Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, May 31, 2024

The Universe is Humming

Did you know that “the whole universe is humming?” That’s how Atlantic writer Adam Frank describes a recent scientific breakthrough. According to Frank, hard data now proves that, “Every star, every planet, every continent, every building, every person is vibrating along to the slow cosmic beat…a background of gravitational waves [are] washing through the universe, the space-time equivalent of car horns, jackhammers, and shouts all combining into the diffuse cacophony of city life.”

What’s the source of this universal heartbeat? According to the experts, the source may be “the zillions of supermassive black holes, some billions of times heavier than the sun, that reside at the center of every galaxy. Over cosmic timescales, galaxies collide and merge—and so do their black holes. These are near-apocalyptic events in terms of their effect on space-time, like a wall of speakers at a heavy-metal concert blasting against so many eardrums. Untold numbers of galaxies have merged across the 13.8-billion-year life of the universe, and those blasts should still be echoing in the background of space-time today. And so, perhaps, should the gravitational waves from the birth of the universe itself. The Big Bang was, well, a big bang. Initiating the expansion of everything required so much energy, and did so much violence, that it should have flooded space-time with gravitational waves that continue to ricochet around the universe to this day.”

Scientists found that “Every gravitational wave in that background…is humming through the very constitution of the space you inhabit right now. Every proton and neutron in every atom from the tip of your toes to the top of your head is shifting, shuttling, and vibrating in a collective purr within which the entire history of the universe is implicated.”

If you’re looking for a succinct description of what I think “God” is, it’s in that description. I don’t believe in a God who is pulling at invisible strings a living puppet performance. Instead, I understand God as a connective force, a uniting essence that connects the dots between all organisms and the inanimate world we inhabit. I believe God is the pulsing heartbeat that syncs them together.

This scientific discovery that Frank describes makes me feel so small and insignificant but also infinitely connected at the same time.

Scientifically, what do we gain with this insight? Nothing tangible, really, but perhaps something transformational instead.

Frank continues in his article: “The gravitational-wave background is huge news for the cosmos, yes, but it’s also huge news for you. The nature of reality has not changed—you will not suddenly be able to detect vibrations in your morning coffee that you couldn’t see before. And yet, moments like these can and should change how each of us sees our world. All of a sudden, we know that we are humming in tune with the entire universe, that each of us contains the signature of everything that has ever been. It’s all within us, around us, pushing us to and fro as we hurtle through the cosmos.”

Knowing this cosmic connectedness (or we may say, perceiving of God in this way) should give us a sense of wonder and awe that helps bring more meaning to life. It helps to articulate its sanctity. It might drive us to care for our mental and physical health more or to care for the earth with more gusto. It reminds us that we are not separate, inconsequential entities, but rather integral parts of the universes’ fabric. It forces us out of isolation or being self-absorbed.

I also wonder if it acts as a blueprint for how to think about “cataclysmic events” here on earth. When I think about violent cosmic events, I tend to think less about deep space and more about the mid-east. Instead of distant galaxies I’m watching local courtrooms and verdicts.

But what makes these earthly events different from those of the cosmos is how much control we have over them. We cannot change or even perceive the ways the universe’s processes reverberate through us and our lives - all we can do is marvel at it. But refugees, hostages and political corruption? As insurmountable as these problems seem sometimes, they are in fact a result of human choices and are therefore within humanity’s control.

But this fact does little to comfort us. Realizing just how responsible and culpable we all are, we fall fast, like a heavy meteor, from a state of awe to a barren of despair and hopelessness. We feel out of sync, disappointed in ourselves, with the future feeling bleak.

These themes - the easy shift from awe to desperation and contemplating how much control we have in the greater fabric of nature - lie at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai.

God states plainly: If you follow my commandments, I will make the rain come. You’ll have a good harvest, you’ll eat well, you’ll thrive. If you don’t follow my commandments, I will scatter you and wreak misery on you, because you broke my covenant with you.

We struggle with this stark cause and effect. Can it really be that if I am good, if we are good, then all will be tranquil and abundant? We know that’s not the case. Either this is primitive thinking, OR it pre-assumes that we have and never will be “good” enough. It means this utopian, peaceful vision is just God’s imaging outloud. So then if that’s the case, we are left thinking, “what’s the point?”.

The key word in the Torah, though, is covenant. God is specific: it’s not just that we didn’t keep God’s laws and therefore we don’t get our allowance. Rather, by acting in violent and insolent ways, we have gone out-of-sync with the universe. Our negative actions jarringly disconnect us from God and we suffer the isolating consequences.

According to science, we can’t actually escape God or nature, it’s impacting us even when we can’t perceive it. But according to Torah, we can make an active choice to be a willing, nurturing part of it and therefore benefiting from a feeling of sanctity, awe and purpose. This is why we do acts of repair and call our work tikkun olam - fixing the world.

This is also why we pray. We sing and chant as a way of attuning ourselves to the universes’ pulse. It is the way we perceive God in our midst. With an affirmed sense of awe, we set out to prevent the cataclysmic collisions within our control. In the event that we can’t avoid it, we then at least have the strength to withstand what comes, knowing what is right in our hearts - placing preserving life and human connectedness as values above all else.

As the universal heartbeat resonates in our own bodies, may we find not only a sense of our own smallness but also the boundless connectivity that enfolds us. Let us marvel at the intricate dance of galaxies and the pulsing rhythm of life, knowing that within us resides the echoes of eternity. Let us embrace our role as stewards of creation, seeking harmony in our actions and compassion in our hearts. Amen.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Jewish Resilience

The drawing you are looking at is called Portrait of a Young Woman with Two Yellow Stars by Esther Lurie.

The Jewish Women’s Archive gives it some context: “Esther Lurie was an artist who sought to document the atrocities of the Holocaust and leave a testimony of the Jewish experience in the Kovno ghetto. The clandestine production and documentation of ghetto life was the artist’s way of struggling against murder and destruction, an act of spiritual resistance.

Esther Lurie was born in Liepāja, Latvia. In June 1941, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Lurie was arrested in Kovno, Lithuania while visiting her sister and deported to the Kovno ghetto.

In the fall of 1942, at the request of the Jewish leadership of the ghetto, Esther, together with other artists, began documenting life in the ghetto. Drawing supplies were hard to acquire; artists had to smuggle them from the workshops controlled by the Nazis. In Portrait of a Young Woman with Two Yellow Stars, the yellow badge is depicted as a hole that goes through the young woman, [like that] left by a gunshot wound when the bullet passes through [a] body.”

As I gazed at the drawing more, I thought about how despite her “wound,” the girl is very much alive. Perhaps the stars, meant to mark the bullet’s path, defy death. We Jews defy death. We survive when history would say it wasn’t possible.

It is impossible to know what happened to this young woman. Did she survive the liquidation of the ghetto? This drawing is either an early photograph in a child’s history or the portrait of a ghost.

Either way, it is a picture of a child. And the children are my concern tonight.

In this week’s Torah portion, God commands the people of Israel: "If anyone among the Israelites, or anyone among those who live with them in the land, gives their offspring to Molech, they should be punished by death." (Lev 20:1-2)

Some background to the Torah:

- It acknowledges that Jews and non-Jews will live in the Land of Canaan together.

- It prohibits, with disgust, the ancient practice of sacrificing one’s child to the false god Molech. This sacrifice was done, typically, by fire.

By these standards, all of humanity deserves punishment. In the very land the Torah speaks of, the number of children who have been taken hostage, burned, and bombed is unconscionable. They have been sacrificed to the false gods of war and extremism.

And the ones who are still alive? I weep for the trauma that will scar a generation of Israeli and Palestinian children. They are innocent. They deserve innocence. It’s right there in this week’s Torah portion.

Resilience. What does resilience look like in a moment like this?

Well, unsurprisingly, it comes from the children.

Back in April, Concord Road Elementary School - grades K through 4 - held its International Day. I, along with other WCT members and our friends, prepared and worked at the Israel booth. The concept was simple: write a wish on a Post-It note and place it on our giant Western Wall.


Many of the contributions were whimsical.

Some more poignant.


Predictably, war in the Middle East was on their minds.

We took a deep breath and accepted that there would be a variety of perspectives.


I find the post-its on the left to be particularly meaningful….two very different articulations of the same place…an encapsulation of this moment’s complexity….and there they are, side by side. 

But for the most part, the kids expressed the most honest yearnings of any human.





The words of these children are our prayer tonight.

We pray for innocence and joy. We pray for the reunion of parents with their children. We pray for safety and sweet dreams; for leaders who put the lives of their people first. We pray for thoughtful discourse and peaceful disagreement. We pray for connection and continuity.

We call upon the courage and determination of our ancestors, invoking the best of the moral path they laid for us and pray with our whole hearts for peace.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Ha Lachma Anya - Shabbat HaGadol

 “Ha Lachma Anya! This is the bread of our affliction! This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate the Passover. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves. Next year we will be free!”


It’s a real invitation because in just a few haggadah sections we’ll literally break matzah and eat the festive meal, in theory, inviting others to join us in doing so.


The Association for Experiential Education understands experiential education as "a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities." The seder is certainly a Master Class in experiential education. 


Dr. Wendy Zierler, a professor at HUC also illuminates the impressive experiential pedagogy of the seder. The seder, according to Zierler, is an example of “liberatory education,” as opposed to “oppressive education.” It elicits questions and experiences by which one is opened up to learning. This is differentiated from a dogmatic lecture which deposits knowledge into a submissive learner. (https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-haggadah-toward-a-pedagogy-of-freedom)  


This is an important pedagogic choice by the sages on a holiday that celebrates freedom. It is notably democratic and inclusive. Zierler points out that in addition to this model, various Jewish texts also discourage distinction between the rich and poor at the seder table. It is their way of expressing that this story is not reserved for the elites. This is in contrast to the Greek symposia, a contemporary of the seder when it was being developed. The seder itself is the manifestation of the freedom we are celebrating.


But seder-as-experiential-education-tool is hardly a modern take. We do a lot of imagining during the Passover seder: imagine being a slave, imagine the cries of the mothers who lost their children, imagine poverty. All of this instills an empathetic heart that should move us to action in our own time.


When it comes to the instruction of “all who are hungry, come and eat,” Rashbam (writing in 12th century France) says: “The way of the poor is to split bread, the poor need to share it. This act puts us in touch with the experience of those who hunger, that we might work in our day to share the resources we have and feed all humanity.”


12th Century sage Maimonides sees the sharing similarly. In his opinion, this is the moment to acknowledge our privilege. We should use this moment to check our own arrogance and greedy tendency to hoard resources. This is more than inspiration, “ha lachma anya” is our first experience of acting altruistically.


The matzah is perhaps the most potent symbol of the seder, an element that has been relatively unchanged by time. It’s the matzah they ate coming out of Egypt, it’s the matzah they ate in the 12th century and it's the same matzah today. 


And yet from the beginning of the seder to the end, the symbolism behind the matzah transforms. It goes from the bread that represents affliction to the bread that represents freedom. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expands on this: “Matza represents two things: it is the food of slaves, and also the bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in liberty.” How can a slice of flat bread make the leap from slavery to freedom? 


Rabbi Sacks continues: “What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others....Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer [their] bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown [themselves] to be capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. Bread shared is no longer the bread of oppression. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.” (https://rabbisacks.org/ceremony-celebration-family-edition/ha-lachma-anya-pesach-seder-guide/)


Tonight we will prepare for this act of empathy, this act of freedom, by working as a community to share our bread. Immediately after services, we invite you to take a cookie or two and then get to work making sandwiches for Open Arms Shelter in White Plains.


It is Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, the Sabbath of Miracles. We start with a small act of redemption tonight, a springboard, we pray, to larger miracles, and bigger redemptions ahead.


Monday, April 15, 2024

Coney Island

Who has been to Coney Island?

But what an amazing living artifact of New York, right? And surprise, surprise, Jews were intimately connected to its development in the modern era. For example, Nathan of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was Jewish.

Nathan Handwerker was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who started his humble hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916, helping to bring crowds to Coney Island’s shores.

Every generation of New Yorkers has memories of Coney Island. If your family goes back in New York far enough, chances are your great-grandparents, your grandparents, and your parents all have a story of “that time we visited Coney Island.” It’s a generational inheritance. A joyful one.

We also know that every generation inherits and experiences its own hardships. And, every generation develops the tools to live through and grow from those experiences.

We hear a lot these days about generational trauma, the wounds that are passed from generation to generation. But as a life coach Xavier Dagba said: “As you clear your generational trauma, don’t forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than wounds.”

He’s talking about survival tools and he’s talking about generational JOY.

You get handed those strengths as much as the traumas, and Coney Island gives us an incredible story of this.

In addition to hot dogs, the Wonderwheel and the Cyclone, Coney Island is famous for its carousel.

It is a work of art as much as it is a ride. The Coney Island carousel brought the art of European carousel horses to New York and represents the beauty of folk art. It is so historically significant, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each horse is hand carved and painted in a special style brought over and developed by Charles Carmel and Marcus Charles Illions, two Jews from Eastern Europe who fled from antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the late 1880s.

I learned about this at the Jewish Museum, where two such horses were on display. According to the Jewish Museum: “Carmel was born in Russia and trained in wood carving as a young man. He was steeped in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of intricately carved wooden Torah arks, replete with lions, deer, eagles, and other symbolic animals. After immigrating to the United States in 1883, he settled in Brooklyn, and soon began applying his skills to the crafting of carousel horses at Charles Looff’s and William F. Mangels’s workshops. There, he met three other Eastern European Jewish master carvers — who, like himself, translated their artistic repertoire from the sacred realm of the synagogue for secular use in the amusement industry.”

Illion’s story was similar: “Born in Vilnius, Illions too became immersed in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of magnificent wooden Torah arks as a young apprentice at a carving shop…By 1888, he was in New York, where he soon established his first workshop, employing young apprentices who, like himself, carried on the Eastern European Jewish wood-carving tradition.”

Who knew the art of the Coney Island carousels is inspired by late 19th century synagogue Torah arks? Learning this, and gazing into the intricate, life-like eyes of the carousel horses, I felt a chill.

True, this story’s moral could be as simple as these men seeing an opportunity to apply their skills and make a living. And that would have been enough. But my sense is that they weren’t just looking to make a buck. There seems, to me, a meaningful tie between the Torah ark’s carved wooden doors and the art that would help Illions, Carmel and others escape persecution and find a footing in the new world.

It means something that the tradition of their ancestors was precisely the tool that would save them as they sought a new life of freedom in America.

Jonathan Swift is known for saying, “everything old is new again,” but I think we Jews give this tremendous meaning. We have a toolbox of generational strengths that help us no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Look at this week’s Torah portion, for example.

Tazria: it’s all about skin afflictions and how to keep a communal outbreak to a minimum. This portion has always been dismissed as stuck in ancient days and ancient maladies, yet it became wildly relevant in Covid where it taught us how quarantining was a holy act.

Furthermore, Tazria insists over and over again on trying to find a way for an afflicted person to re-enter society. Our ancient medicinal practices have inspired the way we Jews insist on congregating and community, and has probably influenced the way in which we have extended our arms wide open to people of all faiths, welcoming in folks with compassion and love.

And above all, it teaches that even through plague and persecution, we have found ways to survive - physically and spiritually.

The carousel horses Carmel and Illions carved may be affixed to their carousels, but with their wind-swept manes, bejeweled eyes and hooves in flight, they represented pure freedom - the freedom that the US offered American Jews. And just like the painted ponies of the carousel go up and down and round and round, our sense of safety and opportunity as Jews has its trials, tribulations and cycles.

Carmel and Illions sought to escape anti-semitism, but anti-semitism is one of those things that always rotates back around in one way or another - the moment we’re living in being the latest.

And yet, like the wooden horses who were inspired by the fierce cherubim on the ark doors, we’ll continue to charge forward with gusto, energetically starting over again, as our ancestors have done for millenia. And just when we wonder if we’re making any progress or we're just going in circles, we feel the wind in our faces and the simple joy in living. We hang on tight and keep riding, knowing that we inherited the tools to live and find joy from our ancestors.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Back from Sabbatical

British Writer Douglas Adams tells a story about a time he was a bit early for the train in Cambridge. He went to get himself a newspaper to do the crossword, as well as a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. He sat down at a table. A man wearing a business suit sat down opposite him. A few moments later, Adams noticed the business man lean across, pick up the packet of cookies, tear it open, take one out and eat it. 

Adams was astounded, but [being a respectable Brit and wanting to avoid confrontation] he didn’t say anything. He simply took a cookie out of the packet for himself. But a moment or two later the man did it again. He took another cookie.

“We went through the whole packet like this,” writes Adams. “When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back. A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper and underneath the newspaper were — my cookies.”

“The thing I like particularly about this story,” he continued, “is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been, wandering around for the last quarter-century, a perfectly ordinary guy who's had the same exact story, only he doesn't have the punch line.”

Adams told this story as a giggly example of just how “British” he is. Subsequent bards have understood it as a lesson in perspective. And that is how it hits me. It highlights how we are so entrenched in our own narratives that often we fail to see the forest for the trees, or the cookies for the newspaper…or something like that.

Returning from my sabbatical, this anecdote resonates. Before I left, I shared that I love the ever-evolving, immersive and intimate nature of rabbinic life; and I missed it in many ways. And yet, more than anything, clergy sabbaticals are important reality checks. Rabbinic life moves at an intense pace and consists of holding grief, joy, existential questions and calm all together all the time. I love it, and I understand, deeply, the need to step away and find perspective. Normal life does not consist of the intense highs and lows of a clergy day.

And this is not unique to the rabbinate. I know we all experience this, whether in our workplaces or our homes. We often grumble as we watch our cookies get eaten only to discover they were under the newspaper the whole time. With some time and distance, we can find ourselves less jaded, less quick to judge, less myopic in our perspective.

Early on in my time away, I realized that my sabbatical would be about perspective shifting and reconnecting with my spiritual self. It was time to take parts of myself out of the freezer, so to speak.

I began with becoming certified in a program called Prepare/Enrich, which enhances clergy’s ability to work with couples, including engaged couples. Its goal is to help strengthen their partnerships. I also spent a week immersed in our tradition’s texts at the Hadar Rabbinic Yeshiva Intensive - a pluralistic neo-traditional yeshiva-style learning program in NYC. I followed that up with a trip to Philadelphia for the CCAR conference - the gathering of over 400 Reform rabbis. Both of these conference experiences nourished me spiritually as I basked in the greatness of my colleagues and teachers and learned just for the sake of learning.

I also read a lot of books - non-fiction and fiction - and rediscovered the beauty of getting lost in the page. I had lost that joy as work and motherhood filled most of my waking hours.

Like cookie crumbs, I swept jadedness away by putting myself in the presence of people and ideas larger than me.

If we are connected on Instagram or Facebook, you also know that I visited, on average, a museum a week. I used practically every free Museum Pass from the Greenburgh Library. (As a side note, my appreciation for our public libraries is at an all time high - what treasures in our communities!)

From the Met, to the Jewish Museum, to the MoMA, to the NY Historical Society, Natural History, and the Guggenheim, a common experience started to strike me. I realized I felt most enriched by large-scale installations.

One powerful experience was at the MoMa. I visited Richard Serra’s “Equal,” which the museum describes as “eight forged steel boxes stacked in pairs. Each box measures five by five and a half by six feet and weighs 40 tons in a rectangular cube. To differentiate one stack from another, Serra has rotated the position of the shorter and longer sides of the boxes. Despite the varying orientation of the individual components, each stack measures 11 feet tall. This simple construction—one block sitting atop another—yields a variety of experiences; the massive sculpture may overwhelm the viewer and, in this sublimity, invite contemplation.”

“Overwhelming” in a “sublime” way. This was exactly how I felt. The room seemed to hum. Standing in this mini-Stonehenge, I felt peaceful. It felt good to feel small, to surrender to my surroundings and accept that I need not contemplate everything in the room, or even be able to see all of it. There was no need to control or understand. I could simply exist within it.

As the weeks went on, I realized that I was spending my time finding my place in the world…not in terms of role, per se. I feel quite confident in my role as rabbi, as mother, partner, etc. But I went looking for who I am in the overwhelming shadow of the gargantuan reality of the world’s violence and desperation. In the continued unraveling of October 7th’s horrors and the swelling devastation that has come in its wake, I, like all of you, have despaired in my feelings of helplessness and indignation.

I asked myself: what can I do, one person awash in pain? As I journeyed through museums, novels, forests and even Disney World, I came to a sublime, simple conclusion: I can control those things closest to me.

I can nurture and fortify my relationships. I can articulate the values our community holds dear and make sure we manifest those values in our immediate Rivertowns and Westchester community.

This became powerfully clear to me on March 8th, when I stood in the Ardsley town square and participated as a Jewish representative in the first-ever lighting of a large crescent moon sculpture in honor of Ramadan. I was there because of some hard, but honest conversations between neighbors after October 7. Amid the pain, we realized that our job as neighbors is to help one another feel seen and safe. This security and love was the gift we could give one another in a moment when it felt like current events were tearing us apart. This, I could control.

This is just one of the many ways I put myself in context and gained some important perspective. With this comes inner calm and fresh perspective.

In my travels, I came across a passage of the Talmud (Taanit 7a), that examines a contradiction in the prophecy of Isaiah. In Isaiah 21, it commands us to “bring water to the thirsty,” but in Isaiah 55, it reads, “if you are thirsty, come for water.” The rabbis wonder aloud: which is it? Should we seek out a thirsty person and serve them or should the thirsty come and ask for water? The rabbis interpret the “thirst” here to be the “thirst for knowledge.” Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa reconciles Isaiah’s contradiction by saying that if a student is ready to learn, then you should seek them out to teach them, knowing it is what they need. But if a student is not yet ready to learn, they must begin the journey and seek a teacher themself, discovering the need on their way.

Our sages understand there are times where we will see folks parched - whether by true thirst or some other sort of need. When we sense that need, we should provide it. At other times, there is value to a person beginning to journey towards nourishment, discovering their thirst along the way and then seeking out its resolution.

My sabbatical would seem to be both of these. Three years ago, you generously provided this time in my contract, knowing that one day it would be valuable. You anticipated that need and provided for it. And when it started, I found that my journeying into it was often the lesson itself. Throughout the three months, I was able to clear away some newspapers in my brain and find some parts of myself, or some interests, that I thought had been lost.

You too are on your own journeys. My return tonight coincides with Sacred Seasons, the time when we bring you a blessing. It is also a time when you set out in search of one.

I’d love you to come join me for this sacred season of return or venturing forth - whichever it is for you.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Trust

I feel like it’s a strange time to take a sabbatical. The Jewish community feels all at once activated and depleted and hurting. There are lifecycle events I’m sad to be missing.

These moments are significant to the people going through them and they feel very special and spiritual to me personally. There are no holier spaces than the ones where we gather to sing, cry, comfort and praise together. They are holy because we are together. It’s hard to step away from something so spiritually affirming.

But when I think about it, I guess any time would be a strange time to take a sabbatical. Given that we are a community of humans in human relationships, there will always be members of our community who are sick, loved ones to bury, and babies to name. And when it comes to this moment in time, these difficult days politically and culturally, there’s really no “stepping away,” even if you do mute the news updates.

It then becomes clear to me how essential a sabbatical is. Just like you, I am activated, depleted, and hurting. Oh, and remember how we weathered a pandemic together? I am so grateful, then, for this gift you have given me - the gift of time. Thank you for giving me space to learn, rest, reconnect, and foster my own spirituality so that I can continue to help you do the same.

All that said, while the last few years, and especially the last few months, have brought stress and turmoil, they have also brought growth. The importance and relevance of the synagogue in the 21st century has never been more clear for me.

Synagogues…our synagogue…is a spiritual meeting ground where we encourage, confront and comfort each other. It is where we endeavor to be forward-moving, moral, connected humans. When we achieve this, we not only access God, but we help one another and society to thrive.

Doing this, though, requires deep listening, cultivating our capacity to hold complexity, and trust.

We all know that operating in that way is sometimes easier said than done. It is in our nature to judge others, or misinterpret their intentions and words. Sometimes we are so driven by our own goals and anxieties that we forget to open our perspective up to others. We are often caught reading our own agenda into people’s words and actions.

When it comes to cultivating the capacity to really hear and appreciate one another’s intentions, the Chofitz Chayim, an early 20th century sage, told a parable:

“There was once a man who was visiting a small town in Europe. It was Shabbat morning, and he went to the local synagogue. Everything was just as you might expect, until unusual things started happening. There were well-dressed, obviously prosperous people seated near the front, but all the honors for the Torah-reading were given to scruffy men who stood clustered at the back of the room. When it came time for the rabbi to say a few words of wisdom, all he spoke about was the weather. After the prayers were finished, lovely food was spread on the table and nobody ate.

The man was flummoxed by all these incomprehensible goings-on. What kind of place was this? Was everyone here crazy? Finally, he pulled aside one of the locals and asked, "What's going on here? The men who got the Torah honors, the rabbi's talk, the uneaten food… nothing makes any sense!"

The man explained, "Those scruffy looking men had been unjustly imprisoned and the community worked long and hard to ransom them to freedom. Isn't it wonderful that they are now free to come to bless the Torah? The rabbi spoke only about the weather because there has been an unusual drought this season and the farmers have nothing on their minds but their crops, and the rabbi knew and cared for their concerns. Why didn't anyone eat? One Shabbat every month the community prepares its usual lunch but instead of eating it, the food is donated to the local home for the elderly."

How often do we make similar assumptions behind people’s personal decisions, or their political views? How often does this happen in our own synagogue, where we neglect to see the care, concern and thought that went into temple affairs?

The Hebrew word for trust is “bitachon.” It comes from the word “betach” which means not only to trust, but to secure, to have confidence in, to make one feel safe.

Our job, as citizens, as humans, is to make one another feel safe. I truly believe it is as simple as that. We do that by having open, honest conversations and not jumping to conclusions. We give people space when they need space and we do not make demands without room for discussion. Every human being is full of fear and worry, trying their best. Let’s assuage their fears, rather than add to them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph brings his father to Egypt in order to escape the famine in Canaan. God senses Jacob’s concern. Not only is Jacob old, but he is concerned about leaving the land that was promised to him, that Abraham and Isaac toiled for. He doesn’t say any of this, but God understands it.

God comes to Jacob in a dream, saying, “Al tirah mehr-dah Mitzraymah - Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation…I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back.”

Jacob’s fears are not unfounded. Torah has made it clear that the Egyptians do not like the Hebrews. Also, why would Jacob willingly leave the Promised Land? God assures him that sometimes you have to go the circuitous route in order to get to where you really need to be. God assures Jacob: even in tough times, I am with you. You may suffer, but you will survive. That is the trust I represent and the trust you must have - that you will survive this.

Not only will our ancestors survive Egypt, but the Hebrews’ time there will be instrumental in cultivating the compassionate spirit towards others that we Jews are so proud of.

But just because we cultivated it once doesn’t mean we have to continue to find it within ourselves. Here in our own synagogue community, in our personal relationships and workplaces, in our towns and across the globe.

This is the simple message of our tradition: Be good to one another. The history of your ancestors has taught you to listen deeply. You are strong enough to hold emotional complexity. Trust in God, trust in one another.

Al tirah - don’t fear what comes your way, for you have one another.

Amen.

Civil Rights Journey Reflection 2023

When it comes to crying, I’m ok with letting it out. If there’s a poignant ending to a movie, or if someone has shared something that moves me, I’ll well up a little bit and wipe a tear or two from the corners of my eyes.

Other than that, I don’t do a lot of crying otherwise. Don’t get me wrong: I believe it is ok to cry, healthy to cry, and I think you should cry if you need to, as often as you need to.

Evidently, there was a moment on our trip where I needed to take this advice. I’m going to share with you a vulnerable moment, a moment that surprised me, really. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

The scene: Montgomery Alabama. It was drizzling outside. We scarfed down a continental breakfast and drove to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was my first time on the site, having been built between my last Civil Rights Journey and this one. The memorial is built into a hilltop overlooking Montgomery. More than 4,400 Black people killed between 1877 and 1950 are remembered there. Their names are engraved on more than 800 steel monuments—one for each county where a crime took place. It was beautiful and eery and heartbreaking all at the same time. I had a tear in my eye the whole time.

Wet with the morning’s mist, we went over to its sister site, the Legacy Museum. The museum is built on the site of a cotton warehouse where enslaved Black people were forced to labor in bondage. When visiting the museum, you travel through immersive exhibits that tell a comprehensive history of the destructive violence that shaped our nation, from the slave trade, to the era of Jim Crow, to our current mass incarceration crisis.

Our group entered the exhibit hall without me. I had to stay back and work on some logistical details with our tour guide. When we finished our conversation, he went off for some coffee, having visited the museum many times before. I hadn’t, so I decided to enter. Our teens had plowed forward and no other patrons were there at the time. I went in alone.

The first room evokes the terrifying and deadly Middle Passage. You’re surrounded by 4 walls of thundering water. You’re sinking into the depths of history. You’re drowning in the experience. I was flooded.

I slowly moved into the next room, still alone, except for a quiet docent stationed in a corner. The walls of waves continued, now joined by clay renderings of chained bodies, sinking in anguish. Bodies of men, women and children. Babies clinging to their parents. A voice began describing the forceful separation of families and the brutality of being taken captive. Standing in the center of this room, my body ceased to exist. I was enveloped by the waves, I became the rushing ocean and I began to sob.

At first I tried to stop myself. But realizing I was alone, realizing how filled to the brim I was, I allowed myself to put my head in my hands, bend my knees and sob, deeply, from my belly. The docent walked over quietly and gently handed me a small package of tissues, turned, and returned to her spot. I sobbed for a good five minutes.

I didn’t expect to react this way. I’ve been to heart-wrenching exhibits before. But once it started I did understand why I was crying. The sheer brutality of the subject matter was enough to take you under but I also knew I was releasing the salty tears that had been building in my body since October 7. They joined the ocean of whoa that I was now consumed in. My eyes could no longer act as a barrier between the two.

“It is all pain…tormented, violent, hateful pain,” I thought to myself. All I could think about was how our world is utterly corrupted by abduction, sexual assault, beheadings and bombings. All I could feel was the agony of the violence we do to one another.

I return to this moment all these weeks later, because the destruction - emotionally and physically - has only continued. I am still flooded by the loss of human life, the callousness to one another’s pain, the way we use human beings as pawns in a shameful game of domination.

That day in the museum, I could feel the tears of my ancestors seeping out of my own eyes. We know that every group, all persecuted people, carry the scarred DNA of their ancestors.

Then and now, I feel as if my ancestors are crying, “have we learned nothing at all?”

This week’s haftarah tells the famous story of King Solomon adjudicating a fight between two women. Each woman claims that a certain baby is theirs. In order to suss out the true mother, Solomon calls for a sword. “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other…” “Give the baby to her!” one woman cries desperately. “Just don’t kill it!” “This one, the one who rather give up the baby to save its life, is the true mother,” Solomon decries.

We point to this story as evidence of Solomon’s cleverness and wisdom. But as I look at the story again this week, all I can see is how the children are the ones who suffer from our callousness toward one another and the political games we play. The sword is held above their heads everyday. When will all humanity have the decency to say, “This must end! Just don’t kill any more babies!”?

Tonight, these teens give me such hope. They have been handed a world full of racism, bigotry, and war. And yet they dare to dive in, learn the lessons and resolve to build something better. They even pick up a few Buc-ees pajama sets along the way.

Because it turns out they inherited more than trauma from their ancestors.

Xavier Dagba, a life coach, had a tweet go viral recently; it said: “As you clear your generational trauma, don’t forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than wounds.”

Our ancestors did give us more than just wounds. They gave us grit, resilience, and imagination. We do not need to accept the suffering we see. We can resolve to be better. We can be the generation that unites families, builds homes, and begets laughter.

I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Alberto Rios. I’ve read them before. I cling to this poem for hope, like a life-raft in an ocean of anguish. It speaks to our teens, it speaks to all of us:

A House Called Tomorrow

You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen — You are a hundred wild centuries And fifteen,
bringing with you in every breath and in every step
Everyone who has come before you, all the yous that you have been,
The mothers of your mother, the fathers of your father.
If someone in your family tree was trouble, a hundred were not:
The bad do not win—not finally, no matter how loud they are.
We simply would not be here if that were so. You are made, fundamentally, from the good. With this knowledge, you never march alone.
You are the breaking news of the century. You are the good who has come forward
Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise. But think: when you as a child learned to speak,
It’s not that you didn’t know words — It’s that, from the centuries, you knew so many,
And it’s hard to choose the words that will be your own.
From those centuries we human beings bring with us the simple solutions and songs, The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies all in service to a simple idea: That we can make a house called tomorrow. What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day, is ourselves. And that’s all we need to start. That’s everything we require to keep going.
Look back only for as long as you must, then go forward into the history you will make.
Be good, then better. Write books. Cure disease. Make us proud. Make yourself proud.
And those who came before you?
When you hear thunder, hear it as their applause.

Amen.