Love and Anger

It’s been said that Judaism is a religion of a thousand doors; there are so many ways to engage with our tradition. Through most of my adult life, my Judaism focused mainly on the more intellectual aspects of our tradition; that was always my natural habitat, if you will. But, as many of you may have noticed, over the past few years, I’ve become more and more engaged with 2 very different realms of Judaism—that of Jewish Mindfulness spirituality, and also of Social Justice. 

And, as I’ve gotten more involved with both of those worlds, I’ve begun to notice a kind of dissonance or tension between them, almost as if they are two magnetic poles, each pulling me in a different direction. One of them, spirituality, constantly pushes me towards kindness, gentleness, and peace. The other, Social Justice, constantly seems to be pushing me towards anger.

Now, I understand that not everyone sees the world and its injustices the same way I do. We all have different ideas about what is and isn’t just in our world. But, I suspect that we actually pretty much all agree in one important way: it’s probably fairly close to universal to say that injustice makes us angry. Whatever you find to be unfair and unjust most likely stokes whatever rage you have smoldering inside of you. Me, too.

And so, I sit in meditation, or I read a book about mindfulness and spirituality, and I am immersed in a beautiful desire to be peaceful, to be loving, to be kind. And then, I open up Facebook, or read the news, and I am overwhelmed with frustration, and often with rage. And, the truth is, that rage almost always feels justified. More than just justified, my anger feels authentic; it feels honest. Who can look at all of the injustices in our world and not be angry? 

So, yes, my anger at injustice is honest. Maybe what’s more important, though, is that my anger often feels useful. It would be so easy, it would sound so enlightened, for me to stand here today and claim that anger is never productive. That’s simply not true. In part, anger can serve as a kind of built in alert system. My anger is often my deepest self’s way of directing my attention towards something which needs addressing. Anger is our soul telling us that this – whatever this is – simply isn’t OK. And, that roiling that we feel is an unignorable beacon, telling us that we have to do something—anything—about it. It’s like a hand jerking back from a hot pan; it’s our body’s way of telling us that something is deeply wrong. “Righteous anger” is so often used as a pejorative. It isn’t, always. Righteous anger is a real thing. 

Just ask the Prophets. I’m not sure how much of this comes through when we read their words in synagogue, but these men were livid, and they were not holding back. Our Haftarah this morning was from Isaiah, and it’s dripping with fury:

Yes, they seek Me daily, as though eager to learn My ways—as if they were a nation that does what is right, and has not abandoned God’s law…Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast—a day worthy of Adonai?”

His words are not polite, and they are not pleasant. They are words of disgust and rage at what he sees around him. But yet, they are holy words. They are our holy words. So, yes, anger can be holy.

And anger is also, at times, motivating. In a world where most of us are so busy, and overwhelmed, and distracted, a sense of rage can inspire us. It can drive us to engage in the hard work that would almost always be easier to avoid. And, if I’m being truthful, I also see that anger can sometimes be inspiring to others. It’s much easier to captivate an audience with fiery speeches than with peaceful, gentle, soothing words. Just ask those prophets. As someone who often speaks publicly, often about issues concerning justice, this part matters to me. When I’m trying to get people to care, when I’m trying to get people to act, anger is a powerful lever to lean on. So no, anger isn’t all bad. It most certainly has its virtues.

What we also have to remember, though, is that anger can be terribly toxic. Anger can be unbelievably destructive. It’s destructive to those around us, and to our relationships with them. And, it can be so immensely damaging to ourselves. Unhealthy amounts of anger have been shown to put us at greater risk of heart attack and stroke, to weaken our immune system, and our lungs. It can increase depression and anxiety, too. There’s a story of a person who was granted a single wish by some magical being. “But,” this wish-giver warned, “whatever you wish on yourself will be granted, doubled, to your worst enemy.” “Fine,” they said. “Poke out one of my eyes.” We get so caught up in wanting someone else to hurt, that we often don’t realize the damage that we’re doing to ourselves in the process. That’s the danger of anger – it might be powerful, but it’s indiscriminate. It often can’t be aimed, and often can’t be contained.

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks a great deal about anger, and about our relationship to it, the way we handle it. So often, we talk about anger as a powerful emotion which must be released, lest it build up and explode. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the pressure cooker metaphor for emotions like anger. It seems so apt, so accurate. What Hanh points out is that as good as that sounds, the actual experience of letting our anger out is often quite different. Rather than dissipating once expressed, anger often multiplies. Who here hasn’t had the experience of starting to vent some anger, and then finding ourselves hearing our own voices rise as we agree with ourselves? That primal rage can feel so pure, that we go back to it, think about it, chew on it, perfect it, helping it spiral up and up until it takes over, and then leaves us exhausted, and inert. Sure, giving free reign to our anger like that can be motivating and energizing in the short term. But, long-term, it just guts us. It’s exhausting. It’s like an energy drink – brief bursts of passion, followed by a long, hard crash. As tempting as it is to rely on, anger just won’t get us where we want to go. Where we need to go.

I want to be as clear as I can be: I am not telling myself, and I am certainly not telling anyone here, not to feel anger. Feeling anger is, indeed, sometimes the appropriate response to seeing something wrong in the world. Feeling anger is, I believe, part of being human. It’s inevitable. But, there is a difference between acting on that anger, and acting with that anger. There’s a difference between acting in response to it, and acting in a way which reflects and embodies it. Between using our anger, and being used, and controlled, by it. There is a difference, an enormous difference, between lashing out with hatred and vitriol on the one hand, and acting forcefully, with passion, and with conviction, on the other. And, although it may be more subtle, I believe that there is a profound difference between acting based on our hate for the oppressor, as opposed to our love for the oppressed. One degrades us, the other ennobles. 

I think that this is what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about with his famous quote, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” It isn’t that King didn’t feel rage or hatred. Of course he did; how could he not have? If you read anything more than a convenient pull-quote from him, you’ll see quite clearly that he was very angry at much of the world, and many of the people in it. So no, he most certainly did not refuse to feel anger. And it’s not even that he refused to express that anger. What he did was refuse to let those violent, tempting, destructive impulses take over. He refused to let them corrupt him.

One of the great benefits of the kind of Mindfulness I’ve tried to practice over the years is that it gives us a way to observe ourselves, and to bring a kind of thoughtful curiosity to our own inner lives. And something which I have noticed, maybe as consistently and profoundly as anything, is how different I am when I choose a more careful, even loving response, as opposed to giving in to my anger. When I speak in careful, loving ways, even when I have something hard or provocative to say, quite simply, I like myself more. In those moments, I am more satisfied, prouder, of who I am then when the nastiness comes out. I imagine that, if I was someone else, I’d rather spend time with, rather learn from, that less angry version of myself than that other guy. And, noticing that makes me want to be more careful and thoughtful and deliberate about how I speak, and about how I act.

But, we still act. Being loving and kind does not mean being passive, and it does not mean being a doormat. Acting with love does not mean allowing anyone to do anything, and it most certainly does not mean refusing to call out people who are in the wrong, or not insisting on consequences for them. Peacefulness is not the same as indifference or unresponsiveness. Peace and love and kindness mean acting out of our deepest sense of love – love for every human being, and our love for peace. It means taking seriously our claim that every person — every person, even the people who act the worst, even the people whom we hate the most — each and every one is created betzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Yes, it’s true that not just the best people, but even the worst people in the world, and every single person in between the best and the worst, are all created in God’s image. Either everyone is created in God’s image, or no one is. I am convinced that when we forget this, we lose a tiny bit of our own humanity. Maybe not so tiny, actually.

