As I celebrate Hanukkah while watching the second season of The Mandalorian on Disney+ and anxiously following the news of the president’s and his allies’ attempts to subvert democracy, I find myself once again reflecting on the many connections to and parallels between Star Wars, Hanukkah, and current events.
For those who haven’t seen it (and/or for those who aren’t steeped in Star Wars lore), The Mandalorian takes place in the years between the events of the films Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
At the end of Return of the Jedi, the evil Galactic Empire is destroyed. Presumably, freedom, justice, and peace are restored to the galaxy.And yet, in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens, we learn that, just 30 years later, a new fascist movement called the First Order has arisen “from the ashes of the Empire,” seeking to topple the New Republic.
While I loved The Force Awakens, I remember feeling surprised by this turn of events. How did things take such a dark turn so quickly? Why and how did the First Order rise?It wasn’t until about halfway through The Force Awakens that we learned a little more. As one of the First Order’s top leaders, General Hux, puts it (at a rally with distinct Nuremberg echoes, no less), the New Republic is “a regime that acquiesces to disorder.” Only the First Order, through destroying the Republic and instituting totalitarian control of the galaxy, can bring law, order, and peace.
Life under the New Republic as depicted in The Mandalorian fits General Hux’s description. Crime, corruption, and impunity are rampant; lawlessness and disorder reign; wealth and brute force carry the most currency. Some characters in The Mandalorian openly long for the days of imperial rule. In their view, the Empire, for all its brutality, nevertheless seemed to make every system it occupied better, more peaceful and prosperous. As a character put it in a recent episode, “You see, boys. Everybody thinks they want freedom, but what they really want is order. When they realize that, they’re gonna welcome us back with open arms.”
Given these conditions, rife with uncertainty and upheaval, it is no wonder the First Order rose. Many people must have yearned to “Make the Galaxy Great Again.” The despotic ideologues leading the First Order may have exploited and benefited from these anxieties. But they would not have gotten very far if average people did not seek, welcome, and support the new order they were promising.In this sense, while the Star Wars saga presents as a black-and-white conflict between ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil, between the light and dark sides of reality, and between the few extraordinary true-believers who represent either end of those extremes, when one looks past the gnostic mythology and (admittedly, super cool) laser-sword battles, Star Wars actually makes a much subtler, and profoundly more important and relevant point: Tyranny rises, broadens, and deepens with the invitation, collaboration, and participation of regular people.
Indeed, it is the regular people who become the infrastructure upon which tyranny is built, the scaffolding that supports the weight of entire oppressive systems. They become “silent majorities” that implicitly back those systems, even while looking away from or rationalizing cruelties and brutalities as necessary evils. Some, perhaps many, become enmeshed in — and therefore both reliant upon and supportive of — those systems’ various bureaucracies, perhaps even advancing careers and pursuing prosperity or status through those ubiquitous channels. Think, for example, of the Mos Eisley wayfarers in A New Hope who report R2-D2 and C-3PO to imperial authorities, or Lando Calrissian protecting his career by selling out Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca to Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, or DJ getting rich by turning Finn and Rose over to the New Order in The Last Jedi.
But the picture portrayed by Star Wars isn’t all so bleak. Because while many average denizens of the galaxy far, far away seek, invite, uphold, extend, and exacerbate tyranny, countless others are willing to risk their livelihoods and lives in order to dismantle oppressive systems and save innocents. Think about Han courageously and selflessly returning to help the rebels destroy the Death Star in A New Hope, or the Ewoks rising up against imperial forces in Return of the Jedi, or Finn abandoning his post on The First Order’s Starkiller Base in order to save Poe in The Force Awakens.
In the (admittedly, underwhelming) most recent Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, average people risking everything to do the right thing, despite having every good pragmatic reason to look the other way, is a significant theme: a company of First Order stormtroopers who abandoned their posts rather than slaughter innocents gives vital assistance to Rey, Finn, and Poe; and thousands of average people heroically show up to help the Resistance defeat the Emperor’s formidable fleet in the desperate last moments of the film’s final battle. Force-wielding heroes and villains may get top-billing, but regular people, acting out of moral defiance, are the ones who save the day.
In her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes what she calls the “banality of evil.” Generally speaking, Arendt argues, people do not choose evil for its own sake. Instead, people tend to justify ideologies, actions, and systems that they might otherwise regard as evil when they perceive them as necessary for advancing some personal, communal, and/or national interest. Sometimes, perhaps often, this process is unconscious, passive and automatic. Arendt calls this the “banality of evil.” Consequently, only when an individual is conscious and critical, only when a person is aware of the evil lurking within the automatic processes of the world, and only when a person is willing to summon the courage to defy the assumptions and norms of their broader cultural context can they make the choice to resist and rebel against these automatic processes and act outside of them.
The Hanukkah story, like the Star Wars saga, celebrates this kind of heroism. In the face of the power of Syrian-Greek rule and allure of Hellenistic culture, in the face of widespread Jewish acquiescence to Hellenism and empire, in the face of the benefits of acquiescence to the status quo, in the face, even, of certain failure and destruction, some Jewish farmers and artisans and clerics chose to rise up, band together, and face down a seemingly invincible force.
On Hanukkah we celebrate their victory, but I would argue it matters less that the rebels defeated their enemies in defiance of all reasonable expectations than it does that these few people chose resistance and rebellion when most people didn’t and wouldn’t. It matters less that the Maccabees won than that they chose not to collaborate with the evil of the world to which they belonged. It matters most that they upheld the spirit of the rabbinic teaching, “where there are no upstanding people, strive to be an upstanding person.”
Similarly, it is nice that two of the three Star Wars trilogies have “happy” endings, where the good guys win and tyrannies are toppled. But more important than the victories is the fact that, in the saga, most people chose to align themselves with the order that they perceived most benefit their interests; and, conversely, that the Rebellion, and then the Resistance, rose in the first place, that average people were willing to leave everything behind and put everything on the line in order to fight for what is right and good.
Star Wars and Hanukkah both ultimately celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. But as the second season of The Mandalorian ends, as Hanukkah begins, and as we confront a gnawing authoritarianism in our time, I find myself focusing less on the victory of good over evil, and more on the victory of good rising in defiance and resistance of evil in the first place.
That is the real battle; one that we all face, even and especially today.
This year, my clergy partner Cantor Dara Rosenblatt teamed up to send a Hanukkah video message to our Temple Beth-El family, featuring a reflection I wrote and an original(!) melody CDSR composed.
You can watch the video here.
Please feel free to share with others who might find it meaningful; let’s increase the light together!
Here is the text of my message:
At its core, Hanukkah commemorates a revolution: in 166 CE, a band of Jewish rebels rose up against a foreign ruler who had banned Jewish practice and transformed our Temple into a pagan shrine.By any estimation, the rebellion should have failed. As we recount in the special prayer for Hanukkah “Al ha-nissim,” the Maccabean revolt pitted the weak against the mighty, the few against the many, scholars against soldiers.And yet the Maccabees saw their world as it was and, with perhaps an equal measure of courage and hutzpah, they refused to accept it as inevitable. Instead, regardless of the odds, they insisted on fighting for what they imagined could be.
It is no coincidence that Hanukkah falls during the darkest time of year, when the days are shortest and the nights are longest. We light candles precisely in this season as a reminder that the darkness in our world, no matter how present, prevalent, and persistent it may be, is not unavoidable or unassailable. We mustn’t be content with the darkness of our world as it is. We can, and must, add light. We may not totally or permanently illuminate the night. But unless we act, unless we light those candles, we guarantee the persistence of the dark. As Edmund Burke is remembered to have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”
Hanukkah, in this sense, calls upon us to notice the ways in which our lives as they are, and the world as it is, are not what we wish they were, and challenges us to consider: are we being complacent, tacitly accepting things as they are? Or will we refuse to be satisfied with the status quo, and agitate for change, no matter the obstacles, regardless of the odds? As my teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, teaches, on Hanukkah we honor the sacred hunger for light in a world that bleeds with human suffering, injustice, loneliness and so much darkness. We reject the darkness that is, and agitate for the light that might yet be.
Maybe this is why tradition has us recite Psalm 30 during Hanukkah. The psalmist writes: I call to You, Infinite God; and I appeal to my Lord: Hear, Infinite God, and have mercy on me; Infinite God, be my help!” In an equal measure of courage and hutzpah, the psalmist calls God out and demands change.
Perhaps the Maccabees themselves were inspired by the psalmist’s refusal to accept things as they were. Similarly, in reciting these words during Hanukkah, we too are urged to be dissatisfied; we too are called to agitate for change.As I wrote recently in my new prayer for our country, “Where we see degradation or persecution, move us to march. Where we see tyranny, rally us to resist. And when we feel despair, grant us the audacity to hope…Ready us to join together in that spirit, so that together we may make “justice well up like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24), and speedily bring about the day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).”
