Have Courage (Kol Nidre 5778)

My favorite part of the Torah is the end.

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

And that is it, the Torah ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope does not breed courage. Courage breeds hope.

The minister Victoria Stafford defines it well when she writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generating, cultivating, and acting with courage.

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

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

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.


Yom Kippur Day 5777: “Addressing Homelessness in Olympia: The Need for Values in our Civic Life”

Last November, not long after the high Holidays, I took a risk when I, without prior consultation with the Board, committed our congregation to join with two other downtown faith communities to host a warming center for the homeless during the cold and wet winter months.

I don’t normally eschew process, I’m very process oriented. But the situation was dire, time was short, and when I met with my colleagues and Meg Martin from the IW shelter, we knew we needed to act fast. For as we know that during the winter months while there is a shelter, a permanent shelter, there is no daytime place for people to when the shelter closes. So I said yes, of course we would, and we would work out the details later.

And we did. The TBH took Mondays and Tuesdays and opened up, because Mondays we are closed and Tuesdays are minimal use. (The most inconvenienced group was the Senior Schmooze, which needed to move into the back classrooms for a few months. And this group was probably the most supportive group.) The shelter staff handled the management. There were rules of behavior, and a regular sign in. We set parameters as far as the boundaries of the space that could be used, and we agreed to provide a coffee and tea service for the guests. We were able to hook up cable TV—the wire lying dormant since we agreed to cable service with a bundle when we took on Comcast for our internet provider. Donations rolled in: coffee, tea, sugar, etc. And the people came.

It was amazing. It was an amazing site because of the normalcy evident within. Ultimately, the need that was served was that people just wanted a space. People just wanted to come into that space for the simple, basic reason of just being. Some conversed, some watched TV, some charged their phones, some drank coffee and some just slept—for those who went unsheltered overnight, the warming center became the place for respite, for sleep. Occasionally other service agencies came in to meet with people.

In total, the warming center operated 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. every day from November 24-March 31. The average daily number of guests was 130—not all at one time, but who signed in over the course of the day. The peak usage, which happened here, was 179. The warming center was a real success, but an unfortunate success. A success in that it served a real need, unfortunate that it was needed in the first place.

Overall, the warming center went off with minimal incident. Some increased wear and tear on the building, but we have this building, we should share it. We use it for tikkun olam just as we do for our spiritual and ritual needs. And so I thank you for your support in doing this, all of our members and guests who accommodated the warming center, I want to thank our staff, Catherine and Kirsten, who were here on a day to day basis, and who helped an facilitated with the warming center. I am very proud of the fact that we did this.
I tend to reflect on issues of social concern on Yom Kippur day because of the spirit of the haftarah that we just read. The words from Isaiah, which I had us all read, imbued with your own personal spirit of social justice and commitment to communal change. But as I learned from Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism who I studied with earlier this year as part of the Brickner Social Justice Fellowship I am doing this year, that for all his talk, Isaiah was a failure. He was a failure.

Why? Because his railings on did not result in meaningful social change.

So I don’t just want to stand here and say there is a homeless issue in our community. I want to stand here and say that we need to get behind efforts to solve it.

The warming center was not our only experience with homelessness this past year. A few weeks ago during the summer months, people started coming by the Temple and sleeping. This is not uncommon, we’ve always had this as long as we have been in this building, we have individuals who have taken shelter under our overhang, or spend the night.
But over the summer it was more, things started to change.. People started camping out, building structures out of tarps. And also, while in the past people would get up and move on in the morning, people were hanging out all day, in the courtyard and on the front entryway. And there weren’t any problems—I engaged with the folks who were staying here, most people were respectful of the space and each other, setting up guidelines and cleaning up our grounds—the situation began to become somewhat unmanageable. While we wanted to be compassionate, what were are responsibilities to our community and the people that were here?

So we convened a small group was convened to discuss the issue. We talked to other downtown faith communities that were wrestling with these issues. We talked about behavioral covenants, daytime verses nighttime, and specifically our values as a Jewish community. And after talking with people who are deeply engaged in the issue downtown, we decided that we ultimately could not manage the situation and would have to ban camping at the Temple. We were advised, with good advice from people in the know, we would need to go all in, or not at all. We would need to be engaged, monitoring constantly, checking in and aiding, possibly facilitating access to services, but it was something we realized that as a community, as a congregation we did not have the resources to do. So we had to make a difficult decision. We had to put up signs and ultimately say that there was no camping, no trespassing allowed.