So, no, I’m not talking about standing by dispassionately, or reacting to every wrong with an empty, “live and let live.” I’m talking about making a deliberate decision to act, as often and consistently as possible, in a way which, as much as possible, brings more love and more peace into the world. Isn’t that what we want? A world with more peace? More love? There might be times when screaming with rage will ultimately result in making our world a more peaceful place. There really might be. But, those times are probably far rarer than we’d like to admit, especially when we’re filled with that righteous rage. More often than not, anger released on the world results in less peace, not more. Less love, not more.

King was right – only light can drive out the darkness, and only love can drive out the hate.

I’m sorry to repeat myself here, but I want to be as clear as possible. I understand that all of this talk about love over anger can sound facile, like a bad greeting card. “Can’t we all just love each other?” “Let’s just hug it out.” No. I’m not talking about a naïve, childlike desire for everything to be all right, all of the time. Again—anger is real, and it is valid. It must not be denied or suppressed. 

What I’m talking about is thinking seriously, deeply, about how we can build the world that we dream of. It’s not easy, and frankly, it’s not always pleasant. Every time I resist the urge to tell someone off, to scream at them in the most hateful way imaginable, every time I don’t hit send on that perfect email or Facebook comment which would so deliciously, embarrassingly put someone in their place, every time I keep myself from lashing out, rather than responding strongly, carefully, it costs me something. Every time. It hurts a little, and it can get exhausting. That’s why I still sometimes fail. It’s so damn hard. 

So, no, it’s not easy, but what it is, is strong. Acting out of love, acting with love, and with kindness, is never a sign of weakness, but rather one of power.

That, in the end, is what Isaiah called us to do. To act. He wasn’t just yelling at us. He wasn’t just railing at our hypocrisy. He was begging us to see the world, in all of its pain, in all of its infuriating brokenness, and do something about it. He said:

Is this not the fast I desire—to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and take the homeless poor into your home…?

May we listen to those ancient words, born of anger. May we see the world as it is, and may what we see stoke the fire that is within us. And then, may we use that fire to create a great light in the world.

This sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur, 5783


Broken and Holy

I have made the comment several times that it would be hard to find someone who has had an easier time than I have over these past two or three years. For the most part, my family has been healthy, my job has been secure, and although synagogue life has become more difficult, our congregation is alive and well. Really, I’ve got nothing to complain about – in just about every way that matters, I am part of the one percent. My life is great. should be great.

But, I’m not. Not always. I walk around far too often with a knot in my stomach. There are too many days when I can’t concentrate. Sometimes, I’m kind of a mess. I don’t want to be melodramatic, or overstate things. Overall, I am fine, but deep down, at my core, I know that something just isn’t right. And I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. My own sense of worry and pain is matched, and exceeded, by so many people I meet. So many people who are here with us tonight. Maybe most of us. We’re hurting.

Of course we’re hurting; how could we not be? Many claim that this pandemic is over, but even if that’s what you believe, no one believes that our society has gone back to the way things were, even while we’re realizing that so much was wrong in our world to begin with! Millions are dead, so many more are still suffering, and uncertainty belies any sense of victory we might claim. The effects of global climate change seem to finally be here with extreme weather and its accompanying tragedy popping up more and more often. Our political landscape is a disaster. I could go on, but I don’t think you need me to tell you how much trouble our world seems to be in right now. There is just so much fear and pain out there, and it’s wrecking so many of us.

Who here has not wanted to run and hide? Who here has not fought the temptation, or lost the fight against the temptation, to crawl back into bed and hide beneath the covers, hoping that somehow it will all go away, or at least leave us alone for a little while? It almost seems a reasonable response; when the world seems so bad, maybe the smart thing to do is to give up? Or, at least to indulge in denial. To turn away from a world which brings us so much pain.

And so, we do. We go about our days acting as if, pretending that everything is fine. We go out in the world, and put on our best faces, and share inspirational posts and words of encouragement to one another. And then we come home, and we numb ourselves. We numb ourselves with the media, with Social Media, with food and drink and sometimes drugs, and with work. We will do anything that we can just not to feel the pain of living in this world.

We can’t. We can’t ignore the world, and we can’t ignore its pain. Or, our own. We can’t pretend that the world isn’t somewhat broken, or that we aren’t. We have to instead learn how to live with that brokenness. We have to embrace it, not because it makes us happy, but because it’s real.

There isn’t a person in this world who is walking around without some pain, without some loss, without something that is threatening to break their heart. To be alive is, to one degree or another, to know pain. Queen Elizabeth, of blessed memory, once said that grief is the price we pay for loving. To love is to risk pain. To live is to be broken. If we want to live a life without brokenness, then we’re doomed, because that life simply doesn’t exist. We have to learn, instead, to live with our brokenness.

I recently learned a new Yiddish word: TzebrokhnkaytTzebrokhnkayt, according to writer Dahlia Lithwick, is “The quality of brokenheartedness that gives strength in healing.”  It’s the feeling that, yes, something in us is broken, but that doesn’t mean that we’re fully, irreparably broken. It doesn’t mean that we need to be discarded. In Lithwick’s words:

At its essence tzebrokhnkayt  means that “we each carry our shattered pieces with us.” The essential bit is that tzebrokhnkayt is not something in need of quick fixing; it is instead honored. It means that we are obligated to gather up, tend to, and honor the pain, but also to take up the work of healing.

God, I love this idea. Brokenness is not something wrong with us, and it’s not something in need of quick fixing. It’s just part of who we are. Part of being alive. We’re all a little broken, but luckily, brokenness can be holy, as well. Our tradition teaches us that the ark of the covenant carried both sets of the tablets of the 10 commandments, including the ones which Moses shattered. Just because those first tablets had been broken didn’t mean that they weren’t holy any more.

Maybe when we can accept this truth—the truth that some amount of brokenness is inevitable, and that it can be holy—maybe then we will stop trying to turn away from all of the brokenness and pain. Maybe then, we’ll be ready to face it, openly and honestly.

I can’t count how many times I’ve shared a teaching from Rabbi Aryeh Cohen. Rabbi Cohen looks at the Exodus story, and notices a pattern. Over and over, our people cry out in pain and in despair. And every time we cry out, one of two things happens: either Pharaoh hears and ignores our cries, or God hears and is moved to respond. And the point, Cohen teaches, is that our world is always filled with people crying out in pain. Our only choice, as human beings, is to ignore those cries, or to be moved to action by them. To be like Pharaoh, or to be like God.

When the choice is laid out like that, it sounds so simple. Who wouldn’t choose to be like God, rather than like Pharaoh? Well, truthfully, most of us wouldn’t, at least much of the time. Because being that open to, being that aware of all of the pain around us is, in fact, terribly painful. Hearing that pain – truly hearing it — brings us pain, as well. That’s one of the blessings and the curses of being human, and of being at least somewhat like God: we have empathy. The pain of others makes its way in, and it hurts. And it can pile up, so quickly. It can overwhelm. Seeing all of the brokenness around us sometimes breaks us. It’s inevitable.

So, we have to accept that it’s not wrong to be broken. I’m not saying that it’s good, or that we should be thankful for it, or that we should revel in the martyrdom of it. I’m just saying that it’s an unavoidable part of being alive in the world. This world we live in, it does have its share of beauty and wonder. But, it’s also a world with hunger and disease. With wildfires and flooding, with oppression and slaughter. The only way to live in the world and not be pained is to be willfully blind to what’s going on around us, and that just can’t be our goal. We have to be willing to face the world as it is, in all of its pain, even if it means that we will be hurt a bit more, as well.

Today, Yom Kippur, beginning with this Kol Nidre service, is an antidote to turning away. Today, we are forced to look directly at all of the brokenness, within and without. Over and over, we recite the Vidui, the confessional prayers. These prayers are based around our own brokenness – our failures, our shortcomings. The times when we’ve hurt those around us, and the times when we’ve hurt ourselves. How terrible it is in here. And, over and over, we recite Unataneh Tokef, the prayer which reminds us of how many ways we each might die this year: Who by fire, and who by water? Who by hunger, and who by thirst? How terrible it is out there. 

Maybe this is even the point of fasting. Maybe we’re supposed to make ourselves feel at least a bit miserable, so that we can more easily admit that yes, we really do feel miserable. We really are in pain.

Why is this so hard to admit? Why are we so often afraid to admit where we hurt? To admit that we hurt? God, of all things, why here, in synagogue, is it still so hard for most of us to be honest about this? Synagogues are supposed to be the place we’d come to in order to be fully open and honest, fully vulnerable. Have we lost this? Are we a place that welcomes everyone, with all of their cracks and fissures, or have we become just another place corrupted by toxic positivity? I remember a story shared by a colleague who was showing her grandmother around the newly built synagogue that she would be working at. After seeing it all, the grandmother said, “It’s lovely. But where is the place to cry in here?”

Our God is a God of truth, which means that this place, God’s house, must be a place of truth. We have to be allowed, and we have to be willing, to bring our whole selves through those doors, into this sacred space. We should all feel safe coming to this place, holding our own sense of brokenness. 

But, know this: Brokenness is not the same as hopelessness. Pain is not the same as despair. I recently heard an interview with the writer Ta Nehasi Coates. As someone who writes primarily about the situation of black people in America, he is often asked whether he is hopeful, whether he thinks that we’re on the right path. People are shocked when he says that he isn’t hopeful, but he’s adamant that this doesn’t mean that he’s given up. He believes that most people think of hope as the belief that we are surely heading for something better. We are players in a story, and although we might be facing our own struggles at the moment, the arc of the story will bend towards resolution. There’s always a happy ending, or at least a satisfying one. But, as Coates said, and as I think I believe, there is no arc. There is no greater, neat and tidy story. There is no inevitable wrap-up. There is the world in which we find ourselves, and there is the question of what we will do with that world. Will we try to ease the pain that we see, or will we just ignore it? Will we curse the darkness, or will we light a candle?

It’s hard. It’s so hard. Of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t hard, if the world was always inevitably getting lovelier, if that were the natural course of things, we wouldn’t have to do any hard work — not on ourselves, not in the world. But, we know that isn’t the way of the world. We live in a world which needs repair. We live in a world which is awaiting redemption.

Judaism has a concept known as “the birth pangs of the Messiah.” Just like a woman in labor undergoes the most terrible of pain just before finally bringing new life into this world, so it is with the world itself. Right before the Messiah comes, our sages teach, the world will undergo such pain as we have never known. It’s a way of finding hope in the midst of despair. A way of asserting, or maybe just wishing, that something meaningful, something productive, something holy can come out of our pain. 

But, maybe the Messiah isn’t coming. Maybe the pain isn’t leading inevitably to something, but rather calling us. Telling us that something is wrong in the world, and needs fixing. Maybe that’s why it’s holy – our brokenness in here is our radar for brokenness out there. And, maybe it’s also our reminder that we can do something about it. That there can be something better.

Dahlia Lithwick shared some writing from a man by the name of Howard Zinn, who served as a bombardier in WWII, and so knew something about the brokenness of the world. He knew, first hand, how awful life can be, but he also knew that there is also such grandeur, such grace in the world. To Zinn, hope isn’t some gauzy, sentimental idea. It’s a choice. He says:

[Hope] is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

We can see the world for what it is, admit what it has done to us, and still decide how we, human beings created in God’s image, want to live in it. We acknowledge our world, because only then can we rise above it.

And so, as we begin this day of brokenness, of openness, of honesty, so that we can plant ourselves firmly and fully in our world, and in our own lives, and can from there begin the terrible, sacred work of healing what has been broken, I leave you with a poem:

“The Way It Is” by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Over and over we break
open, we break and
we break and we open.
For a while, we try to fix
the vessel—as if
to be broken is bad.
As if with glue and tape
and a steady hand we
might bring things to perfect
again. As if they were ever
perfect. As if to be broken is not
also perfect. As if to be open
is not the path toward joy.
The vase that’s been shattered
and cracked will never
hold water. Eventually
it will leak. And at some
point, perhaps, we decide
that we’re done with picking
our flowers anyway, and no
longer need a place to contain them
We watch them grow just
as wildflowers do—unfenced,
unmanaged, blossoming only
when they’re ready—and mygod,
how beautiful they are amidst
the mounting pile of shards.

This sermon was delivered on Kol Nidrei 5783


Does anybody remember, a couple of years ago, as we got towards the end of December, there were a lot of Facebook posts along the lines of, “Good riddance, 2020. Here’s looking forward to a better 2021”? I saw them everywhere, and I had even seen a bunch a few months earlier, as we said goodbye to 5780, hoping for a redeeming 5781. A year later, it repeated, but with a distinct sarcasm, and even a touch of desperation this time—“Come on, 2022! Come on, 5782! We really need you to come through this time!” This year, as we approach the end of the Jewish year, I’m not seeing any of that, at all, and I suspect that we won’t in a couple of months when we begin to approach 2023, either. We went from hope to bitterness to…resignation? Exhaustion? Numbness?

We are now in the third year of this pandemic, and although it’s severity has softened, it’s not over. And, there’s no real sign that it’s going to be any time soon. And, it has been absolutely gutting. I get to talk to a lot of people to check in and see how they’re doing, and we’re not doing well. We’re exhausted, we’re frustrated, and we’re not even sure exactly why; the world is kind of, somewhat back to normal, but still, we’re not. Even those of us who have been lucky enough to be spared almost any tragedy through all of this still find ourselves mired in it. There is deep malaise, and more than a little despair. Things just seem harder and somehow flatter than they did three years ago. It’s true for so many individuals with whom I speak, and it’s also true on a more communal level. This place – Congregation Beth Am – just isn’t the same place that it used to be. There’s a different feeling in the air around here. Less joy, more tension. It’s not all bad, by any means. But, it most definitely is not what it was. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, but chief among them, or maybe underlying them all, is a sense of disconnect. Our communal bonds, our connections one to another, simply aren’t as strong or as rich as they always have been.

That’s not true just here, of course. That seems to be happening all across our society. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general, has written about this in a number of articles, and in a recent book of his titled Together. According to Murthy, anecdotal reporting and deeper studies agree that social isolation, which had already been increasing over the past few decades, has skyrocketed in the past few years. And, the evidence is pretty clear that the effects of that isolation are serious. It’s probably not a surprise that there is a powerful link between isolation and higher rates of depression. It might be more surprising to learn that a lack of connection with other people, not just interaction, but real, meaningful connection, has distinct biological consequences, as well. An increase in cardiovascular disease, and in unhealthy blood pressures. Higher rates of dementia. Shorter lifespans. All of these, and more, happen to us when our network of connections shrink. Murthy has declared it an outright health crisis, albeit one that no one is really talking about, which makes it even worse. So, that’s where we are at the start of 5783.

So, now what? Now I’ve reminded you about how hard things have been, and possibly scared you with information about how bad that really can be for your health. But, what can we do about it? Assuming that we can’t snap our fingers and magically get things back to the way they were in 2019, what’s the solution? Often, the advice that we get is about self-care. We should make sure we don’t spend too much time doom-scrolling and watching the news. Get away from our devices. Engage in hobbies, and meditate. These are all good ideas, and I recommend them all. But they’re not enough. They’re not nearly enough. Paradoxical though it might seem, the best advice I can give you is not to care for yourself. The best advice I can give you is to care for others.

It will come as no surprise, I hope, that Judaism commands us to take care of one another, especially when we are in need. There may be no more important mitzvah. Visiting the sick and comforting the mourner are among the obligations which the rabbis identify as being without measure; no matter how much of them we do, we’re still required to do more. That obligation is literally infinite! In a Talmudic story, the prophet Elijah is asked what the Messiah is doing while they wait to reveal themselves. Elijah tells us that the Messiah is sitting among the lepers, lovingly changing their bandages. The Messiah—the Messiah—is taking care of the most helpless of all of the sufferers in our society. Even God engages in Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick, according to an ancient rabbinic story, taking time out of Their busy day to sit with an ailing Abraham. It’s important enough for even God to do it.

This isn’t unique to Judaism, of course. Pretty much every religious, philosophical, and social tradition seems to have figured this out. Taking care of each other, when we need it most, is a bedrock, unalterable part of creating a community, or a society. “It is in giving that we receive,” said Saint Francis of Assisi. “The sole meaning of life is to serve others,” so teaches Leo Tolstoy. “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill. In classic Buddhism, you aren’t even supposed to begin to learn mediation until you’ve dedicated yourself sufficiently to generosity and caring. Other-care is a prerequisite for self-care.

It’s from a Buddhist teacher who grew up as a Jew, Sharon Salzberg, that I learned to start to think about how helping each other is also a way to help ourselves. In her book Real Change, Salzberg teaches that helping others is actually the perfect antidote to despair. She says, “It feels good to not just sit there and stare at the hole. It feels good to do something, to start filling it in, no matter how impossibly deep it is…A fire is stoked inside us, and while hopelessness and despair may arise, they also recede as a sense of purpose steadies us and moves us forward. We have control over so little – a truth that is sometimes exceptionally bitter – but we can choose to care, and we can choose to act.” We can choose to care, and we can choose to act. By choosing to do something, anything we can, to alleviate just a touch of the suffering we see around us, we assert our own power in the face of powerlessness, and despair. We rise above the pain in the world, refusing to let it overtake us. We remind ourselves that we have value. That despite the feelings of pointlessness with which most of us struggle, at least some of the time, our lives are not pointless, and we are not aimless, because we can, just by choosing to do so, bring goodness into the life of someone who needs it, so badly. In lifting up someone else, we ourselves get to soar.

Science backs this up. Researches have started to talk about the “Helper’s High,” which seems to pretty closely mimic the more famous “Runner’s High.” A feeling of euphoria which is created not from running long distances, but by caring for others. There is mounting evidence that the simple act of being kind to others actually lengthens our lifespan, and maybe more importantly, our quality of life throughout it. Connection is healthy. Separation is deadly. But, it’s got to be more than casual, social connection. These positive effects only come from meaningful, fulfilling interaction.

So now, let me introduce you to our Caring Committee. A group of congregants who are committed to helping those of us in need—the sick, the mourning, the hurting, the lost. Let me introduce you to them, and let me suggest to you, to each and every single one of you, that it’s time to join them. I want every person—every person—who is here today, in person or on line, to volunteer to be a part of our Caring Committee.

Usually, when I try to get people to serve on that committee, I do so by focusing on the ones who need the help. I would, as our tradition does, worry more about the needy, than about the givers. Really, that’s the core of the mitzvah. We help those who need us not because of what we get out of it, but simply because they need us. It’s not about how we feel when we help others; it’s about them needing our help, which means that we are simply obligated to give it. That’s what I would normally say, because that’s what I believe.

But, today, at least, I’m willing to push us to also think about what we’llget from it, if we are willing to help. If we are willing to give. If we are willing to care. If you are feeling down, or helpless, or otherwise distraught, I’m here to tell you that the single best thing you can do for yourself might well be to join the Caring Committee. If you want to feel better, then decide that you’re willing to help a fellow congregant who is in need.

Our committee is going to expand our work, and we need you — all of you — to be a part of it. And here’s the good news: there are ways that you can help that I promise you will fit your available time, and your comfort level. We need people to visit, and we need people to cook meals and bring them to members, and we need people to send meals from restaurants. We need people to send cards, and to send emails. We need people to pick others up and help with transportation, and we need people to pick up the phone and make a call. Somewhere in there, we need you. 

It might be a crazy idea, but it makes so much sense to me when I say it: every single member of this congregation should be a member of the Caring committee, and every single member of this congregation should be a client of it as well. Congregation Beth Am – probably every congregation, but I’m just talking to us, now—should be a place where being a member means, first and foremost, taking care of one another. More than paying dues, more than coming to classes or services, this should be our starting place. Simply understanding that we need each other, and so we need to be there for each other.

I know that for many of us, this sounds terrifying. Going back to Sharon Salzberg’s teaching, our culture is one which teaches us, in so many ways, subtle and overt, to hide from pain. To look away. To do our best to deny that it exists. Facing someone else’s pain is inherently acknowledging our own vulnerability. If it can happen to them… But, here’s the thing. It can. It can happen to us. It can, and it will. We can try and pretend otherwise, but sooner or later we have to acknowledge the truth that pain is just a part of life. Everyone’s life.

We have to resist the urge to turn away from pain, our own pain and the pain of others. It’s the only way to truly live in this world. And it is, most definitely, the only way to create a true community. Desmond Tutu once said, “We don’t really get close to others if our relationship is made up of unending hunky-dory-ness. It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.” He echoes a story from our own tradition of two friends sitting in a bar over drinks. One of them ask the other, “Do you love me?” “Of course I do,” their friend replies. The first pauses, and then says to their friend, “No. You don’t. Because you don’t know what I need. And if you don’t know what I need, then you don’t really love me.”

You know, our creation story is a litany of things which God brings into being, and then declares to be “good.” Light, the sun, plants, animals. All good. Do you know the first thing which is ever described as being not good? Genesis 2:18. “It is not good for a person to be alone.” 

We were, quite literally, made for each other. We need each other.

Ultimately, this is what will save us. You and I can’t do much of anything about the next wave of Covid, or whatever will come after that, God help us. We alone can’t fix the climate, or end world hunger. But, at the very least, we can help one another. We can heal one another, even if just a little bit. And, that’s how we will save ourselves. That’s how we’ll save ourselves from despair, and from hopelessness

I’ll leave you with a story. A person was given the opportunity to have a glimpse of heaven and of hell. They took a trip to hell first, and entered a banquet hall filled with the most horrific howls and screams of anguish they had ever heard. Sitting around the table, so enormous it vanished in the distance, were people chained fast, unmoving to their chairs. Only their arms were free. In front of them was laid out the most scrumptious feast you could imagine, but they were stuck in their chairs, screaming in hunger, as they wasted away to nothingness. When the visitor looked more closely, they noticed that although each person could reach the table, no one had any elbows, and so they couldn’t get the food into their mouths. They were spending eternity, with the one thing they wanted, the only thing they needed, at their fingertips, yet forever out of reach.

Then, mercifully, the traveler was whisked to heaven. And there, they were surprised to see almost the exact same scene. The same enormous table, the same food, the same endless array of people chained to their seats, without elbows. But no one was screaming, and no one was hungry. Because, although their arms couldn’t bend, and so they, like those condemned to hell, couldn’t get food into their own mouths, they didn’t need to. Because each person was feeding their neighbor.

This sermon was delivered on Rosh Hashana, 5783

Climbing To Holiness

The girl was still young, not yet a teenager, but no one in town could even remember a time when she didn’t head off to the woods, every chance she had. She just loved to wander through the trees, looking around, seeing what new wonders she could find. She loved the solitude, she loved the way the light played through the trees, and warmed as the afternoon stretched on. She loved the sounds, the smells. Most of all, though, she loved the animals. More than loved them—she was awestruck by them. That’s what she was really out there for, even though she probably couldn’t have put it into words: she was out there, every day, looking for something which would take her breath away. Which would leave her shaken, just a little. Which would pull at that nameless place inside of her chest.

The little animals, the ones that we think of as ordinary, were good—a squirrel gathering up nuts, little bugs scurrying across the fallen leaves. The bigger, rarer animals were even better—a deer, a snake, slowly making its way through the underbrush. On rare occasions, a bear, thankfully always a little ways off. She knew that she was more likely to see them if she was quiet, and patient, and it left her speechless and amazed every time she did. She couldn’t begin to name that feeling, but she knew it, and she loved it.

So there she was, out on another walk, on another ordinary, glorious day, when something flashed in the corner of her eye. She looked up, just to see a split second of something darting across the sky. Something that, somehow, was different. She barely even saw it, she couldn’t tell you anything about it, but she knew that she wanted to see more. She craned her neck, moved around the trees, trying to see what it was, but it was gone.

It happened again a few weeks later. She was looking at a chipmunk just lounging on a branch, when she saw that flash from above again. She looked up, and this time she got a little bit of a better look. It looked like a bird, she thought, but different. It was… Glowing? Yeah. It looked like it was glowing. How could that be?

Naturally, she started looking up more and more on every walk, always hoping to get a glimpse, or hopefully a really good look, at whatever that thing was. She never could predict when or where it would appear – there didn’t seem to be any pattern. She just knew that, if she was alert for it, she was more likely to see it. 

“Maybe,” she thought, “if I climb up a tree, I can get a better look!” So, she tried. She started to climb the best trees she could find, but she never could get high enough to make much of a difference. The trees were so tall, and she wasn’t, and it was just so high to climb, and it got scary pretty quickly. But, she so wanted to get up there, to see that bird, and she just knew that if she could only get high enough…

Then, it hit her. She went running back to town, and started gathering up all of the people that she could. Friends, neighbors, teachers from the school, kids who she kind of knew, kids that she had seen but hadn’t really talked to, people who worked in the stores, doctors and nurses and car mechanics and artists and plumbers—she begged everyone she could find to come to the woods to help. Maybe it was just the passion, the obvious, almost desperate need radiating from her, but everyone just…followed. Chefs and firemen and the homeless and the mayor and coaches and the rabbi and the mailwoman…everyone, it seemed. They all followed each other into the woods, walking as quietly as they could, until they got to the child’s favorite spot.

And then they started to gather around one sturdy, tall tree. They made a few rings of people, centered around the trunk. And then some more people climbed up on their shoulders, and then some people climbed up on their shoulders, and on their shoulders, until it was people, all the way up. Holding the tree, holding each other, making something so strong, so solid, that the child wasn’t afraid to climb. 

So, she climbed. All the way up. All the way to the top. 

When she got to the top, she stopped and looked out. My God, it was breathtaking. Treetops and sky and clouds as far as the eye could see, and no sound other than the wind gently rushing past her ears. And as she turned to take it all in, she saw it. 

Just one tree over, perched lightly on top, was the bird. Barely moving, staring right back at her.

It was so much more beautiful than she had even realized, than she had ever imagined. Its shape was just the shape of every other bird she had ever seen, but its feathers? She had never seen anything like it. The feathers looked like they were made out of some magical, iridescent metal, each one grabbing the light and throwing it off in a dozen different colors. They couldn’t have been metal for real, though, because they were waving gently in the breeze, making the light shift constantly around, like some magnificent living kaleidoscope. It was simply stunning. Sublime. 

That “something,” that feeling in her chest? It felt like it was going to explode. It felt like it was going to burst out of her, from the sheer magnificence of what she was seeing. She didn’t know whether she wanted more to laugh or to cry. She just knew that she wanted to stay in that moment. She stayed up there for a little while which felt like an eternity, in bewildered awe of what she was seeing.

Then, the bird gave her the slightest of nods, she said a silent “thank you” back to it, and started to head down, gently making her way down the scaffold of her townspeople, back to solid ground. All of those townsfolk started to climb down after her, and when they were all safely back on the forest floor, they looked to the child.

“Well,” one of them asked. “What did you see?”

She just stood there, trying to say something. Anything. But, she couldn’t even begin to find the words for it. 

“I can’t say,” she said. “You’ll have to go next.”

This story was given on Erev Rosh Hashana, 5783

Strange Fire and Holy Pride

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, contains what has to be one of the most disturbing narratives in the entire Torah. It’s the story of Nadav and Avihu. For the past little while in the Torah, we’ve been getting instructions about building the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary in the desert), and the details of the sacrifices that we were to make there. Finally, after all of the instructions, the sacrifices begin, under the guidance of Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons, who were the Priests under him.

But, then something goes wrong. Nadav and Avihu, 2 of Aarons sons, bring forward an offering of “Aish Zarah—Strange  Fire.” It’s not clear exactly what it was, but it’s very clear that it was an improper, unacceptable offering. Because, as soon as they make it, they are killed by fire from heaven. Struck down for daring to offer something which wasn’t part of the normal, accepted way of making a sacrifice.

Naturally, we’re all disturbed and even horrified by their deaths. For centuries, thousands of years, really, we’ve tried to understand what these men could have done, what ritual offering they could have made, which would have been so horrifically unacceptable as to merit instant death.

But, it might also be useful to try to understand this event not from within the narrative, but by stepping back and asking questions about the narrative. What I mean is, we can ask, “why this narrative is even in our sacred text?” Because, whatever you and I might think about it, its presence here is testimony to the fact that, at one point in our people’s history, we found the story to be sacred, and even proper. Why? Why did our ancestors think that it made sense, that it was right for a person to be killed simply for offering “strange fire?”

“Strange” things are almost always feared, and rejected. Why?

In part, it must be evolutionarily. Our ancestors survived by fearing that which was strange – different, and unknown. It makes sense. If I encounter some new, strange animal, environment, or whatever, if I assume that it’s dangerous, and I’m wrong, there’s very little downside to that for me. But, if I assume that it’s safe, and I’m wrong, I’m dead. Treating the unknown, the unusual, the strange as dangerous, and as bad, and as needing to be rejected and protected against, is a great survival strategy.

I also think that there’s something a bit more psychologically subtle happening here, as well. I think that strange things, things from outside our usual experience, which are accepted, are a challenge to our understanding of our world and, more importantly, our place in it. 

Think about it. If this other, strange thing is real, and is valid, and especially if it’s equal to whatever I’m used to, then it means that my experience, my life, isn’t totally normative. If my “usual” isn’t inherently better than other things, than my own life and experience isn’t, either. That’s the threat.

Think about it in terms of those sacrifices. We’ve just been giving all these instructions about the “right” way to make a sacrifice, in excruciating detail. Well, if God is willing to accept this other form of sacrifice, or prayer, then I have to confront the reality that my offering, my prayer, might not be the ultimate. It might not be objectively better or truer than someone else’s. Strangeness – its existence and especially its acceptability-challenge my place in the world.

So, strangeness is a danger both physically and spiritually.

I know that it’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that, this year, we read Parashat Shemini, during Tampa Pride Week. This is the week when we celebrate and honor members of our LGBTQIA+ community. A community which is, most assuredly, treated as strange—as other, as different, and as wrong.

Speaking as someone who grew up in an overwhelmingly homophobic and transphobic environment, and was myself quite homophobic and transphobic, I have to say that, objectively speaking, it is bafflingly nonsensical to care about someone else’s sexual orientation, or their gender identity. It has, quite literally, zero effect on my life. Well, zero practical effect. It has an a enormous effect in terms of what it says about me, and my place in the world.

I am a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man. Those four qualities mean that I am at the very center of Western Jewish life. Of our “normal” Jewish world. I exist in this world without any adjectives, without any modifiers. I’m canon. Hell, except for being Jewish, I’m at the very center of Western society in general! So, everyone who gets in, anyone who is “other” than me, anyone who is “strange,” challenges my place, and the place of those like me, in this hierarchy.

I have to acknowledge that Judaism’s thousands year old history of hating and oppressing LGBTQIA+ people is rooted in that fear. It’s a Strange Fire – something that didn’t fit our expectations, and so makes us afraid. 

Knowing this, understanding this, makes me realize how awful, how oppressive, how unnecessary, how unholy that fear is.

Homophobia and transphobia are unholy. They are unholy in large part simply because they are oppressive. They hurt people—deeply, tragically, often life-threateningly hurt people—each of whom was created in the image of God.

That’s a phrase – in the image of God — which is so overused, but we do need our attention. We claim that every person is made in the image of God. What does that mean? What does it really mean to say that I, or you, or some stranger, is created in God’s image?

Rabbi Art Green, drawing on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, offers what sounds at first like a somewhat heretical idea – that we should understand this quite literally. That, in some way, we look like God. That every person is an icon of God, a physical representation. But, we are each a limited representation of God. True, but incomplete.

How do you come to truly understand mountains? Seeing one mountain doesn’t really teach you what mountains look like. Seeing many mountains, seeing all the mountains, teaches you that. The more mountains I see, the more I understand mountains. The more mountains I exclude from my sight, the more mountains I reject as “not really Mountains,” the more limited, the more incomplete my understanding on mountains becomes.

Every single person that we exclude is an icon of God removed from our holy spaces. Every single person that we exclude is a diminution of our understanding of God. As someone (I can’t remember or find who) once taught me, “God doesn’t look like any of us; God looks like all of us.”

This Shabbat, this Saturday afternoon, our synagogue is marching in the Pride Parade. I’m going in part, I guess, as a piece of my ongoing teshuva for my earlier, and not fully resolved homophobia and transphobia. I’m going in part to partake in the liberation of LGBTQIA+ people, some of whom I know, some of whom I am lucky enough to call congregants, and friends, and family. 

I’m also going in part for myself, to fight against my own idolatry of the self, my own insistence on me being the only one who gets to live without qualifiers, without adjectives. I’m doing so to continue my ongoing expansion of my understanding of what God looks like.

God does, truly, look like all of us.


Holy Triggers

This week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, begins with the words, “Vayelech Moshe vayidabeir—Moses went and spoke (Deut 31:1).” Some anonymous (anonymous to me, anyway) sage noticed that this language is unique in the Torah. Why “Moses went and spoke?” Why not just, “Moses spoke?” Well, the word vayelech(he went) is from the same root as the word halacha (literally, “the way,” but meaning Jewish Law). This sage says that the text is referring to the idea (written in the Talmud, Berachot 31a) that when leaving a friend, one should always share a word of halacha, a word of Jewish law, to be remembered by. On your way out the door, just drop a little Jewish knowledge on your friend.

Why? Why halacha in particular? Why not some other area of Jewish knowledge? Well, I first learned of this idea (leaving your friend with a parting shot of halacha) from Rabbi Nehemia Polen, and I can’t remember if was my insight, or his, or someone else in that group’s, but we realized that one of the reasons for this focus on halacha is the practical, applicable nature of halacha. It’s not some esoteric idea or philosophical thought. It’s a to do. It’s specific. And, what’s so beautiful about that is that now, whenever your friend does that little bit of halacha, he or she might think of you.

When we learned this text, it immediately reminded me of a moment from when I was in rabbinical school. I grew up at a synagogue with a rabbi, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z”l), who was a legendary sermonizer. Not just at our synagogue – he actually taught advanced homiletics (sermon writing) at my school. He was just an extraordinary speaker, one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege to hear. Well, a few times while I was in school, I had the honor of leading services at that synagogue, and for at least one of them, Rabbi Malino was present. Now, if you ever lead a service, give a sermon, or do pretty much anything vaguely rabbinical at your childhood synagogue, you are almost guaranteed to get an effusively positive reaction from everyone. I mean, they remember you from when you were a kid, so everything you do seems spectacular. So, after the service, everyone was coming up to me telling me how great I was. I took it with a grain of salt, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

Then, Rabbi Malino asked me to sit with him. I sat down, looking forward to some praise, and some (hopefully gentle) suggestions about how to improve my sermon. Instead, he criticized my Hebrew. During the kiddush (the prayer over wine) I had said, “Ki hu yom teHEEla.” He told me that he had been trying for years to get people to realize that the accent was on the last syllable: “Ki hu yom teheeLA.” At that moment, I was a bit…nonplussed. I mean, I had just led a full service, given a sermon of which I was (rightly, dammit!) proud, and his only comment was about the emphasis I put on a single syllable in a prayer? It seemed—odd, at best.

But, here’s the thing. I say kiddush every Shabbat. And, every time I do, every single time, when I get to that word, I say it carefully, I notice that no one else gets that emphasis right, and—this is the important part—I think of Rabbi Malino. Sometimes just for a split second, sometimes for longer. But, it is essentially guaranteed that I will think of my Rabbi every Shabbat, and I absolutely love that moment. I treasure it.

In that moment of oddly specific instruction, Rabbi Malino bound his memory to a single syllable in my brain, and I’m absolutely sure that it will remain there, forever. This prayer over wine, along with being a prayer, is a trigger for a loving memory. It is such a gift he gave me that night.

The world is filled with ways to remember people. I’ll think of Rabbi Malino during every kiddush. I’ll think of my father every time I see a Heineken*. I think of Hillary every time I hear Abba (along with a million other triggers), and my sister Jill every time I hear “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (or a million other Mel Brooks’ moments). My friends Mike every time I see SnowCaps and Missy every time I see a manatee. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you could, too. The world is like a video game with hidden treasures – hit the right spot, and suddenly a bonus, a memory pops up. I don’t think I’m grateful enough for the ways that some very special people have made intensely specific connections in my brain. The world is just a delight, sometimes.

both Dad and Rabbi Malino would love that contrast

COVID and the Power of Kindness

Just a bit ago, I posted on Facebook a famous vignette from the Talmud:

When Rabbi Meir was being harassed by men in his town, he went home and prayed for their deaths.His wife, Beruriah, chastised him. “You shouldn’t wish for their deaths, but for them to change. God says that “Evil will depart from the earth,” not “evildoers.””

It’s hard, but I try to be like Beruriah.

That was my from-memory rendering of a story in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, for what it’s worth. It was also a thinly-veiled reference to today’s news that President Trump, along with Melania, have tested positive for COVID. Since posting it, I’ve been reading the comments, reading other peoples posts about this topic (some in a very similar vein, some very different), and thinking about it quite a bit. A few thoughts I’d like to share…

First of all, as I hinted that when I said that I try to be like Beruriah, and made a lot clearer in some comments, this is much more an aspiration than a reality, as far as how I reacted to the news. My honest, initial reaction was a lot less gracious and pious than this. And, if I’m being really honest, I’ll also admit that I’m not even 100% sure that this represents how I want to feel. A not insignificant part of me could easily argue that more bitterness is warranted here. I wouldn’t blame or shame anyone if they felt that way, or expressed it.

You know, there is a famous Midrash that rabbis love to quote, in which God gets angry at our celebration at the Red Sea, when the Egyptians drown in it, and we go free. “How can you celebrate when My people are drowning?” God asks. It’s the “My” which is so important there. Even our greatest enemies, even the people who have done unspeakable evil to us, are still God’s people. Every person is created in God’s image – even the ones that we hate. Even the ones that we deserve to hate.

But, I just lied to you, a little bit. God doesn’t actually get angry when we celebrate the Egyptian drowning. God only gets angry when the angels start to celebrate, too. When we, human beings who have just been released from Egyptian slavery and savagery, celebrate their demise, God lets it go. It seems to me the message is that reveling in our enemies death and or suffering is not the ideal reaction (i.e. not with age what angels should do), but it is a reasonable reaction for us–limited, flawed humans that we are. I’ve always thought that offers a nice balance, giving us some grace when we aren’t so holy, but also giving us an ideal to strive for.

The other thought I keep coming back to is about why I think it’s important to at least try to not celebrate this news in any way. Because, let’s also be clear that my happiness, or lack thereof, about Trump contracting COVID has absolutely no effect on his health. I can pray all day for his recovery, or I can pray all day for his death. Neither action will make either result the least bit more or less likely. Nothing I do will have the tiniest impact on him, in any way.

But, it will most certainly have an enormous impact on me. How I choose to respond to this news will leave it’s mark on my psyche and, if you like, my soul. My attempts to not openly wish for his illness or death are not necessarily because I don’t want him to get sick, or to die. It’s because I don’t want to be the kind of person who wishes for someone to get sick, or to die. Because giving voice to those feelings, honest as they may be, will feed and nurture the meaner, darker sides of myself. Those sides are real–I’m not denying them, in the least. But, I also know that they aren’t the best of me. I’m not happiest with myself, I’m not proudest of myself, when I give them voice, or when I nurture them. They may represent some of who I am; they don’t represent who I aspire to be.

For what it’s worth, I think that this is something which my Christian and Buddhist colleagues are clearer about than most of us in the Jewish world. Jewish teaching (often for the good) tends to focus on our effect on the world “out there” more than on our inner world. Other religions are (in my limited experience) more likely to talk about the way our thoughts, speech, and actions have an impact on our own selves.

Like I said, there are very important benefits to focusing on the outer effects, rather than the inner. And, it’s also most certainly true that Judaism isn’t the least bit a stranger to the “make yourself a better person” approach. But, it’s a difference I’ve noticed, and it seems worth honoring my religious cousins who have taught me in this way.

Man, do I hope that Beruriah was on to something. I hope that, somehow, against every single expectation I have, our President comes through this moment and emerges a better, kinder man. But, that is completely outside my influence. I also hope that I come through this moment and emerge a better, kinder man. And, I know that I have something to say about that.

Holy Suffering?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, talks about our people crying out under the oppression of Pharaoh (Deuteronomy 26:7). Commenting on that cry, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik talks about the difference between pain and suffering.

Slaves, he teaches, are like animals* in that while they experience pain, they don’t truly know suffering. By virtue of being slaves, they have lost their existential awareness, and essentially live only in the moment. As soon as the painful stimulus is removed, the experience is over, and they go back to living in the moment, now without that pain.

* Just in case it’s not abundantly clear, he’s talking about “slave” as a degraded state of being, not as a inherent quality of a person, and certainly not tied to race!

Moses changed all that for our people, he teaches. When Moses defended a helpless Jew (Exodus 2:11 – 12) and began our road towards redemption, he reawakened in us our awareness that, “all that pain, anguish, humiliation, and cruelty is evil.” He helped us to realize that experiencing all that torture and degradation was not natural, was not necessary, and was not right. Because of that reawakening, we began to remember that, simply because we are human, each one created Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, we deserve better than that. We understood that the pain was wrong, and we began to resist it, which led to suffering even after the moment was over.

In my mindfulness study, which is heavily informed by Buddhist thinking, I’ve been introduced to the idea that suffering is pain combined with resistance. Pain is just a sensory or emotional experience; the real suffering comes we tried to resist or deny that experience. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try to change it, but we should at least accept, in the moment, that the pain is precisely what it is, nothing more, nothing less*.

* I’m obviously giving incredibly short shrift to a really important, subtle idea here!

Soloveitchik is giving me a new, powerful way to think about this suffering, though. Yes, suffering happens when we resist the pain that we’re in. But, that may not be a bad thing. In part, it’s a sign that we realize that we deserve more than this. And, although it is true that life isn’t fair, and it’s good to remember that, it’s also good to remember, in some ways, that life should be fair. There is a close connection between our sense of fairness, our sense of deserving something, and our humanity.

It’s one of the (seemingly endless stream of) teachings which seems especially poignant at this point in time. The world is, as many of us keep saying, a dumpster fire. Between the ongoing pandemic which has disrupted all of our lives and killed hundreds of thousands of people, the horrible racial realities unfolding in our nation and world, and the toxicity of our political system, many of us feel a sense of deep despair.

Maybe, in some small way, that’s a good thing.

Maybe despair is, at least in part, an expression of our understanding that this isn’t right, and this is isn’t fair. That this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. That we deserve more — all of us do. Maybe despair, and anger, and all of those painful emotions that we so often categorize as “negative” are really an expression of our humanity. Maybe they’re the pain of our souls, our higher selves, longing for something better, something holy.


Recently, I read The Sports Gene by David Epstein. It’s a book about the biological (largely genetic) foundation of our athletic ability. Not surprisingly, it’s quite complicated — there certainly isn’t a single gene for sports, or anything like that. But, it turns out quite a bit about our athletic prowess is decided at the moment of our conception.

When it comes to aerobic capacity, there are actually two separate factors which are largely based in our genetics. One is our baseline aerobic capacity — how efficient we’ll be, and how much stamina we’ll have, before we start any real training. The other is our ability to respond to training — not everyone improves equally with the same amount of work. We all start at different places, and we all improve at different rates. If I remember the book properly, it’s pretty demonstrably clear that this is true when it comes to our aerobic capacity, but it applies to other athletic traits, as well. Physical strength, coordination, and much more all have a genetic baseline, and a genetic capacity for improvement. 

I have a pretty strong suspicion that, were I to investigate my own genetic makeup, I’d find out that I’m pretty low in all of these measures. I am, politely speaking, not exactly a natural, Olympian specimen. As a kid, my most noticeable physical trait was my scrawniness (some of our family friends nickname me “Arnold” as a joking reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger). If I go for a run, I’m out of breath pretty much immediately. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The thing is, I’ve actually worked pretty hard for most my life to get better. I work out pretty regularly, and I’ve tried a couple of times to become a runner – even training for a 5K. But, it’s a little embarrassing (although it shouldn’t be) how hard I had to train just to be able to run that 5K. It took me about three months (and the “Couch to 5K” program) just to reach my goal, which wasn’t any particular time, but rather simply being able to run 5K without stopping, or slowing to a walk. I have friends who could do absolutely nothing athletic for months on end, get up off the couch and run a mile without too much trouble. Me? I tried to run 2 miles with Hillary couple of months ago, and I stopped after one, walking back home, lightheaded the whole way.

As for all that weightlifting I’ve been doing, pretty consistently ever since I graduated college? Well, I am definitely not the toothpick I used to be, but I am no one’s idea of a muscled-up giant, either. Don’t get me wrong — I’m pretty happy with how I look for an almost 50-year-old wimp. But, given the amount of weights I’ve lifted over the years, I sometimes think I should be bigger than I am. But, I always realize that “should” has nothing to do with it.

I was born with the body I was given, and also with the potential I was given to make it better. I will never, ever, no matter how much I try* be able to run a marathon. I will never, ever, no matter how much I try** be able to comfortably run a 5K. I will never, ever, no matter how much I try put on another 20 pounds of muscle. It just ain’t gonna happen.

* I’m not going to try

** Nope. Not this, either

But — and this is the important part — I am more muscular right now than I would be if I didn’t work out. My endurance, while still pretty laughable, is better than it would be if I didn’t take all the long walks and struggled through the kickboxing training videos that I do. My health, which has a reasonably sized checklist of problems, thankfully none of them serious (yet!), is almost definitely a world better than it would be if I sat on the couch, watched movies, and ate pizza all day*. I am not the biggest, fastest, healthiest person you know. But, I am the biggest, fastest**, healthiest version of myself, right now.

*  Totally willing to try this one.

** Okay. Not the fastest. I really don’t train for running, anymore. I hate it so much.

Why am I rambling on about this? Because I have a strong suspicion that something very similar is happening in our spiritual lives, as well. I know that “spiritual” is a word which gets tossed around a lot, often in vague, frustrating ways. But, I’m using it in the sense of an ability to be aware of, and in touch with, the most profound parts of ourselves, and of the world around us. And, I have met people who seem to be so much more naturally open to this higher awareness than I am. There are people who seem to respond so naturally, and so deeply to prayer. There are people who seem to be so totally transformed by being in nature, or by listening to music, or by performing art, or by meditating.

What you may or may not know about me is that I struggle with all of this. Obviously, it’s hard to do any comparisons, because unlike physical abilities, all of our spiritual capacity is inward, and unmeasurable. But, based on lots of conversations and observations over the years, I honestly believe that I have a very low natural spiritual awareness. Almost nothing that I’ve done in the religious or spiritual realm has felt natural, or come easily, or has had the profound benefits which are often promised. Especially, not at first.

But, slowly but surely, I have become more spiritual, more spiritually aware, more open, than I used to be. It took me three months to train for that 5K, and I ran it at a pace that would have bored so many people that I know. But, I did it. I decided that it was important for me, and I trained hard, and I got better, and I did it.

It’s been the same as my spiritual life. It’s taken me years to get to the point where I am, now. And, if these things could be measured, I strongly suspect that I wouldn’t be winning any medals for spiritual awareness*. But, it’s not a contest, and it’s not a race. Or, if it is, it’s only against my former self. I am more spiritually… Mature? Evolved? Aware?… than I used to be. Than I ever was before.

* I’m really not looking for any “oh no, you’re so spiritual” comments here. I’m sharing my honest sense and observations.

It remains a constant struggle, if I’m still being honest. I almost never (and I really, truly mean almost never) sit down to meditate and think, “oh good; this is just what I want to be doing.” I often have to fight an actual urge to flee during the early parts of a meditation practice! I rarely want to pray. And so on, and so on, and so on. But, I know that all of these practices will ultimately make me better — not better than someone else, not better than you, but better than the person I would be otherwise. And that makes the struggle worth it.

What I hope is clear, but should probably be made explicit, is that I’m not trying to brag here. The point of all this is, hopefully, to get all of you to think about yourselves in this way.

I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me that they aren’t spiritual, or aren’t religious, or can’t meditate. As if these are immutable qualities of our lives. They aren’t. Odds are, you will never be the Buddha, or the Dalai Lama, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That’s okay; you don’t have to be.

The only question is whether you are happy with your current way of seeing the world. Whether your spiritual life, whatever that means to you, is enough for you.

When it comes to exercise, one of the truisms I always heard is that something is better than nothing. You don’t need to be at the gym five days a week, or to run marathons. That’s all great if you can do it, and if you want to. But parking a little further away in the parking lot, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, eating a bit healthier — all of these little things can move the needle, even if just a little bit.

You don’t need to meditate for an hour a day, or lose yourself in prayer every Shabbat, or read deep, philosophical spiritual works (although, those are all great things to do, if you can and want to, obviously). All you need to do is decide whether you want to move that particular needle, even if just a little bit.

I can’t promise who you’ll be if you try. But I hope you’re curious to find out.


I’d like to talk for a moment about grace. It’s something we don’t talk about often enough in Judaism, probably because it’s talked about so often by our Christian neighbors that it’s started to feel somehow un-Jewish, but it’s not. Not in the least. “Grace” is simply the idea of unearned blessings — of having something not because we deserve it, but simply because it was given to us by someone (or some One) who wanted us to have it.

The American story, built so firmly on the ideas of self-reliance and hard work, is that that which we earn is so much better than that which is handed to us. I’m not sure about which is actually better or worse (it’s probably a meaningless question), but it’s actually wonderful to have something not because we’ve earned it, but because it simply came to us. Maybe out of luck, more likely out of love.

When I walk outside on a beautiful day, did I earn that? No — it was given to me in grace. Part of why I enjoy days like that so much (and part of why I dream of them during this hot, miserable time of Florida summer) is because they aren’t controllable, and they aren’t predictable. I can’t make them happen; I can simply enjoy them, and be grateful for them when they show up.

You may know that I love whiskey. Some of my favorite bottles were gifts. So, not only do they taste delicious, but they remind me of the friends and loved ones who gave them to me. A bottle that I buy myself is just as delicious, but then again, not really. Not in the fullest sense. Earned is fine. Given, though, adds a sweetness.

Here’s the trick, though. Everything is given through grace. Every single thing that we have, even the things that we’ve worked hardest for, are in large part not earned, but graced to us. That’s the message from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,…and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”

Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17

Never, ever say, “I did this.” Never, ever say, “I earned this.” And, certainly never, ever say, “I deserve this.” I deserve none of it. I am entitled to none of it.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work hard for the things we want. It doesn’t mean that everything that we want or need is just going to magically fall into our laps. It’s worth noticing that the things that the Torah is talking about are, by our usual accounting, earned. It talks about eating, probably from fields which we tended with our own hands. It talks about living in houses which we built with our own sweat and blisters. It talks about our herds and flocks which we raised, painstakingly, year after year. These are the things of which we feel we should be the most proud, the things which we feel we earned ourselves. But, not even they are earned. Not in full.

Sure, you tilled the soil with your own hands. Mazel Tov. Well done. One question — who gave you those hands? Who made the soil? Who made it possible for plants to grow in soil? You built a house, and raised some animals? Amazing! Who gave you a brain capable of understanding how to care for your animals, or how to level off your roof?

This message is obviously thousands of years old, but it’s especially appropriate for those of us living in 21st-century America. We have so, so much, and however hard we may have worked for it, each and every one of us has it, in large part, simply because we were lucky to be born in 21st-century America. Even right now, during this time of pandemic and quarantine, most of us, maybe all of us, have so much to be thankful for. I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to kvetch right now, and for some of us, there is reason to despair.

But, for most of us, can we take a moment and realize that the struggle that we’re going through — and it is a real struggle — is still 1000 times better than the lives that most people who have ever lived could even dream of? I don’t want to minimize the struggle, because the pain is real, and the fear is real — for me, and probably for you. But, at the same time, can we look around and be aware of the great grace, the great unearned blessings, which permeate our lives?

I have so much. And, even though I worked very hard for most of it, none of it — not one single bit — is truly the work of my own hands, the sweat of my own brow. If I am born in a different part of the world, or a century or two ago, or with a few molecules of DNA rearranged, then I’ve got none of this. None of the things which I own, and which I currently, petulantly, find inadequate. None of the people in my life who make it a life worth living. None of it. Not one single bit. That’s what I mean by grace.

This is as hard of a time as I’ve live through. And, it’s still a gloriously blessed life I’m living. Every day, even the days when I wake up and go to sleep feeling stressed, angry, and miserable, is a miracle and a blessing. It’s a gift. It’s grace.

(You’ll excuse me for sharing this one again…)

“What Is Given”

The likelihood of finding strawberries
tiny and wild and sweet
around your ankles
on any given day
in any given place
is not great
but sometimes
people find strawberries
right where they are standing
just because it is their turn
to be given a taste
of something wild and sweet

Ralph Murre