Hanukkah is not only a festival of lights, a season for appreciating miracles ancient and modern, large and small. More importantly, it is a time to take stock of the state of our lives and our world, to refuse to accept things as they are, and to summon the courage and the hutzpah to fight for what could be.
Hag urim same’ah! May you and yours have a happy, healthy, and hutzpadik festival of lights!
The past four years have been extremely difficult for those of us who cherish democracy and human rights: injustice has spread and authoritarianism has risen at home and abroad. This dark period also saw too many in the American Jewish community betraying democratic ideals in service of a narrow, shortsighted, and ultimately self-defeating definition of what it means to be pro-Israel.
As the spiritual leader of a large and diverse congregation in Richmond, Virginia, I am deeply mindful of these challenges; I navigate them every day. But I also know times of crisis can reveal extraordinary opportunities. As legacy communal institutions abdicate moral leadership, and as political winds shift in our nation’s capital, J Street — the address for pro-Israel, pro-democracy, and pro-peace Americans — can claim its rightful place as the vibrant center of American Jewish life and the beating heart of progressive U.S. politics.
That’s why I am running for J Street’s Board. I want to take an active leadership role in embracing the opportunities ahead: extending J Street’s reach into underrepresented demographics and regions; expanding our coalition to include more people and institutions within the Jewish community and across more of the religious, ideological, and political spectrum; and meaningfully advancing our pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda in Washington.
I believe that — as a rabbi, author, activist, and proud member of J Street’s Rabbinic & Cantorial Cabinet — I have the right combination of skills, abilities, and relationships to help us boldly embrace the opportunities of this new era, advancing inclusion, justice, and peace in the U.S. and in the Middle East.
I hope I can count on your support. Once again, you can cast your vote here. Anyone who is a “Member” of J Street can vote. People who are not currently members or are unsure if they are members can become members in order to vote. It’s free and easy. ANYONE WITH A NAME AND AN EMAIL ADDRESS IS ELIGIBLE TO VOTE. Democracy! ✅ You can find more details here.
Once you vote, I wound also be grateful if you could reach out to at least 3 colleagues, friends, or family members and encourage them to vote for me as well.
Thanks so much in advance for your support. Sending all my very best wishes to you and yours.
Adon olam, sovereign of space and time, look with favor upon all who serve our country, along with all who pursue justice and peace in Your world.We go to the polls in a time of unprecedented upheaval, with a plague still upending our lives, a recession still ravaging our communities, and a contentious and consequential election season keeping us all on edge.
We pray that You help us hold fast to the rabbinic wisdom that justice, truth, and peace make up the very foundations upon which the world rests (Mishnah Avot 1:18). Fortify our resolve to secure, strengthen, and advance the ideals and institutions that are the glory of our Republic.
Source of light and life, tradition teaches that You created all humanity in Your image. Enable us to recognize the infinite dignity and equal value of every individual — regardless of the shade of our skin or the country of our origin, regardless of whether we were born in privilege or in poverty, regardless of the anatomy with which we were born or the language we speak, regardless of our gender identity or our sexual orientation. Embolden us to eradicate bigotry, to root out prejudice not only from our hearts but also from our laws, and usher in a new era of inclusion and equity.
And, just as You champion justice for the wronged, free the bound, lift up the downtrodden, protect the stranger, and encourage the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146), empower us to uphold the cause of the impoverished, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the oppressed, ensuring equality and justice for all.
When the cause of the just is too readily sold for silver, and the needs of the poor are betrayed to benefit the wealthy (Amos 2:6), when public policy is so often rooted in ignorance, shaped by cruelty, and sold through falsehood; and when the pursuit of power routinely triumphs over the demands of justice, encourage us to demand our leaders discharge the duties of their offices with honesty and integrity, compassion and decency. Give us the courage and resolve to remind our leaders who they serve, and before Whom they stand.
Ready us to remain mindful of our unique privileges and responsibilities as Americans. Work through us so that we never become complacent or stand idly by, so that we always support the meditations of our hearts with the words of our mouths, the deeds of our hands, the marching of our feet, and the casting of our ballots.
And even as we mobilize and organize, even as we wait in lines for hours to exercise our most basic democratic right of voting, help us remember that winning elections is not an end to itself; that such victories are vanity unless they become the means through which we make “justice well up like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24). Grant us the wisdom to recognize that waves, regardless of their color, are insignificant unless they wash away degradation and persecution, cruelty and tyranny, and unless they bring in the great tide of liberation and love.
May our voting inspire us to join together, bound by common cause and shared destiny, to speedily bring about the day when the shackles of evil are loosed, when the chains of bondage are broken, and when all who are oppressed are set free. On that day, our light will burst forth like the dawn, our healing will spring up, our redemption will advance, and our oneness in God and each other will prevail (cf. Isaiah 58).
May it happen speedily, and in our time. And let us say, “Amen.”
Judges are not legal decision-making machines, nor do we want them to be. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes taught that the fact that the language of legal decision-making is the language of logic only creates the illusion that law is like mathematics. In reality, there is no certainty in adjudication. There is seldom a hard-and-true criterion for determining whether a legal decision is fundamentally right or wrong like a mathematical formula. Ultimately, every judge uses their best judgment in arriving at a decision. And though many claim to want the repose of mathematics in law, there is a reason we have not considered developing a computer to take the place of judges by doing the sums of law and rendering decisions.
Whether we are conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, we all in fact want judges who not only know the law but have a sense of what is just; we want judges who not only are attentive to the facts of a case but who also have empathy for the people their rulings will impact; we want judges who not only will draw on the relevant precedent but who also will draw on their ingrained sense of right and wrong, their values, and, yes, their faith traditions; we want judges who not only look at the case before them but who also have an eye on how their decisions will apply to future unforeseen cases and on the wellbeing of the system as a whole.
As we watch the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I think this is important to bear in mind. We should expect our senators not only to evaluate Judge Coney Barrett’s academic qualifications and credentials (i.e., her knowledge of and expertise in the law), but also her principles, perspectives, values, and judgment. We should be very skeptical of arguments that effectively equate the judicial process to Euclidian geometry, stripping it of its inherent subjectivity. Judgment both is and ought to be subjective. And we therefore have a right to know as much as possible about a prospective justice’s point of view, because those perspectives will invariably influence how they rule in cases that will impact us all.
Pictured: Rabbi Michael Knopf giving the introduction at Jewish Americans for Biden Event in Richmond on October 1, 2020, featuring Mr. Doug Emhoff, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, and Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (photo credit: Kristin Gorin)
Good morning. It is good to be with you all today. And it is a special honor to stand alongside the future Second Gentleman of the United States, Mr. Doug Emhoff. Welcome to Richmond!
I am the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El, one of Richmond’s oldest and largest congregations, but today, I am here as a private citizen. I am also a proud member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet, and an American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellow.
As a rabbi, I am called to muster the wisdom of Jewish tradition to address our society’s most pressing moral concerns and to inspire my congregants to work for a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world. While these commitments propel my advocacy for social justice and human rights here, in Israel and Palestine, and around the world, principle and policy normally restrain me from publicly endorsing political candidates. But these are not normal circumstances.
It is impossible to overstate the stakes of this election. The racist, misogynistic, corrupt, inept, and cruel presidency of Donald Trump has been devastating for those of us in the U.S. and around the world who believe in inclusive, pluralistic democracy, human rights, and basic decency.
And, as if it were possible, the threat this president poses to our republic has become even more clear and present in recent days, as he refuses to disavow white supremacy, preemptively rejects the election’s validity, and urges extremist militias to “stand by” to ensure by any means necessary he remains in power.
But even in dark and dangerous times like these, Jewish tradition commands us not to despair. Rather, we must perpetually recognize our ability and obligation to repair what is broken in our world. We can and must insist on leaders who practice kindness and passionately pursue justice. We can and must demand leaders who do not betray the poor to advance their own wealth and power. We can and must call on our leaders to affirm the equal and infinite worth of every single person, especially the vulnerable and the systematically disadvantaged, both within and beyond our borders.
For all these reasons and more, we must elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, clearly and forcefully rejecting Donald Trump — and his Republican collaborators. This is a noble purpose. It is a Jewish purpose. Indeed, I believe Jewish tradition would insist that it is a sacred purpose.
Let us all commit today to do everything we can, use every resource at our disposal, and muster all our energy, to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
It is now my honor and privilege to introduce a person who has dedicated her career to embodying the highest of Jewish values and advancing the Jewish vision of a just society, our inspiring speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, the Honorable Eileen Filler-Corn.
Once upon a time, there was a king who possessed the unique ability to read the stars and discern the future. One night, while gazing at the stars, the king learned a shocking piece of news: all of the produce harvested that year would cause madness in anyone who ate it.
The king summoned his beloved vizier and gave him this grim report. “What advice do you have?” the king asked the vizier. The vizier replied that enough food should be set aside so that the two of them would not have to eat any of the tainted harvest.
