Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Hearing No - Kol Nidre, Rabbi Shira Stutman

I want to tell you the story of the first time that I remember hearing a big, strong, “no.”
I was in college. Of course, I had heard “no’s” before. From my parents, teachers,  friends. But this one was different.

As early as my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to run for President of the Jewish Student Union (which is what we called Hillel in those days). I waited until my junior year, working hours each week with a bunch of Jewish student groups, and then submitted my name for the ballot.
Given that it’s an election year in our country, and we have many political people in the congregation, let me tell you a little about the demographics of Columbia University undergrads in the early 1990s. There were a lot of Jews. Probably 1/3 of the population. It will not be surprising to learn that many of these Jews were not very involved in the JSU, and were uninterested in voting in the elections. Among those who were involved and interested, many were Orthodox. And even though I was pretty observant, I knew I wasn’t really one of them. I needed to reach outside the traditional constituency, get out the vote with those who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to participate.

I’m talking about the non-Jews, of course. There was no way I was going to get my less observant Jewish friends, “scarred” by years of Hebrew school or youth group,  to vote.  But non-Jews? They were game.  And it was totally legal, according to the JSU election by-laws. (Yes, there were by-laws.)
Apparently, it was legal but not kosher, and I got called into the JSU executive director’s office to be told that I was to stop encouraging non-Jews to vote. Which I did.
A night or two later, I was hanging out at a polling place with a friend who was volunteering. Another friend (“friend”) walked by and saw me standing within 150 feet of the polling place. Apparently that, too, was against the rules. I had not read them in their entirety.
I was called back into the ED’s office, and told by a panel of my peers that because of my two infractions, I had been kicked out of the elections for president. I pleaded with them, I cried. Ultimately, though, I was escorted from the ED’s office. As I crossed the threshold, and turned around to make one more point, the door closed quietly.
I can tell you the color of the stained rug underneath my feet, the shape of the mezuzah on the door, the scraped-up door-jam painted a dingy white. The door itself, with the JSU sign. Everything I had been working for 2.5 years was on one side of the door. I was on the other.
If I were to ask you--what was your first “no,” would you be able to tell me? The dream job you didn’t get, the relationship that disintegrated for reasons you can’t articulate even today, the loved one who passed away too young, too soon? The Yom Kippur liturgy, resonant with a gate open in front of us, but soon closing, coaxes us to acknowledge that these no’s come, that they come more often than we would like, and that they change the arc of our lives forever. The goal is to accept the “no.” But that does not happen in an instant. It happens over time.
We take as an example the entire book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses learns how to die.
A few chapters earlier, in the book of Numbers, we had read the story of the Israelites, thirsty in the desert. They had gathered to complain to Moses and Aaron, who brought the complaints to God. God tells Moses to speak to a certain rock, and it will pour out its water. The community and their livestock will drink.
Moses complies, but he’s for some reason he’s angry with the Israelites. He yells at them--calls them “rebels,” and instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it. The water comes out anyway; the people drink.

But, God, perhaps ironically, is furious with Moses and Aaron’s angry behavior, and punishes them.

“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites,” God says, “You will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
In other words, Moses, a man who has dedicated just about his entire adult life to bringing the Israelites out of slavery and through the desert, will die before he gets to the Promised Land. He will not get his reward.
There is an exquisite midrash called Petirat Moshe that narrates the story of Moses’ dying. He does not easily accept his fate.
When Moshe Rabbenu’s day to depart this world had arrived...Moses said, “Master of the Universe, allow me, and I will become a bird and fly in the air...or make me into a fish, and I will make my two arms like two fins, and my hair like scales, and I shall jump into the Jordan, and at least see the land.”

God says, “I can’t. I vowed that you wouldn’t enter the land. No.”

Moses: “Master of the Universe, lay me upon the clouds...that I might just see the land from above the Jordan.”

God: No.
Moses begs, pleads. Moses deserved to enter. God says no. This just happens sometimes.
In contemporary society, the “no’s” bombard us from all corners. Some are as poignant as Moses’ death; others are more akin to being kicked out of the elections-- traumatic in the moment, but over the span of a lifetime not overwhelming. We have more information than ever before about our own health, so can find out almost for certain if we carry one terminal gene or another. Someone swipes right or left on us without even knowing who we are. We try to bargain--

God, please heal my sister. No
Please--just make that little plus sign appear on the pregnancy test, I promise I’ll never ask for anything again. No.

God: Medical school. No.

God, I’m 45 years old and haven’t found my life partner. Just this. No.

God, I’ve been unemployed for longer than I care to acknowledge. Please. No.

When faced with the terminal “no,” we have a few options. American culture would have us avoid the pain and rejection by sublimating it into consumerism. A 21st-century Moses would be encouraged not to yearn to turn into a bird and fly over a country he wouldn’t inhabit in any case but instead to forget about the land of milk and honey and buy the iPhone 7.

Yom Kippur stands in stark contrast. We wear white, no leather, no jewelry--no retail therapy here. We actually list the different ways we can die--no pretending here. We hold two truths at the same time: on the one hand, acknowledging that we are all mortal, that life ultimately is out of our control, and at the same time that “teshuva, tefila, tzedakah make easier what has been decreed”-- we have a way forward. Yom Kippur invites us not to live in a fictional “happily ever after” world  but instead to  acknowledge, however reluctantly--the no will come for all of us, but we have control over how we live in the meantime.
That this acknowledgement is difficult, painful even, is an understatement. In fact, our brains are wired to experience rejection in the same way as we experience other pain.

When scientists placed people in functional MRI machines and asked them to recall a recent rejection, they discovered something amazing. The same areas of our brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why even small rejections hurt more than we think they should, because they elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain.

Even the “small” no of a new friend who doesn’t return your email is not nothing.

According to research from Case Western Reserve University, exposure to rejection led participants in a study to have an immediate drop in reasoning by 30% and in IQ by 25%. It was also determined that feelings of rejection led participants to become more aggressive and exhibit less self-control.

These physical reactions are only compounded by the self-recriminations that follow our rejection. While some of us have no problem experiencing compassion for the other, we have a much more finite amount of compassion for our own selves.  We berate ourselves with stories, only a few of which are factually accurate. Sometimes there is something that we said or did to make the “no” come about. Something as innocuous as not having prepped enough for an interview or as “insidious” as standing within 150 feet of a polling booth. Often, though, there is no reason. Either way, even as we must learn from our mistakes, to spend too much time blaming ourselves is hurtful at best. Invert the famous lesson from Rabbi Hillel: that which is hateful to others, do not do to yourself.

When the “no” arrives, unbidden, on the doorstep, we must first respond by granting ourselves permission to mourn.  Yom Kippur is not Simchat Torah, with its joyous dancing in the streets. There is a season for everything, Ecclesiastes teaches. And sometimes we need to give in to the sadness.
Bat-Galim Sha’ar is a mother whose only son, Gilad, was one of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the summer of 2014. He was 16, a student, on his way home for Shabbat dinner with his family.  Bat-Galim described what it was like to wait for eighteen days, not knowing whether her son was alive or dead, watching for the news, which, when it came, was as awful as it could be. Murdered.

She said recently,
[About this] statement we often hear telling us that we are strong.
I want to tell you a secret.
You can’t be strong in the face of death, of deep loss, with a huge hole in your heart.
So how can we go on?
We try to be flexible.
We try to learn how to be healed.
To remember that not everything is in our control.
Sometimes when there is a difficult wave of sorrow,
It is best to bend with the wave and feel the pain
And then get up and stand straight again.
But even that is not always enough.
To bend with the wave, to go through it, let it wash over you. If you try to stand tall in front of it, you’ll just get knocked over, anyway.
The meditation teacher Tara Brach talks about it as:

replacing the dark cloud of “no” with the expansive sky of a “yes” that has endless room for grouchiness and irritation. Quoting another teacher, she writes, “so walk with our heaviness, saying yes. Yes to the sadness, yes to the whispered longing. Yes to the fear. Love means setting aside walls, fences, and unlocking doors, and saying yes…”
Permit yourself sadness. The psalmist teaches, “tears last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” You can’t get to one without the other.

