Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind - Musings on Haazinu, Bob Dylan, and Sukkot

Haazinu – Give ear, listen – Those are the words that begin our Torah portion this week, our penultimate Torah portion in fact.

Moses cries these words Haazinu, Give ear as he stands before the people as they are about to enter the Promised Land. He is an old man now. 120 years old. He looks out at them, knowing that his children, the children of Israel are going to go on without him and wonders how he can share his last blessings with them, his last gifts of advice. He decides to convey his sacred message through music.

Haazinu is the start of a song that he sings to the people.

Music is often how we communicate key messages in not only secular settings, but in religious ones as well. Torah is often chanted, not read for instance – and that chant changes on special days. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we share the words of our scrolls, we hear a tune that is reserved only for these days. And it’s the same for our megillot as well. The book of Esther on Purim has its own chant and the book of Ecclesiastes has its own chant on Sukkot.

Our daily prayers get a musical makeover on the high holy days to make us aware that we are in something new… Yai dai dai dai dai dai…

And our Torah and the rest of the Tanakh are peppered with songs throughout. It's in the song of the sea, Mi Chamocha, which we joyously sang after we crossed the Sea of Reeds – and which we sing as our song of redemption during prayer. And it's in the Deborah's song in the book of Judges after we were victorious in battle. And it's in Shir haShirim, in the Song of Songs, words that extol the loving relationship between our people and God.

While we no longer have the music that was associated with many of these pieces and certainly not with this week’s song, Shirat Haazinu, we can still give ear to its words and poetry.

Haazinu hashamayim v’adabeirah, v’tishma haaretz imri fi - Give ear o heavens let me speak – let the earth hear the words that I utter.

This poem, in which Moses is lovingly bidding us farewell, goes on to describe the relationship between our people and God. It will remind us that though we will inevitably mistakes and anger God, that God will still take us back and love us. A pertinent message certainly following these high holy days.

Within his words, Moses compares the power of poetry to water:

Yaarof kamatar likchi tizal catal imrati may my discourse come down as the rain. My speech distill as the dew. Like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.

Just as water sustains us, so does the message of our text. Poetry, songs – they stay in our hearts and revive us when we are parched – perhaps more easily than any piece of prose can do.

This week with Haazinu in our midst, I can’t help but think of another poet whose words work to sustain us in seasons of drought. The words of Bob Dylan also known as Robert Zimmerman who yesterday was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Many were delighted if somewhat surprised by the choice. However, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, implied it was an obvious choice. She said, “I came to realize that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago. They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page. We enjoy [their] poetry, and I think Bob Dylan deserves to be read as a poet.” 

And of course a man who would take the name Dylan from Dylan Thomas is a poet at heart.

Now it is no secret that I, of course, was not around (or even alive) during the era that Bob Dylan first made his mark. I did not grow up on Dylan, but I appreciate his work nonetheless and I see his Nobel win as a chance for us to get re-acquainted or for many, especially the youngest amongst us, to be acquainted for the first time with his amazing body of work.

I could speak about any number of Dylan greats like The Times they are a-changing and Like A rolling Stone, but this moment in our year, with Sukkot a-comin, starting this Sunday evening, I want to turn to Blowin in the Wind.

Dylan muses…

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

The wind is key to the holiday of Sukkot. For it is on Sukkot that we change our prayer in the tefillah – instead of praying for dew as we do as summer long, we begin to pray for the winds to blow and the rains to fall… but moreso, the wind is key to Sukkot because of its power.

We build sukkot, these huts we sit in, eat in, and sleep in… and we do so despite the elements. A sukkah is an impermanent structure meant to remind us of the vulnerability of life and the illusion that we will be forever young or forever blessed without incident. If a strong wind were to come by, we know too well that our sukkah would fall. So, too, in our lives, if a strong wind, an accident, an unexpected illness, an actual hurricane, all too-real and too-present… if a strong wind were to rip through our lives… all that we have built would fall. We need to accept the impermanence of not only our material items, but also our very time on this earth. Sukkot serves as a sacred reminder to pay attention to that which is real in life – love, faith, the very real notion of empathy for another human being.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind – what does Dylan mean when we sing of those winds? Some say that means that the answer is unknowable. It will pass us by. Indeed how many times must the cannon balls fly before they're forever banned? Perhaps Dylan is being cynical – we will never know for we are too attached to our instruments of war. These are lessons we never learn – or at least not until it is too late.

