Friday, October 21, 2022

Saying Goodbye.

Dear wonderful readers and followers of this blog, Take on Torah:

After 13+ years and 675 blog posts, I have decided to stop writing Take on Torah. I will be leaving my pulpit at Ohev Shalom in early December, and do not yet know where I’m going or where I’ll end up. It feels fitting to end this blog on the Torah portion of Bereisheet, at the very beginning of the Torah, with many new adventures and opportunities ahead of us all. 

This blog will remain online, hopefully indefinitely, and I’ve included the name of each week’s Torah portion in the title of the post. If you ever want to read my Divrei Torah again, or see my High Holiday sermons, or even some of my synagogue newsletter articles, feel free to peruse this site whenever. If you find yourself wanting to comment, ask a question, or in some other way react to what you're reading, please, please do reach out to me. I truly cherish your feedback - positive, constructive, and yes, even negative - and I'm certainly always up for a spirited exchange about the Torah!

Thank you for all these years of support and encouragement. Your comments and feedback have honed and improved my writing, and you have challenged me to see things from new angles. It has been my sincere pleasure and honor to write this blog for so long, and to share my take on the weekly Torah portions with all of you. I hope that you will continue to engage with the Torah; mining the text for deeper meaning and seeking out relevant messages for all of our everyday lives. It is a living, breathing document, that begs us to stay in relationship with it as the soul of our Jewish peoplehood. As I have done since the very *genesis* of this blog, I invite - and even urge - you to “take on [the] Torah!” Challenge it, wrestle with the text, let it push you and your thinking a little… and then push it right back. 

Thank you for reading my thoughts and commentaries, and for continuing to engage with the texts of our wonderful, ancient, multi-faceted tradition. Please remember always that learning is life-long, and we should constantly seek out opportunities to discover something new or shift our perspective. Be grateful for the ability to grow as a human being, and strive to regularly evolve your thinking. Thank you so much.

לך לשלום חברים - Go in peace, dear friends.

CC image in this blog post, courtesy of Ashashyou on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 7, 2022

Yom Kippur, 5783/2022 - Main D'var Torah (Daytime)

When I was 19 years old, I moved to the United States on my own. At the time, I mostly just felt super-excited about this new adventure, moving to New York City, straight into Manhattan, and attending two colleges at the same time, List College, the undergraduate program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. It was just the most fabulous, wondrous, exhilarating experience I could ever have imagined. I arrived a week early, with just my mom accompanying me, and she helped me set up my dorm room and get myself as ready as possible for this thoroughly overwhelming new stage of my life. It was only on the initial day of orientation, when she had to get back on a plane for Sweden, that I for the first time realized I was all alone. I watched her taxi leave the corner of 120th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and I cried. 

Years later, I looked back at that time, and I frankly marveled at how I made it all work. I was 19 years old, my entire family was on another continent, and I had never studied in the United States before, let alone at an Ivy League college like Columbia, and nothing I had ever experienced before could prepare me for life in New York City in the late 1990s. I never again felt that level of insecurity and uncertainty about the future, as I did at that moment. I often wondered, later in life, if that was an isolated incident or if I could ever take such a massive leap of faith and self-reliance again.

One of the things I recall from that first year was learning all about the institutions I was attending. As I walked through the then massive iron gates of JTS, I looked up at the emblem of the institution and I was confused. Underneath a picture of what was clearly a tree or a shrub of some sort, were three words in Hebrew, והסנה איננו אוכל, “And the bush was not consumed.” It comes from the Book of Exodus, chapter 3, verse 2, referring to the moment when Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, looked up into the mountains and saw a bush on fire, and yet… it was not being engulfed in the flame or turned to ash. 

Now why on earth would an academic institution make that their tagline???

It just seemed to me like an odd moment to capture. Not God actually speaking to Moses from the bush, not Moses removing his sandals on holy ground, and not God demonstrating miracles to Moses which he could later use to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh that he was indeed an emissary of God on a holy mission. Just, “the bush kept burning…” Riveting stuff. However, over the years I’ve found myself returning to this phrase numerous times, and each time I have developed a new and evolving understanding of it. But rather than give you my perspective right now, I’d like to first share with you a quote from Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s book, “God is Here,” the one I’ve been quoting and referencing throughout these High Holiday sermons. The book is all about trying to develop new relationships with God, and preferably ones that don’t require us to imagine God as a Big Person. She uses lots of textual examples from our Jewish Bible to show that our ancestors likened God to water, a cloud, a rock, and several others. Her book includes a chapter on God seen through the metaphor of fire, in which she brings up this very moment from Exodus.

Spitzer talks about teaching this quote to a group of social justice activists, and asking them why God appears to Moses in this particular way. That’s such a great question. Why not thunder and lightning? Why not a massive talking animal? Or a mysterious, angel-like human figure?? Why an inextinguishable shrub? One participant responded: “Because to take this [work] on, you have to have a fire burning within, an anger about injustice, a passion for the work of liberation. But that fire can overwhelm and consume you.” That answer really resonated with me. I think about my own life and my rabbinic work, and the things in life that make me passionate and excited, and I totally agree with this observation. You need something to kindle that light inside you. A FUSE, of sorts. And you need to figure out how to keep it lit and thriving, or the work can become burdensome and loathsome, and you yourself can become jaded and disillusioned. There’s a reason why losing our energy and our excitement is often called “burnout” or “flaming out.” If the fire inside is extinguished, it’s hard to find your enthusiasm once again.

On the other hand, if you let that fire burn uncontrollably, your passion can turn into obsession, vitriol, and even violence, and it can consume you and everyone around you. It can destroy everything you’ve worked for. That’s pretty daunting, isn’t it? How do you find that balance? Or, as Rabbi Spitzer writes in her book, “While almost anything can be dangerous in excess, the distance between warming your hands by a fire and singeing your fingers is a matter of inches.” We have to guard and keep that flame, while also respecting how thin that line really can be.

Fire is such a particularly good metaphor in this instance. Think about how absolutely vital it is to human survival. So much so, that we often talk about humans harnessing the power of fire as the beginning of civilization! Many of our foods, even today, could be terribly harmful to us if not boiled, cooked, or roasted first. Even water is often not safe to drink until boiled. As mammals without fur, fire was of course vital to prehistoric humans for heat. And without night vision, torches were essential for navigating treacherous environments. At the same time, despite how vital fire may be, there’s also no question how dangerous and life-threatening it can become as well. Especially when we don’t respect it.

Our internal self-preservation and survival instinct might kick into gear here, and caution us that if something is THAT dangerous, we should avoid it altogether. Why even risk it? Well, I return then to the rabbinic quote I’ve been using throughout this series as well, from the Ethics of Our Ancestors, Pirkei Avot, where Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that “we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” This is a slightly different reframing, but I still feel his words apply. I hear Rabbi Tarfon reminding us that just because something is scary, concerning, and potentially even dangerous, doesn’t mean we should just give up without trying. Moving to New York City on my own at 19 was pretty terrifying, but I wouldn’t change that journey for anything in the world. In life, you cannot simply desist from walking the paths that are hard.

I often find myself thinking about this concept of taking on scary things even when they’re dangerous, when it comes to parenting. We so desperately want to protect our children from harm, difficulty, pain, and disappointment… and yet, those experiences ARE vital for learning how to be resilient. That doesn’t mean we actively put our kids in harm’s way, but again, it’s hard to find the perfect balance between on the one hand trying to protect them, warn them, and make decisions that we tell ourselves are “for their own good,” while on the other hand, needing to let them explore and discover the world on their own. Our pediatrician once told me, little black and blue marks on kids’ legs and scuffed knees are the sign of a healthy child learning how to navigate the world as well as their own body.