But the king answered, “If we alone, from among the whole world, are not mad, and everyone else is, we are the ones who will be considered madmen! Therefore, we too must eat of that harvest. However, let us place signs on our foreheads, so that we shall at least know that we are mad. If I look at your forehead or you look at mine, we shall see the signs — and know that we are madmen.”
When the hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav composed this brief yet heartbreaking parable in the late 18th century, he was witnessing a radical new worldview overtaking and transforming traditional Eastern European communities. The old order was crumbling, and a new one was emerging in its place. Rebbe Nahman, a practitioner of the traditional ways, must have looked at his changing world and seen unbridled madness everywhere around him. Beholding this widespread insanity, he must have viewed himself as the only remaining sane person. And he also must have recognized that, as the only sane man in a world mired in mass hysteria, he would have appeared to everyone else as the mad one.
Lately, Rebbe Nahman’s parable of the tainted harvest has haunted me. It’s hard to look at our world or watch the news today without wondering whether our whole society has gone mad.
Like Rebbe Nahman’s time, ours is an era of profound instability. Perpetually warring ideological factions arm themselves not only with differing narratives about the past and visions for the future — the normal fields of intellectual battle — but also, increasingly, with their own facts. Neither side believes nor trusts what the other side says or does. Both assume that the other is deranged or delusional, unable to comprehend why their intellectual opponents can’t see what they perceive clear as day. It’s not just that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, can’t find common ground on the solutions to the challenges that plague us; they can’t even agree on what the problems are in the first place. Sometimes, they even disagree about whether a particular issue exists.
Typically, ideological diversity is a source of great strength. Encountering different points of view, appreciating and learning from the beauty and wisdom of other cultures, provides us with perspectives we may not have considered before, pushes us to examine the foundations of our own beliefs, and helps us refine our own understandings. Arguably, it is our country’s pluralism that has contributed to its historically unique ingenuity and progress.
Respecting a multiplicity of perspectives and ways of being is one thing, but in today’s America, it seems that any theory or belief can be claimed as factual if enough people fervently agree with it, that anything can be true if one believes it to be true, that right and wrong are entirely subjective, and that only information with which one agrees can be considered real information. Today’s partisans routinely assume their side’s facts are facts while the other side’s are merely “claims” or outright fictions, that their truths are true while the other side’s are propaganda, fake news, or hoaxes. We excuse words and deeds from our side that we would never forgive from our ideological opponents. Many of us look at the people around us and see a kind of collective madness like the kind Rebbe Nahman envisioned in his parable; we see each other as having lost the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil.
History warns that democracy cannot endure this kind of tribal warfare, that a society descended into this kind of mass insanity will tear itself apart while cynical politicians and moneyed interests exploit the divisions for their own wealth and power. When reality itself is up for debate, people — especially those with wealth and power — can justify and do nearly whatever they want, even the previously unthinkable.
Recently, I read an analysis about the rise of authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia called Nothing is True, and Everything is Possible. The title perfectly encapsulates the dynamic I’m talking about. When leaders are given license to lie brazenly and deliberately, even about seemingly trivial things, over time, the definition of reality — along with the definition of morality — will come to depend entirely on the powerful person who makes it up. And actions that would typically be regarded as monstrous will cease to be seen as wrong and begin to be viewed as normal, at least in the eyes of those on the same side of the partisan divide. For the would-be authoritarian, anything is possible when nothing is true.
The disintegration of a society’s shared sense of reality not only poisons the body politic and threatens democracy;it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. We Jews understand this better than most. Countless Jews have been murdered because people throughout history have believed — and continue to believe — in conspiratorial lies about us. The fact that these conspiracies are both verifiably untrue and thoroughly deranged does not diminish their potential lethality.
In our time, new conspiracy theories like QAnon are similarly leading millions — yes, you heard that right, millions — of our fellow Americans down an equally perilous path. QAnon baselessly claims that a secret cabal of liberal political elites, business leaders, and Hollywood celebrities — who are also Satan-worshipping pedophiles — strives for world domination. This twisted conspiracy has inspired violent vigilantes and fueled coronavirus denialism, endangering us all. The threat only grows as candidates for high office and elected officials increasingly, and alarmingly, refuse to disavow — or worse, actively embrace — QAnon.
The growth of QAnon’s influence is deeply disturbing, to be sure. But more worrisome is that it’s not unique. In today’s America, the acceptance of dangerous misinformation is no longer marginal; it has become commonplace. Millions of Americans, for example, refuse to vaccinate their children, deny the existence of climate change, and claim without evidence that there is rampant voter fraud. The widespread embrace of verifiable falsehoods leads people to engage in harmful behavior, endangers our republic, and imperils all of our lives. A world in which white nationalism can be just another of many valid ideas available in an open intellectual marketplace, in which a conflict between neo-Nazis and those who protest against them can feature “very fine people” on both sides, in which the relative danger of a highly contagious and deadly disease for which there is no known cure is a matter of debate, and in which measures that verifiably prevent the transmission of that disease are routinely questioned and undermined, in which any Black man is regarded as inherently suspicious or in which any police officer is assumed to be racist is a very dangerous world, indeed. A mad world is unsafe for anyone and everyone.
So, in a world gone mad, how do any of us know if we are actually among the sane? And, even if we are among the sane, even if we can distinguish right from wrong and fact from falsehood, how do we navigate a world mired in mass delusion? Is there any way to coax it back from the brink? Is there any way to right the ship?
There is no one easy answer, no one simple solution that would in and of itself correct our current calamitous course. Our challenges are deep and pervasive, systemic and complex. Each of us as individuals has only a limited ability to effect the changes we so desperately need.
So what can we do? The answer, I think, is embedded in Rebbe Nahman’s story.
Recall that the solution the king devises is that he and his vizier will both put signs on their foreheads, in order to remind each other of their madness. The king hopes that seeing the signs will bring the pair back to reality, even if only temporarily; and that, perhaps, they will regain a more permanent grip on what is real in the fullness of time. At the very least, the king hopes that the signs will remind the pair of their relationship, and their responsibilities toward each other.
In our mad world, we, like the king and his vizier, can also utilize a sign to remind ourselves of what is real, and bring each other back toward sanity. Over time, perhaps this slow and painstaking act of reminding will steady and safeguard us all, ending our mass hysteria, and initiating a reign of truth and justice. At the very least, the sign can remind us of our relationships with, and of our responsibilities toward, one another.
What kind of sign? In bygone times, every monarch had their own unique sign, symbols that they would stamp on official documents. That way, subjects would recognize a decree’s royal authority and know they must obey it. According to Jewish tradition, just as human sovereigns have such signs, so too does God. What is God’s identifying symbol? Over and again, our rabbis taught, hotamo shel ha-Kadosh narukh hu emet — the sign of the Holy One is truth. To discern truth is to know the Divine; to worship God is to venerate truth. And truth, ultimately, is what will free us from our madness.
The claim that God is truth and truth is God means exalting truth as our highest ideal, and viewing the quest for truth as our most vaunted religious pursuit. Equating God with truth means that revering fact, insisting on veracity, and refusing to retreat an inch from demanding truth — especially from those in power — are sacraments. As a matter of religious practice, each of us has an obligation to learn the truth, to tell the truth, and to do everything we can to not repeat a falsehood, even inadvertently.
This is harder than it sounds. Truth can be uncomfortable, even painful. Sometimes, especially in our mad world, it is difficult to discern fact from falsehood and information from propaganda, especially if a lot of other people believe the lie, if the lie is repeated often enough, or if the lie is confidently communicated by someone who appears authoritative. Additionally, we are naturally inclined to believe falsehoods when they are pleasant or personally beneficial. As Yale University Professor of Psychology Jennifer Richeson recently wrote, “The mind is a remarkable instrument, adept at many things, including self-delusion.” Unfortunately, we are wired to believe reassuring falsehoods and to tell advantageous lies.
Yom Kippur repeatedly emphasizes our tenuous relationship with truth. Kol Nidrei, for example, both highlights the promises we make and alludes to the fact that we tend to break our vows. Who we say we want to be doesn’t always align with who we actually are. The ideals we claim to uphold don’t always match the ones we actually end up living by. What we promise to do is too often not what we actually do.
The Yom Kippur liturgy is dominated by an acknowledgement of our propensity to say and believe falsehoods. In Ashamnu, about twenty percent of the sins we confess are sins of speech. In the longer confessional, Al Het, we echo and elaborate upon these same sentiments, beating our chests for sinning in the way we speak, for defrauding others, for knowingly saying foolish things, for false denials, for making empty promises, for betraying trust, and for our everyday conversations which are so often laden, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with misinformation and outright falsehoods. We even confess to the sin of empty confessions, a recognition as clear as any that, for the most part, our words too often tend to be pretty hollow.
