November 20, 2016

Where is your brother? (part two)

Where is your brother?

I talked earlier about hearing this question as it relates to humanity globally, to people who are not literally our brothers and sisters.

And now let’s hear the question another way. Let’s hear Where is your brother? as Where is your brother? Let’s think about our real brothers and sisters, plus our parents, children, partners, close friends, and colleagues. Let’s call these people our “circle.” People who we actually know and experience in our daily lives, including people who have died. (So, for example, I still consider my parents to be in my circle, because I still feel myself to be in relationship with them.) Everybody think for a moment about who is in your circle.

Okay now a brief survey.

Raise your hand if you… ever expressed anger towards someone in your circle and you then regretted it.

Raise your hand if you… ever held a grudge about something said or done by someone in your circle.

Raise your hand if you or someone in your circle … lives with any type of brain illness or developmental disorder which makes life challenging for them and perhaps for you too – anything from autism, to bipolar, depression, or substance misuse, etc.? [remember: could be anyone in your circle]

Raise your hand if you or someone in your circle… has ever made a life decision that you thought was risky or harmful – such as abusing drugs or alcohol, or staying in an abusive relationship or job.

Raise your hand if there is any estrangement within your circle – if you or someone in your circle has ever been estranged from someone close to them?

One last question: Raise your hand if you… ever said or did anything hurtful to someone in your circle and you still regret it.

What’s the point of this little survey? Look at how much suffering we experience firsthand, and how much suffering we witness, just within our own little circles. And that’s not even including other challenges like aging, financial distress, disabilities, or trauma.

God’s question – Where is your brother? – clearly calls us to witness the suffering of the people in our own circle. God’s question challenges us to know where the people in our circle are – to know their struggles, their triumphs, their anxieties, their hopes. We are challenged to see and know and accept them just as they are. To love them, unconditionally. Mistakes and all. Misdeeds and all. This is our spiritual work – loosening the grip of ego and cultivating compassion – and doing that just within our own little circle is challenge enough for a lifetime.

And all the other suffering people in the world – are they not our brothers and sisters also?

This question brings me back to how I began, with that sense of dread I was feeling earlier this summer. Dread about the dark side of human nature. Dread which leads me to despair rather than hope.

Honestly, the dread is still there. I feel it in my kishkes – my guts. And I know that I am not alone; I can hear the dread in every post I read on Facebook, although among my friends and acquaintances it often comes out as sarcasm and righteous indignation.

Jewish tradition reminds us again and again that we have a choice in every moment. It’s in today’s Torah reading. God says to us: “Life and death I put before you, blessing and curse.” Let’s face it: to claim that everyone is our brother and sister is a choice. An expression of faith.

Most of what happens in this world is beyond our – or anyone’s – control. I find that becoming clearer to me the older I get. And we always have choices. When the question arises, Where is your brother? Where is your sister? we can choose to respond: I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper? And we would have some justification for doing so.

Or, when the questions arises, Where is your brother? we can choose to respond: I don’t know – but I’ll go find out.
I don’t know – but I’ll listen and learn.
I don’t know – but I’ll go lend a hand.
I don’t know – but I’ll show up.
Because ultimately we choose to be our brother’s keeper. We choose to be our sister’s keeper. Why? Because we have faith that cultivating a heart of compassion lifts us up beyond mere animal existence. Because we have faith that cultivating a heart of compassion ennobles our lives. Because we have faith that cultivating a heart of compassion connects us to our heritage, which proclaims – despite centuries of chaos and destruction – that every human being is a manifestation of the divine.

And so as we enter this new year – even as we may continue to feel some sense of dread – may we renew our resolve to do what we can for our brothers and sisters who are suffering, both within our circle and beyond. May we all be blessed to experience the heart-opening work of being our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper. They need us now, more than ever. And we need them.

Where is your brother? / Am I my brother's keeper?

