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.


How to Use (and Not Abuse) Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is soon upon us. It is a time in which we focus on teshuvah, traditionally translated as “repentance,” but the Hebrew root is more closely related to “turning.” Teshuvah is the act of turning from past ways and harmful habits to create a new and better future for ourselves. It also involves turning to each other to seek forgiveness for past wrongs.

This last part of teshuvah—seeking and granting forgiveness—is very complicated.

Forgiveness is meant as a means to heal wounds. But the pursuit of forgiveness can sometimes have the opposite effect, and so how we engage with it must be handled delicately and thoughtfully. Here are a few random thoughts on forgiveness:

Forgive yourself first. The first part of teshuvah is to recognize what we have done wrong, whether to ourselves or another person. Once we recognize what we have done, then we will probably feel regret about it. That is ok, feeling regret is an indication that we are on the right track. But that regret should be used for the good, and rather than just live in the regret, we use that feeling to create positive change. And we do that through self-forgiveness.

When we forgive ourselves, we first and foremost recognize that we are human. This is what “atonement” is all about. It’s not about beating ourselves up for “sin,” it’s about recognizing how we have hurt others and why, and how we have been hurt and why, and moving to a place of acceptance and growth and renewal. If we don’t self-forgive, then while we may have been granted forgiveness from another, the hurt and guilt will still be there.

If you have gotten over old wounds and do not need forgiveness for your healing process, then to bring up those wounds may only cause further hurt. Time is a wound healer. You may not still be carrying an old hurt that someone did to you years ago, and they may have become different people in the interim. To then bring up past wrongs when you are not seeking forgiveness only causes bad feelings of upset and guilt that can be worse than the original hurt in the first place.

Also, Yom Kippur is about positive personal growth, not about making ourselves feel bad for what we may have done or not done. Just bringing stuff up to beat yourself up about it is not healthy and not the path of teshuvah.

Forgiveness does not mean acceptance, it simply means that you are not going to let a past wrong bother you anymore. It is possible to forgive someone for what they did to you without condoning the general behavior. Indeed, a granting of forgiveness may come with a tochecha (“rebuke,” “chastisement”) that the behavior is unacceptable and needs to change.

Forgiveness may only be necessary when there is an intention to hurt. Collateral damage is a part of life. There are times we do things and make changes in our life that will ultimately be the best for us. When we make these changes however, we may inadvertently hurt people we care about. The intention in these instances is not to hurt, but hurt feelings may be a by-product anyway. In these cases, if we truly understand the context and the relationship, we can raise the fact that we were hurt without needing forgiveness, and we can acknowledge and accept the hurt we have caused without feeling guilty about it.

Seeking forgiveness without a promise to change is incomplete. If we are granted the gift of forgiveness from one we have wronged, but we do not change our behavior that caused that wrong in the first place, then the forgiveness is incomplete. Think of forgiveness as being granted conditionally. When we are forgiven we must still do the personal work to examine and change our past behaviors. Saying “I’m sorry” is just the first step.

Yom Kippur is just a day. Teshuvah, forgiveness and healing is a process. Holidays are just days in which we hone our spiritual energy in a particular direction to remind us of important values that we really need to be thinking about all the time, and not just on that day. Just as we should be thinking of oppression, liberation and freedom the whole year and not just on Passover, so too do we need to think about repentance and forgiveness the whole year, and not just on Yom Kippur. To request and expect forgiveness on Yom Kippur just because it is THE DAY feels forced and disingenuous. To grant forgiveness just because it is Yom Kippur also feels forced and disingenuous. If anything, seeking forgiveness on the day puts a process of healing in place that continues into the days, weeks and months ahead.

The work of Yom Kippur is not about bringing up hurt just for the sake of bringing up hurts. And it’s not about forgiveness just for the sake of forgiveness. When we engage in the process of seeking and granting forgiveness, it must be for the sake of a greater purpose: becoming better people and strengthening relationships. Anything else will just hurt ourselves and others more.

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.

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.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775: “The 7 Things I Learned About Life from Legos”

I have, as many of you know, faced my share of physical challenges over these past few years. I have had to face surgery twice, both requiring about a month-long recovery with physical discomfort. And I suffered from serious illness, also requiring hospital stays, pain medicine, IV, antibiotics and a longer than hoped for recovery.

But I can tell you, with certainty, that these do not compare to the excruciating and debilitating pain I have felt when stepping on a Lego in the middle of the night.

With my two boys, we have our fair share of Legos. These wonderful, imaginative, building toys are ever present in our house, and they make their way to lots of little place, under the cushions of the couch, under rugs, behind furniture, all over the car, and into the folds of the carpet. And during a late night excursion I have, on more than one occasion, stepped on a stray piece of Lego. And boy does that hurt.

But I wouldn’t have it another way, for I love these toys. I played with Legos as a child, and watching my boys play with them is pure delight. I have been known to “help” as needed, but also take a few pieces myself on occasion and put them together. Over the years we have amassed many a Lego, from the tub of Legos we found for $5 at a garage sale, to different sets collected on birthdays and Hanukkah, and even the big set we got for Ozi the day we brought his brother home from the hospital to soften the blow.

We have seen the Lego Movie, watched homemade stop animation on Youtube, viewed Lego TV shows. We have been to Lego activity centers, LegoLand in California and Lego conventions in Seattle and Portland. I even have, as a nod to my kids, a Lego compatible iPhone case.

So these toys are ubiquitous in my life. And as with everything in my life, both chosen and unchosen, I see what surrounds me as a learning opportunity. And so, as we are here on this most auspicious night, the beginning of the new year, another opportunity for reflection and examination, I present to you, as I have in the past, a bit of lessons gleaned from my life. Whether it be having a child, hitting a car in a parking lot, a decade in the rabbinate, planting a garden, having brain surgery, that backhoe hitting my house, you have been with me as I have journeyed through these life learnings and lessons.


So tonight, I offer you the 7 things I have learned about teshuvah, and life, from Legos.

1. Every piece fits.

When we visited Legoland in California, one of the fascinating pieces of trivia I learned about Legos is that since the time that the first Lego brick was patented in 1958, every single Lego brick manufactured since will fit with that original design. In other words, if I pull out a brick made this year, and I take a brick made 60 years ago, they will fit together.

So while over the course of its 6 decade history Lego has continually reinventing itself and adding new things, new themes, new colors, new sets and variations on its core design, every Lego today is compatible with what came before.

As we gather here this evening, we are reminded that we are part of a long and rich Jewish tradition. Stories, texts, rituals, values all stretching back centuries, millennia. And we are also mindful sitting here today that the Judaism we practice must look very different than it did in the past.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud, the ancient work of commentary, law and lore, which imagines Moses sitting with God on the top of Mount Sinai as God is writing out the Torah. The Torah tells of Moses’s ascent to the top of the mountain to receive the Torah and God writing out the laws, but this story imagines what that must have been like since the Torah is light on detail. This story is a classic midrash—a “filling in the gaps”—in the Torah narrative.

God is writing out the Torah and putting little “crowns” on some of the letters. If you have seen the inside of a scroll you would know that some of the letters have flourishes, crowns on the top as decoration. Moses asks God, “what is with all these crowns on the letters? What do they mean?”

God replies, “many years from now there will be a scholar named Rabbi Akiva. And he will make lots of meaning from those crowns.”

“Who is this man?” asks Moses. “Can I see him?”

“Turn around,” says God.

So Moses turns. And all of a sudden he is no longer on top of a sandy, wind-swept mountain peak, but in the back of a classroom, a lecture hall. The benches are filled with Talmudic rabbis listening to a lecture by none other than Rabbi Akiva. The rabbis were discussing a point of Jewish law but the content and the arguments were foreign to Moses. The rabbis spoke of torah, but Moses did not understand a single thing they said, and he was very distressed by this. Until finally one of the rabbis in the room asked, “Rabbi Akiva, how do you know the basis for this law?”

And Rabbi Akiva answered, “It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.” And with that, Moses understood and turned back around.

Rabbi Akiva is one of the leading figures of the Talmud, and the authors of this story are making a connection between the work that they do, and the Torah, by imagining Moses at the beginning of a long chain of tradition that they are the inheritors of. And now we can imagine Rabbi Akiva in the back of our sanctuary, completely baffled by what is going on, until something reminds him that he is also at the beginning of a chain of tradition.

Where we are in our tradition may seem so far afield from what came before. While it might seem different, and it is, it is 100 percent compatible with what came before. We—you, me—are all the next link in a very long chain. And we fit.

2. You never know when you will need a particular piece

There is a great sound that I don’t think I can replicate, but if you know it, you can imagine it. It’s the sound of sorting through a big bin of Legos. Can you hear it?