Fire is also an excellent metaphor for emotions, specifically anger. Even in English, our descriptions of getting angry often revolve around feeling our “blood boiling” or being “fuming mad.” But then, society also cautions us, anger is bad. It’s destructive. It can hurt people. And it would be better to let our anger pass, calm down, and then make level-headed decisions. In my pastoral work, I see so many adults who don’t know what to do with their anger. Some retreat into silence, others may start to shake with anger, while yet others may turn to one substance or another to try and force their blood pressure to drop back down. They’re all struggling with this notion that anger is bad. It can be a destructive, fiery blaze that can injure or kill. We must stop it at all costs.

Just look around in society or in the news; we see constant examples of people having no idea how to handle their so-called negative emotions of anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, shame, and guilt. Maybe they get up on a stage and slap someone on national television for saying something they didn’t like. Or they attack authority figures, doctors, and epidemiologists who don’t give them the answers they want. They start wars to annex territory that doesn’t belong to them, dragging entire nations down with them in the process. Or perhaps they join a riot at the seat of their country’s democracy because they didn’t agree with the results of an election. 

As a parent, I see the need from the very earliest moments of child development for this kind of intervention… especially because we see so many adults - including world leaders - who have no clue what to do when their emotions are boiling over or about to explode like a powder keg. All of us, from children to grownups, need better strategies for handling negative emotions. I firmly believe that part of that begins by not thinking of them as wholly negative.

Throughout the Tanach, there are images of God being angry… with some seriously damaging repercussions. In many of those instances, God is described as an “אש אוכלה - an all-consuming fire.” In Leviticus, God’s anger blazes forth against two of Aaron’s sons, when they offer an unsanctioned sacrifice. In the Book of Numbers, God’s flames return for the followers of Korach, rebelling against Moses. And in the Books of Kings, God torches the 400 priests of Ba’al, who challenge the prophet Elijah to a contest of sacrifices. Fire is scary; God’s fire is terrifying. 

At the same time, the Bible also depicts God’s fire as a force for good, protection, and connection as well. The Bible doesn’t view it as inherently negative, and invites us to be in relationship with its positive attributes as well. It is also the pillar of fire in Exodus that protects the Israelites from the oncoming Egyptian hordes by the Sea of Reeds. In Leviticus, fire was an absolutely essential component of how our ancient ancestors connected with God. They didn’t have prayer books or Torah scrolls; only sacrifices. Rabbi Spitzer writes, “the flames on the altar were both a reminder of God as Fire and a means of connecting to the divine.” I imagine that the Israelites, standing there watching the flames and smoke of their offering ascend into heaven, surely felt that God, who otherwise seemed so distant up above, would hear their prayers. 

It is true that the Bible demonstrates how dangerous fire and anger can be… but it also shows how life-giving and protecting it can be, and we need to emulate that ability to keep both types of fire in balance. In general, we need more positive associations with these complex emotions that we otherwise just dismiss as “negative” and “harmful.” The Bible offers many ways to reframe them, yet so often we still do our best to just try and not feel angry or upset. Yet still I maintain, anger can be healing. It can even be transformative. 

Rabbi Spitzer introduces a fascinating concept in her chapter on Holy Fire, that of our ancient ancestors viewing God through the practice of metallurgy. She refers to something called “Furnace Remelting,” where a corroded copper object would be completely melted down in the glowing fire of a furnace, so that it could be made into an entirely new object. She quotes a scholar from Ben Gurion University, Nissin Amzallag, talking about how the Israelites would have seen the power of God’s fire as being creative, renewing, and positive, saying: “it was conceived [by the Israelites] as a wonder leading to a complete rejuvenation of creation through a massive destruction of shape.” When we are thoroughly broken down, it is also an opportunity to rebuild something completely new… and potentially amazing. Just like the myth of the phoenix, a bird that explodes into flames, yet is then born again from the ashes. 

I want us to stay with this vision of the transformational power of fire for a bit. Let’s think again about our own emotions, the ones we sometimes have so much trouble controlling when they start to boil over. It is true, if we find ways to fully express those emotions, and not always try and tamp them down, or hope they’ll just pass, or medicate them away, it may indeed create a massive blaze - that is a risk - but potentially one that is not only healing, but can be completely revolutionizing. Like furnace remelting, it could lead to something entirely new and fresh and liberating… but first we’ve got to walk through that fire. 

In many ways, I look back on my experience of moving to New York for college as a ‘remelting’ experience. It was tough, it was challenging, and it definitely wasn’t easy. But going through a major life change like that and coming out stronger on the other side really set me on a new path for the rest of my life.

It isn’t just my experience either. When I have talked to people who have walked their own challenging, sometimes painful, paths - surviving substance abuse, illnesses, or accidents - they will certainly readily admit that it was an excruciating process. A genuine trial by fire. And yet, without using this exact language, they all say that it was a ‘remelting’ experience too. They went into that blaze - for as long as it was necessary - and they came out as a reformed, stronger, glowing version of themselves. 

When I think of this metaphor for God, it isn’t so much that I picture God as a divine blaze, like some exciting x-men hero in a flame-retardant suit. Rather, I envision this external force that can come in and reshape us, and also, at the same time, a powerful energy that can come from inside us, that can lead us to achieve extraordinary things. Both from outside and from within ourselves; that is where we may find God… or perhaps just godliness. 

One of the fire images that makes its way into the modern synagogue is the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light. Every synagogue has one, and for some reason it seems to be common knowledge among all Hebrew School students and congregants that the Eternal Light is NEVER supposed to be turned off. That, and never drop a Torah scroll; those seem to be the essential, synagogue 101 facts that everyone knows. The Ner Tamid is meant to remind us of the fire on the altar in the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which also was expected to remain lit constantly. Priests would keep watch all night long, to make sure it stayed, you know, eternal. It may also have served as a reminder of that moment of God approaching Moses, in a fiery bush that nevertheless was not consumed, which changed the course of Jewish history forever. 

At the same time, it was also a symbol of the perpetual Divine presence. Just as the fire would always be there, so would God’s Presence. But in her book, Rabbi Spitzer adds another crucial dimension as well. She writes, “the fire perpetually burning on the altar is a reminder that the metaphorical flame in the human heart never actually goes out. We just need to find it, and tend it, in order for that inner blaze to burn true.” Which leads me very nicely back to my High Holiday theme for this year, which is the need to aspire in our lives. 

So often we just go through the day to day, running on autopilot and not living with intentionality. But it’s there, isn’t it? Somewhere deep inside, there is an ember of a flame that’s just waiting to be nurtured, cultivated, and brought back up to a blaze? We just have to strive, again and again, to find it and tend to it. For some people, it might be a desire to participate in Tikkun Olam, either working for a social justice cause or addressing the global environmental crisis. Or perhaps running for political office. For others, it may be a personal passion that just got set aside long ago; maybe playing an instrument, doing something that gets your heart pumping, or perhaps even taking your life in a new direction. Can it be scary? Of course. But when can we justifiably say that something is *too* scary, and when have we just never challenged ourselves to take the leap and confront our fears head on??

Again, I return to that tagline under the JTS symbol; והסנה איננו אוכל - the bush kept burning and burning, but it did not go out. Even when we feel overwhelmed and intimidated, somewhere deep down, we may feel that the Eternal Light inside us continues to smolder. It will not go out. Yom Kippur is the perfect time to go search inside yourselves for just such a flame. On this day, we set aside our material needs and the sustenance of our bodies, and instead focus on finding nourishment for our souls. Is it an easy search? No, of course not. But it’s worth the struggle, and it’s worth spending your time striving to find it. How can you nourish your soul? What do you need at this time that you aren’t getting, and can you search inside for an eternal light that is waiting for you to care for it and really reignite it?

When I left my home in Stockholm in 1999, I was leaving behind community, stability, comfort, and the life I had always known. I didn’t quite set it all on fire, but it did feel a bit like burning bridges behind me. I certainly felt like I was stepping off a cliff, taking a leap of faith and hoping things would work out. I always wondered if I’d need to do that again, and what would happen if I found myself staring off into the wilderness of the unknown; like Moses, wandering along with his sheep, when he looked up and saw that indestructible bush. 