The summer is usually when I begin to reflect on possible ideas for high holidays sermons. But I began this summer with a palpable sense of dread. It felt to me like this presidential election process was giving too much oxygen to the dark side of human nature. The side of human nature that turns fear into hatred and violence. And I did not want that to be the focus of my message to you.

And then I remembered that back in 2014, my sermon theme was What Can One Person Do? I felt like those sermons from 2014 expressed the essence of what I have to say about the paradox of hope and despair in difficult times.

This year my theme is Questions Worth Asking. And without being entirely conscious of it, I settled on two questions for today which end up circling back to that earlier theme.

Today’s questions echo down to us from another one of our mythic origin stories in the Torah, this time a story of murder. Cain kills his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy. God calls out to Cain: Where is Abel your brother? And Cain responds: I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

Let’s hear God’s question first: Where is your brother?

Just as we saw last week with God’s question to Adam in the garden – Where are you? – God’s question to Cain is not a geographical question. Where is your brother? is an existential question. A call to radical awareness. A call to empathy and connection.

And just as we did last week with God’s question to Adam, let’s hear this question being asked of us: Where is our brother? Even if some of us do not believe in a God who talks to us, we are not exempt from responding to the question.

God’s question to Cain is asked in the context of death, so let’s first hear the question that way, in a few scenarios from this past year in the news:

The lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian refugee, washes up on the beach in Greece – and God asks us: Where is Alan your brother?

Sharon resident Ezra Schwartz is murdered in the West Bank – and God asks us: Where is Ezra your brother?

Edward Sotomayor, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Juan Ramon Guerrero, and 46 other LGBTQ people of color are killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando – and God asks us: Where are your brothers and sisters?

Dallas police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith are ambushed while protecting a peaceful rally for racial justice – and God asks us: Where are your brothers?

Unarmed black men continue to be shot by police officers in disproportionate numbers – and God asks us: Where are your brothers?

Three or four people per day in Massachusetts alone are dying from heroin and fentanyl overdoses – and God asks us: Where are your brothers and sisters?

So far I’ve been focusing on examples of death, but we could easily generate an additional and overwhelming list of examples of people who are alive and suffering: from addiction, mental or physical illness, family conflict, systemic racism, poverty, mass incarceration, natural disasters, abuse and violence. Every day, God calls out to us: Where are your brothers and sisters?

Jewish tradition is clear in its moral imperative that we see every human being as precious and deserving of dignity, justice, and life. And our tradition recognizes that suffering and violence have been a part of the human experience from the very beginning. God’s question to Cain – and therefore to us – is a call to radical awareness. A call to empathy and connection.

Cain’s first response to God is “I don’t know,” which we can hear as a complete denial of connection. A refusal of awareness. I think that for us, the situation is somewhat different. While there may be some denial on our part, some willful refusal to be aware of the suffering of others, I think we struggle more with too much awareness. It seems to me that we are not equipped to sustain empathy and a sense of moral outrage on behalf of the untold numbers of people who are suffering and dying every day. It is a new phenomenon for the human brain to have 24/7 access to so much information about human suffering, and it is far from clear that our internal wiring can handle the avalanche of input we are receiving.

And so the question calls out to us, day after day: Where is your brother? And sometimes we may just feel like answering: I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?

So let’s consider that second question. The Hebrew word for keeper, shomer, has the connotation of being a guardian. Someone who sits beside the body of a recently deceased person is called a shomer. Someone who stands guard outside the door when a newly married couple spend a few minutes alone is also called a shomer.

We also refer to God as Shomer Yisrael, Guardian of the Jewish people. Calling God our Shomer, our guardian, expresses the yearning we have to be protected, to be lovingly watched over. And just as we yearn for a cosmic guardian, we are instructed to be that guardian for one another. Because what are the qualities we attribute to God, if not our own deepest human aspirations?

But how do we act on that aspiration, when we are simultaneously bombarded with information about global human suffering and increasingly isolated from one another?

