The famous story of Jacob’s ladder is found in this week’s Torah portion. Our spiritual ancestor Jacob is on his way to Haran from his home in Beer-Sheba when he stops to sleep for the night. The text reads:
He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
I would surmise that we have all had experiences when we wake up from a dream that is so vivid, and so powerful, that we are shaken as Jacob was, and feel that through that dream we have received a message of some sort. We may turn to others to help us figure out the images and symbols that we saw in our sleep. In this case, we all have the opportunity to reflect on Jacob’s dream, and discern some lessons about what it shows.
It is an interesting, yet curious, image. A large staircase or ladder connecting the ground and the sky, and angels moving up and down on it. We could all perhaps imagine what this might look like. What’s curious about it is, if these are angels of God, or, in other words, these are divine beings, then why do they need a ladder to go from heaven to earth and back again? We do have other instances in the Torah of stories of angels who just appear to humans, no stairway in sight.
There are a number of readings of this text throughout Jewish tradition, as one may expect. I want to share a reading that struck me this week: that it is not that the angels need a ladder to go from earth to heaven, but that, like all of the images that we see in our dreams, the ladder is telling us something about ourselves and our reality. And that reality is that while angels might not need staircases and ladders, we need staircases and ladders to get from one level to another.
Now I don’t imagine that we can construct a staircase or ladder that can go that high. But the point here is that to attain a new height, or goal, or level, we need to take things one step at a time. There is no jumping to the top, no rushing to the finish line. We climb the rungs of the ladder with a sense of humility and gratitude for each step, and the realization that in order to reach the next rung, we take the one before it.
In thinking of Jacob’s ladder, I was also thinking about about another “ladder” from our tradition: the eight levels of tzedakah (charitable giving) as put forth by Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar. In his major work, the 12th century code of Jewish law called the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlines eight different ways we give charity, in lessening levels of “greatness”:
There are eight levels of tzedakah, each one greater than the other. The greatest level, higher than all the rest, is to fortify another and give a gift, a loan, form a partnership, or find work, until they are strong enough so that they do not need to ask others [for sustenance].
One level lower than this is one who gives tzedakah to the poor and does not know to whom they give, and the poor person does not know from whom they receive.
One level lower is one who gives tzedakah and the giver knows to whom they give but the poor person does not know from whom they take.
One level lower is when the poor person knows from whom they takes but the giver does not know to whom they give.
One level lower is to give with one’s own hand before asked.
One level lower is to give after asked.
One level lower is to give less than one should but with kindness.
One level lower is to give begrudgingly.
Maimonides does not posit this as a ladder, that one must take one step before reaching the other. However, there is a similarity in that even here, there is no jumping to the top, no rushing to the “finish line.” Each level is important in its own right, and you may notice what is not on this list: not giving tzedakah at all.
In thinking about Maimonides’s levels in a macro sense, the top ladder is not just providing an individual with a job so that they do not need tzedakah anymore, but it is instituting policy that will alleviate poverty as a whole. We know that income inequality, wage stagnation, rising housing costs, lack of medical coverage, no paid family leave–these are all policies that contribute to poverty and homelessness. If we have the political will, we can address these and create real social change.
In the meantime, however, we can not lose sight of the immediate needs of those in our communities. This may require participating in one of Maimonides’s “lower” levels of tzedakah. Here, then, we are called upon to give based on our own capacity and resources. By doing so, we know we may not be addressing the issue as a whole, but we are meeting an immediate need. And that is just as important. Even if we can not do everything, that does not free us from doing anything.
Looking back at Jacob’s ladder, it is not only that the angels are using a ladder, but they are going “up and down”–i.e., in both directions. So too with our own climbing–there may be times we ascend, and times we descend. We might stay on one rung for a longer period of time, and we may revisit a certain step several times. And, like in Maimonides’s levels, we might be on several steps at the same time. But we keep moving, working towards our goals, knowing that each step is an accomplishment that makes an impact.
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket went up into space again this week with four passengers, including (Jewish!) actor William Shatner, best known for playing Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek. Putting aside any opinions on private space travel and the priorities of billionaires for the moment, it is worth noting how Shatner was clearly moved after the short experience:
But to see the blue color go whip by, and now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing. The covering of blue is this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around. We think, “Oh, that’s blue sky.” And there’s something you shoot through, and all of a sudden, as though you whip a sheet off you when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness. And you look down. There’s the blue down there and the black up there. And there is mother and Earth and comfort. And there… Is there death? I don’t know. Was that death? Is that the way death is? Whoop and it’s gone.
And despite Jeff Bezos interrupting him to spray champagne, we would be remiss if we didn’t pause and consider what Shatner is saying in this moment. While of course he shared observations of what it felt like to be weightless, and what G-Force feels like, Shatner was also reflecting on his experience in a very spiritual sense.
To rephrase what he was saying, Shatner was awestruck at how thin the veil is between our atmosphere and space. Earth and the atmosphere represented light (the “blue”) and life, and space represented the absence of light and death. While few of us will have the experience of making the journey, Shatner observed for all of us that the transition from one to the other, while seemingly great from our perspective here on earth, is actually quite small. The time it takes to move from light to dark, from life to death, and–we could add perhaps–from good to evil, is very short.
Watching Jeff Bezos’ reaction, how he seemingly would rather celebrate achievement than listen to Shatner, is indicative perhaps of a larger problem, that we as a society choose not to think about things in such spiritual terms. We want to only focus on the good, on the successful, on the human achievement. We don’t want to be reminded how tenuous and fleeting it all can be. But we would be wise to listen.
