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. 

Heart, Soul, and Might: Parsha Va’etchanan

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the well-known words of the V’ahavta: You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. What does it mean to love with all three of these? Today is a unique moment in the Jewish calendar that can teach us what this kind of love might look like. 

Today is: 

  1. Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of compassion, following Tisha B’Av, our day of mourning. Shabbat Nachamu is based on the first verse of the Haftarah reading, Isaiah 40:1, “Console, console my people, says your God.” The following three haftarot are called “Prophecies of Consolation,” a loving, compassionate response to the previous three weeks, “the Prophecies of Affliction.”
  2. Tu b’Av – the 15th of Av, a minor Jewish holiday that is sometimes called “Hag Ha’Ahava,” the holiday of love. According to the Mishna, Tu B’Av was a joyful holiday in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, marking the start of the grape harvest. Women wore white and danced in the vineyards waiting to meet their beloveds. Since Tu B’Av follows Tisha B’Av on the contemporary calendar, this holiday is also seen as an additional source of comfort and joy following a period of mourning. It’s also a popular time to get married – a time of many weddings and joyful unions.
  3. This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan – In this parsha, Moses shares the greatest commandments of all: Sh’ma and V’ahavta. Sh’ma is an affirmation of God’s Oneness, and the V’ahavta is the promise that I discussed at the top. It’s a promise that we will love God with all our hearts, souls, and might.

Each of the three events that collide tonight on the Jewish calendar can be linked to the three ways we are told to love God. 

First, we have Shabbat Nachamu. Nachamu comes from the word rachamim, which means compassion. Rachamim comes from the word “rechem,” which means womb. We are held, this Shabbat, in compassion and consolation, by Shechinah, God’s feminine, nurturing presence. This is how we learn to love with our hearts. 

Second, we have Tu B’Av, a celebration of love. In Jewish wedding liturgy, the joy of two souls coupling contributes to the joy of the world. In the words of Rabbi Shai Held, “A wedding is never just a private affair, something enacted between two people alone. It is a sacred coming together, which adds love to the world. This is the power of love between two souls. Tu B’Av represents a way to love with all your soul. It’s a day that celebrates soul-mates.

How do we love with all our might? The words of V’ahavta in this week’s Torah portion follow the words of the Sh’ma: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: Listen, God-wrestlers, God is your God. God is One. When we love with all our might, we love with God’s love. When we love with all our might, our love has the power to change things. When we love with all our might, we remember that all are One.

In honor of this celebration of love and compassion, I’ve written a new interpretation of V’ahavta, a contemporary reminder that if we meet the world with love, we will create a more loving world.  For your reference, the traditional V’ahavta can be found here.

Interpretive V’ahavta

You shall love our world with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your might.

Write compassion on your heart, today and every day.
Teach your children to be tender with themselves,
with each other, and with everything on earth.

Speak with kindness at home and in the world,
before you go to sleep, and first thing in the morning
even if you wake up grumpy, and you haven’t had your coffee yet. 

Create signposts and reminders for yourself
Tape it to your fridge on a post-it note
Make love the background on your home screen
Add it to your to-do list app with daily notifications.

When you remember to love with your whole self
you will bring holiness to the world
and you will know that we are One. 

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. May we face the world with love this week, and in all the weeks to come. 

Many thanks to my husband, Joseph Gluck, for pointing out the link between the three observances, and heart, soul, and might. Thank you for being my best editor, thought partner, and soul mate. Happy Jewish Valentines Day!

Don’t Look Away: Tisha B’Av

Anguish. Anger. Sadness. We spend so much time and energy trying to move past it. Trying to take action. Trying to stay positive. We fear emotional pain so much that there are entire industries dedicated to avoiding it.  So how are we to respond to a moment in the Jewish calendar that prescribes lament? In these Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples, we are told to grieve, to feel pain, to sit low to the ground like we might after the death of a family member. Do not look away, Tisha B’Av tells us. Look at the world. Look at the loss. Look at your own anguish, anger, and sadness. Feel every minute of it.

This is the first time I’ve ever felt the coming of Tisha B’Av. As an unapologetic diasporist, I don’t long for a return to the Temple or the return of animal sacrifice. I even wrote alternative blessings for the parts of our daily liturgy that ask God to return us to those times and places (publication coming soon on Ritualwell).  Still, Tisha B’Av has been tugging at my heart this year. Maybe it’s because of the crisis at our nation’s border. Maybe it’s the rampant gun violence in this week alone. Over the last several of these Nine Days, people I haven’t heard from in ages have reached out to me to share their stories of personal traumatic loss. I don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s an honor to be the altar for their offerings. It seems that even if I’m not observing the Nine Days, these Nine Days are observing me. 

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” Animal sacrifices forced our ancestors to confront mortality, to face the reality of death by engaging with it directly. This is how they drew near to God. I am so relieved we gather in community now instead, and that we have replaced these acts of violence with prayer. We don’t need a Temple because our world is the Temple and our words are the offerings. But does our praying truly draw us nearer to God? Or are we still skillfully keeping death at an emotional distance? Is there something missing, after all, now that the the Temple itself feels more like history than memory? Prayer was supposed to replace the violent act of animal sacrifice, and these days, it’s another inadequate response to the violence all around us. 

Tisha B’Av reminds us to see this violence, to face mortality, and to grieve it. We are a society that fears pain so much that we hurry through it, or skip it entirely in favor of action. I believe our action will be more informed and more effective if we draw near to pain first. Anger, anguish, and sadness are hard to sit with. It’s hard to hold space for suffering before rising up to make change. This is the challenge of Tisha B’Av: Look at the world. Look at the loss. Feel every minute of it. Do not look away. Draw near instead.  Sit with the suffering. Take the pain – your own, and the pain of others – in your own hands. Hold it gently. Speak to it, saying: “I hear you and I am here with you.” Only then will we finally be able to rebuild.

Through the Narrows: Passover 5779

This Passover, I’m considering the narrow spaces* I create for myself – the chains I choose, and the chains I hold onto. I’m looking at the chains I should abandon, and the ones I can’t leave behind.

I’m thinking about the chains I carried with me across the riverbed, clink-clink-clinking like Miriam’s timbrels, while the sea roared on either side.

I’m thinking about dropping them along the way this time, releasing myself from the narrowness I’ve carried in my heart.

Whatever it is that’s holding you back, I invite you to wonder with me: What does freedom feel like, when we allow ourselves to truly feel it? What might we discover together in this great expanse?

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, Everyone.

May we sing each other, every day, to the other side of the sea

*The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which translates, roughly, to “narrow spaces.” When we celebrate Passover, we are asked to imagine that we ourselves are coming out of Egypt, freeing ourselves from the narrow places in our lives.

unRevelation

On Shavuot 2016, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. It’s the end of one long journey and the start of another. We observe our years of wandering in the desert by counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. After our freedom from slavery, after all of the wandering, we are finally able to own that freedom at Mt. Sinai, becoming a people at last.

The day after Shavuot 2016, and the day after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, I was driving to work, stuck in traffic as always, crying as I listened to the story of the massacre on NPR. It was Virginia Tech, it was Sandy Hook, it was every other communal tragedy that affected me on a personal level. A voice inside rose like smoke from a flame: I want to be a rabbi. I tried to shrug it off. I have to be a rabbi. While this may not have been an answer for the world, at the very least, in the moment, it felt like an answer for me.

It’s hard to articulate why the Pulse Nightclub shooting inspired this epiphany. Maybe I felt like I had to do something, anything to heal this shattered world. Even though I know it’s impossible, I also knew I had to try, and this was the best I could offer. Maybe this was my Shavuot becoming, my revelation at the foot of the great mountain. Maybe it was just a feeling, a sudden knowing, and I don’t need to find words, or reasons, for everything.

Today, we enter the Shabbat before Shavuot in the wake of another mass shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 children were murdered. We received 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai, including the injunction, “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew word ratzach, which means to murder or slay, shares a root with the word retzach, which means shattering. Moses shattered the tablets when he found that the Israelites had created a Golden Calf, an idol, while he was at the top of the mountain receiving Torah for the first time. How many lives are shattered when one is lost? How many commandments are broken when 10 children are murdered at school? The numbers pound in my head with my broken heart: 49 lives lost in Orlando, following the 49 days of the Omer. 10 children killed before we celebrate the 10 commandments. Mishnah Sanhedrin says whoever destroys a soul destroys a whole world. So many worlds, days, stone tablets, lives: all gone forever.

I have two semesters of rabbinical school behind me, and many more ahead. I still don’t know how to respond to violence. I can dissect the Hebrew word that means “to murder,” and I can connect the number of children killed with the number of commandments on the tablets. But in the days following this horrific tragedy, I doubt the smoke from a flame will again rise within me, that voice that urged me to follow another path in the aftermath of Orlando. I never did find an answer for myself, even though others in the world turn to me in moments of crisis. I teach them to sit with the unanswered questions. If there is a voice in the aftermath, it will not have an answer. It will be a sob, or perhaps a wailing, a recognition that the shattering never stopped, that we are still, after all, in the wilderness. We are here, waiting for a leader to descend the mountain. We are scrambling to hide the Golden Calf we built out of fear. We are still grieving the first set of stone tablets, the broken ones, searching for their message in the silence that follows the gun shots. We do not know if revelation is coming, only that the broken commandments cannot be reforged. If we want to bring about revelation, we must build new tablets together.