Think Different: A Sermon on the Tower of Babel

Toward the end of Parashat Noah we encounter an intriguing but perplexing story: After the flood, Noah’s descendants multiplied and began to settle in the land of Shinar, otherwise known as Babylon. There, they decide to build a great city with a tall tower. God sees what the people are building and becomes upset over the tower. So God confounds the peoples’ speech, rendering them unable to communicate with each other, and scatters them across the earth.

What was so bad about a bunch of people trying to build a tower? Many of the classical commentators understood this passage as an allegory about human hubris. Perhaps, when the people state that they want to build a “tower that reaches to heaven,” they were implying that they desired to reach the realm of the divine, or to become godlike, or, perhaps, even to challenge God’s sovereignty, to wage war against God. Their arrogance required God to put them in their place.

I have always found this interpretation deeply unsatisfying. Building a tower in an attempt to become godlike may be folly, but it hardly seems criminal, or even immoral. The narrative begs a crucial question: Is it possible for human beings to literally build a stairway to heaven, or to become like gods, or to wage war against God? Interestingly, God’s rationale for punishing the people and stopping them from finishing the tower is “if this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach” (Gen. 11:6). Does God really feel threatened by humanity? Does God really mean that literally anything is possible for we human beings, including physically entering heaven, attaining godlike status, assuming godlike powers, or successfully waging a war against God? That if we put our minds to it and work really hard at it, we, too, can literally become gods? Most of us know enough about the Bible and Jewish tradition to presume that the answer to those questions must be no.

But if those actions are impossible, then God’s response seems both strange and harsh. Why does the building of the tower so anger God? And what does God mean when God says that nothing that [human beings] may propose to do will be out of their reach?” Why punish the people, rather than, say, by teaching them the error of their ways? And why choose the specific punishments of confusing their speech and scattering them across the world?

Let’s look closely for a moment at the whole narrative. It begins like this:

[And so it was] that everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.’ — Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. — And they said, ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’ The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

The first piece of information that the text gives us is that “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” This is important. After all, God justifies punishing them for building the tower because they are “one people with one language for all,” a reality that apparently makes it possible for the people to do just about anything they desire. And, of course, the punishment God chooses, confounding them linguistically and scattering them geographically, is directly connected to this initial fact. The terminology used here, however, is interesting. Why does the Torah need to say both that the people “had the same language” and that they had “the same words.”

The rabbinic tradition frequently notes that, typically, the Torah is a terse document; it tries to say what it needs to say in as few words as possible. So when the Torah uses two words in a verse when it could just have easily used one to express the same sentiment, it must be making a different point with each phrase. According to Rashi, “the same language” refers to the Holy Tongue, or Hebrew. And “the same words” means that the people held the same beliefs. In other words, not only did they speak the same language; they used that language to arrive at a uniformity of thought and opinion.

When God expresses fear over what humanity could accomplish when everyone had the same language, we should understand God’s concern to be more directly about the dangers inherent in a universal language, namely, that a common language can lead inexorably and irredeemably to common beliefs.

A major problem with commonly held beliefs is that they are often wrong. Consider this: according to Jewish law, if the judges in a capital case unanimously find a defendant guilty, then the defendant must be acquitted. At first blush, this seems counterintuitive. Indeed, our own American judicial system requires unanimity in order to convict in a capital case. And yet the rabbis of the Talmud observed that unanimous agreement often indicated the presence of some systemic error in the judicial process. They didn’t always know what the error was — perhaps a prestigious and respected judge had some sort of unconscious bias about the defendant that caused him to misinterpret the facts, but given his status, his colleagues were more readily influenced by his opinion — but they intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, it most likely is. It’s somewhat paradoxical, but it turns out that the things that everyone knows are true more often than not turn out to be false, whereas when some people believe something but not others, there is a higher probability that one of the divergent groups will be correct.

This is a meaningful point when it comes to the Tower of Babel story, because – and let’s be honest here – the beliefs that everyone agreed upon were nonsensical. According to Rashi, the people either universally agreed that they should wage war on God, or that they should build some kind of scaffolding that would prevent another flood. The midrash adds that the people’s desire “to make a name for ourselves” and to avoid being “scattered all over the world” were rooted in the same anxiety, that they wanted to build the tower to challenge God so that God would not destroy them as God had destroyed the generation of the Flood. As Professor Frink says in The Simpsons, these are ideas so ridiculous they make me “want to laugh out loud and chortle.”

But the fact that universally held opinions are often wrong does not inherently make them morally problematic. The larger problem is that when something is unanimously agreed upon, people become extremely reticent to change their minds. When people are certain about something, and feel emboldened in their certainty about their belief because everyone else thinks similarly, they become all the more willing to harm themselves or others — indeed, even to kill or be killed — for their beliefs. This, according to legend, is precisely what happened with the Tower of Babel, and why it elicited such a forceful response from God. One midrash holds that the people were so passionate about building the tower, so convinced were they of its utter necessity, that they paid no mind if a worker on the tower fell to his death; whereas if a brick fell, they would wail and mourn and lament the setback. The peoples’ conviction of the justness of their cause, aided and abetted by the universality of their belief, diminished their humanity and their concern for the welfare of their fellow human beings.

This, I think, is part of God’s problem with the building of the Tower of Babel. It’s not simply that the peoples’ rationale for building it was foolish. It’s that universally held beliefs, however foolish they may be, can result in monstrously immoral behavior.

And there is yet a deeper danger lurking in uniform belief. If people can convince each other of nonsense like the need to build scaffolding that will prevent the sky from falling, or the plausibility of physically attacking and defeating God, then there is literally nothing that people couldn’t be convinced of; not only no matter how wrong, but also how dangerous.

That’s where the relationship between uniform language and uniform belief factors in, and why God panics when God observes the people building the tower. Recall that when God sees the building, God says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” The Hebrew word for “propose” is “yazmu,” which is a revealing word choice. Yazmu is better translated as they may conspire, as in the eidim zommemim, the conspiratorial witnesses of Deuteronomy chapter 19, who conspire with each other to give false testimony that will result in the conviction of an innocent person. God’s concern, then, is not merely that, with ease of communication, people could convince each other of nonsense. To put it back in the language of the text, it’s that if, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then there is literally nothing — no matter how dangerous — that people couldn’t conspire to convince each other of. When dangerous ideas are universally agreed upon, they can become extraordinarily deadly.

God’s response, then, to scatter the people and cause them to speak different languages, is less a punishment than a course-correction. God observes the dangers inherent in uniform thinking, seeing how groupthink can yield not only wrongheaded but harmful ideas, and can cause people to abandon their compassion in fealty to their beliefs, and reasons that by making interpersonal communication harder, both through language and proximity, uniformity of thought will be diminished.

God does not want us all to think or be alike. God made every human being different for a reason, to encourage freedom and independence of thought. We are called to be skeptics, to challenge commonly held ideas, to generate new concepts and theories, to confront orthodoxies and smash sacred cows. We are urged not to blindly follow the crowd or to acquiesce in our thinking simply because everyone else believes differently.

We are challenged to not avoid ideological conflict or controversy in order to maintain some superficial standard of civility or long-standing courtesies, despite what is being argued today in some quarters (just as it was in the eras of abolitionism, of women’s suffrage, and civil rights). We are beckoned by our tradition to seek truth and to advance justice, even if it makes us unpopular.

This is even true of our most deeply cherished beliefs. Remember that according to the midrash the language the people all spoke before the Tower of Babel was Hebrew, and that language is both an aspect of culture and a vessel for cultural norms and values. In other words, before the Tower of Babel, everyone was a Hebrew. Given the fact that the Torah and the Jewish tradition generally think that the Torah and the Jewish tradition are pretty swell, given the fact that we Jews like to see ourselves as having a special relationship with God, wouldn’t you expect to see the Torah express a desire for everyone to be Jewish? And yet here, in the Tower of Babel story, we see God confronting that very possibility and, instead, choosing to institute diversity. God made us different because God wants us to be different, and rejoices in the diversity of belief, thought, and culture in our world. Indeed, as the Mishnah puts it, human diversity is a reflection of God’s greatness, for when a human ruler mints coins, all the coins come out from the mold identical to one another. But not so with God: God created a mold in the first human beings, Adam and Eve; but when more human beings were made from that original mold, no two came out the same.

In our lives, we constantly face pressures to think and act like everyone else. As the world shrinks through modern communication technologies, and it becomes increasingly easy to communicate with one another across linguistic and geographic and cultural divides, it makes these pressures even stronger. But our parashah today reminds us that we must always beware of the towers that popular opinion can lure us to build. And the bigger the climb, the harder the fall.

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The Responsibilities of Privilege


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about luck.

It all started this past summer, when my friend Nadya invited me to her naturalization ceremony. Now, I’d never been to such a ceremony before. But I assumed it would be a small and intimate gathering. I was not prepared for the crowd I encountered when I stepped off the elevator on the 7th floor of the U.S. federal court building downtown. Dozens of prospective Americans were there, along with their family and friends; Daughters of the American Revolution were handing out miniature American flags; civic leaders were there to welcome new citizens; and volunteers were helping people register to vote.

It was not quite the Ellis Island scenes that I remember from movies and family lore, but, for a moment, it felt close. I could sense the ghosts of my own grandparents and great-grandparents, who, like hundreds of thousands of their fellow landsmen, fled the violence, persecution, and hardships of Eastern Europe for this goldina Medina, enduring great trials to start here anew.