Listening to Shatner I was reminded of a passage from this week’s Torah reading of Lech Lecha, in which Abraham is called by God to take a journey into the unknown by leaving his parents and the land of his birth to a new land and a new identity:
But Abram said, “O God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless…Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.” The word of God came to him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir.” God took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be.”
Here too the vastness of space becomes a metaphor. In the Torah, however, that vastness becomes a symbol of hope, of a future promise. A symbol of the fact that, although things seem difficult now, and things are not turning out the way they were expected to, the story is unfinished and a better future lay ahead.
There is even a beautiful midrash that describes how God didn’t just invite Abraham outside the tent to look up, but actually brought him into space:
God brought Abraham forth from the terrestrial sphere, elevating him above the stars, and this is why God uses the term הבט ‘‘look”, when God said “look at the heavens” — for this word signifies looking from above downward.
Rashi on Genesis 15:5; Bereshit Rabba 44:12
I also caught Shatner on the Today Show, where he talked about “how precious life is, how quickly its over, and we need those experiences…how beautiful life is and how threatened we are.” He added, “it sharpens your desire to live.”
Shatner was not far off from Abraham here. Both had the experience of looking out there, and both then channeled that experience to figuring out how we live better here. Yes, the boundary between air and space, life and death is razor thin. So we take that knowledge and don’t continue to look out at the heavens, but return our gaze back to earth.
This Shabbat we begin our annual Torah reading cycle anew, turning back to the beginning of the text with the opening verses of Genesis. We recreate this cycle every year, finishing the story of the Torah at the end of Deuteronomy and reading it again–in its entirety, in order–a new section each week.
One of the most powerful teachings for me from the Torah is not from a specific text but from this fact itself–when the Torah ends, the main narrative of the text is unfulfilled. For most of the Torah our spiritual ancestors are making a journey toward the Promised Land, and as the Torah ends, they are still on the opposite bank of the river waiting to cross. Moses dies, and the Torah resets.
To me, this teaches that we should see ourselves in a constant state of potential, of becoming. As the Torah doesn’t reach its fulfillment, we don’t necessarily reach our fulfillment. Or, rather, we are always reaching our fulfillment, attaining goals and setting new ones.
The practice of starting over from the beginning also shows that the text is not linear, it is circular, and as such, the end informs the beginning. Just as in time travel movies where the future can determine the past just as much as the past determines the future, the end of the Torah informs the beginning just as much as the beginning informs the end.
The end of the Torah is Moses’s swan song, his final charge and blessing of the Israelites. He is not going to accompany them into the land, so he wants to be sure that they are ready by reviewing the history and the laws, and inspired, knowing that God will be with them and, while he won’t be there in body, he will be with them in spirit. We read this text close to the High Holidays, so we, preparing to take the next steps of our journey, are as much the audience as the ancient Israelites.
In rereading the texts this year, one phrase jumped out at me from Deuteronomy 32:21 from the Torah portion Ha’azinu. This chapter is written as a poem or song:
They incensed Me with no-gods, Vexed Me with their futilities; I’ll incense them with a no-folk, Vex them with a nation of fools.
In the context of the text, Moses is telling the Israelites that if the people turn to idolatry (“no-gods”), God will punish them by subjugating them to a nation less than them (“no-folk”). While the tit-for-tat theology is not one I subscribe to, there was something about the language that stood out to me.
The translations “no-god” and “no-folk” (hyphens included) are interesting, and do follow the Hebrew closely. The Hebrew for “no-god” is lo-El, and the Hebrew for “no-folk” is lo-am. Lo means no in Hebrew, El is a name of God, and am means folk, or people. The poetic nature of the text is reflected in the language, as sounds and words are repeated, and written as parallel phrases.
There is a parallel between lo-El and lo-am, that seems to imply a link between the two–that they go together. The Torah implies a cause and effect: turning to idolatry will lead to punishment.
We can think of it in a slightly different way, however: a people can truly be a people and not a “no-people” if they have God and not “no-God.” Or, in a perhaps less confusing way: a people/nation is only truly a people/nation if they have God at the center–if they rooted in values and the idea that they are greater than something larger than themselves. And if we put God in the center of our relationships–building them on love, compassion, patience, and mutual support–then we can be sure that our relationships have meaning and value.
This passage from the end echoes in the beginning. As we begin again, can we avoid the status of lo-El? Can we remember, as we start new connections and write new chapters, to infuse these with the sacred?
Because the Torah is not just concerned with ritual and spiritual practice, we also have rules about civic and communal life, our sacred text offers us rules of war.
One you may have heard of is the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees when besieging a city—a prohibition in Deuteronomy that both lays a textual foundation for environmental ethics and sustainability, but it is also one that we see continually violated today. But another exchange between leaders and soldiers is described in Deuteronomy 20:1-9 just prior to the rule about trees.
When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for Adonai your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is Adonai your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.”
The priests then address the troops with a series of questions. The text reads:
Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let them go back to their home, lest they die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let them go back to their home, lest they die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” When the officials have finished addressing the troops, army commanders shall assume command.”
One could imagine the scene—it almost reads like one of those movies where the commander gives a rousing speech before the big battle. In this case, the priest asks questions—has someone built a new house? Has someone planted a vineyard? Is someone engaged to be married? And finally—is any one afraid? Is anyone afraid.
The first two questions are practical ones—someone who has built a house and planted a vineyard should have the opportunity to live in the house and enjoy the bounty before going off to war. And one who is engaged but not yet married should have the opportunity to spend time with one’s partner before heading into battle.
