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.

Birth Cries – Rosh Hashanah

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                     Rosh Hashanah 5774

Rabbi Rachel
Timoner

 

Birth Cries

I cannot remember much of the first few months of either of my children’s lives.  I knew then that I wanted to imprint those days in my soul, to hold them and keep them forever,
but I couldn’t.  We were just too tired.  There are a few images, however, which stand out clearly against the blur.  The clearest of these are the births themselves.

Both boys were born at home, both birthed by Felicia with the help of a midwife, but each birth was entirely distinct from the other.  Benjamin was born in the morning, as the sun rose in the East.  He was born under water, in a birthing tub. I remember seeing him crown, feeling his head in my hands, and then slowly he emerged into my arms.  I
remember instinctively rushing to lift him above the water so he could breathe, forgetting that he was breathing through his umbilical cord, and I remember holding him in my arms, looking into his face, astonished as I passed him to Felicia.  “Hi”  I thought. “I’m going to know you.”  Eitan was not born under water, he preferred a bed, thank you very much.  And he was born with the stars and the moon high in the sky.  Though his labor was long, his entry into the world was fast.  From the moment he crowned, he flew out right into my arms.   I literally caught him.  Nothing about the second birth was like the first, and the child who emerged was not like the first, but an entirely new and different person, from the shape of his ears to the look in his eyes.  “Hi”, I thought, “I’m going to know you, too.”

I remember a lot of crying. Felicia’s cries of pain and courage and exhaustion and determination and endurance and finally of relief and joy.  My cries of awe and love and gratitude, the cries of family and friends circled round, and then the cry of each new baby as he entered our world.

Hayom Harat HaOlam. Today the world was conceived.  We call Rosh Hashanah the birth day of the world.  Our tradition says that on this day the world was both conceived and came into being.

The Talmud[1] has it that on Rosh Hashanah Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel all conceived[2],
and our haftarah portion just told us that Hannah conceived on this day.  The Midrash also says that Adam and Eve were born on this day, and that Isaac and Rebecca were born on this day, and that it was at noon on this day that “the bondage of our ancestors ceased in Egypt.”[3]  Emerging from Mitzrayim, which means the narrow place, through the birthing waters of the Red Sea, we were born as a free people.

Many of us in this room have not and will never give birth, some of us cannot give birth and for some this has been the source of great pain.  But all of us were born.  Today on the birth day of the world, we consider our births, as we are offered the opportunity to symbolically begin again.

You might know that on Yom Kippur we rehearse our own deaths.  That’s why we wear white, we don’t eat or drink or bathe or make love.   We rehearse our deaths to give us perspective on the meaning and brevity of our lives.   Have you ever considered
that on Rosh Hashanah we relive our own births?[4]

The shofar is the symbol most associated with Rosh Hashanah.  The root of the word Shofar, shin feh resh is shared with Shifra, the midwife who helped the children of Israel be born and survive in Egypt.[5]  The name of the other Egyptian midwife, Puah, means pant, moan, cry.   The Talmud describes the sound of the shofar as “a long sigh, moans, short, piercing cries.”[6]  Midrash Tanhuma[7] describes the blast of the shofar as the cries of pain and joy in childbirth, or, as Rabbi Lisa Edwards describes it, “the sound of life coming into the world.”[8]

This morning we hear the sound of the shofar.  Rabbi Edwards writes:  “Imagine hearing the blasts of the shofar with the cries of a mother in labor foremost in your mind.  We are there, we are participants …”    And it is our births we are re-enacting.  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.”    We are re-born.

As a new creature, everything becomes possible for you, anything can come from you, be born through you.  And here you are so now – imagine it – so vulnerable, so fragile, it breaks your heart wide open.  What will you do with this one, brief and precious life?  This is the call and the cry of the shofar.

Pediatrician Mark Sloan writes: “Birth is about radical, creative, life-affirming change.  It is about adaptation on a nearly unbelievable scale.  There is no time in life, not even the moment of death, that can compare to the human body’s transformation in the first five
minutes outside the womb.  …  We go from dark to light, from warm to cold,
from wet to dry, and begin to breathe through our lungs.  We emerge blue and slippery, covered in blood and amniotic fluid, bandy legged, pigeon toed, squinty eyed and squalling.  In a few short minutes, our initial frantic cries are soothed by our [parent]’s touch and familiar voice, our color shifts, we open our eyes and look at the world.”[9]

The Zohar teaches that in the womb we can see the world from one end to the other, and we know and understand the meaning of life.  And then, at the moment we are born, an angel taps us on our lips and makes us forget it all, so that all of our lives, as we
adapt and learn, we are merely remembering.

Judaism teaches that nothing about your birth, nothing about you being here in the world, is an accident.  You do not exist merely to fulfill a biological imperative: to carry a
particular combination of your progenitors’ genes into the future.  No.   You have something to give to this world, you are needed, you have a purpose to fulfill.

