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.