched the road of justice together. Take Fannie Lou Hamer and Heather Booth. Born in Mississippi, Hamer grew up as a sharecropper. In 1961, she was sterilized against her will as a part of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. When, at a 1962 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting she learned blacks could vote, she raised her hand immediately to volunteer, despite the grave risks she would face, as many were beaten or even lynched for attempting to register. Hamer quickly became a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, fighting for dignity and the right to vote, and was a true hero of the civil rights movement.

Heather Booth, an 18 year old Jew, who after visiting Israel and making a commitment at the Yad VaShem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice, went to Mississippi to volunteer at the Freedom Summer Project. Booth’s synagogue actually funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest. It was during Booth’s volunteering that she met Fannie Lou Hamer and was inspired by her activism, moving forward herself to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform, along with becoming very involved in the women’s movement, in particular here in Chicago.

The time for us to get specific is now. In our day, we can no longer assert that proof for a living Jewish and African American communal partnership is demonstrative through the many Jews and African Americans who marched together half a century ago. We must not claim that because our communities come together one day a year to remember Dr. King that we are somehow fulfilling the best of his and his activist partners’ vision for a just world. There is so much more we can do together, and there has not been a better moment in the last 50 years for us to envision what is yet possible together.

Who will be our Nachshons today, stepping bravely forward into the rushing waters, risking for each other, for freedom, with faith that we can yet create hope and change?

· Because the work of social justice is not the sole reserve of the students who attend a social justice school.

· And the prospect of education, employment training and opportunity is not the sole reserve of organizations tasked with that singular mission.

What can each of us do to get specific when it comes to the holy work of keeping each other?

Will business owners commit to hire kids from Lawndale for internships this summer?

Will students ask themselves, can I organize my community at my school to demand equal access to quality education?

Will churches and synagogues from all over our community partner with each other, eat together, pray together, beyond this day once a year?

Will we find new ways to know and see each other, to learn from each other, to be sensitive to our assumptions and words, to listen to each others histories and stories so that we are actually keeping each other in the highest expression of that ideal?

The sages of my tradition tell a story about a man who goes out on a boat with his friends and, once offshore, starts to drill a hole under the bottom of his seat. His friends ask him to stop, but he continues, “The hole is only under my own seat and not yours.” His companions cry out, “But if you continue, the boat will sink and we will all drown. Don’t you understand that we are all literally in the same boat together?”

As the great human rights activist Lilla Watson famously said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Because not one of us is free until every last one of us is free. Indeed, let us work together, my brothers, my sisters. We are each other’s keepers.


[i] Kristof, Nicholas. “Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5” New York Times, November 29, 2014
[ii] Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, August 2013
[iv] Exodus 14:15. Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meaning and Meaninglessness

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, January 9, 2015)

In this past week, we’ve once again watched a scourge of horrific violence and terror wreak havoc, death and destruction around our world: from the senseless bombing of the Colorado Springs NAACP office, to the unconscionable and brutal attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the murder of 12 innocent people, including 2 police officers, to the horrific acts that played out today at a Paris Kosher grocery store.  And all of it can leave us feeling terrified, angry, bewildered, and wondering how people can do such horrible and senseless things?  Where is the meaning in any of it?

And in times like this, we first ask questions like those that involve us looking outside of ourselves for meaning, but often afterwards turn to look more internally, and ask ourselves what our existence means in the grand scheme of things when so often everything can seem so meaningless? And the truth is, both these and those questions come not only to characterize our responses to traumatic moments, but rather, they  actually characterize what is perhaps the ultimate and quintessential human pursuit.  And for millennia, scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, talk show hosts and many others have offered theories and advice on how to find the meaning that we, as humans, so desperately seek.

And so, David Brooks’ op-ed from Monday “The Problem with Meaning” caught my interest.   In his well-articulated, somewhat vitriolic critique, Brooks asserts that this yearning for meaning has actually become most problematic in our time. He rightfully observes that “how meaningful something is” has become a standard metric for how we gauge whether something is worth our while.  In general, we seek meaningful relationships, we want to use our time meaningfully, we want our learning and growth to be meaningful.   But whereas in its purest sense, meaning is what you feel and find when you’re serving that which is beyond yourself, today we have instead commodified “meaning,” using it as a vehicle for serving ourselves instead.  

In Brooks’ words:
"As commonly used today, the word [meaning] is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life...Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time."

Put more simply, meaning is what should result as an ancillary benefit of a life grounded in a totally different, much more fixed force - morality -   asserts Brooks.  He concludes: “Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is a pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

But I think Brooks misses something in his relatively black and white analysis, something he should have been taught when he was in Hebrew School growing up.  When it comes to this battle of meaning versus morality, from the Jewish vantage, there actually is no battle at all as the two forces not only navigate the same ground, but in fact, blend together so as to strengthen each other.  

