Monday, September 29, 2014

Rosh Hashanah: Against All Odds, Rabbi Shira Stutman

Against All Odds
Rabbi Shira Stutman

The story of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, begins in 1878. Natphtali Herz Imber was a young bohemian and poet who wrote “Tikvateinu”, “our hope”, expressing the desire of the Jewish people to return to their homeland, to Israel. Imber left Palestine in 1888, but the poem—with a new name, “Hatikvah”, and ultimately turned into a song by the early Zionist pioneers of Rishon L’Zion—remained. Written by this secular Jew from Austro-Hungary, with the melody brought by a Romanian immigrant but adapted from a popular Moldovian folk song.[1] In a settlement in Palestine. The original melting pot. In 1948, when the state of Israel was established, Hatikvah became the unofficial national anthem. In 2004, the K’nesset, the Israeli parliament, officially ratified it.

Hatikvah notwithstanding, it certainly was not the summer from hope. On the world scale, we begin with rockets raining down on Israel, and the resultant, on-going, war between Israel and Hamas, one which—no matter how you count the numbers—left thousands dead, hundreds of thousands traumatized, many of them children. Or turn to Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown—18 years old, about to start college—was gunned down by a policeman. Where his death is a loud reminder of a system of oppression against people of color, and especially African-American males, that snakes its way through our schools, courts, stores, and society.

Or anti-Semitism in France, Germany, Boston, San Francisco. Jews killed in Brussels, stores ransacked in Paris. People attacked here in America, the Goldene Medinah, in New York, in Los Angeles.

And that’s just one part of the news. Some of your minds are tuned to other issues, other places in the world, also deserving of our notice. Rising sea levels. Ukraine, Sudan, thousands of unaccompanied Central American children desperately trying to find a better life here in America.

And what of our own lives, hopes unfulfilled there? Jobs lost or never found, relationships ended, friends leaving DC, loved ones ill or dying. Each of us, no matter how sunny our dispositions or how perfect our social media posts, has our moment of darkness, when we worry that all hope is lost.

How can we have hope in a broken world?

To begin to unravel this puzzle, let us begin, obviously, with a prostitute named Rahab. We’re back a few thousand years, as the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Canaan after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Joshua, who has taken over as leader after Moses’ death, sends in two scouts—“go, look over the land,” he says. “Especially Jericho.” Clearly, “go, look over the land” instead means “go find a prostitute” so the men went directly to Rahab’s home, the text teaches, “and stayed there.”

Meanwhile, the Canaanites heard that there were Israelites at Rahab’s home. Soldiers knock on Rahab’s door to slaughter the Israelites, but she thinks fast. She hides the scouts and tells the soldiers that there are no Israelites in the home. The soldiers leave. In gratitude, the scouts promise that when the Israelite army invades Canaan, they will not touch Rahab or anyone in her family. All she has to do is tie tikvat chut ha-shani (a line of scarlet thread) outside the window, so the Israelites will know who she is. She and her family were saved.

Those of you who speak Hebrew will have already noticed that the Hebrew word “tikvat,” here meaning “line” of cord, is the same word as “tikvah”, meaning hope.

If we are looking for one image, then, of where to find hope, it is in the kav, the thin red line, a small opening in the midst of a difficult situation. It is what saved Rahab and her family. Not just sitting back and waiting for God to provide, but instead, in the midst of fear or uncertainty, anger or apathy, finding an opening for courage: to move on and consciously decide that no matter what happens, you are not going to wait for the end but instead look toward and help create a new future. Some of you have heard me teach that in Judaism, many verbs are not ends unto themselves, but require further action. Zachor, for instance, means not just “remember” but “remember so that”. Consider a new understanding: “tikvah” meaning not just “hope” but “hope—and then do.” Lo Samchinan Anisa, the Talmud teaches. We are not permitted to rely on a miracle. Hope requires ongoing action, even if it’s only a “kav”, a thread’s worth.