And allow yourself the anger. Says Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her legendary book on death and dying:

It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health-care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss.

I refuse to abandon “this is not fair!” to the ash-heap of childhood. Life is not fair. For some people it is even more unfair than for others.  

And then--and then, please, remember that you are not alone. You are connected to a community larger than anything you can imagine, a net that will hold you in times of pain as it does in times of joy. Maybe this is your family, maybe these are beloved friends. Maybe this is the Jewish community, which has withstood whatever you’re suffering from and much more, which asks that you take when you need it, only to pay it back when you don’t. Accompany those who are in pain, just as you deserve to expect to be accompanied in your time.

When we say the vidui, part of what we acknowledge is a shared responsibility for the ways that we have missed the mark this year. But what if we also, as in the Hasidic tradition, think of the hand knocking on the heart as not about self-flagellation but instead about breaking our heart wide open, to recognize that our not only are our sins more than one person can bear, but so too is our grief. When we open our hearts on Yom Kippur after a year filled with no’s, we invite--we ask--our neighbor to take a little bit of our pain, to make our hearts just a little bit lighter as we walk in the world. And I will do the same for you, we say.

In a world in which we are affixed to screens, alone in our studio apartments, living walled off from pain/grief of others, Yom Kippur calls us to take down those walls and to open up. We say kaddish not alone but in a minyan, a group of 10 or more Jews. The ancient rabbis understood that the nos we receive in life are simply too much to bear on our own.

So too with Moses. At the moment he is about to die, he calls out to God:
Master of the universe, remember that You revealed Yourself to me in the burning bush, remember that you lifted me up to the heavens.... Merciful and Compassionate One, don’t send me off…[alone].”

God: “I have accepted your prayer. I myself shall care for you and bury you.”

At his moment of death, Moses is not alone. Even more astounding, his executioner is also his guide, the source of his pain and accompanying him as a beloved. On our own, it’s just too much.
And what else? Once you allow yourself the sadness, once you have been held in community, figure out where the learning is. The door has been shut, and you have walked alone back to your Columbia dorm room to sit on the floor and weep. A week has passed, a month, a few months. It is time.
For what it’s worth, the JSU story continued, of course.  It involved a phone call from a reporter from the Columbia Daily Spectator, a late-night call to my boss the previous summer, who happened to be Congressman Henry Waxman for help navigating the press, a subsequent call to Congressman Waxman’s Chief of Staff Phil Schiliro (who recommended a “no comment” to the Spectator), lots of tears and recriminations, many bags of Peppridge Farms Goldfish crackers.

I found another Jewish student group to affiliate with, and the arc led from that moment to this moment in ways I could never have imagined. Some of you might have had the experience of not getting the job that you really wanted only to end up with one that was even better. In those moments, life seems to work out and make more sense.

But sometimes it never does. Sometimes we end up scarred, never whole again, a new normal. The acceptance that we feel is a reluctant one, tinged with bitterness.

It doesn’t mean that there’s not still something to learn. My father dying young has made me a better rabbi. A friend who was abused as a child is now a lawyer, specializing in abuse cases. A man who lost family members and every possession he had in Katrina’s floodwaters was able to make a better life for himself in Houston. All of us would give anything to undo what has been decreed, I know. But there are no take-backs.  So instead we, the remnants, clench our fists around what we have left. We hold the potential to grow from even the most traumatic experiences.
Moses dies at the end of the story, so his “no” is final in a different way from most of ours. Those of us here today, alive, stand on a precipice. In the year that has passed, life may not have gone the way we had anticipated. Some of the rejections were inconsequential when viewed through the lens of an entire year. But some still sting, still bend us over, breathless, with sadness. The door has been closed in our face.

But now we have the opportunity to turn around. To see the hallway in front of us, going where? We don’t know. But to take that next step forward anyway. Towards community, towards new opportunity, towards the unconditional love that flows from many different sources, if only you take it it. We have the opportunity to remember, each and every day: “No” does not always mean “the end.”