Drawing on the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5), Martin Buber wrote:
“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that
never existed before, entirely original and unique  … If there had been someone like you in the world, there would have been no reason for you to be born.”

So what is the reason that you were born?  Why are you here?  What is your purpose?  These are Rosh Hashanah questions.  For on this day, we are judged and we judge
ourselves by whether we are living up to the purpose of our births.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman suggests that if on Rosh Hashanah we relive
our birth, and if on Yom Kippur we rehearse our death, then the ten days
between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe, the Ten Days of Teshuva,
represent our lives. And they model the very best our lives could be.  For in the ideal we would use each day of our lives to try to do better, to be better, which is what we do in these ten days.

Remember that the root of the word Shofar was related to Shifra, the midwife?  It’s also related to a verb: l’shaper.  L’shaper means to improve, to make better, to do better.
When we hear the shofar, we are being called to improve.  And if these ten days represent our lives, then these days come to tell us that the purpose of our lives is to improve ourselves and our world.

If you think about it, that’s what human beings do.  From the moment we are born, we always are learning and improving.  Lifting our heads, coordinating our limbs, developing language, learning empathy, mastering abstract concepts, we always, every moment of every day are learning, developing, improving.  Not only ourselves but our world: making tools, solving problems, fixing, adapting, inventing.  As we grow older, we develop deeper
understanding and insights, even wisdom.  We might say it’s just our nature –striving to learn, to grow, to develop, to do better.  But Judaism brings an essential element to this.
Judaism says that this improvement has a moral dimension.   We shouldn’t only work to become faster, stronger, smarter, but we should also work to become better: kinder, more loving, more generous, more fair.  And when we develop tools and technologies that enable us collectively to become faster, stronger, and smarter, we ought to use these improvements not only for our own enrichment, but to make our world more just, more kind, more loving, more peaceful.  This is our collective purpose: to become better and to make our world better.

And as Martin Buber and the Mishna said, each of us has our own original and unique reason for being born.  Only you know your particular challenge for self-improvement, what the sound of the shofar, the sound of your birth –calls you to do.  And only you know your particular gifts: what you, and only you, were born to give to this world.  There are countless problems in our world to which you can apply your gifts and your effort
– hunger, homelessness, global warming, the food supply, and on and on.  What are you here to give? How will you improve our world?

On this Rosh Hashanah, after this particular summer and after the events of last week,  whose significance Rabbi Chasen discussed with us last night, I feel compelled to suggest, for your consideration, an area that needs our effort and attention.  You may call it race, or
racism, or economic injustice, but when we put it in historical perspective, it is the legacy of slavery in America.  Here are the facts we all know.  A baby born to a Black mother in America is likely to grow up in a worse neighborhood, attend a worse school, have worse job options, experience more violence, and have worse health outcomes than a baby born to a White mother in America.  If he’s a boy, he will be seen as a criminal.   He will experience this no matter what he does – even if he is a professor at Harvard or if he grows up to be the President of the United States.  This Black baby boy’s chances of going to jail will be seven times that of the baby born to the White mother.  He may be shot at and killed walking down the street eating Skittles, or sitting on a swing set, or riding
the BART home through Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Eve.

The sound of the shofar has another association in the Midrash, and that is the cry of Sarah, when she hears about the binding of Isaac and thinks that her son has died.
How many hundreds, thousands of Black mothers cry out each year over their dead children?

Dr. Eliza Byard wrote “We will never recover from slavery, nor will we ever truly be great, until we value the lives of Black people more than the fears of White people.”

Those fears are real.  As Langston Hughes wrote:  “What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?  Or fester like a sore, and then run?  … Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.  Or does it explode?”     Those of us who are White are afraid because we know that it’s not fair, that 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.

Fifty two years ago last Spring, the first Freedom Riders risked their lives to integrate transportation depots and lunch counters in the South.  Fifty two years later, our
country is almost as segregated as it was then.  And not just in the South.  According
to 2010 census data, Los Angeles is the tenth most segregated city in America.  And racial segregation is actually getting worse here, because economic segregation is getting worse.  According to a UCLA study, in the 1970s, the average Black student in L.A. went to a school that was 14% White.  Today the average Black student in Los Angeles attends a school that is 6% White.

We know what happened to the Voting Rights Act this summer.  In their decision striking
Section 4 of the Act, the majority of the Supreme Court argued that Congress was using old data, and times had changed.  But just a few years ago, Congress found egregious voting rights violations in the nine covered states, including extreme gerrymandering and the cancelling of elections when it looked like Black candidates would win.[10]  We still do not have consensus in this country about whether the great grandchildren of slaves should have the same right to vote as the great grandchildren of slaveowners.  And we still do not have consensus about whether and how Black children and White children should go to school together, or Black families and White families should live next door to each other.  The problem is not just the racists in Alabama and Mississippi.  One hundred and
fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, what have we done to make room
in the American Dream for our Black sisters and brothers?  We have work to do.

