Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Evening Service (with guests from the Southern Jewish Historical Society and the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina)

Shabbat Shalom. I have to admit, I’m fairly intimidated to have so many historians with us in the congregation tonight. Historians by vocation and avocation; historians specifically of Southern Jewish history, or the broader scope of Jewish history, or areas that go even further and more widely afield. It’s truly an honor to have this opportunity to share a word of Torah with everyone here tonight, albeit a daunting one. But I suppose the reality is our pews here at KKBE are often filled with those drawn to history, especially the historical stories and discoveries in which we recognize ourselves.

For years now — even through parts of the pandemic — KKBE has been privileged to welcome thousands of visitors to our historic campus each and every year. Our docents can attest to how frequently they come with the name of a relative or ancestor that had some connection to our congregation — someone who was once a member, was married or Confirmed here, or might even be buried in our Coming Street Cemetery. And they are so grateful for any and every story we can share. Not because they learn more about their relative, or at least not entirely; but because in learning about their ancestor’s history, they learn something about themselves.

My colleagues can attest to another phenomenon we’re seeing throughout the Jewish community, and not only at historic congregations like ours. With the proliferation of genealogical study and DNA tests, we increasingly hear from people reaching out having learned that they have previously-unknown Jewish ancestry. And so they want to learn about Judaism, or, in some cases, are even interested in pursuing conversion. Again, the primary impetus is not to learn about a relative they hadn’t known anything about — but rather to claim what they’ve learned is a part of their own history, which they now want to carry forward into their present. In several cases, I’ve had individuals tell me they’ve always, for unknown reasons, felt drawn to Judaism. They feel their historic discoveries have made sense of that calling for them, and they come wanting to learn more about themselves.

If you’ve had the chance to travel to Israel, you’ve probably experienced these feelings of recognition especially strongly. In Religious School and in our sacred texts, from the bimah and in our liturgy, we’ve heard so frequently about the ancient Temples in Jerusalem; the mystics welcoming Shabbat in Tzefat; the first public institutions of ancient Israel, the beginnings of the modern state, and everything in between. And then to be at these historic places… by them, in them… These are moments when our present intersects the past, and their power can be so overwhelming, they take our breath away.

This summer I had the very special opportunity to indulge my own interests in history with a research fellowship in the personal archives of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. As you could imagine, immersing myself in this treasure trove of documents provided any number of incredible moments. But there were some that stood out from the others: Holding the text of Isaiah from which Heschel read at the funeral of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and finding it marked up in the same way I often mark the pauses and inflections of a text from which I’m publicly reading or preaching. Learning how Heschel cared about issues I care about, not just generally, but specifically — reproductive justice; criminal justice reform; equity in education and housing and voting. Reading the mail Heschel received when he publicly engaged in those issues — “Rabbi, stay in your lane;” “But, Rabbi, what about Israel?” — and encountering the same tropes my colleagues and I so often hear in response to our advocacy today. These were the moments I found to be most powerful.

Heschel’s theology has always spoken to me, deeply. But these moments of recognition that tie together past and present, that create the through-thread of history, they capture us in a different way. They are the ultimate proof that even when our experiences seem to be ours and ours alone, none of us are ever alone. To the contrary: We’re always in good company.

This Shabbat begins a new cycle in the reading of Torah. We often look at the Hebrew Bible as a history book — stories of migrations and conquests, the building of a nation and its sacrificial cult. But few of us look to the stories we encounter this particular week as “history.” The Torah and B’reishit begin with a series of stories we can easily imagine starting: “Once upon a time…”

• The Creation of the world

• Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

• Cain and Abel — the first sacrifice, the first fratricide

• Marriages and progeny and lifetimes that lasted hundreds of years

• Giant half-men/half-god Nephilim appearing on Earth

Where are the links that connect us to these kinds of text? Is there any way for us to recognize ourselves here?

The Hebrew Bible is not a history book in the sense of textbooks that teach us a chronology of events that transpired through the actions of historical figures in key and significant moments. At least not always. But the Hebrew Bible is a history book in the sense that it preserves a collection of human thought throughout history. If we take a bit of a Jeopardy approach, where we consider the Torah a document of proposed answers, we find that underlying each story, chapter, and verse lies a series of questions that read a lot like our own inner dialogues and curiosities — the “big picture” questions that are far from settled and with which we continue to wrestle today.

Just in this week’s parashah alone we can hear the text wrestling with the questions:

• How did everything that we see come to be?

• What is humanity’s place in the world? Are we the center of existence? Is everything here for our use and enjoyment? Or are we here to care for all that’s around us and preserve it for those who will follow us in the generations to come?

• What is our purpose in the world?

• What makes us different than animals and the rest of nature with whom we share so much common substance and material?

• Is it better for humanity to be alone, or in relationship or community?

• Is it better for humanity to be knowledgable or ignorant? Is ignorance bliss? Is knowledge divine?

• Why is childbirth — the foundational miracle of existence — so gosh darn painful?

• Why does that which we need to do to cultivate the earth in order to survive take so much hard work?

• Which is more important in what we offer to others: Originality or exceptionality? Is it the thought that counts, or the gifts themselves?

• How should we handle disappointment? Is it possible to move on or return from sin? How?

• Are we our brother’s keeper? Our sister’s keeper? For whom are we responsible and to whom?

• Who were the heroes of old? Who should be considered the people of renown today?

We can say what we want about the Torah’s stories that answer these questions. Some may resonate deeply; others may seem quaint, or antiquated, or incomplete. Even within this one sanctuary, much less throughout the entirety of the Jewish community, we don’t have to agree. But the fact that for thousands of years, humanity has been asking the same questions we have — has been wrestling with the same existential quandaries we wrestle with — that discovery in and of itself is powerfully affirming.

As Rabbi Dr. Amy Eilberg has written: “I do not expect the Torah to be a source of accurate historical or scientific phenomena. Rather, I view the Torah as the humanly recorded account of our people’s early encounter with God, conveying their best understanding of the nature of life and the vision for living that flows from that encounter.”

And so in the Torah’s text, this ancient record of answers to life’s biggest and most enduring questions, we encounter our people and the Divine.

As we begin a new cycle of Torah this Shabbat, and in the spirit of the stories in its first chapters, may we each spend a little longer this week with the questions we know to be at the root of existence. Instead of suppressing our “big questions” as secondary to the more pressing and practical concerns of day-to-day life, may we lift them up, take them to our journals, maybe even raise them aloud with one another instead. As we reflect upon them, may we feel a kinship both with those in the community today and our spiritual ancestors who lived decades, and hundreds, and thousands of years ago. And even as the search for answers will perpetually continue, may we understand the questions themselves as a means for encountering the Divine — in our minds, our spirits, and our lives — each and every time we ask them. Amen.

Everything Is Awesome

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Yom Kippur Evening

As most of you know, I was privileged to be able to enjoy Sabbatical time this past summer, and I used it to do some very special things I don’t ordinarily have the opportunity to do. I took several incredible trips with my family, visited two national parks, used a research fellowship at Duke University to immerse myself in the personal archives of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I read a lot of books. I took a lot of walks. And I binge-watched a bit of TV for the first time. Not quite as lofty as the others, I know. But I finally experienced the wonder promised by the Hulu TV ad: “I can watch what I want, when I want.” And let me tell you: TV is great that way! I’ve been missing out! Entertainment is wonderful when it’s available on demand, and so much of it is: TV, movies, podcasts… with the proliferation of Internet recordings, classes, webinars, virtual tours, you can learn or experience almost anything any time of any day. It could be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking everything should be available and accessible on our own schedules, when we want them, when we need them, when we crave them.

This was another takeaway from my Sabbatical. Sensing God’s presence… having our breath taken away… feeling awe and radical amazement at the world around us… These things don’t come on demand, but they are always available. We just have to cultivate our own attributes of patience, mindfulness, and awe to access them. If only it were as simple as pointing a remote and pressing a button. We have to go through life with our antennae perpetually up, our sensors on. It takes work to get to that state — but when we do, the world is as full of spiritual depth and inspiration as any streaming service is entertainment.

Think about the moments, people, and events in your life that have filled you with “radical amazement.” One day in particular stands out for me from this past summer. In just one day, we stood at the foot of majestic, snow-covered Mt. Rainier; drove to Olympic National Park and, in a rainforest, stood beside the most breathtakingly beautiful aqua water of the glacial Hoh River, glistening in the sun; passed two bald eagles perched together on driftwood, as we chased the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, illuminating both exotic rock formations on distant islands and round colorful pebbles at our feet, until the sinking sun yielded the sky to a near full moon over the silhouettes of the Northwest’s tall evergreen trees. If I had to sum up the fullness of the day in a single word, it would simply be: Perfection.

