Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur - How to Bring Mashiach Now, By Rabbi Shira Stutman

How to Bring Mashiach Now[1]
- Rabbi Shira Stutman

Quick show of hands. How many of you have traveled to any of the following cities: Kinshasa, Baku (Azerbijan), Phnom Penh, Lagos (Nigeria), Zagreb (Croatia), Aukland, Guayaquil (Ecuador), Tokyo, La Paz? Keep your hands up if, while there, you stopped in at your local Chabad house. Mistake if you didn’t. Thirteen years ago, in Kathmandu for Yom Kippur, my husband and I met the local Chabad rabbi, who had personally shechted over 1,000 chickens in preparation for serving pre- and post-Yom Kippur meals to travelers who found themselves in Kathmandu for the holiday. Chabad emissaries move all around the world to bring Jews back to Judaism, practicing a form of “extreme welcoming” because they believe that with every mitzvah, we are inching closer toward messianic times.

But this sermon is not about Chabad. This sermon is about messiah.

Before I jump in, let me just acknowledge that for Jews, talking about Messiah can feel awkward or even downright heretical. The concept of “Messiah”, like angels, immersing in a body of water to commit yourself to your religion, or even God’s love, may read as Christian. For the sake of time, you’ll have to trust me here: the concept of Messiah is very Jewish. We had it first. We just believe that he hasn’t come yet. Instead, ancient rabbis argue that one day, a figure will “redeem” humanity and bring in the “messianic age”. In these texts, the Messiah, is sometimes a military or political figure, other times a despised, impoverished person already on earth, just waiting for Jewish kindness or teshuva, repentance. Some texts report that in the lead-up to the Messiah’s arrival, the world will be in chaos, while others say he won’t come until the world is at peace. I must admit that some texts read a little bit uncomfortable to the contemporary sensibility. I’m okay with that. Judaism is vast and ancient, and we sometimes have to choose teachings that are meaningful while disposing of those that reflect a world-view that no longer makes sense.

If you find yourself unable to believe that one day a personal Messiah will somehow arrive, you are not freed from the conversation. Say not “Messiah” but “Messianic times,” which is what the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do. It’s an idea, a state of being, a future time of peace and justice toward which we are striving. Otherwise, you risk missing the forest for the trees. And our forests are these incredible, ancient teachings about the wonder of the messianic era, a time when the great yeshivas will flourish with study, warfare will be abolished, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and so on.

One of the most well-known statements about Messiah teaches that he will come when the whole Jewish community observes two shabbats in a row (Shabbat 118b). Does the following not sound like a true taste of a better time?

One who wants to enter the holiness of [Shabbat] must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of [humans].

This passage by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel draws a picture of a time without the pressures of materialism and toil. Shabbat is seen as “me’en olam ha’ba”, a taste of the world to come, the Messianic era. But you already know this. Convincing a group of overstressed and over-Tweeted DCers that it’s worth it to observe some sort of Sabbath is not difficult. Actually doing it is the problem. The excuses are too real—the work deadline, the bachelorette party, errands. When I first moved to DC, my phone was off on Shabbat. Then I kept it turned on, “just in case”. (Just in case what I don’t know.) Then I started texting, but only with kids’ friends’ parents about upcoming play-dates or carpools. Then I started texting with everyone. And I’m a rabbi. To keep a Shabbat—even in your own way—is incredibly difficult in a world that doesn’t understand it, and especially doesn’t understand it for the non-Orthodox. We feint at change but go quickly back to the easy way. But today I’m saying that I’m going to bring the Messanic age one step closer by turning off the texts. The Jewish tradition only requires two witnesses for a business deal to be sealed. I have 700.

The most beautiful thing about Shabbat, though, is that it’s not all about me. In an interview, writer Judith Shulevitz argues that Shabbat was a first moment in history when “everyone, not just the upper classes…have the right to rest in a regular way one day a week….[I]t was so radically progressive that it even mandated that you had to give your animals the day off….In its time the Sabbath was an enormously radical idea…..” When we have a Sabbath moment (not the full 25-hours, but part of it), when we turn off the phone, or desist from engaging in commerce, or walk instead of driving, or go to services, or going to synagogue but never make it inside for services, or have an at-home meal with friends, or turn off the computer, or pray/meditate/hike, we deepen our spiritual practice; that’s a given. But not only ours; we deepen others, as well, whether the “other” is the family member with whom you’re reconnecting or the oppressed who you now know, because of your personal experience, deserve their own Shabbat, too. Observing Shabbat, purportedly about self-care, thus becomes about community care. We were slaves, we were freed so that we could celebrate Shabbat. This holds true for Jews in ancient times, Jews in contemporary times, and all of humanity. I know that the labor movement likes to take credit for the weekend, but that too was us. Shabbat is a political act. We are owned by no one. Not out boss or clients, not by commerce. And it brings messianic times one step closer.

