Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 24, 2021

The End of 2021 and of Certainty

2021 started with isolation and insurrection. Yet we dared to hope when Amanda Gorman climbed the steps of the Capitol and in an affront to the pandemic, the terrorists and cynicsm, declared: “And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

And we clung to her every word. When she had finished, I thought, “we have surely been through the worst of it. Next winter will not be like this.”

And here we are, still eclipsed in the “never-ending shade” of loss, fear and division. Of course, first and foremost on our minds this evening: the pandemic. And then on top of that, even with a change of administration, our nation is still searching for its soul. Reproductive rights are being held hostage by the highest court in the nation. Misinformation swells and a culture obsessed with ME cannot fathom the WE enough to work united toward the public health. Citizens are overworked and depressed. Worldwide, refugees team at war-torn borders and natural disasters remind us that the planet is suffering along with its inhabitants.

I will not diminish the dread that permeates the air right now, God knows I’m feeling it potantly. But then I remind myself: because of the diligent work of scientists, medical personnel and heroic volunteers, my whole family is now vaccinated and unlikely to die from COVID. And then I start to look outside of the pandemic and realize we have moved forward more than it first appears. Gorman’s words from Jan 20th ring clear: I can be optimistic about “our nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” 

As I open my eyes wider, I see the hammers and nails of our cultural carpentry; the demolition of the unstable institutions and the sounder renovation still in progress.

This winter, we sit in this empty and unfinished room, darkened by relentless obstacles. But despite those obstructions, there has in fact been forward progress in 2021. When we call it to mind, it is as if we light the candle of hope and its shine scatters the shadows. They are pockets of light in a heavy darkness, but beacons of belief nonetheless.

For example, the American justice system, operating against its instincts, delivered justice in two high profile cases. Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in broad daylight. The three men who participated in the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted. As Charles Blow wrote for the New York Times: “[the convictions are like] a shooting star that streaks across the night sky, that disrupts the darkness, [and] is worthy of being noticed and appreciated. It doesn’t alter the night. It doesn’t convert it into day.” He’s right. We cannot see these convictions as evidence that racism is dead, but I pray that these miracles of progessive light will one day become a meteor shower and a sustained brightening.

I think also of #Metoo and how it rages on, engulfing the patriarchy and abusers in its avenging rage. Abusers are still being toppled. Workplaces are paying attention to power distribution and the abuses it perpetuates. These same workplaces are changing their cultures altogether as “The Great Resignation” forces us to invest in the happiness of our workers and DEI - Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - has now become part of our vocabulary and a common goal.

And who is leading the way in these arenas? Kudos to us adults for changing our deeply embedded ways, but the real trailblazers are Gen Z and their successors, Gen Alpha. If you’re looking for light, just find their brightly dyed hair and revolutionary spirit. 

I wish you all could experience our young people today the way we do. Abby, Avital, Lance and I often talk about how extraordinary they are. Let me present to you a case study: our current 7th grade.

The 7th grade is working on the Mitzvah Challenge, where the kids do a deep dive into subjects they care about and develop meaningful, sustainable action in those areas. What did today’s 13 year olds choose? Sexual assault, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental degradation, animal abuse, and women's rights. I can’t imagine my 13 year old self understanding half of that.

Then follow me to 7th Grade Family Torah study, where I don’t allow the kids to refer to God as “He.” Usually they correct themselves to use God’s name, abandoning pronouns altogether. But this year, without any prompting, when I called out the use of “He,” the kids corrected themselves, calling God by the pronoun “they.” Calling God by the singular pronoun “they” is pretty authentic to Jewish thought: God’s name Elohim is pretty nonbinary and uses the plural form to refer to a singular being. But this generation is the first to embrace what that means in full force - integrating they/them pronouns into their everyday speech and allowing for fluid and evolving approaches to gender. They do this in the name of authentic expression of self and, from pronouns to fashion to advocacy, are preaching openness and acceptance which leads to healthier, happier humans. 

Sure, I have my moments of Millenial curmudgeonliness, but when I look at our teens, our Kesher kids, and my own children, I’m amazed and excited about where they are leading us.

Which brings us back to Amanda Gorman, the most recent voice of this generation. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, she declared: “So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”

The toll of 2021 is not to be underestimated: our mental health, our physical health, the health of our nation, are all ailing. But we have survived 100% of our worst days. How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? Us…resilient, hopeful, downright stubborn humans who believe in the creative powers God instilled within us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we yet again meet Shifra and Puah - two of my favorite Torah characters. When Pharaoh tells them to kill every baby boy born to an Israelite woman, the women righteously rebel, telling Pharaoh that the Israelite women are “chayot” - vigorous, strong and full of life, delivering the babies before the midwives even arrive.

Like Shifra and Puah, we will stand resolute in front of a year that sought to take us down. Like the Israelite women, we will give birth to 2022 in defiance of all that has been decried against us…and as we hear the cries of the next generation penetrate the darkness, we will know that a brighter future lays before us.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Gathered to his People

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear Jacob’s final blessing to his sons and watch him die, again. “I am about to be gathered to my kin,” he says. “Bury me with my fathers in the cave at Machpelah, in the land of Canaan, where my grandfather Abraham and my grandmother Sarah were buried; where my father Isaac and my mother Rebekah were buried; where I buried my wife Leah.” And then, Torah says, after he finished his instructions, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, was gathered to his people.

Why must we witness Jacob’s death every year? Especially when we, over the course of our lifetimes, will witness the death of our loved ones and already know intimately the lessons of loss and grieving?

I believe there are two important details in Jacob’s death scene that help us not only observe but help us to make sense of a loved one’s passing.

The first is how Jacob “drew his feet into the bed” and then exhaled his last breath. Biblical scholars read this simply as an idiom for “he died.” The sages, on the other end of the spectrum, read it quite literally - that his feet were actually dangling off the bed and he drew them up, lay down and died.

While “drawing up the feet” is not unique to Jacob, I feel like it resonates deeply for him. Afterall, he is the man whose name means “heel” and who journeyed great distances both physically and spiritually throughout his life. 

And while Jacob speaks a lot in the Torah portion, poetically blessing each son, he doesn’t reflect as much on his own life’s journey. We are the ones who assume his emotional transformations. He’s a deeply flawed character who changes over the course of his life, but we never really know what sense he made of it.

If Jacob were to do a life review, I imagine it would it read like this:

“It began with a foot. A heel, actually. The midwives told me that as my brother was born, my mother tried to step off the birthing blocks, to take a breath, maybe two, before starting to birth me. But, I gave her no respite. Holding onto my brother’s heel, I was born in the same laborious heave and belabored breath.

I spent my childhood under my mother’s heels, pulling at her hem, tripping her toes as she stirred the stew, poured the tea and watered the camels. As I grew, I kept my heels beneath me, squatting in a corner of her tent, taking up the mending, threshing the wheat and crushing it on the grindstone.

While dusty, my heels were as smooth as the day of my birth. They had only pitter-pattered about the camp. The strong sandals were made and presented to my brother, who braved the wild and captured my father’s heart.

