B’reishit.

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.
And
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.
And
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.
And
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.

From Ev’ry Mountainside, Let RELIGIOUS Freedom Ring

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Rosh Hashanah Morning

Aaron and I became parents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and shortly after Eli was born, one of Aaron’s older congregants told me this story from when he was a young boy growing up:

It was the winter holiday season, and he had been cast as baby Jesus in the upcoming Christmas play. No bigger role than that! Happy and proud, he went home to tell his mother, who declared: “Baby Jesus?? My Jewish son, baby Jesus?? Absolutely not. You will go back to that school and you will tell your teacher that you cannot be in that play!” 

He was devastated, but he did as he was told.

The next day, when he came home from school, “Nu?” his mother asked. “Did you tell your teacher you can’t be in that play? A Jewish boy playing Jesus!” 

“I tried,” he told his mom. “But, instead of letting me quit, she gave me a new role instead. I’m no longer Baby Jesus; now I’m one of the wise men.” And he held his breath to see how his mother would react.

His mother clenched her shawl to her chest, then took her boy’s face in her hands. “My son — a wise man, a chacham??” she declared. “I’ve never been so proud!” And that’s how he came to participate in his Cedar Rapids elementary school Christmas play.

It’s a funny story; I laughed when he told it to me then and it still makes me smile now. But it was also a “welcome” story — welcome to the club of raising a Jewish child in a predominantly non-Jewish world.

We had our own first story five years later.

We were now living in here Charleston, and our son was a kindergarten student at our neighborhood public school. Even though the school cafeteria was our polling place, and I had seen advertisements for the Kindergarten Christmas show every year when we voted in November, I was still caught off-guard when Eli came home preparing for the show himself. At first it seemed like we might be able to just sort of grit our teeth and get through it. In fact, Eli loved the first song they learned, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” since he had recently lost his own.

But then he came home one day with a very serious look and said: “Mom, Dad, something doesn’t feel right. I feel like I’m in church.” 

“Songs about Santa and Jingle Bells aren’t exactly ‘church,’” we told him. 

“No,” he told us. “This is church.” And he showed us the songs they were now working on, which, he was right, were filled with Jesus and Christ and were definitely, if not wholly different, then certainly of a different magnitude.

So we brainstormed options together. We told him it didn’t make him any less Jewish if decided to participate. We told him it didn’t make him any less of a good student, or classmate, or American if he didn’t. But he came up with a third approach — he decided to ask the teacher if, when everyone shouted “Merry Christmas!” at the end of the show, they could add “And Happy New Year!” (This was the year Hanukkah had already taken place over Thanksgiving, so it seemed too late to add in a “Happy Hanukkah,” but this ecumenical note seemed to make him feel better.) So we told him, of course, go for it! And he did — he asked his teacher, who told him that sounded very nice and she would ask the other teachers. And she did — and they told our 5 year old kindergarten student… No. They could not add four extra words to the end of the show. They could not say: “And Happy New Year.”

Amazingly our son was fine with this. “Do you want us to talk with them?” we asked. “You still don’t have to participate if you don’t want to.” But he was OK. 

And I now realize that it was never about those four words, or the “Merry Christmas” with which the show did end, or any other specific song or moment. It was about being made to feel different, and knowing that every student who is made to feel that way has a choice: Are you going to try to ignore the difference or are you going to acknowledge it? Are you going to remain silent or are you going to stand up? Eli knew he had stood up; the end result didn’t really matter. Other students make the equally understandable choice to stay quiet. 

But the point of religious freedom in this country is that we’re not supposed to put our kids in that place to begin with. None of us are supposed to be put in that place.

Religious freedom is a complicated thing. As Linda Wertheimer writes: “How tricky it can be to balance freedom of religion with freedom from religion.” [1] But it’s a balancing act that dates back to the very, very beginning of our nation’s founding, and American Jews have always been at the forefront in navigating religious freedom and protecting it.

August, 1790. The Constitution had recently been ratified; the Bill of Rights was still a year away. To thank Rhode Island, the newest state in the Union, for its endorsement of the Constitution, President George Washington and his entourage made a trip up north to the Ocean State. As part of the pomp and circumstance of his reception, three letters were read to the President — the third by Moses Seixas, lay leader of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. The opportunity to address the President as a Jewish community was a big deal, and in the letter, Seixas said: 

Deprived as we [the Jewish community] heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

President Washington received the letter, clearly reflected upon it, and a few days later, on his return trip home, he penned a response: “Gentlemen,” he wrote — 

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. 

In other words, not only are the freedoms that have been established in the United States a blessing to this country, they are a light unto other nations, as well. He continued:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, [that one group would let another group have their freedom,] for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

The Bill of Rights would be ratified in December 1791, codifying the free exercise of religion and preventing any law that would promote or establish one religion above others. But a year and a half before The Bill of Rights, using the exact language penned by the Jewish community of Newport, President George Washington had already defined religious liberty as an “inherent natural right” of every single citizen in the United States of America.

The Jewish community was at the forefront of ensuring religious freedom at the founding of our country. With a slew of new infringements currently threatening to erode this first and most fundamental right, the Jewish community needs to be as active as ever in preserving religious freedom now.

Let’s begin with the places where infringement on religious liberty are about as clearcut as they can be. First and foremost: Reproductive freedom.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the drastic curtailment of the availability of abortion in a number of states in the country in its wake, is predicated on a statement of faith. Belief that life begins at conception is just that — a belief. Legislating that life begins at conception codifies into law the faith statement of a particular religious tradition and makes inaccessible the ethical decision-making of those who follow the tenets of other faiths. It makes inaccessible decision-making based on the tenets of Jewish faith. 

Judaism teaches that until a fetus is born and takes its first breath, it is part of a pregnant person’s body. In all cases — those concerning physical health, mental health, spiritual health — the life and well-being of the pregnant person comes first. This is halacha, Jewish law. And just to be completely clear how much the constriction of reproductive freedom puts religious freedom on the line, if South Carolina law were to ever follow Texas law, where a gag rule all but eliminates the ability to even discuss or counsel about abortion, I could be fined and potentially jailed just for teaching you this part of our Jewish tradition today.

Jewish law puts the health and wellbeing of a person who is pregnant first. So, in Dallas, where a study found women are having to wait “an average of nine days for their conditions to be considered life threatening enough to justify abortion,” and many have “suffered serious health consequences while they waited, including hemorrhaging and sepsis, and one woman had to have a hysterectomy as a result,” there is an infringement on religious freedom.

When “forensic nurses who care for sexual assault victims in the emergency room [have] said they would no longer provide morning-after contraception for fear it would be considered an abortion drug,” there is an infringement on religious freedom.

When “oncologists say they now wait for pregnant women with cancer to get sicker before they treat them, because the standard of care would be to abort the fetus rather than allow treatments that damage it, but a state law allows abortion only ‘at risk of death,’” there is an infringement on religious freedom. [2]

Of course, those for whom their religious tradition or moral conscience lead them to the conclusion that life begins at conception are free to follow the decision-making that flows from that belief. That’s what religious freedom means. But, as the late Yale University law professor Robert Burt explained: “In a society equally owned by everyone, all disputants (no matter how convinced they may be of the superior morality or justice of their positions) must refrain from pursuing complete and conclusive victory over their opponents.” [3] Religious freedom requires us to practice a bit of restraint; have a bit of humility. Or, as Martha Nussbaum, puts it: “We cannot claim the right of religious liberty without granting it on an equal basis to those who do not follow the religion we believe to be correct.” [4]

Reproductive freedom is only one of the places where an inverted understanding of religious freedom is being used to infringe upon the very liberty it is meant to protect, where lawmakers and judges are defining religious freedom as the freedom to impose their religion on others. Our own governor has invoked religious liberty as the reason a taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina has been allowed to restrict the placement of foster children into exclusively Protestant, heterosexual foster care homes in the Upstate. In our South Carolina legislature, there is a bill in the Senate that would allow doctors to refuse to provide medical care to patients on the basis their own personal religious beliefs; another in the House would make providing crucial medical treatment to trans boys and girls a felony, treatment that allows them to live healthy, confident lives compatible with their gender identity. Facing a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years for treating trans children, doctors are already fearful before the law has even passed, and many families whose children have been receiving treatment, are now desperate, suddenly unable to access essential care for their children here in Charleston and throughout our state. 