Although it may feel insurmountable, observing a Sabbath is within our reach. Other ways of bringing Messanic times, like world peace, feel much farther away. Isaiah’s description of a future time in which “the nations...shall beat their swords into plowshares...[and] shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2.4)? Far, far away. But here’s the crazy part: that’s not factually accurate. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker

argued that violence has decreased over multiple scales of time and magnitude, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars. He tried to explain these declines as a change in the interaction between violent impulses (such as dominance, sadism and revenge) and peaceful impulses (such as self-control, empathy and reason) brought on by historical forces such as government, trade and literacy.[2]

Today, argues Pinker and other scholars, we most likely are living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species. One step closer.

Fortunately or unfortunately, 1,000 years ago there was no 24-hour news cycle to alert us to every massacre or murder the world over, not many people traveling too far from their home village. Now we get information immediately, and it is quite awful. This past summer, traveling in Israel with members of the Jewish Welcome Workshop, we spent a day in the Golan Heights. For much of that day, while discussing politics, white-water rafting, or sitting outside having lunch, we heard the repeated sound of bombs landing in Syria. Even though our guide reminded us that we were “at least 9 kilometers away from the bombing, so totally safe”, the war felt very close. We sat on our picnic benches with our pita and labaneh, imagining civilians injured or killed.

If Syria feels too far, consider that roughly 24,000 people have died from guns in the US since the Newtown shootings in December, 2012.[3] I am on the treadmill at the gym: two of the tv screens show footage of small children, dying from poison gas in Syria. A third shows footage from the funeral of 1-year-old Antiq Hennis, killed in New York last week while being pushed in a stroller by his parents. "Remorseful doesn't even describe what I feel," said suspect Daquan Breland, after he was arrested for the Antiq’s murder. “I love kids, I wanted to be a father. Now there’s no time. I think about my present, my past, my future. I would’ve changed things beginning in elementary school. I would’ve taken a different path.”

The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 98a) that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi found Elijah the prophet sitting, disguised as a beggar, at the gates of Rome. He asked, “When will you come to proclaim the messiah?” Elijah replied, “hayom, today, if you will only hear his voice.” The Jewish tradition does not give us permission to stand down, not in Syria, and not when children and adults die every day on the street or by committing suicide in their homes.

We are indeed closer to the messianic era. The world is more peaceful. But this arc is really long. We may not know whether missile strikes against the Assad regime will bring an end to the violence, but we can know that donating to Syrian refugee relief, with organizations like Oxfam or Doctors without Borders, will make a drop of difference. And I’m not interested in getting into a policy argument over gun control but, people—let’s get up off the couch and act. Do it for baby Antiq and work to get guns off the street. Or do it for Daquan and work to make our elementary schools places where kids thrive, whether they’re in Cleveland Park or in Anacostia. Consider volunteering for Reading Partners, an organization that sends people like you into schools all over the city to spend time reading with kids so they can stay at grade level. When we act on our impulse to bring justice, we are healing not only for the other but also the most basic part of ourselves that knows that the more you give, the more you receive in return.

There are many Jewish texts on Messiah. They come to teach us that we are a small but critical part of the whole. Judaism make no distinction between what is good for the self and what is good for the universe; both are equally important for the individual and for the community; both will bring Messiah. Think of the Chinese yin/yang symbol, “used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and, how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.”[4] We cannot lift up the other without lifting up ourselves and vice versa. We think Shabbat is about our own self, but it is also about community. Shabbat is important for our own souls and for the souls of our loved ones, the poor who we don’t know, our animals. We think that peace is about the world community, but it is also about our own selves. Something has shifted in history, and we are closer than ever to the metaphorical lion and the lamb taking up residence together. We can do it.

I want to tell you a story[5] that I’ve told some of you before, about a man named Mendel, went to the Baal Shem Tov and said: “Rebbe, I want to see Elijah the Prophet.” “It’s simple,” the rabbi said. “Fill a box with food. Then before Rosh HaShanah travel to Minsk.  On the outskirts of town is a dilapidated house.  Find that house, and shortly before candle-lighting time at sunset, knock on the door and ask for hospitality.”
So he went and did as the rabbi told him.  He filled the parcels with food and went to Minsk, where he found the broken-down house.  Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry.”  He heard the mother answer, “Children, trust in God. He’ll send Elijah the prophet to bring you everything you need.”
Then the hassid knocked on the door.  When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for the holiday.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have enough food for all of us.”  He came in, opened the box, and they ate.  He was there for two days, waiting to see Elijah the prophet but no one came.
 So he returned to the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I did not see Elijah the Prophet!”  “Did you do everything I told you?” said the Baal Shem Tov. “I did!”  he said.  “Are you sure?”  “Yes Rebbe!  I didn’t see him!” “Then you’ll have to return for Yom Kippur,” said the rabbi. “Go back before Yom Kippur, with a box of food to the same house.  So he went back to Minsk before Yom Kippur. 
Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry! We haven’t eaten the whole day!”  “Children!” said the mother. “Do you remember you were crying before Rosh HaShanah and that you had no food?  And I told you, “God will send Elijah the prophet who will bring you what you need!  Didn’t Elijah come and bring you food?  Elijah will come now, too, and bring you food.”  Now the chassid understood.  He was Elijah.  So he knocked on the door.
As we gather together as a community this Yom Kippur, each of us is Elijah, capable of bringing the messianic times one step closer. We can make Messiah Now! our manta, our clarion call, for all of us who believe strongly that you cannot have love without justice, that we have within us all we need to do good, that the world as it is is not the world as it could be. Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that “The actual work of redeeming the world is turned to us in history, and is done by all of us, day by day. Messiah has been waiting in the wings, as it were, since the very beginning of history, ready to come forth when the time is right.” The messiah is coming, one step at a time—with our help.
Gmar tov—may we all be signed and sealed for a sweet and justice-filled new year.

