Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Posted at 09:20 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Elul, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Middot, Midrash, Prayer, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Speech Ethics, Spirituality, Synagogue, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Theology, Torah, Tov! Podcast, USA, Yamim Noraim | Permalink | Comments (0)
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
Posted at 04:37 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Hope, Justice, Leadership, Middot, Patience, Ritual, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
We're deep into Season 3 of Tov!, my podcast about The Good Place and Jewish ideas related to teshuvah. You can find all the most recent episodes here, or type "Tov!" into your favorite podcast app.
Also, I have been logging in at 12:36pm Eastern time each weekday this Elul to teach and talk about some classic teaching about teshuvah, mostly Maimonides but other things maybe too. You can join here, or you can listen to the ones I've taped:
This was the D'var Torah I gave for Parashat Behar on May 21, 2022.
Whenever people suggest that Judaism could be separate from politics, I think about this week’s parasha. The Shabbaton and the Yovel (the sabbatical and the jubilee) – these mitzvot are not just personal and spiritual teachings, about what you eat and what you share. They are about the whole system of property and ownership and power, and about our relationship to the land and the ecosystem that provides our food.
Every seven years, it doesn’t matter who owns a field and who has stored up food from the year before. Everyone has access to all of it, and everyone comes side by side to get food from the land and from private storehouses, and maybe they even eat together. Every fifty years, it doesn’t matter who has bought or sold a piece of land and who lives where. All families go back to the land holdings originally given to them in the time of Yehoshua when the people first came into the promised land. Wealthy families give back what they have bought legitimately; poor families are restored to what they needed to sell.
None of this happens individually or one at a time. Both the Shabbaton and the Yovel happen to everyone at the same time, in every region of the land. It is a social experience around property and wealth and power that is shared all at once, by society as a whole.
It occurred to me this week that Shabbaton and Yovel are far more radical than even the Exodus itself, the overturning of Pharaoh, which I have taught often and recently was unlike anything ancient people had ever thought previously about the value of human beings and about power. The Exodus was unprecedented – but it was in response to a situation of actual group suffering, imposed by a specific oppressor. Shabbaton and Yovel are not in response to any specific instance like that. They are pre-programmed responses to the regular things that happen in a society where people work the land and trade food and labor and exchange property. They are for a society that also has good ideas of tzedakah (giving) and chesed (caring acts), which individuals are responsible to carry out.
Without the need for painful suffering on a massive scale, or mobilizing against a tyrant, the Torah in Leviticus 25 mandates the overturning of our relations in the economy and society, making it all change visibly in the open every seven years and every fifty years.
Maybe the end of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the real bookend to the beginning of the Exodus. Exodus begins with our ancestors as slaves building cities for Pharaoh’s regime, and it ends with them building the opposite -- the Mishkan, a spiritual central for the regime of Hashem. “Let them make me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” says Exodus. But now, nearly at the end of Leviticus, people imagine building a system for recalibrating their society on the go, making sure no one can permanently accumulate Pharaoh-like wealth and power over the others. “For to Me the Children of Israel are servants,” says the end of Leviticus – and the Talmudic rabbis explain: For to Me they are servants and not servants to other servants, not slaves to each other. Shabbaton and Yovel are the social and political inoculation against more Pharaohs, even a Pharoah among the Israelites themselves.
Political this is – and yet, it’s not. I’m using the word politics a bit fast and loose, because Parashat Behar does not show us politics in action. We know the sabbatical year was implemented in ancient times and still is today, and in Roman times and modern times there has been politics around it. We have no idea whether the jubilee really ever happened exactly the way the Torah stipulates. Our parasha describes an ideal society, and we can think about the moral and spiritual principles the parasha teaches. But the actual outcome could only be ensured through political activity.
Saying the Torah has social visions doesn’t itself prove that there is a Torah of politics and political action. I love to bask in Shabbaton and Yovel, any excuse to do that is dayenu – but I want to say more about the Torah of political action, which in a way only begins with things our parasha.
I want to use a distinction proposed by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, though I will take it in a slightly different direction. You may be starting to recognize the Hartman name and Yehuda’s name in particular from many of my d’rashot. For the past few years Yehuda has been teaching around the idea that American Jews ought to distinguish in our civic activity between the moral, the political, and the partisan. Briefly, Yehuda defines the moral as our core social principles; the political as our collaborative strategy and work in society; and the partisan as the activity we do typically within either of the two teams, the Democrats and the Republicans. Yehuda argues that it is bad for America and particularly bad for Jews when we don’t distinguish between the moral, the political, and the partisan.
The moral refers to the principles and values we hold, which generate our ideas about the good society, and the actions we actually perform toward other people and in groups of people we know. The moral is also about working on ourselves as people in society. It’s about being honest about our own individual gifts and our own individual limits. It’s about asking ourselves why we care about this more than that, looking at our own inconsistencies and hypocrisies. The moral is where we make judgments, often about others though it should also be toward ourselves. The moral is about how we do teshuvah around our action and inaction in society -- how we hold ourselves accountable and recalibrate ourselves, as well as the smaller groups within which we talk about politics or we organize. The moral dimension is very spiritual and obviously very Jewish.
The political – I want to use the word in its Aristotelian sense. Not “yeech, politics”, but the elevating work of defining and creating the polis, the best society that is both aligned with our moral values and also cultivates those values at the same time. We are only real in society, and political activity enlarges us and elevates us and completes us. The political brings people together in purposeful work, helps us each discover our gifts and how they fit together, and shows us new things to admire about each other.
The political magnifies our power to achieve visions, on a scale not possible just by small group projects or even by giving tzedakah. The political is how we find the power to bring a society into alignment with the ideals of Shabbaton and Yovel.
The political is also the level where groups ought to try to understand themselves, and look at their own strengths and weaknesses and hypocrisies. Groups need to do teshuvah as well. This is spiritual work and Jewish work, and indeed the Torah presents the Jewish people as a group trying to learn the detailed social covenant from Mt. Sinai, to internalize it and build a society based on it in the promised land.
Finally, the partisan is working for the party and candidates we believe right now can bring our moral and political visions into being. It’s mobilizing behind the specific leaders and groups we believe can do that. When we use the word “politics”, Yehuda points out, what we usually mean is the partisan – picking sides, zero sum, experiencing outrage and supporting one group and being angry at the other.
The moral, the political, the partisan.
Yehuda argues that we have too often collapsed the distinction between the moral, the political, and the partisan. If all we let ourselves look at is the partisan, that becomes our good and evil and our daily religion. We will lose important parts of our moral compass to the extent that most of what we can think about or desire is that our group or favored leader wins. We need the moral as something separate, Yehuda says – and I would add (in my name if not his) that we need the political as distinct from the partisan as well.
People who object to having politics in Judaism say: Stick to the moral. But the moral alone is too general. Saying Tzelem Elohim (the image of God) does not tell us why we should care about Ukraine in this way and Afghanistan in the same way or perhaps a different way. Talking about Shabbaton and Yovel does not tell us what the tax rates should be on income or wealth. Moral principles frame the questions and suggest directions but don’t give us answers. From the moral we need those directions, and we need to circle back to the moral principles when we are doing political thinking and political work.
We need also all the processes of teshuvah – assessing ourselves and what we are bringing to political action, checking our hypocrisy and self-righteousness, making sure we are rooted more in love for those we responsible for or allies for, and less rooted just in hate of those we are against.
Too much of religious politics is the partisan alone, and that is bad for religion generally and terrible for Jews. The partisan is where work is done and things are accomplished. But it is a realm of constant fighting; it cultivates hate and anger and fear. It discourages nuance and punishes ambiguity, and it asks us to hold up as absolutely true things that are only partially true. When we equate all politics with the partisan, the losses that come inevitably in the partisan make all political work angry and fearful and dispiriting and draining, even when we have won something for the time being.
Yehuda says we rent out our moral sense too often to the partisan; and since the partisan is win-lose, our moral judgments become binary as well. Our fellow citizens are good or evil. Our fellow Jews. Yehuda quotes a Pew study that says as much bias as there is, explicit and implicit, against people of other backgrounds, whether religious or ethnic or racial or educational or economic, the most widespread hate in America is toward people of different partisan affiliation.
The moral is crucial; the partisan is where the rubber hits the road. But neither the moral that supplies our core principles, nor the partisan where we accomplish our goals or we lose -- neither of these should be the center. At the center should be the political. At the center should be the political for each of us spiritually, and for us as a Jewish community learning and acting and reflecting.
The political is where we ask how our principles translate, where we ask it again and again, even while we are strategizing and even as we are executing our strategies. We ask whether we are being true to our principles or just think we are.
The political is where we take time from the practical battles to appreciate and admire others: the leaders who motivate us, the teachers and writers who educate us, the people who bring the signs and the food and crunch the numbers. It’s where we see ourselves in a good light as part of such an organism.
The political is where we try to understand those we are fighting against -- for the principles they might have, for the people they are loving and standing up for. These are aspects of our opponents we might learn from or at least learn to answer, if only to make our own moral arguments stronger.
The political isn’t something you do by yourself. It’s not sermons and it’s not Facebook posts, unless they invite conversation. The political is together, and sometimes it even can be done together by partisans opposing each other. It’s what I hope tomorrow’s panel on reproductive rights will model. It’s what groups a lot of you have been involved in doing in your own political work in the local community.
It's not enough for the synagogue to do the moral, and of course we should not be doing the partisan. It’s not good for religion to stay in a corner, or to make itself indistinguishable from a political party. But the political yes, sometimes all together as us and sometimes when we lift up one issue or sometimes when we’re in a learning posture about ourselves as people engaged in the political. That is very much what a religious group should do, and what Jews should do together.
And in that sense, maybe Shabbaton and Yovel are political. Apart from the practical sharing and resetting around food and property, they were ways to get people talking about the world of years 1-6 and years 1-49, and maybe even working on that politically. Or so I fantasize. Our next half year in this country is going to be intensely partisan, and that will be hard. Let’s do our part to elevate the time, by making it more political as well.
This was the D'var Torah I gave for Parashat B’haalotcha on June 18, 2022.
I always look forward to Parashat B’haalotcha because it’s the start of the frisky Torah, the Torah of complaining. It’s the beginning of the Torah’s textbook on group dynamics once the community of Israel starts moving out from Sinai toward the promised land. It’s easy to see our groups in these next few Torah readings. That’s the lens I usually bring. But I was thinking particularly this week about Pride Month, and I had said that I’d speak related to that on this Shabbat, since I plan to be away next week. And from some Torah e-mails I subscribe to and podcasts and such, about four times I found myself face-to-face with this from the parasha:
It was the first anniversary of the Exodus and Moshe instructed the people to observe Pesach and to offer the Pesach sacrifice. Then this (Numbers 9:6-8):
וַיְהִ֣י אֲנָשִׁ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר הָי֤וּ טְמֵאִים֙ לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֔ם
וְלֹא־יָֽכְל֥וּ לַֽעֲשֹׂת־הַפֶּ֖סַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא
וַֽיִּקְרְב֞וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְלִפְנֵ֥י אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:
וַ֠יֹּֽאמְר֠וּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָהֵ֨מָּה֙ אֵלָ֔יו
אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם
לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜יב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן יְיָ֙ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
ויֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֑ה עִמְד֣וּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָ֔ה מַה־יְּצַוֶּ֥ה יְיָ֖ לָכֶֽם:
"There were people who were ta’meh [usually translated “impure” but we’ll get back to that] -- ta’meh for the human soul." And they were not able to do the Pesach on that day. So they came up close in front of Moshe and in front of Aharon on that day. And these people say to him: We are ta’meh for the human soul. Why are we held back, why are we subtracted, from bring close the close-up offering of the Divine in its time among the Children of Yisrael? And Moshe said to them: Stand, and I will hear what the Divine will command for you."
Lamah ni’gara. Why are we subtracted. Why are we not included.
We, who are in a state of tum’ah for life of a person. This requires some elaboration. At first blush this group seem to be held away from the Sanctuary because they had recently been in contact with a dead body and need to go through a purification ritual and the passage of a certain amount of time.
Tradition broadens the interpretation to all matters of tohora and tum’ah, which are usually translated as “purity” and “impurity.” Better to understand them, however, in terms of our embodied human experience and our attraction to the Divine.
Tum’ah and tohora are all about cycles and blood and child-birth and intimacy. These are intensely spiritual and we experience them through our bodies, our gender, our sexuality, our relationships. How is it, they ask Moshe, that these would take us away from Pesach. Why should we be the ones deprived of the Pesach offering -- the offering of freedom, the sacrifice whose blood is compared to the blood of the covenant. How could our embodied experience cause us to be held back from the Divine Sanctuary, the holiest place.