It truly is a faulty and warped understanding of “religious liberty” to think that religious freedom means our lawmakers have the right to legislate their own religious ideology for others. And how do we know that this understanding is wrong, that this is precisely the direction our Founding Fathers did not want us to go? They told us. In a letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, none other than George Washington wrote:

If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horror of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.

Dan Eshet and Michael Feldberg, “George Washington and Religion, Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 89.

Yet another infringement on religious liberty came in the decision of the Supreme Court in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, that a high school assistant football coach has a right to pray on the 50-yard-line after his school’s games. This one struck a particular chord in the Jewish community. Following the ruling, I submitted a brief “Letter to the Editor” in the New York Times listing some of the many issues about which I’ve been contacted over the years by congregational and community families with students in our public schools:

Students who get benched because they don’t join in the Christian team prayer before or after a game. Students who don’t get playing time because they won’t go to the Christian varsity (or some other) pizza lunch offered at school. Students who lose their starting spot on the team because they missed a game (or even a practice) for the High Holy Days.

The response to that brief letter was overwhelming. Some commented that they, or their students, have not had these kinds of experiences, which is, of course, wonderful and what one would hope. But the vast majority of those who responded did so with their own stories of religious discrimination — and not just in the South, all over the country. The sharing of the letter, and people’s own experiences of being made to feel different as Jewish students in public schools, went viral. 

I know there’s a tendency to sometimes want to downplay our own experiences. After all, the goal of all of this — the very reason for religious freedom in the first place — is living together in peace and harmony. Conjuring up our own memories of discrimination, especially when they feel distant and past, seems to run counter to that purpose. But to the contrary: Remembering what it has felt like to be an outsider is often the most important thing we can do to help ensure that no one else has to feel like one again.

A little over a decade ago, then-New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was adamant in his support of a Muslim community plan to build Cordoba House, a Muslim community center, near Ground Zero. It was a vastly unpopular position to take, and several of you may in fact have disagreed with it. Most of his own advisors counseled against it. But do you know why Mayor Bloomberg felt so strongly about it?

It turns out that Bloomberg, one of the richest people in America, a man who had won an unprecedented third term to one of the most visible and influential positions in American politics, had a childhood memory of prejudice that still stung. He remembered a time when his family could not purchase a home outright in the Boston suburb of Medford because they were Jewish. They had to ask their lawyer — a Christian — to buy it and sell it back to them. It was a personal thread in the fabric of religious prejudice in America. Some people experience antisemitism and respond, ‘I’m going to help build a world where that never happens to my people again.’ Michael Bloomberg experienced antisemitism and decided, ‘I’m going to help build a world where that never happens to anyone again.’”

Eboo Patel, “The Most American Thing You Can Do,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 210-11.

There are currently roughly 1,500 religious groups in the United States of America; 75 different kinds of Baptist groups alone [5] — and, as we well know, if there are three Jews, there are probably at least three different groups, as well. This is the heart of our country’s strength, not its weakness — but only when we respect one another, make space for one another, uphold the covenant at the foundation of this nation: to give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. 

Religious freedom is being threatened in this country, and we need to be its advocates — in classrooms and in City Council, with Congress and our kids. As we were at the very founding of this nation, may the Jewish community continue to be vocal champions of a religious freedom that encompasses all Americans of every faith and every creed. May we remain firm in our defense of a religious liberty that protects the rights of every citizen to live according to their faith, not the ability of public officials to legislate according to theirs. May our own experiences of discrimination in the past lead us to be steadfast in the fight for freedom from discrimination for others. 

When Washington sent his letter to the Jewish community of Newport over two centuries ago, he ended it with his very favorite formulation of blessing, the wish that each of us would “sit in safety under [our] own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make [us] afraid.” That is still our hope, still our prayer, and still the promise of a nation fully committed to the pursuit and protection of religious freedom. May we see the realization of all of our hopes, prayers, and promises in this New Year. And let us say: Amen.

[1] Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Innocence, p. 30.

[2] Kate Zernike, “Roe’s Reversal Changes Ways Doctors Work,” New York Times, September 11, 2022.

[3] Robert A. Burt, “Between Toleration and Rights: Echoes of the George Washington Letter in Contemporary Legal Debates,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry: Reflections on Our First President’s Famous 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, Adam Strom, Dan Eshet, and Michael Feldberg (eds.), Facing History and Ourselves (2015), p. 177.

[4] “Madison’s Influence on George Washington’s View of Toleration,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 189.

[5] Gordon S. Wood, “The Origins of American Religious Liberty,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 31.

Ki Tisa.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Shabbat Evening Service

We watch more basketball at our house than seems humanly possible. Professional basketball, college basketball — we’ve even watched local high school basketball on TV. We all like the sport, but I also like the drama — no game is the same as any other, and you almost always see something on the court you’ve never seen before. Yet what I saw during a game last week was utterly unique. It was moving, and beautiful… and had to do with so much more than the sport.

The game was Duke vs. Clemson, on Clemson’s home court. During the first half, one of Duke’s guards made a quick steal. He ran the ball down in the backcourt for a fast break, and then jumped to dunk. But as he dunked, a pursuing player from Clemson ran into him with his shoulder, hard, and with seemingly clear intent, causing the Duke player’s legs to fly up from under him so that when he landed on the court, he did so, hard, on his hip, his back, his shoulder, and nearly (but thank goodness not) his head.

That was obviously not the beautiful part of the game. In fact, it was pretty clearly a dirty play — one that caused the Duke bench to clear, the Clemson coach to wince, and the Duke coach to run over to check on this player and to yell at the ref. Everyone else, I think, collectively held their breath. Thank goodness the player was fine. After a few moments he got up, walked around, and was even able to stay in the game. 

But then it nearly got much worse.

As I said, the players on the Duke bench and on the floor had jumped up and were livid, eager to protect their teammate. The Clemson players, while ostensibly also horrified by the play, weren’t going to stand by and allow their teammate to be attacked, verbally or otherwise, no matter what he had done. The bench coaches for both teams tried to get their players under control… 

And that’s when the beautiful moment happened.

The coach from Clemson came over to the coach from Duke, followed by his player, the one who had committed what would be determined to be a Flagrant 2 Foul — one for which he would be ejected from the game — and the player and Duke’s coach hugged, twice. They exchanged words which we in TV-audience-land couldn’t hear, but which seemed to be an apology from the player, followed by its acceptance, and the Duke coach’s assurance that the player (and everyone watching) understood: He was not just a better player, but a better person, than reflected by the egregious foul he had just committed.

And then the player left the court, and the game resumed… and everything was just fine.

In a world in which situations so quickly escalate from 0 to 60 —in which mistakes happen, get amplified, and are publicized all over the world; in which social media asks (sometimes it feels like demands) that everyone take sides and promulgate statements — this was the exact opposite. This was a powerful and all too rare example of de-escalation.

It was beautiful and encouraging — and we need more moments like it.

Including in this week’s Torah portion. 

This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, contains the well-known, deeply upsetting, Cecil B. DeMille-directed incident of the Golden Calf. With Moses up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, the people turn to Aaron for comfort and guidance saying: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” And so Aaron instructs them to take off their gold jewelry (which tradition says the men do, but the women do not), and after casting it into a mold which produces a molten calf, they exclaim: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron, seeing their reaction, builds an altar and announces: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!” And so they celebrate — with sacrifices, food, drink, and dancing.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God tells Moses to hurry down, for “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” and are worshipping an idol. It seems God no longer wants any responsibility. And God further says: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them.” Whoa, says Moses — in a moment we hope might let cooler heads prevail — “let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand.” (Nobody seems to want to claim the Israelites as their own right now.)

But then Moses heads down the mountain and at the sight of the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, “he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” And then all bets were off: Moses burns the calf to ashes, mixes it into water, and makes the Israelites drink it. And the Levites (on Moses’ orders!) take up swords and go on a rampage through the camp, murdering some 3,000 people that day. And God sends “a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.”

So, OK, let’s take the deep breath we wish someone in this narrative had had the presence of mind to take themselves. Because it simply didn’t need to be this way.

The first moment with potential for de-escalation comes at the very beginning of the story. The text tells us that the Israelites went to Aaron “when [they] saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain.” While the Israelites ask for an idol, what they’re really asking for is reassurance — a word that Moses will be back, confirmation that they have not been abandoned and are not alone. At the very least, rather than a golden calf, Aaron could have offered himself: “I know my brother has been gone for a long time, but I have confidence in him and in God that he will return. And until then, I’m here — what do you need? How can I help?”

The second moment where things could have gone differently is when Moses comes down the mountain and his anger escalates into harsh punishment. Punishment serves two purposes: As a consequence for bad behavior, and as a deterrent against repeating the same behavior in the future. If Moses took a moment to assess the reason behind the Israelites’ behavior, he would have realized that a deterrent wasn’t necessary. They sinned in response to his absence; he is now back and will be back for years and years to come. A strong punishment shouldn’t be necessary to keep them from going down the path of idolatry again. So the punishment merely needs to be a fitting consequence for their actions. Yes, idolatry is a particularly egregious crime. But drinking toxic water AND turning Israelites against Israelite AND death by sword AND a plague? Punishment heaped upon punishment heaped upon punishment — it cries out for a lesson in de-escalation, perhaps several.

First, in any given situation, even when it seems blatantly obvious what is happening, there are always multiple possible explanations or interpretations. Moses failed to understand this, but his descendants, the ancient Rabbis, understood it implicitly.

Steven Resnicoff, Professor in the DePaul University College of Law, once heard Justice Scalia speak at a kosher dinner at the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Scalia said that during an interlude when there was no Jewish Justice, he — Scalia — was considered by the other Justices as “the Jewish Justice.” Why? Not because he was Jewish; he was a proud Catholic. It was because he studied Talmud. Why did he do that? When he was at Harvard Law School there were classes on Saturday. There were some religious Jewish students who attended but sat in the back and did not take notes (taking notes would be forbidden on the Sabbath). He said he asked himself why those students seemed to be ahead of him when they couldn’t even take notes. He decided it must be because they studied Talmud, so he decided to do so as well. He saw that in the Talmud, Rabbi X said this, Rabbi Y said that, and the other Rabbis said something else. Justice Scalia realized that he and the rest of the non-Jews in the class were always looking for the “bottom-line answer” and always left the lecture hall perplexed without finding it. He said the Jewish kids who studied Talmud knew from the beginning that there was no such thing as a bottom line answer!

If there can be many answers, many interpretations, many different understandings — then it behooves us in any moment when there seems to be a crescendo of voices all saying the same thing, or two different sides portraying a situation as only one thing or the other, to pause. To take a breath. To ask ourselves what else might be going on here. To engage those who are a part of the situation to better understand what they themselves understand to be going on, as well.

Second, there are actions and deeds, opinions and words, but de-escalation comes when we focus on feelings. In the incident of the Golden Calf, what the Israelites did was horrible; but why they did it, what they were feeling was entirely recognizable. They felt abandoned, they were scared. Those emotions are not only familiar, but relatable. We’ve felt them, too.

Matt Haig, bestselling author of The Midnight Library, wrote another book released during the pandemic called The Comfort Book — a collection of reflections upon lessons he learned during periods of depression that found resonance with a nation contending with its own. In this book, he writes: “We can look at the world through more than one lens. If we look at people through the lens of emotion, at the feelings that drive opinions, rather than the opinions themselves, it’s easy to see the things we share. The hopes, the fears, the loves, the insecurities, the longings, the doubts, the dreams.”

Finally, once we reach the place of connecting over feelings, emotions — we can make the choice to reinforce positive rather than negative ones. With a very small and simple gesture, I had the chance to do just that this past week. 

Author Ann Braden has written two amazing middle grade novels in recent years that made such an impact on me I decided to see if she had a presence on Facebook. After realizing we had a “friend” in common, I sent her a friend request, as well — which allowed me to send her a personal message about how much I had liked her work, and then she wrote back, … anyway, I’ll leave the fan-geeking part of the story for another time, except to say that authors, and many celebrities are often far more accessible than we think they are. Well, Braden’s second book, Flight of the Puffin, shares the story of 4 kids, each of whom faces forms of hardship and isolation in their lives. Then with one small card containing a message of hope, a chain reaction begins, “helping each kid summon the thing they need, whether it’s bravery, empathy, or understanding. But best of all, it makes each one realize they matter — and that they’re not flying solo anymore.” It really is a beautiful book about helping to turn momentum at critical moments; about deescalating negativity by interjecting love and light and hope. 

And Braden has brought the concept into the real world, too, putting out calls for kindness postcards that could make a difference in someone’s life. This week, she put out a call for cards to go to the GSA (the Genders & Sexualities Alliance) at Melbourne High School, where an LGBTQ bulletin board was defaced, on the same day the school board voted NO on an anti-discrimination policy. Here’s mine:

Friends, this is something we can all do — whether by postcard or dialogue, by what we choose to say and do, and what we decide not to say or do. When things seem to be spiraling out of control, we don’t have to spiral with them. We can refrain from escalating damaging emotions and behaviors, and even help to de-escalate them to some place much positive for all involved. By realizing there are always multiple perspectives in any given situation; by uncovering the emotions and feelings underneath actions and words; by doing the positive thing, the kind thing, the loving thing — we can each be what the world so desperately needs, and God calls us each to be: We can be ambassadors for shalom.

May I Humbly Suggest: Humility

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Aaron and I were driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway this summer. Actually, Aaron was driving; I was a passenger — and, as it turns out, that difference matters sometimes. The mountains are my “happy place,” and it was a hot, but beautifully clear day. I felt like we were climbing up into the sky, and I said as much to Aaron, who laughed and replied: “Well, not exactly, since we’re going down.”

“What?” I asked. “How can we be going down?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but we are.”

“What do you mean?” I responded, and pointed. “Look at those trees up ahead; they’re above us.”

“Uh, no,” he said with a smirk. “They’re below us.”

I still can’t explain what was happening. Some sort of optical illusion, like this hillside we once went to in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, where you put the car in neutral and though it feels like you should roll forward, the car rolls backwards, seemingly uphill. It was something like that, except that then we both experienced it the same way. Here, we were literally on the same road, in the same car, and yet it felt like we were on totally different journeys. It was disorienting… upsetting… and, in fairly short order, it became infuriating, as well. My fists clenched, my voice rose, and I looked at my husband with incredulous confusion and anger: How can you be so wrong about this? Why aren’t you perceiving this as I do??

Here’s the thing: Objectively, I have to admit, it’s very likely I was wrong. Aaron was driving the car, after all; he knew when he had to push the gas pedal and when we could just coast. But my experience was my experience and no one in that moment could convince me I wasn’t right. (We know — Aaron tried.)

Consider any number of the debates raging around us right now, and we’ve all been in these heated exchanges — sometimes face to face, sometimes on social media; in the emails we send, and the ones, using our better judgment, we don’t. As I shared on Rosh Hashanah, the world has clarified into an us and a them. As Amanda Ripley has written: “We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side.” [1]

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about how curiosity can help heal the polarization in our relationships and communities. This evening I’d like to focus on another key to bridging our divides — an essential attribute in all too short supply, everywhere: Humility.

“Humility,” writes Adam Grant, “is often misunderstood … [as] a matter of having low self-confidence.” It’s often perceived as being shy or quiet or noncommittal. Yet “one of the Latin roots of humility means ‘from the earth.’ It’s [actually] about being grounded — recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible.” [2] Or as Alan Morinis puts it: “Being humble doesn’t mean being nobody: it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.” [3]

In Judaism’s Mussar practice — spiritual growth through the cultivation of inner virtues — humility is the most frequently discussed attribute. By far. In fact, it’s taught that all of the other middot, all of the other virtues, can be accessed through this one core trait. [4] And once again, as with curiosity, Moses is our model.

The Torah tells us, in Numbers 12:3, that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” I’ve always chuckled at that line — I mean, how humble can one be while simultaneously keeping score? But the Torah doesn’t just say Moses was humble; he demonstrates it.

The daughters of Zelophehad appear before Moses with a matter of legal concern and significant personal impact. Their father, as they explain, died in the wilderness and left no sons. As inheritance procedures had thus far been explained to the Israelite people, in the absence of a male heir, the plot that would have been assigned to this family in the Promised Land would now be assigned to someone else. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan because he had no son!” his daughters plead. “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” (Numbers 27:4)

Well, this is interesting. The law clearly seems to refute Zelophehad’s daughters’ request — and yet, could Moses be sure? This exact case, as with so many others in the formative years of the Israelite nation, had not come up before. So what did Moses do? Numbers 27:5 tells us: “Moses brought their case before the Lord.” “You know, I don’t know,” Moses told the sisters. “Let me check.” And he relied on God’s authority, rather than his own, for a definitive answer.