Alan Morinis, founder of The Mussar Institute, teaches: “Awe is a natural human response to an overwhelmingly profound experience. … But only an inner instrument that has been polished and honed will find just as much awe in less dramatic situations. … Cultivate the capacity to feel awe and the whole world becomes awesome.”

Last winter, walking around the Riparian Nature Preserve in Arizona on a dreary, cloudy, gray day, I watched my niece, with her big camera on a strap around her neck, as she trained her eye on a single bird or rabbit; a flower, a leaf. I was reminded that beauty and a deep breath do not always need to be found with grand sweeping views, but are sometimes right there at your finger tips — it just depends on which part of your surroundings you focus in on, which you let fade away.

On another day that trip, I saw people captivated by even less.

“Hole in the Rock” is a site in the Phoenix area. Actually, it’s pretty much right in the heart of downtown Phoenix, and it is exactly as advertised: A hole. In a rock. Presumably without the hole, it wouldn’t be much to see. It would be one of many rocks in the area; clumps of clay in the desert. There could literally be a sign: “Nothing to see here. Carry on.” But instead, there’s a parking lot. Actually several parking lots. Picnic tables, trash cans; even bathrooms. Because this clump of clay in the desert has something special: A hole.

Technically what this rock has is the absence of something. And people flock to the rock with its hole, and climb up its sides, scampering about like ants, scurrying around the hole, and through the hole — and, for the very intrepid, even over the hole, as well — finding joy and beauty and wonder in what is literally nothing.

The great twentieth century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, as Ron Wolfson remembers, often began his evening lectures with this simple statement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle just happened.”

Gasps could be heard throughout the audience, the curiosity palpable. What “great miracle” had just occurred? Heschel would pause for effect, then say,

“The sun just set.”

Heschel had grabbed his audience with a striking example of his theme: The everyday occurrences in God’s creation are miraculous. But we human beings who see the sun rise and set every day have become accustomed to the regularity; we have lost our sense of awe.

For Heschel, awareness of the Divine begins with wonder. He called for an attitude of “radical amazement” toward the world surrounding us: “To see the world through eyes of wonder is to see God’s presence in everything.”

The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven

So if the world is filled with the divine presence, and our eyes, our hearts, our souls can sense it, what stops us from being radically amazed on a daily basis?

Well, the world is stacked against us… email, texts, calls; little buzzes on our phones with headlines, some worthy of being headlines, some not; the constant availability of entertainment. Wordle, Quordle, Octordle, Sedecordle.

I want you to know how terrible I am at this. In the course of writing just that last paragraph I answered two emails, initiated a text conversation, cleaned my glasses, changed into more comfortable shoes, got a snack, and found three new words in Spelling Bee. Mindfulness and presence don’t come naturally for me — but even for those for whom it does, we all need to practice. Especially when it comes to quieting the most omnipresent distraction: our internal thoughts, worries, anxieties, and concerns.

As the Institute for Jewish Spirituality describes it: We each at times fall hostage “to an insistent internal script that runs something like: ‘I’ve got to get this done now—or else’ — whatever your ‘or else’ might be.” That inner voice that tells us we don’t have time to be present. That tries to convince us inner freedom is not deserved, can’t be afforded in the moment, needs to be earned.

But that voice, no matter its air of convincing authority, is wrong. So how can we quiet it and the other distractions, and cultivate our sense of awe and wonder in this world and in our lives? 

We have to slow… things… down.

Consider this story about Adam Wainwright, 41-year-old pitcher for my beloved St. Louis Cardinals:

What started as a necessity of his age has turned into an eye-opening, dream-fulfilling pleasure.

Dubbed his “Day After Pitching Old Man Walk,” this season Wainwright has been using the day after pitching recovery day for his aching body to go on lengthy walks around the stadium he is in that day. When he was younger, he used to use those days to do sprint work. However, as Father Time started to track him down, sprints caused his lower back to stiffen and ache.

So instead, he has turned to walking — sometimes several miles — to rid his body of aches and view parts of ballparks not readily available to the public or even most ball players. What he’s seen on those walks has been incredibly memorable.

“Sometimes, you get caught in the Groundhog Day of baseball, and you lose the majesty of it,” Wainwright says candidly. “And let me tell you, there’s lots of majesty.”

