To Be, or Not To Be: Sukkot 5782

Photo by jinjireh on Pexels.com

When I first became a father, I felt the predictable mix of joy, excitement, and fear. Other fathers had told me to expect all of those feelings, particularly the fear. Babies are fragile and needy and apparently don’t come with instruction manuals. 

But what no one told me to expect was the tremendous guilt I felt after Lilah was born. Perhaps other fathers don’t feel this, but I for sure did. Here’s how I felt: Before our daughter was born, there only existed the platonic ideal of a child, a perfect, and therefore immortal, concept. Even while Adira was pregnant, when we could hear sonogram heartbeats and see ultrasound images of this as-yet unborn child, she still existed for me largely as an idea, a theoretical proposition. 

But once Lilah was born, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. After all, what is the act of bringing life into the world if not transforming a flawless and deathless soul into a material and mortal being? Adira and I were having a baby knowing full well that the minute anyone and anything is born, it begins to die; that, without her consent, we had condemned our creation to a life in which she would inevitably know sickness and suffering, longing and loss, disease and death. Perhaps, if my daughter had been given the choice, and if she had been made fully aware of the consequences of that decision, she would never have chosen to have been conceived in the first place. 

As time went on, however, my feelings began to change. As I watched this little creation not only struggle and scream — which admittedly she seemed to do a lot — but also explore, enjoy, play, learn, love, and grow — I came to realize that there are positive consequences of being created. To exist is not only to know pain but also pleasure; not only loss and longing, but also love. Sometimes, goodness can even be discerned in the difficult stuff — the poop and the pain, the spit-up and the stumbles. Life can be beautiful and meaningful and profoundly worth it not despite the imperfections, but also because of them.

Yes, to exist in materiality is to be imperfect and impermanent. But life is also filled with nearly immeasurable possibilities — to enjoy all the beauty and bounty this world has to offer, to bless and benefit the lives of others, and to leave this world a little better than we found it. True, a platonic ideal will never know agony, but it can also never know ecstasy. It can never lose, but it also can never give. It cannot harm or be harmed, but it can never help or heal. It will never die, but it also can never live

I’m not sure if other new fathers feel what I felt. But I suspect that, deep down, many if not most of us wonder if we’d have been better off never having been born. Famously, Shakespeare’s melancholy Danish prince Hamlet asserts “to be, or not to be — that is the question.” And according to the Talmud, the ancient schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years over whether human beings would have been better off never having been created. We intuit the precariousness of our lives. We’ve experienced affliction and struggled with loss. As a result, we try very hard to protect ourselves from pain and suffering, discontent and even death. We yearn for continuous comfort and perfect peace, to live happily ever after. But what we find, if we are honest, is that the pursuit of perfection has a very high price. Perfection has no flaw, but also no beauty; no pain, but also no pleasure; no loss, but also no love; no death, but also no life. 

Consider the sukkah. According to the Jewish legal tradition, sukkot must be temporary. A sukkah’s walls can be reused from year to year, but the structure’s roof, in Hebrew its skhakh, must be newly put on each and every year for the explicit purpose of celebrating the eponymous festival, and taken off until having to be replaced the following year. The skhakh has to be made of organic material — gidul min ha-karka, something that grows from the ground — but that is hatukh min ha-karka, no longer attached to the ground. In other words, the roof, which is legally understood to be the structure’s essence, the element that makes a sukkah a sukkah, is designed to be something that will wilt, decompose, and even disintegrate over time, underscoring the temporary nature of the thing. We erect our sukkot knowing full well that their end is to be taken down. We assemble our sukkot with the awareness that we will in short order need to disassemble them. And we recognize that, whether or not we actively dismantle our sukkot, time will invariably take care of that work for us. 

And what’s more — while Jewish law mandates that the skhakh atop our sukkot should provide maximum shade and allow for minimum sunlight, it also must be porous enough to allow us to see at least some of the night sky through the leaves and branches. Similarly, sukkot must have walls but rarely are known to have actual doors. These facts combine to mean that sukkot invariably leave us exposed to elements such as rain, and at the very onset of the rainy season, to boot. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always experienced the idea of dwelling in a sukkah much more pleasant than the reality of actually doing it. You go to eat in your sukkah, and it’s always either too hot or too cold. By the time you get all your cooked food from your kitchen to your hut, it’s no longer at the optimum temperature or consistency. Swarms of greedy flies seem to materialize out of thin air. The season’s last bees linger. Mosquitos freshly spawned from the mix of late-summer warmth and early-autumn wetness make you their meal, while you try to enjoy your own. Sudden gusts of wind make a mess of your purposeful table settings, sending napkins flying, hurtling leaves and errant decor into your soup bowls and serving dishes. You rush to eat while rain clouds threaten, only to disappear right as you finish birkat hamazon. You find yourself drenched in a downpour, despite the forecast having called for cloudless sunshine. I cannot tell you how many times my children and I have excitedly planned for slumber parties in the sukkah, only to realize, after about 15 minutes outside, that it is impossible to sleep in a sukkah. And then, after a week of dealing with all this tzuris, let alone all the headaches (and perhaps injuries) involved in building the darn thing in the first place, down it comes, gone until the cycle starts over again next year. What a weird tradition!

Speaking of weird traditions, take a moment also to consider the arba minim, the four species of plants we are obligated to take up and wave around on Sukkot. You might know these better as the lulav and etrog, the names of the two most prominent of these species, the palm branch and the citron. Like the skhakh atop the sukkah, the lulav and etrog are from, but no longer attached to, the ground. Therefore, they are guaranteed to wilt and wither over time. We take up these species knowing full well that they will ultimately fall apart, which they often do during the week of sukkot itself. 

Again, I don’t know about you, but I have always found the idea of waving the lulav and etrog to be much more pleasant than the reality of actually doing it, especially by the time you get to the end of the holiday, when the etrog starts to brown, and the willow and myrtle shed their leaves left and right, leaving an utter mess everywhere! And then, after a week of dealing with all this tzuris, the etrog gets put in the sock drawer to dry out, the lulav gets set aside to be burned with the hametz before Pesah, and the rest of the leaves and branches get thrown away. 

And yet, while it is true that a sukkah, or a lulav and etrog, are better in theory than in reality, to point out the glaringly obvious, a theoretical sukkah is not a sukkah; a theoretical lulav and etrog are not a lulav and etrog. A theoretical lulav and etrog may not decay or deteriorate, but it also can never be as unique, beautiful, or bizarrely fun as a real lulav and etrog. 

Similarly, appreciating a theoretical sukkah may enable us to avoid the pitfalls inherent in dwelling in these all-too real, if all-too imperfect, impermanent structures. But it is also not nearly as fun, either. A sukkah’s very impermanence is what makes it precious. It’s very imperfection is what makes it beautiful. Yes, sukkot are architecturally faulty and materially ephemeral, especially compared to the kinds of homes in which most of us are fortunate enough to live nowadays. But unless you build one, you miss the possibilities present in a living encounter with the world’s beauty; the excuse to share your bounty with others; the opportunity to contribute something that makes this planet a little better than you found it. True, you never have to feel a draft or get soaked through by a sudden storm in a platonic ideal of a sukkah, but you’ll also never get to experience the delights of dwelling in one, either. A theoretical sukkah never has to be taken down, and cannot be destroyed by the elements. But it can also never be filled with food, family, and friends. A theoretical sukkah doesn’t wither, but it also has no life; it takes nothing, but also gives nothing.

In many ways, that is the message of the biblical book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, which, according to tradition, we study today, on Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “even a live dog is better than a dead lion”; imperfect existence is preferable to the perfection of nonexistence. And because life, for all its flaws, is better than the alternative, we are duty-bound to enjoy it, to fill and make the most of our days. “Go, eat your bread in gladness,” teaches Ecclesiastes, “and drink your wine in joy…enjoy life with a loving partner all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fleeting days…Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might, for there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.” Life may be faulty and fleeting. But only death is perfect and permanent.

Perhaps this is why our tradition instructs us to dwell for seven days in very real, imperfect, and impermanent structures. The Talmud teaches, aseh sukkat’kha keva v’diratekha arai, make your flawed and transient sukkah your permanent dwelling place, and treat your sturdy, stable, and secure dwelling as temporary. To the extent possible, for the duration of the festival, we are told to move our whole lives into our sukkot, filling these fragile shelters with food and friends, light and laughter. We do this to confront a fundamental truth — that the cost of perfection and permanence is life itself. To truly live, we must embrace the imperfection and impermanence that are an essential part of life.

In our all-too-human impulse to protect ourselves against the pain and the loss, the discontent and even death that are invariably a part of our existence, we risk closing ourselves off from everything that makes life worthwhile — love and relationship, joy and generosity, pleasure and purpose. 

As my rabbi Bruce Springsteen puts it, “That feeling of safety you prize/ Well it comes with a hard, hard price. / You can’t shut out the risk and the pain / Without losing the love that remains.”

Sukkot reminds us — if we want love, we have to open ourselves up to risk. If we want joy, we have to open ourselves to pain. If we want life, we have to open ourselves up to loss. On sukkot, we pick up our fragile lulavim and dwell in our ephemeral shelters, holding them as they fall apart, appreciating their beauty as they fade away, recognizing that this is life, in all its imperfection and impermanence.

And, at the very least, it’s better than the alternative.

Hag sameach.

Posted in Reflections, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s Talk About How We Talk: Yom Kippur 5782

Photo by Jopwell on Pexels.com

One of the noteworthy features of our Yom Kippur liturgy is that the viddui, the list of transgressions we confess ten times over the course of this holy day, is dominated by sins of communication. Al het sh’hatanu b’vitu’i s’fatayim, for the sin which we have committed through imprecise language; al het sh’hatanu b’dibbur peh, for the sin which we have committed through our speech; al het sh’hatanu b’siah siftoteinu, for the sin which we have committed through our conversation; these are but a few examples from a lengthy catalog of speech crimes itemized in the viddui.

Yom Kippur’s obsession with what we say — and how we say it — reveals an important insight of our tradition: our words have tremendous creative and destructive power (cf. Proverbs 18:21). But as imperfect human beings, we tend to misuse and abuse this power. 

So today, I want to talk about how we talk — specifically when we disagree.

Many of you know that this topic is personal to me. Over the past few years, individuals who disagree with some of my opinions have repeatedly resorted to verbally attacking me — as well as harassing members of my family and our congregation — both online and in person, rather than discussing their differences respectfully or constructively. Candidly, this bullying and defamation has been painful to endure; worse still was watching people try to hurt me by targeting my family and my congregation and being unable to stop it. 