My fingers grazed the contours of my great-grandfather Joseph’s bejeweled belt-buckle ring, which I had recently started wearing on my right ring-finger. This ring, which he purchased some years after he came to America, was likely the first object of value he was able to buy in his adopted country, saving for years wages earned from his job as a delicatessen busboy. Perhaps to commemorate the fact that the first birthday my great-grandfather celebrated in America was his 21st, it has become a tradition in my family for the ring to be passed down to first-born sons on their 21st birthdays. My father gave me the ring on my 21st birthday, just as his father did for him, and I will pass it on to Shemaya when he turns 21. As I felt the weight of this ring on my finger, I felt the weight of my great-grandfather’s experience: leaving his homeland, crossing an ocean by boat, severing ties from his family, and starting over in an unknown land.

As I sat waiting for the ceremony to begin, watching immigrant after immigrant approach the court clerk and turn in all their paperwork — the final step in what is, for many immigrants, a complicated, arduous, and lengthy process — I felt an overwhelming sense of how lucky I am. Only a cosmic roll of the dice determined the fact that I would be born here while, to borrow a phrase from Emma Lazarus, “huddled masses,” elsewhere in the world yearned to breathe free. Here was a room filled with people who once were among those huddled masses, who had risked and sacrificed a great deal, who had worked extremely hard for long periods of time, just in order to attain what I received by virtue of having been born here. Many of them took those chances not for their own welfare, but rather to provide for their children and grandchildren but a fraction of the wealth and privilege and opportunity and security into which I had the extreme fortune of being born. And, meanwhile, countless others around the world — crushed by oppression, threatened by violence, rendered homeless by war, or simply wishing for a better life — want but will never make it to that room, those for whom the “golden door” of America has been padlocked shut.

You may not know it, but the power of luck is one of Yom Kippur’s central insights. On the one hand, Yom Kippur insists that it is within our power to determine our future, that none of us are chained to our past, that every single one of us, no matter how far along we are in life, no matter how deeply ingrained our habits, no matter the limitations of our environment or our biology, has the capacity to change, to make for ourselves new pathways and a better life.

And yet, at the same time, Yom Kippur also reminds us that our ability to chart our own future is either inhibited or helped by the luck of the draw.

The core of the ancient Yom Kippur service — practiced by our ancestors and preserved for us in today’s Torah reading and liturgy, involved the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple, with two goats. One of the goats was sacrificed there in the shrine. The other was sent off to an inaccessible place in the desert. The two goats, according to rabbinic tradition, had to be similar in color, age, size, and appearance; virtually identical.

Given the fact that these two goats had to be indistinguishable from one another, what differentiated their fate? Only the chance designation of a lottery:

Aaron shall take the two goats and let them stand before Adonai at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for Adonai and the other marked for Azazel (Leviticus 16:7-8).

Strange, right? This moment, so powerful, so significant; this moment that will determine the different fates of two animals, this moment upon which depends the atonement of the Children of Israel, whether or not they will be inscribed for life in the year to come, whether we will be the beneficiaries of blessing or the bearers of burden depends…on a lottery.

In fact, some commentators take this idea even further, saying that this holiday, called in Hebrew Yom ha-Kippurim, should actually be understood as Yom k’Purim, meaning a day that is like PURIM! Why? Because just as in the Purim story the fate of the Jews is determined by a lottery — the Hebrew word Purim itself means lots —so too on Yom Kippur is fate, the fate of these two goats in the Temple service, anyway, determined by a lottery.

But when you stop to think about it, it’s not strange at all. The Temple service of the High Priest is life itself, expressed in the poetry of ritual. It reminds us that much in our lives and in our world is beyond our control, that so much in life is a roll of the dice. Luck so often determines whether we will receive blessing or curse, and therefore the possibilities for our futures are so often either constrained or enhanced by whatever hand fate deals to us.

Just like the goats in the Temple ritual, lots are cast upon us — not just today, but every day — lots which will determine life and death, blessing and curse.

Just as an illustration, consider for a moment the odds that you would have been born in the last 100 years, which is a fraction of the time human beings have existed on earth, a time of unparalleled peace, prosperity, and wellbeing;

Or the odds that you would be born in the United States of America, a country with just over 4% of the world’s population;

Or the odds that this country — a radical experiment in self-government unprecedented in human history — would have endured for nearly two and a half centuries;

Or the odds that you would be born to a family with a middle-class household income (considering three-quarters of the world population has a net worth of under $10,000).

If any combination of those things are true about you, you are almost unfathomably lucky.

What can only be described as luck — or a lack thereof — determines our nationality, the environment in which we grow up, our genes, our skin color, and our physical appearance. And these factors, which we did not choose and are beyond our control, enable some of us to have an easier path to success than others.

In our society, for example, boys, just by virtue of having been born male, have advantages not similarly enjoyed by girls. White people typically have easier paths to success than people of color. Protestant Christians have privileges that those in minority religious communities don’t have. Being born in the United States means you have a head start on those born in the developing world.

And, while our difficult history – and the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism – makes many of us in the Jewish community loathe to admit it, to be born a Jew in this time and place likely means that you are born with nearly unrivaled privilege. After all, if you were born Jewish in America, chances are good that your complexion enables you to be identified as white, that your family was at least comfortably middle-class, that your parents are highly-educated professionals, and that you have at least a bachelor’s degree. Those characterizations of course don’t describe every American Jew. But even if they don’t describe you personally, most of us in the American Jewish community, statistically speaking, fit that profile.

Those of us who have benefited most from life’s lottery tend to deny the role of luck in our lives. We like to think of our social and economic situations as entirely the products of our own agency, which also implies that those who are worse off deserve their misfortune. Yet while we can certainly attribute some percentage of our successes or our failures to our hard work and effort, it is also true that, if life were a race, some of us get to start much closer to the finish line…thanks only to, essentially, a lucky roll of the dice.

“But wait,” I hear you saying. “Isn’t this blasphemy? Does God really play dice with the universe?” Isn’t God the all-powerful author of creation? And isn’t God just in every way, rewarding each according to his or her merits and punishing each according to his or her transgressions? If we were fortunate to have been born with certain privileges, doesn’t that mean God has willed it so, that God saw us as worthy of blessing, and others less so, and blessed or cursed us accordingly?

While there certainly have been voices throughout Jewish history that have tried to argue that a good, just, and omnipotent God orchestrates what happens on earth, most disagree with that viewpoint. Instead, our tradition insists “olam k’minhago noheg, the world follows its natural course,” (Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim 8:10, quoting Avodah Zarah 54b). God does not directly control what happens in our world. Rather, God set the universe in motion, established the laws that govern the cosmos, and then allowed creation to function really and freely within those parameters. God does not coerce or dictate outcomes; doing so would violate the order that God created and refuses to break.

Instead, God’s role in our world is limited. As Maimonides puts it, God restricts God’s self to teaching human beings right from wrong; to meeting us in each moment, guiding us — using only the power of persuasion — to use our free will for good.

Our starting points in the race of life, along with the thousands of small and large, helpful or harmful, occurrences that may happen to us along the way, are almost entirely up to chance. We have the freedom to decide on the best steps to take in our lives, and God’s voice is always there, if we attune ourselves to hear it, guiding us in the best possible direction. But we are all of us helped along or hindered by impartial, undiscerning, indifferent fortune.

While our lives are heavily influenced by “factors we did not choose and for which we deserve no credit or blame,” Yom Kippur teaches that luck does not get the final word. Our liturgy today imparts to us guidance about how to live in a world where our future depends a great deal on how lucky or unlucky we are: It says, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-g’zeirah, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” It may not be in our power to change our fate, but it is within our power to be aware of and correct the inequities of fortune. And we do this, according to our liturgy, through Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.

Teshuvah is normally translated as repentance. But it is better understood as turning. In teshuvah, we fully examine where we are, striving to see ourselves honestly. Where we find ourselves on the wrong path — because of the choices we have made, the pull of our ingrained nature, or the influence of our environment — we commit to turning toward a better way of living. Then, we engage in the hard but necessary work in each moment of living as best we can, differently than we had before.

But sometimes fate can deal us such a hand that it renders change extremely hard. Sometimes, it even makes it impossible. That’s why a core tenet of teshuvah is the requirement that we forgive others, and ourselves. Just because someone didn’t catch a break, whether at birth or at some other point in life, doesn’t mean they deserve a life of struggle.

It’s not that we shouldn’t hold people responsible for their bad deeds. And it’s not that we can never blame people for their failures. But the notion of teshuvah means recognizing, with understanding and compassion, that where we are in life often involves some amount of good or bad luck. And this recognition is the first step toward rectifying the unfairness of destiny.

The second step is Tefillah. Tefillah is normally translated as prayer. But the word “prayer” in English implies a request for help. By and large, that’s not what prayer is in Jewish tradition. Rather, in Judaism, prayer is more about self-examination, appreciation, and gratitude. The root of the Hebrew word for prayer is pillel, which literally means to think, to consider, to inspect. And the verb for praying, להתפלל, is reflexive. In other words, tefillah literally means introspection.

Introspection can help undo the injustices of fortune by providing us opportunities to examine and understand our own privilege, the ways in which we have innate advantages – like our sex or our skin color or our nationality – that made it easier for us to succeed. Conversely, it can help us recognize the ways in which others, through no fault of their own, have inherent disadvantages. Tefillah then invites us to be grateful for the gifts of our privilege, moving us away from feelings of entitlement or guilt, guiding us toward compassion for and generosity toward those who have been less fortunate, and helping us become aware of the unique work each of us is called do in the world.

The feelings of compassion and responsibility elicited through Tefillah lead directly to the third step, tzedakah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that, while we usually think of tzedakah as charity, it actuality has the opposite meaning. Charity is a voluntary action or donation to help someone in need. Charity implies the recipient has no right to the gift and that the donor is under no obligation to give it.

Tzedakah, on the other hand, means justice or fairness, making things right. The implication is that the world, when left to its own devices, is unfair. Some people are born with more privilege than others. Jewish tradition demands that we have a duty to rectify this inequality, to repair a world in which a few are born with privileges while most are disadvantaged, to help make of our world a more level playing-field.

In fact, this is precisely what our tradition means by tikkun olam, repairing the world. In the Talmudic texts where the idea originated, the term is a shorthand for recalibrating a world out of balance (Jane Kanarek, “What Does Tikkun Olam Actually Mean?” in Righteous Indignation). Repairing the world is about more than individual acts of giving. Rather, it is about using all the tools at our disposal, including public policy, to correct systemic injustices and make life’s race more fair.

The principles of tzedakah and tikkun olam don’t necessarily mean we have to make everything completely equal. But they do mean that “those who have benefited most from luck — from being born a certain place, a certain color, to certain people in a certain economic bracket, sent to certain schools, introduced to certain people” — have an obligation to lift up those who have benefited less from life’s lottery. And the more blessings one has, the more he or she is required to give.

We do this not simply because it is kind, which it is, or because it makes us feel good, which it does. We perform the mitzvah of tzedakah because, as the 16th century sage Rabbi Moshe Alshich taught, we are not entitled to everything we possess; because the privileged and disadvantaged are equally God’s children and therefore have an equal share in the inheritance of God’s world; because we are tasked with the fair distribution of that inheritance; and, ultimately, because, when we lift each other up, we all benefit (Torah Moshe, Leviticus 19:9).

Earlier I mentioned my great-grandfather, Joseph Knopf (of blessed memory). My great-grandfather fled the hardships of his native Galicia, leaving behind family and familiarity to start a new life in America as a young man. He never to my knowledge became wealthy, but he got to see his children grow up as Americans, with privileges and opportunities that would have been beyond his wildest imagination in the Old Country.

His son, my grandfather, Jay (of blessed memory), whose wedding band I wear on my left ring-finger, used to tell me that, as he grew up, his immigrant parents constantly reminded him how fortunate he was. That was why, he said, he joined the Army during World War II. His privilege gave him responsibilities. And even after he came home having been shot in the head by German snipers during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, he never lost the feeling of being extraordinarily lucky, and dedicated his life to helping and lifting up others, both professionally as a psychologist and in his private life.

I have been thinking a lot about my Grandpa lately: about the freedoms he and his generation fought and died to preserve and about the prosperity that his sacrifices helped to create; about how I was lucky to be born into and benefit my whole life from those blessings; about how many others in our world, through no fault of their own, are not similarly blessed, and about how we owe them our compassion and support. I think about how I was born with privileges that helped me prosper thanks in part to what he bequeathed to me, and about how others haven’t been so lucky. And, ultimately, I think about how he taught me that to whom much is given, much is required.

This day is both Yom Ha-Kippurim, a day that evokes life’s lottery; and Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, a day for repairing what is broken, a day for reconciling with each other and God. The paradox built into this day serves to remind us that, in a world where so much is determined by chance, fortune doesn’t have to have the final word. We get a say, too. We may not be able to fix everything, but we can accomplish a great deal. The randomness built into creation generates division and injustice; winners and losers. But we serve a God who insists that all have infinite worth. God has given us power and agency, guiding us to respond to the inequities of our random world by serving the One in whose eyes all are equal, the One who cannot abide injustice, the One who embodies the truth that we are all of us interconnected.

Yom Kippur invites us to honestly and gratefully acknowledge our privileges and consider with compassion those less fortunate; to lift up those who have less, and to rectify the inequities of our world — not just through individual acts of generosity, but through advancing the conditions that ensure everyone has an equal chance to succeed in life’s race — remembering that to whom much is given, much is required. Yes, life may sometimes be unfair. But this day declares that we can transform a world broken by the harshness of destiny into a world repaired by the harmony of justice.

Yom Kippur 5779

September 19, 2018

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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You Don’t Need Likes to Be Loved


With your permission, I want to share something personal tonight. My hope is that, by baring a little of my soul, I might offer us all a new framework to embrace this holiday. Too often, we encounter Yom Kippur as a day of arcane rituals that focus on our flaws and failings; a day of scapegoats and judgment and criticism. Instead, I want to invite us to experience Yom Kippur differently: not as a day on which we punish ourselves to prove our worthiness to God, but rather as a day that invites each of us on a journey of self-discovery and growth; a day that speaks with understanding, wisdom, and clarity about the real-life challenges we face today; a day that reminds us not what we lack, but what we have.

Most of you here know that I have for a long time been a heavy social media user. I was an early-adopter of Facebook. One of my best friends, Arie, who is now an Israeli Masorti rabbi, was roommates with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard. Back when Facebook was only available to Ivy League students, Arie urged me to make a profile on this new website his friend was working on.

Before long, social media was a ubiquitous part of my life. I was using it to stay connected with family and friends, and, eventually, as a professional tool as well.

But this past summer, I decided to take a break from all social media. Beginning in June, I stopped all posting, liking, and commenting. Eventually, I even deleted all social media apps from my phone and iPad and, I’m proud to share, I haven’t even snuck a peek at a news feed.

I had many reasons for doing this:

Like many of us, I began to realize that Facebook was, in the words of comedian John Oliver, really a data-harvesting company disguised as a High School reunion. Social media companies like to present themselves as loving stewards of our secrets and facilitators of meaningful connections. But in reality, we are freely giving over our private lives, and our most intimate memories, to corporations that make billions selling that information to other companies who, in turn, use our data to sell us things.

I also became increasingly mindful of the ways in which social media distorted thinking and coarsened communication, how on these platforms truth was so easily drowned under a sea of falsehood and irrelevance, how it seemed to amplify the ugliest and nastiest voices, and how clever algorithms were insulating us from encountering information that might challenge or complicate our previously held beliefs.

And I additionally came to see how I was deluding myself not only about how much time I was spending on social media, but also about what I was really doing with my time online. I had always justified my time on social media as an efficient way of staying connected with family and friends, of being mindful of the zeitgeist in order to constantly teach relevant Torah to a wide audience, of deepening relationships with congregants, and of elevating the good work we were doing here at Temple Beth-El.

But as I got real with myself, I realized that social media was, for me, largely a form of entertainment. That didn’t make it evil, but it did put it in perspective, reminding me that, in terms of how much time I should permit myself to devote to it, social media needed to be in the same category of activities as, say, watching TV.

Arriving at that awareness, it turned out, was the easy part. Once I realized that I ought to treat social media as an amusing pastime rather than as a productive tool of daily life, I committed to cutting back, only allowing myself a little each day, and even then, only after I had taken care of all my other responsibilities.

And yet, I found myself breaking my own rules, that gleaming blue “F” icon on my phone and iPad calling to me like a Siren, all day, every day, to crash the ship of my life upon its digital shoals. Why, I wondered, could I not shake this habit? What was its hold on me?

Of course, I knew that companies like Facebook spend a great deal of money making their products as addictive as possible.

But I also remember something a teacher and mentor of mine, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, once told me. Rabbi Mark is the founder and rabbi of Beit T’shuvah, one of the world’s only residential addiction-treatment facilities that is rooted in Jewish wisdom and spirituality. During my final year of rabbinical school, I was honored to work at Beit T’Shuvah as a spiritual counselor.

A recovering addict himself, Rabbi Mark taught me that addiction isn’t only a medical disorder. It’s also a spiritual disease. The addict almost always turns to substances or other compulsions in order to fill a “hole in their soul.” One of the most important aspects of successful treatment, then, is identifying the hole in the addict’s soul and helping them discover how to heal or deal with it, rather than filling, masking, or numbing it with intoxicants or compulsive behaviors.

As I began to think of my social media use as an addiction, I became determined to pay attention to what was going on in my heart and in my soul when I was using it.

Here’s what I noticed: Yes, I was bothered by the data-harvesting, and I detested the misinformation, propaganda, falsehood, vitriol, and sheer idiocy that proliferates on social media.

But what really impacted me was seeing post after post of friends and family seemingly happier than I was, more successful than I was, better looking than I was. Their jobs seemed better. Their vacations seemed better. Their kids seemed better behaved, funnier, and higher-achieving.

And, beyond that, their posts had more likes than mine, more shares than mine. Far more people, it seemed, were talking about them, praising them, celebrating them — their ideas, their innovations, their accomplishments — than they were about anything I ever posted. If only I could be as good as them, as smart as them, as insightful as them, as successful as them, as popular as them, then I would finally be somebody.

