Monthly Archives: September 2015

So Much Gratitude

As the tikiyah gedolah sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur and the Havdalah candles were lifted high, I experienced a deep to-the-bottom-of-my-toes rush of emotion. It wasn’t about hunger. The truth is that I am busy, from early morning to the finish of the day. I don’t even realize how hungry I am until I taste the first sip of wine (the only time of the year when Mogen David wine actually tastes good)…
No, the rush of emotion was all about gratitude: overwhelming, open-hearted, full throttle gratitude. This gratitude is cumulative, beginning some days before Erev Rosh Hashanah as the temple staff and lay leadership prepare. It’s not a siege mentality and it’s not a party planning mentality. We know that we have to prepare the temple to receive a high percentage of our membership, and we want it to always feel like entering into familiar and embracing space, whether for 50 people or 1000.
Our architecture is not about being imposing or formal. In fact, the landscaping (thank you for it all Ed and Bobby Zuker and Lauren Siff) communicates it before one even enters the inner space. Like the flowers and trees and shrubs, it’s not precious or delicate. It is rather robust and convivial. Our temple is about open space. It sends a message of intimacy and appreciation for we who enter. It isn’t about grandeur; it’s about home.
I have sincere gratitude for all those who make that possible. Because looking out at the congregation, individuals merge into one family, one sacred gathering. And it is for this holy convocation that I dedicate so much of my life.
I remember back to my first High Holy Day experience as a student rabbi, serving Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, CA in the Fall of 1978. So much responsibility! So many people! And of course, I remember flipping my tallit over my shoulder as one of the tzitzit (tassels) somehow wrapped around my glasses and yanked them off my face and up into the air.
I have enormous gratitude for my first congregation. They nurtured me and encouraged me to be myself. They taught me that the rabbinate is not a job; it’s a calling.
We’ve been together now for 18 years, and I look forward expectantly to our next years together. I know that given where we live, to paraphrase what flight attendants say at the end of the ride, we know you could’ve davened at any number of places, and you chose us. Which is to say how grateful I am for you, my congregation. I am overwhelmed by your presence. Your voices in prayer lift my soul. I thank God for who you are. Your trust is powerful and sacred.
As Yom Kippur ended, I felt infinite gratitude and realize that it begins for me with God. I thank God for my soul and for the sparks of love and devotion that come from the Holy One. I thank God for this life with all of its roller coaster moments along with the moments of calm and gentleness. I’ve lived 20 years longer than my father did, and in those 20 years I have been able to do and see so much. I am thankful for all this time I’ve had, and I pray that I might have another 20, if not more, to further do the work the Holy One has directed me to do.
Tonight, between roughly 830pm and 115am we’ll be able to see a total lunar eclipse. They say that it will be a fantastic sight not to be seen again for another 16 years. There are those who say it portends the end of the world. I plan to look up at it and, with infinite gratitude in my heart, give thanks for my life. Far from the end of it all – this is just the beginning.

A Little Late Night Yom Kippur Prep and Weather Report

It’s 57 degrees tonight. The chill in the air is a signal from the stratosphere that it’s transition time. Short sleeves to long ones. Sweaters out of storage. Jackets out of the closet.

Of course the transition is not only external, driven by meteorological factors. It’s happening in our souls, too. What’s your temperature? Are you feeling the warmth of connection, of family and friends? Do you feel the chill of separation? Do you sense distance between you and the rest of the world? Are there storm clouds of impending loss and dissolution? Is there a struggle going on in your soul, 2 competing weather systems bound to cause thunder and lightning?

Yom Kippur is the annual internal weather report for carefully tabulating the temperature of our souls. I know most of us don’t set a lot of time aside to do this. And I am certainly not going to try convincing you to start now.

