Korach 5775: My last drash for Congregation Beth Israel

Note: If you are coming to services on Saturday, you might want to wait to read this…

It’s been quite a week.

While I have been rushing around trying to say goodbye to people and crying over the loss I feel moving a mere 6 hours away, there are families that have been ripped apart in sorrow, saying their final goodbyes and wondering why.

When inexplicable tragedies occur, we start asking why God lets these things happen.

This isn’t a new theological question and there probably aren’t going to be any new answers.

Yet when tragedy occurs it hits us smack in the face, and it can feel as though we’ve never had to confront these questions before.

With each new tragedy we find ourselves reengaged in the gnawing questions about our humanity and about God, despite our attempts to keep them at bay during the busy hours of life.  We are stunned back into facing them when we see innocent lives lost and it seems especially cruel when it affects the deeply faithful.

The horrific scene that occurred two days ago in what is supposed to be sacred space, a church in Charleston, South Carolina, leaves us shaking in our pews.  The man who opened fire in the church, Dylan Roof, did so for no other reason than because he was full of hate.  He admitted that he wanted to start a “race war.”

“How could God let this happen?” we ask, knowing full well that God has let many awful things happen — that there have been tragedies worse than this and this probably isn’t the last one either.

But still I find myself reeling.

At difficult times like this, I often look to the Torah, to the wisdom of Jewish tradition, to give us some answers.  Instead of answers, we find in it more complicated stories of struggle between people, and struggles between human beings and God.

Even the name of our people, Israel, means struggle. Jacob gets that name after he wrestles with an angel of God and gets hurt.  He realizes something important though — that even though he lost that struggle, he got through it.

That is us. That is Israel. We struggle. We get through it. Then we gird ourselves for whatever might come next.

As a people we inherited not only the name but also the legacy of struggle. Jacob did not come away from that experience with a promise that it would never happen again.  Unlike the covenant God makes with Noah, Jacob’s promise from God doesn’t come with a rosy outlook. It doesn’t come with the promise of peace and security. Instead Jacob is left in pain with a wrenched hip socket and he is left with a complicated promise from God, a future that includes 400 years of slavery for his descendants.

When something awful happens, we sometimes tell ourselves that this “better” be the worst of it. The worst of it better be over!  It’s as though we expect God to only give us as much as we think we can handle.  But that isn’t how life works.

Each time we see human beings do horrific things, we are confronted with two difficult truths:

  1. Human beings can do horrific things
  1. God does not intervene to stop it

We desperately want to believe that humans are good – and while the overwhelming majority of human action consists of good or at least morally neutral deeds, we don’t want to have to face the horrible exceptions.

We also desperately want to believe that God is our hero, that God swoops in and saves the day.  Even the Torah describes God in this way.  Yet, that fantasy doesn’t comport with our reality.  We don’t have a heroic God like the one in the Torah.  But maybe that’s a good thing.

In this week’s Torah portion we find one of the more troubling stories — the battle between Moses and a man named Korah. From the perspective of the author of the Torah, Moses is God’s chosen leader and Aaron is the one chosen to officiate over all of the sacrifices, to be the High Priest.  This story of course makes Korah the bad guy.  But what was he really saying? He was actually saying something pretty radical – that everyone is equal.  He questioned authority. He questioned the status quo.

Moses considered his ideas dangerous, since they were against what he believed God wanted.  So, God, being the heroic savior of the Bible, swoops in to save Moses from this villain.  Korah had 250 followers, each of whom offered up a burnt offering to God.  And each one of those 250 people were swallowed up by the earth. They had not murdered or even stolen anything. Their great crime was trying to worship God without Aaron as their intermediary.

It’s a disturbing story. It’s the kind of thing a fundamentalist could have a field day with.  It’s especially disturbing to someone who sees Torah as encompassing not only the “written” Torah (the 5 books of Moses) but also the Oral Torah, meaning the teachings of the rabbis.  While the Torah is really clear that Korah and his followers are wrong and deserved to be punished, hundreds of years later after the destruction of the Temple, we find out they were right!  Once the Temple no longer exists, we all become equals in our relationship to God.  One Halachic Midrash even says that anyone who follows the commandments is like the High Priest himself.

The problem with looking to the Torah for answers, is that while it dictates with certitude the way we should behave and which laws to follow, when you read the stories in the Torah, you find that it’s really not a book of answers, it’s a book of questions.  The stories show us the complexity of our relationships, how our views of what is right and what is wrong change, and that ultimately, even when we think we know exactly what God wants – we might find out hundreds of years later that we were wrong.

That is perhaps Judaism’s greatest teaching – that there is no singular right answer to life’s most difficult questions.

Whenever I think I have a definitive answer to a theological question I know I’m in the wrong place.  I have deluded myself somehow.  It’s so tempting to try to boil it down to something that makes sense, especially when we feel hurt and the pain we experience by such tragedies as the shooting in Charleston is compounded by our inability to comprehend God’s role in it.

When I think of the cases of Divine intervention in the Torah: Sodom and Gomorrah, Korah, even Egypt – I have to wonder, does that intervention really result in the “good” we so desperately seek?  Much human suffering occurs as a result of God’s saving us from our enemies.

Let’s say that God, being all-knowing, had anticipated that Roof would kill 9 people one day and had stricken him with a terminal illness as a child.  In that case, people would have cried out and said God is unjust for allowing an innocent child to die.

The part of ourselves that is hurt may want God to be our hero, but our healthy selves understand the importance of looking inward and remembering our responsibility to the world which we occupy.