Since we humans are naturally deceptive, we must swim upstream in order to be truthful. To be dedicated to honesty requires perpetual, concerted effort. We must push ourselves, for example, to engage our world with a critical eye, consuming media wisely and participating in social media discerningly. When we learn new information, whether that be from a friend, a politician, or a TV show, we should always consider the perspectives, motivations, and qualifications of the person communicating the information; the reliability of the original source of the information; the quality and quantity of the evidence being offered to support the claim; and the existence of any contradictory evidence which would refute or cast doubt on the claim. To riff on the old Russian proverb: Sometimes trust. Always verify.
A commitment to truth furthermore calls upon us to demand our leaders speak honestly and champion the reforms necessary to curtail the spread of venomous misinformation.
Above all, to be dedicated to truth as a matter of religious principle means we must elevate education as a primary value. Education, of course, is among the highest ideals in Jewish tradition, precisely because it is understood as the best safeguard against ignorance and our susceptibility to falsehood and deceit.
But in Jewish tradition, education is not indoctrination; its goal is not ideological uniformity. By and large, the Jewish approach to education is not about teachers asserting what they believe to be true and students blindly accepting their authority, nor is it about insisting that every student come to think exactly alike. Rather, Jewish education centers on developing the skills of critical thinking, thoughtful analysis, and reasoned debate, the skills necessary for students to discern truth on their own and in conversation with one another.
And in turn, cultivating the ability to separate truth from falsehood and right from wrong is accomplished in Jewish tradition through dialogue and dispute. The Talmud, which is the most significant compilation of ancient Jewish law and lore, is in fact a chronicle of debate. It records over 5,000 arguments, only 50 of which are authoritatively resolved, and even then minority opinions are presented alongside accepted positions. Truth is the goal; education is the way; and intellectual humility, analytical thinking, and productive debate are the prerequisites.
It must be noted, however, that the respect for ideological diversity prevalent in rabbinic texts doesn’t mean we must treat every perspective as equally valid. indeed, the Talmud may record diverse opinions, but the rabbis who expressed them for the most part shared a deep and broad knowledge of Torah, as well as a desire to better understand what is right and true. Similarly, our collective pursuit of the truth should include as many diverse voices as possible. But we must insist that a certain threshold of rationality and logic is met, that arguments are rooted in and supported by empirically verifiable facts, that baseless falsehoods are out of bounds, and that all parties share the same constructive end of discerning what is right and true. If enough of us place God’s sign of truth on our foreheads, if we remind each other to ground ourselves in fact, we just might find our way out of this mad world.
If truth is our tradition’s ideal, then Torah is how we seek and live out that ideal. According to Maimonides, the objective of Torah is twofold: the welfare of the mind, and the welfare of the body. The welfare of the mind is about imparting truth. The Torah has long been understood as the text to which we as Jews turn for unearthing truths about ourselves and our world, truths which in turn influence the way we live. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that everything in the Torah is factual. On the contrary, the Torah, like other great literature, tells stories that may never have happened, or at least, that may not have happened in the precise ways the Torah describes. Rather, when we say things like asher natan lanu Torat emet, that God gave us a Torah of truth, we mean that through its narratives, poetry, and laws, the Torah asserts righteous values and offers truthful insights. For example, the Torah doesn’t tell us that all of humanity descends from Adam and Eve to communicate a scientific fact about our origin as a species; rather, through this story, the Torah asserts the value that every human life is infinitely precious and the truth that we are all ultimately related to one another.
By the “welfare of the body,” Maimonides means that the Torah focuses on how we treat one another, how we organize our societies, and how we cultivate the “moral qualities” necessary to righteously navigate our interpersonal relationships and our political choices. Torah, and in particular the Torah’s system of mitzvot, gives us a structure for living out our responsibility not only to seek and speak the truth, but also to practice interpersonal kindness and pursue social justice.
Practicing kindness requires us to act in a loving way toward our neighbors as well as toward the stranger; toward those who are nearest to or most like us and also, perhaps even more importantly, toward those who are not necessarily our neighbors, particularly those who belong to racial, religious, and ethnic minority groups, along with immigrants, the poor, and others who are vulnerable or chronically destitute, because they are at special risk of exclusion and exploitation.
The Torah’s demand that we practice kindness towards others, especially towards the vulnerable people at society’s margins, is founded upon its insistence that we recognize the Divine image in every human, and that we remember at all times our historical experiences of oppression and suffering. Those same principles also undergird the Torah’s demand that we build a just society. Advancing such a society — a fully inclusive and equitable society that reflects our belief in human equality and our aversion to cruelty — demands both administrative and distributive justice, equality for all under the law and the fair allocation of resources.
This kind of justice doesn’t just happen. It requires our persistent efforts and our perpetual vigilance. That’s why the Torah commands, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” justice, justice shall you pursue. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (may her righteous memory be a blessing) had this passage on the wall of her chambers, because in her wisdom she recognized that justice is not inevitable. It prevails only through the tenacious efforts of those who, like her, are dedicated to advancing it. Pursuing justice means working diligently to ensure that no person suffers want, for the distribution of resources is equitable; that no person suffers discrimination, persecution, or oppression, because all are honored as equals; and that no person suffers from an unfair verdict or unjust incarceration, because judgment is fair and impartial.
It strikes me that practicing kindness and pursuing justice are precisely how we navigate, and repair, our mad world. Even if we cannot distinguish fact from fiction or truth from falsehood, we can treat others — all others, every single one — the way we would want to be treated, and work toward ensuring that everyone in our society has the ability to pursue the kind of lives we would want for ourselves and our children. If we are able to continuously remind ourselves and each other of our shared obligations to love one another and build a just society, then we will perpetually be able to see our world’s madness — its incoherence, its inhumanity, and its injustice — for the perversion it is. If we recognize it often enough, we will be moved to transform it, and ourselves. Until that day comes, at the very least we can support one another in times of need and advance a social order where there is no longer need.
The madness so prevalent in our world causes many of us to be fearful, to get frustrated, to feel enraged, to sink into despair. This is all so understandable. Lately, I’ve felt many of these same emotions myself. But our tradition insists, and Yom Kippur reminds, that each and all of us have the potential to change the world’s fate, that things as they are need not be the way they always must be. As Maimonides teaches in Hilkhot T’shuvah, the Laws of Repentance: every deed, no matter how large or small, has the potential to tip the world’s scales. One deed can plunge the world deeper into darkness, or it can help bring about the light. Even in a world gone mad, that choice, that power, is perpetually in our hands.
A story is told about Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, the same hasidic master who wove the parable of the tainted harvest. Once, one of Rebbe Nahman’s students had harmed a loved one. He was overcome with guilt and despair. The damage had been done, he insisted; the wrongdoing could not be taken back. Feeling hopeless and helpless, he implored his teacher, “Is there anything I can do?” And Rebbe Nahman answered, “im atah ma’amin sh’yekholin l’kalkel, ta’amin sh’yekholin l’takein/ If you believe you can break it, you must also believe that you can repair it.”
We may indeed live in a mad world. We may even be among the madmen. But just as we know we can break our world through madness, we must also believe that we can restore it through righteousness.
In the year to come, let us remind ourselves and each other to be servants of truth, practitioners of kindness, and pursuers of justice. In so doing, may we awaken our world from its madness and, together, repair it.
Gmar hatimah tovah. May we all be signed and sealed for a good year.
Shanah Tovah and welcome to Temple Beth-El’s first-ever virtual Kol Nidrei service. Whether your family has been part of this congregation for generations or this is your first time worshipping with us, we hope you are uplifted and inspired by being here.
Yom Kippur calls on us to candidly confront and acknowledge the brokenness in our lives and in the world — to see with clarity our own and our society’s faults and failures, shortcomings and wrongdoings, missteps and mistakes — and to commit ourselves, not only to repairing what has been broken, but to charting a better course moving forward.
This sacred charge of Yom Kippur lands with special poignancy this year, as we wrestle with the moral and spiritual challenges surfaced by the pandemic, the recession, widespread social unrest, and natural disasters that have upended our lives and our world.
These past six months have been tumultuous, painful, and challenging, as we and our loved ones have struggled with vulnerability, instability, isolation and anxiety. This moment has exposed brokenness in our lives and in the world. And for some of us, confronting this brokenness has at times felt overwhelming.
If I can be candid and personal for a moment, I want to acknowledge as we begin this holy day, that these past few months have challenged me in ways I never could have imagined. Few of us received any prior training about how to navigate life in a global pandemic. I certainly was never taught how to be a father for children who were sheltering in place or a rabbi of a virtual congregation. None of us were built to worship or grieve through a screen.
In some surprising ways, these challenges turned out to be gifts. I had opportunities, for example, to be far more present and involved as a father than would have normally been possible. I learned new skills — my bagel game is surprisingly strong — and was able to practice long-dormant ones — I hadn’t been a camp counselor in a while, but it turns out I’m pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. The challenges my family and I faced have pushed us to grow beyond what we were in the “Before Times.”
