October 31, 2017

Transforming Fear of the Stranger

This spring, for the first time, I attended a hearing at the state house. The hearing was about proposed legislation to protect the rights of immigrants in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. The large room was packed, predominantly – although not entirely – with supporters of the legislation, who had to be continually reminded to be quiet and maintain the decorum of the proceedings. It was also uncomfortably warm in the hearing room.

For hour upon hour, with no break, the legislative committee respectfully listened to testimony from citizens ranging from high powered attorneys to a somewhat disheveled and incoherent man who seemed to be hearing God speaking to him directly. It was a marvelous, ordinary day of democracy in action.

I was proud of my Sharon Interfaith Action colleagues who were there to testify on behalf of the diverse immigrant population in Sharon and in particular our Muslim neighbors. But what I remember most about the day was a very different image.

A middle-aged white woman sat before the committee, and reading from a prepared text, testified against the proposed legislation. Her son had been struck and killed by a truck driven by an immigrant. But she did not say immigrant. She very specifically used the term “criminal illegal alien,” and she used it over, and over, and over in her brief testimony. It was like a drumbeat, and it was said each time with a tone of hatred and bitterness. To this woman, it was clear that her son would still be alive if there were no “criminal illegal aliens” in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the end, it was her pain – and her grief – that I heard, louder than the content of her testimony against the legislation.

I tell this story not to raise a debate about immigrant rights. I tell this story because I want to talk about fear, and about our souls’ response to fear. And about what we can do to consciously choose to take personal responsibility for how we respond to fear.

Fear is of course an inevitable aspect of being alive. Every “being” has an innate drive to continue to be. Every being contains mechanisms and systems for warding off the threat of not-being. What we call “fear” is just another name for one of these systems. Whether it’s biochemical or spiritual or something else, fear is a manifestation of our innate drive to exist.

Among the countless things that trigger fear, one thing that has been increasingly obvious this year is that we are afraid of the Other, of the Stranger. We humans react with fear to people whom we perceive to be not like us.

Unfortunately, this instinctual fear of the stranger is easily aroused and manipulated. The culture of our current political system feeds on this fear. Through the shock tactics on news and social media, both right and left, we are all being manipulated into high stress alert about supposed enemies and impending doom, day after day. Fear motivates, but at a huge cost.

Here’s the downward spiral we are all at great risk of falling into:
The more fearful we become, the more self-centered we become.
The more self-centered, the less caring and empathic.
The less caring and empathic, the more susceptible we become to messages of hate and fear.
The more Me, the less We; and that’s a dangerous downward spiral.

Rabbi Master Yoda from Star Wars says it better than I can. We have this quote on our refrigerator: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

I saw a photo recently which illustrated this deep teaching in a way more powerful than words: The photo was of two young white men, from opposing sides of a demonstration and counter-demonstration. They were screaming into each other’s faces, their lower bodies separated by a police barricade. Their faces were ugly with anger and hatred. And they were dressed almost identically, with bandanas tied on their heads. One of them, I thought to myself, is on “my” side. But which one? They both looked like they were angry, hateful, and suffering.

Acting on our instinctual fear of the stranger draws us into the downward spiral of anger, hate, and suffering. It happens to us too, not just to the obvious purveyors of hate – the neo-Nazis, the white nationalists. We are all susceptible to this downward spiral of fear, anger, hate, and suffering.

So what’s the way out of this downward spiral? How can we more consciously choose how we respond to fear – to create a world with less fear, anger, hate and suffering?  

The answer from within our tradition is clear. Judaism emphasizes the power of free will. Not as an abstract philosophical principle, but as a very real, moment-to-moment, imperative. In every moment we have the free will to make choices. The challenge in every moment is to make choices which lift us above our instinctual, animal inclinations.

Our tradition is also very clear about the moral imperative of empathy and love. Torah tells us 36 times to care for – even to love – the stranger. Why? Because we were once strangers in a strange land. Because we know what it means to be a slave, a refugee, an outsider, an outcast, a hated “other.”

We have a responsibility – a commandment – to be empathic, even loving. We have a responsibility – a commandment – to think and act in terms of We, not just Me. Because even thousands of years ago, our ancestors knew our animal nature, the power of fear, and the necessity for the Soul to gain mastery over it.

