Have Courage (Kol Nidre 5778)

My favorite part of the Torah is the end.

It’s a tender and sweet moment. Moses dies, God buries Moses in a place that is unknown to anyone else. The Torah says some nice words about Moses, how he was unlike any other prophet that the Israelites has known—our liberator, our lawgiver, our defender, our guide.

And that is it, the Torah ends.

So we can say this is a nice ending, a literary ending…if the story of the Torah is the story of Moses. And despite the fact that the Torah is called the Five Books of Moses, it is not the story of Moses, but the story of the Israelites. The story of our people that begins as the narrative of a family saga to the narrative of a nation, oppressed in slavery, finding liberation and redemption, and journeying, both physically and spiritually to a new land, a new reality, a new future.

And since the story of the Torah is the story of the Israelites, it is, then, when it ends, incomplete. For the Israelites never achieve their goal, never reach the land, the text finishes with Moses dying and the Israelites still on the eastern bank of the Jordan river, poised to cross but not making it. Roll end credits.

The Israelites do make it over the river and into the land: In the book of Joshua, the book that follows Deuteronomy. But it is not part of the Torah itself, the central sacred text of our people.

The next book of the bible following the end of the Torah is called Joshua after its main protagonist, Joshua ben Nun, who takes over the leadership from Moses. This is preordained, Joshua is first appointed to be Moses’s successor as leader earlier on in the Torah, after God tells Moses that he is to die in the wilderness and not enter the land. Moses, concerned for the people, asks God for a successor. God then tells Moses to take Joshua in front of all the people and anoint him as the successor.

Then, just as the Torah is coming to a close, and Moses knows he is about to die, he offers a blessing to Joshua in front of all the people, “Be strong and have courage, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that God swore to their ancestors to give them, and it is you who shall appoint it to them. And God will go before you. God will be with you and will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not, and do not be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8) These are the words that Moses uses to charge Joshua for what he is to do next. Facing an uncertain future, Moses tells Joshua to have strength, but more importantly, to have courage.

I think about these words as we face an uncertain future. Indeed, the nature of the future is that it is uncertain. We do not know what comes. We make plans, and they are broken for us. And at the same time we like to project from our current circumstances into the future as a kind of foretelling of what will be. We ask ourselves, based on where we are now, are we moving in the right direction?

And these days, it feels like we are particularly challenged in that regard. Do we feel we are moving in the right direction?

I remember walking around the halls of Pomona Junior High School, growing up in the 1980s under the specter of nuclear war, all our destruction held at bay by the diplomatic notion of detante and treaties and a cold war with the Soviet Union. And now, the threat of nuclear war once again hovers over us, albeit with a different enemy.

Environmental destruction seems imminent, and weather patterns change and storms become stronger, all due to the scientific certainty around climate change. Yet there are those in power who deny these facts and view environmental regulation and protection as an infringement of individual rights as if they do not breathe the same air we do, or drink the same water we do, as if we as individuals can exist separate from the environment.

Our leadership posits moral equivalency between those who would seek to destroy Jews and African Americans and others with those who oppose them. When white supremacist leaders feel comfortable enough to come out from under their sheets to march through cities chanting slogans of hate and violence, given sanction by the leaders of our government, we are less secure.

When immigrants are seen as the enemy, when immigrant children are punished for the “transgressions” of their parents, when your religion and nationality automatically makes you an enemy worthy of exclusion, when your gender identity means you can not serve in the most selfless capacity that our nation can offer—the military, when your desire to exercise your free speech by taking a knee rather than putting your hand on your heart makes you an enemy and not a patriot, we have come to a point of devaluing human life to a dangerous degree.

And looking at my own personal situation over these past two years, I have had to change my health insurance plan two years in a row, first when Providence, our primary hospital, and its partner Swedish, where I get my neurological care, dropped my individual Premera plan, and now when my current carrier Regence decides to cancel my plan—indeed all individual plans in Thurston County—because, as the letter I received stated, “of instability in the market.”—I am reminded very directly and personally that access to affordable health care through insurance coverage remains not a right but a commodity.

Looking at all of these, and more, I will admit that I find it hard to stand up here and know exactly what to say. I share all these, because when I add them up, I am not feeling particularly hopeful about the way things are. I can’t in good conscience tell you to have hope, that things will turn out OK, that this too shall pass, because it seems so overwhelming, and it doesn’t feel like it will pass.

So rather than talk about hope, I share this story of Joshua and the death of Moses because I really want to talk about courage. In facing an unknown future, Moses did not tell Joshua to have hope. He told him to have courage.

Over this past summer I had the privilege to learn from Parker Palmer, the Quaker thinker and writer and one of the compelling spiritual teachers of our day, when I attended a retreat sponsored by his nonprofit, the Center for Courage and Renewal. During his lectures (and also found in his most recent book Healing the Heart of Democracy), he spoke of the “tragic gap,” which he calls “the most fundamental and most challenging” of the tensions that we hold as people. The tragic gap is the space between the harsh realities that surround us all the time, that we see, that we feel, and the things that we know to be possible, a world that is possible because we can see it, we can vision it. This is the tragic gap.

And tragic is not used here in the colloquial sense of being “sad” or “bad,” but rather in that classic sense that this is, as Palmer writes, “an eternal and inescapable feature of the human condition.” This is where we are at all time, between the what is and what could be. This is the space between the present and the future. This is the Israelites, waiting on the eastern bank of the Jordan river as the Torah ends, never making it to the other side. They can see and envision the future, but they have not achieved it yet.

The fact that the Torah ends in this place—and liturgically as well for with our yearly Torah reading cycle as we end the reading of Deuteronomy we then turn around and pick up the reading at the beginning of Genesis—teaches us that powerful lesson, that we are always in the tragic gap. We are always in the place of holding tension between the world in which we live and the world that can be. We are always in the tension between who we are at any given moment and who we could be moving forward.

And again, the blessing given to Joshua at the cusp of the ending of the text, as both he and the Israelites recognize the tragic gap that lay before them, as they know they will need to move forward not sure what awaits them, is to have courage. To have courage.

It is courage that will allow the Israelites to cross the river and realize their futures. It is courage that will allow Joshua to act in the face of the unknown. It is courage that will bring the Israelites that much closer to a better future.

For what courage ultimately means is that in the face of fear, or an uncertain future, or even a state of hopelessness, we act anyway. We move forward anyway. We take a chance, even when you do not know what the outcome will be. We act on our values, we express our authentic selves, we see a wrong and wish to right it. We act.

We are all facing an unknown and challenging future. We can say things will get better, but we don’t really know. Sometimes we are up against such massive forces like the ones I mentioned before: governments, militaries, the environment, markets, that it does not feel that we can move them, or make an impact, or do anything about them. That we are at the whim of others. At the same time we have our personal challenges, of health, finances, or relationships that we don’t know how they will be resolved.