Fifty years ago, there were signs in the South that said “No Blacks, No Jews, No Dogs”, usually with less nice language.  And as Rabbi Chasen reminded us last night, Jews
were there, some of you were there, marching with Dr. King, Jews were there as
Freedom Riders, Jews were there registering Blacks to vote.

Where are we now?      By and large we’ve moved on, into better neighborhoods, on to greater success.  Meanwhile the wealth gap has continued to grow, and Black people are twice as likely as Whites to live in poverty.[11]

Sometimes it feels overwhelming or even impossible to heal the legacy of slavery in America, but we can.   We must.  And that healing has to begin with those of us who are White. The barriers of segregation are high and wide and deep, and mostly economic, but until we cross them, until we find and know and love and work with and break bread with and celebrate with and mourn with our Black sisters and brothers, we will continue to live half lives marked by anxiety and anomie.

A recent study by Manuel Pastor at USC[12] concurred with a number of other studies showing that when metropolitan regions intentionally seek racial integration and equity while building the economy, they have better and more sustained economic growth.  Fighting for equity without attention to growing the economy doesn’t create jobs or improve the lives of the poor.  Pushing for growth without regard to equity leads to long term stagnation.  The two must go hand in hand.  This is not altruism.  It’s good for us all.

Every one of us in this room has something to do.  We can be agents of equity, integration, and job creation. Whether that’s by fighting for universal, high quality early childhood education, or a radical increase in funding for our public schools, for teacher salaries and teacher training and better curricula, or for incentives for business creation in South LA, or for affordable housing in our own neighborhoods so that they can be diverse.  If you’re a developer, or a city planner or a builder, what can you do to bring more mixed-income housing into White neighborhoods?  If you’re a realtor, how can you sell to more Black families in White neighborhoods?  If you own or manage a business of any kind, or a law firm, or a medical practice, how can you integrate your workforce more, or create better
opportunities for lower-income workers to learn new skills, go back to school, and advance?  If you’re a writer or filmmaker or work in television, what can you do to create and promote complex Black voices and stories?  If you’re a parent in a school, what can you do to reach out to Black and Latino families? When you’re at the grocery store or go shopping anywhere, what can you do when Black people are ignored by salespeople or treated as if they can’t pay?  If you read the newspaper, you can write a letter to the editor expressing your grief or outrage when Black children are killed or profiled.   Those of us who have benefitted from being White in America must not be merely spectators on
the sidelines as the moral fate of our country unfolds.  There is collective teshuva, collective repentance, to be done.

Just a few days ago, President Obama held a conference call with rabbis for the New Year.  When asked what Jews could do to address the persistent and structural racial and economic inequality in our country, he said: “Tell the world this matters to you.  Speak out forcefully about inequality.  Justice is not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of opportunity.”

Here at Leo Baeck Temple we have a storied history of action on racial and economic justice – from the early days of school desegregation, when the women of Leo Baeck Temple organized an after school program for children bussed from South LA to Westside schools —  to CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, co founded by Rabbi Beerman with Civil Rights veteran James Lawson.  These days, we have two big,
ongoing initiatives.  You can get involved in community organizing with One LA, and work with Black and Latino communities for access to health care and affordable housing and education and a functional public transportation system.  Because Blacks and Whites can’t know each other until we can physically get to each other.  Or you can get
involved through the Community of Elders with the Kinship in Action network of
the Community Coalition — family foster care in the mostly Black community of
South LA.  No matter where you stand there is something you can do.

 

Why is the sound of birth a cry?  Because it hurts.  It hurts to give birth and it hurts to be
born.   And it hurts to live.  There is so much pain, and there is so much improving to be done.  When we acknowledge how much it hurts, when we cry out with the pain of the world, we can begin to heal and do better.

There is one more word related to shofar:  Shafar means glistening beauty or splendor,
radiance.  When we overcome the legacy of slavery in America, when we strive to become better human beings, when give our own original gifts to improve our society, when we make it so that all babies are born into a world of possibility, we will experience shafar: beauty, radiance, splendor.

Today on Rosh Hashanah you are born.  In ten days on Yom Kippur you die.  What will you do with this one, brief and precious life?

 

When the shofar sounds today, let us return to our beginnings, when every possibility was open, remembering who we are and why we are here.  Like Shifra, let’s help birth
a new day, l’shaper, to do better, to be better, to make our world better.  So that we become something shafar: beautiful, radiant, splendorous.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lishmoa kol shofar. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of our Universe, who sanctifies us through commandments and commands us to hear the voice of the shofar.