Morality, living according to a set of culturally or communally agreed-upon principles about right and wrong, might actually prove a little less fixed than Brooks assumes. Sometimes we may not know what the absolute right or wrong thing to do is in a given situation, but we will still have moral foundations to serve as guidelines.  As an aside, this premise is the basis for the entire structure of the Talmud.   Morality, from a Jewish sense, establishes the ground upon which we navigate in the world, but if we lose the understanding that everything, every experience, every relationship, every act, every breath, is imbued with the potential for deep, impactful meaning in life, we diminish both in the process.  

As Rabbi Geoff Mittleman of Sinai and Synapsis puts it: Meaning is how we make sense of the world; ultimately, it is how we figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” So it is meaning that can help us discover how we can best bring our best gifts and talents to better not only our own lives, but our communities and our world.  And one of the great gifts of Judaism is the understanding that our ethical choices and grounding, our morality, is in and of itself a form of making meaning.  

Victor Frankel, the famous neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the masterwork “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recounted a life-changing decision. With his career on the rise and the threat of Third Reich looming, Frankl was granted a visa to America in 1941. Frankl knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis came to take his parents away, and that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety.

Frankl was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, "Should I leave my parents behind?... Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?" Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a "hint from heaven."When he returned home, he found a piece of marble from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment from the 5th Commandment: honor your father and your mother. Frankl decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.  He later wrote about the relevance of the wisdom he derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering. "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is."*

Those who would choose to use violence and terror, those who murder in their perverted understanding of what they claim as their religion and their god, poison the moral good in society and prove nothing more than heathen idolators whose actions truly merit no meaning in the construct of our existence.  We, those unwittingly subjected to their crimes as witnesses, can choose whether or not we will permit the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of innocence, to fall into meaninglessness as well.  Victor Frankl so rightly said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Our faith calls upon us not to be silent or complacent because the task is too daunting, not to accommodate oppression because it is easier that way, but rather because our lives and our world are filled with meaning and potential even in the darkest moments, to move forward with moral courage, clarity, and clear resolve.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Pharoah issued an edict of infanticide intended to destroy the future of the Jewish people, commanding the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Jewish male infants upon their birth, or risk their own execution.  The Torah tells us though that because, "the Hebrew midwives feared God, they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live.”  A profound example of courage and defiance, morality and meaning.  Today too, we are called upon to make meaning out of the meaningless, and so we must act too to defy oppression in any form, to bring justice and healing to each other and our world.    

*As told in Victor Frank: A Life Worth Living by Anna Redsand

Friday, December 26, 2014

History and Memory - The What and How of Remembering

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, December 26, 2014)

As January 1st proves only a few days away, I imagine many of us find ourselves considering the transition from 2014 to 2015, how we want to shape the coming year for ourselves, our community and our world. And although at first, we might think that this secular New Year proves quite different from our Jewish New Year, the truth is the wisdom we apply to one most definitely can be applied to the other, specifically when it comes to Cheshbon ha Nefesh - our tradition of taking an accounting of our lives, the positive and the negative, as a conscious exercise to help guide us in to a better tomorrow,  because knowing where we've been can serve as a key asset in helping us determine where we are going.

But the process of reflecting on the past is not always an easy one, and too often we jump right in to the realm of history, solely addressing what we assume is the operative question: what happened? When really, if we want to approach our evaluation of the past as a vehicle to lead us into the future, the real question we should be asking ourselves is not only about the what -what happened in history - but also about the how - how will I remember what has happened in the past? How will I choose to shape my memories?

There is in fact a critical difference between history and memory.  History, the branch of knowledge dealing with past events, relies on empirical demonstration and rational thought.
Memory, on the other hand, has to do with our mental capacity for retaining or reviving impressions and it dwells in the non rational architectures of mythology.  History is something we are witness to, over which we have little to no control.  Memory is something we shape ourselves, sometimes consciously, sometimes not..

To demonstrate, let me share with you this example from my family.
When my son was three, we took him skiing with us in Colorado.   It was a disaster.  He hated ski school, his boots hurt his feet and legs, the snow was slushy, and his skis kept getting stuck along  the very small bunny hill run.  Each day, about 2 hours in, the ski school called us to tell us that Josh did not like skiing and that we should come pick him up.  The s’mores offered at 3:30pm each day when ski school was over were no incentive for him to keep trying.  And so, based on our analysis of the events at the time, of course, we assumed that that would be our first and last family ski trip.  History.

But something funny happened when we printed out our pictures from the trip about 2 weeks after we returned home.  When he saw the pictures, Josh started recalling how much fun he had had on our first ski trip.  That he was proud of himself that by the 4th and final day the boots didn't hurt as bad.  That eating s’mores after we were done skiing was great!  And then he asked us when we were going skiing again because he couldn't wait.  Memory.