But if you sense that something is wrong, if you feel that your values are being tested, if you can articulate that tension that you are living in, you can see a challenge even though you are uncertain how it will turn out, you can act anyway. That is courage.

A recent blog post by Miguel Clark Mallet on the On Being blog resonated with me. He wrote, in a post titled, “We’ve Hoped Ourselves Into this Current Crisis”:

You see, whether I get what I want turns out to not actually be my business. This insight came as quite a surprise, living as we do in a culture of control (not to say domination), a culture that deifies power over people, nature, possessions, aging, time, even death. But I don’t control whether I get what I want because I don’t control the universe; I live within it.

So I don’t need hope (or control) to act. I don’t need hope to figure out what I should do and how I should live. I have values. I have beliefs. I can examine whether they’re grounded in reality. And I can use those values to ask myself with each choice, “Am I being — right now — the person I believe I should be? Am I acting in line with truth, with reality, with the way I think life should be lived?”

If I believe in justice, do I express that belief? Do I work against injustice? Do I choose to undermine oppression or further it? Not because I know I’ll “win” or “succeed,” but because I’ve committed myself to living the way I think I should live.

At my best, I answer what each moment and my values call me to do. Sometimes it’s to rest, to reflect. Sometimes it’s to play. Sometimes it’s to connect with friends and loved ones. Sometimes it’s to struggle, critique, speak out. Sometimes to listen. Sometimes to celebrate. Sometimes to grieve. Each moment makes its demand, and I’m seeking the kind of life where I hear and answer that need as often as I can.

Contrary to our control-obsessed culture, the alternative to hope isn’t passivity or despair. It’s living. It’s being humble and real.

And, I would add, it’s courage. For living is courage. For we are all in our own tragic gap, a place of tension that has meaning for us, a place of a present of our own harsh reality and the place of a future fulfilled.

It is even an act courage to show up here today, on Yom Kippur, to ask the questions that you have of yourself. What is your gap? What is the tension you hold? Another lesson Parker Palmer teaches, as part of his larger teaching of the different habits of the heart that we can cultivate, is that we must develop “an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.”

Think about the questions you bring with you today. What are the tensions that you are holding? What is it that you are bringing into this holy space at this holy time? What is the tension between who you are and who you could be? As I learned this past summer from my teachers at the retreat, courage can be simply entering in spaces that allow our authentic selves to show up, and making the room for others to show up as well.

And that is the work of Yom Kippur: repentance, forgiveness, laying yourself bare and moving forward. Forgiving others, and forgiving yourself. Showing up. Yom Kippur is a day of courage, it’s being honest with who we are and rejecting the false narratives we tell about ourselves and the narratives that others tell of us. It’s opening up to our next chapter, whatever that is.

To take the step forward. To live in the face of adversity. To choose life. All of that takes courage.

And courage is not easy. It means facing fears. It means facing life when it challenges us. It means stepping into that tragic gap of the in between. A midrash teaches of a person walking along the road who comes across a pack of dogs and was afraid of them. So what did he do? He sat down in their midst. Courage.

And courage does not require hope. In fact, it is the acting even without hope that can define true courage. We make this declaration today, on this most sacred day of the year, when we chant the Unetaneh Tokef, that prayer that asks who shall live and who shall die, who is inscribed and who is left out. It is a statement of reality, of acceptance, of the fact that despite our best hopes, life may have something else planned for us.

But then we say tefillah, teshuvah, tzedakah can avert the decree—that in the face of an unknown fate, of problems in the world, of seemingly everything against us—we still choose to live, by, among other things, creating a sense of the sacred, of forming and strengthening relationships, acting for social justice and the common good, being who we know we must be. This is what it means to live a life of courage.

And the irony of it all is that this then gives us hope.

Hope does not breed courage. Courage breeds hope.

The minister Victoria Stafford defines it well when she writes,

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

The image of the gates echo on this day, when we speak of the gates of heaven being open to receive our petition. Here, then, the gates of hope are only available to us if we act with courage. The personal challenges we face, the litany of societal ills plaguing us right now, we can hope to overcome them, if we first act with courage in the face of them.

And we return to the words Moses tells Joshua before he is to die and Joshua is to take over, before he is to enter the unknown gap, “be strong and have courage.” For these words are echoed in Psalm 27, the psalm that is added to our liturgy over these High Holidays. In the last line we read, “Hope in God, be strong and of good courage, hope in God.” How do we have hope? By acting courageously.

The point here, in this psalm, and at the end of the Torah, is that we do not wait for God to show us what God can do, rather, we show God what we can do.

A few years ago, I gave a sermon about a garden, about the things that I have learned about life and repentance from having a garden. I ended that sermon talking about carrots, and how carrots are the vegetable of hope. They are the vegetable of hope because unlike cucumbers, or beans, or tomatoes, we do not see the growth of the vegetable. As a root vegetable it grows underground, and so the time to harvest could be determined by time, by the greenery that is found above ground, by our best guess. And because of this, I said carrots are the vegetable of hope because we do not know whether or not we have been successful until after pulling them.

So I wish to amend this slightly if I may. Yes, carrots are still the vegetable of hope. We hope that they are grown to maturity by the time they are to be harvested. But picking the carrots, even without knowing the result, is an act of courage. And perhaps even planting them in the first place is an act of courage.

Generating, cultivating, and acting with courage.

That is the first step towards transformation. That is the first step towards revolution. That is the first step towards hope. That is the first step to changing ourselves and changing our world. This is the step we take tonight. The courageous step into the tragic gap.

So on this day of days, as we all face our own gaps and our gap as a society, I offer you the same blessing that Moses gave to Joshua: May we all be strong and have courage.

Kol Nidre 5777: “The God Participle”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

Since this is the evening of confession. I am going to confess something tonight. It’s a theological confession.

While I am rooted in one particular religious tradition, and I am open to interfaith engagement and spiritual exploration, there is one place where I get stuck. And that is, I don’t like the term atheist. So long as I have been engaged spiritually, since I was young through my studies and now into my rabbinate, I have always had a problem with the term atheist.

I don’t like the term atheist because it begins with a negative. A-thiest, non theist, and it seems odd to begin one’s belief system from a negative. Why define your set of beliefs from a place of the negative. My wife Yohanna doesn’t like the candy non-pariels, the chocolate drops with the candy sprinkles on top because as she says, why would you want to eat a candy that has a negative name? It is hard to argue with that. A belief system based on what you don’t believe does not seem like a compelling place to start.

But the other reason is that the term atheist, which is there to define an opposition to God, is there to describe a particular type of God. A God we have a common notion of, but a God that may not hold us to our reality, a narrow conception of what God is. A fundamentalist view of God as portrayed in sacred text, or a vision of God we are given as a child, an immature incomplete vision, that then defines or not define our adult spirituality.

