About Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Rabbi Rachel Timoner is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. She was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2009. She has worked in social justice and community organizing for twenty years while developing a spiritual life. She became a rabbi to combine the two.

Kol Nidrei 5776 Coming Home

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Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Congregation Beth Elohim

One morning, when I was eleven years old, my father went in for his weekly massage. My father was in great shape. He was a tennis player and a runner, but he had a bad back. When the masseuse cracked his neck to conclude the massage on this one July day, my 52-year old father got up from the table and collapsed. The doctors later determined he’d had a massive stroke. It can happen with a neck crack. That morning he was planning a barbecue. That afternoon he was rushed to intensive care. He was in critical condition for months, paralyzed for life. He eventually lost his job, his career, his savings.

I grew up as a member of a Reform congregation, where no one would have guessed that I was going to be a rabbi. The tragedy that happened in my family made me particularly critical of the synagogue, which felt disconnected from what I was experiencing: terror in hospital hallways, despair in physical therapy rooms, loneliness at night. It’s possible that the people in the synagogue reached out to help my family, but I don’t think they did.

People seemed more concerned with the latest dresses, jewelry, or shoes than with what we were there to do together. We spoke about many lofty concepts in our prayers, but I didn’t see how those words affected people’s behavior. I felt that what we were doing in synagogue was hypocritical. It didn’t seem like anyone was actually praying, contemplating the fragility of our existence, or trying to be better people. It didn’t seem like hearts were opening or lives were changing.

By the time of my bat mitzvah rehearsal, my father was able to walk very slowly with a cane. He had been practicing for months. The rabbi was in a hurry. As my father made his way to the lectern for the aliyah, the rabbi snapped his fingers in impatience. At that point I knew that after my bat mitzvah I would never go back.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel continues, “When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship [replaced] by discipline, love [replaced] by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion— its message becomes meaningless.”

To me, in those years, Judaism seemed irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
What did the synagogue have to do with my life?

That question lingered with me for the next decade. I did not know the answer. Is there a Judaism that not only speaks to the crisis of today but acts to redress it? Is there a Judaism where faith is a real, honest, living fountain, rather than an heirloom? Is there a Judaism that speaks in the voice of compassion for all of the hurting souls? Is there a Judaism that guides our search for meaning, that can speak to our lives directly, that can push us to become the human beings we need to be?

Even though Kol Nidrei is the single biggest night for the synagogue, sixty-five percent of American Jews are not in a synagogue this evening. Among those of us present tonight, a great number feel ambivalent about prayer, about Torah, about God, about Judaism, about religion, about synagogue itself.

Though there have been improvements since Heschel wrote his critique, Judaism has failed many people. I’m not the only one who had a bad experience as a child. Some kids loved religious school, bonded with their rabbi, felt at home in youth group, fell in love with summer camp. Others were bored. Others never heard about a God they could relate to or never understood what the Torah had to do with their lives.

Many adults were wounded by their rabbis and their congregations. Women excluded, treated like second-class citizens, and made invisible. Interfaith families shunned. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people called abominations. Jews of color treated as if they were not Jews. Jews without means turned away or shamed. Families without children ignored, single people left at the margins.

For those who have always felt welcome, Judaism often failed to keep up with changing spiritual needs, developing scientific awareness, and psychological growth.

Leaving off at age thirteen, many people never learned a mature, layered Judaism to meet their spiritual and intellectual needs as adults. So they looked elsewhere: to psychology, Buddhist meditation, yoga, literature, science, the arts. It’s good they found what they needed, but many don’t know that what they’re looking for is right here, in their own tradition. We have failed to teach it in a way that they can hear.

Our tradition on this day is to take responsibility for our sins in the collective. In awareness of the ways we’ve failed, on behalf of those who dedicate our lives to lead the Jewish people and to make Judaism live in our time, I offer this confession of our sins before our God.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve allowed services— worship of You, the Source of all Life— ever to be irrelevant, dull, oppressive, or insipid.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we have excluded or devalued women.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your people a sophisticated and soulful approach to prayer.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your people a sophisticated approach to You.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to nurture an evolving, deepening spiritual life among Your people.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your Torah in a way that touches hearts and changes lives.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we’ve committed when we have failed to speak and act from compassion.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to see and make a home for all of Your people, regardless of who they love, what they look like, how much they earn, or who is in their families.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed by failing to build communities that care for one another when ill, suffering, grieving, or in need.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we’ve committed by failing to lead effectively to heal this broken world.

God says to us in our prayers this night, salachti kidvarecha, I have forgiven as you’ve spoken. God is ready to forgive for all of the ways we’ve failed to make Judaism live in our time.

Are we ready to forgive as well?

Ten years after my bat mitzvah I’d had some spiritual experiences, unbeckoned and surprising. I found myself unable to ignore the questions they raised. What did I believe about God? Did I believe that life has purpose? At the end of my life, how would I know if I had lived well?

Even with the alienating experiences from childhood, Judaism was in me; and I sensed that in order for me to be whole, in order for me to know who I am, in order for me to become who I need to be, I had to come home, I had to forgive, I had to find my way back to a synagogue. I had to see if I could find the Judaism that I was longing for.

Why are you here? Why did you choose to come home tonight?

Perhaps you’ve never missed Kol Nidrei. Perhaps you come out of loyalty or a sense of duty to family. Perhaps you’re here because it is a mitzvah to be here on this night. Perhaps you want to connect with your people, your tribe. Perhaps this specific place, Beth Elohim, is your home and you need to be here on this night.

More Jews come home to synagogue on this night than on any other night of the year.

Perhaps you are here because you feel the burden of what it is to be a human being, of struggle and suffering, of mistakes, harm done, weakness and pettiness, and you are trying to figure out how to be better, how to be good, even holy.

Perhaps you are reaching for meaning: you sense that there is so much beneath the surface and you want to touch that.

Perhaps you are seeking God; even if you’re unsure about the word God, or conflicted about what it might mean to you; perhaps you long to serve God.

Perhaps you are afraid of how little time you and I have on earth, and you want to understand how to live life well.

Whatever it is that brought you here, you have joined a great river of Jews coming home. Rabbi Alan Lew said, “Judaism believes in the particularity of time – that certain times have particular spiritual properties. … This day, Yom Kippur, has the power to heal. Because this is the day we come home.”

However, coming home is not easy.

We’re accomplished people: smart, capable, knowledgeable, skilled. But in synagogue we don’t all know the words, we don’t all know how to read the prayers. If this is supposed to feel like home, why do so many of us always feel like beginners? And how do you say these words and mean them?

If you grew up traditional with only Hebrew, the instruments and English might not feel Jewish to you. If you grew up Reform, what is it with all this Hebrew? If you don’t believe in God, how do you work with these prayers? Or what if you are wary of religion in general, you might wonder: am I participating in something harmful?

In my many opportunities to listen to you, the members of Beth Elohim, this summer, I heard something remarkable. Everyone here is stretching. Everyone here grew up with a Judaism different than what we practice here together. Some grew up Reform and have to stretch to make room for so much Hebrew and so little English. Some miss the grand music of the organ. Some grew up Orthodox or Conservative and miss it. Some grew up secular or not Jewish, and have to stretch to make room for all of this talk about God and all of these practices that feel new and foreign. Almost everybody thinks that someone else is naturally at home here, when in fact everyone is stretching. Everyone is adapting to a new home that we are making together.

Right now, my family and I are learning about what it’s like to make a new home. How exciting it is, and also how profoundly disorienting. You have to work to remember who you are. You miss your old home, where everything and everyone was known and familiar. Even if you didn’t like the synagogue or church you grew up in, even if it was a place you didn’t fit, it was what you knew.

Svetlana Boym, aleyha hashalom, was a brilliant Jewish playwright and professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard. In the Future of Nostalgia, she wrote that there are two kinds of nostalgia: reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. Reflective nostalgia recognizes loss, glows with the ache of what was, makes us tender and longing for the past, but allows a different future to embody its elements. Restorative nostalgia tries to remake the present in the image of the past and cannot be satisfied with any present that differs from the idealized past. This second form of nostalgia, Boym warns, denies and rejects the complexity of the world as it is, forcing the world to conform to a memory. The impulse toward restorative nostalgia is one we all recognize – it’s when the way we always did things seems like the only right way.

Because the world is always changing and we can’t go back, because we share the world with people different from ourselves, coming home necessarily means stretching into the future. And that is always fraught with adjustments and compromises, with loss and yearning. It’s reflective nostalgia that allows the new to become familiar over time, that allows us to hold that tender ache of memory so that we can infuse what is with what was. Choosing to adopt our new home as the home we were always looking for.

Rabbi Alan Lew says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people as seen in our national resolve to someday rebuild the Bayit, the Home, the Great Temple in Jerusalem. [It is like] the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling around the bases….. And the truth is,” Rabbi Lew continues, “every time we come home, home is different, and so are we.”5

If all we knew as children was a sleepy, musty Judaism, a stale reenactment of something that once had meaning to our ancestors, then we come here expecting to be bored, expecting that the prayers and the Torah are not about us, not about our real lives and struggles, our hopes and our fears. If our expectation is that we are here just because we’re supposed to be, how can we be ready to receive, ready to make something meaningful happen? If, however, we come here open to the possibility of being surprised, of encountering something fresh, alive, invigorating, radically awe-inspiring; if we can consider the possibility that there’s a treasure here buried beneath all of these inherited words of the prayerbook; if we cultivate our curiosity, then we will find brilliance.

What if, what if this here will nourish us? What if this is what we most need in our lives right now? That’s what I found when I came home to synagogue in my 20s. I found myself to be surprised. Some of you have a similar story: you’re shocked by how much you’ve fallen in love with Shabbat morning services. You can’t believe the way you delight in Torah study. Something has awakened in you here and synagogue has become essential to your life. But that’s hasn’t happened for everyone.

If I do nothing else as your rabbi, I must help you see that we are inheritors of something unspeakably precious, something directly relevant, not oppressive but liberating, not dull but invigorating, not insipid but imaginative, something that will make our lives better, more vibrant, more meaningful, more whole.

Once you see that Judaism is urgently about you—your work life, your marriage, your life as a parent or grandparent, the questions that sit in your very heart, once you see with fresh eyes what this treasure can be for you, it will be compelling, even irresistible.

Torah is not just the scrolls in that ark – Torah is a deep conversation throughout time about how to live.

If we knew how to live, there’d be not one hungry person on earth. We’d be in touch with the pain of our world and know how to heal it. If we knew how to live, we’d feel and know every day how much we love the people we love, and so would they. We’d be conscious of how much we can learn from every interaction: every meeting, every email exchange. We’d be kind, even when our flight is delayed, or are children are intransigent, or the line is long and we are late. The wisdom in Torah is as great as any wisdom on earth and it is ours.

I want us to bring Torah into everything we do at Beth Elohim. From budget meetings to building maintenance, from social action to swimming. Here’s my challenge to you: open your eyes to Torah. Make it yours. If it fails you, alienates you, offends, seems arcane, don’t give up. Dig deeper. Every time you come to meet with me, for any kind of meeting, bring Torah. Find a verse on the web or in a book. Bring it as an offering. I will have in my office a fountain of Torah, a bowl full of verses. If you forget to bring one, you can pick one out. We’ll look at it together. You will see that Torah is about you and Torah is a way to come home.

And not just Torah, also Avodah. Prayer is not meant to be a rote recitation of something borrowed but not ours. Our prayers are the poetry of our people, and the prayerbook is a compendium of the longings of our hearts. When we learn how to pray— really pray— we are right there in those words and letters, we find our own voice singing inside of them, and our voice mingles with the voice of our people through time.

Once we know how to do that, those prayers will hold us and accompany us and guide us through every moment of our lives – in times of exultation, loneliness, contentment, despair.

Avodah, tefilah, prayer, is what we do the most together, but so many of us don’t have a way in. I’ll be teaching a class on Shabbat mornings designed to give you a way into prayer. Join me at 11:30 every Shabbat to take the prayers apart, find out what they mean, see how you can relate, find your own voice, explore who or what you think you’re talking to. And we’ll see together that prayer is a way to come home.

Not just Torah, not just Avodah, but G’milut Chasadim. We need each other. Our people have known this at least since the Roman conquest and the ensuing diaspora, when we defined a minyan. We know that we are interdependent. We may be rugged individuals in the American marketplace, but our people are wise enough to understand that the most important moments of our lives will take place in the company of community. This is where God lives. Beyond us, yes, but also within us and between us.

We make real community when we decide to show up for one another when we’re hurting, lonely, sick, suffering, mourning, sleepless with a new baby, unemployed, single and looking, moving, retiring, aging. These are the moments that will test us.
After my father’s stroke, many people disappeared: he wasn’t powerful or important anymore. Some people didn’t know what to say or how to act. Four families showed up.

They drew close, taking shifts in the hospital, bringing food to the house, making sure we were not alone. We called them Eli’s Army, and there was no getting through those years without them.

Chesed means loving-kindness. G’milut Chasadim are acts of lovingkindness. At CBE the Chesed Committee makes meals for people who are sick or helps to form a minyan for people who are mourning. But Chesed doesn’t have to be only a committee. I challenge all of us to be part of Chesed, taking it upon ourselves to show up for one another. Rabbi Katz and Carol Shuchman are revitalizing Chesed at CBE this year, making opportunities for all of us to bring meals, visit, send notes, be counted in a minyan, run errands, call, and organize others to be there. In short, to never let any of us suffer alone. Chesed, G’milut Chasadim, is a way to come home.