So rather than make elaborate plans for what you’re going to do during services tomorrow night and all day Wednesday, let’s just focus on this moment of your reading right now and the immediate moments afterwards. Here are some questions to ponder:

1 What was a joyful moment in your life over this past year? Don’t get hung up in trying to choose the most joyful. Just pick one particular memory of the past year that still makes you feel good.
2 What was a terrible moment, one you’d rather forget – but you can’t?
3 What’s something you want to do in this new year, something that will make your life better? Again, it can be something small – it doesn’t have to be the cure for Ebola.
4 Who is one person you want to make things better with?
5 Who is one person you know you need to forgive?
6 Who is one person who needs to forgive you?

If you’re up late tonight, do this now. After all, if this is your only pre-Yom Kippur planning besides carbo loading and extra hydration, what have you got to lose? And if you are reading this before breakfast, wait until you drink at least half of your coffee. Some folks like to do this with someone else. Don’t succumb to that urge unless this person will hear what you have to say without judgment.

Listen: you are a precious soul blessed with the gift of life and the consciousness to understand just how extraordinary that fact is. Don’t waste it all on the superficialities western culture bombards us with 24/7/365. Resist the urge, for at least a few minutes if not more, to look at the world through no one else’s lens but your own. Embrace the joy. Acknowledge the struggle. Give in to the only thing we know about the future, and that is: we have no idea what’s out there, just beyond tomorrow.

Answer the six questions. Take the time to focus in a bit. Use this moment, at least this moment for some soul-searching and some soulful reassuring. Give yourself the expansiveness of mindfulness. Be worthy of this gift of life that is yours.

On early maps when cartographers drew up to the limit of what had been confirmed by explorers, they would write Hic sunt Dracones. Here be dragons. Well my dear friends and TBA hevreh, as I look out into the darkness of 5776, I say “Here be dragons!” And I say, “So let’s go.”

The Stern Gang and I all together pray that you have a meaningful fast and a promising weather report.


Wearing My Kittel

In just a few days, I’ll be standing on the bimah, wearing my kittel. It’s a 35-year-old traditional Jewish cotton garment that I put on for the first time as I stood under the huppah, waiting for my bride to walk down the aisle. And ever since I wear it every Passover Seder and every Yom Kippur. The last time I will wear it is when the Hevreh Kaddisha dresses me in it before they lay me down in my coffin.

Until recently, the fact that my kittel is my death shroud has felt very abstract if not surreal. I’ve talked about it from the bimah for decades without any kind of hesitation. But I must admit that it seems just a bit different these days. No, I’m not sick or enfeebled – in fact, I feel great! It’s just I’ve attained a growing recognition that I’ve lived the majority of my years.

I now understand why the rabbis suggested the kittel for Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death as we fast, eschew bathing, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home. We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies, and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on, and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware…

In this peculiar and challenging space we have a few options. One of them is to truly contemplate the finitude of life. This can be instructive in that it forces us to reflect on what we’ve done with our lives. From this vantage point however, we can also encounter no small amount of despair. We can begin to count off regrets and failings.

Or we can use the time to say, in effect: Here I am. I acknowledge that I am mortal and that everyone I know and love is mortal, too. How do I want to live? There’s not much utility in actively contemplating all the ways I might die. But there’s a whole lot of things that can happen when I contemplate all the ways I might live.

True, my kittel is a reminder of death’s slow and inexorable approach. But it doesn’t have to be a garment of mourning. It reminds me that, like standing at the Sea of Reeds on Passover, like standing under the huppah, Yom Kippur is about redemptive moments yet to come. Rather than mourn about how little time I may have left, I can exalt in every minute that is about love and connection.

Today: Endings and Beginnings

Today is what they call an overdetermined day. It is the last Shabbat of the year. It is a milestone marking an ending. How can it be that a new year awaits, just over the threshold?

It is three days until Rosh Hashanah. This is the day to prepare to celebrate the birthday of the world. And it’s the day to begin preparing ourselves for deep soul diving, that is, for making services count by using the time for reflection. It is the time to begin accounting for how we’ve treated others over the last year.

Today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11. And every anniversary brings a sense of deep sorrow. So many were lost. So much has changed since then, so much more distrust, and a growing edge of discord in the very fabric of our culture and even of our souls.