So tonight I wanted to talk a bit about God. And I want to talk about God because I really want to talk about religion and I want to talk about spirituality. Because it seems to me that for all the power we ascribe to God traditionally, ironically God remains one of the biggest barriers we have to living a spiritual life.

Earlier this year, I was invited to Nova School—the local private middle school– to talk about Judaism. I spent the morning sharing a presentation on Judaism with four different classes of middle school students, and then answering a lot of questions. The students had prepared question in advance, so I came prepared to answer a variety of things. The questions were thoughtful and interesting. One question was, “what is the meaning of YHVH?” What does that signify?

It was an interesting question, because I hadn’t really been asked that before. The term YHVH is a reference to God, and a specific one at that. YHVH is a transliteration of sorts—when we render Hebrew into English characters—of yod, hay, vav, hay. The four Hebrew letters that make up the traditional name of God. We call this name the tetragrammaton, from the Greek for “four letters.”

Generally you see this term in academic papers and books, in Judaic or biblical studies. Sometimes in these contexts they use the pronunciation Yahweh, which is just applying vocalization to the four letters, and it is not a term we use in Jewish ritual practice. In fact, as I explained to the students, we don’t use that pronunciation in worship, or services, or ritual. Rather we use the term Adonai—literally meaning “My Lord”–in its place when we are reciting a berachah. So Adonai is the term we use, taking on the role as a direct reference to God, so much so that in traditional practice one does not even say the term Adonai when referring to God, one would say Hashem—literally “the name”–so when saying a blessing not at an appropriate time, for the sake of education or demonstration, or referring to God in another context, traditional Jews would say “Hashem” as in Baruch Atah Hashem…

I explained this all to the kids. Later on reflecting on this, it got me thinking, that these substitutes come to show that essentially, we can not say God’s name. The name is unpronounceable.

And this is a deeply rooted tradition. In ancient times, when the community gathered for Yom Kippur, it was an intense day of ritual, sacrifice and atonement. Tomorrow we will read in the Torah about the Azazel ritual, when two goats are brought forth before the priest, one as an offering to God, and the other the goat upon which the sins of the community would be placed, and then sent out into the wilderness.

The rabbis in the Talmud elaborate on this ritual as well with more detailed explanation of all of the steps. One thing that would happen on Yom Kippur in ancient times according to the rabbis is that the High Priest would pronounce the name of God the way it was meant to be pronounced. This was the only time in the year when it was done. And when he did the people would recite, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,” baruch shem kavod malchuto le’olam va’ed, which we retain now in our liturgy in the Shema. It is the response after the Shema, usually recited in silence, but recited aloud on Yom Kippur as an echo of this ancient ritual when the people would recite this aloud.

Now, if the rabbis say that the name was pronounced by the High Priest in the Temple only this one time the whole year, they also say that after the destruction of the Temple  in 70 CE by the Romans, the act that led to the shift from biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism, from Bible to Talmud, from priests to rabbis, the end of the sacrificial system and an ushering in of a new form of Jewish practice, after this destruction it was forbidden to pronounce the name of God. And with this prohibition, over time, the knowledge of how to pronounce the name was lost.

So for us, as we approach this practice, it is not so much that we don’t pronounce the name of God, but we can’t pronounce the name of God. We can not name God.

Which is a powerful statement, that we can not name God. And, I would suggest, a crux of our theology as Jews. For naming is defining, and to say that we can not name God then we can not define God. A name is a noun. And here is our main problem, our issue with God, perhaps. That we tend to approach God as a noun. As a thing. As an object.

This is something that even informs our popular imagination or ideas. Perhaps you have heard about the God Particle. The God Particle, a term that scientists actually don’t like, is a popular term for the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that scientists are looking for and have potentially found. Posited by physicist Peter Higgs over 40 years ago, it is a particle that it is theorized existed not only at the subatomic level but at the beginning of the universe. I won’t go into details because it would be too far afield and frankly I don’t understand it, but that is what these giant colliders that scientists have built are looking for. By smashing beams of particles together, scientists study matter on a level previously unknown. All that to say, outside of the specifics, is that the reason the nickname was proposed, and why it stuck in the popular imagination, is because we tend to think of God as a thing, as a constant.

But I don’t think this is accurate, or helpful.

It is not the God Particle we need to think about, but the God Participle.

In our “Advancing in Hebrew” class here at TBH we are diving into Hebrew grammar. And so bear with me through a short grammar lesson. Hebrew is built around a three letter root system in which a group of three letters will have a particular meaning. For example kof-dalet-shin has the meaning of holiness, and why the words for Kiddush over the wine, or the Mourner’s kaddish and kiddushin (marriage) are all related, variations on the theme of holiness.

These roots can be formed into nouns or verbs, generally by fitting them into a structure or conjugation that follows a particular pattern that can then be modified based on these patterns and use of suffixes and prefixes to reflect number, gender or person. And one such structure, one such form, that lies at the heart of all of this is the participle.

What is a participle? Allow me to quote from Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, a standard text of biblical Hebrew grammar:

Like the two infinitives, the participles also occupy a middle place between the noun and the verb. In form they are simple nouns, and most nearly related to the adjective; consequently they cannot in themselves be employed to represent definite relations of tense or mood. On the other hand, their verbal character is shown by their not representing, like the adjectives, a fixed and permanent quality (or state), but one which is in some way connected with an action or activity. The participle active indicates a person or thing conceived as being in the continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity.

Got that? In simpler terms, as our Hebrew textbook that we use in class says, a participle is a form of that can act like a noun or a verb, and whose translation can therefore be varied. By way of example, our textbook points out hu shomer can mean “he is a guard,” “he is one who guards,” “he is guarding,” “he guards,” “he does guard.”

So what does this have to do with God? This is in fact the way we encounter God most frequently in our ritual practice and in our liturgy. As a participle.

And these might be familiar to you. When we bless bread we say hamotzi lechem min haarez, who brings forth bread from the earth. The word motzi is a participle: “the one who brings forth” “the bringer-forther” or “bringing forth.” Same is true for our blessing over wine or grape juice: borei peri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine, God is described as the one who creates, creating. Before the Aliyah to the Torah, we say, notein hatorah, the giver of Torah, the one who gives Torah.

In the Amidah, the silent prayer we just read God is somech noflim, the one who upholds those who have fallen, or upholding those who fall. And rofe cholim, the one who heals the sick, or healing the sick, and matir asurim, the one who frees the captive, or freeing the captive. And there are many other examples.

God then is not a thing, God is a state of being. God is not an actor, God is an action. God is not a particle, but a participle.

This is why we get so hung up. This is why ironically God gets in the way of our spiritual lives. Because we tend to think of God as a thing, out there, when we need to think of God as a participle, in here. The question of spirituality is not do you believe in God. The question of spirituality is do you live in a Godly way? The question is not do you look upon God above, but rather are you able to elevate your life to heights above the mundane, above the day-to-day, above the individual self.

