Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur: Let's Talk About Failure

Yom Kippur is an opportunity to talk about failure. This week wasn’t a disaster, but it was one of those weeks where nothing went exactly right and most of the time it was my fault in some way, as a parent and a teacher and a human being. And so I ended up with this gnawing sense of imperfection and a deep awareness of my own limitations.

This is a good way to enter Yom Kippur and I feel comforted by the day’s looming presence. On Yom Kippur I will remind myself, in the company of others and always speaking in the plural, that ashamnu – we have all sinned. I am not alone in my imperfections.

Not alone. In fact, we come together through our imperfections. It is in those messy places that we feel most human and vulnerable and in need of one another and it is in those times of imperfection that we can most fully relate to the problems others are suffering. In my failure, I connect. I feel the pain of failure of a thousand others.

I am also comforted on Yom Kippur by God’s steadfast forgiveness. Here. too, my awareness of my limitations actually opens up the avenue to connection. I need You, I say. I can’t do this alone. I am well aware of my flawed humanity and require Your presence and Your assistance to live this life. Anu amekha ve’atah elokenu. We are Your nation and You are our God. We are Your children and You are our parent. On Yom Kippur we achieve a level of intimacy and connection with God which we can only reach for the rest of the year. Why? Because we are sinners, we are failures, and we know it.

Part of what happens with failure is that, in breaking down the ego, it leaves us open to connect to something larger than ourselves, both others around us and God. The lesson of failure is to let go of the self, to let go of the need for constant perfection and our ideal image of who we want to be, to let go of all that, to simply do our best and feel how God and other humans fill in the gap. Perfection is a barrier to intimacy and to teamwork; awareness of our imperfections opens us up to both.
This week I am celebrating my failures. May God forgive us all our shortcomings.

Yom Kippur: On Judgment: God's and Ours

If we want God to be compassionate to us, not to judge us too harshly but to slide over our transgressions, we need to act that way to those around us.

We usually think of the opposite dynamic – that we learn from God how to be compassionate. And of course, this is also true. We repeat over and over the 13 attributes of divine mercy on Yom Kippur, reminding ourselves of God’s essentially forgiving nature partly in order to remind ourselves that God is a model for us – God is forgiving; therefore we should be forgiving.

At the same time, we can also think of it in the reverse – not that we learn from God, but that, as it were, God learns from us, or rather, that we bring into the world particular divine traits through our actions; we draw down God’s mercy by acting merciful ourselves. We create, through our attitudes toward each other, the kind of divine presence we want to exist in this world. Do we want to live in the presence of a harsh judgmental God or a forgiving, compassionate God?

We make that choice by the way we treat others. It is so easy to judge. I was walking down the street the other day and a dog on someone’s lawn started barking at me. The owner was outside and tried to calm the dog down but did not apologize to me for the fright. This is a “pet” peeve of mine – that dog owners worry more about their dogs than the people that they affect. But as I walked away with this judgment in mind, I thought – if it were me, would I want God to judge me in this harsh way, simply for not apologizing for my dog? It was likely that the owner’s attempt to calm his dog was in fact an act of kindness toward me and he simply was too intent on this act to be able to apologize. Read in this way, I felt suddenly gracious, appreciative and sympathetic toward the owner. This, after all, is how I want God to treat me, for I know that there are so many occasions on which I should have apologized or given thanks and did not do so.

We talk about God moving from the chair of judgment to the chair of mercy. We need to help that happen by ourselves making similar choices – do we want to “sit in judgment” or decide to make a choice, to make a change, and move into the chair of mercy?

We have a thousand opportunities a day to make these choices. Sometimes it is a question of being dan lekaf zekhut, giving people the benefit of the doubt – we don’t have full information and should not be hoshed bekesherim, wrongly suspicious of the innocent. We don’t know so we should assume the best. Other times, we know or we think we know that something was amiss in the way someone else acted. Here, too, if we ask ourselves – how would I want to be treated by God in this situation, we will be able to find the motivation to move out of the chair of judgment and be a partner with God in drawing down the attribute of Mercy into this world.