In the story of Jacob I see an opportunity for human agency in the face of human transgression. I see an opportunity for us to take each struggle, to really wrestle, to feel the pain that comes with looking humanity in the face and not always liking what we see – and to come through that struggle having learned something about ourselves.

Dylan Roof wanted to start a “race war.”  What if instead we reach across these culturally constructed racial lines, faith lines, even political lines to try to create a world in which we learn to understand each other rather than fear each other.  What if instead of fulfilling Dylan Roof’s vision for more divisiveness, we let the pain we feel at these losses stir up more compassion towards each other.  One of the most beautiful outcomes of this tragedy is the number of clergy I have seen reaching out in solidarity.  Because when something like this happens, we all think, “Oh God, what if something that horrific happened in my sacred space.”

One purpose of coming together in prayer is to help us understand the world better by understanding ourselves better.  It’s easy in situations like this to point fingers and direct blame at certain groups, at certain people, and even at God.  But I want to try to be more like Jacob, to take the lessons of introspection to heart and think about these questions: How can I try to reduce the hate in our world? What can I do promote understanding so that the world doesn’t tolerate hate anymore?

When we want to see something change in our world, it can be useful to give a geshrai to God and be angry, but like Jacob, we can also transform that anger into something more productive.  We can wrestle with humanity and with ourselves until the pain of that experience yields a new inner strength.

That’s where God is in all this. God is in the wrestling, pulling on our hearts, holding up a mirror and asking us each to do our part in transforming hate into love.

That is what our world needs most and each of us can do it.

Shabbat Shalom

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B’har Bechukotai: The Trouble with Counting

When we count things – we usually do so out of a fear of not having enough. Unfortunately, when you count for that reason, the result is often that you feel you do not have enough.

This is true for time, money and even people.

So why does the Torah put an emphasis on counting days and years at the same time that it tells us not to count our wealth?

The Israelites are told to carefully count the years, but then when they get to the 50th year, the Jubilee, they are supposed to let go of their concerns about wealth – both property and food.

The Sefat Emet says that time is a gift from God.

Land and food are also gifts from God, yet they do not belong to us permanently. They are more like temporary loans. The Torah says that land really belongs to God. It is not actually something we can truly possess.

Similarly our bodies, which evolved from the primordial ooze of this very earth, are not really ours forever. We have them on loan.

The gift of time is slightly different.

While we might feel we do not have enough of it, the Torah tells us that while it is something to be measured, it is not actually something of which there can be too little or too much. It just is.

In our counting of it, we can make it sacred or profane.

We cannot really make a material item sacred, although ironically we often think we can. Items are not sacred in Judaism though. Any item that we misinterpret as sacred usually becomes an idol.

The Sefat Emet says that when humans were created we became a “living soul” – which the Targum translates as a “speaking spirit.” He says that it is our mouths, our speaking abilities, which actually contain the power to awaken the “life” that is everywhere.

It is our task as human beings to find that imprint of life in the world.

We are specifically called to do that through examining nature, its cycles and rhythms and through maintaining our relationships over and above our wealth.

The “breath of life” – refers to our ability to speak the sacred – to create sacred moments through our declarations. We humans actually create sacred moments – it is in what we say to each other.

Here’s an example:
What is it about a person’s birthday that makes it special? Is it the date on the calendar? The number of years? Or the phone calls, cards and warm wishes a person receives from family and friends?

It is not the birthday that makes one happy, but the words “happy birthday” that make one happy.

Now the Jubilee – which we think of as a time of celebration – doesn’t look much like a celebration from the perspective of the year 2015, when weddings and b’nai mitzvah are dominated by large parties with abundant food.

Why then during the year of the Jubilee does the Torah de-emphasize concerns over food and wealth? During this time, the Israelites were told they could not harvest food and that property had to be returned to its original owner. While for some people this may have resulted in a return to financial stability, for others it certainly marked a decline in wealth.

The Sabbath, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee all have this in common – a de-emphasis on material wealth in order to increase our awareness of our spiritual wealth.

Instead of giving power over to material objects, we take our power back – we recognize that it is not in what we have, but in what we declare about what we have that matters.

Our power is in our words.

The Sefat Emet says we inhabit our bodies with a “living soul” – on Shabbat we focus not on the material of our bodies, for they are just the borrowed land, so to speak. We turn instead to our thoughts, words, actions, and that spark within us that can shape the time we spend here on earth.

The Sabbath, like the Jubilee, is a time of returning to our original selves. We let go of what we have reaped or not reaped. We let go of the accomplishments we have achieved and how much money is in our bank account, and declare this time for the soul.

We also have a choice about that: we can declare it to be good, just as God did at creation, and make it a sacred occasion, or we can deprive this time of its beauty and focus on the negative.

There is a saying that a wise person does not count his or her days, but instead makes every day count.

The counting of time has its purpose – it reminds us that time is our gift from God and unlike the other gifts, such as food or land, which have inherent value, we have the power to determine time’s worth.

We have the power to make time sacred by declaring it so, by seeing the goodness in God’s creation – in nature, in others and in ourselves.

An Ode to Violin Practice

My back starts to ache. That’s how I know I have been practicing for too long. But by then I am stuck on something. I set my violin down for a minute and listen to a recording while moving my eyes across the music, trying to imagine what the person playing must be feeling. Then I go back to the technical for awhile. I use an app on my iphone that determines pitch to make sure I am getting those high notes on my E string in tune. I try to train my brain to recognize the note no matter what octave, but at this point I must still rely on technology. My violin teacher likes to tease me about the geekiness of such precision, but in a loving way, in a knowing way. He is secretly proud. After awhile my back hurts too much to keep practicing. I am lost in Sibelius. I just sit and listen. In awe. How did he know that the next thing I would want to hear would be that specific chord, held for that specific length? He’s a genius. That’s how. I am tired by now. But happy just to listen as his chords ramp up to the swift movement of bows and the staccato notes I will have to play with accuracy by the time our next concert rolls around. Oh well. I still have time.

