A Chance Worth Taking: Yom Kippur Sermon, 5780

Vigil for Parkland. Photo by Jonathan Drake (Reuters).

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway? 

It was cold, the first real rain California had seen in a long time. My university campus was relatively quiet and sleepy. There were only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people were mostly inside, studying for finals, buying plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at another university, the students were wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? What does it mean when 11 are killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, or 20 in an El Paso Walmart? How many worlds are destroyed when 49 people are murdered in an Orlando nightclub?

On the High Holidays, we pray Unetanetokef: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die, who when their time comes and who before or after their time, who by fire and who by water.” Who will die in a shooting this year? Who will take their own lives? Next time, will it happen here?  Even if we don’t believe that our fate is sealed in the book of life and death on Yom Kippur, this holy day still forces us to confront the reality that we just don’t know. What are we supposed to do with this uncertainty? Yom Kippur has a few suggestions about how to respond (Existential fear has been around for a long time, and for better or worse, Jews are really good at it).

First, Yom Kippur teaches us that we can’t hide from mortality. Yom Kippur is transgressive – we live a grief and death-phobic society, and the Jewish calendar gives us a day when we rehearse for our own deaths. On Yom Kippur, and in the days leading up to our own deaths, we make a confession, and we don’t eat, work, or have sex. Some people choose to wear white on Yom Kippur because Jews are traditionally buried in white shrouds. On Yom Kippur, we look directly at the thing that scares us the most, and we do it together. 

That’s the second suggestion Yom Kippur has to offer: Togetherness. When we pray al chet, we atone for sins committed by others in our community, even if we did not commit these sins ourselves. We don’t call out individuals – instead, we reduce shame by confessing together. We face the fierce uncertainty of life by supporting each other in atonement. 

According to Yom Kippur, liturgy, Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzedakah lessen the severity of Unetanetokef. For some, this means that if you do these three things, you’re off the hook, and you’ll survive another year. For those who read Unetanetokef as an expression of uncertainty, these words deliver a different message. We don’t know if Teshuva (atonement), Tefilah (prayer, meditation, mindfulness), and Tzedakah (righteous giving), will save our lives this year. But we do know they make our lives better. And that’s what Unetanetokef actually says: “Teshuvah, Tefila, and Tzedakah transform this harsh decree.” We don’t know what’s coming next, but this will help in the meantime. 

There’s one more thing we can learn from this season. It’s a lesson from Sukkot, which thankfully arrives only five days after Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, we build, decorate, and live in unstable shelters that we tear down one week later. Five days after confronting mortality on Yom Kippur, the Sukkah is a powerful reminder to find beauty and meaning in the temporary. 

Gun violence has become an epidemic and our sense of safety has been shaken to the core. With every school shooting, I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. Is this it? Am I going to die? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

We don’t know. We don’t know who is going to die this year. So we are going to face our fears, and we are going to face them together. We will make life better through teshuva, tefilah, and tzedakah. We will find beauty in the world around us, no matter how fleeting. We will march, we will vote, and we will organize. We will love harder and breathe deeper. We don’t know who will live and who will die, and we don’t know if any of our efforts will make an impact. But giving up is not an option, and we are going to try everything we can. Because we are a chance worth taking. 

Please rise for a Mourners Kaddish for those killed by gun violence this year. 

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Life is a volley of bullets
b’alma di v’ra hirutei, v’yamlikh malkhutei,
Time is a bleeding wound
b’hayyeikhon uv’yomeikhon uv’hayyei d’khol beit Yisrael,
in houses of worship, schools, shopping malls
ba’agala uviz’man kariv,
It seems that no one is safe.
v’imru: Amen.

God, these words tumble from my tongue
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh l’alam ul’almei almaya.
marbles in a bowl overturned
Yitbarakh v’yishtabakh v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
I don’t want to praise, I
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha
just want it to stop. Words, bullets, headlines,
faster and faster, they run
b’rikh hu
and I am out of breath. 

L’eila min kol birkhata v’shirata,
God, I am voting, marching, organizing,
tushb’khata v’nekhemata,
I don’t know if anyone is listening, but God,
da’amiran b’alma,
We are a chance worth taking.
v’imru: Amen.

Time, blood, thoughts and prayers
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
are never enough, but I can’t seem to stop praying
v’hayyim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael,
even though I’m not sure
v’imru: Amen.
You are listening.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
May the One Who Makes Peace in Heaven
Hu ya’aseh shalom
Make Peace
aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael
Over us and over all Israel
v’al kol yoshvey tevel
and for all who dwell on earth.
We are a chance worth taking
v’imru: Amen.

The Way Home: Rosh Hashanah 5780

When I was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, I was accepted into the Creative Writing concentration for my literature degree. I don’t know if it’s changed or not, but back then, most people didn’t get into the concentration until junior year, and some never got in at all. I was excited to workshop my poetry with other poets, and I couldn’t wait to learn with celebrated creative writing faculty.  My dream was to publish a novel or poetry collection one day, and I believed these workshops would help me make it happen. 

