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Tragedy At Charlottesville

In the Talmud we are taught: Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if s/he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if s/he saved an entire world. (Mishneh Sanhedrin)

Shabbat-a day of rest and renewal, remembering the beauty and wonder of creation-was shattered-it's world was destroyed this past weekend as white nationalists, neo-Nazis and alt-right members clashed with anti-protestors in Charlottesville, VA.  Protest is a cornerstone of American history; it is woven into the fabric of our American identity.  In recent decades we can name numerous seminal moments when American voices were raised in protest: Civil Rights, anti-nuclear weapons, Gay Rights, Kent State, Women's Choice, Viet Nam, Occupy Wall Street, Israel and Palestinian rights. Even when we disagree with the reason for a particular protest, our Constitution defends the right to protest.  Forty years ago, neo-Nazi leader Frank Collins won in court the constitutional right to march with a band of brown-shirt neo-Nazis through Skokie, IL, home to 8000-9000 Holocaust survivors.  The march venue ultimately was moved from Skokie to Chicago.

On Saturday, Heather M. Heyer's world was destroyed and her family and friends are trying to pick up the broken fragments of their hearts and lives.  Her death was not the result of out-of-control violence emerging from face-to-face protest/counter-protest.  James Alex Field, in an act of alleged terrorismdrove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters to cause injury and death.   Like those who masterminded the bombings in Oklahoma City, (if found guilty) James Alex Field's act was one of homegrown, domestic terrorism.  White supremacists that applaud his actions and justify his deadly rampage are supporters of terrorism.  He and they must be condemned. 

A second world was destroyed in recent days as well:  America as a protector of all its citizens. Our president's refusal to condemn by name those whose philosophy espouse white supremacist rhetoric-those who strive to cleanse America of racial minorities and Jews-does not make America great again.   Statements 'from the white house' are not equal to direct statements from the president. His generic words of condemnation of both sides of the Charlottesville protest have served to vindicate white supremacists both in Charlottesville and across our nation.  The permission to hate that was unleashed during the presidential campaign has given way to acting on that hatred and not being held accountable. Democrats and Republicans alike have implored-demanded the President be specific in his condemnations.  Would the president heed the calls of Senator Cory Gardner's (R. CO) tweet: "Mr. President, we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism." And Mark Rubio tweet, there was "nothing patriotic about Nazis, the KKK or White Supremacists.  It's the direct opposite of what America seeks to be."

On Saturday, Heather Heyer's life (and the lives of 2 officers and those wounded) was destroyed, but, her soul will not be destroyed.  We must keep her soul alive.  We cannot stay silent when words of hatred are transformed to acts of violence.  Heather Heyer was a champion for justice.  We must carry her torch of love and justice.  As she posted on her Facebook Page words echoed after the election, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

We must pay attention!  We must be outraged!  We must protect the lives and rights of those Americans most vulnerable to demonic hate. 

And as our teacher Hillel taught, V'lo achshav Ai Matai-And if not now, when?

May Heather's memory be for blessing.  May we be inspired by her passion.

L'shalom

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

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Gay Pride Shabbat

It’s hard to believe that just over a year has passed since the Orlando massacre at the Pulse Night Club. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen murdered 49 individuals and injured 58 others during an anti-gay shooting rampage that surreally pierced the soul of the city known for Tinkerbell, Harry Potter and Mickey Mouse. It was a painful reminder that despite the defeat of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) in 2013 and the embrace many In the LGBTQ community have felt, anti-gay sentiment is still palpable within our country. The November elections signaled a green light of intolerance for Muslims, immigrants, Blacks, Jews and those in the LGBTQ community, to mention a just a few groups.

Fifty-eight years ago, the Stonewall Riots down the street from our temple, launched the Gay Rights Movement. Fifty-eight years later, despite a resurgence of xenophobia and anti-gay rhetoric in our country, we can be proud of the strides made in guaranteeing Gay rights and normalizing gay relationships. As a Reform Jewish congregation can also be proud of the strides made in Judaism both to counter biblical quotes taken out of context and to embrace LGBTQ Jews into our synagogues, homes and families. I always smile when I read the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times and see listings of more than one Gay couple that stood under the chupah.

Gay pride weekend beckons us to celebrate the advancement of Gay Rights across the country and in our own community.