And some say the answer blowin’ in the wind means that the answer is right here, right in front of us and all around us. It's in the very air. The answer instead of being unknowable is obvious. It’s blowing in the wind right here for us to catch and grasp – if only we will.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe who believed the ultimate redemption was imminent once said, "We have to open our eyes to signs of the Redemption." And I believe him. I do believe that redemption is around us – I believe that WE make that happen when We open our eyes and when WE lift each other UP in positive ways.

It’s all around us. The answers are in goodness and love, in standing up for what is right, in self-honesty. In passing on the power of poetry. The answers to redemption are here.

All we need are open hearts and open eyes – and open hands, too, to grab what is right before us blowin’ in the wind.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Pockets - Kol Nidre 5777

Pockets
Kol Nidre 5777
Rabbi Jill Perlman

Every year at the beginning of the second semester of our tenth grade confirmation experience here at Temple Isaiah, I create two concentric circles of chairs, one facing in and one facing out so that my students can look one another in the eye as I ask them a series of questions. Every once in a while I say switch and the inner circle moves down by one.

It’s like speed dating…but not.

I ask them to listen to their partner, not to judge, to share only what they’re comfortable sharing. There are ten or so simultaneous conversations happening at once between pairs; it’s a beautiful cacophony of story. After a few questions about winter vacation and favorite activities to get us comfortable, I start to dig deeper.

Describe a time in your life when you felt powerful.

After a few “well, what do you mean, powerful?” type of questions, the conversations take off. There’s an energy to them. These young men and women sound powerful as they share stories of their own power. I hear someone talking about serving on student council and another about what it feels like to be a mentor, making a difference in a young person’s life.

I call out, Switch.

Describe a time in your life when you felt powerless.

There’s some pause here. There almost always is. And then the stories start. A time when someone was bullied. Or someone watched from the sidelines as someone was being bullied. Someone else speaks about a death in the family.

Switch. And we’re back to power.

Describe a time in your life when you saw injustice and you acted on what you saw.

Switch.

Describe a time when you didn’t act on an injustice you saw.

Switch.

What is the biggest injustice you see in the world that needs to be addressed?

Switch.

What keeps you up at night?

The tone always changes after these conversations. Many students are leaning forward. There’s personal investment now. I’ll bring them to text later that evening; we’ll dive into what Judaism has to say about power and powerlessness. But first, we begin with them. For they are each an eternal text. I want them to know that they are each Torah with wisdom and holiness just as each one of us is.

I begin this semester, which is focused on Judaism and Justice, asking these questions to help our young men and women understand that they are indeed powerful. They can do amazing things. They can mentor and help and challenge and stand up and educate themselves to better themselves and the world.

And I also want them to tap into their own powerlessness. For they are that, too.

At ages 15 and 16, these extremes are at their fingertips. They’re on top of the world, discovering something new every day,… but they also need a bathroom pass at school because we don’t yet trust our teenagers. (We should by the way.)

And that’s life no matter how old we are. It just plays out in different ways. Balancing our extraordinary power with our extraordinary powerlessness.

We have two pockets and in those two pockets, we should carry two notes. One note should read: Bishvili nivra ha’olam—“For me, the world was created.” And the other: V’anokhi afar v’efer—“I am but dust and ashes.”[1]

We are at the heart of the universe and yet nothing really at all.