Torah, Avodah, G’milut Chasadim. The world stands on these three things. Three things you and I need, three ways to come home.

In the words of Rabbi Maggie Wenig, “Come home,” [God] wants to say to us, “Come home.” But … she is afraid that we will say, “No.” “We are so busy. We’d love to see you but we just can’t come. Too much to do.” God … is waiting for us… She will leave the door open and the candles burning … Perhaps one day…perhaps one day we will be able to say, “Avinu Malkeinu, we have come home.”

Hashiveinu Adonai elecha, return us Adonai, to you, v’nashuva, and we will come home.
Yom Kippur has the power to heal because on Yom Kippur we come home.

It’s time to come home, CBE.

Welcome home.

Rosh Hashanah 5777 How Will We Love?

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Rosh Hashanah 5777
Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Congregation Beth Elohim

How Will We Love?

Last year I came to this sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah morning to meet you.
I came with fresh hope, speaking about all of the promise
and possibility in our lives.
I spoke about miracles, about the miracles of our existence.

Those miracles are still here, all around us.
But this year I come to you in a very different spirit.
I come to you broken-hearted, bruised and battered.
And I know that some of you come to this sanctuary this morning
feeling that way too.

We are here together after a year saturated with violence,
a year in which hate was given license and spread.

In August, a friend of mine, a rabbi,
tweeted her reaction to Donald Trump’s immigration speech.
For the next 24 hours, she was subjected
to an anti-Semitic barrage unlike anything she’d ever seen.
Images of Adolph Hitler were sent to her, swastikas,
and comments like those received by many other Jews this year:
“Throw her in the gas chambers,”
“Fire up the ovens!”
“Go back to Poland!”
“Go back to Israel!”

In June, on the holiday of Shavuot,
after our incredible celebration of Torah
through all-night learning, the news reached us
of the Pulse Latino gay nightclub in Orlando.
For hours we watched the live footage
as the death count rose to 49.
Was he an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist from ISIS?
Was he a homophobe?
Or was this just another American mass shooting?

Last month, baby Sidra was born in a refugee camp.
Her family fled death in Syria many months before.
Their treacherous journey across the sea
led them to a wretched existence in a Greek camp.
Sidra’s parents desperately did not want to give birth
before settling in a new country,
but there is no country that will take them.
Their baby has no passport, no nationality, no home.

Two years after the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police in Cleveland,
a 10-year-old black boy in Newark named Legend Preston
was picking up a basketball
when suddenly police closed in with shotguns drawn.
The 10 year old panicked and ran.
The police chased, shouting, threatening to shoot.
They thought he matched the description of an armed robber.
Gratefully neighbors stopped them before they killed the boy.
Legend was shaking in tears, gasping for air,
forever traumatized.
“I thought they were going to shoot me,” he said.

What do these events have to do with each other?
Violence and human degradation coming from so many directions,
it’s overwhelming.
Innocent children and adults murdered for being black;
families languishing in camps while we compare them to Skittles;
repeated invocations of gas chambers and ovens for Jews;
a backdrop of mass murder.

In the beginning, on the sixth day, God created human beings
in God’s own image.
In the next generation there were two brothers,
one of whom murdered the other and had no remorse.
By the generation of the flood, humanity had become so corrupt
and so violent
that God could not countenance our presence on earth.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) says
that the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai
debated for two and a half years
about whether humanity should exist.
One side said,
‘It is better for man never to have been created
than to have been created.”
The other side said:
“It is better for man to have been created
than not to have been created.”
Through two and a half years of debate,
Hillel and Shammai counted [our deeds] and decided:
it would have been better if humanity had never been created.
But, they said, now that we have been created,
we should sift through our actions. We should examine our deeds.

Here we are, created, and as Jews in this moment haunted
by the idea that one day our grandchildren will ask us:
“How did you let it happen?
The Jewish people had seen this before:
angry racist mobs, angry anti-Semitic mobs.
Talk of ‘taking back the country.’
A leader who said he would round people up
for their ethnicity or religion.
A leader who threatened violence.
A leader who attacked the free press.”

“Jews know what it is to be the slave,”
our grandchildren will tell us.
“Jews know what it is to be the despised minority.
Jews know what it is to be the refugee, the immigrant,
the wretched refuse of the teeming earth.
Jews know what it is to be criminalized, to be the objects of racism.
Jews know what it is for our lives not to matter,
to be hunted in our own country.
Jews know what it is to have borders closed to us.
Jews know what it is to be mocked, shamed, tormented, threatened, scorned.
How did you not see the signs?” our grandchildren might ask us.
“How did you not do more to stop it?”

I do not believe in facile, hyperbolic, or alarmist comparisons.
I do not believe in frightening people to make a point.
I do not believe in exaggerating to be dramatic.
But the fact that we cannot understand how this could be happening
and the feeling that there is an insanity gripping our country,
this should be a red flag.

This is all familiar to our people:
The economic despair
The cultivation of blame
The repetition of lies
The non-functioning of government
The giving up on democracy
The bullying
The scapegoating and conspiracy theories
The white supremacism, the anti-Semitism
The fear, the anger
We have seen this before.

Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, said,
“We must take sides …
When human lives are endangered,
when human dignity is in jeopardy….
Wherever men and women are persecuted
because of their race, religion, or political views,
that place must — at that moment –
become the center of the universe.”

This sermon is not about how to vote in this election.
This is bigger than an election.
I am here to say that standing idly by is not a Jewish value.
Neutrality when life is at risk is not a Jewish value.
Silence in the face of injustice is not a Jewish value.
The Jewish thing to do is to take a stand, to speak, to act,
to do everything in our power to prevent great harm.

The United States of America
has been a safe haven for the Jewish people.
The values of freedom, democracy, and human dignity that are inscribed
in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution come from our Torah.
Those of us whose ancestors were smart enough or lucky enough to settle here
have enjoyed conditions of acceptance and advancement
unprecedented in Jewish history.
If we want it to remain so for our children and grandchildren,
it seems to me that there are two things we must do.
First, we must ensure that the forces of hate
do not take power in our lifetime.
Second, we must uproot and heal the violence and racism
that are the underpinnings of this phenomenon,
that are so deeply rooted in American soil
and have become so endemic to our culture
that they can be easily whipped up in a matter of months.

Until we do both of these things,
Jews will never be guaranteed safety and well-being in this, our home.
The larger context of global violence – of terrorism, of war
– the nativism we see in Europe –
provide a backdrop to a violence that has been soaking through
American society since it began.

And all of it is coming to fruition right now.
We cannot understand this phenomenon of bullying and hate,
xenophobia and white supremacy in America today
unless we understand its particular origins and history in this country,
going all the way back to the African slave trade
and the genocide of Native Americans.

Last spring, many CBE members came together to study systemic racism ,
and we discovered in new depths that this same country that gives us
unprecedented freedom is steeped in violence.
We read about the connection between the arrival of the first slave ships
and the laws of segregation, and the eugenics movement,
and the racism inherent in the police and prison systems,
and the hatred we find in the faces of those who want to build a wall.

When we see angry mobs, when we hear their hateful chants,
when they threaten violence, this is not new in America.
It is not an anomaly. It’s not only about one candidate.
It is something very old and familiar. It used to be called a lynch mob.

Anti-immigrant rallies are not new. They go all the way back to the Alien and
Sedition Act of 1798, the Know Nothing Party, and the Immigration Restriction
Leagues of the 1890’s. Jews were among the targets.

When we see gun violence, mass shootings, we must remember that ever since
men assembled to form the first Indian hunting party, mass shootings have been
commonplace on these shores.

Black people being killed, shackled, held against their will –
that’s ingrained in the very fibers of the American fabric.
Our country had 244 years of slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation,
but there have only been 153 years since it became law.
244 years compared to 153 years,
and for all of those 153 years black people have been disproportionately, brutally,
hanged, beaten, shot, shackled, imprisoned.

It is good that we love our country.
We should love our country.
We must love our country.
Because we love our country we must make it more true to its promise.
Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent
about things that matter.”

There are people who would like to divide the Black community and the Jewish
community right now. There is toxic slander against Israel in one line of the
platform of the Movement for Black Lives. This line of the platform
must be directly opposed. Unequivocally.
There are Jews who say that our people’s safety therefore depends on distancing
ourselves from the work to make Black Lives Matter in America.
I will speak about Israel on Yom Kippur, but for now this is my message:
the struggle for the freedom and safety of the Jewish people in this country
will always be linked to the struggle for the freedom and safety of Black people
and immigrants in this country.
David Duke knows that.
The Ku Klux Klan knows that.
The Nazis who are getting louder in this time know that.

What is happening right now is a mirror being held up
to the soul of our nation,
and to our souls as Jews.
Jews have been given white privilege in America,
making it tempting for us to look away
from the consequences of white supremacy
and to imagine that we will never again be its target.
But this moment proves that we will always be linked to the outcast, the stranger,
the oppressed.
And our current privileges are not worth the cost.
The pain expressed in the streets of Charlotte, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baltimore
is excruciating.
The murder of innocent men and women in Tulsa, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge
is wrong.
And it’s in our name.
This is not who we are.
This is not who we want to be.
It is in our interest as Jews—
it is in the interest of the wholeness of our souls—
to unravel the system of racism and the violence that supports it.

Today is called Yom Ha Din, the Day of Judgment.
It is a time of reckoning.
It is a time of raw honesty.
It is a time to sift through our actions,
to examine our deeds.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us,
“In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Although you and I may not use our hands for violence
on the streets of our country,
the police are our hands. They’re working for us.
For the most part, they’re doing what they’re told to do—
in the name of protecting us.

You and I don’t close the doors on the cells that lock people away.
But Rikers Island right here has 78,000 people a year,
91 percent of whom are Black or Latino;
many of whom are held months or years without trial
because they don’t have enough money for bail.
You and I didn’t invent the War on Drugs,
and the devastation of communities that followed,
but we tolerated it, we looked the other way.

Most of us don’t own guns, we don’t shoot people,
but are we sure that our investment portfolios and pension funds
are not supporting the manufacture of guns
that are destroying these same communities
and now our own?

Most of us have not been out there chanting “Build that Wall!”
but where have we been as anti-immigrant rhetoric
intensified over the last 20 years?
Where have we been as anti-Muslim hate has spread this year?
We too were immigrants.
We too were religious minorities.
We too were refugees.

And as for the global backdrop of Islamic fundamentalist violence
that terrorizes us,
much of it is outside of our control, but some of it is not.
We ourselves didn’t choose to bomb Iraq the first or second time,
but the wreckage was paid for with our taxes.
And we cannot entirely separate the extremist violence that has flourished there
from the rubble and vacuum in which it grew.
Today we sift through our actions.
Today we examine our deeds.
Because we believe that we can change.
While contemplating the two and a half year debate between Hillel and Shammai,
Dr. Tamar Frankiel asks, “What is the point of creation?”
If the point of creation is a perfect world, then humanity should not exist.
We do too much harm.
But if the point of creation is the process itself—the process of growth,
of learning, of evolution, of redemption—
humanity is essential.
Precisely because we are so flawed, and because we have the capacity
to do teshuva, to evolve, to change.

We must not give up on our species.
In the beginning God created humanity and then destroyed us.
Through the experience of the great flood, God learned
never to give up on humanity again.
Humans, like God, are learners.
Our learning is uneven, and not as fast as anyone would like,
but we do learn, we do grow, we do change.

Many generations after the flood, Abraham came into the world
and with him the idea of protest.
When Abraham saw wrongdoing he took action.
When Abraham saw injustice, he spoke up.
From his example, the rabbis taught: “One should love protest,
for as long as there is protest in the world,
goodness and blessing come into the world
and evil departs from the world.” (BT Tamid 28a)

In the generations after Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau
fought, coveted, hated, were selfish.
But in each generation they learned and grew
until we find Judah, our namesake.
Judah allowed his brother Joseph to be sold into slavery.
But then, over time and the events of his life,
Judah learned how to acknowledge his wrongdoing
and how to acknowledge the pain he caused through his actions.
When faced with a similar situation, with the option to remain silent
while his brother Benjamin was imprisoned,
Judah was not silent.
Judah spoke up.
Judah protested.
Judah risked his own comfort and safety to prevent harm to his brother.
Judah did teshuva. Judah changed.
And Joseph forgave.
When Judah and Joseph wept and embraced, a great trauma was healed.

Rashi teaches that God originally tried to create the world
only with the quality of judgment, but the world would not stand.
It wasn’t until God used an equal measure of judgment and compassion
that the world could survive.
On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Ha Din, we say that God is sitting on the throne of
judgment. But the Zohar teaches that with the sound of the shofar
God rises from the throne of din/judgment and sits on the throne of
rachamim/compassion.

So what is the way forward for us?
Whatever we do, it must be defined by compassion, it must be defined by love.
We must saturate ourselves with compassion
to the degree that we are now saturated with violence.
We must bathe ourselves in love
in the way we are now bathed in violence.
We must love ourselves enough to believe that we can change.
We must love each other enough to believe that we can change.
We must be vulnerable: feel, ache, hurt, allow our hearts to break.
But love is not just a feeling. Love is not just a broken heart.
Love is action. Love happens with our hands and our feet and our voices.
Love is made real when we show up.

So what does love look like in this moment?

