Sunday, October 1, 2017

God is Close to the Broken-Hearted - Yom Kippur 5778/2017

So I just spoke to you.

Right there, in front of the open ark.

We called out your name.

We called out Avinu Malkeinu, Our Parent, Our Sovereign, shma koleinu – hear our voice. We called out Avinu Malkeinu, halt the onslaught of violence and the reign of those who cause pain. We called out Avinu Malkeinu, have compassion on us and on our children.

Do you hear us?

In this tenuous time when the world feels broken and upside-down, we call out your name.

Do you hear us?

When yet another hurricane forms in the sea, when the local school gets evacuated for a bomb threat yet again, when the cancer is growing rather than shrinking, we call out your name.

And I keep asking: Do you hear us? Do you hear us? But maybe the question we should be asking instead is: Are we hearing you?

Avinu Malkeinu, we are open to hearing you …or at least I think we are. I think that I am ready to hear you, to respond to you. But if I am honest, on most days we are probably only as open to you as the speaker in Pastor Wilbur Rees’ poem who says:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine…
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Yes, we want the ecstasy and the warmth of the womb and the comfort of you, God, but will we take all of you? Will we take the transformation that these days require of us, too? The discomfort of a new birth?

God, we know you by different names and by different experiences. For some, you are the still, small voice, our moral compass. For others, you are the big, booming voice that is judgment. Some struggle to know you, but can’t – at least not yet. And for others, you are a big, beautiful idea and that is where you end.

And what are you to me?

As someone who for too long felt like she didn’t really belong anywhere, I guess I’ve always felt like I belonged with you.

I grew up as the only Jewish kid in my elementary school, the only Jewish kid in an Irish Catholic neighborhood where the streets were empty on Sunday mornings. But we didn’t belong to synagogue either so I had no real Jewish community to speak of. I was Jewish, but had no education or community or experience to back that up. My mom was Jewish, my dad was Protestant, but neither were particularly passionate about any of it. But for some reason, I was.

I’ve always been interested in what makes this world go round – and not in the scientific way although that certainly interests me, too – but I have always been more interested in what powers us with hope and how we learn to live with our fear. I want to know how one discerns their purpose and if our capacity to love will ever exceed our capacity to hate. To someone else, these are only sociological or psychological questions, but to me, they are also deep, rich theological ones, too.

Maybe it all comes back to a conversation I had with my mom when I was 6, maybe 7. She turned to me, seemingly out of the blue, but something –and I wish she was still around on this earth so I could ask her now– something triggered her heart to make her say to me: Jill, just believe in God. Okay?

Maybe that’s why the words of the poet, Yehuda Amichai ring true for me when he says:

Bird tracks in the sand at night
are still there in the daytime, though I’ve never seen
the bird that left them. That’s the way it is
with God.

That’s the way it is with God.

There are bird tracks, footprints all over the sand, all over this world. And my insides itch to respond to them.

Avinu Malkeinu, we want to be seen, heard, understood... And maybe you do, too.

After all, you were that lowly little bush all caught on fire, unconsumed. Midrash teaches us that so many of us passed you by, not paying attention, not seeing you for what you really were. It took Moses turning to notice you.[1] Perhaps it took the trauma in his life to truly prime him to notice the wonder that was you.

Maybe that is why you identify with us, a people who are so often in the depths. Maybe that is why you identify with each one of us, each on our own, when we are in sorrow. For you know what it is like to be ignored, passed by, unloved. You know what it is like to be on your own, to be singular.

Perhaps you need us as much as we need you.

Will we turn in time to notice you, the fire that burns, unconsumed before the gates close? Will we finally hear – this time – the messages you have been sending us for so long?

Through your prophet, Isaiah, you ask us about this moment: is this fast for real?[2] Or is all this moaning and groaning for show? You challenge us to consider: Do our empty bellies mean anything if they don’t lead us to care about the hungry man, woman, and child on the street? Will the sukkot that we will build in just a few days, the houses that are not houses lacking roofs so that the rain gets into our very bones – do they mean anything if they don’t lead us to take in those without shelter? Our rituals, you teach us, don’t exist just to invoke nostalgia; no, they are here to shake us and to wake us up to caring about the world.