A historian once said, “Astronomically speaking, man is almost insignificant.” But it was a theologian who said, “Astronomically speaking, man is an astronomer.”[2]

We are the tellers of our own tale, you see. The spinners of our own story. We are significant or insignificant, powerful or powerless based on our own interpretation. We decide that we matter…

If you’re convinced that the world is meaningless, then yes, the world as you experience it around you will probably affirm your assumption. If you understand that you have a purpose on this earth, then in all likelihood, all will appear to align for you on your journey. We are the ones in charge of connecting the dots. We are the ones who recognize beauty in the chaos.

Upon reading the first few chapters of Genesis, a close reading reveals that there are two creation stories with which we need to contend, two stories of how we, human brings came to be.

In the first account, which primarily makes up what we know as Genesis Chapter 1, man is given the mandate to take charge of the world and some read to subdue it. The great Jewish thinker, Joseph Soloveitchik calls this first human being Adam I or Majestic Man.[3] The Man who wields control over creation.

The second Adam, in our second account of the creation of the world, is the Adam who is the keeper of the garden charged with taking care rather than control of it. This is the Adam over which God proclaims, “It is not good for man to be alone.”[4] He is the Adam who needs relationship. Soloveitchik refers to him as Adam II or Covenantal Man. He works in partnership with the earth, with other human beings, and with God. He seeks no need to rule it.

Scholars, rabbis, readers – we’re all puzzled by this double account of creation. Why do we have both? Did the great Editor up there flub, make a mistake?

Soloveitchik chides us on taking everything so literally. He offers that we have both accounts because they are both true in that they both reveal something essential about who we are as human beings. These two variant Adams are the opposing sides of human nature. Whereas Adam I is our ambitious self, Adam II is the inner, the moral side of our being. Whereas Adam I wants to rule the world – and could, Adam II simply wants to serve it.

In every one of us abides these two Adams and we have no one single home.[5]

We need Adam I. He gets things done. He creates, he dreams big, he leads the team. He strategizes to get the win on the football field or in the conference room. He asks for a raise when we deserve it. He is our urge to strive for excellence in all that we do.

We need Adam II. He quiets us down. He reaches out for help. He takes our emotional and spiritual temperature. He asks: what is life asking of me, what am I asking of life?

Adam I wants to know how the world works. Adam II wants to know why. Why in every way. What is our purpose, why are we here.[6]

Those two pockets? The teaching continues: At times when we are arrogant and smug, when we begin to lose our grounding on this earth, when Adam I is all that we are, that is when we are to reach into our pocket and pull out the note that reads: I am but dust and ashes.

And at times, when we feel that we are not enough, that the world is too overwhelming, when we wonder if we have the right to speak up and even if we do, will it make any difference at all, that is when we are to reach our hand into the pocket with the message: For me, the world was created. I can do something.

It’s all in discerning when to pull out the right note; it’s all in discerning when we have let the pendulum swing too far to one side or the other.

Now we know that there are those of us who live in the world of believing that we are only dust and ashes. We feel like we are never enough. We are not smart enough, not nice enough, not rich enough, not brave enough, not pretty or handsome enough. We re-play mistakes we’ve made in a never-ending blooper reel in our heads. Life is more moments in the dark than in the light. We feel lost in the crowd. We wonder: does anybody know I am here? I’m screaming and nobody hears me. For those who live primarily in dust and ashes, this is the year – please - to reach into the other pocket and remember: the world, it was created for you. You are powerful. You are enough.

And there are those of us floating, those of us who feel more than confident that yes, the world is indeed ours. We are not only smart enough, we are smarter. We are not only nice enough – we are the nicest. We have all the answers. We’ve got this. You don’t even need to show up, that’s how much we’ve got this. For those basking in the light, this is the year to reach into the other pocket and remember: you, too, will return to this earth as you came for the dust always returns to the dust.

And this needs to be said as well: I cannot ignore the gendered nature of these extremes. Whereas self-esteem is expected in men, self-aggrandizement is expected in women.

Humility as a behavior can play out as subservience, and subservience used to be a necessary expectation of women and still is to a degree. We don’t have to look very far back in our history to know that women in particular were taught to put others’ needs well before their own. The pendulum for women shifted so far over to the selflessness side that when a woman ventured forward to step into her own ambition, she was treated as treif. She’s not very lady-like. We still feel those ripples today... don’t we?