And because of this, this idea, this God Participle, I ironically have a new appreciation for the God of the Bible, of the Torah, the God conception we perhaps have the most trouble with. The basis, perhaps, for much rejection of Judaism and religion in general. The source for the theism in atheism. A question I am often asked is how can you believe in a God who… and quotes some difficult passage from the Torah. And for some it is a legitimate question of inquiry. And for some it is a challenge. A seeking of permission to reject, to reject the God of the Torah and therefore religion as a whole.

And at the same time, it is the text in which we most often encounter God. And my appreciation for the text, for the Torah, comes because it is in this text, our most sacred text, that God is continually in the act of doing.

What does God do in the Torah?

The God of the Torah gets pissed off, changes God’s mind, forgives, wants revenge, shows compassion, lashes out, plays favorites.

The God of the Torah learns from mistakes, gives comfort to the ailing, teaches, is able to be reasoned with, creates.

The God of the Torah frees from oppression, feeds the hungry, offers encouragement, cares for animals, argues and compromises.

The God of the Torah wages war, forges peace, pushes away, draws close, remains loyal, shares secrets, values trust.

Sound familiar? It sounds kind of like us. The God of the Hebrew Bible, of the Torah, is the most human of all the conception of God in our theological tradition. That’s what we say, that humans are created in the divine image, from the story of Creation in Genesis, that we are betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Which we can understand as a two-way relationship. We humans may carry within us a spark of the divine, meaning that each individual human being is worthy of respect and compassion. And God reflects humanity, with all of it ups and downs, promises and challenges.

Which for me makes this God—the God of the Torah—the most powerful God. The most human God is the most powerful God because it is a God that allows us to embrace the totality of life. That’s the God I want to worship. That’s the God I’m interested in. That’s the God I want to wrestle with. Because we need to embrace the totality of what God represents in order to reflect it in our lives.

Over and over in the Torah we are told that the number one sin is idolatry. Idolatry is nothing more than the reduction of God to a part of the whole. To substitute the representation for the real thing.

But we need the wholeness. That’s why idolatry is a problem. We need the totality, we need the all-of-it, all of God’s actions. I know, there are other religious thinkers who are challenged by the Bible, by the Torah, and the negativity contained, who posit it is not a true representation of the divine, that God is love. God is love. And I like this, I’ll concede this. But it is not sufficient. It is only the part of a whole represented in all the actions we see God performing in the Torah. If we read the whole scope of Torah, in the text, we see all of it. We see it in God, and we need to see it reflected in ourselves.

Yes, God is love. And we need love in order to deepen relationships, forge bonds, build families, communities.

And God is compassion. And we need compassion because we are not going to love everyone or everything, but we need to bestow upon everyone and everything the dignity and respect that we wish to receive and to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met and rights respected.

And God as we know from the Torah, God is also anger. And we need that anger, we need to be angry in the face of injustice and be motivated to go out and do something about it. We need to angry to call out sexism, and xenophobia, and Islamophobia, and racism, and anti-Semitism, and homophobia when we are seeing it, and we are seeing it these days. We need to be angry to be able to call out those who would seek to overturn us and our society.

And God of the Torah is insecurity. And we need insecurity, so that we can strive to grow, and learn, and not be content with how things are at any one moment, knowing that we have the potential to change, and become better people.

God embodies all of these things. We need to embody all of these things.

The God of the Torah is first and foremost a vulnerable God. A God who creates humans because God needs help to maintain what was created. A God who enters into covenant, a relationship with a people out of need for a partner and doesn’t want to and can’t be alone. A God who, over the course of the entire text, is trying to figure things out, and is influenced by humans just as much as humans are influenced by God.

The God of the Torah is a God who allows us to accept our vulnerabilities, our limitations, and know that it is ok. God is a model for personal growth, for teshuvah, for change. Our spiritual roadblock comes from when we imagine God to be perfect, to be whole, to be omnipotent. Because we know that does not play out in reality. Things happen beyond our control.

So Rather than think of God as the answer. Think of God as the question, as the model for what is possible, for what can be.

God is a participle. A participle is not a completed action. It is, as the grammar book says, a person or thing conceived as being in the continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity. Continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity.

This is the essence of the spiritual life. This is why I don’t believe in atheism. Because, I would posit, we all do have a sense of this larger calling, need for movement, desire to make meaning and transcend ourselves. We have the desire to change. That’s why we are here. And change on all levels. At the personal level, the communal level and even at the divine level, change is possible. If anything, change is the one constant.

We inhabit the spiritual through the actions we take: cultivating a sense of gratitude, being mindful of where you are and what you are doing, showing compassion to those in need, extending kindness to fellow humans and creatures, caring for the earth, standing up for injustice, deepening relationships, working on ourselves. Spiritual living is not about a divine being, it’s about being divine.

This is what lies at the heart of the universe. Not some particle that will tie it all together, with a neat and tidy name, but the participle that allows for movement, for new ways of being. We need the spiritual life. I know that is why you are here. But I know also that some people know that as well, but aren’t here, for reasons that we ultimately need to leave behind.

So use the term God, or don’t. But don’t use the term atheist. Because you are not. Affirm your religiosity. Live your spirituality. Reach beyond yourself.

Imagine yourself in the divine image, and therefore, just be a participle.

Kol Nidre 5776: “What is Your Purpose? The Time is Now.”

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

If not now, if not now, tell me when.

I don’t know if I am much into signs. I understand the concept of synchronicity—how the proximity of certain events in time can perhaps provide us with an opportunity for examination or meaning making. But in the idea of a sign from God, like the 10 plagues from the Exodus story as signs of divine power and human injustice, I don’t usually buy it. I don’t usually base my actions on signals from beyond, or wait to make decisions until I get a sign from above.

But I’ll share with you something, not a sign per se, but something came up that made me think. I have recently completed an 18 program in mindfulness and embodied Jewish spirituality. It was a study program for Jewish clergy—rabbis and cantors—which was comprised of retreats, text study, yoga and meditation.

At the end of our second retreat, we did an exercise. All that week we were invited to write prayers and place them anonymously in a box. At the end of the week, for a closing circle, we passed around the cards and we all read one of the prayers.

After we read the prayer, we went into the center of the circle where we picked another card. The faculty had prepared these laminated sheets, and on the back was a phrase from during the course of our studies. When it was my turn, I picked my card, and it read “et ratzon.”et ratzon

Now I know this was random, and I know I wasn’t the only one to get this phrase. There were only a few phrases and about 40 of us. But it was the one I chose, based on the randomness of where I stood in the circle and where we started the process of reading prayers. And so I took it not as a sign, per se, but as a kavannah intended for me, to reflect on and try to connect with. Et ratzon.