And through your prophet, Ezekiel, you urge us to remove our hearts of stone so that you can give us hearts of flesh.[3] For more times than I can count, God, I have found myself feeling like I am floating above my life, watching it like an observer might. Why do I do that? And I know that I am not alone. Maybe we do it because it is easier, maybe we do it because we are afraid to be in this life living it with all the muck and anxiety and uncertainty and pain – and maybe with all the joy, too, not wanting to get too close to the joy in case it suddenly dissipates and disappears. But what kind of life is that? It is surely not a life with a heart of flesh. We need to chip away at the stone in earnest, chip away whatever prevents us for fully living our lives.

And through your prophet, Micah, you demand that we love mercy, do justice and walk humbly beside you.[4] By turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, we’re beginning to get at that complicated command to love mercy; we’re beginning to scratch the surface at how to see the sacred spark in our fellow flawed human beings. By turning intentions into actions, by making this fast real, by making it mean something, the path to justice becomes that much clearer. And as for walking humbly beside you, I see footprints all around, God, and I am running to catch up with you.

Avinu Malkeinu, I hear you echoing through the words of your prophets. You are telling us to stop being afraid and to get courageous and to get out of our heads and back into our hearts. You’re telling us to get to the important work, to stop blaming the universe for our discontent; you’re telling us to LIVE.

God, I am chipping away at the stone so that I can transform, because I don’t want just $3 worth of you… No, God, I will take it all.

Avinu Malkeinu choneinu v’aneinu. Avinu Malkeinu have compassion on us and answer us because it is not easy.  Choneinu v’aneinu, have compassion on us and answer us ki ain banu maasim, for we have no deeds.

And this is where it gets real.

Have compassion on us because we are here, we are showing up and yet ain banu ma’asim. It turns out that though we have tried to do enough to earn your compassion on our merit, on our deeds, on our actions in this life, it turns out ain banu ma’asim, we have not done enough.

I’m reminded that though you don’t hear it much anymore, there is an old custom to whisper these last two lines of Avinu Malkeinu.

Why whisper? Because it’s like we’re visiting a supply store that we only get to visit once a year and we’re excited about all the items on the shelves. They’ll make our lives good. And we point at this item and that item and say loudly: give me this and give me that. But then when it comes time to pay, we reach into our pockets and we discover ain banu ma’asim, we can’t cover the costs. So we whisper to the cashier, can you give me credit? I’ll pay you next year, I promise.

We, too, walk around the world saying we want this, we want that. We want compassion, we want health, we want redemption, we want a good year. And when we finally get up to the Great Cashier, when we stand in front of the open ark, we find ourselves reaching into our pockets and whispering: ain banu ma’asim. We don’t have enough deeds.

God, the truth is that we have not done all that we could have this year. We tried – we really did. But all we have left in this grand moment… is us. All I have left in this grand moment …is me.

And as I once learned from Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory: when all you have left to offer is a broken heart, you offer your broken heart.[5]

The psalmist sang: God is close to the broken-hearted.[6]

God, we offer you our heartbreak. The heartbreak of witnessing the horror of our world. The heartbreak of unfairly assigning you all the blame. The heartbreak that we feel so little and like we can only do so much. The heartbreak that we know that we could have done more and we didn’t.

God, I have chipped away at the stone, and I can feel what’s inside, it’s beating, it’s real, it’s flesh. And it’s breaking.

We are turning and noticing you. We are harkening to your voice passed down through the generations and reverberating still right now right here in this room.

And we are learning:

Hurricanes after hurricanes – they don’t mean that you are absent, God; they mean that we, the inhabitants of this world need to pay better attention to our planet and what we are doing to it – and we need to fight for it.

Evacuations from school after bomb threats – they don’t mean that you don’t care; they mean we need to respond courageously to the growth of hatred in human hearts around us and lift up as much love as we can in its place.