 

Benediction

Eternal One, help us to live out the purpose of our births, to be better, to do better, so that every new baby is born into a world of possibility and equality.  Let us heed
the prophet Isaiah who said: “Cry with a full throat, without restraint; raise
your voice like a shofar! …Then your light will shine (in darkness) and your
gloom shall be like noonday.” (Isaiah 58:1, 10)   Shanah
Tovah
.



[1] Babylonian
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 11a, From rabbinic thesis of Rabbi Lisa Edwards

[2]
From Rabbi Edwards’s rabbinic thesis

[3]
ibid

[4]
Rabbi Larry Hoffman in Edwards

[5]
This idea, and the concept for the sermon, came from chevruta study with Rabbi
Lydia Medwin

[6]
Edwards

[7]
Emor 11 and Tazria 4, from Edwards

[8]
Edwards

[9]
Mark Sloan, Birth Day

[10]
Detailed in an article by Dr. Sherrilyn Ifill on www.The Root.com.

[11]
Paraphrased from President Obama in conference call with rabbis Aug 30, 2013

[12] Just Growth, Chris Benner and Manuel
Pastor

On Purpose

Link

Rosh Hashanah 5772

Leo Baeck Temple

Rabbi Rachel Timoner

                             

 

On Purpose

 

“Futile!  Everything is futile! What does a person ever gain from all the effort he expends on this earth? One generation goes and another comes, and the earth stays the same forever.” 

I can’t help but feel that these words from Ecclesiastes fit the mood of our country on this Rosh Hashanah.  We are depressed.  We’re in the fourth year of economic woe without relief in sight.  People are suffering.  Almost one of every ten Americans is desperately looking for work, and many more have lost hope.  Soup kitchens and food pantries report unprecedented need and insufficient supplies.   The federal government is in deadlock.  State and local governments are in crisis.  The middle class has been shrinking for the last forty years.  Schools are a wreck and public colleges are being defunded, while prison populations are larger than ever before.  Ten years after September 11th, we’ve never quite recovered emotionally or psychologically.  America has lost its place in the world, and it feels like nothing we do can make a difference.

What is our purpose? In times like these, the question might strike us while on the way to our job, or on a long day of searching for work, or while carting our children to and from school, or in a quiet moment of retirement.  Even if our days are full of places to be and things to do, the question crouches at the edge of our consciousness: Is there a purpose?

Monuments crumble, empires disappear, generations fade away. A loved one is diagnosed with something they say has no cure, and suddenly it doesn’t matter if we’ve kept up with the laundry or done our taxes or repaired that place on the ceiling where the paint was chipping.  Entropy feels relentless. It disassembles what we’ve built, pulling the pieces apart to reveal the void gaping within.  We toil away—building lives, filling schedules, planting gardens—and yet things continue to fall apart.  We ask ourselves:  what is the point of all this effort?  There are 6.9 billion people on earth and there have been roughly 500 generations since human civilization began.  What are we doing here?  What if there is no point at all? 

Nihilism.  Nietzsche warned us that it would characterize our era.  The emptying of the world of all meaning and purpose: he called it “the danger of dangers.”

 

 

We used to believe in God.  Not just some of us, but almost all of us used to believe in God.  At first, we believed that we were at the center of God’s universe.  We believed that God was like a big man in the sky who could show up at any time to warn us of a flood or speak to us from fire.  We believed that God would protect us and make us mighty in battle and as countless as the sands and the stars.  We believed that if we followed God’s laws, God would bless us.  And if we did not follow God’s laws, God would punish us.  These beliefs united us, comforted us, and gave us a shared framework of meaning.   We knew our purpose: living a good life meant fulfilling God’s commands. 

But then we remained small, nowhere near as countless as the sands and the stars, and relatively powerless, a tiny fraction of the world’s population.    We were despised for generations, suffering a litany of abuses until a horrific fate beyond all imagining befell our people. No one could say that one million children were being punished.  Good people went hungry, good people were diagnosed with cancer. God wasn’t showing up in pillars of fire or putting words in the mouths of our prophets.  And we learned that we live on a small planet circling an insignificant star, in a peripheral galaxy of a vast cosmos.  And many of our people stopped believing in God. 

 

But even if we didn’t believe in God, at least we believed in America.  Many of you in this room grew up in a time when we believed in and honored our government. We trusted our president and gave him the power to put us back to work.  We believed in our military, and we knew that its war against fascism was noble and necessary.  We volunteered, we sacrificed, we worked, we contributed.  There was a feeling that we were all in it together.  We believed that business was a pillar of the community.  And we believed in the media – we trusted the newsreels and then Walter Cronkite.  America was good and right.  We knew we had a purpose – living a good life meant working hard, loving your country, and sacrificing for its success.

Then there was the specter of nuclear war, and then Vietnam, and more recently a war in Iraq that almost no one today can justify. Political scandals are so frequent they are expected.  A runaway greed led to a business climate that maximized profits at any cost.  Television news became mere entertainment.  And now many of us have lost faith in our government, business, military, and media. 