Yet while I have personal experience in this arena, I’m by no means the first to point out that discourse in our society as a whole seems to have coarsened of late. We increasingly respond without really listening, argue our opinion without seeking to understand the other person’s, and attack a person’s character rather than offer reasoned and well-informed critiques of their position. 

The contemporary media landscape enables and even encourages us to insulate ourselves from encountering people with backgrounds and perspectives that are profoundly different from our own, as well as information that might challenge or complicate our beliefs. And social media in particular, which has become the predominant space in which we communicate, amplifies the nastiest voices, encouraging us to be nasty ourselves, and to forget the real people behind the screen.  

No wonder ours has become an age of bottomless outrage, endless bickering, and noxious vitriol. No wonder our society, and indeed our Jewish community, seems to be coming apart at the seams, unable to constructively address our biggest challenges or meaningfully move forward. 

This past year, in partnership with the Federation, we at Temple Beth-El worked with an extraordinary national Jewish organization called Resetting the Table to help us build a culture of productive conversation about charged political issues in our congregation and wider community. With the help of two wonderful co-chairs, Josh Peck and Jennie O’Holleran, we convened a group of congregants and community members who represented a mix of ideological perspectives and a range of demographic backgrounds. 

We didn’t just dip our toes in the water. We dove in headfirst, tackling perhaps our community’s most complex, controversial, and divisive subject — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the course of several workshops, expert facilitators taught us the art of engaging with our differences directly and constructively, exploring disagreements while strengthening relationships.

The program was a smashing success, and we plan on expanding this work in the years to come, with the hope of transforming our community in the fulness of time. If you are interested in participating or taking a leadership role in this initiative, please let me know. 

Resetting the Table’s approach is deeply rooted in the wisdom of our tradition, a tradition that has much to say on the subject of engaging in meaningful, respectful, and constructive dialogue across lines of difference.

Ours is a tradition that repeatedly brings together divergent points of view, modeling that disagreement can be helpful, even holy, and showing that, without diversity, understanding is obscured, and wisdom is diminished. As the ancient sage Ben Zoma taught, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person” (Mishnah Avot 4:1).

From the point of view of Jewish theology, this makes perfect sense. If God wanted us all to think and act the same, God wouldn’t have made humanity so diverse. As I mentioned in my sermon last night, God desires our difference. Our diversity is part of God’s design. Therefore, to refuse to encounter, engage with, or learn from those who are different from ourselves must be an affront to our Creator. 

At the same time, our tradition recognizes that not every encounter across lines of difference is created equal. Some are productive, while others can be destructive. How do we maximize the former and minimize the latter? Better yet, how do we transform potentially damaging disagreements into fruitful ones

There is a beautiful teaching in the Talmud (B. Eruvin 13b) that I think offers an answer: 

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmu’el: The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel once had a disagreement about a matter of Jewish law that lasted for three years. Shammai’s School insisted, “the law is in accordance with our view,” while Hillel’s School insisted, “the law is in accordance with our view.” 

A Divine Voice emerged and said, “these and these are both words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the School of Hillel.” 

But if both views are right, the Talmud asks, then why does the law follow Hillel’s School? The answer? “Because they were kind and humble, they taught both their own rulings and the rulings of Shammai’s School, and not only this, they even prioritized the rulings of Shammai’s School above their own.” 

What do we learn from this teaching? First and foremost, we learn that despite their different opinions, the students of these two legendary academies continued to encounter and engage with one another. 

This is even more noteworthy when we consider that differences of opinion about matters of Jewish law were not taken lightly by our ancient ancestors. On the contrary, each and every particular dictate in the canon of Jewish law was seen as nothing less than a reflection of the will of God. In fact, these dictates had very real implications for the people who saw themselves as bound to obey those rules. 

So, for the students of these two schools, as well as the communities who looked to them for instruction about how God wanted them to live, the outcome of debates regarding Jewish law were a big deal. You’d better believe that the students of each school were passionate about their perspective and deeply invested in their desired outcome. 

And yet the students of these two schools refused to stop talking to one another. As a matter of fact, they continued to meet and debate about this issue for three whole years. Imagine sitting across the table — not for three minutes or three days, but for three years! — from a person you believe with all your heart is not only prepared to violate God’s will themselves, but who also wants to make you do so, and refusing to just walk away from the conversation. 

Could you practice the patience, perseverance, and resilience that this kind of engagement would require? Could you simultaneously refrain from abandoning your beliefs while refusing to walk away from the conversation?

Meanwhile, remember that life goes on. All the time you’re not actively engaged in the debate, you have to share your community with this heretic. What do you say to them when you see them at the supermarket, or at shul? What do you do when your kid wants to go over to their kid’s house for a playdate, or gets invited over for Shabbat dinner? How do you respond when your Romeo and their Juliet fall in love and want to get married? 

According to tradition, these were questions with which the students of these two schools wrestled as they disagreed about the particulars of God’s will. Yet despite all their passionate debates about foundational issues, the Talmud reports that the followers of the two schools continued to marry one another and eat in each others’ homes (Tosefta Yevamot 1:10). Through all their vehement disagreements, they refused to sever their relationship, and remained together in community. 

In order to coexist with someone whose views are utterly antithetical to our own, respect is critical. 

Of course, that may have been easier for students of two rabbinic academies that were widely considered equally prestigious. These two groups likely regarded each other as peers and colleagues, members of the same community. They shared common languages, foundational texts, symbols, practices, and commitments. They believed that they shared both heritage and destiny. As different as their perspectives on Jewish law may have been, they saw themselves as equals. 

That mindset doubtlessly helped the students of these two schools prioritize their relationship over the outcome of their disagreement. To paraphrase a lesson my rabbi, Brad Artson, taught to me and Adira when we were preparing for our wedding, the students’ respect for one another as equals and communal partners enabled them to prioritize staying “married” over needing to be right. 

It’s noteworthy that in the Talmud’s account of the schools’ years-long debate, the conflict does not appear to have devolved into personal attacks. It stayed in the confines of the study hall, and didn’t spill over into the public square. They didn’t harass each other in whatever medium was the second century equivalent of Twitter.

We too can only hope to navigate our own disagreements successfully when we would rather stay married than be right, when we would rather maintain our relationship than win a debate.

Of course, in our contemporary conversations, the people with whom we’re disagreeing aren’t always people we perceive to be our peers and equals. We may not recognize the other person’s knowledge, discernment, and understanding as comparable to our own. We may not even have a relationship with them, in any meaningful sense of the word.

However, we must always bear in mind that, according to Jewish tradition, all human beings are created equally in God’s image. That means regardless of who you are debating, they are as much a reflection of the Divine as you are, and deserve to be treated with equal respect. To disparage or hurt them in any way, especially in public, is to debase an image of God. 

And what’s more, even if we do not consider the person across from us as a peer or community member, we must remember that we human beings are all part of the same family, descendants of the same common ancestors. 

A rabbinic teaching from the second century that has been reiterated and emphasized throughout the ages as a foundational expression of Jewish values, teaches, “The first human being was created alone in order to facilitate peace among people, so a person could not say to their fellow, ‘my parent was greater than yours’” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Our tradition’s sages remind us — indeed, they insist — that we are all siblings, children of the same parent

How might our conversations change if we recognized that, at the end of the day, the person with whom we’re disagreeing — regardless of who they are, or where they’re from — is fundamentally our equal, and moreover is a member of our own family? Might it encourage us to prioritize the relationship over the outcome of the debate? 

At the same time, we also learn from this talmudic teaching that respect has to cut both ways. Presumably, the reason the schools of Hillel and Shammai were able to remain in both conversation and community with one another was because each side respected the other enough to continue regarding them as members of the same community. What happens when we have a disagreement with someone who acts abusively toward us, whose words or actions harm us, who turns from debating to public shaming or defaming, or whose views disparage our humanity? 

While our tradition requires us to respect all people as manifestations of God’s image, even those whose views we find loathsome and even downright dangerous, we are not obligated to dignify hateful or injurious views by giving them oxygen, nor are we required to debate people who hold such views. We don’t need to remain in conversation with someone who speaks or acts in ways that deny our fundamental human dignity. 

Humility is also a critical component of productive disagreement. Ultimately, the divine voice asserts that both schools’ arguments were equally valid. The possibility of such an outcome demands that we approach our disagreements with humility. Since we are inherently imperfect, possessing limited knowledge, discernment, and understanding, we must always remember that we could be wrong. Indeed, both sides could end up being wrong. And who knows? Both sides could end up being at least partially right. 

However, humility does not mean we need to be wishy-washy in our beliefs. Jewish tradition insists that each of us is entitled to, indeed required to, take firm stands on issues that matter, even to fight and die for our values if necessary. The talmudic story about the schools of Hillel and Shammai implies that both sides were equally passionate about their perspective, convinced of the rightness of their own views and the wrongness of the other side’s. Each side persisted in the debate because they believed they were right, and that it would only be a matter of time before they would prove it to their opponent. 

Practicing humility in our disagreements doesn’t need to mean that we should approach every debate harboring doubts about the merits of our own positions. Rather, humility is about recognizing that the other side may have something to teach, even if we are right and they are wrong, and that our own views can be refined and strengthened when we hold them in creative tension and conflict with others. 

It is as the book of Proverbs teaches, “Iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17; cf. B. Ta’anit 7a). Of course it can be unpleasant to engage with ideas that differ from our own. But as with iron tools, friction is what makes us sharper. We need the humility to acknowledge that as passionate as we are about our beliefs, as informed and well-reasoned as our views may be, they could always be sharpened, and the only way to do that is by deliberately encountering opposing perspectives.

Perhaps this explains why, even though the divine voice asserts that both schools’ arguments were valid, Hillel’s view is ultimately adopted. Both sides engaged in a lengthy debate that doubtlessly refined and sharpened their arguments. But the School of Hillel went a step further. They taught the views of Shammai’s School alongside their own. 

Have you ever tried to really understand another person’s perspective well enough to be able to teach it to others, especially if it was a view with which you utterly disagreed? 