Et Ratzon means a desirable time, a good time, an acceptable time. It is a phrase from Psalm 69:14:

Vaani tefilati lecha adonai et ratzon Elohim berav hasecha aneyni beemet yishecha

But as for me, let my prayer be to you God at an acceptable time; God in the greatness of your lovingkindness answer me, in the truth of your salvation.

It is a phrase that may be familiar to us, we will sing it tomorrow as part of the Mah Tovu prayer. The Mah Tovu is a collection of four verses from the Bible, put together to create one coherent whole, a prayer for our sacred space. It’s inclusion is meant to be an introduction to prayer. We want our prayer to be worthwhile, heard, answered. The verse is included in Mah Tovu based on its traditional interpretation, found in the Talmud, for what et ratzon, a desirable time, means. For the rabbis in the Talmud it is the time that the community gets together for prayer. That is, if you pray with a community, you are more apt to have your prayer heard. That is et ratzon.

That is a nice interpretation of course. But to be standing there, holding a card with the phrase et ratzon, excerpted from the rest of the verse, I wasn’t thinking about communal prayer. I was thinking, what is et ratzon to me? What is a desirable time?

But first, we can ask, what is ratzon? What is desire?

For the term ratzon is interesting. It means desirable, and it also means will. That which we will, is what we desire. We come across it in our liturgy. Ken yehi ratzon we say sometimes in the liturgy, may it be your will—another way of saying amen. At the end of the Amidah, after we opened up our hearts in prayer, we say Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’go-ali. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heartbe acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer. And we will come across this word tomorrow, when we read the haftarah from the book of Isaiah, the powerful and challenging words, is this the fast I desire? Isaiah in the voice of God challenging the Israelites who observe ritually but neglect to act ethically and morally. A fast desirable to God. Ratzon.

These examples have a common element to them, that they are prayers less about our desire, our ratzon, but about God’s desire, God’s ratzon, God’s will. May it be your will, may it be your desire God—this thing that I have just asked for. May my prayers be desirable to you, may it be what you want to hear, may they be accepted, may they be good, may they be understood.

But we are also taught that we have a will, a desire. And to understand that, we need to turn our attention not to this holiday, but another.

Today is called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the Torah, the day is referred to in the plural—Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements. This quirk of biblical Hebrew leads to an interesting commentary, a pun on the Hebrew, because you can read Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements (from the root kaper, atone) as Yom K-Purim—a day like Purim (the prefix k- means “like” or “as”)

But, it seems, there can not be two holidays so far off in their intention and practice. Purim is a day of pure celebration. We recall the story of the biblical book of Esther, which tells of an averted plot to destroy the Jews. We celebrate by eating and drinking, sometimes to excess, and dressing up in costume. Frivoloity, satire and fun are the themes of the day, and so it is not uncommon to dedicate the observance of Purim to jokes, fun and games.

Yom Kippur meanwhile, is about seriousness. The tunes are more often than not somber. The themes of sin and atonement are heavy. It is a long day, full of multiple services and times for reflection.

But on further reflection, there are elements of the two days that are very similar.

On both days we dress up. Purim it is outlandish costume, we pretend to be something we are not in order to demonstrate the topsy turvyness of the story. And dressing up is fun. On Yom Kippur we also dress up. It is customary to wear white, and not wear leather or other luxuries. Even not eating and drinking is a form of dressing up, for we are pretending on this day, or rehearsing, for death. Again, the topsy turvy ness of life.

Both Purim and Yom Kippur are days of risk. The Esther story with the plotting of destruction, and the near aversion of that destruction, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as Jews. Yom Kippur, with its reminders of life and death in the balance, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as humans.

But the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur may come from that important question, of what is our purpose?

The details of the Purim story are perhaps known to us. It is about the Jewish community of Persia, under King Ahasuerus. The king dismisses the Queen, Vashti, then holds a beauty pageant of sorts to select a new queen. Esther, a Jew, enters and wins, becoming the new queen.

For a variety of reasons, the king’s advisor, Haman, hates the Jews who live in the kingdom and convinces the king to order a decree for their destruction. The date of the destruction is held by lottery (thus pur, or lot) and as the day draws near, Mordechai, Esthers’ cousin and guardian, implores her to use her standing as queen to plea on behalf of the Jews to the King.

Esther, however, is hesitant. She is scared and rightfully so—the law of the castle is that no one may appear before the King unless he or she is summoned. If one does so, and the king does not look favorably upon it by pointing the golden scepter at you, then the punishment is death.

Mordechai’s response to Esther is perhaps one of the most profound verses of Torah. He says to her, “for if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish;” and then, this powerful phrase, “and who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for usch a time as this?”

Who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this. Perhaps this is the sole reason you are here.

And who knows, perhaps you, my friends, have come to your kingdom for such a time as this.

The Book of Esther is a unique book of the Bible, for it is the only book that does not contain God as an actor. It is less about what God does, but about what we do. It is a unique book because it asks us to focus on not what we may be called upon to do by another power, but what we care called upon to do by our humanity.

And so as we gather on Yom Kippur, Yom Kippurim, a day like Purim, we must ask ourselves that same question. The most important question we can ask ourselves. It is less about figuring out what God’s will is. Rather it is figuring out what our will is. What are we here to do? What are we here to contribute? What is our ratzon, our desire, our will. What do we have to contribute? That is the question we must wrestle with on Yom Kippur. Because we all have something to contribute.

A Hasidic master, the Netivot Shalom, offers the following teaching, in the name of the Ari, one of the great kabbalists of Jewish tradition.

from the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. No one can fulfill the mission of the other, to repair that which is required of another. Thus, even the least person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly.

So that is your question this Yom Kippur. What is your unique mission? What are you here for? As Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” We each have a reason for being. And it is part of our role to find out what that is.

For if we do not hold out the possibility and the reality that we have a mission in our life, that we have a purpose, a ratzon, then we deny an aspect of our humanity. Again, the Netivot Shalom:

The principle that emerges from this teaching was expressed by our Master of Kobrin: the worst thing is when a Jew feels that “by him all is right, just how it is”. The problem is when we become so accustomed to the course of our lives that we make peace with how things are. At least regarding sins we feel some regret and movement toward teshuvah. But, when we make peace with our situation we can never turn from it; we get used to our situation and have no aspiration to change, to raise ourselves out of the routine of our lives.

If we make peace with our situation we do not grow. If we say that is just how it is it can never change. Part of our role is to be dissatisfied with the way things are, and find out the way that we can make it different. This is our ratzon, our desire, our will. It is our answer to Mordecai’s question. Who knows, perhaps you are here for this very purpose.

And this response to this question, is one of creativity. In other words, we ask ourselves, what is our creative response to life?

