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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 September 18, 2020

Wells and Vaccines for Combating Communal Despair

Not so many years ago, while on a trip to Italy, I was intrigued by the physician plague masks for sale in many souvenir stores in Venice.   In medieval times, these masks with elongated noses were worn by doctors to protect them from an epidemic while treating infected patients. At that time, I could not fathom that I would ever be living inside of an experience known as “the plague.”  Plagues were something from ancient history; drops of wine we took out of our cups during the Passover Seder.  Or one of the horrors recited in the Unetaneh Tokef list we read on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Who shall live and who shall die,...who by earthquake and who by plague.”  (We’ll hear it tomorrow.) 

Catherine Madsen wrote; “Unetaneh Tokef was written for a time when fear and sorrow were close to the surface of public life….”(Mishkan Hanefesh, Rosh Hashanah,p. 172) -- as if that was something that only happened long, long ago. Of the possible calamities on the Un’etaneh Tokef list, none of us ever dreamed that “plague” might threaten our lives.  Nor did we imagine that other Untetaneh Tokef threats such as sword and fire would rage on the familiar streets surrounding our synagogue, striking fear into our hearts.  And here we are.

How do we make sense of our lives in a world where fear and sorrow have bubbled up to the surface again?  How do we see our way forward in the New Year?   I want to turn to History of Medicine professor Gianna Pomata for a hopeful approach.  Having studied the history of pandemics, Pomata suggests that a future after COVID could take a turn similar to what happened to the world after the bubonic plague:  She says that the plague shook up “the way people think,” for the better, pointing to the fact that the Black Death marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. (“Crossroads” by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, July 20, 2020, p. 18)  

Some have also said that the recent cry for racial justice on the streets of our nation represents a societal turning point. Dare we imagine that the combination of the world pandemic along with this summer’s crisis of civil unrest could be a catalyst for positive change? Perhaps “renaissance” is a bit of a stretch, but can we entertain the thought that things will get shaken up for good and not for evil after the crises of 2020?

Tomorrow we will read the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness from the Book of Genesis. It is a story about finding hope, resolve and a new path forward in a time of crisis.  

After Isaac is born, Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham, is banished from the household at the insistence of Sarah.  Abraham sends off Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness with minimal provisions.  When the water is gone, Hagar leaves her son under a bush and sits a distance away because, she says, she cannot bear to see him die.  

But, in a surprising turn of events, God calls to Hagar and tells her not to despair. Hagar then opens her eyes and sees-- a well. She gives Ishmael water, takes him by the hand, and marches forward to a new life.  After her initial despair, Hagar discovers the salvation that was always there.  She just could not see it in the midst of her panic and fear. 

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote that, in addition to a biological vaccine to combat the virus, we need a spiritual vaccine to fight off the plague of despair that COVID has brought us. (Mar 21, 2020 God Squad)  And now we must add:  We need an inoculation that can fight off the disillusionment and powerlessness we may feel over what happened in Kenosha a few weeks ago.  


The pandemic historian Gianna Pomata says that it was collaborative “creative thinking” that took the world from pandemic to renaissance in the 14th century.  She suggests we need a commitment to the same to help us emerge from the crises of our day. (“Crossroads,” IBID) I want to suggest some spiritual wells that we might discern and some societal inoculations of this sort that we might discover to buoy our spirits if we look closely at what these last months have brought:

What wells and inoculations can be seen in the midst of the pandemic? The explosion of the use technology to create community and celebrations, in spite of isolation; collaboration among colleagues and partners as we found ourselves flailing about in a drastically changed world; recognizing our homes and nuclear families as the true sanctuaries that they are meant to be; a realization that the natural world can serve as nourishment for our souls and give us space to breathe; the incredible shared efforts of the scientific community and leaders in industry who went to work at lightning speed to find treatments, cures and prevention tools.

Wells discovered and vaccines developed during Kenosha’s days of turmoil were: Watching young people emerge as leaders in demanding justice, while pleading for non-violence; interfaith partners speaking in one, united, moral voice as a counterpoint to the cacophony of divisive factions;  local community leaders who speak out about racism even when elected officials demur or deflect;  the solidarity and support of the greater Jewish community, who stepped up with their presence and their tzedakah when our community was at risk; the guidance of our own congregational leaders who were creative, proactive and level headed; and above all, a rich religious tradition with a clear message of peace, justice and empathy in the midst of trauma.

These wells and immunotherapies, found during these months of crisis, are ours for the taking.  Like Hagar in the wilderness, our task is to embrace them and commit ourselves to continue the journey. If we do, perhaps in looking back, decades hence, we will see that in these difficult days, we planted the seeds of a 21st century renaissance:  In communal solidarity, in health, in equity, in peace and in justice.  Kein Y’hi Ratzon.  May it be so.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5781 September 19, 2020

The Power of Torah in our Lives

This morning’s recorded Torah reading was the first time the Torah had been taken from the ark and read to our congregation since the beginning of the pandemic in March.  When stay-at-home orders first went into place, synagogues were forced to grapple with many questions, including whether it is permissible to read Torah from the scroll when a minyan is not physically present.

Based on their view of Jewish law and other factors, synagogues made varying decisions about how to hold services and what to do about the Torah reading.  For our community, today is a milestone:  After 6 months of quarantine, the Torah was unfurled and read in public once more, albeit in a recording.  This is a moment rich with meaning.  

How fitting, then, that the Haftarah reading for this morning described a time in ancient history when the Torah was publicly read, on Rosh Hashanah, after a long hiatus.  It was powerful and emotional for the people to hear the Torah again, having returned to Jerusalem after years in exile.  The reading was performed on a high wooden platform, constructed opposite the newly built Second Temple.  The reading took half a day, as the entire scroll was read, from beginning to end, with translation and interpretation.  And then:  Feasting and celebration. 

I don’t know how much celebrating there would be here today if I had chosen to read the entire Torah in one sitting as a New Year consecration.  Even if I climbed up onto the roof of the Temple and had you sit on lawn chairs, socially distanced, in Library Park, I doubt it would be fully appreciated. But our ancient forebears were deeply moved by the first Torah reading after decades in exile because they knew-- that a world without Torah was an incomplete world.  

A story is told of Rabbi Akiva, at the time that the Jewish world was under Roman occupation.  The teaching of Torah had been banned by the Roman authorities, and yet Akiva continued to teach publicly.  One of Akiva’s colleagues asked him why he would do such a thing. “Aren’t you afraid of the government?”  Akiva answered in the form of a parable: 

A fox was walking on a river bank and, seeing fish swimming anxiously to and fro, asked them:  “From whom are you fleeing?” They replied, “From the nets and traps of humans.” The fox said to them, “Why don’t you come up on dry land so that you and I may live together?” They replied, “If we are afraid of living in the place where we can stay alive, how much more afraid should we be in a place where we are sure to die?”   (Talmud Berakhot 61b)

So it is with us, said Akiva.  Torah is to Jews as water is to fish. Shortly after he uttered these words, Akiva was arrested and executed.

Being at home all these months have caused us to be exiled from the Torah and, along with it, from communal Jewish life.  Like the fish in Akiva’s parable, we were taken out of our water, our Jewish life source.  Not only have we  missed the Torah; we have experienced isolation from our fellow Jews, unable to come together to learn and pray and enjoy our most festive and sacred days.

And yet, isolation need not mean that Jewish life is lost.  In fact, throughout history, Jews have taken serious risks, like Akiva did, to continue to observe Judaism when the circumstances forbid it.  Think of the Conversos in Spain, who secretly practiced Judaism in closets, after they had been forcibly converted to Christianity. We have countless other similar stories: Like the concentration camp inmate who blew a shofar just as a train went by in order to mask the sound; or the Russian refusenik who carved a Chanukah menorah in prison out of a potato and saved scraps of cloth and bits of oil to light it.  They did these things because they knew that Judaism was the essence of their being, and they would not be able to exist, spiritually, without it.  

Observing Jewish custom in spite of isolation is possible because of the concept within Judaism that our homes are mikd’shei m’at, miniature sanctuaries.  Yes, synagogues and communal gatherings are crucial to Jewish life, but the truth is that many of the pieces of our tradition that most nourish the soul, happen right where we are now--at home.  

Even our festive meals that we observe during these High Holy Days are part of that.  Rabbi Yehiel Poupko claims that the Rosh Hashanah family dinner derives from the biblical account found in Nehemiah that we heard this morning.  The people are exhorted after the public Torah reading: “Neither mourn nor weep.  Go eat and drink things that are sweet and delicious.” (MHN, p. 337) Even in this COVID year, we can turn our mourning into joy with a festive, sweet meal and invite guests and loved ones to dine with us -- at least online.

Many are also mourning the loss of our lakeside Tashlich tradition and are sad that our Beth Hillel Sukkah will not be constructed this year.  But these traditions are, by origin and design, individual and home rituals.  When we observe Tashlich on our own or with family, we can turn it into a more intimate, reflective and perhaps reconciling walk to a nearby water source to rid ourselves of sin.   In normal years, many Jews feel they don’t have the time or ability to build a home Sukkah or to practice the hospitality that goes with having one.  Going to the Temple to decorate or visit a Sukkah is fun, but it is actually a substitute for a home-based practice.   This is the year to try it at home! 

One of Judaism’s greatest contemporary thinkers,  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: 

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.  (The Sabbath)

Let the reemergence of the Torah from the ark today be the inspiration for us to become reattached to sacred events. The role of our rituals in regaining a sense of psychological and spiritual equilibrium cannot be underestimated.  As we step into 5781, let us find new ways to make of our homes mikd’shei m’at, miniature sanctuaries, with all that is offered to us by our tradition “in the magnificent stream of a year.”

Kol Nidrei 5781 September 27, 2020

Kol Nidre, Humility and Implicit Bias

This night of Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre because of its very powerful, signature piece of liturgy first played by our harpist this evening and then sung by our wonderful soloist, Orit Perlman.  The words ask God to release us from vows we will make in the coming year that we cannot fulfill.  What a strange request!  Before we have even completed the task of setting ourselves right with God over our past failures, in Kol Nidre we look ahead and say, by the way God, also give us a pass for vows we’re going to break in the future. 

This puzzling text is elucidated in a helpful way by Rabbi David Stern.  He asserts that Kol Nidre is really about -- humility.   “Kol Nidre grants us the gift of sacred uncertainty;” says Stern. “What if every time I was ready to proclaim some self-evident truth, I allowed Kol Nidre to whisper in my ear, ‘Says who?’” (Stern, p. 17 Mishkan HaNefesh Yom Kippur)  From this perspective, Kol Nidre is a prayer designed to release us from our tendency toward self-righteousness and certainty and turn us instead toward humility.

Our troubling summer of national unrest since the George Floyd killing calls us to acknowledge that our society has a long way to go to eradicate racism.  And inasmuch as many of us may vow that we carry no prejudices, humility calls upon us to consider that we do carry bias.  These internal biases are the foundation of the racism upon which our country is built.

UW Psychology Professor Patricia Devine has studied implicit bias for three decades.  Her research shows that biases are nothing more than habitual associations.  Devine shows that it is possible for a person “to simultaneously reject prejudice and still react to stereotypes and behave in prejudicial ways.” Most of us place a high value on being unbiased.  But, like it or not, by habit we all have biases. (Breaking Bias, UW Letters and Science, Spring 2020)

I suspect that some of us may find this assertion insulting or even offensive.  In an exchange this summer in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator John Cornyn was enraged when Vanita Gupta, one of America’s leading civil rights attorneys, stated that all people have racial bias.   Cornyn responded: “Wow. You lost me when you want to take the acts of a few misguided, perhaps malicious, individuals, and ascribe that to all Americans.” (June 16, 2020) But, as Professor Devine points out, through scientific method, having bias does not mean that a person holds malicious intent; rather, it is a description of a normal human psychological pattern.