Cancer that is growing – it does not mean that you do not cry with us. God, you cry with us. It means that not only do we need to raise awareness and money to find better treatment and a cure, it also means that we need to show up. We need to show up and be with those who are in pain, be a connection, be the hands of God on earth.

Our broken hearts serve a sacred purpose. They remind us that we are awake and alive. And they call us to action.

Avinu Malkeinu, aseh imanu tzedakah v’chesed v’hoshieinu - Avinu Malkeinu, Make justice with us, make kindness with us – and help us.

And it all turns on that one little word that we say at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, doesn’t it, God? IMANU. Make justice and kindness with us.

And I think I am beginning to understand now…

You may be Avinu, our Sacred Parent and Malkeinu, Our Sacred Sovereign, but you are also that lowly little bush who wants to inspire us to turn like Moses did, who wants us to step up and do the work of the world with you. Because you believe that justice is as much our responsibility as it is yours. And kindness, too. And mercy and love.

It is our world. We are responsible for it.

So we stand here now before you, Avinu Malkeinu. We stand here and we offer you our broken, but beating hearts and our commitment to love and mercy and justice and kindness and our sacred promise to keep trying.

We pat our pockets and all we have to offer in this grand moment… is us.

And because you are Avinu, our Loving Parent, I know that we will be enough.

[1] Exodus 3:4.
[2] Isaiah 58:5-7.
[3] Ezekiel 36:26.
[4] Micah 6:8.
[5] I owe my gratitude to Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) and his teachings through his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, which undergird this sermon.
[6] Psalm 34:18.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rosh HaShanah 2017/5778 A Letter to My Children

Shanah tovah.
A Letter to my Children
Dated the First of Tishrei in the year 5778
To my dear children, to Lev and Eli and Maya –
On the eve of this great big new year, I am thinking about the book that I read to you sometimes at night. The Hugging Tree by Jill Neimark. It begins:
“On a bleak and lonely rock by a vast and mighty sea grew a lonely little tree where no tree should ever be.”
The illustration on the first page shows a little sproutling seemingly all on its own. It’s holding on as best as it can to the edge of the cliff as clouds loom ominously above.

Lev, Eli, Maya, there are times when I am reading you that story and I think I am that little tree out there flailing in the storm.

And then a worst thought arrives.

It’s you, you’re out there, hanging over a cliff, on the verge of being uprooted.

As your parent, I want to teach you optimism. I want to teach you resilience. I want to instill in you hope.

For the world is not as simple as I would like it to be for you, my loves.
With harsh winds blowing all around and an unforgiving sea below, the little tree calls out: “Mighty cliff, hold me tight. Don’t let me blow away.”

The cliff calls out in return:  “Little tree, with all my might, ‘ I’ll hold you close, night and day.”

I am thinking a lot about how we are rooted in this life. And uprooted, too. What allows us to dig our roots deep? How deep do we need to dig to withstand the storms that rage around us?

“Her tiny roots pushed night and day, and bit by bit the rock gave way. A smidge, an inch, a foot, then two. She grew and grew and grew and grew.”

I want you to be rooted so that you can grow. I want you to be rooted so that when the storm inevitably comes, you can withstand the winds.
If I could make the storms stop raging, I would.
If I could stop the need for your shelter-in-place drills, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
If I could assure that that you will never be the target of a bully, that you’ll never bear the brunt of anti-Semitism, I absolutely would.
If I could make this world all that you deserve, you know that I would.
I won’t pretend to you that this world is perfect. We are full of flaws. I want you to know this so that you are prepared, so that you are not blind to your privilege, so that you can join all good people of conscience in repairing this world.

The most important job I have as your parent is to help you dig your roots deep and to whisper continuously in your ears to be brave and to be courageous.
We’re living in a time, you see, when a lot of people are afraid. It doesn’t matter if they’re little like you or big like me. We all get scared. 
In my role as rabbi, many people have come through my door to talk about feeling like that tree hanging over the edge.
And I say to them just as I have said to you (and as I tell myself time and time again):

It’s okay to be afraid. Don’t run away from the feeling. It’s telling you something important about what’s happening around and inside of you.

Allow yourself to be afraid.
Allow yourself to be in pain.
Allow yourself to be angry.

