The Six Things I Have Learned About Life Since Last Year’s Election (Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778)

Well these are interesting times we are living in.

It is always noteworthy how the High Holidays come in the fall, when so many of our other renewals and new starts take hold. In nature we transition from summer to fall, and are harvesting the last of our summer bounty. The salmon are running, making their way upstream to spawn and start a new turn of their lifecycle. Students, young and old, return to school after summer break. Baseball season winds down as football season begins.

And I did not notice until last year how closely the High Holidays fall to our American election cycle.

Our election day falls about 6 weeks after these holidays, and so depending on the year, our thoughts come fall are also on our governance, on our elected leadership, and the different visions they set out for our country. As we gather to make these new commitments to ourselves, our traditions, and our communities here within these walls at this season, we also, as a country, prepare to make new commitments as a nation as we prepare to elect our new leaders.

And because of this, the reality that we are in at the High Holidays can change so drastically just a short time after.

And so it goes without saying, that as we gather on this Rosh Hashanah we are indeed living in a different world. Last year at this time the election was close at hand, and we perhaps had different ideas about where we would be this year. For some, a welcome change, for others not. But in any event it warrants a reexamination of where we see ourselves in our world.

Every year at this time, Erev Rosh Hashanah, it is an opportunity for us to reflect and review. As I call upon you to do this work, so too do I do it myself. And I have the privilege and opportunity to share with you the results of some of that reflection. I have stood before you and shared different lessons I have learned about life, about teshuvah, from experiences from the past year.

Maybe you have been keeping score, but these include what I have learned from having a child, from having surgery, from having a backhoe hit my house, from me hitting a car in a parking lot. From Legos, from the Seahawks, from a garden. And last year, from losing a binder full of 18 months of work. (Which I might add, no one has returned to me.)

And so tonight, looking over the year I have had since these past High Holidays, I present to you the six things I have learned since last year’s election.

We Can Not Predict the Future. Yes, the polls were wrong. So many of the polls were wrong. I remember thinking in the days before the election confident that my candidate would win, based on what the polls were saying and how the path to victory seemed clear, or that the paths that would lead to defeat seemed that much more difficult. News outlets posited scenarios, and most of them went one way. But as we watched the returns come in, seeing the result that I along with many others did not anticipate, a new understanding set in.

And that understanding is not necessarily that the polls were wrong. That is a reaction, to go back over the data and methodology, to see what was overlooked. But rather what this should come to teach us is that we humans are unpredictable. Life is unpredictable. Yet we crave certainty, we crave control. We want to break down human behavior to data points. But we can not be broken down into data points. We are too complex, too irrational for that.

We remember this not only in times when polls are proven wrong, but we remember this every day, in our interactions and relationships. It is what we are meant to particularly remember at the High Holidays. Its why we seek forgiveness for our imperfect, unpredictable, irrational selves. And why we should grant forgiveness as well.

We Do Cheshbon Hanefesh on Many Levels. The work that we do on the High Holidays is cheshbon hanefesh, roughly “soul accounting.” We take an inventory of what is inside, what is going on for us. In the classic sense, we look at our character traits, or middot. Where have we done well in the past year, and where can we do better.

And while we often think about this work in the context of repentance, of turning away from bad deeds, it is more than that. To do cheshbon hanefesh is to get a better sense of self, to understand who we are and how we operate in the world. There may be some traits we want to highlight and augment, there may be others we wish to downplay and control, but all of them make up who we are, and the process brings us to a better understanding of who we are.

Since this election we have been asked to do this on multiple levels. Not only to know our spiritual make up, but our societal make up as well. We are challenged to examine who we are in the world, and how certain traits, certain identities operate in the larger whole. We have been asked to examine privilege and power, when we hold it and when we don’t. And the act of doing so—of doing this type of cheshbon hanefesh—allows us to more clearly work to create a society that is just, equitable, and free from oppression.

And this examination again reminds us of the complexities we hold as people, that we are beyond labels, just as we are beyond poll numbers. We have intersecting identities. We hold privilege in some aspects of our identities and not in others. And we honor this complexity within ourselves and others for it is this complexity that makes us human, and allows us to see each other as whole, as fallible, and therefore as worthy of forgiveness.

Don’t Just Resist, Persist. Resistance is the name of the game these days, as those who seek to advance an agenda not represented by the current administration claim the mantle of resistance, of opposition, of fighting back. It is, regardless of the specific issues or the specific make up of the government, the common trope throughout history—of standing up to an unjust power structure and demanding change.

Resistance is part of our sacred traditions as Jews. Abraham stood up to God, challenging God on a plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorroah with the most chutzpahdik Torah verse there is: “Shall not the God of justice act justly?” Moses stood up to Pharaoh, demanding freedom for his people after decades of oppression under a tyrannical regime. Our sacred narratives are one of resistance.

But with resistance comes persistence, for we know that movements are not built overnight, one single act of challenge is more often than not ineffective. We need to persist. Abraham would not take no for an answer, and argued with God, bargaining to save the cities if just 10 righteous people could be found in them. Moses returned time and time again to Pharaoh, making the same demand over and over again, each accompanied by a different plague, which, we could posit, were 10 acts of political demonstration.

And so too with personal change. We may resist ways we have been in the past, resist bad habits and behaviors that ultimately we wish to change. But change comes not just with resistance, with the idea of change, and not just with isolated acts, but with persistence. With the knowledge that we have the power to change, and that change comes when we are able to continue a practice that is sustainable.

“Go big or go home” is an idiom that has entered our language in the past few decades. But what we need is go big or go small. We need those grand gestures, the big visions. But we also need the small actions, the reachable goals. Organize that big demonstration, and call your legislators. Have a grand vision of how you want to be, but make that change a little bit each day.

Be Prepared to be Surprised. For many, the results of the election last November were a surprise. And it seems like there is a new surprise every day since last November. But that is the nature of life, to be surprised. Life is surprising us every day, sometimes for good, and sometimes for bad. And this fact is both the greatest joy and greatest challenge of life.

The Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as a sorrow or a joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate our shared humanity.”

We must open up our hearts to surprise, for it can change us. And we must open up our hearts to the possibility to be surprised, for surprise may come even when and from whom we least expect it. Our challenge is not to accept how things are as a fait accompli, but rather as the status quo from which we have the ability to change. And even when the surprise is not expected or welcome, we learn to grow and persevere as well.

One of the greatest gifts we give to ourselves is the gift of anavah, of humility, the acceptance that we do not know all the answers, that we have the ability to be wrong and to grow from that being wrong, that we are sometimes at the mercy of forces beyond us, and we have to live with that fact. That is what allows us to tap into the meaning of these days. The overall theme of the High Holidays is that we have the power to change, that our fate is not set in stone, we can remake ourselves and others can remake themselves. Who we are at one point in our lives does not mean we are that way in another. The same is true for others. And one of the greatest gifts we can give to another is to honor their ability to change and, perhaps, surprise us.

Find What is Common Through Difference. It is cliché at this point to say we are divided. We withdraw into our corners, tune into the news sources that validate our opinions, and spend our time with like-minded people. Our political situation, especially since the election, exacerbates this condition through word, and deed, and tweet, with political divisions becoming deeper and deeper leading to real alienation between people.

Some divisions may never be breeched, and I do not think we need to engage with those who would not seek to engage with us, or profess a level of hate so as to dehumanize others. Oppression is real. Abuse of power is real. And there are those who base their worldview on these premises.