How else does our tradition guide us to consciously choose how we respond to fear? During the high holidays, we remind ourselves of the power of teshuvah. Usually thought of in terms of repentance, apology, and forgiveness, teshuvah also means response. It also means turning, in the sense of re-turning to our moral path when we have strayed. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to cultivate a greater awareness of our inner responses of fear and anger to what is happening in the world. And to what is happening in our personal lives as well. We need to continually seek reality-checks from our rational minds, our higher selves, and from other people we trust, to continually re-orient ourselves back to our moral path and vision.

About that grieving mother testifying against immigrant rights at the state house: On the one hand I want to have compassion for her suffering, and be careful not to judge her personally. Yet on the other hand she provides us with an example of how at some level we choose how to respond to our grief and fear. There are countless stories of people who choose to let their hearts be cracked open by their grief, leading them to pledge their lives to working for a more just, safe, and peaceful world for all. And there are people like the woman at the state house hearing, people who choose to channel the energy of their grief into hatred, who choose to see strangers as enemies – requiring more walls, more weapons, and hence even more fear and hatred.

For me, the most powerful statement of our ultimate free will comes from the African American prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am slowly, slowly, working my way through the enormous volume of his collected works, and came across a brief magazine article entitled “Suffering and Faith,” written in 1960. The magazine editors, “aware that King constantly received numerous threats against his life, urged him to comment on his view of suffering.” In his response, King wrote (and I urge you to imagine his thunderous voice as I read):

"My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive."

King’s words are so powerful that I am hesitant to say anything after reading them. So I will say only this:
We can – and we must – take personal responsibility for how we respond to fear and suffering.
We can – and we must – heed the prophetic call, and recognize the troubles of our time as opportunities both to transform ourselves and to transform the people who appear to be our enemies.

May we, and all the people of this great nation, be blessed with even a fraction of the dignity and hope that King modeled in his words and in his actions. And may our souls be called to respond to the fear in our hearts with greater courage and compassion – for ourselves and for those around us.

Fear and Awe of God

I was speaking recently with two very elderly women, D and S, who I see once a month at the local nursing home. D just turned 95, and S will be 93 next month, God willing. I asked them how they face their fears. Here’s what they told me:
daily prayer,
expressing gratitude every day,
staying present to what is happening right now,
and letting go of thoughts of being in control of what’s happening.

D and S are not saints. They are wonderfully ordinary women who have lived full lives and experienced their share of both suffering and joy. They know, with a clarity most of us lack, that their lives are finite. Quite unselfconsciously, they seem to embody the biblical proverb “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”

Why do I say that they embody fear of God? How do we even understand that concept, especially those of us who don’t believe in a personal God? It is obviously not fear in the sense that we tend to use the word, nor is it fear of God in the child-like sense of fearing punishment for wrong-doing. So what is it, what does it have to do with the wisdom of D and S, and what does it have to do with us?

The Hebrew expression for fear of God is yirat haShem. The word yira – yud raish aleph – actually carries a double meaning not captured by the single word fear in English. Yira means both fear and awe. So yirat haShem is more accurately translated as the fear and awe of God. That makes a big difference in trying to understand the centrality of this spiritual practice in Judaism.

Although we expend a significant amount of psychic energy either suppressing our fears or being unconsciously driven by them, our tradition teaches us to cultivate the fear and awe of God. Our tradition promises us, paradoxically, that the more we cultivate this fear, the less afraid we will be. And there is something in how D and S relate to their moment-to-moment reality that feels to me like they are tapping into this promise.

The recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have really shaken me, more than I was able to admit at first. How precarious our lives are, especially for those people living in certain regions of the planet. I can try comforting myself with the thought that where we live is not one of those regions, but the fearful uneasiness remains.

This is one element of yirat haShem: that gut sense of how fragile and insignificant we humans are. How fleeting our lives are, and our possessions and all the things we care about.But if yirat haShem were just about that, life would be bleak and terrifying. What is it about the fear and awe of God that can bring us to a place of feeling less afraid?

On Yom Kippur we traditionally read the story of Jonah – a story that I find even more poignant given the recent tragic storms, as you will see. What can we learn about yirat haShem from the Jonah story? We need look no further than the opening scene:

God instructs Jonah to go warn the people in the city of Nineveh that they need to repent from their evil ways. Jonah flees from God, finding a boat to take him in the opposite direction. God then stirs up a huge, menacing storm; experiencing fear, the other men on the boat cry out to their various gods. When that doesn’t work, they bring Jonah up to the deck from where he has been sound asleep, and ask him what he may have done to bring this storm upon them. When he tells them about God’s instruction and how he is fleeing from it, the other men now “fear a great fear.” And when at last they reluctantly follow Jonah’s instruction to throw him overboard, thereby ending the storm and saving their lives, the men “fear a great fear of God.”

