President’s Remarks, Rosh Hashanah 2021

A year ago I was forced to pre-record my Torah reading and remarks. It was honestly crushing for me, having had several years to anticipate these responsibilities and privileges.I was angry; I felt cheated. For the past several months, things seemed to be improving, and I looked forward to being able to stand here today and say “we’re back.” But here we are tonight, and that’s only partially true. Circumstances have prevented our reopening from coming to complete fruition. Nevertheless, I see an analogy between this long, challenging journey and the more typical act of coming into the temple. I suggest that we are, at this moment, in the lobby, figuratively speaking, and ask you to join me there for a few minutes.

And, of course, I think of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert, with its different layered spaces requiring increasing preparation, privileges, and sacrifices as one approached the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.

Regardless, the common denominator of these interim spaces is that they are transitional and preparatory, places where change takes place. 

We pass through a foyer when entering this sanctuary. We pass a beautiful painting and our tree of life, but this is not simply a physical passage. Here at Vassar Temple we have two sets of doors before you reach the sanctuary; those same two doors must be navigated to re-enter the outside world. What do we bring in and take out with us? Is it a casual drop-off for you? a lifesaving protocol? or a crushing, negative obligation? Are these deliberate choices, or dictated by other people or forces? And how do you use that intervening space to prepare for the transition in or out? Do you leave anything in the lobby temporarily to pick back up on your way out? 

Like coming into our physical temple, we can stop, pause, and take stock of where we are in our pandemic passage.  Let’s all ask what we can leave behind and what we should take in with us. 

We have been forced by Covid to prioritize, and I hope that you have found this community to be not only a priority but also an incredible resource. While we have learned that we are not defined by our building, nonetheless as we pass together through the real and figurative lobby, hopefully sooner rather than later, we intend to build on those rediscovered connections and use the lessons to strengthen ourselves.

The holy days also offer us a passage. Please use your time there to consider what you want to bring in, what you want to place on hold, what you want to leave behind, and what you hope to take with you when you emerge.  Personally, I’m at least attempting to leave behind that anger – some days are easier and some are harder – and focus on the happier moments and the love and support of family, friends, and especially the friends who might as well be family – you know who you are.

Wherever you are tonight, whether here physically or virtually, I welcome you to enter fully into this sacred space and time and to our unique annual opportunity to take stock.  L’shanah tovah. 


“Teshuvah and Reparations”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5782

Yom Kippur brings to a close Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.  Hopefully, we have spent these days addressing areas in our own lives in need of attention.  We move through our liturgy today with a sense of urgency; these are the final moments as we head towards the closing gates of Neilah

And yet, our tradition says, the gates of repentance are never completely locked.  Despite the urgency to do this now, the sages recognized that repentance, when taken seriously, is not a quick or easy process.  It involves a number of steps:

1.  Recognizing what you did wrong and expressing regret

2.  Stopping the harmful action

3. Confessing and asking for forgiveness

4.  Making the commitment not to repeat past mistakes

5.  Repaying what was taken and receiving forgiveness.

Teshuvah is challenging, to be sure.  And this is just one individual towards another.

This year I’ve been wrestling with teshuvah on a grander scale.

As you may recall, last year I invited people to join me in a learning process about racism.  I’m so pleased that more than a dozen of us gathered about once a month for our “Racism Reading Group”.  We’ve read five books thus far.  It was a wonderful and challenging year of engaging in frank and open discussion.  With a special session on implicit bias, it really became a consciousness raising experience, as we developed a greater awareness of our own subconscious – and sometimes conscious – prejudices as well as ways in which we can become better allies.

Through all of this reading as well as watching compelling programs addressing the experience of Blacks in America, I kept asking myself: How can we possibly do teshuvah?  How can we make it up to Blacks in this country for all that has been taken away from them, opportunities that have been closed off by decades of subjugation?  And yet, how can we not? 

In her powerful book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, discusses the challenges of taking a first step, the same first step that we talk about in teshuvah: taking ownership of our wrongdoing.

 “Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement,” she writes, “in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world.  Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history.  It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. 

But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order.”[i] 

Should we feel guilty for something that happened hundreds of years ago?  Are we to be held responsible?  Dr. Aaron Lazare, Chancellor and Dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, addresses these questions in his book On Apology  “…. people are not guilty for actions in which they did not participate.  But just as people take pride in things for which they had no responsibility (such as famous ancestors, national championships of their sports teams or great accomplishments of their nation), so, too, must these people accept the shame (but not guilt) of their family, their athletic teams, and their nations.  Accepting national pride must include willingness to accept national shame when one’s country has not measured up to reasonable standards….  Second, people have benefited from these actions…  the use of slave labor by a nation … may continue to benefit future generations of citizens.  Such beneficiaries, while not guilty, may feel a moral responsibility to those who suffered as a result of the offense.[ii]

Wilkerson makes many comparisons between the German response to its past and the lack of doing so here in the United States.  She relates the experience of a group of German students on a tour of the history of the Third Reich.  When asked if they feel guilt for what the Germans did, they said, “Yes, we are Germans and Germans perpetrated this.  … it is the older Germans who were here who should feel guilt.  We were not here.  We ourselves did not do this. But we do feel that, as the younger generation, we should acknowledge and accept the responsibility.  And for the generations that come after us, we should be the guardians of the truth.”[iii]

Being guardians of the truth about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the struggle for civil rights and the on-going inequities – teaching the truth – doesn’t mean that we are a racist nation today.  It means that we are coming to terms with horrific parts of our past.  Owning that past is difficult and disturbing.  The more I learn, the more I am so deeply ashamed of my country – of its past and of the ways in which racism has embedded itself in all aspects of our society and continues today.

Any guilt we should bear will be dependent upon how we act today – if we enable racism to continue.   Doing teshuvah demands that we commit to not repeating sins of the past and to finding ways to make whole those who have been so wronged and who continue to suffer from our nation’s sins.

Last week, a statue of Robert E. Lee, the first of six Confederate monuments to be erected on what become known as Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, once the capital of the Confederacy, was the last to be removed, following a year of legal struggles.  Though these statues were once at the heart of Richmond’s identity, events of recent years, including the riots in Charlottesville and the murder of George Floyd, along with the growing diversity of Richmond itself, have brought about changes such that the statues were removed without a huge public backlash, as might have been anticipated.   One longtime resident, Irv Cantor, who is white, expressed his own evolution on the issue, “I was naively thinking that we could keep these statues and just add new ones to show the true history, and everything would be fine…Now I understand the resentment that folks have toward these monuments.  I don’t think they can exist anymore.”[iv]

The successful removal of these monuments also reflects decades of work on racial reconciliation in the city.   It has not been, nor will it be, a straight path moving forward.   Certainly, everyone does not agree with Mr. Cantor.  

At Third Church, a mostly white, largely conservative congregation, Pastor Corey Widmer has been working hard to help his congregants accept the directions in which the country is moving about race.  “There’s so much fear and so much political polarization,” he said.   “…Every pastor in Richmond who is trying to help white Christians see Black Americans’ perspective and “reckon with our own responsibility has really been grieved by the conflict and pain that it has caused.”

 “And yet this is how we change. Face it head on. Work through it. Love each other. Try to stay at the table. And just keep working. I don’t know what else to do.”[v]

Of course, these statues are symbolic of deeper core issues, struggles about who gets to define America’s history and how we understand the nature of racism in our country.

Though removal of these symbols is only the beginning, it is an important step in addressing the pain of Black Americans and demonstrating that, as a nation, we are taking responsibility for our past.  We know well the impact of symbols, the pain we experience when vandals either acting out of hate or just seeking attention, scratch swastikas outside synagogues or other Jewish institutions.  Rightfully we demand a swift response from authorities. 

In Germany, displaying a swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.  And Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces.  Rather, they have built monuments and memorials to the victims of the Nazi atrocities and museums to preserve and educate about this dark chapter in their history.  They even paved over Hitler’s bunker.

Gary Flowers, a Black radio show host in Richmond, planned to celebrate the removal of Lee’s statue “by telling pictures of his dead relatives that ‘the humiliation and agony and pain [they] suffered has been partly lifted.’”[vi]

Removing these offensive symbols is one of the steps of reparations that America needs to do to make teshuvah for its treatment of Blacks.