Humility, for Moses, took the form of recognizing his own limitations and turning to God when needed. As my colleague, Rabbi Max Weiss, writes: “Moses’s humility is based on his recognition that he lives his life among and with his people, not at the center and not above them.” [5]

Tradition teaches us we don’t need to be Moses; we just need to be the best selves we can each be. So what can humility look like for us?

First, in moments of disagreement, when we reach what seems to be an insolvable impasse, humility is the ability to say, “If one of us is wrong — well, it could be me.”

According to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and teacher, was always troubled by the story of the Garden of Eden. “Why,” he wondered, “would God not want human beings to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Would it not be of benefit, providing the necessary understanding to make moral choices?” His feelings about the story changed when he began to consider that perhaps humanity had as much to lose as to gain in the Garden of Eden. Prior to eating the forbidden fruit, he taught, “we had a superior knowledge … knowledge of truth and falsity. All we have after violating the divine command is relative judgment, uncertainly grounded in personal feelings about right and wrong, contingent upon culture and context.” [6]

I cannot begin to tell you the number of disputes I have mediated, in the many settings in which I mediate disputes as a rabbi, in which someone was absolutely certain, fully confident of their correct understanding… in a subjective situation. And far more situations are subjective than we realize. Therefore, as Mikva teaches, the humility that comes from “embracing a learned ignorance, where no one is in perfect possession of ultimate reality” is a virtue. Cultivating a “doctrine of doubt” is a best practice. And maintaining “moral confidence” rather than “moral certainty” can go a long way toward repairing our polarization; even preventing it in the first place. [7]

Humility is recognizing the role personal feelings, relative judgement, and cultural context play in our disagreements. Humility is being able to say that, though I feel certain in this dispute, I can still hold a measure of doubt and allow that I might be wrong — or at least not unilaterally right.

Because the second way we can demonstrate humility is to realize that even in situations where we may be right, perhaps someone else can be right, too. Someone doesn’t necessarily need to lose for us to win. Humility is graciousness in victory as well as defeat.

I don’t know about you, but every four years (or five, as the case may be), I become a blubbering mess while watching the Olympics. Judo, marathon power-walking, team badminton… it doesn’t matter what the sport is — every time I watch, it seems there is some human interest story that pulls at my heartstrings and opens the waterworks. This summer, it happened in track and field. Mutaz Essa Barshim (from Qatar) and Gianmarco Tamberi (from Italy), were tied after six rounds in the high jump. In their first six jumps, they had each cleared the bar perfectly. But then neither one was able to execute a higher jump over their next three attempts. So, after the end of regulation, they remained tied. An official came over to ask them about starting a “jump off,” but then Barshim looked at Tamberi and asked the official: “Can we have two golds?”

It’s a great video; I recommend you watch it (with Kleenex handy). Because as soon as the official says, “It’s possible,” and tries to explain the consequences of what would happen, Tamberi has already jumped into Barshim’s arms screaming, and the two smile and celebrate. For both athletes, the fact that the other has a gold medal in no way detracts from the accomplishment of their own.

It begs consideration: In what ways do we predicate our successes on others’ losses? How many times in a disagreement are we looking for “victory,” and how often do we define victory as the unilateral acquiescence of another side? Humility is recognizing that, in so many situations, there are multiple perspectives worthy of consideration. (And it’s worth noting: Empathy lies in that recognition, as well.)

Finally, as we will repeat again and again this Yom Kippur: We all make mistakes. We’ve made them this past year, we made them every year before that, we’ll surely make new ones in the year to come. The by-product of our human fallibility are almost constant opportunities to demonstrate humility. Because, perhaps most importantly, humility is admitting we’re wrong when we’re wrong, and learning from our mistakes.

Dr. Richard Boothman, who served as the Chief Risk Officer in the University of Michigan Health System for seventeen years, shares the following experience: [8]

Christine was a vibrant seventy-two-year old woman who began to have headaches and then a dizzy spell. A CT scan ordered by her physician showed a congenital problem in her brain … [which] posed a risk for bleeding and rupture. So, her physicians … clotted it off. …

The procedure went beautifully, but in the middle of the night her nurses noted that one side of her face was drooping and her grip strength was diminished, worrisome suggestions that she had suffered a stroke of some sort. …

[They rushed] Christine down to the CAT scanner. If the neuroradiologist saw signs of a bleed, they would get her directly into the operating room and drain the blood. And if there were no signs of a bleed, it was probably a clot, in which case they would give her heparin, a powerful anticoagulant, and see if they could restore her circulation. Great plan. So the resident summoned two experienced surgical intensive care nurses and said, ‘get me 3,000 units of heparin and come with me.’ They ran down in the middle of the night to the CAT scanning unit and determined there was no sign of a bleed. They administered the heparin, and she improved dramatically for about forty minutes, and then she crashed. An emergency scan revealed a dramatic new intracerebral bleed, so large it was deemed inoperable. …

At 6:00 in the morning when I had just arrived in the office, [Dr. Boothman remembers,] the chief resident was peering around the corner in tears. At that very moment, the attending surgeon, summoned from home, was meeting with sixteen members of Christine’s family informing them that Christine was on life support solely to allow them a chance to say good-bye. The attending talked about the inherent dangers of heparin that caused Christine’s complication, concluding that there was nothing he could offer aside from his deep sorrow and sincere condolences.

What the attending didn’t know at that moment was that during the night, the chief resident had rummaged through medical waste and found the empty containers of heparin he had administered. His worst fears were realized. In the heat of the moment, in the middle of the night, he had seen 1,000 on each of the three vials. He had not noticed in smaller print, ‘x 10.’ He had administered 30,000 units of heparin, not 3,000. He was the only one who knew this and he was there to confess it to me. … He showed up in my office, tears streaming down his face, and insisted that he tell the family the truth.

We introduced the resident to the family. Through his tears, he did his best to explain the mistake to the dumbstruck family who sat in stunned silence around Christine for what seemed to be an eternity. And then Christine’s sister stood, crossed the room and embraced him. She said, ‘We have watched you, and you really care. Remember my sister, but don’t you dare quit. You’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of people in your career. Don’t you dare quit.’ Amazing. I cannot imagine such generosity of spirit. Such forgiveness.

Within twenty-four hours, [Dr. Boothman continues,] we had emailed the entire organization. If you worked in the cafeteria or in housekeeping or in the operating room, you got an email that said this had happened. We removed heparin, loose in bins, from all but the most essential places, requiring caregivers to access it only through the pharmacy in the future. We put stop sign labels on the heparin that said (in essence) ‘pay attention, that’s ten times that one thousand number.’

My years in the medical system “have been a lesson in humility,” Dr. Boothman concludes. “The human capacity for forgiveness and understanding takes my breath away. Patients and families are more forgiving than anyone ever believed. Caregivers’ personal commitment and caring is boundless when they know it is safe to confront their limitations and mistakes and express their feelings. The soul of medicine resides in people, simple and complex, but all capable of soaring acts of generosity if only given the chance. We are all humbled by the experience.”

Friends, these Holy Days are the time of year when we confront our humanity. And, as human beings we know all this to be true: We have all made mistakes; we all will make mistakes. Sometimes irreparable; sometimes the realization of our worst fears. We hold strong opinions and beliefs, and disagree — sometimes bitterly — with others about them. We confuse opinion with fact, our viewpoints with truth. We demonstrate loyalty and love for our ideas, rather than the people who deserve them. And sometimes we’re just plain wrong. This is what it means to be human.

But humility is our secret weapon. It’s the corrective that allows the human experience to work. Humility lets us make space for others, center new voices, learn from our mistakes, take up less room. Humility can lead us to seek forgiveness, and humility can help us grant forgiveness to others.

Humility is a virtue and humility is a blessing — it means we get to learn from others, be inspired by them. Humility, as Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, has written, helps “us to realize that we are not alone when we attempt to change the world. We are part of a story much larger than our own. When we understand our place within a Jewish story that began thousands of years ago, we can hearken back to those who have handled moments of deep pain and difficulty before us and found strength.” [9]

None of this is easy, of course. If it were, we would do it instinctively and we wouldn’t need this soul-searching day. But I leave you with these words based on the writings of Rabbi Rami Shapiro [10], and the confidence that we can do it all the same:

Open your heart, he said

Open your eyes, see the truth

and forgive.