Jewish tradition has in fact always stressed the need for us to understand both history and memory when considering how to both navigate our present and forge ahead into our future.  In fact, the presentation of the Exodus narrative in the Torah itself is a powerful example of this idea.   The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers serve as the “historical” account of our ancestors enslavement, redemption and arrival at the border of the Promised Land.  The narratives are told from the perspective of those who were there experiencing it first-hand.  But then the book of Deuteronomy comes along and repeats the whole story again.  But not verbatim.  Where as many of the historical points are reiterated, the Deuteronomic telling re-frames many parts of the story to raise up certain ideals and teachings.  Why?  Because the contents of the book of Deuteronomy are what was told to the generation of our ancestors who weren't slaves ever, who weren't at Mt. Sinai themselves.  Deuteronomy is the story that we know best.   Deuteronomy is all memory. And it is because of that that it allows for intentionality; it has slant as well as direction.

Let’s look at this on a more personal level.  When something significant happens in our lives of which we feel we need to take note, something that we perceive may afford us an opportunity to break out of a negative pattern, we declare we will remember, we will not forget. We assume that recalling the event or experience as it occurred will be enough to help us change our behavior, our relationships, our choices.  But all too often, we find ourselves back in our same negative patterns, despite what we believe were our best efforts.  Because remembering history alone without the added value of memory remains a passive act, and doesn't actually allow us to do much of anything.

This is not to say that we do not need history.  If everything were left to dwell in the domain of memory alone, we would risk falling victim to what renowned Jewish historian Yehuda Kurzter calls “memory anxiety”, finding ourselves waxing so nostalgic about the past that we have no will to navigate into the future because it appears so dismal.

But when we combine the two, we find that firm grounding in history with an openness to the potential of memory to form and shape our understanding can yield ripe ground for transformation.

Take the Joseph narrative that we've been reading in the Torah for the past few weeks.  You know the story: Joseph’s brother’s, jealous of Joseph’s favored place in their father’s heart, throw Joseph into a pit and sell him into slavery.  Through a series of events, Joseph ends up second in command in Egypt, ultimately forgiving his brothers, being reunited with his beloved father, and saving the Jewish people.  

Toward the end of the story, Joseph and his brothers return to their home to bury their father, and a midrash describes that en route, Joseph sees by the side of the road that same pit where his brothers threw him so many years before.  He stops and spends quite a while staring into the pit.  When the brothers see this, they assume that Joseph is remembering all of the horrible things that they did to him so many years previous, and they fear that Joseph will seek out retribution since his memories have been stimulated.
Joseph does in fact recognize the pit and its painful associations, but instead of seeing that through a lens of bitterness, he now sees it as the source of blessing: without his brother’s throwing him into that pit, his incarceration in Egypt would not have happened, he would never has risen to power, he would never have been married to his wife and had his children; and, most importantly his would not have been able to help his family when famine struck their homeland.

In the words of a renowned Biblical scholar: “[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he re-reads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.”(Aviva Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319) 

When rooted in history, memory does not permit us to rewrite history, but rather to re-read it. And how we re-read may indeed be one of the most powerful abilities we have to determine how we live our lives and how we relate to other people.  We may not be able to control what happens to us or even what we remember, but in remembering that we can control how we remember, we can in fact shape our thoughts, assumptions, beliefs.  And now is just as good of a time as any.  But if you aren't ready for that yet, the good news is that memories are available to most of us whenever we want to call them up.   We just need to remember that we are their owners, holders and shapers, and they have the potential to impact our choices and actions for the better, for ourselves, our community, our world.

Wishing you all a new year of great potential and blessing.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Awakening - A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775

Thanks to recent conversations with my doctor friends, I’ve learned a litany of jokes about anesthesiologists and rabbis. Here are a few:

What’s the difference between a rabbi and an anesthesiologist?
They both do the same thing, but a rabbi can do it to 1000 people at once!

Or how about this one:
What’s the difference between a rabbi and an anesthesiologist?
An anesthesiologist needs drugs to put you to sleep!

There’s one more:
What do anesthesiologists and rabbis have in common?
They both share the same motto: putting them to sleep is the easy part, waking them up is much more challenging!

As it happens, we tend to take the field of anesthesia for granted since it’s so routine today, but, up until even the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most patients regularly chose to take their chances over enduring the pain of a surgical procedure.  This has made our modern ability to diminish or even eliminate pain perhaps the most significant medical innovation of all time. 

But the challenge, as we all so deeply know, is that the pain we experience in life is not limited to the walls of the operating room, and, just like with physical pain,  it often feels too much to bear. The crushing conditions of our world can leave us feeling so overwhelmed, that we will do anything to numb ourselves to the distress they create.