Yet not all of our trials are welcome, and I know I did not successfully navigate all the tests of this difficult time. As I tried to work two full-time jobs as a father and as a rabbi, I am sure there were times that my kids, my wife, my co-workers, and/or my congregants felt neglected. On this night of all nights, I wanted to take an opportunity to apologize to all of you.
I am sorry to my children — for not playing with you or paying attention to you when I was fulfilling my professional duties, and for the times I may have been short with you when my emotional bandwidth was stretched beyond capacity.
I am sorry to Adira for times when I couldn’t split parental responsibilities equitably, and for your having to sacrifice professionally to shoulder more of the household burdens.
I am sorry to my co-workers for times when I was not as present, available, and responsive as you needed me to be, for times when you had to pick up my slack, and for times when I may have lost my patience.
And I’m sorry to my congregants for times I may have failed to meet your spiritual needs. I am sorry for failing to be in touch more consistently. I am sorry that I couldn’t be physically present for you when you needed me the most — when you were in the hospital, when a loved one lay dying, when you were in mourning. As a rabbi who has made it his life’s work to be present with and for people in their times of need, not being able to be with you physically in these moments has been agonizing for me; but that doesn’t take away your understandable feelings of disappointment or even betrayal. I’m sorry.
I am sorry for the times when I opted for the convenience of email, rather than calling you on the phone. I am sorry for the times when I did call, but I was distracted by my children and not as attentive to you as I should have been. I am sorry for trying to compensate for the challenges I faced in keeping in touch with each of you individually by trying to communicate with you collectively, through newspaper articles and public statements. True, communicating in that way has always been and will always be part of my rabbinate. I believe as a rabbi I am called to muster the wisdom of Torah and tradition to address our most pressing personal and social concerns, even when those issues are complex or controversial. Sometimes, this requires pushing people beyond their comfort zones. However, I also believe that as a rabbi I am called to be a healer of broken hearts and an organizer of sacred community. I am therefore deeply sorry if any of my public messages pushed you in ways that made you uncomfortable, or if my words, God-forbid, caused you pain.
I hope, if I’ve made a mistake in the past year that has hurt you in any way, that you will please make me aware of it and let me try to make amends for it. My door is always open to you. We may not walk away from any conversation agreeing with each other, but I am hopeful we can learn from one another, as well as better understand, respect, and even love each other.
Over these past six months, we have all tried to figure out how to hold our lives, our families, and our community together when we had to be physically separate from one another. Some of us have done this better than others. All of us have made mistakes. It is my sincere hope that Yom Kippur inspires us all to make emotional and spiritual space to withstand the temptations to be harshly critical of ourselves and others, and that we can all, on this day especially, discern and cultivate ways to encounter our own and each other’s faults and failures with compassion, understanding, kindness, and forgiveness.
This, after all, is what Yom Kippur is about. Yes, we are called to take off our masks, to lay down our armor, and look at ourselves and each other honestly, confronting times we missed the mark or went astray, times we resolved to mend our ways and did not succeed. We are urged to consider who we actually are, and who we want to be, to reflect on the ways in which our lives as they are do not align with the way we believe they ought to be, and on the ways we have failed to repair our broken world.
But it is also a time to see the good, or at least the capacity for good, in ourselves and each other; to recognize that none of us is perfect, that each of us is striving, and that all of us deserve a little grace, the chance to right our wrongs, the opportunity to try again to be better.
We stand this day before God and each other acknowledging our pettiness and our greed, our selfishness and our weakness, our running to do evil and our limping to do good. But we also stand this day before God and each other acknowledging our longing and our love, our compassion and our caring, our inherent goodness and our yearning for transcendence.
On this Eve of Atonement, I pray that God grants us all the courage take off our armor and the confidence to take off our masks, so that we may stand before God and each other openly and honestly; fearful, yes, of the faults that will inevitably be discovered, but faithful, too, that we are inherently worthy, loving, and loved.
Infinite God, we pray that you help us return from our hiding places, from where we have hidden from each other, from our tradition, and from You. Enable us to hear Your voice, guiding us back toward paths of connection and compassion, righteousness and justice. Open our hearts to Your call on this sacred day, so that our thoughts, our words, and our deeds will make us worthy of your Divine assurance, “Salahti, I have forgiven,” and so that we will be moved to practice that godly forgiveness toward ourselves and each other as well.
Among the best TV shows I binged during the pandemic was te popular Netflix series Floor is Lava.Floor is Lava is a game show — admittedly, a very silly game show — based on a game that you may have played as a child. The premise is fully encapsulated by the title: teams of 3 contestants (often family units or groups of close friends) must get from one side of a room to the other without touching the floor, which is made entirely of “lava” (not real lava, of course; that would be crazy). Scattered around the room are various surfaces (some of which move or collapse into the lava) onto which contestants can crawl, cling, walk, or jump, and select objects that contestants can use to create shortcuts or to help teammates get from point A to point B. In each episode, three teams compete against each other, and whichever team manages to get more of its contestants to the other side of the room than the others wins $10,000…and a lava lamp.
What I love about this show is how refreshingly different it is from many other shows out there nowadays, especially other reality TV and competition shows. These other shows pit individual characters or contestants against each other; they thrive on conflict, drama, interpersonal meanness, or cutthroat tactics; they draw their entertainment from humiliating and demeaning participants; and they are set up for audiences to root against certain participants.
Floor is Lava, on the other hand, is thoroughly good-natured. To be sure, contestants embarrass themselves from time to time by lunging face-first into a pit of bubbling “lava,” but the audience is never cued to root for them to fail or to take pleasure in their misfortune. The teams don’t compete simultaneously, so the audience roots for each and every team to succeed, and feels sad when any team or contestant doesn’t make it across the finish line. Additionally, since teams win by getting as many of their members as possible safely to the other side of the room, individual participants are incentivized to help out their teammates, and the most successful teams are the ones who work best together, those that collaborate, cooperate, and communicate throughout the obstacle course.
And, upon deepreflection, another reason I appreciated Floor is Lava so much during the pandemic is because it is, in a sense, a perfect metaphor for this tumultuous and terrifying time. Over the past six months, we have had to live with the knowledge that each and every in-person interaction is fraught with the danger of contracting or unknowingly communicating a highly contagious and deadly virus for which there is no vaccine and no known cure.
I have wrestled with a lot of anxiety since March, always afraid that one small mistake — how I wear my mask, how I washed my hands, how I positioned my body during a face-to-face conversation — could have life or death consequences for me or others; always mindful that as a communal leader, the decisions I make or the actions I take could have life or death consequences for my congregants. The danger lurking in every interaction and in every moment compounded the anxiety that was already produced by the unusually turbulent times, and became exacerbated by unsteady leadership, economic crisis, and a national reckoning over racial injustice. Metaphorically speaking, we are living in a time where it feels like all the floors are lava, where the ground beneath our feet is on fire.
One of the great, if challenging, insights of Rosh Hashanah is that this kind of uncertainty and instability is not a feature unique to life in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and widespread upheaval. Rather, this moment has revealed the way things actually are, though we might often ignore it, or are privileged enough to be able to pretend otherwise. The uncomfortable truth we all must face is that we live unpredictable lives in an unpredictable world.
The insight is most powerfully and memorably expressed in the prayer known as U-Netaneh Tokef. U-Netaneh Tokef is a liturgical poem that introduces the Kedushah, the prayer acknowledging God’s sanctity, which is found toward the beginning of the repetition of the musaf Amidah. U-Netaneh Tokef is an old prayer, most likely 1500 years old, and was composed by an extremely talented but unknown poet. While we recite U-Netaneh Tokef on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, most scholars believe the poem was written specifically for Rosh Hashanah, because it focuses on the terror of standing before God in judgment, and Rosh Hashanah is traditionally regarded as Yom ha-Din, Judgment Day, the day on which all creation passes before God in judgment (as opposed to Yom Kippur, which is traditionally regarded as the day on which God forgives our transgressions). Take a moment to read through it, in the Hebrew or in the English, on page 144 of our Mahzor [Lev Shalem].
On the surface, at least until the last stanza, U-Netaneh Tokef is pretty terrifying. It asserts that on Rosh Hashanah, God judges everyone — even the angels — with perfect and uncompromising justice. We have no say in the matter; our deeds already speak for themselves, and God takes stock of us and determines our destiny, like sheep passing before the shepherd’s crook. None of us has a chance of being acquitted — we are being held to the standard of absolute truth, to the standard of angelic perfection. Perhaps this is why the list of possible judgments focus overwhelmingly on punishments, including and especially many different ways of being killed. If we, with all our flaws, faults, and failings, were to be judged with perfect truth, not one of us would survive.
It is, however, important to note that there is one important thing missing from the poem: our own awareness of each of our fates. The poet asserts that God judges us on Rosh Hashanah, but only God knows the verdict. We, the ones being judged, aren’t told. We’re left in the dark. Now, I’m just a simple country lawyer [tugs dramatically on imaginary suspenders], but every court case I’ve ever heard of ends with the judge reading a verdict to the parties involved, not guilty or guilty. And if a defendant is judged guilty, the judge similarly notifies them of their sentence. With no offense meant, how could God preside in judgment over us but not tell us the verdict or the sentence? What good does it accomplish in the first place for God to judge us if we are not going to be told our fates? What is the poet trying to tell us by leaving us to wonder (and worry!) about our destiny?
The belief that we are judged and sentenced on Rosh Hashanah but are unaware of that judgment and that sentence means that as we enter a new year, we will face each moment and each day, uncertain of what that moment or of what that day may bring. One does not have to believe in the poem’s underlying theology of human crime and perfect Divine justice to appreciate the insight the poet is offering here, a truth that we often fail to realize and even actively avoid. Fortune can bless us or disaster can overtake us without warning, and without any obvious justification. Our lives can be forever changed in ways that we may or may not deserve and that we can neither predict nor prepare for. “Who will live, and who will die?” “Who in their time and who not in their time?” The truth the poet reveals in U-Netaneh Tokef is that, from our limited human perspective, none of us ultimately can know.
Who could have known back in January, or February, that a previously undiscovered virus, a microscopic nothing, would tear through our world, sickening tens of millions, killing hundreds of thousands? Who could have predicted in February that the most powerful nation on Earth would prove unable to stop a virus from killing two hundred thousand of its citizens? Who would have thought back in March that in a matter of weeks the world’s greatest economies would collapse, or that we would be homeschooling our children indefinitely, or that we’d be unable to visit sick relatives in the hospital or barred from attending a funeral in-person? Who would have imagined this past spring that in the summer months something close to a revolution would erupt over long-standing systemic inequities?
But U-Netaneh Tokef points out that spontaneous, radical, life-altering change is a perpetual part of the human experience. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, “Change is the only constant in life.” From unexpected illness to wildfire, from needlessly fatal police encounters to unpredictable car crashes, from floods to factory explosions — unanticipated events routinely transform our lives, and we often cannot discern why or whether we deserve the outcome we got. Coronavirus or no coronavirus, we are all experience life like the sheep passing before the shepherd’s crook in U-Netaneh Tokef, never knowing when our lives will take a sudden, even fatal, turn, or why a spontaneous misfortune or an unexpected bout of good luck happened to us, and not the next lamb in the line. And virus or not, U-Netaneh Tokef reminds us that, whether it be sooner or later, we all face the same sentence.
The deep, dark secret of life that U-Netaneh Tokef reveals is that we walk through a world whose floors are lava. But in lifting the veil on the precariousness and uncertainty at the heart of our existence, U-Netaneh Tokef also provides instruction. It tells us how to walk through a world when the floors are lava.
I mentioned earlier that U-Netaneh Tokef comes across as harsh and horrifying — until the last stanza. That stanza begins with the following declaration:
But repentance, prayer, and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.
Before I explain what this line is saying, let me first explain what it is not saying: it is not saying that if you repent wholeheartedly enough, or that if you pray sincerely enough, or that if you perform enough deeds of goodness, kindness, or justice, that God will necessarily overturn a guilty verdict God has rendered against you. The poet isn’t asserting that repentance, prayer, and righteous living enable any of us to avert our death sentence, because to be human is to be mortal; to be alive means, ultimately, that one day, whenever that day may be, our lives will end. We have limited control over when that day will come, and in any case we cannot prevent it indefinitely, no matter how much we repent, pray, or live righteously. Similarly, no amount of repentance, prayer, or good deeds will enable us to know when our lives will end.
Repentance, prayer, and righteousness don’t enable us to avert the decree. Rather, they enable us to avert the severity of the decree. They may not lengthen our days, but they will enliven whatever days we have; they may not grant us certainty about our fate, but they will imbue each of us with clarity of purpose. By engaging in those three acts — repentance, prayer, and righteousness — by living lives dominated by those deeds, we can overcome the anxiety and the fear, the paralysis and the despair, the resignation and the recklessness and the rage, that we might otherwise experience traversing a world whose floor is lava.
Let’s start with repentance. Repentance is predicated on the notion that we have choice, free will, moral agency; that our future is not dictated by our past or present, or even predetermined on high; it is, in many important ways, up to us, dependent on the choices we make. We may rarely be in control of our circumstances, or what others do to us. But we can always control what we do in light of those circumstances, and how we think about what we have done after we’ve done it. You may not have chosen to live in a world whose floor is lava, but you do have the choice about how to traverse that world. And repentance is furthermore about being aware of and learning from our mistakes, affirming that our agency makes us accountable for our failures and simultaneously able to move beyond them. When the floor is lava, and you take the wrong path, what do you do next? If I learned anything from the show Floor is Lava, it’s that the only way to make it through is by acknowledging the misstep, finding a way back to where you started, and trying again.
That’s where prayer comes in. We often think of prayer as trying to persuade a powerful God out there to come down here to help us out. While there are prayers like that in the siddur, that’s not by and large how the Jewish tradition views prayer. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah, more accurately defined as self-assessment, or introspection. In Jewish tradition, prayer is about looking intensely at our lives, our relationships, and our world through the lens of our highest ideals and most cherished commitments. Because prayer is the practice of routinely reminding ourselves of our ideals and commitments and evaluating where we are in relation to those values, prayer is the indispensable companion to repentance. In a world where the floor is lava, prayer is where we learn how to navigate the terrain and reach the other side. And prayer is where we check in with ourselves and with God to see how we’re doing on the journey, whether we’re on course, or whether we’ve inadvertently veered onto the wrong path. Prayer gives us something that the contestants on Floor is Lava would kill for: a kind of GPS, one that not only shows the way forward, but also lets us know if we need to make a course-correction.
If prayer is about knowing the way and evaluating our place on the path, and repentance is about carrying on despite our setbacks and getting back on track when we’ve gone astray, righteousness, or tzedakah, is about the way we walk in between the two. Again, our English translations can sometimes be misleading. Often, tzedakah is translated as charity, which implies a voluntary act of kindness for someone in need. While our tradition certainly applauds such deeds, that’s not what tzedakah is. Tzedakah is derived from the word tzedek, meaning justice, fairness, or equity. Tzedakah is therefore better understood as actions we take to level our society’s playing field, not out of exceptional generosity, but rather out of the recognition that all human life is equal in value and infinite in dignity, and that therefore we are responsible to and for each other; obligated to ensure that no person suffers want, and that no person suffers discrimination, persecution, or oppression. In the game show, the best teams are the ones who discover that they are all better off individually and collectively if they help each other through the course.
The show, of course, incentivizes this by determining the winning team based on who got the most people across the finish line. But it turns out that this is also true in real life. Each of us is better off when all of us have the resources and support we need; and conversely, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Because we are all deeply interconnected, inequality impacts the wellbeing not only of the poor and powerless, but of the wealthy and privileged as well. In a world where the floor is lava, none of us has the luxury of focusing only on our own needs. We are all in this together, and we need each other to get through.
If we ever had any doubt about this truth, the pandemic has revealed how interrelated we all are, how thoroughly dependent we actually are on each other’s wellbeing. We now know for certain that a previously unknown virus can infect one person in China, and, within just a few months, can leave hundreds of thousands of people dead the world over; that those of us who have had the good fortune to shelter in place have depended on low-wage farmhands, warehouse workers, truckers, shelf-stockers and Instacart shoppers everywhere to literally put their lives at risk so that we can have stocked pantries and refrigerators, which also means that when the health, safety, or welfare of the poor is threatened or disrupted, the wealthy can suffer, too. “We are,” to borrow again from Dr. King, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” When anyone anywhere is oppressed, all of us, everywhere, suffer; and conversely, our welfare depends on everyone’s liberation. In a world where the floor is lava, the right — perhaps the only — way to make it through is by supporting each other on the journey.
And the fact that the way of justice and equity is the right way to traverse the dangerous landscape of our lives means that it is an obligation incumbent upon all of us, with those who enjoy more wealth, or advantage, or power, bearing a larger share of the burden to help those most vulnerable to falling into the fire. That’s why tzedakah isn’t charity. It’s righteousness, because ensuring everyone’s health, safety, and welfare isn’t just a nice thing to do; it is the very definition of the right thing to do, and we are all of us, always, obligated to do what is right.
U-Netaneh Tokef enumerates these three practices — repentance, prayer, and righteousness — because they are mutually reinforcing. Each of them is worthy on its own, but together, they are far greater than the sum of their parts. Righteousness is persistently supporting one another, making sure everyone gets through. Prayer is constantly and consistently evaluating whether we are on that righteous path, leaving no one behind. And repentance is about turning back when we find that we’ve gone off course, as each of us invariably will, refusing to stop or give up, holding ourselves accountable for our choices and in each moment striving to make better ones, bringing ourselves back towards the righteous ways of equity and justice.