The root of the word “tikvah” is connected to another word: “mikvah”, the ritual bath that Jews, or people becoming Jews, immerse in for any number of reasons. If one way of thinking about hope is as a thread to grasp, another is thinking about it as holy waters all around, the possibility of rebirth. The image turns from grasping at strings to embracing and shielding us as we step into difficult moments. From hope as something private, individual, to something communal, the sum greater than its parts.

Kav hope—the hope of a thread—is important. It is what saved Rahab, after all. But since it only affected her and her family, it was not enough. True hope is not a solo endeavor; it is a communal one. It requires others around you who can pick you up when you’re lost.

Consider today’s Torah portion: God promises Abraham that both his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, will become great nations. But Abraham expels Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, from the compound, sending them into the desert. Hagar walks until she runs out of water. She loses all tikvah, all hope. She places her son under a tree then sits a small distance away, to await both of their deaths.

And then an angel arrives, to show her what was in front of her all along. It “opens Hagar’s eyes” so that she could see a well of water. She gave Ishmael water, and took for herself. They settle into a good life, and Ishmael grows up and began to build his nation.

Without her angel, the text teaches, Hagar would not have been able to go on. Sometimes we are the bearers of hope for our own selves, and sometimes we rely on others to bear the burden with or for us. It is no coincidence that Israel’s national anthem is an anthem of hope. It is no coincidence that the root word for hope has woven its way into other parts of the Hebrew language. Judaism is, arguably, the religion of hope and Jews are its people. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove speaks of this beautifully when he reminds us that

Judaism’s outstanding contribution to the landscape of religious sentiment is its contention that no matter what happened in the past, the best part of the narrative is yet to come. Every time a Jew prays, every time we recite the amidah, we return to the banks of the sea and stand on the cusp of redemption…Our very liturgy reminds us that you and I, each and every one of us, every single day, exist forever with the best part of our story in front of us.

Even as we look toward the future, though, we cannot forget the past. This past summer may seem like a long time ago for those of us who are not living in the Middle East, for those of us who walk the streets with white privilege. We may choose to engage hope by utilizing strategic amnesia. It’s certainly easy enough to do in this fast-paced world. But being part of the culture of hope means that we have to look backward in addition to forward, that we mine the lessons of the past to teach how to be hopeful in the future.

For when we look back to the summer has passed and the fall that is unfolding, it is easy to think that the world is self-destructing. And perhaps it is. Or perhaps in every generation there have been events—some more catastrophic than others—that made us feel hopeless. Certainly in each of our lives there have been moments when all hope seemed lost. And sometimes it was—for a moment. For hope to work, though, for it to continue to propel you forward, sometimes we need to shift the goal-posts a little bit. You cannot tell someone on hospice to “hope for a cure”. But you can say, “what is your hope for what lives on after you die?” Right now, we cannot hope for a perfect peace in Israel and Palestine, with open borders and exchange of ideas. But that does not mean that hope is lost. After the holiday, go onto youtube and listen to inmates at Bergen-Belsen singing the Hatikvah. And ask yourself how they, survivors of one of the worst moments in Jewish history, could have found that kav of hope.

See a thread of hope in Rambam hospital in Haifa, which is treating Gazans injured in the war. “Here [at Rambam] we see humans; we don’t see sides,” said Yazid Falah, the coordinator for the hospital’s Palestinian patients. “ At the end of the day, everyone is in the same boat.” See a thread of hope in the story of Mustafa, a Gazan who came to Seeds of Peace in Maine this summer so as “to share his suffering” with Israeli Jews he had never would have had the opportunity to meet. See a thread of hope in the fact that anti-Semitism in Germany is criticized by the vast majority of political leadership. See a thread of hope in Captain Ron Johnson standing in front of members of the Ferguson community, and saying simply “To the family of Mike Brown--I’m sorry.” Don’t let the bad in the world obscure the goodness that still surrounds us.