And then ask yourself: what am I to do with all this fear and pain and anger?

It was Shimon Peres who said that the Jews’ greatest contribution to the world is dissatisfaction!

Lev, Eli, Maya, use that dissatisfaction with the world as it is and your anger and your pain and your fear and your courage and do something just as our forbears did before us.

Be like Abraham when he stood up for the innocent at Sodom.

Be like Shifra and Puah who defied a Pharaoh.

Be like Moses who refused to be a bystander as he watched a slave being beaten by those in authority.

Be dissatisfied.

The truth is that sometimes life's trials are thrust upon us or we are thrust upon them.

We’re like that seed that takes root on a lonely cliff side. We know we shouldn’t be here; the wind has blown us out of our comfort zone. We look around, startled, and ask ourselves, How in the world did we get here? I know a lot of us have been asking that question lately.

And yet… and yet all we have left to do is deal with it. It may not have been our choice to take on the trial but it is always our choice in how we respond.

One of the best-known prayers of the holy day season is Unetaneh Tokef. It asks the prophetic question: In the year to come, who will live and who will die. It is a text that begins without human agency. It acknowledges that yes, there is so much in this world over which we do not have control and we feel powerless. But the good part… the good part is that the text doesn’t end there.

Unetaneh Tokef ends with what to me feels like a sacred gift, a sacred calling, a sacred command in Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.

Our tradition likes to live in the tension, in the in-between as it both comforts and challenges us. It screams at us: It is not your responsibility to get it all right, to fix this whole world, but don’t you dare stop trying![1]

So what can we do? We can take on the sacred work of teshuvah, which translates to turning - and turning to me means recognizing the incredible potential for transformation within and beyond. Sure, life is happening all around us and to us, but that does not negate that we can also be great architects of grand change. We don’t have to accept the world as it is with all of its flaws. Doing teshuvah means we get to tinker and imagine and dream big in order to create the world as it should be, the world we all deserve.

So what can we do? We can take on the sacred work of tefillah, which refers to our capacity for prayer, our capacity to be open to the vastness that is our universe, to being a part of that sacred something that is so much bigger than each one of us. To me, tefillah is about walking through this existence with an open heart and soul. There’s so much out of our control, but do you know what we can control? We can control how many times we say I love you. We can control how many times we say thank you. Doing tefillah means living with love and gratitude.

So what can we do? We can take on the sacred work of tzedakah, which means that we are generous with our time, our energy, our pockets, our hearts. What we can control is how we respond to the events around us. When our hearts break after Charlottesville, we organize. When homes go under water in Texas and Florida and islands across the Caribbean, we donate. When the futures of young people in our nation are in question, we stand by the Dream that is America.

Teshuvah. Tefillah. Tzedakah.

When the difficulties of life happen, I want you to know – clear as day - what the Jewish response is. The Jewish response is do teshuvah, do tefillah, do tzedekah. The Jewish response is to do something. Change, open up, give. Show up. Resist. Do justly. Love. Pray with your heart. Pray with your feet. Move with sacred purpose.

And that’s how we stand strongly in the storm.

It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

You will be happier, I promise you, when you count yourselves as sacred servants of this world. When you push forward with purpose. For you are powerful. And you are capable of doing so much good in this universe.

But sometimes we forget that truth about ourselves.

Why do we forget this most essential part of who we are?

Somehow, our own power and ability to affect change gets lost in the hubbub of life. Disappointed by our failures, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems on our own plates, never mind the problems of the world, we begin to see ourselves as powerless. And I forget this truth sometimes, too.

“Storms will come and storms will go. At last the sun melted the snow. But now the tree could not grow. The storm had torn her roots. The moon gazed down and softly said, ‘Sometimes we lose our way. But with help, we start again. That’s how life is, you know.”

That’s how life is, you know.

I’m thinking of Joseph, Joseph of Technicolor coat fame. Joseph had been thrown into the pit by his own brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of a heinous crime, and forgotten in a jail cell. Joseph was a man who was as low as a man can be – literally – he had been thrown into a pit! How could Joseph, poor Joseph, hold onto hope that anything would ever be different?

