“Hafoch ba v’hafoch ba, d’kula ba – Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” says the most awesomely named rabbi of Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag. Of course, he’s referring to Torah – the Five Books of Moses – which represent but a sliver of the canon and library of Jewish literature. Yet despite the wealth of material available for reflection and study, every year on Simchat Torah we return back to the beginning and start all over again.  The same Five Books. The same words. Again.


This afternoon Aaron and I took a walk through the historic district of Charleston. In six and a half years, we’ve covered a lot of the territory downtown. And yet every time we venture through these gorgeous streets, it seems we see something we’ve never seen before – a block we had managed to circumnavigate; a new view out over the water; a previously unnoticed garden, alleyway or piazza.

I suppose, given enough time over enough years, we could cover all of the historic terrain in our town. It’s a finite amount of real estate, coverable on foot. And not much changes – there’s an active and strong Board of Architectural Review to see to that. At the intersections of East Bay and Elliott, Tradd and Church, homes appear much as they did hundreds of years ago; some streets still “paved” with cobblestones, others only accessible by foot.

The streets we explore don’t change – but we do. And that’s the intersection where meaning truly resides.

That’s why we go back again and again and again.

Plan B

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

This is not the sermon I was to have given. That sermon had formulated itself in response to current events throughout the summer. It was, if I do say so myself, thought-provoking and spiritual – and, most importantly, well on its way to being written. But the relevance of that sermon seemed to deteriorate as Hurricane Matthew intensified, and essentially flew out the window this past week before it was boarded up.

So that sermon became Plan A. This sermon is Plan B.

Had you told me last week I would take a road trip between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I would have laughed. There’s never a road trip between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is Go Time for rabbis – our Super Bowl, World Series and Election Day all wrapped up into one. The plan for the intermediary Days of Awe is always to review the mechanics of Rosh Hashanah and make the necessary tweaks for Yom Kippur; polish up sermons and other remarks; review cues and choreography. There are Shabbat Shuva services to lead, Tashlich rituals to conduct, and cemetery memorials to hold. But Plan A wasn’t happening this year. Instead it’s become a good opportunity, for all of us, to reflect on embracing Plan B.

Radio personality Ira Glass asked a group with whom he was speaking if they remembered their vision for their lives when they first reached adulthood – their Plan A. “How many of you are still on Plan A?” he asked.  Only one person, the youngest in the room, raised her hand.  The rest of the audience laughed. “Plan B?” they said, “What about Plan C and D and F?”

Jewish law and tradition, it turns out, is moderately obsessed with Plan B.

We’re supposed to recite Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after a meal, for instance, when we’re done eating. Pretty simple and straightforward. Yet, the blessing is really a series of blessings, and it’s pretty long. What if you’re in a place of danger? What if you’re not sure you ate enough to warrant saying it? What if you don’t have the words with you and don’t know them by heart? What should you do?

We’re supposed to recite the Sh’moneh Esrei, the central prayers of a worship service that constitute the T’filah, without interruption. But what if someone comes up to you needing guidance on where we’re at in the service, or how to stamp their ticket for the parking garage? Or someone you haven’t seen in a long time taps you on the shoulder? Or a person of prominence in the community asks how you’re doing? What should you do?

There are precise instructions for how to clear the chametz out of one’s house before Passover – searching the nooks and crannies of your home by candlelight, collecting even the most minuscule of crumbs with the brush of a feather. But what if you’ve gone through all of that work, and then you see a mouse enter your home trailing crumbs of who-knows-what from God-knows-where? Or part of the building collapses before you’ve had a chance to clean it? Or you planned to be back home from a trip in time, but camels or thieves slowed you down? What should you do?

These and many, many more are the Plan B scenarios that have consumed rabbinic imagination throughout the generations. If it weren’t for Plan B, the Talmud would be the size of a pocket guide rather than the many volumes of an encyclopedia.

The rabbis get it: Plan B is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we don’t plan at all. The amazing thing is how smoothly things generally do go. Our liturgy reminds us of this every morning.N’kavim n’kavim, chalulim chalulim we pray – the rhythm and repetition of the Hebrew underscoring the amazing dependability of creation:

“Blessed are You, Holy One, who has formed the human body with wisdom – an intricate network of channels, vessels, and openings. This wondrous structure, and the flow of life within us, allows us to stand before You.”

