Category Archives: sermons

What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

DeathThis is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? “You may ask yourself, how did I get here? … You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.” Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)

I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It’s clean, and clear, and polished. It’s about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It’s about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that’s the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year’s theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.

And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn’t feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what’s urgent.

I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.

There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day’s gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day’s grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don’t feel especially urgent, either. They’re part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.

That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.

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The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

SeenIt was four in the morning on Shavuot in the year 5770, also known as 2010. I was on retreat at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center in northern Connecticut. My son was seven months old.

My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear Reb Zalman (z”l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.

But it turned out that my son didn’t like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.

Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.

Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.

“Why didn’t you kill your bird?” asked the Sufi master.

“I tried to do as you asked,” said the student. “But no matter where I went, I couldn’t find a place where no One could see me.”

Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.

That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, “awe” or “fear of God.” Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.

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A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

BetterThere’s a meme going around the internet — maybe you’ve seen it — that says, “if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you’re doing it now.”

I’m too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south.

But in the last few months we’ve seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There’s a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There’s mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We’ve seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I’m doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is “nothing” — I’m overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it’s overwhelming.

So much is broken. It’s overwhelming. There’s no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It’s so easy to shrug and say, that’s the new normal. And it’s easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z”l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.” If the overwhelm of today’s news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm? Continue reading

Who by Fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, “Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There’s a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?”

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that’s a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by “God” and what you mean by “control.”

And she said, “But doesn’t Jewish tradition say that’s exactly how it works?” Well: yes — and no. “Jewish tradition” says a lot of things that don’t necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It’s a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water…” That’s a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I’m a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don’t want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

“But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree.”

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as “repentance.” I prefer “return.” It comes from the root meaning “to turn,” and that’s the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, and we turn ourselves around. We look at who we’ve been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we’re doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l’hitpallel means “to discern oneself.” That’s what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world.

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means “charity.” But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition’s tools for fixing what’s broken in our world.


And so much is broken. In recent weeks alone we’ve seen hurricanes, wildfires, and Nazis marching. Since I began working on this sermon, there have been more earthquakes in Mexico, more hurricanes in the Caribbean, unthinkable devastation in Puerto Rico. How can we maintain hope? How can we keep putting one foot in front of the other?

First we have to face in the right direction. Jewish tradition says we should orient ourselves toward God. If that word isn’t comfortable for you, try: we should orient ourselves toward justice and righteousness, toward kindness and compassion, toward hope and love.

We have to be willing to do the inner work of discerning our own patterns and how they feed into the brokenness of the world around us. We have to resist “checking out” and assuming that someone else will solve the world’s problems. Our spiritual practices can be critical tools in this work. Prayer and meditation and spiritual direction can help us to be authentic and whole as we do the work the world demands. They keep us honest. They keep us real.

And we have to pursue justice in all its forms. We have to work toward a world of righteousness. Feed the hungry. Rebuild what’s broken. Protect the vulnerable. Dedicate our hands, and our pocketbooks, to helping others. Even if you can only give a few dollars, or a few hours of your time, what matters is that you give.

These things are how we sweeten the harshness of living in this world where there are fires, and floods, and losses.  Notice that even in this ancient prayer, it doesn’t say that God will soften the decree. It says that we will — if we choose to.

Last night we sang Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s poem “Unending love:”

We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves. We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we are too proud for soothing. We are counseled by voices that guide us even when we are too embittered to hear. We are loved by unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us even in the midst of a fall. We are urged on by eyes that meet us even when we are too weak for meeting. We are loved by unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled, ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices; ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles. We are loved by unending love.

Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices. Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles. We are the hands of God in the world. Whether our hands build or destroy is up to us.

It’s easy to get hung up on whether or not we “believe” our high holiday liturgy: is God really judging us? (What do you mean by “God?” What do you mean by “judge”? For that matter, who’s the “us”?) I invite you to try setting aside the question of belief, and ask yourself instead: how does today’s liturgy make me feel, and what does today’s liturgy ask me to do?

How it makes you feel is a question I cannot answer — though I’d be delighted to sit down with you to hear about that anytime. But I can tell you what I think today’s liturgy asks us to do. Today’s liturgy asks us to take responsibility. It asks us to take our choices seriously. It asks us to resist despair, and instead to recommit ourselves to working toward a world that is more compassionate and more righteous than the one we inhabit now.

The question that sparked this sermon was rooted in flood and fire and devastation. The destruction we’ve seen in recent weeks is horrendous. I do not believe that God caused the hurricanes, or the wildfires, or the earthquakes.

I do believe that their damage was worsened because of human choices. Sometimes individual human choices, and often aggregate human choices. For instance, generations of lawmakers and businesspeople, in south Texas where I grew up, chose to pave the wetlands and marshes and prairies that used to act as natural flood absorbers. And because those wetlands and marshes and prairies are now covered with asphalt, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, there was nowhere for the floodwaters to go.

Our choices impact the world. That’s the bad news. It’s also the good news, because we can choose differently.

We can’t keep hurricanes from happening. But we can elect government officials who take science seriously. We can pressure our government to enact laws that will change the system in which paving over a wetland for somebody’s profit is considered a good idea. We can build a society in which no one lives in poverty anymore, and no one lives in places that are polluted or unsafe. We can collectively make different choices about how we care for each other and for the planet that we share.

Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, we can see in the world an infinitely complex chain of causality, and laws of nature, and human choices. The laws of nature aren’t up to us. But our choices are.

To say that our choices matter is frightening because it means we’re responsible. And it’s exhilarating because it means we can make the world better, if we choose to.

One of the most radical Jewish teachings I know is that our actions impact God. I want to say that again, because it’s so surprising. Every little thing we do or don’t do has an impact on God, the Source of All! According to the Jewish mystical tradition, when we do mitzvot with intention — whether lighting Shabbat candles, or fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry — we impact God’s own self. When we do mitzvot with mindfulness, we heal a brokenness within God.

Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that when creation came into being, God withdrew God’s-self — God created a space that was not God — in order to make room for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to heal. Our mystical tradition teaches that when we act here “below,” our actions are mirrored “on high.” When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within God too.

That idea may or may not work for you. Maybe you don’t believe in a God Who needs our help in order to heal. But there are human beings who need our help.I n south Texas, in Florida, in Mexico City, in Puerto Rico. And even if we aren’t acting for God’s sake, we must take action for theirs.

As we face a world that may feel increasingly apocalyptic, Jewish tradition offers us valuable tools for staying focused and creating change. We need teshuvah, turning ourselves and our communities and our world in the right direction. We need tefilah, the inner work of spiritual practice to keep us spiritually honest. And we need tzedakah, creating justice with our choices, and our hands, and our hearts.

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us. This is the work to which authentic spiritual life calls us. May we emerge from this Yom Kippur with our hands and hearts strengthened, ready to direct our teshuvah, and our tefilah, and our tzedakah, toward fixing what’s broken. As we sang last night, and we’ll sing again now: may we bring all of our love, and our compassion, and our kindness, to the work of building a world of healing, a world of safety, a world of shalom.

Ahavah V’Rachamim

Ahavah

V’rachamim

Chesed

V’shalom.

אַהֲבָה

וְרַחֲמִים

חֶֽסֶד

וְשָׁלוֹם.

Love, compassion, lovingkindness, and peace.

 

(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Opportunities for tzedakah / righteous giving:

A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Before he died, Reb Zalman — the teacher of my teachers — made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community’s tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of “dress rehearsal” for your own death?

I’ve got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your own death. Does that sound strange? It’s a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it’s not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we’re “doing it wrong.”) Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying. Continue reading

The Open Door – a guest sermon from Steven Green

Each year at CBI, one or more congregants offers the sermon on erev Rosh Hashanah. This year’s sermon was given by Steven Green, a member of our Board and chair of our Spiritual Life committee.