(end of part one)

How many are the days of the years of your life?

There’s a brief story near the end of the book of Genesis in the Torah which I have always found touching. Joseph becomes the Pharaoh’s right hand man in Egypt, and brings his entire family down from the land of Canaan because of a severe famine. Joseph brings his elderly father Jacob to meet the mighty Pharaoh. Here is how the story is told:

“And Jacob blessed Pharaoh, and Pharaoh said to Jacob, how many are the days of the years of your life? Jacob answered: The days of the years of my sojournings are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and I have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning. And Jacob blessed Pharaoh, and went out from his presence.”

How many are the days of the years of your life? The Pharaoh’s question seems on the face of it to be just an odd, old-fashioned way of asking How old are you, old man? But we can hear in Jacob’s answer that he is responding to a deeper question. Jacob’s brief answer is drenched in pain, and self-knowledge. Life has not gone well for Jacob. “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life,” he says. His many years have been filled with suffering, often as a result of his own actions. So he responds not just about the number of years in relation to how long his father and grandfather lived, but also about the quality of those years.

How many are the days of the years of your life? How would each of us answer the Pharaoh’s question? Like Jacob, we should hear the question as being not just about the number of our years, but also about their quality.

Yom Kippur intentionally confronts us with our mortality. No food. Minimizing physical comforts. White clothing like shrouds. And of course the liturgy itself. Yom Kippur confronts us with one of the ultimate questions worth asking: Given that we are going to die, how shall we live?

Or put another way: What do we value in life? What makes life worth living, even as we face death? What are the reasons we wish to be alive?

Last year I read Dr. Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. The sub-title of the book is “Medicine and What Matters in the End.” I wrote about it in the temple newsletter last year. I find that I am still talking about it a year later. I just re-read it recently with a group of friends who range in age from 40s through 80s.

Dr. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s and a professor at Harvard Medical School. His message is both simple and profound. He writes, “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.”

Among the many practical points Gawande makes in his book is that there are a few important questions that doctors should be helping us to ask ourselves and our loved ones when we are facing catastrophic situations. Questions that doctors are not accustomed to asking. Questions that spark conversation about what we value most in life. Questions that seek clarity about what makes our lives worth living. Questions that put us, and not the medical system, in the driver’s seat.

Two of the questions are particularly relevant to Yom Kippur’s question of How shall we live? These questions are:

1.    What are your fears and what are your hopes? and
2.    What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make?

The more I think about it, the more I think that these questions are vital for us to get in the habit of asking ourselves and one another now. Get in the habit of asking them for less consequential situations, so that they become a part of our repertoire before a catastrophe arises. Because it will.

This summer I spent many hours in conversation with a friend, accompanying him as he wrote his advance health care directive (also known as a medical directive). As some of you may know, this is the document which specifies how we wish to be cared for at the end of our lives. I wrote my own directive a couple of years ago, and while my friend admired what I wrote, he felt that it did not address several issues that were of concern to him; he wanted to write his own. Many of the questions raised by a health care directive are addressed in Jewish law, so we sat together to consider both the personal and the Jewish implications of a variety of end-of-life scenarios.

I understand that this might not be everyone’s idea of a fun summer vacation, but for me it was perhaps the deepest experience of the year. (and btw, he gave me permission to talk about it)

For my mother Leila, like for many others, creating a medical directive meant checking off one of three choices on a form provided by her attorney. Simple medical directive forms are also available from health care providers or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, along with health care proxy forms to name who you want to make medical decisions for you if you cannot. The process that my friend and I went through takes all of this a step further. Like pondering Dr. Gawande’s questions, writing our own health care directive puts us face-to-face with our hopes and fears. It puts us face-to-face with the tradeoffs we are willing to make and not willing to make. It puts us face-to-face with what is ultimately important to us. It puts us face-to-face with the quality of “the days of the years of our lives,” not the quantity.