Kresge Bridge – Photo taken on Rosh Hashanah, 5780

The first course for the concentration started in winter quarter. It was a night class, and I remember the smell of damp redwoods on the bridge to Kresge college, the halos of lamplight in the fog. I also remember the faces of the women – they were all women – sitting around the table in that poetry workshop. One of them was always knitting, the clink of her needles punctuating her critiques. 

I did some of my best writing that quarter, but I also remember how awful it felt. How I looked up to the other writers in that workshop…and how I felt them looking down on me. I changed my words so many times attempting to win their praise. My reflective, narrative voice was too bland and status quo for the other writers. Even some of the poets I loved to read, like Mary Oliver, were written off as too predictable. 

Toward the end of the following quarter, I found myself in tears in the teacher’s office. I couldn’t explain what was wrong at first, but finally I heard myself say “I’ve changed my voice so many times, I can’t tell which voice is mine anymore.” 

Writing had always been home for me. It was my refuge, a place where I knew myself. When I felt lost, I could always write my way back. But after two quarters trying to impress the others in my workshop, home didn’t feel like home anymore. It was my house, but not my furniture, or it was like someone had come in overnight and rearranged everything, so that nothing felt familiar or true. It was worse than writer’s block. It was full on writer’s paralysis. My teacher was sympathetic and supportive. She recommended a workbook that I still love called The Artist’s Way. The exercises helped me find my true voice again, despite the noise of my nasty inner critic. The critic had always been part of me, and she probably always will be – but she had grown far louder over the course of those two workshops.

In fall of my junior year, I joined a different workshop group and I had a radically different experience. These writers lifted each other up, and focused on helping each other write from a place of authenticity, whatever that meant for each one of us. There was still plenty of critique, but it felt like something else entirely. My relationship with my voice began to heal, and writing felt like home again. I am still in touch with some of the writers from that workshop today. Shoutout to Facebook for the help with that. I’ve also become much closer with one of the women from the first two workshops, and I learned that I wasn’t the only one struggling to find my voice there. 

In the Rosh Hashanah Torah portion, Sarah expels Hagar from her home. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are bamidbar. Bamidbar means both “wilderness” and “desert” in Hebrew. Whenever anyone in the Torah is bamidbar, it means they are about to learn something about themselves – something challenging, deep, and powerful. Where was Moses when he found God in the burning bush, and learned that he would lead the Israelites out of slavery? Bamidbar. Where were the Israelites before they arrived at Mt. Sinai? Bamidbar – for forty years! If you’ve ever seen your grandparents try to give directions without GPS, you might understand why it took so long! But I digress. We had to get lost before we could find ourselves. 

During the Days of Awe, we talk a lot about tshuvah. Over time, it’s come to mean “repentance” or “atonement.” But the word itself actually means return. This is the season of returning – returning to the spark of Divine Light that lives inside each one us. Finding our way through the wilderness of our lives so that we can return to who we truly are. 

Hagar was bamidbar when she ran out of water, when she laid her son Ishmael beneath a tree because she couldn’t bear to see him die. She was exiled from her home and she felt alone and afraid. Hagar was never going to get Sarah’s approval, just like I was never going to get the approval I so desperately wanted from other writers in that workshop. Vayik-fe-kach Elohim et Ayneha – and then, God opened her eyes. Hagar saw a well. The Torah doesn’t say that God created a well. Hagar saw the well. Maybe it had been there all along, but Hagar needed help to see it. Hagar was not alone after all, and with God’s help, she returned – she found her way out of the wilderness. Sometimes, we need someone else to help us see the well that’s right in front of us. 

It’s a new Jewish year and a new school year. You have new classes, new homes, and some of you are new to UCSC. You may see all these new beginnings as an opportunity to reinvent yourselves. Maybe you want to try on a different voice, and then another, and another. Change can be exciting and scary. Face the wilderness with curiosity. Join all those student groups. Take a class in a subject you’ve never considered. This is the moment to do it. And remember, each of us has to explore our own personal wilderness before we can find the way home, before we can return to who we are. 

And when you do feel lost, when home doesn’t feel like home anymore, when you’ve lost sight of yourself – when you are bamidbar, like Hagar, Moses, and so many others before us – remember that you don’t have to find your way back alone. You can turn to a teacher or a mentor, who might recommend the right book at the right moment. You can reach out to an old friend, a partner, a parent, or God. As the new years begin, I encourage you to make a list for yourself – a list of the people you can turn to when you need to return. The ones who will hear you when you call out from your wilderness. The ones who remind you to open your eyes – because the well has been there all along. 

Shana Tova, everyone. May every journey bring you closer to the home inside of you.