Over time, I became determined to live not my best life, but the life that would make other people feel about me what I felt about them. I curated a social media presence that made me and my life look as amazing as possible. In front of my social media audience, I was always a fun-loving and loyal friend, a devoted and appreciative and hopelessly romantic husband, a present and understanding father, and an endlessly successful, innovative, insightful — and always, always, super-busy — rabbi. God-forbid anyone would think that I ever took a moment’s break. After all, there could be no rest for a rabbi with a growing and adoring multi-generational congregation, with a synagogue emerging as a preeminent center for Conservative Judaism in the Southeast, and with a devoted following outside the shul, including influential and powerful people who were drawn to my prophetic voice for justice and unique and wise insights. I even managed to disguise this boastfulness and self-congratulation in a well-crafted tone of contrived humility.

What’s more, I didn’t just selectively post on social media to project and amplify this image. No, I also made decisions in life — in my relationships, with my family, with my children, in my work — based on whether, if I were to post a picture or a video or a reflection about what I was doing, it would benefit my image out there in the social media space. Get me more likes, more shares. Reinforce the perception of me out there that I was trying to create, and amplify my reputation in the broader world.

Like I said, addiction is a spiritual disease. And I was sick. I had a hole in my soul. I felt that I was nobody. Unimportant. Insignificant. Worthless. And worse, I was surrounded by somebodies, important people being successful doing things of significance and universally beloved. I saw myself as a grasshopper in a country of giants. I was trying to show the world my perfection in order to mask the fact that when I saw myself, I saw above all else my mistakes, my weaknesses, my flaws, and my failures. That I was unliked, unloved, and unworthy. My life was dominated by self-doubt and motivated by fear.

I don’t think I’m the only one afflicted with this same spiritual malady. In fact, I think it is one explanation for why social media is so addictive, and why so many of us cannot pry ourselves away from our devices and the validation that comes with all those notifications, friend requests, follows, likes, shares and retweets. Deep in our subconscious, we doubt our worth and our worthiness, and we are influenced by a culture that values above all else wealth, beauty and celebrity.

But It’s not just about social media. So let me be clear: I’m not saying that social media is the problem. Just because you use social media, even heavily, does not mean you are necessarily afflicted with the same spiritual illness. I’m not saying you need to go out and delete your account. I’m not even sure if I’m going to stop using social media altogether; it has many practical and worthwhile uses. We also don’t have the right to be judgmental of how and why others are using this technology. Because the truth of the matter is, even if you don’t use social media at all, it doesn’t mean you are immune to the influence of a culture that says unless you are rich and successful — beautiful, popular, and famous — you’re worthless.

After all, advertising works because it plays to those same insecurities. And because we are deeply anxious about what people think of us, we rush out to the store — or, more immediately satisfying, hop on Amazon — and buy whatever we think will buttress our image. Many of us choose our friends and even partners based on perceived social cache. We parent our children based on what our neighbors will think if they don’t behave a certain way, or attend certain schools, or participate in certain activities, or become certain kinds of professionals. We try to prove our worthiness through professional accolades, through the size of our bank accounts or our houses or our companies, or through our proximity to people in power. We harangue ourselves and those near us when we don’t get the recognition for which we yearn, failing to recognize that the yearning is actually ceaseless, that we can never compensate for our inner feeling of being unloved by the praise and adoration of all those people out there.

Of course, honest self-awareness is both healthy and useful. On some level, Yom Kippur reinforces this insight, that bettering ourselves requires first and foremost vidu’i, confession. We will be confessing a lot of sins today. We’re encouraged to make personal confessions, and where the words fail us, we’re provided with a script listing any and every possible wrongdoing. The message and wisdom of this is that only through honest confrontations with our flaws and failings can we learn from our mistakes, overcome our weaknesses, avoid repeated errors, chart new directions, and become better.

At the same time, fear, self-doubt, and self-criticism can be corrosive. They prevent us from enjoying our lives, rendering us incapable of presence in our relationships, disabling us from living lives in service to others unless we perceive that service will somehow increase our standing. Fear causes us to try to make ourselves and others fit into the mold of what we think will get us recognized and celebrated. It disables us from fulfilling our true potential.

Perhaps this is why Yom Kippur speaks to us with another voice altogether, a voice that is at least equal in magnitude, if not more forceful, and opposite in direction than the voice inviting us to extreme self-judgment. This is the voice that says, at the very beginning of our worship tonight, before any of the chest-beating and self-mortification truly begins, “va-yomer Adonai salahti kidvarekha, Adonai says, ‘I have forgiven you as you have asked.’” Of course you will be given another chance. God loves you. And love refuses to allow us to be defined by our worst deeds, and forgiveness is always part of the deal when we love and care for someone.

It is the voice of Psalm 27, which according to tradition we recite each day, from the beginning of the month of Elul through the High Holy Day season. You can read it in full here. Each day for more than a month, this Psalm patiently reminds us that we need not live in fear and insecurity, because God is our “light,” our “salvation,” and “the strength” of our lives. Though we may at times be tempted to feel weak, small, and insignificant compared to others, when we remember that God’s loving presence surrounds and fills us, “our hearts need have no fear.” Secure in the knowledge of God’s sheltering embrace, we can joyfully hold our heads high, knowing that we could not be any more important than to be deeply and fully loved by the Sovereign of all worlds. With God’s love anchoring our spirits, we need not seek prestige or power; all we need, says the psalmist, is a “level path,” confident, secure in our footing, moving forward joyfully in the journey of our lives. Even, according to the psalmist, if our parents have abandoned us — even if our parents did not make us feel loved and supported in everything we did, even if they were overly judgmental or critical or, worse, abusive — God will gather us in, God will continue to embrace us in God’s love and enable us to remain surefooted in that love.

This is the voice that calls out repeatedly in the Yom Kippur liturgy that ours is a God of grace and compassion; a God who is patient, abounds in love and faithfulness, and assures love for all. Our worship today will remind us over and again that God is to us a loving parent, a doting partner, and a cherishing relative; and that, because of that relationship, because of that love, ours is a God who always forgives.

This voice, the true voice of God which calls out to us on Yom Kippur, invites us to live our lives based on love rather than fear, asking us: “What would your life look like if you didn’t feel you needed to prove anything to yourself or to anyone else, if you didn’t feel you needed to impress anyone? What would your life look like if you were secure in the knowledge that you were enough, that you already were somebody, at least to the entity in the universe whose opinion mattered most?” What would it look like for you to live your best life, not the life that would make other people feel awed or jealous, to make decisions about your life designed not to mitigate against pain or to avoid criticism or to elicit praise, but rather to maximize your joy and usefulness in service to others? What would you do, what risks would you take, what might you achieve, if you believed that, on the fundamental level of your worthiness, you couldn’t fail?

I know some of you out there are likely skeptical about all this. But I’m convinced that, were we to remind ourselves that God deeply and fully loves us — and actually believe it — we will be better able to sort out healthy from unhealthy choices in our lives and change harmful habits. Should I post that picture or make that comment on social media? Should I buy this article of clothing, or that new gadget? Should I accept that dinner invitation or share that opinion? Should I punish my child for that behavior, or push forward that new project at work? I’ve found that the best and most constructive answer often emerges when I ask myself whether I would make the same choice even if I knew I didn’t have to earn anybody’s approval, that I am already loved, that I am already enough, that I don’t need to accumulate likes to matter, because I already matter as much as I possibly could in the eyes of the Mother of Creation.

That’s the voice of God on Yom Kippur, the voice our tradition gives us an annual opportunity to rediscover, a voice that, above all, says to us: You are enough.

On this day a God, who sees all, who knows all, before whom nothing is secret and everything is revealed, sees us in our totality, in our frailty, in our imperfection. We show up before God stripped of our finery — according to tradition, we are supposed to wear the kittel, simple white shrouds lacking even pockets which would normally hold the money that we often feel distinguishes us from others — absent our makeups and perfumes, lacking even the food and water that reminds that at least we have the basic sustenance that others might lack.

And, in spite of all this, Yom Kippur assures us, “You are alright. You are worthy of support and love even when you fail. Your flaws and blemishes pale in comparison to what is great and beautiful and lovable about you. You don’t need to chase after adoration and approval, because you are already loved in everything you do with an unending love by the wisest, most knowing, most powerful being in the cosmos. You are enough.

This Yom Kippur, my heart is strengthened through that love. This Yom Kippur, my soul has been granted courage through that love. This Yom Kippur, I can rejoice in the goodness available to me in the land of the living. And I owe it all to the message that this day calls out over and over again to me, to you, to all of us: we need not worry about the number of likes we receive. Because we are already worthy. We are already enough. We are already, all of us, without exception, loved, with all the love there is.

Kol Nidrei 5779

September 18, 2018

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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Just Walk Beside Me


Some of my earliest and sweetest Jewish memories are of Junior Congregation at my childhood synagogue, Ahavath Achim in Atlanta. In those days, Junior Congregation was led by a kind and energetic woman named Janet Schatten. One of the first Jewish songs Mrs. Schatten taught me was “Don’t Walk in Front of Me.” The song has stuck with me ever since, and I’ll bet somehow it’s been etched in your memory, too: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend. And together we will walk in the way of Hashem.”

The exhortation “just walk beside me,” and the implication that, when we walk side by side, we are emulating the Divine, particularly resonates with me this Rosh Hashanah. Experts have been warning in recent years that we are in the throes of what they call a “loneliness epidemic.” Despite living in the most connected age in history, people are feeling increasingly alone.