On Friday, June 23rd at 6:45, join us at the Village Temple for a special Gay Pride Shabbat. We pride ourselves on being a diverse and accepting community. Through music, liturgy and readings we will celebrate this important milestone in human rights. I will share some personal reflections and provide a backdrop of Reform Judaism’s early struggle with Gay Rights and its ultimate embrace, celebration and unwavering support for the LGBTQ community.

Judy Garland died a week before Stonewall and has been heralded as a Gay Icon. Cruise ships hold gatherings for Friends of Dorothy—opportunities for the LGBTQ community to meet and mingle. Her classic song—Over the Rainbow—was a beacon of hope for so many during the early days of the Gay Movement and still kindles a spark of hope in so many hearts today.

Show your Pride and be with us on June 23.

 

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L’Shana Tovah

Thanks to everyone who participated in our High Holy Day services—with special thanks to all of those who volunteered. Rabbi Hirsch brought wisdom, kindness and intellectual force to the Days of Awe. You can read her sermons by clicking here.  And when our cantorial soloist Gerard Edery had to go undergo emergency back surgery in Poland,  where he is still recovering, Rabbi Hirsch on very short notice arranged for two wonderful substitutes—Cantor Nancy Ginsberg for Rosh Hashanah and soloist Ellen Allard for Yom Kippur. Here is an excerpt from our Kol Nidre co-presidents speech, which we offer here as a reflection on the place of The Village Temple in the lives of many people:

When Jerry and I tell people we are co-presidents of our shul we usually get one of two responses.

Pity.

Or abject pity.

But tonight, on this night of self-examination, we can honestly say you shouldn’t feel sorry for us at all!

I’m not saying there haven’t been very tough moments over this past year, as we began a transition.

It was a difficult process, to be sure. Passions were aroused. Feelings were hurt. Throughout it all, Jerry and I were impressed by how much people cared.

We have been gratified to see how many of you were willing to engage in conversations with Rabbi Hirsch about what the synagogue means to you. It has been a privilege to hear what the Village Temple has meant for you—at times of celebration and at times of stress and sorrow.

When I first became co-president more than three years ago, I paid a visit to Harriet Zimmer. Harriet is one of the founding mothers of The Village Temple and is now our oldest congregant—97 years old. I asked her what I needed to know about our congregation.

She didn’t hesitate.

“The temple is the temple,” she said.

I was taken aback at this Yoda like response. The temple is the temple?

Then she explained. “the Village Temple has been around since 1948,” she said. “Rabbis change, cantors change, people come and go. But The Village Temple is always there for all of us.”

So here we are, on this Kol Nidre evening, here for one another, so we don’t have to reach inside by ourselves.

And the Village Temple is here for all of us, as it always has been, for generations before us.

Wishing you an easy fast, and a hopeful New Year.

 

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A MORAL BUCKET LIST

A MORAL BUCKET LIST

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

October 12, 2016   5777

Yom Kippur—“The Day of Judgment—Even the hosts of heavens are judged”.  We enter the sanctuary today—our hearts, filled with memories, hope, trepidation, awe.  We anticipate the final blast of the Shofar—its shrill pierce will inject eternity into our hearts.  The Torah portion we read this morning provides a frame for our actions—I put before you life and death—choose life.  

White is the color of the day—white robes, white Torah covers, but white is an achromatic color—literally a color without color—we, today, are ghost-like—all of our shortcomings are visible to God—no-where to hide.  White—the color of the shroud one traditionally is buried in.  Today is a day we pray the that gates of life open wide before us—we attempt to reorganize our priorities.  The Kol Nidre prayer chanted last night foreshadowed the fact that many of the pledges we make this day will vanish like vapor on a window in the days and weeks ahead.  This day ticks with the urgency of time.  Yizkor not only brings to momentary life, those for whom our hearts ache, it reminds us, too, of our own mortality…we know our days, too, are numbered.   We know we must make our lives count so that the white space between the dates that will be inscribed on our gravestones, or in the hearts of those we leave behind, will have value and meaning.  Living is about making a difference.  

There are times when life imitates pop culture—when we adopt fictional realities and make them our own.  How many in this congregation remember Edward Cole and Carter Chambers?  Justin Zuckham?  Not many, But if I were to ask, how many of you here are familiar with the term Bucket List, how many of you could raise your hand?