But for those others, with whom we may share merely a difference of opinion, it may be worthwhile to continually remind ourselves of our commonalities. To remind ourselves that we all have common desires, and needs, and even shared values. That we share a common past, and a common future. And our commitment to these commonalities, to relationship, to community, should be more powerful than these disagreements.

I raise this as a concern especially around the Jewish community. There is trouble within Jewish communities—made more and more stark since the election perhaps—as more and more there are litmus tests being applied as to who can be in and who can be out. This is deeply disturbing to me, both when lines are being drawn, and especially when lines are drawn artificially. When an opinion is projected on another to bolster one’s own. We Jews can and must be able to weather our own internal political divisions—there is too much at stake for Jewish community and Jewish continuity. I say this broadly, and I say this about Olympia. Jewish community is complex and messy because humans are complex and messy. But for the same reasons, it is able to change and adapt. It is not one thing because we are not one thing. And to separate oneself from community, because others share a different opinion, and to exclude others from community because they share a different opinion, is detrimental and does not allow ourselves to learn and grow from each other. The community is greater than any one of us.

Make Eye Contact, Make Small Talk Following the election, a history professor from Yale named Timothy Snyder wrote a short yet powerful book, called On Tyranny. He draws 20 lessons from the history of the 20th century and applies them to today, lessons from what could be said to be the worst of the past 100 years and how we can learn from them.

The one chapter that stood out for me is number 12, “Make Eye Contact, and Make Small Talk.” He writes,

Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the 20th century, but memoirs of their victims all share the same tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany of the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the great Terror of 1937-1938, or of the purges in communist eastern Europe in the 1940s and 50s people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better. In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making ones is the first step new toward change.

This reflection by Snyder can also be understood as a new and important understanding of that famous verse in Leviticus 19, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This verse we usually read as a sweet sentiment, or as an ethical imperative. And though it is both of those things, the fact of loving your neighbor can also be all that stands between saving a life and losing it. And between saving or losing ourselves. For it must not be just love your neighbor. It’s know your neighbor. Protect your neighbor. Defend your neighbor. Shelter your neighbor. Provide sanctuary for your neighbor. We Jews, in our history, know this all too well.

And when we do this, we are living into the true spirit of Judaism itself—that no one person is more important that another because we were all descended from the same spiritual ancestor and are all made in the divine image. As Snyder writes: Affirm everyone. Affirm everyone.

This election has brought to light division, hatred, pain, supremacy in ways unprecedented in modern times. And it has given us an opportunity to confront what is wrong, identify a vision of what is right, and harness our power to set a course for ourselves and our communities towards an ideal of something new and better and greater than ourselves.

That is what we have committed to since last November. And that is what we commit to every year, at these most sacred days.


Living into Your Strengths: A Cheshbon Hanefesh Worksheet for the New Year

As we pass Selichot eve towards the High Holidays, the work of self-reflection and introspection becomes all that more immediate. The act of cheshbon hanefesh–of taking a self-inventory–is the spiritual work we are called to do at this season.

But it is not easy. Confronting what we did, or didn’t do, over the past year can be hard. Examining where we have come up short can lead to feelings of hurt, or guilt, or self-judgment.

But that is not the intention. The work should be liberating and self-affirming. I have therefore created this two-sided worksheet, which casts the work of cheshbon hanefesh in a positive framework. If you are so moved, I invite you to download it and use it to assist you in your path these High Holidays. May the work be reaffirming, revelatory and rewarding.

L’shanah tovah, a good and sweet new year.

Click on this link or the image below for a copy of the worksheet.


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777: “The 6 Things I Learned about Life (and Teshuvah) from Losing a Binder Full of 18 Months Worth of Work”

You may know, as I have shared with you in the past, that I recently completed a program of study called the Clergy Leadership Program through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. It was an 18 month program designed to give Jewish clergy—rabbis and cantors—the tools they need to develop spiritually, both individually and as communal leaders.

It was an amazing program in which we explored mindfulness meditation, embodied spiritual practice through yoga, deep experiences of prayer which made use of niggunim (wordless melodies), intentional silences and multilevel text study. The program was built around four retreats, and during the interim period of each retreat we would continue our study through weekly sessions with a study partner.

The text study aspects were fascinating and opened me to a library of work I had only tangentially been exposed to in the past—the work of the Hasidic masters. Deeply spiritual texts, relating to the inner workings of the soul, the immediate connection between humans and the divine, we studied these texts in depth on retreat, and it was these texts that formed the basis for our weekly study.For each of the three interim periods between retreats we would receive a packet of texts, dated, that we were to study each week with our partner. And even though all of our texts were sent to us electronically, I—semi-neo-luddite that I am—printed out all the texts and put them in a big binder. And in that binder I was able to make lots of notes, observations, my own commentaries. And it was this thick binder that served as my resource and study text.

As the program wound down, and all of us were looking for ways to continue the work and the practice we have developed, my partner from the third interim period (we had rotated each time) and I decided that we should continue even after the program was done. My partner, Andy Vogel, a Reform rabbi in the Boston area, and I found we had compatibility and a great study relationship, and so we committed that once the program ended we would continue our weekly study. And we have, and continue to do.

As for what we would study, we decided to just go back and study all the texts again, from the beginning. Over 18 months, 4 retreats and 3 6-month long interim periods we had amassed a lot of material to study and taken a lot of notes. So each week I would go upstairs to one of the classrooms, since I wanted to get out of my office, with my laptop and binder and Andy and I would Skype for an hour or so.

One day this spring, on my way upstairs, I realized I could not find my binder. I looked all over my office, the work space in the offices and the room where we usually meet. Nothing. Puzzled, I began to think what I might have done with it, until I started to piece together that the week before the classroom was set up for our annual Blintzapalooza event in which we raise money for local charities, including a large used book sale. The classroom was full of used books for sale, and because I wanted to not be in my office for these calls, I had squeezed into a spot on a table laden with used books and we did our study.

Long story short—although this already sounds like a long story—I slowly came to realize that what I had done was accidentally leave my binder in the room, and it had gotten swept up in the used book sale. With help from some of the volunteer Blintzapalooza organizers I made a call or two to the people who take all unsold books, but nothing panned out. And that is when it hit me, I had lost my binder.

Each year, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, as is my wont, I take the opportunity to share with you some reflections about this season, about the personal work we are called upon to do, about the paths our lives might have taken. And I have drawn from my own life’s experience from the past year. I have told you what I have learned from having a child, the backhoe hitting my house, brain surgery (twice), hitting a car in a parking lot, the Seahawks, Legos, serving as a congregational rabbi and others.

And so, as we are here on this time, a time of confession, a time of humility, a time of reflection, I would like to share with you the six things I have learned about life and teshuvah, from losing a binder full of 18 months worth of work.


All loss is real

Ok, it was a binder, but I would be lying to say I wasn’t heartsick over it when I realized what had happened. I was sad, angry, frustrated—common emotions that we encounter when we are dealing with loss. The work that I had put into the past 18 months that was captured in that binder was gone.

Now I don’t mean to equivocate the loss of a binder with the loss of a loved one, for example. There are losses that are much more devastating, much more difficult to manage, make a greater impact in our lives. That I understand. And of course people are more important that things, grief with personal loss is harder and I didn’t feel what I was feeling when I lost loved ones.

And at the same time, losses come to us big or small. We are always navigating loss. And no matter the scope, we must acknowledge them, and grieve them.

For the binder had come to represent something more to me. It wasn’t just a stack of papers neatly three-hole-punched and placed in a big three-ring binder. It was the culmination of a long course of study. It was the journey I had been on to deepen my own sense of personal spirituality. It was the next stage in my evolution and growth as a Jew and as a rabbi. It was the development of a process of self-discovery.