Now sometimes, this is necessary. There is a reason people go into shock when something devastating occurs. It is our body’s way of protecting us from the otherwise too harsh impact, and it softens the blow. Although this sort of sedation is not meant to be a regular part of our daily existence, it is not hard to understand why it has become just that.

Take the ubiquitous 24/7 news feeds of the television, internet, and social media that on the one hand leave us no reprieve from the horrors of our world, but ironically, on the other, shorten our attention spans and ultimately desensitize us to whatever is actually happening. Remember Malaysian Air flight 370? Or the 191,000 now dead in Syria? Or closer to home, the state where the latest school shooting took place? It was North Carolina, 4 days ago. [ii]

In the 1960’s, psychologists explored our human tendency to habituate by measuring ordinary people’s nervous system responses to the repeated ringing of a loud bell. Although everyone reacted strongly initially, their reactivity became somewhat weaker for the second bell, and increasingly diminished, until finally they did not register any response at all.  It turns out that we can become so accustomed to our experiences that we reach a point where we just don’t notice them anymore. They just become imperceptible to us. [iii]

The truth is, out of self-preservation, we numb ourselves all the time. As a society, we know the destructive and unfortunately expansive nature of the disease of addiction. But no matter the method of distraction - with pills or alcohol, working non-stop or even with our faces lost in our hand-held devices and screens - we end up with the same sense of detachment.

Perhaps even more troubling is that we sedate ourselves even in anticipation of something that might hurt later. On some deep inner level, we humans tend to fear the fullness of our potential. We think that if we love deeply, we risk the possibility of that love not being reciprocated or one day losing that love. If we strive for our deepest desires, we might still fail, so we settle for the confines of our self-imposed limitations.

We numb ourselves too with our defensiveness, our guarded or half-apologies, unwilling to admit full accountability for fear that we might actually have to feel the weight of our hurting someone else. We do this as well with our withholding of forgiveness; frightened to make ourselves vulnerable for fear we might get hurt again.

And even in common conversation among friends, we tend to prefer dulled agreement to the discomfort of true dialogue and debate. We watch the news that matches our own opinions and belief, surround ourselves with like-minded allies, labeling anyone who disagrees as ignorant, or worse idiotic.  And by so doing, we protect ourselves against the uncomfortable confrontation of divergence and challenge.

But whatever the reason, willed or not, individually or communally experienced, what is certain is that this emotional blunting does not actually protect us. In an attempt to shield our hearts, we end up hardening them, and in so doing, we actually remove ourselves from our lives, relinquishing ourselves, our relationships, and our world to the currents of chaos.

The real world is full of heartache and despair.  Many say that the world of religion offers a reprieve, something to take us out of this world and into the world of heaven.  It is not a modern idea.  Two centuries ago, Karl Marx penned his infamous critique.  Religion, he said, is “The sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”[iv]

Even though Marx was a Jew, either he didn’t listen very well in Hebrew school, or perhaps he slept through the rabbi’s sermons. When it comes to Judaism, Marx couldn’t be more wrong. Judaism is not, nor has it ever been, a religion that reconciles us to the world as it is, that sets out to dull our experiences. Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and all around brilliant teacher Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this in his powerful book, To Heal the World. He writes: “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance, but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be…Its aim is not to transport the believer to a private heaven.  Instead, its impassioned, sustained desire is to bring heaven down to earth. Until we have done this, there is still work to do. ”[v]

Remember that motto from earlier? Putting them to sleep is the easy part, waking them up is much more challenging? Turns out it’s not just for anesthesiologists and rabbis. It is a fundamental and binding truth, not reserved only for the orthodox or the folks who come to services every Shabbat, but for any and all of us who call ourselves part of the family of the Jewish people.  I want you to hear that: this is for all of us.

Jewish practices are designed consistently to open our hearts and direct our awareness towards our world, each other and our souls. They stir us out of our everyday rhythms and unconscious living. Sacks again: “However free or affluent we are, on Passover we eat the bread of affliction and taste the bitter herbs of slavery. On Sukkot, we sit in shacks and know what it is to be homeless…To imitate God is to be alert to the poverty, suffering and loneliness of others. Opium desensitizes us to pain. [Judaism] sensitizes us to it.” [vi]

And make no mistake: these Days of Awe are designed to be the annual wake-up call for our hearts and souls. This is the whole point of why we blow the Shofar; its heart piercing call literally wakes us up to ourselves, our lives, our world. And as it turns out, we’ve been self-sedating for a long time.  Listen to the words renowned philosopher and commentator Maimonides wrote 900 years ago about the purpose of the Shofar that we still read each Rosh Hashanah: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers… Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. 
Look well to your souls and consider your deeds….”[vii]