Imagine a big bin of Legos. A big jumble of so many pieces of different sizes and colors. Some basic blocks in their various lengths, some specialty pieces: a chair, a steering wheel, a window. All a mix of various sets from the past and random pieces. Then that sound.  I hear that sound often as the boys play with Legos.

When digging through that big bin, sometimes you have an idea of what piece you need. And sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for, you are just browsing, and maybe a piece strikes your fancy and you get an idea. Or maybe both, in the process of looking for a particular piece you find another one, and the car you were building becomes an airplane. That is the joy and the magic of the bin of legos—it holds promise, opportunity, creativity. And when you open it up you don’t know what you will find.

Think of your Judaism is a big bin of Legos, full of all of these little pieces. A teaching here, a ritual there, a memory there, a food here. It’s all there, waiting for you to dig through. Maybe you need something specific, or maybe you don’t know what you need. Or maybe you look to Judaism for something specific and come up with something else. The point is there is so much there to discover.

And it doesn’t matter if you look through your bin every day searching for something. Or if the bin has sat in your closet for 50 years and you are just taking it out now. Or you are new to using Legos. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you opened the lid and looked through.

You might not know what you need, but do know that all the pieces are there waiting for you to be discovered for you to build them into something that is meaningful, special, unique. All you need is open the bin, stick in your hand, and sift through. You will come up with something. That’s why that sound is so sweet.

3. Save the instructions, and the box

While we do have big bins of Legos, we also indulge in specialty sets. These sets come with carefully crafted instructions as to how to build the complicated projects. Erez insists with each new Lego set that we save the box it came in. And I will admit, I think the packaging of Lego is great. Vivid recreated scenes of the set inside, a clear indication of how many pieces are contained within, the age range made explicit, always a source of pride for when Erez is gifted a set for which he is technically too young, yet is able to finish. And a clear indication of which minifigs—or “Lego guys”—are contained within.

The instructions and the box provides a reference, a guide, and a clear vision about what things will look like once completed. The instructions provide specific steps to build, and the box provides an overall picture of how things will come together.

We are rooted in the instructions, in the box, the guide. We are the people of the instruction book.

Our tradition is defined by sacred text. There is so much wisdom contained within the words of our long train of textual tradition. Every generation reads and interprets text, learning is a paramount value. Each Shabbat morning here we investigate a different text and it couldn’t be more rich—Torah, mussar, Talmud, contemporary spirituality. Currently I am engaged in a new study program, the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and I have been, really for the first time in my life, studying, closely and deeply texts from the Hasidic tradition. Both on retreat and in a weekly hevruta I am examining a new aspect of our tradition, and I am continually surprised and amazed by what I find.

So if your rabbi can learn something new, you can learn something new.

There is always something to discover in our tradition, in our sacred texts. Commit yourself to a new course of learning this year. Discover something new. See what surprises you. There is no such thing as knowing enough, and there is no such thing as not knowing enough to begin. See what the instruction book says to you this year.


4. You do not need the instructions to build something awesome

One of the events we try to get to every year is BrickCon—a gathering that happens every year at the Seattle Center in October. BrickCon is a gathering for adult hobbyists, and while the attendees meet in private workshops and gatherings for some of the time, over the weekend the exhibit hall is open to the public to view what people have built.

And they are awesome.

The expo hall at Seattle Center is filled with creations, both large and small in a wide variety of categories: space, medieval, contemporary scenes. A Space Needle that towers over everyone, a city with working trains, large Lord of the Rings-type battles, space stations, a Lady Gaga concert complete with sounds and music. Also, this past summer when Erez and I went to NY we visited a Lego center in Westchester complete with a permanent display of New York landmarks including, and this is true, a model of MetLife stadium complete with the Seahawks beating the Broncos in the Superbowl.

None of these creations had instruction books. None of these were pre-packaged sets. They were planned, designed and built with only the use of imagination and patience. And while we may not want to design large-scale creations, we can take the Legos that we are given—even ones that are originally part of a specific set—and create our own awesome thing.

We have been given the instruction book containing the values and mitzvot, sacred practices, which are meant to guide our lives. But we also meet Torah where it is based on where we are, and enter into a dialogue about how we can make meaning with what the tradition gives us. We have the instructions and the vision of how things could be. But we also have the ability to modify, to make variations with the same set of pieces (or practices) we have been given. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, taught, “the past has a vote, but not a veto.” Tradition informs us, but so do we inform tradition.

And while we may play around with different practices which we may connect to, it is our minhag (custom) here to examine and study together different practices and how we may observe and honor them as a congregation.

One of the foundational practices of Judaism is Shabbat. The idea of a day of rest, a day set aside to renew ourselves, to reset ourselves, to dial it back if just for a short time, is fundamental to Jewish practice and observance. It is one of the 10 commandments. We rest in remembrance of creation, when God rested, and we rest in remembrance of the story of the Exodus, when we were slaves in Egypt, and didn’t have a chance to rest.

Shabbat reminds us of the need to take a break, which is increasingly difficult in our hyper-connected 24/7 world. Shabbat is a day of justice, and reminds us of those who are unable to achieve such a day.

But how do we do it? We have been given a vision of a traditional observance of Shabbat. How do we engage with this. Is this our vision of what Shabbat is or could be, or do we have a different idea of what it means to not work/rest?

I invite you to engage with this question—what does Shabbat mean for you? And how do you observe it? It is a question we are going to engage with this year as a congregation, through a series of hosted and facilitated community conversations: What does Shabbat mean to us, and especially how do we want to observe and honor Shabbat in our community. We will study, we will practice, we will debate (I’m sure), but we will do so with an eye towards making this fundamental aspect of Jewish practice meaningful in our lives.

5. If you are going to build up, build out

As I mentioned that part of our Lego fandom in our house is travelling to a variety of Lego-themed attractions and events. And many of these provide opportunities for free play. It seems, based on my very crude anthropological observation of Lego conventions, that when you have a seemingly unlimited number of Lego bricks at your disposal, there is a strong desire and inclination to build a tower. More specifically, the biggest tower one can build.

Of course as any engineer will explain, you can not build tall without a solid foundation. The same is true for Legos, without a solid base, the entire tower will quickly become unstable.

We think of what we build, and the need for a solid foundation here. What we are building, altogether, is community, connection. We are building a vibrant Jewish life so that individuals will find meaning, children can be educated, we can explore ideas and culture, see films, read books, eat, play ball, study Torah, pray, sing. And in order to build this, we need a foundation.

75 years ago our forebears took a leap and established a Jewish congregation and built a building to call home. A decade ago we, their inheritors, took an incredible leap, buying and renovating the building that serves and will serve as the central Jewish address in the South Sound for years to come. It was quite a journey and an undertaking for us. And the time has come to shore up that project, by making sure we can continue to maintain what we have.

We know that we are more than the bricks and mortar that house us. But we also know how important it is to have a central gathering place to sing together, pray together, laugh together, learn together, cry together and eat together. This valuable asset maintains our attention so that it will be here for us and for the generations that come after. Our building is modest by comparison as some other places perhaps, but still requires a large amount of care.

So we continue to build out—the foundation—of the tower of spiritual life. You will be hearing soon more about our “Building Strength” campaign—a capital campaign to create an endowment that will make sure this building is cared for into the next several decades. A campaign that will result in stability, sustainability and security for our community.

6. You can fix it

Here is a typical scene at home. Building a big Lego, maybe a set, or maybe just free play. Then a cat comes, or an attempt is made to force two pieces together that don’t quite fit, or the creation wasn’t perched safely on the shelf and then it breaks. And following the break are screams, maybe tears, anger, frustration and venting, maybe a swear word or two. Then silence and contemplation. And then the words, “I can fix it.”

Instructions are consulted, or original vision modified as sometimes needs to happen, and pieces are reattached. It is fixed.

But that is a phrase that we need to remember: “I can fix it.”

While life does not come with instructions, we do make plans, we have ideas as to the way things will work out. And we know that they don’t always work out the way we want. Some of these challenges are beyond our control, and we accept them, often with difficulty.

And there are breaks that are within our control. We can work at repairing our relationships. We can try new habits and lose old ones. We can break the cycle of toxic behaviors which hold us back. We did someone wrong, we can apologize. Someone did us wrong, we can forgive. This is our power to fix it. This is the essence of teshuvah, why we are all here now. That we have the ability to fix that which is broken.

And yes, there will be screams, maybe tears, anger, frustration and venting. Maybe a swear word or two. That is ok. But then we pause, we contemplate, and admit to ourselves that we can fix it.

But not only that we can, but that we must.

7. Legos were much better then than they are now (but not really)

Legos have gotten quite fancy than when I was a kid. I remember when it was just a big box of different size pieces. And then themes began to emerge: space, city, and different kits would come with specific instructions as to how to make them. Now, that has become the norm, and even more specific—the sets are meant to resemble almost exactly a building that exists in life or in the movies. The space Legos I had made generic space ships, now you have Star Wars Legos which recreate scenes from the movies.