You are the Open Door

That beckons me in;

Peeking around the door frame,

I begin to enter into Your glory.

You move me forward, O Eternal,

to step beyond self-made boundaries:

lift my foot over the threshold

that I might abide in You.

In the house of the eternal,

I found my questions:

Waiting to be posed,

They filled me with wonder.

Sit with me, Eternal Teacher,

encourage my seeking:

as I fill my hours with Your mitzvoth,

so shall I be filled.

Send me through Your door

Stretching up to honor Your Name,

Sharing out this wonder,

Enriching myself in the giving.  

— Shabbat Siddur

Sometimes these poems/prayers from our siddur are a bit obtuse. You are the open door? And yet we have an opportunity, yet again, to experience the depth of this. But…how? And what is one to expect?

Fair to say that we are here tonight and will be here tomorrow and on YK and spend a veritable ton of time in shul. We are likely to hear a lot about teshuvah, about turning, we will beat our chests confessing sins that, well, I certainly didn’t commit. I think.

Over the next few days in shul the power of the liturgy, the relentless, the poetic, the melodic, the beautiful, the familiar words enable us to actualize one of those phrases from the piyut I just read, “Send me through Your door”. Propel me. Compel me. Enable me to go through that door.

And what might I find on the other side of that door?  Why do I want to go there? Again from the piyyut (poem), “I found my questions: Waiting to be posed, They filled me with wonder.” But how? What does it even mean to go through the door? Talk about esoteric. Ya know when I go to your house, I walk the path, see your front door and knock. You answer and open. Tonight you did the same thing as you came to this building. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur — indeed, each service here in this building — has as its primary goal to open us to a deeper sense of our connection to G!D, the imminent presence and the transcendent power. For way too long I sat in the pews of a synagogue without ever really sensing/feeling/seeing, indeed even believing that it was possible to experience…anything. How did that change? I think it starts with an intention. A desire to more deeply understand. An inchoate sense that I want this, I want what the sages were talking about. I want to have deeper, more profound sense of wonder.

People travel to wonder at the heights of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering. – Augustine

So, how do you get to this place of wonder? Sometimes it’s just a matter of a change in perspective. I experienced this last week at Mass MoCA. The Turrell exhibit is fascinating. He works in light. He has flat panels that have a light in it…I guess. The instruction is to sit with each panel for a bit. My intention at that point was to figure this out. How is this a significant piece of art? What is he attempting to do and communicate to me. I wanted to know.

From a distance I saw nothing. Walking a bit closer I noticed the light but still was curious as to why this was a big deal. And then. And then standing in front of the panel, walking around it, turning my head I noticed that there was a light, a colored light and the light was actually 3 dimensional, it came out of the flat panel and formed a pyramid in the air. But it didn’t. Yet it did. His whole fascinating exhibit challenges us in so many ways. When I changed my perspective with deliberate intent I could see and understand his art for the first time.

During this season we have the opportunity to change our perspective as to our lives. To approach our life and this season with a sense of…wonder. Plato pointed out that, the unexamined life is not worth living. This is our chance. This is our opportunity, again, this year, again, this holy-day season, again, starting tonight, to begin to see the wonder, to begin to explore the depths of our hearts, the huge waves of the currents of our lives, at the circular motion of our habits, our tendencies that bring us back, always bring us back, to the place where we started. This season allows us to look more closely, to spend a moment and set an intention, to ask the questions that in our busy lives we forget to ask, or fail to ask or are afraid to ask. This is our opportunity, again, being presented to us on that silver plate of our liturgy to explore with intent to change our perspective and to see with new eyes.

Start with an intention.

This is my goal for this season. Join me.

 

After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

One Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” They shouted, “white lives matter.”

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I’ve never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it’s not just hatred of us: it’s hatred of everyone who doesn’t fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work… and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I’ve had cause to say, “this isn’t the America I thought I lived in,” my non-white friends have said, “…this is the America we’ve always known.” And they’ve pointed out that the fact that I’m surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I’ve never had to walk a mile in their shoes. Continue reading