Indeed, Justin Zuckham, in his 2007 classic award winning film—coined the phrase, ‘bucket list’— He turned the phrase, Kick the Bucket on its head. The website, Personal Excellence, defines a bucket a list as, “a list of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire to experience before you die.” Like Hugo, in Bye Bye Birdie—Zuckham affirmed for each of us, I’ve got a lot of living to do.’  Indeed if you Google, ‘bucket list,’ numerous sites emerge.  Recently I took a Facebook “have you done” challenge to discover I had done a majority of the posted items, including being in the back of a police wagon, hot air ballooning, visited Petra, sleep on a beach under the stars, visited all but 6 of our states.  There are those opportunities I probably will take a pass-on, like Base Jumping or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  William Wallace wrote, “Every man dies, not every man really lives.” Bucket Lists help us set priorities.  They empower us not only to choose life, but organize what in life we choose to experience:  For me Seeing the Northern Lights, a train ride across the Canadian Rockies, living in Israel, again, settling in the Berkshires—to name a few-- I know I’m at not alone—I would venture that many here today have crafted a ‘to-do’ list—whether projecting out over the year or, God willing, the decades ahead.  

But today, is about stripping away our material desires and focusing most acutely on turning away from those parts of ourselves that are selfish, boastful and unforgiving and turning towards those virtues that provide us with intrinsic meaning, that hold fast despite the tides of time. 

David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, posits two types of virtues: the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  He wrote, “ The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace.”  Those skills we all know—drive, intellect, multi-tasking, competition, quest for success. Many of us have had the privilege of creating resumes.  We know the drill—dynamic adjectives that describe our passion and acumen. There are those  ‘follow-through statements’ that demonstrate, quantifiably, the outcomes of our success. I managed a 50 million dollar account and enabled clients to receive a return of 8.7%.” Or, I taught an AP chemistry class in which 85% of the students placed out of first year college chemistry. Brooks, wrote, “We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life. The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce, that it becomes all-consuming.  The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions…We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”  

In stark contrast, the eulogy virtues, Brooks wrote, are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.” When I meet with families prior to a funeral, I often ask them to reflect on the intangible gifts they’ve received from their loved ones.  At first, there is a slight, almost uncomfortable pause, and then family members share characteristics not inscribed on a Harvard diploma or tax return bottom line: Words like, compassionate, caring, loving, humble, protective.  These descriptions quickly dwarf words like, successful, great tennis player or Ivy League.  Like eating an artichoke—sometimes those qualities that are most enduring—the sweetest--that get transmitted l’dor va dor—from one generation to the next, are only crystal clear to our human eyes when we remove the ‘measurable success choke’ that overlays that which truly gives us purpose.  

  This struggle between external quests and inner strength is nothing new; it’s just gotten more intense—more out of control in recent years and perhaps, destined to stay on that trajectory. It should come as no surprise that Judaism, too, has its Bucket List of core human attributes.  In recent years, synagogues have offered courses on Jewish Mindfulness-read hear yoga blended with guided meditation.  Other congregations have taken a 21st Century approach to the 19th Century course of study called Musar, defined as instruction or reproof.   Musar, you might say was the first Jewish Self-Help Movement.  Musar’s objective—to motivate its followers to relinquish their focus on success, wealth, ambition, and instead, deliberately contemplate one’s own ‘soul’ traits.   As we know, each of us has a unique genetic makeup and our DNA doesn’t change over a lifetime.  DNA testing cannot peer into our souls—it cannot tell us what level of compassion we will demonstrate when called upon---it cannot inform us our moral character.    

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, used to say that 

“it is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change even one character trait.’  “Salanter and his followers believed that our ethical behavior could only become second nature when we were deliberate—when we focused our attentions to achieve that particular behavior. Our acts of compassion, or truth telling cannot be random—they result from our deliberate focus..  What are our ‘soul traits?’—They are the timeless values we learned as children and too often tuck away out of sight when confronted with daily pressures and emerging societal norms-- Humility, gratitude, patience, generosity, kindness, strength, trust, and truth, to mention a few.   

