Sunday, October 19, 2008

Next Year's Party

Apparently, now that the Peter Pan party is over, Meital is already planning next year's party. Tonight at dinner she informed me that next year she wants a Shabbat sleepover with a bed on the cake.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Peter Pan Party

Maase Bereishit

A beautiful view just outside of Hazleton, PA

Divrei Tefillah

In additions to the sermons posted here, I delivered a number of divrei tefillah (words of prayer) on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you are interested in seeing what I said about a particular prayer or part of the service, please leave me a comment or send me an email and I would be happy to make some of those public as well.

If you are having trouble finding a particular sermon, I encourage you to use the navigation links on the right-hand side of the screen.

Yom Kippur Mincha - Jonah

Sometimes, I ask my daughter to do something simple and routine, like brush her teeth. But, she knows that brushing her teeth means that bedtime is just around the corner. I’m sure that she knows that she can’t escape sleep forever. As young as she is, she has already experienced literally hundreds of nights, and therefore hundreds of bedtimes. So, whether she could articulate it or not, at some level she knows that inevitably, no matter how much of a fight she puts up, she will eventually fall asleep. Yet, that does not stop her from protesting bedtime. And because brushing her teeth is linked to bedtime, when she hears me tell her to go into the bathroom and get her toothbrush, she runs the other way. When she does this, of course, I often end up chasing her, catching her, and redirecting her to the bathroom. And no matter how reluctant she is, she eventually brushes her teeth, gets into bed, and falls asleep.
Jonah, the hero of our haftorah reading this afternoon, is considerably older than my daughter, yet his reaction to G-d’s request that he go prophesy in Nineveh is strikingly similar to my daughter’s response to being asked to brush her teeth. Precisely because he feels confident that he can predict the outcome of a series of events, he runs away from the first step in the series. It turns out that Jonah was right in his prediction of how events would unfold. Apparently, he was familiar with the routine. But, the only way we know that Jonah’s prediction of how events would unfold was accurate is that he, like my daughter, did eventually do what was asked of him.
Did Jonah really have any choice in the matter? Could he have continued to try to run from G-d? Perhaps. He could have led G-d on a more dramatic, more prolonged chase. He could have fled from his duty for so long that he forgot why he was running or why calamities continually occurred in his presence. Some of us live our entire lives like that. We say that we are born under an unlucky star, that our luck has run out, that no one ever cuts us any breaks. But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe the reason that some of us experience so much trouble in our lives is that we are fleeing from G-d’s Will, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Maybe all of those challenges that we face in life are designed to help awaken us to our own true destinies. After all, most of us do not receive clear instructions from G-d, as Jonah did. We are left to fumble about and find out life’s mission by ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that G-d doesn’t leave signs for us to find, doesn’t place obstacles where we aren’t meant to tread and a clear path where we are.
I’m not trying to suggest that the easy path is necessarily always the one that G-d wants us to follow. On the contrary, I think that challenges make us stronger. They are what enable us to grow, to realize our true potential. But we have all experienced moments in our lives where things just seemed to click – the moment felt right, the connection to another human being was there, or we realized how everything in our lives combined to put us precisely in this place at this time. Those are the moments given to us to glimpse G-d’s signposts in our lives. Those are the moments when we, whether on purpose or by accident, find our lives precisely conforming to G-d’s plan for us as individuals.
Of course, if G-d has a plan for each of us, and if each of us has only one particular purpose on earth, then one needs to pose the age-old question of whether human lives are predetermined or whether we have free will. Many much greater philosophers than I have spent countless hours debating this topic to no clear resolution. We appear to be free to make our own choices in our lives. We subjectively feel as if we are making choices and are in control of our own lives and destinies. Yet, simultaneously, we are bombarded by stories of predestination and of G-d’s interference in the world to bring about a particular desired outcome.
Which is real/true? Our feelings or our stories? Certainly, we all acknowledge that some stories we tell one another are true, while others are made up – a way of getting a point across, entertaining, or trying to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. Similarly, we can all point to instances when feelings we have had represent reality, and times when the feelings are divorced from the reality around us. We may have a particularly vivid dream in which we fight with someone which leaves us feeling angry at that person for something that he or she never did. Similarly, we may feel as if we are in control of a situation and making meaningful decisions when really there is someone else more powerful than us pulling the strings and limiting the available options.
I want to suggest that, like so much of life, the answer is not black and white. It is not that life is either predetermined or that we have free will, but a combination of the two. G-d has a plan that includes each and every one of us. But, the choices that confront us are, indeed, real choices. Just because a parent has a vision for how his or her child’s life should turn out, does not mean that the child cooperates, the child may make choices that are not consistent with the parent’s vision of the future. Some outcomes are beyond our control, no matter what choices we make. No matter how much my daughter fights bedtime, sleep will eventually overtake her. But, along the way, she may have successfully exercised her free will and chosen not to brush her teeth.
Jonah’s eventual preaching in Nineveh and the people’s last minute repentance does not seem quite so inevitable as falling asleep. And maybe there’s nothing in the Jonah story that is actually entirely predetermined. Maybe he really does have free will throughout. But whether the end is truly inevitable or not, it is clearly a fulfillment of G-d’s vision for how the world for be. According to G-d’s plan, it is proper that the citizens of Nineveh repent, and it is Jonah’s role to be instrumental in bringing about that repentance.
Sometimes, we get so stuck in our own little bubbles, our own view of the world, that we forget that there are different perspectives out there. In some ways, the story of Jonah is like the oft-repeated metaphor of the tapestry. When one looks at the backside of a tapestry, it appears to be nothing more than a jumble of thread and knots arranged in no particular order at all. From the perspective of the back of the tapestry, one cannot see the plan inherent in the whole. However, when you turn a tapestry over and take a step back, the individual threads merge into a rich texture and a singular image or pattern.
Often, we are unable to see the pattern that G-d has in mind. But, occasionally, G-d gives us a glimpse of our place in the greater scheme of things. Rarely, this occurs in the form of a direct command or request that an individual do something specific – as in the case of Jonah. Other times, we get a little flash of insight, an intuition or feeling that something is the way that things are meant to be, the way that we are meant to live our lives, the purpose that G-d has in mind for us, either as a community or as individuals.
Sometimes, these flashes of insight scare us. For one reason or another, we don’t feel qualified or capable of fulfilling the destiny G-d seems to have marked out for us. When that happens, despite the fact that we know (or think we know) what G-d wants and / or expects from us, we deliberately try to flee from G-d’s will. We may even do everything in our power to avoid doing the one thing that G-d is demanding of us. Of course, not everyone who fails to follow the divine grand scheme of things is willfully disobeying or running away from G-d. There are those who run away from the divine plan unintentionally. They just aren’t able to see the hints that are being left all around them. After all, most of us do not get as direct instructions from G-d as Jonah got.
But, I want to reemphasize the fact that I believe that G-d does have a plan for each and every one of us. Each of us has a job to do in this world. Our lives have purpose. And nothing good comes from trying to hide from our true task in this world. As Jonah learned the hard way, when we deviate from the destiny G-d intends for us, we face rough storms and places as dark as the belly of the whale. Yet when we are willing and able to live up to G-d’s assignments, we become better people, people who are capable of affecting change in others. When children brush their teeth and go to bed on time, they are healthier and enable their parents to keep their sanity. When Jonah goes to Nineveh, he gained confidence in himself and helped bring others back to the ways of G-d. By doing what G-d expects of us, we fill our lives with meaning and enrich the world around us.

May you be sealed for a fulfilling, enriching year.

Yom Kippur Sermon

In the ancient world, one of the ways in which people expiated their sins was through child sacrifice. Followers of the god Molech performed their child sacrifices in a valley right outside of Jerusalem, a valley known as the Valley of Gehenom. (In fact, it is from the abhorrent rites performed in this valley that the Jewish name and concept of hell derived.) Within the Jewish tradition itself, there are many scholars who view akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, as either an attempt at child sacrifice or a polemic against it. Clearly, the notion that one gained atonement through human sacrifice was prevalent in the ancient Middle East. But, with the possible exception of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, Jews have been neither proponents nor practitioners of human sacrifice as a means to either repentance or atonement.
Yet, in Biblical times, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get away from the notion of sacrifice altogether. So, the ancient Israelites did not dispense with sacrifices. Instead, we credit ourselves, and G-d, for a major religious innovation – the institution of animal sacrifices. In fact, we developed quite an elaborate system of animal sacrifices. There were different offerings to be brought for different occasions. The animals had to be unblemished. An entire economic system sprung up around the Temple. Since many people did not want to chance bringing animals for sacrifices from far away, many merchants set up shop in the Jerusalem environs. For example, in Beit Guvrin, just outside of Jerusalem, a huge dove-cote was carved out of an underground cave. Pilgrims coming to the Temple in Jerusalem could stop here to buy the birds they needed for their sacrifices. While details on how to acquire animals for sacrifices are not recorded in the Torah, descriptions of the rest of the process are. The Torah provides instruction to the Cohanim, the priests, on how to how exactly to perform these sacrifices, including what to wear and what to think. It also tells those bringing the sacrifices how to go about it – what to bring, how much, and when. In fact, we read a sampling of these instructions today.
Given the heavy emphasis on animal sacrifices as the way to communicate with G-d and to achieve expiation of one’s sins, it is no wonder that with the destruction of the Temple, the site of these sacrifices, the Israelites were devastated. Without a place to bring the designated sacrifices, how would they ever atone for their sins? How would they ever be able to get back into G-d’s good graces?
In the Talmud, in tractate Megillah, one possible solution is offered up. The Rabbis depict G-d as saying that reading the passages in the Torah about the sacrifices can stand in for doing the sacrifices themselves. So, while the Israelites no longer had a Temple, they did still have the Torah, and they could read about the sacrifices. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, unlike the sacrifices themselves, readings of the selected passages were never offered up as individual offerings. Rather, they were read communally at set times, much as we do today.
So, the problem of how an individual might go about doing repentance, atoning, or receiving expiation from sins still remained. At least as early as the end of the Second Temple period, the sacrifices were not offered alone, but were often accompanied by prayers. For example, according to the Mishna, the biblical passages that make up the Shma were recited in the Temple along with the twice-daily Tamid offering.
Even more significantly, beginning sometime between the time of the first and second Temples, another religious institution had begun to spring up – the Beit Kenesset. Literally, a Beit Kenesset is a house of gathering. While the Temple remained the center of Jewish ritual and spiritual life as long as it stood, the Beit Kenesset provided an alternative location for Torah study and prayers, two activities that gained in importance following the destruction of the Temple. In diaspora communities without access to the Temple in Jerusalem, passages such as the Shma were recited in the Beit Kenesset at times corresponding to the times when the Tamid sacrifice had been offered in the Temple. By the time of the Mishnah, it was understood that the Men of the Great Assembly instituted that Jews both in Judea and in the Diaspora were required to pray three times a day (morning, afternoon and evening), and include in their prayers at least the recitation of certain biblical passages such as the Shma.
Prayer therefore came to replace animal sacrifices which had, in turn replaced human sacrifices. Yet, there is a huge difference between prayer and sacrifice. Sacrifice is active and public. It requires you to go out and do something. Not only do you have to acknowledge that you have done something wrong and that you want to do better in the future, but you actually have to go out and do something about it. You need to spend your hard-earned money on the animal for the sacrifice. You need to take time out of your busy schedule to bring the animal to the Temple and wait for it to be received. And you need to publicly acknowledge what you are doing. You need to admit your guilt and culpability not just to yourself, but also to the priest, and possibly even to anyone else who might also be there at the time. Prayer, on the other hand, is much more passive and private. No one else need ever know the content of your prayer. You can pray so quietly that even the person standing next to you can’t hear. You can pray when you are alone in a room and no one else can see. And you can complete a prayer in a lot less time than it takes to get an animal all the way to the Temple.
True tshuvah, true repentance, seems like it should require a lot more than just a quick prayer or silent vow to do better next time. The great 12th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides, otherwise known as the Rambam, agreed. He did not think that true repentance could be achieved until one found oneself in the exact same situation with the same temptations and made a different choice. I think of what Rambam said as being like the situation faced by drug addicts. Many drug addicts reach a point at which they recognize that they need help and that what they are doing is wrong and not good for them. So, they do something active. They try to quit on their own or they check into a drug rehab. But the true test of whether the drug addict has kicked the habit is not whether he or she can stay clean and remain off of drugs while in the rehab. The true test comes when the addict leaves the protection of the rehab and goes back to the same environment from which he or she came before. It is only when a drug addict is walking the same streets, taking to the same friends, and being faced with the same choices as before that one can tell whether a true transformation, a true tshuva has taken place. If the drug addict can be in the same old environment and refrain from taking drugs, then he or she has truly done tshuva, has truly repented of his or her old ways. And while he may not have said it explicitly, I think that Rambam realized that such a transformation hardly ever occurs just on the basis of prayer alone.
Prayer is a good place to start. Repentance cannot occur without the self-reflection and self-examination that prayer helps us achieve. As we read the words of a prayer or learn the words of a new piece of Torah, they should help us to see both the path that we want to be taking and the ways in which we are failing to achieve our potential as Jews.
True atonement, however, cannot occur without some action on our part. It is commonly said that we remember only 10% of what we see, 20% of what we hear, and 70% or more of what we do. Or, as Confucius said, "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Clearly, active engagement enhances memory. And in the case of atonement, we are trying to undo one memorized pattern of responses in favor of another, more positive response. Since Jews believe that, when it comes to sin, what matters is not the thought but the action, atonement needs to be the process of replacing one action with another.
How do we accomplish this active repentance? While the Temple stood, we brought different types of sacrifices for different things. A sin offering was not the same as a guilt offering or a thanksgiving offering. So, too, we need to our actions to match the repentance we are trying to do. In this regard, the practice of kapparot, while active, does not accomplish, in my mind, the same thing as true repentance. Swinging either a chicken or a bag of money around one’s head, even with the proceeds going to feed the poor, does not meet Maimonides criteria for repentance. There has been no confrontation with one’s own individual past deeds, no change in behavior that indicates a spiritual transformation.
Very often, in today’s American society, we settle for the quick fix. We don’t give ourselves the time to truly do the spiritual work needed to change who we are and how we move about in this world. Rather than truly examine ourselves and how we need to atone, we send mass emails asking our friends and family for forgiveness. We buy our way to atonement by purchasing a chicken to swing about our heads.
Yet, even in our bandaid-solution society, where we cover over major problems with ill-fitting quick fixes, there are examples of how one can truly make positive changes in one’s own life. On the t.v. show the Supernanny, for example, people really do make the effort to change destructive behavior patterns. They repent of past behaviors toward other members of their family, and they atone by incorporating the Supernanny’s often innovative solutions to remold their interactions with one another.
If only each of us could call on the spiritual Supernanny, the expert who could pinpoint exactly what it is that we need to repent for in our own lives and provide us the precise method by which we could achieve our desired results. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It is up to each one of us to identify our own shortcomings, our own personal inadequacies of which we must repent. Once we have identified those areas of our lives that are in need of improvement, the next step is to identify what appropriate tshuva for that failing would look like. For example, if someone, let’s call her Sally, were to realize that she constantly spoke poorly of a neighbor, then Sally might actively repent by refraining from speaking poorly of her neighbor when the next opportunity presented herself. Or, she might actively search out positive things about her neighbor that she could mention to friends. On the other hand, Nate might realize that he failed to perform the mitzvah of visiting a sick person in the hospital. While it’s not a bad idea for Nate to apologize to his friend for not having visited, and such an apology might be necessary to maintain a good relationship with his friend, an apology alone does not constitute active tshuva. Perhaps Nate’s friend is still not fully mobile and would really be cheered up by a visit. In such a situation, if he still does not visit his friend, Nate has not actually repented. And if Nate’s friend is fully recovered and no longer needs visitors, there are other ways in which Nate can effect active repentance. He could visit other friends who are sick, or he could even visit members of the community whom he does not know well. However, if Nate were to start speaking well of his neighbor, that would not serve as atonement for not having visited his friend in the hospital. The two are unrelated.
Repentance needs to be in some way connected to the sin committed. But it is not enough to vow to do better next time. We each must set out to actively effect our own atonement. We do this through the performance of positive actions that mirror the sinful actions we did previously. And, as Jews, it is the lessons that we learn from praying and studying Torah that help to guide us on the proper path – illuminating the desired actions and outcomes and throwing into stark relief the moments when we sin, when we fall off the path. Then, when we have incorporated the appropriate course correction into our lives, we have achieved true, active repentance.
Doing active tshuva isn’t easy. It is much easier to pay for a chicken to swing above our heads as we perform the kapporet ritual. It is easier still to make a vow to ones-self to do better next time, with no real expectation that change will occur. And it is yet easier still to read the words in a prayerbook without understanding their meaning in the hopes that they will effect some magic expiation of sin. But empty prayer was never the solution, never the means to true repentance.
In ordaining the sacrifices as the means to expiate sin, G-d signaled to us that sin can only be cleansed by an active process of coming forward, of putting one’s self physically into the process of repentance. Reading the Torah passages about the details of the sacrifices does not take the place of action, but serves to remind each and every one of us that repentance is hard work. Repentance requires an investment of your money. Repentance requires an investment of your time, and it requires you to be physically present in the moment. And when you are willing to put your whole being into the effort to make a change, to correct a wrong, then G-d sees that effort and cannot help but grant the expiation for which you have worked so hard.

Kol Nidre Sermon

“An Angel”

An angel
Snuggled in my lap,
nestled her head
in the crook of my arm.
An angel
grew heavy with sleep
face glowing
through closed eyelids
relaxed lips.
An angel
trusted me
to keep her safe.

The Rabbis teach that on Yom Kippur, we, each and every one of us, are like an angel. As the great 16th century rabbi and mystic Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, explained: "All of the mitzvot that God commanded us on [Yom Kippur] are designed to remove, as much as possible, a person's relationship to physicality, until he is completely like an angel." What did he mean by that? What do we do during these 25 hours of Yom Kippur that make us angelic? What are angels?
Many people picture the angels as being white creatures; because of their purity, and that we wear white on Yom Kippur in order to look like them. But, how do we know what angels look like? One way is through the writings of those who say that they have seen angels and/or the heavenly court. There are many visions of G-d throughout the Tananch and rabbinic literature, including the first chapter of Ezekial, 1 Kings 22:19-23, and Isaiah 6:2-3.
Ezekial’s vision of sapphires, fire, and spinning wheels is more overwhelming than the most elaborate Broadway show or the biggest screen movie with the most outrageous special effects. It is too over the top for me. It is Isaiah’s vision, his “call scene”, that I find most powerful. Isaiah described his vision, saying:
שְׂרָפִים עֹמְדִים מִמַּעַל לוֹ, שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם לְאֶחָד: בִּשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה פָנָיו, וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה רַגְלָיו--וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף. וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.
“Above Him stood the seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew; And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:2-3).
Isaiah’s vision has just the right mix of spectacular heavenly other-worldliness combined with a simplicity and gravity of a spiritual ritual or ceremony. And I am clearly not alone. As Professor Michael Fishbane comments in his book about the Haftorot, people have written volumes of poetry about Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah’s angels are indeed miraculous creatures that capture the imagination.
But, in our attempt to become angels for a day, we do not actually attempt to look like the angels of Isaiah’s vision. While it might be fun to dress up as angels on Yom Kippur, especially for the children, it would probably be uncomfortable to try and actually go about the day wearing six wings, especially if we had to actually keep our faces and our legs covered! Instead of trying to look like the angels, therefore, we try to imitate their actions: the outward manifestation of their spirits. And what actions do these these fantastical angels that Isaiah saw take? They praise G-d.
That doesn’t sound so hard. It certainly sounds easier than holding wings over our faces all day! In our prayers, we, too, are used to praising G-d. The Rabbis, however, wanted to get their angelic imitation just right. In tractate Hullin of the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis argued over how exactly the angels Isaiah saw recited their praise of G-d. The Talmudic sage Rav thought that there are three groups of angels each reciting a different portion of the verse קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ. I imagine that such a scene would be like a concert, where the sopranos, altos, and tenors are each singing a different part, but they all combine together to a beautiful whole. In contrast, others believe that there were only two groups of angels. The first group called out “kadosh”, then the second group answered “kadosh”, and finally they joined together to say “kadosh”. The medieval French commentator Rashi “suggests that the calling is a mutual angelic invitation to sanctify G-d, performed in unison”. The rabbis who wrote our siddur, our prayer book, interpreted Isaiah’s vision as a combination of these latter two options. Two groups of angels called out antiphonally, prompting each other with the next line of praise. This is the way that we reenact the scene on a daily basis, with the two groups of angels being represented by the shaliach tsibor, the prayer leader, and the congregation.
Yes, you heard that right. We reenact this angelic scene every day. On weekdays, we do it four times a day, in fact. Today, on Yom Kippur, we do it more than any other day during the year – seven times! We say this line קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ every time that we do a repetition of the Amidah, the silent prayer. We also say it two other times during the morning service, Shacharit!
I am clearly not the only one fascinated by Isaiah’s vision of these six-winged angels praising G-d. The rabbis incorporated it into our liturgy three times within the space of a single service. We call our recitation of Isaiah’s vision the kedusha, the sanctification. Why do we say the same thing so many times in such a short space of time? Perhaps you have heard of the well known teaching strategy: see one, do one, teach one. The rabbis were master teachers who understood this principle well. See one, do one, teach one. First, Isaiah shows us his vision of the angels, and we watch what it is that the angels do. Then, we stand up and try it ourselves during the repetition of the Amidah. As we recite the kedusha of the Amidah, we mimic the angels. So, we stand with our feet together, to mimic the single leg that the angels had, and we rise up on our toes to mimic the way that the angles flew, and to try to rise up to the level of the heavens where G-d sits on the heavenly throne. Finally, at the end of the morning service, we say these words one last time, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ. Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.
In tractate Hagigah of the Talmud, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that Rabbi Yochanan taught that from every word that G-d spoke, an angel was created. The Tosofot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, agreed that new angels are constantly being created from a river of fire. These new angels rush to sing a song of praise to G-d and then are almost immediately banished from the heavenly realm. Yet, simultaneously, the heavenly host is comprised of fixed angels about whom we even have names and descriptions. What is it that distinguishes the “permanent” angels from those who barely survive a single song of praise? The Tosofot say that the difference is in how they treat one another. The “permanent” angels wait for one another before singing G-d’s praises. As Isaiah said, וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר “And one called unto another, and said”… In other words, they called out to each other, each checking to see if the others were ready before proceeding to sing their song קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The newly formed angels, however, were impatient and thought only of themselves as they rushed to offer their own praises to G-d. Clearly, when imitating the angels on Yom Kippur, we need to be careful. We want to be like the permanent heavenly host, not like the extremely temporary inconsiderate firey newcomers.
So rather than rushing in on Yom Kippur, we prepare ourselves to be transformed from humans to angels. We have prepared for it both during the month of Elul prior to Rosh Hashanah and during the Aseret Yomei Tshuvah, the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By seeing, imitating, and teaching the praises the angels sing to G-d, we too become holy people. How do we do this? Of course, we have asked forgiveness from our friends and families, our colleagues and acquaintances for all of the ways in which we may have hurt them during the preceding year. But we must go further than this We must avoid becoming what Isaiah felt that he was, people of “unclean lips”, as it says וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי “Then said I: Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). In order to become people of “clean” or “pure” lips, we must refrain from speaking poorly about those around us, whether they are our enemies, mere acquaintances, or even friends. It is not easy to refrain from passing on a juicy bit of gossip, or from retelling an embarrassing moment we witnessed during the day. But every time that we stop ourselves from speaking poorly of someone else, we become one step closer to angels, one step closer to holiness. Because it is not enough to be holy here in the sanctuary in the midst of prayer, we need to be holy in our everyday lives, in our schools and in our work-places.
Only then can the day of Yom Kippur itself comes to atone for all of the sins bein adam l’makom, between a person and G-d. In other words, assuming that we have done our part by doing tshuvah, repenting and vowing not to repeat our mistakes, on Yom Kippur, our slates are wiped clean. Our spirits are one again as pure as on the day we were born. We symbolically externalize this purity by wearing white. And then are we ready on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement to become like angels.
But, to become like angels, we need to know what it is that separates humans from angels in the first place. One of the most prominent ways in which humans and angels are believed to differ is in their physical nature. We humans are rooted in our physicality and much of our time is spent preoccupied with that physicality. We agonize over the way that our bodies look both clothed and unclothed. We spend countless hours shopping for the perfect outfit for an event. We spend hours toning our muscles by going to the gym, playing sports, running, and walking. We cover up what we view as our own physical imperfections by putting on makeup, shaving, and undergoing plastic surgery. Most of all, we spend an extraordinary amount of time figuring out how to fuel our physical bodies – deciding what and when to eat and how to make sure that both food and drink are available when we want and need it.
On this day, however, we do our utmost to deny our physicality and transcend the physical world. The most obvious way we attempt this spiritual ascension is to refrain from eating, drinking and preparing food on Yom Kippur. (Though, this can be extra hard as many of us find ourselves fixated on food at various points throughout the day.) And while fasting might be the most apparent, it is not the only sacrifice made our bodies make to our spirit. We refrain from other physical pleasures as well. For the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, we are forbidden to engage in sexual relations. We don’t anoint ourselves with oils or lotions, and we don’t wash our bodies. In other words, we try our best to shed our corporal desires and become spiritual beings, like the angels, rather than the physical beings that we are for every other day of the year.
On Yom Kippur, we are given a short window of time in which we truly strive to be like angels. We make every attempt possible to rise above our physicality and focus on our spiritual sides, by denying physical needs and desires. We externalize our pure spirit in white clothes. We spend the day in praise of G-d, repeating קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ like the angels in Isaiah’s vision; and we do this standing upright like the angels, spending most of Yom Kippur standing in the synagogue. Like the permanent angels, we make ourselves holy through careful speech, deferring to others and not rushing either to mental judgment or physical action. Through our imitation of the angels, we strive to be inspired to new heights for the coming year, and many years to come.

People walk
forever searching,
Angels stand
The six wings
And we
who long for wings
to reach higher,
see more,
go, do…
must forgo shortcuts
and dizzying heights
for the power in our legs.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Day 2

A couple I know wanted more than anything to have children. But, they were unable to conceive. They tried everything. Eventually, they even tried using a surrogate mother, but once the surrogate became pregnant, she started taunting the wife, playing on her feelings of shame and failure. Finally the surrogate pulled the most heartbreaking trick of all and backed out on the deal, saying that she wanted to raise her son by herself. The couple, especially the wife, was devastated. Then, miraculously, one day, the doctor told them that they were going to have a baby! This woman I know laughed. She thought that she had reached menopause and was too old to have a baby of her own. Their joy at learning of her pregnancy was infectious. Their son was born and grew up into a quiet young man. Then, one day, father and son went camping. The son was sunbathing on a rock when something inexplicable possessed the father to grab his hunting knife. He knelt down with the knife to his son’s throat, when a gust of wind blew the smoke from the fire into his eyes. When the father’s eyes had cleared, so had his mind, and the boy escaped physically unscathed. Tragically, by the time they got home, they found that the boy’s mother had died that same day. The boy, devastated by grief and trauma, never spoke to his father again.
A tragic story all around but, why did I tell you the long preamble about the son’s miraculous conception? What does it have to do with his near-death experience? Wouldn’t the story have been just as tragic if I told you it this way instead: I know this father who took his son camping. The son was sunbathing on a rock when something inexplicable possessed the father to grab his hunting knife. He knelt down with the knife to his son’s throat, when a gust of wind blew the smoke from the fire into his eyes. When the father’s eyes had cleared, so had his mind, and the boy escaped physically unscathed. Tragically, by the time they got home, they found that the boy’s mother had died that same day. The boy, devastated by grief and trauma, never spoke to his father again.

Both stories are about a father who almost killed his son, a son who escaped, and a mother who died before seeing that her son was safe. But in the first story, we care a lot more about the son because of the effort his parents put into his birth. All children are precious, but it can be hard to care about an abstract boy in a story, especially when we know almost nothing about the boy himself, even if the person telling the story knows the family personally. In our story, however, we know more about the son. He’s a miracle child, and the parents went through a lot to bring him into the world. This fact gives him an added value.
It’s human nature to attach higher value to things we work for than to things which come easily. I’ll give you an example from my own life. When I was in college, I was on my school’s crew team. Every year, the first year team started out with about forty members, but because crew was such a demanding sport, only a few were left by the end of the year. For those of us who survived, we were awarded with the same crew team sweatshirts the upperclasswomen wore. Even though I grew up in New England and my closet was full of sweatshirts, I wanted a crew sweatshirt for myself. Why? because you couldn’t just buy a one. You had to earn it by working hard and staying on the team for an entire year. It was a clear symbol of the effort I put in to become a being member of the team Now, I have long since discarded all of those other sweatshirts that I wore back in college. But I am still proud to own and wear that crew sweatshirt.
Clearly, a child cannot be compared to a sweatshirt. But, that same feeling of triumph and accomplishment are there in the son’s conception and birth. (And if you hadn’t guessed it yet, the family in my first story was Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.) By telling the story of Abraham and Sarah’s infertility followed by Isaac’s miraculous conception and birth, the audience comes to value Isaac as his parents did, making the story of his binding, the akedah, that much more dramatic. Any story of child sacrifice is bound to be dramatic and send chills up your spine, as in the stories of Yiftach and his daughter, or Agamemnon and Iphigenia. This is especially true if the listener is either a child or a parent (and we are, after all, all someone’s child). But the level of drama increases when the child in question is an only child. The story becomes even more dramatic still when this only child to be sacrificed was the result of a miraculous birth. This is one of the major themes of the miracle of Isaac’s birth.
The more you value something, the harder it is to give it up. We all have objects that we value more because of the effort involved in attaining them. Sometimes the object is tangible, as in the case of my sweatshirt, a trophy won, or the publication of a piece of writing. Other times, it is the attainment of a particular job title, praise from a particular colleague or supervisor, or a flash of insight. Such objects, whether they are tangible or intangible, are sources of pride and accomplishment. When we are forced, whether by time, economic necessity, or the pressure of a family member to relinquish that object, the loss is always painful. When we have built up a sense of personal identity intertwined with the attainment of the object in question, the loss is that much more painful.
Yet, we all go through such trials, and most of us are able to survive them in a healthy manner. Sometimes, we have re-envisioned who we are before needing to give up that tangible reminder. While I remain proud of my accomplishment as a member of a collegiate crew team, I no longer row, nor do I consider myself an athlete in any sense of the word. If I were to lose my sweatshirt, or my husband were to throw it out, I would be upset, but in no way shaken to my core. (Not that I’m suggesting that anyone should go home and throw out their spouse’s things!)
Other times, however, the loss seems nearly unbearable. This could be the loss of a job, or the death of a family member, or the destruction of a building such as the world trade center. When a loss like this occurs, we feel as if our whole sense of self is being brought into question. This, I imagine, is what Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac all felt that fateful day on Mount Moriah.
(Sarah) Most mothers feel such strong bonds with their children that they would lay down their own lives for that of their children. The thought of losing a child is unbearably painful. When that child is an only child and there is no hope of any more, many mothers become a little extra protective, and Sarah was no exception. She banished Ishmael to protect her son. How bereft she must have felt upon finding out about her husband’s intent to sacrifice her son!
(Abraham) And what of her husband? Didn’t Abraham feel reluctance, remorse, trepidation, and loss in what he felt he was commanded to do? According to the classic midrash found in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin page 89b, Abraham was reluctant to answer G-d’s call. When G-d told Abraham “Take your son,” Abraham replied “But, God, I have two sons (Isaac and Ishmael).” Clearly, he was worried about what G-d was about to require of him. So, G-d clarified, “Your only son.” Still not wanting to believe his ears, Abraham replied “Each is the only son of his mother.” To this, G-d added “Whom you love.” Abraham rejoined “But, God, I love both of them.” So G-d was forced to be blunt and say “Isaac.” If Isaac’s miraculous conception and birth were not enough to make him extra precious in his father’s eyes, then surely this exchange between G-d and Abraham heightens the bond between them. Isaac is considered to be the greater of two loves, as if he were Abraham’s only son. What relief Abraham must have felt when his hand was stayed and the life of his precious son was spared!
(Isaac) And what about the loss that Isaac himself must have felt? Even if he was a 37 year old man at the time of the akedah, as sources such as the Targum Yonatan describes, he must have felt out of control, not having been given a choice in the matter. And despite having physically survived the ordeal, when his father held that knife over him, I imagine that Isaac’s trust in his father was irrevocably shattered. Isaac’s world was permanently altered that day. From this point forward, the Tanach does not record any more conversations or interactions between Isaac and Abraham. Their relationship died bound to that alter on Mount Moriah. With the physical death of his mother following on the heels of the akedah, Isaac was left an orphan. Can there be any greater sense of loss than losing your entire family?
At least three lives were changed forever on Mount Moriah. It is a drama worthy of any modern-day soap opera, reality t.v. show, or bestselling novel. But why does the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, need to be such a dramatic story? Why is it so built up, starting all the way back with Isaac’s miraculous birth?
The story of Sarah and Abraham’s struggle with infertility highlights the preciousness of this particular person, Isaac. The trial of the akedah serves the same purpose – to make Isaac really special and important in our eyes. Through these two stories, Isaac is established as a hero worthy of being one of the patriarchs of the entire Jewish people. Without the build-up, Isaac would simply be a man whose wife consoled him after his mother’s death, and who spent his entire adult life redigging the wells that his father had dug before him. An unexciting schlumph schlepping his way through life. Not a very heroic character to uphold as an ancestor to be venerated… But a man who is the result of a miraculous conception, who is willing to be sacrificed to God, who survives this near-death experience, and yet who is able to get married, raise children and support his family, a man who knows how to survive and triumph over his own losses – sure sounds like a hero to me.
Each and every one of us has the potential to be a hero like Isaac: A person who is able to triumph over devastating personal losses, and continue to go about his own important but unacknowledged work in the world. The world is full of heroes like this. Acknowledge your losses. Grieve them as I’m sure Isaac grieved the loss of his relationship with his father Abraham. Then move on to share your legacy with the world, however humble it may seem in other people’s eyes. Your birth may not seem to be as miraculous as Isaacs, but remember every birth is a miracle. Your sacrifices may not seem to be as public or as large as Isaac’s, but they are sacrifices none-the-less. Isaac’s real greatness, his true contribution to the Jewish people is the one that we don’t discuss every year – the wells that he re-dug and the traditions that he passed on from his father to his sons, his silent but highly successful re-imaging of his self and taking charge of his own future even if it meant rethinking his life story. In other words, the reason we hold Isaac in such high regard is his ability to move past the grief and mistakes of his past and to move forward. In this regard, Judaism demands that we all be silent heroes like Isaac: that we savor our accomplishments, and that we acknowledge the struggles we have endured. And that we do this not just for ourselves, but for those around us as well.
This is a time of year during which we evaluate our past: our triumphs and our failures, our gains and our losses. May this year be the year that You live up to all of your potential as a hero, able to overcome your challenges, and able to celebrate your own achievements as well as the accomplishments of your friends and family.

Shanah tovah.

Rosh Hashanah Day 1

When G-d Hears Our Prayers

A few months ago, we were at Friday night services, and everyone was praying and singing together. Then my 2 ½ year old daughter piped up, and as loud as she could, she started singing the ABCs. In any other context, I might have been mortified and tried to shush her. But, her singing the ABCs made me think of a story told by the great Hassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov. One Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov was praying in a small synagogue. A poor Jewish boy, a shepherd, entered the room, and stood quietly at the back of the room for a while. He looked down at the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, but he was illiterate, and couldn’t read the letters on the page. The boy was deeply moved by the service, and he, too, wanted to pray. He started to whistle, to offer his whistling as a gift to G-d since the one thing he knew he could do beautifully was whistle. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba'al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. "Until now," he said, "I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd's whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to G-d."
Every once in a while, we, too, are blessed with that feeling of knowing that our prayers have reached G-d. A few years ago, in the middle of Rosh Hashanah morning, I knew that G-d had heard my prayers. It’s impossible to fully articulate what such an experience feels like, but I will share with you a poem that I wrote to describe what I felt happen to me, though your personal experiences may be quite different:

“Back Door Praying”

Surrounded by a sea
of faces clustered
at the throne’s foot
hands outstretched
waving petitions
to the King on high,
white haired
and red robed;
I slip away
to another room
bathed in clouds
devoid of jewels
and cry at the feet
of a chestnut-tressed maiden.
Forgive me.
Hug me with love
as a mother
embraces a toddler
amidst the shards of her best vase.
Fulfill my longing
read my bursting heart
in Your womanly wisdom
understand my plight,
my plea.

The stars in Her eyes
reflect the moonlight smile
and we are alone
a cotton oasis
for just a moment
my heart hopes
the prayer’s been kissed,
my petition acknowledged
and I return exhausted
to the self
swaying with the crowd.

Even if we don’t use the liturgy set down for us in the siddur by the rabbis, we all have many experiences of praying. After all, we’ve all heard the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes.” All of us experience moments in our lives when prayer rises out of us unbidden. As kids, we may have begged G-d for a coveted toy. As adults, our prayer moments are more likely moments when we are scared and plead with G-d for our lives and health or the lives and health of those close to us, or even moments when we are overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. And yes, we still have moments when we barter with G-d, promising to give up something we love if only things will work out the way we want.
Usually, however, unlike the experience described in the poem, we pray with no knowledge what-so-ever of whether our prayers are heard, let alone answered.
In codifying how to pray, the rabbis were trying to create a system designed to maximize the efficacy of prayer. They wanted everyone’s prayers to reach G-d’s ears and at least be heard, even if they weren’t answered in the way that people wanted. In tractate Brachot, the part of the Talmud where the rabbis discuss prayers and praying, they talk about how the Shechina, the Divine Presence, is present whenever ten gather together to pray. By praying together in a group of ten, then, the rabbis believed that their prayers could not help but be heard by the Shechina, the Divine Presence.
Consequently, in Judaism, there is great emphasis placed on praying together as a community. Some of our prayers can’t even be said without the minimum ten people required to make up a minyan, a community, a count of ten. In an effort to raise our prayers up to heaven, praying together became a requirement encoded in halakhah, Jewish law.
Unfortunately, we all know how easy it is to physically be somewhere and still not really hear the conversation going on around us. Similarly, just because the Shechina is present, there is no guarantee that a prayer will be heard. And even if a prayer is heard, there’s no guarantee that it will be answered, much less a guarantee that it will be answered in the affirmative. And while the rabbis place great emphasis on communal prayer, lauding it as the ideal, the Tanach itself is full of examples of G-d not just hearing but responding to individual prayers. In fact, we read two of them today: one in our Torah reading, and one in our haftorah reading. Not only do we read them on one of the holiest and most important days of the year, but the same rabbis of the Talmud that taught us to pray in a group, also taught us that Hannah, whose story we read this morning, is the model of prayer (Berakhot 31a).
So, how do we make our prayers heard? Rav Hamnuna says that Hannah teaches us that prayer requires devotion of the heart, since Hannah prayed in her heart; and since only her lips moved, one must articulate the words of a prayer by moving the lips. Furthermore, the priest Eli’s dismissal of her as a drunk teaches us that we must be sober when we pray. The Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of aggadic midrashim compiled in the 13th century, says that Hannah’s prayer teaches us that women are just as obligated to pray as men are. So we, men and women, free of any intoxicating substances, pray by letting our lips move to speak the words in our heart. Hannah is indeed a powerful force in teaching us about the art of prayer.
But, the work of modern biblical scholars such as James Kugel suggests that Hannah teaches us something else about prayer, too. Hannah, if you noticed, prays twice, once before Samuel is born, and once after. In looking at Hannah’s second prayer, the one she said after Samuel was born, James Kugel looks closely at the words that she used, and noticed an odd discrepancy in Hannah’s story. In her prayer (1 Samuel 2:5), Hannah talks about having seven children: עַד-עֲקָרָה יָלְדָה שִׁבְעָה, וְרַבַּת בָּנִים אֻמְלָלָה, “while the barren woman bears seven, the mother of many children is forlorn”. But, it says something different a few verses later (in 2:21)
כִּי-פָקַד יְהוָה אֶת-חַנָּה, וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שְׁלֹשָׁה-בָנִים וּשְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת;
“So the LORD took note of Hannah; she conceived, and bore three sons and two daughters”. Last time I checked, 3 sons plus 2 daughters equals 5 children! So, which is it, did Hannah have 5 children or 7?
Modern biblical scholars such as James Kugel suggest that this discrepancy in the number of children ascribed to Hannah supports the idea that her prayer and the surrounding narrative were originally independent compositions that were combined only later on. These modern critical scholars propose that the text we refer to as “Hannah’s second prayer” should be view as a poem or psalm that exemplifies what liturgy one should employ in a situation like Hannah’s. Not only does Hannah teach us the form of prayer: from the heart with lips moving, she also teaches us the words of prayer, and how to use them. She exemplifies for us the way in which we turn to psalms or poems, to words composed by others, to express our own deepest emotions. She is the paradigm for using the words of a set liturgy to articulate what we personally feel and experience in life.
But, Hannah’s first prayer is of an entirely different nature. In her first prayer, Hannah calls out to G-d with all of her heart and soul. (1 Samuel 1:10) וְהִיא, מָרַת נָפֶשׁ; וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל עַל-ה', וּבָכֹה תִבְכֶּה. “And she was bitter of soul, and prayed to G-d, and surely cried”. The rabbis picked up on the odd participle used in this verse. Typically, the verb to pray doesn’t even need a participle, and when it does take one prays either for l’hitpalel l, or to lhitpalel el something or someone. In fact, the only type of communication that employs the preposition al is licos, to be angry. Using this logic, the rabbis concluded that Hannah must have been very angry at G-d. We don’t know the words that she used in her prayer, but we know that she flung her prayer at G-d with all of her anger and other emotions. Despite the depth of emotion behind it, Hannah’s prayer was so personal that it was between her and G-d alone.
In contrast to Hannah’s silent prayer, our foremother Rachel cries out her prayer aloud: (Genesis 30:1) הָבָה-לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם-אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי. “Give me children and if not, I will die”. Both Hannah’s silent prayer and Rachel’s anguished outburst express the same pain and desperation of a person desperately seeking something that seems beyond her grasp. And we know that G-d hears both the cry of the heart and the cry that escapes from the lips, because both Rachel and Hannah have their prayers answered affirmatively. Both give birth to the sons for which they prayed.
While, like Hannah, Rachel has a lot to teach us about prayer, we did not read Rachel’s story today. We read about a different prayer that G-d heard:
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם
(Genesis 21:17) “G-d heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” Clearly both Hagar and “the boy” (i.e., Ishmael) cried out to G-d, and, like Hannah, they each did so individually even though they were praying for the same or similar things: survival, particularly for Ishmael. Their prayers, though, must not have been identical, because the angel tells Hagar that “G-d has heeded the cry of the boy.” But what about her prayer? Was her prayer answered? Was it even heard? The fact that the angel appears to Hagar would seem to indicate that her prayer, too was heard. Why else would G-d send an angel to reassure her? But, the fact that that G-d heard Ishmael’s prayer implies that Hagar’s prayer was not heeded. It was heard, but either not answered at all or answered negatively.
If both of them were praying for the same things, then why was one prayer heeded and the other not? Maybe the answer is simply that G-d answered the one that G-d heard first. Once one prayer to let Ishmael live was heard, any further prayer on the same subject was redundant and superfluous. But, since G-d didn’t want Hagar to worry, an angel was sent to reassure her that the boy would live. Another possibility is that Hagar and Ishmael weren’t actually praying for the same thing. Whatever it was that Ishmael had cried out, G-d heeded. But, Hagar’s prayer, though it was heard and acknowledged, was not answered positively. The 11th century French commentator and rabbi Rashi offers yet another possible explanation of this scene. Rashi thinks that the fact that G-d heeded the dying boy’s prayer and not the mother’s teaches us that it’s better for a sick person to pray for him (or her) self than for another person to pray on behalf of the sick person. It’s not that praying for someone else isn’t beneficial, or even that those prayers aren’t heard. What Rashi is saying is something with which we are all familiar. A person needs to want to get better for the cure to be effective. He understood that an addict who does not want treatment will not be helped by the best facility around, and the strongest pills will only work if they actually make it into a patient’s body. G-d heeded the cry of the boy, Ishmael, because he was ready to be helped.
Sometimes, like Ishmael, we need to pray for ourselves. Sometimes, like Hannah and Hagar, we need to pray on behalf of others. And sometimes we need to let others pray on behalf of us. Sometimes, we need the space to say our own words, as Rachel cried out, and as Hannah did in her first prayer. And sometimes, as in Hannah’s second prayer, we need the comfort of turning to a liturgy that has already been written.
There are lots of different ways to pray, and each of them is ok, each is a way to connect with G-d. You can pray silently or scream out loud. You can pray in despair, anger, joy, or simply out of habit. You can use the fixed words of the liturgy or compose your own private prayer. You can pray when you are alone, or within the embrace of the community. Our tradition has room for all forms of prayer. The important thing is that you do pray. Not just today and next week on Yom Kippur, but every day.
The Zohar, our classical text of mysticism, teaches that there is an angel responsible for each and every one of our prayers. And that angel responsible for the prayer embraces it and kisses it before raising up the prayer into a higher world. Upon reaching this higher world, this next level closer to G-d, another angel stands ready to hug and kiss the prayer before sending it up even further. In this way, each individual prayer is sent higher and higher and higher until it reaches G-d.
For all those times that we open our hearts and our minds and our mouths in prayer, we know that only a handful of times have things turned out the way we have prayed. Not every toy that we prayed for was there on our birthday, and not everyone we pray for gets better. And we do not see divine messengers who let us know that G-d heard the prayer, and just couldn’t make things turn out the way we wanted. That doesn’t mean that the prayer wasn’t heard. It doesn’t mean that that prayer that came from deep inside wasn’t raised up and kissed by angels. When you pray like Hannah, and pray from your heart, whether you use your own words or the words of the prayers printed in your prayer book, you better believe that your prayers are kissed by angels and delivered straight to G-d. And when we don’t know the words of the psalms, or the words to fully express our emotions, remember that it was the shepherd’s whistling that brought the community’s prayers to G-d’s attention.
Whomever we are praying for, whichever words we utter with our lips or our hearts, when we ask G-d to remember us, our friends, and our family this Rosh Hashanah, we are asking not only that G-d remember us as G-d remembered Hannah, but also that G-d heed us as G-d heeded Ishmael.
May all of our prayers today, throughout this high holiday season, and the whole year through merit the blessing of being heard by G-d.

Shanah tovah.

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This summer, I read a great novel. Many of you may have read it, too. If not, I definitely recommend it. The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs tells the story of a woman named Georgia Walker. Georgia is a remarkable woman, a single mother who successfully managed to start her own business and raise her daughter by herself. Then, 12 ½ years after he left, the father of her daughter reappears in Georgia’s store. Around the same time, another ghost from Georgia’s past also reappears – a high school friend who had promised to attend the same college as Georgia. But, when the friend went back on her promise, she and Georgia stopped speaking and lost touch with one another. The reappearance of these two important pieces of her past understandably throws Georgia into a state of emotional turmoil. Should she let these people back into her life? Both of them were people with whom Georgia was very close. One was her best friend. They did everything together and they shared all of their hopes and dreams with each other. The other was her boyfriend, and they shared an emotional as well as a physical connection. Yet, precisely because they were so close to her, both of them hurt her rather badly when they disappeared. It took her years to get over the hurt of their betrayal, if, in fact, she got over the betrayals at all. As these characters reappeared in Georgia’s life one immediately after the other, I had to wonder at the coincidence. It seemed a little bit contrived to me that both a former best friend and a former boyfriend, the father of her daughter, would reappear in Georgia’s life at roughly the same time. My first reaction to this part of the story was that most of us don’t get one second chance like Georgia, let alone two.
But that’s actually not true. Every year, our tradition reminds us that there is always another chance to make things right with the people in our lives. We are taught that prayer and repentance atone for the sins which one commits against G-d, the transgressions we call bein adam l’makom. In other words, when we forget to pray during the week, or even on Shabbat, or to say a blessing when we eat, that is a matter between us and G-d. So, G-d can forgive us when we repent and vow to try harder next week or next year. But, as the Mishnah (Yoma 85b) teaches, when we hurt each other, when we commit a transgression bein adam l’adam, whether deliberately or accidentally, G-d cannot forgive the offender until he or she has made a sincere effort to obtain forgiveness from the injured party.
Furthermore, our tradition teaches us that it is not enough to ask someone’s forgiveness only once for a hurt we have caused. Rather we must ask once. If the person that we have hurt does not forgive us, then we must come back and ask again. Rav Chisda teaches that a person must come with three friends three times to ask forgiveness from someone he or she has wronged. But once we have sincerely sought a person’s forgiveness three times with no success are we free to stop seeking it, according to R. Yosi b'Rebbi Chanina. (Yoma 87b)
Why does the Jewish tradition place such emphasis on seeking forgiveness from one another? Shalom bayit, peace within a house, is a goal for which we strive at all times. Georgia’s high school friend and former boyfriend are lucky that they did not wait too long to seek Georgia’s forgiveness. We all know how uncertain life is. We read about tragic deaths in the newspaper, we mourn the losses in our own communities, and in our own lives. At no time are we more aware of the fragility of life and death than we are right now, standing on the cusp of a new year. On December 31st, we join our fellow Americans in making New Years resolutions to eat less and exercise more, to skip the second brownie and to actually go to the gym at least once. On Rosh HaShanah, we resolve to become better people, to increase the peace in our houses, and repair the damage that we may have caused in the world. On Rosh HaShanah and the week that follows, we ask forgiveness of each other for all the many ways in which we hurt each other. We think about friends and family members with whom we have lost touch, and we reach out to them. This is our chance to make amends. No one should have to wait twelve and a half years to reconnect with someone, like Georgia did in the Friday Night Knitting Club. Don’t let another year, or even another day, pass you by without taking steps to create shalom bayit, to bring peace into your household.

L’shanah tova tikateivu
May you be inscribed for a good year, a year of shalom bayit, peace in your house, a year in which you reconnect with the important people in your life.