[1] This title is cribbed from The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-it-Yourself Kit, a back-to-the-earth approach to Jewish living.
[5] I first heard this story from my colleague Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann.

Kol Nidre - Should We Talk Social Justice on Shabbat? By Rabbi Scott Perlo

Should We Talk Social Justice on Shabbat?
By Rabbi Scott Perlo

אִם תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶך
If you turn back your feet because of Shabbat.
אִם תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶך
If you turn back your feet because of Shabbat,
and restrain yourself from pursuing your business on my holy day
 עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶיךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי
and you call Shabbat a pleasure,
וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג
and call God’s holy day an honor, and honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of yours matters.
לִקְדוֹשׁ יי מְכֻבָּד וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר
Then you will take great pleasure in God, and I will set you riding the heights of the earth, and I will feed you from inheritance of your father Jacob -
אָז תִּתְעַנַּג עַל יי וְהִרְכַּבְתִּיךָ עַל בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ, וְהַאֲכַלְתִּיךָ נַחֲלַת יַעֲקֹב אָבִיךָ 
for the mouth of God has spoken it.
כִּי פִּי יי דִּבֵּר

Some of you know that last year we created a new Shabbat service at Sixth & I called Good Soul. It’s Shabbat prayer with a full fledged service, but acoustic instruments. It is built of the best music we could think of or have experienced. It is designed to reach people at a soul level. It meets at Sixth & I, and sometimes at Chinatown Coffee, just down the street, every third Friday of the month. And it was created so that you shouldhave to sit here and endure this shameless plug.

In any case, part of my vision in creating Good Soul was to expose us all to the opportunities for social justice within Washington D.C. For me, being a good soul means being a good neighbor. Rabbi Shira and I, along with two core community members Eve Bentovim and Amy Kurz, have started to grow our involvement in justice and service. Good Soul seemed like a perfect platform.

In order to test out the concept, I brought the whole idea to a few other community members - people whose opinions I trust, and laid the whole thing out before them. Soulful connection, connected community, good neighborship - Good Soul.

They said, “Scott - we like every piece of the plan except one. The social justice. Please don’t do that.” Somewhat taken aback, I asked why. Here was their reply:
“All week long all we hear about is how broken the world is. A number of us work in social justice. When do we get to turn it off? Where is our spiritual refuge? We come to Shabbat to leave the craziness behind us. Can’t there be at least one place in which we don’t have to feel guilty?”

I’ve been thinking about what these confidants said to me ever since. I’ve been thinking about it because it made so much damn sense. Those two verses rung in my ears: אם תשיב משבת רגלך - if you turn back your feet on Shabbat, and restrain yourself from doing business, nor speaking of your own matters.” Shabbat is supposed to be a refuge. It’s supposed to be a taste of the world to come. It’s supposed to be a break. And please, couldn’t we all just catch a break, for once? The world is remarkably short on breaks.

Tonight’s drash is an attempt to answer that question. It is an argument. It is an argument from a rabbi who knows the truth. It is an argument from a rabbi who knows the truth of so many of you are thinking, so many times, when justice or politics are brought up in shul: “please, for the love of everything holy, please stop trying to be Martin Luther King Jr., or Heschel, like every other rabbi on the planet. You may have a dream, rabbi, but it probably involves people not eating bacon. Let’s get real.”

Nonetheless this is my argument of why, on Shabbat, I think it is still incumbent upon us to discuss justice, and its absence, especially in our own backyard.

אם תשיב משבת רגלך - if you turn back your feet on Shabbat. That’s what Shabbat is. It’s a turning back. It’s a reconnecting with the Source. That’s why that Hebrew word is there: שוב - to turn back, to return, to get back to. It’s the same root as the word Shabbat itself - "Ceasing, When God turned back from doing." That is what Shabbat is for. That is what Shabbat does, when done right - it gives us back our soul.

When a lot of us think about this idea, we start asking rather penetrating questions, questions like: Why aren’t I in Cabo right now? And: please explain to me how 3 hours of Hebrew followed by heavy, Eastern European food is supposed to give me my soul back.

The answer lies in a deep, true understanding of what restoration is.

I’ve been to Cabo. When I was in my twenties, my incredible, generous grandparents, of blessed memory took the whole extended family on a cruise down California into Mexico.

What they didn’t quite realize was that this was a booze cruise. Hundreds of twenty-somethings piled onto this boat in order to drink the night away, wake up sluggishly in the afternoon, more than occasionally in the wrong bed, and then do it all over again. On alternate days, these college educated professionals thought it a good idea to clamber onto shore, drink from ridiculous plastic cups with frogs on them, and try not to get caught on Girls Gone Wild. Or to try and get caught on Girls Gone Wild. Depending upon your community’s custom, of course. We are a pluralistic institution here.

That was this vacation.

Here’s the problem. A couple of times, we stepped a few miles outside these cruise/spring break towns - right into desperate poverty. People who live so far away from the world of spring break and vacation cruises as to make either lifestyle incomprehensible to the other. 

The problem is not the fact of going on vacation. Vacation is lovely. However, in order to preserve the illusion of the pristine world we visited, we had to do something kind of terrible: we had to shut our eyes. Much of our leisure requires that we be blind. It requires that we be unconscious.

Anything that induces our unconsciousness isn’t restoration. It’s anesthesia.

I’m worried about our reliance upon anesthetic: more people, smaller spaces, fewer resources, increasing pressures - it seems to me that we keep upping the dosage.

I've always loved the work of the Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hanh, and was grateful when a friend reintroduced me to him for the purposes of this drash. What he says is this:

"Mediation is not to get out of society, to escape from society, but to prepare for a reentry into society. We call this "engaged Buddhism."

"I think that our society is a difficult place to live. If we are not careful, we can become uprooted, and once uprooted, we cannot help change society to make it more livable. Meditation is a way of helping us stay in society. This is very important."

I'm not Buddhist. I only bring his words to reflect a universal truth: even meditation, the most internal of the spiritual practices - to its deepest practitioners is an act of restoration with the world around us.

אם תשיב משבת רגלך
If you turn your feet back because of Shabbat.

I've neglected to mention another way that that root – שוב - to return, to cease, to turn back is used. It's the root of the word תשובה - repentance. Shabbat cannot exist without teshuvah. The world loses its calibration in the daily grind. There has to be a time in which we deeply reflect, and consider putting it back on track. That will not happen during staff meeting.

But back to my confidants and the wisdom of their point, which is this: in order for human beings to be good, we must be reminded of our nobility. Guilt and shame are dangerous drugs, not to be prescribed lightly. Without a time to recognize our own holiness, we are worse, not better. Shouldn't Shabbat be that place and that time?

What I think is that it isn't the issues of justice themselves that are the problem. It isn't hearing about homelessness or the environment or the working poor that leads us astray. Perhaps it is our response to reality that is awry: "the world is broken, and we need to fix it yesterday, and if we just killed our apathy, and it is ALL OUR FAULT." That would be a hard burden to bear, week in and week out.

Rabbis like me bear a good portion of blame, here. We act, more often than not, like frenzied spiritual football coaches, frothing at the mouth - "get out there, blitz the bad people, and grind injustice's face into the turf. Then dance in the end zone. Moral lollygagging will be punished with laps around the synagogue."

Often our solutions are inadequate - walks around parks don't end genocide - they're simply what we can do, well and easily, in the face of the incomprehensible. We all know that. We are all left feeling guilty, and worse, without tangible ways of fixing the problems set before us.

But what if the purpose of speaking of social justice on Shabbat was not quite yet to fix, but rather just to see. To see the world around us. To know. To be wide-eyed.

This is from a friend of mine
"I took a mediation class in grad school where we took real life conflict and learned how to mediate between two angry, highly emotional parties. I don't remember a whole lot from the class except that the teacher hammered home one point over and over again.  The point was that we, the royal we, tend to jump to the solution phase way too fast.  We want to solve before we even understand, before we've had a chance to truly be heard, before we feel satiated that the other person knows our best intention.  In a mediation, you can't even move on to the brainstorming phase until both parties feel that they are done verbally expunging, vomiting, etc."

Shabbat is not about fixing. It is forbidden to fix things on Shabbat. That law exists for a reason. It is the epitome of wisdom.

Shabbat instead, is about seeing. It is about understanding. It is about contemplating. It is about generating compassion. It is about see our small place in the big picture. It is about recognizing how we fit, before we fix. For these are the behaviors that will restore our souls. And they are the ways that, when we emerge from the holy, we will have the inner strength to do what must be done.

What if we understood Shabbat as a time, not of frenzy, but of clarity? What Shabbat was dedicated, not to shame, but to understanding. What if, on Shabbat, we sought more than sleep? What if we found a way to be truly awake.

The rest of the week is there for the doing. Shabbat exists for compassion. אם תשיב משבת רגלך - if you turn back your feet on Shabbat. תורת השם תמימה, משיבת נפש - God's Torah is pure, restoring the soul. Perhaps the restoration we seek is found in openness to the world.

For the conceivable future, that's what we'll be doing in Good Soul. But there is the beginning of a new initiative - for the week, not for Shabbat - that starts with a partnership with SOME. Come the fall, we’ll be volunteering once a month together there – serving breakfast or lunch. And we’ll build from there. So please contact me at if you’re interested.

