Monthly Archives: September 2020

A Lifejacket

This is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of return and repentance. This particular Shabbat is a rowboat on the seas of the Days of Awe. We feel secure as the waves gently undulate beneath us. We hold our oars and know how to navigate, to port or starboard. We are lulled by the sounds of the sea that are, after all, the first sounds we heard while still in utero. The repetitive rhythm comforts us.

And yet we know how quickly things can change when a storm is coming. The sky darkens. The wind changes direction. The sea, once so calm and nurturing now becomes rougher, and we begin to feel unsafe, and vulnerable.

Yom Kippur is the rough sea ahead. It’s a time to think about who we are and what we are supposed to be. It’s a time to shed light on the darker places of our soul. We know we didn’t always do the best we could do. Instead we did  the expedient thing. We took shortcuts. We chose the easy way, not the best way. We have said things we regret. And we have left unsaid words of love and comfort. And forgiveness.

The best thing we could possibly do over Yom Kippur is to think about who we want to be in 5781. It’s about the only thing we do have control over. It’s the only thing we can be sure of in this new year: that we have choices. We are not doomed to stay locked in regret and grudges. We are not consigned to the locked room of resentment . We hold the key. Are we willing to do the work to open the door of our heart?

It’s complex, you might say. I know. You may candidly acknowledge that your anger and hurt feel too important and definitional to let go of, that somehow forgiveness makes you weak. But forgiveness is a sign of strength and character. And: it’s really difficult. But letting go of the sharp pieces you’ve held so close to your chest is profoundly liberating.

But this is Shabbat Shuva, the calm before the storm. Right now, in this space in time. Breathe. Feel the warmth of this day. Give thanks. Call someone with whom it’s been too long and just say, “I’ve been thinking about you. Have a safe new year and have a meaningful fast.” Nothing fancy. If you have someone to hug and/or kiss, give them a special one, a Shabbat Shuva kiss for comfort and appreciation.

Then get the oars out. Check the soundness of your boat. We’ll provide the lifejackets.  

Here It Comes

It’s a cool, cloudy morning. The leaves are turning and starting to fall. The colors of my garden are fading. Yes, there’s no mistaking it: this is it. The new year has arrived.

Tonight will be familiar and yet, so different. We’ll be together in the way we always are to welcome the new year. But the way we’ll be gathered, well, that’s a first.

Rabbi Larry Kushner calls Rosh Hashanah “the annual meeting of the Jewish people.” I love that image and it’s sustained me for almost 40 years in the pulpit. It’s the homecoming, the enormous satisfaction that comes with seeing one’s community in attendance. It’s reassuring and powerful. It directly links us to our first tribal assembly at Mt Sinai.

This time, the gathering is remote. There are no hugs, no sharing photos, no catching up face to face. All we have is the link you click on to be here now.

But that’s ok. Most of us have handled online zoom chats with friends, family, business, commerce, music, lectures – it’s a part of the landscape now. We can do this.

What to wear? Put on a tallit? How to set yourself up? Where to sit? When to click in, live or delayed? That’s your call. For some, tonight will feature Susan singing, me talking, Jamie playing, and a big bowl of popcorn, and sweats. For others, it’s dress for the occasion: a new outfit, an actual dress shirt and a tie! It’s all about how you want to settle in for the service. Sing out loud, follow along, Facetime with a friend and participate in the service together. There’s no right way, only your way.

Let us know between now and Sukkot what it’s like. We want to share the home experiences we’re having. It’s another way to share and celebrate together. And don’t worry – there is no judgement. Many people – particularly in my family – have longed to put me on hold…

Your TBA staff – all of them – has worked long into the night over the last few months to make this a memorable, spiritually significant experience. In the beginning, it may feel weird and slightly surreal; I’m pretty sure I’ll feel that way, too. But I’ll be looking at you. I’ll be connecting to you. And we will connect to each other through the speed of light and sound. And through history and memory. And through familiar liturgy and music written on our hearts.

Please email Becky Oliver (boliver@bethavodah.org) wish her a sweet new year and then tell her why she is the most extraordinary woman ever: able to leap tall buildings, send out links, consider camera angles and raise two school-aged boys with her terrific husband, Mike. Let me put it simply: without her, we would be pale and anemic, monaural and blurry. She’s on the rainbow side of Oz.

Eileen Brooks has gone so far and above the call of duty. There are countless examples of her dedication and creativity all over the HHD: colors, fonts, information access, Facebook links, video, and more. She has kept connecting us since the pandemic began – and before.

Amy Tonkonogy has devoted countless hours to helping us put together a service experience online that is utterly nonpareil. Her eye for detail, her producer’s acumen, and her love of TBA, combine to give all of us the extraordinary opportunity to be present and engaged in this strange new world of 5781.

Liza and I and the Stern Gang wish you a sweet new year. We pray that you and yours stay healthy and safe. We entreat you to wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and social distance.

I know that it’s a tradition to say, “L’shana haba-ah b’yerushalayim” at the end of a seder. This year, I will add a similar aspiration: l’shanah haba-ah b’chazera lbeit tifilateinu: next year, back here: in our holy space, at TBA.

See you in a little while.

Shabbat Shalom and shana tova,

rebhayim

The Glow of the Unknown

Memory can be so unforgiving. The name of a song, the name of a place, the blank drawn when someone places you in a story and you don’t remember even being there, that sheepish headshake when you find yourself looking in the refrigerator – or online – or in the closet – and you have no earthly idea what you were looking for. It’s a strange sensation to experience just how fleeting the past can be.

Clearly traumatic memories are stored in another part of the brain. I know this because every time I glance at a digital clock and the time is 9:11, I am shaken. Not incapacitated, but taken aback. It’s like having a hidden bruise that gets bumped while you’re doing something, and it’s momentarily shocking that it still hurts 19 years later.

There are two different levels of my 9/11 memories. One level is the experience itself. It’s the pain and the shock of others: the scenes on tv of folks fleeing the crumbling towers, covered in ash and dust and blood. It’s the people who were up close to me, people suffering the unthinkable loss of a son, a child, a husband, a future. It was deep appreciation for Heidi Baker and Rachel Segall who were woven into my life that day as we attempted to swim to the surface of what-needs-to-be-done.

The other level of memory is the experience of my experience. It was my own disequilibrium and fear. It was like an existential vertigo.  How did I manage to think straight? How did I process it all? I do know that however I experienced the world changed me.

This is the tricky thing about memory. Neuroscientists say that our memories are not cast in bronze. They change and warp and flex like soap bubbles that sometimes pop. So the memory of what was back then has been filtered and altered by subsequent encounters. I can’t truly know what I knew or felt then, which is its own interesting phenomenological problem. But I surely know how it’s resonating right now.

The predominant feeling of 9/11 that plays when I let it out and reflect on it is utter disorientation. After being with David Retik’s family I arrived home to learn that my next-door neighbor, Danny Lewin, of Akamai, was on the same flight. An omen of catastrophe and loss.  What next? Is everything I know about to fall apart?

You may remember that all air traffic was suspended for a few days right after 9/11. Newton Centre is in a very heavily traveled air route: there’s hardly a moment when, if you glance up from the TBA parking lot, you won’t see a plane or contrails. I didn’t know that then as I stared into the beautiful blue firmament. It was so quiet. And so surreal. Because the quiet was not emerging from a meditative space. Rather, it came from shapeless, unanticipated, unnamed fear.

There is something so similar about COVID time and memories of 9/11. It’s the inchoate fear, the looming presence of the unanticipated, the “what’s next” of it all that has been like the terrifying orange glow in the skies of northern California, a harbinger, of what…?

It’s 19 years since that terrible day. And the memories always put me in a contemplative funk. But even as I write these words, I know that’s a common condition these days. Perhaps one of the lessons I’ve learned since 9/11 helps me contextualize COVID time. This life is the only one we’re going to get. What are we going to do with it? The fear is real. The darkness is real. But so, too, is our resolve to keep going, to keep believing that there is something greater out there, something that’s worth the struggle, something that inspires us to reach down deep for courage and resolve.

We who were witnesses to 9/11 continue to live and remember, and in the mysterious glow of the unknown we hold on tighter to what we do know: that love and connection keep us whole and alive. That those who have lost have found. That trauma and the loss do not evaporate in the hot sun, but are incorporated into the waters of time that draw us down the river.

Next Friday night is Rosh Hashanah. Come connect and celebrate our collective resilience and our ability to pick our way out of the fear to love.

Shana Tova

rebhayim

The High Holy Days Are So Big

The High Holy Days are so big, so truly filled with awe! As the day rapidly approaches (Monday night, by the way), I get into my New Year mindset. I hear “Avinu Malkenu” playing in my head all the time, like Christmas music after Thanksgiving. “V’Al Kulam” plays a lot, too. It’s the melodies that touch the softest places of memory, holy days of the past, memories of friends and loved ones who are gone.
These thoughts and melodies inevitably open gates of contemplation that lead me to various significant High Holy Day concepts. The ones that always rattle my cage are all from the prayer known as U’Netaneh Tokef. I call them the Big Three: Tshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. 

 These words really affect me. It’s like God calling: “Pssssssssst! Hey you! Yeah you, the big bald guy with the beard! Pay Attention! Have you been taking care of business? How’s the asking forgiveness thing going? [That’s tshuvah.] And what about spiritual intentionality in your prayer life? [That’s tefillah.] And what’s the quality of your giving of time and your cash? [That’s tzedakah.]”
Well I hope you can imagine my response, which is flustered.   First I get defensive. I reach for my catalogue of good deeds, thinking, “I’ll show you God! Look at the size of this catalogue!” I’m thinking, man oh man, I have done lots of good things. Then I lift my book of good deeds and it’s light as a feather, paltry, embarrassing… And then it’s back to the Three Ts.
There’s no room for hubris and ego on the threshold of a new year. It has to be about honesty and vulnerability towards ourselves, to God, and to each other.  As much as we’ve accomplished, there’s still more to do. How we do it, how we choose to be honest and forthright, right now! reflects our willingness to take these next days seriously or not. 
I beseech you, as your rabbi and fellow traveler on the great road of repentance, to lay down your defensiveness, to consider responding to the Big Three. I know this is not easy to consider, really I do. And if you don’t do it, if you completely blow off the High Holy Days, if you don’t click on the link to services, or if you do log on but you don’t bother taking it –any of it – to heart, nothing bad will happen to you. No religious police will hunt you down. You are free! And I certainly won’t lay a guilt trip down on your head, that’s for sure.
But here’s what you lose. You lose a chance to find yourself. You miss a chance to gain courage to confront the terrible weight you’ve carried on your back until your shoulders ache. You miss the chance to feel nurtured by words and thoughts and melodies, to know that within the virtual world we create online, you count, you are important. You miss the chance to ask forgiveness from someone you really hurt. You miss the chance to spiritually grow in the light of God’s presence that shines on you through the eyes of every person in the virtual sanctuary.
I know it’s hard to believe. But it’s all right here, waiting. Open your heart. Open your mind. As Ram Dass nee Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Newton, once said, “Be here now.” I couldn’t agree more.


I wrote this essay 12 years ago. And it’s so odd to reread it and consider who I was then: my age, my sense of the world, and the world’s sense of me. I’m sharing it with you as a reflection of the past, and of the abiding transcendent truth of our tradition. The writer has aged, but the text is still bold as love.