(Trans)forming Our Theological Pronouns

I am a female rabbi. I am a feminist. I don’t believe that God is a man with a beard sitting on a throne. When I read an English translation in the siddur (Jewish prayer book) that uses a masculine pronoun, I (almost) always change the wording to eliminate the pronoun, as long as I can make it fit into the structure of the sentence. Yet, I still find it nearly impossible to refer to God using a feminine pronoun. (I’m still not very comfortable wearing a kippah either, but that’s for another post). I regrettably have to admit that more often than not, I use the pronoun “he” when talking about God. I am especially sad to admit that I fall into this habit when teaching.

Try as I might to take the gendered language out of my God-talk, or to at least balance it by alternating, I find these approaches cumbersome and awkward. Most of all, I find them dissatisfying because they feel incomplete.

From an intellectual and spiritual standpoint, the God in which I believe has no specific gender. God is everything. God transcends gender. God is transcendent. Yet, on a visceral level, God is an “other,” a “thou,” an immanently real presence in my life. The lack of an appropriate pronoun for God makes it difficult to verbalize that intimate relationship. When I talk about God without a pronoun, it feels as though I am exiling God to a space beyond my verbal grasp. It works okay for an intellectual conversation about God, but fails miserably as an approach to bringing others into conversation with God.

This is not a new problem, however, I think there may be a new solution. Perhaps one day we will realize that we owe a great debt to the transgender community for introducing the concept of a third gender pronoun or multiple gender pronouns into our vocabulary, not only for the sake of creating language that better affirms the complexity of gender in human beings, but also for transforming our theological language to better reflect the complexity of our relationship to God.

Recently I have read a number of articles about introducing more inclusive pronouns into our English vocabulary. One popular suggestion at the moment involves the singularization of the word “they” to refer to someone who does not identify with one of the gender binaries. While some have argued against this on the basis of its grammatical incorrectness, others say that it wouldn’t be the first time that a pronoun has taken on a different meaning. Some proposed words haven’t caught on quite as well, such as “xe” or “ze” as a third, non-binary gender pronoun.   I am encouraged by the recent developments not only in English, but in other languages.  According to Bitch Magazine: “Earlier this month Sweden’s online National Encyclopedia adopted the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” in addition to “he” [han] and “she” [hon].”  I recently discussed this with a friend who is living in Israel and we lamented that, unfortunately, given the way gender works within the structure of Hebrew grammar, this kind of transformation will inevitably take much longer to develop in our holy tongue.

Undoubtedly, we will soon have a commonly accepted pronoun in our vernacular which will defy the gender binary and allow us not only to talk about God differently but even to imagine God in a more expansive way.  Then, perhaps we can teach the next generation a concept of God that does not favor one gender over the other. Perhaps we can avoid inculcating them with that indelible image of a man with a beard on a throne. Maybe my children, or at least my grandchildren, will be able to have an intimate relationship with God that does not require subjugating their intellectual understanding of God nor ignoring their feminist ideals.

Lastly, I believe eliminating the gender-binary in our thinking about God will have a positive impact on the health of our theology. It will free us up to stop thinking of God in binaries in general. Rather than oscillating between the extremes of God as judgmental, exacting and punishing vs. all-loving, compassionate and forgiving, we will be able to relate to God more holistically. Instead of looking to God as a solution to our problems or an entity to blame them on, perhaps we will be more able to embrace the contradictions, the complexity and the unknowable parts of God. I hope that instead of worrying so much about how to talk about God, we will focus more on having intimate and personal conversations with God.

Shemot – These are the Names

These are the names of the people who have lost their lives to ignorance, hatred and violence in the last week.  Three suspected al-Qaeda gunmen launched a murderous attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, leaving 12 dead. They have been named as:

  • Charb – (real name Stephane Charbonnier) 47, an artist and publisher of Charlie Hebdo
  • Cabu – (real name Jean Cabut) 76, the lead cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo
  • Georges Wolinski – 80, an artist who had been drawing cartoons since the 1960s
  • Tignous – (real name Bernard Verlhac) 57, a member of Cartoonists for Peace
  • Bernard Maris – (known as “Uncle Bernard”) 68, an economist and columnist for the magazine
  • Honoré – (real name Philippe Honoré) 73, the artist who drew the last cartoon tweeted by the weekly publication
  • Michel Renaud – a former journalist who was visiting the Charlie Hebdo offices
  • Mustapha Ourrad – a copy-editor for Charlie Hebdo
  • Elsa Cayat – a columnist and analyst for Charlie Hebdo
  • Frederic Boisseau – a building maintenance worker
  • Franck Brinsolaro – 49, a policeman appointed to head security for Charb
  • Ahmed Merabet – 42, a police officer and member of the 11th arrondissement brigade

Unfortunately, there are also the as yet unnamed victims of the hostage situation at the Kosher supermarket in Paris.

It’s almost too much to let into your heart. When the Torah talks of Pharoah’s heart becoming hardened, for a very brief moment I actually feel a tiny pang of jealousy. How nice would it be, I think, to not be totally blown over by the terrible things that people do to each other.

The attacks on our country on 9/11 happened right after I first graduated from college. I remember watching the towers fall and feeling as if my heart had fallen out of my chest.