But this last one, while it could also be understood as practical in a sense as the text says as one’s fear may impact others, reveals a deeper truth about Torah—the Torah is concerned with our mental well-being. The Torah is concerned with our mental well-being. Being afraid in a situation is enough to warrant removing oneself from that situation. How you are in the moment matters. Your mental health matters. Your state of mind matters.
I think it is safe to say that really none of us is in a good state of mind these days. We have all been dealing with illness and loss. And not just loss of life, loss of livelihood, jobs, social connections, habits, hobbies, routines, pleasures.
We are dealing with fear—a virus is sweeping our country, we are told the way to be safe it to keep our distance, to be suspect of everyone, don’t touch, be vigilant. An invisible enemy that has killed hundreds of thousands, sickened many more. We live each day wondering if this is the one when I got exposed, is that stuffy nose allergies or the virus, will we be a breakthrough case?
We are dealing with anger—because we were supposed to be done with this by now. Last year we prayed for a vaccine to deliver us from the fear, our prayers were answered, only to have many people refuse to get it. Variants are spreading and those who have chosen to get the vaccine are angry with those who chose not to and those who chose not to are angry with those who are seeking mandates and it goes on and one.
And we are exhausted. It has been a long year and a half of living with the virus. I will admit, I was a bit disheartened going into the High Holidays this year, I struggled with motivation. Last year, when we knew we would need to be separate and do things differently it was a challenge but there was also an element of fun and creativity. It was new—so we made videos, moved Yizkor to the cemetery and Neilah to the parking lot, we blew shofar from a boat in Budd Inlet. And then we could not imagine that we would be back here again, that is was an anomaly, and we would be back to normal in a year’s time. But it was not to be so.
And this year it felt like there were even more factors to juggle—do we meet indoors but limit attendance? How do we choose who gets to come in and who must stay out? Do we limit to the vaccinated only? And if we do are we ok excluding children and families? Do we hold multiple services? There is no good answer, everything will make someone unhappy, and that fact alone makes this such a difficult year.
Fear, anger and exhaustion. We thought we knew how this would end. Now I have no idea how it will end.
“Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let them go back to his home” say the priests in the Torah. We all want to go back to how things were.
The Talmud teaches in its commentary that those litany of questions that are asked prior to battle are grouped in such a way so as to protect those who are fearful and fainthearted. The idea being, the rabbis teach, that because the question of the new house, new vineyard, new marriage, and being fearful are asked together, then the one who leaves out of fear is protected from having their fear known—when they leave, one might assume that they are leaving because they have a new house or a new marriage—therefore they don’t have the shame, the Talmud understands, of admitting their fear.
It’s a beautiful sentiment of concern—much like how in our Yom Kippur liturgy we all recite the ashamu and al cheyt, the two litanies of sins, all together in the plural. By doing so we affirm that collectively everyone has done everything, and by all reciting we give “cover” to what we have actually done, so as to protect from any embarrassment and shame—or at least having to answer and share when one does not want to.
And yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t have to hide our emotions behind a false cover—a forced smile, a pat answer. We are not OK. And it is OK to not be OK. And it is OK to let someone know that you are not OK. If we can not be real with each other, then we are unable to access what it is we truly need right now—what will allow us to transcend and work though this challenging time and these challenging emotions—genuine human interaction and trust.
Time and time again in our Torah we hear the words hineyni—“Here I am”—a response to a call. God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac—a trial, a test—and Abraham responds hineyni. Jacob calls to Joseph to go out to see his brothers, a journey that will set in motion a chain of events that leads first to power then to slavery, the story of a people, and Joseph says hineyni. God calls to Jacob in a dream to bless him and confirm that he is the inheritor of the covenant and would be the head of a new family and people, and that he should not be wary of going down to Egypt, and Jacob responds hineyni. God calls to Moses at the burning bush, revealing his true identity and charging him with starting a movement and liberating liberation of his people, and Moses replies hineyni.
Hineyni—“Here I am”—it is a word that, our rabbis teach us, is a word of anavah, humility, and zerizut, eagerness. It is a word that means I am ready for what is next, spoken by those who present themselves for a grand mission. It is a word that we can echo as we stand here on this day to say hineyni, I am ready for what the year brings, for the work of teshuvah I am required to do, for the acts of tikkun olam, repair of the world, that I must commit to.
But that is not the only hineyni that is expected of us now, that is needed from us now. What we need is not the hineyni that responds to a higher power, the hineyni of Here I am! I’m ready, willing and able! What is my mission? What is my calling?
What we need now, what we truly need right now, is the hineyni that is not the response to a higher power, but is a response to each other, a response to a call for help. The hineyni that says not “Here I am,” but “I’m here” I’m here for you. I’m here for you in your suffering. I’m here for you in your fear, anger, and exhaustion. I’m here.
This fall I’ve decided to do a unit of CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education—at Providence St. Peter Hospital. What this means is I will essentially be a chaplaincy intern for the next several months, having regular hours at the hospital, as well as learning more about pastoral work with a cohort of other learners.
CPE is often done by seminarians during their schooling or clergy early in their career, or folks looking to make a career shift into full time chaplaincy. None of those describe my interest. I am doing it to learn and grow in my role as a rabbi, and I have wanted to do it for a long time. Because of certain things falling into place, now is a good time.
But the other thing that motivated me to do this now is the pandemic. We are hearing about how hospitals are full and stretched thin because of the pandemic. If I can play a part to help alleviate the stress and the strain, if just from an emotional and spiritual sense, it is something I am feeling called to do. Because COVID is putting a strain on healthcare not just because of the virus itself, but because everything else—the “normal” illnesses and causes for hospitalization—also are happening at the same time. The system is stressed.
