Preparedness and the JCA mini-farm

I’ve been seeing signs for “Westernmassready.org” on the sides of buses recently, and I thought I’d take a look. It seems like a good site to help people in our area orient themselves to the skill set and procedures required to respond to emergencies, with some helpful suggestions about preparedness.

Certainly, whether you happen to be a hardcore survivalist (and there are a few of those in our area, if not our congregation, from what I understand) or if you just want to make sure you’re comfortable should snow knock the power out for a couple of days, it’s good to be prepared. So, anyhow, here’s the link:

http://www.westernmassready.org/

As we begin to figure out how to use the new Zera’im fund to do what we can at the JCA to educate, inspire, and celebrate, in the midst of economic, resource, and climate uncertainty, this seems like a gentle first step along the road to a resilient community.

And, if you’re interested in taking another step, we’d love to have you at the organizational meeing for the JCA mini-farm project, on Monday night, 2/21, at 7pm here at the JCA. This initial meeting is limited to JCA members, though we look forward to involving the wider community as the project gets off the ground!

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Interesting Event At Hampshire College on 2/9/11

Wrestling with Whiteness: Storytelling and the Politics of Jewish Identity in Multiracial America.

Karen Brodkin, an anthropologist and feminist scholar is coming to speak at
Hampshire College. She will be speaking about her analysis
of Judaism and race, and their intersections. She is the author of “How
Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America” as
well as numerous publications about social movements, race, gender,
environment and work. She is Professor Emerita at UCLA.

This event is on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011.
It is held at : West Lecture Hall
This event starts at 6:00pm

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Zeek essay on “Jewish Authenticity”

At the recent “welcoming” weekend for the rebbetzin and myself, I used my Shabbat morning sermonizing time to offer a talk based on an essay I wrote for Zeek last year, for their special issue on the state of Reconstructionism, which they flatteringly, though equivocally, referred to as “Denominationalism that works?”

The essay was about the question of “Jewish Authenticity” and what Recon/Kaplanian thought might have to add to the debate about what this is.

Here’s the link to the original essay”

http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117019/

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Rabbi Boettiger’s Talk

We’re just coming off a special weekend at the JCA, in which Elise and I were officially initiated into the life of the community. I was particularly pleased that my old rabbinical school compadre, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, came over the mountains from Bennington, VT, to offer us a word of Torah on Friday evening. His teaching generating a lot of interest and enthusiasm, so I am including it here:

D’var Torah – Parashat Yitro
17 Shevat 5771

Shabbat shalom. It is really an honor and a pleasure to be here tonight to help begin the celebration of Rabbi Weiner’s installation weekend, and of JCA’s official welcoming of Ben and Elise.

As Torah portions go for rabbinic installation weekends, this is a doozy. We have the revelation on Mount Sinai, the giving of Torah, which is nothing less than the prototype for all future Jewish understandings of encounter with the sacred. This is a good parasha for installing your rabbi. If there was a “Music to install rabbis to” collection, parashat Yitro might be a featured track. But I want to qualify that by clarifying that it is a good parasha for installing this rabbi. And I’ll speak more to that later.

What do we imagine happened on Mount Sinai all those years ago? What are the repercussions and consequences of what we imagine?

We may disagree, as Jews – and we do – as to what happened on Sinai, but I think we all agree that whatever it was, the collective memory of that experience calls us forth, it calls us deeper into the world, into action, deeper into our lives. We tend, in progressive religious circles, definitely in Reconstructionist communities, to be accommodating in relation to people’s conceptions of Gd, or not Gd, as the case may be. I think, however, what is special about the Sinai story is that it seems to say that it is a universal human need to be able to access the sacred, to have a path, a language, whereby we can encounter the sacred. Another way of putting this, and I’m quoting Rabbi Ira Stone here, is, whether or not you believe in Gd is not a Jewish question. A Jewish question is, how true are you to your experience of holiness in the world?

In that spirit, one way of understanding the moment of revelation at Sinai is as a sacred encounter, the beginning of covenanted relationship. To paraphrase Martin Buber famously said that life is encounter. And the Torah is ultimately a story of encounter. The absence of encounter, the longing for encounter, the memory of encounter, the complexity of encounter, the rules of the game for encounter, the promise of the encounter to come. The ten commandments, indeed the whole Torah could then be described as a path towards sacred relationship – in both a vertical and a horizontal sense. Given the experiencing of the sacred, of revelation, how do we turn to one another? How do we act?

If the ten commandments speak to how we are to be in relationship, I want to look at part of what we indentify as the second commandment, the second utterance. “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Ex. 20:4-5).

This is the commandment against idolatry, right? But if revelation is relationship, it is as if the Torah is saying here in the second commandment, the greatest threat to relationship is that it becomes static, or fixed.

In a committed relationship, we see a partner on a daily basis, a friend on a weekly basis. We become very accustomed to them. Gradually we start to think that we know who our partner is, who are friend is, who our parents are; that we know the breadth, width, and depth of who they are. We take them, sometimes, for granted, we see them as if they were a sculptured image, a fixed thing. And – the Torah says, holiness cannot be fixed, cannot be concretized. It must keep moving, it must keep growing, expanding, contracting. Otherwise there is no revelation.

A dear friend of the family, Sibylle Baier, used to offer the blessing all the time, “May your beloved always be like a stranger to you.” And she would say good advice for relationship is to have one partner stand on the side of the road and hitchhike, and have the other partner drive by and pick them up. Really, the second commandment is saying then, in effect, every so often, have your beloved go hitch-hiking, pick them up, and look at them with fresh eyes. “Don’t make a sculptured image.”

I think the same thing goes for a relationship between a community and a rabbi, which is a sacred relationship, a covenanted relationship, that calls us forward, as any true revelation does. It’s a relationship, like others, that can become fixed or rigid, where we don’t give the other a chance to change, to grow; where we set the other in stone. Where we imagine we know – if we’re the rabbi, who the individuals in the community are; and – if we’re people in the congregation, who the rabbi is.

Having come to know Rabbi Weiner over the years, I know it is his commitment to being a learner that underlies and informs his commitment to being a teacher. I know that he will be committed to his own unfolding path, and that he will be ever becoming. That he will honor each of your paths as holy ones, ones that are also in the process of becoming.

Of course, all of us forget this, and so we have this reading every year – to remind us that covenanted relationship means being awake, aware, means responding to shape shifting, changing circumstances in our lives, beginnings, endings, ways that the holy moves between us, in our relationships with one another, and how community is a container that can hold it all.

There are many things I could name about Rabbi Weiner. I have witnessed him probably most importantly, most spectacularly, marrying Elise. But I’ve also witnessed him dj’ing parties in Philadelphia nightclubs, studying Talmud, playing Dylan on guitar, translating Yiddish, dancing at simchas – his own and those of his friends, spouting outlandish rhetoric and propaganda about the Red Sox and their chances for glory (I’m a Yankee fan, so this has long been a bone of contention between us). If there was one aspect this evening I could hold up of who Ben is, though, it would be to name Ben’s essential kindness, to tell you as you no doubt already know that your new rabbi has an integral kindness that is at the center of his being and shines forth in whatever he is doing in the world.

I want to welcome Ben and Elise here from a place of what you could call enlightened self-interest. The self-interest part is that my wife, Vanessa and I are selfishly glad about this new arrangement, because we will get to see them more often. But knowing also that the JCA is a special community and has a special history, I know this partnership will nourish both parties.

Some of you may know the Bob Dylan song, Highlands. It’s a song Ben and I are both fond of. Dylan’s describing a kind of mythical homeland he’s got his eye on, and it’s really more of an internal than an external place. Not a place that’s set in stone, to follow the theme here – more a place of sacred relationship, where we see and are seen. Kind of like Sinai, perhaps. A verse reads, “Well my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I roam/ That’s where I’ll be when I get called home/ The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme/ Well my heart’s in the Highlands /I can only get there one step at a time.”

May this installation be a moment of dwelling in the Highlands for both the JCA and for Ben and Elise. May you all, as rabbi and community, continue to encounter the sacred in one another, a sacredness that is ever-flowing, ever growing. Shabbat shalom.

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D’var Torah Parashat Bo

Lately, I’ve been giving my divrei Torah from notes or outlines, as opposed to writing them out from beginning to end, which makes it more difficult to post them online, but provides you with more incentive to come to the JCA on shabbat morning!

So, I’ll just offer a brief synopsis here, and then close with a passage from one of my favorite books, which I used to set the scene for a parsha that deals with a great migration of people getting underway.
—-
We looked at two verses in particular:

a) (10:1): “vayomer adonai el moshe bo el paro, ki ani hikhbaditi et libo v’et lev avadav l’ma’an shiti ototai eleh b’kirbo” God said to Moses: Go to pharoah, because I have HARDENED HIS HEART and the hearts of his servants, so that I may set out these, my signs, among them.”

b) (13:14): “v’haya ki yishalkha vinkha makhar leymor ma zot, v’amarta eylav b’khozek yad hotsiani adonai mimitzrayim m’beyt avadim.” And when your children question you tomorrow, saying, ‘What is this?’ you should say to them,” with a strong hand, God took me out of Egypt, our of the house of slavery.”

I talked about the philosophical debate that takes place around the first verse: whether or not it was fair that God hardened Pharoah’s heart. I looked at another translation that reads “God allowed Pharoahs heart to be hardened”, suggesting that this shifts the burden of the issue. Insteaed of causing Pharoah’s heart to be hardened, God just didn’t allow it to be softened. This way of reading suggests that God didn’t provide the poison, but did fail to provide the antidote. And, in the end, Pharoah wasn’t saved. At first, it seemed as though, as the Buddhists say, “death would be the best teacher”, and he would release his grasp on his slaves after the firstborn children had died, but then he couldn’t help but push forward to the cataclysm at the Sea of Reeds–he enacted that great human tragedy, that being that we are often not able to change our patterns of behavior before we are overcome by destruction.

But, looking at the second verse, we see what it might mean to receive an antidote, a release from being fixed or stuck in a certain position. Even before the actual Exodus takes place, God is already telling Moses to tell the people to turn the story of the Exodus into a ritual memory. I suggested that this was in effect giving them a new story of who they were and what they were capable of doing–a free people on the loose instead of a craven people locked in slavery–and that they needed this new story, new identity, before they were ready to move; that this is, in fact, what enabled them to move.

That was basically it…

Anyhow, here’s the passage, from “Watership Down”, by Richard Adams:

“Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or punctuality. In this respect they are much the same as primitive peoples, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose and then several more to get started. Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point when they all know that they are ready to begin. Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires, twittering, making short flights singly and in groups over the open, stubbly fields, returning to form longer and even longer lines above the yellowing verges of the lanes—the hundreds of individual birds merging and blending, in a mounting excitement, into swarms coming loosely and untidily together to create a great, unoranized flock, thick at the center and ragged at the edges, which breaks and re-forms continually like clouds or waves—until that moment when the greater part (but not all) of them know that the time has come: they are off, and have begun once more that great southward flight which many will not survive; anyone seeing this has seen at work the current that flows (among creatures who think of themselves primarily as part of a group and only secondarily, if at all, as individuals) to fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will: has seen at work the angel which drove the First Crusade into Antioch and drives lemmings into the sea.”

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Rabbi Arthur Green, scholar-in-residence

The JCA just spent a very compelling weekend learning from visiting scholar Rabbi Arthur Green. Rabbi Green offered interpretations of Torah and prayer during our services, teaching about the hymn Licha Dodi as a song of flirtation with the extra helping of soul that we hope will emerge within us on Shabbat, and also interpreting Parashat Vayigash as a call to bring mekhiye (vibrancy, new life) to the shever (brokenness) of the declining civilization in which we find ourselves. At the dinner table, he offered us the ten principles for a revived practice of Shabbat, and in a lecture following Saturday lunch he managed to keep our attention (even through this prime nap time) by explaining how neo-Hasidism can serve as the basis for a radical contemporary Judaism. He also led us in text study: Hasidic parshanut on Vayigash (sorry if that phrase is inscrutable) that he and his students are in the process of translating and commentating upon for publication.

For me personally, the highlight was the chance to interview Rabbi Green in public on Sunday morning, delving into the substance of his powerful and controversial new work: “Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition”. The program was taped, and we hope to make it available in some form soon.

In the meantime, I just wanted to offer links here to some of the material I mentioned during the conversation.

Here’s a rather sharply worded critique of the book from Rabbi Daniel Landes, of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem:

http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com/publications/detail/hidden-master

And here’s Rabbi Green’s sharply worded reply:

http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/arthur-green-responds-to-daniel-landes/

Finally, here’s a piece from Shaul Magid, in Zeek, summarizing the nature of critical responses to Rabbi Green’s book:

http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117106/

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Israel: drought and fire

Here’s a very stirring piece of writing from Anne Feibelman, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, about what’s it’s like to be in Israel right now, what with the devastating fire in the north, and the prolonged drought that has caused it. It’s posted with Anne’s permission. When I read it, I latched on to the notes of resilience and celebration, but was also struck by the unsettling realization that both of these things will be needed to deal with the evident effects of climate change in Israel and elsewhere, and the other harbingers of what seems like a hard future ahead.

The last forecast I looked at suggests that Israel might be getting some rain over the weekend and in to next week. May it come speedily and in our days!
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Chanukah 5771 in Israel – Impressions
Anne Feibelman
December 5, 2010

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of Nigun HaLev, a grass roots congregation in the Jezreel valley.The congregation is comprised of kibbutzniks, moshavniks and city dwellers, farmers and hi-tech executives, children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The Kabbalat Shabbat service is modern-Israeli, innovative with guitar, beautiful singing, traditional prayers and nigunnim woven in with modern poetry and Carlebach tunes. A year of planning had gone into the anniversary party, with congregation-wide participation and enthusiasm.

Friday morning, due to the forest fire on Mt. Carmel, the three spritual directors of the kehilah met to decide whether to hold the 10th anniversary party scheduled for Saturday morning. After much discussion, a decision was made to postpone the celebration indefinitely. By the time Shabbat rolled in and Kabbalat Shabbat services began, the mood was somber. A bus-load of Israelis had been killed on Mt. Carmel. The forests of Mt. Carmel were ashes, and the wildlife that inhabited the green forests were burned to death. It is December. In the season when we pray daily for our winter rain, no rain has fallen.. All forests are dry, crackling timberlands.The skies are relentlessly blue, cloudless, hot. .Every step on the dry, parched earth is a reminder that the green fields and moist earth have not arrived.

At Friday night night services,the chairs are arranged around a small table, Rabbi Chen from Moshav Nahalal, begins Kabbalat Shabbat. People arrive, bringing their hanukiot to light. The mood picks up with the singing. Voices are accompanied by Shaye’s beautiful guitar playing. A woman joins him on her flute. Kabbalat Shabbat is followed by communal candle-lighting of the hanukiot. One man shares that his hanukiah is made of silver soup spoons from his family. Each family member had a silver spoon with their name engraved on it, for his grandmother’s Friday night chicken soup. His family was killed in the Shoah. He has welded together the spoons as a tribute to their light in those dark times. Ma’aariv follows. Bini gives a moving d’var Torah on the importance of having hope and faith despite the burning fire. I say a mi- sheberach for the 10th anniversary of the kehillah.

The service ends. It is time for announcements. One woman who has been sitting quietly, speaks up. She has been evacuated from her home. Her young grandson was visiting at her house for Chanukah, when she was told to leave immediately because of the fire. She threw things into a suitcase, took her grandson by the hand, and left. She arrived at shul with her suitcase.. She is a native Israeli, in her sixties. She said that in all her years growing up and growing old in Israeli, she has never been afraid – in the army as a soldier, in the ’67, ’73, ’82 wars, in the intifadas, never. Today she felt fear. Like all those wars rolled into one moment, of life and loss and love. History is meaningful in Israel, So are current events.

Another man spoke. He had arrived a bit late to services. He had planned to hike in the canyon ravine on Mt Carmel. As he was entering the ravine, he got a phone call and had to cancel the hike. Two hours later, a tunnel of fire shot down the canyon and ignited the ravine. He was lucky. He hopes the firefighters are safe.

A woman announces that all the food that was prepared for the 10th anniversary party is being collected, driven up to Mt Carmel, and given to the police and firefighters. No one bats an eye. My friend Dorit is waiting for the sufganyot to arrive.. Her husband Yossi tells me not to worry. The people up around Carmel are different. They know how to deal with tough things in life.

The next morning, all televisions are playing the news. The winds have picked up during the night, whipping up the fires like cappucino foam. The hopes of getting the blaze under control have disappeared. Drorit’s family is sitting under their pomelo tree, having a picnic in winter.The drone of small planes fills the sky. They are flying in low overhead, Two at time – red, yellow, white. Each country is identified by the country’s color. Greece – once our oppressors on Hanukah – is now sending planes to aid Israel. Planes from Turkey and Cyprus follow. Israelis are glad to see the planes again. At night, the skies were too dark for small planes to navigate, so they stopped flying until daybreak. Two by two. Like Noah’s ark. Only now, there is no water. There is only destruction by fire.

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The lies of Jacob, the visions of Israel

This is my d’var Torah from this past weekend. The parasha was Vayetze, but I strayed back to Toldot and forward to Vayishlach quite liberally…

I’m not a fan of “talkbacks” so I’ve disabled them on this blog, but if you’re interested in commenting, please feel free to email me: rabbiweiner@j-c-a.org

Just please don’t necessarily expect a response…
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The Jacob saga is spread out over three parshiot, and this is the only one of them that I have the opportunity to speak about, so instead of focusing just on this week’s portion, Vayetze, I want to take you on a little character-study journey in general, really focusing on the culmination of the story—the wrestling and the reuinion with Esau, which occur in next week’s portion—more than on the middle of the story, which we read about today.

When we think about Jacob, the third patriarch, we think about wrestling. This is mostly because of the famous wrestling incident, which I’ll get to soon enough, but I think it’s also because he lives a life, in general, that is characterized by struggle, and, even, more than that, he is a character that we ourselves are forced to wrestle with, everytime his story comes around in the cycle of Torah reading.

On the one hand, we honor him as the father of our people. He is the first person to bear the name Yisrael-Israel-the wrestler with God, and even more than we consider ourselves the children of Abraham and Isaac, Sarra, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel, we are b’nai Yisrael—the children of Israel. But, at the same time, this great father of ours is someone who lives his life in ways we do not necessarily find so admirable. The name Jacob itself means the heel of the foot, and it refers to the way that this Jacob emerged into the world—grabbing the heel of his brother Esau, the big, hairy, first born twin. Even at the first moment of his life, with the gasping of his first breath, our father was attempting to better his position in the world at the expense of someone close to him. And, we see, he does this again and again—suceeding through deceit and trickery, whether this means gaining the blessing and birthright that were his brother’s due, amassing his fortune of livestock out of the holdings of his father-in-law, or even, occasionally, seeming to pretend that God has spoken to him, when no such speech has taken place. In wrestling with the legacy of this man, we may find ourselves asking, to paraphrase Ted Slovin: mi ata, avi? Who are you? Are you Jacob, the deplorable liar? Are you Israel, the sublime Godwrestler? Can you be both at the same time?

These questions really come to a head in next week’s Torah portion, parashat vayishlakh. In this passage of the Torah, we see that Jacob himself is finally forced to wrestle with the same questions. After years of living in the land of Haran, his mother’s country, where he fled to avoid the wrath of the brother he dispossessed, Jacob has heard God’s voice clearly and unambiguously telling him: shuv el erets avotekha ulimoladetekha vi’ehyeh imakh-Return to the land of your fathers and to the land of your birth,
and I will be with you. But we soon see that there is a grave danger implied in this command. As Jacob nears his home, he learns that Esau is aware of his return, and is approaching with 400 men, his intentions unclear but presumed to be hotile. On the evening before they are to be reunited, Jacob offers a prayer to God—a plea for a protection that he modestly delcares himself unworthy to receive. Then there occurs on of the most intense spiritual experiences in the entire Torah, introduced in the most understated of language: vayivater ya’akov livado, va’ye’avek ish imo ad olot ha’shachar-and Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. Then, in the morning, having demanded and received the blessing of his new name-Yisrael-he goes forward, not as a trickster or a sneak, but with the limp of a wounded man, to look into the eyes of his brother.

This wresting is a strange, evocative, and mysterious event. It’s so mysterious, actually, that generations of commentators have had different opinions about what it means. One of my favorites midrashim on the subject comes from the Babylonian Talmud, where Rabbi Yosi ben Hanina teaches that each of the services of the Jewish day are connected to one of the three patriarchs. Abraham, who rose up early in the morning to do God’s will on the mountain in Moriah, is the father of shacharit, davenning in the morning. Isaac, who was meditating in the fields in the afternoon when he first beheld his bride, is the one who came up with the idea for Mincha. And Jacob, who experiences God in dream visions of angels and ladders, in pleas for protection against the dark unknown, in nocturnal descents into the darkness of his own soul, is the master of ma’ariv, the patron saint, as it were, of the evening prayer.

The rabbi love clever games of connect the dots, like this, but, beyond that, I think this teaching offers a really profound statement about Jacob’s spiritual character, on the darkness and confusion that characterize his communication with God. God likes to promise the patriarchs that they are blessed, before he gives them a hard time: I will bless you and make you a great nation, is usually how it goes. This is a promise that both Abraham and Isaac receive in waking consciousness, in daylight, even if in Isaac’s case it may be daylight tending toward evening. But Jacob, we discover, if we read the text carefully, only hears them in a dream—they come at the end of the dream of the ladders and the angels that we read about in today’s parsha, during his fitful sleep in the wild, on the night he’s fled from home. The God of Jacob’s dream speaks them-not the God of waking life, not the clear voice that spoke to Abraham and Isaac-but the God that is planted deep within Jacob’s sleeping mind. On some level, we might even wonder if Jacob speaks them to himself. But, whereever they come from, they have a profound effect on them. As we read today, their effect is to startle him awake, in the dead of night, shrouded in a strange new sense of his own potential, confused by a world that is at once larger and more resonant than he took it to be, a brave new world that he attempts to name through recourse to a theology that he makes up himself: “There must be Adonai in this place,” he says. “How strange, how wondrous is this place. It must be the House of God.”

When Jacob encounters God in the wrestling match, if we decide that’s what actually happened, it’s in the same obscure way as he did on his night of dreaming. In the darkness of night, the Torah tells us, he wrestles with a “man”, and in the morning, we are told, he comes away with the same need to name the
experience for himself in theological terms-to tells us how exactly this strange, ambiguous, transformative event was an experience of God: “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel-the face of God, because,” he tells us, “I saw God face to face and my life was saved.”

But by now, we might be getting a little suspicious. If Jacob’s experiences of God are so dark and subjective, if they issue out of his own depths and if he himself tells us what they mean, then how
can we be sure that Jacob is really experiencing God at all? The Torah tells us only that he wrestled with an “ish”, a “man”. It is Jacob who tells us he has seen the face of God. Is he Jacob the liar, and is claiming the blessing of the God of his fathers his ultimate hustle? Or is he truly deserving of the name that is given him, Yisrael, a wrestler with God in an arena that is deeper and darker than anything his ancestors experienced or could understand?

I think the answer to that question might have to do with figuring out who this “ish”, this “man” that he wrestled with really was. There are three major schools of thought on this subjecet. Rashi tells us that the “ish” actually represnts Easu, that it was either Esau himself or Esau’s messenger, who snuck into Jacob’s camp on the night before their reunon to assassinate him. Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno, the Renaissance-era Italian commentator assures us that we should read this text as we are used to reading it: Jacob wrestled with an angel, and therefore with God. But there is a significant phrase found in today’s parsha that holds out another possibility. In offering his prayer for protection, Jacob tells God: “Behold, with my staff I have
crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” Of course, on the practical level he is speaking about his family and possessions, which he has split into two groups in order to mitigate the damage that an attack by Esau might cause. But, on a deeper level, he may very well be speaking about himself. Feeling the pressure of the upcoming reunion with the brother he has wronged, the man who holds a very real and justifiable grievance against him, Jacob himself has split into two camps, and now, before he goes forward, he must wrestle with himself.

As I mentioned during last week’s Torah study, this wrestling incident—this indefinite struggle with an entity that may at one time be God, his brother, and himself, reminds me eerily of another moment in Jacob’s life. It wasn’t just any moment—it was the very first moment that we read about. The Torah tells us that before Jacob was born, he and his twin brother were together in their mother’s womb, and God also somehow hovered in their midst. We know this, because God was close enough to be able to tell their mother, Rivka, what was going on, when she complained about the pains she felt inside of her. “There are two nations wrestling within you,” God said, “and the elder shall serve the younger.” It sounds a lot like this later night of mysterious wresling—a convulsion in the darkness—and just as we are never quite certain whether Jacob speaks to God or to himself, so, here, we are not quite certain if God is commenting on Jacob’s character, or determining what it will be; telling Rebecca, “Your son will be like this,” or “I have made your son like this.”

Either way, it is a fate that Jacob fulfills, coming into the world with the determination that he will live by struggle-he will succeed by pushing and pulling-pushing away those who could be close to him if
this gnawing lifeforce suggests that he should pull towards himself what it is that they have-and always living with the hovering assumption that his turmoil is a part of God’s plan.

But, in the midst of all of this confusion, we discover in today’s parsha that there is something God says to Jacob in language as clear as daylight: Return, Jacob. Return to where you were born, and I
will be with you. Somehow, beneath it all, the only unambiguously divine voice he can hear is a voice telling him to return to where it all began, to face what he has not been able to face, or, as Jacob might put it himself: to see the face of God.

This phrase of his, “seeing the face of God” has such power in Jacob’s mind that he uses it more than once. We saw that it was the theological meaning that he gave to his experience of wrestling with the “ish”, but now we see that it is also something he says to his brother Esau, after their reunion has proven to be one of tears and embracing, rather than violence. ki al ken raiti fanekha kirot pnei elhohim, he says to Esau-”for therefore I have seen your face as if seeing the face of God.” In saying this, he drawns an explicit connection between the night before and the morning after, the wrestling and the moment now of looking into his brother’s eyes. He is telling us that he has discovered that they both share something of the same quality. But what is that quality? To answer this we will have to descend into Jacob’s darkness.

His dark night had begun with a prayer: Katonti, he said: I am humbled, I am not worthy of all that I have received. This may have been false modesty, or it may have been a guilt he had always felt now coming
closer and closer to the surface. My brother is coming and I am afraid, he said, I am split into two, and I don’t know who I am anymore. Protect me, help me to pass through this. And his prayer was answered, not with a miraculous deliverance, but with solitude, with a mysterious descent into his own depths, with the appearance of another whose face was sometimes his own, sometimes his brother’s, and sometimes glowing with a divine light, with a life and death struggle that he could neither win nor lose, with a pain in his heart that became a wound on his body, and finally, with a glimmer of daylight.

What happened to Jacob at this moment of daylight, when he saw in his grandfather’s morning light what he had only guessed at in his own darkness–when he found himself holding the presence of this other in a
furious embrace? “I will not let you go until you bless me,” he said. I will not let you go until you bless me. I have stolen blessings before, dressed so I would be taken for somebody else-but now I want to be seen
for who I am. “Who are you?”, he is asked, or, literally, ma shmekha? What is your name? I am Jacob, he says, Jacob the heel, Jacob the trickster, Jacob the liar. You are Jacob, he is told, and part of you always will be-it is your nature or it is what your life has made you. But there is also a part of you that has always been struggling for this moment, this clarity, waiting for the call to return, to wrestle with yourself, with your brother, with God, with all of the pieces of your fragmented life, for this moment of true vision, of seeing the divine face to face, of holiness. That part of you deserves a name as well, and that name is Yisrael, the divine wrestler. And just as you came out of your mother’s womb with your first name, go forward now with this one, go forward and see, if only for a moment, the image of God in the eyes of your brother.

We do not really know in the end who gives Jacob this new name-an angel of God, the forgiveness of his brother, the yearning of his own heart–and in a way it doesn’t really matter. He is the father of ma’ariv, the prayer of the nighttime, searching for God in the darkness. Whereas his fathers may have been more certain of what they heard, he must take upon himself the task of naming the holiness of his own experience. He must contend with the moral failings and the loss of vision that arise out of his will to succeed, and the damage they cause to his relationships, to his vision of God, and to the health of his own soul. He must strive to be blessed by the glimmers of divine daylight that only arise at rare moments in his life, fortuitous moments at which he finds the courage to discover in his wounded self and in his brother the image of God-moments at which he realizes the potential of his other name, the name he leaves as a legacy
to us, the children of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom

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YK Day D’var Torah

Here is the last of my High Holiday talks. Just as soon as I get back to writing real sermons, I’ll start posting them again…

Our Torah reading today, the 16th chapter of the book of Leviticus, tells the story of the very first Yom Kippur. In so doing, it presents us with some familiar details: “On the tenth day of the 7th month,” we read, bearing in mind that the Torah reckoned the beginning of the year from the month of Nissan, and not Tishrei, as we do, “you are to afflict yourselves—t’anu et nafshotechem. You are not to do any kind of work, neither the native nor the sojourner who dwells in your midst. For on this day, kapparah, atonement, will be made for you litaher etchem, to purify you of all your sins, lifnei adonai titharu. Before God, you will be purified.” This explains why we sit here, thousands of years later, hungry and smelly, wearing old pairs of Converse All-Stars as we seek, through prayer and chesbon hanefesh, the searching of our souls, to achieve atonement in the presence of the most Holy.

But the rest of the parsha doesn’t look anything like what we’re doing here today. The very first Yom Kippur, which this chapter describes in vivid detail, was an elaborate sacrifical service, performed by Aaron, the High Priest, with the assistance of his family, in the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle that was the focal point of Israelite worship during the 40 years of travelling through the dessert, and in the early days of their settlement in the Promised Land. On this day, Aaron sacrificed a bullock on his own behalf and two goats for the sake of the Children of Israel. In a memorable ceremony, one of these goats was slaughtered in the customary fashion, and the other, the azazel, set free as a live offering: a scapegoat wandering the barren wilderness, bearing the transgressions of the people on its head. With the blood of the slaughtered offerings, Aaron purified the vessels of the tabernacle, which were made susceptible to impurity through the sins of the people. Finally, when everything was set right, he was able to enter the kadosh, the Holy of Holies, where, said God, “I appear in the cloud above the cover of the ark.”

However foreign its particulars may seem, this service is an archetype that recurs throughout our liturgy today. Again and again, our tradition will conceive of atonement as the entering into a sacred space, into the holy place—into the presence of God. There is a force preventing us from entering, understood to be our sins and transgressions. We will seek to be purified. Like the high priest, we will seek to set things right, so that our experience of the holiness of God is unimpeded.

And, again and again, our tradition will tell us that there is a grave danger lurking in this process, one that should invoke within our hearts a profound fear. This warning is first issued subtly, in the initial words of today’s parsha: “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who had drawn near before the Lord and died.” Rashi tells us this verse is meant as an admonition: Aaron must take utmost care that he enter the holy place at the right time, and in the right way, remembering what happened to his sons, the negligent priests, when they failed to do so. This subtle warning becomes more explicit in verse 17, when God says: “There shall be no man in the tent of meeting, when Aaron goes in to make atonement in the holy place.” There is something so perilous about this moment of entry that even the antechamber must be evacuated of all but the high priest himself.

What is this danger? Why does the central spiritual gesture of Yom Kippur, doing what is necessary to move closer to the core of the sacred, inspire such fear? Keeping in mind this Torah portion, I want to draw upon two additional texts, both of which we experience today, to help us address these questions.

We will encounter the first of these texts, the “Avodah” service, or the service of the Kohen HaGadol, during the musaf section of this morning’s service. In an exercise of the imagination, intended to connect us to the historic solemnity of this day, we will participate in the prepartion and entry of the high priest into the holy of holies, not of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, but of the Beit HaMikdash, the Jerusalem Temple. In a sacred space, shifted from the tent of the wilderness to the imposing chambers of a grandiose sanctuary, we see the same ritual performed: the sacrificing of a bullock, the distinction between the slaughtered goat and the scapegoat, the purification by blood, and a man dressed in simple white linen garments entering into the kadsoh. But in this text, we are offerred perspectives that are not given us in Leviticus. Here, we join our emotions, not only with the high priest, but also with the spectators, standing with them on the outskirts of the sacred precint as the ceremony takes place—experiencing both their dread and their exultation.

What do they dread? What are they afraid of? We can learn this backwards from the prayer that the Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest, uttered after his mission had proved successful, after he had stood in the presence of God and survivied to tell about it: “May it be your will, our God and the God of our fathers, that this year that has now arrived…be a year of blessing, a year of good decrees…a year of happy life from you, a year of dew and rain and warmth…a year of atonement from all our iniquities.” By entering into the holy of holies, the priest, the people’s representative, had been given an audience with an awe-inspiring king, by whose power all of the anxieties and tribulations of life could be assuaged, if the king judged the request of his people favorably. As we watch the Kohen Ha Gadol enter into the holy place, we know it is a moment of mortal danger. The vision brings to mind everything that we fear as individuals and a society—our frailities, heartbreaks and sickness, the anguish of living at a time of deteriorating natural habitats and dwindling material resources. Everything we hesitate to name comes washing into consciousness. But we are told, too, that if he emerges alive, we are forgiven; we are cleansed. We are at one with God. Our hearts are pure. We are safe. We are told that when the people saw the radiant face of the emerging priest, “they rejoiced…and served in awe the Holy One of Israel, the sanctifier of holy beings; they uttered joyful song with the timbrel and the cymbal, playing on stringed instruments and singing sweet psalmody.” The Talmud says that if we never knew the rejoicing that took hold in Jerusalem at the close of Yom Kippur, then we have never known joy.
But beyond the nervous expectation of a favorable judgment—the gathering and dispersal of the primal terrors of life—it has long seemed to me that there is another kind of fear at play here, a lurking anxiety unakcnowledged by the traditional text. As I play the role of Israelite, I wonder about the experience of the Kohen HaGadol as he passes from my view, beyond the curtain, into the place of holiness. What does he find there? What if, instead of the awesome presence of God, he encounters only silence, the murmuring of his own thoughts, the scuffing of his feet on the floor echoed in an empty chamber? What if it’s all nothing more than a show, ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’? What if, in the midst of the glorious temple, the vessels of gold, silver, and bronze, the ornaments, the tapestries, or even just the organ pipes, stained glass windows, and ceiling fans, we are met not even by the anger of God, but only by God’s absence?

This may be a particularly modern fear, the fear that at the heart of our search for God through ritual we will discover that God is not there; the fear that God is no longer in the places we were taught to search for God, if God ever was; a dissapointment leaving our terrible anxieties gathered but unrelieved. There may even be a hint of this melancholy fear, however, in a verse of the song traditionally sung at the close of the avodah service: “Happy is the eye that saw all of these things, but truly to hear of them makes our souls sad.” We have no Temple, no physical space in which God appears to us in incontrovertible majesty, and we may even be prone to doubt that such a place ever really existed as it was said to. We stand in uncertain relationship to the concepts of sacred space and divine forgiveness, fear and the presence of God. But, fortunately, there is a traditional text we read today that addresses this uncertainy, that speaks directly to our experience, even if it is the story of a man who spent three days in a fish’s belly.

We will chant the book of Jonah today at mincha, the afternoon service. Jonah was not a priest, and the book that bears his name never explicitly identifies him as a prophet, though this seems to have been the nature of his mission. We do not know precisely where Jonah lived, what he believed, how he worshipped. We do not know if he ever saw the Jerusalem Temple, but we do know that he had an understanding of what it meant to inhabit a sacred space, and that he knew what it meant to be afraid.

God calls upon Jonah to preach repentence to the great city of Ninveh, and Jonah runs away. He takes a ship to Tarshish but God raises a storm, and the sailors, to save themselves, cast him overboard. He sinks to the bottom of the sea and is swallowed by the fish. In the belly of the fish he prays. Following the ordeal of drowning, Jonah believes he has been saved. Like the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, he has been judged favorably and spared the full wrath of the Lord. Now he is communing with God in sacred space, not the inner room in Jerusalem, but an impromptu chamber fashioned in the innards of a whale. And so, he says, “’I told myself, “I am banished from before your eyes,” yet I once again look upon heykhal kodshekha, the sanctuary of your holiness.’”

The text, however, makes it clear that Jonah’s sanctuary is the one place in the story where God is absent. “And the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish 3 days and 3 nights…And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on to the dry land.” God is portrayed as maintaining a respectful distance while Jonah communes with himself in what he nonetheless believes to be the presence of God. God provides Jonah with a godless refuge, because God knows that Jonah is not quite ready to face what Jonah truly fears.

What does Jonah fear? We know he is afraid because we see him run away, running from the task that God has appointed to him; he runs from d’var adonai, the word, or the matter, of the Lord. God pursues him, but Jonah is not afraid of the storm—he sleeps peacefully in the shelter of the ship’s hold. But he hesitates to make himself known, until God points the finger at him, in the form of a cast lot, and he can no longer remain incognito. He finds shelter in the belly of the whale, until God makes the whale vomit him up on dry land. But Jonah is not afraid of God’s wrath. He longs to witness the destruction of Ninveh, and he has no qualms about raising his own voice in complaint when this destruction is averted. And yet he is angry when, on the outskirts of Ninveh, the shelter of a gourd is denied him, and he wants to die. But it is here, on the outskirts of the city, that Jonah tells us what he truly fears, that Jonah acknowledges why he ran: “This is why I feld to Tarshish,” he says, “for I knew that You are a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy.” He does not fear God’s judgement. He does not fear God’s absence. Jonah is afraid of God’s compassion.

Jonah’s only observable traits seem to be fear and anger, and yet God makes him the most successful prophet of all times. Everyone he meets, from the sailors on the ship to Tarshish, to the citizens of Ninveh, is encouraged to seek God—to seek life and the gratitude for life. But Jonah himself asks only for shelter, for death, and for destruction. He wants safety from what he is afraid to partake of, or he wants it to end. We can explain this paradox, the dissonance between the man and his mission, by understanding this book not as the record of Jonah’s prophecy, but as the testimony of his atonement. God calls on Jonah not to preach to Ninveh, but to make him abandon his shelter, his sanctuary, for a ferocious experience of God’s compassion—to live in the face of the possiblity, agonizing precisely in its uncertainty, that life might occasionally triumph in the midst of death. God says to Jonah: “You may long for the power of my wrathful judgment, you may claim to commune with me in the safety of an empty room, but if you truly seek my presence, you must acknowledge your own name, you must accept the burden of your experience, and you must be ready to live and encourage life, not in the belly of the whale, but in the midst of the storm and in the face of the wickedness of the world.”

The light of the legacy we have received from Aaron and his descendents, the essence of Yom Kippur, may then finally shine through to us in Jonah’s story. We may tremble as we approach the kadosh, not because we think a king may judge us favorably or wrathfully, or because we are anxious about the absence of God, but because it is difficult, even terrifying, to abandon our shelter and take up the raw task of living for the sake of the sanctification of life—truly acknowledging that there is only a possibility, and never a certainty, that life and blessing will persist in the face of death and change. We discover that we sin and transgress, we need purification, precisely when fear and anger cause us to turn our eyes away from living, and to seek its destruction. We see that atonement itself is the process of coming to terms with the awesome responsibility of standing in the compassionate presence of God.

G’mar tov.

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Kol Nidre Talk

It’s taken me a while to get my legs back after the High Holidays. Here’s my talk from Kol Nidre. I’ll post the next morning’s d’var Torah in a couple of days…

There are two things that, for me, create the special mood of the Yom Kippur evening service. The first is that, by the time we arrive at this moment, we have already begun to obey the Torah’s command t’anu et nafshotechem—afflict yourselves, deny yourselves—on this day. But although our fast is underway, at this point we do not yet really feel any sharp pangs. Our hunger, and its conseqeuences have entered our awareness, but its reality has yet to take hold of our bodies. This is a unique moment in the progress of a fast, maybe especially suited for contemplating why we engage in one in the first place.

The other thing, however, has already occurred. It took its place, in fact, as the first and most memorable part of our gathering tonight. This was the poignant and ambiguous moment when the hazzan chanted, in a melody that manages to break the heart and exult it at the same time, an Aramaic paragraph possessing all the charm of a tax code:

Kol Nidre: All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, konam-vows, konas-vows, or equivalent terms that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves…regarding them all, we regret them henceforth. They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.

This is a strange way to begin the most solemn day of our calendar: not with a cry from the heart or one of the spiritually uplifiting piyutim, liturgical poems, that can be found throughout our mahzors, but with a dry, legalistic formula proclaiming, in no uncertain terms, that we are released from any and all bonds we have forged, or have yet to forge—depending on the version of the text, which cannot even rightly be called a prayer, that we happen to recite. There is a time-honored tradition of hatarat nedarim, the annulling of vows, on the afternoon preceeding Yom Kippur, which is probably what put this text into circulation in the first place. But that doesn’t explain why it has become the focal point of such an intense ritual moment. Maybe it’s the melody? It certainly is beautiful, but how did these words come to be set to it? What gives them the magnetism to draw such evocative music to themselves?

So this preliminary stage of our holiday gives us two mysteries to chew on: why are we fasting? And what makes Kol Nidre so intense? Let’s start with the second and work our way back to the first.

Not everyone has agreed that Yom Kippur should begin with Kol Nidre. Amram Gaon, the 9th century Babylonian sage who compiled the oldest siddur still in existence, called the practice of this recitation a minhag shtut—a foolish custom—and a number of Sefardic rites, following his lead, leave the text out entirely. Kol Nidre has always been very big in Ashkenaz, but the chidren of the great commentator Rashi, who played such an important role in the formulation of Ashkenazic tradition, still felt the need to tinker with its language. Closer to our own time, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionism, removed Kol Nidre from his first mahzor, though he was later compelled by popular outcry to put it back, emotional attachment trumping the arguments for discarding it.

The concern has always been with the implications of declaring release from the fulfillment of promises, something that has provided a lot of ammunition to Jew haters throughout the ages. If you ever get to feeling too comfortable with your place in the world, I recommend googling the words “Kol Nidre, translation”, and sifting through the anti-Semitic pornography that claims Kol Nidre as ultimate proof of Jewish treachery–“turning” in the words of one articulate counter-commentator,
“Yom Kippur into a vulgar caricature of itself”, warped in the Jew-hating imagination from a day of self-inquiry and betterment to an occasion for eradicating our guilt, so we can sin even more lasciviously against Western Civilization.

But generations of rabbis have been as concerned with the effects misinterpretation of Kol Nidre might have on the social fabric, as they have been with anti-Semitic propoganda. This formula, they have argued, has no bearing on interpersonal vows—commitments between one person and another—whether a family member, a business partner, a client, or a court of law. Such promises cannot be unmade by the pretty trilling of a string of Aramaic words. It is one of the bedrock principles of tshuva, repentence, that prayer does not atone for chat’aim ben adam l’chavero—sins bringing discord to relationships between people, which can only be healed through direct reconciliation with the offended party. Similarly, the liturgical words of Kol Nidre will not release you from your obligations to another human being.

Rather, they address the other major category of transgression: chat’aim ben adam l’makom. This phrase is usually rendered “sins between a person and God,” but the word used for God is makom, meaning place, so I prefer the translation “sins between a person and his place—sins between a person and the ground or foundation of her being.” Traditionally, in the context of Kol Nidre, this might refer to unfullfillable personal vows, often made in haste or under duress, whether the classic foxhole prayer (“If I get out of this alive, I’ll…”) or its close cousin, the prayer of the distressed sportsfan (“If the Celtics pull this one out I’ll name my first child Rajon Rondo.”) Recognizing our tendency to become entangled in impracticable words, Kol Nidre offers us a way out. To put it another way: it releases us when we have used our words to create a sense of self, an arena of expectation, bound ourselves to the foundation of our being in ways that cannot endure. This may begin to explain Kol Nidre’s power, its strange, legalistic intensity. We begin our descent into repentence with a moment of profound release, not from each other, but from ourselves.

I’m going to come back to this point by way of the other question, the one about fasting. T’anu et nafshotechem—afflict yourselves, deny yourselves. We’ll find these words in tomorrow morning’s Torah portion, the sixteenth chapter of Vayikra, Leviticus, describing the very first Yom Kippur ceremony. The Hebrew root ‘ana, from which we get the words t’anu and ta’anit, is complicated, with overtones of ‘humbling’, ‘afflicting’, even ‘torturing’ and ‘violating.’ The Mishnah clarifies that the ta’anit referred to here encompasses five abstentions. On Yom Kippur we are to give up leather shoes, bathing, sex, perfume, and, most famously, food and drink. But why? The classic answer runs something like this: “Giving these things up helps us concentrate more effectively on prayer and atonement.” I’ve heard that all my life, and while I think it may be true that abstention draws energy away from habit, perhaps allowing for greater consciousness, I’m not convinced that fasting aids concentration. Just take a moment to imagine how you’ll be feeling at Ne’ilah tomorrow afternoon. If you’ll forgive me, I don’t think you’ll be lapping up the mahzor word for word. Ta’anit, fasting or self-affliction, is not an aid or conduit to another experience. It is an experience in and of itself.

Tractate Ta’anit of the Babylonian Talmud tells the story of what a community does when, as has been the case in our area this summer, the rains don’t fall as expected. This particular story isn’t about the material reponse—shifts in water usage, planting regimens, and personal consumption, all of which are very important. It tells instead of the emotive response of the population; how persistent anxiety etches itself into the ritual life of a community. Ta’anit, fasting or self-affliction, is the primary response. It begins subtly. At first only dignitaries fast, and only for stretches of certain days of the week. As the drought persists, this intensifies, with more people beginning to fast for longer periods of time. Then they begin to surrender their sensual luxuries, such as annointment with fine oils, wearing finery, ‘marital relations’—until daily life comes to resemble a perpetual Yom Kippur.

Maybe it’s in our genes—an instinct for excessive self-control at a time of scarcity, but this also reminds me of the psychosomatic condition known as cutting, when people, often but not always young women, deliberately make themselves bleed so as to localize an amorphous pain in the solid fact of their own bodies; or to negate the power of random circumstances to hurt them, by hurting themselves. At the same time, it seems like an act of cosmic bargaining, saying to God or nature, fate, chance, or chaos: I am going to take myself as close to death as humanly possible, and all I ask in exchange is that you let me live. This is not what the manuals would term healthy adult behavior, and our tradition, rightly, restricts it to certain days of the year, particularly this one. But I do think what we are doing today, however circumscribed, runs along these lines: that on Yom Kippur, we undertake, through ta’anit, self-affliction, to have a conscious encounter with death.
It is certainly a day on which we invite our dead to be with us in memory and spirit, especially during tomorrow morning’s Yizkor prayer, and this gives me some comfort in what has been, for my family, a year of death. In January, I said goodbye to my beloved Uncle Frank, a tough man who loved me unquestionably though his Orthodoxy, and even delighted in his sly way, to throw me as a Reconstructionist hand grenade into a room full of his black-hatted friends. His sister, my Grandma Ethel, died two weeks later, at the age of 97. I watched in awe as her gently ferocious body took its last breaths, feeling the ground of my being shifting like an earthquake beneath my feet.

My wife’s grandparents should live and be well until 120–though being Knoxville Presbyterians they may wonder why I chose that particular number—but this year has been one of decline for them. My most recent visit with her grandfather, when we were down in Tennessee in July, has stuck in my memory, and plays in my mind as I share these thoughts with you tonight. We sat on the back porch of his home in assisted living, looking out on the square of lawn, its gardens and short trees. I’ve heard the stories of his life before, how as kids he and his brother would be dropped by their father out in the Smoky Mountains to spend long, gorgeous summer days working on the construction of the family cabin we still visit, catching and cooking fish for their supper; about his proud service in the Air Force during WW2, and how he flew over Nagasaki only a day after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Now he was telling me about the birdfeeder he had recently put up, on a post near where he would sit in the shade on the hot afternoons, and how no birds had come yet. He was still waiting. It would make him very happy to see a bird at his feeder.

I don’t see this as a story about getting old, though its message may be expressed with particular poignancy at his stage of life, a blessed life of family, opportunity, and experience. I see it as a story about the nature of human life in general, how it changes, how it passes, how our sense of who we are and what we may expect, the ground of our being, shifts along with it, how for all our dreams and passions, for all our past, there may come a time when all that remains to fill our hearts is the beating of a birds wing; there may well come a time when all that it takes to fill our hearts is the beating of a bird’s wings, if we are not to bitter to appreciate it. And because we have a tendency to forget this, we fast, we afflict ourselves until we remember—remember that we die so that we never forget to be alive.

And so, for the same reason, the bland words of Kol Nidre become incandescent:

Kol Nidre: My vows will not be valid vows, my prohibtions will not be valid prohibitions, my oaths will not be valid oaths. They will all be cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. I will take this moment while I live to nullify the words, expectations, self-images that bind me too rigidly to a ground of being that is always shifting, so that for as long as my heart and my lungs agree to sustain my eyes, I can look on each moment as a new mystery. And in this spirit I will decend into tshuva.

Kol Nidre: “I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any way now, I shall be released.”

Kol Nidre: Within my limitations, I will be unconfined.

G’mar chatimah tova.

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