And so while I know that the physical binder wasn’t these things and these things still continue without the physical binder, losing it felt for a short time like a negation of these positive developments and a stumbling block to my continued path forward.

When we come to the High Holidays, and reflect back over our past year, we confront our losses, large and small. We look back at what we have gained over the past year, but we also look back at what we have lost. We are not the people we were a year ago and there is loss that is involved with that. Our plans, our vision for ourselves that we made last year may have changed, and we grieve what might have been.

And when we do teshuvah, the act of repentance, the biggest loss that we need to face is the loss of who we think we are. The work of teshuvah is the work of admitting that who we are now is not who we need to be. Or that who we have been is not a reflection of our true self. We get comfortable in a place, and the need is there to break out of that comfort.

We are here to change. And to change is to lose. And with loss, comes grief.


Forgive yourself

Yes, it was my fault. I know that it was my fault that I left my notebook in that classroom. I have a tendency to beat myself up at times for things done or not done, the casual term is regret. Full of the “if only”s…if only I didn’t study that day. Or if only I decided not to study in that room full of used books (for, as I thought, that if I had left it in the classroom on any other day, it would still be there waiting for me). Or if only I didn’t take the whole binder with me and just pulled out the few relevant pages we were going to read that day.

But I know that no matter how many “if onlys,” no matter how many times I replay it in my head, it is not going to bring the binder back. It was a mistake, it happened, and it can not be undone. And moving past losing the binder means forgiving myself of the carelessness and absentmindedness of which I accused myself.

In this case my “transgression” as it were had only one victim, myself. And for that it was easy to forgive myself. Regretting is in a way understanding what I may have done wrong. But any act of teshuvah involves some form of regret—of understanding what we may have done wrong—and really understanding the action and its consequences. And in a teshuvah process we can take those feelings of regret and heal them through a process of self-forgiveness.

We need to forgive ourselves first. Yes we are going to do things, intentionally or unintentionally. Those things may hurt others, or they may hurt only ourselves. Self-forgiveness comes with recognizing what we have done wrong and understanding the consequences of our actions.

But it can not stop there. Teshuvah requires that we then take that process of self-forgiveness and not only seek forgiveness from others in those cases we did hurt another, but also that we commit to change and grow and learn from the experience so that if we come across it again, we will act differently. Self-forgiveness comes with the recognition that we are human, that we are going to fall short and that we have the ability to change.

And part of this process of self-forgiveness is also trying to understand why we might have done something in the first place. Why was the loss of the binder so upsetting to me? It’s at those times we ask…was it really about the binder?

And for me what made the loss of the binder so upsetting was because it opened up things for me to consider. It was a careless act, am I generally careless and do I need to do something about that? Am I being pulled in too many directions and need to find a better sense of balance in my life?

I haven’t shared too much detail after my bout with meningitis three years ago, but I often wonder if I walked away from that, while mostly OK, somewhat impaired. I struggle sometimes with recall, mostly word recall, and perhaps by leaving the binder and not realizing it was an echo of this medical event, I thought to myself. I don’t know. But losing the binder reminded me of my vulnerabilities, of my limited capacity, and my humanness.

And that is why we are here. Because of our vulnerabilities, our limited capacities, our humanness. And that is something we can all forgive ourselves for.


Ideas are more powerful than objects

The actual notes are gone. Any attempt to recreate them would be futile. For it is difficult to recreate the original inspiration that led to the note, or the thought I had in the past that led me to underline a passage and put a star or a check next to it. Which is part of the feeling around the loss—what note might I have scribbled that would have turned into a great teaching. Or what idea jotted on the side of the page would have turned into a High Holiday sermon. (you see, I still did…) I won’t know, because those ideas are gone.

Or are they?

When I lost my binder, my initial thought was that all of those ideas were gone. But then I thought, if they really had staying power, if they really meant something to me, then, quite possibly, I would have them again. I could reread the original texts and be inspired in the same way. The note may not have stayed with me, but the idea may have. Good ideas are hard to lose, they make an impression.

Which reminded me that ideas are bigger than the paper they are written on. My thoughts are bigger than the binder was. That is important to remember in our creative lives, that our ideas have a life of their own. We come up with them, and the ones that make an impression have a kind of staying power. And maybe the things we do not remember were not worth remembering in the first place.

Ideas have power, and in this case, beyond the binder that I lost. But how often do we find that ideas are running up against not binders, but those things that are meant to contain them. For we have the way things are, and oftentimes ideas come to show us the way things could be. And those don’t always go together, especially when there are institutions and frameworks that serve as the vessel, or the container.

This happens in our personal lives, in which ideas or visions of ourselves may need to transcend the place that we find ourselves. But it is also the case on the communal level as well—we have communal institutions that are containers for how things are, but sometimes ideas come to show us how things could be.

There is an extended conversation going on now, for example, in the Jewish world nationwide about the future of synagogues, about how synagogues are to be organized and funded in response to societal trends of affiliation and communal identification. Trends from which we here at TBH are not immune. We need to be mindful of these ideas and ask how the institutions can be transformed by them, and not how we can put them aside for the sake of the institution.

And in the realm of social justice, we are continually being confronted by new ideas, new ways of thinking to confront past wrongs and envision a new future. Sometimes the way things were can not always be the way things will be. Existing institutions confront new ideas, and it will always be the ideas that win out, because ideas are more powerful than objects.


Acquire a friend

One of the things that made the loss of my notebook easier to take is that when I shared the news with Andy, he understood. He had been through the program as well, and understood the depth and breadth of learning that was contained within the binder. That fact that I was able to share what had happened with someone who was not only generally sympathetic as my friend but someone who shared a similar experience and so could understand that experience more deeply was helpful and healing.

And reminded me of the importance of friendship. The power of friendship took on renewed meaning for me this past year, in many ways. Friends occupy a specific role in our lives, and so it is important to cultivate and develop these relationships.

Friends occupy a different position than our life partners and family. Our family of course we do not choose, our lifepartners we perhaps make extra effort to choose and build relationship with. Friends fall somewhere in the middle. We may come across potential friends based on circumstance, but with whom you develop a friendship with is an active choice. To develop deep and meaningful relationships with those outside your family, and in addition to a chosen life partner, is so important to our well-being. Connections with people with whom you share interests or experience or circumstance, people who know you and support you, is so important.

There is the story in the Talmud about a guy named Honi. Now Honi is somewhat famous in our tradition especially with our school kids and especially around Tu Bishvat, the festival of the trees. For we oftentimes tell the story about how Honi happened upon a man planting a carob tree. Incredulous, he said, “are you really planting a carob tree? Don’t you know that a carob tree will take 70 years to bear fruit?”

“Yes,” says the man. “But just as my ancestors planted trees for me, so to do I plant trees for those who will come after me.”

It’s a great story, an important story. But the story in the Talmud goes on. For Honi then falls asleep and wakes up 70 years later. He sees an old man harvesting carob. “Wait a minute,” he says, “didn’t I just see you planting this tree?”

“No, it was my grandfather who planted this tree. I am his grandson.”

But the story then goes on. He goes to his house, where he is rejected. They don’t recognize him. He then goes to the study house, where he is also rejected. He then dies, but before he dies he cries out, “O hevruta o mituta”—“Friendship or Death!”

