The Heart Repair of Hanukkah: Blessing Each Other’s Light

Compared to many other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is relatively simple. Sure, there are many lovely customs — latkes, dreidels, sufganiyot, gelt, and the like — but the essential practice of the festival is lighting the menorah each night. And, just as we do when we perform other mitzvot (commanded ritual acts), when we kindle the Hanukkah lights, we recite a blessing.
 
Unique, however, to this particular mitzvah is that we are not only obligated to recite a blessing over candles we light ourselves, but also when we see someone else’s kindled menorah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23b). In other words, if I am driving down Monument Avenue, and I see a lit menorah in someone’s window, I am supposed to recite the blessing, “…who made miracles for our ancestors in those days, in this season.” This is the case even if it’s the home of a complete stranger, even if I hadn’t lit my own menorah, and even if I wasn’t planning on lighting candles at all. There is no other mitzvah like this, in which we recite a blessing over a deed done by another person!
 
It is this distinct feature of Hanukkah that leads Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to identify Hanukkah as the holiday of heart purification. On Hanukkah, we are asked to celebrate our neighbors, to bless the work of their hands. We are given an opportunity to set aside ego, narcissism, and self-congratulation, taking — to borrow language from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — our minds “out of the narrowness of self-interest.”
 
On Hanukkah, in other words, we are invited to see our fellow human beings from God’s vantage-point, a vantage-point of unconditional and infinite love, of parental pride that is equally bestowed on each and every beloved child.
Hanukkah, then, according to Reb Shlomo, is an annual opportunity to repair this defect in our hearts, to realize that we are all of us children of the same Parent; siblings, who were not brought into being to compete against each other or to tear each other down, but rather to celebrate one another and lift each other up.
 
It’s no coincidence that the heroes of the Hanukkah story, the Maccabees, are kohanim, priests. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the defining characteristics of the first High Priest, Aaron, were that he “loved peace and pursued peace, loved people and brought them close to Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). On Hanukkah, we celebrate the triumph of Aaron’s children, the victory of peace over violence, of love over hate, of generosity over meanness, in the hopes that it will inspire us, too, to embrace and practice those qualities.
 
Today, it is far too common to see people building themselves up by tearing others down. Hanukkah urges us to make a different choice, to see the light that others are kindling in the world and offer our blessings. If we can practice doing this for eight nights, maybe, just maybe, it will become habitual. And with hearts so repaired, the repair of the world will not be too far behind. Hanukkah same’ah!
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Spiritual Revolutionaries: Making Religion Meaningful in the 21st Century

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On December 1 and 2, 2018, I participated in an interfaith “pulpit swap” with my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Hollie Woodruff, of Seventh Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond. She preached to my congregation on Saturday, and I to hers on Sunday. Below is the script of the sermon I delivered at Seventh Street on Sunday, December 2, 2018 (coinciding with the first Sunday of Advent and the eve of the first night of Hanukkah):

In June of 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and civil rights advocate, sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy that I’m eager to share with you. A few months before, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were arrested for protesting against segregation in Birmingham. Religious leaders — Christians and Jews — in Birmingham objected to King’s presence, organizing, and action there, prompting King to author a reply, which we now know as his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The next month, Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on African-American protesters, including women and children, while many if not most congregations and clergy continued to remain silent about the mounting injustices. Heschel wasn’t having it. He wrote to President Kennedy:

I LOOK FORWARD TO PRIVILEGE OF BEING PRESENT AT MEETING TOMORROW AT 4 P.M. LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE NEGROES. CHURCHES SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTANCE AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE. LET RELIGIOUS LEADERS DONATE ONE MONTH’S SALARY TOWARD FUND FOR NEGRO HOUSING AND EDUCATION. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AID TO NEGROES IS BECOMING A NECESSITY. THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.

Heschel’s point was that religion means nothing if it does not respond clearly, forcefully, and directly to the greatest moral crises and challenges of the day. Faith fails — and deserves to fail — when it is not a progressive force for social transformation.

It seems to me that this is the good news in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:5-25).

Luke takes care to set his scene in a particularly dark moment in Jewish history. He tells us that his tale occurs during the reign of King Herod. Setting the story during this period puts the narrative at the height of the Roman consolidation of power over the Jews of Judea: a zenith of Roman imperial grandeur, and also of tyranny and of subjugation.

But Luke doesn’t tell a story about Roman oppression. He doesn’t need to. His audience knows all about the injustices and brutalities of the Empire. Instead, Luke tells a story about religion; specifically, he tells a story about the role religion ought to play in challenging and changing the status quo.

Luke juxtaposes his dour backdrop — a world plundered and terrorized and subjugated by an insatiable militaristic and materialistic Empire — with a pristine and serene picture of Jewish worship in our ancient Holy Temple (ironically and importantly the very Temple that, Luke’s original audience would have known, the Romans ruthlessly destroyed just a few short decades after Jesus’ death).