It is more than time to re-calibrate. This is a journey about noticing how much space you take up in the universe. It is time to ask yourself: Are you always the loudest voice in the room? If so, then step back, leave room for other voices. Or is your voice always missing? If so, it is time to step in and speak up.

If you are unsure which pocket you need to look in, it’s the one instinctively you don’t want to look in – that’s the one.

The world was created for me. I am but dust and ashes. The truth is that most of us live at neither extreme. Women and men alike, we all struggle with the need for control and the realization that there is little control to be had.

These two pockets, these two life messages – they’re both painfully and poignantly true. The world is ours. We are unique. We have power. It is up to us. Up to us whether we will do something with our existence, give something back – or not. And it is also true that the world will continue spinning long, long after we are gone. Most of our names will not be remembered in a few generations. In 100 years, God-willing, this room will be filled with all new people.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we celebrate the birth of the world, it’s easy to feel like anything is possible; indeed, it’s all for us. And today, on Yom Kippur, the day on which we mimic death - no food, no drink, no sex, traditionally dressed all in white as we might be at our own funerals, a day full of repentance – it’s easy to feel as if the dust is returning to the dust.

From the Talmud, we are taught to repent one day before our death.[7] Most of us, however, have no idea when that day will come. Will it be tomorrow, will it be next year, will it be in forty years? To repent one day before our death when that day is an unknown means every day is, of course, a potential last day. Abraham Joshua Heschel wisely knew: “The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understanding of living...”[8]

Not in that Carpe Diem, Seize the day kind of way. No, it has to be more. There has to be more to life than our own happiness and our own pleasure.

Can being honest about our mortality have the power to change how we live?

Each night in our home, after we turn out the lights, as my children lie in their beds, we ask them: 
What was your favorite part of the day? They share their worst parts, too. Sometimes, we talk about something that we could have done better as we get square with our lives before bed.

And then comes gratitude. We ask: what do you need to say thank you for?

I am thankful Josh shared his snack. I am thankful for the rain because the plants needed it. I am thankful you took me to karate. I am thankful for you, Mom, for you Dad.

…And we’re thankful for you, Lev and you, Eli, and you, Maya.

The 24th Psalm: The earth is God’s, everything within it, the world and all who dwell on it.[9] In other words, we’re all renters on this good earth. We own nothing. Being honest about our mortality can ground us in gratitude and provide a new perspective on making meaning in this life.
Thank you, God, that we have been blessed to open our eyes one more day. This world is a beautiful place – it really is. And it deserves that we open our eyes in radical amazement and awe to take it all in.

I know that it doesn’t always feel that way. To me either. It’s difficult to parse the beauty when so many are in pain. When children in Aleppo are rescued from collapsed buildings literally covered in dust and ashes, when water fills the streets in Haiti and too few are taking notice, when so many are disillusioned to say the least about the current presidential campaign and the possible future of our country.

If the world was indeed created for us, then what are we doing to it?

Well, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”[10]

In other words as we say at our Passover tables: B'chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim. “In every generation, one is obligated to consider oneself as if one personally had come out of Egypt.”[11] I came out of Egypt. Me. And you. You came out of Egypt, too. There was a journey and we made it to the other side. It’s a template for hope.

The story of the Exodus isn’t just a story of the past. It was never meant to be. It’s for us – now. Rebbe Nachman teaches, “The Exodus occurs in every human being in every era in every year in every day.”

We were slaves and we use our humble beginnings, this memory of who we were, memories that trigger our own sense of powerlessness in this world today to push us to courageously right our wrongs, to make this world more whole. To do the sacred work of rescuing the refugee and rebuilding homes lost in the hurricane and speaking up for a better future.

Because our humility is our strength. Our marginalization is our power. The world is made of dust so of course, this world was made for us as we are made of dust as well.

This is what I believe: We are enough, but the world is not yet enough. We as human beings are enough, but the world is not yet enough.  