Extreme. Perhaps. But perhaps not. Recent studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation can have extreme negative health effects, even leading to increased mortality. O hevruta o mituta indeed. And its not about the size of one’s social network, it is about the ability to have even a few quality relationships with people who know you, who care for you, on whom you can depend.

And while friendship itself is important, spiritual friendship is also important. Andy is not only my friend but my hevruta—the term used in traditional Jewish life to describe a “study partner,” a word that is built upon the root of chaver, friend. A hevrutah is one with whom you commit to a course of study, and the study takes a particular form: the classical model of study in which two people engage back and forth, usually over a text, raising questions, challenges, ideas. Study is not a solitary enterprise, but one that must be taken in partnership. In that way we are not content to rest with our own ideas and views and assumptions, but we necessarily take them up with another to refine our thoughts, to be challenged and to grow in our learning and understanding.

Part of what makes this so powerful is that we are then accountable to another, We are held accountable to another, and therefore we are more successful in our undertakings.

The lost binder came about because of this hevruta relationship, and its loss was made more palpable because of the hevruta relationship.

Our classical texts speak of “acquiring yourself a friend.” In that it is an active choice to pursue and develop meaningful friendships. And it is important, in both senses of the word. If you want to live more fulfilling and enriching lives, we should find for ourselves a hevruta—which doesn’t need to be about Jewish text, or spirituality for that matter. It could be about a different exchange of ideas, or exercise, or reading, or whatever. Someone with whom you commit to do something that will allow the both of you to become enriched. And we need to find for ourselves friends as well.


Be open to messages from the universe, for you don’t know when or from where they may come

On these sheets, I took notes everywhere. On the margins, on top, underlining text.

It is ironic, or fitting, that I lost this at a used book sale because we have all had the experience perhaps of picking up a used book and finding notes in the margins, underlines, highlighting. For some this could be distracting, for others it could be illuminating. When you have these commentaries, these notes, you are witness to a conversation between reader and author, and across generations. It is almost like a traditional page of Talmud where the main body of the Talmud text is in the middle, and is surrounded by notes and commentaries.

The beauty of these margin notes are the messages they send to us, and I think now how perhaps my notes will be a part of this conversation across the texts. It’s not that I think necessarily that my notes were particularly wise or my ideas particularly profound, but they were my notes and my ideas. And the thought that perhaps one of these scribbles would inspire, or change a mind, is interesting and comforting.

But all this comes from the fact that we may receive messages from anywhere, and we may not know from where. A margin note in a book. A chance encounter. A conversation with the person sitting next to you on the airplane. A movie on TV. Any of these can have life altering impact. All of these can give you a message that you need to hear, or didn’t even know you needed to hear, but the key, and the challenge, is to be open to hearing it.

We can approach every opportunity as an opportunity for learning, for growth, for wisdom.

We have to approach that everyone has something to each us. “Who is wise,” says our ancient text, “one who learns from every one.” Well let us expand it: from everyone, from every experience, from everything we witness or hear or see or read, including a scribbling in a margin. Everything has something to teach us, we just need to be receptive to the teaching. If we approach every opportunity as one for growth, if we recognize that our hearts and minds are malleable, then we give everyone the gift of being our teacher, and ourselves the gift of learning.

We don’t know where messages will come from, sometimes from the most unlikely of places and so it is on us to carry with us the attitude of receptivity, the humility to know that we do not know all things, and the openness to receive what it is the universe is trying to tell us.


The margins are always blank

With the binder and my notes gone, I started over. Andy and I still planned on studying together so I took the time and printed out all the texts again and put them in a new binder. And when we sat down to study again I opened the book and there they all were, in front of me, bare. No underlines, no highlights, no writings in the margins.

And we began to study. And slowly I began to make new notes, new underlines, new observations.

That is where we stand right now. With a whole new set of sheets before us.

Tomorrow we will recite the paradigmatic liturgy of the High Holidays, the Unetaneh Tokef. This is the prayer where we find the image of the Book of Life. God sitting on high, all of us passing before the divine presence in order that our destiny, our fate for the coming year be inscribed in the book of life. Who shall live and who shall die, the prayer reads.

It is this image of the book of life which carries so much power for these days. It is why our standard greeting, the classical greetings, is l’shana tovah—for a good year, which is really a shortening of l’shana tovah tikateyvu—may you be inscribed for a good year.

May you be inscribed. May you be written.

And yet, while we carry this image of God on high with the book of life, we must realize that it is really us doing the inscribing. We write the story of our lives.

At the end of the Unetaneh Tokef we say teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah—repentance, prayer and righteousness—will avert the decree, with the classical understanding. But we can also understand it to mean that intentionality and mindfulness, self-examination and repair, and compassion and reaching out are ways we can write our story for the good for the coming year.

Sometimes we know, we don’t have that control. Parts of our stories are written for us. Sometimes for the good. And sometimes for the bad.

It is in these instances that we write in the margins.

Because it really is about the margins, isn’t it? For we must be honest and say we don’t always get to write our full story anew each year. For some there are still the same obligations, the children to raise, the job to maintain. Illness, hardship, death sometimes fills up the pages for us.

But we always have the margins. How we deal with what life gives us, our own personal notes to a larger story.

So here we are. The book of life, open before us. The old binder is lost to the ages. The new one lay open before you. The texts are the same, but the margins are wiped clean.

And now, in front of this page, you just have one question before you: what will you write?

It’s Elul: You Have Permission to Change

This weekend we begin the Jewish month of Elul and officially begin the High Holiday season. The holidays themselves are “late” this year in accordance with the Gregorian calendar (they, of course, fall the same time each year on the Hebrew calendar), but no matter when they fall, we get a month warning with the onset of Elul.

With the onset of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, we are meant to formally begin our spiritual preparation. It is customary to blow the shofar each morning of the month as to announce the coming holidays and, just as it does on the day of Rosh Hashanah itself, it is meant to “wake us up” to the spiritual work we are meant to do at this time of year.

And that work, of course, is teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but the etymology is from the word “turn.” We turn from our past bad behaviors and turn towards good ones. The work of the High Holidays is not just about atoning for past wrongs, making amends, asking for and granting forgiveness, it is about personal turning, about creating a new vision of ourselves, about making new commitments and doing what it takes to meet them.

In short, the work of the High Holidays is change. And change, as we know, is very difficult.

I came across an interesting article recently about change and the difficulty surrounding it. It spoke about research that indicated one of the things that can help with making personal change is feeling one has the permission to do so. As the author writes,

Seeking approval and external validation is part of the human experience, but when it comes to making a big life change, they can be hard to find. People expect you to stay how you are, to maintain the status quo, to stay the course. And if you get bogged down looking for that affirmation to make a change, you may never make it.

So if we feel we have another’s permission to make the change, then we are more apt to do it. Interestingly, this permission can be very simple. A recent study found that people were happier after making a major life decision if their choice was validated by a coin toss (whether or not the coin toss motivated their decision in the first place.)

The author concludes:

This week, take one major change you’re wanting to make and figure out if the only thing stopping you is waiting for permission. Be brutally honest with yourself. Force yourself to identify what’s standing between you and making that change.

He then grants the reader permission to make that change.

As we enter into the month of Elul, into the season of change, we may very likely find that the only things stopping us from making important change in our life is the affirmation or permission from another. Yet we would do well to remember that we already have that permission–we grant it to each other.

The litugy of the High Holidays is strikingly in the plural. When we come together at the synagogue during the holidays and we proceed to recite the vidui, the confessional liturgy, we rise and say “for the sin we have done before You…” many times, each followed by an enumeration of a transgression.