As you may know, Yohanna was in the hospital early this summer for a bacterial infection unrelated to covid that caused fluid build up around her lungs. She required surgery and chest tubes to remove the fluid while she was fighting an infection caused by an unknown bacteria. And one of the hardest parts of this ordeal is that because of COVID, visitation was restricted, and I could not be with her in the hospital. She was all alone. Every single patient in that hospital was alone.
And it is only when visitation is restricted that you realize how important—how crucial—it is to have family and friends and visitors in the hospital. One for the emotional support, having someone by your side during a difficult time lifts us up and aids our healing. We need to be near people who love and care for us when we are going through something difficult like illness. And on a more practical level perhaps, having other people nearby provides the support for communicating with health care providers, someone else to absorb information, ask questions, and convey concerns and sometimes to inform the rotating providers with information about the patient—which can sometimes be impossible for a patient to do themselves.
I had this realization this summer while going through this: It is astounding to think that aside from all those who died from COVID, how many more died because they did not have adequate access to health care in a stressed system and especially because they did not have that practical and emotional support, that companionship, that is so necessary for our healing. COVID, we must remember, impacts more than those who are sick with that particular virus.
Because of COVID’s impact this summer, we are being denied that desperately needed opportunity to say hineyni, I’m here for you. I am present, I am by your side. And it is something that when it is denied do we realize how much we need it.
The importance of showing up for one another during a time of suffering can not be overstated. We need others to lift ourselves up and hold us during difficult times. There is a beautiful story in the Talmud about this:
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: no, I neither welcome this suffering or any reward that might come from it. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health. Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: do you accept this suffering and illness? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him, no I do not. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health. The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to restore his student, why couldn’t he just heal himself. The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free themselves from prison, but relies on others to release them.
Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 5b
We do not need to have the experience of the hospital to benefit from this idea. We are all care givers and care receivers. And just because we have been care givers doesn’t mean we can take care of ourselves. Indeed, the Talmud says the opposite. We can not take care of ourselves, we need others to care for us. Rabbi Yohanan in the story was there to say hineyni to his student Rabbi Hiyya and thus aid in his healing. But when Rabbi Yohanan was ill, he needed another to come and say hineyni for him.
At this time of fear, and anger, and exhaustion—we need each other more than ever to show up and say hineyni for one another. So we can free each other from this prison.
I don’t feel I can stand here tonight and tell you not to fear, or not to feel angry, or not feel exhausted, or what Judaism says about fear and anger and exhaustion and how to engage with these emotions. I don’t think I can say that.
Indeed, I would say that fear is good, because it allows us to be safe, to protect ourselves and each other, and to take risks and do hard things. Anger is good, because when it is well placed it motivates us towards positive change, to identify problems and energetically work toward solutions. Exhaustion is good, because it reminds us of our need to rest, and with rest comes perspective and the ability to see things in new ways, and self care, and the renewal to keep going.
So I don’t want to tell you to not feel fear, or anger, or exhaustion. I can’t, we can not automatically take it away, it is where we are right now. But what we can do—like the Torah instructs in that passage about war—what we can do is share it. We can express it, and to those who express it we can accept it, and affirm it, and support each other through this challenging time that we are all going through. We can live into compassion for ourselves for our struggles, and compassion for others because our struggles are mutual. We can show up for one another.
So I invite you to think, one, have you taken it easy on yourself, taking the time you need? And, two, have you shown up for another? And as we begin again to ask, how can I show up for others this year? The text, the phone call, the zoom gathering—they are needed more than ever. Are you prepared to turn to another and say hineyni, I’m here?
It’s not easy. This showing up for each other requires trust, and one of the ironies of this time is that we are in a place as a society where we trust each other less. We trusted everyone to get the vaccine to bring us out of this pandemic, and yet it hasn’t happened. On the national level we are seeing differences beyond policy, but a deeper distrust in the other side’s loyalties and interests.
It is also interesting that so much of the arguments around vaccination and “freedom” are rooted in lack of trust. I want to make choices because I don’t trust the CDC. Or I don’t trust the government. Or I don’t trust the news media. I don’t trust the pharmaceutical companies.
But it is only through trust—which in Hebrew is bitachon—that we will be able to make it through this together. And trust is built on compassion. Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in his 11th century text, Duties of the Heart, teaches, “When someone knows that their friend has compassion and empathy for them, they will trust in them and be at peace with regard to troubling them with all of their matters.”
Trusting in ourselves and others to be there for us, to support us, to love us—this is how we build relationships, and this is how we make it through. This is how we are able to live with the fear and anger and exhaustion and whatever else we are feeling at this time. This is how we make a better future. Trust is reciprocal, so if we offer it, hopefully we will receive it back. So we must say hineyni and we build that trust.
In the story we read last week at Rosh Hashanah, which I alluded to earlier, God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and Abraham answers hineyni, Here I am, I’m ready. He also answers hineyni when the angel calls out from heaven to stop him from doing it. But those are not the “hineyni”s we need right now.
Also in the story, as Abraham and Isaac are walking up the mountain, Isaac notices that they have the wood, the knife and the fire, all of the necessary elements for a sacrificial offering, except for the sacrifice itself. You can imagine what Isaac was thinking at that moment. So he turns to ask his father why, so he calls out to him and says, “father,” and Abraham again answers, “hineyni.”
This is the hineyni we need right now. The hineyni that is not an answer to an outside power, but the hineyni that is an answer to one closest to our heart. The hineyni that says, I know you are scared, I know you are anxious, I know you don’t know what is happening, but I see you, and I am with you. The hineyni that says “I’m here,” not “Here I am.”
As Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment, I am here. Use me.” In this moment, hineyni.