But you see, Joseph had always been a dreamer. And he had dreamed for himself a different ending to his story.

Eventually, Joseph was delivered from the dungeon; he rose to success in his new land, rejoiced in the birth of children, reconciled with his brothers, and saved his family and people from starvation. Perhaps even Joseph the dreamer couldn’t imagine the heights to which he would ascend after dwelling in the depths for so long.

When I spiral or become overwhelmed or forget my truth or my power, I think about Joseph and about a particular moment from midrash that has always moved me.

Midrash imagines Joseph choosing to return to the pit that his brothers had thrown him in decades before. Joseph stares down into the darkness where his journey had begun. He could have raged against that pit. He could have shed tears for his lost years. He could have spit into it – and really, who would have blamed him? But instead… instead, midrash teaches us he returned to the pit so that he could utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place.”[2]

A blessing for the pit. A blessing for the struggle. A blessing for the man that he had become.

When Joseph was on the other side, he was able to consider the journey of his life as a whole. From his story, we glean the wisdom that every moment is only a moment, not a permanent or prophetic state of affairs. Holding onto hope that perhaps a better tomorrow is on the horizon was essential for Joseph’s survival. And it is essential for ours as well.

When we feel beaten down by hurricane after hurricane after hurricane… or when hatred marches in our streets… or when our hearts have been broken… we have a choice. We always have a choice. We can stay where life has dropped us, we can stay in the pit, let go of our grip on the cliff side… or… we can remember the sacred purpose that exists within all of us. And I see that purpose in each one of you.

There will be plenty of days ahead when you won’t see that spark or feel that purpose inside of you. There will be days when you are tired and not sure if you can go on, days when you are hanging on to the side of the cliff… but please know that I know that it’s there. I believe in you. And others do, too. You are not alone.

“And soon a boy came running by, skipping stones into the sea. When he saw the little tree he stopped and stared. He touched the tiny leaves. He felt the ragged roots. He shook his head and said, ‘I can bring just what you need. I can help you, little tree.’”

“Every day the boy came back carrying a full backpack. From the pack he took a tin and poured out rich, brown earth. He packed the roots and tucked them in.”

We need one another to get through the harder days of our lives. My children, your roots reach down deep and your backpacks are full of soil. I pray that you will accept help when you need it. And that you will offer help whenever you can.

I believe that your souls, resilient and kind, have the power to change the very nature of the cliff side when you do teshuvah, when you are architects of turning and transformation, when you do tefillah, when your hearts overflow, and when you do tzedekah, when you generously and courageously give.

It always feels a little bit like a miracle when we turn to the last page of The Hugging Tree and we see that that tree is not so little anymore… And I can’t help but look at you and see that you are not so little anymore either…

And wonder of wonders, not only has the tree itself grown, but we learn that the tree’s roots have developed into a vast expansive root system that is now magnificently and bravely holding the entire cliff side together.

“Now every day new people stop to rest beneath the little tree and dream the things we all dream of. To love, to share, to give, to dare, to grow just where we are.”

“And to this very day they come. For on a splendid sunny rock by a warm and bright blue sea, a great big hugging tree grows just where she was meant to be.”

One day, we might feel like we could fall into the ocean and disappear. And the next, we discover that we have become the anchor, the one holding it all together.

One day, we receive the help; our roots get packed with earth. And the next, we are the open hand; we hold the cliff side together.

And that’s life, too, you know.

There will be ups and downs, victories and failures, sunny days and stormy weather. But if your roots are deep and there is a helpful hand nearby, I know that you will withstand the storm, my loves.

I want to teach you optimism. I want to teach you resilience. I want to instill in you hope. But all I need to learn these things, I realize now, is to look at the wonder that is you.

“For on a splendid sunny rock by a warm and bright blue sea, a great big hugging tree grows just where she was meant to be.”

Yes, we are growing just where we are meant to be.

Love, Mom

Shanah tovah.

[1] Pirkei Avot 2:21
[2] Tanchuma, Va-y'chi 17