Or in our new prayer books:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”

Or that less than 24 hours after the evacuation ended here in Charleston, Starbucks was back up and running.

So we make our arrangements for Plan A. We dream and formulate and strategize. But we remain flexible. And if Plan B is called for we pivot, and adjust, and – like that great language on our GPS – recalculate our route. We adapt and accommodate.

Yet sometimes Plan B is far more than an inconvenience or hassle. Sometimes Plan B is heart-wrenching.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive known for encouraging women to “lean in,” lost her husband suddenly and tragically at the age of 47. At the conclusion of Sh’loshim, the first thirty days of mourning, she reflected on her loss publicly with deep, raw emotion.

“I think when tragedy occurs,” she wrote, “it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

“But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning. …

“I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children. …

“I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the pants off option B.”

“Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the pants off of option B. [But] even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A.”

We can’t always greet Plan B cheerfully. In fact, even as we’re walking down its path we might be mumbling to ourselves – or screaming to the world – this sucks. But, as Sandberg reflects, Plan B is the path of life. It’s the implementation of the all-important imperative we will hear in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading to choose life.

And the fact is that, even under the most difficult of circumstances, there can be great beauty in Plan B. As friends helped us prepare our home for the storm a week ago, as neighbors checked in with one another and stopped to exchange cell phone numbers as we walked our dogs up and down the street, our son told us: “I like our neighborhood right now. It feels like a family.”

Sebastian Junger, has covered war and tragedy throughout his career as a journalist, and finds truth in a sociologist’s observation that “in every upheaval we rediscover humanity and regain freedoms. We relearn some old truths about the connection between happiness, unselfishness, and the simplification of living.”

“What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.”

Junger wrote about these observations in a book he called Tribe. Generally, he says, “our tribalism is [limited] to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents.” But during emergencies it’s as though our tribe expands. This week our tribe included the weary travelers we would run into in the hotel lobby and elevator, people from all over the southeast who, under ordinary circumstances, would remain strangers. But this week we exchanged words of strength and comfort, holding each other up. Our tribe included the sweet employee at the animal hospital down the road from our temporary quarters, who stood ready with a boarding spot for our pet, understanding that we just had no idea how the next few days in the hotel would go. Our tribe included the incredibly kind workers at the pharmacy who realized there would be no way to track down our doctors for official prescription refills and gave us the medications they knew we needed anyway. Our tribe included so many of you who checked in, colleagues who reached out, neighbors who helped make repairs, friends from across the country who offered their support. Plan B this past week was stressful and, at times, scary – but it was also filled with love and tremendous beauty.

On Rosh Hashanah we welcomed the New Year; on Yom Kippur we prepare ourselves for it. And here’s what we know: 5777 is going to be full of surprises and Plan Bs. There will be circumstances over which we will have no control, except how we choose to respond to them. “Be soft like a reed, not stiff like a cedar,” the Talmud tells us, and this past week we saw this sage metaphor of Jewish teaching come to life. Large, unyielding trees were uprooted from where they had seemed so firmly planted, while the flexible, swaying reeds of the marshes weathered the storm and immediately rebounded. Let us enter 5777 like reeds, knowing – whatever comes our way – we will find and savor its beauty and blessings. And let us say: Amen.


With deep gratitude to my colleague, Rabbi Sarah Mack, whose support and counsel were instrumental to this sermon – and my spirit.


Defeating Despair

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

I recently saw a statistic and it made me do a double-take. Apparently 13% of potential voters in the upcoming presidential election would prefer to have a giant meteor crash into the Earth and destroy civilization than see either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton become president. Think about that: More than one in ten (that would be at least one person sitting in every row here this morning) is in that kind of despair over the state of our government. And to hear others talk, seeing the candidate they are not supporting elected president would be the equivalent of a giant meteor.