And don’t roll your eyes, please. DC is a city of cynics, and this room, filled will policy analysts and journalists, will be only too quick to let me know how meager, “may I have a little more, please?” this list seems. We know we’re in trouble when we’re grateful to the person who just states facts—thank you so much, Chancellor Merkel, for stating that anti-Semitism is bad, but we already knew that. In the first 13 days after Michael Brown was killed, at least 5 more unarmed African-American males were killed by police. (We don’t have the exact number because the vast majority of police departments don’t keep the data.)

And yet—if Jews have given anything to the world, it is the ongoing, against-all-odds and reason to the contrary, sense of hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, teaches that

to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.

Without hope, all we have left is despair. And as scholar Steven Katz writes, “Jews are, as Jews, forbidden to despair of redemption, or to become cynical about the world and humanity, for to submit to cynicism is to abdicate responsibility for the here and now and to deliver the future into the hands of the forces of evil.” Yes—there is evil in the world. Our job is not to ignore the evil but to lift up the kav—the small thread—of hope wherever we can.

The central prayer of the entire High Holy Day season is the unetaneh tokef, which David led us in singing a little while ago. It is, as much as anything else, a prayer of hope in times that threaten despair. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written/and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: /how many will pass away and how many will be born; / who will live and who will die…” and so on. We teeter on the edge of nihilism, each of us acknowledging that we could die at any moment, and then? And then, hope arrives. U’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa hag’zeyrah. With teshuva, with tefilah, with tzedakah, we can avert the decree. We have agency in even the darkest moments. Even just a kav.

We conclude as we began, with the Hatikvah, one of the few national anthems in the entire world written in the minor key. A song of pride. A song, unlike many world anthems, devoid of war or battle imagery. It is a song of hope for a world that we are a long way from realizing. A world of shalom, of peace and wholeness.

But the song has not been without controversy. Orthodox Jews object to one line, Arab-Israelis and their allies to a few others. Nothing is easy when it comes to the Middle East. But yet here we are, still moving forward, still choosing hope. Sometimes, instead of reality defining our beliefs, we must allow our beliefs to help define our reality. By choosing to embrace hope, we actually are better positioned to create the conditions for which we hope, and thus our hopes are more likely to be realized. Living in despair will guarantee that we remain in despair. Living in hope can help to justify our hope--because it gives us the strength to act.

Pessimists will tell you that "hope is not a strategy". In fact, hope IS a strategy--as long as the hope is coupled with action. In the year to come, may you allow your hope to spur you on. Hope for an improved relationship with family or friends, and move forward, one small step at a time, one text or lunch at a time, toward it. Hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and go and visit, learn peoples’ stories, donate to tzedakahs that support your goals. Hope for an end to injustice in America and call out racism when you see it, including—for those of us who are white—staying conscious of our own privilege and where it comes into play. Do it as individuals, do it as a community.

In a recent article, the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote of psalm 27, recited every day in the month before Rosh Hashana, which ends with the following words: “Put your hope in Adonai, be strong, and keep strong your heart!” Every single day, the entire month before Rosh Hashanah, we read this psalm, commanding us to hope. And then, we sound the shofar, commanding us to action. He writes,

This is a society of believers. Even those who don't believe in God tend to believe in the enduring mystery of Jewish survival.
The other morning while driving my 16-year-old son, Shachar, to school, I said: “Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem. But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors.”
“I think about that a lot,” he replied matter of factly.
That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew he would be able to survive here.
Hope comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is as big as the 18th Zionist Congress, in 1933, when Hatikvah was officially adopted as the Zionist movement’s national anthem. Or as big as the 1963 march on Washington, at which Martin Luther King gave his famous speech. Or as big as 300,000 people coming together in New York City for the People’s Climate March. Those are mikvah hope moments. And sometimes it is as small as a traffic jam in Jerusalem. Or a 12-year-old girl pitcher who throws 70 mph and ends up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Those are kav moments. And we need each and every one of them to survive. As we are awash in hope, we are strengthened by it. And then we sound the shofar, commanding us to action. It helps us keep strong our hearts. May we all turn our hearts toward that hope and work together for a better future.