I had an incredible professor in college named Dennis Dalton who was able to do this. Professor Dalton taught political theory, and while we studied widely popular thinkers like Plato, Gandhi, and King, his syllabus included some of history’s most controversial political thinkers, like Machiavelli, Marx, and even Hitler. Professor Dalton was himself unabashedly progressive, but instead of presenting these thinkers in a way that betrayed his own views, or with academic dispassion, he made a point of teaching each philosophy as he imagined its author would have wanted it presented. Imagine what it would take to understand Mein Kampf so well that you could enable it to make sense to a lecture hall full of liberal Columbia and Barnard students, including many Jewish students, in the 21st Century. And consider how much sharper Professor Dalton’s own views must have become through that kind of deep, if uncomfortable, learning. 

As I mentioned before, I don’t think we all need to go as far as Professor Dalton did. But most of us, myself included, don’t tend to listen to ideas with which we disagree at all. When we do, it’s only in order to find and expose their flaws. Instead of seeking understanding, we typically use the other person’s turn to speak as an opportunity to formulate our own responses and figure out how to prove why we’re right. As a result, when we engage in conversation across lines of difference, we tend to hear without truly listening. We don’t really understand the other side, and we miss opportunities to refine and sharpen our own perspectives. 

This was one of the primary skills we practiced in our sessions with Resetting the Table. They called it “Getting to Bullseye,” taking the time to prove you get what the other side is saying. To “get to bullseye,” we have to actively listen to the other person without judging them or formulating our counterarguments, which distract us from truly hearing them. We have to ask follow-up questions, not to challenge, but rather to ensure we’ve heard clearly and understood fully. And we have to try, sometimes over and over again, to articulate what the other person has just said in a way that demonstrates to them that we’ve fully understood. 

The other night, my 3 year old, Akiva, was getting ready to brush his teeth, and, as is our household minhag, he asked our Alexa device to set a two-minute timer. Alexa, as is her custom, responded by saying “OK, two minute timer set.” “Abba!” Akiva exclaimed. “Why is Alexa copying me?!” I explained, “That’s how Alexa makes sure she heard you right, and also how she makes sure you know she heard you right. Because if Alexa had responded by saying, ‘OK, I’ve added blueberries to your shopping list,’ you’ll know she didn’t understand you, and you will need to try again until she gets it.” And with that, Akiva skipped off to brush his teeth, happy that Alexa had understood him. 

The same is true for us. A conversation can be transformed when both sides feel they have been understood and are being listened to seriously. And what’s more, both sides, even if they continue to disagree, will emerge from the conversation not only with a better understanding of the other side, but also with a deeper and clearer understanding of their own perspective. And, perhaps more importantly, the practice of getting to bullseye helps ensure that the relationship is maintained, even bolstered, despite — or perhaps even because of — the conflict. 

That is precisely what happened when we practiced this skill with Resetting the Table. Even as we discussed an incredibly charged and deeply personal topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, participants walked away feeling good that they had been understood, and with relationships not only intact, but strengthened. 

Just as it was true for the students of the ancient schools of Hillel and Shammai, the issues that divide us today — within our Jewish community, within our country, and between nations — are often important, creating chasms between us that can become wide and deep. The challenge before us is not to retreat from our passionately held positions, but rather to not retreat from one another. How can we strengthen our communities and build a more perfect union even as we hold passionate beliefs that divide us? 

It is not, as is sometimes argued, through the false peace of so-called “civility,” which too often serves only to silence those who dissent from the dominant view. And none of us should be expected to express our opinions only when we hold views aligned with existing communal consensus. Yet we also know that the incessant indignation, constant conflict, and unceasing ugliness that characterizes our era is a dead-end, too.

On Yom Kippur, we commit to atoning for many transgressions, particularly for misusing and abusing our power of speech. And some two millennia ago, our ancestors showed us how: to sit and engage, however long it may take, even and especially when our disagreements are fierce; to insist that our own dignity is affirmed while also honoring those with whom we disagree; and to hold our own views with humility, listening to and learning from the other side. 

So let us agree to disagree. But let us commit to disagreeing better. If we are willing to follow the path laid out by our sages, we will become better partners in nurturing our community and strengthening our future despite, and indeed perhaps even because of, our disagreements. 

I hope you disagree.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Masks: Kol Nidrei 5782

Photo by Otto Rascon on Pexels.com

We’ve each come up with our own tricks to make the past year and a half a little more bearable. One of mine is that, sometimes, when I’m wearing a mask, I like to pretend I’m a ninja, or a Star Wars villain. Wearing a hoodie, or, when I’m davvening, putting my tallis over my head, makes the illusion even more deeply satisfying. Go ahead, try it sometime. You have your rabbi’s permission. Consider it my High Holiday gift to you — a little trick that can make the unpleasant act of wearing a mask fun, a momentary escape into a thrilling fantasy. 

See, that’s the thing about masks — yes, they help us protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, and yes, they can also be uncomfortable, annoying, and frustrating. But they also enable us to pretend to be something or someone else, to present ourselves to the world however we want others perceive us, to hide from others and, sometimes, even from ourselves.

This is true not only of physical masks, but also of metaphorical ones. When you stop to think about it, we all wear masks, figuratively speaking. Each and every day, we all put on various facades to present ourselves to the world as we want to be perceived, and as we want to see ourselves. 

Our facades take various forms. We may take off and put on multiple different ones in the course of any given day. Sometimes, the masks we wear serve beneficial purposes — comfort, protection, respect for others, dignity for ourselves. 

But often, we put on masks because we’re afraid — we fear that if the world were to see us as we truly are, if our authentic selves were on full display, we would be rejected. So great is our desire to love and be loved, to be accepted and to belong, to possess what we perceive ourselves to lack, or to attain some sense of control in a chaotic world, that we are all too willing to pretend to be someone or something else. 

And ironically, it is this perpetual mask wearing — which is rooted in our discomfort with the flawed and fragile soul we know ourselves deep down to be — that so often results in our tendency to fall and to fail, to act in ways that harm ourselves and others, which in turn only makes us want to put on better disguises. 

This vicious cycle has been part of the human condition since the beginning; it’s practically encoded in our DNA. In my midrash class this year, we studied rabbinic teachings about Adam and Eve committing the world’s first sin. 

According to some of our tradition’s sages, the first human beings ate from the Tree of Knowledge because they were dissatisfied with their perceived place in the order of things; they believed that eating the tree’s fruit would make them more than they were, even, perhaps, make them into gods. 

And, when they feared their wrongdoing had been discovered, they hid out of shame. The insecurity leads to the fall, which leads to more insecurity, which, invariably, leads to more falling. 

We may no longer live in the Garden of Eden or wear garments woven from fig leaves. But are we really all that different from our earliest ancestors?

Yom Kippur interrupts the momentum of our busy lives each fall with the intention of helping us break this cycle. Stop everything, it says. Just for a moment. Stop acting like the boss, the employee, the communal leader, the parent, the child, the spouse, the friend you feel you are supposed to be, just for one day. Put aside the costume you think you need to wear in order to belong, to feel loved, or significant, or in control. Lay down the armor you think you need to put on to protect yourself from feeling hurt, or rejected, or ignored. In fact, stop everything about your routine — stop wearing the clothes you normally wear, stop being concerned about your body odor and your stinky breath, stop numbing your pain with physical pleasures, stop eating, and even drinking water. 

And now, stripped of all the masks you wear, take a look at yourself honestly. Yes, to reflect on the times you missed the mark, on the times you resolved to mend your ways and did not succeed, on how your life as it is does not align with the way it ought to be, on how you have not done enough to help redeem the world. 

But also to consider the uniquely beautiful and beloved and worthy person you actually are, to stand before a God of love and forgiveness who has known you in all of your perfect imperfection from the moment you were born, who has witnessed all of your triumphs and failures, and who above all sees into your heart (Cf. I Samuel 16:7), who knows exactly how you are flawed and loves you anyway, who loves you even because of your blemishes, who sees how you have missed the mark but also how deeply you desire to do the right thing, how you are striving to be the best person — the best parent, partner, child, sibling, friend, community member — you can be, even as you, even as we all, sometimes fall short of those goals. 

This, after all, is a God who, according to the Torah, created each and every one of us in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27). Our ancient rabbis take this idea even further. In one of my favorite texts, a teaching that is at once beautiful, powerful, and foundational to Jewish faith and values, the sages of the Mishnah declare: 

The first human being was created alone…to tell of God’s greatness, for when a human being makes several coins with one mold, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy Blessed One, made all people in the mold of the first human, and not one of them is similar to another…

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

If every individual is intrinsically godly, then, like God, every one of us is indispensable. And since no two human beings are exactly alike, then our distinctiveness is divine. The fact that every single human being is unique and essential testifies to God’s greatness. It is therefore heresy to want to be someone or something else, or to want someone else to be more like us.

True, it can be uncomfortable, perhaps even painful, to gaze into an honest mirror, one that reveals all our flaws and all our faults. But Yom Kippur invites us to see in that mirror our redeeming qualities alongside our flaws. Though we may tend to fixate on our imperfections when we look at our reflection, a more objective look will invariably reveal that our blemishes are in fact negligible when compared to our many, many beautiful features. 

And, moreover, Yom Kippur reminds us that we can view our imperfections not as deficiencies, but as distinctiveness, remembering that we are each created special, that beneath everything we may have gotten wrong in the past year, or indeed during the entire course of our lives, is an inherent goodness. 

Remember that the essence of Yom Kippur, indeed of the entire High Holy Day season, is teshuvah. The term teshuvah is usually translated as repentance, but it literally means to return. If repentance is ultimately about returning, then our tradition is insisting our most basic natural state is goodness. Yom Kippur, then, is not about becoming someone different, but rather about returning to our essential selves and committing in the year to come to be the fullest and best possible versions of those selves

This day calls on each of us to remember that, underneath everything, who you fundamentally are is the “you” who is devoted to your spouse, your parents, your friends, or whoever is significant to you in your life. You are the “you” who tries your very best to raise good kids, even when your kids don’t make it particularly easy. You are the “you” who lifts up others’ spirits with your music, your art, your dad jokes, your world-famous chocolate chip cookies. You are the “you” who tries to learn something new as often as you can, and who generously shares your knowledge with others. You are the “you” who cares for those who are sick or struggling; who shows up to comfort the bereaved; who pursues justice in our city; and who strives to repair our world. 

And that’s just regular “you.” Take care not to overlook the ‘you’ that has been revealed over the past 18 months. The “you” who has gone out of your way to log on to Zoom for daily minyan in case someone needed to say Kaddish. The “you” who participated in our Caring Crews initiative, making weekly phone calls to those who are isolated at home. The “you” who delivered honey cakes to fellow congregants mourning a loss. The “you” who provided hundreds of meals to frontline healthcare workers. The “you” who is a frontline healthcare professional or other essential worker. 

As a matter of fact, many of you took the time in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days to reflect on the last year. I was so moved and inspired by your submissions, which reveal who you have proven yourselves to be during this trying time: You are the “you” who embraced a period of isolation as an opportunity to quiet and slow down. You are the “you” who became open to new relationships, to new love. You are the “you” who cultivated gratitude and grace, forbearance and faith. You are the “you” who leaned into listening more, learned how to let go more, and gained a passion for giving more.

As we stand maskless before ourselves, our community, and above all, a God of love and forgiveness on Yom Kippur, do not for one moment forget that this, all of this and more, is who you are, who you really are. 

On this holy day, we are given a new opportunity to rediscover and embrace who we are, and in so doing, become who we were always meant to be. 

Besides periodically pretending to be Kylo Ren when I strap on my trusty N95, another thing that has gotten me through this pandemic has been the TV show Ted Lasso.

In short, the series is about a relentlessly positive American college football coach named Ted Lasso who is, in defiance of reason, hired to lead a British professional soccer team. In one episode, a character named Keeley approaches Ted and asks him, “Which would you rather be, a lion or a panda?” 

A debate ensues between Ted and Rebecca, Ted’s boss. Ted replies that he would rather be a panda. Rebecca argues that “lion” is the obvious and only correct choice. Jamie, the team’s talented but dim-witted star, stumbles into the argument. Ted asks him to choose between the two animals. Jamie seems genuinely puzzled by the question. “I’m me,” he answers. “Why would I want to be anything else?”

Ted quips that Jamie likely doesn’t realize how psychologically healthy that answer is. But that is precisely what this holy day urges us to affirm. Today we stand before God as we truly are, stripped of all disguise and pretense, and hear God say, “You’re you. Why would I want you to be anything else?” 

Can we, in the course of these next 25 hours or so, come to look at ourselves as we truly are, stripped of all disguise and pretense, and say to ourselves, “I’m me. Why would I want to be anything else?” 

That’s what it means to be inscribed and sealed for life in the year to come. That’s what it means to really taste the sweetness of a New Year. 

May we each merit being inscribed and sealed for life. May we all have a happy and sweet New Year. 

Shanah tovah u’metukah, and Gmar hatimah tovah.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back to the Future: Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5782

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

The year was 1944. As the second World War raged overseas, my grandfather (of blessed memory) was a young army private, based at Camp Croft, South Carolina. To that point, he hadn’t been deployed overseas because he served as a clerk at the base, and was apparently indispensable to his unit’s baseball team. 

But one fateful day, Grandpa injured his leg, and couldn’t play ball anymore. So instead, he got shipped off to Europe as an infantryman. 

That November, Grandpa’s battalion was stationed near the Belgian-German border, preparing for what the Allies hoped would be a final push through a rugged area called the Hurtgen Forest, across the Rhine River, and into the German heartland. 

On the eve of the assault, Grandpa’s commanding officer was outlining the battle plan. Divvying up responsibilities, the officer asked whether any of his soldiers had been trained to fire heavy machine guns. Grandpa had heard that the soldiers who knew how to use those kinds of weapons would be sent to the front lines, and would likely draw first fire. So Grandpa kept his mouth shut. Not particularly brave, I admit, but definitely pragmatic. 

Now, the thing you have to know about my Grandpa is that he had an awful poker face. The officer zeroed in on the terrified-looking young soldier trying desperately not to be noticed. “Private,” he asked, “what was your training?” Grandpa answered that he was a clerk and a baseball player. The officer took a good, long, incredulous look at his soldier. “Okay, wiseguy,” he responded. “Now you’re a scout.”

Scouts, just so we’re on the same page, are the soldiers who are sent out ahead of all the other troops to gather information about the enemy’s positions, vehicles, weapons, and movements. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs during wartime, because scouts are the ones who, by design, often encounter the enemy first.

So the next morning, the Army’s newest scout was dispatched into the forest ahead of the other troops. 

His squad almost immediately came under fire from German snipers hidden in the tree canopy. Grandpa was shot in the head. The bullet pierced his metal helmet and tore off a chunk of scalp. 

He survived, thank God. His helmet sufficiently slowed the velocity of the bullet to prevent the blow from being fatal. But he was rendered instantly unconscious. 

Courageous medics were able to evacuate him from the battlefield and bring him to a field hospital for treatment. When he regained consciousness, Grandpa discovered that he was paralyzed entirely on his right side and that he had lost the ability to understand or express speech. Shortly thereafter, he was shipped off to England for treatment, not knowing if he would ever speak or walk again. 

I don’t know for sure how Grandpa felt in those early days following his injury. Sure, he was probably relieved; after all, he managed to survive a gunshot to the head, a fate not enjoyed by thousands of other soldiers who were much less fortunate. 

But I imagine it more likely that he was scared, filled with unanswered and unanswerable questions about what his future would hold. Not only did he not know whether he would ever fully recover from his injuries, but at that point, he had no way of knowing whether the U.S. would win what would become known as the Battle of Hurtgen Forest (spoiler alert: we didn’t), much less the war altogether (spoiler alert: we did). 

He also was probably angry — at himself, at his C.O., at the Army, at the Germans, maybe all of the above. And I imagine he was overcome with sadness, dwelling on all of the life experiences he would miss out on without the ability to walk or talk or use his right arm again. 

In the end, Grandpa made a full recovery and lived a long and fulfilling life. After a year of physical, speech, and cognitive therapy, he regained the use of his right arm and leg, and relearned how to communicate. He went on to attend graduate school for psychology, ultimately earning his doctorate. He became one of the country’s foremost experts in childhood psychopathology, published three books, and received tenure and a departmental chairmanship at one of the country’s leading universities. He met and married the love of his life, my amazing grandmother, Bobbie (who just turned 90 on Saturday — happy birthday again, Grandma! — and is as vibrant as ever), with whom he raised three children. Their children, in turn, each became professional successes in their own rights and raised beautiful families of their own.

But here’s the thing: while I know that he overcame both the physical challenges of his injuries and what must have been the overwhelming emotional challenges that accompanied those ailments, I don’t know how he did it. How does anybody face what he faced and not only endure but flourish? 

That’s the question I want to invite us all to think about today, because I know that, as we gather for this High Holy Day season, many of us are struggling and looking for a lifeline. 

First and foremost, we are all dealing with the ongoing trauma of this pandemic, both as individuals and as a society. Each of us may be struggling in different ways, but by definition a pandemic impacts all of us on some level. 

And the unyielding and still out of control COVID crisis has been compounded by our experiencing and bearing witness to other man-made and natural disasters this year: harrowing assaults on our democracy, horrific mass shootings, ruinous wildfires, deadly floods, and devastating hurricanes. We have seen earthquakes level cities, buildings collapse without warning, and America’s longest-ever war end in chaos and humanitarian catastrophe. I am certain I’m not alone in feeling as though we begin these Days of Awe against the backdrop of our world collapsing all around us. 

And those are only the crises we all have in common. As we gather today, many in our community are holding their own distinct anxieties, wrestling with their own frustrations, and coping with their own grief on top of overlapping calamities and compounding stresses. How do we confront what we are individually and collectively facing and not only survive, but thrive? 

I never got to ask my grandfather that question before he died back in 2008. It’s probably just as well; he may not have even had a clear answer. I doubt that a 21 year old army private, paralyzed and in the throes of aphasia, thought through the why’s and how’s of his recovery. And, as thoughtful, intelligent, and self-aware as my grandfather was, I wonder if, even looking back on it later in life, he would have been able to unpack how, exactly, he overcame those challenges. The truth is, I suspect that most people who make it through difficult times do it without a roadmap and can’t necessarily articulate after the fact exactly how they did it. 

But if we are sensitive to it, this holy day offers us a guide to navigating and triumphing over our crises, whatever they may be. 

As a festival marking and celebrating a new year, Rosh Hashanah is a liminal moment, a doorway between our past and our future. It therefore has always struck me as counterintuitive that even as Rosh Hashanah invites us to look ahead toward the coming year, it places its primary focus on the past. 

The theme of remembrance pulses like a bass line through the holy day’s liturgy: Each time we recite the Amidah, we include the prayers, “Zokhreinu L’hayyim / God, remember us for life,” and “zokher yetzurav l’hayyim v’rahamim / May God remember God’s creations for life and compassion.” Right before the musaf Amidah, in the famous liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef, we affirm that on this day, God remembers all forgotten things, and opens the Book of Remembrances. The festival is even repeatedly referred to in our liturgy as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance

In the course of our worship, it seems like we refer to this holy day by its backward-looking title more than any other, including, notably, the decidedly forward-facing ‘Rosh Hashanah’, the Beginning of the Year, a term that is never mentioned in the Bible, and seldom mentioned in the prayerbook. 

Stop for a moment to consider how strange it is that a holy day which is ostensibly about anticipating the future seems so fixated on the past. 

In this holy day’s emphasis on the centrality of memory, our tradition is pointing us to a fundamental truth of our humanity, which is that the way to discern our path forward is bound up in remembering our past. 

Now, I recognize that what I just said likely seems contrary to common-sense expectation. But it turns out that our identities, our fundamental understanding of who we are and what we are meant to do in this world, are rooted in our memories. Each of us possesses a unique sense of self that develops over time out of the memories we carry, and the stories we construct from those memories. As Israeli scholar and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman puts it, we are “remembering selves”

The truth that we are “remembering selves,” that the essence of our being is memory, is perhaps easier to recognize by identifying its opposite. Many of us have had the excruciating experience of watching a loved one slowly slip away from some degenerative cognitive condition, like Alzheimer’s Disease. My own grandfather passed away after a years-long struggle with a similar condition called Lewy Body Dementia (or LBD), which, ironically enough, doctors believed was traceable back to his wartime head trauma. So this is a pain my family and I unfortunately know all too well. 

What conditions like Alzheimer’s and LBD demonstrate is how intertwined memory is in our ability to fully function in the present, much less to move constructively into our future. When a disease slowly destroys the parts of the brain associated with memory, it destroys everything that makes you you: your continuity with your past; your awareness of your relationships in the present; your sense of your position in space and time; your learned skills and talents; even ultimately your innate physical abilities. The tragedy of losing one’s memory is that, as memory disappears, the self vanishes.

At the same time, our identities, meaning the ways we understand ourselves in relation to our world, are not created simply as the sum total of the conscious experiences that have been imprinted on our minds. Rather, our identities are the result of stories we tell about ourselves. Our memories don’t produce these stories. Instead, we construct these stories from our memories. We connect the dots of the experiences imprinted on our minds into a particular picture. And, just as with any story, we invariably pick and choose what details to include, and what to leave out; we emphasize or embellish some parts, while diminishing the importance of others. 

We are often not fully conscious of this process, but the implications of this narrative construction are massive. Everything about how we conduct ourselves in the world — how we behave, how we live our lives, how we move forward into our future — is an extension of the stories we tell about ourselves. 

This, in part, is why, standing at the threshold of a new year, our tradition has us focus not so much on where we want to go, but rather on where we have been, and what that says about us, because only by reviewing our past can we know who we are, and only by knowing who we are can we discern how we are to be moving forward. 

Returning for a moment to my grandfather, it seems to me that in order not only to successfully endure the hardship of recovering from such a traumatic injury but also to flourish through and beyond that experience, he would have had to construct an understanding of himself as someone who could, should, and would survive and thrive. Perhaps it was embracing that self-understanding, that identity, which emboldened him to do whatever it took to overcome his adversity. 

So it is with us: whether as individuals, as families, as a nation, our ability to triumph over whatever challenges we are confronting calls on us, first and foremost, to see ourselves as the kind of people who can, should, and will emerge victorious.

But there is a danger inherent in all of this: If we can construct our sense of self out of our memories, that also means we can tell incorrect, incomplete, or downright false stories about ourselves. Our memories are imperfect and subjective. Our minds are not recorders, constantly capturing everything that we experience from an objective vantage point. We only remember what we experience or what we come to believe we have experienced. And even then, it is mostly the unusual experiences, or the experiences that we make a point of paying attention to, that stick out for us in our minds’ eyes. We struggle to see ourselves and others accurately, sometimes seeing the best in ourselves and the worst in others, sometimes only seeing what we lack that others possess, and these biases color how we process and remember our experiences. 

And our propensity toward what social scientists call confirmation bias — the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms what we already believe to be true — applies also to how we construct the stories we tell about ourselves. We ignore memories that do not conform to the narratives we want to tell about ourselves; we skip over uncomfortable facts in the process of weaving our memories into stories. Yale University psychology professor Jennifer Richelson puts it this way: “The mind is a remarkable instrument, adept at many things, including self-delusion.” 

What happens when we act in accordance with a self-understanding that is deficient, distorted, or deluded? 

Let’s go back to my grandfather. Let’s say, as he lay wounded in his hospital bed, not yet fully aware of the severity of his condition, he became determined to construct an understanding of himself as someone who could, should, and would endure, recover, and flourish. Then suppose, as he constructed that narrative, he, whether deliberately or inadvertently, failed to recognize his paralysis. 

Chances are good, the moment he tried to get out of his hospital bed, he would have had to grapple emotionally with the dissonance between his self-understanding and his obvious disability. Perhaps he would have easily overcome this dissonance. Perhaps it would have left him feeling discouraged, deflated, or defeated. Perhaps it would have rendered him depressed and despondent, or left him consumed by rage. Perhaps he would have simply fallen flat on his face and injured himself further, maybe even irreparably. 

One thing is certain: he couldn’t have avoided the reality of his condition forever, especially if he ever hoped to fully recover. In order to regain his ability to walk and talk, he had to directly confront what had happened and work through it. We can’t fix what we don’t face.

We Americans are conditioned to be primarily forward-thinking. Our prevailing cultural sensibility has long been optimistic, future-oriented, self-assured, and convinced of our inherent goodness. We explore the uncharted, chase new horizons, and embrace the unbounded possibilities of the future. 

To be sure, this mindset has its benefits, and has contributed to extraordinary individual and collective accomplishments throughout American history. But our forward-facing national ethos, our sometimes vehement refusal to look back, and our inclination to turn away are also at least partly responsible for many of our nation’s greatest historical injustices and our chronic inability to solve complex ongoing challenges — from the persistent inequality of Black and Native Americans, to the lingering impact of repeated foreign policy catastrophes, to the quickly-accelerating climate crisis, to the still-raging COVID pandemic. It is understandable to want to move on and turn the page rather than honestly confront yesterday’s mistakes or today’s pain. But avoiding thinking or talking about those uncomfortable truths only increases the likelihood that the ghosts of our past will continue to haunt or hurt us in the future.

On the individual level, this truth holds as well. How many of us harbor some unresolved past trauma, some unhealed emotional wound, some unrepaired relationship, some deeply held grudge, some secret shame, or some nagging regret, that functions like an invisible anchor, preventing us from successfully moving forward in our lives? Refusing to remember past mistakes and failures, denying or avoiding uncomfortable parts of our past, all but guarantees we will make those same missteps over and over again, with potentially ruinous results. 

Whether as individuals or as a society, in order to overcome our obstacles in the present and flourish in the future, we have to reckon with all of our past — the good and the bad, the pleasant and the ugly, the triumphs and the mistakes, the achievements and the defeats, the pride and the pain — fully and honestly. Otherwise, we risk remaining stuck right where we are, or suffer fates worse still. 

The Torah offers us a powerful model: The Torah emphasizes humanity’s inherent capacity for goodness and records how many of our ancestors tried to live up to their godly potential. But it also is replete with examples of our ancestors’ failures in the course of their striving: Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. The Children of Israel constantly complain and rebel in the wilderness. Even Moses, the greatest of our prophets, fails and is barred from entering the Promised Land. And what’s more, this warts-and-all remembrance of our people permeates the rest of the Tanakh. 

See, the Bible is not an aggrandizing myth about Jewish greatness, or gauzy nostalgia about how our ancestors believed with perfect faith and acted with perfect righteousness. Rather, it deliberately tells a story that repeatedly calls out our ancestors for their failings in order to remind us that, in the course of our lives, and over the course of generations, all of us will experience highs, lows, and everything in between. And we can only ever really move forward if we tell a story about ourselves that acknowledges all of it

That, I think, is why the zikaron, the remembrance, that we invoke on Rosh Hashanah is so comprehensive. We say during the special section of musaf called zikhronot, which is dedicated to this theme of remembrance:

Atah zokher ma’aseh olam, u’foked kol yetzurei kedem, You God remember the deeds of the world, and You are mindful of Your creations from the beginning of time. Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every secret from the beginning. There is nothing forgotten before the throne of Your glory, nothing concealed from Your eyes. You remember every deed, and no creation is hidden from You. Infinite our God, everything is revealed and known to You

One does not have to believe in an anthropomorphic God to recognize that everything in our past, even the things we fail to remember ourselves or would rather forget about, is a part of our reality. Everything in our past is what has made up our present whether we like it or not. The good news is that we can live even with the uncomfortable parts of our past. We’re already doing it. And what’s more, our tradition affirms that our God — a God who sees and remembers everything, who knows all of our secrets, who knows all of our flaws and shortcomings — loves us anyway and wants us to thrive in the year to come.  

But if we want to make the coming year different from the one we are leaving behind, if we want to make our future better than the present we are currently enduring — if we want to stop simply enduring and start truly flourishing — we have to construct a complete and honest story about ourselves that incorporates everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly; connecting all of our dots into a picture that emphasizes our inherent capacity for goodness and our continuous striving to fulfill our godly potential while also acknowledging that we are imperfect people in an imperfect world who have stumbled and who will continue to stumble in the course of our striving. Only then can we commit ourselves to live in the year to come in a way that is more aligned with this redrawn picture of who we understand ourselves to be, and only then will we be truly worthy of another opportunity to keep trying.

My dear friends, I know that these are difficult times. But if we are willing to take it, this holy day offers us a pathway to enduring the challenges we face, and to flourishing beyond them, in the year ahead. 

On this day, we look backward in order to move forward; remembering where we’ve been, rediscovering who we are, and rededicating ourselves to what we can become. 

May we all be inscribed for a year of health, happiness, and love. 

Shanah Tovah.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A call for justice and peace in Israel and Palestine from an imam and a rabbi

Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

As our respective communities celebrate the Islamic Holy Day of Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) and the Jewish festival of Shavuot (which commemorates the receiving of the Torah), we call upon Muslims, Jews and people of conscience everywhere to denounce the violence between Israel and Palestine, and we welcome the recent news of a cease-fire.

However, while we are glad to see an end to this latest round of bloodshed, it is not enough. We demand that all parties — including our own American government — resume the pursuit of a just and peaceful final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with bold, proactive and continuous diplomatic engagement.

Our hearts have been broken in recent weeks over the deaths of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, and we deplore the violence and destruction that has erupted in Israeli cities between Jewish- and Palestinian-Israelis, particularly attacks perpetrated by those who falsely claim to speak in the name of Judaism and Islam.

We demand that both governmental leaders and private citizens do everything in their power to de-escalate the conflict and further calm, to protect life and limb, to restore the safety of all and to prevent any damage to sites sacred to people of all faiths.

We call upon Israelis and Palestinians alike to recognize that there ultimately is only one way out of this conflict: a just, negotiated solution that affirms the equal rights and dignity of both peoples.

From our vantage point, we note that this immediate crisis had deep roots in historical and ongoing injustices, most notably in the continuing Israeli occupation and de facto annexation of lands that comprise the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people; in acts of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and residents of Jerusalem; and also in the rejectionism and acts of violence against Israeli civilians that too often have characterized the Palestinian national movement.

But whatever one’s analysis of the history, it seems clear to us that the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is both unacceptable and unsustainable.

As long as it is allowed to continue, extremists on all sides will feel empowered, and the potential for violence will remain constant. We therefore call for all sides to lay down their arms and return to the path of dialogue, negotiation and ultimate resolution.

While there are passionate differences of opinion within our respective communities at home and abroad about how best to resolve this long-standing conflict, we believe a good place to begin is remembering that both of our traditions assert that all lives are infinitely sacred.

We therefore grieve with the families of Israelis and Palestinians who have been killed, and we pray for the full and speedy recovery of all who have been wounded. We plead with our coreligionists in Israel and Palestine — and, indeed, around the world — to return to the shared vision of the ancient Hebrew prophets and of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all, of a world of inclusion, justice and peace.

Closer to home, we are committed to working together to bring about that world and building bridges of understanding between our respective communities. May all of us come together to bring about a more inclusive, just and peaceful world, speedily and in our days.

Ammar Amonette is the imam at the Islamic Center of Virginia in Richmond. Contact him at: imamicva@gmail.com

Michael Knopf is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El, in Richmond. Contact him at: rabbi.knopf@bethelrichmond.org

The views expressed in this article solely are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of their congregations.

This article was co-authored by Ammar Amonette, and was originally published by Richmond Times-Dispatch: https://richmond.com/opinion/columnists/ammar-amonette-and-michael-knopf-a-call-for-justice-and-peace-in-israel-and-palestine/article_b90caafc-3166-5c10-aab0-1053de1fbde2.html?fbclid=IwAR1PaZnRM3qA9wdUA998xu8APhHRtIJE8XwcS49qx5pipaGfOwL6zdxuB0g

Posted in Articles and Op-Eds | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bringing the Heavenly Jerusalem Down to Earth

At the center of the Jewish Sabbath liturgy is a question. The Jewish worshipper asks God: “מתי תמלך בציון, when will You reign over Zion?” This is not an ordinary question, no mere invitation to small talk with the Divine. Rather, it is a yearning question, a question rooted in heartache and heartbreak. It is a question that evokes the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, an event that involved not only the deaths of thousands but that precipitated centuries of Jewish homelessness, powerlessness, and pain. 

For more than two thousand years, the destruction of Jerusalem has come to symbolize the broken and perpetually unredeemed state of our world. Where you find allusions to the restoration of Jerusalem in Jewish texts, it is rarely referring to simply rebuilding a city’s structures or replacing its leaders. More often than not, it is speaking metaphorically. Restoring Jerusalem is Jewish for perfecting the world. 

The perfection of the world, or tikkun ha-olam, is a core Jewish value. Some say it is the primary Jewish value, the thing Jews are obliged to do above everything else. Scholars continue to debate its full meaning, but in essence, tikkun ha-olam means the establishment of a social order that is aligned with God, which is to say a social order that reflects God’s defining qualities of hesed, love, mishpat, justice, and tzedek, equity. The ultimate goal of tikkun olam is the establishment of shalom, peace — a condition free from division and strife, in which every person sees herself as inescapably interconnected with everyone else, a society of unity that embodies God’s fundamental oneness. 

It is, of course, hard to imagine a society governed by human beings which could look like this. After all, even when ancient Jerusalem stood, things were rarely ideal. According to tradition, the city’s ruin in antiquity was the result of unchecked hatred, pervasive injustice, and rampant violence. 

And still today, when we have been fortunate to see the building of a modern Jerusalem upon the city’s former ruins, Jerusalem is both resplendent and fraught. It has magnificent contemporary structures and institutions and, at the same time, is plagued by insufficient housing and rampant poverty. It is both the beating heart of Jewish spirituality and also the epicenter of inter religious strife among Jews. The meaning of the Hebrew name Yerushalayim means “city of peace,” and yet Jerusalem remains a primary source of the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 

That’s why our common ancestors envisioned that the world would only attain true perfection when God herself were sovereign over it. And when God’s rule is inaugurated, they naturally presumed that the seat of God’s dominion would be Jerusalem, Jewish tradition’s most significant city. From Jerusalem, God’s dominion of love, justice, equity, and peace would extend over all. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה׳ מירושלים, Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem” (2:3). 

But because Jerusalem has always been corrupted by human imperfection, Jewish tradition has held that God will rule our world from an altogether new Jerusalem, a ירושלים של מעלה, a heavenly Jerusalem, which will, in time, supplant ירושלים של מטה, the earthly Jerusalem.

When the ancient rabbis envisioned that heavenly Jerusalem, they looked upon a city of rubble and ruins, a city overrun by wild beasts, dominated by foreign occupiers, and beset by tragedy brought upon by a combination of Jewish failure and imperial brutality. So they imagined a glorious “city of gold and silver and of sapphires and rubies, of precious stones and of luxurious spices.”

Such a grandiose vision would have been natural and understandable to a person crushed by a dark reality, as the ancient rabbis were. All of us, in moments of poverty or pain, imagine for ourselves a life opposite the one we are actually experiencing, a life of wealth and wellbeing, of comfort and plenty. 

But the rabbis did not stop there. Alongside their vision of a “great and beautiful city that descends from heaven fully built,” a city with “houses and gates of pearl and doorposts of precious jewels,” a city where riches overflow their stores and lay in the streets for the taking, the rabbis added that among the readily accessible treasures in this new Jerusalem would be Torah, the repository of the sacred wisdom that, according to tradition, reflects God’s instructions for building a world of love, justice, and equity; and peace, a condition of inner and outer wholeness, in which internal strife and external division cease. Where earthly Jerusalem was impoverished, the rabbis imagined heavenly Jerusalem as almost unfathomably opulent. And where earthly Jerusalem was beset by injustice, cruelty, poverty, and violence, heavenly Jerusalem would have an over-abundance of Divine instruction and harmony. 

In other words, the rabbis envisioned that the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem were negative images of each other. And, in that sense, the rabbis envisioned that our world is but the negative image of a perfected world, a world redeemed. לא כעולם הזה עולם הבא, they taught. The world that is coming is not like this world. Rather, it is, according to the third century sage Rav Yosef, an עולם הפוך, an inverted world, where that which is great in our world will be made low, and that which is lowly in our world will be exalted. 

If the heavenly Jerusalem is the rabbinic vision of a new world order, it is worth spending a few moments exploring what they imagined that order would look like. I think there are three major components: radical inclusion, social justice, and pervasive peace. Let’s discuss each of these:

First, let’s talk about radical inclusion. Among the prophecies associated with the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is big enough to include everyone in the world. The earthly Jerusalem is, today, about 50 square miles. In earlier eras it was much smaller. 

But according to the second century sage Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, the heavenly Jerusalem will be so large that a horse running from one side of the city in the morning will not arrive at the other end until midday. I actually did the math here, and that means if we were talking about the world’s fastest horse running on the day with the least amount of daylight, Jerusalem would be about 275 miles across. Larger, of course, if it were galloping on the day of the summer solstice, about 385 miles across. The traditional commentaries unfortunately don’t clarify on that point. 

But the numbers are not what’s really important here. What rabbinic tradition is trying to say is that while the earthly Jerusalem is notorious for not being large enough to accommodate all the people who might otherwise want to live there, the heavenly Jerusalem is large enough to include everyone. The heavenly Jerusalem has space and a place for all people. 

Underscoring this point for the rabbis are the words of Psalm 122, which they understood not as a description of the Jerusalem that was or is, but rather of the Jerusalem that one day will be. The psalmist writes:

I rejoiced in those who said to me: ‘Let us go to God’s house.’

Our feet were standing in your gates, Jerusalem.

A Jerusalem that is built as a city that is joined fast together,

Where the tribes, the tribes of God, make pilgrimage…”

Earthly Jerusalem was famously a hotbed of division and strife: a place whose sanctity was contested by the various Israelite tribes, the point of rupture that resulted in ten lost tribes, and later ground-zero for inter religious sectarian violence among Jews. Earthly Jerusalem was in ancient times most likely not a city that felt welcoming or inclusive. For many, receiving an invitation to Jerusalem was not an occasion that would have evoked joy but, rather, anxiety and trepidation; who knew what kind of hostility one might encounter among the fractiousness that existed within its gates? 

The sense that Jerusalem could not accommodate everyone has persisted throughout history, and remains true today, when many Jerusalemites are displaced through gentrification, poverty, and a lack of affordable housing; when Jews frequently come to blows with each other over their religious differences; and when Jews, Muslims, and Christians struggle to coexist there. 

But the heavenly Jerusalem is the opposite. Heavenly Jerusalem is, in the psalmist’s words, a city “joined fast together,” meaning a city in which diverse peoples feel a deep connection to and responsibility for each other, a place where people of every tribe are embraced and included. Heavenly Jerusalem has both physical and spiritual room for everyone, and no one is made to feel left out.

Indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, the heavenly Jerusalem will be large enough not only to house all the living, but also all the dead. A core principle of rabbinic faith is that God will one day resurrect the dead, from the first human being onward, and bring them to Jerusalem. That’s a lot of people; over 100 billion! But tradition holds that God will make space in the new Jerusalem for all of them. Yes, Heavenly Jerusalem will have plenty of room — room for the living as well as the dead, for the whole as well as for the broken; for she who is well-off, and also she who has fallen, for she who is healthy and also for she who is infirm, for she who is free and also for she who is oppressed.

The expansiveness and inclusivity of the heavenly Jerusalem extends not only to Jewish people but also to all who dwell on earth. Rabbinic tradition takes the words of the prophet Micah, that, in time to come, the peoples of all nations will say, “Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that God may instruct us in God’s ways, and that we may walk in God’s paths” to mean that in this future Jerusalem, Jew and non-Jew will sit down together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood. And it takes the words of Isaiah, who says, “I will bring [the foreigners] to My sacred mountain, and cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar. For My house shall be called a House of Prayer for All Peoples” to mean that, in Heavenly Jerusalem, all of God’s children will join hands as brothers and sisters. And just when you think God will put limitations on inclusion, Isaiah adds, “Yea, I will gather still more to those already gathered!” God will defy your expectations and welcome even more people into the city’s gates.

And this heavenly Jerusalem is not just radically inclusive, but thoroughly and perfectly just. The psalmist identifies Jerusalem as a place notable for its “thrones of justice,” that is to say, a city in which disputes between people are fairly and equitably adjudicated, in which social order is maintained because the rule of law prevails and resources are distributed equitably, and in which the moral order is maintained because all people are treated and nurtured as equals. 

It is fair to say that this picture has never accurately portrayed the Jerusalem of past or present. But in the same way that rabbinic tradition understands the inclusive Jerusalem of Psalm 122 to describe a Jerusalem that one day will be, so too does it hold the psalmist’s vision of Jerusalem’s justness to be prophetic. A future Jerusalem, a heavenly Jerusalem, will be one synonymous with justice. 

In this, the rabbis echo the vision of Isaiah, who prophesies that, one day, God will restore justice and wise counsel to Jerusalem, and, “After that, [Jerusalem] shall be called City of Equity.” And Micah similarly predicts that, in time to come, people will come to Jerusalem from all over the world, specifically to seek out the justice meted out inside its gates, a perfect justice administered by a perfectly just God: “Thus God will judge among the many peoples, and arbitrate for the multitude of nations, however distant.” In this new Jerusalem, justice would be done justly, and Torah — which demands not only administrative justice and distributive justice but also unrestrained compassion — will be readily accessible, freely taught, and passionately studied by all, Jew and non-Jew, instilling in all peoples a commitment to love and righteousness.

Yes, in this perfectly just Jerusalem on high, no person will suffer want, for the distribution of resources will be fair; no person will suffer discrimination or oppression, because all will be honored as equals; and no person will suffer from an unfair verdict or unjust incarceration, because in this Jerusalem, judgment will be perfect.

The embrace of full inclusion coupled with the presence of complete and pervasive justice leads inexorably to the third characteristic of the heavenly Jerusalem: peace

Both Isaiah and Micah speak of a Jerusalem in which all the peoples of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore / וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֹֽתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹֽא־יִשְׂא֞וּ גּ֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּן ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃”  

Again, it is fair to say that the earthly Jerusalem has never been the site of tranquil and harmonious relations between people. Isaiah and Micah are describing a place not yet of this world, a city of peace whose model inspires all people to lay down their arms, destroy their weapons, and transform their tools of human destruction into tools for human flourishing. 

According to rabbinic tradition, the peacefulness of Jerusalem is a direct result of its inclusivity and its justice. The 19th century Ukrainian scholar Malbim notes: 

The need for warmaking is due to two things: 

One, when two peoples do not have a common law, when their legal systems are completely different, the sword will judge and decide between them. 

Two, to protect law and order within a country, so that people do not rebel and throw off the yoke of rule. 

This heavenly Jerusalem will be comprised of all peoples, from the most diverse backgrounds imaginable. Peace is not possible without such radical inclusivity because, according to Malbim, divisions between people invariably lead to conflict. Peace only comes when people sense that they share more than they differ. 

At the same time, members of a diverse society, even a society that is united under a common law, will inevitably clash. But because the people in the new Jerusalem will be ruled with perfect and equal justice, the typical reasons for conflict and war will become obsolete. And since there will cease to be a need to wage war, people will “beat their swords into plowshares” and never again learn war.

That the Heavenly Jerusalem of Jewish tradition would be characterized by peace is unsurprising. The yearning for peace is an elemental human aspiration. For as long as our species has existed, we have always lived under the threat of annihilation. How wonderful it would be, in the words of the prophet Micah, “for every person to sit under her grapevine or fig tree with no one to make her tremble”?! 

That’s why the desire to bring about peaceful coexistence is central to virtually every major religion, as it is in Jewish thought and practice. Three times a day the traditionally observant Jew prays for God to inaugurate a reign of universal peace in the world, and there are literally countless instances in which the dream of peace surfaces in Jewish texts and traditions.

But embedded in the Jewish aspiration for an elusive world peace, embodied by the Heavenly Jerusalem, is actually practical instruction. Peace is possible for human beings to attain. But it requires the creation of a thoroughly inclusive and perfectly just society. As the Talmud teaches, “The Holy Blessed One said, ‘I shall not enter Jerusalem above until I am enter Jerusalem below.’” In other words, the advent of the Heavenly Jerusalem depends on our making the Earthly Jerusalem an inviting place for the indwelling of the Divine Presence, a place imbued with the godly qualities of loving inclusivity, justice, and equity. When every human being is welcome and when justice reigns in the Earthly Jerusalem, then the Heavenly Jerusalem will finally be complete; its establishment on Earth not only possible, but inevitable. Why? Because in making the Earthly Jerusalem godly, we transform it into the Heavenly Jerusalem.

This insight is not simply true of Jerusalem. The persistent brokenness of the earthly Jerusalem is also pervasive and present in every city, and indeed all over the world world. Remember, then, that restoring Jerusalem is Jewish for perfecting the world. Thus, Heavenly Jerusalem is a model for a perfected world, and Jewish tradition insists that if we remake any and all of our cities in the image of God’s love and justice, they will become the Heavenly cities they were destined to be, and redemption will be at hand.

Imagine, for a moment, what our city would look like if it were thoroughly inclusive and perfectly just, if we weren’t — 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 50 years after the Civil Rights revolution — just as segregated as we ever were, if not more; 

if we were as insistent that a poor, African American renter deserved to stay in their home, or that the child of an undocumented immigrant deserved a place in our city, as we are about keeping statues of Confederate “heroes” on their pedestals; 

if your zip code didn’t determine your life expectancy or the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty; 

if 25% of Richmonders — and nearly 40% of our children — didn’t have to go to bed hungry at night; 

if there were equal treatment under the law regardless of your race, religion, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

If we really ended racial segregation, welcomed and integrated immigrants, and made a truly inclusive city; if we distributed resources equitably and ensured full legal equality for peoples of all backgrounds; if we truly cared about everybody’s right to life, not just unborn babies — we may not attain perfect harmony, but we would get, I think, pretty darn close. 

Jewish tradition is urging us, then, to not simply wait for God to bring the heavenly Jerusalem to earth. We must not only pray for “Thy Kingdom Come,” to borrow a phrasing of this concept from Christian liturgy. Rather, God is waiting, God is praying, for us to do the work that will make heaven on earth. 

Thus, on the Sabbath, a day of peace in which we cease our often mindless labors in the world as it is to envision the world as it might be, the Jewish worshipper asks, “When will You reign over Zion?” This is the question of a person who looks at the world around her and sees everywhere evidence of a world unredeemed. It is, in the words of the great 20th Century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the question of a person who is not at home in this world, a being who cannot help but experience “spiritual homelessness in the sight of so much suffering and evil…” and who recognizes that in such a corrupt and broken world, God can never be at home, either. The challenge and the task before us is therefore always to make of this world the place in which God truly intended for us to live, in which even God would be at home, a world of love, a world of justice, a world of peace. It is within our power to make of this world Heaven on Earth. And, because we can — indeed, we must.

עושה שלום במרומיו, we say, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו, ועל כל ישראל, ועל כל יושבי תבל

May the One who makes peace in God’s realm make peace for us, for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. And let us say, Amen.

Posted in Reflections, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to topple tyranny? Simple. Just never give up.

Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Monument, during the Black Lives Matter protests of Summer 2020, before its eventual removal in September 2021.

If it’s been good for anything at all, 2020 has been a year for seeing things more clearly. Living in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, I’ve seen how a lie can normalize oppression. A lie can even kill if repeated loudly and frequently enough.

Until recently, Confederate monuments were among my city’s most recognizable landmarks. Most of these were erected in the decades following the Civil War, as part of the so-called “Lost Cause” movement, a propaganda campaign to reassert white supremacy across the South.

The Lost Cause movement deliberately distorted history to disenfranchise, segregate, discriminate against and terrorize Black citizens. Its impact was devastating. One can draw a line from the Lost Cause disinformation campaign to the Jim Crow regime to the indisputable fact that today Richmond is still racially segregated. Richmond’s map of segregation correlates to inequities in everything from income to wealth to educational outcomes to access to healthcare to air and water quality to life expectancy.

One example: COVID-19 has impacted communities of color in Richmond at far greater rates than it has the city’s white residents.

Then, this summer, the unthinkable happened: Amid the uprising for Black lives that sought, above all, to reveal systemic racism in America and the falsehoods and violence which perpetuate it, most of Richmond’s monuments were toppled. And while the most prominent of these icons, the Robert E. Lee monument, still stands, it too is scheduled to be removed.

Tearing down racist idols does not undo the effects of centuries of racial injustice. We have so much more that must be done to achieve justice for all. But this significant, if symbolic, accomplishment reminds us that oppression can thrive only when people assume they are powerless to resist. And tyranny can be opposed by relentlessly and courageously bringing truth to light – surely a lesson for 2020.

I keep thinking back to a trip I made before the pandemic changed all our lives. I traveled to Guatemala with a delegation of rabbis in a fellowship with American Jewish World Service, a leading global human rights group. There, we met with activists who are trying to right some of the wrongs of what’s sometimes called a “civil war,” but was in reality genocide that killed and forcibly displaced indigenous people.

One day there, we met with a human rights law firm that represents survivors of this genocide. The lawyers told us securing justice is difficult because many war criminals continue to dominate Guatemala’s ruling classes. Very few perpetrators are prosecuted for their crimes, and victims rarely win.

Given this, why do victims even bother? Why do these lawyers take on cases? How do they persist for years with small chance of success?

Because, they said, oppression can be fought and even stopped by people who refuse to retreat even one step from demanding truth. Justice can prevail, but only when people recognize that every action, no matter how small, can make a difference.

As I reflect on what I learned in Central America, I think about this turbulent time in our own country. We have a president who has sought to undermine democratic norms, in particular advancing lies about the 2020 election and seeking to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Yet, because of millions of votes and countless small and large acts of resistance, the United States remains a viable, if imperfect, democracy. And the Black Lives Matter movement’s successes this year offer hope that we might reckon with the enduring legacy of our nation’s founding sins.

Still, 2020 has enabled us to see clearly the enduring fragility of our republic and the inequity of our society. It is for times like these that Jewish tradition reminds us that we are not powerless. On the contrary, we can change the world. Things need not remain the way they currently are. And it is precisely when things are most broken that we must remember our ability to repair them.

This article was originally published in Times of Israel: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/how-to-topple-tyranny-simple-just-never-give-up/

Posted in Articles and Op-Eds, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Wars, Hanukkah, and the ‘Banality of Evil’

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

As I celebrate Hanukkah while watching the second season of The Mandalorian on Disney+ and anxiously following the news of the president’s and his allies’ attempts to subvert democracy, I find myself once again reflecting on the many connections to and parallels between Star Wars, Hanukkah, and current events.

For those who haven’t seen it (and/or for those who aren’t steeped in Star Wars lore), The Mandalorian takes place in the years between the events of the films Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

At the end of Return of the Jedi, the evil Galactic Empire is destroyed. Presumably, freedom, justice, and peace are restored to the galaxy.And yet, in the opening crawl of The Force Awakens, we learn that, just 30 years later, a new fascist movement called the First Order has arisen “from the ashes of the Empire,” seeking to topple the New Republic.

While I loved The Force Awakens, I remember feeling surprised by this turn of events. How did things take such a dark turn so quickly? Why and how did the First Order rise?It wasn’t until about halfway through The Force Awakens that we learned a little more. As one of the First Order’s top leaders, General Hux, puts it (at a rally with distinct Nuremberg echoes, no less), the New Republic is “a regime that acquiesces to disorder.” Only the First Order, through destroying the Republic and instituting totalitarian control of the galaxy, can bring law, order, and peace.