But it’s not just politics. Despair is defined as “loss of hope; hopelessness,” and the narrative surrounds us. It’s like the board game Clue: There’s this pervasive sense that we’re going to meet a terrible end; the questions are only where, by whom, and how. Will the impact of medical crises cost us our jobs, our homes, our loved ones? Will crushing student debt consume the dreams of the next generation? Will a planet whose climate is ever intensifying, even be around in a generation or two? Will we fall victim to the evil schemes of our enemies – enemies who, depending to whom you listen, could be anyone who looks, talks or thinks differently than we do? Is there any path to peace for Israelis and Palestinians? For Syrians? For Yemen? Are we doomed to bear witness to spiraling violence in our own cities – city after city – Columbus, Tulsa, Charlotte? Or worse – are we becoming immune to it? “A quarter to half of children surveyed [from the UK, Australia, and the United States] are so troubled about the state of the world, they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”

Today we turn the page on the Jewish calendar to a new year, a clean slate, fresh hope. But how on earth does one find hope in such a sea of anxiety?

Well, nothing paints a more despairing picture than the words of Un’taneh Tokef we read earlier this morning, words which legend tells us entered the liturgy during the horror and persecution of the Crusades. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die?” And of those who shall die, by what terrible means does the end await?

Why do we continue to read this prayer? Here we are with a brand new prayer book, one that seeks to minimize the dissonance we often feel with the prayers of our ancestors and acknowledge the wide range of needs and theologies with which we enter this sacred space. Editors pored over the language and possibilities of the book we hold in our hands. Certainly the narrative of despair and destruction we see on the news or read in the paper is sufficiently vivid. We’re not lacking for worst-case scenarios. So why did this prayer make the cut?

But that’s just it! The gloom and doom of Un’taneh Tokef is imminently relevant and relatable; it reflects our deepest anxieties and despair… and we have to keep reading… because at the end of the prayer, there’s hope.

.וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
“Repentance, prayer and charity can temper the harshness of the decree.”

There are three imminently doable practices with a long history of leading our people to hope, the hope we so desperately need and desire today.

The first practice is t’shuvah – repentance, as we usually translate it. But the root of the word literally means “return.” Our tradition tells us that, through the work of these holy days, we can return to the purity of innocence, to the vivid imaginings of youth.

Remember when all you needed for entertainment was a stick and a patch of dirt? When a laundry basket could be an airplane, a shoebox a robot, a sandbox could become the moon? Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than intelligence” – and this is true for all of us, not only kids. Imagination ignites our passion, stimulates creativity and innovation, and is a significant factor – some would say the key factor – in the advancement and improvement of our world.

Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., religion professor and Chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, said earlier this year here in Charleston that “imagination is the battleground” of our times.

“We are experiencing a crisis of imagination,” he said, “… something more than a failure to be creative. Imagination involves an ability to see the as yet… imagine one’s condition beyond the absurdity of now. … Imagination involves empathic projection… seeing oneself in relations to others, [trying] to understand those who are not like us.

“Today we find ourselves in dark times, unable to imagine otherwise. … [But] democracies require human beings who are able to imagine themselves beyond the difficulties of now, who are able to see themselves in relationship with others.”

Consider Natalie Hampton, a 16 year old who imagined herself in the shoes of teens who feel ostracized and isolated in the social minefield that is a school cafeteria. She created an app that lets a student discretely find a table where compassionate classmates are happy to have someone new join them. Doesn’t that vision give you hope? In fact, over the course of one school year, some fifty middle schools successfully utilized social media tools to reduce bullying and student conflict reports by 30%. We have more creativity, more technology, more resources to harness than ever before. Israeli doctors are performing operations to remove the tremors associated with Parkinson’s. 3-D printers are manufacturing artificial organs for transplant. Creative conservation efforts have brought animals off of the endanger species list. And senior centers are harassing FaceTime technology to connect elderly residents with international students who want to practice their English.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “God speaks to us through our imaginations.” The question is, do we have the courage to listen? That’s where the second practice, T’filah – prayer, comes in.

Last year there was a report that the city of Jackson, MS, faced $743 million worth of necessary repairs to its crumbling infrastructure – a daunting amount, to be sure. The mayor’s solution? Prayer. “Yes,” he said, “I believe we can pray potholes away. Moses prayed and a sea opened.”

Now, that’s not the kind of prayer I’m suggesting, nor do I think it’s the approach of our liturgy. As Rabbi Chaim Stern has written: “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

My colleague at Circular Congregational Church, Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, has reflected on how often people turn to religion, and religious leaders, for consolation, certainty, assurance; to avoid tension or unpleasantness. Yet that’s really not what religion is about. It’s about making life more honest. It’s about taking risks and working for change in ourselves and the world. We are hardly certain what the outcomes will be. But the only thing we can ever be certain of is our will, our conviction. Religion is about finding the courage to dream in the face of uncertainty, to live boldly and free.

And so we pray for a…

Pure heart
Clear mind
Generous vision
Gentle words
The courage to say yes
The strength to say no
Steadiness in [God’s] work
Purpose every day
Strength to do what is called for, even when it is hard
Strength to do what is right, especially when others do not

We pray for courage to pursue the visions of our imagination, resilience when challenges threaten to push us back, clarity when the vision begins to fade. Prayer may not directly alter the circumstances of the world around us; but prayer can change us, and we can change the world.

And the third practice ensures that we always remain engaged in that world – that no matter how far hope recedes, we won’t recede, as well. This year, in particular, our souls need stories of tzedakah – radical generosity.

Estella Pyffom, a retired teacher from Florida, spent nearly a million dollars of her retirement money to turn a bus into a mobile classroom for underprivileged students. She decked it out with computers and desks, and drives it through a predominantly low-income county, offering local kids a safe place to do homework and learn about technology.

Five construction management students at Colorado State University designed a wheelchair swing, an elevated sandbox, and built a customized playground that allowed Libby and James,11-year-old twins with cerebral palsy, to be able to play outside in their own backyard.

Mark Bustos, a hairstylist at an upscale Manhattan salon, has been spending every Sunday for the past two years walking the streets of New York City, giving free haircuts to homeless people on the sidewalks. One recipient was particularly memorable. “He didn’t have much to say,” Bustos recalled, “but after I showed him what he looked like, the first thing he did say was, ‘Do you know anyone that’s hiring?'”

We feel in our souls what research has proven: “Apocalyptic storytelling” causes collateral damage.

“Hopelessness undermines the very engagement with … issues we seek to create. There are limits to the amount of concerns we can deal with at a time … [a] ‘finite pool of worry.’ Overburdening people’s capacity for worry with too much doom and gloom leads to emotional numbing. When we believe our actions are too small to make a difference, we tend to behave in ways that create the conditions in which those expectations are realized. … Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But this, too, we know – “things are far more resilient than [we] ever imagined” and “emotions, it turns out, are contagious.” Hope begets hope, joy sparks joy, and confidence inspires confidence.

This was the spirit that prompted marine conservationists to launch the hashtag #OceanOptimism, reaching more than 59 million people in the past two years with encouraging stories of real-life conservation success. “Life is complicated,” says its founder. “Things get horribly wrecked. That is true. But the remarkable capacity for renewal is true, too. … Far from making us complacent, stories of resilience and recovery fuel hope. Feeling hopeful enhances our capacity to take meaningful action. And that action flourishes in the supportive community of others.”

So let’s commit ourselves to seeking out better prophecies and more hopeful visions. Let’s listen to Margaret Mead, and “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” And Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Remember[ing] that there is meaning beyond absurdity. … Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments.” And let’s heed that great modern prophet we lost just this year, Elie Wiesel, who wrote:

“I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either. …

“I know – I speak from experience – that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal.

“There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man. … Such is the miracle: A tale about despair becomes a tale against despair.”

Let this be our tale in 5777 – and let’s spread it far and wide. May our imaginations ignite empathy and creativity. May our prayers strengthen our will and resolve. And may acts of generosity and justice fill our spirits with warmth and inspiration. May the New Year be a year hope, a year of courage, and a year of determination for each of us. And let us say: Amen.



The Week Magazine; “The Rise of Ocean Optimism,” Elin Kelsey, Smithsonian Magazine, June 8, 2016; “Five Reasons Imagination Is More Important Than Reality,” Lamisha Serf-Walls, Huffington Post, January 4, 2015;  “Teen Makes ‘Sit With Us’ App That Helps Students Find Lunch Buddies,” Elyse Wanshel, Huffington Post, September 12, 2016; “The Risk of Being Religious,” Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, May 22, 2016; Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur, p. 71, 365; Open Heart, Elie Wiesel (2012), p. 72.