And if there was ever a single day designed to shake us out of the stupor of our everyday lives, it is today. Yom Kippur challenges us to snap out of our routine lives by literally putting us in the most raw and uncomfortable situation we can imagine. And it’s not just the fasting, intended to awaken our awareness of the pain of thirst and hunger. Or the beating of our chests, beckoning us to crack open our otherwise locked-tight hearts.  Yom Kippur, its rituals and liturgy all facilitate a process that is nothing less than a spiritual near-death experience. No sedation allowed. On Yom Kippur, we spiritually die in some way to awaken us to our lives as they are, so that we might, at the day’s end, re-enter our lives reborn, heart more open than ever before. Truly, Yom Kippur is meant to turn our lives and our world upside down.

The Talmud records a curious incident. Joseph, the son of Rabbi Joshua, fell into a coma. Everyone thought the boy wouldn’t survive, but one day, he woke up. And upon reviving, he said: “Olam hafuch ra-iti: I saw an upside-down world. The people who are on the bottom here were on the top there, and the people who are on the top here were on the bottom there.” His father, astonished at his son’s vision, declared: “My son, olam barur ra-itah, What you saw was the clear world.”[viii]

To be Jewish is to believe in the possibility of an upside down world, that there is a difference between the world-as-it-is and the world as it ought to be, and our lives-as-they-are and our lives as they ought to be; that the world-as-it-is is not a clear world, but it could be one day. And that, according to Judaism, is up to all of us, if only we can remain awakened to that awareness.

Consider this powerful story about the man who invented dynamite.  One day, his older brother died, but the newspaper printed his obituary instead, giving him the unusual experience of reading his obituary while he was still alive. The title read: ‘Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday….’ Like a cold bucket of ice water had been poured on his head, he threw down the paper.  “I’ve never thought of my life that way! That’s not how I want to be remembered. That’s not what’s important to me.”  And right then and there he decided to direct his entire fortune into rewarding people for bettering this world and bringing it closer to peace.[ix] The inventor of dynamite is the creator of the Nobel Peace Prize!  What is done cannot be undone – but we can be awakened, our hearts can be unlocked, and our wounds can be healed; our pain can even become the instrument for our healing, but for that to happen, we have to feel, even if it hurts.

For in truth, the angst we have about what might happen pales when we realize the unmet potential of our lives.

The fear we sense from withholding repentance diminishes when we understand that without real teshuvah, our lives and relationships are left in limbo, actually held in an anesthetized state.

The threat we experience when opposition confronts us abates when we awaken to understand that the Truth is only revealed when contrasting perspectives flourish.

We are not permitted to seal our hearts and abandon hope. When we see pain and suffering, we must not turn away; we must open our hearts and let them sense the echoes of isolation, fear, and despair that our eyes and ears cannot perceive. And then, we must dare to bring comfort and healing. In fact, it is our very experience with pain that actually gives birth to empathy, compassion and, true comfort!   18th century Chassidic teacher Reb Shlomo of Karlin once said, “If you want to raise a person from the mire and darkness, it is not enough to reach your hand down and pull that person up. You must go down into that darkness and with great strength pull yourself and your friend up.” True for healing the pain of our world; true for healing the pain of our lives.

When Yom Kippur ends this evening, we will sound the shofar one last time. The resonating and greatest blast of all, Tekiah Gedolah, will fill the vast air of this holy space and echo in our ears, hearts, and souls.   Did you ever wonder why we end these High Holy Days with the shofar? Why do we need to hear it again if the Holy Days are now over?  Because the real work of awakening is only just beginning.  When we return to our homes and ordinary lives, you can bet that the sedating ringing of our everyday existence will still be there, just as it always has been.  The challenge for us is to take our now open hearts, awareness and and yes, even our pain with us into the New Year, enabling us to act against and above the currents of our existence as-it-is, and by doing so, awaken and transform our lives and our world.

In this New Year of awareness, compassion and healing for us all. Shabbat Shalom. Shanah Tovah.

[i] This sermon is inspired by the life-changing lessons I’ve been taught by my teachers at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  I am forever indebted to them for opening my eyes and heart to the most compelling and profound currents of Judaism and Jewish practice that I have ever known.
 [ii] Even Jewish legal principles have demonstrated this propensity to tune out or habituate to what was once only an exceptional threat of danger but has become the constant and thereby normative existential peril we face daily in our world. Previously, Jewish law permitted the overriding of normal legal and moral restrictions in the case of something called "hora-at sha'ah" - an exceptional moment. The age in which we live, with the constant threat of terror, forces one to essentially adopt the notion that every moment in every day is hora-at sha'ah. But making every moment an emergent moment essentially normalizes such urgency, thereby nullifying the entire exceptional purpose of hora-at sha'ah in the first place.
[iii] Lew, Alan. Be Still and Get Going. p.16.
[v] Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. pp.18, 20. 27
[vi] Ibid. p. 28.
[vii] MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4
[viii] BT, Psachim 50a

