Category Archives: Hazzan’s Monday Morning Quarterback
“I like to think grief is the price we pay for truly loving someone. And it’s worth every penny” – Ted Lasso
Sermon delivered Shemini Atzeret 5782
This past Sunday, I made my semi-annual drop off at our local Goodwill drive thru. I always feel good about the experience, unloading items that simultaneously declutter my own space but hopefully fill someone else’s with joy. During the dropoff, I struck up a fascinating conversation with one of the workers who was helping me out. He noticed my kippah, so over the course of 15 minutes or so, we discussed themes of the Jewish holidays, what it means to have a “calling” as opposed to having a job, and the potentially indelible marks we can leave in this world. I think we both were bummed when someone finally pulled up behind me in the drive thru. He told me, amongst other stories, about his uncle who had recently passed away. We processed this loss outside my car, processed his relationships with his uncle, his aunt and his cousin. Because sometimes that’s where and when and with whom we can process loss.
Where else can we process loss these days? A few weeks ago, and I found myself on a Zoom call with 4 of my brothers from the NYU Alpha chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, as we were invited to reflect, process, and to be honest, grieve as we marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I had spoken to each of them individually over the years, but we had never talked about our experiences from that day. Because sometimes that’s where and when and with whom we can process loss.
Loss stinks. It doesn’t matter what silver linings we throw at it. People are taken too soon. It flat out stinks. And those we lose after having lived a long life, are those somehow less tragic? Well, they are also those constants who are suddenly no longer there for us. Pain and grief strike at all who endure loss, but how we all experience that pain, and more specifically that grief, varies in a myriad of ways. We don’t know when it will hit us, or even engulf us, but it will.
To illustrate this, I wanted to share the following written by Lyz Best, the widow of my cousin Jeremy Glick z’l, who perished on board United Flight 93. I shared these words at our healing service on Yom Kippur, and I hope you find comfort in how she deals with the weight of grief, and how each of us takes on that challenge of grief in different ways.
20 years later – I have made friends with my grief – Lyz Best
I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, ‘It tastes sweet, does it not?’ ‘You’ve caught me,’ grief answered, ‘and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing? –Rumi
Twenty years ago, grief barged its way through the red wooden front door of my family’s old farmhouse looking for me. So rude and unexpected grief didn’t even have the courtesy to knock.
September 11th, 2001, I remember every detail of that morning until 10:03 the moment Jeremy’s plane crashed in a lonely field in Pennsylvania. The last thing I remember from that morning is my father hugging me. He was crying. I was shaking and in shock from spending over 30 minutes on phone with my husband.
During that fateful call we comforted each while he made a plan to attack the hijackers on his plane. For hours after the phone went dead, I hid in the bathroom away from everyone in the house. I didn’t want to know the truth. I thought if I avoided everyone this nightmare would go away, Jeremy would come home, and I could go back to living the beautiful life in front of me. When I did finally get up and tiptoe my way into the kitchen I bumped into my dad.
With both disbelief and with certainty I grabbed my father by the shoulders and screamed over and over, “Wait. You think he’s dead?” Wait you think he’s dead?” He couldn’t form the words to tell me. He was in shock. Of course, he was he loved Jeremy as a son. We both just cried harder and the last thing I remember is falling to the ground. I have no memory of the rest of the day.
I remember the next morning clear as day though. Shock and pain consumed me. It was like nothing I have ever felt before. I was pretty certain I would die from the pain I was feeling. Our beautiful daughter lay in the crib next to me. She was cooing, looking peacefully up at her mobile just three months old unaware of the horror of the previous day.
I didn’t think it was possible, but for the next 7305 days the sun has come up and it has set, and I am still grieving, but my grief is different today than it was in the early days.
Over the years I have often wondered what today, twenty years later would feel like? Would the pain be as sharp? Would I still feel so alone? Would my daughter know her father? Would I experience joy again or would life always be so chaotic?
Grief took so much away from me. Grief took away my husband and robbed him of the opportunity of experiencing life as a father. It took away the man I loved and was supposed to dream with, raise children with and grow old with. Grief left me a single parent and left my daughter no tangible memories of her father. Grief left me with fear, debilitating anxiety and PTSD. It left me angry and exhausted. I didn’t recognize the new me and I certainly didn’t want to accept or embrace my new life as a 31-year-old widow.
But little by little I made a choice that there had to be something better than where I was at. So, I chose to embrace grief rather than fight it. I had no choice. I had a daughter to raise and life in this state was pretty unbearable. So, I did the work.
At first, I tried to find the old me, that carefree, fun adventurous person – but soon I learned that she had changed. She didn’t exist anymore. I found that the best way for me to work through grief was to let it out. I cried, screamed, yelled and occasionally would curse and throw something as I hard as I could. I also wrote letters to Jeremy, talked to him often and used writing as an outlet.
I kept an open mind and worked hard in my weekly therapy sessions and went to a support group for widows. I read a lot and practiced self-care. I ran a lot of miles and even completed a marathon. I spoke of Jeremy often and found ways to honor him and his memory that made me feel good.
Slowly over many years grief became my friend. I began to accept it rather than bury it deep inside where only I could see and feel it. It took me many years to realize that if grief remained my enemy and if I didn’t look it in the eye, I would be blind to the many gifts that grief would bring me. So, one day, I invited grief to take a seat next to me on the couch and he’s been a more welcomed companion ever since.
Grief has taught me the importance of gratitude and as a result senses for beauty and joy are stronger and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Grief has taught me that love will never die, but grow stronger and be honored in ways that are sacred. Grief has taught me that pain and the tragedy of 9/11 will never go away, but it will change, and it will be different. Grief has shown me the true relationship between mind, body and spirit and the importance of self-care.
Most importantly I have learned that grief is both personal and universal at the same time. It has reinforced that the most important thing that we can experience as humans is compassion and how we care for others. If we let it, grief and sorrow can prepare us for joy. It can awaken us to a peace and freedom we would not have been able to see and feel otherwise. This is my blessing.
A powerful message- that our zman simchateinu, this time of joy, isn’t shrouded in the darkness of grief, but that we are better prepared for joy because of our grief.