The tumult and trials of the past six months have enabled us to see our lives and our world as they really are. In the “Before Times” we may have avoided this reality. Perhaps, for some of us, fortunate circumstances insulated us from it. But the truth is we walk through a world whose floor is lava; not just now, but always. Each year, Rosh Hashanah forces us to confront this reality and ask ourselves: how should we walk through such a world?
And the holy day offers an answer, if we are discerning enough to see it, and disciplined enough to heed it: Repentance, prayer, and righteousness. These three mutually reinforcing practices won’t save any of us from the fate that awaits all of us. But they will magnify and sanctify our lives, lift up the lives of others, and enable us to bring our troubled world a little closer to ultimate redemption.
In the year to come, I encourage each and every one of us to embrace at least some of these practices. For instance, you can practice righteousness by joining our Caring Crews initiative, which I mentioned yesterday, or by participating in the holy work of our Social Action/Tikkun Olam committee, which advances the causes of equity, inclusion, and peace in our city, Commonwealth, and planet. You can deepen your prayer practice by, for example, joining us for one additional service per month, as I mentioned yesterday, or by joining with your children or grandchildren in our Religious School’s “Jewish Connections Challenge,” or by participating in a new initiative that we will be launching later this year called TBE’s Tefillah Goals, in which you can choose a “Tefillah Goal,” a Jewish ritual skill that you commit to learning and mastering. We will pair congregants with other congregants who are able to teach the relevant skills, provide opportunities for learning together, and help track progress. When you master your “Tefillah Goal,” we will have a major congregational celebration marking the accomplishment. And any time you strive to go deeper and further in these spiritual pursuits, you are engaging in an act of teshuvah, of turning toward a life path of increasing righteousness and holiness.
On Rosh Hashanah we confront the difficult truth that we live in a world where the floors are lava. In a world like this, it would be natural to freeze or get angry or just give up. But that, according to our tradition, is not the way through. When the floors are lava, the way through is for us to join hands and navigate the right path together.
About six months ago, we began a journey into an uncharted wilderness.
I wish I could say today that we made it through to the Promised Land. But here we are. Or, perhaps more accurately — here we’re not.
That’s what I want to talk about with you today: how do we contend with the difficult ongoing difficult reality of social distancing.
If you’re like me, “social distancing” is a term you didn’t know existed six months ago. Yet it is ubiquitous now, even if you are leaving your house more frequently than you did back in March. Since every venture into public space continues to be fraught with the danger of contracting or unknowingly communicating a highly contagious and deadly virus, we continue to stay at home as much as possible and avoid gatherings. When we do go out, we wear masks and keep our distance from one another.
Most of us haven’t been to a party, concert, or movie theater in many months. Many of our children are still unable to go back to school or even have playdates in person. Many of us have missed out on long-standing family traditions. Some of us have endured being sick in isolation, or being barred from visiting a loved one battling illness. Some of us have even had to watch on helplessly as a relative died alone, or to watch a funeral with no in-person attendees via livestream, miles away from friends and family.
All this social distancing has had a measurable effect on our wellbeing. According to the CDC, more than 4 in 10 American adults reported this past June that they are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. During the same period last year, the rate was closer to 10%, a nearly fourfold increase. One cause of this spike is almost certainly the fact that, at the time of the survey, most Americans had been socially distancing and sheltering in place for months.
Though we live in a culture that idealizes the rugged individualist, we cannot escape the fact that we humans are a social species, built for community. True, some of us enjoy crowds more than others, and most of us appreciate solitude at least once in a while, but these personal preferences or personality types ought not obscure the basic fact that we thrive when we connect with others, and we wither when we are too long removed from interpersonal interaction. Research shows that isolation is, in the words of contemporary psychologist and author Susan Pinker, “at least as dangerous to your health as a pack-a-day cigarette habit, hypertension, or obesity.” So, even if you are not among the over 40% of Americans who have wrestled with anxiety or depression over the past six months, chances are good that your mental — and perhaps even your physical — health has been negatively impacted by social distancing.
Social distancing similarly imperils social institutions — like synagogues. Many of us, understandably, wonder what a synagogue means, or if a synagogue remains necessary, when we can’t gather in person. After all, the very term “synagogue” is from the Greek for “meeting place,” which reflects the term we use for synagogue in Hebrew, beit k’nesset, literally “house of meeting.” What is the purpose of a “house of meeting” when you can’t meet? For those of us who love and are attached to our synagogues, and for those of us who believe in the centrality of the synagogue to meaningful Jewish life in America, this is indeed a source of great concern.
Unfortunately, social distancing may be part of our lives indefinitely. Experts agree that even with a vaccine, this virus is likely to be with us for a long time. Additionally, even if we eradicate this virus, scientists warn that pandemics like this one are for various reasons likely to become more frequent. It’s just a matter of time before we once again face a similar experience. And irrespective of this pandemic, many of us have struggled with being physically distant from friends and loved ones — including deceased loved ones — or just simply feel really lonely from time to time. In fact, a couple of years ago experts diagnosed an epidemic of loneliness in America. We may not have realized it, but many of us have been socially distant for a long time, and we will continue to struggle with isolation long after we defeat COVID-19.
Given these realities, what wisdom might our tradition have, what spiritual resources might our tradition offer us — for us as individuals and as a congregation — to make it through — and perhaps even grow from — the challenges borne of physical distancing and isolation from one another?
It turns out that today’s parashah offers deep insight and powerful wisdom for this moment. Abraham and Sarah are unable to have children, so they agree to use Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a kind of surrogate. Abraham impregnates Hagar, who conceives and gives birth to a son, Ishmael.
For some time, Ishmael is raised as Abraham’s only child. But then, miraculously, Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son, whom she and Abraham name Isaac.
Isaac’s infancy passes by without incident. However, at some point during Isaac’s early childhood, Sarah sees Ishmael engaged in a morally questionable activity. In response to this unspecified offense, Sarah orders Abraham to expel Hagar and her son.
Sarah’s request distresses Abraham, but he ultimately consents. Early the next morning, Abraham gives Hagar some bread and water and sends her and Ishmael away into the wilderness.
Let us pause here for a moment to note that our parashah, which seems set up at the onset to be a happily-ever-after story of fulfilled promises takes a dark turn, becoming a tale of shattered expectations, broken relationships, and, as we will see, the pain and danger of separation, alienation, and isolation.
Disoriented and aimless as a result of radically changed circumstances, Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert. But when they run out of water, matters start to get dire. Ishmael apparently is close to dying of thirst. Out of options, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush, and positions herself a bowshot’s distance away — maybe 50 or 75 yards — so that she wouldn’t have to watch her son die.
Distance is emphasized in this passage. Twice, the narrator tells us, “va-teshev mineged,” Hagar sat at a distance. According to Rashi, the Torah repeats this phrase to indicate that Hagar kept moving further away from her dying son. Already reeling from being torn from the life she knew, and away from the people she had come to call her family, Hagar cannot bear to witness the death of her son, the only loved one she has left. Ironically, however, in separating herself from Ishmael, Hagar compounds her and Ishmael’s isolation, the loneliness of exile now exacerbated by the loneliness Hagar experiences watching on helplessly as her son dies alone, and by the loneliness Ishmael must have experienced dying without the comfort of a loved one by his side.
Having been abandoned herself, Hagar turns around and abandons her son. This may seem unthinkable, but it strikes me that in the course of the pandemic, many of us, even if unintentionally, have acted similarly. Forced into isolation, many of us have been tempted to react — or have actually reacted — by closing ourselves off. Perhaps unwittingly, we allowed the forces that pulled us physically apart to also pull us spiritually apart, loneliness compounded upon loneliness. No wonder these months have been so profoundly difficult for so many of us.
But our Torah portion teaches us that this outcome is not inevitable. There is in fact another way.
As Hagar waits for her son to die while sitting far away, all this alienation, all this suffering, becomes too much for her to bear. She bursts into tears. Immediately, an angel calls to her, saying: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”
This is quite an astonishing statement. While the narrator notes that Hagar cries, the narrator never says that Ishmael was crying.
Remember, though, that Hagar made a point of separating herself from Ishmael, leaving him on his own and situating herself at a great distance from him. Perhaps Hagar was so far away that she wouldn’t have been able to hear her son cry. And we, hearing this story from Hagar’s perspective, also would have no way of knowing whether Ishmael was crying.
The angel thus gives Hagar and us new information that we wouldn’t otherwise have had: Ishmael in fact was crying. He was by himself, and Hagar was too far away to hear him. But with God, even when we are by ourselves, we are never alone. And no matter how physically far away we might be from other people, we are never too distant for God to hear us, see us, and indeed, be with us. That’s why the text says “God has heeded the cry of the boy ba-asher hu sham, where he is,” and concludes by saying, “va-y’hi Elohim et ha-na’ar, God was with the boy,” because while Hagar may have been too far away to hear Ishmael, God is never too far away from us, nor are we ever too far away from God. No matter how distant we are, God is close by.