In the next month, love is doing everything in our power to stop hate.
This is not a wait and see moment.
This is not an I’m too busy moment.
This is a stop everything, single focus moment.
Members of CBE are traveling to Ohio October 28th-30th in a non-partisan effort
to counter voter suppression in Black and Latino communities.
[Zachary speaks] “My name is Zachary Katznelson and I’m a member of CBE. I like many of you worry deeply what this election will bring if hate is allowed to overcome love. The threats to communities of color are threats to us as Jews as well, perhaps even existential ones. So I’m going to Ohio in a couple weeks to ensure people can vote. I hope as many of you as possible will join me.”

After the election, love is doing the work to really understand systemic racism
and putting ourselves on the line to uproot it.
[Cara speaks] “My name is Cara Raich. When Rabbi Timoner asked me to help her organize our race series, I didn’t know what to expect and was concerned about treading into such challenging territory. What I came to realize, after engaging in the work of reading, learning and talking, is that knowing systemic racism exists in our country is entirely different than feeling it through a deeper understanding of the experiences of others. I can never unknow what I learned, I can never deny the benefits I have received because of the color of my skin and I can never again feel like it isn’t my responsibility to try to heal the wounds caused by racism everyday. The soul-stirring journey we took together during the race series profoundly moved me and made me optimistic that the status quo can and will change.”
[Tom speaks] “My name is Tom Ochs. This year, I made a simple decision. Stop talking and start acting…those who know me, know that wasn’t easy. I said yes to being a facilitator, joined the Race Action Group and agreed to become a board member for an organization that works with formerly incarcerated citizens and advocates for closing Rikers Island and ending mass incarceration. I’m showing up, taking action. And now, we’re asking you to do the same.”
CBE’s Dismantling Racism Action Group will be working on a local campaign
to win specific change on racial justice this year.
Our learning began last spring and will continue.
Our action begins now. Anyone can join.

In the meantime, we cannot turn away from the refugees who have nowhere to go. [Wendy speaks] “My name is Wendy Star and I’m a member of CBE. We have all seen the photographs of young children who tragically did not make it to safety. We have also seen the families who did make it to safety but now desperately now need to be resettled and need aid and compassion. These photographs called to me and I can no longer sit by while families are ignored or worse targeted with racism and violence. Please join me. As a group we can change minds, pressure governments to welcome refugees and assist resettled refugees here in the US.”
Sukkot at CBE will be dedicated to refugees. By Yom Kippur, our website will have details about what you can do through CBE to support refugees,
and on Yom Kippur there will be tables
with information about what you can do on all of these issues.

Thanks to all four of you.

Sometimes it feels like the problems of our world are too big and we are too small, but thanks to many of you, there are concrete ways we can get involved
and make a difference.
That’s what love looks like.

And right now, today, this is what love looks like: Doing teshuva.
Proving that human beings can change. By changing.
Choosing one thing to change in the world, and one thing to change inside of you.
Selfishness. Violence. Racism. Internalized anti-Semitism. Hatred, lack of
empathy. Greed. They’re in all of us.
You can’t do everything. If we try to change too many things, we’ll fail
and find ourselves back here next year, doubting that change is possible.
If we choose one thing, one aspect of our behavior or character,
if we focus on it and refocus on it, if we read about it, write about it, reflect on it,
talk about it, become mindful of it, we will change. I speak from experience.

God learned from the flood never to give up on humanity again.
Abraham protested.
Judah repented.
Joseph forgave.
And in the next generation there were brothers
who did one another no harm.
This is what multi-generational redemption looks like.
This is what change looks like. This is what love looks like.

So our question is: how, today, will we love?
If we can love ourselves even as we clearly see our shortcomings,
love ourselves into doing better, into being better, we will change.
If we love our country into doing better, into being better, it will change.
And we’ll come back here next year,
and over many years,
and over generations,
not only more of who we want to be,
but believing in humanity through our own example.

Dear God, Source of our lives, give us the strength to love.
Give us the courage to change.

Finding Hope in Israel

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I hear that many people are giving up on Israel these days. The violence seems unending. The occupation of the West Bank is almost 50 years old. Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union has just said that, while he’s dedicated to the goal in the long term, two states is not achievable in this moment. Hatred, racism, violence, and intimidation seem to be at an all-time high.

I’ve just returned from my second trip to Israel in five weeks. And what I found there was dramatically different than the headlines. I encountered a vibrant society in full swing. I found inspiring undercurrents in the culture and public life that give me great hope for the years to come.

Take, for example, Shaharit, an NGO dedicated to developing leaders from every sector of Israeli society – Haredi, Mizrachi, Russian, Arab, Ethiopian, National Religious – who are willing and able to turn toward the “other” to listen and understand. Take the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa or the Yad b’Yad schools, which are dedicated to building and deepening relationships between Jews and Arabs, to healing hatred, and to educating the next generation to seek connection with one another. Take Yifat Thareani, of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who is documenting the multicultural realities of the Iron Age II (8th-9th centuries BCE) in Israel, in which different peoples (Assyrian, Edomite, Bedouin, Judean) lived side by side. Never were we in a homogeneous society, she demonstrates, and in fact our success was predicated upon cooperation across cultural and linguistic differences. Thareani compares this history to the scout troop she has organized in South Tel Aviv with children from more than 40 countries.

Last Wednesday, the 330 Reform rabbis who gathered in Jerusalem for our Central Conference of American Rabbis convention were hosted by a special meeting of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. No fewer than fifteen Knesset members from seven political parties came to speak about diversity, religious pluralism, and democratic values. The next day, 150 of Reform rabbis rose early to pray at the newly designated egalitarian section of the Western Wall, women and men conducting a Torah service together.

In these two visits, I’ve met Israelis facilitating relationships between Bedouin and Kibbutz children at the border of the Gaza Strip, a mayor of a town in the Negev winning big victories for affordable housing, young people working for civil marriage. I’ve learned that labor unions are experiencing dramatic growth, and that these unions are all completely integrated, with Arabs and Jews working and mobilizing together. I’ve met a labor organizer who sees in these growing, integrated unions an opportunity to remake the electorate by building a progressive wing among these workers.

I ended my second trip with Seeds of Peace Director Leslie Lewin, a member of CBE, who introduced me to the incredible Israeli and Palestinian leaders who have come of age through that groundbreaking camp and organization. The oldest among them are now in their mid-30s, and they are stepping into roles of power and influence within both Israeli and Palestinian society. In addition to meeting with Israelis in Tel Aviv, we traveled to Jericho together to meet with dozens of Palestinian educators dedicated to healing hatred and teaching the inner work of peacebuilding.

As Americans, we sometimes feel that we have no place in building the Israel that ought to be. These two recent visits taught me that American Jews do not have the luxury of sitting by and watching as Israelis and Palestinians do the important work of social transformation. They need us, and we need them. Israel is the Jewish people’s great experiment in self-governance and self-determination. Israelis are our family. Israel speaks for all of the Jewish people. It is therefore our right and obligation to work together with our Israeli sisters and brothers to ensure that Israel speaks and acts on the highest Jewish values. I see Israelis at the grassroots who are ready and willing to partner with us to amplify their message and achieve our shared agenda of justice and peace.

Hebron

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This post was written in collaboration with Rabbi Judy Schindler.

Genesis describes the purchase of property by our father Abraham for the burial of our mother Sarah. The legendary cave of Machpelah, acquired through negotiation with the Hittites, became the site not only of Sarah’s grave, but also of the reconciliation of Isaac and Ishmael as they came together to bury Abraham here in Hebron. Torah teaches that Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah all found their final rest in this place.

Today, 200,000 Palestinians live in this impoverished West Bank city along with 500 soldiers of the IDF, charged with protecting 800 Jewish settlers.

We traveled to Hebron along with 45 other rabbis given the opportunity to see this place, and all that it represents, with our own eyes. On the road here, our bulletproof bus stopped at the Gush Etzion junction. Sirens signaled the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack. Over our phones we saw the headlines: a Palestinian attacked an Israeli soldier with a knife. The soldier who was stabbed survived the attack, but an Israeli officer was killed by friendly fire aimed at the attacker. We passed in silence, aware that we were witnessing a kind of violence that has become almost daily in these parts.

Hebron is not only our people’s first burial site. It has also been a recurring focal point in our people’s narrative, one of the four holy cities in Jewish tradition. 3,000 years ago David briefly established his kingdom in Hebron. 2,000 years ago Herod built up the burial site in the same style as the Temple in Jerusalem. As our group walked inside the structure of the Cave of Machpelah, we found children and women deep in prayer.

On Purim and Ramadan, which fell over the same days in 1994, Hebron and the Cave became a site of bloodshed and a symbol of hate when Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounded another 125 as they gathered at the holy site in prayer. He is now buried in Meir Kahane memorial park nearby. His grave has become a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists. Now the cave is divided with a Muslim side and a Jewish side as is the center of the sacred city.

Two tour guides took our group through the city: a communications representative of the settlers who live in Hebron; and an IDF veteran and peace activist who served in Hebron and now represents Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF veterans who document abuses of Palestinians by the military. Together these two guides offered us conflicting narratives that left our heads hurting and our souls deeply unsettled. In the streets around the cave site, memorials name Israelis murdered by Palestinians. Eerily silent houses stand as witness to the thousands of Palestinians forced to leave their homes and their shops. A once bustling urban center sits so empty that the words of Lamentations replayed in our minds, “How she sits alone, the city once crowded with people!”

The settlers’ narrative is as follows: “Holy sites and historical sites are the same thing.” “The army is here not to protect the settlers but to protect Jewish history.” “We are not settlers; we are resettlers.” “Throughout history our people have come back to this place again and again. We always will come back here.” “Oslo was based on two lies: that Jews would become ahistorical and that jihadists would be happy with only part of the land.”

The Breaking the Silence narrative is as follows: “The human rights cost is too high to protect a historical narrative.” “Our role as soldiers was to make sure that the Palestinians were always aware of our presence. That meant searching homes at 2 a.m., breaking down the door if the family didn’t answer, taking all of the belongings out of their drawers, interviewing the family members, taking pictures, sometimes conducting a mock arrest of the father, even if we knew he’d done nothing wrong.” “Flying checkpoints that move day by day, sometimes hour by hour are a constant reminder of the army’s presence.” “In the twenty percent of Hebron that is Israeli controlled, forty-two percent of Palestinian homes have been abandoned. 1,800 shops have been shut down for security. In the three percent of the city that has been cleared, there are houses where Palestinians still live but they cannot go out their front door because they are not allowed to walk on the street.” “It is a political problem –the framework of us controlling millions of people.”

We emerged troubled by the encounter, sick to our stomachs by what we’d seen. To be a Reform Zionist means that we are deeply committed to our Jewish homeland — its security, its survival, and its ability to thrive. To be a Reform Zionist means that we embrace our Jewish prophetic tradition built upon justice for all people, including Palestinian people. Today, these two goals seem farther apart than ever. It’s hard to believe that what we saw today is what Herzl had in mind.

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5776

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Yizkor Yom Kippur 5776

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Congregation Beth Elohim

This is the season of our turning. Turning inward, turning upward, turning outward, turning to essence, to truth, to who we were in company with those we loved, to who we are now in their absence, to who we are now because they lived, because they touched our lives. Because they shaped us, accompanied us, raised us, loved us.

When someone we love dies—even if we knew they were dying, even if we worked day and night to care for them, even if it took all of our patience to be with them, even if we sometimes wished that the end would come soon—when someone we love dies, we are stunned. All the world gets strangely quiet and slow, we are curled up, set apart. Time expands and bends. We can hear the sounds around as if from a distance, muffled and warped. Life is zipping past us, new beginnings whizzing by, strange and curious in their speed, their unimportance. As our breath comes in and out in and out in and out, it is as if we were wrapped in a fragile silent shelter.

Then, at some point, when the relatives go home, or we have to go back to work, or the kids start to clamor for attention, we step into the whooshing rush,

unprepared and fragile, ripped away from the womb of quiet sorrow. We can feel ourselves turning, reaching backward to that stunned silence, afraid that we will lose it in the crashing clutter of life. Afraid that we will lose again the one we loved by forgetting to remember.

But we adapt because we have to, and we gird ourselves. We get out there and we meet the pace of the racing world. And soon, it can become difficult to take time at all to slow down and remember. At the edges of our consciousness, we fear that we will forget, that the holiness of our love, the preciousness of the one we loved, might just disappear behind today’s demands.

That is why four times in the year Judaism carves out space for us to remember. We have Yizkor four times in the year: on Yom Kippur and at the end of each of our festivals: Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot, we gather like this to remember. And this year at CBE we will do this four times and you are invited. Because our soft bodies need this slowing down, our broken hearts need this sanctuary, our full minds need this quiet space, this turning to face the ones we loved and lost, this remembering them in time.

So on this day, this Yom Kippur, for this hour, we turn back. We slow ourselves again to feel the fragility of the loss, to allow our tender hearts a

sanctuary, to permit the tears to flow, the ache to fill us, as we remember. To remember the years of holding hands, of being kissed goodnight, of walking side by side, of being held.