Judaism sketches a roadmap directing us toward comfort and renewal after we’ve experienced loss. There’s no rule that we have to connect with all the elements of our grief cycle, no more than we are expected to connect with every piece of liturgy or every holiday. But we have enough material that, hopefully, we do find that time and place to process that works for us. Maybe it’s during shiva, or shloshim. Perhaps it’s seeing our loved one’s name etched in stone at an unveiling, or in hearing our loved one’s name at a yahrzeit. Maybe it’s the first yahrzeit, or the tenth. And maybe its not in our formal Jewish mourning calendar. Maybe it’s in a space prior to death, when we may find peace while our loved one is under the care of hospice. Maybe it’s on a Zoom screen or in a parking lot, but we all need that space to process, and to embrace grief.
If we don’t find space in the mundane moments or in our own personal mourning timeline, we do have a time set in our collective calendar, the time we have set before us this morning. Yizkor, remember. Nestled between the joy of Sukkot and the revelry of Simhat Torah, the highs and lows of life are reflected in the Yizkor service. I invite you to consider grief as a passageway to comfort. Whether you have lost recently or years ago, I hope that you’ll take today to pray but also to process, to sit in silence and to share in memory.
We are completing the festival of sukkot- in which we welcome shared space, however fragile that space is. We fill our sukkot with stories to bring joy to this season. Share a story of a loved one with a friend or family member. May you take not just these next 20 minutes, but this day, to share in memory. We remember today, to help us, to guide us on how to remember, tomorrow.
May we always remember those who came before us. Just as our grief knows no boundaries, so too may the power of memory.
An opening disclaimer: I love my parents…. back to the sermon
Outside Berlin, you’ll find a cushy summer estate, a longtime favorite vacation spot of the German elite. The suburb is called Wanssee, now famously known as the site of the Wansee conference held there in January 1942. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the implementation of the “Final solution to the Jewish question.” Today, the estate houses a museum that tells the story of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Amidst the documents, letters, correspondence planning the expedited murder of millions is a room filled with quotes on the wall- not of Nazi generals, but of children of survivors, and children of Nazi leaders.
Ulrike Krüger, whose father was Director of the SS “Ancestral Heritage Society, writes, “”Yes, this guilt of my father is part of my life. I live and therefore I have responsibility. I can only endure this if I am willing to face this past again and again and thus take this horrific event seriously from a physical and psychological point of view. My challenge is to implement this awareness in my everyday life and to try to counter prejudices, disregard and destruction of humanity.”
Katrin Himmler, born 1967, great niece of Heinrich Himmler, writes “”When I was fifteen, one of my classmates suddenly asked in history class whether I was actually ‘related to Himmler’. I said yes, with a lump in my throat. The class was as quiet as a mouse. Everyone was wide awake and tense. But the teacher got nervous and carried on as if nothing had happened. She missed a chance to make us understand what still connects us, who will be born after, with these ‘old stories’.”
Parents aren’t perfect. Ancestors and History in general are not perfect. But there comes an often uncomfortable truth when we learn that those who came before us had questionable pasts, when their actions and motivations hurt others. How each of us responds to that truth, matters. For the family who do wrong for the wrong reason, and more confusingly those who do right for the wrong reason. To those who fill their mouths with abusive rhetoric and their fists with abusive right hooks.
To those who do not embrace or include,to those who live in a world in which “the good ‘ol days” were good for everyone, how do we speak to those truths? How do we recite Yizkor for the abusive parent (side note-click here)? How do we act in a way that distances us from those words and those actions, while simultaneously empowering us to follow a path filled with compassion and love?
I was thinking of this recently when I read about a young woman named Avery Sanford. Her father was not thrilled to be paying child support. When Avery turned 18, her father dumped 80,000 pennies in front of his daughter’s home as his final payment. Once Avery and her mother picked up the pennies,Avery and her mom decided to flip the coins, and the script. They donated his last child support payment – every penny – to Safe Harbor, a domestic abuse shelter.
We can get sucked down that rabbit hole of cancel culture, of hearing something so bad we cringe, we cancel that person, but we continue to say nothing or do nothing to change our own path. But If we look at the words of Ulrik and Katrin, the actions of Avery, the focus isn’t on canceling that relative. Rather, they modify their personal algorithm, their own story, to speak to truth, and more than speak or write, they ARE better. They live and are committed to a life of purpose, a life of agency.
So this week we’re talking about Korah, right? We know the story. Korah, who happens to be Moses and Aaron’s first cousin, wants power. The rabbis go back and forth as to why Korah is punished, many focusing on the intention and reasoning behind the power grab. In the end Korah, along with 249 co-conspirators were punished for their rebellion when God sent fire from heaven as the earth opened up, consuming all 250 of them. Immediately following, there is a plague that killed an additional 14,700 men. Ouch! And yet there was one group not included in that mass of 15,000: namely, the sons of Korah.
For those who are unaware, my Saturday afternoon teaching for the past 6 months has focused on the book of Psalms. When our people look for healing, we go to the Psalms, a collection written primarily, but not exclusively by King David. Since I teach roughly every three weeks, Those keeping score we will learn Psalm 8 next Saturday afternoon! Not to jump the gun, but I wanted to focus on a few psalms that we’ll probably encounter in the next 2-5 years, Psalms 42—49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, i.e. the psalms written by the sons of Korah.
Now having a basic storyline of Korah and his rebellion, aka Korah engulfed into the earth, we read the following:
Psalms 46:2-3(2) God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. (3) Therefore we are not afraid though the earth reels, though mountains topple into the sea—
תהילים מ״ו:ב׳-ג׳(ב) אֱלֹהִ֣ים לָ֭נוּ מַחֲסֶ֣ה וָעֹ֑ז עֶזְרָ֥ה בְ֝צָר֗וֹת נִמְצָ֥א מְאֹֽד׃ (ג) עַל־כֵּ֣ן לֹֽא־נִ֭ירָא בְּהָמִ֣יר אָ֑רֶץ וּבְמ֥וֹט הָ֝רִ֗ים בְּלֵ֣ב יַמִּֽים׃
The sons of Korah thank God for being their refuge. They won’t be afraid even though the earth trembles. They say this having just felt the earth literally tremble. They are guided by faith,….They put their trust in a divine being that swallowed their father. In exploring the other Psalms, we learn that this isn’t out of fear. This is their response to Korah. This is their intentional and thought-out legacy.
Psalm 84 we read:
Psalms 84:2-5(2) How lovely is Your dwelling-place, O LORD of hosts. (5) Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they forever praise You.Selah.