We aren’t complaining to you, Moshe, like the others who kvetch about the desert food or challenge your leadership. We’re not complaining about you or your religion or your rituals or your teachings. On the contrary, we want in. We want it all, b’moado b’toch b’nai Yisrael -- at its proper time, in the midst of all the community of Yisrael. Lamah ni’gara. Why should we be substracted. Why should we not be included.
I think we can see something even in their phrasing -- "we are tam’eh to the soul of a person". Move from seeing us as “impure”, toward seeing us as “the soul of a person.”
Moshe according to one commentary says to them: I am over the moon that you asked this question of me, and that you want this question asked of the Divine. And I too want to hear what the Divine has to say.
And the answer that came back at the time of our ancestors is what we call Pesach Sheni, a second Pesach. The message they understood, as recorded in the Torah written at that time, is that one month later, anyone who was ta’meh come and do the Pesach offering one month later, exactly as would have been done at its scheduled time. Not only they, but anyone who was on a journey too far away or someone who is a ger, a person within the community but who has not yet become a full citizen of the community. Each of you can do Pesach Sheni. This is how you will be included.
The Talmud says that being distant doesn’t mean just far, far away. Even someone who at the time of Pesach is just a step outside the area of the Temple where the sacrifice is done is far enough away for Pesach Sheni. If you’re not quite inside, physically. If you’re not let in, or don’t feel let in by the community, or if you’re not quite ready to come in fully -- you still are entitled to Pesach, to the celebration of the covenant.
I have been mulling over whether this Pesach Sheni is the answer to the question lama ni’gara, why are we not included. Part of me hears this as a bit of separate but equal, or as still “we” insiders who celebrate Pesach together on time and you others who will include with us.
So many of our people who are lesbian or gay or bisexual, transgender or intersex or nonbinary or queer, or any truer description that I still strain to know and understand -- so many have asked nothing more or less than to be b’toch b’nai Yisrael, to be part of the community of Israel full stop. Not to have to frame the matter in terms of lama ni’gara, why are we not included, how can we be included. To have to ask that way means we still are incomplete.
And the Torah recognizes this, because at the end of the teaching of Pesach Sheni the Torah says: chukkah achat yih’yeh lachem. One law there will be for all of you. As if to say -- Whatever you have just read, it is not one Torah for all of us yet. There is work yet to do. Keep working on it, now and in future generations.
This Pesach Sheni is a step forward, a step of inclusion, and it is not the final answer. Somehow, our Sanctuary needs to be spacious enough for all our people, for people who experience in all different ways love and intimacy and longing and connection. Who in all different ways understand ourselves as the image of God in our bodies and genders and sexualities and gender identities. Where no one of those is the norm that others have to be compared to and have to ask to be included around, or justified in terms of.
That part of the Torah reading spoke about people coming close, toward the Sanctuary where the altar and the Ark were. A bit later in the parasha, we read how the Ark with the tablets of the covenant would go out into battle with the people, and then come to rest when battle would pause or end.
The Talmud teaches that the biblical ark had both the broken tablets that Moshe had shattered after the Golden Calf, and the new set of whole tablets Moshe had carved on the mountain. Rabbi Yehudah ben Lakish taught that the whole tablets would stay back in the Holy of Holies, while the broken tablets would go out into battle.
It is so important for Torah to go out with us, as we battle to defend the lives of transgender youth, and all LGBTQ+ young people. As we battle for the rights and reputations of caring adults in schools who listen to them and try to be their mentors and advocates. As we battle against those trying to pit parents against teachers. It is so important for us to carry our religion into this battle, because others battle with theirs and claim to speak for God. So we have to speak in the name of our covenant as well.
It is so important as we do so to recognize that we are marching with broken tablets. That our own Judaism is not yet whole, we have not finished doing teshuvah for the ways we have not seen, for the times we have not stood by queer people of all ages and their family members. We have to carry honestly the broken hearts of our own community, the mourning over opportunities to do better and care better that we missed over the decades. When we work on matters of justice and safety and wellbeing for LGBTQ+ people in our lives, when we battle, we have to hold close the broken times, and our own brokenheartedness about times in the past we’ve each fallen short and our community and Judaism have fallen short.
It is so important to think about the ways the traditions of our past need to be creatively broken and rebuilt. The Talmud in one place praises Moshe for breaking the tablets. Because anything we have written down no matter how inspired is incomplete and could be used to shut down our vision, to say that this much progress is all we need. We need to challenge ourselves to see more like the Divine sees, to see every expression of human love and connection as an image of Divine ahavah v’chesed (love).
