Monthly Archives: October 2019

Climbing Another Mountain

When we switch back from the special white Torah covers to the Shabbat multi-colored covers on Simchat Torah this Sunday at 6pm, it will signal the official conclusion of the High Holy Days season. I’ve never climbed a mountain before, but I would assume that the feeling upon reaching the summit is a lot like putting the last Torah back in the ark to begin the new cycle of temple life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these last few weeks of the new year. The HHD cycle felt different. Certainly, the celebration of the High Holy Days is never the same twice. Each year is a unique moment in time for us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a people. We’re all travelers, moving through time and space.

This new year is coming in with dark clouds and heavy weather. We obviously never know what will happen from day to day and month to month. But I sense a climate of intense angst, a particular kind of dread I don’t remember ever feeling, not even during the Vietnam era.

We don’t know what the vicissitudes of life will be this year. All we know for sure is that they will be choppy. Or to put it another way: we’re on the roller coaster and we’re listening to the click click click of the mechanism pulling us up the steep slope. It’s dark and we can’t make out when were going to reach that point when we begin to careen down and around.

Is it grammatically correct to say that this new year felt “more unique” then years past? However one phrases it, that’s my feeling. It dawned on me from the beginning of the cycle. Usually, at Erev Rosh Hashanah services, congregational participation is muted. It’s as if people are getting into the groove of the season; the special melodies, the prayers we say only during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… By Kol Nidre, folks are more attuned to the music and the mood of the season. More people sing with confidence and fervor.

But this year, when we turned and sang Avinu Malkeinu, I was deeply moved by the immediacy of the congregation. People were singing. They were listening. People were profoundly present. Why? I have a theory, based on absolutely no evidence other than my gut feeling and anecdotal evidence from congregants and from rabbis serving other congregations.

I think we realized just how important – how necessary it is – to gather as a community. We know that going it alone is not how to make one’s way into the uncertainty ahead. A year after the Tree of Life murders, we understand the fragility of life as Americans and as American Jews in a new way. We need each other – it’s as simple as that. There was, I think, a kind of urgency in the congregation, borne not out of fear, but rather from the conviction that to “dwell together as brothers and sisters” is more than a hackneyed phrase. It is a raison d’être.

Embrace the World for a Moment

The news continues to be like an ongoing soap opera, with one long cliffhanger after another. It all feels more and more preposterous. The future looks murky and threatening. It feels almost unbearable. I’ve said the Yiddish word ‘oy’ a billion times these past few years. Stop the world! I want to get off!
If we wanted, we could share our outrage over the disgraceful state of our world. We could count on all fingers and toes just how many things are wrong. We all carry more than our share of fear and anxiety over every minute of every day.
The first Gerer rebbe, Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg, once said something like, ” If you spend all your time reflecting on your failings, on evil and moral decay, then over time you become enslaved by evil and the whole world turns to ashes. Stir filth this way or that, it’s still filth. In the time I spend brooding about the world, I could be stringing pearls for the benefit of the Holy One.”
It’s hard to keep positive. It’s hard not to be in a permanent sense of indignation. And certainly, I’m not suggesting we ignore the social ills. We Jews have a job to do, to repair this broken world.
It’s a grey New England, early Fall day. The leaves are brilliant, glistening with rain, blowing in the breezes. I know in just a short while, the leaves will be gone, and winter will be here. But for right now, this very moment, I’m taking a moment to breathe and to give thanks. Yom Kippur has passed. Sukkot is coming. I’m still here, and if you’re reading this, well then, so are you!
At the end her beautiful, heartbreaking poem, The Thing Is, Ellen Bass writes, “You hold life like a face/between your palms, a plain face/ no charming smile, no violet eyes,/and you say, yes, I will take you/I will love you, again.
That’s what we do: we shake our fists, we march, we seek justice. But for a moment, we can open our arms wide and embrace the mortal, tired world.

Forgiveness and Letting Go

It is so hard to forgive. After being assailed by a colleague, humiliated by a loved one, betrayed by a friend, harmed physically or emotionally, or both… the list is infinite – the resulting damage is often traumatic. We’re a mess. Our self-confidence teeters on the edge. We can’t trust anyone, including ourselves, for a long time, or at least what feels like a long time. The process of healing takes years, and sometimes, a lifetime. There are wounds to bind.

After time has gone by, and the hurt has subsided, we sometimes replace the pain caused by another with resentment. We gather our emotional strength and proceed to use it as a force to ward off the offender. Every mention of their name, every picture, anything at all associated with them gets us going. We resent the offender, yet we continue to think about them way too much. We plot fantasies of revenge, insult their reputation, and tell stories of their perfidy to anyone who will listen (and sometimes we tell the story over and over again to people who don’t want to hear it again…).

When we’ve been hurt or slighted, we get thrown off our game. But over time, as we eschew the possibility of forgiveness in favor of anger and blame, we become stunted. Our hearts whither. We become less accessible to others until we are nothing but resentment. We see the world through a distorted lens as we become a caricature: the quintessential victim.We don’t have to live in the pain of the past. We can emerge from that place, even if it feels terrifying to let go of something that has become our raison d’etre.

When we forgive someone, we lose nothing. Instead, we gain a new, open heart. We can love and be loved in a fuller, more productive way. We don’t have deny that we were wronged. We don’t have to pretend we were injured. We don’t have to forget. But we do have to try to forgive in order to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.I know that some things are unforgivable, and no one else can make that call. But finding the strength to forgive is finding freedom for the soul. It’s finding precious air to breathe. It’s admitting just how big the human heart can grow.

Yom Kippur can be a hard day, and I’m not talking about the fasting. It’s about starting again. It’s about the spaciousness of the soul and the healing of old wounds. It’s about forgiveness.