The ritual is happening exactly as it is supposed to, everything “according to the custom of the priesthood” (Lk 1:9). In other words, the world is on fire, and the response of the Jewish religious leadership of the time, along with, in Luke’s words, “the whole assembly of the people” is to simply go about its normal business, sacrificing incense and praying, without paying much mind at all to the broken world just outside the retaining walls of the Temple Mount. These are religious leaders and practitioners who have a lot to say about ritual and liturgy, but nothing at all, apparently, to say about the brokenness of their world.

My teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous once called this phenomenon “brunching at the edge of the abyss.” In coining this term, she was referring to a passage from the Book of Genesis — a passage, in fact, that my congregation read in synagogue this week, and about which Rev. Hollie preached yesterday — in which Jacob’s sons grab their younger brother, Joseph, strip him of his technicolor dreamcoat and cast him into an empty pit. After perpetrating this violent crime, the older brothers sit down together to enjoy a meal (Gen. 37:25).

“Brunching at the edge of the abyss” is about going about your life as if everything’s fine when nothing is fine; it’s about ignoring  profound injustices because you’re doing alright, and because getting involved would just rock the boat too much; it’s about pretending something is not broken because it would be too much of a disruption of your comfortable status quo to do something about it.

To Luke, the Jews of Judea, epitomized by the priest Zechariah, are brunching at the edge of the abyss. They offer sacrifices — to a God who their tradition (my tradition) celebrates for overthrowing the ancient world’s most iconic tyrant, securing freedom and justice for a band of poor, foreign, slaves — while doing and saying nothing about the Pharaoh of their time. They content themselves with the sweet smells of burning incense and comfort themselves with priests who, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” while the world burned and their people suffered.

In this observation, Luke echoes the critiques of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, who centuries earlier lambasted Zechariah’s ancestors for showy sanctimony decoupled from moral action (cf. Isaiah 58, Amos 6). Slyly and subtly, Luke indicts the religious leaders and practitioners of this period. How, he wonders, could they carry on business as usual in the Temple while the world was burning just outside?

It is no coincidence that when this serenity is disrupted by the angel Gabriel — a figure who, in Jewish tradition, represents God’s attribute of justice and supremacy over human power — to announce that the time has come for a new generation of leaders who will inspire people to reconciliation, righteousness, and repair, Zechariah refuses to believe and is struck dumb. In response to the true spiritual crisis of his time, to God reminding him of the real-world needs of his oppressed people, and to his awakening that the hour was calling for changing hearts and transforming the world, Zechariah is shown to literally have nothing to say.

My friends, I fear that the challenge facing communities of faith like yours and mine in the 21st century is that most people look at us and see what Luke described. They see in our clergy the priest Zechariah: well-meaning, hard-working, and earnest folk who quite literally have nothing to say about the profound and pressing challenges of the day. They see in our congregations the Jews waiting in the Temple courtyard, unmoved by and apathetic to the cries of the oppressed just outside the sacred precinct. They see religion that talks a big game — as do the traditions that both you and I share — about toppling Pharaohs, about righteousness rolling down like waters and justice like an unfailing stream, about a God who demands of us that we love both our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves, about making of our communities a sanctuary for the indwelling of the Divine presence, about being a blessing to all we encounter, while the leaders and the practitioners of those faiths stand silently and idly by in a world wracked with oppression, injustice, poverty, pollution, hatred, and violence. They see us occupied with small questions — which hymn should we recite this week, or how to change the seating in the sanctuary — while unconcerned and unengaged with the major issues that threaten God’s children and God’s world. They see us “brunching at the edge of the abyss.”

The people who are increasingly turning away from congregations like yours and mine, and from our religious traditions altogether, are by and large those who came of age in the last twenty years, the Gen-Xers and the Millenials —my generation. We have inherited a world more technologically capable than any in human history, and yet it is filled with war and violence, increasingly irreversible ecological devastation, deepening inequality, growing authoritarianism, and rampant, unrelenting, oppression of the most vulnerable. We feel that the repair of our broken world is within reach and yet, ironically and frustratingly, more elusive than ever.

In this time of turbulence and anxiety and creeping despair, in which the moral call of our ancient traditions is so urgent and so necessary, our religious leaders, institutions, and communities are, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., too often “more cautious than courageous,” remaining “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” No wonder so many have looked at our worship and have found it wanting. No wonder so many have deemed us irrelevant and have walked out the door.