But we’ll also have Shabbat: a time not to fix, but rather to think, to be, to understand, to see. And in its own way, that will redeem us too.

Kol Nidre - What's the Worst that Can Happen? By Rabbi Shira Stutman

What’s the Worst that Can Happen?
-Rabbi Shira Stutman

For those of you who might be considering a career in the rabbinate, here’s what I can tell you: nine months out of the year, it’s a lot of “why don’t you come to this text study? Join me at this service!” and then three months of the year it’s “Why does everyone come out for these three services?” Preparing for the high holy days is among a rabbi’s biggest challenges.

The process is always the same.[1] I begin, of course, with denial. “It’s July! Look how hot it is outside! I have all the time in the world to write my sermons.”

And then it’s no longer July but instead August and I hit stage 2: Anger. Not at myself, dear congregant, not at God, but—and here I’m a little embarrassed—at you. “Is it my fault that you come to services once a year?” No.

Stage three: bargaining. This, I usually do with the gods of the internet. If Google, MyJewishLearning, Tablet, and a few other select locations…if they could just please provide me with the inspiration I need to find something of substance to say. I promise that I won’t even consider recycling something I said two years ago, to see if anyone was listening.

Stage four is a difficult one: Depression. I have nothing to say. I am not worthy of being in front of so many people. There are many rabbis, greater men and women than I will ever be, who should be standing here.

And finally, of course, acceptance. Acceptance takes the longest time, as it begins when I finally sit down and write and delete and write a little more then check Facebook and and pull out a few gray hairs but mostly, just write. And it concludes, really, when I step up to the bima on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and start to talk.

This year was no different. I complained about the process to my therapist. I thought I was being witty, riffing off Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of mourning. She was not impressed.

“What are you afraid of?” she asked.


What am I afraid of? So many things. Will the sermon be smart enough? Will you laugh at the jokes? Will I be able to make enough pop-culture references that the sermon reads hip but not so many that it reads sophomoric? Will your phones stay in your pockets? Will you remember it an hour later? Is it worth being remembered? Will I succeed? Will I fail?

It’s quite paralyzing, this fear of failure. So many of us, whether it’s because we grew up in money and privilege or because we did not; whether it’s because we are part of the “majority” and are in competition with so many others or because we are part of the “minority” and have something to prove; whether it’s because our parents loved us too much or too little—we all have our excuses and our burdens and our scars. And they carry us far. We can spend the next 15 minutes talking about where this fear of failure comes from—I’m sure that’s what my therapist would like me to do (but not my mother)—but instead I want to talk for a little bit about what to do with failure, with the fear of it, how to grow from it—if at all.

We begin with the Yom Kippur moment in which we find ourselves. What is this holiday if not a mass celebration of failure? I use the word “celebration” purposefully, because Yom Kippur, according to the Talmud, is one of the two happiest days of the Jewish year. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits explains that this is because
The teshuva (repentance) of Yom Kippur is not some pretense that we will all be perfect tomorrow. We know full well that this will not happen.  Real teshuva is (i) an honest analysis of who we are currently – what we do well and where we fail; (ii) an acceptance that we need to do better and a picture of how we ultimately wish to be when we reach our full potential and (iii) a realistic plan as to how to we can start right now to change a few small things that will set us on the route to achieving that goal. This is the simcha [the joy] of Yom Kippur – honesty about ourselves and the understanding that we really can improve in a slow and healthy step-by-step process. 

Quite a wonderful teaching: real Teshuva is accepting that we failed, knowing that we will do it again, but in the meantime crafting a realistic plan for making a change. And that—not the failure but what comes after—that is simcha, joy, a word usually associated with baby namings and weddings and dancing with the Torah. Failure is nothing more that part of a process of growth.

There are a number of strategies to deal with the aftermath of failure. The simplest one is realizing that you are in good company. I could tell you 100 stories that prove that some of our biggest role models or celebrities came back after massive failure. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; Harry Potter was rejected by the first 12 publishing houses to which JK Rowling sent it;[2] Steve Jobs, at one point fired as CEO at Apple. Sometimes I read other rabbis’ sermons on the internet in the hopes of feeling better about mine. So-and-so wrote a mediocre sermon a few years ago; he’s still in his job. Schadenfreude—enjoyment derived at the misfortunes of others. It gets me far, but not far enough. I am many things, but not Michael Jordan.

The Torah, especially the book of Genesis, is itself a blueprint of how to come back from failure. God’s first attempt at humanity—failure, with only Noah and his family surviving. The first sibling relationship? Failure, when one brother kills the other. The garden of Eden? Failure.

The difference between Torah and our own lives, however, is that with Torah we get to see the full arc. Yes, it seems like a failure when Joseph gets thrown into the pit. But he rises up, quite literally, to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man in Egypt, in perfect position to assist the Hebrews during their time of famine. And yes, it seems like a failure when Moses can’t convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go after the first, second, third plague—but ultimately, they do get out. It takes 40 years instead of 40 days, but the Israelites ultimately get to the land of Israel.