I can’t, I said

through clenched teeth. …

I’m hurt. …

Listen, he said:

You expect order; you think you can exert control—

this is the source of your pain.

The one who hurt you is trapped,

as you are trapped

in compulsion and fear.

Know this, he said:

All of life—haveil havalim,

a breath of air, a bubble that bursts in an instant.

So learn to live with impermanence;

accept uncertainty, and your suffering will ease.

You cannot guarantee security, he said,

But you can hold fast to wisdom.

Look at the world with new eyes, he said.

Let go of expectations

and you will relinquish anger.

In their place, love and compassion will blossom.

And then the clenched fist of your heart will open

and you [with humility] will forgive.

Amen, and Shanah Tovah.

[1] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, pp. 3-4.

[2] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, p. 46.

[3] “Anavah-Humility: Shabbat as a Return to Our Authentic Selves,” Rabbi Michelle Pearlman and Rabbi Sharon Mars, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Anavah-Humility in Leadership,” Rabbi Max Weiss, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 225.

[6] Rachel S. Mikva, Dangerous Religious Ideas, p. 55.

[7] Ibid, p. 91.

[8] “The Soul of Medicine,” Richard C. Boothman, Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts, Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek (eds.), pp. 107-125.

[9] “Anavah-Humility: Understanding Our Place,” Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 92.

[10] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur, p. 314.

Holy Curiosity

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Coming out of a restaurant in Asheville this past summer — during that wonderful respite when we were slowly returning to restaurants — I saw what has become commonplace over the past several years: A protest taking place on one side of the street and a counterprotest on the opposite one. One set of yells, cheers, and signs came at us from our left, and another competed with them from our right, creating a cacophony of sound in which we couldn’t discern any message at all. 

As we got closer, I saw that on one corner they were waving large white flags with only the single word “Jesus” in big letters, and dancing to songs coming from a boom box, presumably the latest in Christian rock. OK, not our thing, but the presence of a police officer indicated they had the appropriate permits, and all was well. As our path took us to the other corner, I couldn’t imagine what the “counter” to this rally could be. 

It didn’t make any more sense when we got there. On this street corner people had megaphones and posters; but nothing as large or legible as the flags across the way. Then a man came up to us with an invitation to find Jesus and repent for our sins. Okaaaay. I gave him the general response I give to anyone with a religious sales pitch: “I’m good, thanks.” But I had to ask: “Aren’t you and the people over there promoting the same thing?” He looked where I was pointing across the street as though he hadn’t even registered the presence of the other group. Hadn’t noticed their flags or loud music, much less their message. “Who, them?” he asked. “I have no idea who they are.”

Us and them. Even when we’re on the same side, we’ve become so mired in polarization and conflict that we automatically view an “us” and a “them.” We feel it all around us: Right and left, red and blue, North and South, young and old. Do you love what I love? Do you love it enough? Do you oppose what I oppose? Do you say it loudly enough? We’ve become so fragile, we don’t even need a street to divide us; as we’ve seen all too clearly, something as thin and flimsy as a mask readily splinters us into factions.  

Conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Healthy conflict is necessary for motivation; it maintains checks and balance. Without healthy conflict — “good trouble” — progress comes much more slowly, if at all.

But what we’re living through, and suffering from, in this moment is substantively different. “High conflict,” says Amanda Ripley, who has written a book by the same name, “is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. … We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side. When we encounter them, in person or on a cable news channel, [in our communities, in our families,] we might feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing the other side says.” [1]

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institute, suggests an interesting theory for why we are experiencing such polarization and high conflict right now. Though numerous studies have shown that religious affiliation dropped significantly over the past two decades, “ideological intensity and fragmentation,” he writes, “have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.” [2]

What does that mean? It means we’re all in. It means we are loyal to our ideas and beliefs to a fault. It means we ritualize disputes like antiphonal liturgy: When you say that, I say this. It means we have a hard time listening to those who feel differently than we do; that we sometimes even experience their differing beliefs as a personal affront.

Yet our ideas are not worthy of unconditional love. People — those who see the world the same way we do and those who don’t — are.

We read on S’lichot: “Imagine how our lives might be if everyone had even a bit more of the wisdom that comes from seeing clearly. Suppose people everywhere, simultaneously, stopped what they were doing and paid attention for only so long as it took to recognize their shared humanity. Surely the heartbreak of the world’s pain, visible to all, would convert everyone to kindness.” [3]

The heartbreak of the world’s pain is not only visible to us all, but visceral, and we are in desperate need of kindness. So these High Holy Days, I’d like us to focus on how we can work through the polarization, escape high conflict, recognize and re-prioritize our common humanity. There are several tools we need to get from here to there, but two of the most important are humility, which I’ll talk about on Yom Kippur; and what I’d like to talk about today — curiosity.

Never was there a prophet like Moses, our tradition teaches. But just what made Moses so special? We know little of his childhood: Once Pharaoh’s daughter takes baby Moses out of the Nile and into the palace, we don’t hear of him again until he’s already grown up. We get a glimpse of Moses’ sense of justice when he encounters the brutality of Israelite enslavement in Egypt. But then he flees, marries, and settles down as a simple shepherd in Midian. 

The first real indication of Moses’ unique gift comes at his encounter with the burning bush: While grazing his father-in-law’s flock, the Torah says: “He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’” (Exodus 3:2-3) It’s in that moment of holy curiosity that God calls out to him.

Moses turned aside. He gazed. He wondered curiously: “What’s going on here?” He took the time to mine below the surface, and he encountered nothing less than the presence of the divine.

It doesn’t take ages, or even a burning bush, to do what Moses did; it just takes curiosity and interest. 

The first way we access and demonstrate genuine curiosity is simply to listen.Have you ever had an experience in a doctor’s office when you felt like the physician was rushing, uninterested in the details of what you were experiencing? On the flip side, can you remember what it felt like when a doctor really seemed invested in understanding? According to studies, “on average, doctors interrupt patients after only eleven seconds of listening to them explain what ails them.” Of course, we know doctors are busy. Their time is understandably limited. We’re guilty of hurrying conversations along, as well. Yet, here’s the kicker: “When doctors don’t interrupt, patients stop talking on their own just six seconds later. That’s all the time they need to explain themselves; just seventeen seconds.” [4] But they rarely get those seventeen seconds, and those seventeen seconds make a world of difference.

“The power of listening doesn’t lie just in giving people the space to reflect on their views. It’s a display of respect and an expression of care.” [5] Listening to someone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. Hearing someone’s views doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned our own. Listening is an opportunity to form a connection with a person, even if we don’t connect with their beliefs or ideas. Listening is a way to validate someone’s experience; to make personal what we may otherwise generalize, to see what we might otherwise never see at all.

Perhaps my favorite “good listening story” this past year comes from the corporate world. Kamryn Gardner, a first grade student in Arkansas, took advantage of a class assignment about persuasive writing to pen a letter to her favorite clothing store, Old Navy. Her ask? Put pockets, real pockets, in all jeans, not just those designed for boys.

Dear Old Navy, I do not like that the front pockets of the girls’ jeans are fake. I want front pockets because I want to put my hand in them. I also would like to put things in them. Would you consider making girls’ jeans with front pockets that are not fake? Thank you for reading my request. Sincerely, Kamryn Gardner, age 7. [6]

Now, somewhere along the line, after Kamryn sent her letter, there was a mailroom clerk who opened it and allowed their curiosity to be piqued. They decided it had enough merit to pass up — perhaps to an assistant, who might have shared it with another assistant, who eventually brought it to the attention of an Exec. That Exec thought: “I know I lot of things, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a seven-year-old girl (at least not recently).” And so this Exec. shared Kamryn’s letter in a design meeting or a product development session, where, with more curiosity, they turned to one another and asked: “What do you think?” And eventually, several months after she wrote and mailed a letter, an Old Navy package arrived on the doorstep of a seven-year-old with a good idea. Kamryn Gardner received multiple gifts that day: Four pairs of jeans with real front pockets… and the gift of being heard.