I’ve shared some wisdom from Brene Brown in the past, from this bimah, last year in fact, on vulnerability. On how vulnerability is, while uncomfortable, a key to growth. She has continued with her work, and has a new book out, and recently I heard another interview with her, in which she was speaking of creativity.

In the interview, she dismissed the idea that there are some people who are creative and other people who are not. Rather, she said, there are those who act on their creativity and those who do not. And to not act on one’s creative impulse is harmful. “The only unique contribution we will make in this world,” she said, “will be born of creativity.”

We sometimes don’t act on our creative impulse because of shame, another one of Brown’s research topics. That we feel shame because we do not feel that we are creative, it makes us vulnerable. But this is how we add to the world.

“You are a born maker,” Brown says, “and we need what you can bring to us, because you are the only one who can bring it.”

We as unique individuals are the only one who can offer what we can offer, because it is uniquely ours. Life depends on you offering it. We all have something to bring, a creative impulse in response to life. So what do you have to bring?

There is a story of a king who had a prized possession, a diamond. He kept it protected in a special case, only taking it out on special occasions. On one occasion, he took it out only to discover a small nick, a scratch in the side of the diamond. He was completely distraught, and didn’t know what to do.

He went to everyone in his court, and asked if there was anyone who could restore the diamond. Many examined it, and tried, but could not find a way to make the diamond whole again.

He then went out into the kingdom, to every town and hamlet, asking if anyone would be able to restore the diamond. Everywhere he went, people either didn’t want to try to fix it, because they thought they might ruin it more, or simply didn’t know what to do.

Finally he came to a town on the far outskirts of the kingdom. Again he made his request. No one knew what to do. Until he came to a house, on the outskirts of the town. A small simple home, and home to a craftsman. He examined the diamond, then took it into the back of his shop.

He was gone for quite sometime, finally emerging from the back. “Well,” said the king, “did you fix it?” The artist handed the king the diamond. And there, etched on the side, where the scratch was, was a beautiful engraving of a rose. A rose, that incorporated the scratch in its stem.

What is your purpose? What can you bring to this world? What is your creative contribution to this life. Can you, like the craftsman, see an opportunity, respond with creativity, and do what mission in life is to do? Maybe he was brought to the kingdom for a time such as this.

And when we ask this question of ourselves, when we try to discern our mission, when we suggest, like Mordechai to Esther, that maybe this is why we are here, we recognize that others have that same charge. And while we seek out our gifts, we can also recognize those gifts in others.

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we read: “He [Ben Azzai] would also say: Do not scorn any person, and do not discount any thing. For there is no one who has not their hour, and no thing that has not its place.” (4:3)

Everyone has something to give. Everyone has their hour. We seek to recognize this in ourselves. And we seek to recognize this in others. And when we all recognize that we have something to give, and we act on it, and offer it, then we are all enriched, we are all uplifted. What is your ratzon?

Which brings me back to my first question, what is et ratzon? What is the desirable time? There is no one who has not their hour. When it et ratzon? It is now. The time is now.

Now is the time to begin to change

Now is the time to offer your unique contribution.

If we understand ratzon to be that which we are called upon to do, then every time is the right time. Every time is the desirable time. For as we learn from Esther, it is not always finding our ratzon and going out to create it, although that is certainly one part, it is finding ourselves in a particular circumstance and rising to the occasion. It is the ability to see the life that we have and the circumstances we are given and transcend them, to remake them. It is responding creatively to life.

Et Ratzon—the time is now.

As Rabbi Hillel put it, also in Pirke Avot, “if not now, when?”

As the contemporary singer songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it:

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

If not now, if not now, tell me when.

This Yom Kippur, we commit to find our mission, find our purpose. Because each one of us has one. And that is, how are you going to creatively contribute to this life. We need it. We need your contribution. And we need it now.

Kol Nidre 5775: “We are Vulnerable”

There is a section of the Yom Kippur liturgy that is so esoteric, so challenging, so removed from our own contemporary day to day life, and so removed from our contemporary conceptions of spirituality, that we do not even do it here at TBH.

Yes, I know, you are thinking…the services are so long already, what is it that we are possibly leaving out? Well you don’t know from long.

This section, found in traditional liturgy and found in our mahzor as well albeit in a contemporary, interpretive format is called the avodah service. Avodah means service, worship, and this is a recounting of the atonement ritual in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The traditional liturgy retells the story about how the High Priest would on this most sacred of days dress in special refinements, enter into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred and central spot in the Temple—entry to which for anyone else was forbidden—and perform the sacrificial rites of atonement.

Wrestling with these ancient rituals is nothing new; the conflict is as old as Judaism itself. Reading the Torah we are introduced to a system that is so far removed from how we understand spirituality. The way to connect to the divine, as told in the Torah, is through a system of proscribed sacrifices offered by a hereditary hierarchical class of priests on behalf of the people. You want to say thanks to God, you kill a goat. You want to ask God for something, you kill a goat. You want to apologize for a wrongdoing, you kill a goat. You want to celebrate Shabbat, you kill a goat.

The rabbis of the Talmud also had a struggle. Living in the generation that immediately followed the destruction of the Temple, they needed a means to reconcile what the Torah ordained to a new societal reality. How to worship God in the absence of sacrifices and no Temple?

We have words.

Our words, our prayers, take the place of sacrifices. It was the rabbis who instituted the system of prayers that we have now, and specifically the 3 prayer services which make up traditional Jewish practice. And each of these services—evening, morning and afternoon—corresponds to a specific sacrifice. Thus the original sacrificial framework is maintained, albeit in different ways.

On Shabbat and festivals there would be an additional sacrifice to mark the specialness of the day. This additional sacrifice was called the “Musaf” offering—literally meaning “additional.” Usually it contains a second Amidah (standing silent prayer) and some additional prayers unique to the day. It is within this section of the service that we find the Avodah service mentioned.

Contemporary Reform and Reconstructionist liturgy does away with Musaf either in whole or in part for both aesthetic and theological reasons. Theologically, a service that specifically recalls the sacrificial system (and traditionally included prayers for its reinstitution) feel far removed from the contemporary experience. We don’t hope for the Temple’s return. While we cleave to spirituality and seek a closeness with the divine, we have found other means to do this. And aesthetically, removing a theologically problematic section also results in a shorter service, and may, based on your inclination, flow better.

Because of the importance of the day, we maintain some semblance of Musaf on Yom Kippur. Some of the unique prayers that are found in this section are retained or at least alluded to. And it is here that we find, traditionally, the Avodah service. And it is here, that we struggle with its meaning.

The story, the ritual, goes like this: the High Priest, after ritually washing and trading in his regular garments for special white ones, takes a bull that will be sacrificed on behalf of himself and his family. He then takes two goats and would cast lots over them—one is designated “for Azazel” and the other designated “for God.” The bull would be sacrificed, its blood sprinkled as the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant. He would then emerge and he would sacfirice the goat designated for God. The other goat, upon which the High Priest would confess all of the sins of the community on its head, would be sent out to the wilderness. All the while he would recite words of prayer and confession including pronouncing the name of God, which was only spoken on that day by that person. We also tell this story during our Torah reading on Yom Kippur.