[ix] As told by Rabbi Alan Lew in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

Monday, September 8, 2014

Self-Imposed Restlessness for the Weary: Fear of Stillness in Elul

I walked into my regular Thursday morning yoga class recently, and saw something funny.  If you’ve never been to a yoga class before, the general idea is, since it is a contemplative practice, you arrive a little before the class, set up your mat, and begin to center yourself so that once the teacher officially begins, you are ready.  Well, I arrived at class about 5 minutes early, and as I walked into the door of the studio, I noticed that many of my classmates had arrived in advance, were sitting or laying on their mats already, but instead of assuming one of many yoga postures and focusing on their breathing, they were all staring intently at screens on their cell phones – some even in child’s pose with the cell phone under the gaze of their eyes.   Have you noticed that people don’t seem to know how to do just be anymore? 

This summer, the results of a new study on human behavior and introspection came out detailing just how much so. In explaining the reasoning for the study, its lead author Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia remarked, “We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy.  No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”[i] In 11 experiments covering more than 700 people across an expansive age-range, the majority of participants reported that they found it “unpleasant” to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6-15 minutes.   Nearly a third of people admitted they cheated during the experiment by checking their phones or listening to music.
Which caused Wilson along with Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert to ask a different question: “If people found it so unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts, what lengths might they go to in order to escape themselves?”[ii]

To answer this question, they started by exposing volunteers to positive and negative stimuli, including mildly painful electric shocks. They asked the people how much they would pay to avoid the shock experience if they had $5 to spend. Forty-two people responded they would pay.   Then, the researchers told the participants to sit in a room and think to themselves for 15 minutes. If they wanted, they also had the option to shock themselves by pressing a button, feeling a jolt resembling a severe static shock on their ankle.
“I have to tell you, with my other co-authors, there was a lot of debate: ‘Why are we going to do this? No one is going to shock themselves,’” Wilson said.[iii] To their surprise, of the 42 people who said they would in fact pay to avoid the shock, two-thirds of those men chose to shock themselves, and a quarter of the women did. One person pressed the button 190 times.[iv]

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this idea that we humans would rather administer electric shocks on ourselves than be alone with our thoughts, for even just a few minutes.  It’s as if we’ve become addicted to the condition of busy-ness: so desperate to find something to fill up all the moments in our day with noise, distraction, buzz just to carry us to the next moment, fearing what condition might set in if we actually did nothing for a moment or two.  Many posit that ultimately, this is about the fact that when left alone, we humans tend to focus on the negative.  From The New York Times’ coverage of the study: “We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers.  What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out – difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money troubles, health concerns and so on.  And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads.  Hello rumination.” Put simply, it just doesn’t feel good to have to introspect. 

But interestingly enough, I don’t think this is a new phenomenon.  Sure, today distraction is literally at our finger tips, but I’d contend that the preference of mindlessness over mindfulness has been going on for a lot longer than the invent of the cell phone or even the industrial revolution, and certainly, many of the most foundational Jewish teachings and tenets make this clear.   But to understand this, it is important to understand that, more often than not, when a practice or rule is introduced into a culture, it is because the opposite behavior or reality has set in.  So take Shabbat. A day set aside every week, where consumption and “business” are forbidden, where quietness and gratitude are stressed.  Why mandate these behaviors?  Because otherwise they wouldn’t be practiced.  It was true for our ancestors and remains true for us today.  Without setting a limitation, the world of keeping busy, of producing, of consuming rolls right along, sweeping our ancestors and us up in its wake.

More directly, let’s think about the time in which we find ourselves in right now.  Tonight marks the second Shabbat in the month Elul, the 30 day period set aside for us to search our lives, our thoughts and our actions, to acknowledge both the enlightened parts of ourselves, but also the darker parts of our souls, all with the hope that such introspection might positively impact our own process of teshuvah – the call for repentance and returning that is the essential demand of the High Holy Days – now less than three weeks away.  And let me tell you, to do this process the right way, it takes a lot longer than 6-15 minutes alone with ourselves.   

The process of self-evaluation is designed to be an internal one, and it has never been easy.  But the trick is, when it’s actually practiced, we find we can actually change our thoughts, our actions, ourselves.  And it even goes beyond each individual in impact.  Other studies show that not giving ourselves time to reflect impairs our ability to empathize with others.  According to one expert: “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind.  Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”[v] So taking time to cultivate a true sense of self-awareness actually has the potential to transform our relationships with and how we understand the other humans with which we share this world.  