 

 

 

But even if we didn’t believe in American institutions, at least we believed in changing them.  When social movements sought to transform our country, this congregation was a part of them.  Rosa Parks refused to move.  Children in Birmingham braved fire hoses and Bull Connor’s dogs.  The Freedom Riders faced down brutal mobs, and some of you were there.  Cesar Chavez went on hunger strike and we didn’t eat grapes.  Flowers were placed in guns at Kent State, and we were out on the streets.  There was consciousness raising and women’s liberation.  People marched.  People sang.  People believed that a new day was coming, a new world was being born.  This congregation was a part of it.  We knew what our purpose was: living a good life meant giving our time, energy, attention, and effort to change the world. 

Belief in God, belief in America, belief in social change.  It was never this simple, of course: there were always disbelievers at every stage.  But there was some collective belief that defined meaning and gave life purpose.

And then we became profoundly disappointed by the limits of social change.  We’d marched, we felt powerful, we believed, and when not enough changed, it felt futile.  Some of us gave up, stopped believing that we could make any difference at all. 

If we are disappointed with rebellion, says Thomas Hibbs, who studies nihilism in popular culture, “both rebellion and convention seem foolish, and you’re left with snickering irony.”

Generation X, Generation Y, the Millennials.  With each successive chapter we become more focused on self-fulfillment, less focused on collective sacrifice.  If we don’t believe in God or in the institutions of our society, and we don’t believe that social change works or that life has transcendent purpose, what are we left to believe in, but ourselves?  This is passive nihilism.  We retreat from any collective commitment, and narrow the circumference of our concerns to the self.  What is the message our children have received about the purpose of life? The “good life” being broadcast from every media outlet in our age is not “follow God’s mitzvot,” or “sacrifice for the good of your country,” or “contribute your life to social change,” but:  become rich and famous.  And the problem is:  these goals are empty of meaning.

We crave meaning.  A study published in the New York Times on Labor Day weekend found that American workers are terribly unhappy at work.  Why?  Researchers expected pay rates, hours, and stress to be at the top of the list.  But they were wrong.  The most important factor in work satisfaction is that workers believe that their work has meaning and feel that they are making progress toward meaning.

 

I read a beautiful book this summer by a man named James Kugel, a professor emeritus at Harvard.  His book is called In the Valley of the Shadow: on the origins of religious belief.  He begins with the moment when he learned that he had a cancer with a very low cure rate.  He was given two years to live.  And he describes how what he calls “the background music” of his life stopped.  He writes: “it had always been there, the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence.  There you are, one little person, sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do.” 

In his state of silence, Kugel found a starkness that was immediate.  He could see that he fit into something larger than himself. He discovered that our eyes and ears aren’t telling us the whole story.  We are privy to only a small fraction of the sensory phenomena around us at this moment, and we cannot grasp the scale of time and space in which this moment sits.  We now know so much more than we used to about the universe and human life, but there’s so much we still don’t understand. Kugel theorizes that ancient people were more aware of how they fit into the world around them, but as the self has grown larger and the background music has gotten louder, we’ve become less able to perceive what lies beyond us.

Kugel writes: “Religion is a fundamental openness to that which cannot be seen by the eyes or heard by the ears… There may indeed be something ‘mythic’ about it, but it pales before the mythic quality of our own clumsy, modern selves…  these myths of our [selves] are quite pointless in a moment of privileged insight, when we are able to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond our own real being.”

If all we can see is the self, if all we can hear is the background music, of course it is difficult to make the case for transcendent purpose in our lives.  But when we are able to sense that the self is part of something larger, when we become aware of the presence beyond us, and of the web of human relationships in which we dwell, we can make peace with how small we are and how brief our lives are. 

It is true that monuments crumble, but the civilizations that built them continue to impact humanity long after the buildings have turned to dust.  In this light, the hundreds of generations before us do not make us insignificant, they make us significant.  Human learning is cumulative.   Our language, technology, consciousness, values are built on those who came before, and influence those who follow.  Yes, we will die.  Yes, we will disappear from the earth, but our generation will shape the future.  We are part of the unfolding drama of human life on earth.

It’s true that when first confronted by a devastating diagnosis of a loved one, the chipped paint on the ceiling and the weeds in the garden don’t matter at all, but as the weeks go by we realize that if we want to make the most of whatever time we have left, and if we want to leave something for those who come after us, we’d better tend our garden and repair our house. 

We have to believe that what we do matters.  This may take a leap of faith, but it is a leap we must make.  Apathy and disengagement are not working.  Because we doubt everything, we are losing hope for our children’s future.  We are presented with a false choice: on one side, there is religious absolutism promising structure, simple answers, and a universal moral code imposed on all.  On the other side, the idea that life is random and we exist merely to perpetuate it.