I nervously curled my toes the day I offered the lentils for his birthright, afraid he’d realize the trick and strike me. The day I took his blessing, I was bolder. I stomped my heels as heavy as I could to pantomime his heft. But I had gone too far. When I fled the camp, my feet bled. The wilderness was thorny and the brush scraped the virgin skin. The night I slept and saw the ladder - you’d have thought I’d try to climb it - but my feet throbbed so much and I couldn’t rise to reach the first rung.

Those same heels, bloody and bruised, carried me to Haran where I met my future. In the seven, then fourteen years where I labored for my wives, calluses grew - thick and strong and unfeeling. The years hardened them: from confronting my brother, to the rape of my daugther…the loss of my wife, the staged death of my son, the famine that left us hungry every night… I lost my name and gained a new one - no longer defined by my heels, but by the struggle of a calloused heart.

My sons carried me to Egypt - my feet could not bear the weight anymore. Upon seeing Joseph, I stood on my heels one last time to kiss him before taking to bed. The night I blessed my sons, one by one, I dangled my feet over the side of the chaise. Then, like a young lad again curled beside my mother, I drew my heels to my chest, released my woes and slept.”

It seems to me that for Jacob to draw his feet to the bed is to come full circle - like a fetus in the womb, a child curled up asleep. I imagine it was a return to a purer, more innocent state after a lifetime of hardship and transformation. A hard life, but a meaningful one.

Perhaps it’s so for all of us. Whereas once our feet carried us on our life’s journey, our use of them represents our development as individuals…at the end we take leave of them. Jacob, more than any of our ancestors, represents the struggle life brings us. He is rewarded with a peaceful end, where he says what he needs to say, bids farewell to his loved ones, and goes to his eternal slumber. He dies knowing that his tumultuous life was full of meaning and that his legacy lives on safely in the next generation. May we all have such peace at such a ripe old age.

But we know the reality. We know that for some there is no peace, and for some it is not a ripe old age. How do we live with the fact that we suffer or die too early or leave this earth having not made our peace?

Here again, Jacob’s death scene speaks to us. Genesis tells us he was “gathered to his people.” Yes, another idiom for death, says biblical scholars. Archaeologists will tell you it’s quite literal: ancient people's bones were placed in family ossuaries and tombs.

And yet, what a powerful way to put it.

Judaism has a poorly defined sense of what happens after we die. The official Jewish stance seems to be, “we have no clue, so we’ll just take some guesses.” It’s similar to the way we define God - it’s something so big and mysterious that we try to capture just one side of it, like concentrating on one facet of a diamond at a time.

When Jacob is “gathered to his people,” it implies a sort of reunion - of souls finding one another in the great-mystery-after-life. Do we join others in the afterlife? Well, sometimes we might not want to overthink it: it can be very comforting to think that we may be reunited with our loved ones in some way, somewhere, after we die.

There’s also a very physical way we Jews manifest this, that, in my mind, is one of the most powerful things we do as a temple community.

Many synagogues, Woodlands included, make bulk purchases of cemetery plots at nearby cemeteries. Woodlands has about 3 sections of plots at Sharon Gardens Cemetery in Valhalla. We do this, first and foremost, because Jews, for centuries, have been taking care of our dead - making sure they are buried in a dignified manner by compassionate, loving hands. Also, we help families in their most dire moment of need. If a loved one dies and they haven’t pre-purchased a plot somewhere, Bob Apter, a member of Woodlands, is always on call. He helps our families acquire a plot in the Woodlands section - making a stressful situation that much more manageable. What Bob does is nothing short of a mitzvah. Thank you, Bob.

But what’s most powerful about this Woodlands section is actually visiting it. I do this, as you can imagine, quite a lot.

A few weeks ago, I was officiating a funeral for a long-time Woodlands member. We rolled up to Sharon Gardens and processed to the gravesite. As the officiant, I’m the first to park and approach the grave. As I walked over, I saw familiar names - Woodlands members, their family and loved ones - the names greeting me like seeing old friends. As I found my place, I looked down. There was the name of a congregant who died many years ago, who I was so, so fond of. Instinctually, I picked up a nearby stone and placed it on the grave. I got a little choked up and I smiled. Then I began the service.

If you want to understand the power of community, just attend a funeral in the Woodlands section of Sharon Gardens. The stones stood proud, like witnesses.  It was as if the community had assembled, present AND past. The living, there to say goodbye to a friend, and the dead there to welcome the latest one to be gathered to her people.

This Shabbat, we must yet again remember that community is formed not just when we walk through the doors of our synagogue. It is in the sacred kinship we have to our ancestors and the familial connection we have by their account. It is what leads us towards righteousness, it is what will hold us up when the world feels bleak.

Friday, November 26, 2021

(Almost) Thanksgivukkah

2013 was the first time since the late 1800’s that the first day of Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving day. This won’t happen again for a long time. We’ll get a “partial” Thanksgivukkah in 2070 and then not again until 2165, when Hanukkah will begin the evening of Thanksgiving. God willing, 84 year-old-me will live to see the first of those.

Which is to say...I declare that we can make this weekend an honorary Thanksgivukkah!

So go for it... put your Thanksgiving leftovers to good use. You can find plenty of recipes like sweet potato latkes topped with turkey and gravy. Light your menurkey – a combo menorah and Turkey on Sunday night (it’s not a real turkey, in case you were wondering).

It’s fun and games and I think there’s a lot more to this rare pair of holidays.

First, the themes and symbols overlap considerably: miracles, thankfulness, and community. Because of this, I really like this blending of the two holidays.

It’s also a time to reflect on the American Jewish experience. A time to think about how we’ve adopted this country, and, overall, how it has adopted us. Jews in America experience freedom and prosperity that Diaspora Jews have never experienced before, even in all the golden ages and times of quiet. We have never been this blessed.

The joining of the holidays also seems apt because they share a clear message: by working together, we can overcome great obstacles.

That is…if we adhere to the traditional, mythical stories about both holidays. For Thanksgiving, that is the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to join in a bountiful feast of friendship, taking on the formidable winter together. For Hanukkah, that’s the Maccabees bounding together with their fellow Jews to take on the formidable Syrian Greek army.

But just as famous as these stories is the fact that they’re considerably white-washed. What came after “the first Thanksgiving” (if it even existed at all)? Forced assimilation, migration and genocide of Indigenous Americans.

What happened after the Maccabees restored the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? A civil war broke out among the Jews. The Maccabees put themselves at the top of the government and made themselves the ruling Hasmonean class. They eventually became so corrupt and ineffective that just 100 years later, the dynasty fell to an invading empire.

A questionable and controversial past seems to be something Thanksgiving and Hanukkah also have in common.

And yet we go all in, us American Jews. Particularly us Reform Jews. But that’s because our job is to go to the heart of the myth, shine a light on the values and develop them anew. The two values we want to look at this weekend are gratitude and joy.

For Thanksgiving, we’ll draw out the gratitude. We Jews are supposed to say 100 blessings a day! We get this teaching from two places:

In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses tells the Jewish people: "What (mah) does God ask of you?" The Talmud explains that the word mah can be read as me'ah, meaning 100. The interpretation is that we should recite (at least) 100 blessings every day.

There’s also the midrash that in the time of King David, 100 people died every day due to a terrible plague. Realizing that the plague had a spiritual cause, King David instituted a "measure for measure" response: the saying of 100 blessings each day. Once implemented, the plague stopped.