Here’s the challenge for each of us: let’s take some time to be alone with ourselves.  Optimally, each day between now and the High Holy Days would be great, but if that seems like too much, what about just on Shabbat?  And if you need a little facilitation, I’d recommend the practice of cheshbon hanefesh – literally an inventory taking of our souls – in which we reflect on our successes and failures over the past year in light of our relationships and experiences.  Here is a sample that you can use: http://www.nsci.org/uploadedFiles/site/Home/Cheshbon%20haNefesh.pdf.  

Is it possible that we will find the process challenging? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes.  I don’t think it will be less desirable than self-administered electric shocks, but you never know.  What I do know is that if we take up the challenge, we may just discover something about ourselves we never realized or knew before, and that may just assure that our life as well as the other lives our life touches will be better as a result. 

[i] Murphy, Kate. “No Time to Think,” The New York Times.  July 27, 2014
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Johnson, Carolyn. “People Prefer Electric Shocks to time alone With Thoughts.” Boston Globe. July 3, 2014
[iv] Wilson, Timothy.  “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind.” Science. Vol 345. July 2014.
[v] Dimaggio, Dr.  Giancarlo.  As referenced in “No Time to Think” – see above

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Pushing Forward to Get Back Home

In his incredible book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” Rabbi Alan Lew writes of how each of our lives “is a strange dance of pushing forward to get back home.”  Pushing forward to get back home. And he writes of the power of this particular quarter of the year in which we find ourselves right now (no, not the summer, but the period of months that begin just before Tisha b’Av and continue through the High Holy Days) to impact our path on that journey, all through the process of teshuvah – that turning and returning to the best of who we can yet be.  For most, I think, teshuvah-talk doesn’t really start until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the truth is, Jewish tradition begins the teshuvah conversation much earlier – seven weeks earlier to be precise, marking the start of a period of time that many, myself included, believe is of real consequence.

On Tisha b’Av, we lament the calamities of our people throughout history, but we also lament the calamities of our own lives.  The Temple is always a metaphor for the soul’s wholeness, and when we mourn the Temple’s destruction, we mourn too the brokenness of our own souls, of our relationships with each other, of the brokenness and destruction in our world.  Something that this year in particular wasn’t hard to do.  According to Lew, “Tisha b’Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives – from God, from ourselves and from others... Teshuvah is the gesture by which we seek to heal this alienation and find connection, reconciliation, and anchoring in our lives.” 

And so this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b’Av represents our first step out from the exile and despair of Tisha b’Av.  It is called Shabbat Nachamu- "Shabbat of Comfort," referring to the opening verses in the Haftara we recite tomorrow morning, where the prophet Isaiah eases the people’s anguish after the destruction:  Nachamu nachamu ami – take comfort, take comfort my people.  So whereas Tisha b’Av immerses our souls in a place of darkness, this Shabbat of nechama, of comfort, comes to teach that although desolation and alienation feel so all-consuming, we must not give up hope, we cannot shut your eyes from seeing our self and our world from the way they might yet be.  

But how do we do that?  How do we move from immersive despondence to eyes and heart open to the promise of a better tomorrow?
This week’s Torah portion, which is always read on Shabbat Nachamu offers a powerful insight right as it opens, as Moses recounts what is perhaps one of, if not the most heart wrenching part of his own story.  Speaking to the generation that will cross over into the Promised Land, Moses shares this with them: I pleaded with God, I begged God with all my soul “O God, You let me see the works of your greatness and your mighty hand. You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Please, let me cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.”

But God says, no.  Moses continues: “But God would not grant me my wish and said, “Rav lach!” Enough!  Never speak to me of this again.”
Moses - the only one to see God face to face - so longs just to touch, to step onto the land, to which he’s dedicated his life to lead the Jewish people that he literally begs God to take back the Divine punishment that forbids him to get there.  “God, you can do anything, he says, I’ve seen you perform miracles.  Please, do this one thing for me, your most loyal servant.”
And still, God says no, rav lach, you already have so much Moses.  This is enough.   Moses, who has had it all, is left with one thing he can’t have. He is left longing for something else. 

So many of us understand this story as one of failure or God’s abandonment, but I think we read it on Shabbat Nachamu because it is in fact just the opposite, as it gives us back our sense of life.  We don’t ever get there – to the finish line.  It’s why every year at Passover, we always say “Next year in Jerusalem.” We never get there.  None of us do.  And the truth is, every arrival that seems like a finish line, really only turns out to be another starting point.  But there is a beauty and a gift of longing deeply for something.  It gives us something to strive for, something to move towards, in particular in times when it would otherwise seem like we couldn’t go on.  Robert Browning must have known this deep Torah truth when he famously wrote: “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

So this day, this Shabbat of comfort, amidst a still shattered world, we are called to rise up from amidst the ashes, and ask ourselves what is it that we long for? What is it that we ache for? What triggers in us a sense of yearning that is strong enough to drive us forward out of yesterday and into tomorrow?  And then, can we hold on to that longing, that yearning to really feel it sink it and move us? 