This isn’t a trivial issue. Loneliness has been closely linked to maladies from heart disease to opioid addiction. In order to flourish, we need others to walk beside us, and others need us to walk beside them.

I see this as one of the lessons that emerges from today’s Torah portion, known as Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac.

Twice in the narrative of the Binding of Isaac, the Torah tells us, “וילכו שניהם יחדיו,” the two of them walked together:

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked together. וילכו שניהם יחדיו.

Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.”

And the two of them walked together. וילכו שניהם יחדיו.

So much may be happening in these five short verses, and so much is left unrevealed to us. The narrative as a whole defies easy or definitive interpretation. But here’s what I see: Abraham accepts God’s command — which is framed for us as a test — and sets out for Mt. Moriah with his son, his servants, and the instruments he needs. I imagine that journey was painful for Abraham. But I believe, given what he knew of God, and given his covenant with God, that he assumed God’s mind would change, that he wouldn’t have to go through with it. But with each step forward and with each day passing, his anxiety must have been building. “Why hasn’t God relented yet?!”

On the third day, when Abraham could finally see the mountain, I imagine panic must have begun to set in. He still had faith that God’s mind would change, but internally, he had to be harboring some doubts and fears. “What if God actually makes me go through with this?!”

Isaac, for his part, may have known, deep down, that he was the intended sacrifice. And maybe he had bravely made his peace with that fact. But perhaps he also assumed that his father would ultimately back down, or that God would spare him. When he asks “where is the sheep?” maybe he is revealing his fear that this might actually be the end of the line.

Here are two men — and the classical commentators almost universally affirm that Isaac is already a grown man in this narrative — who are walking toward their future with hope for the best and fears for the worst, conflicted and pained about what was being asked of them, uncertain about their destiny and isolated in their anxiety.

And what does the text say of these two men, not once, but twice? וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו, the two of them walked together.

Why would the Torah need to go out of its way, twice, to tell us that Abraham and Isaac walked together? Is it not obvious?

Perhaps the walking together is itself the message of the story. These two men — a father devastated over the terrible mission with which he had been tasked; the son, frightened about what would happen on top of the mountain; the father, aggrieved over the possibility of losing his beloved son; the son, accepting his terrible fate and yet hoping it might be otherwise — got through this terrible journey through the very act of walking together, their presence comforting and supporting each other in their fear and pain and loneliness, their hands and hearts enabling them to share the burdens of the journey.

The Torah here teaches us that Abraham and Isaac decided, no matter how extremely their lives were going to change, or how unpredictable their future was, or how isolating their anxieties, they were going to face the change and the challenge together, side by side, hand in hand. Yes, Abraham and Isaac are lonely, because pain and suffering and fear are lonely. But what if just because we are lonely, we do not have to be alone? What if this story were about how, when life tests us or someone we love — remember, after all, that this story is introduced as a “test” — the best thing we can do is to live in the spirit of וילכו שניהם יחדיו, to walk on together, to be present for each other, to accompany each other, to be there for each other? The story of the Binding of Isaac reveals that the way to make it through life’s tests is to walk beside one another.

A few years ago, I was participating in a rabbinic fellowship led by one of my mentors, Rabbi Sid Schwarz. The fellowship consisted, in part, of several retreats. My fellow participants and I were expected to plan and run various aspects of each retreat, including the worship services. Now, I hope it doesn’t scandalize you too much to learn that, when we rabbis are “off the clock” and don’t have to show up at services, we sometimes choose to sleep in rather than get up early for morning minyan. To borrow a phrase from Us Weekly, “Rabbis: They’re Just Like Us!” Two days into our first retreat, Rabbi Schwarz noticed that only a few of us had been showing up to minyan. He called a mandatory group meeting to express his disappointment that we hadn’t been attending. What stuck with me was his rationale. He was not upset that we were skipping out on our religious obligations for daily prayer. That, he said, was between us and God. Rather, he was upset that members of our cohort were planning and running each of these services, and their colleagues, by not showing up, were failing to support them. “When you joined this fellowship,” Rabbi Schwarz reminded us, “you became part of a community. And community is about showing up for each other.” In community, above all else, your presence matters. We rabbis, who should already have known better, heard the message loud and clear. And for the rest of the fellowship, minyan attendance was 100%.

“Community is about showing up for each other.” Rabbi Schwarz’s lesson has remained with me ever since. To be in community means accepting upon oneself the obligation to support the other members of the community. In the words of our Torah portion, to be in community means to commit to walking together, to being a presence alongside each other, especially when we are confronting one of life’s tests, whether that is when we put ourselves out there by taking on a leadership role, when we are facing a difficult season in life, or when we are celebrating a joyous moment. We show our fellow community members that we support them, that we respect them, that we care for them, that we honor them, when we show up for them.

Some of you are exemplars of this value. You know who you are. We know who you are. You are the people who come to minyan at least once per week because you know that someone is bound to be there who needs to say Kaddish. And you are the people who have committed to take leadership roles, even when the fruits of your labors do not directly benefit you. And you are the people who make a point of routinely attending the funeral, even when you don’t have a connection with the deceased.

Of course, none of us, not even your clergy, can be everywhere all the time for everyone. But when a community is filled with committed and supportive individuals like the ones I just described, the overall impact is a community where we are showing up for each other.

At the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us in this room are less than zealous when it comes to showing up for each other. We expect the community — in some way, shape, or form — to be there for us when we are in need, but we are not in the habit of showing up for others.

I say this not in the spirit of rebuke or guilt. I fully recognize that there are plenty of legitimate things that prevent us from being as present for others as we might otherwise would like to be. I personally wrestle all the time with those competing obligations. The demands of work and family are real, and important, and often consuming. And even if we can sometimes peek out from behind those commitments, we certainly deserve time to tend to and care for ourselves. “If I am not for myself,” the sage Hillel famously asks, “Who will be for me?” Our own lives, and the lives of those in closer spheres of obligation, are certainly worthy priorities.

But recall, too, that in the very next breath, Hillel teaches, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?” Alongside and equal to our reasonable right to care for ourselves and those closest to us is our responsibility to be present for and supportive of others. We owe others our commitment to balance a concern for self with concern for community, and to be honest with ourselves and with each other about how much of ourselves we give to one concern versus the other. What would our community look like if every single person took seriously Rabbi Schwarz’s wisdom about showing up for each other? What would our community look like if we each honestly evaluated how we could be more present for others?

Imagine a community in which each of us — not just the rabbi, not just the cantor, but each one of us here — could be counted on to show up for each other, in which we all pledged to routinely attend each other’s programs, in which we volunteered at the religious school even after our kids graduated? Imagine a community of covenanted partners, who showed up at the bedsides, who attended the funerals, who packed the shiva houses, who made sure there was always a minyan; a community that makes honey cakes for the bereaved, brings chicken soup to the homebound and picks up groceries for new parents. Imagine a community where, in times of trial, we were committed to walking together, to offering presence, love, and support.

I want to hold up one community in particular as a model to inspire us: This summer, I traveled to Southern California to officiate at the wedding of a college friend. Being in LA afforded me the opportunity to revisit some of my old stomping grounds from when I was a rabbinical student, including attending Shabbat services at an independent spiritual community called IKAR.

Founded in 2004, IKAR has, almost since its inception, been at the cutting edge of what Jewish spiritual community in the 21st century can and should look like, featuring prayer that is emotionally and spiritually alive, learning that is both profound and radically accessible, social justice activism that is courageous and uncompromising, and a deliberately designed, deeply interconnected community where members are committed to being responsible for and to each other.

As such, IKAR has become a hub for rabbis and rabbinical students as well as the Jewishly uninitiated and disconnected, for those actively seeking spiritual experiences and for those who don’t believe, and a model to which rabbis, myself included, and congregational leaders nationwide turn for guidance and inspiration.

I am very excited to announce that, this January, we will be welcoming IKAR’s founding rabbi, my rabbi, Rabbi Sharon Brous, as our Scholar in Residence. We’ve invited Rabbi Brous to share with us tools for making our community ever more inclusive, supportive, and deeply intertwined; and to offer her unique and inspired insights about what Judaism offers to and asks of us in these trying times. I hope you will join us this January to meet and learn from Rabbi Brous.

As an example of what a special community IKAR is, I wanted to tell you a story from my visit this summer. Two years ago, a young family in the congregation experienced an unthinkable tragedy: their four-year old son, Gidi, drowned in a boating accident. According to his parents, Gidi “was all of the wonder and joy of life wrapped up in a small bouncy body. He exuded confidence, happiness, tolerance and acceptance. He made friends with strangers everywhere he went, he saw beauty in things no matter their purpose, and he met any challenge with a giggle and a hop in his step.” Guided by Rabbi Brous, and inspired by their special community, the Zilbersteins decided to create a special program in Gidi’s memory, called “Gidi’s Kindness Project.” During the month of Elul, which was both the beginning of the High Holy Day season and also the season of the anniversary of Gidi’s death, the Zilbersteins invited people to perform a random act of kindness and write about it on social media. Hundreds of people participated.

As fortune would have it, I happened to have attended IKAR on Rosh Hodesh Elul, Gidi’s second yahrtzeit. Gidi’s family had an aliyah to mark the occasion, and then Gidi’s mother Jesse had an opportunity to speak. As Jesse spoke about the tragedy of Gidi’s death and the miracle of Gidi’s life, she offered a powerful window into how she and her family continued on despite — and, indeed, because of — their pain.