And now, another moment for me is almost here. Another leap of faith, another scary moment of wondering if I do burn up, will I get to start over, like the phoenix rising from the ashes? I guess that remains to be seen. But I still return, again and again, to the importance of facing your fears. Just because something is scary, it doesn’t mean you need to run the other way. Especially because life will put obstacles and challenges in your path over and over again. So many people in this room have dealt with grief, and/or pain, and/or illness, and many other unfortunate circumstances that you wished you never had to deal with. But two things remain true: You cannot change the past. Wish all you like, you cannot magically undo things once they’ve occurred. And second, if you can stay with that experience, be present to it, and really feel the emotions of that painful time, it can become a source of strength and growth. It can become a “furnace remelting” moment, and give you new tools for dealing with whatever *else* life has in store for you.

So as I finish this sermon, and thus my final High Holiday sermon series, I pray for all of us to learn and grow from the pain of this moment. Yes, it can feel like burning, searing anguish, but it is only the end of one stage in all our lives and in the life of this community, and can lead to the rebirth of another phoenix experience on the other end. Rather than a consuming fire, it can instead be a Ner Tamid, a perpetual flame that just needs new kindling and firewood, but ultimately it is the same fire that keeps going. 

Standing here, I find my attention back at that image of the Burning Bush. That moment of realizing it wasn’t being consumed was Moses’ first realization of God’s Presence and his own destiny taking him in an entirely new direction. It was a terrifying moment, to be sure, but I also imagine that Moses realized the bush continuing to burn and not being destroyed meant it wasn’t something to fear. It was a symbol of God’s care and concern, a burning desire to stay in relationship with Moses and the Jewish People. I hope that even as I end my tenure here as the Rabbi of Ohev Shalom, that our relationship will continue to burn, and our connection will not end. 

At this point, I set aside my sermon and spoke without prepared remarks. In essence, I thanked the congregation for these magical 13 1/2 years, and told them - and that includes you, dear readers, as well - what a fabulous community this is. It will be very, very hard to say goodbye. Thank you for everything. Shanah Tovah!

Yom Kippur Eve, 5783 - Kol Nidrei Sermon

One of the things that greatly surprised me when I first started as the rabbi at Ohev Shalom, was learning how many people at the synagogue had never been to Israel. At the time, even our Cantor/Education Director had never been! To be fair, I grew up in Sweden, which was a shorter (and much less-expensive) flight away, and I also briefly lived in London in my 20s, and led trips to Israel from there too, so I admit I had a seriously unfair advantage.

When I came here, I learned that the congregation had done a trip just before I came to Ohev, but before that trip, it had been decades since the last one. That had to change… and I’ll tell you why. But first, let me say something about my own relationship with Israel. I experience a lot of internal struggles, personally, with Israeli politics; the divisiveness that unfortunately pervades much of modern Israeli society; the unbelievably fraught Matzav, the “situation,” with the Palestinians - both the people and their authorities on the West Bank and in Gaza; and especially regarding the tremendous polarization between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox segments of the population. I struggle. 

I’ve lived there twice - once, for a year, as a child, and then another year much later as a rabbinical student - and I can tell you it is a *tough* place to be a full-time resident. There is a good reason why Israelis call themselves Sabras, the Hebrew word for the prickly pear or cactus pear, a fruit that both grows on the outside of very inhospitable cacti, AND itself is covered in little spikes and thorns. If you can get past the exterior, the inside is a delicious, sweet fruit. Israelis love the image of being bright, lovely, kind people… on the inside… but you really don’t want to take on their natural defenses! In order to make it in the Middle East, you do kind of have to develop spikes and thorns and a tough exterior, if you’re gonna survive.

I’ve had mixed experiences there and many frustrations. It’s a complex place where challenges abound… and yet, despite all of that, I unequivocally call myself a Zionist. Because Zionism is about the millennia-old connection that we Jews have with the land, and which we have maintained uninterruptedly despite everything that has happened around us throughout world history, and to us as an oppressed minority… basically everywhere. Therefore, even when I grapple - constantly - with so many things happening there right now, nevertheless, as a firm and staunch Zionist, I love that place and feel closely bound to it in many, many ways. Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, causes me heartache and grief… but Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel? It will always be a part of my soul, my heart, and my very being. There is just something about that place that calls me back time and again. That’s how I know I am a Zionist. I feel it in my bones, coursing through my blood, and bound up with the very fiber of my Jewish being. 

That probably helps explain why, in my 13 ½ years at Ohev, I have led three trips to Eretz Yisrael. Not only for the selfish reason that my soul yearns to return there frequently AS a visitor, but also because it is a thoroughly indescribable feeling to bring other Jews to Israel for their first time. To see the beauty of the land, the cities, the culture, and the history through the eyes of people who’ve never experienced it before, makes my body tingle, both as I wrote these words on my iPad and saying them out loud to you now. 

Furthermore, I have a secondary agenda with my trips, and some of you have heard me say this before. A few years ago, I started proposing what we called “boutique trips” to Israel. I very intentionally did NOT want to only run first-timer trips, where we visit all the standard, touristy, obvious sites in Israel. In 2016, we did a foodie trip, called “Milk and Honey, Wine and Chocolate.” And in 2018, we did a trip focused primarily on the south of Israel, called “Into the Desert.” I have a couple of other boutique trip ideas too, by the way, like “The Ten Places You’ve Never Seen In Israel; a Tour Guide’s Hidden Gems,” and also “Israel by Night,” where we would take boat trips and explore how the cities come alive at night, and do incredible things like a desert night hike where the bright white limestone of the Judean desert practically glows by night, and so much more.

So what’s my hidden agenda? I need you all to know that Israel is not another place to put on your bucket list. It shouldn’t be something you tick off, like “we’ve been to Hawaii, the Galapagos, Israel, Thailand, and Paris.” It’s not the same. It’s not a place you visit once. It just isn’t. It is a part of you. And discovering the richness of its food, its nightlife, its topography, its people, and so, so much more is essential to us as Jews, and is vital to me as a rabbi. It needs to be an ongoing relationship; not just a one-off. 

There is a reason why Yehudah Ha-Levi, a Spanish poet, philosopher, and physician who lived a thousand years ago, famously wrote, “My heart is in the East, and I am in the utmost West.” He too longed for the Holy Land. Or why 2,000 years *before* Yehudah Ha-Levi, Psalm 137 in the Bible stated, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand cease to function.” To the Psalmist, Jerusalem and indeed the whole Promised Land, was like a physical limb, an indispensable part of the body. It’s simply not a place to go once, experience, buy the t-shirt, and then move on to the next destination on your traveling to-do list. 

I want to share with you one story from the first trip that I organized to Israel, in 2011. (I’m actually going to tell a second story that also took place on that trip, but I’m saving that one for the Neilah service tomorrow evening. If you’re able to make it back, I think you’ll find it worth your while…) But this evening, I want to tell you about our trip to Masada. We did the usual touristy thing of trekking up the Snake Path at dawn, so that we could be at the top before the real desert heat blanketed the area. And then we had the amazing experience of davening shacharit, our morning service, at the top of Masada, in a secluded, ancient prayer space, overlooking the Dead Sea and the surrounding mountains, as the sun rose and glistened across the surface of the water. It was simply spectacular.

We had the special treat of celebrating a Bar Mitzvah that morning, and I also remember so fondly standing there reading Torah, next to Karen Stesis, of blessed memory; and I had the great privilege and immense joy of traveling to Israel - as well as to Europe - with Karen and Louis several times. As the service on Masada was coming to a close, I asked everyone to indulge me for a minute. I told them to close their eyes and actually envision *this place*, this Sanctuary here at Ohev Shalom. I remember it so clearly. I said to them: “Can you picture it? The cinderblock walls (this was before we had the mosaic panels), the Tim Burton-esque tree/menorah thing, the windows, and the pews?” I asked each person to pick a spot in their minds. Pick a specific row and a seat, and imagine yourself sitting down and looking around at all the familiar aspects of the Ohev Shalom Sanctuary. Then, I told those Ohev congregants to open their eyes and look at the breathtaking, sensational view that we had right there on the top of Masada.