תהילים פ״ד:ב׳-ה׳(ב) מַה־יְּדִיד֥וֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶ֗יךָ יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃ ׃ (ה) אַ֭שְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ ע֝֗וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃
Ashrei. While we get Bilam’s curse-turned-blessing in two weeks, here we have an intentional blessing to recognize joy to those who follow in God’s path. And finally, in one of their last Psalms, the sons of Korah write:
Psalms 85:10-13(10) His help is very near those who fear Him, to make His glory dwell in our land. (11) Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and well-being kiss. (12) Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven. (13) The LORD also bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce.
תהילים פ״ה:י׳-י״ג(י) אַ֤ךְ קָר֣וֹב לִירֵאָ֣יו יִשְׁע֑וֹ לִשְׁכֹּ֖ן כָּב֣וֹד בְּאַרְצֵֽנוּ׃ (יא) חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ (יב) אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ (יג) גַּם־יְ֭הֹוָה יִתֵּ֣ן הַטּ֑וֹב וְ֝אַרְצֵ֗נוּ תִּתֵּ֥ן יְבוּלָֽהּ׃
What amazing poetry. Truth springs up for the earth, from the same earth Korah is swallowed, justice from the heavens that sealed Korah’s fate. Korah’s sons focus on blessing, on righteousness, on lovingkindness,on truth on justice, words that inspire, that once again get us as a people through the dark times, through the despair of illness and loss, we use the words of Bnei Korah to HELP us remember that God is good and while our path isn’t always straight, it leads to a brighter tomorrow, for as the sons of Korah write in Psalm 84, “God is our sun and our shield, God bestows wisdom and honor.” The wisdom, that With truth, justice, and agency, we are masters of our own story, our own destiny.
We are a call and response people. Our call to worship, the Barchu, contains within it a formula in which we affirm each other’s intentions.
Leader: I would like to lead y’all
Congregation: I hear you, I see you up there as our leader. Please lead us.
Leader: I hear you, I see you congregation, thank you for allowing me to lead us in prayer.
This formula continues with our torah and haftarah blessings, and today, in moments of our special shira torah reading. The reader pauses, acknowledging the public, hearing the public respond, and then repeats what we have said aloud. But our formula goes beyond the verbal commitment.
Let’s look into the torah portion for a moment.
וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ׃
And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses.
This is our preamble to our “Az Yashir” moment. In order to sing, we need the material to write our individual songs. The Israelites must see God’s prayer in order to sing out.
אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said: I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea
At the conclusion of the Shira, Miriam takes center stage with her reprise of “Shiru Ladonai”.
וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.
וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
And Miriam chanted. SHe answered THEM- men and women. She continues with a reprise of our opening number. (While the text cuts it short, we assume from its placement that she sings the song once again, in its entirety.) And what was the formula, the code for Miriam to begin her song? She gathered her percussion instrument, her tof. Seeing this, the women went out and danced with their timbrels.
From these two passages, we realize that our “call and response” formula is not just a verbal contract between individual leader and people. We use our bodies, our sightline, our dancing shoes, to confirm that we as a community are on board.
As we come upon almost a year of living with half of our faces covered, I wanted to take a moment to think about how we use our eyes, our feet, and the rest of our bodies to communicate with the world. Masking will and should continue for some time, but how we pivot with the rest of our bodies matters.
We look to our youngest for guidance. When they don’t have the words to say, they use the vocabulary of their bodies. I know that when my son rolls his arms back and forth that it means “Wheels on the Bus.” When he stomps on the ground, it means “We are the Dinosaurs” by the Laurie Berkner Band.
Looking at photos from this past year’s s’mahot, celebrations, we can see what happens to our eyes when we smile. We’ve learned to interpret moods based on how much squinting takes places. It reminds me of a show Leora and I loved watching- the short lived but well loved series “Lie to Me” in which Dr. Cal Lightman teaches a course in body language and microexpressions, acting as a consultant for law enforcement on a number of cases. That’s one way of looking at body language.
How we stand in conversation gives us an idea of our own interests in what’s being talked about. We look at our feet. If our feet are pointed towards the person we are talking to, we are engaged, if they point elsewhere, probably not so much. We really do let our feet do the talking. And of course, if on a cold winter day we sit in a folding chair, ars crossed, the internet reads that s a grumpy man upset that the synagogue isn’t serving kiddush yet. We live in unnatural times. We step off the sidewalk onto the street, we take a step back rather than embrace, because we love one another.
And we know that body language is literally that: language.
I have to admit that I got teary eyed at the inauguration ceremony a few weeks ago. It wasn’t from any speech. It happened when Georgia fire captain Andrea Hall, paying homage to the deaf and hard of hearing community, to her late father who was also deaf, signed as she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge and its message is significant to all. Not surprisingly, news came out this week that An American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter will attend every daily White House press briefing. The decision will make the briefings more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
When we use our bodies to speak, to move, to engage, we deepen our connection to one another.
In Jewish tradition, there are countless ways to make our bodies communicate in a way that makes the text come alive. Our trope system itself, taamei hamikrah, began as hand motions, known as chironomy. Before there were the written “Mapach” and “Pashta”, there was the Gator chomp and the two handed jumpshot. This comes into play not only in the teaching of trope, but in the day to day reading. If a torah reader gets stuck on a word, a symbol hand gesture would remind them of the melody.
Some of my most meaningful prayer moments from this past year involve movement of body. Those who have joined us for Friday night services may have seen a certain family member of mine join the screen for Yismichu Hashamayim, a time when everyone puts their video on so that for one word, “hashamayim” we can put our hands up in the air to show that we “do care.” Early on in the pandemic, we used to rotate with a few melodies for the Psalm, but it became apparent that this was a place where our bodies could do the praying and singing.
Last Spring, I remember each Shabbat morning on Zoom looking out to find shul regular Joe Schmuller clapping away. And when it comes to end Shabbat, you might have seen members of my family circle dancing on Facebook or Zoom.
This is my first dvar torah of the livestream era. I have memories of 20+ years ago, taking a public speaking class at NYU. We recorded ourselves reciting speeches and watched them back as a class. What I thought had been a very expressive, was more of a tiny armed dinosaur situation. Now, I watch myself conduct a service or an event for hours every week. I listen back not only for the sound quality, but for how I moved by body. A few months ago I began standing for all of these online events because I felt more active, more present. This was one way for me to change my body language to be more engaged.
We are a call and response people. I hope that you’ll take a chance in the days ahead to think about ways in which our bodies can tell a story, especially in this new age.