She spoke about the importance of continuing to tell Gidi’s story, which keeps him alive in their hearts and in the world. She explained how the Kindness Project affirmed Gidi’s legacy and provided her family with a sense of love, support, and joy. Most important, however, was what Jesse called her “village,” her community, and in particular her IKAR community. Grief, as many of us here know all too well, is by its nature extremely lonely. And the presence, help, encouragement, and love of a caring collection of people blunts the most pernicious pain of loss, helping the bereaved pick up the pieces and navigate the path forward.

To illustrate her point, Jesse told the story of Tahlequah, the orca whale who had been in the news over the summer. Tahlequah’s calf had died in infancy, and for over two weeks, Tahlequah had kept carrying the body of her dead baby, at great risk to her own wellbeing. Jesse observed that the mainstream media reported Tahlequah’s behavior as unprecedented, a surprising display of grief and love. But to her, Tahlequah’s behavior was wholly unsurprising. She knew exactly what Tahlequah was going through. What amazed her, she said, and what should amaze us, was not that Tahlequah refused to let go of her baby, but rather that Tahlequah’s pod refused to let go of her. As long as Tahlequah was carrying that calf, her pod was right by her side — encircling her, protecting her, taking turns keeping the dead baby afloat in the water while she rested, continuing to hold the baby’s body up while she took a few moments to regain her strength, helping her in her stubborn and loving insistence that her baby would not be allowed to fall into the abyss. They didn’t leave her side, even as she swam over a thousand miles with her baby’s body on her back. Tahlequah lost a child, but she was also surrounded by a pretty incredible village. They not only kept her baby afloat, Jesse observed, they kept her afloat as well. They enabled her to do what she needed to do. Even as Tahlequah was traumatized, she was blessed.

Like Tahlequah, Jesse said, her family has felt very lonely in their grief, but they have felt extremely blessed to have had a pod who never left them alone. In their family’s time of trial, the Zilbersteins could count on their community to walk with them.

As for us, we too are better able to make it through life’s tests when we walk beside one another; and we, too, can be someone’s pod when they are in need, just by showing up.

Maybe that’s why we return, year after year, to the story of the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, a story that, at its heart, reminds us that the way to make it through life’s tests is by walking together. Our Sages of Blessed Memory could have chosen any text to have us study on this Holy Day, and yet they gave us this one, because they knew that Rosh Hashanah is one day in which we all show up. In this way, our tradition reminds us that our task is not just to come together on this day. Our task is to show up for each other every day. This is the promise we are invited to make to each other on Rosh Hashanah; this is the promise we make to each other by being in community: that we’ll walk beside each other; and when I walk beside you, and when you walk beside me, together we will be walking in God’s ways.

Rosh Hashanah, Day 2, 5779 (September 11, 2018)

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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Listen to Her Voice!


Picture, if you will, a world of rigid hierarchies, where men control women’s lives, and women are used for their bodies.

Perhaps it sounds like I am describing The Handmaid’s Tale, the classic dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood that was recently turned into an award-winning, bingeworthy, and positively chilling TV series. In truth, however, world I am describing is actually the source material of The Handmaid’s Tale, the world of the biblical patriarchs, the world we read about in today’s Torah portion.

On the surface, the biblical tale of our patriarchs is just as disturbing as its modern-day adaptation. In Genesis chapter 12, God promises Abraham that his progeny would become a great nation. Unfortunately, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is unable to conceive. So, Sarah suggests that Abraham have a child with her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.

When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah begins to feel insecure about her own status. She grows abusive toward Hagar, and Hagar runs away. In her flight, Hagar is approached by an angel — she, an Egyptian slave, is in fact the first woman in the Torah to be approached by an angel. The angel tells her to return to Abraham’s household, promising her that her child will become the father of a great nation. Before she heads back on the road, Hagar gives a name to the God who appeared to her in the midst of her distress, “El Ro’i,” “God Who Sees Me,” and in so doing she becomes the first woman in the Torah to come up with a name for God. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael soon after returning, and Abraham raises the boy as his own and only son.

Matters take a dramatic turn when an angel tells Abraham and Sarah, now quite elderly, that they would finally have a child. Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son whom she names Isaac, meaning laughter, because of her own joy, and the joy she imagines others will feel when they learn of this miracle.

That joy, however, turns quickly to fear and loathing, as Sarah begins to worry that Ishmael poses a threat to Isaac’s birthright and status. So she asks Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham is distressed by the request, but reluctantly agrees after God tells him, “Everything Sarah says to you, listen to her voice,” which he takes to mean figuratively as “Do as she tells you.” Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with insufficient food and water. As the two nearly die in the desert, God intervenes, offering Hagar comfort and hope, and opening her eyes so that she could see a nearby well of water. Ishmael survives and grows into the destiny God had promised. The story concludes with Hagar choosing a wife for her son. 

Though women are the main characters in the story, they exist in a world where they are seen as objects — worthy only for their reproductive capacity, their contributions to the household, or their relative value to the reputation and legacy of men — and are always, always, subject to the dominion and decisions of men. Sarah urges Abraham to have a child with her handmaid because in this way she will be able to consider the child her own and thus be of value to her husband. We’re not told whether Hagar is given a choice about conceiving a child with Abraham. Sarah sees Hagar as a threat to her esteem in Abraham’s eyes and so forces her to flee. Sarah only feels worthy when she has a child of her own and then immediately feels insecure about her and her son’s status relative to the status of Hagar and Ishmael in the eyes of the patriarch. Abraham unilaterally makes all the family decisions.

This is not a world of equality or partnership between men and women. It is a world in which women do not have control of their own bodies, much less their lives. It is a world in which biological sex and function are inextricably linked to gender roles and norms, which in turn are rigid and strictly enforced. One’s value is derived by how closely one conforms to the gender role that he or she has been assigned. And, for the most part, it is a world in which women are invisible to men, except in moments when women are useful or problematic.

The impact of such a world on the people who live in it is painful and tragic. There is much suffering by women, especially by women of a lower status, and there is even suffering by men who are expected to uphold this culture of dominance. 

Our world today is of course quite different from that of the matriarchs and patriarchs. But in some respects we are still enslaved to the same patriarchal dynamics that caused our biblical ancestors so much suffering. If we remain stuck in the same patterns of thinking and acting, beholden to the same attitudes and systems and cultures of dominance, we will similarly be unable to fully flourish.

To be sure, the modern era has heralded a great deal of progress. In particular, the status and role of women in the US has improved considerably over the past several decades, a testament to great efforts and sacrifices from women and men who have worked fiercely and tirelessly for justice.

But it’s easy to let that progress obscure what we have yet to achieve, and to distract us from the reality that these advances are fragile and constantly under siege by those who long for the way things used to be.

As someone who was born in the early 1980’s, when many of the battles fought by women and male allies over the last century had already been won, and as a straight, cisgender, white male largely unaware that my skin color, biology, and sexual orientation afforded me unique privileges, power, and status, I went through my life mostly oblivious to the many ways in which it is still much, much harder to be a woman in our society than a man, especially if you are a woman of color, or in some way don’t conform to stereotypes about how women are supposed to behave.

I didn’t notice, for example, how social and cultural cues made girls and women feel that if they didn’t look or act certain ways, they had less value. I didn’t notice how girls’ opinions and concerns seemed to matter less than those of boys. I didn’t notice how women had to work twice as hard as men — and endure double the abuse for a fraction of the pay — to attain the same levels of professional success. I didn’t notice how a government disproportionately dominated by men “takes women as objects of concern” but rarely sees them as equal partners in shaping policy (Judith Hauptmann, Standing Again at Sinai).

And, in my Jewish world, I didn’t notice how women were frequently marginalized or excluded from their own religious tradition, whether because God is mostly referred to in masculine language, or  because the tradition gives preferential status to male characters and voices, or because the roles and practices of men and women within much of the Jewish world are not only different but self-evidently unequal, or because, even within liberal denominations, there are far more male than female rabbis and cantors, and women are typically seen as subjects of Jewish tradition rather than coauthors.

I have been privileged in my adult life to have incredible women role-models who have helped me lift this veil of ignorance, to see the world through their eyes, their experience, and their learning. And having a daughter has made me even more sensitive to these realities and passionate about helping build a different world for all our daughters to grow up in and inherit.

Over time, I have come to see that there is a lot of pressure in our society for girls to be submissive and boys to be dominant, that girls are criticized for speaking out and boys chastised for crying, that women are punished for their sexuality while men are rewarded (Barack Obama, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like“).

I have noticed that I am simultaneously congratulated for being a present father and criticized for spending too much time at home, while at the same time Adira’s role as a mother is taken for granted and her professional work denigrated because it takes her away from the kids.

I have seen Lilah’s male classmates praised for being confident, competitive, and ambitious, while Lilah and her female friends are chastised as being “bossy” for exhibiting those very same traits.

And I have seen how a prominent man can boast about committing sexual assault, and even when it is caught on tape, millions can dismiss it as mere “locker room talk” and not see it as morally disqualifying in a candidate for President of the United States. 

Even so, I will admit that it was not until the past year that I truly became awake. Last fall, The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story. In the weeks that followed, similar accusations surfaced against many other prominent and powerful men in industries ranging from politics to food service, from high tech to hospitality, from academia to agriculture. Some of these revelations hit close to home, exposing abusive behavior in the Jewish community — even, sadly, within organizations, like USY, that were so pivotal to my own Jewish upbringing.

Around the same time, hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of women, including many who I consider close friends, took to social media to tell their own stories of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape, using the hashtag #MeToo.

I’m ashamed to admit that it took reading and listening to those stories to open my eyes to what my privilege had blinded me to for most of my life. It revealed to me the likelihood that nearly every woman had her own “Me Too” story. Just as troubling, it revealed that nearly every man was likely either the perpetrator or the enabler of — or at the very least a passive bystander during — some woman’s “Me Too” experience. It devastated me to consider that the women in my life most likely had “Me Too” stories of their own, and it terrified me to think about the fact that, if nothing were to change, my daughter might also have her own “Me Too” story to tell one day.

Most discomfiting was the recognition that I was complicit in all this, too. The #MeToo movement caused me to look honestly at my own past behavior, especially from when I was in high school and college. Whether it was participating in sharing jokes that I didn’t realize at the time were inappropriate, or commenting on women’s appearances, or mindlessly objectifying women, I could now shamefully see how my regretful behavior in the past may at times have crossed boundaries, created discomfort, caused pain, or left scars. I could now see ways in which I tolerated, enabled, or even contributed to a toxic culture among my male friends, classmates, and colleagues. Of course, there is a spectrum of bad behavior being called out by the #MeToo movement, from inappropriate jokes to rape, from being a bystander to being a serial offender, and the distinctions between those deeds are meaningful and worth preserving. But at the same time, one does not have to be Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby to be guilty of perpetuating a toxic culture that harms everyone, in ways large and small, and that empowers the worst among us to feel they can do whatever they want, to whomever they want.

Yes, my friends, so many of us, myself included, have a lot of teshuvah to do, so that nobody will ever have to say ‘Me too’ again, so that we can heal what is sick in our culture, and so that all our sons and daughters have an equal opportunity to thrive. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “let the wicked give up his ways, the sinful man his designs, and let him turn back to the Holy One…For, declares the Holy One, My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways.” (55:7-8). This day invites us to see our destructive patterns of thoughts and behavior and turn ourselves toward living lives more aligned with a God who thinks and acts differently.

In today’s Torah portion, almost every character in the story plays the roles one would expect of them within their patriarchal world. But God’s plans are not our plans, and God’s ways are not our ways. As is God’s nature, God’s words and actions in this story defy what we might have expected.

Our Torah portion opens with the phrase, “Va-Adonai pakad et Sarah,” often translated as, “God remembered Sarah.” But note that here the Torah doesn’t use the more common word for remember, zokher. Rather, it chooses the word pakad, a verb that is pregnant with meaning. Pakad is a more active and intimate verb than mere remembering. Va-Adonai pakad et Sarah means that God turned God’s undivided attention to Sarah, that God attended to Sarah’s needs and desires, that God visited Sarah graciously. We are being told here that God sees and hears Sarah, in the fullness of her humanity, in the depths of her desire and need. God here has listened to Sarah’s prayers, has taken her concerns seriously, and has been moved by them.

Contrast this with Abraham, who does not even seem to give Sarah the time of day when their baby is born. He doesn’t speak with her, doesn’t interact with her, and doesn’t celebrate with her. The only time Abraham engages with Sarah is when she asks him to expel Hagar and Ishmael. But even here, Abraham doesn’t say a word to her. He is unconcerned with both Sarah and Hagar’s feelings. He is distressed according to the text only because the matter “concerned a son of his” (Gen. 21:11).

God, on the other hand, tells Abraham, “shema b’kola,” listen to her voice. Listen, God says, to what Sarah is saying to you. Believe her pain. It’s real to her, even if it doesn’t feel as real to you or has implications that are uncomfortable to you. Don’t trivialize her concerns. See her in the fullness of her humanity, as your equal, as someone as deserving of attention, of concern, and of being heard as you are.

And while God’s directive to Abraham to “listen to her voice” is traditionally taken to mean “do as she says,” that’s not the only way to understand what God is saying here. Rather, as modern feminist scholar Marsha Pravder Mirkin points out, there is

[A] world of difference between ‘listening to her voice’ and ‘obeying.’ Sarah was distraught, she was lonely, she was frightened. She needed Abraham to empathize with her feelings, to listen to her feelings…Sarah needed Abraham to sit there in empathy. She did not need him to take action, nor do we need to hear God’s words as a request that Abraham take action…I believe God was saying, ‘Listen to Sarah, hear her feelings, be empathic with Sarah. Let her know there’s no reason to compete, there’s room enough for both boys to grow up with My blessings.’ Abraham, instead, acted. He didn’t listen or question.

He simply sent Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness to die.

God’s next action in the story is hearing Ishmael’s cries. God, again, acts as the God that Hagar once called, “The God Who Sees Me.” God here is the One who sees and hears all, the One in whose eyes no one, regardless of race, class, or gender, is invisible. God even hears the cries of a half-slave boy whom the story’s narrator does not even tell us is crying in the first place! In other words, no one is voiceless before our God.

Then, God comforts Hagar in her distress, and empowers her to take her destiny into her own hands: telling her to take her son in her arms, opening her eyes so that she could see a nearby well, and then observing her proudly as she nourishes Ishmael back to health.

The final thing God does in this story is accompany Ishmael as he grows up, again reminding us that God sees, is concerned with, and is present even and especially for the marginalized.

The story concludes with Hagar —a character with the compounded burdens of being a woman and a foreigner and a slave, a woman who had been abused and dominated — empowered and embracing her independence, defying her society’s norms by choosing a wife for Ishmael. In fact, Hagar is the only woman in the Bible ever to do such a thing. One could even argue that, as the final curtain falls in the drama, Hagar is the story’s hero, a model the Torah holds up for us of strength, resilience, justice, and liberation.

This, then, is a story about how ours is a God for whom no person — regardless of gender, race, or class — is ever invisible, about how all people are infinitely and equally worthy in God’s eyes, and therefore about how social systems in which men and women are functionally unequal — are ungodly. It is a narrative that calls upon us to emulate a God who sees and hears everyone, and to whom everyone equally matters.

This Holy Day thus asks of us to to stop behaviors that passively reinforce the marginality and invisibility of women. In the Jewish community, for example, that means paying closer attention to the language we use to refer to God, choosing instead gender-neutral terms, or alternating between masculine and feminine terminology and imagery. It also means elevating and celebrating the voices and stories of Jewish women to equal the central role we give to male figures. And it means creating space for women in our community to defy traditional Jewish gender norms, fully embracing their equality by wearing kippot, talitot, and tefillin, teaching and preaching, reading Torah and haftarah, and leading services.

Additionally, this Holy Day asks of us to nurture environments — at home, in our schools, in our workplaces, online, and in the public square — where everyone feels fully respected; where no one is ever made to feel uncomfortable or threatened; where sexual harassment, abuse, and assault is never tolerated; where offenses can be reported without fear of retribution; where concerns and complaints are believed; and where the victim is never blamed or shamed. It means we must speak up when we hear things that demean and marginalize, speak out against policies that rob women of control over their own lives and bodies, and advocate for policies that advance equality.

It asks of us to pay attention to how we reinforce outdated, inflexible, and harmful norms of gender and sexuality, and instead enable each other — and especially our children — to simply be ourselves.

It asks of us to search our hearts for and uproot the unconscious biases that cause us to discriminate against women, to insist that women’s ideas and opinions are always taken as seriously as men’s, and to demand that women’s voices are always listened to with the same attentiveness given to the voices of men. And it asks of us to refuse to see anyone as an object, to minimize or ignore anothers’ pain, or to use anyone as a means to our own ends, instead treating everyone as the sacred reflection of the Divine Image that they are.

It means, finally, building a community and a society where women don’t have to work twice as hard, accept lower wages, and endure abuse to succeed, a world in which all of our daughters can know that they can be truly anything they want to be. 

According to tradition, on Rosh Hashanah all of humanity passes before God as sheep pass before a shepherd (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2). No lamb is insignificant; no ewe is invisible. Every one is seen, every one is accounted for, every one is attended to, every one matters, every one is equal in God’s eyes. We, for our part, are called upon to search our hearts and probe our histories to discern whether we have acted in a way that reflects this reality from God’s perspective. Do we see everyone, or are there people invisible to us? Do we hear everyone, or are there voices we trivialize? Do we treat everyone as though they matter, or are there some we see as less significant than others? This, then, is our teshuvah on this Rosh Hashanah: to stand before a God who sees and hears everyone and, this year, to recommit ourselves to God’s call, echoed in today’s Torah portion: “Listen to HER voice!”

Rosh Hashanah, Day 1, 5779 (September 10, 2018)

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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Witness and Lament: Remarks at Solidarity Tisha B’Av

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Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia, July 22, 2018

כָּל֨וּ בַדְּמָע֤וֹת עֵינַי֙ חֳמַרְמְר֣וּ מֵעַ֔י

“My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult.”

These are the words of the biblical book of Lamentations, traditionally believed to have been authored by the prophet Jeremiah, describing the Jewish people’s anguish when, in ancient times, conquering tyrants destroyed our Temple, laid Jerusalem in ruins, and forced our people into exile.

For over two-thousand years, Jewish people have recalled those laments on this day, Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On Tisha B’Av, we gather as mourners —fasting, chanting lamentations, singing dirges and elegies — not so much in grief for what has been lost, but rather in anguish over what has not yet been rebuilt. The destroyed city of Jerusalem is the Jewish tradition’s symbol for a world yet unredeemed. We observe Tisha B’Av because millions upon millions of people in our world — our brothers and sisters in our great human family — continue to suffer exile, torment and oppression.

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I don’t remember you, if I don’t place Jerusalem above my highest joy.” (Psalm 137:5-6)

We hold the recognition of our world’s brokenness before us, and we are urged to keep it there, obscuring, even if only a little bit, our privilege, our comfort, and our joy, because none of us can be truly free until all are free, because my liberation is bound up in yours, because, as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So we grieve today, because our grief reminds us that our work is not yet completed, that our broken world is not yet repaired, and that we are called upon to pursue justice for all, to champion the stranger, to protect the vulnerable, to free the bound from their chains, and to frustrate the designs of all would-be oppressors.

That is why we are here today. This year, Tisha B’Av, a day that reminds Jewish people that we descend from immigrants and refugees, a day that reminds us that we inhabit a broken world, falls against the backdrop of a profound moral crisis in our country, as migrant children are separated from parents, asylum seekers are denied refuge, Muslims are refused entry, and immigrant communities are gripped with fear. These injustices, unprecedented in their scope and cruelty, are being perpetuated in broad daylight, as a matter of policy, in our name, enacted by cruel officials, endorsed by hard-hearted leaders, and enabled by widespread silence.

But we refuse to be silent. As the Book of Lamentations says:

ק֣וּמִי ׀ רֹ֣נִּי בליל [בַלַּ֗יְלָה] לְרֹאשׁ֙ אַשְׁמֻר֔וֹת שִׁפְכִ֤י כַמַּ֙יִם֙ לִבֵּ֔ךְ נֹ֖כַח פְּנֵ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְׂאִ֧י אֵלָ֣יו כַּפַּ֗יִךְ עַל־נֶ֙פֶשׁ֙ עֽוֹלָלַ֔יִךְ הָעֲטוּפִ֥ים בְּרָעָ֖ב בְּרֹ֥אשׁ כָּל־חוּצֽוֹת׃ (ס)
Arise, cry out in the night  At the beginning of the watches,  Pour out your heart like water In the presence of the Lord!  Lift up your hands to Him For the life of your infants, who faint for hunger at every street corner.

We are here to cry out together. We are here to pour out our hearts like water together. We are here to lift up our hands to testify about the desperate parents who have been torn from their babies, and about the uninhabitable detention centers crammed with children. We are here to bear witness that the wealthiest country on earth callously shuts its doors to people fleeing disaster, poverty, violence, and persecution. We are here to bear witness to a government that criminalizes the most vulnerable and tries to dehumanize migrants and asylum seekers through criminalizing them. We are here to insist that immoral practices cannot be justified simply because they are legal, and indeed that unjust laws must be altogether uprooted and replaced with a more moral code.

We are here, ultimately, in the spirit of this day, to lament:

We lament inhumane immigration policy,

We lament family separations,

We lament family detention,

We lament denying asylum,

We lament ending of temporary protected status,

We lament Muslim bans,

We lament refugee bans,

We lament for-profit detention,

We lament inhumane conditions and widespread abuse in detention centers,

We lament vilifying immigrants, criminalizing immigration, and targeting immigrant communities,

We lament cruelty masquerading as law,

We lament injustice!

The Book of Lamentations ends with a prayer, “Hashivenu Adonai elekha v’nashuva, Hadesh yameinu k’kedem / Bring us back to you, God, and we will come back. Renew our days as of old.”

This prayer, I think, is meant to call out to us from the darkness of this day: Shuv, says Lamentations. Turn around. Go back.

In the face of policies that criminalize the most vulnerable, we say, in the spirit of Tisha B’Av: Shuv! Turn around.

In the face of officials who lie and obfuscate to justify grossly immoral practices under the banner of “the law,” we say: Shuv!

In the face of politicians who interpret scripture as a cover for cruelty, we say: Shuv!

Shuv. Turn around. Go back. Repent of these inhumane policies. Make right what is unjust. Repair what is broken. Heal what is sick. Work with us to build a world of love, the world we grieve for on Tisha B’Av, the world that we, working together, can once more bring into being.

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The World is Yours, But it Doesn’t Belong to You

On June 14, 2018, I was honored to speak to the graduating class of Maggie Walker Governor’s School at their Baccalaureate ceremony. Here’s what I said:

Class of 2018,

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited here this evening. It is such an honor to be with you to celebrate this milestone with you and your families. Congratulations to you all! Years of hard work and dedication, challenges and blessings, failures and victories, gumption as well as good fortune, have led you to this moment. Savor it. Moments like these pass us by so quickly.

In fact, these moments pass us by so quickly that you may find yourself, like me, one day looking out at a room full of high school graduates, wondering how it happened that I am here standing at this podium, and not out there, sitting with you.

But here I am, astonished that it has been 17 years since I sat where you sat. As I was graduating high school, many of you were just being born. As you were graduating preschool, I was graduating college. During your elementary school years, I met the woman who would become my wife, got married, and studied to become a rabbi. When you were in middle school, I got my first real job and had my first child. And during your high school years, I took on the leadership of my own congregation, bought my first home, and had two more children. Not sure how much math they give you kids in school these days, but that’s three children all together. 

I honestly hadn’t reflected on all this until right now. I’m amazed at the worlds I’ve come since you were born. And this evening I pray that your next 17 years are as full and as blessed as mine have been.

Of course, more about our world has changed since 2001 than the simple fact that my hairline got higher, my waistline got wider, and my house got much, much noisier. When I graduated high school, for all the world’s problems, we were in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. I recall from that time an abiding sense of optimism about the future. It was a moment in history that seemed to be filled with endless opportunity and extraordinary potential.

And then, when you were infants, when I set off for college, everything changed. Terrorists attacked our country on September 11, 2001. My second week of college in New York City. As the poet William Butler Yeats put it, the “ceremony of innocence [was] drowned.” 9/11 jolted so many of us from feeling that the whole world was in our hands to feeling more and more that things were falling apart and spiraling out of control.

I was an immigrant to this world. You, however, are natives. The world you were born into, the world in which you grew up, and the world you are poised to inherit is one that, especially in the years since 9/11, has become replete with war and violence, increasingly irreversible ecological devastation, deepening inequality, and rampant, unrelenting, oppression of the most vulnerable.

Compounding these troubles is a pervasive sense, growing exponentially over the past two decades, that our leaders don’t care what we have to say, or even what the facts say; that they are responsive only to a small, extremely wealthy handful or, simply, to a handful of the most extreme.

This is a world that conspires to make us feel small, insignificant, and powerless. It urges us to retreat into our ideological silos and social media echo chambers, to revile and speak coarsely to those with whom we disagree. It beckons us to disengage, to mock, and to endlessly anesthetize ourselves with consumption and pleasures and entertainments.

It’s tempting in our time to give in to this feeling of futility. But it’s also wrong. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential 20th century rabbi who escaped Nazi Germany and became a leader in both the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 60’s and 70’s, once taught: “Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do — everyone — our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.” You are powerful. You matter.

It is said of the great Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa that he would always keep a note in his right pocket. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, he would reach into his right pocket, and, there, find the words, “Bishvili Nivra ha-olam / For my sake was the world created.” It may feel sometimes like things are disintegrating and that you are powerless to stop it. In those moments, remember that you are important and powerful beyond measure. The very existence of the world depends on you. It is in your power to make the world more compassionate. It is in your power to make the world more kind. It is in your power to make the world more just. It is in your power to make the world more peaceful. Everything you do or don’t do, everything you say or don’t say, whether you show up or not, and how you show up, it matters, and it makes an impact. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” So choose to be awake, to care, and to act for the good.

At the same time, I want you to bear in mind that believing too firmly in your own significance and power can be destructive.

For this very reason, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa also always kept a second note in his pocket. When feeling high and mighty, he would reach into his left pocket and find a slip of paper with the words: “anokhi afar va-efer / I am but dust and ashes.”

The world in which you grew up and that you are poised to inherit is one that testifies to the dangers inherent in people being too convinced of their own rightness and power. So, even as you remind yourself that the world was created for your sake, remember also that you are but dust and ashes. You’re mortal and fallible and quite literally not anywhere near the center of the universe.

To me, this means that we ought to be exceedingly humble and extraordinarily kind. We ought to seek out and learn from many different points of view, encountering perspectives and ideas we may have never before considered, always scrutinizing and questioning the correctness of our own beliefs. We should see all people as equals, worthy of our attention and concern, compassion and forgiveness. And, finally, we should acknowledge and appreciate our blessings, as well as gentle with and forgiving of our imperfect selves.

Class of 2018, as you step forward as adults in these troubled, turbulent, and uncertain times, remember both that the world was created for your sake and that you are but dust and ashes. Holding these truths simultaneously will enable you to keep balance and direction as you embark on the path ahead. And, secure in your footing, 17 years from now, when you speak to someone born as you graduated high school, I am confident you will tell them how you took the world you inherited and made of it a better one. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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