For example, one of the primary values that arose for my friend in our conversations was that of the capacity to share love. He therefore wrote in his directive: “Loving is a main reason for being alive… if I can’t share loving with others under some future medical scenario then it argues for withholding or discontinuing treatment.”

For my friend, it comes down to love. For a retired professor featured in Dr. Gawande’s book, it came down to something very different. His daughter told Gawande about a pre-surgery talk she’d had with her elderly father: “We had this quite agonizing conversation where he said – and this totally shocked me – ‘Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.’ I would never have expected him to say that,” the daughter said. “I mean, he’s a professor emeritus. He’s never watched a football game in my conscious memory.”

But the conversation proved critical. When faced with the need to make a rapid decision about emergency surgery following the initial procedure, a decision that put her between a rock and a hard place with only a few minutes to think, she knew what to ask. She asked the surgeons whether, if her father survived, he would still be able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV. Yes, they said. She gave the okay to take him back to the operating room. The decision, she realized, was not hers to make. Her father had already made the decision.

Having clarity about what makes life worth living helps us gain clarity regarding what degree of suffering and risk we are willing to endure. We each have to answer those questions for ourselves, and it helps to talk them through with a trusted friend or family member.

Another Torah story: Isaac’s wife Rivkah is pregnant with twins (Jacob and Esau). They are struggling with one another in her womb, and she is in agony. She cries out to God: im kain, lama zeh anochi? Which can be translated as: If this be so, why do I exist? Or put another way: If this is what my life has become, what’s the point of living?

Many of us have known someone who cried out in agony like Rivkah; many of us will have this same cry ourselves one day, if we haven’t already. This primal question underlies the motivation for writing an advance health care directive – if we become unable to make our own decisions, we want it known what our values are. We want it known what makes life worth living for us.

If we haven’t articulated those values yet, Yom Kippur reminds us that now is a good time to do it. Now is a good time to envision what we would like to be able to say when someone asks us, “how many are the days of the years of your life?”

As we enter into Yom Kippur, may the days of the years of our lives – however many there are – be filled with love, joy, human connection, chocolate ice cream and football, and whatever else makes life worth living for each of us.

Where are you?

It’s somewhat trendy nowadays to be a “spiritual seeker.” People used to talk about searching for God, or for an experience of God, although lately the language has shifted and people are more likely to say they are seeking a “spiritual experience.” Either way, many of us think of ourselves as seekers.

But what if we’ve got it backwards? What if we are the ones hiding, not the ones seeking?

Hide and seek. It’s not just for children.

My theme for the high holidays is Questions Worth Asking, and today’s question is a hide and seek question. For context we need to go all the way back to the mythic story of creation.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, the world is created, and light and dark, and ocean and land, and the vegetation and the animals and bugs, and then the humans. And Adam – the first human – is instructed about which trees are okay to eat from in the garden. And then Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they were not supposed to eat from, and Adam takes a bite also.

“And they heard the sound of God strolling in the garden in the evening breeze, and the man and the woman hid themselves from God among the trees of the garden. And God called out to the human, and said: Where are you? And the human said: I heard your sound in the garden and I was afraid… and I hid….”

We’re not the ones seeking, we’re the ones hiding.

We are hiding, and God is calling out to us: Where are you? And even if some of us do not believe in a God who speaks, or a God who cares about us personally, we are not exempt from answering the question. We just have to shift our understanding of who or what is seeking us. We are hiding, and our inner self, our soul, is seeking us. We are hiding, and our conscience is seeking us. We are hiding, and Reality is seeking us. It doesn’t matter what we call it; it’s all God anyway.

Listen in your mind for a moment – hear the question being asked: Where are you?
What was the tone of voice you heard? Did the tone of voice convey a sense of Where are you, sweetheart? Or did it have a more punitive, or judgmental, or impatient tone? Did it perhaps sound like your mother, or your father?

So we’re playing a game of hide and seek, but it’s a game of hide and seek with a twist – because in this case, the seeker already knows where we are. When God calls out to the human, Where are You? it’s not a geographical question. It’s an existential question. God already knows where we are – it is we who need to figure that out.

Our tradition speaks of God knowing our innermost secrets. For example, in the mahzor / high holidays prayerbook we read: “…You [God] unravel every mystery; all secret things are known to you. For there is no forgetfulness in your presence, nothing hidden from your sight. You remember every deed; you know every doer. All things past and present are known to you, eternal God, and every person’s acts are remembered and judged….” (p. 144)

Rather than rejecting this traditional language of God’s omniscience, we can choose to hear it as directing us inward: There is within each of us a pure awareness that knows more than we know consciously at any given moment. There is within each of us an ageless awareness that is not dependent on our personalities, our neuroses, our life circumstances. There is within each of us an awareness from which nothing is hidden. This is the awareness that we seek to access through meditation, prayer, and other centering practices. And it doesn’t matter what we call it; it’s all God anyway.

So when we hide, we are hiding from this ever-present awareness. But why?

Remember that in the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve have just eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For countless generations we have puzzled over the meaning of this image. What assumptions is the Torah trying to convey about the fundamental nature of being human? There is something about the capacity to know right from wrong that leads to the impulse to hide ourselves from the light of awareness. Perhaps it’s the difference between a very young child hiding for the joy of being found, versus an older child hiding in fear or guilt or to avoid responsibility after having done something they perceive to be wrong.

The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber says it this ways [and please forgive his gender bias], “Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam and finds himself in Adam’s situation. To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a system of hideouts….”

This year I am thinking also of the hiding we do because we perceive the world to be an increasingly scary place. But even if the world isn’t actually scarier than it used to be, and even if we acknowledge the many ways in which humanity has progressed, that does not always ease our gnawing anxiety that the dark side is rising. And so we hide, or try to hide. And in so doing, we are also hiding from taking responsibility for our small part in the epic drama that is humanity.

Where are you? The question calls us to self-awareness – physical, interpersonal, emotional, spiritual. It also calls us to respond, which is one translation of the word teshuvah (normally translated as “repentance”). Teshuvah is the work we are called upon to do during the high holidays, and it requires unflinching self-reflection.

Martin Buber expresses the challenge this way:
“Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from him, he is hiding from himself…. This question is designed to awaken man and destroy his system of hideouts; it is to show man to what [im]pass he has come and to awake in him the great will to get out of it. Everything now depends on whether man faces the question….” (The Way of Man, p. 12)

In other words, there is nowhere to hide. The seeker from whom we are hiding already sees us and knows exactly where we are. But I would shift the tone of Buber’s stern warning into something more hopeful: Rather than responding with fear or existential dread, there can be a sense of relief, even joy. Hearing the Seeker calling out to us Where are you? can elicit from deep within us the desire of that very young child to be found, the desire to come out of hiding, the desire to be seen and known and accepted just as we are. Mistakes and all. Misdeeds and all. The desire, in other words, to be loved, unconditionally.

God is calling out to us: Where are you? And a part of us wants to step out of the shadows and into the light, and answer: I was afraid, and I hid – but here I am.

Hineini. Here I am. Mistakes and all. Misdeeds and all. Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, let us feel in our hearts the warmth of your loving searchlight of awareness.

As we enter this new year, my blessing for all of us is that we open ourselves to hear this call as deeply as we can, and that we respond by stepping forward into that loving searchlight of awareness with a heartfelt Hineini / Here I am. And may we experience the acceptance and love that awaits us all, if we would only come out of hiding.

Where have we come from, and where are we going?

