Fences.

One enters the exhibits of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the  fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.

Put to the test.

A word of Torah.

This week’s Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah – “the life of Sarah” – but the phrase comes from the first few words of the portion where we learn of Sarah’s death.

Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Gen. 23:1-2)

It’s an abrupt announcement. No mention of “ripe old age” or being “gathered to one’s kin.” In fact, the lengthy negotiation to purchase a burial plot that follows seems to suggest that Abraham hadn’t made any plans or preparations for this moment; that he hadn’t seen it coming. The text, in its cryptic way, gives the sense that something sudden, perhaps tragic, happened to cause Sarah’s death. But what? There’s no indication in the verses that follow, so commentators have suggested we look to the verses before this brief summation of Sarah’s life. And what happened there, in the last chapter of last week’s Torah portion, the chapter immediately preceding this one?

God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Gen. 22:1-2)

And Abraham did as God had instructed.

Perhaps the shock of God’s instruction was enough to do Sarah in. Or the mere thought of life without Isaac was enough to put her under. Or she hadn’t gotten word that No, no – God didn’t actually make him go through with it.

Or, perhaps, Sarah understood, even better than we do, the true nature of God’s test – and she didn’t like the result.

Generally, when we read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, we read it as a test of faith – one which Abraham would either pass or fail. Did he have enough courage to follow God’s instruction; enough confidence to see it through; enough trust to know that, whatever God had in mind, it would be for the best?

But what if it wasn’t a pass/fail exam? What if there were no right and wrong answers? What if the Akeidah was more like a Myers Briggs test, if you will – something designed to learn about Abraham’s personality and character? After all, to this point there has been conflicting data.

The first time God called to Abraham (then Abram) – saying, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” – Abraham didn’t say a word. He just packed up and went. A man of incredible faith.

But a later time, when God told Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did speak up. “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” he asked. “What if there should be 50 innocents within the city… 45… 40… 30… 20… 10? Will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent who are in it?” Then Abraham seemed to be an advocate, a man of principled, courageous action.

So God devises a test – again, not pass or fail. He simply creates a scenario, using the most dire of circumstances, to see how Abraham will respond and reveal the truth of his character. Is he a rule follower, an abiding believer, a devout optimist? Or is he a man of action, a principled protector, a moral resister? And, when push comes to shove, at Abraham’s core, we learn – as God does – that he more strongly personifies the former, a man of strong and unwavering faith.

The majority of the rabbis of our tradition – in ancient, medieval and even modern times – celebrated Abraham for his response; put him on a pedestal for it. Sarah, some might say, despaired because of it, and it sent her to her grave.

We do best to remember that both are legitimate responses – God would have upheld the covenant with Abraham either way. God would have loved him no matter what.

Like Abraham, we face dire and alarming circumstances today. White supremacism has been given space and a platform in a federal building. Incidents of antisemitism are more numerous than they’ve been at any time since the 1930s. Individuals who have championed discrimination against the LGBT community are moving into positions of increasing power. The science that tells us we have a closing window to tend to our planet is being undermined and dismissed. There is actual talk of registries, lock ups and deportations.

No matter your ideology, no matter your party, no matter your vote in this or any election – these are the facts on the ground. And let’s be clear: This is a test – not the handiwork of God, the result of our own democracy. Don’t we feel like we’re being tested? If we lived in Abraham’s time, we might be hearing: “Americans, take your country, the one for whom you’ve fought and labored, the land that you love, and let its ideals of freedom and equality commingle with discrimination and intolerance.”

How do we respond?

There are those who are proving themselves, like Abraham, to be individuals of faith – in this case in the institutions and checks and balances of democracy. Though they may be as alarmed as Abraham must have been, their attitude is a similar “wait and see,” putting one foot in front of the other, all the while holding abiding trust that their worst fears can’t possibly be realized. Some of these individuals are leading voices of our times – leaders of government, the faith community, the media. They are trying to calm our fears, while also reminding us that participation in democracy is not a once-every-four-years proposition. They are endeavoring, where possible, to work with new leadership “from the inside;” to influence platform and policy in quiet, traditional ways. Theirs is a legitimate response.