I encouraged each person to find that seat when we get back home, and actually go and sit in the Sanctuary in your chosen chair. And then - when you’re back at Ohev - close your eyes and conjure up THIS view, here at Masada. I wanted their brains and their memories to link the two together. Standing on gorgeous, ancient, hot, sunny Masada, picture Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, SO THAT when you’re back in DelCo, you can teleport yourself to this spiritual, awesome experience in the Judean Desert, overlooking Yam Ha-Melach, the Dead Sea. THAT is the power of place. And that is what I want to talk to you about here tonight; the Power of Place.

This evening, I am continuing my sermon series with part three, after the first two sermons I gave on Rosh Hashanah, days 1 and 2. My theme this year is “to aspire,” by which I mean that the goal of these High Holidays, and perhaps throughout our lives in general, is not to achieve some state of perfection and bliss and then stay there forever.. I believe our task is to aspire always to be better, to increase kindness, knowledge, and equality for our fellow human beings, for animals, and for the very planet itself. God is constantly inviting us to be partners in Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World. On Rosh Hashanah, I quoted an ancient sage named Rabbi Tarfon, who wrote 2,000 years ago in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Ancestors, (Hebrew, then) “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” In other words, we keep striving, we keep aspiring. It continues throughout life.

Whether you agree or not about the importance of aspiring, you might justifiably point to the High Holiday Machzor, the prayer book in front of you, and say “this thing doesn’t talk about striving; it focuses on repentance, judgment, and obeying God. And if that is indeed what the book says, and what people believe Judaism says, then I understand why so many people tune out. For many people here tonight, and likely in shuls all around the world, they just have no relationship - or interest in pursuing one - with God at all. I get that. I hear that, and I know where you’re coming from. But here’s my counterpoint: On Rosh Hashanah, I shared with you some observations from Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s book, “God is Here,” which endeavors - or perhaps aspires - to change the way we relate to the Divine. What if we could let go, entirely, of the idea of God as a Big Person, as a Being that guides, or controls… or manipulates our lives, and relate to the concept of a Force outside of ourselves in a completely new way?

Rabbi Spitzer offers several metaphors for God that look nothing like a King, a Shepherd, a Warrior, or any of those other images we see in the Torah, throughout the Jewish Bible, and indeed even right here in our High Holiday Machzor. Tonight, I want to introduce you to another intriguing God-metaphor. (If you want to read, or re-read, the first two, they’re already up on my blog) Spitzer writes: “When I ask people to tell me about their God beliefs, often they have no idea what to say, or simply say they don’t believe in God. But if I ask them to describe a spiritual experience that they’ve had, whatever that may mean to them, many will tell me about special PLACES in their lives.” Places, spaces can indeed be magically full of spirituality and meaning. 

I believe very strongly in the Power of Place, of having unique and meaningful experiences in a location where everything seems to come together perfectly. The sights, sounds, smells, and the feeling of being present right there create an awesome sense of presence that we hold onto long after we leave. That’s why I wanted to start my sermon tonight talking about Israel. No matter how much I grapple with it, the Power of THAT place has imprinted so many core memories on me that I can’t help but feel tied to it and bonded with it.

When I think of Eretz Yisrael, I can feel instantly teleported to the Shuk, the bustling marketplace in Jerusalem that certainly overloads my senses. I recall breathtakingly beautiful drives around the Kinneret, the Galilee, on tour buses that somehow take hairpin turns down mountain paths at alarming speeds; I picture standing at different levels of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, or just gazing out at the mountain views from the top of the city; or returning to my most favorite place in all of Israel, Machtesh Ramon, a massive, naturally-formed crater in the south, in the Negev Desert.

Most of us have had incredibly powerful and life-changing experiences in special locations that are forever etched into our memory banks. Perhaps not in Israel, but someplace, at some time, you had a similar moment of unforgettable awe in a most magical place. Or, as Rabbi Spitzer wonderfully quotes the Beatles’ lyric: “There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed…” But “hang on,” you might say, “God had nothing to do with my memory! I didn’t encounter God in that place! In fact, I never associated God with that experience in the slightest!!” Ok, but let’s stop and examine that for a moment. The God that wasn’t there was perhaps the “Big Person God” that I am seeking to unpack. What if God could be viewed differently, not as Something or Someone you have to try and bring into your experience… but the experience itself? What if God IS the place you remember all your life? Or what if Divinity and holiness can be found in simply BEING, simply experiencing something magnificent and jaw-dropping, and feeling our bodies tingle with the smallness of our own existence in the face of the enormity of a mountain range, a waterfall, a trip to the ocean, or insert-your-own-fantastic-experience-here? 

This may surprise you, but “The Place” is actually one of our names for God! When someone is in mourning, grieving the loss of a loved one, we say to that person, “המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך אבלי ציון וירושלים”- “May ‘The Place’ comfort you among all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.” I’ve actually wondered about that phrase for many years. Ordinarily, we refer to God as Adonai, Elohim, Eil, YHWH, Yahwe, Shaddai, Hashem, Adonai Tzevaot, and many more. But why, in that most vulnerable and painful moment of experiencing death, do we use the Divine pseudonym of “Makom”? Rabbi Spitzer answers this for me beautifully.

She uses the story of our ancestor, Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, who wakes up from a dream in which he saw a ladder going straight up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it, and he declares, “Mah Norah Ha-Makom Ha-Zeh! - How awesome is this place!” Spitzer even uses that phrase as the title of her chapter on place, and Rabbi Miller recently shared with us a beautiful melody, written by Rabbi Shefa Gold, for those words: “Mah Norah Ha-Makom Ha-Zeh!” Spitzer writes that envisioning God as Makom - Place, “emphasizes the nearness of God, [and] the ability to access God in moments of vulnerability and transition.” Just as we said last week, when we talked about God as Water, this is an image of God that isn’t transcendent, high up in the clouds or beyond space and time; this God is right here, closely residing with - and perhaps inside - all of us. 

Furthermore, even though I spent the first half of my sermon talking about Israel, and what a special and spiritual place it is, Rabbi Spitzer talks about the power of place being achievable anywhere. “The underlying irony,” she writes, “of calling God ‘HaMakom/The Place’ is that there isn’t just one place to encounter godliness - that can happen in any place.” A good friend of mine recently said that the ocean is her second synagogue. For her, that is indeed a holy place. Do you have to bring a Siddur and a tallit for it to be “officially” holy? Or do you need to hear a voice from heaven declaring “I approve this message,” for it to “count”? No, absolutely not. We can aspire to find God and godliness in any place. 

Makom is specifically God as intimacy, support, love, caring, and vulnerability. All of a sudden, it makes perfect sense to use Makom when comforting mourners. Because especially when we are grieving, or in pain, or lost, or experiencing any other form of chaos in our lives, we need a safe “place” to return to. In that story about Jacob in the desert, he felt tremendously lost, alone, scared, and anxious. Which is why he needed God to support and protect him in the midst of his vulnerability. Rabbi Spitzer writes: “[Jacob] learns that there is godliness even in places where we wish we didn’t have to be.” She also writes that, “We can think of God as a Place to which we retreat to find comfort and relief.” Or as we might say colloquially when we’re feeling stressed or anxious, we can “go to our happy place.” We may not think of that place as containing God, but just finding safety and security there might, in a sense, be godliness still.

I love this imagery. It is incredibly resonant for all of us, whether we’re thinking of a childhood home or other place in the past that was safe and reassuring, or some fabulous vacation memory that was blissful and peaceful, or our own homes right now, that are hopefully a place of solace, intimacy, and relaxation. But even more than that, think about this space right now. Not just the sanctuary in general, the one I encouraged everyone on Masada to envision, but your experience here tonight in our Kol Nidrei service. 