It is from our suffering that our compassion is born. And so we need to urgently get to work showing and sharing that compassion.

One last story: A woman was traveling on a train to be with her family. As she leaned out through an open window, one of her gloves fell out. She reached into her other pocket, took out the other glove and threw it out the window, too. Some people watching her asked her why she tossed the glove away. She said, “After losing the first glove, I realized that the second one was not necessary for me, but perhaps someone outside the train would find both and use them.”[12]

This story is about more than a glove. It’s about recognizing that loss can lead us to living out our lives with love and compassion for someone outside of ourselves. That is how we begin to make the world feel a little more enough.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman visited us a few weeks ago to kick off what will be a year-long process of visioning for our future, determining who we are and who we will be as the Isaiah community. What are we really all about? What values are at our center?

There will be a series of conversations throughout the year, including one tomorrow at 2:15 during our traditional Yom Kippur study session. These high holy days are a reflective time for each one of us as individuals, but it is also our time as a community to reflect as well.

On vision and values and purpose, on creating a world of enough, let me offer this. There is infinite wisdom in those two notes in those two pockets.

I believe that we are stronger when we are a community that challenges us each to cultivate a genuine sense of humility. We appreciate all of your accomplishments, all of your Adam I-ness, but we are about nurturing your Adam II here. That moral center that guides the rest of your life.

Yom Kippurim sounds an awful lot like Yom C’Purim, a day like Purim. The day of masks. Perhaps it is to remind us of the masks we wear every day, how we try to hide who we truly are.

Well, my hope is that today and for all of your tomorrows, you know that you do not need to wear those masks here. And we want to help create a world where you feel you do not need to wear them out there either, where no one does.

We have humble beginnings. One is obligated to see oneself personally coming out of Egypt – why? Not only so that we can be linked to our past, but so that we can be linked with all who suffer. We’re in this together.

We are and we must be a community that realizes that even though we are but dust and ashes, we are still enough – and in a world that it not yet enough, there is work to be done, so much work… and so, let’s get to it.

As the prophet Micah proclaimed, we must act justly, love mercy, and humbly walk with our God.[13]

Astronomically speaking, we may be insignificant, but theologically speaking, we are God’s partners on this earth. And that makes all the difference.

Shanah tovah. G’mar tov.


[1] Teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Peschischa.
[2] From “Two Pockets” by Rabbi Joshua Davidson in Naming God, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. The referenced historian is Harry Elmer Barnes and the referenced theologian is George Albert Coe.
[3] From The Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph Soloveitchik.
[4] Genesis 2:18.
[5] Line adapted The Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph Soloveitchik.
[6] My thinking here on Soloveitchik’s two Adams has been inspired by David Brooks in his book, The Road to Character.
[7] Pirkei Avot 2:10.
[8] Heschel, “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”
[9] Psalm 24:1.
[10] From Spiderman.
[11] Talmud Pesachim 116b.
[13] Micah 6:8.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Moral Courage to Be Our Best Selves

The Moral Courage to Be Our Best Selves
Rabbi Jill Perlman
Erev Rosh HaShanah 2016/5777

Tonight, I want to talk about courage.

I don’t mean the courage to stand up in front of a room packed with upwards of a thousand people, but come to think of it, that’s not a bad kind of courage to have either.

I want to talk tonight about moral courage, and about the moral choices that we make every day from the small to the grand to do right, despite our fear of punishment and consequences, despite our fear of rejection and ridicule. I am talking about the moral courage we must continually cultivate within to be our best selves.

Because sometimes we forget those best selves, don’t we? Even those who were filled with moral courage once upon a time forget.

Like Elijah, our prophet who watched as other prophets of God were being killed or forced into hiding as corruption ran rampant in the kingdom of Israel and the cult of Baal overtook the land. Elijah stood tall, filled his heart with moral courage, and, in a public confrontation with the priests of Baal, was victorious on behalf of the people.[1]

However, what did Elijah do when his own life was threatened soon after? He ran. He climbed a mountain that may sound familiar, a mountain in the wilderness named Horeb, that is Sinai and hunkered down in a cave. And God asked, simply, What are you doing here, Elijah? (…As if God did not know.)

