On Monday afternoon, our couch birthed a snake. True story.

Now this couch is not in our house, but it is on our screened-in porch and when the weather is as delightful as it is right now, we more or less live out there. We read on the couch. We sit and talk to one another on the couch. Sometimes, on a Monday, I doze off and nap on that couch. And unbeknownst to any of us, for a duration of time we can’t possibly know, while we went about our everyday lives – debriefing our days, watching the boy shoot baskets, sipping a drink and reading the paper –  there was a snake (a 5 ft. long snake) lurking beneath the cushions, right inside that very couch.

If your heart is racing thinking about it, well, so are ours!

Fast forward just a couple of hours and, on Monday night, we joined over 400 members from the participating congregations of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) for our annual Community Problems Assembly at New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church. We heard about three issues of injustice that had been raised time and time again in the over 100 house meetings that had taken place in 27 congregations throughout the Charleston area: racial profiling, inadequate healthcare, and the lack of a fair and living wage. With each issue, members of the community bravely shared their personal testimonies – each one more powerful, upsetting and compelling than the next. So much injustice, and the truth is – for the most part – I go about my comfortable life unaware that it lurks beneath the surface, around the corner, front-and-center for so many less fortunate than I.

It was a snake who eventually caused the eyes of humankind to be opened to their surroundings in the Garden of Eden. My eyes were opened wide on Monday. I don’t believe I can ever be comfortable on our couch again, and I don’t want to be comfortable with an unjust status quo. The couch is going out the curb; and, along with CAJM’s many other dedicated team and network members, I’m rolling up my sleeves and getting to work.


Earlier this week, driving back from one Carolina to the other, I stopped for lunch at a Bob Evans. In the car, I had been enjoying one kind of cultural immersion: Nonstop 80’s music on XM Radio. (Bananarama, anyone?) Inside the restaurant, an entirely different cultural experience awaited.

“Have a seat, Baby Girl,” the waitress was saying – I eventually understood – to me. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

I’m not a “Baby Girl.” Even when I was a baby girl, I wasn’t a “Baby Girl” – sports-loving, Daddy-shadowing, car-noticing tomboy that I was. Having no one to share a chuckle with there in the restaurant, I did what we’re meant to do in such moments: I posted it on Facebook – and many of you “LOL”ed with me throughout the afternoon.

But I didn’t correct the server – didn’t ask her what she meant by the salutation; didn’t take issue with her characterization and list off in bullet points all the reasons it didn’t apply to me. Because it wasn’t about me. I was in rural South Carolina, about to be served a biscuit and grits, and “Baby Girl” was as much a part of the tapestry of the setting as the sweet tea and pecan pie. It would stay to greet the next customer, while I would eventually get up and leave.

Maybe the next time a situation catches me off-guard and I begin to overanalyze how it is that someone’s assessment is so far afield from who I know myself to be, I’ll whisper to myself, “Baby Girl,” and consider that maybe, just maybe, it’s not about me.


I picked up a crumpled napkin to throw it away, but when I realized there was a note on it, written in pencil, the boy averted his eyes and began to chuckle. I read it aloud:

“Pleas read book or you get cut in hafe and maybie pay the pelece all your monney!!!!!”

Apparently, frustrated that his daddy was otherwise engaged and therefore unable to read him the next book in the series of mysteries with which he is currently enthralled, he had taken to dropping napkins with threatening messages in his lap and then running away in a fit of laughter.

All extra creepiness rendered by the broken English of first grade spelling aside, I saw two signs of influence in the note that were like a glass half empty or half full. On the one hand, the threatening games and taunts of the schoolyard ring out loud and clear. Just last year, he was lamenting the violent ways boys can interact with each other, on the playground especially, and now he seemed to be engaging in such behavior himself.

On the other hand, my husband and I seem to be having some kind of influence, too. After all, it may have been misspelled, but he did clearly say, “Please.”


Today brought a lot. Of stuff. And as I felt my tension and anxiety rising – planning what to do and how to respond – I decided to hop on my bike. If I couldn’t stop my mind from spinning, I could at least let my legs catch up.

The great thing about living on an island is, go a reasonably short distance in any direction, and often gorgeous views await. Today was no exception. I turned down a previously unknown street and, beneath the cloudless sky, I could see the shimmer of water straight ahead. A tidal marsh, and it was clearly high tide.

I pedaled to the end of the street, then got off my bike and walked off the pavement, stopping about a foot from the edge of the softly lapping water. The ground beneath my feet was dry, loose dirt – not the kind of packed down earth accustomed to the ebb and flow of the marsh. The water of the vast pool ahead wasn’t going to reach me – but I had to have faith. How long did it take others before me to find their faith? To keep from packing up their earthly belongings or battening down the hatches every time the water seemed to surge straight for them? Sure enough, as I stood there, I could see the tide slow. Soon it would stop altogether and head back out to sea.

When the waves start coming in, it seems you can do one of three things: You can prepare for flight, you can get ready for a fight … or you can take a long, deep breath of salt water air and enjoy the view.


There’s a commercial airing on TV right now that makes everyone in my family giggle:

“Did you know that former NFL player Ickey Woods will celebrate almost anything?” it asks, and then cuts to footage of the ex-Bengal doing his famous “Ickey Shuffle” when his number is called at the grocery store deli counter. (We particularly like when he spikes what appears to be a package of sliced cheese in celebration.)

Tonight we begin the festival of Sukkot on the Jewish calendar, what is described in our liturgy as z’man simchateinu – our season of joy. But that’s kind of asking a lot, isn’t it? “I command you,” God says, “be joyful. Now.”

Yet maybe it isn’t so much about being joyful as it is finding joy. That’s why the commercial is so great. Because there is joy in hearing your number called – be it at the deli counter or the DMV. Or when the UPS truck stops in front of your house. Or when the carton of milk is almost finished, but there’s just enough for one more full glass to complement your plate of cookies.

We just don’t celebrate enough.

So, during this festival of Sukkot, find something small, something common, and celebrate like you hit the jackpot. Do a little dance, your own special shuffle; wave the lulav in the air like you just don’t care. There’s joy all year round; now is the time to remember it.

The Gift of Selective Memory

Yizkor 5775, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

 T h e   G i f t   o f   S e l e c t i v e   M e m o r y

When you stop to think about it, it’s unusual that we observe Yizkor on this afternoon of Yom Kippur. We hold memorial services three other times during the year, but those are each connected to joyous holidays – the end of Sukkot, the last day of Passover, and the festival of Shavuot – which seems fitting in Jewish tradition. We remember our beloved at times of happiness and celebration, the times when we most want them by our side. In fact, I think part of the reason Yizkor developed as part of the conclusion of each of these holidays was to allow us to more fully experience their joy. Knowing that we will have an opportunity to name our loss, to acknowledge their absence, hopefully enables us to enjoy the company of the loved ones who are still present more.

But this Yizkor observance is different – and, tellingly, it’s one of the only memorial services that’s still well-attended. Yom Kippur is already solemn, somber. Why do we recall our loved ones through the ritual of Yizkor today? My sense is this: Because, on this Day of Atonement, each of us who have lost loved ones near and dear to us needs to forgive.

Some of us need to forgive our loved ones … None of them were perfect. Perhaps they didn’t handle our imperfections well, either. It’s telling that we only traditionally say Kaddish and observe Yizkor for our most immediate family – a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child. The result is that, most likely, we knew our loved ones firsthand. These aren’t distant relatives about whom the family legend and lore has already been tidied up. These were multi-dimensional people with strong presences in our lives. That there were good times and there were challenges is but a testament to how much we shared.

If for no other reason, we might struggle to forgive them – because they left us. Taken from us first, they were the ones to leave, they were the ones who caused these gaping holes we feel. I have had many people share such anger with me over the years. And it’s OK. It’s natural. To leave with such finality, and take with them the plans we had made, the dreams we had shared – what more hurtful thing could they do? But the fact that such feelings are natural, doesn’t mean they’re healthy or good. So today we strive to find a way to forgive them, cherish our good memories, and move past the hurt.

And we need to forgive ourselves, too. For the painful things we may have said or done; for the kind and generous things we neglected to say or do. For the ways in which we could have been less hurtful, more loving, but didn’t even realize until it was too late to ask or receive their forgiveness – we have to find a way to forgive ourselves.

This is one of the greatest sorrows of loss – that the conversation stops. Surely if our loved ones were here, if they could continue to change as we have changed, then we could talk, we could reason, we could understand one another and forgive. Those opportunities are lost to us when a loved one dies. Yet there is another path available. As the author Robert Brault has written: “If you can’t forgive and forget, pick one.” And forgetting is a perfectly acceptable option.

There is a condition called hyperthysemia, and it has occasionally been found in real-life people – it means a person is completely unable to forget. In the 1920s, a Russian psychologist examined a young journalist, named Solomon, who was able to perform incredible feats of memory. The psychologist would give him lists of numbers or words up to seventy figures long and Solomon could recite the list back perfectly – not just right away, but also weeks or months later. Fifteen years after their first meeting, the psychologist met with him again. Solomon sat down, closed his eyes, and accurately recalled not only the string of numbers but photographic details of the day they met years before. “You were sitting at the table and I in the rocking chair,” Solomon said. “You were wearing a gray suit.”

But Solomon’s gifts did not make him happy, nor even smarter. On the contrary, simple acts like reading became difficult because individual words would constantly trigger such vivid memories that his attention would be disrupted. Without the ability to forget, Solomon was oppressed by the weight of his memories.[1]

We can forget – and the ability to do so can be a gift. The author Dara Horn wrote:[2] “We can’t control the past. That’s true, but [it’s] also irrelevant … [because] we control the way we remember the past, and that’s what matters in the present. We choose what is worthy of our memory. We should probably be grateful that we can’t remember everything as God does, because if we did, we would find it impossible to forgive anyone. The limit of human memory encourages humility.”

Rabbi Harry Halpern asks:

What Is Memory?

Where does yesterday go? What happens to the days which have passed? Are they consumed as objects which are destroyed by fire, leaving us only ashes behind? Or is there perhaps some indestructible quality which can save the past from annihilation? The answer lies not in the days themselves, but rather in us. It rests within our power to save the yesterdays and the means for achieving this is memory.

What is memory? It is the God-given gift of being able to behold the golden days of the sunset which went before while standing in the ensuing gloom. It is the ability to hear the sweet melody after the instruments have ceased playing.

What is memory? It is the ability to feel the zeal and spirit of youth in the midst of the disillusionments of later life. It is the ability to dance in the heart when the legs can no longer keep up with the music.

What is memory? It is the gazing at the bride beneath the canopy and remembering the infant in the crib. It is playing with the grandchildren and seeing their parents. It is celebrating a boy’s Bar Mitzvah and simultaneously attending the Bris.

What is memory? It is experiencing today the heartache of yesterday. It is the sorrow in the present for an agony of the past. It is a conversation with someone who can no longer speak. And the sight of a smile on a face no longer here.

What is memory? It is all that is left to us from the burnt-out hopes and strivings, as well as the pain and sorrow, of the past.

What is memory? It is that in which, above all else, is to be found the source of our immortality.

On this day of Yom Kippur, through our observance of Yizkor, may we harness the gift and power of memory to find forgiveness, comfort and healing. And thus may the memories of our loved ones – zichronam livracha – ever be an abiding source of blessing. Amen.

[1] Clive Thompson, Smarter Than You Think.

[2] A Guide for the Perplexed.

Healing Our Minds and Souls

Yom Kippur Eve 5775, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

H e a l i n g   O u r   M i n d s   a n d   S o u l s

Yom Kippur is a time for cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of our souls. Cheshbon is a technical term. This isn’t meant to be a short reflective session – a conversation with a friend over coffee, a few resolutions formed during a head-clearing walk, a thoughtful journal entry or two – though all of these may factor in. A cheshbon is a bill, an audit – a hard look at reality that points to necessary next steps for the future. At an annual physical exam (and I hope we all have annual physical exams), our doctor asks questions, collects samples, takes measurements and then tells us: Here’s where you’re at, here’s where you should be, and here’s what you need to change to get there. Cheshbon nefesh means we do the same thorough examination, but we take a good hard look at the state of our minds and souls.

And when we do so, here’s what we find: Many of us in this country, and many of us in this congregation, struggle with challenges related to mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, one in four Americans 18 or older suffers from a mental disorder – diagnosable, though not necessarily diagnosed – which interferes with employment, school attendance, or daily life. “More hospital beds in the United States are occupied by people who have mental illnesses than those who have cancer, heart trouble and lung disease combined.” 6.7% of the U.S. adult population (nearly 15 million Americans) is affected by depression. 40,000 suicides are reported annually in the United States – almost twice as high as the reported number of homicides – and suicide is one of the few causes of death that is rising. More than 90% of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness – most commonly depression or a substance abuse disorder – yet only 15% were in treatment at the time of their death. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth ages 15-24 and the second-leading cause of death among college students.[1]

And, of course, these aren’t just statistics. Each of these numbers represents a person, and what impacts each person also impacts their families and friends and loved ones.

When Robin Williams took his life in August, people finally began to discuss some of these statistics and realities in earnest. We had laughed at his comedy and enjoyed his movies, so it felt like it hit home. But I had begun work on this sermon well in advance of that tragic event. Because it has hit much closer to home, far too often. Suicide and other self-destructive behaviors – eating disorders, cutting, risky sexual behavior – are “far more common than anyone previously thought,” and occur “as frequently within the Jewish community as anywhere else.”[2] I assure you, our synagogue is no exception. It takes more than two hands to count the number of individuals who have attempted suicide in our congregation in just the past four years, and that’s only the instances I know of. The fact that most of us are not aware of this, can choose not to be aware of this, is a significant part of the problem.

At a World Suicide Awareness Day hosted at the United Nations, presenters taught that “suicide prevention and [mental health] awareness are most effective within one’s own community.”[3] Yet in the Jewish community we don’t talk about it. We perpetuate myths that mental illness should be a private matter; knowledge of a suicide attempt will ostracize you from the community; if it’s known that one has, God forbid, committed suicide, s/he cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. A recent article about the taboo of discussing mental health in the Orthodox community expressed concerns about how doing so “might affect marital matches for [an individual] and his [or her] relatives.”[4] I hear similar concerns voiced in our community about college searches, job opportunities – even that seeking professional help (a positive act) could be used to negatively impact divorce proceedings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 25% of adults who experience mental health issues feel that people are sympathetic toward their struggles. “We need so much more openness, transparency and understanding that it’s OK to talk about depression [and other mental disorders] as an illness. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a moral shortcoming. It’s not something people [bring] on themselves. … Understanding that is a pretty powerful beginning to helping a loved one [move toward healing].”[5]

And here’s the thing – we, in the Jewish community, should be able to be open and transparent about it. For the failure to end the stigma associated with mental illness and the pursuit of mental health, chatanu – we have sinned. And it’s time now – it’s past time – to end it.

First, we need to take a look at what Jewish texts and tradition actually have to say about our mental wellbeing, and not simply perpetuate the myths. While Judaism acknowledges a distinction between mental and physical health, our tradition puts them on the same plane. The Mi Shebeirach prayer we recite for health asks for a r’ruah sh’leimah – a complete recovery, including r’fuat hanefesh u-r’fuat haguf – healing of the soul and healing of the body. The Rabbis affirmed that Birkat HaGomeil, the prayer we shared on Rosh Hashanah, should not only be said when one has survived or been spared danger to the body, but also for “recovery from mental illness or even upon significant alleviation of [emotional] symptoms where there is no definitive cure.” Maimonides taught that, before addressing a person’s physical needs, physicians must attend to a patient’s emotional and mental needs first.

And while Jewish law did develop such that one who committed suicide would be buried outside of a Jewish cemetery, “most rabbis now will agree that these laws were set to discourage suicide and not to punish those” who did. One need only look to the example of King Saul in midrash to see that one who committed suicide could, and should, be buried with honor. The Hebrew Bible records that Saul, given to despair and fits of turmoil throughout his days, took his own life by falling on his sword.

The midrash begins, “And there was famine in the days of David. … And The Lord said: ‘It is because of Saul’ (2 Samuel 21:1), because he was not mourned in the manner required by law.” God continues to list all of the good that occurred during Saul’s life and at once David gathers all the elders and notables of Israel together to go gather Saul’s bones from across the Jordan, outside of the community. “They took the bones, put them in a coffin, and then David commanded that Saul’s coffin be borne through the territory of each and every tribe. Upon the coffin’s arrival in a tribe’s territory, the entire tribe – the men, their sons, and daughters, as well as their wives – came out and paid affectionate tribute to Saul and his sons, thus performing the mitzvah of showing loving-kindness to the dead. When the Holy One saw this, He immediately filled with compassion and sent down rain.” In days of famine, a true blessing.[6]

And there are other characters in biblical text who struggle with depression, as well. Hannah’s despondency at the inability to bear a child is so extreme that it prompts her husband to ask her: “Why do you weep? Why don’t you eat? Why are you so unhappy?” Yet, far from minimizing her story, we read it on Rosh Hashanah morning when the whole congregation can empathize with her pain. The prophets Elijah and Jonah both prayed that God might take their lives rather than face the daunting tasks that lie ahead. Still Elijah will be the one to herald the coming of the Messiah. And we will once again hear Jonah’s story tomorrow afternoon and, with the help of a panel of congregants, this year will reflect specifically on issues of mental health.

But this is just a beginning; we need to keep the conversation going. Our Adult Ed Task Force identified Jewish Living – including issues of both physical and mental wellness – as one of the areas we are committed to making sure gets addressed each year. And we are pleased that if you look at our temple calendar (online, in print and in our Shabbat announcement sheets), you will see that a Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous Meeting takes place at our synagogue every Wednesday. Beyond the support all of these offerings give to those who attend them, they also make a statement that KKBE is a place where we are concerned about mental health – an important step in helping to reduce stigma.

The second step we can take is something each of us can do individually. It requires a cheshbon, an accounting, of our language. ADD, OCD, Bipolar… lately we’ve come to throw these terms around nonchalantly, and when we do it’s often to make light of a behavior. When someone is scattered, we say “he’s ADD” – by which we mean he’s all over the map. “I couldn’t keep up with his train of thought,” we might say, “if he even had one.” When someone is neat, has everything in order, we say “she’s OCD” – by which we mean she’s obsessed with details, has a place and a file for everything. “I wanted to help,” we might say, “but I was afraid to touch anything or get in the way.” When people are emotionally inconsistent, we declare “they’re bipolar” – by which we mean one day they’re happy-go-lucky, the next they’re angry or despondent. “When he’s even-keeled, he’s great,” we might say, “but you never know what you’re going to get.”

Increasingly, we use these terms – ADD, OCD, Bipolar and others – like they’re fleeting feelings that might be explained by waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Doing so not only grossly misrepresents the facts of these disorders, but belittles the challenges those who live with them face, often heroically. Consider the following that circulated a while back entitled, “If Your Friends Ever Say They Have ADHD, Just Show Them This”:

ADHD is about having broken filters on your perception.

[Other] people have a sort of mental secretary that takes 99% of irrelevant crap that crosses their mind, and simply deletes it before they become consciously aware of it. As such, their mental workspace is like a huge clean whiteboard, ready to hold and organize useful information.

[Those of us with ADHD]… have no such luxury. Every single thing that comes in the front door gets written directly on the whiteboard in bold, underlined in red letters, no matter what it is, and no matter what has to be erased in order for it to fit. … It’s like living in a soft rain of post-it notes.

This happens every single waking moment, and we have to manually examine each thought, check for relevance, and try desperately to remember what the thing was we were thinking before it came along. Most often we forget, and … cast wildly about for context, trying to guess what the hell we were up to from the clues available.

And what this author shared is only part of what it means to have ADD or ADHD. There’s hyper-attentiveness, as well, and the multiple challenges that can come with a variety of medications. Watching our misappropriation of diagnostic terms in everyday speech isn’t just a matter of being politically-correct. When we use terms in this flippant way, it’s meant to end the conversation. What we’re saying about someone or their behavior is, “Don’t try to do anything about it – that’s just the way they are.” When in fact what we should do is begin a conversation – learn more about the challenges someone may actually face and learn what we might be able to do to work more productively, positively and supportively with them.

Which brings us to the third thing each of us can do to make an impact on mental health; to help all of us – individuals, organizations, society – move past the stigmas associated with mental illness. We have to commit to improving our knowledge and understanding. Because, as it turns out, when we actually understand how an illness is caused or experienced, while we may not be able to cure it, there are often things we can do to make one’s living with it significantly better.

The term Dementia refers to a “group of diseases [that cause] loss of intellectual abilities, especially memory, emotional shallowness, and personality changes. Alzheimer’s Disease, which affects 15% of people over age 65, is included in this classification.” We know that the experience of dementia often leads to isolation – both for those who have it, and those caring for loved ones affected by it. It’s a devastating illness and there are no cures. But at one particular retirement facility in Phoenix, AZ, their motto in supporting those with dementia is, “We can’t change the way you think, but we can change the way you feel.”[7]

At the Beatitudes Campus, dining room tables “are covered with white tablecloths, and food is served on bright-colored Fiestaware. This is an aesthetic choice but also a practical one. … The contrast between the vivid dish and the white cloth is helpful to visually impaired residents.” “Research has shown that endorphins released during a pleasant experience have a salutary effect on a person with dementia even after the experience is forgotten. [So] Beatitudes tries to provide residents with pleasurable moments throughout the day,” including spa-like touches in their bathrooms instead of the standard industrial feel. “Aides encourage anyone who looks weary to lie down [in their beds, as] falling asleep in an armchair or a wheelchair often causes stiffness and pain.” “Residents are sometimes given a body pillow to simulate the sleeping form of a spouse.” And Hershey’s Kisses and lollipops are “a mainstay” at Beatitudes, “on the principle that it is hard to feel very bad when there is something tasty in your mouth. And adults with dementia will sometimes soothe themselves by sucking, just as they did when they were babies.” All of these compassionate accommodations come from better understanding and, “despite the touches of gracious living at Beatitudes, the average cost of care is roughly the same as the cost at a typical nursing home.”

Imagine the difference we could make if we sought to understand all types of mental illness this way, and showed the same commitment to developing techniques for better health of mind and soul that we do with physical therapies for the body. Imagine what would be possible if we could just get past the stigma that keeps us from discussing mental health and illness openly, constructively and supportively.

I want to leave you with the inspiring story of the sister of one of my colleagues.[8] Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, a comedian who lives in Cleveland, has battled crippling depression for much of her life. Three days before she graduated from college, she attempted to kill herself by driving her car over an embankment. She survived, but the depression continued, as did suicidal thoughts. Medication brought a slew of side effects, but provided little relief. So when her doctors suggested electroconvulsive therapy – or shock therapy, as it’s more commonly called – she said to herself, “I’m either gonna try this or I’m gonna end my life,” and so she gave it a shot.

Deena has now undergone 32 treatments in the past year. IVs and memory tests have become her norm. Memory loss is one of the most common side effects of shock treatment – a distinct challenge for a writer and comedian, but one which she knows she has to face. The bigger challenge is the stigma associated with her course of therapy – and this, too, Deena is facing head on. Wanting to help eliminate one of the obstacles that might keep others from seeking treatment, that keeps people isolated in their times of greatest need, Deena invited a local news crew to film one of her treatments this past summer. “[People] think of it as this barbaric treatment,” she said. “The only experience [they] know of shock therapy is ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ … a horrible portrayal of it, and today, it’s a totally different experience.” And so she let people see that. When told that what she was doing was “so brave,” her response was spot on: “I want that to not be a thing,” she said. “I want it to be so okay to talk about, that people don’t think it’s brave to talk about depression.”

She’s right. That’s absolutely the way it should be, and so may we each do our part this coming year to make it so – not only for depression but for all mental illness. This year, may we strive to create a community where everyone can feel cherished and free to be open about the challenges they face. This year, may we strive to create a community where everyone can feel connected to love and hope and healing. This year, and always, may we strive to create a community of strength whose members might strengthen one another. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we all be strengthened by this holy community. Amen.

[1] Religious Action Center:

[2] Resilience of the Soul: Developing Emotional and Spiritual Resilience in Adolescents and Their Families, ed. Rabbi Richard F. Address; Religious Action Center (

[3] “Breaking the Jewish Community’s Silence Around Suicide,”

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Nine Things Only People with Depression Can Truly Understand,”

[6] Caring for the Soul: A Mental Health Resource and Study Guide, ed. Rabbi Richard F. Address.