For us, too, time often can offset the pain of failure. I can draw a direct line from the moment that I was kicked out of the election for president of the Jewish Student Union at Columbia University (true story) and me standing on this bima, leading High Holy Day services today. But it still felt pretty awful when there was an article on the front page of the Columbia Daily Spectator trumpeting my failure. We can make meaning from the missteps, but only time can provide the glasses through which we look to see it.

But in the moment, truth be told, it hurts.

And yet, it is a mistake to see failure as one end of a binary. Either we “fail” or we “succeed”; the quality of a life is based on how much the latter exceeds the former. What Torah does with failure is see it as a stepping-stone to something else, something deeper or smarter or just plain better. “Failure is easy,” writes the writer  Anne Enright. “I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept…I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people.…[F]ailure is what writers do. It is built in. All this is known. In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust.” We all fail. Not just in the big moments, sermons or presentations or bar exams. We fail all the time.

But what Judaism comes to teach us is that failure is part and parcel of what it means to be human. We fail every day, when we snap at our partners or spend our tzedakah money at Starbucks or take a sentence from another document without citing its source. Ironic that what makes me feel better is not recognizing that I fail rarely but instead that I fail all the time. A few weeks ago I didn’t sleep well so one morning I left the oven on, with my kid alone in the house asleep in his room, when I left for work. Fail. I survived—and my kid did, as well. Do I need to set a safeguard in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Yes. Do I need to beat myself up over what could have happened? No—how would that help?

We survive. The only sin is when we don’t learn from our failures, when we repeat them again and again and again without reflection.

Consider the work of Carol Dweck, who writes about fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets. In her amazing book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she differentiates between those who believe that their “successes” are based on innate ability (“fixed” mindset), and those who believe that it’s based on hard work (“growth” mindset). Either your intelligence is fixed  (“you got an ‘A’ on that math test? You’re so smart!”) or it can grow (“you got an ‘A on that math test? You studied so hard for it!”). She writes that

[i]n a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.[3]

One easy way to tell if someone has a growth or fixed mindset is to witness how she responds to failure. A fixed-mindset person despises failure, because it means that it’s a statement on who they are and who they always will be, while a growth-mindset person sees the failure as regrettable but also a learning opportunity for the future. Fixed-mindset failures are an opportunity to feel shame; growth-mindset failures are an opportunity to feel disappointment but learn for the future.

Now shame—that’s a topic for a different sermon altogether. But here’s the teaser: the difference between shame and guilt is simple. Say you find yourself gossiping about a colleague. If you feel guilt, you recognize you’ve done something wrong. If you feel shame, you recognize that you’ve done something wrong, and think that makes you a bad person at your core. One of the key elements to failing well is to feel guilt but not shame. That, too, is a process for many of us.

We learn in the Talmud that
 אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל בהן,
(Gittin 43a), “a person does not fully understand a Torah teaching until he or she has been tripped up by them.” The phrase is brought to bear as Rabbah b. Rav Huna acknowledges that he made a mistake in interpreting a piece of Torah law. The ancient rabbis understood that we cannot really learn something until we have failed to understand it correctly the first time. I try to imagine that in a contemporary court of law: “Your honor, you may have noticed that I applied this law incorrectly the first time. I’d like to try again, and know you will think more highly of me for doing so.” The tradition understands what those of us stuck in the fixed mindset do not; failure, while sometimes quite awful, can also be a type of feedback. Our job after any sort of failure is not to collapse in the fetal position but instead to say, “what can I learn so I can do differently next time?”

Failure is part of what it means to be a human. Noam Zion teaches that

For the Kabbalist[s], failure is built into the very fabric of existence. One of the least understood and most radical dimensions of Kabbalistic teaching is the model of a God who cannot seem to get it right the first time around.

…[I]n Renaissance Kabbalah, the primary image of creation is God forcing emanating light into vessels. The flawed vessels are unable to hold the light streaming into them from the divine emanation. They shatter. Shards of vessels fall and disperse throughout reality. Many of the shards retain sparks of light. The purpose of existence is to gather the sparks of light…and reintegrate them with their divine source.

What is essential in this kabbalistic image is the centrality of failure. God tries to create the world. It doesn't work because the vessels shatter. Our whole lives are then spent trying to return to the original pristine state before the vessels shattered, the only difference being that this time when we return, we are humbler, wiser and able to transcend even the initial perfection with which we began.

We are imitators of divinity. We participate in divinity. Just as God stood on the abyss of darkness and said, "Let there be light," so do we stand on the abyss of darkness and say, "Let there be light." Just as God failed in his creative gesture yet reached deep within to find the love to create again, so do we.

In the end, the best we can do is the best we can do. Acknowledging that the potential for failure is always present, that we will fail every single day—and that’s okay—is one of the most powerful teachings of this High Holy Day season. In our lives, in our relationships, in our work. I have given this sermon, it might have been mediocre. And if I give too many mediocre sermons, you may walk away from Judaism, or I may lose my job. And yet—with a dose of humility, and a dose of learned wisdom, I will fall and God willing, I will rise again. That is true of all of us, every day. You will fail, too. Sometimes it will be minor, as when you throw an aluminum can in the trash. Sometimes it could be much, much larger. But we will learn, and grow, from our failures. What’s the worst that could happen?