Even our greatest victories can not squash our greatest fears. Despite his successes one day, Elijah had his doubts the next. And so he, like us, squirrels himself away when those fears loom too large or they cut too close to home for comfort. This time, it was his life on the line. But God wasn’t about to let Elijah hide.

What are you doing here, Elijah?

Our prophet’s fears became manifest when the wind started blowing harshly and the earth shook in a quake and the fire erupted all around in seeming dramatic shows of power. And the text could not be clearer here when it states that God was not in the wind blowing or the earth shaking or the fire erupting as if to remind us that we don’t need to look out there for the answers.  

But then… then there was the kol d’mama daka, the still small voice. And again, our text couldn’t be clearer. God was in that still, small voice.

Sometimes, God is not out there; God is in here. And when we can quiet the fears and the doubts inside… when we compel ourselves to listen to that still, small voice and we amplify it, that’s us beginning to act on our own moral courage.

We know that we don’t need to look out there to figure out how to move morally in this world. We don’t need to acquiesce to the demands of the popular, the common, or a commitment only to the self. We don’t need to run and hide even if everyone else is running and hiding. Nor do we need to scream and point fingers even if everyone else is screaming and pointing fingers.

Now have no worries. Lest you think this is really a preamble leading to a commentary on the upcoming election, it is not, but I am, as we all are, influenced by what is happening around us, wondering what the wisdom of Judaism can contribute.

We are living at a time when questions that demand what I would call moral courage are taking center stage.

Many are questioning if we have reached the end of civil discourse. We’re hit seemingly daily with video of unarmed black men dying and are left to wonder what happens what the cameras are not rolling. We are faced with a global refugee crisis in numbers that we have not seen since World War II. We live with the possibility that the next terrorist bombing or mass shooting may be in our own backyard.

If there was ever a time for moral courage, this is it.

Perhaps that which is prompting moral courage in you right now is hitting closer to home: pursuing love again after loss, standing up to a superior, saying no to something else so that you can be the present parent or spouse you need to be.

I won’t presume to know what the issues are that move your heart, but I do know our texts and traditions tell us over and over this message: Do not run, do not hide yourself away in a cave. Be a part of this world and get your hands dirty.

Midrash teaches us that in Sodom, this society that had gone over the edge, there was a man, a righteous man, a tzaddik who began to teach and preach. “We do not need to be murderers,” he cried. “We do not need to be thieves. We must change. And we must speak up. We must not be indifferent.” He continued teaching and preaching day in and day out – and finally someone asked him, "Why are you doing this? Don't you see it is of no use?" He said, "Let me tell you why: in the beginning I thought I had to protest and shout in order to change them. Now I know I must protest and shout so that they should not change me."[2]

The tzaddik lived with moral courage and acted on it even in the most difficult of times and places. I can imagine the fear that must have grown inside him and the threat it posed to his integrity.

Fear, like nothing else, has the ability to drown hope and so we must stay vigilant and take control of our fear. Fear is not intrinsically bad. It helps us understand when a situation is not right; it has the potential to get our adrenaline running to ready ourselves to act. We must give fear space and listen to it, but we must not let it speak louder than the still, small voice.

Courage is choosing to do the right thing even when we are scared, even when the consequences are real and painful. Moral courage means accepting that it is probably going to hurt.

So how do we do that? How do we cultivate courage and bravery despite the risks?

An Ethiopian folk tale tells of a woman who adopted a boy whose parents had died. The woman desperately wanted the boy to love her, but he was not ready for his heart was still grieving. This woman loved her adopted son and when he couldn’t return the same feelings, she was devastated. So she went to the village’s wise healer to ask for advice. Perhaps, she thought, there was some magic that could make the boy love her.

The healer listened to her plea and responded, “I will make a special drink for you. When the boy drinks it, he will love you as his mother. But to make it is quite dangerous for it requires the whisker of a living lion.”