The broken tablets go out into battle, because it’s by fighting out of Divine love that we learn how to repair them. It’s by going out and learning from other communities that are full of love, religious and secular communities, that we find the light that helps us see better what is hidden in the crevices of the covenant we already have. It’s by going out with our tablets that we bring them and bring ourselves, who have in the past wondered if our covenant was at war with them. To them, we bring what is broken and ask to work together to refashion them and refashion ourselves together.
Our movement of Conservative Judaism has been confronting our brokenness over sexual orientation and gender identity for the past three decades. Every since possibly the lowest point our movement has ever touched in 1992, when I was a rabbinical student and watched the shameful deliberations on stage in the Seminary auditorium -- which slammed the door on lesbian and gay Jews seeking to live openly in our communities. To fifteen years ago last winter, when our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards made it possible for gay and lesbian Jews to become our rabbis, to have intimacy,to marry.
Even then, we only as a movement could talk about the G and the L. We have been trying to catch up since then, including in our shul and including myself. It’s not only ritual and rabbinical status, but relationships and love and intentionality in every realm. From changing the nomenclature on our membership forms to listening to young people we educate to changing our assumptions about people we meet of any age. I am still learning the language, carrying broken tablets, figuring out which ones to break still and refashion. I am proud, and more than that I am grateful, that we have lay leaders who have taken the intiative to make sure we have a Pride Shabbat as a matter of course, and that this year for the first time we will march and have a table at our city’s Pride Festival next weekend. What a way to carry the ark of our covenant where it needs to be seen, where its power is so needed.
I try to look at my own kids with wonder and openness, and to wait for them each to tell me I’m queer or straight, rather than make assumptions. And indeed I try to look at each of you that way too, not to assume what I don’t know.
Each of us carries Divine love, for us, and through us for others. Each of us, young and old, has our own way, spiritual and embodied all at once, to love and connect, to yearn and commit. We are all in the center. We are all part of the same covenant at the same time. We are all blessed.
Posted at 04:52 PM in B'haalotcha, Conservative Judaism, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, GLBT, Inclusion, Jewish Education, Justice, LGBTQ+, Parashat Hashavua, Synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (1)
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
If you're a fan of "The Good Place" and at all connected to Jews or Judaism, try out my new podcast that I'm creating with a bunch of colleagues!
Tov! is on all the major podcast platforms, and it will be a fun and interesting way to explore some Jewish texts and ideas. Check out the website for episodes and show notes, or search for it in your app and try it out!
It's launching right as we begin Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year when we're all Eleanor Shellstrop, trying to improve our lives as though everything is in the balance.
Posted at 11:06 AM in Calendar, Education, Ethics, Foregiveness, Gossip, Harry Potter, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Lashon Hara, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Study, Talmud, Television, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, Web/Tech, Weblogs, Yamim Noraim, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This year I updated my usual re-post about Moshe and Yeshayahu, your "two personal spiritual assistants", and published it at the Times of Israel:
This is almost too good to be true: the beginning of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar this year coincided with opening day for Major League Baseball.
Usually around this time of year I show you this T-shirt based on an observation by Rabbi Morris Allen at my parents’ shul about the absolute parallels between the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar.
In all other years, pitchers and catchers report to training camps around Tu Bishevat, and spring training games begin around Purim. Which is for us the start of a warmup period too, with planning and preparation for Pesach, which generally coincides with baseball’s Opening Day!
On the T-shirt this part of a typical year is what here is called the “dog days of summer”, and it lines up with Tisha B’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the Batei Mikdash (the two Temples). In baseball this kicks off a hot and hard period of time leading to the pennant races for spots in the playoffs and the World Series. The climactic moments of the season in September and October coincide with the month of Tishrei and the High Holy Days. (Well, they did before the expanded playoffs!)
This year, time and the seasons have been disrupted, and summer isn’t what summer usually is for many of us. Even baseball has this compressed season -- the whole cycle from Opening Day through the champshiop will take place in three months from now to the end of October. And for us, our season of teshuvah, of reflection and renewal, begins now with the week of Tisha B’Av and this Shabbat called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision.