And it was a challenge, based on our values and our commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam. But also realizing that in order to facilitate that tikkun olam we need to do it in a good, effective way. And so while our signs worked, the question still remains, what do we do about the issue of people who are experiencing homelessness in our community.
It is a real struggle for us because we are not just another downtown address trying to mind its small piece of real estate. We are a synagogue, a Jewish community rooted in values and a greater concern. And while we had to make that one decision because it was unsustainable to continue, it becomes our imperative then to work for a solution that is sustainable.

Interfaith Works, of which we are a member, Danny Kadden a member of our community is the Executive Director has done tremendous work on the issue of homelessness in our community, and I just want to share some reflection from Interfaith Works:

The “chaos of homelessness” is well documented, illustrating how quickly issues compound for people the longer they remain on the streets. Sheltered, “chronically homeless” adults – the most highly vulnerable subgroup experiencing homelessness – are inadequately served by existing case management resources in our community.

Because most resources are available only in fixed clinical or treatment settings that require clients to make and keep appointments on a regular or recurring basis, many persons go untreated or are only sporadically and inconsistently served, resulting in continued homelessness, persistent high utilization of emergency medical, mental health and public safety resources, and greater risk of death on the streets. The lack of effectiveness of these case management strategies constitutes a substantial barrier to services.

It’s difficult. We can understand. It’s difficult to navigate when we have means.
We have seen a lot of progress in our community. Our floating emergency shelter that we used to host 2 weeks over the winter is no more, because a more permanent shelter was established right around the corner at First Christian Church. There are many people focused on housing, from Interfaith Works as I mentioned from rapid rehousing through Sidewalk and the Family Support Center, sheltering at Camp Quixote and on. But what is sorely lacking is the ability to access services easily. What we don’t have is a place—a day place—to be when the shelters close.

There is movement on this front. The Community Care Center, sponsored by Providence and including community partners such as is becoming more and more of a reality. There was just an article about it last week in the paper. A housing levy is being discussed to build more affordable housing locally.

These are efforts that we as a congregation need to get behind. Not because it is what we experienced at our building, but because it is expected of us to do.

As a faith community deeply engaged with our civic life, we have a particular voice to bear on issues of common concern. It is no surprise that three faith communities and our local interfaith organization to create the warming center. Because we had the means on the one hand, but because it is part of our spiritual mission to help those in need. We bring to our engagement in civic life a set of values, beliefs and actions that compel us to behave in a particular way and to have particular concerns. We must act on them, and we must preach them and hear from Isaiah.

We have a gift to bring to our community and that is this particular rootedness in tradition, in values, in ideals. And it can come out not only in the work we do in our community, specifically in this case around homelessness, but to bring to bear to our entire civic life here in our community in Olympia. That to bring this idea of being a values based community to bear on our civic life just as we are called upon to be a values based community can be very, very powerful.

That to me is the point of religion as a whole, to orient ourselves towards that which is greater than ourselves. And not just that we answer to a higher authority, however you may define it, but that we have to answer to one another. We have to answer to one another. And I believe that as a community we are stronger when we are rooted in values. That we are not just concerned with what is right in front of us, that we are not just concerned with our own individual concerns, each trying to mark out our own territory. But if we take the larger picture, and apply to that a set of values that we commit to, then that that is tremendous. And that is something that we as faith communities can give to our larger civic life.

In fact, we are starting to talk about this. Starting to talk about this here locally among our faith communities, about bringing certain values to bear upon our civic life, upon our civic discourse. The question is, what are these values? What might we wish to offer? What can we offer to our civic leadership, what set of values that we can root our decision-making in?

And while across faith communities we can have a sense of agreement about what they might be, just thinking today, on this day, Yom Kippur, I look to our tradition, and what values we might be able to offer from our tradition.

And just as we hear from Isaiah echoing to give us this charge, we look to our Torah reading from this afternoon, that we will read later, from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, that can give us a guide.

This section in Leviticus that we are going to read is called “The Holiness Code” traditionally and holiness is an infusion of divine spirit, or a means of elevating one’s life beyond the prosaic, the day to day. How do we give our lives meaning? And how can we give our communities meaning? We can see this in the text that we are going to read later. I’ll give you a preview of it right now. And when I read this text, I see the value of mutuality, I see the value of compassion, I see the value of respect and I see the value of inclusion.