The woman was filled with fear, but she took a deep breath and thought of her son. “I will do what you have asked.”

And so with meat in hand, she went outside the village and began to follow the tracks of a lion. She put the meat down on the path and hid behind a tree to wait. Time went by and eventually, the lion found its way to her. She watched as he sniffed the air; he knew she was there, but he didn’t attack. He was satisfied with the meat and he left her be.

She repeated this for several nights, waiting behind the tree as the lion ate his fill. Until, finally, one night, she took a risk. She put down the meat, but did not hide. She stood in full view as the lion came near. The lion looked at her; she was frightened, but she stayed where she was. She did this day after day, moving a little bit closer each and every time until finally, she was placing the meat directly in front of the lion and crouching next to him. She did not run because the boy was in her heart.

One night after much time had passed, she crouched next to the majestic creature and reached out to bravely pluck one whisker from his cheek. The lion looked at her…  kept eating. When he had finished, the woman found the wise healer once again, proudly displaying the whisker she had tried so hard to earn.

The wise healer smiled at the mother and said, “You now have everything you need to earn the boy’s love.”

“You will make the drink?”  The woman asked.

“There is no special drink,” the healer responded. “You have learned what to do. With your son, have courage, have patience. Take small steps. And do not run away.”

The woman went home that night to her son. She was courageous and she was patient. She took small steps and she never ran away. And eventually, this boy found room in his heart and he loved her as his own mother.[3]

Moral bravery does not mean rushing in unabashedly demanding what you think you deserve or you think someone else needs. It is filtered through patience and intention, through care and compassion. We often think about courage as rushing into battle. Why need that be our only example?

We build physical courage by testing our boundaries. We don’t automatically go and climb the most difficult mountain around, right? We start small. We exercise our muscles to prepare us for the long climb. We constantly assess: Are we ready yet? Can I move a little faster? Can I add more weight to my routine? Can I get closer tonight to the lion than I did the night before? And we know that if we don’t keep it up, our muscles will forget. At worst, they’ll atrophy.

It is no different with our hearts. It is no different with moral courage.

We must make decisions with intention. We must take steps that make sense. We must take risks, all while accepting the possibility of failure. And sometimes… sometimes we will get hurt, but if our actions are grounded in the greater good and in the affirmation of life, then we will find –almost miraculously- that we still have the strength to endure and keep standing even in the face of failure.

Shimon Peres, may his memory be for a blessing, was laid to rest just two days ago. A father of Israel, he held just about every political office one could, including that of Minister of Defense, Prime Minister and President. Peres was courageous in countless ways.

After spending the first half of his lifetime securing Israel militarily, Peres pivoted and stretched beyond the imaginable to bring the potential of Oslo and peace for our people to the table. To say that he was challenged in this endeavor is an understatement. There were threats to his reputation, his work, his life, but he pressed on because he believed that a lasting peace with the Palestinians was the only way to solidify Israel’s security and Israel’s standing among its neighbors. As we well know, Shimon Peres never saw that vision become a reality, but his dream lives on.

Just last year, he shared, “The greatest mistake was that our dreams were too small. I tell people, don’t dream small, dream of great things.” The outpouring of so many now as we actively remember the courageous arc of his life and the passions of his soul, I hope, are re-invigorating the dream for peace. Even in death, he is a messenger from on high inviting us to act courageously and dream of great things.

I find that it is much easier to dream big and act with moral courage when I whole-heartedly accept the notion that we are all made in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim.[4] Being made in God’s image reminds me that I am no better than you and you in turn are no better than me. Even when we disagree and even when we go to war, we must strive to live out the truth that just as I am God’s, so are you.

And it’s hard. We must stretch these moral muscles, most especially at times when we feel that others are not doing the same. But saying “if they play badly, then I’ll play badly, too” – well, that takes us nowhere.

To move into moral courage, we must rise above the very human desire to deliver the same sneaky punch that we just received in the gut.