For Zoomers, it’s putting our video on, knowing that the comfort of being in our pajamas may not be as important as the comfort of knowing what we do for another by being on screen. For our texters and eye wanderers, it’s looking up and engaging in physically distant but not socially distant conversation. Choosing how we communicate, choosing THAT we communicate differently, is all that matters. It’s giving a thumbs up, a toe tap, clapping our hands, or typing a kind word on a chat.
Our smiles are often covered, our voices often muted, but the rhythms of Jewish life need the rhythms of artistic expression – song, dance, a body that moves and communicates. In this era of uncertainty and angst, when we can’t sing the way want to, congregate the way we want to, we must pivot, to the left to the left, to the right to the right.
We must move to the beat of Miriam’s timbrel, sharing with one another, so that I see and hear you for you, you hear and see me for me. Back and forth back and forth, a beautiful song expressed through our entire being.
Our lives are marred by inconsistencies. Some of us are formulaic, by-the-book people. Others, we march to the beat of our own drum. Neither type of person escapes the truth that we inhabit a world filled with both uncertainty and order. Life is complex. While I may not agree, I have still found common ground with those who think Israel is an apartheid state. I have found common ground with those who demonize liberals.
I am constantly uncomfortable. I resist posting responses or sharing articles out of fear. Sometimes I feel that liking a status is my form of silent rebellion. This isn’t a healthy way to live. And so today I’ll be as honest as I can be about the complexities and inconsistencies that I see layering on top of one another.
During the 10 days of repentance, I look to two distinct lessons of this season: God is ultimate judge; and the idea of cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul. We are reminded that we should not judge others, especially if we have not sat in their place. Maybe we can look inward before expressing outwardly. Maybe we can see that those who protest do so not out of hate. We have professional football players kneeling during the national anthem—intently, with purpose. Not lying down, or spitting on the ground, or burning a flag. Kneeling intently, with purpose; with deep love of this country. When you love someone, you expect more of them; you challenge them. Some will use this platform to expect more of our country.
We have the right to feel offended, and we have the right to feel proud. And we have right to be curious about motivations. There is nuance to this movement.
As Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, put it: “What Colin and Eli [Harold] and I did was peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. And I feel like I need to regain control of that narrative and not let people say what we’re doing is un-American. Because it’s not. It’s completely American.” (Update: Reid expands on his intentions here)
There is a debate about standing or sitting for the Shema prayer. Many Reform congregations stand for the Shema because standing signifies its importance. Most Conservative and Orthodox congregations sit because of a tradition that one sits as if in chevruta (study partnership) when reciting words of Torah. Nuance. There is meaning in both choreographies, but one has to ask the “why” to further your own informed perspective and create a layer of respect for the other practice.
And while we debate a choreographic move, Colin Kaepernick has followed up on his symbolic gesture with action—he’s done a lot of community outreach and philanthropic work in the past year, so much so that he was honored a few weeks ago by the NFL Players Association.
To those who wonder about the “right time and place” of the protest, I have begun my own research into the Star Spangled Banner, and would like to share a few thoughts. The anthem is a symbol of patriotism, of our love and respect for our military, and of those who have served our country. That’s what it means to many, but not all.
Francis Scott Key, the author of the anthem and District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833–1840, defended slavery (as a slave owner) by attacking the abolitionist movement. A few highlighted articles:
The anthem’s third stanza (of four) speaks about slavery. And yet, during Civil War, the Star Spangled Banner was an anthem for Union troops. Talk about confusing. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors.
It’s hard to unpack the author from the message, even if the message became a rallying cry for the opposing team. The (first verse only of the) Star Spangled Banner became our national anthem in 1931. It has been standard to play the anthem before sporting events since World War II. Its original use at sporting events is undeniably bound to our honoring of the military.
And yet, Jackie Robinson spoke about playing in his first World Series game, “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion…As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
It was only recently, in 2009, that NFL players came out to the field during the national anthem. Soon thereafter, the United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard [paid] $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies as part of military recruitment budget-line items.
The anthem protest controversy is what is making headlines in a sport plagued by issues regarding domestic violence and other criminal offences, a sport that has widespread concussion issues. Yet for all the claims that the players are entitled rich little kids, this is a sport in which many of its players would be otherwise unrecognizable without a jersey number, where players wear helmets covering their faces and who are looking for a time and space for introspection as well as action. This is a sport that since 2008, the average career across all positions is only 2.66 years, where bad financial advice often leads to bankruptcy. The lifespan of a playing career and a social impact career is shorter than most realize.
At the end of the day, the NFL is a private business. The owners have expressed their views just as owners of other enterprises share their own views on issues of the day. One can boycott Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby or Target or the NFL. Whatever path you do take, I hope it’s one filled with openness to learning and building together. That message was clear from owners and players alike this past weekend.
Praying to God is often in the polarities of life—in the comings and goings, at the rise of a new day and in the tucking in at night. We pray before games—for success in our craft, in triumphing over life’s challenges. We pray following games. “God is good,” the athlete proclaims after scoring the winning touchdown.
I pray for a time when I won’t open up my social media feeds to find friends judging others, friends combatting fear. I pray that I find this not out of a skewed friendship list or algorithm, but because I hope that the weight has been lifted by the many acts of kindness and moments of introspection. This won’t happen tomorrow, or the day after. Pain and fear will unfortunately always exist, but it is how we show support and love for one another and how we fight for positive change that lessens the hurt and the sorrow.
I am uncomfortable. I am searching for answers. When I prostrate to the floor during the apex of our Yom Kippur service, I will commit myself to being better in the year ahead. I will commit myself not to finding the answers, but to continuing the search for good throughout the world. And I commit to listening, being patient when patience is required, and acting when action is necessary. May we bring light and understanding in the year ahead.
Having just returned from a short time away, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacations. Vacations make no promises. What we immediately think of as periods of recreation, they commit to nothing more than the act of vacating one space for another. Yet to be away for even a short period of time can be therapeutic and refreshing, regardless of how many deep tissue massages or rounds of golf are on the docket. There can be fixed plans- meeting up with friends at a predetermined location, attending a sporting event at a fixed time. Even spontaneous road trips can be fixed when you plan even remotely ahead of time. On the other hand, preplanned road trips can be spontaneous, when the GPS malfunctions or someone has an allergic reaction to their veggie burger and requires Benadryl. No matter how much you plan ahead of time, life throws curveballs, fastballs and knuckeballs daring you to adjust the game plan.