This week and this Shabbat kick off two months of reflection that lead toward the big games, so to speak, the High Holy Days, when we judge how the past year went and think about our destiny in the new year. We think about being in exile and coming home. We spend a month, well into October, with the holy days through Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Like in baseball, there’s a lot this year packed into three months. But baseball’s new Opening Day, just invented out of whole cloth, can remind us that time in a ritual sense is something we construct as communities, to help us do what would otherwise seem infinite and overwhelming. Without the calendar rhythms and rituals, it would be harder to stop and take note of our blessings. Without them we couldn’t step out of everything that’s driving us, to tell stories of our past, stories of challenges and resilience, stories of difficulty and hope.
Without the calendar in particular, we could easily be overwhelmed by the demands of staying alive and getting by, in a world that is enormous and throws so much at us.
My teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joe Lukinsky, taught us what calendars and rituals do for human communities. They are how we fight for some order out of chaos, and how we build actual power to push some of the chaos away. Think about how many of our rituals take place at the moments when darkness begins. Our candles on Friday night and Saturday night, when we fight off the darkness where danger might lurk -- we refuse to retreat, we insist on saying I am standing, we are standing. In Jewish ritual, we choose those night times for our most messianic dreams -- when we step into Shabbat, the Taste of the World to come; when we step out of Shabbat in the first darkness of the week and summon Eliyahu, the prophet who tells us when redemption will arrive for the whole world.
Think about how many of our rituals are sitting in circles, or nowadays rectangular circles around tables, singing -- creating strength, covalent bonds between us, a binding chemistry that draws out the power in each other that is more than the sum of all our parts.
Our genius as human beings is ritual and calendar. These allow us to pull blessing and strength and resilience and connection out of the chaos that could be the world. otherwise Rituals are supposed to help us face what we are afraid of and make it safer to be afraid and handle fears, together with each other, together with the wisdom of our ancestors. Rituals let us tell stories not just about the past but about the future, the crazy audacious stories of a world so much more perfect thatn our own.
Rituals aren’t life, and they aren’t the only thing religion is supposed to be. They are where we find the energy pods, the wisdom pods, and the connecting bonds that we need to go out and live. Rituals and holy days are not for themselves -- they are for life,as a whole and we need them so we can live in this challenging time.
This year, we especially need those rituals. We will use them and wring us much as we can out of them in this particular season of this particular year. We need to consciously bring more of the rituals and more of the calendar rhythm, from this Opening Day of the beginning of Av all through the whole holy day season, Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. We need to use all of it, because there is so much chaos and so much overwhelm in our worlds. As individuals, as households, as parents and schoolchildren, as citizens.
I want to help us this year make use of all the time of these three months coming, especially starting with Elul at the next new moon. And I want to help us make use of rituals that we sometimes just do superficially.
The four weeks of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah should include four deliberate check-ins. Maybe you’ll set aside four times for yourself to sit and reflect. Or meet four times with a group of people online or in a yard, twice to look back and twice to talk about hopes for the new year. Or maybe you commit to just getting to know a group better within the congregation, or learning something that might be valuable for your new year from a Jewish source.
We will have the sweet apples and honey, so we can think about what is still sweet in our lives, what is fruitful, what has been generative this year that we forgot to notice. We can look at the seeds and think of what we planted, or who planted something inside us that has grown beautiful and nourishing to others. We can think about what might grow and what will be sweet even in this unique new year.
We have the shofar, blown every day of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We will think about the shevarim blasts, the brokenness of our world and the things that broke apart for us in our lives, and how we want to see them put together again. We will think about the t’ruah blasts, the scattered details of our lives as we have learned how to do each little thing again in a new way. We will think about the t’kiah gedolah, the clear calls we still believe in and still want to hear, the ways we are whole, the summons to where we want to be going.
We will have lakes and streams and oceans we can stand by, where we can toss away the things we badly want gone from our old year.
We will have the sukkah, the simple structure that challenges us to think about what protection is, what we really need in our material lives. By the time of Sukkot, we can hopefully think of ourselves as active builders of the new year.
All of these times and rituals will help us think about uncertainty and fears, and give us time to reflect and redirect -- and help us find the powers we still have, the wisdom we still have, the power and wisdom we can share with each other, all that power over the chaos of 2020 and 5780. Our rituals and our calendar will not be another demand added to an overwhelming list. They will make our lives easier, and help us turn our cries into songs.
We will have this new season through these months, from the new Opening Day we declare this week to the World Series of our holy days. One way or another -- together, online -- we will stand in circles as the sky becomes purple, and light our candles, and sing together, so we can live well in a new year.