Recognizing this, Luke beckons us to embrace the charge of John the Baptist in a world of Zechariah’s: We, too, are called from birth to be prophets of the Resistance, rather than pastors to the Empire; to be filled with the spirit of Elijah — the prophet who took the lonely and unpopular path of rebellion against the powerful and the privileged of his time to turn people back to the path of righteousness; to be the people who work “to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke is telling us that, like John, this is what we, too, are born to do; and what religion, when it is doing its job, catalyzes us to do.

Forgive me if I come across as presumptuous here, but is this not ultimately what the season of Advent is about? Preparing for goodness and righteousness to erupt into our broken world, for compassion and justice to disrupt a world filled with cruelty and oppression, for peace to interrupt a world replete with violence, for light to dispel the darkness drenching our world? Like John, this has always been our calling, each of us from before we were born; and this season, this moment, now more than ever, beckons us to fulfill it. The world is waiting for us. For you.

And it is fortuitous that this beginning of Advent coincides with the onset of my community’s holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah similarly invites us to bring light to all the dark places in the world. It is a celebration of a small but determined band of Jewish priests whose faith compelled them to fight for what was right, even though it could have cost them everything, even though the odds were against them, even though it was impolitic and uncouth and controversial and angered all those deep-pocketed Greek and Hellenistic donors.

We, too, are called on this holiday to embrace the spirit of those Maccabees, heeding the real-world urgency of our faith, refusing to defang its moral message and decouple it from the realm of politics and social change; being able, when necessary, in the words of Heschel, to embrace high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. For we only deserve the right to worship God when we have worked to build a world that reflects God’s glory.

The other day, my four year-old son, Shemaya, was telling me what he learned about Hanukkah in preschool. “The king broke the Temple,” he said. “He was a bad guy.”

“So,” I asked him, “who were the good guys? Who saved the day?”

“The Jewish people,” he replied.

“Wow,” I said, “Did you know that you’re also Jewish?”

Without missing a beat, he fired right back: “Yeah! I can save the day, too!”

We Jews and Christians are heirs to traditions that remind us we can be heroes. And not only do our faiths claim that we can save the world, they also insist that we must. Judaism and Christianity not only offer us the promise of redemption, but also demand of us to ourselves be saviors. And if our religions are to remain meaningful in the 21st century, we must embrace our sacred charge to be spiritual revolutionaries. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. The only question is, how will we respond?

Wishing you a Happy Advent and a Joyous Hanukkah. Shalom.

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A Non-Partisan Jewish Voting Guide

1. Anti-Semitism, racism, hate, and bigotry. Does the candidate stand up against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry? Did s/he condemn the neo-Nazis and other white nationalists who marched with guns and torches in Charlottesville in 2017? Does s/he speak out against or do anything about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in this country? It goes without saying that failing to fight anti-Semitism is bad for the Jewish community. But stoking bigotry against other minority communities emboldens those who are less discerning in their hatred, amplifying the danger of hatred against all minority groups, including Jews.

2. Health Care and Taxes. Jewish tradition teaches that healthcare is a fundamental human right and, therefore, a communal responsibility. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes in Matters of Life and Death, “Jewish ethics…demands that American Jews work to ensure that the United States, as a society, provides healthcare to everyone in some way.” Does the candidate’s record or stance on health care issues move us closer to or further away from the goal of attaining universal access to adequate healthcare? Similarly, Jewish tradition argues for enough redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least so that “there shall be no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4). A candidate who wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and slash the social safety net to pay for it moves us further away from the Jewish vision of a just society.

3. Guns. The Mishnah calls weapons “an embarrassment” for a person. Jewish law prohibits its adherents from hunting animals and owning a weapon to do so. But more importantly, a primary Jewish value is the sanctity of life and the obligation to save life. Guns are responsible for over 35,000 deaths in America each year. Does the candidate support, at the very least, common sense initiatives to regulate the widespread availability of these instruments of death?

4. Immigration. Does the candidate support extreme restrictions on immigration and draconian border policies? Such views are antithetical to Jewish values and an affront to the Jewish historical experience.The Torah makes explicit our moral responsibilities toward migrants and refugees through an appeal to Jewish historical experience: “You shall love the migrant as yourself, for you were migrants in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). The Bible invokes our collective immigrant experience no less than 36 times, harnessing our history over and again so that we connect the crises others face today with our crises yesterday, to see their story as our story, to experience their reality as personally as we would our own. Most of the people Jewish Americans claim as ancestors were able to settle in the United States by virtue of the lenient immigration laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If the candidate’s proposed immigration policies were on the books back then, would your ancestors have been able to immigrate?