There is another way: It’s time to believe again.  Not to believe that we’re at the center of the universe, or that God’s going to speak to us from fire, or that life is fair, or that bad things only happen to bad people.  But to believe that we’re part of something larger than ourselves, interconnected beyond understanding, swimming in and suffused with what’s beyond us.  Our fear that we stand on the brink of a gaping void enables us to peer over the edge and find that the void itself—around which electrons swirl and in which our planet spins– is God’s presence.  It was the Kabbalists who called God both Ayin, Nothingness, and Ein Sof, the Limitless One.

And it is time to believe again in the public sphere.  Not that American institutions are without flaws, or that we can create a perfect world in our own lifetimes. But to believe that it’s worth investing in government, in education, in jobs.  It’s worth sacrificing again for the greater good, giving our time and energy and resources to rebuild our country.   Our nation cannot afford our nihilism.  People are suffering, and if there was ever a time for an engaged citizenry, this is that time.

It is time to believe again that we can change one small patch of the world.  Even if we were disappointed before, it is time to try again, to see ours as just one leg in the journey of many generations toward redemption.  As Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Judaism insists that every life has meaning.  This is what Torah teaches: we are in covenant with Adonai, yod-hey-vav-hey, the source of being.  We look out at our world and we see beauty and also brokenness.  Do not look away from the brokenness, Torah teaches, “Do not remain indifferent.”  We were born to make this world better than we found it.  We are in covenant, carrying on our people’s commitment to make the world whole with the actions of our lives.  This is our purpose—to act in such a way that our lives themselves are instruments of redemption, instruments to create healing, justice, prosperity, compassion, peace, and sustainability on earth.

These most sacred days of the year have come to awaken us to the fact that the world, and our lives, are hanging in a delicate balance.  In the u’netaneh tokef prayer, the signature prayer of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a terrible list of fates are arrayed before us.  Who will die by fire, who by drowning, who by plague…bad things will happen to all of us but, the prayer insists, we are not powerless before our deaths. There are three things we can do while we live: tefilah, teshuvah, tzedakahTefilah is the word for prayer, but it means self-examination, looking deeply at our lives; teshuvah means changing our ways, returning our hearts to God; tzedakah means acting for a more just world. 

Why?  Why does our prayerbook insist that we do these things?  If we’re all going to die, why does it matter?  Because, this prayer insists, our lives are not random.  They are soaked in meaning.  The world hinges on our actions.  We are part of a great drama, by which humanity partners with God to redeem our world.  And we have a limited number of years to give.  When we do tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah we remember why we’re here.  When we examine ourselves, change our ways, and act for a more just world, we see that our lives are filled with purpose.  This doesn’t prevent our deaths, but it gives our lives, and our deaths, meaning.

In this light, we see that the words of Ecclesiastes may have been misunderstood. The Hebrew word that has been translated as “futile” is hevel, but hevel does not literally mean futile.  It means vapor, mist, that which is ungraspable.  On second look, it seems Ecclesiastes was not saying that life is futile, but that we cannot grasp the meaning of our lives from within them.  We cannot see our purpose, or the impact we have, because our lives are like vapor, like grass that withers, like a dream that fades.  Our perspective is simply too small.  From the limited view of a brief and fleeting life, it looks as if “one generation goes and another comes, and the earth remains the same forever.”   But we know now that the earth does not remain the same forever.  For better and for worse, the great flow of human life over time leaves its mark on the earth.  For better and for worse, each generation contributes a legacy of change.  Let our legacy be for the better.

A family in a Reform congregation in New Jersey lost their son on September 11th.  To remember him, they created a one-week camp for children who lost parents on that day: “You can’t describe in words what this camp has given us,” says a camper. “They gave us hope and a place to breathe.”  

A member of another Reform congregation in Massachusetts realized that her child was a bully in his school.  She joined together with other members, some of whose children were being bullied, and they realized that they were all in a system that lacked accountability.  Together they passed comprehensive, statewide anti-bullying legislation.

A member of another Reform congregation was concerned about the care that his elderly parents were receiving in a nursing home.  He joined together with other members whose parents were in the same facility, and they found that the Haitian workers there had terrible working conditions– including not getting any breaks, and not being allowed to speak their own language — and in turn they were not delivering the care they’d want to give.  The Jewish families and the Haitian workers came together and secured better conditions for the workers, and better care for the residents. 

The camp didn’t change the world, or reverse 9/11.  But hundreds of children have been healed in important ways, reducing the trauma they’ll pass on to their children.  The anti-bullying legislation doesn’t keep every child safe.  But millions of children are safer than they were before, and the law may someday become a nationwide standard.  The nursing home isn’t perfect now, but there’s a bond between the caregivers and those receiving care, and both the workers and the residents are getting more of what they need.