Driving back from South Florida on Thursday night, I had a car full of Holzer ladies sleeping soundly through the second leg of a 5 hr journey home. Long drives remind me of when I ran cross country in high school- no walkmen to blast music, just time to think. While I was thinking about the sermon I had wanted to write a week ago, a car zoomed up beside me. Realizing that his lane, the right lane, was somehow moving under 90 mph, the driver decided to create a previously unopen space between my car and the car in front of us. I honked for a moment, proceeding to a take a look at the license plate of the car now nestled in front of me. H, U, T, Z, P, A, H. Hutzpah. I thought to myself, well he did warn me by clearly stating his intentions with a license plate like that!
Our sages teach of a balance between Keva, fixed, and Kavanah, the spontaneous. While we may focus on their relationship vis-à-vis prayer, that as 11th century moral philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah stated, “prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul,” the balance is vital to the fulfillment of mitzvot as well. To be so obsessed with process without allowing room for purpose, mitzvot will lack meaning and intention.
In this week’s torah portion, Joseph tests his brothers in an elaborate plan that our sages struggle to rationalize. Joseph makes the climb from “Hebrew youth” in an Egyptian jail cell to Vizier in charge of all the land of Egypt at the age of 30. He seems to have it all figured out. The text states,
“And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” Genesis 41:41-2
Like the coat of many colors beforehand, or the robes that Mordechai wore around Shushan as reward from the King, Joseph looks the part of special individual amidst the unrobed masses. He looks like he has it all figured out. Yet there are allusions to where Joseph’s heart lies. As the text puts it:
“Joseph named the first born Menashe because, ‘G-d has made me forget all my troubles and even my father’s house'” (Genesis 41:51).
Has Joseph assimilated into Egypt? Yes. But son #1 is a constant reminder of what he’s supposedly forgotten.
“He named his second son Ephraim because “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis 41:52).
Assimilated into Egypt? Maybe not so much.
A somewhat spoiled, self-centered, pretentious young man is now the man honored by the king with the compassionate task of feeding others. Once again, the text is straightforward.
Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. (Genesis 42:6-7)
Joseph devises a plan to test his brothers, not out of bitterness, but hope. He needs to see if they are remorseful for their actions. Teshuva, repentance, comes when they show intent to do something different this time. Amidst this plan he listens to his brothers go back and forth:
They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them.
And how does Joseph respond?
He turned away from them and wept… But he came back to them and spoke to them; and he took Simeon from among them and had him bound before their eyes.
Later, upon seeing his brother Benjamin for the first time, the text states:
With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order, “Serve the meal.”
They had just left the city and had not gone far, when Joseph said to his steward, “
Up, go after the men! And when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why did you repay good with evil?’” (Genesis 44:4)
He’s almost there, allowing his private emotions to become public. This will be the key to his brothers opening up to him…but then we go back to this master plan. As a reader, I keep thinking, “he’s gonna blow this chance again.” Joseph hides behind the process, waiting for the plan to unfold rather than letting his intentions be known.
While we can ask why Joseph did not reveal himself earlier, it’s hard to ignore the power of his emotions at that moment. Whatever plan this is, whatever Joseph has built up in his mind, it almost destroys the potential for renewed relationships with his brothers. From every word and every action, the bitterness towards his brothers continues through the plan he has set out. Commentators explain that this was all a master plan to not embarrass his brothers. However, Joseph’s emotions speak volumes as to how he really wanted this all to go down.
We have to wait until next week’s parashah, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. At that moment,
“his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…He embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.”
Joseph’s unadulterated tears break the curse. Moving forward, Joseph is able to provide for his family during the years of famine- food and land for his brothers, burial needs for his father. But the text never speaks of an embrace with his brothers again. There is reconciliation, just not the founding of a new healthy relationship. Joseph was too caught up in the fixed plan, the formality of Egyptian society, that he almost misses out on the much needed moment of healing.
We sit here on Erev-Rosh HaChanukkah, the eve of a new year. It’s a time in between last minute donations and those first minute resolutions. We look during these liminal times to recommit ourselves to causes, to lifestyle changes, to fostering friendships or a stronger work/life balance. We are all well-intentioned people, but life gets in the way and sometimes, we don’t hit a bullseye, or even the target itself.
These yearly markers are, in essence, no different than a random Tuesday in the middle of the summer. We can plan to make a call to an old friend for the next holiday or birthday, or we can make a call tonight. If you’ve been holding in, waiting to find a time to reconnect, connect and just spit it out already. We can plan to visit someone on the mi shebeirakh list when our “schedule allows,” or we can send a note to let them know we are thinking of them. Don’t wait for the perfect plan to take shape. Things will undoubtedly come up, but within the pockets of time filled with the mundane, fill those with intention.We have to learn to get over ourselves. Show our intent through our words, our gestures, and our actions. Intention is not everything, but it is vital to our relationships to share it with others. Be transparent. Be raw. Be real.
Tonight we finally end 2016. Scientist were even kind enough to add in a leap second to this tumultuous year. For many this was a, “ughh” year- we lost family, friends, sports icons, rock and movie stars; we lost our fantasy football championships thanks to Dez Bryant’s heroics. This was the year that lacked civility, the year plagued by hidden government plots and politic agendas- we continued to demand more transparency. And yet, for all the transparency we desire from our leaders, we should demand the same for ourselves, expecting nothing less from our own relationships. In this age of speaking you mind, really whatever is on your mind, it is imperative that we speak from the heart.
The modern miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasts for 8 days, but that there are Jews who continue to be committed to lighting it again each and every day. When the lights go out, we fill the chanukkiyah with new candles. We are partners in that miracle. We may usher in a new year amidst the mitzvah of Hanukkah- pirsumei nissa, the publicizing of the miracle. As Joseph gave in to his emotions, so too may we publicize our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for the coming year. Shana tova im kavana– a year of health, happiness, and intention for us all.