Thanksgiving is a secular but powerful ritual that reminds us to keep up this very Jewish daily practice.

For Hanukkah, we’ll draw upon the joy. The joy of miracles and marvels done for our ancestors in days of old! The “joy” of Hanukkah is light hearted joy: gift giving, spinning dreidels, latkes and doughnuts and oil and chocolate! That would be enough, but Hanukkah comes around to show us how a religious holiday can dig even deeper. And joy, as simple as it seems, is a pretty complex emotion.

Hanukkah’s joy is wrapped up in more than tinsel and bows. The miracle of Hanukkah was not the oil, but the Maccabee’s ability to break down a formidable foe - that even in the face of walls and armor and elephants, they turned the tables. It was a given that an established army would win. But with some ingenuity, pluck, and through a grassroots movement, the Maccabees reallocated the power. Hanukkah’s miracles are not just our everyday blessings, but the reassessing and redefining of our power.

Never have I felt this theme of the holiday as strongly as I felt this week. In a matter of hours, grassroots voices of justice experienced major triumph in the face of established norms and calcified structures of hate in our country. This happened through two significant verdicts.

First, nine  plaintiffs consisting of students, clergy, peaceful protestors, and innocent bystanders -- who were victims of a coordinated attack by white supremacists during what was called “Unite the Right” in August 2017 -- won a historic victory against the white supremacist groups and individuals who conspired for months to bring violence to the streets of Charlottesville.  This will cripple the morale and financial structures of the so-called “alt-right.” Integrity First for America, the small organization supporting the suit, and their grassroots network of supporters, smashed more cracks into the wall of White Supremacy that has long been buttressing American society.

And then just hours later, all three defendants in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of murder. This caused celebration and fanfare in the face of a biased system that for so long has upheld such terrible actions as the killers. A miracle!

But should it have caused such cheers? Charles Blow reflected: 

The guilty verdicts landed oddly for me. This was the right decision, the way it should have gone. There was an impulse to celebrate the victory, but it felt a bit like celebrating a mother caring for her children or respecting a spouse.

If you are humane, this is what you do, not because there is a need for fanfare, but because it is the right and honorable way to behave.

But that’s just it: Our justice system is so racially biased, so often allowing vigilantes and police officers to kill Black people with impunity, that simply having the system not perform in that way becomes extraordinary.

To pair Hanukkah with these two important verdicts, is to remind us that today’s miracles should be tomorrow’s everyday blessings. It shouldn’t be remarkable that Black lives are valued, it should just be the way it is. It shouldn’t be remarkable that we are starting to dismantle white supremacy, it should just be rubble.

These two cases will not destroy the oppression and hate that was poured in the foundation of our nation, but it will create cracks through which we will shine a light and from which we will re-build a more sound structure.

Charles Blows words hit me deep:

Of course none of this will change the fact that Arbery was murdered. Nothing can bring him back. Nothing can ease the ache in his mother’s heart. But at least the pain was not compounded the way it was in other cases.

I dare not say that this one case teaches us much about the American justice system. I dare not say that it demonstrates a trend or a shift. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary.

I will only say that a shooting star that streaks across the night sky, that disrupts the darkness, is worthy of being noticed and appreciated. It doesn’t alter the night. It doesn’t convert it into day. It comes without warning, a phenomenon onto itself, not a herald for others to follow.

We’ve taken note of our blessings. We witnessed some miracles. It is now time to kindle our Hanukkah lights. Let’s disrupt the darkness. We won’t fix it all in 1 night, or even 8. But as the nights develop, so too may our resolve. Afterall, the menorah only becomes brighter as the holiday progresses. Light by light by light, we get closer to being the shining beacon we aspire to. Can we get there by 2070? Well, it’s worth trying.

Friday, November 12, 2021

A Light Unto...

On Saturday morning, I sat down to breakfast and opened the New York Times Magazine. I had only a few minutes to thumb past the usual columns and get a sense for what articles might await me later in the day. A couple of sections in, I flipped open a two page spread that contained a large photo of a familiar place with familiar faces. It was two Hebrew Union College students. They were standing with Mishkan T’filah prayer books in hand in the Hebrew Union College New York campus sanctuary. My wide eyes rested upon the headline: Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism.

Not a great headline from the point of view of a Zionist like myself.

The second line was a little tamer: How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel.

The main gist of the article: In the second week of May, students from various US seminaries wrote an open letter condemning the violence in Israel that was happening at that time. What was new, though, was an adamant desire for American Jews to reckon with the unequal power dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians. The letter was a departure in that “it contained several provocations. It compared the Palestinians’ plight to that of Black Americans — a group whose struggles for civil rights have long been embraced by the same establishment the letter was calling out. “American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community,” they said. “And yet,” they added, “so many of those same institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine.” It described in Israel “two separate legal systems for the same region,” and later called this system “apartheid.” It arrived amid war, violating the imperative many Jews felt to stand with Israel as the rockets fly. And it did not contain alongside its indictment of Israel’s actions a straightforward condemnation of Hamas’s aiming weapons at civilians.”

While we have become accustomed to seeing such accusations in progressive spaces, they have only secretly come to roost in liberal Jewish spaces. This letter outed the not-so-secret secret that the liberal relationship to Israel is changing - and fast. But what was most notable about this letter is that the 93 signatories represented the future leaders of the progressive Jewish movements.

You can go read the article, if you’d like. I don’t want to talk about the issue itself tonight, as much as I want to talk about another struggle it brought up inside of me. I’ve known that these sentiments about Israel have existed in liberal Jewish circles. I’ve struggled with this very topic with my friends and colleagues and even here on this bimah. But these are decidedly Jewish spaces, behind our “synagogue doors,” so to speak. Publicly, I feel it is my responsibility to maintain Israel’s good name among the nations. If we Jews don’t, then who will?

The NYTimes piece felt like a burning light of inquisition shining upon my community - like an interrogation in a detective film - splashed out for the whole nation to see and judge. The HUC Sanctuary in the picture is MY sanctuary, and there it was, open for the whole world to critique.

To further compound my troubled heart, the next day the Sunday review had an opinion piece titled: “Israel is Silencing Us.”

“See?” I thought to myself. “We get enough bad press without having to create it ourselves.”

This is the sticking point for me, and this is the age-old Jewish question: how much should we reveal to the general public about the inner life and workings of the Jewish community? Is it better to keep our business to ourselves and not give them fodder to hate us more? Or do we shirk our responsibility by not seeing justice through, even on the most public stage?

On the one hand, we know that even in the absence of fodder, they’ll develop conspiracy theories about us: blood libels, money manipulation and space lasers.

But on the other hand, history has shown that sweeping things under the rug - whether it is our own Jewish community or other religious organizations, never ends well. At best, it leads to disenfranchisement and disillusionment. At the worst, it leads to trauma and abuse.

As I mulled this over - my gut reaction and then my reaction to my gut reaction - the next public reckoning for the liberal Jewish community came along. On Tuesday, the Hebrew Union College published the full findings of an independent investigation by the firm Morgan Lewis into allegations of past sexual harassment, gender bias, and other forms of inequitable treatment at HUC. The seminary chose to publish the whole report - without PR spin or apologetics. The full report was sent out. It goes into excruciating detail, with reports from decades ago to today. Credible and heartwrenching stories of bullying, sexual harassment, abuses of power and fear of retaliation.

