Kol Nidrei 5781 Sermon: The Whole World is a Brief Bridge

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od; vaha’ikar lo lefached klal. 

This song has been bothering me for the last thirty years.

It started when I was a kid, maybe eight years old. During Sukkot that year, we were sitting in our family sukkah, finishing up the holiday meal, when my father announced that we were going to try to make our sukkah levitate. He said this was an ancient mystical belief: that if you sang the right song enough times, with enough fervor, the sukkah would start to rise up off the ground with you in it, and you would fly. 

And then my father began singing the song he thought would get us in the air: ‘Kol haolam kulo.’ Once, twice, three times, ten times, fifty. I think he was shooting for two hundred rounds that night. I don’t think we actually got there, but at some point during those endless repetitions, the song became the mystical equivalent of ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’ I did not feel transported, only annoyed. And our sukkah, sadly, never flew. 

In my twenties, I started thinking about the lyrics of the song, attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Braslav: ‘Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od; vaha’ikar lo lefached klal.’ ‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to have no fear at all.’ 

What? If the whole world is a very narrow bridge, the only reasonable response is to live in fear! If you see the world as a ridge between two chasms, how can you be anything other than afraid? And yet Rebbe Nachman seemed to be saying: The whole world is fearful, fear-filled, and? We should have no fear. This felt like a maddening puzzle, suggesting a type of inner transcendence as unlikely as a levitating sukkah.

A decade later, I was in rabbinical school. And I learned that the lyrics might actually have been mis-recorded. Rebbe Nachman may not have actually said, ‘lo lefached klal’ – to have no fear at all. In his book ‘Likkutei Moharan,’ he’d actually written ‘lo yitpached klal’ – that we should not make ourselves afraid. 

These two possible messages from Rebbe Nachman seem to align with the two types of fear we all struggle with.

The first type is basic fear, which in Hebrew is pachad. Pachad is fear on its most primal level, fear that spurs us to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, life. Pachad is key to our survival.

The second type of fear is hitpachdut, or worry. Hitpachdut is the fear of change, fear of anticipated losses, fear that the world we anchored ourselves to is becoming unmoored. Hitpachdut is the fear that curls up our stomachs like an ouroboros, feeding on itself.

Both types of fear, pachad and hitpachdut, crop up again and again in the Torah. But they’re expressed most personally and poignantly in the Book of Psalms, which some of you studied with me during the month of Elul. 

If you’ve come to services on Shabbat, you’re probably familiar with psalms that celebrate nature, or psalms that praise God. But a sizeable proportion of the Book of Psalms is actually dedicated to expressing fear. So, we have 3,000-year-old poems in which the poet writes about being terribly sick, bent double with pain and afraid of dying. And we have poems in which the psalmist worries about enemies attacking without warning. And we have descriptions of a world that once seemed ordered now turned upside down, and the prayer, “If only I had wings like a dove, I would fly off and find rest in the wilderness…refuge from the streaming wind and the storm” (Psalm 55:7-9).

We can see from the Book of Psalms that our ancestors didn’t shy away from naming their fears. They described the world as it really was. They refused to pretend. And they insisted that their fears were a proper topic of conversation with the Holy One. 

The whole world is a very narrow bridge: Nearly seven months ago, we were thrust out onto a bridge we never imagined ourselves crossing. 

The pachad-fears, the most basic fears of this time, are real: we’re afraid of getting sick with a virus that could kill us or leave us with a compromised immune system. We’re afraid our loved ones will get sick, will die. We’re afraid we’ll lose our jobs and not be able to access health care or feed our families. These fears are real and legitimate. And it would be suicidal, homicidal to try to model ourselves on the first meaning of ‘Kol ha’olam kulo,’ to say ‘I have no fear at all,’ and refuse to adapt. Our fears keep us wearing masks, washing our hands, refraining from gathering in large groups. Our fears protect us and others. They keep us alive.

If our basic fears help us manage threats in the present, our worries right now—hitpachdut—are about what we might lose in the future. They’re what keep us up at night, not because of physical pain, but psychic pain: Will my child make it through this pandemic without lasting trauma? What if my elderly parent dies and I can’t be there to say goodbye? What will happen if the current president refuses to leave office? When will catastrophic climate change make its way to where I live? Hitpachdut is the fear that feeds on uncertainty. It keeps us worrying and wondering and it makes our hearts clench with love. It reveals what we hold most dear.

Our whole world now is a very narrow bridge. Since we’ve got all these fears, what should we do with them?

Well, we can name and claim our fears, like our ancestors, and find connection in that act of naming—connection to the Holy One, or to one another. We can be witnessed in our fears, and mend some of the frayed edges of our lives by letting people know what we’re going through. And we can get curious about our fears, as both a useful reality check and an opportunity to explore how we engage with the world. When pachad comes up, we can ask ourselves, is this thing I’m afraid of a genuine threat to my physical safety? When hitpachdut, when worries arise, we can ask ourselves, what does this feeling reveal about who or what I care about? 

There are lessons to be learned from our fears. But we would be doing ourselves and our world a profound disservice if we only stayed there.

Going back to Rebbe Nachman’s song, the song that’s been bothering me for thirty years now: The song ends with the word ‘klal,’ which has been translated as ‘at all’, but really means ‘totality’ or ‘whole.’ The song is saying, do not make fear the klal, the whole. Regardless of which type of fear we find ourselves dominated by, we cannot let it become the totality of our vision. And on this point, I think, Rebbe Nachman is right.

Pachad and hitpachdut—survival-fear and worry-fear—can both be all-consuming. Both of them, if we make them the main focus of our day-to-day lives, can be paralyzing. This is because fear narrows our vision and focuses it on boundaries. Fear confines us; and we are already so confined, in our homes, on Zoom, waiting for an uncertain future to unfold.

So where do we go from here? How do we not get stuck? You’ll hear people suggest trust as the remedy for fear, or hope, but I want to offer a different idea: that we actually need to lean into a third type of fear, yirah.

This idea is actually based on the deathbed blessing of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who I spoke about on Rosh HaShanah. As Yochanan lay dying, decades after he climbed out of a coffin to birth a new Judaism, his students gathered around him and asked him for a blessing. Yochanan said: ‘May it be God’s will that you fear Heaven as much as you fear flesh-and-blood’ (Berachot 28b). 

Yochanan lived through destruction. He understood how overwhelming fear can be, and how, when we’re in its grip, it’s difficult to look to what’s beyond it. So Yochanan blessed his students with a fear beyond ordinary fear: yirah, fear of Heaven—or what we would call nowadays ‘awe.’

Awe may seem like an antiquated idea; maybe we associate it with hushed sounds, heavenly choirs, lofty architecture, or a God we don’t quite sense or believe in. Maybe we think of awe as a feeling that our ancestors knew, but that we, with our modern-day worries and fast-paced lives, don’t get to experience. But awe isn’t about emotion. It’s not about being moved or spiritually elevated. It’s about vision: our sense of how we fit into the world.

If we are living only in our fear, we are missing seeing the wider world. Which could mean that we are forgetting to notice beauty, connection, and goodness. That, in and of itself, would be a mistake, even a desecration of God’s creation. But more importantly, if we are living only in pachad or hitpachdut, we are profoundly limiting ourselves. We are saying: ‘I give up. I can do nothing to shape this world.’ We are confining ourselves to the dustbin of history before we’ve returned to dust. 

Yochanan knew that his students needed to see beyond their ordinary fears. And so he blessed his students—as I am blessing us, this evening—with yirah

How do we get to yirah? It starts with looking seriously at the world and ourselves, and asking the question we’ll encounter during tomorrow’s Amidah prayer: ‘where is the place of God’s glory/ayeh mekom kevodo?’ We must ask this question not just during these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, but also particularly at this moment in time, when we find ourselves on a narrow bridge of history. The prayer asks, ‘where is God’s glory?’ And then it answers, as we must, too: ‘The whole world is filled with God’s glory/Meloh chol ha’aretz kevodo.’

Yirah means asking: where is God’s glory? And remembering that it fills the world, and us. Yirah means remembering that we, individually and collectively, contain holy possibilities for creation, lovingkindness, righteous anger, and offering shelter to the smallest bird. Yirah means asking ourselves seriously: Where is there room for me to act beyond the narrowness of my fear?

We are created in the image of the One who Creates, and as long as we exist in the world, we have the capacity, and the commandment, to shape it for good. It is our duty and our birthright, no matter the fire this time, no matter what the future brings, to fill the world with God’s glory. We cannot limit ourselves to only fear, only worry; we must also reach for awe of the world, our place in it, and the tasks that lie before us.

I want to close by coming back to Rebbe Nachman’s song, the song that I think, at least for now, I understand a little better. 

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od: The whole world is a very narrow bridge. I think I’ve been looking at the bridge all wrong. If the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and I see the world in terms of space, then of course I’ll feel constrained, of course I’ll stay away from the edges, of course I’ll be afraid of the chasm I imagine on either side. But if I look at this narrow-bridged world not from a perspective of space, but a view of time, then its narrowness commands me into yirah

Because if the bridge is narrow because our lives are finite, because we only have so many years in which to live, then Rebbe Nachman’s teaching comes to remind us that we are only here for a short time on this bridge between—depending on your theology—nothingness and nothingness, or everything and everything. And this reality should fill us with awe. And we are commanded—by the brevity of our lives, by the eternity that lives in us, by the eternity that calls to us from either side of this bridge—to live a life that is infused with awe and commanded by awe into action, simply because we are alive today. That, in itself, is an unlikely miracle. 

Now what will you do with that miracle? Start by singing with me: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od; vaha’ikar lo lefached klal.

Questions for discussion:

“The first type is basic fear, which in Hebrew is pachad. Pachad is fear on its most primal level, fear that spurs us to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, life. Pachad is key to our survival. The second type of fear is hitpachdut, or worry. Hitpachdut is the fear of change, fear of anticipated losses, fear that the world we anchored ourselves is becoming unmoored. Hitpachdut is the fear that curls up our stomachs like an ouroboros, feeding on itself.”

Which type of fear do you find yourself sitting in most often?

“If we are living only in pachad or hitpachdut, we are profoundly limiting ourselves. We are saying: ‘I give up. I can do nothing to shape this world.’ We are confining ourselves to the dustbin of history before we’ve returned to dust.”

When have you found yourself feeling that you can do something to shape our world?

“If the bridge is narrow because our lives are finite, because we only have so many years in which to live, then Rebbe Nachman’s teaching comes to remind us that we are only here for a short time on this bridge between—depending on your theology—nothingness and nothingness, or everything and everything. And this reality should fill us with awe. And we are commanded—by the brevity of our lives, by the eternity that lives in us, by the eternity that calls to us from either side of this bridge—to live a life that is infused with awe and commanded by awe into action, simply because we are alive today. That, in itself, is an unlikely miracle.”

Now what will you do with that miracle? 

Rosh HaShanah 5781 Sermon: Breaking and Birthing

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

I want to begin with a story about a birth that happened 2,000 years ago. This isn’t the birth of a person, but the birth of a city—maybe the most important Jewish city you’ve never heard of: a place called Yavneh. 

In the first century CE, the Jews in the Land of Israel were living under harsh Roman rule. In 66 CE, after years of oppression, they rose up in open revolt against the Romans. The rebellion lasted for years, so long that General Vespasian himself finally came to crush it. In the year 70 CE on the 9th of Av, he commanded his troops to destroy Jerusalem.

The Temple, which had been the heart of Jewish life for centuries, was desecrated, then set on fire. Jewish men, women, and children were killed in the streets. The scale of destruction was shocking, unprecedented. And we have stories of rabbis, who, after the destruction, could only sit in the ruins of the Temple and weep. But there was one rabbi who did more than just mourn. There was one rabbi who, even as Jerusalem was burning, dreamt up a new kind of Judaism. His name was Yochanan ben Zakkai. 

Yochanan ben Zakkai recognized that Temple-based Judaism—the Judaism that connected Jews to God through priests and sacrifices—couldn’t survive the destruction of Jerusalem. So, as the city burned, Yochanan did something audacious: he got ahold a coffin. Then he lay down in it, and two other rabbis carried this coffin to the city gates, where guards were stationed. The guards wanted to stab the coffin to confirm that the person inside was actually dead, and were only convinced at the last second not to desecrate the body. 

The coffin was carried into the Roman camp, and set down in front of General Vespasian. And then Yochanan stood up, and climbed out.  This minor resurrection shocked the general and got his attention. Yochanan then flattered Vespasian, stroking to the general’s ego and calling him ‘emperor.’ And then Yochanan made his request: ‘Just give me Yavneh and her sages.’ And his request was granted. Jerusalem was destroyed, but Yavneh—a small town north of the city—was spared. 

Before the revolt, Yavneh had been an insignificant backwater where a few rabbis studied and debated Torah. Their way of life—based around Torah learning—hadn’t really made a dent in Judaism up until that point: the Jerusalem Temple had been the focus. In Yavneh, Yochanan ben Zakkai and his fellow rabbis birthed a new kind of Judaism: the Judaism that we practice, today. 

Temple Judaism had been full of warring Jewish sects, each insisting that their interpretation of Torah was the only right one. In contrast, the rabbis of Yavneh encouraged vigorous debate. This laid the groundwork for what later became the Mishnah, and then the Talmud. Rather than trying to rebuild the Temple, the rabbis of Yavneh created synagogues, and these synagogues became places of Jewish worship, and Jewish study, and Jewish community-building. In Yavneh, Judaism stopped being a centralized, sacrificial cult, and evolved into a more democratic and diverse way of life.

This was the birth of rabbinic Judaism. It was a Judaism that would spread across the Middle East to North Africa, then Asia, Europe, and eventually North America. Our Judaism, us sitting here today, is because of Yavneh. We are its inheritors. 

So what? Why am I speaking with you about Yavneh today? Because we, like Yochanan, are living through a time of shatter in this country. 

We saw the cracks in the veneer years ago. We saw the fault lines in 2016 and 2017, the growing fractures in 2018, 2019. And this year, and these last 6 months in particular, we are seeing chasms. 

On December 31st 2016, American Sikh lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur gave a powerful speech at an AME Church in Washington, DC. She spoke about her fear that her brown son, who was just a toddler at the time, would grow up to be seen “as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist, just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls still seen as someone else’s property.” Ms. Kaur said in 2016 that the future of this country looked dark. “But,” she went on to say, “The mother in me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” 

In light of the devastation of these last 4 years, of these last 6 months, of the nearly 200,000 dead in this country alone because of a willfully incompetent administration that lets its people die in a plague, we cannot pretend this is not the darkness of the tomb as we grieve and as we rage over everyone and everything we’ve lost. 

We are living through a time of shatter. 

The Hebrew word for shatter is shavar. Shavar also means brokenness, destruction, calamity. It’s from the word shavar that we get the shofar call shevarim: Three cries, three articulations of grief punctuated by gasps. 

Shevarim is the sound of this moment: not just the new year, but this moment, September 19th 2020 in the United States of America. 

Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘Look! Things are not ok!’

Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘How do we get through this?’

Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘This hurts! This hurts! This hurts.’

It feels, right now, like we are in the darkness of the tomb. It feels, lately, like death is winning, like destruction is everywhere. It feels like we are moving from crisis to crisis, barely able to catch our breath. It hurts. And there is devastation. And things are not ok.

And so I need you to remember Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, in a time when everything around him was on fire, sidled up alongside death in order to give birth to a legacy that is ours, today. I want you to remember Yochanan, who climbed into a coffin in order to birth the Judaism we needed. Our religion, us gathering here today, was midwifed by one person, 2,000 years ago, who had an audacious vision for a life that included mourning what was lost, but also imagining how different the future could be.

Like Yochanan, we are living through a time of shatter. 

This shatter means that we may never regain the lives we had before. We have to grieve all that’s being lost. But grieving should also be accompanied by dreaming. Because living through a time of shatter now doesn’t mean that there is only loss ahead. It means that we also have a chance, more than ever before, to be dreaming and building towards the future that we know will be different, whether next month, next year, in five years, ten years, in the lives of our children or our grandchildren our or great-grandchildren.

Coming back to the Hebrew word for shatter, shavar. The Hebrew for crisis also comes from shavar. The word for crisis is mashber. But: mashber also means birthing stool. In our tradition, in our language, crisis, and birthing stool, are one in the same.

Every person who has ever labored to push out a baby knows that birth is messy. That birth is dangerous. That it is painful, so painful. And that it is powerful, and awe-inspiring. And we give birth again and again because ultimately, the hope of bringing new life into this world, of bringing about a new world, is worth it. 

Labor is a crisis that shatters bodies and hearts. It takes all our energy, all our effort. And it is the purest moment of creation that we as humans know.

It’s no coincidence that much of the Torah we read on Rosh HaShanah retells stories of difficult births and new worlds longed for. We have Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac at age 99. And Hagar, who births Ishmael, and then saves his life with a prayer. We have Hannah, who pleads to God for a child after years of infertility, and gives birth to Samuel, who becomes a prophet. And of course, the alternate Torah reading for today is Bereshit, literally the story of the creation of our world.

Rosh HaShanah, with its stories of shatter, of breach and of birth, reminds us of all that’s possible.

Almost four years ago, Valarie Kaur suggested that this era is the darkness of the womb, and not the tomb. I think, now, we can see that it’s both. This is breaking, and birth. This is shatter; and with it, the tearing of the veil to make way for a new vision. 

Rosh HaShanah is the birth day of the world, the anniversary of the moment the Holy One spoke life into existence, and named it ‘good’. Rosh HaShanah reminds us that we are God’s partners in creation. Rosh HaShanah, more than any other day, is the time to begin birthing new visions and new worlds.

I want you to remember all our ancestors, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, Yochanan, and all those whose names we don’t know who labored after them. All our countless ancestors who dreamed and birthed and did not stop dreaming, did not stop creating, and named us as their inheritors of a tradition that reminds us, never more than today, that we are made in the image of the One who creates light out of darkness.

Trust this. Trust that this is a birth. We will need to breathe life into it. We will need to give it our patience, our fierceness, our imagination, the whole of who we are. 

It will be messy. And it will be worth it.

May we, and the world we are birthing, be inscribed together in the Book of Life. And let us say, amen.

Questions for discussion:

“Shevarim is the sound of this moment: not just the new year, but this moment, September 19th 2020 in the United States of America. Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘Look! Things are not ok!’ Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘How do we get through this?’ Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘This hurts! This hurts! This hurts.’”

What are you crying out right now?

Whose cries are being heard, and whose voices are going unheard?

“Almost four years ago, Valarie Kaur suggested that this era is the darkness of the womb, and not the tomb. I think, now, we can see that it’s both. This is breaking, and birth. This is shatter; and with it, the tearing of the veil to make way for a new vision.”

Do you agree feel that this is a time of shatter?

What new vision are you dreaming up?

A Guided Personal Tashlich

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

The guided meditation above is based on Tashlich; you can use it as an alternative to an outdoors Tashlich or to enhance the ritual.

Last year for Tashlich, we gathered at Mallett’s Creek on Rosh Hashanah afternoon. We were blessed with a warm autumn late-afternoon sun, and we stood for a long time on the bridge over the creek, singing together: ‘Loosen, loosen baby. You don’t have to carry the weight of the world in your muscles and bones. Let go, let go, let go. Holy breath and Holy Name: will you ease, will you ease this pain.’ 

God-willing, next year we’ll gather and sing together as a community again. For this year, we’re offering a guided personal Tashlich ritual to do on your own, with family, or with friends—please just take care to be COVID-safe.

How to do Tashlich this year:

1. Look for a natural body of water that you can access easily. Tashlich is an invitation to cast our sins away into a body of water like a river, spring, lake, pond, or well. Most people prefer natural, flowing bodies of water because it gives the effect of our past deeds being swept away by the current. If you don’t live near a natural body of water or can’t manage to get to one, you can use running water from a hose or faucet. 

2. Try performing Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah. Tashlich is supposed to be performed on the first or second day of Rosh Hashanah. If, however, you’re unable to perform the ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, Tashlich can be done any day during the Days of Awe until Yom Kippur

3. Examine what you’ve struggled with in the past year before doing Tashlich. Tashlich requires that we review our behavior over the last year before we can cast away our deeds. Remember that everyone struggles with mistakes, misdeeds, and accidents, so don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself during this period of review. Keep in mind, however, that the goal of Tashlich is to move forward in the year, rather than to dwell on the past.