With these developments come the usual laments. “These specific sets stifle imagination.” Or “these sets are too contrived.” And inevitably, ”things were much better when I was a kid.”

But were they? One might say that the Lego past was better, because then there were no fancy sets with specific results, only crude pieces that one would use to build anything one wanted, according to the dictates of one’s imaginations.

But the thing is, that is still true. Yes there are fancy pieces and elaborate sets. But that still does not mean that we can’t build what we want.

This is one of our challenges, we tend to idealize the past. We think the past was better, or simpler, or easier than where we are now. But that kind of thinking holds us back. Especially around our work of teshuvah. We get stuck and say, if only I didn’t make that decision, or if only I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

But guess what? You did make that decision. You did do that. And where are you right now? Here. You are here. In this room. Tonight.

Every single one of your decisions led you to this room tonight. I don’t care if you come to services every year or this is your first time. You are here now. And that is what matters. So, listen. I will tell you now as your rabbi that every single choice you have made was the right choice. How do I know? Because it was your choice. And you have the strength and determination to live with it. Because it made up part of the story of who you are and because it brought you here.

We are gathered here tonight and over the course of these High Holidays to declare, as we do each year, we have made our choices, and we will live with them. And we will commit to make more choices in the future. Some better, some the same, and some the result of which we have no way of knowing. Some we will actively choose. Some choices will be made for us. We have the power to choose, we have the power to change, and we have the strength to confront the inevitable.

Yes, we look to the past, but we don’t live there. We are right now the sum total of the choices made and paths taken or not taken, and reliving them is not going to change where we are. What will change, what can change, is what we do next.

Rosh Hashanah is about knowing we have the instruction book but we also have our imagination. It’s about knowing we are part of a long tradition that we then inherit and add to. Its about continuing to build a strong foundation for what comes next. And its about about knowing whatever we build can easily break, but we can fix it. It is about knowing the important vision of the past is simply knowing it brought us to this moment. And it is knowing the 8th thing I have learned fromLegos:

Whatever you build, no one has ever built before

So there it is. You have in front of you a big bin of Legos. Find your brick. And together, creatively and carefully, let’s build.

Pass the Ice Water, It’s Elul

If you are tied into social media, you are probably aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a viral phenomenon in which people challenge each other to dump a bucket of ice water on their head, in the name of raising awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal degenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Its origins are unclear. According to what I could glean from Wikipedia, there were a series of videos of cold water challenges to raise money for charities, then at some point it got picked up and attached to ALS. It then continued to spread as celebrities, politicians and others got in on the act. The basic idea is this: one is challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water on one’s head or donate money to charity. Once one goes through with it and makes a public video, they can challenge others to do it as well and, in a version, those challenged have 24 hours to follow through.

While at one point it seemed that the water dumping was supposed to be a way of getting out of giving a donation, the challenge has changed and now it is to dump water and give money—it is a way of raising awareness and funds. And it has been very successful: The ALS Association raised over $40 million in July and August alone, which is almost double what it raised in all of last year.

And yes, I got in on the act. I was challenged to do it by Rabbi Cheski Edelman, our local Chabad rabbi. And I enlisted my boys to help me get a bit creative:

The Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its detractors. Some see it as a lazy form of engagement that doesn’t really engage one in the work for social change. Others see it as drawing attention away from other worthwhile causes. Some have more deeper issues with the challenge: that ALS research uses animal testing, or ALS research involves stem cell research, or that doing it in California is problematic because of the drought. Still others kvetch that while raising the money is good what we really need is government support and research grants.

I can’t deny that privately raised funds should go to augment publicly funded research and not replace it. And I recognize that there are philosophical and even theological reasons for shunning an ice water bath. But the criticisms that it is a lazy form of social action leave me cold.

The criticism strikes me as perhaps driven by envy. One of the interesting things about the internet and social media is that we never know what is going to go viral and what is not. (Like an actual virus, how it will spread, who will catch it, are difficult questions for which to anticipate answers.) The Ice Bucket Challenge happened to start out as a small thing, then happened to get connected to ALS, then happened to go viral. And because it went viral fundraising for ALS became tremendously successful. Sure there are other worthy causes. But in this case the stars aligned a particular way, and the result is that millions of dollars were raised for a disease that often goes overlooked. The ice bucket challenge may not have created world peace, but it did a world of good.