Mutuality: we can recognize that we are dependent on one another. In our afternoon Torah reading is that famous line, “love our neighbor as yourself.” But it doesn’t say which neighbor, just the rich neighbor, or the sheltered neighbor or the neighbor with means. It just says, “love your neighbor.” And the people around who are experiencing homelessness are our neighbors. People like to argue when we have this civic discourse that most of the people here are coming from other places, because there are so many services in Olympia. But the data does not bear that out—most are from Thurston County, they are our neighbors. And we have to remember that. We need to bring to bear the value underlying that verse that we live in a state of mutuality with one another.

And, once we identify our neighbor and recognize that we are in a state of mutuality, we need to take care of our neighbors. We need to have compassion. Yes, the verse says “love,” but love in the sense of action. The Torah doesn’t legislate feelings, but action. The Torah is not saying we need to feel a particular way, but we have to act in a particular way. And we have to act with compassion.Also in the Torah reading this afternoon we have the verse, “ When you reap the produce of your land you shall leave unharvested the corners of your field…but leave it for the poor.” Embedded here in the text is the idea of compassion for another, to be able to provide means to another, to be able to provide for another to the extent possible. Built into the fabric of life is sharing with others. Here a corner of the field. In our case, shelter. A place to go.

Compassion is the second value that we find in this text. And we do this without judgment. Each and every person in our community is worthy of and deserving of respect. Leviticus reads, “ Do not pervert the cause of justice, show favor neither to the lowly nor the mighty.” Don’t favor the lowly or the mighty, treat everyone with respect. Everyone is to be treated equally, and do not show favor. If someone comes to us in need, we should not sit in judgment. It doesn’t say, help those except for whomever, or judge those, in this case it is ok. We can’t judge, we shouldn’t judge, and ultimately we know we can’t because Besides, this is impossible to do because we do not know other’s stories. We don’t know each other’s backgrounds. We don’t know who is lowly, or who is mighty. We don’t know, and it shouldn’t matter. We treat everyone with respect.

And inclusion, our fourth value. We want to be sure that everyone is welcome, and not just those with means, not just those with shelter, but everyone who is here is counted. And one of the ways we do this is to make things accessible. In Leviticus we will read, “do not put a stumbling block before the blind. How much more that we shouldn’t put stumbling blocks in front of anyone, or to remove them if we see them. By doing so we create a more inclusive society, in which everyone is welcome. We remove the barriers, we clear the path. What are the barriers? They could be many things. They could be economic barriers. They could be cultural barriers. They could be attitudinal barriers. Remove the barriers, increase accessibility, create inclusion.

Mutuality, compassion, respect, inclusion. Isaiah preached the need to create a better society. Leviticus gives us the tools to do so.

These are good values to hold as individuals. But imagine if we can incorporate these values into our civic life. That decisions are made from our leadership with these values in mind. That decisions are not made out of a utilitarian sense of the most good for the most people, or simple economics, but how well they accord with these values?

We as a congregation, as faith communities, have a unique voice to bear on these issues. We speak the language of faith, of sacred action, of holy community, of serving a greater good. It is time that we not only uphold these commitments in how we engage in our community, but that we challenge our greater community to act in ways that are in accordance with our higher values.

And here, let us make the renewed commitment. We have been touched here by the issue of homelessness in our community. We engaged it in very real ways over this past year. We must continue to live our values and do what we can to make a real difference in our community. Because it is possible. So I chose this year to not talk about an issue that is out there, or global, or even national. I want us to think about the right here, the right now. Where it is immediately possible to make a difference.

After the warming center was over, Meg Martin from the shelter came to Erev Shabbat services one Friday to speak and to make a presentation. She spoke about the warming center and homelessness, she shared stories and data, it was very powerful. And she expressed her thanks to us as a congregation for stepping up and taking on the warming center, and for opening our doors at a time of great need.

She presented us with a plaque picture, signed by guests of the warming center. In the center is a quote that was printed on there (according to Google it is from Theodore Roosevelt, but I haven’t been able to confirm): do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

We know we are not going to solve it all, but from our corner perch here, on the corner of 8th and Washington in downtown Olympia, we are well positioned to do what we can with what we have to make this a better and stronger and more caring, resilient and values based community. That is what we have to offer. So just as we extended ourselves earlier this year with the warming center, and in other ways. Let’s continue that work of opening our doors in every way that we can.

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.

The National Anthem is Not a Loyalty Pledge. It’s Liturgy.

Time again for my turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. This time reflections on Colin Kaepernick, protest, “The Star Spangled Banner” and our upcoming holidays.

The National Anthem is Not a Loyalty Pledge. It’s Liturgy.

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.

Yom Kippur Day 5776: “Jews and Race, in Olympia and Beyond”

My friends, we need to talk about race.

Three months ago, two African American men were shot by a white police officer here in Olympia. The men were caught trying to shoplift beer at the westside Safeway and, after fleeing, were confronted by a member of the Olympia police. Some form of altercation happened, and the two men were both shot. Thankfully they were not killed, although one remains paralyzed by the incident.

And in an instant, the news that we have heard about across this country. The news of police shootings, the news of white officers, the news of black victims. It became our news. Our community became one of those communities.

Much has happened since that night Andre and Bryson were shot by Officer Donald. The evening after the shooting, I along with local clergy held a forum here in this sanctuary, with the presence of the Mayor and Police Chief, to allow members of the community to share their feelings and concerns. At the same time, a protest march made their way downtown. Since that time, as the investigation was underway, there was further organizing and coalescing, conversations and opportunities to speak out. And as the prosecutor released his report, absolving officer Donald of any wrongdoing, yet proceeding with charges against the two men, further protests were mounted.

I have been present for several of these protests. And while marred by the presence of open-carry, white supremacist activists on the one hand and by black bloc anarchists on the other—both it seems looking to provoke and wanting a fight and unfortunately finding it—these have served to peacefully remind us locally of the mantra that is echoing around our nation: Black Lives Matter, and that as a nation, we still need to have a serious conversation about race.

And we, as Jews, need to talk about race. We, as Jews, need to affirm Black Lives Matter.

There is much that can be commented on with our local shooting. As the prosecutor has released his report, and the Olympia Police Department has commenced its own internal investigation, there are questions as to whether or not proper police procedure was followed, and whether or not Officer Donald put himself in jeopardy. There is the issue about the attempted theft of beer by the two men–I can not ethically dismiss this fact though some would like to relegate it to the status of “everybody does it.” But the question of whether or not charges should have been brought is an open one. There is the issue of violence in our country, that we are quick to turn to violence in many situations, and the threat of violence—and the ubiquity of guns in our country leads to the invisible and ever present threat of violence—is another factor which led to this incident.

And even with all of this, it still boils down to physical violence perpetrated by a white person upon a black person. And for this we must make a reckoning. For this we must atone.

This is not to attack Officer Donald. This is not to attack police in general. It is to attack a system that perpetuates an injustice in which African Americans have since the beginning of this country been disadvantaged, which has led to distrust in institutions, suspicions, and fear. The mindsets, attitudes, assumptions about race are at work everyday in ways both conscious and unconscious. We may not know which of these played into the Olympia shooting, except to say that they were.

As the New York Times editorial board wrote, “The “Black Lives Matter” movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police, and is of a piece with this history. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued.” Do all lives matter? Of course they do, that is the fundamental Jewish teaching—that we are all created in the divine image, and that we all descend from a common ancestor, Adam and Eve—to teach that no one can claim superiority over another.

But unfortunately we do claim superiority one over another, and so Black Lives Matter needs to be said.blm sign

The names that gave rise to this movement are etched on our national consciousness: Freddie Gray, Baltimore; Eric Garner, Staten Island (“I can’t breathe.”); Michael Brown, Ferguson; Sandra Bland, Waller County, Texas—all at the hands of police. And then of course the murder of the Rev. Clementa Pickney at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, along with his parishoners, who were engage in sacred study when a man professing racial hatred came in and, after joining them for study and partaking of their hospitality, shot them dead.

And it was perhaps this last one that stands out the most, for the setting was too familiar.

These killings are devastating. And the numbers too are devastating.

Blacks are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites. If you take it by age, blacks ages 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Almost 1 in 3 African American men will be arrested in their lifetime. While People of Color make up 30 percent of the US population, they make up 60 percent of the prison population. People of color are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop. Harsher school punishments, higher rates of juvenile incarceration, lower wages, voting rights challenges, and on and on.