The lighting falls just so, as the afternoon sky turns to dusk and then nighttime. The beautiful sounds of Mara’s and Bruce’s playing still rings in our ears, as do the notes of Rabbi Miller’s fantastic voice, singing the familiar, mournful, solemn notes of the Kol Nidrei prayer. We are surrounded by family, friends, fellow congregants, and perhaps thinking about previous years with others who are no longer with us. Everything about this evening is just infused with spirituality and holiness. 

Mah Norah Ha-Makom Ha-Zeh - How awesome is this place! How powerful is this moment right now, with all of us here together? And now imagine that you don’t have to therefore - because of this experience here tonight - subscribe to the Book of Life idea, or that God controls our destiny, or any other aspect of classical, traditional theology. We spend so much time grappling with God; wrestling, arguing, challenging, and demanding accountability for hurricanes, pandemics, recessions, and of course, the Holocaust. What about dedicating some time to just be, to just experience a moment of connection, spirituality, and meaning, and not have to challenge or question it? Let the godliness find you, just by residing in a place that is imbued with meaning.

To me, the point of all these new metaphors for God is that we’ve let other people dictate for us how we’re supposed to feel about God, or about our own mortality or the origins of our world, and so on. Opening ourselves up to new possibilities allows us to aspire for something different. Something personal and deeply meaningful… and something you don’t have to struggle to find or hold onto. It might just exist in the very place where you stand or sit.

I began tonight’s sermon talking about Israel, because that is such an impactful place for me. I *also* struggle with the politics and the religious oppression, the constant fighting and the tough exterior that one experiences in Israel. But then I also have an immensely strong relationship with the Makom, with the place itself. And no matter how angry or frustrated I get about the stuff in the newspapers and the opinion pieces, I will always strive to maintain my Zionist passion for the Makom. That relationship is too precious to me, too vital to my identity as a Jew, to ever relinquish.

That may not be your experience of Israel. I’m not trying to make you feel what I feel, regarding Israel, God, or anything else. But I do want to challenge you to reconsider some of the notions you’ve been taught, and which simply may not resonate with you. God can be found and encountered in any space and at any time.We can bring spirituality and meaning into any situation, even by just closing our eyes and imagining ourselves in an incredible place we once visited. By connecting back to that memory, you can bring holiness into the present. We should aspire to find opportunities to exclaim to ourselves: “Mah Norah Ha-Makom Ha-Zeh!” 

Rabbi Spitzer writes about that phrase, stating: “To live in the reality of “how awesome is this Place” is to live our lives open to the possibility that there is a spark of the holy - a bit of wisdom, a deeper understanding, a sense of connection - available to us in any place, in any moment, even the most difficult.” God is not meant to be about judgment, criticism, or rule-following, but rather as a resource to help us get through life, appreciating the wonderful moments and persevering through the tough ones… maybe even finding a way to bless the good AND the bad, because of how it helps us grow and become stronger. When we are in relationship with ourselves, delving into what’s going on inside me, in Judaism we call that the connection “Bein Adam La-Makom,” which is often translated as, “Between a person and God.” There it is again, the name “Makom” being used for God! In part, it’s because your private introspection is seen as being only between you and God, and perhaps it’s yet another time when you need a lot of support, kindness, and acceptance. At the same time, I also think it’s because it’s really about a relationship between yourself and The Right Now, this moment in this very space, this Makom.

Standing up there on Masada, I wanted everyone to know that all you have to do is close your eyes and you can return to that Makom. I used that exercise again on a later Israel trip, standing on a pier in the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, watching the sky change color as we sang Lecha Dodi and welcomed in Shabbat in that incredibly holy space. Again, I wanted people to be able to return there whenever they wanted or needed to. And I would like to invite you all here tonight to do the same; to close your eyes and hold onto the holiness of this evening and this beautiful place. Take that feeling with you into the year ahead, and let it elevate the good times with a blessing of “Mah Norah Ha-Makom ha-Zeh,” and let it strengthen you in the bad times as well.  

Then it will become more than just a “happy place” you can go to, but one filled with sparks of holiness and incredible meaning. You also don’t have to search for God OR reject God. Just be present, in the experience you’re in, firmly rooted in your Makom, and it will create a memory you’ll remember all your life. That is the Power of Place.

Shanah Tovah!

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Rosh Hashanah, 5783/2022 - Second Day Sermon

The shofar reminds us

of the ram in the thicket.

Where are we ensnared?

It shatters complacency.

It wails with our grief,

stutters with our inadequacy.

The shofar cries out

I was whole, I was broken, 

I will be whole again.

Make shofars of us, God!

Make us resonating chambers

for Your love.

That poem was written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who writes a blog online under the fabulous pseudonym, The Velveteen Rabbi (if you’re not familiar with Margery Williams’ lovely children’s book, it’s called the Velveteen Rabbit). I’m actually not going to focus this whole sermon on the shofar, but rather on the concept of Kol, meaning Voice in Hebrew, but it seemed almost ridiculous to deliver a sermon about the power of one’s voice on Rosh Hashanah without beginning with the shofar!! 

Indeed, the ram’s horn is a powerful example of sound resonating all around us as well as within us. As Rabbi Barenblat describes in her poem, “it shatters complacency, it wails with our grief, stutters with our inadequacy.” The three sounds of the shofar - Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah - are indeed supposed to mimic various emotions. The long, clear, three-second blast of the tekiah is clarity, wholeness, strength. But then, Shevarim, a name that literally means “broken,” three shorter blasts that slice that long Tekiah into three, demonstrating that even when we strive for the clarity and strength of that single blast, much of the time we fall short - or at least we tell ourselves we did - and we feel broken and in pain, sometimes even like we’ve been cut or sliced with a knife. And the last one, Teruah, stutters out nine, tiny blasts, symbolic of how we try to march along and imagine everything is fine… right up until we start to stumble. And one stumble leads to another… There are a lot of pressures and stressors all around us. In the face of the pandemic, Russian invasion in Ukraine, environmental disasters, political turmoil and uncertainty; we viscerally feel the sputtering and floundering of the Teruah inside ourselves.

But then we end with the long call of the Tekiah Gedolah, which - like my High Holiday theme this year - reminds us to keep striving and aspiring to reach wholeness and holiness, to keep going and keep working on improving our lives. As Rabbi Barenblat states in her poem: “The shofar cries out: I was whole, I was broken. I will be whole again.” The blasts and cries of the shofar are indeed powerful examples of how sound can affect and reflect our moods. 

As you may know, if you attended services yesterday, my sermons this High Holiday season develop the concept of aspiring, through four metaphors for God, as articulated by Rabbi Toba Spitzer, in her terrific, new book, “God is Here.” Yesterday, we imagined God using the symbolism of Water, and now I would actually like to skip Spitzer’s second metaphor (for those of you who know the book…), which I will instead discuss on Yom Kippur, and today move on to her third metaphor. The chapter in the book is called “If You Truly Listen,” and is indeed about the power of voice, and of listening…  and of silence.

As I mentioned, I thought the shofar would be an excellent place to start; though perhaps for a reason that you might not have anticipated. In her book, Spitzer quotes a sound expert named Julian Treasure, who writes, “The human body is 70 percent water, which makes us rather good conductors of sound.” That makes complete sense to me… and yet I never before thought about the water inside us making our entire bodies into sound conductors. 

But then I discovered that Barenblat’s poem kind of intimates that in her last line, where she says: “Make shofars of us, God! Make us resonating chambers of Your love.” Filled as we are with water, we are indeed brimming chambers waiting for a resonating sound wave to penetrate into and flow through us. 

Rabbi Spitzer adds a spiritual dimension, writing: “We humans are conductors of the Godly Voice.” Though, in truth, I did write a note for myself in the margin, “potential conductors, anyway.” We can strive to emanate that Godly Voice, but too many human beings instead choose to use their voices to shame, mislead, attack, spread fear, and bully mercilessly. Nevertheless, our bodies are conductors; we just have to aspire to make them godly. It is not a given; it is a daily choice. 