Rosh Hashanah: It Always Sounds Better on Vinyl – Finding a Way into the Machzor, Rabbi Scott Perlo

It Always Sounds Better on Vinyl – Finding a Way into the Machzor
Rabbi Scott Perlo

I’m warning you, I’m going to sing.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
)In Jewish Youth Group I was told that they were( Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.

There’s something about this song. Something that made it stretch across the endless, precious hours of summer camp time. Something that makes singing along almost mandatory. Some of you were humming in your seats. Protest all you want; I know your secret, Washington, D.C.

In this song, music is metaphor - a metaphor for spiritual connection. This place, right here, - this is the sacred store, where we heard the music once before. For when these Days of Awe were created, they contained within them all that we were and all we hoped to be. And when we sang these prayers, their echoes rang to the depths of our souls.

But it's as much a metaphor for the collapse of that connection: the power and the grandeur and the glory of the old ways - they took the last train for the coast. It is the feeling that something has been lost, and that it can't seem to be recovered.

I’m going to use music as a metaphor too - a metaphor for the entire spiritual experience of the high holidays. When I say music, what I will mean is yes, the melodies themselves, but also the content of the prayers, their words and their ideas, and the quality of the experience of being here, whether engaging, whether disengaged, on the holiest days of the year.

And what I want to ask you is: when you come here, when you come to services on the holidays, when you walk into a spiritual space, when you stand here, does the music play for you? Does this spiritual experience play for you?

For some, the answer is literally yes. Those strains are stirring. They wake grandeur in the soul, and a sense of the anticipation of the majesty of the Days of Awe, as if one were preparing the house for a distinguished guest. Those sounds are the sounds of the expansiveness of the soul.

But not for everyone. Not for most. Have you come to the holidays yearning for a connection? Do you come hope to be moved? Yet is what you see people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening? People writing songs that voices never share. And no one dares disturb theקול דממה דקה[1] - the sound of silence.[2]

The hardest part for me is that, for all the noise, for many people the holidays are the sound of silence.

Is this you? Do you come here hoping that the jukebox will play, and that the record is an oldy-but-goody that’s as old as it was new, as if today, the world was created over again, as if [3]היום הרת העולם, today the world was born. Is what you find instead is boredom? A kind of forgetting in which each page indistinguishable from its neighbor? If you are bored on the holidays, if you have felt that they are empty for you, then this drash is for you.

Many people say that the problem with the holidays is that the music is too complicated, that the prayers are too long and too unfamiliar. But I’m not sure I buy it. For when we hear that song - that song that grabs us, the music that moves us - the effect is instantaneous. The first listen it’s intriguing, the second inspiring, and the third an old friend. And the problem with the holidays is that, these days, when so many of us hear the music, we say, “Not for me. Where is the music that moves my soul?”

My guess, though, is that when the holidays don’t speak to us, it’s because of a single problem, a single issue: God. The story of the holidays is about God, and not just God, but God sitting on a throne, judging us for our goodness and our wrongdoing, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked - affixing our destinies. And as they used to say in the business, that just won’t play in Peoria. Speaking personally, that is not a story in which I can believe.

There are a wealth of people who neither understand nor love nor have sympathy for a vengeful God. We have never been a “sinner in the hands of an angry God,” kind of religion, and to tell the rambler, and the gambler, and the backbiter that God’s gonna cut them down[4] - that is not a groove into which our needle falls. But, without a doubt, our ancestors believed that to each action there was a reward or a punishment, and that cheeseburgers brought on moral calamity perhaps far above their true effect.

As someone who keeps kosher, and Shabbat, and still believes that these actions are hugely important without incurring God’s wrath - a vengeful Rosh Hashanah has no place in my heart. It is an image, perhaps, whose time has passed.