One way of understanding this is that while we each individually acknowledge our own wrongs, we do so in the context of community. So when we say “we” we do so to allow the individual in community the privacy and discretion to speak their transgressions aloud without standing out.

We also use the plural to acknowledge that while individually we have done some of the wrongs, collectively we have done all of the wrongs, and that the guilt of the individual and the guilt of the collective (and the subsequent atonement) are not always that separate.

But now we can understand the liturgy anew: when we say “we,” we are affirming that “we” want to change. And when we say “we” want to change, we are granting both ourselves and our neighbors the permission to do so. We are saying: we are all in this together, we are all seeking to better ourselves, so let’s support one another in our individual work. We are opening up to the possibility of change, and by affirming it is possible in ourselves, we recognize how it is possible in others. I can change, you can change. We can change.

We give each other permission. And it might just be that permission that allows us to turn the way we wish to turn and give us the strength to do the spiritual work of these most important days.

So as we enter Elul, let us give each other the permission to make the change we wish to make. And then, now that you have our permission, make the change.

Here We Are Again, For the Very First Time

This was one of my favorite phrases to come out of my recent 18-month program on mindfulness and embodied spirituality for Jewish clergy, run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, spoke them as we came to one of our last mediation sessions of the program.

I echoed these words as I stood on the bimah at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services this year, and I thought of them as we stood with the Torah unrolled at Simchat Torah a few days ago.

Here we are again, for the very first time.

I love the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the singing and the dancing. I love throwing candy to the kids and having a glass of schnapps with the grown ups. I love the spiritual raucousness—the idea of letting loose and having fun in a context of ritual and spirituality.

But it isn’t just fun—unrolling the entire Torah scroll and seeing it held aloft by the members of the community (including those who will celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah in the coming year, standing next to their Torah portion) is to me one of the most moving sights. It is moving because it is so rare—we usually engage with the Torah scroll a few columns at a time in a controlled viewing. It is moving because of the physical beauty of a Torah scroll—the weathered parchment created from natural sources and the careful and exquisite calligraphy. And it is moving because of the ancientness of the words themselves, and how generations of Jews have taken them to heart and made them a part of their lives.

And it is moving because of the fact of it being a scroll. There are no real divisions, the words and verses and chapters and books flow into one another. Seeing the whole scroll reminds us of the fact that we liturgically read the whole thing in order, that we are not able to cherry pick verses or sections we want to read, we must read (and wrestle with) all of it. And seeing the scroll we see that once you reach the end, there is nowhere else to go but back to the beginning.

When we gathered for Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the new year, we gathered at the same time and the same place, but we were not the same people. We had lived a whole year with its joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks, victories and defeats. We were there again, for the very first time.

As we set out to engage with the cycle of Torah reading again, the same is true. The words on the scroll never change. We read the same stories, the same laws, the same ethical teachings every year. But we are different each time we read those words. What speaks to us, what resonates with us, what challenges us will be different this year than it was last. As we approach each portion again this year, we can say, here we are again, for the very first time.

The Torah, like us, ends with death and begins with the creation of life. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses, after having viewed the Promised Land he will not enter, died and is buried. We then go back to the beginning, and read about the creation of the world. Our Torah reading cycle begins anew this Shabbat with Genesis 1.

One of the seeming great ironies of the Torah is that although the narrative arc of the text is the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom and covenant in the Promised Land, the Israelites never make it there. The Torah ends with Moses’s death, with the Israelites still encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The scroll ends with the journey incomplete.

But perhaps this is not an irony after all. Perhaps the story is meant to be incomplete, that it is not so much about reaching where we are going, but the journey to take us there. For really, do we ever really get to where we are going? We may set goals, we may make plans, but their fulfillment just leads to new goals and new plans. Learning leads to learning, experience leads to experience.

Our lives are linear, but they are also cyclical. We grow and return, return and grow. The cycle of the seasons turns, the cycle of the year turns, and each time we meet them new and fresh. Every day an ending, and every day a beginning.

Each day, we say, here we are again, for the very first time.

At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule...
At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule…

Rosh Hashanah Day 5776: “Heeding the Call–Both Papal and Jewish–For Environmental Justice”

This summer, I had the opportunity to head off to Camp Kalsman, a Jewish camp in Arlington, to spend a week as a member of the faculty. A rotating group of educators and rabbis and cantors spends a week to 10 days teaching, leading services, tutoring b’nai mitzvah and providing support alongside the full-time staff.

Faculty were also asked to visit some of the activities, chugim, electives. The first day I was there I joined the “environmental heroes” chug.

The session was led by Tal, an Israeli counselor, who led the kids through a series of games. In the first game, each of the campers was secretly assigned to be a plant, an herbivore or a carnivore. They were then told to wander the field, and at the signal, to find a partner. They then—in rock, paper, scissors fashion—were to battle by revealing their assigned roles. Herbivores ate the plants, and carnivores ate the herbivores. This then repeated for several rounds. If you met one like yourself you were safe, but three times and you died of starvation. Those who were “eaten” sat back down until the winners—three carnivores—were revealed.

We then moved into a game of tag in which a lone camper stood on one side of the field opposite everyone else. The solo camper was the hunter, the rest the wolves, and at the signal each ran towards each other. The hunter’s task was to tag as many of the wolves as he could as they ran across to the other side. Each person tagged would then become another hunter. This went on for several rounds until ultimately, all were tagged and became hunters. There were no more wolves left.

We then returned to the first game, and each camper got his or her secret assignment. This time, the herbivores won, and it was revealed after the round that only a few campers were designated carnivores. All the meateaters were “killed” in the earlier game. And then we played again, and this time everyone lost—everyone, as it turned out, was designated a herbivore, and after three rounds of not finding a plant to eat, we died.

We then got back in a large circle and talked about how the second game, the hunting, in which all the carnivores were “killed” didn’t just affect one species, but reverberated throughout the ecosystem. The lesson was reinforced for these kids—and for me—our choices have vast consequences so we must be responsible for our actions in regards to our environment.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, a time for atonement and self reflection. But we also call this the new year of the world, the day that Creation is renewed for another cycle. We are renewed and the world is renewed. It becomes imperative to link these two themes of the day and spend some time in self-reflection not only with regards to ourselves and our relationship with others, but in regards to our relationship with the earth.

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image from

But this is timely not only because of our Jewish calendar, but, if we pay attention more broadly across the spectrum of faith communities, because Pope Francis has recently released an encyclical, a major work on the environment. And while of course directed to the world’s Catholics, there is much in this document from which we can learn. It is a call not just to Catholics, but to the world. In the spirit of interfaith learning and cooperation, we as Jews would do well to heed this call as well.

So let’s learn from Francis:

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

Climate change is real. To tell us this a man of faith puts his faith in science. And throughout the encyclical he adds a second act of faith by imbuing the reality of our environmental situation with the hope, potential and possibility that it can be overcome.  That in order to combat climate change, we need to change.

And not just change what we do. We need to change who we are. Bill McKibbon points out in his analysis of the encyclical in the New York Review of Books, we generally have a notion that technological advancement and progress are the same thing. And while there is much to laud with the advent of new technologies, the Pope challenges us to realize that these must be coupled with a moral advancement as well. He writes, “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.” Technological advancement does not automatically equal progress. It is not progress to simply use the power that we have to do what we want without concern for consequences. It is progress to recognize and act on our responsibility to others and the world. Our contribution to global climate change is a moral problem—it is an unchecked abuse of power in which we see ourselves on top and therefore as having the right to do what we please. If we maintain that attitude then we will not only destroy our environment, we will destroy ourselves.

We need a fundamental change. And the change is not just a new embrace of environmentalism, but an embrace of environmental justice. It is recognizing that we are responsible not just for ourselves, but for others, and that we have a fundamental obligation to care for our environment for the sake of others. That individual abuses lead to societal catastrophes. A midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary, tells of the story of two people in the boat, and one takes out a drill and begins to bore a hole under his seat. The other jumps up, “what are you doing? You are letting water get in the boat, we will sink.” Don’t worry, says the other, I am only boring a hole under my side of the boat.”

And an embrace of environmental justice is to recognize especially that while climate change affects us all, it disproportionately hurts minority populations and those who are economically disadvantaged.

So change we must, and change we can. Isn’t that what we are celebrating today? Our ability and opportunity to change? Our desire to do things differently? Our humility to recognize that there are things we need to change?

Faced with the enormity of the issues, it is hard to think about our ability to make an impact on climate change. But we must do something, even if we can’t do everything. And while there is much to say about what we could do, what we should do, themes I hope we will examine more closely in the coming months, I want to suggest that we as a synagogue community make a renewed effort around the environment.

There is a lot we already do—our use of reusable goods in the kitchen, for example, as opposed to disposables. Aided by the city of Olympia, we participate in composting. Our landscaping is made up of mostly native plants. And this year, during Mitzvah Morning, when we go out into our community to do service work, there will be one opportunity specifically around the environment.

But there is more we can do. Perhaps it is time to take an environmental audit of the congregation, either our own or using the tools provided by faith based environmental groups like Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Earth Ministry to examine our practices and where we can do more. (And we will join together locally with other faith communities through Interfaith Works to read and discuss the encyclical.)

And as one step towards a deeper congregational environmental awareness, I want to propose an idea: that we try as much as we can to move to zero waste in our congregation. Beginning with the Erev Shabbat onegs: ZerOneg. Zero waste is the idea that we can consciously minimize the amount of garbage we create by a more mindful use of resources. That we try to make it so that all food is consumed, and whatever isn’t will either be composted or reused. And that food packaging either be reused or recycled.

As I mentioned, we already do much of this. And I don’t mean to suggest that there are any problems or concerns that we need to fix. The oneg is a special time when we are able to be in community, to share with one another, to offer hospitality after prayer. Thinking zero waste simply adds another intention, an environmental intention, to this already special time, the time when we come together most frequently.

An environmental mindset forces us to be conscious of what we use before we use it—to bring as much as we like but not too much, to eat what we have brought, to pack out what we don’t to either eat at another time or donate. And this will hopefully impact our purchasing decisions in advance, and increase our attentiveness to food and how much we consume. It is mindful eating, it is just eating. And it could be a fundamental change in how we engage with our resources and waste.

This is but one of potentially many examples of what is required of us. One example in which we change not just our practice but our mindset.

Rosh Hashanah is a day of gratitude and humility. We are grateful for all that we have and the past we have followed to this point. And we are humble to know that we didn’t do it all our selves. So too we have a responsibly to be grateful for the world we inherited, and to have the humility to know it is not ours to do with as we please. We have the responsibility, as told to us in our Torah, that the earth is ours “to till and to tend”—in other words, to care it the best we can.

Our job is not to “save the earth.” The earth doesn’t need us to survive. The earth will survive. Even life on earth will survive. But it may look different, and it may not look like us, if we fail in our responsibility to look after what we have been given.

And while the earth doesn’t need us to survive, our fellow human beings do. The earth doesn’t need us, but our future generations do.

On this day we celebrated our renewed lives and the renewal of life of our planet. We also celebrate the renewal of life itself and we welcome and celebrate the generations who will follow us. We will read the haftarah from the book of Samuel, which speaks of the prophet’s birth. It will be read to us by those who have welcomed new life into their families this past year. Then we will bless all our children. So I close with the words of Pope Francis, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who follow us.”

We owe environmental stewardship to ourselves. We owe it to our neighbors. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our children.

It’s not just a game played at camp.

This is slightly different than delivered on Rosh Hashanah, I added a few sentences to clarify my intentions regarding the oneg and zero waste.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776: “The 8 Things I Have Learned about Life and Teshuvah from the Seattle Seahawks”

There are many things that come with growing older. As I completed my 42nd year this past July, I continue to note the changes that occur as we get older. Our bodies don’t bounce back like they used to, our hairlines don’t bounce back like they used to.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that despite the conventional wisdom that we become more set in our ways as we grow older, there is the reality that our tastes do change. Things that were once avoided or ignored are now embraced.

Take, for example, lemon bars. I used to not be fond of lemon desserts. But now I love the tart and the sweet together. And so while I don’t think I will ever eat peas, I do have an affinity for desserts I used to avoid.

And another change in taste I have noticed as I get older, is a more deeply felt fondness for and an appreciation of the game of football.

As you know, I am a fan of the game of baseball, growing up with the Yankees and also turning my attention, regretfully perhaps, to the Mariners. Football was never my game. And though every Sunday my father would turn on the television to football—the Giants and Jets especially—I wouldn’t particularly pay attention. I would drift in and out of the den on those Sundays, and generally reserve my interest in football to the annual viewing of the Super Bowl, which was more a party than anything else.

In the past few years, however that has changed. Spurred on perhaps by the ascendance of the Seattle Seahawks, combined with our smaller Pacific Northwest community which results in a more tightly held relationship with its professional sports teams, I have become intrigued by and enamored of the game of football. I have found myself doing interesting things, like recording games when I needed to be at Sunday school or another commitment. Or listening to the game on the radio. Or watching highlight videos over and over again. And while mindful of the risk and violence involved in the game, where once there was indifference, I now marvel at the strategy, the athleticism, and the teamwork of the game of football.

On this Rosh Hashanah, this time that we examine where we have come and where we are going, how we have grown and how we have yet to grow, it is perhaps enough to say that with the passing of the years we do change. We do develop new interests, our capacity to learn and adapt is ever present. We are not set in our ways. But there is more to it than that. For we have the ability to learn as well, to glean from our experiences, our observations.

And so, as is my wont, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I like to share with you things that I have learned about life and about teshuvah (repentance) in the past year.

I have stood here in the past and shared lists with you what I have learned from having a child, from having a backhoe hit my house, from hitting a car in a parking lot, from planting a garden, from Legos, from taking a sabbatical, from having brain surgery, from 10 years in the congregational rabbinate and so on. The list keeps getting longer.

And so, and with apologies to those who don’t like sports or feel that maybe sports analogies are too cliché, I present the eight things I learned about teshuvah, and life, from the Seattle Seahawks.

Photo from
Photo from

Number one: No one play makes the whole game. I will get this one over with quickly, but we can recall the final play of the Super Bowl. The Seahawks were down 28-24, and with 26 seconds left had the ball on the Patriots’ 1 yard line, a touchdown would have won the game, giving the Hawks their second consecutive championship. Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and threw the ball into the endzone, right into the hands of Malcolm Butler of the Patriots for an interception. Game over, the Seahawks lose. It was an excruciating moment.

It is easy to say that the Seahawks lost the game on that final play, and we can debate if they should have given the ball to Marshawn Lynch to run it in (hopefully) to the end zone. But it is important to remember that the game was lost not on that final play. It was lost because of the sum total of everything that had transpired over four quarters of play. Every turnover, every score, every running play, every pass contributed to the final outcome. And while we can say, “if only…” about that last play that could have changed the outcome, we can ultimately say “if only” about any play of the game.

Our lives, too, are made up of many decisions, choices. No one action defines us. We commit on these holidays to do more, to grow, to move forward, to make better and different choices. Teshuvah is the act of saying what happened in my past is a part of who I am but does not necessarily define who I am. What defines me is how I write the whole story of my life, and not just one episode. No one play makes the whole game.

Number two: Play your position. Most sports have “positions”—players play a particular role on a team. But it strikes me that football has more specialized positions. While in baseball for example players play both offence and defense, in football players play either/or. And there are different types of defenders, for example. And beyond that, there are the special teams, even more specialized positions, people who are good at punt returns, or ball holders for place kickers.

Each player, then, has the ability to specialize. To find what he is good at and work to perfect it. And the teams work better when each player is individually able to perfect himself at his position. Rookie Tyler Lockett will work to become the best wide receiver, he won’t try to become the best quarterback, or offensive lineman, or even all around football player.

We can’t do everything, we all have our positions to play. We in our lives should try to specialize: There are things that we are good at, and things that we are not so great at. Our job perhaps is to find out what those things are, and work towards them. We try to become the best us we can be—that is, in part, the work of these High Holidays.

There is that famous story of Rabbi Zusya, the Hasidic master, which comes to mind: when he was on his deathbed he drew his disciples near and told them about the particular fear he felt. He said to them, “when I die and meet God, God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses.’ Rather God will ask, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?’”

Or as Richard Sherman was recently quoted as saying, in a New York Times article about the Seahawks and their mindfulness practice: “It’s simple here: Be yourself, play hard, and you’ll be fine.”

Find and play your position. And then learn and grow and strive to be the best at it.

And similarly, number three: While you should play your position, sometimes don’t. For me, the highlight of this past season was in the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter with the Seahawks down 16-0. The Seahawks lined up to kick a field goal, attempting to score their first points of the game. After the snap, punter Jon Ryan, who was there to hold the ball for the kick, instead picked it up, broke left and ran with the ball, lobbing a pass to tackle Garry Gilliam for a touchdown.

It was a trick play, in which the Seahawks did something that was unexpected, a surprise. And it worked because those who carried it out were willing to break out of their traditional roles and positions to do something different. Punters usually don’t throw passes, and tackles usually don’t receive passes (indeed, their position names give pretty clear indication about what they do). But with ingenuity and practice, they were able to transcend these usual positions, do something different and score.

So too, as we find our positions in life, we sometimes need to transcend those positions to do something different, to grow in new ways. We need to move beyond our comfort zones in order to discover new things about ourselves and what we are capable. And that may be hard. But as I learned recently, there is no growth in the comfort zones, and no comfort in the growth zones. We have our roles to fill, but sometime our greatest successes come from the unexpected, by doing something differently and pushing ourselves.

And sometimes we are forced into new positions by circumstances. We may spring the unexpected on others, but sometimes the unexpected finds us. Here too we must remain flexible enough to do things differently when we need to, to respond to life’s challenges.

That play during the NFC championship might not have been the prettiest play, but it worked. And sometimes life isn’t pretty, but we make it work.

Number four: Play for your teammate. Thinking back on this past season and its successes, we may tend to forget that the Seahawks did not start out so strong. While they had a winning record after the first 10 games, they were at 6-4 and struggling. After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs to get to 6-4, there was a turn around, and looking back on the season, many credit the turn around to a team meeting that occurred after that game.

At this meeting, two things happened: one, some of those players who had not normally taken vocal leadership roles spoke out to rally the team. And two, the message that came out of that meeting was not just play better, or do your best, or try harder, but, simply, “we play for each other.” Keep your egos in check and “play for each other.”

Regarding that meeting, Coach Pete Carroll was quoted at the time: “We made a real nice shift and took a nice step forward to getting to where we want to get. Guys were totally giving themselves to one and another and they played for each other and it showed up. It was something that was most powerful in an team setting and everybody felt it.”

And after that meeting, they won the next six games.

In this life, we play for each other. We have our own paths, our own journeys. But to think that we are doing this alone is a fallacy. We live for ourselves, yes, but that is not all for whom we live. People depend on us and we depend on others. We live in community, in relationship. This is important to remember when we are struggling, because we know we are able to reach out for help and support. But this is also important to remember when we are succeeding, because we must remember that our success is not due solely to our own effort, but to the many people who have brought us to where we are, either directly or indirectly. We play—we live—for each other. Who do you live for? And who lives for you?

And as we play for eachother, we pray for each other. As we enter these holidays, we note that so much of the liturgy is written in the plural. We, not I. We have sinned, we atone, we reconcile, we commit, we thank. We.

Similarly, number five: the 12th man is just as important as the other 11. We may be familiar with the culture of the 12th Man: flags adorned with a big number 12 signify Seahawks fandom, jerseys with the number 12 are as available as that of any player’s number. The 12 signifies the Seahawks fan base—as there are 11 players on the field at any one time, the 12th Man—the fan collective—is the 12th person on the field and is meant to be as important as any other player. In other words, the team is complete not with 11 but with 12.

This is manifest in many ways. Although I haven’t been to a game at CenturyLink Field yet, the noise levels at the stadium are, from what I understand, tremendous, enough to throw off opposing teams. But in addition to this particular manifestation, the simple idea that the fan base is as much a part of the success of the team as any of the players on the team is a way of building connection, community and support.

Similarly in Judaism we have the notion of the 10th person. The tradition of the minyan—Ten Jews needed to make a prayer community—has ancient roots. It is not to say that one could not pray without 10, but 10 are needed for certain fundamental prayers such as the Mourner’s Kaddish–the prayer for those in grief–and to read the Torah in community. It is therefore a special mitzvah to be the 10th person, the one who completes the quorum, who makes the community.

But you can not be the 10 without showing up, and you can not be the 10th unless nine others also show up. We need to live our lives in community, each member of the 10 is as important as any other.

Aim to be the 12th Man, aim to be the 10th. Do not distance yourself from your community. For it is by showing up in community that we are fully realized.

Number six: Even if your suspension is lifted, it doesn’t mean you are innocent. Ok, so this one isn’t about the Seahawks, but about the Patriots. As you may have heard, this year the NFL confronted “Deflategate” a story so big it even made the Israeli newspapers when I was there a few months ago. Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots was accused of deflating footballs to be used in the AFC championship game, keeping them below the limit of air pressure in order to make them easier to throw, and thus gain an advantage. The NFL through an inquiry determined that the Patriots had deflated the balls, and determined that Tom Brady, while he may not have deflated the balls himself, knew about it and covered up evidence. And, along with further punishment levied against the team, Brady was suspended for 4 games.

Upon appeal, a judge overturned the suspension on a technical point having to do with the players agreement and the league. But the question still remains about what happened. And while Brady got what he want—reinstatement—many others didn’t get what they want, an honest accounting of what happened.

The reinstatement is a technicality. It is not teshuvah. For teshuvah is less about external consequences as it is about internal reckoning. When we stray, when we do wrong, oftentimes there are external consequences. But sometimes there are not external consequences. But just because we may not get punished, or we may evade censure, that doesn’t mean our teshuvah is complete. To fully bring about teshuvah we need to be honest with ourselves, the inner work is the most important work.

When we are accountable to ourselves, we do that we will be able to make amends with others. When we are accountable to ourselves, it won’t matter if there were external consequences or not. If there are, we will be able to handle them. Because things internally would have been made right.