So as we move forward for the next seven weeks leading us up to Rosh Hashanah, the renewal of our world and our souls, we need to awaken this longing in our souls. We can ask ourselves: in what way are we trading in our deepest desires for something less than – in what way have we placated our souls with nourishment that doesn’t truly sate us?  And how can we raise up our awareness of our longings so that it might become a vehicle turning us toward teshuvah, pushing us forward to get back home? 
It’s not about destination.  It is always about the journey.  It is the longing that pulls us toward wholeness.  It is the longing that will bring us back home.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Climate of Our Hearts

From the Washington Post earlier this week:  “On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere.  …Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.”

There but for the grace of God, right?

There is so much that is out of our control, all the time.  And take that on any level: from the small stuff that seems big when it is happenings – like getting stuck in traffic jams when we have someplace to be to the big stuff that is actually immensely significant – like life-altering events that we’ve done nothing to invite.  For a species that thinks itself so powerful, perhaps we’ve missed something along the way.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.  As some of you know, I am a participant in a 2 year fellowship of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.  In addition to intensive study year round, the fellowship includes four 5 day retreats, one from which I just returned late last night.  The retreats are silent, meaning that the only sounds participants intone for the majority of the time are words and melodies of prayer during worship time.  We spend significant time in contemplative meditation, Torah study, and embodied practice.  Most of my time during this last retreat was spent contemplating this issue:  in this world where so much doesn’t make sense, where so much seems beyond our will, what is within our grasp to hold on to? What are the atmospheric conditions of our lives that we can actually control?

The Chasidic masters of Jewish tradition answer that question: The only thing that any one person can actually control is the climate of their own heart.  Is my heart warm and open today? Or is it cold and closed?  That is it.  And that, they say, is truly a matter we can direct.  The condition of our heart is the seat of our dominion.  And who and what we let into our hearts is ultimately the only measurable that matters.   
I confess I am with you this Shabbat with an aching heart.  The pain of our world, both near and far, is something that I feel most deeply.  And with each divide, each blinded us versus them, each skewed news report stewing in its own sanctimoniousness, each hateful remark, each tunnel and bullet and bomb, the walls of self-justification amass higher and higher, obscuring the light from entering our hearts.  And I swear to you I can feel the cosmos cracking.

I do not want to speak with you tonight about right and wrong.  About justification.  About what is fair or not.  About any of the things that speak to those parts of us that stimulate our egos.  If there is a time and place for those things, it is certainly not in this moment.  I don’t want to speak with you about Israel or Hamas, about politics and media, about Europe and anti-Semitism, about a shot down airplane carrying the world’s best hope for a cure for AIDS now lost along with hundreds of other souls, about families that have no home or food, children alone on a border in Texas or shot down in Chicago’s streets. About people who sit with us together tonight here in this sanctuary who feel more alone than we could ever know.   I want to talk about how our hearts respond when we encounter any of these and more.

This Shabbat puts us smack dab in the middle of the three week time period called Bein Ha Meitzarim that carries our people from day we memorialize the walls of Jerusalem being breached to Tisha B-Av - the day we remember the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.   Of note is that, although there is certainly historical detail about the events leading up to the Temple’s destruction and our people’s subsequent exile, our tradition frames our memory of the events differently.  When explaining why the Temple was destroyed, instead of citing reasons like the enemy army’s strength, the Talmud instead teaches that the Temple was destroyed on account of moral failures, the most well-known narrative rooting the cause of the destruction to something called Sinat Chinam – translated most often as baseless hatred, but if taken literally, it is the condition of hating graciousness – the denial of benevolence, the abnegation of mercy, the rejection of compassion.  What, according to Jewish tradition, led to the destruction of the place where we felt most connected to the Divine?  The condition of closed-heartedness.

What leads to the destructions of our deepest connections to ourselves, each other, our world, to the Divine? In our day as well, the condition of closed heartedness.

We cannot control the disasters that loom in the universe or the wars that rage on battlefields and in other’s souls.  The only question for us is what is the climate of our heart?  Is it heat or ice? Vulnerable or locked up tight?

I wonder what it would be like if we could go through our days entirely open-hearted?  I wonder if our hearts could sense the echoes of isolation, fear, and despair that our ears cannot perceive? I wonder if we could find a way to hold each other with increased sensitivity and compassion?  I wonder if we could heal the brokenness in each other’s hearts with our own hearts?  And if we did so, what sort of Seat of Holiness, what sort of Mikdash we might build together again?  Shabbat Shalom