Ever since then, I have had a hard time watching the news. Reading it is not much better. The problem isn’t just the tragedy of particular incidents, but the accumulation of them.

No wonder, as Pharaoh watched his people suffer, plague after plague, he chose to close off his emotions. Empathy and compassion would have overwhelmed him — as it does many of us today.

Ultimately, my goal is to be as different from Pharoah as possible. I don’t want my heart to harden.

As difficult as it is, I truly believe that a soft heart, filled with compassion, empathy and love, is the only way to change our world.

The commentators tell us that when it says Pharaoh’s became harded, we shouldn’t imagine that he was some big softy who loved everyone.

We might think he started out as a person with the capacity for love and empathy, but only turned cold and evil as a result of G-d making his life difficult, but if we look at the early stages of Pharaoh’s fear and resentment towards the Israelites, we see that he was already allowing those feelings to coagulate inside of him.

It is not a caring and loving person who issues an edict of infanticide.

This is not a man with a soft heart. This is a man capable of the most repugnant evil of all – hurting children.

And why? Because they were Israelites. Because of their ethnicity, culture and religion.

Thousands of years later, we still find people who hate others for these very same reasons. There are people in the world who think that a person’s worth and goodness is based on their ethnicity, religion or race.

But what I hear even more loudly over those ignorant proclamations is a crying out – a crying out all too familiar, like that of the Israelites who felt the injustice of their treatment.

Crying out is way of softening the heart. It lets us feel the pain, rather than cover it up with pontification or rationality.

But what really softens our hearts is not only when we cry out for ourselves, but when we cry out for others.

Many people these days are using social media as their means of crying out.

The hashtag has become the proverbial pedestal.

I am not condemning this approach, by the way. It certainly spreads information and at least has the potential to influence people to think differently.

As a religious person, my instinct for crying out is two-fold: the prophetic instinct and the pray-er instinct.

Our ancestors prayed to G-d to save them, but ultimately it was both G-d and the prophet, Moses, who saved them.

This tells us something important about our crying out:

  1. Crying out in prayer is an important first step

And

  1. The prophets who call us to action, those willing to cry out in a public forum will be the ones who ultimately lead us out of the narrow places

We often resist the first step, because it is painful. We might jump directly to standing on our pedestals and condemning the perpetrators of evil.

The problem with this is that it causes a closing off of the heart not so different from Pharaoh’s. Rather than allow ourselves to feel the pain of empathy, we condemn. This causes us to feel hatred and can lead, unfortunately, to the same kinds of racism, ethnocentrism and prejudice that caused the acts of violence in the first place.

We also resist crying out in prayer because many of us, including myself, don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer to bring about divine intercession. In fact, I don’t know many people who do believe that G-d will simply respond to our every request as long as it is for good. If G-d wanted to fix all of our problems for us, why make humans in the first place? But, I am digressing from my point.

Crying out in prayer is not about efficacy in terms of changing the situation, it is about the effect it has on us.

It is important to cry out, to feel empathy, to feel the painfulness of what humans do to each other, so that we remember how much we value life over ideas, so that we remember that our humanity connects us all to each other, regardless of the various ways in which we are different.

Crying out in prayer reminds us that we all feel pain, we all bleed, we all love. We humans inhabit this earth together and we are all we have to make it better.

Of course it is not enough to pray. There is a famous poem by Rabbi Jack Riemer, “We cannot merely pray”

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That man must find his own path to peace.
Within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For You have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all men,
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination and will power,
To do instead of just pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Riemer’s words. Yet, I think that sometimes we resist the doing, because it too is painful and hard when we don’t see immediate results.

We often don’t know where to begin. We don’t know what to do.

Social media has become a forum for speaking out because it is easy and readily available. We don’t have to gather a crowd in the cold or heat. We can access thousands of people instantly. This is a good thing in many ways.

It is not enough, though. It is too easy to ignore and discount the opinions of people with whom we do not agree. We can even “unfriend” people so that our list of “friends” becomes so monolithic that we are all just “preaching to the choir.”

Also, as I mentioned earlier, the tone too often becomes negative and the result is the exact opposite of our desire. Instead of promoting love and understanding, when we point fingers we inspire blame, criticism and ultimately hatred.

I want my crying out to soften my heart, not harden it. I want my crying out to promote more understanding, more kindness, more love.

So, first I cry out to G-d: I ask G-d to heal rather than punish, to soften hearts rather than harden them. I am willing to experience the pain that comes with knowing that fixing the world does not come easily or quickly, that results are slow, that too much suffering will happen along the way. I ask G-d to give me strength to endure and strength to continue loving people and loving the world, even when violence and murder threaten to destroy that love.

Second, I cry out to you: find a positive way to promote justice and peace. Let your heart remain soft. Bring G-d’s will into the world through your speech and actions.

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love. As much as you can.

Thanksgiving Sermon

A few weeks ago I visited Alleman high school to talk to the students about Judaism. In one of the classes I visited, the teacher and students said a very short, but very catchy prayer right at the beginning of class. It went like this:

The teacher said: “God is good” and the students responded – “all the time.” Then the teacher said, “All the time” and the students replied – “God is good.”

A few things struck me about this prayer

  • its pithiness
  • its power
  • and mostly that it sounded so foreign to me

The part that sounded so unusual to my ears, was the very point of the prayer, that God is good all the time.

There’s nothing in Judaism that says God isn’t good all the time, and yet this isn’t really an idea that comes up in our prayers very much.

Short call and response prayers work really well, because they get the message across quickly.