We mark this day with tears and laughter, with hope and despair. It is a time of endings. It is a time of beginnings. If one feels a bit teary and overwhelmed on this day, September 11th, 2015/28 Elul 5775, then join the club. It is the club of remembering and mourning.

The Psalmist teaches, “Teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” It all goes by so fast. The cruelest irony must be that by the time we truly comprehend just how fleeting this life is, we’ve already used up so much of it.

But I’m not complaining – not really… I’m just saying that today is an overdetermined day, filled with enough ambivalence and sadness and joy as to be utterly overwhelming. This evening, as Shabbat begins, we will sing together, thankful for our community, one of the few true constants in our lives. Our individual stories are all so different, our experiences so precious and unique. In the end, however, we are joined by a common sense of perseverance.

We are in this place, right now, giving thanks, seeking solace. Even as life accelerates forward, one way only, we are comforted to know that we are not in this alone. And that, by the way, is why one joins a synagogue – to be a part of a collective that stands together, that shares a sense of purposefulness and destiny. On an overdetermined day like today, the certainty that we are here for each other is a comforting balm.

Liza and I and the whole Stern Gang wish you a sweet new year. May it be a year of peace and wholeness and health. Yes, there will be bumps and jolts. But please God, may we gather next year and reflect on the end of 5776 together, remarking just how precious our lives are, especially when we live them together in our TBA community.

They Are Us – We Are Them

Last week, we observed the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the fierce storm that so devastated parts of the South, particularly New Orleans. There were many haunting scenes and stories from that terrible time. Many of us were horrified reading about the conditions of life in the Superdome (since 2012 it’s the Mercedes-Benz Superdome… progress?), that was set up as an emergency shelter. Then there was the story of a nursing home whose staff and ambulatory patients fled, leaving behind the sickest and least mobile.

In fact as I write about them, more and more scenes and stories pop up. But the most difficult and affecting image that still resides in my memory is the one of New Orleans residents fleeing the floodwaters. They carry their sole possessions in garbage bags while clutching little children. Others are helping the elderly and infirm keep their balance, all with looks of abject terror in their eyes. It was the look that all people have when they know they’ve lost everything and that the future is fearfully unknowable.

There’s something else about that look, something personal. I’ve seen it before in pictures of our people fleeing their homes. Documentary footage beginning with the pogroms. And then more from the beginnings of WWII. I have a visceral response to those photos because I know those people – they are my people. They are me.

Sometimes when we look at pictures of people fleeing and they don’t look like “us”, we don’t feel the same sense of connection. It becomes easy to look the other way. We forget that over the course of history we were them, despite religion or color.

Any human being who has ever had to run for their lives becomes part of that family: the family of the disenfranchised, the family of the dispossessed. To become a part of this family is an awful experience, filled with trauma. It destroys any trust in others. It crushes hope and steals dreams.

I saw this gut-wrenching photo yesterday of a three-year-old Syrian boy who, along with his 5-year-old brother and their mother and nine others drowned trying to get to Greece. What kind of a world is this when families are forced by the threat of annihilation to get into unsafe boats? To climb into the back of trucks without light or air or even a window?

This powerful poem by a Somali woman gives painful and graphic insight into the terror that pushes people over the edge and into darkness when something even worse is pursuing them.

What kind of a world is this? It’s our world.

I remember years ago Elie Wiesel spoke about the necessity to act when we see injustice. He said that to do nothing was not an option, that one day, when our children grew up, and they asked us what we did to lend a hand to the suffering that we would need to answer them honestly. And to say that we did nothing is a message that dooms the future. The photo forces me, and I hope, all of us to ask the question, “What can we do? Can we do something to help prevent such a thing from recurring?”

I don’t have any answers today. But I will. Soon. In addition to so much activity at our temple, we have to make more room for issues of social justice. I’m not looking for us to win a Nobel Prize. Just some way to save one child. That’s a start.

Shabbat Shalom


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