[7] “The Sense of an Ending,” The New Yorker.

[8] “Inside ECT Treatment: Woman Tries to End Shock Therapy Stigma,” Fox 8 News, Richmond Heights, OH, July 21, 2014.

Yes, AND…

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Y e s ,   A N D …

In August, during a tour of the White House, a toddler apparently got loose from his parents and managed to squeeze through the bars of the White House fence. We can picture what happened next, right? A SWAT team comes running; the child is immediately detained. Mortified parents frantically make their apologies while Secret Service and FBI agents put Washington, D.C. on lockdown, explaining – without a clue as to the absurdity of the situation – that “rules are rules” and, when it comes to national security, there’s simply no room for exceptions.

Fortunately, this is not what actually happened. Instead, a spokesman for the Secret Service explained, “we were going to wait until the toddler learned to talk to question him, but in lieu of that, he got a time-out.” So our crazy scene didn’t come to fruition, but we can picture it because, let’s face it, in our polarized world – where it seems everything must be all or nothing, black or white, yes or no – it’s completely plausible, isn’t it?

Consider the following, which actually did occur: In order to protect the safety of their neighborhood children, a homeowners association in Florida decided to ban all outdoor play. No skateboards, rollerblades, or bicycles are now allowed on the complex’s roads or common grounds. No ball playing, either; basketball, baseball, kickball, soccer – all of it is now prohibited. We all want to keep our kids as safe as can be; at least I hope we do. But this HOA distilled their situation down to two simple values – allow children to play or keep them safe – and then told themselves it could only be either/or.

Friends, what has happened to that oh-so-important of phrases, “Yes, AND…” and the common sense that goes with it? Why do we so often feel forced into artificial choices? There are, of course, many contributing factors, but I’d like to explore three with you today.

The first is our wariness of change, even when that change brings progress.

In the 1920s, radio was “the wonder of the age.” As Bill Bryson puts it: “The ability to sit in one’s own living room and listen to a live event in some distant place was approximately as miraculous as teleportation.” But not everyone was captivated by the new technology. Many believed that all the invisible energy flying through the air must be dangerous.  And, soon, reports circulated that “birds found dead on the ground were there because they had been struck by radio waves.”[1]

Similar debates swirled around the pros and cons of the telephone, the television, and – of course – the Internet. As journalist Clive Thompson has written: With every innovation, cultural prophets have always bickered over whether we were facing a technological utopia or apocalypse.[2] And we continue to hear the same messianic or doomsday reports today.

On the one hand, the Internet Age has seen a rise in literacy – not just of reading, but writing – helping us, at its best, to clarify our thinking, improve our memory, and make connections with other thinkers around the world. The United Nations, using new digital tools, is now able to detect and understand economic and social shocks more quickly. By looking at the pattern with which people add money to their mobile phone accounts, they can see early warnings of job loss. Online food prices can be surveyed to help predict price spikes and shortages. Searches for terms like “flu” and “cholera” can signal warning of a pandemic disease.[3] And just this past month, reports of 3-D printers manufacturing medical implants and printable body parts are pointing toward potentially revolutionary advances in medicine.

Yet we see the flip side, as well. With new technology, our conversations are becoming shorter and less substantive. “We’re spending more and more time ‘alone together.'”[4] The nature of memory is changing. With Google ever-present at our fingertips, we’re relying on external memory tools at the expense of developing internal ones. And there are behavioral changes, as well. Emailing, texting, playing games and talking on the phone while driving are all leading to profound distraction. 40% of smartphone owners – or 2.8 billion people worldwide – connect to the Internet immediately upon waking up in the morning, even before they get out of bed. Plastic surgeons offer a procedure, called the FaceTime Facelift, for those who don’t like the droopiness that comes with holding a devise at the proper angle for virtual communication. Certainly modern technology has incredible potential, but it can also lead to cyber bullying, loss of privacy, and even addiction. As resident comedian Bill Murray has said: “My iPhone has 2 million times the storage of the 1969 Apollo II spacecraft computer. They went to the moon. I throw birds at pig houses.” So is this really progress?

The answer, of course, is: “Yes, AND…” Change can bring progress AND peril. It’s up to us to maximize the former and minimize the latter – take the best of what modernity has to offer, AND retain elements of the past to guide and inform the process. Fortunately we sit here, as part of the Reform Movement, whose very reason for coming into being was to do just that. Had we ignored the new opportunities of Enlightened Europe and America – secular and scientific study; interfaith and multicultural mingling; modern music, liturgy and literature – had we resisted all change and closed ourselves off to these new opportunities, we would look like the ultra-Orthodox communities of Monsey, Brooklyn and Jerusalem. Yet had we indiscriminately opened our arms to all that lay before us, forsaking the wisdom and merit of our rich heritage and past,  we would have gone the way of those who ultimately converted out of the faith, severing any Jewish connection for the generations to come.