Those of us who hold a fairly traditional theology — that is, those of us who believe that God is a recognizable entity with identifiable characteristics who relates with human beings in willful and personal ways — might have an easier time appreciating this message from the Torah. If you conceive of God this way, then our parashah’s insight probably both makes intuitive sense and is thoroughly comforting. Secure in that belief, you know that you are never alone, because God is always right there with you; that there is no place you can travel that is too far for God to reach you; that even when you are physically distant, God is spiritually close.
But what about those of us who struggle, for various reasons, with that understanding of God? What about those of us who believe differently, or not at all?
If you fit into one of those categories, then allow me to offer another way of thinking about God, which I have found to be both logically and spiritually satisfying: God is what we call that which is deepest within us, that which is woven between us, and that which is greatest beyond us.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Master Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that the Force “surrounds us and binds us.” That’s also a good way of summarizing the view of God that I am offering. Yoda’s perspective echoes Jewish tradition. For example, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God “fills both the heavens and the earth.” This view is reiterated in the midrash, which asserts, “there is no place lacking the Divine Presence;” in the Talmud, which teaches, “God’s presence is in all places;” and throughout the mystical and hasidic traditions, which frequently insist, “לית אתר פנוי מיניה, there is no place devoid of God,” and even more radically, “all existence is God.” If God is everywhere, and all the more so if God is everything and everything is God, then God is simultaneously within each of us, between all of us, and beyond; in other words, God, like the Force, surrounds us and binds us.
Additionally, if God is everywhere, then that means we are all of us connected through God not only to everyone and everything that exists, but also simultaneously to everyone and everything that ever has and ever will exist, because God in our tradition is understood to transcend not only space, but time as well. Even when we are by ourselves, we are never alone. Even when we are physically separated from loved ones, we are perpetually bound to and surrounded by them, and indeed, by everyone and everything — past, present, and future.
Unfortunately, the fact that we are deeply interconnected with everyone and everything doesn’t mean we can “use the Force” like a Jedi. If only! But it does mean that, on a fundamental level, while we may at times be by ourselves, we are never alone. Wherever we are, we are constantly accompanied by everyone and everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. Even when we are socially distant from one another, we remain spiritually close.
True, there is no substitute for physical presence, in-person conversation, or loving touch. But that doesn’t mean other ways of connecting are meaningless. In the mishnah, the first-century sage Rabban Gamliel famously taught that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness. And throughout the pandemic, I have marveled at the fact that it is precisely these three pursuits that have sustained me, and that have enabled us to sustain each other, because these three acts are uniquely able to help us feel and strengthen our connections to one another.
Let’s start with acts of lovingkindness. Back in March, when social distancing was just ramping up, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles wrote, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.” In other words, social distancing does not prevent us from performing acts of lovingkindness. On the contrary, it ought to propel us to do more loving deeds for one another.
I am proud and moved to share that so many members of our congregation have showed up in these ways during this challenging season. Congregants have made weekly phone calls to those who are isolated at home, picked up groceries and delivered meals for those in need, and supported congregants who were sick or struggling financially. Some folks have gone out of their way to log on to Zoom for minyan every day in case someone needs to say Kaddish, or delivered a siddur to someone’s doorstep so they could worship with the community. I am deeply grateful to everyone who has lent a hand to those in need. These loving acts of congregants supporting each other are perfect examples of how we remain spiritually close even when we are socially distant.
Prayer is another critical way to remain spiritually close even when we are physically distant. When we pray for someone who is ill, we impact them, and they impact us, even when we are distant from them. According to some cutting-edge research, our prayers even have a measurable effect on people who don’t know we’re praying for them. Similarly, when we attend a synagogue service — even when we log onto a Zoom minyan — to join a congregation in prayer, we intensify our connections to the other members of the community who are present, and likewise their connections to us are strengthened.
The same thing happens even when a person davvens on their own. Through participating in an action that is shared by others with similar values, commitments, and traditions, the individual davvener attaches themself to every other davvener, every other person reciting that same liturgy with similar intentionality, at that moment. And more than that, since our spiritual connections to one another transcend both space and time, since even death cannot break the bonds we share, when we pray as Jews, we strengthen our connection to every davvener in every moment — present, past, and future.
In the same sense, any time we perform a mitzvah, a sacred act dictated by tradition, we connect not only with every Jew everywhere who is performing that same act at the same time, but also every Jew everywhere who has ever and who will ever perform that mitzvah. As the great 20th century sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik put it, whenever a Jew studies Torah, they live in the midst of the “entire company of sages.” To consider a talmudic passage today is to simultaneously discuss and argue about the text with our ancient ancestors and future descendants. “All of them,” Soloveitchik taught, “merge into one time experience.” When we participate in Jewish study and practice, we walk alongside Maimonides, listen to Rabbi Akiva, and sit at the feet of Regina Jonas. When we pursue justice, we do so alongside Emma Lazarus and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When we work to support our people’s restoration in our homeland, we do so arm in arm with Rav Kook and Henrietta Szold. As Soloveitchik put it, “there can be no death and expiration among the company of the sages of tradition. Eternity and immortality reign here in unbounded fashion. Both past and future become, in such circumstances, ever-present realities.” When you’re performing a mitzvah, you’re never alone.
Torah, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness are meaningful, perhaps necessary, ways of being spiritually close to one another, even when we are physically distant. Because of this fact, congregations like ours remain indispensable, even and perhaps especially when we can’t gather in person. A synagogue is way more than just a building. Rather, we are a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, bound together by shared values, by common purpose, and by a sense of collective responsibility for each other and for the wider world. And therefore synagogues — not the buildings, but the people who constitute congregations, the kehillah kedoshah — are more essential than ever in a context like ours, because they are the hub that facilitates, nurtures, encourages, and strengthens those connections, the wellspring from which these nourishing waters of life and love emerge.
To be part of a kehillah kedoshah is not only to recognize but also to perpetually feel the reality that no matter where we are, or how far away we are removed from others, we are not and are never alone. Recognizing that we are deeply and inextricably connected to everyone and everything that exists, has existed, and will ever exist, feeling and strengthening these connections through acting with lovingkindness toward each other, and participating in the traditions we share with one another — that’s how we can overcome all this physical distancing and isolation from one another.
Acknowledging and tending to our connections in these ways enables us to never feel alone, even when we are by ourselves; to remain spiritually close, even while we are socially distant.
But a kehlliah kedoshah isn’t born; it’s made. It requires everyone’s investment, everyone’s participation, everyone’s involvement. Making a kehillah kedoshah not only requires that we recognize our connections to one another. More importantly, it requires that we actively take responsibility for one another, cultivating and strengthening those connections at every turn.
In the year to come, we will be putting considerable emphasis on nurturing this dimension of our kehillah kedoshah — through expanded and innovative opportunities for personal and communal prayer and study; through initiatives to empower congregants to take on new Jewish practices and to share Jewish experiences with each other; and by encouraging members of our congregation to perform acts of lovingkindness for each other. One such initiative is our Caring Crews, in which congregants reach out to fellow congregants, especially those who may feel isolated or lonely. Please speak with me or Cantor Rosenblatt to learn how you can get involved in these efforts. However you choose to participate, I pray that each and every one of us will do our part to foster the connections that bind us together, ensuring that our congregation remains a true kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.
Just as the novel coronavirus ravaged bodies biologically unprepared to fight it, the pandemic hit a society that was spiritually unprepared for it. Back in 2017, scholar and best-selling author Brene Brown diagnosed our society as undergoing “a collective spiritual crisis,” rooted in our inability to recognize, much less celebrate, our connections with one another. Over the past six months, this spiritual crisis has manifested in myriad ways — in the hoarding of scarce resources, in epidemic levels of anxiety and depression, in protests against stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules, and in rushing to “reopen” before it was medically safe to do so. This spiritual crisis is arguably more dangerous than the virus itself, as it has led to prolonging the length and intensifying the severity of the pandemic for all of us. We will therefore never successfully navigate this season, or others like it in the future, unless we treat this underlying spiritual condition.
But unlike COVID-19, there is a cure for this spiritual illness: let us reorient ourselves to see our inextricable connections to each other — connections which transcend space and time, connections which even death cannot sever, connections which call us to care for each other. Let us nurture these connections by caring for one another, by speaking and acting with kindness and love toward each other. And let us embrace the traditions we share with one another in order to maintain our connections with each other across space, and beyond time.
As we begin a new year, I wish you health, resilience, and sweetness. Know that Cantor Rosenblatt and I are always here for you, in times of trouble as well as in times of joy. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. And remember, also, that to be part of a kehillah kedoshah means to be there for one another, especially during tough times. May we all not only feel, but also show each other, that even when we are socially distant, we are always spiritually close.
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