We need to talk about it, and we need to talk about it as Jews. Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama, who recently wrote a book Just Mercy, a story about his commitment to providing legal representation to the most desperate and an examination of an oftentimes unjust system.  He himself is African American. Last year he gave a talk at the Consultation of Conscience, a meeting of Jewish social justice leaders, and spoke of how in Germany, everyone wants to talk about the Holocaust. There is a desire to reckon with the past, to examine that dark chapter in the country’s history. Yet in America, we do not wish to truly examine the effects and slavery, and come to terms with what that difficult chapter in our history means for us today.

We need to begin to identify the attitudes and assumptions that lead to these disparities. That led to black kids getting killed by white cops. We need to examine, for example, privilege, or the fact that with white skin comes benefits, assumptions, advantages that are deeply rooted in a system to sustain them.

And here is where the Jewish piece becomes that more interesting. For where do Jews land on the privilege scale?

Our history is complicated. For Jewish community is by no means uniformly “white.” Jews are ethnically diverse, and not just worldwide. Across the US we have a diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities that prevent us from saying that we are a white community. About 20 percent of the Jewish population in the US is non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Our own Jewish community, and our own families (my extended family includes African Americans, Yemenites, Moroccans) are racially and ethnically diverse.

At the same time, I look at myself for example, I ethnically trace my roots to Central and Eastern Europe, and with that European ancestry comes lighter skin. And a good part of the history of the Jewish community in this country has been coming to terms with what it means to be both “white” and “non-white” where whiteness is both a physical feature and a social construct.

We know that Jews were not always accepted in this country, indeed anti-Semitism has not gone away. Jews have been relegated to the status of “other.” Racism has infected attitudes towards Jews, indeed the term anti-Semitism, coined in Germany in the 19th century, was meant to distinguish the Jew not from the Christian, but from the German, the Aryan.

At the same time, the majority of Jews who trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe have been able to “pass” and to gain entry in the majority population. Historical studies, like The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity by Eric Goldstein and How Jews Became White Folks by Karen Brodkin, trace this development and tension.

And I think that we as Jews understand privilege because, especially here in Olympia, in which we Jews are as much a minority as African Americans, find ourselves not privileged in many of our interactions and societal engagements.

For example, our ability to celebrate our holidays and worship in the way we like is not shared by the majority. So that is why you have curriculum nights at school scheduled on Yom Kippur and this coming spring the first night of Passover falls on ArtsWalk. To come to services today we had to make accommodations with our workplace or school, and sometimes supervisors or teachers are not understanding, or skeptical, or ignorant. Or maybe it comes down to more subtle things, like references and experiences shared within the Jewish community—including food or language—that is not found within the larger dominant community. Or expectations that you represent all of Judaism. Or the expectation that you know what Christmas is but there is no expectation that others know what Purim is. These are the signs that we are at the other end of privilege for much of our existence here in Olympia.

Yet when many of us walk down the street, we are no different than our Christian (or culturally Christian) neighbors. For we fit in in a predominantly white Christian community. And we can adopt to the prevailing norms as we see fit.

This complicated tension, that of being of and outside the majority, is on the one hand a challenge and an opportunity. When it comes to race, it can be seen as pitting two identities—that of majority and that of minority—against each other, unsure where to fit and not fully aligned with either side, leading to questions and doubt. And at the same time, it is an opportunity, because we understand not having privilege, and so can bring that to bear on conversations on race.

Perhaps because of this interesting history that we have found ourselves on the side of civil rights in this country. Julius Rosenwald, the force behind Sears Roebuck who donated much of his wealth to black educational institutions in the south. Jewish refugee professors fleeing Europe who found homes in black colleges in the south. Jewish attorneys who worked for the NAACP arguing such cases as Brown v. Board of Education. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who along with James Chaney freedom riders who were killed by Klansmen. Rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Maurice Eisendradth who stood shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King and joined the March on Washington.

The history of civil rights in this country is marked by the participation and active support of Jews, but it can not just be relegated to history. We can not simply live in the nostalgia of the 60s. The challenge now is to continue to pick up the mantle and continue to be allies to the African American community and to engage in issues of race in this country. And while issues relating to African Americans have been at the forefront, we remember too that the picture of race in this country is getting increasingly more complex.