In Jewish tradition, we have a number of them, but they are a bit different:

  1. They are in Hebrew
  2. They are directed at the congregation

But after thinking about it for awhile, I realized that we do have a prayer that is very similar to the “God is good” prayer.

We say: Hodu Ladonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo

It means: Give thanks to God, for God is good, for God’s loving-kindness has no limit.

Hodu means “give thanks.”  It also happens to be the Hebrew word for Turkey!  How uncanny is that?

As a prayer, Hodu is directed at the congregation.

The leader says: “Give thanks to God for God is good”

And the congregation responds: “for God’s loving-kindness has no limit.”

So basically, it is the exact same prayer!

But for some reason when I heard it expressed as “God is good all the time” I found myself questioning that idea.

Is God’s loving-kindness really limitless? Is God really good all the time?

Knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to answer this question on my own, I decided to do a little research.

So I dropped the question into Google: Is God good all the time?

Instantly I found an answer (just kidding).

Instead I found a blog post written by a woman named Heather. The post was titled with the exact wording of my question.

In the post, Heather described her own questioning of God’s goodness.

She had married her college sweetheart at the age of 25.

Just a couple of months after her father walked her down the aisle, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 49.

Nine months later, less than a year into her marriage, Heather’s husband and her sister’s husband both drowned in a boating accident.

The two sisters had very different reactions this tragedy.

While Heather’s sister remained steadfast in her faith, reaching out to God in her time of need, Heather felt abandoned.

God had always been good to her, but where was God now?

How could God have let these things happen?

Heather continued to struggle for quite some time.

She had grown up in a church where the call and response “God is good…all the time” was a staple of their worship service.

But three women in her family had just become widows and she was having a hard time seeing the goodness in her life.

One day Heather had an epiphany. Standing on a mountain in Vermont, she suddenly felt God’s presence with her, comforting her, grieving with her, and promising that everything would be okay.

She no longer felt that God had caused her pain or that God had let it happen.

Instead she viewed things differently – she saw God as holding her through the pain.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses this very topic and comes to the same conclusion.

Insistent that God is benevolent, he prefers to accept a certain amount of powerlessness. He does not view God as the cause of our suffering nor does he believe that God allows us to suffer. Rather, he claims, perhaps God is actually NOT all-powerful after all.

Heather did not quite take her blog post that far – in fact she never addressed the logical issues, but instead talked about how God cared for her and helped her begin to look toward a brighter future.

Even after reading this moving spiritual epiphany, I thought – well, it’s not really a question of whether or not God is “good” — goodness is a human category anyway.

My tradition teaches that G-d is everything – God cannot be contained in such a category as goodness.

And everything is not always good.

Yet, I do believe that at every moment of every day for all eternity, God emits a limitless loving presence into the world.

What happened to Heather on that mountain that day was that she experienced the limitless loving-kindness that we all have access to all the time.

At that moment, God’s compassion touched her.

So, how did that happen?

She tuned into it.

When we experience pain and suffering, it can cut us off from our connection with God.

God does not abandon us, but our pain can prevent us from being connected.

That doesn’t happen to everyone. It didn’t happen to Heather’s sister. Her pain instantly caused her to reach for God.

I think that is rare though.

Most of us have to work at connecting with God’s presence, some of us have to really work to see God’s goodness in the world.

So, how do we do that.

For Heather it was standing on a mountaintop and crying and expressing her grief.

She needed to do that.

When we’re not in the throes of mourning, we may not require such dramatic circumstances.

Let’s come back to the idea that God is radiating limitless goodness all the time into the world.

It’s like a radio frequency.

If you don’t have a tuner and you don’t have it tuned to the right place on the dial, you may not hear it.

You might even hear a lot of really annoying static that could make you pretty miserable if you listen to it for more than a few seconds.

In order to know that goodness is there, we need to turn on the radio and tune to the right station.

One of the ways we do that is through a practice of giving thanks – and I don’t just mean in the moments when there is something obviously good happening.

On Wednesdays our Hebrew school students lead our weekday evening service.

During our silent prayer I invite the students to reflect and have a quick conversation with G-d.

They know by now that most prayers can be summed up with the following three words: Help. Thanks. Wow.

I didn’t come up with this – Annie Lamott wrote a book with that title. The concept is simple but profound.

So, our students spend a few silent moments thinking about something they need or want, something for which they are grateful or something they think is amazing. After a few moments of quiet reflection I invite them to share.

And they share incredibly beautiful thoughts! It’s mostly words of gratitude for family and friends.

They rarely ask for things!

Recently during the course of their sharing, one of our younger students said, “I think EVERYTHING is amazing.”   I thought to myself, wow, I wish that I could see the world through her eyes!

That day my mind had been preoccupied with a violent tragedy that had occurred in Jerusalem and the world was looking pretty glum.

But for a moment I imagined what it would be like to not have my perception tainted in that way. For a moment I really could see things from her perspective.

Perhaps we have something to learn from children about our own spirituality.

They seem to have a deeper sense of gratitude for life, a purer sense of awe at the world and less need for stuff. It’s pretty amazing.

How is it that they see things with so much more optimism? Is it just that they don’t watch the news?

When I spoke at Alleman, I talked with the students about prejudice and Antisemitism. To illustrate how our brains focus on the negative, I held up a piece of paper on which I had made a very small black dot and asked the students to tell me what they saw.

Almost all of the students focused immediately on the black dot, which took up less than 1% of the whole paper.

Only one student pointed out that actually most of the paper was white space.

It seems that as we mature we learn to focus on more difference.

Somehow our increased awareness of the negative can obscure our perspective, so that it looms much larger than it should.

At this time of year, American culture encourages us to focus on gratitude.

Thanksgiving is about training our brains to look for the positive.

Jewish tradition teaches us to do this every day. We are supposed to say 100 blessings a day, each one an expression of gratitude for things like food, shelter, friends, family and health.

Sure, 100 blesings is a tall order, but the concept of trying to notice the positive is a good one. It might be hard for those of us who read the news to utter the phrase “everything is amazing,” but we can try to look for the white space more and recognize that there is plenty for which to be grateful.

What happens when we express gratitude?

We actually become aware of the good things in our lives. We tap into that limitless loving-kindness pouring into the world. We notice the white space on the page.

So, is God good all the time?

Maybe that’s not the best way to phrase the question.

What if instead we ask: how can I recognize God’s goodness right now?

How can I get in touch with the limitless loving-kindness that emanates constantly into our world?

One answer is to that question lies in two simple words: thank you.

Thanksgiving isn’t for those who have had an easy life.

It’s not an occasion for those who feel like life has given them everything they’ve ever wanted.

If you’ve had an easy life, you don’t need to a holiday to remind you of the power of gratitude.

Thanksgiving is for those of us who have struggled.

It is for those of us who have been through stuff.

The point is to summon the courage and strength to look beyond our pain and find blessings even when they seem obscured from view.

Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday for the happy-go-lucky.

Metaphorically, winter comes not only in December, but in those colorless moments: boredom, isolation, feeling misunderstood or unloved, losing sight of your purpose and meaning in life.

In a very literal way, awareness of appreciation and expressions of gratitude serve us by helping us through the bleakest of times.

It’s impossible to feel a sense of gratitude all the time, because, sometimes life is a cold, dark winter.

Regularly appreciating the moments of beauty, enjoyment and love prepares us for the dark times. We can cultivate a predisposition for appreciation by expressing gratitude in those moments when we experience beauty, joy, awe, or satisfaction.

But we can also cultivate appreciation by finding something to be grateful for even in moments when we feel sad, lonely or bored.

Giving thanks even in difficult times, reminds us that there is still much for which to be grateful.

The holiday of Thanksgiving landed at the end of fall to comfort us in the moments before the first snowflakes land – although this year they landed early!

I think there is another reason that this holiday comes at the end of the fall harvest. Our ancestors did not have the food technology we have today and so for them Thanksgiving was as a genuine response of gratitude for the bounty which would get them through the cold winter months.

They had it much harder than we do – no central heating or frozen food section at the grocery store.

Yet, they felt gratitude for what they did have.

By saying thank you for what we do have, we can transform our perspective.

It doesn’t mean we suddenly think that life is perfect, because of course it isn’t. But can’t we all find at least one thing for which we feel grateful right now?

If you can, than perhaps you can tap into, even if just for a moment, some of God’s goodness.

Is God good, all the time?

It certainly does not always feel that way – but goodness is accessible to us right now, and at every moment in which we tune in to it.

We tune in by appreciating what is good in our lives – by giving thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Will to Live – Kol Nidre 2014

On Monday, August 11th we lost one of the most talented actors in Hollywood to depression.

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about it – of course it was not that long ago.

Still, I have the feeling that, just as many people remember exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot, or how vividly I remember the moment I heard Yitzhak Rabin was shot, I will always remember that moment.

I was driving back from spending the day at a water park with my friend and her four-year-old son who is like a nephew to me. It had been kind of a gloomy, drizzly day.

Even though I was with two of my favorite people and we were at one of my favorite places, I found myself feeling glum.

We were exhausted and the whole car smelled like chlorine. I happened to look at my phone and saw an alert: “Robin Williams dies at 63. Suspected suicide.”

That was it. It just appeared on my phone like any other alert – take out the garbage, board meeting tomorrow at 7 pm.

On the long drive home my friend and I got into a discussion about suicide.

In the days that followed, my newsfeed exploded with articles on the topic.

Perhaps because of people’s love for Robin Williams and the compassion they felt for him, or perhaps because we are finally listening to the scientific research on mental illness, specifically depression, I started to see people talking about suicide in a less judgmental way.

I’ve heard many people say that suicide is selfish.

But when I spoke with some of my clergy friends about the same topic, we all agreed that what leads people to take their own lives is that they believe the world and specifically the people in their lives would be better off without them.

From their point of view their actions embody the exact opposite of being selfish. They believe they are unburdening their family and friends.

The saddest thing is that people with mental illness often don’t see their own worth and how much they really matter to others, because of the way the disease affects their thinking.

It simply does not work to apply rational thinking to such a thought process. A person experiencing suicidal depression will lose the ability to think logically about the effect their death will have on others.

I chose my wording carefully when I said we lost Robin Williams to depression and I want to clarify why I didn’t say we lost him to suicide.

While it is true that suicide was the manner in which he died, the disease that he died from was severe, untreated depression — just as when a person has a heart attack, the incident itself is a result of heart disease.

I have to admit that on some level I was really reluctant to address this issue, but the problem is that no one ever wants to talk about it.

While it’s not an easy subject to discuss, it’s one we need to take out of the closet – especially in the Jewish community.

The Jewish community has historically not dealt with this issue in an open, honest and supportive way. However, Jewish tradition and texts tell a different story.

I have a feeling that many people are grossly misinformed about our tradition’s response to suicide.

Many people falsely believe that suicide is a sin against G-d.

I remember being told as much during my religious education as a child.

I was taught that suicide is a grave sin. I was told that anyone who commits suicide cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I was also told that the soul of a person who commits suicide does not gain access to Olam Habah, the Jewish version of Heaven.

I think my teachers had good intentions – they felt these statements might act as a deterrent.

After all, children are trained to respond to the idea of consequences. When I was growing up, fear and intimidation, and threats of punishment were considered appropriate motivators.

Unfortunately, that approach reveals just how little people understood about mental illness and the way it affects logical thinking.

It was only in rabbinical school that I found out that Judaism has a much more compassionate and understanding approach to mental illness.

During my fourth year of rabbinical school, I took a course in Halakhah (Jewish Law) in Israel focusing specifically on the laws and rituals surrounding death, burial and mourning.

I learned that each ritual and law associated with the process of dying has one of two functions: 1. to provide honor to the person who has died or 2. to provide comfort to the surviving family.

I was surprised to learn that these practices had more to do with people than with G-d and that none of it was arbitrary. Each law had a practical function.

About midway through the first semester, my teacher’s teenage daughter took her own life.

We went in groups to his home during shiva to show our support. None of us knew what to say. He sat on a low stool in his living room and told us about his daughter’s wonderful qualities, but also how much she had suffered with self-esteem and episodes of deep depression.

After completing shiva, he resumed teaching the class.

I remember sitting in class while he was still in shloshim, and learning the sections of the Shulchan Aruch that deal with suicide.

I sat there trying to fathom how he could even look at these texts, let alone discuss them with us. I felt like I was sitting on nails.

I wondered what was going on in his head. Did this bring him comfort? Did it all make sense in his mind? How could it?

Yet, for him, discussing it seemed necessary. He did not avoid it. He could have easily changed the topic for the course and no one would have questioned it.

I viewed his decision to proceed as one of great strength – but also of great modeling as a teacher.

In proceeding, he modeled for us the very real need to engage with this subject and not avoid it.

Our very impulse to avoid talking about it is part of the problem – it is the source of the sense of shame and loneliness that contributes to mental illness itself.

Our fear and discomfort exacerbates the sense of isolation and indignity of those touched by mental illness.

Part of my initial hesitation about discussing this issue tonight comes from not wanting to scrape an open wound.

There are certainly people in our congregation suffer from depression, people who have lost loved ones, people who are still struggling with a family member who needs tremendous support.

Yet, that is also my motivation for speaking on this subject tonight.

It is a painful subject and all the more so for anyone who has been effected by it.

40 percent of deaths in America last year were suicides.

That’s a staggering percentage.

So, what can we do?

This year our congregation participated in the walk for NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Our team raised $1,770 and the walk as a whole raised about $90,000.

These funds will be used for direct support, but also for increased education and awareness.

Of course we all would want to help someone who was suffering and prevent them from getting to the point of suicide.

But part of the challenge is the stigma that prevents people from openly discussing their suffering.

They experience a kind of double-suffering, compounded by having a disease with judgment and stigma around it.

In addition to the pain and suffering experienced due to the effects of the illness and loss of life, there is another layer of suffering caused by the shame and judgment.

The stigma itself actually exacerbates the effects of mental illness.

One goal of organizations like NAMI and others working to raise awareness about the disease is to remove the stigma of mental illness – to understand that it is a disease and to treat it as such.

I think that doing so will help people discuss it more openly and help people have more compassion for those who are suffering from it.

When it comes to mental illness, there is a tendency to blame the person who is suffering – as though it is their fault for not making better choices or having a different perspective.

People often take a moral high ground that comes out of fear of their own susceptibility.

They think that they are stronger or better than someone who “succumbs” to the disease.

They don’t think of it like any other disease, like cancer or diabetes, which can be hereditary.

As a religious leader I want to share the deep wisdom our tradition, which somehow has been obscured and not shared properly.

So, I’d like to clarify a few things:

Is suicide a sin according to Jewish tradition?

What we mean by sin, which is a word that does not translate well to any word in Hebrew, is something that is prohibited by the Torah.

Well, technically speaking, murder is prohibited by the Torah, and that prohibition has always been thought to refer to killing another person.

Of course we could extrapolate from that commandment that G-d does not want us to take our own life either.

Nonetheless, it is not directly prohibited in the Torah – I think calling it a sin is incorrect.

Another misconception is that a person who commits suicide does not have a place in the World to Come.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs points out:

The popular saying that a [person who commits] suicide has no share in the World to Come, which would be a far more severe punishment that that for murder, has no support in any of the classical sources.

He’s right. In my studies of death and the afterlife, it did not say anything at all about someone who commits suicide not going to heaven.

What a terrible thing to teach! Especially since it is not true and especially because such an idea would only cause further pain to the surviving family members.

In the Shulchan Aruch it does say that someone who purposely takes their own life is not entitled to the usual funeral and burial rites.

Unfortunately, many people ignore what immediately follows that statement: this ruling is set aside whenever it can reasonably be assessed that the act was committed while the person was “of unsound mind.”

The later authorities extend this idea to every instance of suicide, explaining that no one “of sound mind” would ever purposely take his or her own life.

The rabbis also make exceptions for martyrdom. There are only 3 prohibitions for which a person is allowed to die rather than commit the sin: murder, idol worship and rape.

Of course, we think immediately of Masada. How could that group of people have thought it was better to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans?

This summer, standing on Masada in the hot blazing sun, our tour guide talked about the Zealots as if they were heroes.

She praised them for their martyrdom. I found this deeply troubling.

For me, the lesson of Masada is about what not to do. That group of people and with them all their culture and traditions were wiped out!

Some of the other groups, such as that led by Yochanan Ben Zakkai, escaped and revitalized Jewish life in Yavneh.

If all of the Jews in the 1st century had acted like the Zealots on Masada, there would be no Jewish community today.

There is a huge emphasis on the importance of life in Judaism.

Our tradition clearly promotes choosing life — an oft repeated phrase in the Torah is “choose life”.

We value life tremendously.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Nonetheless, our tradition recognizes that life is not always easy. Part of the goal of a religious tradition and a religious community is to provide support and meaning-making for those difficult times.

Many times the Torah reassures us that even when we find ourselves feeling broken, G-d will help us return to wholeness.

On a verse from Deuteronomy (Devarim 30:3) about teshuva, returning, Rashi points out that the Hebrew verb for return is used in its simplest conjugation( ושב), instead of using the causative form (והשיב).

The difference is that the text reads ‘the Holy One will return’, not ‘the Holy One will cause you to return.’

Rashi says this teaches us that G-d dwells with us in our sadness and our misery, and that our return is not just for ourselves, but for G-d as well.

G-d returns to us, and helps us become whole again.

In the Talmud (Chagigah 15a), R. Akiva explained as follows:

Just as vessels of gold and glass, though they are broken, have a way of being mended (by being melted down and reformed), so too a wise person who has lost his way can be made whole again.

These encouraging texts acknowledge the brokenness we can all feel at times. They acknowledge that the world is broken and thus so are we.

But, the purpose of a religious community and spirituality is to help us feel supported through those times, to know we are not alone, and to find meaning in all of life’s trials and difficulties. We do this by sharing openly and honestly with each other when we are struggling.

In his book, “Making Loss Matter: Creating meaning in Difficult Times,” Rabbi David Wolpe shares how spirituality can help us make meaning out of life’s painful experiences.

He says:

“The blessing we seek in life is not to live without pain. It is to live so that our pain has meaning. The spiritually minded person seeks to live fully despite fear… No quality is more essential for a well-lived life than courage… and our determination to make sense of life, is wisdom…Each person of courage must face the world, a joyous and fearful and hope-filled place. We will lose what we love, but we will have loved. We will reach, and falter. The ocean will not engulf us. We will hold one another and realize that in God’s world, none need be alone…

We all have times in our lives when we seem to have lost our way. It can feel very lonely.

We may question the purpose of our lives. What are we doing here? What am I contributing to the world?

It’s no coincidence that on Yom Kippur, the very time when we are examining our lives, we read the book of Jonah, a story about a young man who cannot see his own worth and his own purpose in the world.

At the end of the book, even after he carries out his very important mission from G-d and succeeds in getting the whole town of Nineveh to repent and change their ways – he feels lost and alone.

Sitting under the hot sun, forlorn, G-d provides him shade under a plant.

For a brief period of time he feels comforted, but after awhile the plant withers and dies and he is left again in the scorching sun.

In his desperation, Jonah pleads with G-d to take his life.

G-d becomes outraged.

God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

There is no question in my mind that Jonah is a story of a young man with deep depression. He cannot see his own worth in the world, despite the fact that G-d has singled him out for a great purpose.

He consistently avoids fulfilling his purpose. He tries to commit suicide earlier in the story when he has the men on the ship throw him overboard into the sea. G-d keeps trying to save him, but Jonah simply cannot see his own worth.

Robin William’s had a great purpose in the world and he impacted many, many people during his lifetime.

We remember his goofy humor as Mork the alien jumping around saying nanu-nanu, an unorthodox radio DJ shouting “Good Morning Vietnam,” and the affable Genie in Aladdin.

We remember his warmth and caring as a father willing to dress in drag for his children in Mrs. Doubtfire, a therapist who shows deep love to a lonely young man in Good Will Hunting, and of course the inspirational teacher standing on the desks shouting “carpe diem” in Dead Poets Society.

Through his acting and his comedy, Robin Williams had a profound impact on people. He made us laugh, he made us cry, he helped us recognize things about ourselves, he helped us see the world differently.

Unfortunately, despite his great talent and positive effect on others, like Jonah, Robin Williams suffered from depression. Despite G-d’s gifts to him, he could not see his own worth.

It’s so easy to be angry and to judge and feel betrayed by someone who has taken their own life. And that is understandable. The loss itself is hurtful and it is compounded by the fact that it could have been prevented.

We are now primed for a revolutionary approach to this disease.

Instead of blaming the victim, the person suffering from the disease, or blaming anyone, including ourselves, people are trying to look for ways to prevent suicide.

In the past, our attempts to discourage suicide have resulted in stigmatizing it.

We are now thinking about how to discourage it just as strongly without the shame and stigmatization.

I truly believe that spirituality and religious community can be a tremendous place of support for people suffering from mental illness.

I hope that now you have a better understanding of how our tradition views mental illness and suicide.

I hope that now you see that there are resources within our tradition to help provide comfort and meaning-making for those painful times.

And most importantly – I hope that this Yom Kippur, each and every one of you understands how much you matter.

We are all created by G-d. G-d has a purpose for us here on earth. G-d created us all with a spark of the divine in each of us. We are all good and worthy and needed here. We are all loved and there are people who need our love.

We often can’t see how much we matter – and we don’t all have to be as influential a person as Robin Williams – each person matters.

Each of you sitting in this room has made someone laugh or smile.

Each of you has helped someone through a difficult time.

Each of you has inspired someone.

Each of you matters.

You are here for a reason.

On this night, we ask G-d to write us in the book of life, but we are the ones with the pen in our hands.

G-d is holding the book open for us.