Age, Wainwright says, has taught him to find joy in the journey and pleasure in the process. When he was younger, he said that he often had his eye so affixed to the prize that he often missed much of the beauty of baseball. His walks have opened his eyes.

“The coolest one for me,” he says, “was Wrigley because I sat in there with the organ player while he had the jams going on and I sat in Harry Carey’s chair. Sitting with Bob Uecker in Milwaukee was a highlight of my whole career. In Pittsburgh, I got outside the stadium and saw the Roberto Clemente Statue and walked down to the river. Now, I’ve got to figure out something great about Cincinnati’s park, because I just can’t win there.”

In the twilight of a career that might lead him to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, Wainwright wants to use what time he has left at the MLB level savoring the sights and sounds of the game. When he leaves — after this season or next — he wants to do so with no regrets.

“I’ve played this game for a long time, but I haven’t taken it in like I want — in a lot of different ways,” he said. “As a Major League Baseball player, you’d think it’d be all laughs and giggles, but for me I had been so laser-focused my whole career that I missed some of the great things about our game. Being able to laser-focus is a learned skill. But being able to enjoy your craft, while also being laser-focused, is a learned skill also.” [1]

Wainwright is all of us, even if our careers aren’t nearly as cool. And his approach can be one of the most accessible to many of us, too. Just taking a walk or a drive. Opening our eyes with intentionality, changing our perspective. 

Every year, I get shpilkes right before these High Holy Days and their services. I’m a bundle of nervous energy wondering if I’ve prepared everything, missed anything. And sometimes the dissonance of so intensely inhabiting the Jewish calendar, while the secular calendar continues unabated, leaves me feeling off kilter, too. I’ve been preparing for the holiday, but does it feel like one? So last week, on the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah, I went for a walk. Since it was a beautiful day (and I had those shpilkes to work out), I went a little further and in a different direction than I might ordinarily go. I was still in my own head when some sidewalk chalk on a driveway caught my eye, and I realized someone had drawn a Jewish star. I stopped, stepped back, and saw there were some Hebrew letters, too — someone’s name. And an Israeli flag. Then — big smile on my face, now — I saw someone had drawn an apple and jar of honey. Suddenly I felt it: A great big Shanah Tovah wish from the world! Just from taking a walk, mindfully.

Jewish practice is filled with tools to help us slow down and cultivate mindfulness; to get better at that learned skill that takes a lot of practice. Reciting Motzi before we eat ensures we take a beat and a breath when we sit down to a meal. Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after meals, helps us pause for a minute when we finish; appreciate the blessing of being able to eat our fill. Modah Ani and the Morning Blessings, if we interpret them literally, help us physically stretch, and ground ourselves; take stock of the transition into a new day. The Bedtime Sh’ma gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve seen and felt and accomplished when the day comes to a close. The practice of placing a kiss on a mezuzah provides an opportunity to cross the threshold into our homes, the synagogue, or the sanctuary with mindfulness and purpose. 

Now I know some of you are probably thinking: That’s great, but I’m not really a ritual person. The prayers, the practices… that’s never been my thing. I’ve felt that way, too. I’m not a lifelong practitioner of any of these things. So for you, for me, I offer this poignant reflection from liturgist Trisha Arlin. It resonates with me deeply and I hope it will be meaningful for you, too:

This is a Ritual [she writes]:
Bowing during the Barkhu.
I used to refuse to bend my knee and bow
During the Barkhu.
Who was I bowing to?
A male king?
That’s not God.
[Forget] that.
But then I thought,
What if I bowed anyway?
What would that feel like?
So I tried it:
I bowed deeply for a month
As an interesting experiment.
It felt mechanical, pointless.
Until one day, kind of without warning,
Each time I bowed, I found there was a reason:
I bowed because everyone else in the room was bowing.
I bowed because my ancestors bowed.
I bowed to everyone who has ever been forced to bow,
I bowed to my fear of the future,
I bowed to my regrets of the past.
I bowed because I am not the center of the universe.
I bowed because that’s what Jews do when they pray.

This is a Ritual:
Wearing a tallit.
I never wore tallit
During the morning service
When I was little because I was a girl.
I sat next to my Daddy during services and played with his fringes
But they were his, not mine.
And anyway, does God really care whether I wear fringes?
So [forget] that.
But then I thought,
What if I wore a tallit anyway?
What would it feel like?
So I wore it for a month,
As an interesting experiment.
It felt awkward, dramatic and show-offy,
Until one day, kind of without warning,
Each time I put on my tallit I found there was a reason:
I put on the tallit because it was winter and it kept me warm.
I put on the tallit to wrap myself in the memory of my father (sometimes I even wore his).
I put on the tallit because I found one that looked kind of cool.
I put on the tallit because it draped me in Torah.
I put on the tallit because it separated me from the mundane.
I put on the tallit because I can and you can’t stop me.
I put on the tallit because that is what Jews do when they pray.

This is a Ritual:
Wearing a kippah.
I sometimes wore a yarmulke when I was young.
Especially on the holidays,
The flimsy lacy kind, stuck on with a bobby pin,
A trivial affection, stupid.
A real kippah was for boys; it sat well on their short hair.
But it flattened my lovely curls
So [forget] that.
But then I thought
What if I put on a kippah anyway?
What would it feel like?
So I wore a kippah on my head for a month,
As an interesting experiment.
Wow, immediately, each time I put on my kippah,
I found there was a reason
And it felt amazing!
I wore the kippah because it announces to the world that I am a Jew.
I wore my kippah to make a feminist statement.
I wore my kippah because it reminds me to connect to God, however I understand God that day.
I wore my kippah to announce to myself that I have entered the shul.
I wore my kippah because I have a lot of different ones to match my outfits.
I wore my kippah because everything underneath it becomes holy.
I wore my kippah because it’s what Jews do when they pray.

So now,
When I bless a being I don’t believe in except when I do,
When I need something bigger than myself,
I bow.
So now,
When I need to separate myself from the mundane
But not from my community,
I wrap myself in my tallit.
So now, 
When I begin another conversation with the divine
And I need to place myself in connection,
I put on my hat of holy, my kippah.
These interesting experiments,
These rituals,
They are not empty.
Red heifer or water from a rock,
Friday night chicken or lighting candles,
They mean something.
Not always the same thing
Not always the same impact
Not always to everyone in the room
But something, every time.

So pardon the presumption, but
I have a suggestion for you [Arlin concludes]:
Try your own interesting experiment.
Pick a ritual:
One that is done in your community,
One that you don’t usually do,
One that you almost never do,
Just one.
Then do it.
Do it without a reason. Do it for a month or two.
See if it takes on meaning for you.
See if it creates sacred space.
See if it creates sacred time. 
[See if it opens your eyes.] …

Bruchah at Achat, Barukh atah Echad,
Blessed One-ness,
Giving us the ability to encircle time and space,
Endowing gesture with meaning.
Because that’s what Jews do when they pray.

Isn’t that great? Arlin calls her poem “Interesting Experiments,” and this past year I began inviting our Confirmation students to conduct their own. Experiments aren’t scary; they just give us an opportunity to try something on for size. Kind of like this perspective from a colleague: “When I want to work on the middah [the character trait] of patience while standing in a long check-out line at the supermarket,” he says, “I will say to myself, ‘What would a patient person feel like right now,’ rather than force myself to actually be patient. The difference in these approaches is profound. If everything is just practice, then there is nothing for me to be arrogant about [or intimidated by]. I’m not claiming to be patient; I’m just practicing patience.” [2]

I think the “interesting experiment” I may conduct this year is the traditional Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day. There are blessings for the foods we eat, the motions we make, the people we meet, the sights we see. I don’t expect to reach 100, nor do I expect to remember any prescribed words. But by simply asking myself the question “What would a grateful person notice right now?” throughout the day and responding with the words “Modah ani — I give thanks,” I bet I can get awfully close. I know I’ll be more mindful.

When our patriarch, Jacob, falls asleep in the desert, he dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder — and he awakes with a start, declaring: “God was in this place and I, I did not know.” It truly is a stunning realization. Not that God, revelation, the experience of awe and wonder are all around us; but rather that all of that is always present and we, we can so easily remain oblivious to all of it.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

I wish each of us a year of amazement. I wish each of us a year of beauty. I wish each of us a year of awe and wonder and revelation. 5783 began 10 days ago on the Jewish calendar; may we enter the remainder of its days with mindfulness, purpose, and presence that we may experience the fullness of their gifts . Amen.

[1] John Denton, Cardinals Beat, May 2, 2022 (adapted).

[2] Rabbi David Jaffe, quoted in the “Patience/Savlanut/Erekh Apayim” Chai Mitzvah materials, compiled by Rabbi Pamela Wax.