[1] In gratitude to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, from whom these “stages” are most obviously cribbed.
[3] Carol Dweck, as cited here

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rosh HaShanah - Shofarot, By Alesandra Zsiba

A Rosh Hashanah Reflection
- Alesandra Zsiba

I am continually trying to find my place in Judaism and to find its place in me. On these big, important holidays there’s even more pressure to feel Judaism, to identity, to be proud, to be comfortable, to be situated in an identity that gives you life and that you give life to. But how do we make meaning for ourselves in these moments? How to we let go a little, just enough to feel what we are asked to feel?

Tonight we are asked -- to feel our eyes turn inward, we are asked to come close enough to feel the body heat of our decisions, our reactions, our efforts, our words. We are asked to come close to those moments when we put in energy, and peel them all apart. Who was I in that moment? What version of myself did I employ? What specks of self surprised me and made me question? Was I the me that I most want to be? But on this night of immensity of self, how do we find our place in Judaism and our own way in?

This Rosh Hashanah, if you are looking for a way in, try hearing the shofar as a call of permission. A deep, guttural cry saying “Go, find it, find that way in to Judaism that is wholly yours, sacred and unique because you believe it to be. Because to be Jewish is to invest in your self. To ask your own questions. Aren’t lucky that we come from a tradition that honors questions, a tradition that calls out to us to be more curious, to go in search, to be our own creators, rabbis, cantors, poets, believers and seekers. To be Jewish is to stand face to face with your reasons.

There is a reason you are here tonight. A reason that tugs at you to remember it. Give yourself the time to unpack that reason, you might surprise yourself. You might find, after a little digging, a little asking the right questions (because don’t we all secretly know the questions that are most of-the-moment to us) you might find that your reasons for coming, are your roots, and they will, whether you know it or not, seek out their sustenance. Your reasons, if you let them, will bring you back to Judaism, in a way you can be proud of.

So, tonight when you hear the shofar call, close your eyes and hear it say this…

Come as you are
Come whole
Come empty
Come worthy
Come wholly unworthy
Undone, unfound, unkept

Come, raw
Come fragile
Come brazen
Come seeing far and sensing close
Come living in blacks and whites and greys
Drawing lines, and boarders and boundaries
Or come with nothing but open sky
Unfurling for days inside you, but come

Come curious
Come remembering
Come smelling your grandmothers smell
Come feeling the sticky palms of little ones squeezing yours hello
Come about to be
Becoming the oldest and the youngest
Come calling the call that you know how to call
Come holy
Come with your voice
I dare you

Tonight the shofar says, come
Come as you are
Come with the rise and the fall
Come swaying, for once, for certain
Come with permission
Come to know, with your eyes closed
Come diving into pages pressed tight
Come together to find out, to know yourself a little more fully
Come to find your reasons

Tonight, come as you are.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosh HaShanah - Loneliness, by Rabbi Scott Perlo


Loneliness - A Discussion
Led by Rabbi Scott Perlo

I think this issue of loneliness is very important. Not just a psychological issue or a sort of functional issue - as in, why aren't there simply more bodies around me so that I can can not be alone - but a spiritual issue.

In order to explain why, I want us to learn a piece of Torah together. This story actually shows up in a few places in Torah in different versions, which is the Rabbis' way of telling you that they meant it.

It’s taught in the sources, “A spring of water that belongs to citizens of a particular city—if there’s resource scarcity, the citizens of that city take priority over strangers [getting access to that spring] ...
Yehuda, from the city of Hutza, hid in a cave for three days trying to understand the reasoning of this law  - why it is that the lives of those who live in this city take precedence of the lives of those who live in another city? (that is, he tried to find the Bible verse from which the law was derived.)
He then went to Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta and said, “I hid in a cave for three days, trying to understand the reasoning of this law, why it is that that the lives of those who live in this city take precedence of the lives of those who live in another?
Rabbi Yose called over Rabbi Aba (his son), and said, “what’s the reason?”
Rabbi Aba quoted the book of Joshua to him, “’These cities – each had their pasture land and their surroundings.’  First is listed the city, then the pasture land, then the surroundings [implying an order of precedence – a straightforward answer (for a rabbi)].”
Rabbi Yose said to Yehuda, “what happened to you that you don’t learn with a partner?”
JERUSALEM TALMUD, Masekhet Nedarim 11, Law 1

There was a guy named Yehuda from Hutza. Luckily his name kind of rhymed, and that's how people knew him. Anyways, one day he learned a law. And that law was this: If there is a spring that belongs to citizens of a particular city, and there is some kind of emergency situation - a drought, a storm, something that causes widespread scarcity - the people of that city have priority to the water. First they get their turn, then people from the next city over do.

Now it certainly seems that our boy, Yehuda from Hutza (whatup) hated this law. He couldn't understand it. Now I'm just guessing, but my guess is that he couldn't understand why it was that the people from this city were better, somehow, than the people from one city over. Why is it that my people get the water first? We are all equal, he said, we are all of equal worth. We are all of equal stature. We all deserve the water.

So he secluded himself as you can see, and spent three days in a cave trying to figure out where in the Bible the reasoning for this law came from. The Rabbis reason from the Bible, after all - it's all about the word of God. This isn't just common sense. It's Torah. That's the game.

Anyways, after three days, he strikes out. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Frustrated, he comes back down from his cave, walks into the study house, and asks the rabbi the question that's been torturing him from three days. The rabbi, a very famous guy at the time, Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta, sort of snaps his fingers at his own son, Rabbi Aba, who gives the reference lickety-split.

Then Rabbi Yosi says the thing on which the entire story turns - the whole pivot, the whole point. He says, 'what happened to you that you don't learn with a partner." And with that, the story ends.

Now I am a rabbi, which means that I share these guys' particular brand of insanity, and hopefully can explain to you what's going on. Which is that Rabbi Yosi is pointing out that our man Judah from Hutza really has missed the whole point - not just of this law, but of what community is all about.

First, what he means is that by shutting yourself up in a cave, you deprived yourself of the benefit of others wisdom. Jews don't learn alone, and there are some nasty things said in the Talmud about what happens to people who do. If we're going to create castles in the air, we create those castles together. The Torah doesn't believe in learning that isn't shared, probed, tested, added to, asked about, asked from, questioned, approved of, disapproved of, but most importantly, put out into the world. And had Yehuda from Hutza not retreated to the recesses of his own mind, he would have had his answer in a heartbeat - to challenge or accept as he saw fit. He wouldn't have spent five days on something that could have lasted five minutes, and then they could have had a real discussion. Say a word for me - peshitta. That's obvious - peshitta, as we say when learning Talmud.

But there is a second level, and a deeper and more important one - just as central to this story. Another message. In fact, it's the real message. And that's this: Rabbi Yosi is saying, you, Yehudah, cave-dweller - the reason that you don't understand this law is that you have shut yourself up away from other people, from the people of your community. For you learn, and therefore think, and therefore reason, in loneliness. And for that reason you only get half the Torah of this moment.

For it is indeed true that everyone is equal, and the citizens of one city just as important as the citizens of another. But because you don't learn in a community, you haven't let yourself learn how your neighbors can matter to you. If you spent time with them, spent your life with them, shared in their triumphs and their failures, their births and their deaths, you would know. You wouldn't be friends with them all, nor even like them all - in fact you'd probably hate a fair percentage. But you would know what it was like to love them all. And when the bad times came, after your family, you'd know who to take care of first. For how could you turn away a person with whom you'd shared your life.

This Yehuda, is the Torah that you missed. This is the Torah that you cannot learn on your own.

I feel, so often, like Yehudah, for I am possessed of this obsession - the idea that I can do it all by myself. I can read it by myself, build it by myself, understand it on my own, create it on my own. And if I can't do it now, then by Google I'll figure out how to do it. I am educated, trained, professionalized, and privileged, and no one knows about living my life but me, and no one can tell me what's what, for I must be true to my own voice to the exclusion of others.

This is how I think. This is how I am. And the truth is that, at 34, what I feel is the immense yawp of the loneliness that we have created for ourselves. For I have everything, everything I could possibly ask for - except for enough people to share that everything with.

So many of us feel like this, and have for so long. That Vonnegut piece I gave you? That was written in 1974! Thirty years ago! And from everything I've read from Putnam, as well as those journalists, the problem is getting worse, not better.

My grandparents, of blessed memory, always wanted me to learn how to play bridge. It was so important to them. I never got it. I still have no idea how to play. They were not particularly educated people. They had few of the advantages that I enjoy - educationally, professionally, and otherwise. And the two of them were party animals. Social giants. They had a social life at 80 that puts mine to shame now - yours too, I might add.

I never got the bridge thing until now, of course, when I was preparing for this drash. What my grandfather was saying to me was, "learn how to be with people. Learn how to while away the hours. Learn not to be alone. Learn to share your life with others."

And for me, the only respite I have - and it's a serious one, is that I'm a member of an observant Jewish community, and on Shabbes we turn everything off and pray together. Which means that we eat together. Which means that we tell each other things, and show up to parties, and visit when people are sick, and show up for brises and babies and weddings. These are the people with whom I share my life - not just what I think, but that I experience life with them. And with them, I am not alone. Not because these are somehow unusual people. It's simply because we share our lives, our time - we experience together. And shared experience creates intimacy. And intimacy is the end of loneliness.

We need to take community more seriously. We need to figure out how to rebuild the social and spiritual infrastructure we've lost, especially in this city which is like heaven for the socially awkward. We need to reverse our natural inclinations and find each other again.

Only half the Torah lives inside of us, in our own, unique voice. The other half is inside of someone else, and our job is to go find it, no matter how long it takes us. This isn't about soulmates or likeminds or besties - it is about the simple and essential power of other people. We need to find that power again. It can save us.