Others feel called to action. Perhaps they see Sarah as their spiritual ancestor – or Abraham, in his Sodom and Gomorrah days. They hear the Talmud’s instruction (in Shabbat 54b):

If one can protest the misdeeds of his or her household, yet does not, the person becomes guilty with them. If a person can protest the misdeeds of one’s townspeople and does not, the person is guilty with them. If one can protest the misdeeds of the entire world and does not, that person is guilty with them.

These individuals follow the banner of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, whose director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, declared:

In the face of polarization, we will build bridges. We will be a religious movement of resistance – not against a party or administration, but for the enduring values that guide us: inclusivity, justice and compassion. We will resist the hatred against women, minorities, Muslims and Jews that this election has exposed. And we will resist the politics of division, bigotry and hate.

This too is a valid response and those who are proving themselves to be individuals of principled action and resistance must feel empowered to pursue their core strengths, as well.

Because here’s what can’t happen: We can’t, like Sarah, allow ourselves to despair over the different responses of others. We must remember that there is no right or wrong answer to the test. For the truth is, in order to ensure that America lives up to its highest ideals – that the voices of bigotry don’t drown out the voices of brotherhood, that the hatred that has lived on the fringes of our country doesn’t find a home in its mainstream – in order to do that we will need all of our strengths and all of our approaches mobilized as one.

I don’t think it’s any great secret that I count myself in Sarah’s activist camp. As we heard in the statement by Rabbi Pesner, this is generally where the Reform Movement as a whole tends to be. I am a product of this movement and our congregation is an historic and leading member. So I want to take a few minutes to share some basic ways in which those of you who may feel similarly inclined can take active steps to engage in resistance to that which threatens the enduring values we believe are at the core of both faith and our country.

First, find organizational voices you can trust. For me, these have been the Religious Action Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Anti-Defamation League, among others. Listen to their voices; pay attention when they sound an alarm; follow their instructions when an email or phone call or participation in a rally can make a difference. With the Religious Action Center (the RAC), for instance, you can sign up for weekly summaries or legislative alerts around specific issues about which you care the most, from the Environment to Civil Rights & Liberties to Economic Justice. The ADL and SPLC provide excellent guidelines for responding to specific incidents and concerns as they arise.

Organizations like these help to give us confidence and strength, knowing that, by joining a national effort, our voice for inclusivity and justice is being amplified and directed toward where it can have the most impact. So consider financially supporting the organizations whose work represents the kind of effort and progress you want to see in our country, as well. I’m not usually in the habit of making gift suggestions, but I can tell you that in our family this year, we’ve decided to forgo traditional Hanukkah gifts for the adults in favor of donations to the organizations to whom we’re turning for guidance and empowerment. It’s a small act, but a meaningful one.

Second, be judicious about the amount of time you spend on social media, but I would encourage you not to turn away from it completely. Yes, there are enough news articles, videos and updates to sink your spirit each and every day. But this is also where stories of hope and encouragement await, as well. For instance, last week, a Georgia lawmaker withdrew a pre-filed bill in that state’s House of Representatives that would have restricted certain types of religious headwear to be worn when driving or posing for a driver’s license photo. Why the withdrawal? Because of letters and phone calls and organized public outcry. Yes, social media reminds us – each and every time we consult it these days – of the tremendous amount of work to be done. But it also strengthens and encourages us – like with the stories exchanged on Pantsuit Nation and elsewhere – of the incredible commitment and resolve that exists in our country to roll up our sleeves and get to it.

So listen to your spirit. Are you losing your focus as to what values are being threatened, what policies need to be resisted? Then read those voices you’ve come to trust that can explain the dangers and point you toward action. Are you despairing of ways to make a difference, searching for rays of hope? Then seek out the stories that shine a light on success. Learn from their example and set yourself to following in their footsteps.

So non-profit organizations and social media can provide some guidance in these difficult times. But so can your gut. My third piece of advice? Listen to it. Remember the lessons of this week’s Torah portion and last week’s – there is no right or wrong response to this test; we’re learning about ourselves as we go.

If you hear of a petition or letter writing campaign that speaks to you, that affirmatively makes a statement you want to make, sign it. If you learn of a rally or protest whose message resonates with you, participate in it. Don’t worry about those who say it won’t make a difference or there are better ways of getting your point across. We aren’t dealing with either/or tactics. Unlike the election, you’ll have more than one chance to use your voice.

For my part, as one of the rabbis of this congregation, I am committed to following the recommendations and guidance of the Reform movement – namely the lay and professional leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism, Commission on Social Action, and the Religious Action Center. When they issue statements and encourage us to reach out to our elected officials, I will share their communications on Facebook. When they vouch for the messaging of marches and protests – as they did with America’s Journey for Justice two summers ago – I will work with our congregation’s leadership to coordinate our participation. The majority of our congregation may decline to participate; it may be only a handful of members who do take an active role. But, increasingly, members of our congregation – and the community at large – are looking to KKBE for ways in which they can engage in moral resistance and activism. I am committed to helping those individuals connect their civic engagement with their religious engagement, and, in doing so, strengthen their relationships with fellow members of their community, as well.

The Torah teaches: “God put Abraham to the test.” Many generations – and perhaps Abraham himself – thought the test was a pass/fail. Sarah understood there could be multiple responses, but felt one was morally superior to another. We understand that there are multiple responses, and that all are legitimate and needed. And though we may differ in our actions, we are united in our values and wishes.

In the words of our siddur:

O Guardian of life and liberty,

may our nation always merit Your protection.

Teach us to give thanks for what we have

by sharing it with those who are in need.

Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,

and alert to the care of the earth.

May we never be lazy in the work of peace;

may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals.

Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance;

may they govern with justice and compassion.

Help us all to appreciate one another,

and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.

May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,

and our country be sound in body and spirit.

And let us say: Amen.

Reassurance.

It’s what I’m being asked to give today. It’s what I’ve been searching and seeking myself. Were that I could – but, unfortunately, it’s not mine to give.

I voted for Hillary Clinton. I cast my vote as a vote against bigotry, hatred and fear. I cast my vote to assure my son that the talk on the elementary school playground – that if Trump were elected president, our Jewish family and that of his Asian friend would have to leave the country – could never prove true. I cast my vote to assuage the fears and affirm the rights of every American – LGBTQ, physically or mentally challenged, Muslim, African-American, Hispanic – to safety and security in this country. I cast my vote to declare that demeaning women, much less assaulting them, is never OK. I cast my vote because, more than any other issue, the affirmation of these values was the most important factor.

Apparently others, many others, felt differently. They – perhaps you – cast their vote out of frustration with our government, dislike of Clinton’s policies, agreement with Trump’s trade strategy, concern about the Supreme Court. The key to reconciliation in this country will be to recognize that politics are multi-faceted; a whole array of choices gets distilled down to two (or three) candidates, and everyone must set their own priorities.

Let me state unequivocally: A vote for Trump does not need to be a vote for racism, bigotry, or extremism. (And we don’t need to hear why you cast your vote as you did; no judgment, no shaming.) But we do need to know: How will you work to assure that it wasn’t? How can we, together, make a loud, definitive statement that, whoever won yesterday, love and respect did not lose?

Those who cast your vote for Trump, please – we look to you for reassurance. Yesterday you told us who you wanted to be president. Today, and every day for the next four years, let’s be clear about the values we expect him to uphold.

Repetition.

“Hafoch ba v’hafoch ba, d’kula ba – Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” says the most awesomely named rabbi of Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag. Of course, he’s referring to Torah – the Five Books of Moses – which represent but a sliver of the canon and library of Jewish literature. Yet despite the wealth of material available for reflection and study, every year on Simchat Torah we return back to the beginning and start all over again.  The same Five Books. The same words. Again.

Why?

This afternoon Aaron and I took a walk through the historic district of Charleston. In six and a half years, we’ve covered a lot of the territory downtown. And yet every time we venture through these gorgeous streets, it seems we see something we’ve never seen before – a block we had managed to circumnavigate; a new view out over the water; a previously unnoticed garden, alleyway or piazza.

I suppose, given enough time over enough years, we could cover all of the historic terrain in our town. It’s a finite amount of real estate, coverable on foot. And not much changes – there’s an active and strong Board of Architectural Review to see to that. At the intersections of East Bay and Elliott, Tradd and Church, homes appear much as they did hundreds of years ago; some streets still “paved” with cobblestones, others only accessible by foot.

The streets we explore don’t change – but we do. And that’s the intersection where meaning truly resides.

That’s why we go back again and again and again.

Plan B

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

This is not the sermon I was to have given. That sermon had formulated itself in response to current events throughout the summer. It was, if I do say so myself, thought-provoking and spiritual – and, most importantly, well on its way to being written. But the relevance of that sermon seemed to deteriorate as Hurricane Matthew intensified, and essentially flew out the window this past week before it was boarded up.

So that sermon became Plan A. This sermon is Plan B.

Had you told me last week I would take a road trip between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I would have laughed. There’s never a road trip between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is Go Time for rabbis – our Super Bowl, World Series and Election Day all wrapped up into one. The plan for the intermediary Days of Awe is always to review the mechanics of Rosh Hashanah and make the necessary tweaks for Yom Kippur; polish up sermons and other remarks; review cues and choreography. There are Shabbat Shuva services to lead, Tashlich rituals to conduct, and cemetery memorials to hold. But Plan A wasn’t happening this year. Instead it’s become a good opportunity, for all of us, to reflect on embracing Plan B.

Radio personality Ira Glass asked a group with whom he was speaking if they remembered their vision for their lives when they first reached adulthood – their Plan A. “How many of you are still on Plan A?” he asked.  Only one person, the youngest in the room, raised her hand.  The rest of the audience laughed. “Plan B?” they said, “What about Plan C and D and F?”

Jewish law and tradition, it turns out, is moderately obsessed with Plan B.

We’re supposed to recite Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after a meal, for instance, when we’re done eating. Pretty simple and straightforward. Yet, the blessing is really a series of blessings, and it’s pretty long. What if you’re in a place of danger? What if you’re not sure you ate enough to warrant saying it? What if you don’t have the words with you and don’t know them by heart? What should you do?

We’re supposed to recite the Sh’moneh Esrei, the central prayers of a worship service that constitute the T’filah, without interruption. But what if someone comes up to you needing guidance on where we’re at in the service, or how to stamp their ticket for the parking garage? Or someone you haven’t seen in a long time taps you on the shoulder? Or a person of prominence in the community asks how you’re doing? What should you do?

There are precise instructions for how to clear the chametz out of one’s house before Passover – searching the nooks and crannies of your home by candlelight, collecting even the most minuscule of crumbs with the brush of a feather. But what if you’ve gone through all of that work, and then you see a mouse enter your home trailing crumbs of who-knows-what from God-knows-where? Or part of the building collapses before you’ve had a chance to clean it? Or you planned to be back home from a trip in time, but camels or thieves slowed you down? What should you do?

These and many, many more are the Plan B scenarios that have consumed rabbinic imagination throughout the generations. If it weren’t for Plan B, the Talmud would be the size of a pocket guide rather than the many volumes of an encyclopedia.

The rabbis get it: Plan B is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we don’t plan at all. The amazing thing is how smoothly things generally do go. Our liturgy reminds us of this every morning.N’kavim n’kavim, chalulim chalulim we pray – the rhythm and repetition of the Hebrew underscoring the amazing dependability of creation:

“Blessed are You, Holy One, who has formed the human body with wisdom – an intricate network of channels, vessels, and openings. This wondrous structure, and the flow of life within us, allows us to stand before You.”

Or in our new prayer books:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”

Or that less than 24 hours after the evacuation ended here in Charleston, Starbucks was back up and running.

So we make our arrangements for Plan A. We dream and formulate and strategize. But we remain flexible. And if Plan B is called for we pivot, and adjust, and – like that great language on our GPS – recalculate our route. We adapt and accommodate.

Yet sometimes Plan B is far more than an inconvenience or hassle. Sometimes Plan B is heart-wrenching.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive known for encouraging women to “lean in,” lost her husband suddenly and tragically at the age of 47. At the conclusion of Sh’loshim, the first thirty days of mourning, she reflected on her loss publicly with deep, raw emotion.

“I think when tragedy occurs,” she wrote, “it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

“But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning. …

“I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children. …

“I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the pants off option B.”

“Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the pants off of option B. [But] even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A.”

We can’t always greet Plan B cheerfully. In fact, even as we’re walking down its path we might be mumbling to ourselves – or screaming to the world – this sucks. But, as Sandberg reflects, Plan B is the path of life. It’s the implementation of the all-important imperative we will hear in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading to choose life.

And the fact is that, even under the most difficult of circumstances, there can be great beauty in Plan B. As friends helped us prepare our home for the storm a week ago, as neighbors checked in with one another and stopped to exchange cell phone numbers as we walked our dogs up and down the street, our son told us: “I like our neighborhood right now. It feels like a family.”

Sebastian Junger, has covered war and tragedy throughout his career as a journalist, and finds truth in a sociologist’s observation that “in every upheaval we rediscover humanity and regain freedoms. We relearn some old truths about the connection between happiness, unselfishness, and the simplification of living.”

“What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.”

Junger wrote about these observations in a book he called Tribe. Generally, he says, “our tribalism is [limited] to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents.” But during emergencies it’s as though our tribe expands. This week our tribe included the weary travelers we would run into in the hotel lobby and elevator, people from all over the southeast who, under ordinary circumstances, would remain strangers. But this week we exchanged words of strength and comfort, holding each other up. Our tribe included the sweet employee at the animal hospital down the road from our temporary quarters, who stood ready with a boarding spot for our pet, understanding that we just had no idea how the next few days in the hotel would go. Our tribe included the incredibly kind workers at the pharmacy who realized there would be no way to track down our doctors for official prescription refills and gave us the medications they knew we needed anyway. Our tribe included so many of you who checked in, colleagues who reached out, neighbors who helped make repairs, friends from across the country who offered their support. Plan B this past week was stressful and, at times, scary – but it was also filled with love and tremendous beauty.

On Rosh Hashanah we welcomed the New Year; on Yom Kippur we prepare ourselves for it. And here’s what we know: 5777 is going to be full of surprises and Plan Bs. There will be circumstances over which we will have no control, except how we choose to respond to them. “Be soft like a reed, not stiff like a cedar,” the Talmud tells us, and this past week we saw this sage metaphor of Jewish teaching come to life. Large, unyielding trees were uprooted from where they had seemed so firmly planted, while the flexible, swaying reeds of the marshes weathered the storm and immediately rebounded. Let us enter 5777 like reeds, knowing – whatever comes our way – we will find and savor its beauty and blessings. And let us say: Amen.

 

With deep gratitude to my colleague, Rabbi Sarah Mack, whose support and counsel were instrumental to this sermon – and my spirit.

 

Defeating Despair

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

I recently saw a statistic and it made me do a double-take. Apparently 13% of potential voters in the upcoming presidential election would prefer to have a giant meteor crash into the Earth and destroy civilization than see either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton become president. Think about that: More than one in ten (that would be at least one person sitting in every row here this morning) is in that kind of despair over the state of our government. And to hear others talk, seeing the candidate they are not supporting elected president would be the equivalent of a giant meteor.

But it’s not just politics. Despair is defined as “loss of hope; hopelessness,” and the narrative surrounds us. It’s like the board game Clue: There’s this pervasive sense that we’re going to meet a terrible end; the questions are only where, by whom, and how. Will the impact of medical crises cost us our jobs, our homes, our loved ones? Will crushing student debt consume the dreams of the next generation? Will a planet whose climate is ever intensifying, even be around in a generation or two? Will we fall victim to the evil schemes of our enemies – enemies who, depending to whom you listen, could be anyone who looks, talks or thinks differently than we do? Is there any path to peace for Israelis and Palestinians? For Syrians? For Yemen? Are we doomed to bear witness to spiraling violence in our own cities – city after city – Columbus, Tulsa, Charlotte? Or worse – are we becoming immune to it? “A quarter to half of children surveyed [from the UK, Australia, and the United States] are so troubled about the state of the world, they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”

Today we turn the page on the Jewish calendar to a new year, a clean slate, fresh hope. But how on earth does one find hope in such a sea of anxiety?

Well, nothing paints a more despairing picture than the words of Un’taneh Tokef we read earlier this morning, words which legend tells us entered the liturgy during the horror and persecution of the Crusades. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die?” And of those who shall die, by what terrible means does the end await?

Why do we continue to read this prayer? Here we are with a brand new prayer book, one that seeks to minimize the dissonance we often feel with the prayers of our ancestors and acknowledge the wide range of needs and theologies with which we enter this sacred space. Editors pored over the language and possibilities of the book we hold in our hands. Certainly the narrative of despair and destruction we see on the news or read in the paper is sufficiently vivid. We’re not lacking for worst-case scenarios. So why did this prayer make the cut?

But that’s just it! The gloom and doom of Un’taneh Tokef is imminently relevant and relatable; it reflects our deepest anxieties and despair… and we have to keep reading… because at the end of the prayer, there’s hope.

.וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
“Repentance, prayer and charity can temper the harshness of the decree.”

There are three imminently doable practices with a long history of leading our people to hope, the hope we so desperately need and desire today.

The first practice is t’shuvah – repentance, as we usually translate it. But the root of the word literally means “return.” Our tradition tells us that, through the work of these holy days, we can return to the purity of innocence, to the vivid imaginings of youth.

Remember when all you needed for entertainment was a stick and a patch of dirt? When a laundry basket could be an airplane, a shoebox a robot, a sandbox could become the moon? Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than intelligence” – and this is true for all of us, not only kids. Imagination ignites our passion, stimulates creativity and innovation, and is a significant factor – some would say the key factor – in the advancement and improvement of our world.

Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., religion professor and Chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, said earlier this year here in Charleston that “imagination is the battleground” of our times.

“We are experiencing a crisis of imagination,” he said, “… something more than a failure to be creative. Imagination involves an ability to see the as yet… imagine one’s condition beyond the absurdity of now. … Imagination involves empathic projection… seeing oneself in relations to others, [trying] to understand those who are not like us.

“Today we find ourselves in dark times, unable to imagine otherwise. … [But] democracies require human beings who are able to imagine themselves beyond the difficulties of now, who are able to see themselves in relationship with others.”

Consider Natalie Hampton, a 16 year old who imagined herself in the shoes of teens who feel ostracized and isolated in the social minefield that is a school cafeteria. She created an app that lets a student discretely find a table where compassionate classmates are happy to have someone new join them. Doesn’t that vision give you hope? In fact, over the course of one school year, some fifty middle schools successfully utilized social media tools to reduce bullying and student conflict reports by 30%. We have more creativity, more technology, more resources to harness than ever before. Israeli doctors are performing operations to remove the tremors associated with Parkinson’s. 3-D printers are manufacturing artificial organs for transplant. Creative conservation efforts have brought animals off of the endanger species list. And senior centers are harassing FaceTime technology to connect elderly residents with international students who want to practice their English.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “God speaks to us through our imaginations.” The question is, do we have the courage to listen? That’s where the second practice, T’filah – prayer, comes in.

Last year there was a report that the city of Jackson, MS, faced $743 million worth of necessary repairs to its crumbling infrastructure – a daunting amount, to be sure. The mayor’s solution? Prayer. “Yes,” he said, “I believe we can pray potholes away. Moses prayed and a sea opened.”

Now, that’s not the kind of prayer I’m suggesting, nor do I think it’s the approach of our liturgy. As Rabbi Chaim Stern has written: “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

My colleague at Circular Congregational Church, Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, has reflected on how often people turn to religion, and religious leaders, for consolation, certainty, assurance; to avoid tension or unpleasantness. Yet that’s really not what religion is about. It’s about making life more honest. It’s about taking risks and working for change in ourselves and the world. We are hardly certain what the outcomes will be. But the only thing we can ever be certain of is our will, our conviction. Religion is about finding the courage to dream in the face of uncertainty, to live boldly and free.

And so we pray for a…

Pure heart
Clear mind
Generous vision
Gentle words
The courage to say yes
The strength to say no
Steadiness in [God’s] work
Purpose every day
Strength to do what is called for, even when it is hard
Strength to do what is right, especially when others do not

We pray for courage to pursue the visions of our imagination, resilience when challenges threaten to push us back, clarity when the vision begins to fade. Prayer may not directly alter the circumstances of the world around us; but prayer can change us, and we can change the world.

And the third practice ensures that we always remain engaged in that world – that no matter how far hope recedes, we won’t recede, as well. This year, in particular, our souls need stories of tzedakah – radical generosity.

Estella Pyffom, a retired teacher from Florida, spent nearly a million dollars of her retirement money to turn a bus into a mobile classroom for underprivileged students. She decked it out with computers and desks, and drives it through a predominantly low-income county, offering local kids a safe place to do homework and learn about technology.

Five construction management students at Colorado State University designed a wheelchair swing, an elevated sandbox, and built a customized playground that allowed Libby and James,11-year-old twins with cerebral palsy, to be able to play outside in their own backyard.

Mark Bustos, a hairstylist at an upscale Manhattan salon, has been spending every Sunday for the past two years walking the streets of New York City, giving free haircuts to homeless people on the sidewalks. One recipient was particularly memorable. “He didn’t have much to say,” Bustos recalled, “but after I showed him what he looked like, the first thing he did say was, ‘Do you know anyone that’s hiring?'”

We feel in our souls what research has proven: “Apocalyptic storytelling” causes collateral damage.

“Hopelessness undermines the very engagement with … issues we seek to create. There are limits to the amount of concerns we can deal with at a time … [a] ‘finite pool of worry.’ Overburdening people’s capacity for worry with too much doom and gloom leads to emotional numbing. When we believe our actions are too small to make a difference, we tend to behave in ways that create the conditions in which those expectations are realized. … Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But this, too, we know – “things are far more resilient than [we] ever imagined” and “emotions, it turns out, are contagious.” Hope begets hope, joy sparks joy, and confidence inspires confidence.

This was the spirit that prompted marine conservationists to launch the hashtag #OceanOptimism, reaching more than 59 million people in the past two years with encouraging stories of real-life conservation success. “Life is complicated,” says its founder. “Things get horribly wrecked. That is true. But the remarkable capacity for renewal is true, too. … Far from making us complacent, stories of resilience and recovery fuel hope. Feeling hopeful enhances our capacity to take meaningful action. And that action flourishes in the supportive community of others.”

So let’s commit ourselves to seeking out better prophecies and more hopeful visions. Let’s listen to Margaret Mead, and “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” And Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Remember[ing] that there is meaning beyond absurdity. … Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments.” And let’s heed that great modern prophet we lost just this year, Elie Wiesel, who wrote:

“I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either. …

“I know – I speak from experience – that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal.

“There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man. … Such is the miracle: A tale about despair becomes a tale against despair.”

Let this be our tale in 5777 – and let’s spread it far and wide. May our imaginations ignite empathy and creativity. May our prayers strengthen our will and resolve. And may acts of generosity and justice fill our spirits with warmth and inspiration. May the New Year be a year hope, a year of courage, and a year of determination for each of us. And let us say: Amen.

 

Sources:

The Week Magazine; “The Rise of Ocean Optimism,” Elin Kelsey, Smithsonian Magazine, June 8, 2016; “Five Reasons Imagination Is More Important Than Reality,” Lamisha Serf-Walls, Huffington Post, January 4, 2015;  “Teen Makes ‘Sit With Us’ App That Helps Students Find Lunch Buddies,” Elyse Wanshel, Huffington Post, September 12, 2016; “The Risk of Being Religious,” Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, May 22, 2016; Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur, p. 71, 365; Open Heart, Elie Wiesel (2012), p. 72.

Yahrtzeit.

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“The past is not dead; it is not even past.”
– William Faulkner

It was an unbelievably hot June day in Memphis, and so I was anxious to leave anything I could behind on the bus. No backpack, no purse. I just folded up a couple of dollar bills, put them in my sunglass case, and joined the group as we walked across the steaming parking lot to enter the National Civil Rights Museum.

My son was trying to track license plates from all 50 states, and this place was a goldmine. A minivan from California, a pickup truck from Montana, a sedan from New Hampshire. Absentmindedly, I took our admission tickets and slipped them into the case in my hand. Indiana, Texas, Wyoming. Then we were inside the museum, where time stops: The Lorraine Motel. Memphis, Tennessee. 1968.

Except it didn’t. It sped up.

Twenty-four hours later, I was back in Charleston. In a whirlwind, my assistant had picked me up from the airport and arranged for a locksmith to open our house. Utterly dazed and operating on an hour of sleep, if that, I had left my keys (and my family) in Tennessee (or had we made it to Mississippi or Alabama? – it was all a blur). Now, quickly showered and changed, we were heading to the first of the many prayer vigils that would fill the next few days, and my mind was spinning as I went to change my glasses. Was this really happening?

The sight of the ticket stubs brought the first tears. June 17th was imprinted in dark ink as though time had stood still, but here was tangible proof of how far I had physically traveled in the last twenty-four hours. Yet it was more than that. At the bottom of the ticket was a quote:

“IT’S NOT HISTORY: IT’S HAPPENING.”

Like the heavy strike of a gavel, those five words passed judgement on how little distance we’d actually covered at all.

It has now been a year, and I haven’t been able to remove the tickets from the case. Every day, when I get in my car and change my glasses, that quote stares up at me, challenges me. Before I even get in the car, the same lesson proclaims itself in the morning paper, often on the front page. There is an awfully, awfully long way to go.

But it’s been a year, and this too we know is true. We are changed. We’ve been touched – by the depth of our losses, to be sure. But also by the legacies of the lives we’ve now come to know, and the love and strength of the survivors; by the power and compassion of community, and the sublime beauty of grace; by the companion spirits and travelers we’ve met along the way, and the stories – still incomplete – but the history and narratives that are finally being told.

And here’s how history is different: We are a part of it. And as profound and deep as our pain can be, so too is our potential to have an impact for good.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabbah…

With the Kaddish prayer we praise God’s name, and on this day of remembrance for the lives of the Emanuel Nine, we praise their names, as well. Praise and honor and glorify and exalt – mere words have never been enough, but the words of Kaddish are special. They pledge our commitment – to action, to change, to honest encounter, to lasting deed. Zichronam livracha – in this way we indeed ensure that the memories of the righteous are an abiding blessing.