Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Tuesday, December 26, 2023


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.


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.


Hanukkah 5784

Our dear rabbinic intern, Lara, gave an exquisite recital at Hebrew Union College last Tuesday. In what I dubbed “suburban mom’s day in the city,” I headed in by train to meet up with Cantor Jenna and cheer Lara on.

I rarely have an hour of sedentary time by myself (that’s what a sabbatical is for?) so I didn’t have a great game plan for the train. So what did I do? I opened my NYTimes app and started to go down the Israel news rabbit hole.

I don’t have to describe it to you, because you can imagine my mood when I arrived down to HUC. As excited as I was for Lara, I sat down with a large knot in my stomach.

But then Lara began to sing. The program she had researched and prepared was called “Musical Expressions of Psalms of Longing.” It was the catharsis my heart needed.

There was one piece, one line, that got lodged in my heart and I’ve been thinking about since.

Psalm 130 begins: “From the depths I call You, Adonai. Adonai, listen to my voice, be attentive to the voice of my plea.”

Then it asks: “If You were to keep count of all our sins, God, who would endure? With you, there is forgiveness, and that is what makes you so great.”

“If You were to keep count of all our sins, who would endure?”

Otherwise put: if God kept count of all times we have failed or hurt one another, no one - no person, group or country - would emerge victorious in virtue. If God punished everyone who acted wrongly, not one human would be left on this earth.

It is as if the psalmist declares: all the tit-for-tat, the keeping count, the moral equivalents, it's a zero sum game. It is all pain. Pain abroad; pain in our own neighborhood and our hearts.

A war rages this Hanukkah - physically and spiritually - manifesting in each of us differently. 

And I was thinking about how Hanukkah is the story of war. But we don’t glorify war, do we? We don’t sit here and recount the gruesome details. Hanukkah’s message of triumph over tyranny, its insistence of hope in the face of despair - these are the messages that endure, the stories we tell.

There’s another question that we famously ask on Hanukkah, similar to the one Psalm 130 posed:

מי ימלל גבורות ישראל

אותן מי ימנה

“Mi Yimalel? Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them?”

It’s another uncountable rhetorical question: how many times have our people mourned a darkened world? How many times as suffering of our own people and of our neighbors tore at our hearts? To count them, to recount them, feels as if it could drive us crazy.

But then the song offers hope: 

הן בכל דור יקום הגיבור

גואל העם

In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid! 

And it continues: just like the Maccabees restored the Temple, tonight our people dream! We will arise, we will unite, and we will be redeemed!

We can’t begin to count the hardships, but we can publicize the miracle that we are here! We can sing with joy that we are strong enough to withstand the calamities and that through those songs of hope, we resolve to act for justice.

“In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.” Look around…you are those heroes. Like the Maccabees, you may be battered and scared. And like the little cruse of holy oil left in the Temple, you may feel depleted. But even from the small spark of hope, there can be a candelabra of light. You can be a Maccabee, you can be a light, you can be the miracle this Hanukkah.