Brooks, derived part of his thesis from the renowned 20th Century Orthodox Rabbi, Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s book, Lonely Man of Faith, specifically, Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the two Adams found in Genesis One and Two.  Brooks suggests that “Adam I, is the ambitious, career focused side of our nature—the external, resume Adam.”  It’s that part of us that pushes us forward—achieving success, collecting trophies along the way.  Adam II is our internal persona.  Adam II “wants to embody certain moral qualities—a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong.”  

 You might say, these ‘soul traits’ are like apple pie.  Indeed everyone appreciates them, but focusing on each one for a week or a month or a year to improve who we are—doing shuvah—turning from appreciation to making a daily effort to incorporate those values into our lives—especially when they abut against work and societal expectations and demands--that’s a different challenge.  Which of these soul traits get left behind when climbing the corporate ladder—competing on the soccer field—or engaging in heated debates over politics? 

Our societal norms do not make it easy for us, or our children, to strengthen soul traits.  We are living in an ever increasing “it’s about me society.” Brooks provides support for his supposition that society has dramatically changed over the past 80 years—we have moved away from being a society defined by those core character traits. He suggests that we have experienced “a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of Big Me—from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”  Brooks cites a 1950’s Gallup Poll that “asked high school seniors if they consider themselves to be a very important person.  12 per cent responded, yes.  In 2005 the same question was asked of high school seniors, this time 80% responded yes. Even more alarming, there has been a sharp increase among young people who, on surveys respond affirmatively with statements like “I am an extraordinary person’ and “I like to look at my body.”  

How do we understand this 180 shift over the past decades?  Brooks posits, that the last century saw the rise of 4 distinct generations:  The Traditionalists—those who grew up before the end of World War II, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z.  The traditionalists experienced the Great Depression, World II, the bombing of Hiroshima.  They were and remain the generation that was disciplined, humble, fiercely loyal, and a generation that worked hard and sought the outward reward of job security—the retirement gold watch said it all. 

This generation stands in sharp contrast to the Baby Boomer generation that followed—the ‘Me Generation’, for whom success was guaranteed as our country emerged from World War II.  Defined as workaholics this generation went on to have the highest divorce and second marriage rates.  And next, came Generation X that was defined by Watergate, and the end of the Cold War:  Two-parent working- families was the norm—the birth of the latch-key generation--a generation that would not acquire the same wealth as their parents.  And next marched in the Millennials.  A 2014 Pew Study reported the following: “Millenials are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion. They are linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future.”  This is the generation that grew up in front of computer screens, products of a digital age, and like their computers, the children of this generation are the most programmed—most structured.  Randy Blazak, in her 2016 article, The Millennial Effect:  Here comes Generation Z wrote, “The great contribution of the Millennial generation is the recognition that you are not your job. They’ve seen their parents, painfully loyal to companies and careers, stabbed in the back, downsized and outsourced. Work is now something to provide you an income while you follow your bliss. Why commit to a profession that is just going to be replaced by a computer or Chinese child labor?”

  And who is Generation Z? Ann Kingston’s this newcomer “as tolerant but also overconfident, narcissistic and entitled.”  Generation Z is the only generation to solely know smart phones—dumb phones weren’t an option. They are weaned on instant contact—social media that can tell the world what they had for lunch. Kingston’s analysis gives support to Brook’s premise—our moral character fabric is being frayed.  In contrast, an Inc. Magazine article reported that the Generation Z population ‘appears to be more realistic instead of optimistic, are likely to be more career-minded, and can quickly adapt to new technology to work more effectively, The article also cited that “more than half the Millennials and Generation Z polled, stated that honesty is the most important quality in a good leader”. 

Surely our environment and societal external factors have deep impact on how we behave—more the reason why honing soul traits is so necessary.  

Jewish tradition teaches, everything is found in Torah.   On Rosh HaShanah I listed those Divine Attributes implanted within humanity—attributes that mirror our soul traits. This robust list includes mercy, justice, and compassion.  Oddly--one human trait –primary soul trait glaringly missing is, empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Why isn’t empathy one of the thirteen God-given attributes?  If we scratch the surface a little deeper, we find there is no word for empathy in Torah.  Modern Hebrew use Empatia or - Hizdahut Rigshit—literally, ‘to identify with feelings’. After pondering this glaring omission, it struck me, empathy is uniquely a human response --not a Divine attribute. It is a human soul trait.  God may have implanted empathy into our souls—but God cannot possess it.  God may know our feelings, our every action, but God cannot feel our human pain—it’s a human thing to do.  God displays love, and compassion, anger and forgiveness, but not empathy.

If there is a soul-trait that needs to be nurtured and protected in each generation, it is the soul trait of empathy.  Indeed, each generation has its unique collection of challenges.   Let me focus a moment on Generation Z—those born during the mid-90s and later—our teens and college students.  Too many of these youth are also poised on trajectory that at times spins out of control—more than previous generations.  All parents can empathize with what it is like to be a teen—but only so far.  Phrases like, I remember when I…fill in the blank, too often aren’t very helpful to these young adults.  Today’s world demands that empathy needs to be infused with a heavy dose of sympathy—feeling pity or sorrow for our children. Last summer (2015), The Today Show ran a series entitled, The Secret Lives of Teens. It featured youth at The Newport Academy Rehab Center.  The students who spoke openly on camera were bright, college-bound, upper middle class students.  They mentioned the helicopter parent syndrome—parents who hover, filling in, like a dance card, every hour of their child’s free time with some activity.  These teens openly talked about the mounting anxiety they felt each and every day. The show highlighted one recent survey that reported 1 in 5, 20% of college students have engaged in self-harm—usually cutting: One in five—a staggering number. One teen confessed that cutting, “took her mind away from the emotional pain because “something else hurt.”  

And there is a new legion of parents that has formed that has surpassed helicopter parents. The School Superintendents Website recently posted the following:, Today, behold the era of the Gen-X “stealth-fighter parent.” Stealth-fighter parents do not hover. They choose when and where they will attack. If the issue seems below their threshold of importance, they save their energy and let it go entirely. But if it crosses their threshold and shows up on their radar, they will strike — rapidly, in force and often with no warning.”  Yet, the added pressure of knowing that parents are hovering and making strategic strikes take their toll as well.  

One reality our youth face today that was not present in previous generations—to which adult here can empathize—is the impact of social media.  Our youth have nowhere to hide.  The pressure to text, tweet, face time, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, leaves one breathless. The teens interviewed on the Today Show complained that social media has “complicated their lives, forcing them to pretend they’re outgoing and having fun when the reality is much different.”   And when we couple this with dramatic increase in cyber-bullying, the results have been unfortunately deadly. Today’s teens are always ‘on’ Let’s face it, we live in New York…the city where two year olds are interviewed for pre-school, the city in which, if parents choose, it’s possible to pay a good portion of college tuition for 14 years, counting preschool, before their son or daughter walks onto a college campus.  And the stress doesn’t end once at college.  Emory University’s website Emory 4U, states boldly the sobering fact that one in ten college students has made a plan for suicide and 5.2% of Emory Students have seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months—and that is less than the national average of 6% of undergraduate students. Suicide rates have triples on college campuses since the 1950s.  The Ivy League and similarly competitive schools have the highest rate. As I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah white males have the highest suicide rate-- times greater than females.  These are mind-boggling statistics indeed. During the course of this summer alone, I unfortunately heard of two of our college students who knew someone at college—in one case, a close friend, who committed suicide this past year.  I have always admired MIT for its grading policy.  On its registrar’s office website it states clearly: “Freshman grading is designed to ease the transition from high school by giving students time to adjust to factors like increased workloads and variations in academic preparation. First semester is pass-fail. A, B, and C grades are used during the second semester so that freshmen can begin the progression to regular A-F grading in the sophomore year.”

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting that parents or teens need to readjust long-term dreams or goals, or that academics, activities and community service aren’t important, but I am imploring, that the response to a child, high school or college student’s cry of, I’m feeling pressured—overwhelmed, is not, I know how you feel or everyone feels the same way at some time in his or her life—you’ll get through it, rather, our response needs to be, what can we do to help you through what is clearly a stressful and anxiety ridden time in your life..  We need first, to validate our children’s pain and then draw upon our God given soul traits of love and compassion and doing what’s right—to help our most precious loved ones—shuv—to turn to new possibilities.  

Indeed, Soloveitchik’s Two Adams exists—the external, ambitious Adam, and the inwardly focused one.  In order to live—we need both—one can’t survive without the other.  We need drive, but we need drive to be tempered by compassion, sympathy and empathy.  We need to realize the sacrifice involved in certain decisions, and for us not to gloat in their successes.   

When our soul-traits takes charge and help inform the decisions we make…when we ground our aspirations and dreams in language and behaviors that showcase our ‘soul traits’ of goodness, truth, humility, honesty and compassion—when, in our human inter-actions—with spouses, children, co-workers we temper drive and ambition and act with our humanity…then Nashuva, we turn, from ‘success oriented goals,’—the resume goals, to creating lives more reflective of the values we treasure.  And when things go wrong, we still can possess the spiritual machzi to get us back on track.  May, we in the year ahead, create those Bucket Lists that inspire and challenge.  And when we peer into those buckets, may we see the good that is within each of us, reflect back into our owneyes.  Keyn Yehi Ratzon.  

 

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TRANSITIONS

TRANSITIONS

KOL NIDRE 5777

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

 

 A few years ago I was introduced to Dannan Parry’s poignant essay, “The Parable of the Trapeze--Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear.”  This piece resonates with the themes embedded in these 10 Days of Awe.  It moves us beyond the past and the present—and hurls us into the abyss that leads to the future.  

Parry wrote:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.  I’m either hanging on a trapeze bar swinging along, or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment.  It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.  I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while, as I’m merrily, or even not-so-merrily swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see?  I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me.  It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it…. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me I hope, no, I pray, that I won’t have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one.  But in my knowing place, I know that I must release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time I am filled with terror.  It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it.  I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars.  I do it anyway.  Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience.  No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives.  So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”

It’s called transition.  

For us this evening, this Yom Kippur of 5777 is our Transition Zone –we are suspended this day between the year that has ended and the New Year unfolding before us.  We hang between our misdeeds of the past and our resolve to better as individuals, parents, children, spouses, partners, siblings or friends.  We hold onto our trapeze bar hoping that we have enough momentum to break away from this past year’s burdens and hurl ourselves toward a more promising, less stress- induced future, all the time knowing we have no assurance as to what that future may hold.  At the same time, Jewish tradition teaches us that forward motion is not possible unless we engage in T’shuva—in turning and returning…to ourselves, our loved ones our God.  Our trapeze bar does not swing straight, rather it zigzags between time and place.  

On Yom Kippur, each of us seeks the path that will lead us into a safe, healthy and secure New Year.  Would that finding that path be as easy as turning on our spiritual GPS and requesting the easy or direct route to a get us there.  Would that we could imitate migrating birds that just know when to head south and intuitively know the route. Unfortunately, that road is neither easy for us to find nor simple to navigate.  

Jewish tradition suggests that to move ahead in our lives we may need to turn or return to previous places and times that gave us direction and purpose.  Teshuvah is about turning and finding our way home. But what if “returning” is impossible?  Suppose that path is forever blocked!  

For some of us, the place to which we desperately crave to return can no longer exist on our road map.  How can we return to places and times of fulfillment and joy, when we can no longer embrace the source of our greatest joy—a loving husband, a playful child, a caring parent, a supportive sister, an adored wife, a trusted friend….  Our loved ones upon whom we relied and depended, whose lives complimented our own—provided us with balance…sanity…and whose fading smile we only now glimpse through the eye of memory—no matter how fervently we pray—how we bargain with God for a different outcome—we can’t bring back those whom we desperately miss.  

And there are individuals in this sanctuary--who know what it’s like to stretch to make ends meet—as careers have derailed, financial security evaporated.  Prior to the chanting of Aviinu Malkeinu I read a piece from the New Reform Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh—a piece that dares to acknowledge what so many feel in our hearts--that no one in this sanctuary is immune from misfortune—who this night, consider themselves a statistic of the walking wounded.  The last line of that prayer is our appeal to God—to cause us to have faith when our daily reality makes praise of God challenging, at best. And for those who struggle with debilitating and devastating illness—patients and caregivers alike---who pray that the New Year return them to a life of health and to a daily routine void of doctors, hospitals and tests.   Do these individuals sit in the driver’s seat and map a course to their desired destiny, or are they merely passengers on a ride they cannot totally control. 

God willing, most of us will not encounter insurmountable hurdles in this New Year; yet, we also know that no one has a crystal ball to guarantee or assure us how this year will play out. The present may be safe or scary, comfortable or contentious, but two facts are certain: 1) the future will come and 2) No one knows what that the future holds.   This zone of uncertainty renders us vulnerable, and we can’t predict how we shall respond to life’s challenges.  So when our trapeze bar swings us toward another bar--encrusted with chronic emotional or physical pain-- how do we transition through those difficult encounters?   How do we emerge from them with greater wholeness and less resentment or anger?  Are there words or Jewish rituals that can help us on our journey? 

  I’d like to suggest that one particular prayer, whose underlying theme is woven into the High Holy Day liturgical fabric—provides us with direction. On both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we read the sobering Unataneh Tokef prayer—a prayer that gives us an eerie glimpse into our possible future.  It’s last line--that hangs like a dangling preposition, identifies three actions that can help us temper judgment’s severe decree: Teshuva—Repentance; Tefila-Prayer; Tzedkah—Righteous deeds or charity.

 I would not be surprised if there is more than a few people here tonight who are shaking their heads—expressing disagreement with the idea that by repenting, or praying or doing tzedakah we can shield ourselves from premature death, or physical pain, or incapacitating illness?  Throughout my rabbinic career, I have held the hands of congregants who gazed at me through tears…unable to understand why her son had to die in a car crash…or why his four -year old grandson developed a malignant, inoperable tumor… Or why her college daughter perished on Pan Am flight 103.  If their loved ones had prayed more fervently or performed more acts of Tzedkah—would their fates have been altered?   

In 1981 Rabbi Marc Saperstein wrote an article about the Unataneh Tokef prayer’s final line.  His interpretation provides us with the lens through which to view this line suggesting that it can assist us in responding to the inevitable pain and anger that accompanies our losses and disappointments in life.  Originally, the last line of our prayer had two possible Hebrew texts.  The Yerushalimi Talmud reads:  T’shuva, Tefila, U’tzedakah mevatlin et hagezeirah:  They annul the evil decree.   A later version, the one included in our machzor, changed the Hebrew text to read:  “U’teshuvah, u’t’fila, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah”—Repentance, prayer and tzedakah cause the evil of the decree to pass.

In his article Rabbi Saperstein suggested that this translation frees us to take control when paralyzing doom swings our way.  

He wrote:

“Death, sickness, impoverishment, tragic as they may be, are not identical with evil. They do bear a potential for truly evil consequences. They can poison, embitter, fill us with self-pity, destroy a marriage, blind us to the needs of others, turn us away from God. But the evil consequences of even the most fearsome decree are not inevitable. If penitence, prayer and charity cannot change the external reality, if they cannot arrest the malignant cancer, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become actual and enduring, but will pass. They can enable us to transcend the evil of the decree. “

Although we cannot change the external realities of our lives, we can control how we respond to them.  We can choose to let go of our trapeze bar that is encased in bitterness, anger, spite, or sadness.  Indeed, in order for us not to be consumed by the pain we encounter, we must keep a sharp lookout for a new trapeze heading our way.  We need to forge a transition that enables us to leave behind our pain and paralysis.  

We have many examples of individuals who can teach us to navigate through this difficult transition and emerge whole, more focused and even renewed.  On Rosh HaShanah I spoke of the impact of 9/11 on our city—our synagogue.  I would like to share a personal reflection. Fifteen years ago, I found myself conducting Yom Kippur services in a most unusual and most sacred place.  The setting was a small room …linoleum flooring…desk chairs placed in multiple circles…no window treatments…no smiling  greeters at the door… no cantor…no ark…no Torah.  There were off set copies of a condensed Yom Kippur liturgy placed neatly at the back of the room.  The congregants were not particularly well-dressed and the group that gathered seemed distant…distracted…pre-occupied.  When it came time to recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I sensed their discomfort and my own. I put down my machzor, and instead of reading the prayer--we talked about their discomfort with the prayer and their palpable anger…at the terrorists…and at God.  I shared Rabbi Saperstein’s interpretation of the text.  I knew, in my knowing place, that these men and women needed and deserved a radically different interpretation of this prayer.  “Who shall live and who shall die.” My congregation that morning consisted of volunteers from Ground Zero—men and women who witnessed the aftermath of 911 --both in the faces of those who survived the towers’ implosion--and those who mourned the death of loved ones.  Our sanctuary that morning was the Red Cross headquarters in Brooklyn.  Despite the horror some of them had witnessed, they channeled their negativity and hurt into life affirming acts---the performed the mitzvah of consoling the bereaved… often providing non-verbal comfort to the inconsolable… Their large, enveloping hugs provided the grief stricken with the soft shoulders necessary to absorb the mourner’s tears. 