Where do we find the pulse of a people? How do we engage and inspire those around us? We look to music; we look to art; we look to entertainment, as the outward manifestations of our own hopes and desires. In my case, you need only look at what’s on my DVR to see what’s going on in my head and in my life. Surely our TV shows have shifted over the years. What began as a series of Law and Order and crime shows has morphed into a collection of narratives that now parallel our own life experience (luckily the crime shows were not an outward manifestation of my own hopes or desires OR parallel to my own life experience). “New Girl,” the story of loft-mates trying to make it as young professionals, comes in third now behind two new shows. The first, “Life in Piece”s, has four interconnected storylines- one for each branch of the Short family. There is an older couple with three grown children, who have their own relationships that develop throughout the show. When the show debuted last year, I would often gravitate to the narrative of the couple with a young child. While the story takes place in Los Angeles, it is very Jacksonville- the intergenerational day-to-day involvement in each other’s lives; every day is like Thanksgiving.
To top our show list is a new drama, “This is Us.” It is the story about the family lives and connections of several people who all share the same birthday. A key birthday takes place during the fall of 1980, 36 years ago. Each week, I cry a little. Each week, I reminisce of what it meant to grow up in the 80s. Each week, I obsess with the historical inaccuracies of the storyline.Each week, I am reminded of how relationships are formed: where the notions of grudges and favorites are cultivated and how a moment in time can affect our future. The more we watch, the more we affirm that the story of This is Us is the story of “us.”
This week, we encounter another storyline spearheaded by another late-30something character experiencing a life change of his own. Medieval commentator Rashi estimates that Isaac was 37 years old when his mother passed away. At the age of 40, Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:67).
Three years after her death, Isaac brings his wife to his mother’s tent. Three years of mourning. Three years of not being able to talk about his feelings, of not being able to enter his mother’s tent- to be able to reflect upon his mother’s life as well as his own upbringing. Only through Rebekah is he finally able to come home.
Coming home- for holidays, for liminal moments both bitter and sweet, takes us to a familiar, albeit disorienting place. A Huffington Post article from last December entitled, “How to Avoid Reverting to your Teenage Self Over the Holidays” stated:
There’s a joke that captures the feeling of “regression” that many adults experience when they go home to spend the holidays with their families. It goes like this: For every day you’re home with your family, you lose five years. So you should keep your trip short enough that you’ll be old enough to drive away.
“It’s variable. At different stages of your life you might regress more or less,” Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Emory University and editor of the Journal of Family Psychology, told The Huffington Post. “Maybe you go back to your room, which may still be more decorated like a child’s room. You return to the patterns you had when you lived there. It’s challenging, especially early on, to find your way as an adult.”
We all fall into old habits. Grown adults talk to their parents with teenage drama, while parents treat grown up children like middle schoolers. We revert. We take steps back. We hold grudges from years long ago. And even when we are not attending a family gathering, we could easily be attending one of those gatherings where we pray none of our real feelings slip out at the dinner table.
Coming home means sometimes moving backwards- in time and in relationship building. As a recent S.C Johnson campaign put its it, “When families gather, things get messy.”
There is one tradition related to coming home that has changed my outlook. It is the nostalgic art of “going through stuff.”
Our family is currently undergoing a process of high level de-cluttering. I would characterize it as a “triangle of memory” in constant rotation. We inherit toys, books, and outfits from friends who are gracious to share so that our girls might enjoy what their children once enjoyed. As our own parents downsize, we inherit books, tchotchkes, art projects and more from our own childhoods, while simultaneously deciding what we should retain as keepsakes for our own daughters. It is a unique position to decide which of my own handprints to hold on to as I think about all of the take-home projects I continue to stockpile. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by watercolor and who by puff-paint?
One such heirloom in my possession is a time capsule from almost a quarter century ago, intended to be opened in the year 2000. Well I opened it up…two years ago. Most obvious was the folded up Worcester Telegram & Gazette sports section dated Wednesday, May 12, 1993. At first glance I noticed the 4-0 shutout pitched by Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, an article entitled, “Baseball Ignores Tradition,” chastising the creation of a wild card. The NBA and NHL playoffs were in high gear, with Michael Jordan once again wrecking the Cavs’ dreams. May 12,1993 was a week before one of the most highly anticipated series finales of all time. Sam Malone, played by actor Ted Danson, would finally close up the bar “Cheers,” where everybody knew your name.
My eye gravitated to the scoreboard and transactions section of the paper, a somewhat mundane and trivial section, yet an area I would routinely memorize each day as a child. Some notes elicited a smile:
“The Seattle Mariners optioned Mike Hampton, pitcher, to Jacksonville of the Southern League.”
That probably wouldn’t have meant much to me if I had opened the capsule back in 2000. Other notes elicited a sadder response:
Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis was cleared to resume his basketball career after doctors discounted an earlier diagnosis of a possibly life-threatening heart ailment. Doctors say Lewis suffers from a neural condition that can be treated with medication.
Two months later, Lewis collapsed at an off-season practice at Brandeis University and died at the age of 27.
We often look into the mirror to ask, “What if I could go back? What could I tell my younger self? How could I guide me through stages and events in my life differently?” Or, we look at childhood as an escape…a world oversimplified, naïve, pediatric, scheduled, ordered.
I realized I should look at this the other way around: how can my childhood, my view on life, my hopes and dreams, reenergize me to be a better father, a better husband, a better person?
And so the time capsule continued to convey messages in a series of letters to my future self:
“Favorite Superhero in my time”: Superman
It’s shifted to Batman, but a strong choice nonetheless.
My hobby: Politics
My future: Chief Rabbi and lawyer of the state of Israel
My family’s hobbies:
My father’s are going shopping at either BJs or Spags, making corny jokes, and acting like a very little kid. My sister doesn’t have any hobbies or interests now because she has a well organized social life and relationship. My mother’s hobbies are just being nice, helping others, and just being happy.
The letters go on and on. Much of the language of my messages to my future self revolve around peace, love, and harmony, reading very much like a personal prayer at a Bar Mitzvah. So…what would we think if we read our Bar or Bat Mitzvah speech? Would we find it trivial and over-simplistic? Or would we gravitate to its positivity, to the message of change and to the aspirations of a maturing young adult?
Our story, every story, has a beginning. As the animated film, “Inside out” envisioned, the core memories from our childhood power different aspects of our personality.
When we dismiss the frustations of our youth, when we dread turning back to our teenage self, we may inadvertently block the thoughts and dreams that make up our core self. We may be swift to dismiss or shove it all aside as being over idealistic, but I believe that kids have it right. While each of us may not have a physical time capsule, we all have windows into our childhood.