Turning, we find memories beautiful and sweet, a sunny afternoon in the park, playing in the ocean, laughter at daybreak. Turning, we find memories that are complex, unfinished. We find memories we don’t want, memories of regret, of words said and unsaid, deeds done and not done. Many of us carry guilt about the last months of their lives. Could we have done more? Did we make the right decisions? Could we have prevented some of their suffering? As we feel our way around these memories on this Yom Kippur, we feel where and when we can turn toward forgiveness. We allow our open hearts on this Day of Atonement to seek forgiveness of our dead, and to forgive our dead. We say to our loved ones in our mind’s eye, I am sorry. Forgive me. If there’s any way that I hurt you, that I failed you, if there’s any way I didn’t show you my love, forgive me.

And… If and when we’re ready, for words they didn’t say, for words they did say, for deeds they didn’t do, for deeds they did do, we say to our loved ones in our minds eye, I forgive you. It’s never too late to turn. It’s never too late to forgive them. It’s never too late to forgive ourselves.

Turning, then, we find quotidian memories that are solace. The day in, day out memories of what it was like to live with the ones we loved. Making breakfast. Brushing teeth. Sitting at the dinner table. Falling asleep. These memories accompany us, tuck us in at night, wake with us, sit with us. Turning, we find memories that are the best of friends.

Turn now, turn now, in this quiet sanctuary, on this day that is yours, with this heart that is open, turn now, to remember.

Yom Kippur Morning 5776

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Yom Kippur Morning 5776

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Congregation Beth Elohim

Franklin Roosevelt often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. The story goes that one day, as an experiment, he murmured to each person who shook his hand, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with words like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”1

Though it’s easy to be critical of the people on that White House receiving line, anyone who’s ever tried to meditate has a sense of how thoughts continuously run through our minds, how often we are entirely occupied by the flurry of activity within, especially when we’re under pressure. In order to hear another person there has to be a pause in our inner conversation. There has to be some shrinking of me in order to make space for you.

Then there’s that person before us with something to say.

Listening as a Practice

I first became sensitive to listening as a child. I remember adults pretending to listen but not really listening. I remember telling a story when I was about five, when the person I was speaking to became distracted and started saying, “Uh-huh, uh-huh” but her eyes were wandering and I could tell I’d lost her attention. I remember struggling to stay with my train of thought, to keep track of what I was saying. It was as if, in not being heard, my words evaporated. It was as if, in not being witnessed, I didn’t exist anymore.

1 Thanks to Rabbi Judy Schindler for this story and a great deal more in this sermon.

I remember deciding that I wanted to be a person who listened well. Over time I learned that when another person listens to us fully, we can access language and insights that are only apparent, only discoverable, in that person’s presence. Something happens between us, some kind of alchemy of listener and speaker that enables truth and understanding to emerge. But this is not easy. The louder our external world gets, the more competition for our attention, the more distractible we are. Many times I have come home for one precious hour with my family and found that as soon as Felicia starts to tell me something I remember an email I was supposed to write. The next thing I know my eyes are on my phone and I’m not listening.

Oliver Sacks, alav hashalom, when asked how he’d like to be remembered in 100 years, said “I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them.” “To use a biblical term, [I would like it to be thought that I] bore witness.”

To bear witness, to listen so carefully that we imagine the experience of another, is a sacred act.

I’m in here, and no one else, no one, knows what it is to be in here. In order to even try to communicate, I need to trust that you will receive my words with the benefit of the doubt, with honor for my humanity, for my effort, with forgiveness for my limitations, my faulty choice of words as I try to illuminate some facet of experience previously unnamed or unknown to me.

I have to believe, I have to have faith, that we have enough in common that you could understand what it’s like to be in here. And that my experience of being in here has meaning for your experience of being in there. I need to believe that I will find words to express that meaning, words that you will apprehend and words that will touch something inside of you. In that process, we both come to know that we are less alone. And we both understand something more about what it is to be. Communication becomes a form of self-discovery and other-discovery. The more we know the other, the more we know the self.

Shema is the first prayer that most of us ever learned. We say it three times a day, we say it before bed, we say in the mikveh at conversion, we say it upon our death bed. Shema, listen, pay attention. You think you know. You don’t know everything there is to know. In listening you realize that it’s all One. That we belong to each other and have so much to learn from the other.

“Who is wise,” Ben Zoma asks in Pirkei Avot, “One who learns from every person.” There’s a reason that the Jewish approach to Torah study is chevruta. Chevruta means friendship. In the process of Torah study, we are trying to learn deeply about what it means to live a good life. We are trying to extract lessons encoded for us 3,000 years ago. So we sit with another person, a friend, and encounter a text together. In so doing we find in the listening and the speaking out loud more than we ever could glean by reading on our own. Something happens in the speaking and the listening that transforms the learning and reveals truth. I study every week with a chevruta, and I find this to be unfailingly the case.

Many of us think of ourselves as good listeners, but how good are we at listening to the people closest to us?

Our parents are often the most difficult people for us to bear witness to. We tend to see them in such a fixed and habitual way. What has it been like to live their lives? What has it been like to suffer as they’ve suffered? To dream as they’ve dreamed? What is something new that we can learn from our parents by listening?

What about our brothers and sisters? How do the patterns from our childhood shape and limit what we can hear from them? Who are they now? What might we perceive if we were to listen?

How about our colleagues? Are there people in our workplace from whom we habitually expect the worst? Whose actions we unsympathetically misinterpret? What could it look like to listen to them?

Might we listen with finer tuning to what our children need, rather than presuming we know what is best? Might we be able to hear what they’re not saying, to sensitize ourselves to listen beneath and between their words? How about our beloveds, our spouses, with whom we’ve taken on this life? The people we’re most likely to take for granted because they’re always there. What listening are they quietly needing from us? How do they feel unheard? How might we bear witness to the burdens and beauty of their humanity?

The Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev in the Ukraine said that he learned the meaning of love from a drunken peasant. The rabbi was visiting the owner of a tavern in the Polish countryside. When he walked in, he saw two peasants at a table, gloriously drunk. Arms around each other, they were protesting how much they loved each other. Suddenly, Ivan turned to Peter, “Peter, tell me, what hurts me?” Bleary eyed, Peter looked at Ivan. “How do I know what hurts you?” Ivan replied: “If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”

Turning to the Other

Father Greg Boyle, known as Father G, founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, a successful outreach program that helps gang members get into recovery and off the streets. In his memoirs, Tattoos On The Heart, Father G tells a story of a heroin addict, gang member, street person, and occasional prostitute, named Carmen. One Saturday morning while feeling pressed for time, Father G stops in his office to quickly clear some busy work off of his desk. Just as he is about to begin, Carmen defiantly barges in, sits across from him, and says:

“I went to Catholic school all my life. Fact, I graduated from high school even. Fact, right after graduation, is when I started to use heroin.” “And I … have been trying to stop … since … the moment I began.”

We’re always in the middle of something, whether it’s important business or simple daily distractions. But the person we think is an interruption may be bringing us the very lesson we are on earth to learn, or the very insight we need on that particular day; he or she may open our minds and hearts to an experience we’ve never had, or may connect us to a truth we thought was ours alone, but realize, in listening, we share.

The more we think that someone is different from us, whether because of race, class, neighborhood, culture, religion, age, or experience, the more courage it takes to listen.

Anna Deveare Smith calls this “A broad jump toward the other.” She says, “This is exactly the gift that is missing in the United States of America, and to me this is a crisis in this country, that we don’t know how to feel about anybody but the people who not only look like us but think like us.”3

To the extent that I think I’m the same as an other, I’m not attuned to the ways that we’re different. To the extent that I think I’m different from an other, I’m not attuned to the ways that we’re the same.

2 Thanks to Rabbi Aaron Alexander for this source.

3 From “Young Artists” on HBO.

Boyle watches as:

Carmen tilts her head back until it meets the wall. She stares at the ceiling, and in an instant her eyes become these two ponds, water rising to meet their edges, swollen banks, spilling over. Then, for the first time, she looks at Boyle, and says:

“I … am … a … disgrace.”

Suddenly, [Boyle says,] her shame meets mine. For when Carmen walked through that door, I had mistaken her for an interruption.”

(Tattoos, 41-42)2

Turning Toward African-Americans

There are three kinds of listening to the other I would like for us to do together at CBE over the next few years. First, the events of this year, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, the Charleston massacre, all beg us to listen more deeply to our African-American sisters and brothers. How well do we understand what it is like to be them? How much do we know what hurts them? How much are we able to love?

“I am afraid.” Ta Nehisi Coates writes to his 15 year old son in Between the World and Me. “I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was entirely unoriginal. When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

What is it like to live with that fear in every place at all times? What is it like to have the forces sworn to protect seek to destroy you? What is it like to be caught, trapped, between the danger of the streets and the dead end of the schools and the menacing police4 and the yawning jails? Are we willing to listen? Are we willing to bear witness? Are we willing to know what hurts? Are we willing to make the broad jump toward the other?

You’ll find Voting Rights postcards on your seats… as you know, the Voting Rights Act has been eroded, particularly in Southern states, over the last several decades. Signing and mailing these cards is a simple thing we can do to indicate to the US Congress our desire to restore basic voting rights to African Americans in every state of this country. Rabbi Weider and I recently participated in the Journey for Justice, a march organized by the NAACP for racial justice in policing and prisons, in voting rights, in jobs, and in education.

There was a man named Middle Passage on the march. He was 70 years old and he insisted on marching the entire 40 days, 15 to 20 miles a day, all the way from

4 I delivered this sermon with this language, but I would like to make clear in this written version that I do not think most police are to blame for the injustice of the justice system. The police are working for us, the American people, and acting on our behalf. The institutional racism that they are acting out is our racism. It is our problem, our disgrace, our responsibility.

Selma, Alabama to Washington DC. He carried a huge American flag every day. I met Middle Passage while I was marching. Other rabbis who visited the march on other days later told me that when they asked him why he was named Middle Passage he responded with just one word: Slavery. Over the course of the journey almost 200 rabbis participated, each flying in for a day and flying back out. Middle Passage was there day in and day out. And then, just four days before the march arrived in Washington, Middle Passage died of a heart attack while marching.

I feel deeply that our country’s legacy of slavery has left all Americans with half-lives marked by squelched potential and fear of the other. But I never asked Middle Passage why he chose his name. I never learned about his life or his own relationship to slavery. I think I was afraid of what he might say. I think I wanted to feel good about my day trip to the South and if I really listened to Middle Passage, it might have implicated me. Or it might have broken my heart. Sometimes we don’t listen because we’re afraid of what we might hear.

You might excel at being wholly present for the people closest to you in your life. You might be great at listening fully even when interrupted. But what about listening across lines of race and class? Our society is so segregated that it’s challenging to even be in each other’s presence in such a way that deep listening to the other becomes possible.

Over the next few years, I want us to enter into relationships with African American churches in New York. So that we can bear witness. So that we can make a broad jump toward the other. So that we can come to know one another deeply, and so that we can go into action together for the kind of city and world we need.

One year from now will be the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots. How much has changed since then? Who are we to our African-American neighbors? Who are we to our Chasidic neighbors? What kind of listening have we done? What kind of listening could we be doing? What kind of relationships do we want to have 25 years from now?

Turning to Other Jews

Second, listening is as great a challenge within the Jewish community as outside of it. The Park Slope Food Coop hummus wars are legend. In the ugly fight over the Iran deal, we are seeing hatred of Jews by Jews. Jews calling other Jews Nazis. Jews threatening other Jews with death. There is so much shouting, so little room for listening. You might say: I’m great at listening to my parents and my children. I’m all in for listening in Brooklyn’s black churches. I’ll be there. But someone who supports BDS? Not them. Or an AIPAC Netanyahu supporter? Not them. A settler? Not them. Our inability as American Jews to listen to one another affects the Israeli people. It also affects the Palestinian people. Our inability as American Jews to listen to Israelis, the inability of Israelis to listen to each other, could be the pivotal factor in our future as a people. Look at what has happened in Jerusalem just since Rosh Hashanah. We need to be able to talk to each other about this. Can we develop the ability to learn from one another, to seek to understand how and why our opinions differ? Are we willing to be changed by what we hear? Will we create forums that are not characterized by shouting and ad hominem attack, but are spaces for inquiry, for humility, for developing a common language?

CBE has been such a place, a place where Israelis and Americans can come together to confront the difficult questions facing our people, to listen to opposing views, to be challenged in our perspectives, and to expand our ideas about the possible ways forward. I am committed to nurturing a space in which we engage in humility and with patience, in which we express our fears and hopes, and see each other’s humanity; and in which our dialogue is characterized by profound respect even when we differ. In the book of First Kings, Elijah feared for his life and longed to feel God’s presence. An angel told Elijah to stand before God on the mountain of Sinai. On that summit, where Elijah stood, “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake there was a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire, there was a still small voice.” In our conversations about Israel, amidst all the wind of punditry, the

earthquake of fear, the fire of passion, can we become quiet enough, humble enough, to hear the still small voice, the wisdom to find our way forward?

Turning to the Other at CBE

Third, in your search for a new rabbi, Congregation Beth Elohim, you turned to one another and listened. You came together in small groups across lines that mixed all of the different sectors of the community. You met people you’d never known before, across your differences. And you found that you had more in common than you ever imagined.