Life under the New Republic as depicted in The Mandalorian fits General Hux’s description. Crime, corruption, and impunity are rampant; lawlessness and disorder reign; wealth and brute force carry the most currency. Some characters in The Mandalorian openly long for the days of imperial rule. In their view, the Empire, for all its brutality, nevertheless seemed to make every system it occupied better, more peaceful and prosperous. As a character put it in a recent episode, “You see, boys. Everybody thinks they want freedom, but what they really want is order. When they realize that, they’re gonna welcome us back with open arms.”

Given these conditions, rife with uncertainty and upheaval, it is no wonder the First Order rose. Many people must have yearned to “Make the Galaxy Great Again.” The despotic ideologues leading the First Order may have exploited and benefited from these anxieties. But they would not have gotten very far if average people did not seek, welcome, and support the new order they were promising.In this sense, while the Star Wars saga presents as a black-and-white conflict between ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil, between the light and dark sides of reality, and between the few extraordinary true-believers who represent either end of those extremes, when one looks past the gnostic mythology and (admittedly, super cool) laser-sword battles, Star Wars actually makes a much subtler, and profoundly more important and relevant point: Tyranny rises, broadens, and deepens with the invitation, collaboration, and participation of regular people.

Indeed, it is the regular people who become the infrastructure upon which tyranny is built, the scaffolding that supports the weight of entire oppressive systems. They become “silent majorities” that implicitly back those systems, even while looking away from or rationalizing cruelties and brutalities as necessary evils. Some, perhaps many, become enmeshed in — and therefore both reliant upon and supportive of — those systems’ various bureaucracies, perhaps even advancing careers and pursuing prosperity or status through those ubiquitous channels. Think, for example, of the Mos Eisley wayfarers in A New Hope who report R2-D2 and C-3PO to imperial authorities, or Lando Calrissian protecting his career by selling out Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca to Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, or DJ getting rich by turning Finn and Rose over to the New Order in The Last Jedi.

But the picture portrayed by Star Wars isn’t all so bleak. Because while many average denizens of the galaxy far, far away seek, invite, uphold, extend, and exacerbate tyranny, countless others are willing to risk their livelihoods and lives in order to dismantle oppressive systems and save innocents. Think about Han courageously and selflessly returning to help the rebels destroy the Death Star in A New Hope, or the Ewoks rising up against imperial forces in Return of the Jedi, or Finn abandoning his post on The First Order’s Starkiller Base in order to save Poe in The Force Awakens.

In the (admittedly, underwhelming) most recent Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, average people risking everything to do the right thing, despite having every good pragmatic reason to look the other way, is a significant theme: a company of First Order stormtroopers who abandoned their posts rather than slaughter innocents gives vital assistance to Rey, Finn, and Poe; and thousands of average people heroically show up to help the Resistance defeat the Emperor’s formidable fleet in the desperate last moments of the film’s final battle. Force-wielding heroes and villains may get top-billing, but regular people, acting out of moral defiance, are the ones who save the day.

In her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes what she calls the “banality of evil.” Generally speaking, Arendt argues, people do not choose evil for its own sake. Instead, people tend to justify ideologies, actions, and systems that they might otherwise regard as evil when they perceive them as necessary for advancing some personal, communal, and/or national interest. Sometimes, perhaps often, this process is unconscious, passive and automatic. Arendt calls this the “banality of evil.” Consequently, only when an individual is conscious and critical, only when a person is aware of the evil lurking within the automatic processes of the world, and only when a person is willing to summon the courage to defy the assumptions and norms of their broader cultural context can they make the choice to resist and rebel against these automatic processes and act outside of them.

The Hanukkah story, like the Star Wars saga, celebrates this kind of heroism. In the face of the power of Syrian-Greek rule and allure of Hellenistic culture, in the face of widespread Jewish acquiescence to Hellenism and empire, in the face of the benefits of acquiescence to the status quo, in the face, even, of certain failure and destruction, some Jewish farmers and artisans and clerics chose to rise up, band together, and face down a seemingly invincible force.

On Hanukkah we celebrate their victory, but I would argue it matters less that the rebels defeated their enemies in defiance of all reasonable expectations than it does that these few people chose resistance and rebellion when most people didn’t and wouldn’t. It matters less that the Maccabees won than that they chose not to collaborate with the evil of the world to which they belonged. It matters most that they upheld the spirit of the rabbinic teaching, “where there are no upstanding people, strive to be an upstanding person.”

Similarly, it is nice that two of the three Star Wars trilogies have “happy” endings, where the good guys win and tyrannies are toppled. But more important than the victories is the fact that, in the saga, most people chose to align themselves with the order that they perceived most benefit their interests; and, conversely, that the Rebellion, and then the Resistance, rose in the first place, that average people were willing to leave everything behind and put everything on the line in order to fight for what is right and good.

Star Wars and Hanukkah both ultimately celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. But as the second season of The Mandalorian ends, as Hanukkah begins, and as we confront a gnawing authoritarianism in our time, I find myself focusing less on the victory of good over evil, and more on the victory of good rising in defiance and resistance of evil in the first place.

That is the real battle; one that we all face, even and especially today.

Happy Hanukkah, and May the Force be With Us.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Message of Hanukkah: Refuse to be Satisfied

This year, my clergy partner Cantor Dara Rosenblatt teamed up to send a Hanukkah video message to our Temple Beth-El family, featuring a reflection I wrote and an original(!) melody CDSR composed.

You can watch the video here.

5781 Hanukkah Message

Please feel free to share with others who might find it meaningful; let’s increase the light together!

Here is the text of my message:

At its core, Hanukkah commemorates a revolution: in 166 CE, a band of Jewish rebels rose up against a foreign ruler who had banned Jewish practice and transformed our Temple into a pagan shrine.By any estimation, the rebellion should have failed. As we recount in the special prayer for Hanukkah “Al ha-nissim,” the Maccabean revolt pitted the weak against the mighty, the few against the many, scholars against soldiers.And yet the Maccabees saw their world as it was and, with perhaps an equal measure of courage and hutzpah, they refused to accept it as inevitable. Instead, regardless of the odds, they insisted on fighting for what they imagined could be.

It is no coincidence that Hanukkah falls during the darkest time of year, when the days are shortest and the nights are longest. We light candles precisely in this season as a reminder that the darkness in our world, no matter how present, prevalent, and persistent it may be, is not unavoidable or unassailable. We mustn’t be content with the darkness of our world as it is. We can, and must, add light. We may not totally or permanently illuminate the night. But unless we act, unless we light those candles, we guarantee the persistence of the dark. As Edmund Burke is remembered to have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.”

Hanukkah, in this sense, calls upon us to notice the ways in which our lives as they are, and the world as it is, are not what we wish they were, and challenges us to consider: are we being complacent, tacitly accepting things as they are? Or will we refuse to be satisfied with the status quo, and agitate for change, no matter the obstacles, regardless of the odds? As my teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, teaches, on Hanukkah we honor the sacred hunger for light in a world that bleeds with human suffering, injustice, loneliness and so much darkness. We reject the darkness that is, and agitate for the light that might yet be.

Maybe this is why tradition has us recite Psalm 30 during Hanukkah. The psalmist writes: I call to You, Infinite God; and I appeal to my Lord: Hear, Infinite God, and have mercy on me; Infinite God, be my help!” In an equal measure of courage and hutzpah, the psalmist calls God out and demands change.

Perhaps the Maccabees themselves were inspired by the psalmist’s refusal to accept things as they were. Similarly, in reciting these words during Hanukkah, we too are urged to be dissatisfied; we too are called to agitate for change.As I wrote recently in my new prayer for our country, “Where we see degradation or persecution, move us to march. Where we see tyranny, rally us to resist. And when we feel despair, grant us the audacity to hope…Ready us to join together in that spirit, so that together we may make “justice well up like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24), and speedily bring about the day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, and they will never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).”

Hanukkah is not only a festival of lights, a season for appreciating miracles ancient and modern, large and small. More importantly, it is a time to take stock of the state of our lives and our world, to refuse to accept things as they are, and to summon the courage and the hutzpah to fight for what could be.

Hag urim same’ah! May you and yours have a happy, healthy, and hutzpadik festival of lights!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Help Elect me to J Street Board!

I’m running for J Street Board because I want to expand, deepen, and advance the cause of justice, democracy, and peace in the U.S., Israel, and Palestine. Vote for me here: https://jstreet.org/j-streets-2020-board-election/#.X7p3qi1h3q3

The past four years have been extremely difficult for those of us who cherish democracy and human rights: injustice has spread and authoritarianism has risen at home and abroad. This dark period also saw too many in the American Jewish community betraying democratic ideals in service of a narrow, shortsighted, and ultimately self-defeating definition of what it means to be pro-Israel.

As the spiritual leader of a large and diverse congregation in Richmond, Virginia, I am deeply mindful of these challenges; I navigate them every day. But I also know times of crisis can reveal extraordinary opportunities. As legacy communal institutions abdicate moral leadership, and as political winds shift in our nation’s capital, J Street — the address for pro-Israel, pro-democracy, and pro-peace Americans — can claim its rightful place as the vibrant center of American Jewish life and the beating heart of progressive U.S. politics.

That’s why I am running for J Street’s Board. I want to take an active leadership role in embracing the opportunities ahead: extending J Street’s reach into underrepresented demographics and regions; expanding our coalition to include more people and institutions within the Jewish community and across more of the religious, ideological, and political spectrum; and meaningfully advancing our pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda in Washington.

I believe that — as a rabbi, author, activist, and proud member of J Street’s Rabbinic & Cantorial Cabinet — I have the right combination of skills, abilities, and relationships to help us boldly embrace the opportunities of this new era, advancing inclusion, justice, and peace in the U.S. and in the Middle East.

I hope I can count on your support. Once again, you can cast your vote hereAnyone who is a “Member” of J Street can vote. People who are not currently members or are unsure if they are members can  become members in order to vote. It’s free and easy. ANYONE WITH A NAME AND AN EMAIL ADDRESS IS ELIGIBLE TO VOTE. Democracy! ✅ You can find more details here.

Once you vote, I wound also be grateful if you could reach out to at least 3 colleagues, friends, or family members and encourage them to vote for me as well.

Thanks so much in advance for your support. Sending all my very best wishes to you and yours.

Warmly,
Rabbi Michael Knopf

Posted in Public Statements | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment