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.



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.



“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:


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.

I cannot pray to God.

Remarks for our community vigil this evening.

I am wrapped in my tallit, my prayer shawl. I wear my kippah, a reminder that my words are directed to an audience beyond my self.

But I cannot pray to God today. The God I believe in doesn’t need my prayers, and doesn’t want them – not today.

The God I believe in has Her hands full; He’s working overtime, and has been for quite a while. The heart of the God I believe in is devastated by each senseless death and destruction of life, weakened with each squeeze of a trigger. The God I believe in surely surrounds the victims, the survivors, the families of loved ones with infinite Strength, Courage, Healing and Love.

“Be with the victims and their families,” the God I believe in hears, and must wonder, “Where else do you imagine I am?”

“Are you so deeply grieved?” the God I believe in asks us as He did Jonah. I care for all of My creations – do all I can to love them, nurture them, protect them. You grieve; My heart is broken.

I cannot pray to God today, because the God I believe in still admonishes us through the prophet Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; your Righteous One will walk before you, the Presence of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, God will say: ‘Here I am.'”

No, I cannot pray to God today – I cannot petition, make entreaty or supplication; I cannot hope to move God, for there is nowhere else for God to go, except into the hearts and minds and souls of our leaders here on Earth, into the men and women we have appointed for their wisdom, their compassion, their guidance and good counsel. Today I pray to them, that if their hearts turn to God, and I hope they do, that they pray for courage, for strength, for imagination, for resolve for themselves – that they may yet DO something – something beyond rhetoric, something beyond prayer.

I pledge on behalf of my colleagues in the clergy, we will keep preaching the message of love and equality and acceptance and embrace. But so long as those who hate can walk into a store and obtain a weapon to give destructive power to their hatred with but the most minimal obstructions, if any — this pain won’t stop.

We will keep teaching peace and dialogue and understanding and respect. But so long as there continues to be access to weapons whose sole purpose, whose sole reason for creation is massive and prolific destruction — this pain won’t stop.

We will continue to demonstrate, with our talk and our walk, that the lives of men, women, and children; the lives of those in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the Hispanic community; the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist… every community matters, has value, deserves to be protected. But so long as innocent lives suddenly and violently cease to be, and not one – not ONE – meaningful, enduring, impactful piece of gun legislation can be lifted to passage, can be attempted – just attempted – as a tangible offering of our sorrow and remorse — this pain won’t stop.

To those who say we must wait; how dare we “politicize” a moment of grief – were that we could. My own Jewish tradition has strict proscriptions for the first week of mourning, the first month, the first year that might likewise suggest patience. But here we are, mere blocks from Mother Emanuel, still only on the threshold of one year. We’ve waited too long. Within the past month, 34 mass shootings have occurred on American soil; 82 people have been killed, 167 more have been wounded. We’ve waited too long. Already a church, a community center, a school, a club – what would the next target be if we waited even a week? We’ve waited too long.

I cannot pray to God today, but the God I believe in is fervently praying to and for us:

“Remove the chains of oppression,” God prays, “make sacrifices for … the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon. … This is the promise of the Lord.”

This is the prayer of the God I believe in. And if you believe we can answer it – we must answer it – then let us say: Amen.

All done.

I’m a list maker. “Remember to pack.” “Places to visit.” “Books read.” That last one, I admit, is my pride and joy. I like watching it grow each year and kind of pat myself on the back as it does. I even put the nonfiction titles in bold font. That’s right – an extra sense of accomplishment. The last couple of years I’ve taken to rating the books, too. Embarrassingly, people would always ask, “Read anything good lately?” and I honestly couldn’t remember.

(My favorites read in 2015 were: The Boston Girl, The Boys in the Boat, Eleanor & Park, The Martian, Mosquitoland, Notorious RBG, Someone Knows My Name, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Unbroken. Just in case you’re wondering.)

So, as I “call it a wrap” on this year’s list, the grand total is 34 titles. Some might say that’s a lot. I know many among you have read significantly more. But here’s what I’m most proud of: This year, not everything I read made the list. This year, I finally learned to put down a book I wasn’t enjoying and say, “All done.”

“All done.” They were the first words the boy learned to sign, and they were empowering. Not just that he could communicate, but what he could communicate. Without pushing a bottle away, simply by waving two hands, he could say, “I know it doesn’t come out to an even 4 or 6 ounces, but I’m done, thank you.” He could look at a partially eaten plate of food and basically say, “Perhaps there are scientific formulas behind the partitions on this jungle-inspired plastic plate, but, even though it’s not clean, I’m full. Thank you very much.” (I don’t recall him ever doing that with a plate of cake or cookies, though. That’s our boy.)

In time, the gesture carried over from the highchair to other activities. “All done” in the bathtub. “All done” at the grocery store. “All done” at the Oneg. (#rabbiskid) Whether signed or spoken, it is an empowering thing to be able to bring something to a close.

So why does it become so difficult to put down a book that’s just not working for us? Is it because we actually do hope it will get better? (Rarely.) Is it because we’ve invested too much time and energy to just stop now? (Maybe, but is a week of page flipping really such a lamentable loss?) Is it because we’re afraid that being the only person not to rave about All the Light We Cannot See bespeaks a defect in our soul? (OK, yes… I kind of feel you judging me right now.)

But this year I did it – I did it multiple times in fact. Do I wish every book I dove into lived up to all I hoped it would be? Of course. But not everything does, does it? And if we can learn to say “All done” to the small things – like a book – maybe we can eventually do it with the bigger things, as well.


The current Jewish festival of Sukkot is supposed to get us out of the “permanent” structures in our lives and into temporary dwellings we build from wood and pipe and branches. We’re supposed to come to understand that permanent is in quotation marks – that while we spend so much of our lives building and filling massive physical structures, when we get outside of our lives (of ourselves), all we really need is food and family and the simplest roof over our heads.

This year historic flooding and epic rainfall (to use two of The Weather Channel’s favorite words right now – both, I dare say, actually appropriate) have sent all of us in Charleston back into our more permanent structures. And, while we might miss the unique observances Sukkot affords – the smell of the etrog, the blinking stars through the bamboo – holing up with nothing but found time for good books, family films and home-cooked food as the rain continues to fall… well, it’s awfully nice, too.

Then I get this email from a friend who serves as minister at a congregation in North Charleston:

“I just received a call from a friend of mine who works with the homeless under the overpasses. With the rain today and the next few days they are concerned with their safety. Do you have the space to allow people to stay dry? I know that it is a lot to ask. If there is any possibility in helping out let me know.”

Usually it’s our temporary dwellings during Sukkot that inspire us toward greater gratitude for the blessings we have in our lives. This Sukkot, may our permanent dwellings that – please, God – are keeping us safe and dry inspire us to not only appreciate what is ours, but work to make this most basic of necessities available to all.

Find the Good

Yizkor 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Why do we observe Yizkor? There are traditional reasons, to be sure. Traditional Judaism understands the soul to be eternal, but once separated from the physical body, it is no longer capable of performing mitzvot or doing good deeds. Hence, it falls to the loved one’s closest relatives to do good deeds on his or her behalf. Once upon a time, funds for tzedakah were committed in the name of departed loved ones during Yizkor, in order to help elevate their souls wherever their eternal resting place might be. And there was understood to be a positive chain reaction, one good deed leading to another – pledged funds would benefit the departed, and those acts of lovingkindness would increase the chances of one’s own personal atonement, in turn. I suppose, like many synagogues, we see the remnants of that practice in the donations raised through our Yizkor booklet each year.

I think there is still something to this “once upon a time” reason. I think we do find comfort in sitting here with our personal memories; standing up in tribute to our loved ones who are no longer with us; and knowing that we are doing something affirmative and public to not only honor, but continue, their legacies.

Yet I think there is another reason we observe Yizkor, on Yom Kippur especially. When we lose someone we love, we become particularly sensitive to the themes of this day – the themes of mortality and finitude, and choosing life while it is ours to live. Our Yizkor liturgy understands this and underscores it. The guiding imagery of this Yom Ha-Din, Judgment Day, is The Book of Life, its pages open, awaiting our inscription. One need not believe in fate, or divine judgment, or even God, to know that all we are guaranteed in life is the one page open before us. One only need to have loved and lost to understand that. So mingled with our memories is the appreciation that life is a finite gift. Were that we could spend all of it with those we love most, that’s a given. But in their absence, we come searching… how can we live it best? How can we give it the most meaning? What lessons about life do we learn from death?

Heather Lende is an obituary writer in the small town of Haines, Alaska. With a population of 2,000 that makes her whole town not even twice the size of our KKBE congregation. So what she writes are much more like personal eulogies than the formulaic obituaries we typically see in the paper. These are people she has known in some capacity – or, if not, talking to their friends and family members places their stories in the context of the community she knows and loves. Just as we experience in our own congregational community, all deaths are sad for Lende; some more tragic than others. Her job, regardless, is to pull up a chair, accept a cup of coffee, and listen. And from all she’s heard, she’s learned incredible life lessons.

A couple of years ago, she was asked to write a short essay describing just one piece of wisdom by which one could live one’s life. Just one? She had written obituaries for almost twenty years. As she said, “The journal’s editor assumed that I must know something about last words and good lives. But I didn’t have such pithy haiku wisdom at the ready. So I pretended I was on my deathbed. I imagined I’d already said good-bye to my husband, children, grandchildren, and all the great-grandchildren I hadn’t even met yet. If indeed all the wisdom I had in my heart was to be summed up in final words and it was difficult to speak more than, say, three, what would I say?”

And then it came to her: Find the good.

“Writing obituaries is my way of transcending bad news,” she writes. “It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice – and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced – has made my life more meaningful.”

When Lende volunteered to help clean out the cabin of town resident, Russ, before it was auctioned off to benefit Hospice of Haines, she thought she’d be there for an hour, not all afternoon. “I never envisioned sitting outside in the spring sun for hours,” she said, “sorting his bills, receipts, and especially all those cards for recycling – whites, colors, cardboard.

“Russ had willed his home and its contents, including his TV, easy chair, and a shelfful of military-themed videotapes, to our hospice organization, which had arranged for his care after a lifetime of smoking caught up with him. When the hospice board president suggested that a fellow board member and I clean up the place before the sale, we were happy to help. Compared to other hospice work, this was easy on the heart. Besides, it wouldn’t take long. Russ’s cabin only had two small rooms.

“He lived a simple life but was not a woodsy hermit. His place is on the main road at the edge of town. A few curious drivers slowed to check us out. There’s not a lot of privacy in a small town. I was determined to protect Russ’s.

“So when I opened the first cigar box filled with greeting cards, I tossed them without a peek. By the tenth box, though, I looked more closely at each envelope. Who were they all from? Why had he saved them? What did they say? Not much beyond the publisher’s sentimental verse followed by a handwritten Thinking of you, or Hope you are well, or on one tucked into an envelope postmarked in Maine, So glad to finally meet you Uncle Russ.

“While researching his obituary, I had called his brother back east and learned that Russ had been born and reared in Maine, joined the Army right out of high school, and then disappeared by degrees. Pretty soon, there was no forwarding address. No phone calls, no letters, no cards. Nothing. For thirty-eight years. …

“I asked why. What had happened? His brother told me Russ had spent that time riding the rails. He had been a real-life hobo before a searching family member discovered him alive and well in Alaska. I had hoped to learn why he had been gone all those years; that must be the crux of Russ’s life story, I thought. But his brother didn’t share the reason, if he even knew, and instead said all that mattered was that Russ had been found and that, by the time he died the family had been happily reunited for several years. Relatives had visited Russ in Haines, and he had traveled to Maine. The brothers played music together. The nephews enjoyed fishing in Alaska. …

“Russ’s mother died before the family found him, but on her deathbed she made her other children promise that when Russ turned up (and she knew he would) they’d give him her Bible. In it was a note. Wherever you are I hope you are happy and well, she wrote in shaky old-fashioned cursive. Remember me always. As I have always you since the day you left us.

“After Russ’s brother delivered the Bible, his relatives must have begun writing to his Alaska address, mailing him all these Christmas, birthday, even Thanksgiving cards, and he, in turn, must have been so grateful that he saved what appeared to be every single one.”

“I believe gratitude comes from a place in your soul,” Lende writes, “that knows the story could have ended differently, and often does. And I also know gratitude is at the heart of finding the good in this world – especially in our relationships with the ones we love. … You don’t have to be an obituary writer to connect the dots and shift priorities so your regrets will be no worse than wanting one more day with the people you have loved well in the place that means the world to you.”

Goodness – is it with us always? Can we feel it even now?
Consider this: the eye is narrow in its gaze.
For, at this very moment, some lives are bathed in miracle:
a newborn child in the arms of parents who were past the point of hope;
the happiness of improbable love after many years alone;
recovery from surgery; the easing of grief;
food for the hungry, rain after drought,
the first light of peace in a war-darkened land.
May we look up from our dark places with a measure of gratitude:
Somewhere, even now, wonderful goodness blossoms forth.

It is our task in life to find it. Amen.

Heather Lende’s book is called Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer (2015). Closing prayer is adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur.