Making a Habit of Tenderness

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Yom Kippur 5779 Sermon
by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Making a Habit of Tenderness

Some of you know that before I moved to Ann Arbor to serve as rabbi of this holy community, I worked as a chaplain at a hospital in New Orleans. I was assigned to the oncology ward, so my weekdays, 8 to 5, were spent with cancer patients and their families. But at least once a week I would also work an overnight shift, which meant covering any death that happened in the hospital over a 24-hour period.

I ended up witnessing a lot of deaths – sometimes one per shift, occasionally as many as three. I rarely had time in the immediate aftermath of each death to grieve or process. But it was my job to show up, fully present, each time I walked into a hospital room. So I developed a ritual for myself: After each death, once the family had left the room and the body was taken away, I would take a few moments, alone, to wash my hands twice; first with soap and water, and then again, just water. It felt like this small ritual helped wash away some of the emotional residue that clung to me, so that I could show up for the next patient and family, with an open heart.

One patient who I remember vividly, in life and in death, was a man called Mikal (pseudonym)  in his early 60s. He was the proud patriarch of a large, loud, Armenian Orthodox family. He’d emigrated to New Orleans in the 1970s, raised a son and daughter there, and established a successful jewelry business.

During the two months Mikal spent coming in and out of the hospital for treatment, I could always tell when he’d been admitted because there would a stream of visitors – family, friends, customers – spilling out of his hospital room into the hallway, laughing and talking animatedly and bothering the nurses for more fridge space in the lounge to store dishes of homemade food they’d brought.

Mikal had an aggressive form of cancer, but he was a dedicated optimist. He never admitted, at least to me, that he was dying. But he passed quickly, within a few months of his diagnosis.

The morning that Mikal passed away, I’d just started my shift when I got a call from the head nurse telling me that Mikal had just died, surrounded by his family. When I walked into the hospital room, I saw Mikal’s 32-year-old daughter Tamar lying in bed next to her father’s body. Her right arm spanned her father’s chest, and she was kissing his cheek again and again and crying.

One thing I discovered in my work as a chaplain is that the length of time family will stay with the body of a loved one varies tremendously from family to family and culture to culture.

Most families will leave within an hour of their loved one being pronounced dead.  Tamar stayed with her father’s body, cradling him and crying, for more than four hours.

And I stayed with them in that room the whole time, because that was my job, to be there, to witness, to comfort. But I was uncomfortable. Because as a Jew, that kind of clinging to a dead body felt foreign and unsettling to me.

The Torah cautions us repeatedly not to touch a dead body, because it makes the living ritually impure. Many passages in Leviticus and Numbers warn against any contact with a corpse, and then outline how to cleanse oneself if contact does accidentally happen. But beyond these biblical, archaic prohibitions, even contemporary Jewish practices around death seem to communicate a hands-off feeling.

When someone dies, we bury their body as quickly as possible. After a funeral, all those who’ve attended are supposed to wash their hands as they leave the cemetery. And when Jews walk through a cemetery, we’re supposed to take care not to walk across any graves. So it seems like as Jews, we’re supposed to avoid contact with the dead.

But: this attitude doesn’t reflect the fullness of our traditions around death and mourning. Judaism also has a number of rituals that demonstrate deep tenderness towards the dead – rituals that seem to encourage care and physical closeness. I want to highlight four of these.

The first is the custom of the shomer – guard, watchman. After a Jewish person dies, their body is taken to a funeral home, where a relative, or a volunteer, or an employee of the funeral home sits with the body overnight and reads poetry out loud to it – usually Psalms. This ancient tradition came about because of the belief that a soul could become lost and confused right after death, and hover around the body until it was buried. The presence of the shomer was meant to be a comfort to the soul. And there is always a shomer until the funeral – the body is never left alone.

The second custom also takes place before burial, and involves a group called the chevrah kedisha, a community of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial. The preparation, known as tahara, is fixed, slow, and careful. First the body is ritually washed. As it’s washed, care is taken to preserve its modesty; only one small section of the body is uncovered at any given time. Then the body is dressed in white garments, wrapped in a tallit, and laid in a casket. At the conclusion of the tahara, the members of chevrah kedisha silently ask forgiveness from the soul for any indignity the body may have suffered during the ritual. They then ask God to gently receive the soul of the body they’ve just washed and dressed and tucked in.

The third custom I want to highlight is a more public-facing one: how relatives recite Mourner’s Kaddish for a year after a loved one’s death. This tradition dates back almost 2,000 years. The early rabbis believed that when a person died, their soul would go down to Gehinnom, a temporary purgatory. There, the soul would review their life’s actions and do teshuva. The more sins a person had accumulated in life, the longer their soul would stay in Gehinnom, with the maximum time being 12 months before the soul could finally ascend to heaven.

It was believed that having living relatives recite Kaddish could help speed up the soul’s process of teshuva. Some rabbis recommended that relatives stop reciting Kaddish after 11 months – to assume that their loved one had already ascended to heaven, and had not been so sinful as to have needed the full 12 months.

The final custom I want to share with you is that of visiting the graves of loved ones on yahrzeits and before holidays. Many Jewish families will take a yearly trip to the cemetery before Rosh HaShana and spend some time at each family member’s grave. At the end of the visit they’ll place a small rock on each gravestone, a way of marking ‘I was here’.

All of these rituals fall under the umbrella term ‘chesed shel emet.’ Chesed – meaning lovingkindess. And Shel Emet – meaning truth. Our tradition teaches us, with this name, that these acts of loving care for the dead are the truest form of compassion. Why? It’s simple: The dead will never be able to do the same for us in return. Chesed shel emet is considered true altruism.

What does all this have to do with Yom Kippur? Well, last night and this morning, we’ve been repeating the Vidui and Al Chet, doing teshuvah for this past year. And, as Dave said so eloquently last night, even as we reflect on the past, we’re also meant to be thinking about the future.

Audre Lorde once wrote: ‘We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes habit.’ I’m wondering what it would be like, in the coming year, for us to reach for the delicacy and tenderness of chesed shel emet. Not, God forbid, treating the living as though they’re dead. But seeing if we can be so tender with one another, and without waiting for our gentleness to be returned.

So what would our day-to-day look like, guided by the tenderness of the rituals I just described?

Well: The shomer serves a comforting presence to a soul that may be lost, disoriented, or afraid. And of course being a shomer isn’t easy, or joyful; sitting up at night, alone with a dead body is hard. But what if, similar to a shomer, we challenge ourselves to radical accompaniment: to sitting with friends and strangers and family, even when their vulnerability or their need makes us uncomfortable. Can we show up and stay there in the messiness, even if it makes us afraid? Can we show up knowing we might not be thanked or appreciated?

And the chevra kedisha, performing tahara, the ritual of cleansing the body, with so much gentleness and respect. We could treat each other with the most delicate of touches, knowing how easy it is to cause shame or embarrassment. Knowing that sometimes we’ll still need to apologize even when we’ve done our best.

And, guided by Mourner’s Kaddish? We would assume positive intent in others. We’d believe that if a person hurt us, that they’d been doing the best they could at that moment. We’d limit how long we held grudges, held onto hurt. And we’d try to believe that even if the apology never came, that the person who hurt us was, on some level, sorry.

And finally, graveyard visits: Literally, visiting people where they’re at. What if we showed up, from time to time, uninvited, on each other’s doorsteps, bringing a gift, leaving a note, reminding someone we care about: Hey. I’ve been thinking about you.

It’s so freeing to act out of love without needing it to be returned. This kind of chesed, tender loving kindness, can transform the person who loves and the person who is loved.

This new year, 5779, can we love like this? Can we take up Audre Lorde’s challenge to reach for tenderness until it becomes habit?

On Erev Rosh HaShana, I said to you: ‘If we choose life then we are obligated to remember that although daily acts of love do not win headlines love has always existed, it does exist, and it will continue to exist. Love is an endlessly renewing resource.’

And, this afternoon, I want to add: More than just a resource like water, more than that which flows from us and to us and through us, love – chesed – is the foundation of this world. Love is the ground that we build and rebuild with each gesture, with every small act.

One of my favourite Hebrew songs is called Olam Chesed Yibaneh. The lyrics are just these three words, repeated. Olam Chesed Yibaneh. Meaning: we will build this world from love.

Let’s hold onto this possibility for ourselves, and for one another. Olam chesed yibaneh – we can build this world out of love.

Join me.

Selichot/Rabbi Ora’s Elul Playlist

Music helps crack open hearts. This Saturday evening September 1, 2018, open up to the radical love and change available in this season with a musical Selichot service.

Together, we’ll learn two new niggunim (wordless melodies) that will be used as a refrain throughout Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur services. If you’d like a head start learning the melodies, here they are:

BeShem HaShem
‘Sheves Achim Niggun
Selichot Service  Saturday, September 1
8pm

each bring a candle (we’ll have extras if you forget)

 Touchstone Common House

(yellow building at the front right behind the Touchstone sign)

 560 Little Lake Drive (off Jackson Rd between Wagner and Zeeb)

please park on the street

More on Selichot here and here

 

And, if you’re looking for more music to accompany you through these last weeks of Elul, have a listen:

Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble’s ‘Eil Adon

Leon Bridges’ ‘River’

Shir Yaacov Feit’s ‘Brokenhearted/Psalm 147

Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spirit in the Dark

John Moreland’s ‘Break My Heart Sweetly

A Hidden Niggun for Yidden

Birdtalker’s ‘Outside the Lines

Joey Weisenberg and Mattisyahu Brown’s ‘Yearning Niggun

Eitan Katz’s ‘Elul Niggun

Cry Cry Cry’s ‘Lord I Have Made You a Place in My Heart

Us, God and Challah

touching the challah

“Everyone touch someone who is touching the challah!”

by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

It’s hard for me to resist an easy pun, so when I decided to teach a Shavuot session on challah and how this seemingly innocuous bread is rooted in a fraught relationship between the Jewish people and God, I couldn’t help myself; I named the session, “A Long and ‘Twisted’ Relationship: Us, God, and Challah.”

We began our tikkun leil session by each sharing a memory of challah from our childhoods. We then asked and attempted to answer the question: Why do we eat challah on Shabbat?

Looking through Numbers 15 (click here to access the entire source sheet/study guide), we learned that the mitzvah of challah comes from a commandment in the Torah to set aside a loaf of bread for God “as a gift.” And why 2 gift-loaves, and not just one? Because as the Israelites wandered in the desert, God “rained down bread” for them from the sky – aka manna – and on Fridays, two portions of manna fell, so that the Israelites would not have to gather food on Shabbat.

As we read through the manna story, it became clear that manna was 1. Given by God quite begrudgingly, and 2. That the Israelites mistrusted that God would continuously and consistently provide them with food. The episode of the manna quickly became a test of Israelite faith; the Israelites were ordered by Moses to gather only as much manna as they could eat each day; any manna stored for the following day would rot and become infested with maggots.

The rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras had a field day with this enmeshed relationship as the Israelites sought safety and comfort in sustenance and God used food to teach them a lesson. The rabbis considered a variety of lenses through which to understand the relationship:

Rabbi Tarfon imagined God gently extending a hand each morning to deliver the manna like dew, and he imagined that at the same time, God collected Israelite prayers and returned with them to heaven.

Rabbi Shimon wondered why the manna didn’t simply descend once a year, and suggested alternately that 1. God wanted closeness with the Israelites, and thought that their reliance on daily deliveries of manna would reinforce the bond; 2. God wanted to reassure the hungry Israelites that they would consistently be provided for; or 3. God didn’t want to burden the Israelites by making them carry a year’s worth of manna as they trekked through the desert.

So: what are your earliest memories of biting into this sweet and complicated bread? How does challah keep you anchored to God, your ancestors, or tradition?

What Makes a Poem a Prayer?

by Rabbi Ora

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Many prayers in our Shabbat services are taken from the Book of Psalms (in Hebrew, Tehillim) and are traditionally attributed to King David. Because we’ve received these poems as prayers, we automatically think of them as having a sacred resonance. But what alchemy transforms contemporary poetry into prayer?

Elliott batTzedek, a Philadelphia poet and liturgist, is the author of the alternate ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’ we read on Yom Kippur:

“So often am I lost,

yet through the pall, yet through the tarnish, show me the way back,
through my betrayals, my dismay, my heart’s leak, my mind’s sway,
eyes’ broken glow, groan of the soul—which convey all that isn’t real,
for every soul to These Hands careen. And let us say, amen.”

Read the rest of the poem here

Elliott reflects that “liturgy is a living project, as predictable and as unpredictable as the people that use it.” She also suggests that the physical, embodied act of reciting a poem (whether individually or communally) helps us to experience it as prayer. Quoting Edward Hirsch, Elliott writes:

 “‘When I recite a poem, I inhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds. […] The secular can be made sacred through the body of the poem. I understand the relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader not as a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding. An emerging sacramental event.’”

For more of Elliott’s transformative liturgy, take a look at her Tallit Blessings, the Arch/Welcome to Redemption, and Ahavah Rabbah/Gatherings.

Elliott batTzedek: “I’m a poet, critic, activist, teacher, gardener, a Jew of the Feminist, non-Zionist variety (there are more of us than you might think!), and a life-long collector of random interesting facts.”

 

About our Selichot Prayer Service, Sat Sept 16

by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

The practice of Selichot goes back at least 2,000 years, and may be even older: Legend has it that when King David realized the Jerusalem Temple would eventually be destroyed, he begged God to tell him how the Jewish people would be able to connect with God while in exile. God told King David that the people could recite ‘selichot’–penitential prayers–to bring them closer to God, and that they should include a recitation of the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” a passage from Exodus evoking God’s compassionate nature–and one that we now recite throughout Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur: “Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment…”

As Jewish tradition evolved, it became customary to recite Selichot prayers in the days and weeks leading up to Rosh haShana. In Eastern Europe, Selichot were originally recited early in the morning, prior to dawn. There was a custom in Eastern Europe that the person in charge of prayers would make the rounds of the village, knocking three times on each door and saying, “Israel, holy people, awake, arouse yourselves and rise for the service of the Creator!” It later became common practice to hold the first Selichot service–considered the most important–at a time more convenient for the masses. Therefore, the Selichot service was moved to Saturday night.

For our own Selichot service this Saturday night, we’ll end Shabbat together with Havdallah, and then learn a few soulful niggunim – wordless melodies – that will form an aural backdrop to our Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur services. If you’d like to get a head-start on learning these melodies, or if you’re not able to make it to Selichot, here are 2 of the tunes we’ll be learning: Joey Weisenberg’s Shochein Ad and Nishmat Kol Chai.

Selichot Prayer Service
 Saturday, September 16
8pm
each bring a candle (we’ll have extras if you forget)
 Touchstone Common House
(yellow building at the front right behind the Touchstone sign)
 560 Little Lake Drive (off Jackson Rd between Wagner and Zeeb)

please park on the street

 

Commit to Confront Racism

Kol Nidrei Sermon by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Nathan MartinIn August 2014, an African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. One of my students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was experiencing considerable distress over the shooting. She is partnered with a person of color who is from Ferguson. At the time, I sought to respond as best as I could. I reached out to the student and together we composed an email about ways people could show up at demonstrations or to send tzedaka to the organizers of protests then happening in Ferguson. Yet, I still felt somewhat helpless and ineffective in the wake of it all.

For the last two years, we have witnessed a replay of this unfortunate type of violence again and again. Deb Kraus, in her introduction to the Unetane Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashannah, helped us to take note of the many black lives that have been cut short through police shootings.

As a liberal Jew, I grew up with a narrative of how Jews were allied with and instrumental in helping to fight for civil rights in the U.S, particularly the American south. And how we too, physically or symbolically, marched alongside our African American brothers and sisters to work for change. This remains an important part of my picture of American Jewish history of which I am proud.

And, I have come to realize that simply holding onto that picture is not enough. It’s not enough for this moment in which we find ourselves today. I have been asking myself what can I do to support our Jewish communities to be important players in the work toward eliminating institutional racism that people of color face everyday in America. Some of the hardest questions I have had to ask myself are: “what role do I play in perpetuating discrimination?” and “what can I do to make a difference?” These are difficult questions to face.

Part of my exploration has involved exploring ways in which I, as a white person, live with privilege that others don’t. I recently looked through Peggy McIntosh’s “white privilege checklist” –copies of which are in the back of the sanctuary—which asks you to note ways in which one carries privilege like, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” or “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race,” or “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” I could go on and list others, and encourage people to take a look at the list. But the point is that, as McIntosh notes, I as a white person carry around “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day.”

I am aware that I have absorbed the biases and stereotypes that are the unspoken currency of American culture. I grew up in a primarily white, middle class suburb in Seattle. I went to Jewish day school. And because of this limited upbringing, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the richness (and challenge) that comes with growing up in a more diverse community. Instead, I absorbed attitudes of distrust and fear of people who were different than me. And even today, when I read about yet another shooting of an unarmed person of color, I can see how challenging it is for me to stay engaged. I don’t want to have to face the imperfections of our country. I want to turn away rather than turn toward confronting potential bias. But now is the time to turn toward. I want to help create a country where my children, and their children, can grow up in less isolation than I did, and where we can eliminate the systematic privileging of whiteness.

And, I know that I am not alone in this struggle.

Our tradition reminds us daily to reach beyond ourselves. Our daily prayers ask us to imagine ourselves in the position of the most vulnerable in our society; they tell us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and from our long history of experiencing anti-Jewish oppression we know what it is like to be harassed, expelled, and killed. Our tradition teaches us the radical teaching of “tzelem elohim” that we are compelled to remember that we are all created in the image of the divine, that we are all infused with divine goodness. Our tradition thus constantly calls us to spiritual transformation which is a core part of how we transform the world. One small exercise that I sometimes do, and not frequently enough, is to walk down the street and every time I see another person I say in my head “be-tzelem elohim” “in the image of God.” Spiritual practice such as this is one way to harness the wisdom of our tradition towards change.

We also get to reach for each other in this important work. For several years, I have been meeting regularly with a group of white men and women whose focus has been specifically on examining our own racism and how it limits us having the life we want to live. When we get together we listen to each other to share where it is difficult to notice our privilege, where we appreciate our efforts for combating racism, and talk about how we are doing building relationships with people of color in our lives. I also participated in a race dialogue last week as part of a training to facilitate challenging conversations where I listened to the messages that African Americans received about white people growing up. These are not easy conversations to have but they are important. And It is heartening to notice that more of these kinds of meetings and conversations are happening. What would it be like for more of us in this coming year to explore ways in which we can have frank and challenging conversations about race, whiteness, and the ways in which we have had to settle for less because of how we both experience and perpetuate institutionalized racism?

Finally, I am conscious that we are living in a moment of an important national conversation on race, a conversation that has coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement, most recently with the issuing of the The Movement for Black Lives Platform. The platform, divided up into six categories, includes dozens of demands backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and organizations working on those issues. It includes issues of mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions which we will be exploring as a community tomorrow afternoon with Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

And while I do not want to downplay or diminish the hurt that many American Jews have experienced with regard to the platform’s position and wording around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of the document is focused on some practical and some visionary ways that we can change American society for the better. I hope that we can hold this complexity in mind as we do the work of supporting change here at home while also voicing our hope that situations elsewhere in the world are not overly simplified or essentialized in their characterizations. We have an opportunity here to commit ourselves to standing up, in whatever way we can, for a new direction in our country. A direction where we work not only for our own welfare but for the welfare of those who face the daily indignities of personal and institutional discrimination.

Yom Kippur is an important moment in our Jewish year to not only take a close look at our individual drifting from the mark in which we set for ourselves. It is also a moment for us to take a careful look at how we as a society are fulfilling our obligations to support those who are vulnerable to discrimination. It is a time when we re-commit to act in addition to pray.

The Untene Tokef prayer which I talked about on Rosh Hashannah hints at this as well. The prayer notes that works of justice, of tzedaka, lessen the harshness of the decree. We need to enter this new year with the faith and the hope that our tzedek work, our work to right societal wrongs will lessen the harshness of the decree for ourselves and others in our country.

My challenge to all of us tonight is simple.

What is a concrete step you can envision taking in your personal and communal tzedek work that will move us towards a fairer, more just, and more loving and welcoming country for everyone? What can you see yourself doing in your own life to have the conversations about how racism has affected you? What would you need to do this year to be able to come back next high holidays and say, “yes, I made some important progress this past year. It’s not done, but I can be pleased with how I am contributing.”

There is a parable in the Talmud that seeks to answer the question of why the blessing over bread is given such high status among Jewish blessings. The parable talks of a king who has two sons, each of whom he gives an equal amount of harvested flax and wheat and is given the instruction to guard these items. One son builds a storehouse and puts the bundles of flax and wheat under lock and key. The other son takes the flax and processes it into a beautiful linen tablecloth and takes the bundles of wheat and processes them into two beautiful challot. The king rewards the son who took the time and attention to take the raw materials he provided and enhance their meaning and ritual beauty.

As a Jew one of the things I am particularly proud about is the way my people have made the righting of inequality central to our being in the world. The opportunity to do tzedek work in our world can be likened to the children of the king being asked to guard the wheat and flax. Will we take the opportunity to weave these materials into something more beautiful, to help create more equitable ways in which we can live together and share in the benefits of society? Or will we simply build walls around the status quo?

In the coming year may we all be called to harvest and transform the brokenness so that we may live into our commitment that all of us are created in the divine image.

Gut Yontiff

Teshuva: Averting the “harshness of the decree”

Nathan MartinErev Rosh Hashanah dvar Torah by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Shana Tova and Gut Yontif,

I first want to say what an honor and privilege it is for me to be celebrating Rosh Hashannah with you this year. When I started out my job in Ann Arbor in 2006 at the University of Michigan Hillel, I remember the feeling of having left a vibrant Reconstructionist Rabbinical College community and assuming that I would just have to settle for “less” community. And I remember the delight and surprise I felt when I started coming to the AARC.

  • There were God-wrestlers–people who thrived on challenging contemporary notions of Jewish theology trying to find their own unconventional theological path into the tradition
  • There were Jewish learners–people who simply wanted to soak up the various parts of Jewish tradition and find meaning in the voices of our ancestors
  • There were God Seekers–people who sought to integrate traditional and innovative Jewish practice to develop a meaningful Jewish path
  • There were Community Builders–I called these the “doers,” the folks who simply stepped up and made programs and community happen
  • And most of all, there was warmth and welcome. Without fanfare people stepped up and helped me and my family feel at home.

This Jewish diversity within the AARC is what makes you the strong and unique community you are. And my first blessing for the new year is that you continue to draw from these many strands to continue to build a caring and Jewishly diverse community for the future.

Rosh Hashannah is a powerful moment in our Jewish calendar cycle. We are stepping back to assess our past behavior and seeking to re-set our intentions for the coming year. We draw from the metaphor of rebirth–hayom harat ha-o’lam, today the world is born–to see if we too can renew ourselves.

Alongside the process of renewal is the time we take to recognize our own fragility. This is the essence of the “unetane tokef” prayer which we will be reciting tomorrow, a meditation on the fragility of life. The prayer confronts us with images of judgment and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. And then it takes an interesting turn with the words, “uteshuva, utefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin et roa’ hagzerah” –“teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the harshness of the decree.”

What does it mean to have the harshness of a decree averted?

teshuvah

Let’s focus tonight on the first word of this phrase: teshuva. While translated as “repentance,” the root of the word for teshvua has the meaning of “shuv” to return. I often translate “teshuva” as “returning to our best selves.” Rosh Hashannah and these ten days of repentance are a time when we try to reach for our best selves and imprint this behavior as a guide for the coming year. Often this work is done in the negative–at least liturgically. We recite litanies of mis-steps that we have done personally and as a community. But, the personal reflection moves beyond the liturgy. We each have our own personal spiritual curriculum for improvement. Here’s a personal example for you.

I have a habit of leaving my books on the dining room table–thinking that in the few free minutes I might have between dinner and bedtime I might do some reading. (Usually an overly-optimistic scenario.) When my partner Abby the other day said in a somewhat sarcastic tone “are you planning on leaving your books on the table again,” I could notice a variety of feelings come up that included: defensiveness, “Well I may read something;” guilt, “oy, she caught me;” shame, “I know I should have moved the books and I feel bad and embarrassed that I didn’t.” And, sometimes perhaps even humor, “Oy, there’s Nathan forcing his foibles onto the family.”

The smallest details of our lives can be challenging and worthy of introspection. The more we stop and look, the more we realize that we are constantly falling short of the ideal human being that we would like to be. This may be in the ways in which we take care (or don’t take care) of our bodies, in our lack of attention for those we care about, and the list goes on. But one thing I realized: when I dwell in my guilt, shame, and embarrassment on the ways I come up short of my ideals, I become both the judge and implementer of the “harsh decree” mentioned in the unetane tokef prayer. An important part of the teshuva process is also figuring out to how let go of the strong internal critique we carry that distracts us from refocusing our minds on healthier behavior and choices for the future.

The moment we are able to name and face that we are falling short–that is a moment of lessening the severity of the decree. The moment we are able to name for ourselves and others the person we would like to become–that too is a lessening of the decree. And of course, the moment we are able to translate these personal insights into repairing our important relationships with our friends and loved ones–that too is a lessening of the decree.

As I conclude my remarks tonight and we prepare to move towards the close of the service I want to invite you to think about the notion of bringing someone in close with you as you do your teshuva work this year. What would it look like to invite a teshuva hevruta, a close friend who can help you hold the best picture of yourself, into this important spiritual work? This hevruta could be someone who you could share your “teshuva list” of those who you want to reach out to and apologize to. You could even debrief how it went. This hevruta could be someone you could share your personal spiritual growth curriculum for the coming year–and you could even set up times to check in periodically how the work is going.

As my comments indicate, rather than seeing the world and ourselves being reborn anew in an instant in Rosh Hashannah, we can rather hold onto the metaphor that we are at the beginning of the year’s journey of growth and transformation and an ongoing teshuva practice. Thus, each day when we say the blessing in the daily Amida, “selach lanu avinu ki chattanu” “forgive us our Sovereign for we have strayed” we could actually have our teshuva curriculum in mind as a focusing point for our work.

May we use this time of the next day and during this week to wake ourselves up to new possibilities, define our personal curriculum, and deepen our relationships to support each other in this important work.

Wishing you blessings and sweetness–and growth–in the coming year.

Reflections on Tisha B’av

By Rabbi Nathan Martin*

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to both teach and participate in a Hazon conference that brought together over 25 Jewish organizations doing innovative environmental work. In one study session in particular I spent time with a group of 40 other participants excitedly cramped in a yurt studying the Jewish calendar. The teacher, Zelig Golden, the Director of Wilderness Torah, noted that Tisha B’Av, the day in which Jews honor the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and other historical tragedies, coincides with the hot dry period of summer. (This year Tisha B’Av is commemorated one day late, on August 14, so as not to conflict with Shabbat.) Zelig argued that this is not accidental; it made sense culturally to mark human tragedy at the time when the earth enters one of its least productive moments. The outer barrenness corresponds to our inner brokenness. Similarly, the month of TisGreen sprout in parched earthhrei which includes both Rosh Hashannah and the harvest festival of Sukkot, 40 days after Tisha B’Av, can be understood as the moment when we are gathering together new growth, nourishment, and possibility.

This calendrical cycle that we travel through may not always correspond to our inner state. We may not always feel a sense of brokenness on Tisha B’Av and we may not always feel a sense of renewal on Rosh Hashanah. But these calendar moments do have an important inner logic. By setting aside a particular day of communal mourning on Tisha B’Av, the rabbis created an opportunity to have the Jewish community as a whole acknowledge the multiple layers of loss and oppression it has experienced over the ages. Allowing ourselves to feel heartbreak in the heat of the summer can perhaps allow us to step more deeply into a harvest of renewal and possibility in the Fall.

So as we prepare to enter this High Holiday season, I invite each of us to take some time this month to acknowledge the losses we have experienced as a people. What have we lost? How has it impacted us? How might you mark this ‘dry’ time?

May our dwelling in the loss, even for a short period, allow us paradoxically to let it go in order to create space for a more hopeful future. May we see and realize that all of us are part of the blossoming Jewish people. And may we come together on Rosh Hashanah carrying with us not only a reckoning of our past mistakes but also a deepening commitment towards our flourishing as a Jewish community.

*Click here for more information about Rabbi Nathan, who will be leading AARC’s High Holy Day services this year.

And click here for more information about our High Holy Day services, including times, places, and other details. Services are ticketless and open to all.  Please join us.  (Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 2; Yom Kippur starts on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 12.

Choosing Life?

Kol Nidre 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WIn the Torah portion we read just before the High Holidays, God says: I set before you life and death, choose life. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Except in the most dire circumstances, we would choose life if we could. So what does the Torah mean when it enjoins us to choose life?

What is life? How would we define it? For Judaism, a core part of the answer lies in what we are doing right this moment. Not praying, not talking, not even studying, but doing any or all of those things together in community. As Robert Putnam, noted in his seminal book entitled Bowling Alone, fewer and fewer Americans are participating in civic and community life. Through an examination of bowling leagues and other forms of group activities, he found a serious change in the pattern of Americans as the role of the individual was elevated and the group demoted.

The internet has only made this issue more complex. Does the enormous virtual community created by social media diminish or increase peoples’ connections to one another? If you have 200 or 500 Face book friends—is that real connection even if it is only virtual, or is it a superficial “friendship,” or no friendship at all? Is it enabling connections you couldn’t possibly have face to face or is it a way of distancing yourself from others and controlling their access to your life?

In our contemporary world, Judaism is counter cultural when it suggests community as an essential aspect of religious life. The intimate act of pouring one’s heart out to God is not done in solitude but rather in the context of a minyan, a prayer quorum. The language of prayer, even the al het the confessional of Yom Kippur, is recited in the plural, though it is clear to most of us that the litany of sins we recite may have little to do with us. Shabbat and holidays are to be celebrated with family and friends.

While some religious traditions encouraged a renouncing of the worldly, Judaism called for an embrace of the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world—may be a newly coined expression but love your neighbor as yourself has always been an essential teaching of Judaism. We are meant to live life in relation to other people—not in a cave alone, subsisting on a few berries. Don’t gossip, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t oppress the stranger because you were a stranger… all these injunctions found in the Book of Leviticus are about the challenges and opportunities for holiness in the everyday interactions with other people. Yes, we, each of us is created in the divine image/tzelem elohim. The Torah said it first: each human being is created with inalienable rights. Yet, those individual rights are supported and modified in the context of relationships. Caring and supportive relationships lead to community. [Read more…]

Torah Accompanies Us in Our Uncertainty

Rosh HaShanah 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Editor’s note: The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation wants to take this opportunity to profusely thank Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt for leading our High Holiday observances, teaching us, and sharing the New Year with us.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThere is a great deal of discussion these last few years in the Jewish community about its future. Based on recent surveys including the Pew study, there is concern about decreased participation in Jewish life by many people. The open society of America has led to assimilation.

A related phenomenon is a growing perception of religion as a force for intolerance and conflict in the world. What is and what should be the future of Judaism as a religion?

In pre-modern times, religion was a way to explain and understand a mysterious world. Why did things happen? Why did people get sick? Why did one side win a battle?

The answer: because God or gods created the world and controlled what happened. Over time, a belief in one God, a God of justice pre-dominated. It became the unified theory to explain the world. God punished sinners and rewarded the righteous. If the suffering of the innocent wasn’t completely explained by this notion at least there was some context for a way to strive to understand the world or a foundation to have faith that God had a plan even if you didn’t understand it. The world was not random but a world of purpose. But then over time, humans came to understand the world more clearly and discovered the laws of nature. Humans discovered germs and contagion, and disease no longer seemed either random or the scourge of God. Or as the atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2007: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”

Does religion in general and specifically does Judaism still have a purpose? Is that why recent surveys show an increasing number of Jews who define themselves and their Judaism as non-religious?

Reconstructionism encourages us to ask what needs reconstructing in Judaism—not just tinkering around the edges—but what needs to be radically recast or reunderstood. In his time Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, propounded a different understanding of the nature of God. In the face of the growing evidence of the decline in the adherence to Judaism, especially as a religion, I have come to believe that it is the fundamental way we think about Judaism that needs reconstructing. It struck me that part of the problem of religion in the modern world is that we both look to religion for certainty, especially in moments of crisis, and as moderns we rarely find that certainty. The theology of our ancestors, if it ever was their theology, simply doesn’t work for most of us. We don’t believe God saved this child fleeing from Syria because we don’t believe God caused that three year old to die on the beach in that terrible photo we all saw. We don’t think God gave cancer to that person, and let the other person recover from a heart attack. We just don’t organize our world this way. Religion for liberal Jews is not about certainty. [Read more…]