If you didn’t feel impacted during our Shofar service yesterday, I encourage you to prepare yourselves for later, when our shofar blowers will again sound out their powerful blasts. I invite you to hold this intention: Close your eyes and visualize that you are indeed made up of 70 percent water; it surrounds and fills every organ, muscle, and bone in your body. And when the shofar rings out, see if you can feel it inside your physical being, not just hear it with your ears. Because the shofar isn’t just meant to be a sound, it should hopefully make your whole body reverberate, and really feel affected and moved by the Kol Shofar, the Voice of the Ram’s Horn.

Rabbi Spitzer begins her chapter on Voice by highlighting God speaking to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Talk about a resonating, booming Voice… Yikes! There’s a very odd claim in that section of the Torah, in Exodus, chapter 20, where it states, “וכל העם ראים את הקולות - And all the people *saw* the *voices*” (v. 15). In our Bible class last week, when we were discussing Spitzer’s chapter, someone suggested this was synesthesia, an actual medical condition where the five senses get all jumbled up. You can hear a word and see a color or a shape, or you can see sounds. I realize this might come across a bit psychedelic, but Spitzer reframes it, quoting another rabbi, Darby Leigh, who is profoundly deaf, and who does indeed watch people’s lips or how they sign words with their hands in order to “hear” them. 

Rabbi Leigh interprets the word “Kol” here, not as sound or voice, but as “vibration.” It’s reminiscent of the stories told about Ludwig van Beethoven, who sawed off the legs of his piano, so it would lay directly on the floor and he could feel - and almost hear - the vibrations in his brain and in his body. 

Back in that passage in Exodus, where the Israelites heard God speak to them, the text refers to the people “trembling” and even the mountain itself “trembling” as well, but now I’m wondering if maybe we should translate it instead as “reverberated.” Their bodies are, after all, very good conductors of sound.

Yesterday I told you that I didn’t just want to present these new metaphors for the Divine, but most importantly think about how taking them in and contemplating them can also lead us to developing a new relationship with God. Too often - meaning “constantly” - our texts refer to God in one way or another as Big Person Who Controls Our Lives. Whether that’s a King, a Judge, a Vindicator, a Father, a Shepherd, or whatever imagery you’ve heard or read or sung throughout your life. Think, “Avinu, Malkeinu - Our Father, our King.” 

I know you’ve likely seen God that way your entire life, whether it has led you to believe in God or reject the notion of God entirely, or maybe somewhere in the middle. But what if we shake up those outdated metaphors for God? Again I want to reiterate, if we change the image, it can also change the relationship. Spitzer comes back to this time and again in her book, for example right here, in talking about God’s Voice booming at the people on Sinai. She quotes a rabbinic midrash (story) from Exodus Rabbah, stating that every person present at Mount Sinai heard the Divine Vibration differently. She states: “Each person present received what they needed to hear in that moment.” 

Then comes the meaning-making; the shifting of relationship. Spitzer writes, “this rabbinic tradition makes clear that speaking and listening is an interactive process that depends as much on the listener as the speaker.” Too often we think of religion and religious laws as one-directional. “Thou Shalt…” and “Thou Shalt Not,” and “Thou” definitely shouldn’t question or waver! But if we don’t see God as a Big Person, but rather a voice, a vibration, a force that flows through us and resonates within us, AND which depends as much on our listening as on what is being spoken; that changes things quite a bit, doesn’t it?

Of course, you might respond, “How can there be a voice without a Speaker? Someone’s got to be on the other end of that microphone, no??” Well, that is perhaps coming from an entirely human frame of reference. For me, personally, God does not conform to those standards. The very beginning of the Torah has God speaking all of Creation into existence, and we never hear of any aspect of God’s Being, other than this Kol, this Voice, declaring “Let there be light” and so on. God can indeed be just the voice itself, moving us, not from outside, but from within our very bodies. 

When we’re talking about voices and sounds and hearing, we of course can’t leave out our Jewish creed, the prayer we sing aloud three times a day, and which is often the very first thing we teach children to recite: “שמע ישראל ה׳ אלוהינו ה׳ אחד - Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One.” It’s not a prayer directed at God, but rather to our fellow Jews: Shema YISRAEL. Furthermore, the Shema is not just a command to listen, but a call to action; we are meant to feel compelled to turn that listening, that reverberation that can make our whole body tremble, into Tikkun Olam, partnering with God in repairing our world. That’s what makes the Shema so potent and efficacious. 

Does that sound like an exaggeration? Well, Shema Yisrael, listen up, people of Israel (and specifically, people of Congregation Ohev Shalom) - our voices carry tremendous power. Words are tools that can heal or harm. You may have heard me say this before, but I think we need to reverse the famous children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” In fact, sticks and stones - and physical pain - can ONLY hurt my body, a body that can and will recover. But the sting of mean-spirited words? The deep wounds that we can never forget of being maligned or smeared or talked about behind our backs? Our voices, our words, and our intentions do indeed contain immense force. So too, by the way, does our silence. When our world leaders choose to remain silent in the face of oppression, persecution, and the killing of innocent people - or the attempted overthrow of our Democracy - that silence is absolutely deafening. Its reverberations are felt long, long after the moment has passed.

So voice and sound and hearing - and even silence - are actually very potent resources, and it is imperative that we see them as such. Certainly in a prayer setting, there’s no question it affects one’s experience. Take, for instance, the Kol Nidrei prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur. The words themselves are actually quite dry and not very spiritual. It’s essentially a legal formula denouncing any vows we may make from this Yom Kippur to the next. So why do people love it so much? Why does it feel like each and every one of us is right where we need to be, as soon as we hear those first few notes: “Kol Nidrei…”? Because of the power of song. Rabbi Spitzer writes about this in her book, and these could also be my words, relating to my lived experience here at Ohev Shalom as well: “I have heard many times from my congregants,” writes Spitzer, “ that while they don’t always understand the Hebrew words of our prayer book, they feel a sense of spiritual connection when we sing those words together.” Sound familiar at all? The Kol Nidrei isn’t about the words, almost at all, it’s the melody, the memories it evokes, and the feeling inside us when the song penetrates to our heart and our soul. 

How wonderful that music, singing, chanting, even wordless niggunim, can have such a transformational effect on us! Again, what if we let go of the image of God as Commanding Ruler, Who demands that we recite every prayer correctly and at its appropriate, appointed time? What if we instead focused on a Divine Vibration that we let run through our bodies and fill us with connection, meaning, and spirituality? I think a lot more people would seek a relationship to God if theology was expressed more like that. 

And it can be! None of us are required to accept the theological depictions put forth in our Torah or our High Holiday prayer book, the Machzor. One of the amazing things about Judaism is that we do not mandate belief. There is no singular creed or dogma that we must declare and accept as true and immutable. We have practice and ritual, tradition and history, music and social action and caring… but not required beliefs. Which is why I encourage, and even urge, us all to be more flexible in our theological understanding of God. You can of course still reject the notion of a Divinity, remaining an atheist or an agnostic. I know religion has done some terrible things, and the Bible can often sound really harsh and not believable. 

Yet, a lot of that comes back to a rigid, insistent view of God as a Big Person, possibly in the sky, commanding and deciding. And our liturgy will continue to talk about God writing our names in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. So I know it’s hard to get away from that depiction. That’s why we aspire! Yesterday, I proposed we see these concepts as metaphors, not as a factual reality that Judaism insists we adopt. What if the Books of Life and Death are really for all of us to write ourselves into, with our actions, our commitments, and yes, our voices. Do not abdicate that power to anyone else, even God! Rabbi Spitzer writes, “The power of Kol (voice) is wielded both by God and by human beings, and seems closely linked to the ability to discern right from wrong.” We can lift up others, heal relationships, and lower tensions, simply by using our God-given voices… or we can use our words to injure, scar, and even cause permanent damage. Sounds a whole lot scarier than some sticks & stones, or even broken bones…

Speaking of “broken,” let us return to Shevarim; the shofar blast that means “brokenness.” It reminds us that there is a lot that is shattered in our world. Even our Jewish term for Social Action, Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World, assumes there is brokenness all around us that needs our help to become whole again. The shofar blasts are indeed a call to wake us up from our lethargy and apathy, and really make a difference. And the Kol Shofar, the Voice of the Shofar, reminds us that we too have a Kol, we have a voice as well. It is, in many ways, the spark of the Divine in all of us. And we should aspire, every day, to use our words to speak with kindness, honesty, and courage. To use our silence to hear - Shema - other people and genuinely listen to what they are saying and be there for one another. And sometimes to listen to the still, small voice inside ourselves, that can help us find our true-north when we feel lost and aimless. 