What’s unique and uplifting about Devine’s research is that she has come up with a process for conquering such biases. The key is “the desire to overcome biases; to allow our values to overcome our habitual associations.”  She speaks of leverage points” as moments when we can take a step to do something different than what we do habitually.  

Devine has 5 very specific tools a person can use in this regard. (I won’t discuss all five!)  Examples of two such tools are stereotype replacement and opportunities to connect with groups we tend to stereotype.  

On a trip to Washington DC for a social justice seminar in February, three of our Beth Hillel teens experienced an example of stereotype replacement.  As the students waited for a speaker to arrive, they became uncomfortable when a disheveled and unkempt man walked into the banquet hall.  They were surprised to see him ascend the stage and take the podium, as they thought, perhaps, he would be escorted out.  Soon, the man began to speak about being homeless and was surprisingly articulate.  As he spoke, he took off layers of clothing, revealing a more presentable appearance.  This was not an actor, but a man who had once been homeless and now educates and advocates for homeless individuals. 

A second tool in overcoming bias is the act of connecting with groups we tend to stereotype. It could be, for example, listening to the experience of people of color to try to comprehend what it is like to live each day without the privilege of being white.   In Kenosha, we have a group that provides regular Courageous Conversations where one can have this listening experience.  And due to COVID, these conversations are now done online and recorded, so one does not have to be free on a given night or drive to Kenosha to experience them.  There is one available on the Coalition for Dismantling Racism Facebook page right now that was recorded after the recent Kenosha crisis.  

If we think of Kol Nidre as a prayer for humility and asking God to help us question our own assumptions, we can begin to see this moment of calls in the streets for racial justice as a “leverage point.”  It is a chance to honestly look at ourselves as part of the problem and repair ourselves as a piece of the solution.  Kol Nidre provides the impetus we need to open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts-- to what might be possible.  

Beth Hillel’s new racial justice committee will be offering many opportunities in the coming year to learn more about the factors that have contributed to our nation’s unequal distribution of wealth, access to education, employment, decent housing, health care and more.  Your first opportunity to learn will be during our afternoon discussion sessions tomorrow.

After this summer of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, let us turn the turmoil into a moment of self-reckoning. Can we peer through the smoke, the tear gas and the crumbled buildings?  Are we able, for a moment, turn off the endless loop in our heads of protestors chanting, hammers boarding up buildings, and sirens screaming, so that we might discern a new direction?

God, give us insight into our inner certainty, into our mistaken belief that we lack bias. And in so doing, grant us the courage to move forward humbly and courageously in this new year.

Yom Kippur Morning 5781 September 28, 2020

Seeking Human Decency in Troubled Times

One of the many troubling characteristics of our current political climate is how lines of division have become gaping caverns.  In Kenosha today, if you have certain kinds of slogans decorating your boarded-up building, some people will refuse to shop there. Last week, I admit that I even found myself stating that I would not go into a downtown business because the owner and her store are featured in a campaign ad, using what happened in Kenosha as criticism of a candidate I support. 

Surely, we have every right as consumers to take our business elsewhere, but I wonder how many of us would have done this a few years ago; or even a few months ago.  How can we return to acting with fundamental decency in a world with so much rancor and division? 

Comporting ourselves with decency is a key theme of Yom Kippur. This afternoon’s Torah portion, the Holiness Code from Leviticus, is a detailed list of acts of decency toward others, summarized in Lev 19:18: “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,”  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   But, the basic decency of “love your neighbor,” especially in response to those with whom we disagree, seems elusive today.   

Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman takes the position that the reason we humans have fallen so far from acting with decency is that we are constantly given the message that humanity is not capable of better.  Bregman seeks to prove the opposite:  That if we expect people to behave well and show that behavior in ourselves, then good-heartedness will manifest itself in the world. (Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, 2019)

After the Kenosha devastation, this positive view may seem naive.  Those nights of destruction and violence might be used as proof of a verse in Genesis that precedes the flood:  The verse says that God had to destroy all life on the earth because “every intent of the thoughts of (the human) heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) In this dark worldview, promoted by some today for political gain, human evil and anarchy are always just below the surface, waiting to emerge.  

However, the primary Jewish belief about human evil is not based on this verse from the flood story.  Derived instead from a verse in the Creation story, the sages taught that human beings are endowed at birth with both a Yetzer Hatov, a good inclination, and a Yetzer Hara, an evil inclination. The verse says: “Vayyitzer Adonai Elohim et ha’adam...,” And the Eternal God formed the human being…. (Gen 2:7) Because two yuds are found in the verb “vayyitzer,” “formed,” the rabbis concluded that human beings were created with two “yetzers.”  Therefore, we humans are not “only evil” as in the flood story, but endowed from birth with both good and evil.  

To make the same point as the rabbis, the Dutch philosopher takes issue with a 1951 classic of English literature, Lord of the Flies.  You remember the story:  A group of British school boys are stranded together on an island.  They form a society that quickly devolves into cruelty and lawlessness; even murder.  In pitching the book to his publisher, author William Golding wrote: “Even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it.”  Echoing the flood story verse, Golding asserted: “Man produces evil as a bee produces honey.” (Bregman, p. 23) 

This story did not ring true to Bregman.  So, he sought out --and found-- a true story of boys who were stranded on an island.  This real life “Lord of the Flies” story took place in the south Pacific in the 1960s, and it was loyalty and cooperation; friendship and shared responsibility that governed six stranded schoolboys’ behavior-- for 15 months until they were rescued.  

But we never hear this story.  Instead, Lord of the Flies is held out as a predictor of human behavior.  And all of those TV survivor shows echo the fictional story, reinforcing that lying, cheating and backbiting will always dominate.  No wonder we are conditioned to think the worst and even begin to fulfill that prophecy ourselves!

But Jewish teaching allows us to let go of the idea that bad actors are inherently evil.  That is not to say that those who caused such terrible destruction in Kenosha are to be excused.  On the contrary, the rabbis would see those involved as having acted on their worst impulses. And they would view the Kenosha County Supervisor who recently sat with her back turned for two hours to angry members of the community the same way--as having let her yetzer hara get the best of her. Perhaps this Supervisor should not be in public office if she cannot face critics, but she is not an inherently evil person.  These folks are not completely irredeemable. And neither are we. 

If we believe that there is a positive and decent instinct in humanity, we will be able to see it manifest even in the Kenosha drama:  Look at the people who have been volunteering after the violence -- to clean up and paint positive messages on buildings; witness the grassroots community leaders whose response to the crisis has been to feed the hungry, register voters, offer COVID tests, give away games and school supplies to needy kids, and more.  

Our Mishkan HaNefesh machzor has added something strikingly fresh in a number of places in the Yom Kippur liturgy:  Readings that emphasize not only “cheyt shechatanu,” the sin that we have sinned, but also “hakarat hatov,” recognizing the good we have done.   In fact, the entire Ne’ilah service, the closing service of the day, is centered around the theme: “You hold out your hand,” assuring us that God is looking for the good in us and welcoming us in as the gates of repentance begin to close. So, come back this afternoon for that closing service. And let us join together to look for the good in ourselves, to find it collectively in our community, and promise to bring more decency and goodness to these troubling times in this new year.

Sun, November 29 2020 13 Kislev 5781