G’mar tov. May we all be sealed for a year of acceptance, healing, and abounding love.

What Am I Going to Do with My Life? Yom Kippur, Rabbi Shira Stutman

We were sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv, and talking about tattoos. There were about 15 of us, a group from Sixth & I’s annual Israel trip. One of the participants that year, Isaac Colon, owns a tattoo shop in Columbia Heights. We were talking about the business, and about tattoos in general.

“I could never get a tattoo,” said Amy Kurz. “I can’t imagine that when I was old, I’d still want anything that I got when I was young.”

Another, tattooed, participant responded: “A tattoo that you get when you’re 18? No one knows who they are at 18. But by 24, 25? You know exactly who you are.”

That has not been my lived experience. I’m 43 years old, and I’m still figuring it out. Am I spending my time well? Are my priorities in order? There’s a Mary Oliver poem called “The Summer Day,” which Julien Guttman read beautifully at Rosh Hashanah services, and which ends with an exquisite charge:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
A secret: This poem stresses me out. I know life is precious. And I’m fairly certain that I get only one shot at it.  Unlike Buddhists, Jews have never been big on reincarnation. We are, however, quite expert at second-guessing ourselves.  What if I don’t get it right?   

What is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?
What a Jewish question. We are a people of yearning and growth. The Jewish drive toward success  (“success”) is strong. “The world as it is is not the world as it could be” is perhaps one of our core mottos. We are the people who brought the world the labor movement, the neo-con movement, who stood as strong allies in the civil rights movement. We are not shy about making money (that’s the topic of another sermon), and use it to better the world and also for our own benefit. What does the Jewish mother ask her child at the end of a day of school? Not “did you have fun?” or “did you see your friends” but instead “did you ask a good question?” The most well-known Hebrew phrase in America right now is, arguably, tikkun olam, to heal the world. “Tikkun Olam -- it brings the community together and it helps repair the world.  It bridges differences that once looked unbridgeable.” President Barack Obama. It’s a heavy lift.  

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the quintessential holidays of growth. The goal of these holidays is to look inward, take stock, plan to do differently in the year to come. The shofar is played every morning at services for a full month before the holiday, a way to remind us that the clock is ticking, teshuva is waiting. As we stand and beat our chests last night and today, we acknowledge ancient sins and contemporary ones, as well:

Let us ask ourselves hard questions, For this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste In the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life Or were they dull and empty?  
The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
The unnecessary gibe: did we say it or hold it back?
Did we live by false values?
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves?
Did we live right, And if not, Then have we learned, and will we change?
Hayom! We call out, again and again, on Rosh Hashanah. Make that change--Today! We demand it of God, we demand it of ourselves. Change!

This is not only a Jewish challenge, of course. In contemporary, privileged America--the world that most of us in this room inhabit--there’s an incessant drive to “live your best life now!” (TM Pastor Joel Osteen.) Many of us have been raised with the understanding that we can do anything we set our minds to, but at the end of the day that causes more, not less, anxiety about what exactly we should be doing.  

We fill our days with busy-ness, much of which is work-related. In the words of Parker Palmer, quoting Thomas Merton:

There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of its innate violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work. It destroys the fruitfulness of his or her work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.

One would think that Parker, a life-long activist himself, would recognize how much still needs to be accomplished, and understand that we need be full-throttle in our work. But he does not, because after a while, without time for pause or reflection, the work becomes an end unto itself, separate from the people we are trying to help, divorced from new ideas or ways of thinking.

We are driven by our culture--Jewish or east coast upper-middle class--but also by fear. Are we enough without our achievements? I certainly don’t want to find out. We race ahead, trying desperately to leave the questions in the dust, but in the end we risk looking like Wile E. Coyote, running off the cliff but still in the air, feet moving as fast as they can go, nothing underneath him. We know what happens next.

At a certain point, when you realize you spend most of your time running to, you have to start to wonder what you’re running from. When my children were quite small--and even sometimes today--friends and I would guiltily confess that sometimes we were happy to get out of the house and go to work. Inside my house, there were so many feelings--all the feelings--and so many needs. My kids, my husband needed me. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that I need them, as well. When I leave the house, I don’t have to take the time to think about anyone’s needs.  As the activist Courtney Martin said, “emotions aren’t efficient.” At work, I can send an email, check items off my to-do list. If I forget to call someone back one day, I pick up the phone and call them back the next. I didn’t have to reflect on what it means that I forgot to call back. I get stuff done.

A lot has been written about why Americans take so few vacation days compared to the rest of the world--and even compared to the days they are due. One recent study revealed that last year, Americans forfeited 430 million vacations days due to them.

Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for…. overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs.

It’s not just our actual jobs that contribute to “overwork,” of course. There’s a lot of surrounding noise, as well. Technology has made it even harder to pause. We're addicted to the "dopamine hits" we get from our devices; when our phones are taken away, we go through withdrawal. The 24-hour news cycle, even television-on- demand contributes to our ability to stay “on” all the time.

We must remember, however, that the Jews are not only the people who brought the world 20% of its Nobel Laureates--we also brought the sabbatical. For six years, the Torah teaches, we are commanded to sow our land and gather its produce.  But in the seventh year, תִּשְׁמְטֶנָּה , ‘shmittah it’, release it...don’t plant, prune, or reap. Instead, gather everyone together, and study Torah. Six years we work, the seventh we release. We eat from whatever grows naturally from the ground. We take time for renewal.

An entire year in repose. Can you imagine how that would feel, being forced by law to stop? To sit in your thoughts, even the messy ones, to be able to get in tune with your own expectations of yourself, and not just the ones that others have of you? Freeing, perhaps, and terrifying, and boring, and centering. All the emotions, once again.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes beautifully about her own sabbatical year:
…[C]oming into a space like sabbatical was highly anxiety-provoking….It was hard to suddenly be outside of the professional identity and activity that give meaning and focus to my everyday life....I...spen[t] a lot of those initial days and weeks...assuming that whatever I was doing was not enough, not quite the right thing, not sufficient in some way.
I realized that I was simply depleted….
As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I felt both a sense of sadness, but also an amazing sense of relief. I took that realization of depletion...and offered it up as my prayer. This is all I have, I was saying, and this is all I can offer. And from that moment on I knew what my sabbatical was really about—it was about becoming renewed and replenished, on a level I hadn’t even been fully aware I needed.

In what ways are you depleted? Most of us won’t be able to take a year, but a day? Of course. Shabbat: six days a week we work, but on the seventh we cease. Not necessarily rest, by the way, which is the word that so many of us associate with Shabbat. Taking sabbatical/shabbat-type time, whether on Saturday or not, will not be easy. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is incredibly rigorous. Being in authentic conversation with family or loved ones is exhausting. Praying and meditating takes time and practice. It’s a set of muscles that have atrophied. (I use the word “atrophy” purposely, because we are born with these spiritual muscles; we just lose them over time.) But as any farmer can tell you, working the land without ever letting it rest decreases soil fertility, and increases problems with soil disease and insects. We need to re-learn the art of not working the land: growing nothing on purpose, and seeing what comes up anyway.

At the end of the book of Numbers, Moses lists each of the 42 locations the Israelites camped on the way from slavery to the promised land (ch 33). It doesn’t matter how long the Israelites were at each of these places, or whether something important happened there. They’re all included:

The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succot. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham….They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol. They set out from Pene-hahiroth and passed through the sea into the wilderness; and they made a three-days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and encamped at Marah. They set out from Marah and came to Elim.
And so on. Does it bore you, this list? They move, they pause. They move, they pause. Life happens in which part exactly? In the movement or in the encampment? We need them both.

As much as I hate to say it, I now understand why people get tattoos. Because when you put an image on your body, a series of images, they are not meant to be something that you love as much when you’re 45 as you did when you’re 25. They’re meant to represent a moment in time. We get a tattoo (you get a tattoo) not as a way of saying “this is who I am” but instead “this is who I am right now.” It’s a series of images, a series of right places.

But in order for the images to stand out, you need to see the natural skin in between. If we gave ourselves a tattoo to mark every moment, eventually we'd just have skin the color of ink. We’d lose all the meaning. The achievement-oriented moments need to be balanced by the reflective ones.

A midrash teaches that the Torah is “black fire [written] on white fire,”  “eish shahor al gabei eish lavan.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1).
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook elaborates on this idea: “When we think about a Torah scroll, we usually only consider the letters themselves, written in black ink. Yet, the Talmud (Menachot 29a) rules that every letter in a Torah scroll must be completely surrounded by parchment…. In other words, the white parchment around the letters is an integral part of the Torah; without it, the Torah scroll is disqualified. In fact, the white space is a higher form of Torah. It is …a sublime, hidden Torah that cannot be read in the usual manner.”
In our contemporary lives, we understand the importance of the black fire, but have been tricked into believing that the white fire is nothing more than empty space. But the world was not meant to be lived this way, all one element without its balance. When we refuse to get off the achievement treadmill, we miss the “hidden torah.” But that’s precisely the torah that we need, both because it deepens our relationships with ourselves and our loved ones and because it informs our work.

In the year to come, may we all embrace this most Jewish of tensions: On the one hand--grow. Evolve in your profession, whether at this job or the next one. Work for justice. Make money. Strive.

On the other hand, just lie fallow and see what grows. Do it on Shabbat, the built-in pause button in the Jewish calendar. Or do it on vacation--and take your vacation. Or just stay off your phone at meals with others or on the metro. Be with family even when it’s messy. Pray. Meditate.

Mary Oliver’s poem ends with that line about the one wild, precious life, but before it are lines that maybe we need to hear just as much:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
When is the last time we strolled through the fields all day? Be like Mary Oliver, idle and blessed at the same time.
May our lives unfold like the tattoos that too many of you have, a sleeve of black fire on white fire, of setting out and encamping in the wilderness. Of discerning not only where you’re taking your life, but where your life is taking you.
Gmar tov.

How to Have Empathy When the World Is on Fire - Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Shira Stutman

This past summer, my family spent a week rafting the middle fork of the Salmon river in Idaho. One morning, we unexpectedly found ourselves staring down-river into a forest fire. When our guides saw what was coming, they pulled us aside and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to crack open a six-pack of calm, and then paddle like there’s a python behind us. Stay in the middle of the river. Go.” (River guides actually talk like that.)
That’s what we did. We paddled through this fire--trees burning on the banks on the left and the right side of us, brush aflame, branches crackling off trees and falling into the water. It was only a few minutes, but felt like forever.
And then it was over. “It’s cool now,” the guides said. “As you were.”
So after paddling through a fire, we went back to talking about the upcoming elections. Which, in retrospect, was quite apropos.
This summer, this past year, has in some ways felt like a world on fire. Just when we thought we couldn’t understand each other any less, we couldn’t disdain each other any more; just when we thought that the other side couldn’t be even more of a basket of deplorables: here we are. Our country feels frayed not just at the edges but damaged at its very core. From unjustified and unbelievable police killings  of unarmed black men to painting Muslims or Hispanics as terrorists or degenerates; from the surfacing of anti-Semitism in our cities and on our college campuses to the demonizing of Israel seemingly everywhere; from terrorism on our shores to the despair and rage of poor Americans whose burdens continue to increase. There’s a metaphorical forest fire raging, whole communities aflame with hatred, bigotry, anger. If we want to quell the fire, something needs to change.
Over dinner in camp, the night after we passed through the forest fire, our guides taught us about what it takes for a fire to erupt. Did you know, they said, that fire can travel slowly, underground, for weeks, jumping from root to root, before it rises above ground? Technology is being devised to sense when the pressure is building underground, so as to avoid a full-fledged fire.
When it comes to humankind, of course, we already have the technology to avoid a conflagration: it’s called empathy (or its more simple form: basic understanding of the other). In this room this morning, most of us can articulate whether we’re Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative. Chances are good we’ve even given thought to our perspective. But as we face this historic election and the years that will come after it, I want to propose a different way of slicing the pie: are you someone who is committed to engaging with people who see the world differently than you do, or are you more interested in circling the wagons, and going to battle?  
We do not know each other anymore. Some of us in this room have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against people of color. And we should continue to do so. But how many have close relationships with police officers? Have had difficult conversations about implicit bias--theirs and ours--have listened to their real-life stories, have argued for justice? How many sit primly in our homes, believing that whole regions of our country are filled with uneducated ignoramuses, but don’t actually know anyone who grew up and still lives in those areas? This time last year, just about every single person I knew, every journalist I respected, would never have guessed who one of our presidential nominees would be. If the current election cycle is teaching us anything, it’s that we need to be in relationship with more people who are not us. There is too much at stake for us to continue to silo ourselves.
To state the obvious: no people in the universe is (at least in theory) better prepared to bring back the art of difficult conversation than the Jews. Two thousand years ago, we were divided into different groups called the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes. The groups hated each other, couldn’t speak with each other, were embarrassed of the views that the other held. This hatred led, our tradition teaches, to the destruction of the second Temple and the Jewish exile to Babylonia. From the ashes of exile, however, a new group grew, one that would only admit other members if they learned the rules of engagement and agreed to disagree with each other. This group of people was called “the rabbis.” Together, the rabbis created a series of books called “The Talmud,” which contains 5,000 arguments, only 50 of which were resolved. One percent. It turns out that the rabbis’ goal was not to come to resolution but to be in conversation. To prove their own points, true, but to hear the other’s, as well. They honed the art of conversation with sharp questions, curiosity, and a drive for truth.
But note--these rabbis’ arguments didn’t last a week, or a month, or even a year. When we read a page of Talmud, and witnessing Rabba arguing a point with Rava, remember that they lived two generations apart from each other. These arguments continued over a life-time and beyond. Even underground, fires take weeks to start; they can’t be smothered in an hour.
For many years, our guides taught us, the forest service thought that the way to stop forest fires was to clear away the brush underneath the trees. We have learned over the years, however, that we need to permit small-scale forest fires in order to avoid the larger conflagrations. This is true for humans as well--we need to allow the our difficult conversations to burn, just enough, so as to avoid the explosion. But we’re afraid. We’re worried about being called a racist so we say nothing about race. We’re worried that we don’t know enough so we shy away from rigorous intellectual discourse. We let our fear get in the way of our learning, get in the way of moving conversations forward. And we are often too invested in being right to leave open the possibility of truth that lives outside of us, as uncomfortable as that may be.  
This past year, Sixth & I brought Resetting the Table, an organization dedicated to helping people have productive conversations about Israel and the Palestinian territories, to run a pilot workshop with 12 Sixth & I’ers. The goal was to speak about the conflict and learn more about the history, both from the Israeli and the Palestinian perspective.
The conversation was difficult. Some people knew more, some knew less--and some knew less than they thought they knew. Some were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and their personal family history of the powerlessness of European Jewry informs every opinion they have about Israel’s need to protect itself.  Some were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and their personal family history of the powerlessness of European Jewry informs every opinion they have about the oppression of the Palestinians.  
After four weeks of talking, we solved the entire conflict.
That’s a lie. But after one week of learning how to listen, then three weeks of discussion we created a space for thoughtful disagreement, constructive learning, and empathic listening. We  took a tentative step--an inch--forward. It was exhausting (and infuriating, and enervating, and inspiring) to listen to each other. This process takes much longer than writing an article for the Huffington Post or going to a protest. I just don’t know another way. We no longer have the luxury of retreating to our own corners while the world burns around us.
On festivals that occur on weekdays—including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and on Shabbat afternoon we add a special line to the service for taking out the Torah. It comes from the Psalms (69:14) and reads, in Hebrew: “Va’ani T’filati L’cha Adonai Eit Ratzon, Elohim B’rav chasdecha, aneyni be’emet yishecha.” “I offer my prayer to you, Adonai, at this time of favor, God in your great mercy; answer me with your saving truth.” Often, as today, it is sung three times. We also say this line, by the way, in the Mah Tovu prayer at the beginning of services. Clearly it is an important one.
But why? What do we mean by an “Eit Ratzon,” a “time of favor?” Most often it’s understood as a time when God is especially attentive to humans. In the ancient tradition, these would have been understood as transition periods (from one season to another as in the festivals, from Shabbat back to the rest of the week, to the beginning of services) were assumed to require divine approval.[1]
We too, in this society, can see ourselves in a transitional moment. In the words of Krista Tippett,
...We are struggling, collectively, with divisions of race and income and class that are not new but are freshly anguishing. Here’s what is new: a surfacing of grief. It’s not a universal reckoning, but it’s a widespread awareness that the healing stories we’ve told ourselves collectively are far less than complete. There’s a bewilderment in the American air--both frustrating and refreshing for its lack of answers. We don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors--to address the ways in which our well-being may be oblivious to theirs or harming theirs. We don’t know how to reach out or what to say if we did. But we don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to live this way.
The eit ratzon--the period of transition--it could be right now. It is difficult to imagine, but it is possible: a world in which we take in each other’s stories, even when we wholeheartedly disagree, in which we judge individual opinions but not individual people. That is the world that we must bring in fits and starts.
And--and, at the same time, even as we endeavor to engage across difference, we must also be clear that morality is not relative, that our values are real and important. Our job is not to agree with the theoretical other who thinks that Muslims should be forbidden to enter America but instead to be curious about why she came to that conclusion, to be thoughtful about your response, to continue the conversation, to find the areas of overlap (“You’re scared of terrorism? I’m scared of terrorism, too.”), to tease out areas of disagreement. We must also acknowledge that there are those who will never be open to conversation, who live with hatred in their hearts, in sadness and alienation. These people, like the Israelites who left Egypt but never made it to the promised land, may live the rest of their lives in this broken mentality. They may never change, and, like the Israelites, may die in the desert.
But we, in this room? We have a choice.
When we have discretionary time, it is understandable to want to spend it with people who are like us. It’s easy, it’s comfortable. We curate our lives to only be around people like our own selves. It’s like we’ve consciously put ourselves into our own Truman Show. We dread difficult conversations and actively work to avoid them. Who wants to spend time at Thanksgiving dinner with Aunt Jane’s boyfriend, who thinks that immigrants are the root cause of America’s ills? Who wants to discuss politics with that colleague with the “Obama don’t take my assault rifles” bumper sticker? This year, though, I beg you to see these conversations not only as a burden but also as a civic obligation. Find those hard-won moments of holiness, when we make the affirmative decision not to “live out our inherited predispositions of team aggression against our fellow human beings.” When we try to find the places where our truths overlap even though our facts don’t; our facts overlap even if our truths don’t. When we realize that police officers are not, by definition, the enemy. That poor people are not, by definition, the enemy--including people in Ward 8 and in Appalachia. People of different races are not the enemy. People voting for the other candidates are not, by definition, the enemy. Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, people who support BDS or Israeli settlement expansion--they are not, by definition, the enemy. If we want America  to continue to move towards justice, and not to burn up in flames, we have no choice. Make 5777 an eit ratzon, an auspicious time of getting to know the other.
The election will be here before we know it. For the next few weeks, perhaps, in our rafts as we dash between the flames, we need to paddle like there’s a python behind us and fight for the soul of America as the country we know it can be. Join Sixth & I this Sunday as we register Virginia voters, or find your own voter registration drive. Make sure that people who are newly registered understand what forms of identification they need to bring with them to the polls. Join Sixth & I on election day, as well, as we help to get out the vote.
At the same time, however, please keep in mind: right now we are paddling through a fire, but we are also in the middle of a river that has flowed for thousands of miles behind us, and will continue to flow for thousands of miles beyond, as well. May we also crack open a six-pack of calm and model the ancient Jewish art of nuanced, intellectual, empathic argument. Listen to each other’s stories. Start difficult conversations. It might be the most patriotic thing you ever do.
May we all be signed and sealed for a year filled with tough conversations, unexpected allies, and eit ratzon--auspicious times of connection. Shanah tova.