When I arrived this summer, I knew that my first step had to be listening too—I met with ECC families, Shir L’Shabbat families, Altshul members, Yachad families, Kehilla members, Havurah members, Friday night people, Saturday morning people, Lay Led Minyan people, Brooklyn Jews, parents of teenagers, Shabbat morning learners, Mussar learners. We met in small groups so there was time for each person to speak. I listened, and you listened to one another. Inevitably, in every circle, people heard something they hadn’t known before. Even old friends remarked that they learned new things, understood each other in a new way. Many times I thought: what would happen if all of these little pockets of CBE could hear one another? What would happen if the Altshul people and the Classical Reform people could listen to one another, could get curious about one another? What if old people and young people came together to listen? What if long-timers and newcomers came together to listen? What if we started with curiosity, with humility, with eagerness to learn? How much might we find we have in common? And how much might we grow from our differences?

So, I’d like to do three kinds of listening as a congregation: listening to African-Americans, listening to other Jews about Israel, and listening within our congregation across our differences.

The Listening of Forgiveness

Now, finally, we return to the personal. The listening of this day is about forgiveness. This is the hardest kind of listening. You might be connecting all the dots at CBE. You might have weekly tea with BDSers and AIPACers, together. You might already be in deep relationships across lines of race and class, busy defusing tensions in Crown Heights. You may be unerringly present to the people closest to you. But is there someone out there to whom you do not speak? Is there someone who’s angry at you? In his essay, Toward the Other, Emmanuel Levinas comments on the well-known mishna: “The transgressions of a human being toward God are forgiven on the Day of Atonement; the transgressions against other people are not forgiven by the Day of Atonement, unless the other person is first appeased.”

The entire purpose of Yom Kippur: teshuva, forgiveness, depends upon our ability to turn toward the other and listen. To allow ourselves to be confronted by a reality that might not match our own. Sometimes when we listen to the other we hear what we do not want to hear. Our version of history might be refuted. Our memory might be challenged. Our sense of self might be undermined or threatened. Opening to the narrative of another disrupts our internal monopoly over truth, requires us to make room for a different truth.

Levinas, here and elsewhere, calls God the absolute Other. But he notes that in the case of forgiveness, God is less other than humans are to one another.5 Because God will forgive us on this day even if we do nothing. But God cannot forgive us of our transgressions against other people, unless we turn toward those other people with open hearts, ready to listen. Yom Kippur, then, depends entirely on making that broad jump, on bearing witness, on knowing how it is that the other hurts and in that way knowing what it is to love.

5 Emmanuel Levinas, “Toward the Other,” in Nine Talmudic Readings, Indiana University Press, p. 16.

Dear God, Holy One of Blessing, knower of hearts, teach us to hear, help us to make a practice of listening to our parents, our children, our siblings, our colleagues, our spouses, our friends. Give us the courage to turn toward others to find our common humanity so that we can be united in action for a better world. And may we use this day to listen to those we’ve hurt so that we can know how to love.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Kol Nidrei 5776 Coming Home

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Kol Nidrei 5776 Coming Home

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

Congregation Beth Elohim

One morning, when I was eleven years old, my father went in for his weekly massage. My father was in great shape. He was a tennis player and a runner, but he had a bad back. When the masseuse cracked his neck to conclude the massage on this one July day, my 52-year old father got up from the table and collapsed. The doctors later determined he’d had a massive stroke. It can happen with a neck crack. That morning he was planning a barbeque. That afternoon he was rushed to intensive care. He was in critical condition for months, paralyzed for life. He eventually lost his job, his career, his savings.

I grew up as a member of a Reform congregation, where no one would have guessed that I was going to be a rabbi. The tragedy that happened in my family made me particularly critical of the synagogue, which felt disconnected from what I was experiencing: terror in hospital hallways, despair in physical therapy rooms, loneliness at night. It’s possible that the people in the synagogue reached out to help my family, but I don’t think they did.

People seemed more concerned with the latest dresses, jewelry, or shoes than with what we were there to do together. We spoke about many lofty concepts in our prayers, but I didn’t see how those words affected people’s behavior. I felt that what we were doing in synagogue was hypocritical. It didn’t seem like anyone was actually praying, contemplating the fragility of our existence, or trying to be better people. It didn’t seem like hearts were opening or lives were changing.

By the time of my bat mitzvah rehearsal, my father was able to walk very slowly with a cane. He had been practicing for months. The rabbi was in a hurry. As my father made his way to the lectern for the aliyah, the rabbi snapped his fingers in impatience. At that point I knew that after my bat mitzvah I would never go back.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel continues, “When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship [replaced] by discipline, love [replaced] by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion— its message becomes meaningless.”1

To me, in those years, Judaism seemed irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

What did the synagogue have to do with my life?

That question lingered with me for the next decade. I did not know the answer. Is there a Judaism that not only speaks to the crisis of today but acts to redress it? Is there a Judaism where faith is a real, honest, living fountain, rather than an heirloom? Is there a Judaism that speaks in the voice of compassion for all of the hurting souls? Is there a Judaism that guides our search for meaning, that can speak to our lives directly, that can push us to become the human beings we need to be?

1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, 1955.

Even though Kol Nidrei is the single biggest night for the synagogue, sixty-five percent of American Jews are not in a synagogue this evening.2 Among those of us present tonight, a great number feel ambivalent about prayer, about Torah, about God, about Judaism, about religion, about synagogue itself.

Though there have been improvements since Heschel wrote his critique, Judaism has failed many people. I’m not the only one who had a bad experience as a child. Some kids loved religious school, bonded with their rabbi, felt at home in youth group, fell in love with summer camp. Others were bored. Others never heard about a God they could relate to or never understood what the Torah had to do with their lives.

Many adults were wounded by their rabbis and their congregations. Women excluded, treated like second-class citizens, and made invisible. Interfaith families shunned. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people called abominations. Jews of color treated as if they were not Jews. Jews without means turned away or shamed. Families without children ignored, single people left at the margins.

For those who have always felt welcome, Judaism often failed to keep up with changing spiritual needs, developing scientific awareness, and psychological growth.

Leaving off at age thirteen, many people never learned a mature, layered Judaism to meet their spiritual and intellectual needs as adults. So they looked elsewhere: to psychology, Buddhist meditation, yoga, literature, science, the arts. It’s good they found what they needed, but many don’t know that what they’re looking for is right here, in their own tradition. We have failed to teach it in a way that they can hear.

Our tradition on this day is to take responsibility for our sins in the collective. In awareness of the ways we’ve failed, on behalf of those who dedicate our lives to lead the Jewish people and to make Judaism live in our time, I offer this confession of our sins before our God.

2 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013,

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve allowed services— worship of You, the Source of all Life— ever to be irrelevant, dull, oppressive, or insipid.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we have excluded or devalued women.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your people a sophisticated and soulful approach to prayer.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your people a sophisticated approach to You.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to nurture an evolving, deepening spiritual life among Your people.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to teach Your Torah in a way that touches hearts and changes lives.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we’ve committed when we have failed to speak and act from compassion.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed when we’ve failed to see and make a home for all of Your people, regardless of who they love, what they look like, how much they earn, or who is in their families.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we have committed by failing to build communities that care for one another when ill, suffering, grieving, or in need.

Al Cheyt Shechatanu Lefanecha. For the sins we’ve committed by failing to lead effectively to heal this broken world.

God says to us in our prayers this night, salachti kidvarecha, I have forgiven as you’ve spoken. God is ready to forgive for all of the ways we’ve failed to make Judaism live in our time.

Are we ready to forgive as well?

Ten years after my bat mitzvah I’d had some spiritual experiences, unbeckoned and surprising. I found myself unable to ignore the questions they raised. What did I believe about God? Did I believe that life has purpose? At the end of my life, how would I know if I had lived well?

Even with the alienating experiences from childhood, Judaism was in me; and I sensed that in order for me to be whole, in order for me to know who I am, in order for me to become who I need to be, I had to come home, I had to forgive, I had to find my way back to a synagogue. I had to see if I could find the Judaism that I was longing for.

Why are you here? Why did you choose to come home tonight?

Perhaps you’ve never missed Kol Nidrei. Perhaps you come out of loyalty or a sense of duty to family. Perhaps you’re here because it is a mitzvah to be here on this night. Perhaps you want to connect with your people, your tribe. Perhaps this specific place, Beth Elohim, is your home and you need to be here on this night.

More Jews come home to synagogue on this night than on any other night of the year.

Perhaps you are here because you feel the burden of what it is to be a human being, of struggle and suffering, of mistakes, harm done, weakness and pettiness, and you are trying to figure out how to be better, how to be good, even holy.

Perhaps you are reaching for meaning: you sense that there is so much beneath the surface and you want to touch that.

Perhaps you are seeking God; even if you’re unsure about the word God, or conflicted about what it might mean to you; perhaps you long to serve God.

Perhaps you are afraid of how little time you and I have on earth, and you want to understand how to live life well.

Whatever it is that brought you here, you have joined a great river of Jews coming home. Rabbi Alan Lew said, “Judaism believes in the particularity of time – that certain times have particular spiritual properties. … This day, Yom Kippur, has the power to heal. Because this is the day we come home.”3

However, coming home is not easy.

We’re accomplished people: smart, capable, knowledgeable, skilled. But in synagogue we don’t all know the words, we don’t all know how to read the prayers. If this is supposed to feel like home, why do so many of us always feel like beginners? And how do you say these words and mean them?

If you grew up traditional with only Hebrew, the instruments and English might not feel Jewish to you. If you grew up Reform, what is it with all this Hebrew? If you don’t believe in God, how do you work with these prayers? Or what if you are wary of religion in general, you might wonder: am I participating in something harmful?

In my many opportunities to listen to you, the members of Beth Elohim, this summer, I heard something remarkable. Everyone here is stretching. Everyone here grew up with a Judaism different than what we practice here together. Some grew up Reform and have to stretch to make room for so much Hebrew and so little English. Some miss the grand music of the organ. Some grew up Orthodox or Conservative and miss it. Some grew up secular or not Jewish, and have to stretch to make room for all of this talk about God and all of these practices that feel new and foreign. Almost everybody thinks that someone else is naturally at home here, when in fact everyone is stretching. Everyone is adapting to a new home that we are making together.

Right now, my family and I are learning about what it’s like to make a new home. How exciting it is, and also how profoundly disorienting. You have to work to remember who you are. You miss your old home, where everything and everyone was known and familiar. Even if you didn’t like the synagogue or church you grew up in, even if it was a place you didn’t fit, it was what you knew.

3 Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, 2003.

Svetlana Boym, aleyha hashalom, was a brilliant Jewish playwright and professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard. In the Future of Nostalgia, she wrote that there are two kinds of nostalgia: reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. Reflective nostalgia recognizes loss, glows with the ache of what was, makes us tender and longing for the past, but allows a different future to embody its elements. Restorative nostalgia tries to remake the present in the image of the past and cannot be satisfied with any present that differs from the idealized past. This second form of nostalgia, Boym warns, denies and rejects the complexity of the world as it is, forcing the world to conform to a memory.4 The impulse toward restorative nostalgia is one we all recognize – it’s when the way we always did things seems like the only right way.

Because the world is always changing and we can’t go back, because we share the world with people different from ourselves, coming home necessarily means stretching into the future. And that is always fraught with adjustments and compromises, with loss and yearning. It’s reflective nostalgia that allows the new to become familiar over time, that allows us to hold that tender ache of memory so that we can infuse what is with what was. Choosing to adopt our new home as the home we were always looking for.

Rabbi Alan Lew says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people as seen in our national resolve to someday rebuild the Bayit, the Home, the Great Temple in Jerusalem. [It is like] the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling around the bases….. And the truth is,” Rabbi Lew continues, “every time we come home, home is different, and so are we.”5

If all we knew as children was a sleepy, musty Judaism, a stale reenactment of something that once had meaning to our ancestors, then we come here expecting to be bored, expecting that the prayers and the Torah are not about us, not about our real lives and struggles, our hopes and our fears. If our expectation is that we

4 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 2001.

5 Lew, This is Real..

are here just because we’re supposed to be, how can we be ready to receive, ready to make something meaningful happen? If, however, we come here open to the possibility of being surprised, of encountering something fresh, alive, invigorating, radically awe-inspiring; if we can consider the possibility that there’s a treasure here buried beneath all of these inherited words of the prayerbook; if we cultivate our curiosity, then we will find brilliance.

What if, what if this here will nourish us? What if this is what we most need in our lives right now? That’s what I found when I came home to synagogue in my 20s. I found myself to be surprised. Some of you have a similar story: you’re shocked by how much you’ve fallen in love with Shabbat morning services. You can’t believe the way you delight in Torah study. Something has awakened in you here and synagogue has become essential to your life. But that’s hasn’t happened for everyone.

If I do nothing else as your rabbi, I must help you see that we are inheritors of something unspeakably precious, something directly relevant, not oppressive but liberating, not dull but invigorating, not insipid but imaginative, something that will make our lives better, more vibrant, more meaningful, more whole.

Once you see that Judaism is urgently about you—your work life, your marriage, your life as a parent or grandparent, the questions that sit in your very heart, once you see with fresh eyes what this treasure can be for you, it will be compelling, even irresistible.

Torah is not just the scrolls in that ark – Torah is a deep conversation throughout time about how to live.

If we knew how to live, there’d be not one hungry person on earth. We’d be in touch with the pain of our world and know how to heal it. If we knew how to live, we’d feel and know every day how much we love the people we love, and so would they. We’d be conscious of how much we can learn from every interaction: every meeting, every email exchange. We’d be kind, even when our

flight is delayed, or are children are intransigent, or the line is long and we are late. The wisdom in Torah is as great as any wisdom on earth and it is ours.

I want us to bring Torah into everything we do at Beth Elohim. From budget meetings to building maintenance, from social action to swimming. Here’s my challenge to you: open your eyes to Torah. Make it yours. If it fails you, alienates you, offends, seems arcane, don’t give up. Dig deeper. Every time you come to meet with me, for any kind of meeting, bring Torah. Find a verse on the web or in a book. Bring it as an offering. I will have in my office a fountain of Torah, a bowl full of verses. If you forget to bring one, you can pick one out. We’ll look at it together. You will see that Torah is about you and Torah is a way to come home.

And not just Torah, also Avodah. Prayer is not meant to be a rote recitation of something borrowed but not ours. Our prayers are the poetry of our people, and the prayerbook is a compendium of the longings of our hearts. When we learn how to pray— really pray— we are right there in those words and letters, we find our own voice singing inside of them, and our voice mingles with the voice of our people through time.

Once we know how to do that, those prayers will hold us and accompany us and guide us through every moment of our lives – in times of exultation, loneliness, contentment, despair.

Avodah, tefilah, prayer, is what we do the most together, but so many of us don’t have a way in. I’ll be teaching a class on Shabbat mornings designed to give you a way into prayer. Join me at 11:30 every Shabbat to take the prayers apart, find out what they mean, see how you can relate, find your own voice, explore who or what you think you’re talking to. And we’ll see together that prayer is a way to come home.

Not just Torah, not just Avodah, but G’milut Chasadim. We need each other. Our people have known this at least since the Roman conquest and the ensuing

diaspora, when we defined a minyan. We know that we are interdependent. We may be rugged individuals in the American marketplace, but our people are wise enough to understand that the most important moments of our lives will take place in the company of community. This is where God lives. Beyond us, yes, but also within us and between us.

We make real community when we decide to show up for one another when we’re hurting, lonely, sick, suffering, mourning, sleepless with a new baby, unemployed, single and looking, moving, retiring, aging. These are the moments that will test us.

After my father’s stroke, many people disappeared: he wasn’t powerful or important anymore. Some people didn’t know what to say or how to act. Four families showed up. They drew close, taking shifts in the hospital, bringing food to the house, making sure we were not alone. We called them Eli’s Army, and there was no getting through those years without them.

Chesed means loving-kindness. G’milut Chasadim are acts of lovingkindness. At CBE the Chesed Committee makes meals for people who are sick or helps to form a minyan for people who are mourning. But Chesed doesn’t have to be only a committee. I challenge all of us to be part of Chesed, taking it upon ourselves to show up for one another. Rabbi Katz and Carol Shuchman are revitalizing Chesed at CBE this year, making opportunities for all of us to bring meals, visit, send notes, be counted in a minyan, run errands, call, and organize others to be there. In short, to never let any of us suffer alone. Chesed, G’milut Chasadim, is a way to come home.

Torah, Avodah, G’milut Chasadim. The world stands on these three things. Three things you and I need, three ways to come home.

In the words of Rabbi Maggie Wenig, “Come home,” [God] wants to say to us, “Come home.” But … she is afraid that we will say, “No.” “We are so busy. We’d love to see you but we just can’t come. Too much to do.” God … is waiting for us… She will leave the door open and the candles burning … Perhaps one day…perhaps one day we will be able to say, “Avinu Malkeinu, we have come home.”6

Hashiveinu Adonai elecha, return us Adonai, to you, v’nashuva, and we will come home.

Yom Kippur has the power to heal because on Yom Kippur we come home.

It’s time to come home, CBE.

Welcome home.

6 Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, “God is a Woman and She is Growing Older,” 1990.

CBE Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776

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CBE Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776
“On the Day You Were Born…
While you waited in darkness, tiny knees curled to chin,
the earth and her creatures with the sun and the moon
all moved in their places each ready to greet you
the very first moment of the very first day you arrived.
On the Day you were born,
the round planet earth turned toward your morning sky,
whirling past darkness spinning the night into light…
“On the day you were born,
the moon pulled on the ocean below
a rising tide washed the beaches clean for your footprints.
“On the day you were born, the earth turned, the moon pulled, the
sun flared, and then with a push you slipped out of the dark quiet
where suddenly you could hear a circle of people singing.
Welcome to the spinning world, the people sang,
as they washed your new tiny hands,
welcome to the green earth, the people sang,
as they wrapped your wet slippery body.
And as they held you close,
they whispered into your open curving ear,
we are so glad you’ve come.”1
1 From “On the Day You Were Born” by Debra Frasier
I am so glad that you’ve come here to welcome this new year.
On the first day of the year 5776
It is a miracle that you are here.
It is a miracle that I am here.
It is a miracle that we are alive on this day, this morning, in this
sanctuary, together.
Beginning something entirely new.
Something that’s never been seen before.
A new year.
A new relationship.
A new era in the life of this congregation.
Being human is a miracle.
It is a miracle that we have the consciousness to know that we are
here and the language with which to communicate it to one another.
When I say miracle, I mean that which evokes wonderment. Reverence.
Awe. It is a miracle that there is life on this planet at all.
It is a miracle that there is a third planet from this small star we
call sun. Stars themselves are miraculous.
Galaxies, matter and energy… miraculous.
Albert Einstein taught that we can either look at the world as if
nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle.
One does not need to believe in any particular image of God to see
miracles. This morning urges us to see everything as a miracle.
Hayom Harat Olam.
Today, our tradition teaches, the universe was conceived.
Rosh Hashanah is the date of conception of the world.
Today we remember our beginnings.
When we consider beginnings, we consider the state of things before
the beginning. And that makes us aware of the improbability of
everything we take for granted.
Why, how, did there come to be a universe
With the human species,
And our people among our species,
With you, with me?
How, why have we come together, among seven billion others,
In the same generation,
to the same neighborhood,
to the same congregation,
to find one another here today?
On this morning of Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to come with me to the
beginning to glimpse the miracle of our existence.
First, the beginning of time.
This is the story of modern cosmology: it all began in a vacuum.
Nothingness, or as we’d say in Judaism, Ayin.
The theory is that there was a fluctuation,
a vibration
that caused a singularity, a Oneness,
at the beginning of time.
Eventually this Oneness contracted and then exploded, shattered,
into what we call the Big Bang,
or what the Kabbalists call the broken vessels
forming our expanding universe.
As long as the universe continues to grow, time and space are linked;
the word olam means both infinite time and infinite space,
from beginning to forever,
and from a tiny singularity to all that is.
We call God Ayin, Nothingness,
We call God Echad, Oneness,
and We call God Ein Sof, Limitlessness.
Hayom Harat Olam.
Today space/time was conceived.
As our earth whirls around the sun,
we Jews mark on the calendar this day to notice and remember the
beginning. Torah intuited what the Hubbell telescope discovered: a
cosmos that has a beginning…
and an essential oneness.
Bereishit bara In the beginning it was created.
Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Pay attention Israel: Everything that exists comes from that first
point in time and space. Everything that we see and know is one,
profoundly interconnected.
Torah also intuited the evolving nature of life.
Genesis does not describe the world emerging complete.
But an evolving earth, beginning with the conditions for life:
water, light, land;
and then life itself, which becomes more complex with each passing
day, or epoch. The Genesis story can be an origin myth and it can be
pointing at something true.
Hayom Harat Olam. Today, humanity was conceived.
Out of homo erectus, out of homo habilis, came homo sapiens
Torah describes the first human, the adam, made out of earth, adamah.
Every element found in the earth’s crust is also in us:
carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, oxygen, phosphorous.
Forming cells, organs, arteries, neural pathways, ligaments, limbs.
But Judaism insists we are not only made of earth.
To become alive, the adam received the nishmat chayim,
the breath of life, and became a living being.
Neshima is breath. Neshama is soul.
We are alive because we breathe.
We are alive because we have a neshama.
That links us forever to the Source of life.
We sang this morning: Elohai neshama she natata bi tehora hi.
My God, the soul you have given me, is pure.
On this Rosh Hashanah, as I contemplate the ways I’ve sullied myself,
the harm I’ve done through deed and word,
how I have allowed the mundane to take over my life,
I remember that this shining,
pure wisp of eternity
dwells within me
and every member of my species.
What a miracle we are.
Hayom Harat Olam could be read “today my world was conceived.”
Let us consider now our own particular beginnings, each one of us.
Consider the conditions that made possible your own conception.
Return now to the world before your own parents were conceived.
What were the migrations and conditions that brought their parents
to find one another, to bring forth life together?
My beginnings trace back to this place.
All four grandparents came here, to this city.
My mother was born in the Bronx, my father here, in Brooklyn.
His favorite memories as a boy took place in Prospect Park
where he rode horses and sailed toy boats on the lake.
He remembers his grandmother’s cherry jam from the tree that grew in
her yard. She’d put a dollop in the bottom of his hot tea.
He remembers stickball on the streets and memorizing math lessons.
The ingenuity and pluck he picked up
on these Brooklyn streets
led him forty years later to start an airline from scratch –
the first American Jew to do so.
I grew up in Miami on legends of Brooklyn and the Bronx,
the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants,
stories of the streets,
and the belief that you could be anything.
This is my old country, my place of beginning.
And now back to you. Your grandparents met and your parents were
born, grew, and met one another.
Consider this: A woman is born with two million eggs.
A man produces 525 billion sperm cells over a lifetime.
Combined, that makes a number of permutations with eighteen zeros.
Out of that astonishing number of possibilities,
it was you who came into the world.
With a particular neshama.
Then there was the miracle of your gestation and birth.
You could not have made it, but you did.
You emerged fresh, new, open.
From moment one, light breath sound sensation, relation.
What might this new being become?
What will happen with this one life?
For two months I have been listening to stories of your beginnings.
This summer, I sat in your homes,
where you told me, more than 300 of you,
about where you were born, how you grew up…
some of you have told me about your parents, your grandparents,
sisters and brothers, your childhood rabbi,
you’ve told me about how you grew to know who you are.
You’ve told me about discovering passions and gifts.
You’ve told me about friendships and loves, choices made,
lives that took turns you never expected.
You’ve told me about watching your children be born and grow,
about imagining what their lives might become.
You’ve told me about finding your way here, to Brooklyn, to Park
Slope, to CBE.
Hayom Harat Olam.
Today at CBE, a new world, a new era, a new life is born.
But everything new is also not new. Ein chadash tachat hashemesh.
As Solomon taught, there is nothing new under the sun.
Just as at our births we are made of the generations who came before
us, so too does this moment emerge out of all that Garfield Temple
and Beth Elohim has ever been, ever since our beginning in 1861
through our move to Park Slope in 1909. I am honored to take my place
in the line of Rabbi Lyons, Rabbi Landman, Rabbi Sack, Rabbi Weider,
and Rabbi Bachman, each of whom gave years of their lives to this
place along with exceptional gifts of genius, passion, dedication,
and heart to this synagogue community. And I am profoundly grateful
to work with two outstanding colleagues, deep, thoughtful and
extraordinarily talented: Cantor Joshua Breitzer and Rabbi Marc Katz.
What a privilege to be on this team.
You’re no ordinary synagogue community, CBE.
Here’s what I fell in love with about you:
You have chosen a creative, vibrant, experimental approach to
synagogue life. You are willing to try new things, to expand, grow
and change. That’s not easy. But that’s what you’ve done.
You have broken out of your walls to embrace the surrounding
community, through an after-school program and an early childhood
center, food programs, interfaith partnerships,
20s and 30s engagement, and neighborhood holiday celebrations.
You’ve chosen to make Shabbat the day when the entire community
gathers, first with Kabbalat Shabbat and then with an
intergenerational morning of learning and song, celebration and
prayer. You have opened your doors to Jewish pluralism,
keeping your roots solidly planted in the Reform movement,
but making room in your tree of life for different branches of Jewish
expression. You’ve allowed yourself to dream about what Jewish life
can look like. What a synagogue can be. What community can mean.
You’re no ordinary community and I’m not your typical rabbi.
I wasn’t always someone who spoke about human beings as miracles.
I used to be much more in touch with all that is wrong with humanity
and our world. I remember the first time I saw homeless people.
It was 1982 in Miami, and I was riding in the backward facing seats
of the family station wagon when I saw people making bedding out of
cardboard boxes under a highway overpass.
“Who are they?” I asked my parents. “What are they doing?”
I could not believe the answer.
I could not believe that our President was making choices
that left people to sleep on the streets.
I did not know that such a thing could happen.
From then on, one such revelation followed another
about the callousness and injustice of our world.
We are accustomed to it now as adults,
but when we stop and look,
what human beings do to one another is obscene.
I thought I’d go into politics, run for office someday,
and fight for the people on the streets, the people who don’t have.
I was a political science major in college. I was the president of
the Yale Political Union. I interned on Capitol Hill. I learned
community organizing. I spent fourteen years working for social
justice at the grassroots, at the state level, at the federal level.
I worked with LGBT youth and with the National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force, I worked for the rights of the poorest people in California,
I raised the funds to rebuild a community center called the San
Francisco Women’s Building that served immigrant women and battered
women among others. This work was hard. Looking deeply at injustice
is devastating. I remember thinking that there was no place for joy
in a world with so much suffering. The world felt so broken
and the brokenness felt so entrenched. I watched friends become
bitter and burn out, lose hope, give up. We were angry at the world.
Sometimes we turned that anger on ourselves and each other.
Gratefully, just a few years into this work,
I found within myself a deep yearning for a spiritual life,
and I learned in time that joy is not optional.
Joy is essential.
Joy is what we have to balance despair.
Cultivating joy enables us to bring energy and hope to a world that
needs it. I also learned about gratitude. Gratitude is a discipline
to balance compassion. It is a learned skill to bring our attention
to the blessings of the world.
To see what is good in every day.
The simple, unearned gifts.
We are just as likely to skip over the good stuff, to take it for
granted, as we are to look away from the bad.
And I learned that wonder is what sustains us
in the difficult work of living;
and awe at the grandeur and glory of this existence
is what enables us to take on the long, difficult work for justice.
This is why I’m a rabbi and why, davka, I am a congregational rabbi:
After all I’ve seen, I still believe in human beings,
and I believe that humans have the best chance of reaching our
potential when we root ourselves in our particular people and
tradition, when we know who we are and where we come from.
So, as a Jew, that places me here, with the Jewish people and our
beauty of a tradition. I believe, as Torah and kabbalah teach,
that we have the power within us to heal our broken world.
I believe that amidst all of the noise, pressure, and distractions
of contemporary life we have a deep yearning to find our way and live
lives of meaning. I believe that synagogue is one of the few places
left for a Jew to find his way. For a Jew to find out how to live her
purpose. In conversation with the wisdom of our elders and our sages.
And in the company of the minyan, the community.
I believe that we are all striving to do good.
We want our lives to have been a blessing.
And I believe that we are capable of so much more good than we know.
I am certain that we can change.
With attention and focus, we identify our behaviors and habits that
are less than holy, and we transform them.
These ten days are about accelerating our evolution.
And I believe that at its best the synagogue is the vessel, the home,
in which we can grow to be the human beings we aspire to be.
The rabbis articulate in Pirkei Avot that we are modeling for each
other, in word and in deed, for good and for bad.
Here we are to model and practice menschlikheit.
In so doing we build here, in these walls, a mikdash me’at,
a miniature world of holiness, a model of how the world should be.
We do this by building real relationships of trust,
learning about one another and showing up for one another
so that every life -- in its joy and in its sorrow -- matters.
No one is alone. Every life has purpose and context; meaning and
love. And every one of us is stretched to give and care,
and to do the mitzvot of accompanying one another through the trials
and jubilations of life. And then, and then, through those deep
relationships of caring and trust,
we build the power to turn outward, beyond our walls,
to our city, to our state, to our country, to our world,
to make real, concrete, substantial change.
To make the world more like what it should be.
The first step is to use this sanctuary as a place to wake us up.
To use the act of prayer to spark awe and wonder,
joy and playfulness, gratitude and delight
at the experience of being alive.
To remind us that this life is fleeting and it is amazing.
And it must be relished and lived.
So yes, now I am someone who speaks about miracles. Abraham Joshua
Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.
....to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that
takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is
incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual (to be Jewish)
is to be amazed.”
Hayom Harat Olam.
Today we hear the piercing cry of the shofar.
When it sounds
It is an urgent call to your soul. Wake up!
You are a miracle.
Your life is a miracle.
Do not let these days, weeks, months, years, pass you by.
You will fall asleep,
You’ll go numb,
You’ll feel only the weight of your life and not the wonder.
But then, wake up again. Wake up again. Wake up to the miracle of
your existence. Shofar, shin feh resh shares a root with Shifra, the
midwife who helped the children of Israel be born in Egypt.
Midrash Tanhuma2 describes the blast of the shofar as the cries of
pain and joy in childbirth. In the Talmud (Yerushalmi) God says,
“Since you entered into judgment before me on the holy day of the New
Year, … I attribute it to you as if you were made a new creature.”
Re-born. As a new creature, everything becomes possible for you
starting now, Any change you want to make.
Anything can come from you, be born through you.
The poet John O’Donohue said, “ There are huge gestations and
fermentations going on in us that we’re not even aware of.”
The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with
this one, wild and precious life?”
Today the round planet earth is turning toward your morning sky,
Today the moon is pulling on the ocean below
washing the beaches clean for your footprints.
Today you slip out of the dark quiet
where suddenly you hear a circle of people singing.
Welcome to the spinning world, the people sing,
we are so glad you’ve come.”
2 Emor 11 and Tazria 4

For the Sake of Our Children

Link

Rosh Hashanah 5775

Leo Baeck Temple

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

 

For the Sake of our Children

 

If you’ve been to Yosemite National Park, you know that it is one of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes on earth.  Granite cliffs soar upward from a forested valley.  Aspen trees, sequoias, pine and evergreen wave in the wind around gentle streams, while waterfalls trickle and plunge down rock faces.  This is a place I love to go in the summer.  We send our kids to camp there, we visit them, go for hikes, swim in the rivers, watch the sun set and the moon rise and the stars come out, and marvel at the glory of this earth we’ve been given.

As Felicia and I approached Yosemite Valley this summer, we could barely see Half Dome and El Capitan– they were faded against the thick sky.  Smoke filled the air.  The surrounding Sierra forests reminded us of a battlefield after a gruesome war.  Thousands upon thousands of thin charcoal spears stood in barren formation where the forests used to be.  The earth itself looked scorched.  It was disorienting: we knew that the smoke we were breathing was not related to the devastation we were seeing.  We were seeing the aftermath of the Rim Fire from last summer — the largest and hottest Sierra wildfire in recorded history.  We were breathing this summer’s four Sierra wildfires, burning simultaneously.

Wildfires are a natural part of a forest’s lifecycle.  They take down old growth and mulch the earth with carbon-rich material for regeneration.  They’re powerful, they’re destructive, and they’re part of the earth’s system of self-regulation.  However, steadily hotter and drier conditions are making wildfires burn more frequently and with greater ferocity than ever before.

 

In addition to visiting Yosemite, I spent part of this summer conducting something of a literature review on parenting.  There is a brisk business of parenting advice in America these days.  You can find more than 90,000 parenting titles on Amazon, such as “Scream-free Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids While Keeping Your Cool” or “Have a New Teenager by Friday –From Mouthy and Moody to Respectful and Responsible in 5 Days.”  (That’s a real title.)  Books promise to teach us how to raise children who are calm and secure; resilient and joyful; strong; emotionally intelligent; patient and cooperative; and most of all HAPPY.

I read seven parenting books this summer, not only for my own edification– I am always trying to be a better parent — but also because I’m co-teaching a class this year with Laurie Levit on Parenting as Jewish Spiritual Practice.  Looking through these books, one can see how much reflection, worry, care, and love parents strive to put in to raising our children.

We worry about what our kids eat and don’t eat, we want them to do their homework and get their projects and papers done on time and get good grades and score well on tests, we take them to baseball practice and swim meets and piano lessons.  We set up play dates or hang out time (older kids do not have play dates).  We make sure they brush their teeth and wash their hands and we take them to the doctor and dentist religiously.  If we need to, we’ll move across town or spend tens of thousands of dollars so that they’ll have a good education.  We’ll spend hours in the car every day to enrich their chances at a good life. We work out complex schedules for carting them around from activity to activity.  We limit screen time because we want them to be conversational adults someday.  We try to get them to read lots of books and get lots of exercise, so they’ll be both knowledgeable and fit.

We want them to know they’re loved, we want them to have life skills, we want them to have good behavior, we want them to contribute to the world…. we give so much thought and effort and emotion to our dreams for our children.

And our grandchildren?  I cannot yet imagine how much I’ll love my grandchildren.  I hear the love is as great or even greater — if that’s possible.

So here’s what I do not understand.  We love our children.  We love our grandchildren. We’ll sacrifice our time and our money to create the best possible conditions for their future.

And yet we are standing by and watching while their future becomes an unimaginable, unmanageable reality, and we are doing almost nothing to avert disaster.

I am not bringing you news.  We know this.  In 2005, the United Nations put out the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a comprehensive scientific analysis by 1,300 experts.  This was ten years ago — the report stated that “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”  The report also said that up to 30 percent of the mammal, bird, and amphibian species on earth are threatened with extinction.[1]

According to Gustave Speth, the Yale Dean of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone.  The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second.  About half the wetlands are gone.  An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone.  …Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal.”[2]

Harvard professor E.O. Wilson says:  “We are dependent on the whole web for our survival – the plants and animals, forests, rivers, oceans, and glaciers that regulate life on the planet to the great benefit of human beings for free.  This moment is about deciding who we are as a species and how we intend to continue living on this planet.”

NASA reports that the West Antarctic ice sheets are “irrevocably destabilized.”  The collapse of these glaciers now “appears unstoppable.”  According to the National Academy of Sciences, the world’s ice sheets contain enough frozen water to raise sea levels by 200 feet.[3]

You don’t have to live in a blue state anymore to believe in global warming.  Former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana says that hunters, farmers, and fisherman have become climate change believers.  “Old timers are the first to say, ‘Oh boy, things are changing.’  All they have to do is look up at the mountains in August and see that they are not snowcapped.”  The Flathead River which flows out of Glacier National Park has experienced a 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature from lack of snowmelt.  The trout are so stressed that they’ve closed some rivers to fishing. Polls show that more than 60 percent of Montanans would agree to change their lifestyle and pay higher taxes if it would lead to a decrease in climate change.  This is no longer just an issue for lefties and liberals or even people who care about the environment.  It’s economic.  It’s humanitarian.

The dead and dying forests, the melted ice caps, the warming rivers, the typhoons and floods, the hurricanes and droughts, are the result of less than 1 degree[4] Celsius increase in global temperatures.   According to just mid-range projections, the “warming by 2100 will be between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius.”[5] –four times what we are experiencing now.

John Holdren, a climate advisor to President Obama, says that what’s happening now is actually worse than the worst case projections.  He says, “We had predicted that at worst, Arctic summer sea ice would be gone by 2070.  Now people think it could be gone in just a few years. Since the mid-1990s almost all scientific evidence has caused increased concern that 3 degrees Celsius will not be tolerable.”[6]   But the mid-range projections are between 3 and 5 degree Celsius increase in this century!  That’s our children’s lifetimes!

The question is no longer whether we will prevent climate change.  The question is how much will the climate change?

 

This morning we celebrate the creation of the world.  We celebrate the lives we’ve been given, the Earth our home, the miracle of the cycle of life.   This morning we make ourselves aware of how precious life is, how sacred, how fragile.  And we hold ourselves accountable for how we’ve been living our lives.  Jews all over the world read these words: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die;  who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and …who by plague; who by hunger and who by thirst; …; who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; ….”

Who will it be this year?  We are running an uncontrolled experiment on the only home we have, and those who caused it the least – the poorest people in the world, who have no electricity, no cars, no power plants—will suffer the most.  As heavier and more prolonged rains drench some areas and more severe droughts strike others, they will face hunger and thirst, insect-borne plagues, flooding, fires, and they will be driven to migration that destabilizes regions and leads to death by the sword.

And it won’t only be them.   We remember Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.  This year, eleven Midwestern and Western states (including our own) were declared natural disaster areas because of drought.   According to a 2012 study, climate change currently costs the world $1.2 trillion a year, killing almost 400,000 people every year.[7]  Who will it be this year?

Here’s the most difficult part: what we’re experiencing now is the delayed effect of carbon emissions from decades ago.  And human consumption of energy is expected to DOUBLE by 2050. [8]  There are currently 7 billion people on earth, by 2050 there will be 9 billion.  But more significant than the number of people is how those people live.  As Jared Diamond wrote in the New York Times: The average American consumes 35 times what the average Kenyan consumes, and we set the standard—everyone in the world wants to live like us.  Two to three billion people are in reach of our lifestyle.  By 2030, (that’s in fifteen years) the number of people in the world who live like Americans will quadruple – with our level of wealth, consumption and waste.[9]

We do love our children and our grandchildren.  It’s evident in the care and worry we put into almost every detail and decision affecting their lives and future.  But we’re missing the most important piece.  While we’re busy choosing the best schools and activities, we’re still filling up at the gas station and consuming energy and everything else as if there’s no tomorrow.

What kind of love is this?

What are we doing?  Are we in denial?  Are we frozen in fear?  Are we so deep in despair that we’ve given up, think it’s too late?  Do we feel so powerless that we’ve decided it’s not worth trying anything?

This is a moral imperative that trumps all others.  Think of any war, any atrocity, any evil that human beings have done. The devastation from climate change and environmental destruction will dwarf any other moral outrage we can identify.

 

During these High Holy Days, we come before God aware of our sins.  We beat our chests as we name the many wrongs we have committed as a community.  Can there be any that matches this sin in scope or scale of harm?  Today we quote the thirteen attributes that enable God to forgive all of our sins.  But in the Torah, the passage that includes these thirteen attributes goes on to say that the sins of parents are visited upon their children, and their children’s children, all the way to the third and fourth generations.  God cannot wipe away these sins, and their effects will be felt by those we love most.

 

Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace, said:  “How we respond now will decide the future of human civilization.  We are the people we’ve been waiting for.  There is no one else.  There is no other time.  It’s us and it’s now.”[10]

Us, as humans, who are given a mission in Genesis to be shomrei adamah, guardians of the earth.  Us, as Jews, who are commanded to choose life.  Us, as Americans, who have the greatest moral obligation, because we consume the most, and because we have the standing to affect more people than any other nation.

We have to create a new American way of life.  Now.

The rest of the world is emulating us.  We must set a life-affirming instead of life-destroying example.

 

In his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman gives us a plan of action.

The first thing we have to do, he says, is create massive demand for renewable energy – solar, wind, geothermal.  We have to wean ourselves from oil and coal.  As we know, in addition to destroying our children’s future, oil strengthens the anti-democratic governments of the world; and groups like ISIL, Hamas, Hezbollah.  Therefore we must support the massive deployment of technologies we already have – solar, wind, geothermal—moving them much more quickly along the manufacturing learning curve.  As they achieve volume, prices will drop and technology will improve – they’ll become smaller, cheaper, smarter, more productive.  Already solar has dropped in cost by almost 50 percent in the last decade.

Los Angeles averages 292 days of sunshine a year.  But Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gets 40% of its power from coal.  How can it be that we are continuing to burn coal to cool our houses and dry our clothes? If you don’t have solar panels on your roof, every time you turn on the light, you are burning coal.  A recent UCLA study showed that 98 percent of this city’s solar potential is untapped.

How many people in this sanctuary have solar panels on your roofs?  Would you be willing to raise your hands?  Look around.  Like most of you, I don’t — yet.  But I just signed a contract and my house will go solar this year.  How about you?  What if we came back in a year, and half of the hands went up, or more?

How many people in this sanctuary drive an electric car?   I don’t, but that’s a change I aim to make this year too.  How many drive an electric car and have solar panels on the roof and drive off the power of the sun?  Many of us can do this.

Did you know that you can lease solar panels?  You can now install solar on your roof for very little money – in many cases for free; and once they’re on, you save every month.  Not everyone can do this.  Not every building can have solar panels, and not everyone owns a home.  But if you do own your home, isn’t it worth making a couple of phone calls to find out? And tell everyone.  People don’t know that they can go solar, they don’t think about it… and the clock is ticking.  This has to become the new norm.   Not in five years, not in ten years.  This year.

And if you can’t make your home solar, you can still make a change that matters.  What if you switch to an electric car this year?  These are also available for lease, with big rebates that make it affordable. What if you pull up your lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants?  DWP has huge rebates right now – they’ll pay you $3 per square foot to do this.  If you don’t own your home, don’t have a lawn, can’t switch cars, there’s still something you can do.  You can eat less red meat.  If the whole country ate just 20% less red meat, it would be like turning every car into a hybrid.  Or you can make more organic, locally grown food choices.  Every choice we make about food is connected to our entire earth – climate, water, toxins, extinctions.   Here’s one last idea:  you can switch your investments from fossil fuels to renewables.

You might ask: “Come on, does it matter what we do?”  How can it matter in a world of 7 billion?  This city, more than any other place on the earth, shapes the dreams and aspirations of humanity.  There are three billion people right now watching what we do.  We define the standard of the good life.  But there will be no more good life unless we change.  Television, film, advertising, social media must begin to show us — the rich — in electric cars, in desirable neighborhoods with solar panels on all the roofs, so that the rest of the world who aspire to be like us start to copy the new American way.

Step one is to change our behavior, the example that we’re setting for the world.

Step two is to find new technologies—big breakthroughs– for cheap, clean, reliable energy AND technologies to clean up the mess we’ve made.

We can do this.  Human ingenuity is infinite.

We as a species figured out how to control fire, how to make ships and wheels and paper and iron and engines, how to feed millions, how to see into the heavens and into the atom, how to cure diseases, how to fly, how to launch into space, how to communicate in more than 6,000 languages and reach our voices, images, and words around the world in seconds.

Innovation is what we’re good at.  Finding solutions is what we’re good at. We can figure this out.  We just have to decide that we want to.  Now.

And though our country has the greatest responsibility, and ought to apply the full force of our capitalist system and research universities to solve this, with tax incentives, regulatory incentives, and government funded research, we’re not alone in this.  China, the European Union, they’re moving to renewables and new technologies and they might beat us to it.

We need a global systems approach because everything is interconnected.  We need family planning resources in every village and every city in the world so that women and men can choose how many children to have; and we need to continue to lift everyone out of poverty so that people don’t need so many children.  And we, in the first world, must center our lives around an ethic of conservation.  We must read everything we can get our hands on about what to do and how to do it and we must teach each other and model for each other about how to change … and be willing to be inconvenienced.

If every Leo Baeck Temple member put solar panels on our roofs and every one of us drove electric cars, and if, in response to the drought, every one of us pulled up our lawns and captured the rain and recycled water, and if we succeed at building our train out front of our temple, from the north valley to the port —if we do all that, still we alone will not save our earth or protect our children.  But we are not alone. This last Sunday, 400,000 people filled the streets of New York along with millions more in 150 countries around the world calling for decisive action by world leaders to reverse climate change.  This week, an unprecedented number of world leaders are meeting at the U.N. to consider what those changes might be.  They need to see that Americans mean business.  To join the global grassroots movement against climate change, go to 350.org.

No, solar panels and electric cars alone will not solve all the problems of our world.  But if we keep burning coal and oil, we are directly contributing to the misery and suffering of our own children.  We need to be willing to make sacrifices.  If we do not change now, and three billion more people copy us within the next fifteen years, what will be?

I want to be able to look in my grandchildren’s eyes and say, “Once I knew, I did everything I could.”  Don’t you?

I challenge us, the Leo Baeck Temple community, to make a change this year.  Will you try this with me?  If you own your own home, will you call to see if your house could go solar?  Let’s see if we can get 100 solar houses among us this year.   If you can’t do that, will you switch to an electric car, or will you pull up your lawn, or will you consider a change in what you eat, or in your investments?  Every one of us can do something big.

I would like to keep track of what we’re achieving here at Leo Baeck Temple and report back to you periodically.  Please contact me if you’ve already made any of these changes.  And if you make a change this year — if you install solar panels, or start driving an electric car, or convince someone else to do this, or pull up your lawn, or cut out red meat by 20%, or change your investments, please let me know.  Tomorrow I will email you with all the information you need to pick up the phone and get started.  Why not make a call before Yom Kippur?

 

In a well-known midrash God says to humanity, “Look at My creations. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

Oh God, we are grateful for this earth you’ve given us.  We know that our lives are sustained by it every moment.  And we do love our children, so much our hearts hurt with it.  We do not want to destroy their future.  Please God, in this New Year, give us the hope, the focus and the will to change our ways for the sake of life, now and for the generations to come.

Blessed are you, Source of All Life, who turns the hearts of parents to our children.

 

 

 

 

Benediction:

Source of All Life, may the blast of the shofar continue to pierce our hearts and resound in our ears until we change our ways.  Wake us up to our moral duty to sacrifice for the sake of our children and all life on earth.  Please let us act with alacrity and courage to save our world.

Then it will be a Shanah Tovah.



[1] MEA report quoted in Thomas Friedman, Hot Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How it Can Renew America, Release 2.0,New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.  This sermon draws a great deal from Friedman’s book. Other books that I recommend and used to research the sermon include Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P Nelson;  Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman; Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Haaretz, translated and with an introduction by Julian Sinclair; The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert.

[2] In Friedman, Hot Flat and Crowded

[3] Two new scientific papers, in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters, reported in Mother Jones, May 2014.

[4] .8 degree Celsius

[5] From the report “Confronting Climate Change”  by scientific research society Sigma Xi, 2007.

[6] In Friedman

[7] “Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet,” the DARA Group, reported in The Guardian, 25 September 2012.

[8] Royal Dutch Shell’s energy scenario team predicted in 2008, reported by Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat, and Crowded

[9] In Friedman

[10] In Friedman

About Ferguson, About Us

Link

Shabbat Re’eh 5775
Leo Baeck Temple
August 22, 2014

The photo shows a young man on his knees in the street. His arms are over his head, and in his hands he holds a sign. It reads, “Stop Killing Us.”
We all know by now that on August 9th a young black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened, because there are conflicting accounts from eyewitnesses: Was there a physical struggle before Darren Wilson fired his gun, or did the officer attack unprovoked? Did Brown reach into the police car or did Wilson reach out? We do know that Brown was unarmed. We do know that he was shot six times, twice in the head.
We know that the Ferguson police department left Brown’s body in the street for four hours. We know that the police department would not say what Brown was stopped for, who shot him, or how many shots were fired. We know that when at first nonviolent protesters filled the streets, the police met them dogs and guns, then in riot gear with tear gas and armored vehicles.
Writing for Slate, Jamelle Bouie interviewed people who came out to watch the protests. He talked to Carl Walker, a Vietnam veteran and former parole officer. “One of my friends had a son killed by the Ferguson Police Department, about 10 years ago,” Walker said. “They wouldn’t release the name of the officer who killed him. Why wouldn’t you release the name?”
Craig Beck, who was watching demonstrators under the shade of a burned-out QuikTrip convenience store, said: “Some police say they saw me at a house, pulled me, said I fit a description, locked me up, and found out I was on parole….They said I threw a plastic baggie, which they didn’t have when they took me into custody… I beat the case, but you know, this isn’t new. This happens every day.”
In 2009, Bouie reports, a man in Ferguson was wrongly arrested, beaten by police, and subsequently charged for bleeding on their uniforms.
Like most American cities, St. Louis has an ugly history of racial segregation, White flight, unfair lending practices, substandard public education, and high unemployment rates in Black neighborhoods, and underrepresentation of Blacks in positions of authority. Ferguson is 67% Black and 29% White, but has a White mayor, just one Black city council member, and out of 55 police officers on the force, 52 are White.

Last summer, when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, everyone was busy talking about how terrible Florida is, how backward its laws. Now we’re all casting aspersions on Ferguson and St. Louis.
But just two days after Michael Brown was killed, Ezell Ford, a 25 year old black man with mental illness, was shot and killed by police here in Los Angeles. He was not armed. Witnesses say he was lying on the ground when it happened.
This is not about Florida and it’s not about St. Louis. It’s about America.

On Rosh Hashanah last year I spoke about institutional racism in our country, about ongoing segregation, and about the harm this is doing to every one of us. I said then,
“Those of us who are White are afraid because we know that it’s not fair. We happened to be born on the winning side of an unfair system. And we are afraid because we are so segregated, most of us don’t know Black people from South Central or Watts, we have so few opportunities to look them in the eyes, to be there for each other when our children are born, to cry together when we are sick or dying. We live in two separate worlds, miles apart. And we build walls and gates and alarm systems to protect ourselves from that other world. Because, though it’s just a quiet hum in the background most of the time, we know that as long as there is an economic chasm between us the peace cannot last forever. Until Black babies are born into a world that is safe, and open to them, and full of possibility, there will be no lasting peace between us.”

Now I think that I didn’t go far enough in that sermon.
In The New Jim Crow, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander tells the story of a young black man named Jarvious Cotton. “Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right ….to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern [his] life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

Alexander makes the case that a new racial caste system is operating in America. This is a case that she herself was originally reluctant to see. She says,
“I clung to the notion that the evils of Jim Crow are behind us and that, while we have a long way to go to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian, multiracial democracy, we have made real progress … I understood the problems plaguing poor communities of color, including … crime and rising incarceration rates, to be a function of poverty and lack of access to quality education—the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country.”

She goes on to say that our language has changed but the conditions for black men have remained much the same. We are now supposed to be colorblind, and it’s no longer socially permitted to discriminate on the basis of race. So instead, she argues, we use the criminal justice system to label people of color as criminals and then do all the same things we did under Jim Crow, including killing them. Under Jim Crow, if you were black you could be discriminated against in employment and housing and denied the right to vote, denied a good education, denied food stamps and public benefits, and be excluded from serving on a jury. Those are the exact same restrictions placed on felons today. And one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
She says, “As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights… than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Parashat Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, opens with a familiar line, “See, I set before you blessing and curse. Blessing if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God, and curse if you will not obey…” It begs us to ask ourselves, are our actions creating blessing or curse? Is this what God wants of us? Is this what Torah teaches us? The same Torah that says that every human is created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God? The same Torah that adjures us in next week’s portion: tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice, shall you pursue? The same Torah that teaches this week, “There shall be no poor among you. … but if there are poor among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against them.”
Is our fear of young Black men working for us? Is our segregation, our underfunding of public education, our lack of investment in neighborhoods, our war on drugs, our criminalization of Black men, our huge prison system working for us? Is this the America we want to be? Are we not commanded to do better as Jews? Can we not do better?

There is something very specific that we can do here in California over the next two months. Proposition 47 will be on the November ballot. It’s championed by Leo Baeck Temple’s friends at the Community Coalition in South LA. It makes non-serious, non-violent crimes like drug possession and petty theft into misdemeanors instead of felonies. This would make 10,000 prison inmates eligible for resentencing. With the estimated $200 million a year that would be saved, it creates a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, of which 25% would go to schools, 10% to victims compensation, and 65% to the State Board of Community Corrections, to fund alternative sentencing, recidivism prevention, gang prevention and crime reduction.
I am part of a coalition called the Black-Jewish Alliance and we will be working to pass Proposition 47. If you’d like more information or to get involved, just let me know.
Proposition 47 would make a big difference in thousands of lives, but it won’t solve the whole problem, of course. For that, we need to start imagining a different America, where Blacks and Whites live side by side, and we invest in one another, and we care for each other’s children, and we understand that our destinies are intertwined.

This Tuesday night begins the month of Elul, the month leading us to Rosh Hashanah, the month in which we personally and collectively look into our deeds and the patterns of our lives. And we muster all of our strength of will to change – to change our hearts and our communities and our lives.

May we find the strength to turn away from this curse. May we find the vision to turn our cities into sanctuaries of blessing.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.