 

What will we do together?  As Rabbi Chasen said last night, we are launching a powerful new initiative at Leo Baeck Temple: Congregation Based Community Organizing.  We’ll start by listening to one another in hundreds of one-to-one conversations through the fall.  You’ll find cards on your seats inviting you to participate.  Out of these one-to-one conversations and house meetings, we’ll identify the issues that are most pressing in our lives, most present in our stories.  We’ll research those issues and look for something specific, significant, and winnable that we can achieve.  And then we’ll get to work – taking action to add our contribution to our generation’s legacy of change. 

Judaism teaches that we exist to participate in the healing and transformation of our world.  We do this through mitzvot.  We do this through tefilah, teshuva, and tzedakah.  We do this by nurturing loving-kindness in ourselves and others.  We do this through action that makes one small broken corner of our world more whole.  Our country needs this from us now, more than ever.  This is the work we are about to embark on together. Even when we feel small, even when we cannot grasp how any of it matters, even when everything seems futile, we must each find our part in the great drama of the redemption of our world.  This is our fulfillment of covenant.  This is nothing less than the purpose of our lives.

 

 

Closing Benediction:

Dear God, transcendent presence within us and beyond us, help us to believe again – in you, in our country, and in social change.  Even when we doubt, even when we feel despair, give us the courage to trust that our lives have purpose and that our actions matter.  This year, bless us with the strength and resolve to live out your covenant, to do our small part to make our world how it should be.  Then, then, it will truly be a Shanah Tovah.

 

2,992 people

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 Shabbat Ki Teitse 5771

Ten years ago this weekend our world changed.  In an unimaginable, pre-meditated, monstrous attack, two thousand nine hundred and ninety two people lost their lives.  Two thousand nine hundred and ninety two families lost fathers, sisters, sons, mothers, brothers, daughters.  Firefighters, office workers, executives, cleaning staff.  Young people, people of every race and culture and language.  Beyond the loss of two thousand nine hundred and ninety two lives in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania that were lost, it was a fearlessness that was shattered.  A national identity.   A sense of invulnerability.  

Americans stood on top of the world in 2001.  Our army had defeated the Nazis, we won the Cold War, our country was the strongest in the world.  We were mighty, we were proud, we were unafraid.

As scores of volunteers searched the rubble looking for survivors, or at least remains, the cloud of shock eventually lifted and fear set in.   Over the next months and years, at least 10,000 New Yorkers suffered from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, due to 9/11.[1]  Even those of us living on the other side of the country were afraid of tall buildings, afraid to go out in public, afraid to fly, afraid of the next attack.

Magazines and news shows warned us of danger all around us.  There could be terrorists hiding anywhere, they said.  They could be our neighbors, they could be plotting right now to attack us, to destroy us.  How could we find them?  How could we be safe?

Once we were afraid, we changed.   To protect ourselves from sleeper cells, we allowed government surveillance of civilians.   To protect ourselves from hijackers, we allowed searches and seizures at airports.  To protect ourselves from known terrorists, we allowed indefinite detention and waterboarding.  To protect our freedom, we became less free.  September 11th changed architecture, as building designs started to account for various modes of attack.  It changed our language, with expressions like “jihadist”,  “homeland security”,  “freedom fries.”

And, in our fear, in our desire not to be afraid, in our need to prove our strength, we went to war.  More than 9,000 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan (more than three times the number of Americans who died on 9/11).  More than 120,000 Iraqis and Afghanis have died so far.[2] 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitse, opens in the midst of the Torah’s ethical limitations on war.  It’s as if the Torah recognizes what fear does to human beings, what war does to human beings.  It’s as if the Torah is warning us about how easily we can be swept up, lose ourselves, lose our moral bearings in war.  “Should you go out to war,” the first words read, and you take a beautiful woman captive and you desire her, you cannot have your way with her. 

Who have we become?  We are the same people who just a few verses earlier are preserving trees on the battlefield, a few verses later returning our enemy’s ox if it has gone astray, leaving the corners of our fields for the widows and the orphans and the stranger.   A people rooted in ethics and mitzvot.  But here, we are carried away by fear, anger, aggression, lust.  You cannot have your way with her, Torah teaches.  She must be given time to mourn her family, time to adjust to her loss.  Only then can you marry her. 

From this disturbing passage, the Torah then considers two forms of strife that happen in a home.  A man who hates his wife.  A rebellious son. 

What do these have to do with one another?  Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, the great Medieval commentator, quotes a midrash which finds a causal link among these three laws. The midrash says that the Torah is speaking against the evil inclination. According to Jewish tradition, human beings have pure souls, but have two inclinations: the inclination toward good and the inclination toward evil.  The evil inclination is the source of our aggression, lust, and greed.  Because it’s natural and it’s in all of us, it behooves us to avoid the conditions that allow the evil inclination to rise.  If one goes out to war, the midrash warns, it will come to pass that someone will want to take a captive woman to wife.  And this will lead to having a hated wife.  And this will lead to having a rebellious child.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen says “this week’s portion forces us to focus on what war does to us.”  How people who one day are leaving food on their fields for those who have none, who are worrying about the trees on the battlefield, the next day find themselves traumatized, changed by killing and the fear of being killed.  So that a beautiful woman, innocent and captured, seems like something to be taken.  And then, once the soldier and the captive woman are married, because there never was love there, hatred grows between husband and wife, and their son grows up full of resentment, looking for a fight.  And what happens when he has his own children?

This is not hypothetical, and it’s not only in Torah.   More than 144,000 American troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.[3]  They have forever been changed by the continual fear of roadside bombs, by the excruciating loss of fellow soldiers, by the often impossible task of distinguishing between combatants and civilians, by the act of killing.  They come home with PTSD, with depression, with strange ailments.  Some come home angry, some come home wounded.  Some find it difficult to adjust to home, to holding a job, to raising children, to loving their spouse.  The war does not end when they come home.  There is addiction.  There are divorces.  There is abuse.  There is much suffering. 

            The suffering is not limited to soldiers and their families.  So far, the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has cost $3.7 trillion.[4]  It is the only war in American history that was paid for without an increase in taxes.  As unemployment hovers above nine percent and Congress is reluctant to respond because of our national debt, the pain of these wars is felt by everyone.

 

It all started with a handful of men who boarded planes intent on destroying American life.  Ten years later, hundreds of thousands of people have died.  Hundreds of thousands of children have grown up with trauma, more likely to look for a fight.  Hundreds of millions of people have lost freedoms, starting with the freedom to be unafraid.   

 

The cycle goes on until we stop it.  The cycle goes on until we find another way to respond to our fear.  The Torah warns us: look at what war does to you, to your families, to your children.

As we remember the two thousand nine hundred and ninety two people who died on September 11th ten years ago, let us look for another way. 



[1] NY Times, September 8, 2011

[2] New York Times, 9/11 Wars by the Numbers; UN Report on Afghani casualties

[3] New York Times, War by the Numbers, September 8, 2011

[4] Huffington Post, June 29, 2011

Refusing to Choose

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On Thursday evening I was summoned to the street in front of the Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood by CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.   People were getting arrested again, because the hotel has still not agreed to give its housekeepers fair hours and health benefits.

The Andaz is with Hyatt hotels, which is in a protracted struggle with its lowest paid workers in cities across the country.  Hyatt has cut back on their housekeepers’ hours while requiring the same amount of work out of them, and is trying to get away with cutting their health benefits.   The housekeepers in LA, represented by HERE Local 11, are simply trying to maintain the basics they need to provide for and protect their families.

This year I was there with Christian and Muslim leaders to bless the twenty or so people sitting in a circle in the middle of Sunset Blvd. waiting to get arrested.  One year ago I was one of the people sitting there on that same stretch of pavement, alongside several housekeepers, waiting for the Sheriff’s department to stand us up, handcuff us, and cart us off together.

As I stood there last week among the chanting crowds, I remembered the feeling one year ago when I was sitting in the street and waiting.  I remember that when I closed my eyes I found my heart aching with prayer.  I was grateful: Grateful to the housekeepers for their extraordinary courage.  Grateful to the union organizers, who make ordinary people struggling for decency in the workplace visible.  Grateful to CLUE for giving me an opportunity to sit with people fighting for their human rights.

I prayed that our voices would be heard, that these women would be protected.  I prayed that a new ethos would reign in our country, of fairness over greed; of turning to one another and actually caring — one in which selfishness is no longer considered prudent but short-sighted.

I remember Abraham Joshua Heschel famously saying that he was praying with his feet when he marched with Martin Luther King Jr.   This moment on Sunset Blvd. felt holy.

I went to rabbinical school because I didn’t want to have to choose between social justice and spirituality anymore.  I wanted to have moments like this one, in which my religious convictions lead me to act for justice, and my actions for justice lead me back to my relationship with God.  Now I want to inspire that in my community: listening for the holy in each other’s stories, looking out at what’s wrong in our city and finding the courage to make it right.

First Fruits of Summer

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Today I tasted my first nectarine, and I have decided that nectarines are a miracle.  The truth is that I have eaten many nectarines before now – nectarines from the store or the farmer’s market, in a fruit salad or whole from the refrigerator.  But this was my first nectarine from my first nectarine tree –one of four bare-root trees I planted in my back yard last Tu B’Shevat.  At the time, their trunks were as thin as fingers and no taller than my knees.  As I dug their holes in the early morning winter light, it was hard to believe that these twigs would grow.  Sixteen months later, my seven-foot-tall nectarine tree stands among an apple, persimmon, and plum, laden with round, impossibly red fruit.  No fruit has ever been this good. Continue reading