The second way we access our curiosity, is this outgrowth of listening: Realizing just how much more there always is to discover and know — and that goes for all of us, learning from everyone

The Talmud tells us (in B’rachot 4a): “Acquire the habit of saying, ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lie.” What if we applied this principle to all of our interactions — especially with those who seem to be so different than us? What if instead of simply dismissing someone, we said to ourselves: “I don’t know” what experience he had in life that led him to feel so strongly about this. “I don’t know” what role model indelibly impressed this value on her. “I don’t know” what knowledge they may have that I am not even aware I am missing. Admitting our ignorance in this way does’t mean we simply acquiesce with regard to a dispute. Sometimes there clearly is a right and a wrong, or one value that needs to take precedence over others. But this approach can help us to consider the people who hold differing ideas with deeper curiosity. We may continue to disagree about many things, sometimes vehemently, but the more we know about someone, the more multi-dimensional we allow them to be, the harder it is to dehumanize them. Reaching agreement is not necessary to escape the polarization of high conflict; recovering our shared humanity is.

The ability of social media to divide us into “us” and “them” is well documented, and I know many who have unilaterally sworn off Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts, citing the damage they could feel those platforms inflicting upon their souls. Political posts, pseudo-science, pithy opinion masquerading as fact. I’ve felt that way myself, and, if I’m honest, some of my posts have probably contributed to that feeling for others, too. There have been occasions — like during my Sabbatical this past summer — when decreased time spent on social media has definitely felt like the lightening of a burden from my shoulders and my soul. 

But I don’t know that simply stepping aside helps the “us/them” divide to dissipate. If anything, I think the perceptions of two sides only grows stronger. You see, when I’m on social media, I discover that some people with whom I disagree deeply, also support some of the same causes as I do. I see that they follow some of the same teams, eat at some of the same restaurants, enjoy some of the same activities as I do. In even more complicated moments, I see that they are celebrating some of the same milestones, responding to events with the same concerns and depth of emotion — their family photos and funny cartoons and weekend activities remind me of… my own. If anything, I think it’s this blurring of a clear divide that makes us uncomfortable. The idea that an otherwise one-dimensional opponent is in fact multi-dimensional, more complex than we give them credit for, even — dare I say — more interesting. But precisely this kind of challenge to our understanding of others, the reintroduction of curiosity about who others are and what makes them tick, is key to escaping high conflict. 

So how do we grow in our understanding of others? How do we listen better, begin to fill in the blanks for what we do not know? The third key to maintaining curiosity is simply to ask more questions. “Increase your question-to-statement ratio,” Adam Grant says, and add new ones to your conversational toolbox. Grant’s favorite inquiry is: “How do you know? It’s a question,” he says, “we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness. It’s nonjudgmental—a straightforward expression of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive.” [7] Also: How old were you when you formed this belief? How have you changed since then?

Amanda Ripley suggests these possible questions to help us respond with curiosity to those who feel strongly about something, especially when their strong feelings differ from our own: [8]

  • What’s the question nobody’s asking you?
  • What is oversimplified about this conflict?
  • What do you want to know about this controversy that you don’t already know?
  • What would it feel like if you woke up and this problem was solved?
  • Where do you feel torn?

“What evidence would change your mind?” is a useful question, as well. And, when all else fails (or even when it doesn’t) there are always these three simple words you can use almost anytime, anywhere: Tell me more. “Tell me more,” can push through any roadblock; rescue any dialogue that seems to be at a standstill; open new pathways to, if not agreement, then at least understanding.

Experience teaches that “it is impossible to feel curious while also feeling outraged. … We lose access to that part of our brain, the part that generates wonder.” [9] But the inverse holds true, as well. When we regain our wonder and respond with holy curiosity, it becomes impossible to feel outraged. When we listen, really listen; when we realize there is always more to discover and know; when we ask genuinely inquisitive questions, we chip away at the divide between “us” and “them.” We allow those with whom we disagree to become human again. We may not reach an agreement, but we can begin to heal. And we need to heal right now.

As we read in our prayerbook this morning, based on a teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Once two sages were walking very early in the valley and they saw the light of the morning star. Said one to the other, ‘This is how redemption will be. The dawn breaks with a single ray of light and bit by bit the sky is illumined, until morning comes and darkness is gone. So the redemption will occur little by little, growing steadily and gradually until the world if full of light.’

Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh Hashanah, p. 165

“Do not be discouraged by the darkness,” our liturgy says. “Bring the day closer, step by step, with every act of courage, of kindness, of healing and repair. … Lift up every spark you can.”

Moses found a spark to lift up when he stopped to gaze with curiosity at the burning bush. We too will find sparks when we can cultivate our curiosity, as well. 

O, God, help us to respond to others with genuine interest. Guide us to see the potential to learn, to change, to grow from every encounter — encounters with those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree. Inspire us to meet not only face-to-face, but soul-to-soul — for what is a soul but a spark placed within each of us, a glimpse of the divine? May we gather sparks into rays, and rays into light, and let light heal and transform our world, from brokenness to wholeness, from fragility to strength, from discord to peace.

And let us say: Amen.

[1] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, pp. 3-4.

[2] Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic, April 2021.

[3] Mishkan HaLev, p. 135.

[4] Ripley, p. 42.

[5] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, p. 159.

[6] https://www.npr.org/2021/04/17/98841

[7] Grant, p. 211.

[8] Based on Ripley, p. 296.

[9] Ibid, p. 28.

Dayeinu.

After reflecting upon the blessings of the past year, this is our communal Dayeinu at KKBE.

If we had only appreciated the gift of life — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of good health and recovery from illness — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only appreciated the gift of science and the knowledge to make vaccines — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of keeping in touch with family and friends and being able to connect over Zoom — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only appreciated the gift of enhanced cooking skills — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of spiritual growth — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only appreciated the gift of more time to read and learn — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of learning how resilient we can be — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only appreciated the gift of KKBE keeping us connected to one another — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of the birth of new children and grandchildren — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only appreciated the gift of electing leaders who inspire confidence — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of the peace of nature — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only appreciated the gift of the peace that comes from inner strength — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If we had only experienced the blessing of finding time for rest in the midst of daily life — Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient.

If only we can remember these gifts and blessings from the past year in the year and years to come — Dayeinu, it will be sufficient.

God is in the details.

Parashat Vayakhel-P’kudei

We’re taught that the Torah is a record of Israel’s encounters with God. We’re taught that the scroll contains nothing less than divine revelation. We sing about and celebrate Torah as an eitz chayim, a tree of life.

So if you had never studied Torah — if you hadn’t had the chance to read it and were diving into it for the very first time — what would you expect to find when you did?

You might expect to find reflections on the mysteries of creation — and so you’d be pleased to read the stories at the beginning of Genesis. 

You might expect to find wisdom and insight on how to lead an ethical life; how to be an upstanding citizen of the planet — and so you might find satisfaction in the Ten Commandments or the Holiness Code; in passages that tell us we are all created in the divine image, that we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

Perhaps you’d have really lofty expectations and hope that the scroll might reveal the meaning of life — and so, while you might be disappointed to find there’s no verse that begins: “Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor: Zeh ha-ikkar shel hechayyim… God spoke to Moses saying: The essence of life is…,” you still might turn to the stories of Abraham answering God’s call to take a journey of faith, of Moses stopping by the burning bush, of Miriam leading the women in song… and you might find glimpses of what you’re looking for.

What I think is safe to say is that if you’ve been taught all your life that Torah is a wellspring of spiritual nourishment, “a tree of life to those who hold it fast,” and then you read the Torah portion we have this week (two portions, actually), then you would most likely be sorely disappointed. 

For what’s in this week’s double portion? Rabbi Ruth Adar explains: “We are reading the final report of a construction project, [the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle]. Everything is ‘spec’ed out,’ so that we know not only exactly how many ounces of gold, silver, and copper [went into the building], but also about the minute details of embroidery on the priests’ robes. The whole thing is about as exciting as a corporation’s annual report. Our eyelids droop; we space out.”

We open the text expecting to find traces, if not of God per se, then at least of godliness. Yet what we find is an exceedingly long and intricate list of details. But God is in the text, and so the lesson of portions such as these must follow: 

God is in the details.

We’re more familiar with the saying: “The devil is in the details.” Not a Jewish saying, to be sure — we have angels in our tradition, some who are adversaries, but no devil. Yet we understand the concept implicitly: Try as hard as you will, but if you don’t pay attention to the details, they’ll get you.

Think about keeping kosher: One can buy two set of dishes, have two refrigerators, use two different sinks. But if you’re cooking a dairy soup in a dairy pot on the dairy side of your kitchen, and a meat spoon falls in… Well, you’re not eating that soup. The devil is in the details.

Or think about the next holiday on the calendar, Passover: It’s not enough to clear the cereal and crackers out of the pantry, scour the kitchen floor, and vacuum the couch cushions. We’re supposed to go hunting for crumbs so small they require a candle to be seen and a feather to sweep. The devil is in the details.

But asserting that “God is in the details” flips the paradigm. It tells us that details are not just there to trip us up; they’re opportunities to raise us up. That it’s not only lofty ideas that can lift our spirits higher. 

Think of a condolence note. Unfortunately, most of us have been in a position to receive them in our lives. The first thing we know to be true about a condolence note? It means the world that someone took the time to write us one. That they spent a few minutes thinking of us, looked up our address, found an envelope and a stamp. “God is in the details.”

But think about the notes themselves: Sometimes people write what amount to grand theological statements: “She’s in a better place;” “At least now he’s with loved ones he missed so much.” They write these ideas with love and the very best of intent; maybe thinking if they don’t have anything profound to share then why share anything at all. However, other notes will come and they’ll include our loved one’s name rather than simply referencing our “loss”. They’ll share a favorite story about our loved one. They’ll tell what they’ll remember about them most and how it makes them feel. Both notes are meaningful, but which brings more comfort and consolation? “May God console you among all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem,” we say — and God, as well as God’s consolation, is in the details.

“God is in the details” means we need to train our eye not just to look big, but look small. There’s an incredible planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC — Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. And in one of their programs, you sit back in a comfy chair in the Fulldome Theater and the view above zooms out from our night sky to the solar system to the galaxy to far, far beyond. The feeling of the vastness of the universe is almost overwhelming, and however far it expands, even infinitely, God is certainly there. But “God is in the details” means that God is also found, and maybe even more intimately felt, when we train our eyes to look not just up, but down; not just out, but in. 

In Tot Shabbat, Ms. Robin sings a song: “God is everywhere and God is one.” And before she does, she’ll ask the kids: “Where is God?” 

“God is in this room (KKBE’s Boardroom)!”, someone might say. Great! Where? In the Ark, in the Torah, in the pictures of people who assumed leadership roles in our congregation for over 270 years. God is in the details.

“God is in us!” Great! Where? In our eyes, in our hearts, in our listening ears, and our “I-love-you”-saying mouths. In our arms that gently hug our little sister or brother, or our hands that squeeze a colorful stuffed Torah. God is in the details.

“Outside!” Great! Where? In the sun, in the clouds, in the trees, in a rainbow. Or if you were my son as a preschooler: “In the denticles of a black tipped reef shark by Folly Beach.” He’s always seemed to know that God is in the details.

“God is in the details” is a call to heighten our awareness. It’s a muscle that needs exercise. We try and help our children hone their skills in Tot Shabbat and Religious School — but the truth is we all need practice.

As I write these words, I’m sitting outside on a beautiful day. The sun is shining. There’s not a cloud in the sky. The temperature is that most rarified experience: So perfect that, until I pay attention, I don’t even notice it.

And so I do. I pay attention.

What I might have first described as a still, quiet day, I now realize is filled with sound. Bird’s sing, not all the same — one high pitched, staccato; another soft and slow; still another deeper, stronger, bolder. I hear squirrels making, well, their unique squirrel sound. When I pay attention, I realize there really is a full symphony around me, and while words fail to convey the full range of what I hear, my ears take it all in.

As I pay attention, I realize there’s a rainbow of color out here, as well. A bright red cardinal darts around — a pop of color between green leaves, then a streaking flash as it passes from bush to bush. Orange leaves mingle among green on the bush closest to where I sit. A yellow butterfly flits by literally at the moment I begin to type yellow. Green dominates the landscape, but ranges from light to dark, bright to dull. And the sky could not be more blue if paint cans were spilled in the heavens. (Maybe they were.)

All but the very tops of the trees around me stand still, yet the occasional leaf — orange or brown or green or gold — will gently float to the ground. Unlike the force with which leaves are made to tumble down in the fall, it’s as though these leaves, having lasted until spring, now delight in their independence, letting go of their own accord and lazing their way to the ground.

And how do I feel having taken a few moments to heighten my awareness of the world around me. I pay attention to that too and note that I feel calm, more serene. I feel fuller than I did before, as though the fullness of what I’ve observed around me has somehow been brought within. I feel my soul stretching. As I look back around me I’m struck now by the play of light and shadow. I see the sight of tree trunks against the backdrop of a wooden fence, and note the interplay of God’s creation and humanity’s creation from that which God created. I feel my mind and my heart and my spirit expand with the possibility of limitless revelations in just my back yard. I feel a sense of God’s infiniteness, because “God is in all the details.”

And so I’m grateful for this Shabbat’s Torah portions. For their invitation, not to lose the forest, but to pay a bit more attention to the trees.

As our prayerbook says:

Let me learn to pause, if only for this day.

Let me find peace on this day.

Let me enter into a quiet world this day.

Mishkan T’filah

And this Shabbat let us find You, O God, in the gift and blessing of details.

Remarks at KKBE’s Shabbat Evening Service

Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy, will reap in joy. Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap, will reap in joy.

Psalm 126:5

Shabbat Shalom. That melody that lifts up the words of Psalm 126, verse 5 was composed by Debbie Friedman, and it’s come to mind repeatedly as I’ve tried to process the unprecedented events of this past week. This was one of those Shabbatot where I had to crumple up everything I had written earlier in the week and throw it in the recycling bin. Frankly, there have been too many of those Shabbatot over recent years. After Mother Emanuel. After Charlottesville. After Tree of Life. And each Shabbat of the long weeks and months of this pandemic, now almost one full year since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in the United States.

But what can I offer to help us process what has happened? You don’t need punditry from your rabbi or your synagogue this Shabbat — you have countless other sources to choose from for that. There are important words that need to be publicly stated to condemn the acts we’ve witnessed this week in no uncertain terms — but you don’t need those from us either. The Union for Reform Judaism, Religious Action Center, and Central Conference of American Rabbis, speaking on behalf of more than 900 Reform congregations, including us, have issued statements:

  • “Condemning [the] insurrectionists’ breaching of the capitol,” calling it “an unprecedented assault not just on the U.S. Capitol building and members of Congress, but on American democracy itself.”
  • Their statements have recognized that the “events were encouraged by the President of the United States who has refused to accept his electoral loss.” They note that “we read in the Talmud … a ruler is not to be appointed until the community is consulted,” and “the effort by some members of Congress,” led by the efforts of the President, “to functionally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election are nothing less than an assault on the peaceful transition of power and American democracy.”
  • And our leadership has denounced “a false moral equivalence with the Black Lives Matters protests over the last year,” stating quite clearly: “The white nationalists [we saw on Wednesday] were attempting to undermine our government while Black Lives Matter protestors were demanding to be included in our democracy.”

Strong words have been spoken by the strong leadership of our movement, and we stand behind them. 

So what’s left? What do we still need? What we seek from our tradition is solace. We want so very much to be comforted. Wednesday’s images are seared in our memories: The American flag replaced with Trump flags, treason flags, the Confederate flag. Clothing with disgusting profanity like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE,” which apparently stands for “Six million wasn’t enough.” The President failing to say a meaningful word, or take necessary action, to quell the violence at best — inciting the events we watched unfold at worst. Our concerns about the vulnerability of our democracy, and our individual wellbeing as citizens within its fold, consume us. We seek something that can make us feel better about what’s happened; some way to find even a small bright spot, an encouraging angle; some way to segue from despair to hope.

To be sure, our tradition does offer encouragement:

Deuteronomy 31:6 — “Be strong and have courage.”

Exodus 3, this week’s Torah portion: “I have marked well the plight of My people … and have heeded their outcry … I am mindful of their sufferings … [and] have come down to rescue them.”

Genesis 1:5 — “There was evening, and there was morning.” And Psalm 30:5 — “One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn there are shouts of joy.” Or, in other words: “Joy will come in the morning.”

Yes, there are words in our tradition that can certainly offer comfort and encouragement at this difficult time. But I’m not sure that’s the best of what we can take from our tradition this evening. 

As I told you earlier, I keep coming back to Psalm 126: “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” I just don’t think we can hope to glimpse joy, much less grasp it, unless we allow ourselves to stay with the pain and tears of this moment — and the many moments that have led to this one. If we desire more than what our prayerbook describes as “the quietude that arises from a shunning got the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans,” then I think we need to hold the pain we feel so deeply tonight and sit for a time with our tears.

“Happiness,” said Henry Emerson Fosdick, “at its deepest and best is not the portion of a cushioned life which never struggled, overpassed obstacles, bore hardships, or adventured in sacrifice for costly aims. A heart of joy is never found in luxuriously coddled lives, but in men and women who achieve and dare, who have tried their powers against antagonisms, who have met even sickness and bereavement and have tempered their souls in fire. … If we were set upon making a happy world, then we would not leave struggle out or made adversity impossible. The unhappiest world conceivable … would be a world with nothing hard to do, no conflicts to wage for ends worthwhile; a world where courage was not needed and sacrifice was a superfluity.”

Well — I guess we’re in luck. Because in the world which you and I inhabit, courage is desperately needed and there is much hard work to be done. Failures of leadership and the brokenness of our institutions lay before us like gaping wounds. The disease of white supremacy and the disparity of privilege in this nation have been brought to light in nothing less than the midday sun. And if we can take it all in — cry over it, rather than gloss over it — then perhaps we’ll be ready to sow, to plant and tend the seeds that will one day yield a joyful harvest.

There was a most poignant example of that truth this week, as well. I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican, it truly doesn’t matter if you vote red or blue or green — what Stacey Abrams, and a generation of Black female leaders before and alongside her, accomplished in Georgia this week should serve as an inspiration to us all. Collectively, they, and the organizations they founded, “registered over a million new voters in just over 3 years;” got “communities of color, rural populations and other marginalized groups counted in the 2020 Census;” and “made over 2.2 million phone calls … knocked on over 370,000 doors to motivate voters to register to vote and get to the polls.” They visited every one of the 159 counties in the state of Georgia and listened to those who had never been listened to, much less sought out, before. They demonstrated not just that every vote matters, but more than that — that every person matters, above and beyond their vote. [1]

And what did they reap after all their hard work sowing? 

Two new senators for the state of Georgia, and not just any two — as Stacey Abrams pointed out: “a Jewish son of an immigrant,” in the state where Leo Frank was lynched; and a successor at The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, pulpit in historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, “the first Black senator from Georgia.”

But most importantly of all, what they reaped is two senatorial races decided not by special interest groups, not by corporate money, not by lobbyists or cronyism or cynicism that kept voters from engaging in the democratic process. This past Tuesday, two elections of enormous consequence were decided by overwhelming turnout, on both sides of the aisle, of the citizens of Georgia who cast their individual votes. As much as the events that transpired on Wednesday afternoon were an attack and stain on our cherished democracy, Georgia’s elections were a most resounding affirmation and win for democracy itself. 

Our visions of what this country should look like will differ; we will disagree about the best way forward, sometimes vehemently. But all of us should have a different vision, a better vision, than that which we saw on Wednesday afternoon. So let our tears motivate us, for there is a lot of sowing to be done.

Before the dust had settled on Wednesday evening, members of the House and Senate returned to chambers in the Capitol building — and they got back to work. As Members of Congress rose in turn to address their colleagues and the nation, the same phrases were repeated by many. They called the Capitol building our “temple of democracy” and a “sacred space.” As they stood among shattered windows and overturned furniture, rifled papers on desks and trash on the floor, the scene and their words evoked the imagery of Hanukkah: A desecrated temple that needed to be rededicated.

Not until centuries after the events of Hanukkah would rabbis introduce the story of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight miraculous nights. Until then, you know how the rededication was accomplished? A lot of broom sweeping and stone moving, and then offering the appropriate sacrifices. In other words: Business as usual. The space had most certainly been desecrated, as was our Capitol on January 6th, but it wasn’t once again made holy because they hung a plaque or God made it so. They made it holy because they rolled up their sleeves, took inventory of what needed to be done, and got to work. 

And to this day: Hanukkah is one of the most joyous, uplifting, inspiring holidays on the entire Jewish calendar. Because those who sow in tears, will reap in joy. Shabbat Shalom.

———

[1]  “Meet the Black Women Who Turned Georgia Blue,” Erin Feher, representcollaborative.com, 1/7/21.

KKBE Connection

It was good to be away. The mountains were utterly breath-taking and breath-restoring — all in the same breath. I tried to post a few snapshots of our experiences while we were away, and this Friday, during our Zoom Shabbat Service, I look forward to sharing more. (Reminder: To register for this Friday’s service, contact the KKBE office before 3:00 pm on Friday to receive the secure link. We will open the “Zoom Room” at 6:45 pm for those who would like to mingle and schmooze a bit before the service begins at 7:00 pm.)

It was good to be away, but it’s also good to be back. Back in the embrace of our KKBE community. Back to the comforts of home. Back to familiar sights and sounds… and in our home, in this second full week of August, that can only mean one thing: Shark Week! 

Now, it’s not my favorite week of the year mind you, but for the young man in our house, these seven days are like his High Holy Days. And there is a certain resemblance to the High Holy Days we know so well. The deep, bass voiceovers that sound like the trailer for every dramatic movie you’ve ever seen. The suspenseful soundtracks meant to indicate something incredible is about to happen (or at least the Discovery Channel hopes it will). The screams of fear/joy/amazement constantly emanating in stereo from both the TV and the couch in front of it. There is, I have to admit, something awe-some about the whole thing. 

And so the timing is fitting, because while the days we most often associate with the High Holy Days are still over a month away — Rosh Hashanah begins on September 18, Yom Kippur on September 27 — believe it or not, we are actually already in the Days of Awe on the Jewish calendar. Wait, what?? That’s right: According to many, the High Holy Days begin on Tisha B’Av, the memorial day we commemorated on the Jewish calendar two weeks ago now already. 

Though connected with several disasters which have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, Tisha B’Av is most associated with the destruction of both the first and second Temples in ancient Jerusalem. As Rabbi Alan Lew explains: “The Great Temple of Jerusalem was the naval of the universe, the earthly locus where Israel felt its connection to the Divine Presence in a palpable way.” Tisha B’Av therefore represents our greatest spiritual distance from the divine. Put another way, Tisha B’Av is the time when any residual “high” from last year’s High Holy Days has well worn off; when we feel distant, disconnected, perhaps even alienated from God. So over the next month and a half, we have to actively work to make our way back to the Source; we have to climb the spiritual ladder to the pinnacle of the New Year.

To quote the title of Lew’s classic work on the Days of Awe: “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.” (Cue the booming voiceover, music, and screams.)

Now, we’re not exactly totally unprepared. We’ve been planning for quite a while at KKBE, and while I was away, a wonderful task force did even more amazing brainstorming on how we can meaningfully observe the High Holy Days in this most unusual year. In the coming weeks you will see opportunities for hearing the sounds of the shofar, discussion/study sessions, inspiration for creating holy space in your home, and much more to mark these days with your KKBE community. And, of course, we are actively working on crafting special virtual worship experiences for each of the High Holy Days, as well. Yet this isn’t really the kind of preparation Rabbi Lew means. The preparation he’s referring to has to be done individually — preparations for the spiritual accounting that will be asked of us in the coming days.

Would you walk into your accountant’s office (back in the days when we met with people in offices) without first getting a handle on your finances? Without doing your best to go through your records and receipts and get them in some kind of order? Beginning our spiritual climb this many weeks before the start of the new year means we have time for serious reflection on the themes of these Holy Days and a considered assessment of our achievements and shortcomings over the past year.

This year I did begin this work for myself on Tisha B’Av and, to make it less daunting, I didn’t start from scratch. I turned to the beautiful prayer books we use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The themes are all there in the traditional liturgy, of course, but the supplemental texts, the interpretive readings, the comments and notes are so rich, varied, and evocative that I could feel myself climb just by reading. I cannot recommend our machzorim as a resource for the spiritual work of this season enough.

While we work on the means to make the temple’s prayer books available to anyone who would like to borrow them this year, the CCAR is offering several ways you might bring these books into your own home more permanently:

  • The prayer books are available for free as online Flipbooks.
  • You can purchase discounted Kindle versions of the books ($9.99 each).
  • You can purchase discounted print books for $35.20 (using code MHN2020) for the two-volume set — a really, really good price available for only a limited time!

All can be found at: https://www.ccarnet.org/publications/hhd/

With a great resource like this for the important spiritual work of these High Holy Days, we don’t need to be afraid — we got this! But now is the time to get serious with our preparations.

Or to put it in Shark Week terms: Duuuunnnn duun, duuuunnnn duun…

0C9619EB-9A17-4A1C-BE73-FD80370D714A