We can also be inspired by Marcia Kannery’s story.    Marcia is the president of the Dialogue Project in Brooklyn, an organization committed to fostering dialogue between Muslims and Jews in America. Marcia helped found the Dialogue Project, not out of some left-wing liberal, rose-colored glasses desire.  No, her passion emerged from profound personal pain and loss.  While living in Israel Marcia’s life was forever changed when her fiancée was killed in a terrorist attack.  Two trapeze bars reeled towards her…one drenched in all-consuming loss, anger and hatred.  The other, wrapped in tolerance, dialogue and coalition.  Although her fiancées violent death could have unleashed an insidious evil within Marcia, she chose –ma’averin et roa ha’g’zeirah—she chose to let the evil pass…to dedicate her life to actualizing the biblical vision of turning spears into pruning hooks.   

  And, in the recent best seller When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, an accomplished neurosurgeon about to begin the most rewarding chapter of his life—all his dreams about to be realized--was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  The book chronicles his life from immediately preceding the diagnosis through the last days of his life---He died before writing the last chapter. His wife, Lucy, literally became his ghost-writer.  When Breath Become Air is a roadmap for how we, when we feel most out of control, when faced with a unique challenge for which there is no script, how we o grasp hold of that wobbly trapeze bar—and infuse the ultimate life transition with meaning, providing a legacy for those who will follow. Sadly, each one of us here tonight knows someone who is battling or has succumbed to a horrific disease—ovarian cancer, ALS, heart disease, Parknsons, to name a few. Paul Kalanithi reminded us that one of the early meanings of patient is ‘one who endures hardship without complaint.’  The weeks and months leading to their death are often consumed by doctor’s appointments, treatment, pain, medication, depression, loving albeit helpless family and friends.  In the epilogue, his wife wrote, “During the last year of his life, Paul wrote relentlessly, fueled by purpose, motivated by a ticking clock.”  Earlier in the book he stated, “I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of life.”  Kalenithi, in his book, echoed the teachings of Victor Frankel, who like Kalanithi, was an author and physician—a psychiatrist.  Frankel, though, was also a Holocaust survivor who wrote the profound book, Man’s Ultimate Search for Meaning.  Frankel wrote “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

When we find ourselves suspended in the transition zone...between life’s sometimes harsh realities.and the unknown future….that we have  the potential and opportunity, not necessarily to alter what fortune or misfortune befalls us—Rather, like the people I’ve just mentioned, we  too, can jettison ourselves  through transitional  moments while retaining our own integrity and self-worth.  While clutching the unknown trapeze bar of our future, we can affirm life and strive to find meaning and purpose.  

The same is true of this sacred congregation, we move through this year of transition.  We, too, have the power to inject meaning and direction—shaping a future that is robust and joyful…or not.

And we are not alone on our journey, for God is both the chain from which the trapeze bar dangles...the chain that supports our spiritual heaviness when we are afraid of falling…and God is the ruach—the wind at our back and the spirit within us that pushes us forward…into our awaiting future. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who had to deal with his emotions following the death of his son, wrote the following.

“We can’t pray the God makes our lives free of problems; this won’t happen, and it is probably just as well… We can’t ask God to weave a magic spell around us so that bad things will only happen to other people, and never to us.  People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying.  But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered.  They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.  Where did they get it?  I would like to think that their prayers helped them tap hidden reserves of faith and courage, which were not available to them before.” 

Indeed, for us, Tefila—prayer can provide us with the strength to…ma’averin et roa ha’g’zeira—to enable the evil that can redound to us from our life’s struggles-- to pass.

Tonight we prayed:  “O Hope of Israel:  In our weakness give us strength.  In our blindness, be our guide.  When we falter, hold our hand.”  

In this New Year, as we find ourselves swinging from one trapeze bar to the next…from joy to sorry…from loss to celebration…may we find the strength to hold on…the courage to move forward…and may God be with us on our journeys.  Keyn Yehi Ratzon.

 

 

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