5. Law and Order. It goes without saying that one of the primary purposes of government is to preserve law and order within society. This principle is not only enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution, it reflects a core Jewish value: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 17:18). However, while Jewish tradition sees law and order as crucial, it insists that it must be administered fairly. The very next verse clarifies: “You shall not judge unfairly.” The rabbinic tradition insists that, for justice to mean anything, it must be executed justly. So, we must ask of candidates for elected office not only what they will do to preserve law and order, but what they will do to ensure that our system of law and order — our law-enforcement practices, our judicial system, and our penal system — is as just as it can possibly be. Moreover, the expectation of law and order must apply equally to our leaders. According to our tradition, our officials — even kings — must be held accountable to the laws of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Given the fact that, in a manner virtually unprecedented in American history, high-ranking government officials have acted in ways that are hostile to and undermine the independence of law-enforcement and the judiciary, and that high-ranking government officials are under serious investigations for crimes ranging from corruption to conspiring with foreign adversaries, this election calls upon us to consider whether a given candidate will be steadfast and vigilant in holding themselves and other elected officials, even of their own party, accountable to the law, up to and including the President of the United States. Where does the candidate you’re considering voting for stand on holding leaders, even and especially those of his/her own party, accountable to the law?

6. Israel. Most mainstream American politicians of both major parties are publicly pro-Israel. Thankfully, the right of Israel not only to exist but to thrive as a strong, secure, and sovereign nation is a matter of broad bipartisan consensus. But it’s not enough simply to give lip-service to being pro-Israel, or to endorsing policies that support Israel’s security and the American-Israeli partnership, as important as those positions are. A just peace with the Palestinians through a two-state solution is essential to Israel’s long-term security, stability, and status as a moral exemplar. Does your candidate support policies that undermine the peace process and threaten Israel’s future, like supporting new Israeli settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian villages in the West Bank, supporting America’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, supporting moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem in the absence of a negotiated agreement, or supporting dismantling the UN agency that supports schools and hospitals in Palestinian communities? Does your candidate support the Iran Nuclear Deal, which American, Israeli, and international military security experts agree has been effective in neutralizing a major existential threat to Israel, namely the specter of a nuclear-armed Iranian regime? If your candidate opposes the Iran Nuclear Deal and/or supports policies that undermine the peace process, s/he is putting Israel’s very existence in jeopardy.

7. The Environment and Climate Change. One of the Bible’s first commandments is for us to be stewards of our planet, to protect the environment and the other species with whom we share this earth, to bequeath a world fit for habitation to our children. Does the candidate accept the reality of human-induced climate change? Where do they stand on the question of embracing policies that would protect our planet?

8. Education and Civil Rights. From the fundamental Jewish principle of human equality flows the command “You shall have one law” (Leviticus 24:22), that all people should have equal status, privilege, and protection under the law. For that reason, American Jews have always been passionate advocates for the availability of a quality education for all Americans, the enforcement of civil rights laws, and the expansion of voting rights. Is the candidate a champion of those historically Jewish issues?

9. Responsiveness to Constituents, Gerrymandering, and Voting Rights. Does the candidate listen to the voices of his/her constituents? Where does s/he stand on gerrymandering and voting rights? Jewish tradition insists that every human being is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Additionally, the Bible asserts that all human beings can trace their ancestry to one parent, Adam, a teaching that the rabbinic tradition understood to mean that we all have equal value (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). From the fundamental Jewish principle of human equality flows the command “You shall have one law” (Leviticus 24:22), that all people should have equal status, privilege, and protection under the law. Furthermore, Jewish ethics dictate that leaders must be concerned about and responsive to the will of their constituents. When, for example, Pharaoh ignores the cries of the oppressed Israelites (see, for example, Exodus 5:17-18), God responds by sending ten plagues, devastating Egypt, and liberating the Israelite slaves. Moses, too, is severely punished for lashing out thirsty Israelites rather than providing them water (Numbers 20:1-13). Even God, according to rabbinic tradition, governs through popular assent (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a). Jewish tradition guides us to insist on a political system and leaders who feel beholden to the needs and concerns expressed by the governed, and issues warning after warning of the inevitable consequences that ensue when officials cease to care about what their constituents have to say. If a candidate effectively says that some people in his/her district or state matter less than others, is inaccessible or unresponsive to constituents, and does not support measures that ensure full, expansive, and equal access to the ballot for all citizens, their stance runs counter to bedrock Jewish democratic values.

A version of this was published in the Forward on Nov. 6, 2018: https://forward.com/scribe/413655/6-jewish-voting-issues-according-to-a-progressive-rabbi/?fbclid=IwAR01nge6hewjFqV9jbB0DhsYrciYGGp8RgVp3C2R1tnRdwqt47SD6wtKy0g

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Think Different: A Sermon on the Tower of Babel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Responsibilities of Privilege

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yom Kippur 5779

September 19, 2018

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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You Don’t Need Likes to Be Loved

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

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

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

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

I had many reasons for doing this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kol Nidrei 5779

September 18, 2018

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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Just Walk Beside Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

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