We sit here today because our forebears understood the value of “Yes, AND…” and tried, as we do today, to embrace the best of what modernity AND tradition have to offer.

The second reason we seem to feel compelled to take a side – to believe it has to be either/or as opposed to “Yes, AND…” – is a sense of urgency. Something happens – something big, sudden, frightening – and we feel pressured. We read scathing editorials about who’s to blame and articles of support for those perceived to be victims – and they don’t agree as to who’s who. We see facts dismissed as propaganda and propaganda posing as facts. Which are we to believe? Social pressure, and outlets like Facebook in particular, seem to insist we pick a side. Friends and peers post articles and quotes, change their pictures, take a stand. What should we do?

For us in the Jewish community, the pressure really ramps up around Israel. Before, during, and after the war in Gaza, the imbalance and inaccuracies in news coverage was generally infuriating; stories of the rise in anti-Semitic incidents around the world and at home remain alarming; and our hearts and prayers were, and continue to be, with all who had to endure the anxiety, terror, and devastating loss synonymous with war.

Yet – feeling the concern, the pressure, the urgency – North American Jews, have forgotten how to have “a civil conversation about Israel.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie (former president of the URJ) travels throughout the world and, as he writes in the most recent issue of Reform Judaism Magazine:

I’ve watched differences of opinion about Israel’s policies mushroom into heated exchanges in which reasoned arguments become impossible.  Israel – the very subject that once brought Jews of divergent perspectives together as a community –  has now become a catalyst for divisiveness.

It’s a challenge loving a “vulnerable country in a very bad neighborhood.” But too often we make our legitimate wrestling a struggle between us instead of providing safe and open places to patiently work though the struggles so many of us feel within. We fail to understand that “the intensity of our arguments reflects the depth of our feelings about the Jewish State – which is a good thing for Israel and us all.”

When I eventually did finally post a piece about Israel on Facebook this summer, it was these words penned by my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Strom, who managed to articulate what I hadn’t yet been able to find the words or the confidence to express on my own:[5]

I support Israel, her right to exist, and her right to defend herself from terrorists aimed at destroying the lives of as many Israeli citizens as possible. And my heart breaks for Palestinian civilians killed in the exchange of fire.

I weep for Palestinian parents mourning the deaths of their children, playing on the beach one moment, gone the next. And I blame Hamas for exploiting them as pawns in their twisted chess match, firing rockets from the most densely populated areas, stockpiling weapons in schools and hospitals, instructing them from their underground bunkers to ignore Israeli warnings of evacuation, in the name of expanding their honor roll of martyrs, while continuing to teach those same children in their textbooks that Israel is evil, the sole cause of their misery and misfortune.

I was and am still devastated by the murder of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali. And I was and am still horrified with every fiber of my being, by the brutal revenge killing, the burning alive of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khedair, the most heinous of the so-called “price tag” attacks to date, including, but not limited to, running through Jerusalem,  asking random people what time it was so that those with Arabic accents could be subjected to mob beatings.

I wholeheartedly stand by Israel, supporting her soldiers wherever they must go to protect her, praying for their safe return. And I continue to challenge her leaders, criticizing what many consider a series of political missteps that exacerbate an already fraught situation.

I have moments where I throw my arms up, shake my head, and nearly give in to despair, succumbing to the sentiments felt by so many on all sides of this – that it will simply never get better. And I continue to hope, to pray.  It’s not simply a matter of choice for me.  It is a matter of necessity, of who I am, of how I define myself – as a Jew, as a rabbi, as a human being.

Our tradition teaches that, when a sense of urgency leads us to feel we need to pick a side and take a stand, precisely in that moment is when we must appreciate a situation’s complexity and strive to understand it from perspectives other than our own. As Hillel the Elder so wisely taught:

“Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Uch-she-ani l’atzmi, mah ani? AND if I am only for myself, what am I?

V’im lo achshav, emmatiai? AND if not now” –

now, in this multifaceted moment, when so much hangs in the balance;

if not now – then “when?”

“Even when – especially when – it is most difficult, when the view of a peaceful future … is cloudy at best, if not all but completely obstructed, it is precisely in these moments, these darkest hours, where we must have hope, where we must be active in calling for and striving for peace.”[6] Where we must be able to lift up our confusion and doubts and fear, and talk about them – because doing so doesn’t present an obstacle to peace; it’s the only way to ever really get there.

And, finally, the third reason we increasingly replace “Yes, AND…” with “Either, or…” is a growing emphasis on compartmentalization.

Life is a constant juggling act. And so we come up with ways to make it all work with as much grace as possible. We use the technology at our disposal to become more efficient. We develop routines and schedules that enable us; it sometimes feels, to fit 30 hours into a 24 hour day. And we compartmentalize – carving up our lives into smaller sections and distinct categories.

This typically unconscious skill has its benefits – particularly when it allows us to keep the stress of work from the sanctuary of home; when it permits us to enjoy an evening, or vacation, or Shabbat without feeling the weight of the world. For some of us, if we didn’t possess the ability to compartmentalize, we might never have a good night’s sleep.

But compartmentalization has its dangers, too. We say things like: “If we were taking about friends or family, that’d be one thing. But this is business. It’s different.” Or we consider attending a service or class, but then don’t because we say it’s for “religious people” – by which we mean people other than us. I hear students talk about their “temple friends” and “school friends,” their “Jewish life” and “regular life.” I hear adults deflect wishes and ambitions to a later life stage called “after my next promotion” or “when the kids are grown” or “when I retire.” Can we really separate things out this way? Is it healthy? Does Jewish tradition wish us to do so – making such formal and precise distinctions about who we are, when we can do things, and what we do and don’t do? I think not.

Judaism’s first and greatest innovation was monotheism, the assertion that everything – good and bad, sacred and profane, holy and mundane – everything falls under the purview of one God. The Sh’ma – our liturgical assertion of that oneness –  says that Judaism is relevant at all times and in all places: when we lie down AND when we rise up; when we’re relaxing at home AND when we walk by the way; when we’re at work AND at school AND at home AND at play.

The “stuff” we describe as holy in Judaism is the same “stuff” as the rest of life – Shabbat is simply a day of the week; a Kiddush cup is filled with any old wine or grape juice; even matzah has the same flour and water, and (yes) yeast, as regular bread. What makes them holy and imbues them with sacredness is what we bring to it: mindful prayer, intentional usage, and sacred meaning attached by our community.

This is Judaism’s gift and our unique heritage: a set of inspirational beliefs, traditions and rituals that aren’t kept separate from the workaday world for fear of their contamination. Rather we are instructed to let all the stuff of life commingle – worship and work, mitzvot and money, prayer and politics, virtue and vanity. Because it’s just not possible to continually compartmentalize, and they don’t cancel each other out. These substantial areas of our lives aren’t “Either, OR…” – they’re all “Yes, AND…”. And the beauty of our Jewish tradition is that absolutely all of it has the potential to be elevated to the highest spiritual plane.

Friends, it’s hard to be making choices all of the time. There are many difficult decisions we have to face: Where will I go to school? How will I earn a living in the world? With whom will I spend my life? Where do I want to live? And there are other, excruciating choices, I pray none of us will ever have to make – but the reality is many of us will. So, in this New Year, let’s at least resolve to eliminate the false choices we really don’t have to make – the ones where fear of change, a sense of urgency, or a tendency toward compartmentalization only lead us to believe we have to choose.

I want to leave you with an image, one most of you will see when you return home this afternoon – the image of a mezuzah which, as we know, doesn’t hang like this [up & down] or like this [side to side], but like this [on an angle] leading us inside. As it turns out, when we read the text, no one actually thought we should hang it that way. Rashi taught: Hang it like this [up & down], so they point up to God. And Rabbeinu Tam, his own grandson, taught: Hang it like this [side to side], as the Torah scrolls were then kept in the Ark.

Tradition could have followed Rashi, and we could hang our mezuzot like this [up & down]. Or it could have followed his grandson, and we could hang them like this [side to side]. But instead we hang them like this [on an angle], which is a little bit of this [up & down] AND this [side to side].

This year may we find ever more ways to affirm AND in our lives – as we integrate our individual needs with the needs and concerns of the community; as we weigh and evaluate viewpoints on complex world affairs; as we balance the opportunities of change with the benefits of tradition. And, most importantly, may we each have a happy AND healthy AND sweet new year. Amen.

[1] Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927.

[2] Clive Thompson, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

[3] Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.

[4] Sherry Turkle.

[5] “Caring Is Not a Zero-Sum Game” (edited).

[6] Rabbi Joshua Strom.


Yom Kippur is hard. Yeah, the fasting is no fun, and there’s a lot of time spent on one’s feet (or sitting on hard pews, if you happen not to be the rabbi). The liturgy is heavy, and the realization of how far we have to go to be the people we want to be is often flat out overwhelming. But that’s not the hardest part, for me.

The hardest part is that, even uttered in holy space before a divine audience, the promises I make don’t feel binding. Not that I’m just giving lip service – it’s not that at all. It’s more that the God I believe in, the God to whom I address myself on these Holy Days – and others that are holy in different ways – is a Friend, a Mentor, a Guide and Loving Supporter. God understands my intent, but also knows the extenuating circumstances that get in the way sometimes, too. I guess I feel God might be disappointed by something I would (or wouldn’t) do, but God wouldn’t be devastated. We’d get through it.

This had been going through my head in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then, while driving one day, I hear the boy from the backseat: “Mommy, you don’t text while you’re driving, do you?” (We must have passed a PSA billboard. #lifechangeswhentheycanread)

Suddenly, I was thrust into soul-searching, and I settled on honesty. “I have texted while driving, yes. But I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t do it, and I promise I won’t anymore.”

A pause, and then: “OK.”

Al chet shechatati l’fanecha … for the sin I have committed before you, I’m truly sorry and promise to do better.” And with this audience, there are no excuses.