I’m lucky to say that I never experienced this. But it turns out people I know and love did.

It was only a matter of time until the headlines came. The Washington Post reported: “Reform Jewish seminary report uncovers 50 years of sexual misconduct.”

But the report, and its frank, in-your-face presentation of the disgusting and heartbreaking facts helped me make sense of this “public vs private” debate I was having in my head.

Yeah, this was airing our dirty laundry alright. The report placed a bright spotlight on our community, showing we are not exempt from any of society’s deep-seeded ills: misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more.

As I list the transgressions, I realize that the Morgan Lewis Report is like the Ashamnu prayer - when we list our sins, one by one, and beat our chests as we recount each one. We recite Ashamnu out loud, for all to hear, for all to witness where we have egregiously misstepped. In owning up as perpetrator or bystander, we seek to break the callousness from our hardened hearts, and let a compassionate light shine out again.

I am proud of HUC for putting the report out there in its terrible fullness. To sweep it under the rug, or to limit its exposure, would be to remain complicit. Its very public publication is the ultimate admission of guilt and the only way to honestly move forward with integrity. It’s like saying, “here it is: the grim reality; the shadow life of our community that we will banish with the light of justice!”

This insight transformed the way I view the NYtimes magazine article and the letter that inspired it. The students who signed the letter are speaking out in the name of justice. They aim to be shining a light on a topic that the progressive Jewish community is loath to speak about. I may disagree or want to amend parts of what they said, but I understand that their public stand - both in writing the letter and being interviewed for the Times - is pushing for a serious conversation.

We Jews aspire to be “or l’goyim,” a light unto the nations. Isaiah says that God has called us into righteousness, “and unto your light,” he says, “nations shall walk, and rulers unto the brightness of your rising.”

In shining a light into the changing views on Israel by progressive leadership, and by owning up to the extent of the transgressions at HUC, we begin to have productive conversations and authentically rise to the challenge of meeting the high standards we Jews set for ourselves. We can only be a beacon of justice if we lead by example - and in this moment, that is to expose and reckon with what we have learned about ourselves in Israel and at home.

How much should we include broader society in this reckoning? It varies. But rather than waste our time saying, “don’t let the others know,” we should spend our energies banishing these injustices from our midst.

This week, we read the words of Hosea: “Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your God,

For you have fallen because of your sin...take [righteous] words with you and return to the Eternal...bring the offering of your lips…”

Our voices are powerful. We should not fear retribution if we speak of justice. We are a light unto the nations - proving that from vulnerability comes honesty, which helps us to lead with integrity.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Sarah and Hagar

We have to talk about Sarah and Hagar. Hagar an Egyptian, is a slave of our foremother Sarah. Sarah, wife of Abraham, is unable to have children, gives Hagar to Abraham - saying, “God has kept me from bearing children. Take my slave Hagar and perhaps I will be built up with a child through her.” Thus begins a conflict that some call classic, petty female rivalry and others call a cycle of abuse instigated by a system of misogyny. Spoiler alert: I’m going to go with the latter.

Here’s how it all plays out, Biblically speaking: when Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham, she starts to regard Sarah as the lesser, which instigates Sarah’s abuse, causing Hagar to run away, returning only at God’s urging. Some time later, after Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant with and gives birth to Isaac, the rivalry continues, with Sarah having Abraham send Hagar and her son Ishmael away to die in the wilderness, claiming that Ishmael was inappropriately taunting Isaac. Abraham gives in and a young Ishmael comes near death until Hagar cries out on his behalf and they are saved. 

To use the word “rivalry” when describing Sarah and Hagar is to blame the two women for their competition. Two women fighting over a man, competing from their respective son to become the rightful heir. It’s just girls being girls!

But to sum it up that way is to neglect the violence embedded in the text: the fact that Sarah and Hagar are both victims, living at the mercy of the men around them. Worse yet, they are then pitted against each other as if the other is the source of their oppression.

Julia Klein, writing for US News and World Report, dives into this week’s Torah portion to show its role, for better or for worse, as a cultural blueprint for today:

“Surrogate motherhood. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The oppression of the underclass. Sounds like a roundup of headlines from the nightly news—if the media were in full swing back in biblical days. All of these timely issues can be found in the twist-and-turn-filled story of Sarah and her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. According to the biblical account, both women bear a son for the patriarch Abraham. From that starting point, scholars have gone on to explore varying (and sometimes contradictory) layers of meaning in this classic tale of family rivalry.”

Klein continues: “Hagar, a slave, is never asked to consent to bearing a child, so the narrative raises the timeless issue of "upper classes exploiting those with fewer options."...African-Americans have appropriated Hagar, impregnated by her master and cast out into the desert, as a symbol of the plight of the slave woman. Feminist scholars say the story reflects the male-dominated societies of the times—or that it misrepresents the cooperative relationships that more likely existed among women.”

Klein is right - the story of Sarah and Hagar not only raises issues of misogyny, but also sexual assault, as well as racial and economic injustice. In the year 2021, we can understand this story with the fullness of a feminist lense. This isn’t women being petty. This isn’t one woman simply favoring her son over the other. This is a horribly detailed account of an abusive cycle fostered by misogyny.

Indeed, women have been accused of hysteria, of being conniving and cutting down other women for their own advancement for centuries. Yet the archaeological record and ethnography upon ethnography shows the opposite: the cooperative, compassionate and close-knit relationships among women are the backbone of nearly every civilization.

The Torah this week is not teaching us about female nature. It’s teaching us about systems of oppression and the trauma they cause - leading to an unravelling of even our most basic family units.

Even the rabbis of old even seem to pick this up to a degree.  In the midrash Avot D'Rabbi Natan, Sarah’s declaration to Hagar “The Eternal will judge between me and you,” is interpreted to be Sarah’s intimation that others were at fault for fostering a fight between these two women.

The difficulty of the text, then, is not the rivalry we witness between two women, but the fact that overtime, our tradition started to support the violence between these two women, not understanding the deeper point being made about what is causing their conflict.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary highlights the casual acceptance and invisibility of violence against women that has and is so ubiquitous in many cultures, including our own (TWC 108). Judith Plaskow, a great feminist writer further elucidates:

“[In this account of Sarah and Hagar], can we see the ways in which marginalized peoples are all too liable to duplicate patterns of subordination from which they themselves have suffered? In Sarah’s banishment of Hagar, can we see the horizontal violence that oppressed people visit on each other as they jockey for what seems to them limited resources, rather than making common cause against the forces that suppress them?”

Now, though, we have the opportunity to right this wrong, so deeply embedded into the fabric of not only our tradition but society as a whole. Women are jockeying for limited resources - working for their basic safety and dignity, in addition to equal pay and recognition. But even that has to be broken down. White, cisgender women like myself, for example, need to acknowledge our own pain and struggle, while also understanding it is significantly worse for transwomen and women of color. There are power dynamics even within marginalized groups, and while it should not be the responsibility of a marginalized person to have the work start with them, our power can be in doing the thing that those who abuse power refuse to do: break the cycle.

To that end, Tamara Cohen, a Jewish activist and writer, wrote a powerful prayer that calls to mind the cycle of violence in this week’s Torah portion and how we may begin to fix it:

“Sarah, our mother, oppressed her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Sarah was barren and she wanted a child. She gave Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham as a wife. When Hagar conceived and became pregnant Sarah grew lesser in her eyes. So Sarah oppressed her and Hagar ran away,

Go forth and learn: Pharaoh the Egyptian oppressed our people when they dwelled in Egypt. The Israelites descended to Egypt and lived there. When then they became a nation - great, mighty and numerous - Pharaoh feared that the Egyptians would be overcome by the great multitudes of Israelites, so he decreed that every male child born to an Israelite woman be thrown into the Nile. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and oppressed us; they imposed hard labor on us.

This you should never forget: the same word used for Hagar's oppression at the hands of Sarah is used for the Israelites' oppression at the hands of the Egyptians. 

This too you should never forget: The children of Israel were saved from Egypt through the brave and righteous acts of two women: one Hebrew and one Egyptian. Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh.

Go forth and learn: It is easier to oppress than to be free,

[But] "Until all of us are free none of us is free." 

When Sarah prays “take my slave Hagar that I may be built up with a child through her,” I hear the voice of a desperate woman exploiting an even more powerless woman. 

Today, let us transform Sarah’s prayer. May it read: “May God take note of me, and of my sister Hagar, of all those whose worth is decreed by those who lord over them. May we join hands in the struggle for recognition, for bodily autonomy, for security, and may we built one another up brick by brick: not building dynasties or garrison cities, but a more compassionate society together.”


Friday, October 15, 2021

Once Upon a Time: Lech Lecha!

“Once upon a time,” such a phrase, “once upon a time,” held special meaning. In a world where history, folk lessons and traditions were passed down through oral storytelling, certain phrases had to exist to parse fact from fiction. “Once upon a time” prepared readers for the world of fantasy.

Today, we have lots of phrases that serve the same function as “once upon a time”: “a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or “it was a dark and stormy night.”

These kinds of tales, we can agree, are decidedly fiction. Even our own Jewish folktales. But let’s be clear: while they may not be rooted in historical fact, they can most certainly be true in moral accuracy.

This week, the Torah gives us another opening line that not only starts a story, it blows the lid off of the Torah’s legends up to this point. The story this week sets into motion the mission of the Jewish people. Truth or not, it sheds light on our own personal sense of spiritual self-actualization, and it even sets the stage for the struggles and triumph of the modern state of Israel!

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

God said to Abram: lech lecha - go forth from your native land, from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you.

That land, we know, will be Canaan, and one day the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and then, one day, the modern state of Israel. It will also have many names in between.

But Abram doesn’t know that.

The notable detail of this opening line - lech lecha - is that God tells Abram to get up and go FIRST. Only after the command, God offers the reward for doing so - descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky, the sand in the desert. A great name and blessing. Protection, and eventually, a land to call our own. Good enough, but no other indicators of where except for “follow me.” It’s only after Abram gets to the land of Canaan, that God says, “oh yeah, this is the place.”

Which means that before we think about property, and ownership and boundaries and all that, God wants something first - from Abram and from his descendents. That thing is not a burnt sacrifice, it’s not even a formal declaration of faith. No, all God wants is for Abram to get up and get going, to move one foot in front of the other and simply believe that promise and prosperity lies before him. Seems to me that we are supposed to follow that example.

But first, what kind of man was Abram before this moment? We don’t really know. Before this point in the Torah, we have only some quick data: Abram’s father’s name was Terah and Abram had two brothers: Nahor and Haran. Haran had a son named Lot. He’s Abram’s nephew. Abram also has a wife named Sarai and we get a specific detail about her: she is unable to have children.

That’s it. That’s the whole picture we get before God approaches Abram, and says “lech lecha.” This isn’t like the hero Enoch, who “walked with God.” This isn’t Noah, who was “righteous in his generation.” He’s just Abram, son of Terah, uncle to Lot, husband to Sarah.

Perhaps these relationships, though, are what make him so exceptional.

The rabbis imagine that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker. Abram, at an early age, exposed the irony in his father’s pagan practices, making it possible for him to conceive of a one, true, formless God. His distancing from his father’s practice is what sets his destiny into motion.

And Sarai - the wife with whom he is unable to have children. They set out together, “adopting” people along the way - helping them to come into relationship with God as well. This why, even to today, when someone chooses to become a Jew, they have the option of having their Hebrew name draw upon this connection. They become “So and So, child of Abraham and Sarah.”

This tale of Abram and Sarai, specifically, is the official start of the Jewish people. Perhaps we can imagine that as this community formed, with Abram and Sarai at the helm, a network of like-minded and spiritually connected individuals became a people committed to struggling and prospering together.

Only after the relationship within the community and with God deepens, do Abram and Sarai are able to self-actualize spiritually - taking on a highly symbolic name change. Each of them takes in a piece of God’s name, the letter hey, into their own and becoming Abraham and Sarah.

But if the relationship between humans and humans to God was so strong, why did there ultimately need to be a place for them to settle? Why was the land of Canaan so essential to the plan?

I could give all kinds of historical reasons - the fertility of Mesopotamia and the strategic location of Canaan as a crossroads of trade and civilization. That’s all true. But what’s more true is that place matters to us humans. We place markers where we bury loved ones so that we have somewhere to go to feel connected to them.

They say “home is where the heart is,” and yet we have certain locations that help us to feel safe, where we feel most authentically ourselves. That can be where you sleep at night, or a home of another sort.

When we have no place to root us, or when our “homes” are not safe, that is when desperation sinks in. If this is true for us as individuals, it is true for us as a people as well.

I’ve always said that Israel is where our history comes alive. It is where the Jewish past can most potently inform our mission as a people today. Abraham showed it then, and the modern state of Israel shows it now: we Jews, like other peoples of this world, deserve a corner of the earth in which we can feel safe. A place where we can live the seasons of our lives in harmony with the seasons of our spiritual calendar and be authentically ourselves.

But how do we acquire that land and how do we manage it? Turns out that’s an age-old conundrum as well. According to Torah, Abram and Sarai traverse the land many times, navigating political alliances and carefully constructing relationships with the other people who live in the land of Canaan with them. They seek the delicate balance of staking a claim while also sharing the space. Seems like modern day Israel’s struggles with its neighbors and diverse populations has a blueprint in the Bible.

Which also means that our tale this week, of Abraham and Sarah, of God and the Jewish people, of the land of Israel and its importance, exposes what must lie at the heart of our journey as Jews and Israel as a nation-state: Oneness. The oneness of God, the oneness of the Jewish people, the oneness of humanity - most especially the people committed to living together peacefully in the land of their ancestors. Through all the tumult and controversy, we must be like Abraham and Sarah...pursuing our path peacefully; welcoming strangers into our tent eagerly; believing it is no fantasy to act with kindness and faith.

Friday, August 13, 2021


This week’s Torah portion takes a hard line on bowing down to idols, the sun, the moon and any of the “heavenly hosts.” This anti-idolatry stance predates this Deuteronomic mandate, it even predates the 10 Commandments that outright outlaws it. The theme begins in the Book of Genesis when God creates the sun, moon and stars. The message is clear: these are physical entities that are created by and are of God, material objects that cannot possess God within them. They are simply God’s tools.

It’s an important point on the omnipresence of God: if God could be contained in a material object, or even recreated by human hands and imagination, then God’s scope and power is inherently diminished. When the ancient Israelites sought to articulate an invisible God, God as being the space in which the universe exists, rather than God residing within the universe, it was a seismic shift in perspective.

That said, while the sun, moon, stars don’t possess any God-like creative power on their own, they are powerful signs of reality unfolding - day rolls into night - the physical manifestation of the natural processes and mysteries goings-ons of the universe - also known as God.

You see, this is my God-concept. God as the invisible force in which all things exist. The Great Connectedness of reality - the Colossal Oneness of all things.

There are many God-concepts in Jewish thought - all of which are considered to be limited human snapshots, brief illuminations, half-viewed parts of the unknowable. This one, in which God is the backdrop of the ever expanding universe, is the one by which we call God “HaMakom.” HaMakom literally means “the place.”

An early rabbi, Rabban Gamliel, to elucidate this idea asked: "Why did God choose to reveal Godself to Moses in a lowly burning bush?” He answers, “It was to make the point that there is no place on earth which is devoid of God's presence." God is everything and no thing.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch expands upon this: “Rabban Gamliel's view became concretized in a bold new name for God, perhaps my favorite, Hamakom, which we might render best as "the All-encompassing One." The term expands beyond measure the indeterminate "place," "makom," of Genesis. God is now dauntingly conceived as the space in which the universe exists. God is neither outside the world nor a resident within it; the world constitutes a part of God. Transcending both gender and image, the conception expresses the grandeur and austerity of Jewish monotheism. It has the capacity to do justice to a universe more than 15 billion years old and still expanding.”

This is an important place to pause. 15 billion years old and still expanding? Rabbi Schorsch is referencing the world of physics. Normally one would expect science and religion to diverge at the point where we start to discuss the “nature of the universe” and it’s processes. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

I’m not a physicist, but I listen to them sometimes, particularly Brian Green of Columbia University. He was interviewed recently by Krista Tippet for On Being, her podcast on NPR.

Tippet and Green raised a classic science vs religion paradox: how can one believe that the universe has some unifying force, purpose or order when we know the second law of thermodynamics...that is, the concept of entropy, that “all things fall apart.” How can one believe in a higher order when we know all things decay and dissolve?

According to Greene, that would be too rash of a conclusion. He says, “the science itself makes clear that there can be these intermediate windows of time — in fact, we’re living in that window right now — when the universe can enjoy order. It can enjoy structure. It can be the home of beauty. It doesn’t last long, on cosmological scales, but here we are. We are these living beings whose bodies are so exquisitely ordered that we can have conscious experience. We can think and feel, and we can look out into the world, and we can figure things out, and we can puzzle about things, and we can have grief and joy and elation and pain. And all of that, collectively, is an enormous feat for a mere collection of particles governed by physical law, which is all that we are. And so to my mind, yes, ultimately it all does fall apart, but look how spectacular it is that we’re here, in this window, at this moment that the universe supports the kinds of structures — stars and planets and, on at least one such planet, living systems such as ourselves who can have these transcendent experiences.”

This isn’t about worshipping science or heavenly bodies, or even an anthropological God. This is about the sublime order of all reality and how we can marvel at that with awe. In my book, religion is the vehicle toward awe, not necessarily a submission to a dominant outside force as many often portray it.

And there’s more that unites physics and religion. Believe it or not, but a debate about “freewill” rages in both. Greene shares: “I don’t think that we have freedom of will in the traditional sense. I don’t think that we are the ultimate authors of our actions. I do fully believe that our actions come from the motion of our constituent particles that are fully governed by physical laws. So I think our brains are really good at concocting a narrative whereby our actions fit into a coherent story, but that story itself suggests that we are the author of that story, when it’s actually the laws of physics, if you will, that’s the ghostwriter behind the scenes.”

What he calls the laws of physics, I call God - the ghostwriter behind the scenes. Which helps us theological-types to work out how there can be free will with an omnipotent and omniscient God. Science tells us that reality has predetermined outcomes. Some religion tells us that too. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to act in moral ways and make choices for the better good. Even a physicist would argue that our actions matter here and now, no matter the chaotic, destructive direction nature is heading in.

Perhaps this is why, when someone dies, we say, הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם - HaMakom y’nachem etchem - May the All-encompassing One (may God) comfort you. Sure, this could be imagined as God placing a hand on our shoulder. can convey something more, like “may you be comforted in knowing that life and death are part of the natural processes of existence, processes we cannot control.” And with that said, the life they lived, and the life you live now, matter.

Midrash recounts how Abraham, the first Jew, was able to first conceive of God as the All-Encompassing Space in which all things exist:

"One night, upon seeing the moon and stars, Abraham said, 'The moon must have created heaven and earth and me. The stars must be the moon's princes and courtiers.' So all night long he stood in prayer to the moon. In the morning, the moon sank in the west and the sun rose in the east. Then Abraham said, 'There is no might in either of these. There must be a higher Power over them - so to God will I pray, and before God will I prostrate myself.”

Abraham humbled himself not to a thing, but to the knowledge that something bigger lies beyond the natural world and a human’s ability to conceive of it. That humility is what drives us to act in service of one another and, in doing so, in service laMakom - the great Unity of it all.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Pandemic Nostaligic

In the early days of the pandemic (which we didn’t know were the “early days” of what will be now a 2 year slog), we waxed poetic on what we had learned as a society. A video went viral of Tom Roberts - a guy my age who makes internet videos - reading a child a “bedtime story” called The Great Realisation. He imagined a vaccinated world after the pandemic, and what it would look like. He began:

“It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty,
Back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020
You see, the people came up with companies to trade across all lands
But they swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have planned
We always had our wants, but now, it got so quick
You could have anything you dreamed of, in a day and with a click...
And while we drank and smoked and gambled, our leaders taught us why,
It's best to not upset the lobbies, more convenient to die.
'But then in 2020, a new virus came our way.
The government reacted and told us all to hide away.
'But while we were all hidden, amidst the fear and all the while,
The people dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile.
'They started clapping to say thank you, and calling up their mums.
'And while the cars’ keys were gathering dust, they would look forward to their runs.
'And with the sky less full of planes, the earth began to breathe.
And the beaches brought new wildlife that scattered off into the seas…
'Some people started dancing, some were singing, some were baking.
We'd grown so used to bad news but some good news was in the making.
'And so when we found the cure and were allowed to go outside,
We all preferred the world we found to the one we'd left behind.
'Old habits became extinct, and they made way for the new.
And every simple act of kindness was now given its due.
'But why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?'
'Well, sometimes, you got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.
'Now lie down, and dream of tomorrow, and all the things that we can do.
And who knows, maybe if you dream strong enough, maybe some of them will come true.
'We now call it the Great Realisation, and yes, since then there have been many.
'But that's the story of how it started, and why hindsight's 2020.'

At the time, it was so uplifting, encouraging, it made it feel like all our actions were worth it.

But 2020 became 2021 and our patience for bedtime stories and compelling poems has waned.

Perhaps it is because at this moment, a new variant has us scared and confused. The conflicting science and lack of clear guidance has us fatigued.

Or, could it be that we haven’t actually learned all the lessons we thought we did? Could it be we need more time?

Back in June, Stephen Collinson of CNN wrote:

“The joy of family reunions, delayed weddings, the urge to travel and traffic returning to clog city freeways speak to a national reawakening that has seen infections and deaths shrink since early in the year. 

But such rituals have coincided with the jarring return of another quintessentially American rite: the mass shooting, 10 each on the last two weekends alone. Cities like San Francisco and New York are recalling their dangerous after dark reputations of the past. And questions are being raised over whether the pent-up frustration of months of social distancing and consequential mental health issues are combining in a fatal mix with a nation awash in firearms.

As states have lifted Covid-19 restrictions and the weather warmed, many US cities were hit by a sudden spike in gun crime, violence and homicides. Mass shootings have proliferated from Oregon to Louisiana and from Utah to Michigan. Last weekend, there were 10 mass shootings across nine states that killed seven people and injured at least 45 others…”

That same month, we got reports of airlines banning alcohol from their flights due to a higher incidences of drunk and unruly passengers. People are acting out. Not because we’re naturally violent, ungrateful beasts, but because we’re traumatized.

We aren’t meant to live as isolated ascetics. Unsurprisingly, humanity has crept back toward each other. Given the amount of psychological trauma and the fact that racist, misogynistic structures still prop up our society, it is perhaps no surprise that we emerged from our isolation more chaotic than ever.

For those with mental health struggles, they were exacerbated. For those without pre-existing conditions, the pressure has taken a toll. We tell ourselves: by doing this….I’ll feel ok. The benchmark comes and we don’t feel better. So then we say, by doing this, or when this happens….I’ll feel ok. And then we’re not.

The needle keeps getting pushed back. When we hit the benchmark and we don’t feel ok, we get angry, we feel guilty, we feel lost.

As the Delta variant moves the needle yet again, I wonder if it is possible to return to those feelings of moral recalibration. How can we tap back into that sublime state of ethical discovery? Or perhaps put differently: is there still time to actualize The Great Realisation?

Enter Torah. Torah understands people as emotional beings - speaking to us in spiritual and moral language. And it also understands us as social beings who don’t always know how to regulate those feelings. Therefore it legislates our actions. Deuteronomy, the book we are currently reading, takes great care to reiterate what these actions should be. Our tradition is so magically practical in its approach.

This week, Deuteronomy reminds us that we are an am kadosh, a holy people, that we are banim Adonai - literally children of God. It operates in the language of relationship and love, precisely what we’ve been reflecting on throughout quarantine. It reminds us that we are of God and therefore capable of demonstrating tremendous love.

This God-like emotional energy alone is pure and creative, but when applied to the human world, easily turns destructive. Hence the need for a religious code and a roadmap for living. Hence all the laws we get in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh.

Torah itself is “the Great Realisation” - the idealistic projection of what the world and we can be. And like our ancestors this week, specifically Moses, we find ourselves on the cusp of the Promised future but not yet ready, or allowed, to go in. We’re still “in the thick of it,” so to speak.

Which is why I keep coming back to a piece that Sam Anderson wrote for the NYTimes called “The Truth about Cocoons.” Cocoons - the kinds butterflies emerge from.

He asks: “What is it actually like inside a cocoon? Is it cozy and peaceful? Or cramped and dim? Is the bug’s stay voluntary, involuntary or something in between? And what really happens during that seemingly magical change? Is it inspiring and wondrous? Or is it unpleasant and grim? What did I not learn in kindergarten?

It turns out that the inside of a cocoon is — at least by outside-of-a-cocoon standards — pretty bleak. Terrible things happen in there: a campaign of grisly desolation that would put most horror movies to shame. What a caterpillar is doing, in its self--imposed quarantine, is basically digesting itself. It is using enzymes to reduce its body to goo, turning itself into a soup of ex-caterpillar — a nearly formless sludge oozing around a couple of leftover essential organs...

Only after this near-total self-annihilation can the new growth begin. Inside that gruesome mush are special clusters of cells called ‘‘imaginal discs,”...[these discs are] basically the seeds of crucial butterfly structures: eyes, wings, genitalia and so on. These parts gorge themselves on the protein of the deconstructed caterpillar, growing exponentially, taking form, becoming real. That’s how you get a butterfly: out of the horrid meltdown of a modest caterpillar.”

We are still in the grisly desolation of a global pandemic - and not just because the Delta variant has us masked up and staying home again. We’re still mid-#metoo. We’re still asserting that Black Lives Matter. Extreme weather is causing homelessness, famine and poverty. We are still in the deconstructed soup of it.

But this fact, as grim as it feels, does not negate all the blessings we’ve discovered in our hearts during this time. In this primordial goo of our reinvention, those holy feelings of love and connection that we are discovering are exactly what we must gorge ourselves on; feeding on it long enough to translate those feelings to action and finally emerge transformed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Emotion Contagion

Last weekend’s NYTimes had an op-ed from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton. It questioned this new, prevalent disease we all are facing: the ailment known as “Zoom-fatigue.” Symptoms include lack of productivity, lack of desire to interact on the computer, and abstaining from online communal gatherings and webinars. Researchers have suggested that Zoom-fatigue stems from sitting still, feeling self-conscious about seeing yourself on screen, and the cognitive load of reading glitchy facial expressions.

Yet Grant questions this modern day malady. He offers an alternative theory: The languishing we feel, the malaise we felt and may still feel in our everyday lives may not have been from Zoom itself. It may actually be the product of something called “emotional contagion.” “Emotions,” he explains, “are like contagious diseases: They can spread from person to person…[it is literally being] infected with other people’s emotions.” He continues: “the science of contagion suggests that the negative emotions we feel from video-call overuse could be partially driven by hours of communicating with people who are also sad, stressed, lonely or tired.”

So it turns out COVID isn’t the only virus being passed around. Before COVID, more acutely in the pandemic, and even when it's over, turns out we humans have a knack for transferring our negative emotions from one person to another. This doesn’t only happen from face-to-face interaction, but also from interaction on social media and text messages.

But before we make things worse by disseminating this bad news, it turns out that emotional contagion is just as virulent for positive emotions as it is for negative ones. According to the research, peak happiness, while achievable individually, is even more attainable in group settings.

Grant says, “We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence. It’s a concept coined in the early 20th century by the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field. And during this pandemic, it’s been largely absent from our lives.”

This explains our desire to get back to concerts, plays and even into this room for services. It goes beyond fun beyond being in a flow state. We get internally charged by the shared project of joyful activity. We literally light each other up.

Before Covid, research showed that more than three-quarters of people found collective effervescence at least once a week and almost a third experienced it at least once a day. Go from that to zero. The last year and half, we’ve been sharing our negative emotions and have little positive ones to pass around.

Religious ceremonies and observances, particularly in Jewish tradition, exist to share these positive emotions. Passover? The joy of freedom. Tu b’Shevat? Appreciation for nature. Hanukkah? The thrill of beating the odds. Even Yom Kippur, which, while solemn, is not sad. Yom Kippur - inviting awe into our lives.

That all said, cut to Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which begins tomorrow evening. Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple - not once, but twice - as well as all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time. Expulsions, inquisitions, pograms, massacres and genocide. Traditional Jews fast, avoid using luxury items and bathing. It is a day of collective mourning, 24 hours of sharing dirges and verses from the Book of Lamentations. We gather together and sit on the floor. Weeping and hungry, we pass around nothing but negativity and sadness.

Or do we?

Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, reads as an elegy. It describes the siege and destruction of Jerusalem: a place once alive with the busyness of life is now desolate and charred. Hunger, thirst, rape and pillage linger in its stones. Lamentations 3 describes teeth broken on gravel, a person’s soul ground to dust. “My life was bereft of peace, I forgot what happiness was. I thought my strength and hope had perished before the Eternal.”

But just uttering the word hope sparks something within the narrator. At this point, their mood turns. “But this I call to mind, I have hope...God’s kindness has not ended, God’s mercy is not spent...God is my portion, I say with a full heart, therefore in God I hope.”

As the narrator speaks, as we continue to read, hope breaches our darkness. Its light increases the more we call upon it. We utter the word once. Then again. Then it merges with the word of our neighbor. Hope. What once was a whisper is now a melody. Connected more, is now a chorus. Hope. Pass it on.

I doubt many of us would call Jewish culture “optimistic.” We’re notoriously cynical, sarcastic and realistic. But we are a hopeful people. How can that be? What is the difference?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things takes a great deal of courage to have hope...hope is what transforms the human situation.” It’s an important distinction he makes: optimism can be naive. In a way, it yields any responsibility. Hope, though, is a building block on which our souls and our society get stronger.

He reminds us that we Jews, knowing what we know of history and humanity, are uniquely positioned to lead with hope and build a happier world.

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, Moses is nearing the end of his life and he begins to recount the years in the wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy is his own re-telling. He leads with stories of Israelite bickering, their complaining, their great transgressions against each other and God. This was his greatest frustration, afterall.

But then he reminds them, in Deut 2:7 - “Indeed, the Eternal your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Eternal your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing.” There’s a refrain in his remarks: you went somewhere, you sinned, but then God told you to get up, go on, get moving from there. “Don’t fear,” the portion ends, “the Eternal your God will battle for you.”

Our ancestors had no naivete. They were anything but optimists: from the grumble and doubt of the wilderness, to the anguish and melancholy of our many catastrophes, they knew the world was harsh. Yet they held the radical notion that we can muster enough courage, build enough hope to do so. This would and will only happen by sharing that hope, by leaning on one another. There is an imperative to share in as many moments of collective effervescence as we can muster - on Zoom and elsewhere. Lamentations ends with:

השיבנו יהוה אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

Return to one another, return to our communal spaces - either virtually or in person - and return to God - the infinite Oneness, the song of joy that pervades all that is.

Friday, July 2, 2021

It is Difficult to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who is credited with saying “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While at first this proverb feels like something Yogi Berra may have said, Bohr’s life story is a manifestation of the maxim’s truth.

By all measures, Niels Bohr had a predictable life. For starters, he was a physicist. His job was to predict how the universe would interact. He was so good at this predicting that he won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on atomic structures. 

His mother was Ellen Adler, a member of a prominent Jewish banking family. Bohr did not necessarily consider himself Jewish, having been christened in the Lutheran church. His wealth and privilege afforded him an education, which would have been a good enough indicator of his future success. Paired with his innate ability, perhaps it was predictable that he’d achieve such academic and public success. 

But what made him remarkable is what happened after the predictable timeline. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930’s, Bohr chose to use his prestige to save many Jewish lives. As you may be aware, in 1933, the Rockefeller Foundation created a fund to help support refugee academics – particularly Jewish ones - who were at greatest risk. Bohr met with the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Max Mason, during a visit to the United States and secured a plan. Bohr offered the refugees temporary jobs at his institute, providing them with financial support and arranging for them to be awarded fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation. Ultimately it was all with the goal of placing them at institutions around the world, shepherding them to safety. He saved hundreds of lives.

Predictably or not, in 1940, his own life came into danger. The Nazis invaded Denmark and Bohr got word that the Nazis considered him Jewish on account of his mother. Like many Danish Jews, he fled to Sweden by way of fishing boat and his was able to find passage to the US. Yet he refused to leave Sweden until he had had an opportunity to meet with King Gustav V, whom he helped persuade to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide a refuge to Danish Jews. Soon after, in early October 1943, the great exodus of 7,800 Jews across the Oresund Sea took place.

When Niels arrived in the US, he became part of the Manhattan. Yet even from there he took an unexpected turn. He was an early defector from using nuclear technology for weapons and directed his energy toward peaceful applications.

Bohr is right, then. It’s hard to make predictions, particularly about the future. His life story is an example of how one may try to predict a great many outcomes, but it is the choices we make in the face of unpredictable challenges that dictate what the future will hold. The future cannot be predicted, it can only be directed by our actions.

Bohr’s story feels meaningful to me this Shabbat for two reasons. The first is because of two very strange objects that appear in this week’s Torah portion. Numbers 27:21 talks about Joshua’s promotion within Israelite leadership. Joshua and the new High Priest, Eleazer, are to consult the “Urim and Thummim” in rendering decisions and choosing next steps for the community. The Urim and Thummim are two stones, we think, that were part of the high priest’s breastplate. Scholars are generally stumped on how they were used, but we think the stones served as a sort of proto-Ouija board. The function remains a mystery, but it seems safe to say that the Urim and Thummim were tools to decode prophecy and help point the community in the right direction.

Somewhere along the way, they fell out of vogue. Maybe because our ancestors felt, much like many of us, that this feels like a whole lot of superstitious mumbo jumbo.

But it would seem that consulting the Urim and Thummim regarding the future is not too unlike Niels Bohr’s life story and how we can live our lives. Rather than ancient magical divination tools, perhaps the Urim and Thummim were the means by which Israelite leaders took the reality of their moment and analyzed it. Perhaps they were a “values lens” by which they interpreted the circumstances and developed a way forward most in line with what they believed to be the most just outcome. They were just a tool through with the community’s values, and God’s commands, were articulated.

Which leads to the second reason Bohr’s story seems significant to me on this Shabbat. As I join you in forging Woodlands 3.0, I’m reminded that we can predict, we can plan, and despite our efforts, we can never know what the future holds. We can, however, take the time to reflect on the values that are most important to us and resolve that even in the most tumultuous, contentious moments, to trudge forward, acting in accordance with those values.

And I believe we do a good job of this at Woodlands. Isn’t this precisely what did throughout the pandemic? In every hard choice to close, to mask, to distance, to change it all, we led with our values. And lest you think me just self-congratulatory of our community, I see our frequent lauding as a reaffirmation of what we stand for: egalitarianism and diversity, an embracing of modernity, a desire to innovate and to constantly level-up not just as Jews but as people.

So as we return to our sacred space, and as we assume new and old positions within the community, let’s accept that we cannot make predictions, especially about the future. That said, we can resolve to choose our future – to make it one we are proud of. We know we’re on the right track, because we are choosing this future together.