So what might this look like?

Stevenson in the talk I referenced earlier mentions four things to do to confront issues of race and injustice in our country: Get close to it, change the narrative, protect our hopefulness and choose to do uncomfortable things.

Get close to it: we need to listen to the voices of African Americans. We need to listen to their stories, their fears, their concerns, their experiences. Later today at mincha we will read from Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code, and we will read “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”. The problem isn’t the first part, we know we should not stand idly by. The problem is in the second part, in determining who is our neighbor. For too often we have a too narrow view of who is our neighbor.

Learn the ideas of allyship. Just as we Jews have needed allies throughout our history. This could mean reaching out to your neighbor. This means connecting with organizations like SURJ—Standing Up for Racial Justice—an organization of white allies to African Americans. And this means recognizing and celebrating the diversity within Jewish community as well.

Change the narrative: “Our history,” Stevenson says, “is that for decades we humiliated and anguished and injured people of color.” We need to gain perspective on this story, and come to terms with it.

Moses was born in Egypt, and though an Israelite, raised within the Pharaoh’s household. He was, culturally, an Egyptian. As an adult he ended up murdering an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave, he then fled for his life to Midian, another land on the Arabian peninsula. There he married and had a son, whom he named Gershom, or “stranger there” because, as the text says, “I am a stranger in a foreign land.”

Moses the cultural Egyptian, raised in privilege among the majority population, was only able to see difference when he himself had the experience of being the other, the ger, the “foreign one.” And once he had this perspective, it was only then that he was able to return to Egypt and serve as a liberator.

If we can recognize our privilege and recognize our lack of privilege as well, then we like Moses, can gain perspective and then help change the narrative.

Protect our hopefulness. As Stevenson says, “Injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.” And we Jews have always been the people of hope. From our long history of overcoming hatred and oppression and genocide to the notion of shearit yisrael—a remnant of Israel—that will always exist to uphold the covenant, we are a people of hope. Any severe decree, as we say in our liturgy in the Unetaneh Tokef, can be overcome with prayer, repentance and righteousness. This is a statement of hope.

And it is a statement of action, for as Stevenson says, we must choose to do uncomfortable things.

One of the most powerful things I read on race recently was Ta-Nahisi Coates unflinching and powerful book Between the World and Me. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It was uncomfortable.  It is written as a letter to his son, in which Coates provides hard truths, deep experiences and dire warnings about growing up as a black man in America.

Coates speaks of the Dream and the Dreamers, but this is an exclusively white dream. And not only a white dream, but a dream built on the back of blacks. This passage stood out:

They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them n slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, and entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to strain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

“Vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we must choose to do uncomfortable things. We must choose to remember, remember our history and the history of this country. We must remember that racism continues to be a persistent threat. We must remember that we have a voice and a presence as another minority in this town.

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we raise the banner of black lives matter, to commit to hear the stories, to be allies, to be in community, to engage. We know we do not have all the answers—I know I don’t have all the answers—but we commit to learn, to grow, to question, to do our own work and to follow when necessary.

On this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans, we reject the phrase all lives matter. It is true, but it is not what is needed at this time. And, at the same time, we can not summarily dismiss and devalue institutions like government, or the police, for those, like us, are human, and have the ability to change and grow. We open ourselves up to forgiveness and repair.

And on this day, when we acknowledge being vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans we commit to justice, and commit to healing. We know it is possible. As we just read in the haftarah from Isaiah,

Indeed, not for all time shall I be quarrelsome,

Not for eternity shall I seethe with rage,

But from me shall my spirit drip like dew.

I shall create the breath of life.

We are vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

“God,” Stevenson says, “uses the weak and the broken to say the things that must be said in a just space.” Moses was broken, Isaiah was broken, we are broken. So we’ll say the things that must be said. We will not forget. We will raise up the fallen. We will stand with the powerless. We will recognize and celebrate and honor the ethnic and racial diversity within Jewish community. And we will use our Jewish perspective, as those who have suffered at the receiving end of prejudice and hatred, as those who glide in and out of privilege, as those whose numbers include many races and backgrounds, to create the breath of life anew in this country, beginning with our streets and our city.

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

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now is the time to begin to change

Now is the time to offer your unique contribution.

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

Et Ratzon—the time is now.

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

As the contemporary singer songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it:

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

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

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

“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.