So when you do revert (we all do), when you step back in your relationships with old family and friends, when old grudges take center stage, take that step back as an opportunity to delve into your youth once again. What would it mean to thank God at night for your 3 closest friends rather than the 30th like from a friend on Facebook? What would it mean to sing loudly without inhibition because no one’s taught you yet that doing so would be embarrassing? What would it mean to take the stigma out of the word “juvenile” to appreciate the teachings that our childhood brings to the table?
Look back at your earliest aspirations. Transform that innocence, that hope into action; reaffirm who you want to be. And if we look back only to see pain and frustration, take the struggles of our youth as a guide through the pain that tomorrow may bring.
Every story has a beginning. It grabs our attention and brings the reader in. As we give thanks to all of the gifts in our lives over this holiday week, it seems most important to appreciate our own narrative. We look to other stories to inspire, when sometimes, we have to turn our own story on its head. In knowing ourselves, embracing our opening pages as much as the latest chapters, we allow a rich narrative to take shape.
I’ve never had luck with jerseys. Maybe it was the allure of free-agent money, but it always seemed like a player would be traded or sign elsewhere the second I bought his jersey. Later on this manifested itself as owning “retro jerseys” even if that was not the original intent. Early victims included Charles Barkley’s #34 Suns Jersey, Grant Hill’s #33 Pistons Jersey, and Shaquille O’neal’s #32 Magic Jersey. When my parents moved to Seattle, I immediately bought a Ray Allen SuperSonic’s jersey. He was traded 6 days later (to the Celtics!!).
My sour luck extended to baseball. I would try to select a jersey of the Red Sox player LEAST likely to join the Yankees. After the 4th jersey went to the graveyard (thanks Damon, Lowe, Ellsbury, and Youkilis), I threw in the towel.
A few years have gone by since the jersey curse of the 1990s/early 2000’s. While today is in fact Jersey Day in my office, jerseys are now normally relegated to a day off or the weekend errand run. The question, “What jersey to wear?” wouldn’t normally cross my mind.
With the return of football, all eyes have been on San Francisco backup QB Colin Kaepernick and his decision to not stand during the national anthem. The easiest way for fans to show their support has been through jersey sales. His jersey sales have skyrocketed to #1 in the National Football League. Kaepernick, in turn, is donating the proceeds of his jersey sales to communities in need. Wearing gear with a company logo, an athlete’s name, has more meaning than just fandom.
I’ve joke of the prospect of treating my high holiday kittel like a NASCAR vehicle, decked in potential endorsements. While I may never go to that extreme, I have found meaning in supporting causes, victims, and research in the garments I choose to wear. Modern fundraising allows those of us fortunate enough to buy a new t shirt once in a while to support in dollar and in visual manifestation of such causes.
In the past few years, I was fortunate to donate to a number of what I would call “wear it, share it” causes:
I showed support to a number of causes through charitable gifts, but receiving something tangible in return allows me to be a transparent advocate moving forward. When you are picking out that t-shirt to wear to do grocery shopping or to attend your kid’s soccer practice, what would it mean to find meaningful causes close to you, to go beyond your checkbook? Wear those shirts that show who you’re thinking about. Wear it, share it. At the very least, it’s a conversation starter, but at its peak, you have the chance to share important causes with others.
The following ran as the Lead letter to the Florida Times Union. Tuesday, February 23, 2016.
A word of explanation (since the letter had to be trimmed to 350 words):
In supporting the expansion of our HRO, it goes without saying that I support the LGBTQ community. One need only to speak with members of the LGBTQ community who have been marginalized or discriminated against to see that this is a real issue. Police reports and court cases only tell part of a much grimmer tale. The goal of writing this letter is to create a conversation about moving beyond sustainability and about getting Jacksonville to thrive. It is about the symbolism of exclusion in an area of the country shrouded in racial and economic divide. If we want a “bold” city, we need bold and bright. We need them to want to move here, and return here. I welcome your thoughts!
Expanding Human Rights Ordinance viewed as key to city’s future
Last week, I ran back from a city council meeting and rally to find the welcomed site of my forward thinking congregation, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, collaborating and visioning with lay-leader and senior staff during our monthly board meeting. During this process of strategic planning, the congregation’s leadership is undergoing a conversation on what our synagogue will look like in 5, 10 and 20 years.Will newly minted plaques honoring bold leadership be filled or left empty? Will congregants find meaning in our worship services? Will people even fill the pews?
Throughout this exercise, I kept thinking to myself, “Will Jacksonville itself be a place that enables our congregation to thrive (and not just survive)?” Will movers and shakers, innovators and future collegians, want to come to a backwards Jacksonville when they can choose a forward thinking Charlotte or Nashville? Will housing, businesses, and restaurants aimed to revitalize our neighborhoods, exist in in a community that vilifies citizens for wanting the basic human necessities of food, shelter and self-worth? Would our Jacksonville born and raised want to stay in such an environment. The answer is NO.
The truth of the matter is that my place of employment, my house of worship, a house established over 100 years ago, would not be the thriving congregation I hope it to be in 20 years, if the Human Rights Ordinance is NOT expanded to include all of the citizens of Jacksonville. It is a human dignity issue. It is symbolic of who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be viewed by the world. I am disgusted when fellow clergy use pulpit power to teach intolerance and spread hate of fellow human beings. Read the Human Rights Ordinance. Study its exemptions. Read the bible. Study all of its complexities.
March 7 will mark the 44th anniversary of East Lansing, MI passing the first non-discrimination ordinance to protect sexual orientation. Forty Four years. Over 200 cities have protections for all. Let us not be left behind for generations to come. I hope my children can grow up with a sense of pride for our city. I hope they will love living here BECAUSE it is Jacksonville, not in spite of it.
As Jews, we are keenly aware of the role symbols play in the celebration of our calendar. Our symbols have withstood the test of time, and although they have been reinterpreted and reinvented for modern day relevancy, their core purpose remains.
Not all symbols avoid the wrath of those who bastardize and reinvent, creating new brands that connote hate, exclusivity, and shameful acts of violence.
Derived from the Sanskrit meaning “good to be making,” this once was a symbol of eternal life, emblematic of the element of earth- a seemingly appropriate symbol for our harvest festival. It was a symbol of good luck. That all changed when the swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920. And now, the symbol of hate permeates our news feeds. Swastika found painted on a concrete wall in an enclosed courtyard of a Spokane Washington synagogue. On the same night, Swastikas are found plastered to the entrance of an Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity House at Emory University. We cannot wash away the fear we feel when Graffiti is on our walls and hateful speech fills the streets.