We all have the capacity to become - like Rabbi Barenblat’s poem suggests - resonating chambers of God’s Love, sending and receiving Divine Vibrations to heal the brokenness of our world. We can aspire to grow in this new year, to use our shofar-like voices to help and to comfort, and to truly listen to others and to ourselves. We can become whole again. 

Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah, 5783/2022 - First Day Sermon

We don’t talk a lot about Moses on the High Holidays. Have you noticed that? As prominent as he is throughout our Jewish tradition, he’s kind of more of a Passover-guy, to be honest. Though also Shavuot, where we celebrate receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai; he had something to do with that story too, I’m quite sure… But Rosh Hashanah? Not so much. However, when I sat down to write this sermon, I found myself thinking a lot about Moses. This time of year, when we read from the Torah at morning minyan and on Saturdays, we are in the Book of Deuteronomy, and indeed right at the very end of the entire Torah. In just another couple of weeks, we’ll get to the holiday of Simchat Torah, where we conclude and then restart the whole Torah. 

So, with just a couple of weekly readings left, at this point, Moses already knows he won’t be leading the people forever, and specifically won’t get to enter the Promised Land. His speeches to them start to take on an urgency and even a desperate pleading; he knows he only has a short time left to get them ready for the daunting, nation-building task ahead. He knows they’re prone to complaining and rebelling against God, and they have this nasty habit of being lured away by various idolatrous practices. 

Moses wants them to know that he has led them for a long time now, and really given everything of himself to this endeavor, and he hopes they will remember him and continue to learn from his teachings. But to be honest with you, he doesn’t exactly make it easy for them. At one point he states: “And now, O Israel, what does Adonai, Your God, demand of you? Only this: To fear Adonai, Your God, to walk in all of God’s Ways, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart and soul, keeping all of God’s commandments and statutes, which I command you this day.” (Deut. 10:12-13)

Pretty easy, right? God doesn’t ask much. Just to love and revere and serve God with all of our heart and soul… oh, and just keep every single commandment too. It’s so simple, really, isn’t it? Um, no, it isn’t. That’s actually quite a lot. 

Phrasing it like low-hanging fruit that anyone can do and observe, doesn’t make it any easier. Instead, I think it just makes people feel bad because they can’t possibly rise to that level. It’s an example of good Jewish-guilt, even in Biblical times! I guess that means we’re all failing God.

Well, that’s not how I feel about things, as I’m sure many of you already know about me. That’s not how I approach Judaism, the Torah, God, or my work with the congregants here at Ohev Shalom. Setting impossible standards doesn’t motivate, it intimidates. People very often apologize to me for falling short of some imagined standard of Jewish observance or religiosity, and that’s just not something I subscribe to or endorse.

Of course, you might then ask: What are we all doing here then, and what might we hope to get out of these High Holiday services? If we can’t be perfect, and therefore reject the expectation of perfection, why try at all? I have been thinking about this a lot, especially as I end my tenure here at Ohev, and I would like to suggest an approach. It is, in fact, my theme for this year’s High Holiday sermons:

We aspire. We strive to be better and to keep improving, and that, ultimately, is the goal. Not the achievement itself, but the aspiration! Otherwise, we either tell ourselves we’re constantly failing, or we reject the notion that we need to work on ourselves at all. Both are unfortunate extremes, and neither is a good response to the task at hand. Instead, I encourage us all to let go of perfection and abandon our unobtainable, lofty goals. BUT we shouldn’t therefore have NO goals and NO aspirations. We still need to keep striving. 

One of my very favorite rabbinic quotes comes from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Sages, Chapter 2, teaching number 16: Rabbi Tarfon said,  (Hebrew first) “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” In other words, you don’t have to get straight A’s, hit a home run every time, score every touchdown, and always finish first. (Or insert your own metaphor for perfection here that you personally prefer.) You don’t have to be PERFECT! Let go of that myth and that expectation. 

We sometimes tell ourselves, “yeah, but it motivates me. It makes me work harder and shoot for the stars.” But it can also harm us if we’re setting unrealistic and impossible standards for ourselves, because I think everyone here in this sanctuary knows that we are often our own worst critics. We speak harsher to ourselves than we would ever let anyone speak to us. So let’s not set ourselves up for failure before we even begin. It is not our responsibility to finish every task or to see everything through to the end.

BUT, the second part of Rabbi Tarfon’s quote is essential too! We are still not free to just give up on it. We have to keep trying and aspiring. Now look, that IS a tough balance. I am fully aware of that. We have to both aspire and accept. Be kind to ourselves for not being flawless, but also push ourselves to be better each and every day. I can’t tell you where that perfect balance is for you, or for anyone else, but to me, *this* is the goal: To figure out how to challenge ourselves AND accept ourselves, all at the same time.

Of course, you might want to respond back: “But that’s not what Moses said. He was pretty clear that God expects, demands even, that we fulfill all the commandments, love God with everything we’ve got, and never stray from the path.” Furthermore, our High Holiday liturgy today, tomorrow, and throughout Yom Kippur, definitely seems to support that Biblical viewpoint, rather than the one I’m putting forward. Our prayers repeatedly talk about God writing our names in the Book of Life, judging our behavior and our decisions, and having high expectations for all of us. Pretty hard to get around all of that, wouldn’t you say? 

I’ll admit, it’s true; it’s hard to ignore God’s judgment and expectations, as articulated in the Bible and in our liturgy. But what if that’s only one way to understand God? What if we aren’t required to understand God in this very limiting and almost transactional relationship of Worshiped Divine Being and Worshipping Lowly Mortals? Is there room for us to change and shift how we interact with God? I think there is. And I am tremendously grateful to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, for introducing me to Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s book, “God is Here.” 

Rabbi Spitzer’s book really helped me articulate something I’ve been ruminating on for a long time, and gave me some wonderful tools for teaching this concept to all of you. The basic idea is: The way we think of God is actually just through metaphor. 

What Rabbi Spitzer means is, when we talk about God, what we really mean is our desire and attempts to connect to something greater than ourselves. We look at the vastness of the ocean, the endless expanse of space, and the incredible intricacies of the cells and molecules in our bodies, and we feel something. We may, perhaps, feel that there is Something or Someone “out there,” beyond our understanding. But here’s the critical part: The way we try and imagine that Thing is through metaphor. 

For some reason, we often think of metaphors as insufficient or inadequate; as if we use them only when we can’t accurately or fully describe something. But Rabbi Spitzer doesn’t think of metaphor that way. She writes, “metaphors provide the framework for how we understand and talk about much of what makes us human.” She points out how we use metaphors constantly, often without even realizing it. She gives examples like “kicking a bad habit.” There’s very little physical kicking involved, right? But we all get what it’s trying to say. We envision kicking something away from ourselves, definitively. So the idea still comes across. Another example is when we say we’re feeling “low” or “down.” It doesn’t mean low to the ground, right? Physically, tangibly down on the floor. It’s a metaphor that resonates in our very human brains. 

Many things in this world can be measured and quantified and fact-checked… but what about concepts like love and elation, jealousy and hate. That’s where metaphors are especially essential, because they’re often all we’ve got to go on! These “intangibles” are very real issues that affect us every day, but are not “things” that we can literally - and metaphorically - put our finger on. What if, says Rabbi Spitzer, the Bible works much the same way, and indeed our understanding of God does as well? What if it is all metaphor; intended to help us envision and grasp the teachings of the Torah… but not meant to be literal descriptions of factual things?

Spitzer writes: “Our ancestors expressed their experiences of the realm of the sacred in fairly concrete ways, in stories about divine beings - or a Being - that metaphorically resembled humans and other living creatures. These stories were attempts to understand how the world came to be as it is, and how we can best navigate the world and the various forces that operate within it.”

The Bible, says Rabbi Spitzer, is about relationship. And The Bible, says Rabbi Jeremy Gerber, is most definitely about relationship! This is not a text that is trying to explain the literal formation of the universe, or how many years it takes to traverse a desert, or how miracles could “actually” have occurred. That was never the point of any of the books; they are about the human desire - the aspiration - to be in relationship with something both outside of ourselves and within us as well. Something that created everything we see around us - and things we can’t see, whether out there or in here. 

For our ancient ancestors, and for many of the Jewish authorities throughout the ages, the best way to understand that Something was through descriptions of God. God’s attributes, God’s commandments, God’s expectations of us. Describing God as a King, a Savior, an Avenger, and a Consoling Parent were some of the helpful ways for them to feel close to God. In the end, that’s really what so much of humanity has always been searching for; to feel close to Something vast and meaningful, spiritual and mysterious. Even the word for “sacrifice” in Hebrew - Korban - comes from the root, karov, to be close. The sacrifices expressed our deep, visceral need to feel part of something vast and meaningful; to draw close to God.

The problem is, what if you reject that image of God as Big Person who controls and decides everything? What if that feels offensive when innocent people die, whether in a pandemic or a Holocaust? So many people read the High Holiday liturgy of Un’tane Tokef, declaring that God decides who will live and who will die, and they hate it. They reject it completely. To that I say, I get it… but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, metaphorically speaking. What if, instead, we can change the metaphors, to envision a Divine force that isn’t A Big Person deciding our fate? That’s tough to do, I know. Whether you’re 30, 60, or 90 years old, God has likely always been depicted as a King or Father, in Jewish contexts as well as throughout society. That, again, is why we need to strive to shift that perception. Because in the end, everything you’ve been taught is ALSO metaphor! We don’t “know” - in the factual, scientific, provable sense - Who or What God is; none of us do! So we form metaphors and images that help us aspire to feel close and connected to something bigger and more meaningful than just our own lives.

Ok, so that is my main message throughout these High Holidays; the message I want to leave you with, in a sense, before my tenure has concluded… though hopefully not as definitively as Moses (who dies at the end of the Torah…). What I would like to do over the course of our holidays together is to examine some of Rabbi Spitzer’s proposed new metaphors for the Divine, and demonstrate how each can help us work on ourselves, aspiring to improve and become better people, while actually also still accepting and loving ourselves for who we are. It’s a very challenging balance to strike… but I think we’re up to the task!

So, if we’re going to imagine God, not as a Ruler, Judge, Parent, Creator, Commander, and all the other Big Person depictions, what then? The first new metaphor that Rabbi Spitzer offers in her book is God as water. Well, what the heck does that mean? For each of these new metaphors, I want to look at 1) textual examples from the Torah to support the concept, 2) how we might then envision this Divine Force, and then, most critically, 3) how our relationship with God can indeed shift dramatically, based on this new image.

Water has a lot of prooftexts. Starting with the story of Creation - appropriate today, since Rosh Hashanah does indeed celebrate the birth of the world (metaphorically speaking…) - we read at the very, very beginning of Genesis that water existed BEFORE creation. As God prepares to create, verse two of the entire Torah tells us that a “Ruach Elohim,” a spirit of the Divine, hovered over the face of the water. Rabbi Spitzer explains and interprets this verse, writing: “The divine here appears to be surrounded by water, or perhaps It [God] is part of the primordial waters, emerging from the Deep.” A paragraph later, she adds: “God is of the waters, over the waters, active in and through the waters.” 

She goes on to give examples from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as well, and then, later, Spitzer references a verse from the Prophet Isaiah, which even if you haven’t heard before in English, you likely would recognize in Hebrew: “ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה” - “Joyfully you shall draw water from the Well of Liberation.” (Is. 12:3) Then she also adds a verse from the Prophet Jeremiah, describing God as “מקור מים חיים” - “The Fount of Living Waters” (Je. 2:13). While I don’t want to spend too much time on the verses themselves, I do want to share Rabbi Spitzer’s wonderful ability to take those metaphors and bring them to life for us. In thinking about God as a Well of Liberation or a Fount of Living Waters, Spitzer writes, “Water does not command or judge - it flows and irrigates, nourishes and sustains. God as Water invites us to identify when and how we become spiritually ‘dry,’ and what it might mean to feel spiritually nourished.” 

If we can all challenge ourselves - strive, in fact - to replace the image of God as Judge and Punisher, and instead envision a force that nourishes and sustains, how different does the High Holiday experience become?? She also talks about how God then no longer is out there, up in the heavens, but rather intimately close and connected to every one of us. When we say we’re made “בצלם אלוקים - in the Image of God” we could both understand that as referencing how the human body is made up of 70 percent water, and also how we are meant to nourish and sustain others around us, as well as the planet, rather than command and lord over one another.

I’m not saying this is our new image of God, or that we’re all now going to start worshiping water. This is about making our theology limber and - water-pun intended - fluid. This is actually quite critical, because when our understanding of God becomes stale and outdated, it doesn’t just atrophy, but it can actually become really harmful. Religious wars have almost always been about insisting that God is One Way - MY WAY - and nothing else could be true!! Rigid theology can quickly become angry and violent theology… And when people’s theologies become immutable and unkind, they do things like revoke abortion rights and attack the LGBTQ community. The stakes are high here.

I want to also add that all of Rabbi Spitzer’s suggested new metaphors come with challenges and difficulties. This is NOT about simplifying our understanding of God, or turning it into something more pleasant and sweet and palatable. She goes on, in this chapter on water, to point out: “Water is life - and yet sometimes it is also That which threatens me, overwhelms me, drowns me.” It is important to remember that you have to respect the power of water. We see how dangerous too much water can be on the news almost every night! We ignore it at our own peril… which is also true of the power of theology. Our relationship with God sometimes can indeed harm us, shame us, make us feel laden with guilt, and leave us scarred for life… yet it can also fill our lives with meaning and purpose, a sense of connectedness to one another and to the vastness of the universe, and make us more kind and compassionate. 

So I think our goal for this High Holiday season is to aspire to cultivate an evolving, dynamic relationship with God and with religion. That may sound like a tall order, but please don’t forget Rabbi Tarfon’s immortal words: You don’t have to finish the task, but you are also not free to desist from it. You don’t need to reach the mountain top, but you can’t stop climbing. The climb is the goal; the effort, the commitment, the aspiration to improve and grow, AND all the while we need to still love and accept ourselves. 

Speaking of reaching mountain tops, that is indeed where Moses’ story ends. As he prepares to die, we might wonder if he achieved all his goals in life, or if he fell short, and was left with regrets. Surely he was disappointed and saddened that he never got to set foot in the Promised Land, but he also helped free a nation from slavery, bring a Pharaoh to his knees, lead the people through the wilderness for 40 years, gave them God’s Commandments and Torah, and set us on a course to become… 

The Jewish People who continue to thrive 4,000 years later. But at the end, I’m sure he was also upset that he never got into the land. Nobody is perfect.

No one gets *everything* they wanted, even Moses. I think the real lesson is that perfection isn’t the goal, or the prize at the end of our lives. It isn’t to check every box, fulfill every dream, and leave this earth with nothing left to accomplish. No, the goal is to keep aspiring. Keep growing and evolving and flowing through life, nourishing the people around us and striving to lead a life of meaning, purpose, and compassion. 

As I finish this sermon (but I’ll be back again tomorrow!), I invite us all to hold on to the metaphor of the Fount of Living Waters. Each of us can aspire to be like a flowing fountain, watering our families, communities, and the whole planet with goodness, kindness, and purpose. In that way, we will truly be living our lives b’Tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God.

Shanah Tovah!

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