4. Collect your “sins” in your pockets. We have provided you with seeds to act as physical symbols of your sins; seeds are safer than bread for the wildlife that live in nearby creeks. Although some people discourage tossing actual items because it stems from superstitious practices, it can be helpful, especially for young people, to visualize our misdeeds being carried away by the water.

5. Walk to the body of water or basin. As you do, try singing, if it feels appropriate. Here are some possibilities (click on the links to hear the songs):

  1. Eili, Eili: Eili, Eili shelo yigameri l’olam. Hachol v’hayam, rishrush shel hamayim, b’rak hashamayim, t’filat ha-adam.
  2. Hashiveini: Hashiveini, ve’ashuvah x2 Chadeish, chadeish, chadeish, yameinu k’kedem x2
  3. Avinu Malkeinu: Avinu malkeinu, choneinu va-aneinu ki ein banu ma-asim. Asei imanu tzedakah vachesed v’hoshi-einu.

6. Read a biblical prayer. The source passage for Tashlich comes from the last verses of the prophet Micah (7:18-20). These verses tell why we practice Tashlich:

7. Cast your sins into the body of water. After your prayer, reach into your pockets and grab the seeds or metaphorical sins, and throw them into the water. Once you let go of them, breathe out and watch them wash away. Only do this when you feel ready. It might take you longer than some other people to prepare for this moment, but don’t feel rushed. 

‘Who is a God like You, Forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression; Who has not maintained wrath forever against the remnant of God’s own people, Because God loves graciousness, God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will keep faith with Jacob, loyalty to Abraham, as You promised on oath.’

8. Offer a prayer about your hope for the year. Talk to God out loud about who you are and who you’d like to be in the coming year. If you need help with words, try answering some of these questions:

  • Am I using my time wisely? If not, how can I?
  • How do I want to be there for the people who need me? 
  • What new insights and knowledge do I want to acquire this year?
  • What would it look like to live more fully this coming year?
  • How can I trust more in You, or, how can I more closely align with what is holy in the world?

AARC Celebrates Pride Month

Written by: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

June is Pride Month in this country: a month when LGBTQ+ voices are amplified, LGBTQ lives are celebrated, LGTBQ losses are mourned, and when we renew our commitment to creating a world of justice and equality for all.

Naomi Goldberg, an Ann Arbor Jewish activist and co-parent with her wife Libby of 7-year-old Nathan, wrote on Sunday May 30th:

“I always look forward to Pride Month, but it feels heavier this year – because of the killings of black people and the painful and important wrestling with how far we still have to go as a country (and as white people); because of the pandemic with hundreds of thousands dying and sick and millions losing jobs and millions struggling with social distancing; and while we’re anticipating rulings from SCOTUS that could jeopardize workplace protections for LGBTQ people.”

We don’t celebrate Pride this year in spite of overwhelming loss and revealed injustice:

We celebrate because the first Pride Parade was the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a protest against police violence led by queer and trans people of color.

We celebrate because LGBTQ equality is a branch of the same tree that roots the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, disability activism, and the ongoing struggle to teach our political leaders that human lives must be valued over financial profit.

We celebrate knowing that joy is important; that learning our LGBTQ Jewish history is important; that highlighting LGBTQ heroes in our community and beyond is important; and that hearing and witnessing our LGBTQ members, particularly during this time, is important.

We celebrate because celebrating is an act of joyful defiance against those who would have us believe that we are not all created b’tzelem Elohim.

How will AARC celebrate Pride Month this year?

On Friday June 26th, join us online for Pride Shabbat, beginning at 6:30 pm. If there are readings, poems, or personal reflections you’d like included in the service, email Rabbi Ora (rabbi@aarecon.org) by Friday, June 19.

What else will happen? We have some ideas, but we need YOU to make them happen!

  • A virtual Pride ‘Parade,’ kicked off by a kid-centered virtual sign-making party. After creating the signs, take a photo of your family holding these signs in your front yard, or stick them in your windows and take a photo of that! We’ll share them all together as a virtual Parade. Are you willing to coordinate this (with help)? Email Gillian at aarcgillian@gmail.com
  • Host an online discussion based on a podcast episode. Keshet has a new podcast video series called Joy and Resilience: Jewish LGBTQ Leaders on What Sustains Us All, while the podcast Making Gay History has a number of episodes that focus on past and present Jewish LGBTQ activists. Invite folks to watch or listen at their leisure, then plan a Zoom call to talk about it. Want to facilitate this (with guidance)? Email Rabbi Ora at rabbi@aarecon.org
  • Are you an LGBTQ member of our community? Consider writing a paragraph on what Jewish community means to you, and we’ll feature your words in a special blog post this month. Have something to share? Please email Judith Jacobs (judithjacobs@mac.com) with your reflection by June 11
  • Do you have pictures of yourself and your family or friends attending Pride parades in past years? Email Gillian your photos

Other ideas for how we can celebrate and learn together? Please email Rabbi Ora, Gillian, or Judith so we can support you in making your vision a reality.

Finally, I want to remind you that starting this year, AARC celebrates Pride Month in the context of a larger commitment from our leadership to increase LGBTQ inclusion in our congregation through leadership training, programming, policy, and shifts in culture. If you have ideas on how to contribute in any of these areas, please be in touch.

I look forward to celebrating with you.

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner 

Counting the Omer During Quarantine

Written by: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty in our lives right now. Many of the norms and systems we felt we could count on have shifted, changed, or been upended. To add to the stress of this unraveling, time itself has become elastic; we don’t have a clear sense of how long this new normal will last. And that’s hard.

During our most recent Community Check-In, I spoke about how the Omer–that is, the 49 days between Day 2 of Passover and Shavuot–was the precise length of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai.

This physical journey didn’t need to take 49 days; Egypt and Mt. Sinai aren’t that far apart. But the Israelites needed those full 7 weeks to enact an internal psychological shift, moving from a free-wheeling, newly-embraced freedom and all the frantic energy that that entailed to an understanding of the importance of mutual care and commitment to an ethical, rule-bound life.

Nowadays, we count the Omer to remember this internal shift that our ancestors experienced. Implicit in counting the Omer is a reminder that growth periods are often slow and filled with a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

We know that counting the Omer takes 49 days because we know how the story of the Exodus ends. But imagine how the Israelites must have felt just after leaving Egypt– with everything in flux, thrust into a new world, and with no sense of how or when that part of their journey would end.

As we move through our own time of profound uncertainty, we have the same tools as our ancestors to keep us rooted and open: We can notice where we started. We can look around and realize who is with us on this journey. We can understand that the path is uncertain, both in journey and duration. We can notice that we keep moving forward, one step at a time. And we can remember that we will get through this, together.

***

Several of our members are taking on the spiritual practice of counting the Omer this year, and are reporting that it feels especially relevant and helpful right now. If you didn’t start counting with Day 1, not a problem – you can jump in whenever you like!

Here are some resources to help you get started:

May we be blessed with health, safety, and growth on this journey, and blessed to notice what can truly be counted on during this time.

Rabbi Ora

Your Virtual Seder Resource!

Passover is quickly approaching; the first night falls on Wednesday, April 8th. And this year, the holiday comes during an extraordinary time.

The central commandment of Passover—retelling the story of the Exodus–asks that we consider ourselves as if we, too, had journeyed from narrowness to openness and from oppression to liberation.

This year, more than any in recent memory, that narrative rings true. We are currently in a narrow place; and, for that very reason, we must take the opportunity to make this year’s holiday one of engagement, connection, and celebration.

In accordance with recent guidelines from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, we urge our community to restrict in-person seders to household members AND open up our seders to connect virtually with loved ones near and far.

***

Below, you’ll find articles, classes, videos, and links to help you prepare for Passover 2020:

I want to host a seder. How do I plan for that?

Wonderful! If you’d like to try online hosting a seder this year, there are resources available to help you plan (see below).

While you’re planning your seder, please consider the holy mitzvah of welcoming others to your virtual table: Sign up here if you’re able to open your seder to members of our community.

I want to be hosted. How do I find a virtual seder to attend?

  1. Be on the lookout for an email later this week that will allow you to sign up to attend AARC members’ online seders.
  2. Sign up in advance to join Jewish Women International’s Virtual Seder on Thursday, April 9 at 8 pm EDT.
  3. Havaya (Reconstructing Judaism’s summer camp) is hosting a one-hour Virtual Family Seder on Thursday, April 9 at 7 pm EDT; sign up here to register.
  4. Join the Haggadot.com team, journalist Esther Kustanowitz, and other special guests for an everyone-welcome, fifth ‘night’ Virtual Seder on Sunday, April 12 at 2 pm EDT (join via Zoom or Facebook livestream).

How do I plan my own virtual seder?

  • Alma.com has a fantastically comprehensive guide for putting together a collaborative, meaningful seder — even when the guests are physically far away.
  • Watch the video ‘The Art of Virtually Gathering: Passover 2020.’
  • Attend a free online class this Thursday April 2 on ‘Practical Pesach Seder Ideas and Suggestions in Response to Corona’ (you’ll need to register in advance).
  • From OneTable, myriad resources for Passover 2020, including a Solo Seder Guide, Passover Recipe Guide, Passover Playlist, and links to a curated selection of haggadot.

Which haggadot should I use?

….And consider these of-the-moment additions:

How do I plan a kid-friendly seder?

  • AARC member Carol Levin has generously made her delightful Haggadah Regatta into a PDF for anyone to use.
  • Check out Reform Judaism’s many family-friendly Passover resources, including crafts, coloring pages, fun quizzes, 8 great haggadot for young people, a chocolate seder (!), and model seders for kids of all ages.

How do I prepare my home for Passover?

How do I spiritually prepare for Passover?

  • Attend a free online class next Monday April 6, ‘Soulful Passover Preparation’ (you’ll need to register in advance).
  • Explore some of the articles in this Passover 2020 reader from Uri Le’Tzedek.

Blessings for healthy, joyful, and connected zman cheruteinu (season of our liberation),

Rabbi Ora

Introducing A Taste of Talmud: When Life Meets Prayer

Perhaps even more than the Torah, the Talmud can be thought of as the quintessential Jewish text. Why? Because it’s full of everything that makes Jews Jewish: love of debate, intellectual curiosity, storytelling, humor, and the search for new meaning in inherited text and tradition.

The complete Talmud (in Aramaic) comprises over 2,700 pages of conversation, law, legend, and history. If you’ve never studied directly from a page of Talmud before, it can seem daunting. But AARC’s upcoming course ‘A Taste of Talmud: When Life Meets Prayer’ is here to help you get curious and comfortable through a 5-week immersion in Talmud text. 

We’ll be study directly from the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Berachot, a rich conversation on the power of prayer, how and why we pray, and what happens when life meets prayer.

This course will take place on Sundays, 1:00-2:30 pm, beginning February 9, 2020. 

** Please note: The first session is an introduction and will be held in the Temple Beth Emeth library. The remaining 4 sessions will be at the Ann Arbor JCC.

Course Schedule: Sundays, 1-2:30 pm

February 9: The ABCs of Talmud Study: By the end of this introductory session, you can expect to be able to define and identify terms like Mishnah, Talmud, midrash, aggadah, masechet, sugya, daf, and gemara, as well as know how to navigate a page of Talmud. (TBE library)

Note: No meeting on February 16

February 23: Berachot Chapter 5: Who should be our model for prayer? Should we follow the model of a heartbroken wife? A repentant philanderer? Who is the ideal pray-er? And how does emotion influence prayer? (JCC)

March 1: Berachot Chapter 5 continued: How should we pray? Should we use our bodies in prayer? What if our bodies are praying ‘right’ but our minds are distracted? (JCC)

March 8: Berachot Chapter 9: What can we pray for? Can you ask God for something frivolous? Can you pray to avert harm? Do you have to pray even if you’re angry at God or frustrated at life?

March 15: Berachot Chapter 9 continued: Who do we pray for? Do we pray for ourselves? For our loved ones? For strangers? Can prayer ever be selfish or unwelcome?

Questions:

Q: Do I need to know Hebrew or Aramaic to participate?

A: No! We’ll be using the Steinsaltz English translation of the original Aramaic.

Q: What if I can’t make every session?

A: The learning will be cumulative, so while the ideal would be to attend every session, drop-ins are welcome.

Q: Do I need to bring any texts to class?

A: Just a notebook in case you want to write anything down. All texts will be provided.

Erring on the Side of Love

Kol Nidrei 5780 Sermon

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Toronto, 1990. I’m seven, in grade 2 at Bialik Hebrew Day School. My favourite class at school is art. Outside of school, I do gymnastics, which I mostly don’t like because I’m not good at it, and pottery, which I do like, because I am.

I’m not very outdoorsy but I like playing in our neighbourhood park. At the park I make a new friend, a Jewish girl my age, and we play together every few days.

One day I get to the park expecting to play and my new friend says to me: ‘Tatte says I can’t play with you anymore.’ Tatte is Yiddish for father – my friend is Orthodox and speaks Yiddish at home. She says: ‘I can’t play with you anymore because Tatte says you’re not Jewish.’

Not Jewish. My seven-year-old self found this so confusing. Didn’t my family go to shul every Shabbes? Didn’t we keep kosher? Didn’t we put our menorah in the front window on Chanukah, just like every other Jewish family on our street? 

I felt Jewish. And yet according to my friend’s father, I was not. 

That was the first time in my life I was told I wasn’t Jewish. But it wasn’t the last. Over the years other people said similar things to me — neighbors in Toronto, shopkeepers in New York, rabbis in Jerusalem. 

Thus far, in my life it’s been mostly Orthodox Jews who have questioned my Jewishness. But the Orthodox are certainly not the only Jews who invest energy in deciding who does and does not belong in Jewish community. 

Over the years I’ve heard many stories from friends, colleagues, congregants who have been told in ways subtle and unsubtle that they are not Jewish, or not Jewish enough, or are Jewishly suspect. My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Emily Cohen, who was raised in a committed Jewish household by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, was told by more traditional rabbinical schools that she’d have to convert before applying. My colleague Rabbi Shais Rishon, a black Orthodox Jew in New York, has been asked in Jewish spaces ‘how are you Jewish?’ so many times that he’s developed the response, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you, Jewish?” I’ve talked to converts whose decision to convert was met by suspicion and a profound lack of welcome. I’ve talked to off-the-derech Jews whose community cut them off after they stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle. I’ve talked to engaged couples – straight interfaith couples and queer Jewish couples – who had other rabbis tell them they were making a mistake in their choice of partner, and refused to marry them. 

If you’ve ever experienced this kind of scrutiny or rejection, you know how deeply wounding it is. 

Even if it’s not done out of malice, it hurts. It hurts to have someone deny that you belong. It hurts to be told you’re not welcome in a place that should feel like home. It can make it so that afterwards, even when you walk into a welcoming space, part of you is always expecting to be told: ‘You shouldn’t really be here.’ And maybe most damaging of all, this kind of scrutiny and rejection can plant seeds of doubt. It can make a person say to themselves: ‘Maybe I’m not really who I think I am. Maybe my home isn’t here.’

Unfortunately, this kind of boundary-policing has been going on in Jewish communities for millennia.

In part, it’s because Judaism began as a religion of otherness. Abraham, the first Jew, had a radical idea – that God was one, not many. It took Abraham smashing his father’s idols to get the point across: I’m different. I believe in a different God than you do.

Mitzvot – commandedness – helped ensure a connection to this different God. Mitzvot also ensured that Jews would behave like one another and unlike their non-Jewish neighbors. And to further assist in this project of radical religious otherness, Judaism’s religious leaders did their best to ensure that Jews would have limited contact with the non-Jewish world. 

The Torah largely forbade intermarriage with non-Israelite nations. Kashrut limited our dining options, and certain Talmudic rabbis forbade Jews from eating and drinking with non-Jews entirely. Medieval rabbis prohibited their community members from even entering non-Jewish houses of worship. And even into the 20th century, speaking primarily in Yiddish, Ladino, or Hebrew prevented Jews from developing close personal or business ties with their non-Jewish neighbors. 

As Jews, we have a long tradition of being different and keeping ourselves separate. This has required a strict policing of boundaries, done in the name of God and community. For those in the in-group who’ve refused to toe the party line – for those who have acted not-properly-Jewish – there’s a long tradition of excommunication, known as ‘karet’ – exiling transgressive Jews from their communities.

We can’t deny that one of the reasons Judaism has lasted so long is because historically, it has strongly policed the in-group’s borders. 

But this policing is always in service to the collective. In focusing on the whole, rather than its parts, Judaism hasn’t always taken as seriously the individual’s need for exploration, self-expression, or curiosity within a given religious community. 

Prioritizing the needs of the individual can mean making existing members temporarily uncomfortable, or even eventually shifting the group’s core identity. This can be expansive – it can have the effect of bringing in fresh, enlivening perspectives and shifting stagnant values or beliefs. But it’s also challenging to do and do well. 

So how does any Jewish community make these key decisions around belonging? In the tension between maintaining strict borders and being radically expansive; in the tension between keeping our identity intact and minimizing the individual wounds of scrutiny and rejection, what values might serve as our guide?  

In considering this question, I thought about various theories of group dynamics and social identity. But ultimately, I found inspiration in the centuries-old mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. 

Kabalah promotes the idea of ten sefirot, ten divine traits that manifest in different ways in God and our world.

Gevurah, one of these ten sefirot, is the emanation associated with judgment and limitation, law and strict justice. Gevurah in divine form appears many times in the bible – a God filled with anger, a God quick to punish. In individuals, gevurah is associated with the power to restrain one’s innate urge to bestow goodness on others when the recipient is judged to be unworthy of it. Naturally, communities that strongly self-police rely heavily on gevurah. And you may be unsurprised to hear that the emotional state that corresponds with gevurah is yirah, or fear.

The sefira of gevurah exists opposite the sefira of chesed. In people, chesed is associated with unconditional love and a willingness to stretch to accommodate the needs of the other. Chesed is what undergirded Abraham’s practice of welcoming strangers into his tent. Like Abraham reaching out, chesed is thought to be proactive – an expansive force that impels the soul to connect with what it outside itself. In cosmological terms, chesed is associated with the very first day of creation – with God’s need to create a world, filled with light.

The emotional state that corresponds with chesed is ahavah, love.

In classical Kabbalah, gevurah and chesed are meant to balance each other out in equal measure. And that makes sense to me. Our world needs love to temper justice, and boundaries to offer a container for love. 

But later Kabbalists came to believe that too much gevurah was actually the source of the world’s evil. They taught that the Sitra Achra, the evil inclination, is actually based in gevurah. That too much judgment is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man. 

So they proposed that we always aim for more chesed than gevurah. That we should err on the side of abundant love, rather than on the side of limits.

As modern-day professionals, parents, colleagues, friends, we know the value of setting limits. But I want you to consider with me, this evening, the value of community erring on the side of love. 

But why this evening? Why am I choosing Kol Nidrei to talk about this? 

Because at no other time is the Jewish belief in the value of love more obvious than during these High Holy Days.

Nine days ago we celebrated Rosh HaShanah. Anticipating Yom Kippur, also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, we called out ‘Adonai Adonai el rachum vechanun erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet’ – we called out to a God of compassion, a God slow to anger, a God full of abundant love. We asked the most loving version of God we know to welcome us back and to remember us for good. We sang ‘aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshiaynu’ — treat us with generosity and love, and save us.

And then we blew the shofar. Why? According to one midrash, on Rosh Hashanah, God sits upon kisei hadin, a throne of strict judgment. But when we blow the shofar, God gets up from this throne of judgment and moves to the kisei rachamim, the seat of compassion. And that is the place from which God welcomes us on Yom Kippur – from a place of love.  (Lev Rabbah 29:3)

During these High Holy Days, we call on God to move towards love because we are absolutely clear that love is what will save us. 

We are clear on that. So why not model our community on that same call? Why not make love the grounding principle of our tradition, opening our metaphorical tents on all sides? And not just during the Yamim Noraim, but throughout the year. Because let’s be real. We’re not only being saved or saving one another on Yom Kippur. It happens in ways large and small in how we reach out to one another or turn away from one another throughout the year.

Many of you have heard by now that this year, our congregation has undertaken to remodel itself in accordance with the values of radical welcoming. This community’s leadership has asked itself, what would it take to ensure that every person feels welcome in this community? Because we’re a community made of human beings, we’ve already missed the mark a couple times. But we’re going to keep at it. We’re going to keep learning and trying. 

And we need your help. If we’re going to create a community based on chesed, we need to hear from you: What would it take to make you feel welcomed? What would it take to help you feel like you fully belonged?

If there are ways that this particular community can grow to serve you better – please let us know. Or if there are ways I can help you strategize about how to make your other Jewish communities more welcoming – come talk to me. And if there are parts of you that are unsure whether you belong here – please let us know how we can build trust with you. So that you feel that you belong, and you know that you are beloved.

I began this sermon talking about my experience of being told as a young person: You’re not Jewish. You don’t belong. 

And now – I’m a rabbi. And rabbis have a long tradition of serving as gatekeepers of Jewish communities.  

And so I want to take the opportunity, this evening, with so many of you gathered here, to make myself clear: As a rabbi and as a human being I place more value on chesed than gevurah. It is more important to me to open the gates wide, to be asked to stretch, to be invited to do better, and to commit to figuring it out, than to tell someone they don’t belong. 

Why? 

Because I want every person here to feel beloved by their community. 

I want you to see yourself as not at the margins, but at the center. 

And I want you to know that this messy enterprise of life is made richer and more complex and more beautiful because of how you choose to engage with your Jewish community.

If you come here this evening bearing an old wound of being told that you didn’t belong in one Jewish community or another: because one or both of your parents weren’t Jewish; because of who you loved or married; because of your family; because you are single; because of your body’s abilities; because of the colour of your skin; because of your gender, because of your age; because of your finances, because of where you were born; because of your politics; because of your views on Israel and Palestine; because of your level of observance or knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish prayer; because of whether or how you believe in God; because of any variety of your uniqueness:

To each of you here ever turned away from Jewish community – that community sinned against you. You deserved better. You deserved a Judaism that centered you and a Jewish community where you felt like you belonged. A community that knew intuitively and immediately how much a part of it you were. And I’m sorry if you were ever made to believe otherwise.

Even on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we know implicitly that more love, more acceptance, more gentleness is what will get us closer to God and to one another. So my blessing for us this Yom Kippur and the year to come: may we be an inspiration to one another and even to the Holy One above by erring on the side of loving and being loved. Ken yehi ratzon.

Remembering For Life, Being Remembered for Life

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Why are we here?

I don’t mean that in the sense of why do we exist – although, of all the times to ask that question, Rosh HaShanah would be a reasonable one. But you can relax. I’m not thinking quite that meta. 

I mean, why are we here, in this building, this evening? Where does Rosh HaShanah come from?

In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, we find God saying to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.’” Essentially, God is saying: “Here’s the Jewish calendar.” The first holiday listed is Passover, then Shavuot, then Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. And each of these sacred occasions is accompanied by a verse or two on how to observe it. 

For Rosh HaShanah, it is written: “On the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24).

So we know when Rosh HaShanah is supposed to take place – the first of the month of Tishrei. And we know it’s meant to be a holy day, which means, no work. And we know it’s meant to be a day of remembering – a “zichron” – announced by a shofar.  

What are we supposed to remember?

The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re supposed to remember the past year. Rosh HaShanah opens up the ten Days of Awe, during which we recall, reflect, and repent, so that we don’t repeat our missed marks from the past year.

But we’re not the only ones remembering on this holiday. God is also remembering.

During services tomorrow, we’ll sing: “Zokhrenu l’hayyim” – God, remember us for life and inscribe us in the Book of Life. And we’ll add, “Zocher yetsurav…” – God of Mercy, remember all your creations with compassion. 

Based on how many times in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we ask God to remember our deeds and judge us for good, it seems like we’re not convinced it’s a sure thing. So as an added strategy, we also ask God to remember that we have a relationship that goes way back. 

We begin the Rosh HaShanah Amidah with, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu ve’Elohai avoteinu ve’imoteinu…” – “Blessed are You, Holy One, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.” And then throughout the Amidah we repeatedly refer to God as “Elohainu v’Elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu” – Our God and God of our ancestors – and ask God to go easy on us based on the merit of their good deeds. 

On the surface, this strategy seems not unreasonable. To be a little glib, you could call it cosmic nepotism. We’re saying to God, “Hey, you knew my great great great etc. grandfather… he was a good guy. So I’m probably a good guy, too, no?”

But thinking about it more deeply, this a strategy based on a flawed premise. Because if you’ve ever read more than one or two chapters of Genesis alone, you’ve realized that our biblical ancestors had profoundly messy and morally complicated lives. 

On Rosh HaShanah alone, we read plenty of examples of our ancestors’ misdeeds. 

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah is the story of how Sarah orders Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael. Abraham is troubled, but he listens to Sarah. So Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert with just a little bread and water. They survive only because God intervenes to save them. 

And the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh HaShanah? That’s the story of Akedat Yitzchak, of the near-murder of Isaac. Abraham listens to what he believes is the voice of God, telling him to sacrifice his and Sarah’s child. Abraham and Isaac journey to Mount Moriah, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on an altar and is about to cut Isaac’s throat, and then an angel intervenes to save them. 

In both of these stories as they appear in our Torah, there’s no acknowledgement of misdeed. There’s no apology. And there’s no recompense.

And Abraham and Sarah were just the first of our complicated ancestors. Their children, and their children’s children, and on and on through the generations, morally missed the mark again and again. Our biblical ancestor fought amongst themselves. They stole land and birthrights. They lied, and cheated, and sold siblings into slavery.

So why do we remind God of our connection to these ancestors when we pray on Rosh HaShanah? Couldn’t this actually backfire? 

Here’s the thing: We don’t know the impact of reminding God of our ancestors, because we don’t know God – God is inherently unknowable. We have no idea what it means for God to remember us, or our ancestors. 

What we do know, though, is our own experience of remembering. 

We know how it feels to remember our flawed ancestors. And it can be hard to be reminded of this complicated legacy and the fact that it’s a part of our cannon.

So what we do with this flawed family tree? How do we sit with these difficult ancestors?

Well, Jews throughout history have been trying to figure this out. I would say these efforts typically fall into one of the 3 categories.

The first category is a kind of apologetics, reframing our ancestor’s actions as unequivocally positive. This is something the rabbis of the Talmud did often. To them, Abraham wasn’t a man who almost murdered his son; Abraham was a God-fearing person who somehow knew all along that he’d never actually be allowed to go through with it. And Sarah, abusive towards Hagar? According to the rabbis, Sarah was morally unblemished (Bereshit Rabbah 58:1). She only wanted what was best for her son.

This drive to reframe, to say that what seems bad is actually morally unobjectionable, is older than the Torah itself. It goes back to earliest human history, and is rooted in the youngest, most tender places of our collective and individual psyches. In psychological terms, we could say that this drive comes from the child self, who needs the parent, on whom they’re reliant, to be completely good and blameless. Rather than finding our ancestors at fault, we twist the stories and ourselves into knots in order to see them as only good.

The second tendency is to look at the stories of our ancestors and focus only on their sins. Many Jews throughout history have done just that – have said “look at these flawed characters” or “look at this abusive God.” And based on the painful moral ambiguity of our inherited stories, some have said: “I want none of this.” And have walked away from God, or from Jewish practice, or from Jewish community.

You could say that this second tendency is rooted in the collective teenage psyche. It’s the need to push away from home. It’s the need to individuate, find independence, and critique the status quo so that we can emerge into a fuller perspective on the world and our place within it.

So. The first option aligns with the needs of the child-self: My people are actually good. The second option aligns with the teenage self: My people are actually bad.

And the third option? The third comes from the integrated or adult psyche. From that vantage point, we look back at our ancestors and their misdeeds. At the teshuvah they did manage. And at what they left undone. We notice how flawed they were. And also, how hard they were trying. And finally, we notice that there is much for us learn: from their values, from their mistakes, from their stories.

You may have gathered, by now, that this doesn’t only apply to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. This isn’t just about our distant ancestors. It also applies to our own more recent ancestors. Even the ones still with us – the family we called earlier today to wish a Shanah Tova to, or the ones we visited this past summer, or last year.

For me, this time of year – this time of remembering ancestors – brings back memories of my own grandfather, the way he shuffled down the synagogue aisle on Rosh HaShanah, the way his hand, shaking with Parkinsons, felt in mine as I helped him to his seat. I remember his sweet smile, his playful personality. 

I remember my grandmother making kugel for us for the holiday meal, a sweet noodle kugel with raisins, and my grandfather sprinkling extra sugar on top, the shaking of his hands helping to spread the sugar evenly. 

I remember standing next to my father in shul on Yom Kippur, and how he draped his tallit over my sister and I during the priestly blessing, and how protected and safe I felt. 

And, in my remembering, I also remember how my father, who didn’t like his rabbi, would sit in the front row during Rosh HaShanah services and blatantly read a book during the rabbi’s sermon. And I remember how my grandmother would greet us with suffocating hugs when we came over for dinner, her anxious love permeating everything.

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. Our distant ancestors, and the ones closer.

And as we remember, we also choose. Do we recall only the good, and cover over the bad? Do we remember only the bad, and forget the good? Or can we remember with compassion and moral clarity, with a gentle eye on the course of history and how it shaped our ancestors and us? 

In our liturgy, we sing again and again, “Zochreinu lechayyim” – remember us for life. How can we remember in a way that enlivens us? How can we remember the ways our ancestors missed the mark, but still know that we have arrows to string and release in the direction of love? How can we remember so that the memories are more lesson than burden? How can we remember, for life?

This whole sermon, I’ve been talking about remembering the past. But the reality is that one day, we, too, will become ancestors. At some point, we will no longer be doing the remembering. We will be the ones remembered, by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, colleagues, students, all whose lives we’ve touched. 

What might we do with the knowledge that we will one day be remembered?

I want to close by sharing with you the inspiration for this evening’s sermon. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office with Sam Ball, a young congregant whose bar mitzvah is coming up in November. We were reading Sam’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha recounts how a pregnant Hagar ran away from home because of how badly Sarah treated her.

As we read through the story of Sarah and Abraham and their mistreatment of Hagar, Sam said to me: “Abraham and Sarah really should’ve thought about what their descendants would think of them.”

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. To reshape and reframe the old stories so that they enliven us. And, Sam reminded me and us that we are at our best when we also remember that we are accountable to the future, when we live holding the question, “Who do my descendants need me to become?” 

We too will become ancestors one day. And the way we live our lives will be a lesson for generations to come.

My simple blessing for us, as we enter this holiday of remembering: May we remember, for life. May we act this coming year in such a way as to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. And when the time comes, may we be remembered, for life. And let us say, Amen.

What Does it Mean To Be Welcoming: Appropriate Touch and Consent

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

As a people, Jews are pretty hands-on—literally. Some of us greet each other with kisses; some hug to offer condolences or support; many of us gesticulate when we talk. The hands-on approach extends to our sacred objects, such as touching the Torah’s mantle on Shabbat or kissing our fingers after touching a mezuzah.

In our congregation, touch is woven into the fabric of our community. On Friday nights we invite everyone to “touch the challah or touch someone who’s touching the challah.” At the conclusion of Friday night services, we put our arms around one another and bless our family and friends. During Havdalah, we sway together in a circle. Even in passing, some of us hug hello and goodbye.

Touch has the power to nourish and comfort, to stabilize, and to share strength. We know that touch is vital to our emotional and even physical wellbeing. Yet it is equally important to acknowledge that touch is not always welcomed, even in congregations that experience connection and holiness in embodied ways. 

The value of being welcoming is at the core of our congregation. So how do we make sure that everyone feels safe when we reach out (literally and metaphorically) to one another? 

This can look like asking, “Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” and then acting on the reply. But it’s not just that: it won’t work unless we can hear a “no” without experiencing it as judgment or rejection. It also requires us to name our boundaries. We need to get comfortable saying things like, “Thank you for asking; I’d rather not be touched,” or “I’m not comfortable with your hand on my waist; please touch my shoulder instead.”

This is challenging work. Reacting to a “no” with grace and acceptance requires both gentleness and a leaning into our Chesed side. Saying “no” requires a lot of Gevurah, as well as trust that we’ll be heard. It’s challenging, but it’s vital for creating holy community together.

In thinking about values around welcoming and welcomed touch, I was inspired by an unlikely source: the ultra-Orthodox custom of shomer negiah. This phrase literally translates as “being watchful” (shomer) in matters of touch (negiah), but the phrase has come to refer to the custom of avoiding direct physical contact with members of the opposite sex. 

I feel some discomfort with Orthodoxy’s ideology and praxis of shomer negiah, not least because it tends to turn women into objects of desire and reinforces a binaried view of gender. But there is also something beautiful in the root concept of shomer negiah: taking a moment to think about the person we’re about to reach out to.

A commitment to shomer negiah Recon-style would mean a commitment to forethought, imagination, honesty, and respect. In taking care with our touch, we are better able to take care of ourselves and each other. 

Moving forward, I want to commit to asking you before I hug you or touch your shoulder. If I forget, or I touch you in a way that causes unease, I hope you will feel comfortable reminding me. 

This is the opening of a discussion, rather than the definitive word. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can be transparent and caring as we navigate being embodied and in community together. May we be blessed to continue cocreating trust, affection, and welcoming for all.