Fear, great fear, and a great fear of God.

The fear and the great fear make sense at the beginning of the story, as the storm intensifies and the threat of death looms larger. But notice when the “great fear of God” happens: The storm is over. The men on the boat are safe. The life-threatening danger is past. So how do we understand the meaning of this great fear of God?

Imagine being one of the men on that boat. Or imagine being one of the people who survived the hurricanes this past month. Imagine the fear… followed by a rush of relief, gratitude, and perhaps a flash of awareness of the preciousness of life.

Many of us have had those flashes, that heightened sense of gratitude, that expanded consciousness, even if momentary, that is both fear and awe, and perhaps something beyond both. In the face of the vast mystery of it all – which Jewish tradition refers to as Adonai, the un-nameable, unknowable totality of existence – in the face of that vast mystery, we wake up, perhaps for just a brief flash, to the reality that our lives are as ephemeral and precious as beautiful clouds. And this time it’s not a bleak and terrifying vision. There can be a sense of okay-ness, a sense of surrendering into the grandness of it all, a sense of trusting. A sense of our life energy being a part of the All, in some mysterious way that we don’t have to figure out. This is the other face of yirat haShem, the fear and awe of God.

Yirat haShem is an experience that can come at the boundary between life and death, and we are taught to cultivate it in our everyday lives. It’s not just something that happens to people who are facing their mortality. It’s not just something that comes to D and S.

So how do we cultivate yirat haShem, especially those of us who don’t necessarily believe in the biblical God or use traditional God language? Here’s the thing – It doesn’t need to have anything to do directly with our personal understanding of or belief in God. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches us that the path to yirat haShem is through whatever practices help us develop humility. Through whatever practices help us lessen the grip of Ego.

How do we develop humility? Through meditation, prayer, contemplation, consciously choosing simplicity, serving others – whatever practices help us to shift our attention away from our anxious little Me.

How do we develop humility?  Through seeking at all times to be “a useful engine,” in the immortal words of Thomas the Tank Engine. This simple, profound expression is one of my favorites for orienting the mind and heart in the direction of  yirat haShem in everyday life.

How do we develop humility? Through the practices of D and S:
daily prayer,
expressing gratitude every day,
staying present to what is happening right now,
and letting go of thoughts of being in control of what’s happening to us.

There is much to be afraid of in this world. Like the men on Jonah’s boat, we are at times literally afraid for our lives. The ultimate spiritual challenge may be to transform the energy of that fear into the fear and awe of God.

May we all find our own ways to cultivate yirat haShem – and in so doing, may we get a taste of that liberation from our fears that we sing of in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me.”

October 30, 2017


On the evening of May 17, a man wanted for armed robbery committed a few months earlier was witnessed fleeing a personal altercation near the Econo Lodge on Route 1, within the Sharon town line. On-duty Sharon police officers were dispatched to aid other town and state police in locating this person, believed to be on foot heading northward, just west of Route 1.

Now it happened that on the evening of May 17, I was just buckling my seat belt in the passenger seat of a Sharon police cruiser when that dispatch call came in. I was doing a “ride along,” part of a nine-week community education program offered by the Sharon Police department. And so, for the next three hours, on the evening of May 17, I was swept up in a search for a human needle in a haystack: a thin man in a gray sweatshirt, on foot, somewhere in the neighborhoods or woods of Walpole. At dusk. Possibly armed, and therefore possibly dangerous.

Was I frightened? I have to say that there were only a few moments when my anxiety rose to the level of fear. In a situation like that, it’s obviously the police who are doing the courageous work. My participation was hardly courageous in the usual sense of the word. At the same time, it was emotionally challenging. Especially when we were traveling at high speeds with blue lights flashing, going through red lights at intersections on Route 1. I had to occasionally say to myself: It’s okay, you’re safe, you’re in the police car. I did a lot of mindful deep breathing.

I am of course aware of my incredible privilege and good fortune, that a wild ride in the front seat of a police cruiser in the suburbs is the scariest situation I’ve faced in a long time. Many, many people in this country are experiencing real fear right now, with good reason. Hard-working immigrants are afraid of deportation and separation from family members. Young people who came here as children with their immigrant parents are afraid of being sent “back” to countries that they do not consider home. Black parents are afraid that their sons and daughters will be lost in the hell cycle of drugs, violence and incarceration. People everywhere are afraid of losing health care, housing, jobs.

And whether or not we here today are directly impacted by these particular fears, we are all experiencing fear in the face of changes happening in this country. We are afraid of what we see happening. We are afraid that the values we hold most dear, as Americans and as Jews, are being threatened and undermined.

For me, and I imagine for many of you as well, the challenge now is how to take action to defend those values, even when it feels scary to do so. In the activist work I have begun this past year, I’m finding that fear keeps coming up. How do we keep moving forward in the face of fear? How can we respond to our fear with courage? And what exactly is courage anyway?

Not that I am holding myself up as a model of bravery. Quite the contrary, what I hope to convince you is that if even a quiet person like me can take action in an increasingly frightening world, then so can anyone! And even more, that there can be an unexpected sweetness and satisfaction in every small step taken with courage.

Seeking Torah insights on the subject of fear and courage, I was drawn to the biblical story of our patriarch Jacob, and how he mustered the courage to face his brother Esau after many decades of estrangement. This is not the Jacob and Esau story that many people know, the one about how when they were young, Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing and then fled, at his mother’s urging, to avoid Esau’s murderous rage. That was how the young Jacob dealt with fear.

The story I want to share happens much later in the biblical narrative. Jacob has been away from his parents’ home now for many years, and has acquired a large family, many flocks and herds,
and some wisdom and humility. He sends a simple greeting to his brother Esau via messengers, informing Esau of his prosperity and hoping for a favorable reply.

The messengers return to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”

And then the Torah tells us: “Jacob was very afraid.”

Now what? Try to run away like he did many years ago? Or maybe arm himself for combat? He’s not young anymore.

It’s a long and wonderful story, and I’m not going to get into the details now. (It’s all in the Torah, you can check it out.) But what I want to highlight is that Jacob prepares for his encounter with Esau. He actually prepares in four distinct ways:

First, he makes a move to protect his clan: dividing them in half so that if there is a hostile attack, at least half will survive.

Second, he prays: reminding God that they have a connection and an agreement, and requesting protection.

Third, he goes into solitude: crossing over the river to spend the night alone, he has a mysterious, transformative wrestling encounter and arises the next morning with a new identity.

And finally, he makes some strategic moves: sending several waves of messengers bearing gifts ahead of him and his family.

Only after these four levels of preparation does Jacob move forward to encounter his brother Esau face to face.

Self-protection, prayer, spiritual work, and strategy. Even more than the particular tactics, for me the point is that Jacob goes through a process. He doesn’t duck into a phone booth and emerge in a superhero costume with superhuman powers. And neither does anyone who responds to fear with courageous action.

Was there a point along the process when Jacob ceased being afraid? I imagine not. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is moving forward in spite of fear.

My being in a police cruiser during a man-hunt was an accidental situation – obviously, I did not intend to be there participating. I’d like to tell you now about my somewhat more intentional effort to be courageous in the face of fear. (I’m sure you each could add a story of your own, and I hope that you will share those stories with one another.)

This past year, as some of you know, I co-founded Sharon Interfaith Action. My intention in creating this community organizing group is to collaborate with activists in the city of Brockton to address long-standing racial and economic injustices. My idea grew out of the reflections and conversations I have been having over the past few years about race, and out of the question I am always lifting up: “What can one person do?” Although the timing of it happened to be when many people were suddenly feeling the need to get active after the presidential election, for me it has been the culmination of several years of reflection.

At the conclusion of Sharon Interfaith Action’s summer training sessions, I invited the participants to write one word on a card which expressed the quality or strength that they aspire to bring to our work together. On my card, I wrote Courage. My intention is to bring courage to my activism work – not because I feel myself to be a courageous person, but precisely because I keep experiencing fear that arises in facing the unknown.

The story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that courageously facing our fears includes practical strategies, centering practices such as prayer and meditation, and having a positive vision of the future. I’m also finding that the expression “baby steps” keeps coming to mind. We don’t need to be superheroes to face our fear, we just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And the expression “baby steps” is useful because it also implies that sometimes we fall down, and that’s okay.

The actions I have taken in my activist work so far are baby steps. I’m actually a little embarrassed even mentioning them, because I have done so little. But they do involve facing fear with courage, beginning at the most basic level of, for example, facing my fear of driving and parking and walking in the city of Brockton.