I say this to you, as your rabbi. Hineyni, I’m here. And let us turn to those we love, those we know, and even those we don’t know and say hineyni, I’m here.
And tomorrow, when we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, we read how—if we care for one another, if we heed the call of those in need, if we answer hineyni to each other—then God will answer hineyni—“I’m here”—to us.
It is OK to have fear, anger and exhaustion. We all feel it. I feel it. And I don’t think it will be going away anytime soon. But if we show up for each other, then I do know that we will make it through. In this moment you may not know what it is like to feel strong, to feel hopeful, to feel calm, to feel at peace. But what you can know is what it feels like to not be alone. Because, you are not alone. You are not alone.
And at the heart of it all, that is what matters most. Hineyni. I am here for you. Hineynu. We are here. Together. And with that, we can move forward.
My sermon delivered on Erev Rosh Hashana at Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, WA on September 6, 2021
Here we are, once again. We are welcoming the new year, again impacted by the COVID pandemic. I stand here in an empty sanctuary, you sit there in front of your screens. While knowing this is the right thing to do in order to safeguard the health of our community, once again we are forced to figure out new ways of connecting, of maintaining community, even though we are physically apart. Thank you for all you have done to maintain our community connections over this past time, I know it hasn’t been easy. We have done it for a year and a half, and we can continue to do it.
While the first time last year was a novelty perhaps, this second time gives us the somber opportunity to deeply reflect on what this time means, and what it reveals to us. We have learned so much. This pandemic and the changes it forced upon us were not only inconveniences, but they revealed important truths about ourselves and our communities.
There is another aspect to the uniqueness of the new year, which would have occurred this year regardless of how we gathered. That is, this year on the Jewish calendar Rosh Hashana ushers in the shmita year. The Torah teaches that just as we take every seventh day—Shabbat—as a day of rest, so too we should take every seventh year as a year of rest. It is a year of pausing, a year of reset that in its ideal form impacts all levels of our society.
In reality, unlike Shabbat, the shmita is not observed in contemporary practice as it is envisioned in the Torah. Aspects of the shmita are time and place specific to biblical times, and based on an agrarian community rooted around a centralized religious system located in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. However, like many aspect of Biblical practice, they can be observed in its spirit if not its letter, and the shmita year deserves our attention, especially at a time such as this.
So while I generally come to you on Erev Rosh Hashana with a list of things I have learned over the past year based on something that is going on in my life, this year will be slightly different. Yes, I am bringing you a list of seven things. But this year, we are looking forward, not back. This year, we take this unique opportunity to look at our calendar and think about how this moment in time is proving so crucial. Tonight, I invite you to join me in thinking about the seven practices of the shmita year, and why they are so desperately needed today.
For the first one we turn to Exodus in the Torah, the first mention of Shmita: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.” (Exodus 23:10-11)
There are actually three practices embedded in these two verses, and we will take them in turn. The first is letting the field lie fallow. Just as we are meant to take a rest from our labor every seven days, the earth is meant to rest from labor every seven years.
Now I know that this might raise up questions about how an agrarian society that does not grow crops for a year survive—trust me, the Torah has an answer for that—but that should not distract us from the idea in this verse, that the earth needs to rest and part of our stewardship of the earth is to not overwork it.
This summer particularly it has become abundantly clear the realities of climate change and what our human impact has wrought. We prepare now not just for summer but for smoke season. We experienced extreme heat like we had not before resulting in loss of crops, loss of animal life, and loss of human life. The hurricanes that affect the south and east are stronger than ever, and accompanied by flooding that killed people in their cars, in their homes, in their apartments. We are in a climate crisis.
I like to think at times with humility that this extreme weather is extreme only to us, and our ability to live with it and through it. The earth will adapt and survive, it is we as humans that might not. We don’t need to save the earth, but save ourselves.
What that requires is a shift in attitude, in approach to how we are in the world. For so much of human history we have seen an exploitation of the earth for human gain, and the impact we have made in our relatively short time on this planet has been disproportional. Genesis 2:15 teaches that we are to “till and tend” the earth, but we have neglected that second part.
By centering the earth during the shmita year, by declaring it “off limits” to human consumption during this period, the Torah is guiding us to a new understanding of our relationship with our world. That we are not above the earth, that we are of it.
The second teaching from this verse about shmita is that during the year that the fields grow on their own, then the resulting growth from those fields goes to the poor. In other words, shmita teaches that we are to have responsibility for those in need in our midst. It is not just about letting the earth rest from potential overconsumption, but as a check on the inequality of wealth. The poor are given priority during shmita.
One thing that the pandemic showed us is that we are lacking a true social safety net in our country, and yet through policies, albeit temporary, that provided direct payments to people, we have shown that it is possible to redistribute wealth. Can we continue to live into this when it is not a crisis?
This is an issue writ large. And yet is also one we can look at on the local level. Homelessness and housing are issues here in Olympia, ones that we have engaged with in the past but not as much recently. Having made the tremendous step to more than double our footprint in downtown Olympia with the purchase of the adjacent lot—and I am so proud of our congregation for this achievement—we can also reexamine our role as downtown citizens and neighbors and recommit to work with our partners at Interfaith Works to help create and maintain space for all of Olympia’s residents?
This is not the only time in the Torah we are told to protect the vulnerable. Providing for the poor is not something we are meant to do just every seven years. But by connecting providing for the poor with the idea of letting our fields lie fallow, shmita teaches that we must have in mind the fundamental equality among individuals, regardless of status. That property ownership and material goods are fleeting, that ultimately everything is ownerless, and therefore we must provide for everyone’s needs.
The third teaching of shmita also comes from this verse, namely that as the fields are fallow, and after the poor get their fair share, then the “wild beasts” are able to benefit from the land. There is a consciousness that we have a responsibility not only to the earth, but to all life that lives within it.
Again, this is a problem of perspective—of seeing ourselves above the world and not of it. It is what is what Aldo Leopold called the “land ethic,” when he writes, “in short the land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his [sic] fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” We are one, not the one.
Ever since moving to the Northwest I have been taken with the salmon. Every year the High Holiday season is marked by the return of the salmon, who make their way from the oceans to the streams of their birth, to create new life and to die. Their process of renewal and rebirth is timed to our process of renewal and rebirth, and should serve as a reminder that our Jewish tradition is deeply connected to the earth and its cycles. The cycle of the salmon also feeds other animals, the waters in which they live, and the forests that surround those waters. And they feed us as well. And yet it is human activity which threatens them and their existence.
I have been humbled to learn about the deep spiritual, cultural, and economic significance of salmon to Northwest Native tribes on whose land we gather, it is a reminder of a proper and holistic relationship with the world in which we live. The shmita teaching that recognizes “wild beasts” as part of the system reminds us that we need to not only work to make the earth habitable for us, but for other species as well. Salmon are but one of the wild beasts that we need to be mindful of and care for, it is perhaps one that we as a Northwest Jewish congregation can take a particular interest in.
For the fourth teaching of shmita we turn back to the Torah to a different section, to Deuteronomy 15:1-2: “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow; they shall not dun their fellow or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of God.”
What a radical notion this brings: the idea that every seven years, debts are to be forgiven. And we know that we are a society built on debt. The loads of student debt carried by many people in this country, including rabbis. The threat and reality of medical debt as well when, even with insurance, an unfortunate illness or accident can spell financial disaster.
But it is more than just debt itself. I had this epiphany recently reading about the Supreme Court decision to end President Biden’s eviction moratorium. In the article, it said, understandably, that tenant’s organizations were against it, and landlord organization’s lauded it. And I thought, this is the society we live in, we pit people against each other. Whether its landlord and tenant, or have and have-not, or lender and debtor, we favor transactional relationship, and when we do so, usually one person benefits at the expense of another.
This is not a cooperative society. We know that unchecked capitalism leaves people behind. It is not interested in making sure everyone has their needs met. What would it mean, then, to forgive debts in our society? But moreso, what does it mean to create an economy that does not require debt to access basic things like education or health care, that sets up cooperation, not competition. That is the lesson of this fourth teaching of shmita.
Numbers five and six are also contained within a single verse: “If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, they shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set them free. When you set them free, do not let them go empty-handed: Furnish them out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)
Every seventh year, we are meant to free the slaves. Without getting into what the Torah means when it is permitting slavery, we can safely say that there is currently slavery today. And I don’t just mean the fact that it is still enshrined in the Constitution as legal punishment for crime, or the persistence of human trafficking worldwide and in our local community, or even how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery in the United States, curtailing the rights and privileges of those who have been in prison, which is disproportionately people of color. That is all there, and needs to be examined.
But the pandemic revealed too how our society is dependent on a class of “essential workers” who do not have access to certain privileges and are in a sense, slaves to their jobs. Ones who can not take off work to get the vaccine, or are scared of losing work to the side effects. Who don’t have access to child care, or parental leave. Those who work in adverse working conditions, who are prevented from unionizing. And in the cruel irony of the pandemic, whose health insurance, if they even have it, is tied to their employment, so if they lose work they lose access to affordable health care during a time when it is most necessary.
Modern day slavery is also in the form of the recent law in Texas, that controls the reproductive choices and health of those who are or may become pregnant. And modern day slavery is draconian voting laws, that seek to prevent classes of people to have a voice in creating the laws by which they will in turn be governed.
As Martin Luther King said, “it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” By including the freeing of slaves as part of the seven-year cycle, the shmita year challenges us to examine who is it in our society that either explicitly or implicitly kept down, whose choices are limited, who can not by design live up to their full potential, and then address and repair those inequalities in our system.
And when we free the slaves, according to the Torah, you do not just let them go but you provide for them a form of restitution or compensation for the time they worked, in order to set them on an even playing field as a free person. This is the fifth practice of shmita.
And what this raises for us, that as we look back at the history of our country, and the institution of slavery that persisted for centuries, is that it is time we engaged with the idea of reparations.
Jewish communities are beginning to talk more and more about our responsibilities to engage with the idea of reparations. Our Reconstructionist movement has taken it on, my rabbinic association has passed a resolution supporting it, we have begun to read and discuss here at TBH. This was done in the understanding that, as Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “We did not create this problem, but that does not free us from being part of the solution. We are beneficiaries of a national economic system that was built on stolen land and stolen labor, a foundational wrong that has never been rectified.”
In our own story of slavery in the Torah we read how the Israelites took the gold and silver from the Egyptians on their way to freedom, a form of reparations, payment for the 400 years of servitude. In contemporary history we have the model of reparations after the Holocaust, which would not undo the tragic and horrific past, but allow for a better and hopeful future. And more broadly, we have the idea of teshuvah, which we are focused on during these Days of Awe, which requires us not just to atone or apologize for past wrongs, but to actively try to find a way to repair, to rectify, to make right.
Again, even if it can not undo the past, it can remake the future. As Rabbi Brous writes, “reparations would not suddenly ensure economic equality, nor would they erase generations of trauma. But they would offer some financial redress. And most significantly, they would signal a reckoning that our nation desperately needs.” Shmita this year reminds us of that need for reckoning.
Taken all together, the fundamental lesson of these first six ideas of shmita is that there is a connection among environmental justice, racial justice, and economic justice, and it is our responsibility to recognize this intersectionality and act on it.
When I think about it why shmita is necessary, why it is in our most sacred text, I come to think that it is meant as a check on human nature. Without it, without a limit on our actions, human nature is one of continual exploitation: of land, animal and fellow human. We have seen it throughout the entire course of human history. The pandemic made it that much more immediate and visible in our time, and in that way, shmita comes just when it is most needed. By suspending the notion of private ownership and letting the land do its own thing, by favoring the needy and the animals, by forgiving debts, by freeing slaves and paying them reparations—shmita is there to lead us away from our worst impulses toward a new idea of human behavior.
And these six practices are all connected in the seventh: “And Moses instructed them as follows: “Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before God in the chosen place, you shall read this Teaching/Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-12)
The seventh practice of shmita is an affirmative, ritual component: that it is envisioned that the entire community come together every seven years, on the holiday of Sukkot, to hear the Torah. One could imagine what this must have been like in ancient times, and grandeur and pageantry and celebration of the entire community coming together every seven years, making the pilgrimage to the Temple to hear the reading of our sacred text.
And while we do enact elements of this ritual—In our contemporary practice we read the entirety of the Torah over the course of a whole year while we are gathered together in community—the vision of this ritual has yet to be fully achieved. For what is described here is the creation and coalescing of radically inclusive community. A covenantal community of all ages, classes, genders, backgrounds, abilities that is joined together by a sacred text, tradition, and practice. A covenantal community that honors its ancestors and teaches its children, that protects the vulnerable and takes care of each other needs, that finds opportunities to join together in fun and celebration and support and comfort. A covenantal community that prizes equality, justice, and peace.
We are being tested in a way now that we have not been in recent history. Fissures are deepening, the foundations are crumbling. Internal and external threats challenge us. And tonight, we turn the page to a new year, and a new hope for what is possible.
Because we now are entering into this sacred time of shmita, arriving on our calendar at just the right time to remind us—to command us—to live into and fulfill the essence of what it and its seven constituent parts require: to build a society that works for everyone.
I find Deuteronomy to be such a fascinating book from a literary perspective since it is mostly told in the voice of one character: Moses. Moses has led the Israelites to the western edge of the Jordan River, and in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land he sets out to remind them of the history, review the laws of the Torah, and inspire them to a successful future. It is bittersweet because we know that Moses will not be entering into the land with the Israelites; he is destined to die before they cross the river.
Because the book is told in his voice, it sets up an interesting examination of the Torah’s main character. Since he is retelling stories that happened earlier in the text, we can compare how he tells them versus how they were presented originally. Doing so can give us an insight into Moses’s character.
For when he tells the stories, he seems a bit angry.
When Moses retells the history of the Israelites, he is constantly telling them about the times that they failed, or betrayed God, or made life difficult for him. In this week’s portion of Ekev Moses reminds them of the story of the Golden Calf, when they instituted idol worship in response to Moses’s absence on the top of Mount Sinai. He also reminds them of other times they rebelled. Earlier, he even blames them for him being denied entry into the land, saying it was their desire for water that forced him to act rashly and strike the rock, when he was just supposed to speak to it.
Why does Moses lash out like this? When I would read this in the past, I thought Moses was being excessively harsh. He was being mean, perhaps as a way to scare them into submission so they will do the right thing moving forward, whether that is following the Torah or working together to form a better society.
But in light of events this week, I tend to read it differently. I am reading it as Moses as hurt, coming to terms with his fate and his inability to continue on in the journey. By sharing the way he does, Moses is telegraphing his feelings and emotions at the moment. He is not lashing out at the Israelites, but reaching out to them. He is projecting his mental state, and seeking a positive response from his community.
For those Olympic followers, the major news this week was Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast in the world–and potentially of all time–withdrawing from competition. It was an issue of mental health she said, and that she was unable to perform and needed to step back for selfcare.
In my corner of the Internet, there was nothing but praise for her decision. Biles’s openness and her honesty was met with applause and support. I join that chorus, the ability to speak openly about mental health challenges is so necessary, and the ability to support those who need to heal from a challenge other than a physical one is so crucial. Many of us face similar challenges on our own scale (that is, not many of us are world-class gymnasts), but the need is the same. To be able to speak openly about mental and emotional challenges, and to be received with love and support, is important to our personal growth and development.
And especially now, as we have lived through a global pandemic–a year and a half of fear and anger and suffering and loss with no clear end in sight–I would imagine every one of us has been affected in some way. To be honest, the prospect of facing another High Holiday season under the shadow of Covid has meant that I am having a harder time finding the joy I usually do in this season, and I’m finding it harder to motivate to plan.
In Moses’s case, lashing out in anger at the Israelites and blaming them might not be the most effective means of expressing his inner struggle. But in choosing to read his intention and his words this way, it can highlight not only the need to tell people about our mental struggles, but how difficult it is for any of us to do so. Both Moses and Simone Biles set an example for us this week.
As we turn the calendar this weekend to the month of Av, the observance of Tisha B’Av (the “ninth of Av”) is upon us. This is a day of mourning, in which it is customary to fast, read the biblical Book of Lamentations, and reflect on the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. The root of the observance is remembering the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem which, in the Jewish religious imagination, is one of the earliest major catastrophes.
It always falls in the summer, which seems like a cruel joke of the calendar–at a time of year that we are enjoying the outdoors and warmer weather, we are called back inside to focus on communal loss and grief. It is always especially interesting when Jewish summer camps confront the day, needing to stay true to their mission of developing a strong sense of Jewish engagement and connection at a place that is also based on fun and games.
This year rather than most it feels more difficult to get into the spirit of Tisha B’Av. I am finding it quite a joyful and relieving fact that the distribution of vaccines and the re-opening of society and community is happening at summer time. Here in Washington State, the onset of summer is generally a time that we shrug off nine months of rain and overcast skies to enjoy the beauty of nature and the bright, warm, burning orb of gas in the sky. To have that line up with the shrugging off of 15 months of isolation and withdrawal gives particular resonance to the season.
Of course, we know we are not completely out of the woods. Vaccination rates are slowing. Children under 12 still can’t get vaccinated. The Delta variant is spreading. We still need to be mindful and cautious with masking and handwashing and going out when we are not feeling well.
And at the same time we can balance that with hope that we are moving past this incredibly difficult chapter of our lives, even as we continue to deal with the echoes of it.
Which is why I am asking myself now, why do we need a day of collective grief when we have been engaged in collective grief for the past 15 months? Why do we need to remember the destruction of our communal institutions when we have witnessed that for the past year and half? I don’t need more grief right now, I want to focus on the hope and redemption that comes after a destructive act. I don’t want another day of turning inward and hunkering down, I want to be outside celebrating life and community.
Traumatic events persist, we know, and on Tisha B’Av we are meant to mourn not only the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem but also the fact that that event and others continue to impact us. At the same time, we know that what emerges from destruction can be better than what was. The Judaism that we know was only able to evolve because of the destruction of the Temple. And now we hope that new approaches to health care and the social safety net and racial and environmental justice and communal obligation will come from what we have specifically learned from and experienced during the pandemic.
Holidays are important; they provide a focus on issues and values and ideas that are essential to us as humans. And yet sometimes we are in the throes of something that we don’t need a holiday to remind us. Or, the holiday takes on new meaning because we are in the throes of something. (I anticipate the High Holidays this year will be a celebration of coming back together in addition to marking the new year and personal teshuvah [repentance] work.)
We know the grief from the pandemic continues. We know that the suffering continues. And now add to that survivor’s guilt. And the communal lack of control we all experienced. And the uncertainty of what it means to “re-enter.” And the work it takes to build multi-access community. And the reexamination of social norms and expectations.
I know this won’t be every year, but this year I may take a break from Tisha B’Av. For what will truly be restorative, what will remind me of the our communal grief and loss, is not a day of fasting and lamentations, but another day in the sun, celebrating life, safely going maskless, and noting the fact that while yes traumatic events happen, they also end and we also heal.
A strange story in this week’s Torah portion, only six verses long:
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” God sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against God and against you. Intercede with God to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then God said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, they shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, they would look at the copper serpent and recover. (Numbers 21:4-9)
On it’s face, its a common trope in the book of Numbers. On their wanderings in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, the Israelites complain about the hardship and wish to return, God gets upset, the people repent, ask Moses to intercede, and the people are forgiven. A version of this story is found several times throughout the Torah.
The specifics in this instance are interesting and almost magical. God punishes the people by sending snakes to bite them, and the remedy is a bronze statue of a serpent that the people look at to be cured.
Yes, the image of a punishing God is difficult and one that does not align with contemporary theology. But we can read beyond this ancient understanding to see what is recognizable–this is a story of an outbreak that infects the population, bringing illness and death. And the resolution of the outbreak is to introduce into the population an artificial version of the outbreak.
It is, I suggest, a biblical story of vaccines.
This has been a challenging and difficult year, not only because of the illness and death that marked the pandemic, but also because the measures we needed to take in order to protect ourselves and others–quarantining, masking, and physical separation–took their own toll. The need to separate from extended family and friends, to not gather in community, to forgo casual physical contact like handshakes and hugs impacted our emotional health even as they kept us physically safe.
Now we have a tool to bring us back together, the vaccines.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have leaned into the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life. This value teaches that protecting the health and safety of oneself and others is paramount, even so far as to support the violation of other mitzvot if necessary. (For example, if one needs to eat for health reasons, then is not only permissible to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the year, but it is forbidden to fast.) Last year we demonstrated pikuach nefesh by staying physically apart and wearing masks when around others. Now we can demonstrate pikuach nefesh by getting vaccinated.
One may look upon vaccinations as a personal choice, and indeed they are. And at the same time our personal choices have consequences beyond ourselves. This points to another Jewish value: kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh, everyone is responsible for one another. The Talmud talks about this concept in the context of sin–one person’s transgressions increase the negativity in the world. We can read it that any action impacts not only us, but those with whom we are in relationship and community. There are times when we are called upon to sacrifice a little personal liberty for the common good. Vaccines protect not only ourselves–as the individual vaccinated rate climbs higher, it protects our entire community.
Indeed, if those who are able to get the vaccine do so, then it protects those who can’t get it for health reasons, or who are immunocompromised even with it. A choice not to vaccinate puts others at risk. It is our obligation, therefore, to do so. The science supports the vaccine, and from a Jewish perspective science and spirituality are not antithetical. And by allowing us to come together again, to hug and touch, to sing and laugh, the vaccines support not only our physical health but our emotional health as well.
In this short biblical story, we are told that the cure for the disease (snake infestation) is a variation of the disease itself (snake statue). Regardless of the biology of the COVID vaccine and how it may or may not differ from other types of vaccines, there is truth to this. Humanity had developed a wide range of medical interventions to preserve and protect life. Sometimes these are administered once illness has occurred, other times they are administered to prevent illness in the first place. This ability to intervene is one way we demonstrate our sacred power to join as partners with God in the creation and preservation of life.
And by making use of these interventions, we show compassion and care to ourselves and to each other. We are in this together. An individual vaccine benefits us all.