Erasing an old image, however, does not eradicate a spiritual need. For there are questions that haunt me at night, questions about who I am, and what I’m doing; questions as to the purpose for which I was put here; questions about whether God exists and, if so, how to connect with my creator. How should I live? What is the meaning of my life?

And, if I were to do what every generation before me has done, I could redefine my understanding of what God is. Framed in the light of the desperate, essential search for meaning, the turntable slowly starts to spin. And the song, though scratchy when it starts, gains more and more fidelity. For in the Machzor, hiding in plain sight, are the strains that shake the soul. And what I want to offer are the ways that this book still gives insight into our condition and outlet to our desires and best wishes.

I doubt, somehow that my descriptions will match your rhythm. But the beauty of the Jewish spiritual experience is that interpretation of any piece of music is the province of the individual.

To begin with the obvious, there is in all of us the desire to change - to be better, to become better. For this is a deep motivation in my heart that I yearn to find strength in pain, and I will change my ways, and I’ll know my name as it's called again.[5]

But the problem isn’t just a matter of willpower, or of focus. For I don’t always know how to be good, what the right choice is, in this chaotic world. (EAGLES) It feels sometimes like we’re like sheep without a shepherd/we don’t know how to be alone/so we wander ‘round this desert/wind up following the wrong gods home.[6] שחתנו, תעבנו, תעינו, תעתענו[7]: We’ve messed things up, we’ve spoiled them, we’ve gone astray, worst of all - we’ve led others astray with us.

And somehow, things turn out opposite from the way they had been intended to be, opposite from the hopeful desires, different from the earnest plans. And we are years older, and we wonder just how we got here, what we did, what can still be done, considering? It is a painful thing to look around and see regret so firmly woven into everyday life. Painful to understand that to be an adult is just to be another child who’s grown old. And to know that if dreams were lightning, and thunder desire, this old house would have burned down a long time ago.[8]
אל תשליכנו לעת זקנה, ככלות כחנו אל תעזבנו![9] - Do not cast us off in old age; When our strength declines, do not forsake us!
[10]אבינו מלכנו, חננו ועננו, כי אין בנו מעשים - Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us, even though we do not have the merit. “Just give me one thing that I can hold onto, to believe in this livin’ is a hard way to go.”

But to wallow in deprecation and pain is an endeavor without merit. The way out of our predicament is to realize that everyone is in it together, and that compassion is the first step to transcending confusion - asking mercy for own flaws, displaying compassion for the same flaws in other people. רחמנא דעני לתבירי לבא, ענינא![11] Merciful one - who answers the broken-hearted - answer us too!

There is one way to transcend our own pain and our own frailties - by being of service to those who share them. We all have pain; we all have sorrow. We pray for the strength to say to another person, “when you’re not strong, lean on me.”[12]  ואנחנו כורעים ומשתחוים ומודים[13]- We will bend ourselves, we will lay ourselves down, like a bridge over troubled water,[14] when others need it, and we’ll be grateful for the opportunity.

For there isn’t a person here who is not searching for virtue, looking for a chance to be good, who wants to live, who wants to give, who’s been a miner for a heart of gold.”[15] ותשבוה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה[16] - And we know that returning, repenting, sincerity, prayer, charity - these things will take away the bitterness in our fate.

Remember back to the faith in goodness that we had when we were children, the faith that our parents had in our goodness. (PINK FLOYD) Remember when you were young, how you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond.

הבן יקיר לי אפרים, אם ילד שעשועי? Are you not my precious son, my beloved child?
על כן המו מעי לו, רחם ארחמנו, נואם ה'[17] My heart yearns for him -- the compassion that we have for our children, that our parents had for our goodness, we should, with the wisdom of whatever years we possess, fight to bring back to the world.

So we ask for forgiveness:  סלח לנו, מחל לנו, כפר לנו[18]- forgive us, pardon us, give us atonement. And we take responsibility for any wrong that we have done, and we put those wrongs aside, hoping for a future. For it’s possible that:
When the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.[19]
והביאותים אל הר קדשי - God will bring us all to the holy mountain,
ושמחתים בבית מקדשי - and bring us joy in the house of prayer.
עולותיכם וזבחיהם לרצון על מזבחי - All our offerings, all our sacrifices, will be wanted.
כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים[20] - For God’s house will again be called the house of prayer for everyone.

Said the Marahal of Prague - that God is One means that God is essence of simplicity. ה' הוא אחד - פשוט בתכלית הפשטיות[21]
Perhaps there is not a spirit in the sky,[22] but I believe that there is a River at the source of all things; a River that is not above us, but underlies us - a stream of pure holiness and simplicity; a stream that listens and is aware, a river which from it all things springs. Like all rivers, God’s river speaks and sings. The music of that River is justice...and injustice too; and the rushing sound of that River is love...and hatred; and its streams are streams of wisdom...and foolishness. But the goal is to learn to navigate that River’s course, to be patient enough to know the safe from the treacherous.. to chart our course through its ebbs and flows, and through its flood season and drought. From it we come, to it we return, and, as we live our lives, with it we are bound.

The salient feature of the holidays is this: for those of us who find ourselves lost upon the shores, on this day we go down to the River to pray[23], with our brothers and our sisters. We go to reconnect; we go to find our way again.

For me, the best part of this drash is that every line of it is stolen. It’s all pure theft; hopefully, though, theft of the best kind. So let me thank my victims and my inspirations. By my count that’s Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Mumford and Sons, the Eagles, John Prine, Bill Withers, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Norman Greenbaum, a Slave spiritual, and, in a moment, the Shakers. But what I ask you to see is that for every lyric comes a line from the Machzor, is preceded by it: from Unetaneh Tokef, and from the Confession on Yom Kippur. From Selichot, the forgiveness prayers and from Zichronot - the prayer of Memory in Rosh Hashanah.

Ultimately, the Machzor is the original medium. And everybody knows that it always sounds better on vinyl.

Instead of a divine superego, I pray to connect with the great Simplicity underneath it all, that links us all, that is at the heart of us all. God is simplicity. It is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free, it is a gift to come down where you ought to be.[24] עננו, זך וישר, עננו[25] - Answer us, that which is Straight and Pure, answer us. Master of Mercy, who answers the needy, and the humble in spirit, and the broken-hearted, answer us too. Help me find the meaning in which I am meant to take part. Help me find again the music for a life that matters.

[1] Unetaneh Tokef, The New Machzor p.282
[2] Simon and Garfunkel, "The Sound of Silence
[3] Rosh Hashanah Musaf, The New Machzor pp. 310, 320, 326
[4] Johnny Cash, "God's Gonna Cut You Down."
[5] Mumford and Sons, "The Cave"
[6] The Eagles, "Learn to Be Still"
[7] Ashamnu - the Confession, The New Machzor p.462
[8] John Prine, "Angel from Montgomery"
[9] Shma Koleinu - Hear Our Voice, The New Machzor p.458
[10] Avinu Malkeinu
[11] From Selichot - the Forgiveness Service
[12] Bill Withers, "Lean on Me"
[13] Aleinu
[14] Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
[15] Neil Young, "Heart of Gold"
[16] Unetaneh Tokef, The New Machzor p.282
[17] Zichronot - the Memory Prayer, Rosh Hashanah Musaf, The New Machzor, p. 314
[18] Al Chet - For The Sins, The New Machzor, p. 466
[19] The Beatles, "Let It Be"
[20] From Isaiah 56:7 - multiple citations in Machzor
[21] ספר גבורות השם - פרק ס"ז‏
[22] Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky
[23] Slave Spiritual
[24] Shaker Hymn
[25] Selichot