On the one hand, good riddance. Who wants to sacrifice goats? Who wants to turn over our spiritual work to others. On the other hand, how beautiful. How simple. To find an easy course of action.

We of course don’t follow this ritual these days. But, like the High Priest of old, we abstain from our daily life, we dress in white clothing, we enter into the holy sanctuary. But where are the goats?

And that is the scary part. For while we are the High Priest, and this is the Temple, we are also the goats for the offering. As our ancestors brought their sacrifices, so too do we bring our offerings, our selves, our souls, to bear on this Yom Kippur.

The Torah teaches that sacrifices were supposed to be tamim, perfect. Whole. An animal without blemish. Anything less was unacceptable. But who among us is whole? Who is not without blemish?

Leonard CohenWe struggle with this; how can we then offer ourselves? There is a contemporary commentary that speaks to this. A song by Leonard Cohen called Anthem, and the beginning of the chorus goes like this,

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

We rang the bell, last week at Rosh Hashanah when we blew the shofar. We announced this call to repentance. We called this gathering to order. We stirred within ourselves this awakening to heshbon hanefesh, to soul examination, to introspection. And now we come with our offering. But we are not tam, we are not whole, we are not perfect. And as Cohen sings, forget it.

Forget it. For as humans we are tam in our own way. Not perfect in deeds, but perfect in intention. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read, “You shall be wholehearted before Adonai your God.” Can we bring our whole selves? Can we be honest with ourselves? Can we accept our imperfections? That is what it means to be wholehearted—not to be perfect, but to be honest, and open, and willing to look deep inside.

The rabbis of the Talmud already understood the sacrificial system as a large metaphor. The physical performance of the rituals was confined to the past, but the meaning behind them had a message for the present—theirs and ours. And they read deep meaning into the intricacies of the Temple and the sacrificial system, they had to, it was contained within the holy words of the Torah.

In the Holy of Holies, that the High Priest entered, was stored the Ark. We have the legend of the Holy Ark—the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movies. That the Israelites were told to construct an ark that would house the tablets of the covenant—the 10 commandments like we have adorned on our ark—these would be put in this special receptacle and carried at the front of the Israelites as the moved forward, eventually finding a permanent home in the Temple.

In Exodus we are told the dimensions of the ark. It is 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits. And what is the significance there? The half-cubit. There is imperfection built into the very fabric of the Ark—it wasn’t built to whole numbers, but to a fraction, a part of a whole, and this our tradition teaches is so show us that to be fractured, to be a part, to lack perfection and wholeness is part of the normal condition. So much so that the sacred tablets of the covenant are said to be contained within a vessel that is, in a way, less than whole.

Forget your perfect offering, Cohen sings. We don’t have one. We only have ourselves.

Ring the bell that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

According to the story, in the Ark that was built around the half-cubit were stored the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain, the tablets inscribed with the 10 commandments.

But these tablets, as we remember from the Torah story, were not the first tablets that Moses brought down, but a replacement set. And what happened to the first? When Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets after communing with God and receiving the Torah, he found the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf. And what did Moses do? In his anger, before he destroyed the calf and before he thinned out the ranks of the community of the sinners, he threw down the tablets on the ground, and they broke into many pieces.

But what happened to those pieces?

Jewish tradition teaches that the Israelites gathered them up, and put them into the holy Ark. The Ark contained both the whole pieces of the covenant, and the broken pieces. What travelled with the Israelites at the front of their procession, what was treated with such care and carried by a special group of priests, what found a resting place in the most central, the most sacred part of the Temple contained within it both wholeness and brokenness. Contained within the Ark, built with fractions, was imperfection, struggle, conflict and sadness.

There is a crack in everything. Including us. Especially us.

And what does it mean to be cracked? It does not just mean to be imperfect, though it does. It does not just mean that there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, though it does. What it truly means to be cracked is to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable. For we are here on Yom Kippur not just to acknowledge were we have sinned, and how we can do better. But we are here on Yom Kippur to acknowledge that we are vulnerable. That is the essence of the human condition. Not to be sinful, but to be vulnerable. And we must embrace our vulnerability.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the work of Brene Brown. She has a few bestselling books, and some very popular TED talks. I heard her first on the wonderful podcast, On Being with Krista Tippet, an examination of issues of faith and values. She does her work in the field of shame and vulnerability and has over the years conducted extensive interviews and research into how people perceive and relate to issues of shame—or low-self worth—and vulnerability.

Vulnerability, she notes, is often confused with weakness. But this is a dangerous myth. It is not weakness. Vulnerablity, she defines, is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

How many of us, then, are not vulnerable? Think back to your past year—when were you most vulnerable? In her research, Brown asks people to finish the sentence, “Vulnerability is…” How would you finish this sentence?

We come here each year and recite a litany of sins—the vidui—in which we confess our sins collectively. What was it that we did or didn’t do last year that made a negative impact on the world, ourselves, others? We rise and we say it in the plural because we have all done these things—maybe not each one of us all of them, but all of us some of them and so we say it in the plural, to provide cover and support for those confessing, and to acknowledge that we as a group have transgressed.

This vidui: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi—we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have deceived—these are the things we have done, our actions. And we should also stand here on Yom Kippur, the day in which we are most raw, the day in which we confess our sins, the day in which we are judged and judge ourselves, and confess our vulnerabilities.

Yi, de, di, di, di, yidededididi, yidededididi

We have a friend dying we don’t know what to say when we visit.

We have an unpopular opinion.

We started a new project and we don’t know if we will succeed.

We wrote something on our blog.

We lost our job.

We let down our kids.

We are in the hospital with cancer, or meningitis, or a bad back.

We went back to school after 20 years.

We don’t know how to ask for help.

We ask for help and don’t know what the response will bring.

We are minorities in our communities.

We fell down and it took longer to heal, so we know we are getting older.

We fell in love.

Vulnerability is feeling, Brown writes, and “to believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.” These are instances in which we feel, we are exposed, yes, uncomfortable, maybe, but not weak. Simply vulnerable. Simply in a place of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

Think of how vulnerable we are even right now in this moment. We are fasting. We wear white, we open up our mouths and sing in public. We speak words we may not understand or agree with. We see people and we don’t know how to act. Yom Kippur is one big act of vulnerability. But showing up on Yom Kippur is not a sign of weakness. To lay oneself bare on this day is not weakness. Yom Kippur is about vulnerability. Yom Kippur is about uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

But how does it feel to be vulnerable? Not good. It can be uncomfortable. It can be scary. Brown noted in her research that a word that kept coming up when she asked how it felt to be vulnerable, after asking about vulnerable situations, is “naked.” Felt “naked.”