What struck me about the Ice Bucket Challenge is the fact that what was going viral in this case was not a silly cat video, or a dance craze, but an act of tzedakah. Yes it was funny and fun, but ultimately it was a mitzvah—a sacred obligation and good deed—being passed along from person to person. A text in the ancient Jewish collection Pirke Avot, “Teachings of our Ancestors,” teaches mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah,” i.e., engaging in one mitzvah conditions a person to engage in another, and then another. In this case, because of the challenge’s public nature, it’s not just the one person doing a mitzvah who is conditioned to do another, but one person conditions another person to do a mitzvah. The mitzvot grow exponentially. With the Ice Bucket Challenge, tzedakah grows exponentially.

This week we have just entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and so ushers in the High Holiday season. Once we reach Elul, we begin to do the spiritual work of the High Holidays: looking inward, noting where we have been on our journeys, and noting where we want to go. We acknowledge the missteps we took, we make amends when necessary and we make commitments to do better in the future. This is the work of teshuvah (repentance) that we are called upon to do at this season.

We do not do this work alone. Yes, we have our own individual atonement to make. But we are all doing this work at the same time, and so are joined together in common cause as a community of reflection.

So we can take a cue from the Ice Bucket Challenge. During the High Holiday season we publically declare our intention to improve ourselves and our world. One good deed can inspire others to do likewise. An act of teshuvah can also inspire another to do likewise. Teshuvah grows exponentially. No water required.

The Amalek in Us

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, we are given a long list of commandments, many dealing with issues of economic justice and ethical behavior. The portion ends with the vehement exhortation about Amalek:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt–how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In the narrative of the Torah, Moses is speaking these words as part of his long charge to the Israelites preparing to enter into the land, a speech which is most of the book of Deuteronomy. The reference is to an episode originally recounted in Exodus 17. In that telling, the Amalekites attack the Israelites as they are marching through the desert. Moses charges Joshua to assemble an army to defend the people against Amalek, meanwhile Moses, Aaron and Hur ascend the top of a hill. During the battle, whenever Moses raised his hand, the Torah relates, the Israelites prevailed, and every time he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. When Moses got tired, Aaron and Hur put stones under his arms so his hands would be uplifted, and the Israelites won the battle.

The text goes on to say however that God charges Moses to write a document saying that the memory of Amalek is to be blotted out for all time.

The story in Exodus does not indicate why the strong condemnation of Amalek, especially since the Israelites won the battle. Indeed the identity of Amalek seems incidental to the narrative which focuses on the bit about Moses raising his arms. Rabbinic midrash understands this story to mean not that there was something magical about Moses raising or lowering his arms, but that when his arms were raised the Israelites looked up and were reminded of what it was they were fighting for and of the divine spirit which was in their midst, and when the arms were lowered they forgot all this and lost morale.

Deuteronomy comes to fill in the gap and teach about why Amalek was so strongly condemned–when he attacked, he attacked from the rear, and thus preyed on those you might expect would be at the back of a long march: the aged, the infirm, the young. Amalek thus went after the weakest part of the Israelite community and for this specifically he is ascribed a particular level of cruelty, and is seen as unique among those who attacked the Israelites. And Amalek is sometimes understood to be the paradigmatic enemy of the Jews and is a figure that has reverberated throughout history, from Haman to Hitler.

What if, though, we don’t look outside to find Amalek, but we look inside?

In this season of Elul, we are called upon to do the work of introspection. We must look within ourselves to identify where it is we need to improve, where it is we need to fix what is broken. We all, by virtue of being human, have those things we need to work on. Some of them will be superficial and easy. Others will be deep down and more difficult.

In going after the Israelites, Amalek took the easy route; he went after the proverbial “low hanging fruit.” For this he was condemned. What if, in relation to our own work of heshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) and teshuvah (repentance), we too only go after the low hanging fruit? What if we concentrate only on those parts of ourselves which are easy to fix, and neglect to take on the more difficult tasks? Will we really have created the change we want? Will we truly become new people?

We have to fight against this instinct of ourselves. We need to fight against the motivation to just focus on the superficial, without going after the deep. We need to fight against the tendency to not tackle the hard issues that we know are there. And like the Israelites, if we raise our eyes and remember that we do have this power to change and are supported by those around us and the divine within and without, then we will succeed.

This is what it means to blot out Amalek, during this month of Elul. To blot out the instinct within ourselves that lets us take the easy way out and prevents us from doing the real work of teshuvah we are called upon to do.