And I want you to know that the joy I have experienced in connecting with people there has been an unanticipated gift. There is a sweetness and satisfaction that comes from every effort to connect with people; all the sweeter when the connection is reached through facing our fears. Our work is only just beginning, but for me there is already a sense of blessing.

You may be wondering how the police man-hunt ended. During my three hours of participating, as you may imagine, my thoughts bounced between wanting to find the suspect and really not wanting to find the suspect.

In the end, the suspect was not found that night, nor the next day. For the police on shift, it was just another work day. For me, it was a humbling glimpse into a world I am grateful I know little about.

We don’t need to be superheroes to face our fear, we just need to keep taking baby steps, putting one foot in front of the other. Just as Jacob did in preparing for his encounter with Esau, we can create our own process of self-protection, prayer, spiritual work, and strategy. That’s courage.

I want to bless each of you with the courage to lean into your fears this year. And may you be blessed also with the sweet satisfaction that comes from connecting with kindred spirits along the way. May we all be blessed to discover our own unique process of baby steps that will move us towards a safer, more just and loving world.

I Want You to Know

This summer I attended an event featuring three elderly Holocaust survivors. S, one of the survivors, seemed to be hard of hearing. I had that impression because his comments were consistently unrelated to the interviewer’s questions. He also seemed to be increasingly distraught as the evening went on. Eventually I realized what was happening.

It wasn’t about his hearing loss. He was purposefully ignoring the interviewer’s questions. Why? The constraints of the interviewer’s questions did not permit S to tell his story of suffering and survival in a way that allowed him to feel heard. So instead, whenever it was his turn to respond, he turned to the audience and cried out a heart-wrenching “I want you to know….” And then he would tell another piece of his story.

S had directly faced death many times as a young teenager during the Holocaust; he said he had no fear of death, and I believe him. But his behavior during the panel discussion touched a nerve in me around a different kind of fear.

I don’t have a simple word or expression for this kind of fear, so let me say it in a few different ways:

We are afraid of passing through life without having been known; without our stories having been heard.
We are afraid of passing through life without having touched someone else’s life.
We are afraid that our life and our suffering will not have meant something.
We are afraid that our experiences, our learning, our wisdom, might not be appreciated or transmitted.
We are afraid of not mattering.

One corollary of this fear is our insecurity about whether we are doing “enough,” or whether we are doing “important” things, compared to what other people seem to be doing.

An early rabbinic teaching addresses this kind of fear. It’s one of my favorite teachings from the Talmud. I want to share it with you, and then ask you to reflect on its relevance for your own life. Here is the teaching:

I am a created being, and my fellow human is a created being. I work in the city, and they work in the field.
I get up early to do my work, and they get up early to do their work. Just as they don’t presume to do my work, I don’t presume to do their work.
Lest you say “I do a lot and they do a little,” we are taught that whether one does a lot or a little, what matters is that one directs one’s heart toward heaven. (Berachot 17a)

“Whether one does a lot or a little, what matters is that one directs one’s heart toward heaven.” I’d like to ask you now: How do you understand this expression? How is it relevant to your life? What do you hear as the message of this teaching?

So we’re talking in different ways about this fear we have of not mattering. Our tradition offers one possible antidote to this kind of fear: Faith. Recognizing the limitations of our human ability to truly know and appreciate one another, faith offers the possibility that on a deeper level we are known and loved just as we are. We can feel ourselves to be transparent in the light of God’s love, however we understand that image. And we can also strive to bring a bit of that light into our relationships with one another.

Which brings me to another possible antidote to this kind of fear: relationships. The more we are able to share of ourselves in relationship, the more we see reflected back to us that we do indeed matter. We serve as soul mirrors for one another.

And this suggests that we have a sacred responsibility to one another, to be that soul mirror. To let people know – through our attentiveness, through our full-bodied listening and responding – that they are known; that their stories have been heard.
To let people know – that they have touched our lives.
To let people know – that their life and their suffering have meant something to us.
To let people know – that their experiences, learning, and wisdom are appreciated.
To let people know – that they do indeed matter.

So now I would like to ask you all to share something with someone sitting near you, to be those soul mirrors for one another. Here’s the simple instruction:
Find a buddy. Then say to your buddy: “I want you to know…” and finish the sentence with one thing about you, or one thing that you have done in your life, that matters.
Your buddy should then respond: “I hear that you….”
Then switch. One sentence each. One minute each. Go!

May we each find ways in the coming year – beginning right here, right now – to be a soul mirror for everyone we encounter. So that we may all come to know and trust that whether we do a lot or a little, we all matter.

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.