There are a few things in our tradition which when we teach them to our Hebrew school kids we risk juvenile humor. Balaam and his talking donkey for one, when it is translated, as it was when I was in Hebrew school, as Balaam’s talking ass.

And another is Adam and Eve, naked in the garden

The famous naked people in our tradition are Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, the dwellers in the garden of Eden, tadam and evehe first humans. “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” A bit later on they meet the snake, and you know what happens next. The snake tempts them into eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, one of the two trees that God had forbidden them to eat. They then realize that they are naked, and cover up.

When they eat of the Tree, their eyes were open. Their nakedness was exposed. For in that moment, Adam and Eve exposed their vulnerablitity.

There is a crack in everything. Adam and Eve discovered themselves to be exposed. And so do we. We too are naked and exposed. We too are vulnerable. So now what?

Ring the bell that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Because ultimately, our vulnerability brings us to renewed strength. That is how the light gets in. That is one thing Brene Brown speaks of in her work, that through her research the vulnerability is how we get to innovation, creativity and change. Our willingness to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there, even if it hurts, even if it is hard, even if it is uncomfortable, is what allows us to grow and achieve great things. If we can be honest with ourselves, and acknowledge when we are vulnerable, then we can transcend it. Then we can make real connections with one another and become the people we hope to be.

She says, “Vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up I think those are the most powerful meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are.”

Adam and Eve needed to realize they were naked. Their realization was not comfortable. That interaction with God could not have been more uncomfortable, as we read in Genesis:

They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”  Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?”  The man said, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”  And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”

Not a comfortable situation.

But once they realized they were naked, they had awareness of their vulnerability, and were then able to grow. There is a fascinating word play in the Torah. The snake, who is usually made out to be the bad guy, is described as arumim, or “shrewd” or “clever.” The snake knows things. He knows things about the tree, he knows what will happen if you eat the tree, he knows about Adam and Eve and the nature of human curiosity. So while on the one hand you can say he was “clever,” perhaps the way to understand this word is “aware.”

When Adam and Eve are described in the Torah as naked, the word in Hebrew is arum. Arumim, arum. The words for “awareness” and “naked” are sound-wise related.

Nakedness leads to awareness.

Vulnerability leads to awareness.

Awareness leads to growth.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Adam and Eve saw their vulnerability and with that they were able to move forward and do great things. Exile from the Garden wasn’t punishment—it was the necessary next step. For the world was not created in the Garden, the world was created outside the Garden. That is where we see the all of life—discord, sickness, pain, death yes, but also love, connection, community, harmony, compassion, mercy, justice, peace, friendship.

Not only is understanding and acknowledging our vulnerabilities not weakness, it is the key to moving forward, like Adam and Eve.

Vulnerability is, as Brown writes, the seat of courage. The cracks let the light in.

Another time we see “naked” in our tradition is in our morning liturgy, birchot hashachar, the series of morning blessings we recite; blessings meant to evoke each of the little steps it takes for us to get going in the morning, like the checklists we make for our children so they do everything they need to do to get to school on time. And one of these blessings is we thank God for “clothing the naked.”

This interesting image, God clothing the naked.  Yes, we get up and we put on clothes and so this is a prayer of gratitude. And we are mindful of those who do not have clothes to put on unless we do something about it and so this is a prayer of justice.

But there is a deeper spiritual significance here. Why would we reach out to God to clothe our nakedness? Why are we thankful for this step? Because we are all naked. We are all exposed, and open. It is an acknowledgement of our spiritual nakedness, for to be naked, is to be vulnerable. And so this is a prayer to cover our nakedness, to move beyond our vulnerabilities with greater insight and renewed life.

This is why we should not fear our vulnerabilities. This is why vulnerability is not a weakness. The question is, can we take our brokenness, our uncertainty, our exposure, and make it into something great? This is the great spiritual drama that plays out on Yom Kippur. Not just acknowledging sin, or mistakes—but our vulnerabilities. And not just making the commitment to do better, to make amends—but to transcend our vulnerabilities to a place of greater strength. And it is not just acknowledging our vulnerabilities of the past year, but to embrace them in the coming year. To find our ways to be vulnerable, to put ourselves out there, to expose ourselves and be exposed, and see what happens.

“The ability to hold something we have done or haven’t done up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive,” Brown says, “It is uncomfortable, but it is adaptive.”

That is the drama of this day now. And that’s the drama of this day then. That is the drama of the goats. The two goats, for Azazel and for God, that were used during the ancient Yom Kippur ritual.

The goat “for Azazel” is the sins. It is the transgression we wish to get rid of. We want to send them out into the spiritual wilderness and never see it again. We want our transgressions and our past poor behaviors and bad habits to go off and die in the wilderness like the goat, never to be seen again.

The goat “for God” is where we feel vulnerable. But we don’t send that away, we acknowledge it. And we send it up to God. God doesn’t want our sins. God wants our vulnerabilities. And what does it mean to send it up to God? It means we are humble, that we seek meaning, and we seek connection.

We use this time to give voice not only to our failings, but to our vulnerabilities. Because if we articulate them, if we can understand them. And if we understand them, we can grow from them. We look through the cracks at the light streaming through.

Anne Lamott has a wonderful new book, Help. Thanks. Wow. It is her reflection on prayer. She divides prayer into essentially three categories: Help, petition; Thanks, gratitude; Wow, awe. And in it, in the “Help” section, she describes a practice she has of writing notes to God and sticking them in a box. These are her petitions, her asks. And, while she doesn’t categorize it as such, her vulnerabilities.  This is part of her spiritual practice, her prayer practice, like putting notes in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

For we tend to think of prayer only as the words in the book you are holding right now. Or the songs we sing. That is a form of prayer. Opening your heart to whatever needs to enter, that is prayer. Opening your mouth and letting whatever needs to come out, that is prayer. Singing is prayer, movement is prayer. And writing is a form of prayer.

She writes, about her writing notes to God into a box:

The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn through pain that some of the things we thought were castles turn out to be prisons, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take. The response probably won’t be from God, in the sense of hearing a deep grandfatherly voice, or via skywriting, or in the form of an LED lit airplane aisle at your feet. But the mail will come, or an e-mail, or the phone will ring; unfortunately, it might not be later today, ideally right after lunch, but you will hear back. You will come to know.

You will come to know.

This is what happens when we put it out there, when we are exposed, when we take the risk. This is living with and through our vulnerabilities. When we acknowledge them, when we embrace them, when we articulate them, then we will come to know.

We the High Priests, will come to know. We, in the Temple, will come to know. We, the goats, will come to know.

We will come to know that we come here imperfect but wholehearted. We will come to know that our vulnerabilities make us who we are, and are our source of courage and strength, and will help determine the next step to take.

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.