A few weeks ago, my sister, living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, encountered a similar bout of hatred. Swastikas etched into the wall right outside her apartment door. The only Jewish person in her complex had been the victim of a hate crime. The Hate Crimes Division, of which there is only one in all of the five boroughs of New York, did their best to find the perpetrator to no avail. No cameras in her complex, no fingerprints on the etching meant no answers for the police or for my sister. Could it have been a delivery guy who got a bad tip? A disgruntled neighbor? Or was a deep hatred of Jews the real motivation? It is tough not knowing the circumstances surrounding the act. We are overwhelmed with what this symbol means given its associations for us as Jews.
Fear. Angst. These feelings are compounded.
We hear of rallies across the globe, acts of ignorant masses. Anti-Semitism is an object in our rearview mirror, much closer than it once appeared. Vandalism, and more specifically hate crimes, rob us of our choice to freely express our Judaism lovingly and outwardly. We are intimidated. We second-guess. We fear the unknown motivations. We shutter ourselves because these cowardly defaming acts etch themselves in our memory.
As Jews it is our obligation to erase the negative imagery of the swastika, to focus on all of the positive reminders we are instructed to use so that we may practice Judaism to the fullest extent- the reminders of tefillin, of tallit. The minhag of kippah. The reminder of mezuzah as we enter and leave a space. The mitzvah of Sukkah- reminding us that even in the darkest of moments, we can find shelter in each other and in the divine. We show our true selves in our response to the darkest of moments.
Here’s a first hand account to a Sukkot experience, some 70 years ago, at a time and place where Swastika reigned supreme:
“Hassag. It was called a labor camp, but it was a slaughterhouse- no more, no less. We were the remnants of the Chenstochover ghetto. Our families had been sent to their death. Only a few remained- like limbs torn from their bodies, writhing in pain, living a life without life…
Sukkot, the festival which brings farmers and city-apartment house dwellers alike into temporary huts, somehow found its way to Hassag. We discovered an unused corner between two factory buildings. Lumber was piled up, as if in storage, for the sukkah walls, and somewhat above these walls, branches were unobtrusively stacked for the sukkah. We slide in and out of this temporary dwelling with our treasured crusts of bread, thinking of the protective booths in the wilderness.
So we had our Sukkot in those stolen moments, for the experience of eating in the sukkah, no matter how makeshift it was, was a genuine experience…”[i]
Even in the ghettos of the Shoah, Jews felt an obligation and spiritual connection to Jewish practice. As we approach each day knowing that hate crimes and anti-semitism are rising up again, we cannot retreat to the ghettos of our inward selves, fearful of our outward Jewish expression. We may think IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY, the anti-semites, the haters, WILL COME. How do we combat this?
Ecclesiastes states, “lakol zman v’et lchol cheifetz, tachat hashamayim”-a season is set for everything, a time for ever purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to laugh, and a time to cry.
Our poet, King Solomon, prescribes a formula to overcome adversity. We combat loss with a search for meaning. We combat hate by fostering love. We combat those who break down by building up. We battle hatred and ignorance, key ingredients meant to break us as proud individuals and communities, by building up…
To paraphrase the Modizbozer Rebbe:
On Rosh Hashana, Yom Hazikaron, our day of remembrance, we pray with our minds
On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, we pray with our hearts
On Sukkot, Chag Ha’asif, the in gathering festival, we pray with our hands
On Simchat Torah and its energized Hakafot, we pray with our feet
Zman Simchateinu, our time of happiness encompassing both Sukkot and Simchat Torah, is linked to our hands and our feet.
One way to combat outward expression of hate is by utilizing these outward actions that express our joy for Judaism. For the observance of Sukkot is the most outwardly expressed moment on the Jewish calendar. Whereas some holidays are reserved for synagogue or the home, by erecting a Sukkah, however temporary, we acknowledge God’s role in our lives and proclaim who we are as individuals by building a sukkah in public view. The sukkah symbolizes God granting us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace by protecting and providing. The pride we feel is coupled with an even deeper humility, knowing that the fragility of the sukkah mimics our own temporary place in this world. It is a sentiment expressed in our reading of Kohelet on this Shabbat Chol Hamoed:
Chapter 2 Verse 11:
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”
We enter this world with empty hands. We leave this world with empty hands. But what we do with those hands while inhabiting this world is what matters. What we build for one another matters. We can raise our hands to give up. We can raise our pointed fingers to others. Or we can raise our hands to build a joyous experience for one another. Graffiti and slander may fill our minds with scary thoughts, but our hearts and our hands have an obligation, to ourselves and to the Jewish people, to continue expressing our Judaism outwardly- beyond this building, beyond the inside of our homes. It is not a moment of despair. It is not a moment for irrational behavior. It is a moment to show that pride and joy in Judaism can overwhelm those who wish to instill sadness and unrest in our lives.
Like the Sukkah, life is fragile. Life is temporary. And yet we still build a Sukkah knowing that in few days we will disassemble it. No matter how fragile and temporary life is, we still must live it. Fully. We must build a life filled with love of Judaism. We must continue to build a Jewish home with the openness of a sukkah, knowing that God is a shelter of piece.
If you build it, they- the informed neighbors, the future generations, will come. If you don’t build it, they- the hateful, will have won. As a people, our Sukkah has weathered storms far greater than the ones we see today. Even when the Sukkah falls, it has always been a mitzvah, an obligation, to put it back up. Let us continue to weather the storm. May God bring us peaceful skies in the year ahead and all the years to come.
[i] Goodman, Philip The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology (Holiday Anthologies Series)
There are three forms of sanctity in this world: sanctity of time, sanctity of humanity, and sanctity of space. As people around the world light a yellow candle in commemoration of this Holocaust Memorial Day, the three forms collide.
By igniting a flame, we create a sacred moment to reflect and to remember. Our task is to remember every day, so that faces take the place of statistics, so that our family story serves as caveat to our history books. This is the sacredness of time.
By igniting a flame, we recognize the millions of souls whose dreams and aspirations were extinguished by the Nazi regime. We tell their stories. We share with others.
By igniting a flame, we memorialize the sacred spaces of our past: the spiritual centers for European Jewry for hundreds of years; the places marked by death that, while troublesome, are holy places because our loved ones are buried amidst the ashes. We mark sacred space in the present, in order to create a legacy built upon love to those who perished.
May we all find sacred moments, communities and spaces, so that we may continue to learn, to grow, and to heal.