Last year, a young woman wrote an essay which was published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. In the essay, she describes an evening she spent with a young man, deep in conversation. They had chosen to work their way through a series of 36 questions to get to know one another – 36 questions designed back in the 1990s by social psychologists for a study about generating closeness between strangers. She and the young man, already clearly interested in one another, sat talking for hours. Near the end of the essay, she writes: “You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did. Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate.”

I loved the idea of the 36 questions as soon as I heard about it. Seeking out the original research, I learned that the 36 questions were designed to elicit “escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure.” The researchers found that even 45 minutes of such a conversation with a stranger leads to increased feelings of closeness and good will.

This makes total sense to me, and points towards something at the heart of the human experience at its best: When we have the opportunity to share something of our inner lives with someone who is making an effort to listen to us, we blossom like plants reaching upward towards the sunlight.

Thirty-six questions. Imagine if there were 36 questions that could connect us not with a stranger, but with our own soul.

Jewish tradition offers us more than enough of such questions. Tonight I bring you two. These questions come from a story not about one of our heroes, nor about one of our sages. These questions come from the biblical story of a slave woman named Hagar.

Hagar was the servant of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Hagar – pregnant with Abraham’s first son – runs away because she is being mistreated by Sarah. An angel appears, and asks Hagar two questions: Where have you come from, and where are you going?

In ancient Jewish story-telling, angels are not necessarily other-worldly beings. The Hebrew word malach, translated as angel, means simply a messenger. Our tradition seems to hint that sometimes the deepest messages come to us from people who may not even be aware that they are saying – or asking – exactly what we need to hear in that moment.

So now consider: This malach, this messenger, is not talking to Hagar. It is talking to you and me. And it is asking us: Where have we come from, and where are we going? Two questions worth asking our own souls on Rosh Hashanah.

Where have we come from, and where are we going? Implicit in these two questions is the understanding that life is a journey.

First, where have we come from? We can ask and answer this question on many levels: Family history. Family dynamics. Formative relationships. Geographical locations. Cultural influences. What are the factors and experiences that have led to our being who we are and where we are in this moment?

When I think about it this way, I begin to recall some of the seemingly random experiences which ended up having an impact on who I am and where I am now: The three girls walking ahead of me on the sidewalk in sixth grade, carelessly leaving me out of their shared laughter. The new young high school teacher who introduced herself to me one day in the hallway for no apparent reason, and befriended me. The book that my hand inexplicably reached for in the little bookstore on Brattle Street in Cambridge in 1987.

The more you think about it, the more you realize that the number of these experiences along the journey approaches infinity. Where we are in life at this moment is a result of all the encounters, decisions, influences, roads taken and not taken, conversations spoken and not spoken. And the total number of experiences that have led to each of us sitting here, in this sanctuary, together, at this moment, is truly infinite, and mind-blowing.

Now remember that in the context of the biblical story, Hagar has just run away. So when the angel asks Where have you come from? it may also be asking What are you running away from? We can hear this question either literally or metaphorically. Some of us may be literally trying to break free from an unbearable situation such as abuse, or addiction. And some of us may be metaphorically running away from aspects of our own psyche that we are not accepting or even acknowledging. The human capacity for self-deception is great. Sometimes it takes the right question to shine the light of awareness just where we most need it, in order to see clearly what we may be running away from, or ought to be running away from.

Where have you come from, and where are you going? In the biblical story, Hagar doesn’t have an answer to the second question. She runs away without thinking about where she’s going. And where does she end up? Right back where she started, in an abusive situation. Sometimes if we don’t ask where are we going, we end up going nowhere.

Where have we come from, and where are we going? Ultimately, the answer is: from mystery to mystery. From the mystery of birth to the mystery of death. We imagine we are in control of the journey of our lives, but, as it says in our rabbinic wisdom teachings: “…against our will we were created, against our will we were born, against our will we live, against our will we die….” (Avot 4:29)

And in between birth and death, how do we make sense of our lives? The vast majority of human beings on the planet seem primarily caught up in the all-consuming tasks of survival. Those of us fortunate enough and privileged enough to lift our sights above mere animal survival, find ourselves still too often consumed by seemingly urgent but ultimately unimportant tasks and worries. Instead of experiencing our life as a journey, we may feel like we are just spinning our wheels and getting nowhere.