It’s easy to say, not so easy to do. To be brave surely does not mean that we must be punching bags - No. Instead, to dodge, to rise above, we must be willing to change the nature of the conversation, to alter the playing field, to put what really matters on the table – nothing else.

And we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize when we are the ones that have the inner work of change to do.

Each and every year, the high holy day season thrusts us into the gap between we who are right now and who we know we can be. Living in the gap makes us ask ourselves the big questions like: is this the life that I was meant to lead? Who have I been serving this year – is it myself or the greater good? Who is at the wheel in my life – is it fear… or is it courage?

Well, tell that courageous part of you: it is time to take the wheel.

When I was a child, I never had the opportunity to sit where you are sitting tonight. I was told that I was Jewish, but I had no context for what that was supposed to mean. We didn’t belong to a Jewish synagogue; I wasn’t educated in a Jewish school. My parents were definitively not interested, but I was.

And so, with some courage and honestly a little chutzpah, I began the process of choosing for myself the path that I was to walk. It was scary, terrifying at times, to veer away from the road that my family had set before me and to rise above the objections (You’re too religious. You’re too Jewish. You don’t really fit in with us anymore. What about the side of our family who isn’t Jewish? What about your dad? Are you rejecting us?).

I had to rise above their objections to find a path of my own. And I had to figure out how to do that with love and compassion, without judgment while also honoring the choices that made sense for me. Sometimes I did that well… and sometimes I didn’t.

We all go through this in own lives in our own ways as we grow up; we all hit that period of time when self-definition is in order.

One of the many gifts of Judaism is the belief that the time for courageous self-definition is not just reserved for our teenage years. It is eternal and on-going.

As a Jewish people, we know perhaps more than anyone that our tomorrows depend on our chutzpah today. Our courage is based in holding onto hope even when the world is filled with fear.

After all, we are Abraham arguing with God that it is not right that the whole must be destroyed for the sins of some.[5] We are Yocheved defying Pharaoh and the decree of the land as we place a basket into the water with the flesh of our flesh.[6] We are Mordechai and we are Esther risking our very lives for our people.[7]

And we are eternally that tzaddik, that righteous one, wandering around Sodom, refusing to bend to moral corruption, refusing to change the direction of our hearts, refusing to give up on the world.

Torah is all about learning to live with fear and grow courageously into our best selves.

Maybe the choices we are making aren’t on the same dramatic scale as defying Pharaoh (maybe they are), but whatever choices you have in front of you, whatever is stirring your soul, do not be afraid to be bold. Boldness for the greater good is our story, our gift, our obligation – it is who we are.

Remember that rush you felt the last time you were truly brave? Brave for something bigger than yourself?... Now is the time to be brave again… for if not now, then when?[8]

The words of Rambam often accompany the blowing of the shofar, which we will hear tomorrow, that courageous call to renewal and re-birth. And it’s like I can hear Rambam now, on the eve of this new day, this new life, softly trying to rouse us in a still, small voice…

He whispers to us, “Awake, awake from your sleep.”

But then, much to his dismay, we roll over and hit snooze… And this time, the voice becomes more insistent. Now the voice is the sound of the shofar, a tekiah for our hearts, telling us: “Wake up! Wake up from your slumber.”[9]

Let us listen to the voice, the call before we’ve slept through the whole day, before we’ve slept through our life.

If we’re not awake yet, it’s time. Who are we and who do we want to be? Let us be brave and bold. Let us cultivate courage from within. Let us let loose that inner chutzpah that we all have inside and in-so-doing, let us bring beautiful blessing into this world.

Shanah tovah.



[1] I Kings 18 and 19.
[2] Adapted from Elie Wiesel, “Words of a Witness.”
[3] Traditional folk tale from Ethiopia adapted from Jennifer Armstrong’s telling at www.lionswhiskers.com/p/about-lions-whiskers.html?m=1
[4] Genesis 1:27.
[5] As described in Genesis 18:16-33.
[6] As described in Exodus 2.
[7] As described in the book of Esther.
[8] Hillel, Pirkei Avot 1:14.
[9] Adapted from Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.