Monday, September 18, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Thoughts: A Collection


This year I have taken some old and new ideas about Rosh Hashanah and compiled them into a short booklet that can be printed for the holiday.

Here is the link to this collection:


Feedback is always welcome, on both form and content.

Ketivah vehatimah tovah. A good new year to all.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and Parashat Ki Tetze

Underneath all the stuff, there is love.

In Houston, large swaths of the population have lost almost all of their worldly goods. It is hard to even imagine such a scenario – no clothes, no toiletries, no home, no bed, no computer, no lifetime of accumulated and beloved possessions.

Alongside images of these intense losses, we have watched acts of hesed, acts of love and kindness and bravery, often done by volunteers helping and rescuing total strangers. In our consumerist society, it feels as if the loss of all that stuff has somehow unearthed a renewed sense of connection and kinship.

Last Shabbat, in my Pirke Avot group we studied a line that my father used to repeat often – marbeh nekhasim, marbeh de’agah, the more possessions, the more worry. The more possessions, the more mental energy one needs to expend to protect them.

The Jewish tradition is not anti-material goods, but there is a sense that they sometimes interfere with seeing what really matters. One can easily become obsessed and anxious about material things to the point where the brain is no longer free.

In my Sefat Emet group this week, we read a beautiful piece about freedom. Spinning off on a passage in the parsha about tzaraat and remembering what Miriam suffered when we left Egypt, the Sefat Emet asserts that this notion of “remembering Egypt” means “remembering freedom” and that mitzvot in general are intended as good advice for how to be and remain free.

The examples he gives are material – we leave a corner of the field for the poor and give ma’aser and tzedaka all in order to learn not to become too attached to our wealth. This freedom must pervade everything we own, says the Sefat Emet, and so we put a mezuzah on the doors to our homes and tzitzit on our clothing, all to remind ourselves not to become too attached to these material things, and to instill a sense of freedom from the material.

The devastation in Houston is monumental and we cry with our fellows at their deep losses. Someone in my class said: you can either learn this freedom the hard way or the easy way. Let’s hope we are spared further lessons the hard way and remember in the rebuilding that, olam hesed yibaneh, the world is built on acts of loving kindness.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Parashat Ekev: Not Because We Deserve It

“If you are breathing, that is nature’s way of saying that you belong here. You are enough.” I saw this on a teacher website, something that a teacher said to his students every day as part of a breathing meditation.

I would adjust that to: If you are breathing, that is God’s way of saying that He loves you at this moment, just the way you are and He wants you to be alive and here.

The essential point is that you don’t have to deserve this love or this life. You are given your daily breath (and bread) as free gifts simply out of love.

Moshe emphasizes this point in this week’s parsha. He spends a long time talking about the people’s sins, not to make them feel guilty, but to make a different point --- God is giving you the gift of the land of Israel not because you deserve it, but because He loved your ancestors and He loves you. Again and again, Moshe says: lo betzidkatekha – not because of your merit or virtue or righteousness. On the contrary, he goes to lengths to show how from beginning to end, the people angered and rebelled against God. Why does he go to such lengths? To make the clarity of God’s love even stronger --- this is a love that is not based on merit. You don’t have to deserve this love and therefore you cannot lose it. You have already done all the terrible things you can do and He nonetheless stuck with you and is giving you the gift of the land.

Last week, the parsha started with a word that makes a similar point. The word used to describe Moshe’s prayer is va’ethanan. Rashi says this means that Moshe prayed for a matanat hinam, a free gift. Even though Moshe did have merits to rely on, he understood that when you appear before God, you ask for a free gift. That is God’s way.

It should be our way, too, both in relation to ourselves and others. We live in a society that values productivity above all else. The question in our minds is always – how productive have we been? What have we accomplished, gotten done, today. This is a fine question as long as it is not tied in any way to our sense of self-worth. We do not need to prove that we deserve to exist based on our productivity. We deserve to exist simply because God loves us. Life is a matanat hinam, a free gift.

And sometimes, if we feel that we have erred and done the wrong thing, even then we should know that there is still love out there for us, that in any case, the gifts that God bestows upon us daily, like the gift of the land, are lo betzidkatekha, not given for our righteousness. We are human and often not so righteous and God gives us these gifts anyway, simply out of love.