The medieval philosopher Maimonides says it this way: “Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! …. Examine your deeds, and turn to God in teshuvah. Remember your creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truths. You who are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save. Look closely at yourself, improve your ways and your deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you.” (p. 139)

Perhaps his old world vocabulary feels awkward, but the message is right on. Maimonides mentions turning to God in teshuvah. Normally translated as “repentance,” the word teshuvah can be better translated as “re-turning,” as in turning around again (and again) to get back on the path. Without consciously checking out where we are on our journey, without making corrections and adjustments to bring ourselves back onto the path, we may wander off and squander what the poet Mary Oliver calls this “one wild and precious life.”

Heart-opening questions such as Where have you come from, and where are you going? cannot be answered easily. When I shared some of these thoughts with an 85-year-old friend of mine, he reminded me of the words of the German poet Rilke, who lived at the turn of the last century. Rilke wrote in one of his now-famous Letters to a Young Poet:

“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.…”

Life is a journey, and sometimes the right questions can re-direct us when we wander off the path. And so my blessing for all of us as we enter this new year is that we take the time to ask ourselves and one another: where have we come from, and where are we going? And may our answers gently, lovingly guide us back onto the path of a life of meaning and purpose.

September 29, 2015

We Jews Should Know

Yom Kippur, 2015

After the murder of nine black people in a church in Charleston South Carolina earlier this year, the Sharon clergy hastily called for a vigil in the town center where we would be sure to have hundreds of witnesses driving through the intersection. I stood quietly, holding a small sign.

A little white boy, around seven years old, stepped up to the curb and boldly introduced himself to me. His mom stood a distance apart from us. “I don’t understand how someone could kill other people,” he said to me with some agitation. I agreed that yes, it was difficult to understand. I asked him if he knew what the word racism meant, pointing to one of the signs someone was holding. Yes, he said, he had just learned it. “I hate racism,” he said. But he was concerned about the killer’s safety, also. “Someone might poison his food, I’ve heard that happens sometimes.” He’ll be safe in jail, I replied, until there is a trial. “Oh yes, a trial,” he said, relieved. And then a moment later his mom called out that it was time for them to go.

The Hebrew word malach, often translated as angel, means a messenger. In Jewish folk tradition, seemingly chance encounters with strangers are sometimes understood as offering us important messages. My brief, chance encounter with this open-hearted little boy felt like a message. His caring words reminded me of when I was a child in the 1960s and first became conscious of racial prejudice and bigotry. I remember that sense of moral outrage and sorrow, that sense of “I hate racism.” And now I am 56 years old, and racial prejudice and bigotry are still very much with us.

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Porquoi Je Suis Juif

Kol Nidrei, 2015

In the 1920s in Paris, a Jewish writer by the name of Edmond Fleg (originally Flegenheimer) wrote a book entitled Pourquoi Je Suis Juif – Why I am a Jew.

While I am not familiar with the book, I am familiar with the one page of it which became famous, and some of you may be familiar with it also. On that one page, Fleg wrote a list of brief statements, each one beginning “Je suis juif parce que…” / “I am a Jew because….”

A translation of most of Fleg’s list is reprinted in the Reform movement’s Shabbat prayerbook as a liturgical poem. The translation begins with these lines:
“I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes….”

This holiday season I have been holding up the question, Who are we Jews? I have been asking the question in the communal and historical sense, and I will be returning to that communal and historical perspective tomorrow; but this evening I would like to make the focus more individual and personal. What happens when we turn the light of inquiry on ourselves, and ask ourselves: Who am I as a Jew? Or, to echo Edmond Fleg, Why am I a Jew?

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