Number seven: Punting is OK. Football is unique in that it is part of the strategy and normal course of play to turn the ball over to the other team. In baseball each team takes turns in the field and at bat, hockey and basketball possession changes hands regularly. In football, you can choose to punt—to kick the ball to the other team to give them the opportunity to try to score.

One doesn’t just punt for the sake of punting, of course. A team will punt if they are in bad field position, unable to make a first down, or advance the ball downfield enough. To punt is saying its safer to give the ball away then try something too risky. To punt is to say, we have tried, we did not succeed, so we need to wait until another opportunity in which we have a better chance to score.

We too are going to try, and we are going to fail. It is a natural part of our lives. We are going to come up short, miss the mark, be in a bad position. And that is ok. We are going to need to punt—to give up, to modify our goals, to accept difficult outcomes, to admit that the course we have been pursuing is not going to work for us, and we need to do something different.

Punting is not quitting. Punting is a reorganization, it is a strategic decision in response to certain events, it is saying I need to regroup, my current course of action is not fruitful, so I need to minimize the risk so that I can find a new course to pursue.
Don’t be afraid to punt. It just might be what you need to do to ultimately be successful.

And the eighth and last thing I learned about life from the Seattle Seahawks: Football is a game of yards, except when it is a game of inches.

Yards, the unit of measurement (3 feet), is the fundamental measurement of football. A football field is 100 yards long. As one tries to get the ball downfield to the end zone to score, yards are fundamental. Ball position is based on the yard line. It is 10 yards to a first down to be able to continue play. Plays are measured by how many yards are gained. And individual statistics are measure in yards: passing yards or rushing yards or kicking yards.

One hundred yards is a long field. The greatest plays are those that gain the most yardage. Football is therefore in many ways a long game.

We too, play the long game. When we examine our lives, we can recognize and see the changes we have undergone, especially if we look over a longer period of time. We are not the same people we were ten years ago. And when we get stuck, when we begin to feel bad about where we are, we can also recognize that we will not be in the same place ten years from now. We need to take the long view of who we have been, who we are and who we can be. Change will come, teshuvah will work—we recognize this if we take the long view.

There are sometimes, however, when football is measured in inches. Sometimes, when a team advances the ball towards a first down and comes up just short, within one yard, the ball position is said to be 2nd down, for example, and inches.

Football is measured in yards. But there are sometimes when it is measured in inches.

And so too with us. Life is also a game of inches. While we look at the long narrative, and see how we grow and change over time, we also remember that those long narratives are made up of small moments. Every small moment is an opportunity for transformation. Every moment is a decision about how to act, a weighing of choices, and opportunity to do what is right or not.

There is a passage from the Talmud, found in our Mahzor, appropriate for this:

Each one of us should always consider ourselves evenly balanced, that is half sinful and half righteous. If we perform one mitzvah we should be joyous, for we have tilted the scales towards righteousness. If we commit one sin we should be remorseful, for we have tilted the scale toward sinfulness.

The small moments we create make a difference. And the small moments that happen to us also make a difference. We don’t know what can change our lives. A chance encounter. A story on the radio. These are little discrete moments have the power to fundamentally change who you are—something you learned or someone you met can change to course of your life, but only if you are open to it.

Play the long game, write your life’s narratives over a (hopefully) long time, remembering that just as things are now, does not mean they will continue to be. This is the work of teshuvah, that we can always reinvent, redo, renew.

And play the short game as well. We do what we can to affect change and teshuvah—in ourselves and in our world—when we make every moment, every inch, every encounter matter, and see each as a chance to learn, to grow, to change.

So, on these High Holidays, we echo another motto of the Seahawks: “I’m in.” I’m in.

Take the long view. Play your position. Break the mold. Be there for others. Show up. Go inside. Punt if necessary. And make every moment count.

Because every moment counts.

It’s Rosh Hashanah. Don’t Drop the Ball.

The New Year is upon us.

Tonight at sundown we will welcome in 5776. As a child celebrating the secular new year, it would become an annual challenge to stay up until midnight to watch the ball drop from Times Square in New York City. I would get anxious and excited waiting for that fateful hour.
Rosh ball
Now, I get anxious and excited as we draw to the Jewish New Year, hoping I don’t drop the ball. The work of self-reflection and repentance, combined with the necessity of facing the deep mystery of not knowing what the new year will bring, is so daunting and challenging.

But it is what we are called upon to do. We enter a new year grateful for all the goodness that came from this past year, and ready to accept what the new year will bring. And we are strengthened by the fact that we do this work together.

Thank you for being on this journey with me. Thank you for reading my words, for sharing them, for writing back. I look forward to continuing this journey with you.

(I’m tempted, but I’m not going to give a teaser for the messages that I will be sharing over the High Holidays–I hope to see you at shul–but I will be sharing them in this forum after the holidays.)

To all of you, I wish you a year of health and happiness, of strength and support, of peace and comfort. And of not letting the ball drop.

L’shana tovah!

“Welcome Home” to Elul: A View from Camp

I’m spending this week at Jewish summer camp. I have returned this year to URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington, WA to serve a week as faculty–a week filled with leading services, teaching and engaging with kids during activities. Camp Kalsman is one of the two main summer camps that kids from my congregation attend–Camp Solomon Schechter being the other–and it is nice to go to support them and our greater Jewish community.

But I go for other reasons as well. I find it personally fulfilling to be at camp. I connect with other clergy and educators in the area who are also serving on faculty, I do things that I don’t normally do in my congregational job and I learn about new programs, songs and stories. A recent article about why you should send your rabbi to summer camp pretty much sums it up.

When you come to Camp Kalsman, whether you are a first time guest or returnee, you are greeted with “Welcome home.” That greeting instills a spirit of openness and community–camp is a place you belong, camp is a place that is familiar, camp is a place to which you return. Camp is a place that welcomes you with open arms and support.

 I feel that way at camp. It is also somewhat of a retreat for me to be here. While I’m not totally off the grid and “out of the office”–I do respond to email and am reachable by phone in case of emergency (and close enough if I need to return)–it is a good opportunity to get away to be able to do some reading and thinking. And as I am spending my faculty week now in August during the last week of camp, the time is giving me good time to think about and plan for the High Holidays.

This week at camp overlapped with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the new month of Elul. And since Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it is therefore a time to prepare for the important spiritual work of the High Holidays. During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the beginning of the new year and the Day of Atonement, we are called upon to self-reflect, do heshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul), identify the times we went astray, and make commitments to do better in the future. It is a time to focus on making amends with those we have hurt. This is hard work, and so our tradition teaches that we begin not on Rosh Hashanah, but on Rosh Chodesh Elul.

During Shabbat at camp, we read from and studied parashat Re’eh. The portion opens with the words, “See, I put before you blessing and curse.” Within the context of the Torah, it is an admonition from Moses to the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land. But it is also important words for us to hear. As we read and studied this (I had the opportunity to lead Torah study with the 7-8 graders) Moses is stressing the fact, though we are bound to the covenant, we do have free will. We have the power to choose between blessing and curse. But with free will comes the consequences–we must live with the results of our actions. As the text goes on: if you choose blessing, things will go well with you, and if you choose curse, things will not. We understand that we make our choices and must deal with the results.

The work of Elul is to examine the choices we have made, the results we created, and how that has impacted our lives and relationships. And while difficult and daunting, it is empowering to know that our tradition gives us the means, the opportunity and the support to do this work. The work challenges us, but it is comforting that that we have the ability to do it.

Elul has come upon us again. Welcome home to Elul. For Elul is a time that is familiar, Elul is a time to which we return. Elul is a time that welcomes us with open arms and support.