This attitude does not deter teshuva, return and repentance, but on the contrary, I suspect it is the first step to change. Self-doubt and a feeling of low self-esteem lead to inaction and depression. Change happens best in the protective climate of love.

We do not need to deserve this life. It is a free gift. We should recognize the steadfast divine love behind our every breath.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Parashat Vaethanan: God's Oneness and our Wholeness

Often in life, one feels some slight dissonance or discomfort, as if you are a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. There is your true self and then there is what you have to do to get through the day and they don’t always match up exactly. The world has expectations, institutions have ways of doing things and you are an individual making your way.

There is one place where a person never feels this discomfort – before God. In relation to God, we are always whole and always wholly ourselves. I think this is part of what we mean when we say in the Shma (in this week’s parsha) that one loves God with all of one’s heart and soul – before God, there is a capacity to be whole and whole-hearted in a way one cannot be anywhere else.
This feeling of wholeness is connected to the word ehad, one, which we say about God in the Shma. God is one and we are one with God somehow – or rather, we feel the oneness of the world and ourselves and a sense of completeness with God that we cannot feel elsewhere. There is a yearning quality to this feeling, as if we are longing for an earlier time or a later time when we indeed were/will be one with God, and, strangely, this sense of yearning makes us feel whole, complete, one.

Thinking this over clarified for me what idolatry is. Idolatry is the opposite of God because of its multiplicity. To worship multiple gods makes us feel divided – that sense of dissonance again. We are not sure whom to serve , whether the demands of work are the true god or our families or accomplishments. We feel divided by the demands of many gods because there is indeed still a tinge of idolatry in this world at all times. And it is precisely in the face of this dividedness, this sense of being pulled in a thousand directions, that we need to assert every day, not once but multiple times – Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad. Listen up – there is only one God. Go about your life, fulfill expectations, do your work, take care of your family, but somehow remember that it is all in service of God, not in service of other humans and their ideas of what you should do and not in service of your own ego with all its ambitious goals. Just God. Even as you go about your day, keep a piece of yourself pure and whole-hearted, connected to God and that sense of oneness.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Parashat Pinchas: The Unstuck Children of Sinners

Our lives, our choices are not completely determined by our parents’ paths and by our past. We each shape our own destinies. At every moment we have complete freedom to act in a fresh new way.

In this week’s parsha we find a few examples of this freedom. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirzah are the daughters of Tzolfehad, a man who “died for his own sin” (according to the rabbis, either for breaking the Sabbath or for trying to enter the land after the sin of the spies). The children of this “sinner” merit the highest mark of approval – God Himself says about their claim ken, “yes,” “correct.” As Rashi comments, “fortunate is one whose words the Holy One blessed be He agrees to.” These daughters were not tied to their father’s path of sin, but forged their own bright future.

As if to hammer in this point, the parsha includes mention of another set of children of a sinner as well, beney Korah, the children of Korah. In the list of descendants, the Torah takes the time to record that although Korah and his followers all were killed for their rebellion, “the children of Korah did not die.” Rashi explains that at the last moment, they had thoughts of teshuva, a change of heart, and therefore were not swallowed up with the rest of the sinners.

There they were, surrounded by rebels, all speaking the same angry rhetoric against Moshe. What strength of character it must have taken to even think a different thought, to imagine that those around them were wrong! To change one’s mind in such circumstances, to do teshuva, is the ultimate act of personal freedom, the assertion that our destinies are not predetermined by our surroundings or our history. We are at every moment free to change, to be a new type of person.

We often feel stuck in our old ways, our regular habits of thinking, our usual way of doing things. As we enter the three weeks of mourning and look forward to the coming of Elul and the High Holidays, we can begin the process of change by really taking in the full truth of its possibility. To really believe in teshuva, to really believe in change and the freedom to be different, is a powerful assertion of personal autonomy. We can be different. Our past does not determine who we can become. Each morning, each moment, we are born anew, fresh and free to choose our path. May we choose one to which the Holy One says ken.