Yes, I said reparations.  Reparations is an essential step in our process of teshuvah.  We are required to make up to the person wronged for what we have done.  According to Maimonides, we are to repay what was taken, with interest.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln called for reparations: “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.. to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

That call has yet to be followed up.  In fact, after the war, Lincoln supported reparations to former slave owners for the loss of their human property.  Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill for reparations for the formerly enslaved.

How does one make restitution to a people degraded and dehumanized by 250 years of slavery, by 90 years of Jim Crow and on-going systematic racism that discriminates and subjugates people based on the color of their skin?

Racial inequity is present in virtually every aspect of American life. 

According to a 2016 study of the wealth gap between blacks and whites, if disparities in wealth continue at current rates, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the wealth that white families have now. (Caste, 381)

Black women experience maternal deaths at three to four times that of white women.

Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to white babies.

Blacks are incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times higher than that of whites.[vii]

And the list goes on.

The questions surrounding reparations are numerous to be sure:  to whom are reparations owed?  How does one measure suffering and damages?  What would be adequate payment?  What forms should reparations take?  And, fundamentally, how would reparations change the social conditions that perpetuate the offense?[viii]

We do know of reparations in modern history:  Germany paid reparations to the government of Israel for Holocaust survivors; our government made reparations to Japanese Americans interned in WWII.  These payments were but one part of the process of teshuvah; they represented taking ownership of the wrong and they did provide some help to the victims.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to put forward federal legislation to explore reparations.  HR 40, a bill to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans was first introduced in 1989 and reintroduced every year in Congress since.  At its Biennial convention in 2019 our Reform movement voted in favor of establishing such a commission.   Finally, this past April, the proposal was moved from the judiciary committee to the House floor for a vote.  President Biden has agreed to sign it once it gains approval in Congress.

Even as federal legislation is still in doubt, changes are taking place slowly on the local level.  Universities such as Brown and Georgetown have established scholarships for descendants of slaves whose owners were affiliated with that school. 

The Minneapolis Council of Churches has established a 10-year project that will include Truth and Reconciliation commissions; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings in congregations; and reparations to Black and Indigenous people of color for the harm done by white supremacy in Minnesota.

Reparations is not only financial; it also involves institutional change.

Our teshuvah means ensuring that everyone has access to one of most important elements of our democratic society – the right to vote.  At Vassar Temple our Civic Engagement committee continues to work through our movement’s “Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign” to fight voter suppression.  We continue to have non-partisan postcard writing projects to people who may be in danger of being dropped from the roles, encouraging them to register.  At the same time, we need legislation that will ensure that this essential right is available and accessible to all eligible voters.  An agreement may be at hand in Congress to pass a voting rights bill. 

Some white Jews may say that with the rise of antisemitism, that should be our priority, not racism.  It is true, antisemitism is on the rise and is of great concern.  But we have learned and seen time again, hate is not limited to one group.    Where there is antisemitism, racism is there as well, and vice versa.  Besides, 12-15% of the Jewish community are people of color.  Fighting racism is an act of solidarity with fellow Jews. White supremacy is our collective enemy, and we must commit to dismantling it.[ix]

We will have an opportunity in a few weeks to participate in a such an expression of solidarity.  I hope that you will join me on Sunday, October 3rd at 2 pm. for a United March Against Hate downtown, co-sponsored thus far by Jewish Federation, the Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights, the Dutchess County African American Clergy Association and the “All-For-One” organization.

As our nation takes initial steps to make teshuvah, each of us is called upon to examine our own responsibility for enabling racism.  Wilkerson reminds of us that we have the power to change the status quo: 

“A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist- in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits.  … we have a choice.  We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate.  We can be born to a subordinate caste but resist the box others force upon us.  And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedastals.”[x]

During these days of Repentance, we are held accountable for our actions.  Now we prepare again to confess our sins and plea to God for forgiveness through the Al Chet prayer.  Though written in the plural voice, the Al Chet includes sins that we as individuals surely did not commit.  And yet, we stand in solidarity with the larger community.  We recognize that we are complicit in the sins of society and that we obligated to work with others to strive to eradicate them.

Before we turn to that prayer, I want to conclude with excerpts of an Al Chet prayer written by Yavila McCoy, a pioneer of the Jewish diversity and equity movement.  I hope that you will carry into your prayers and actions the sentiments incorporated in her words:

I am saying Al Chet

For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias.

For the sins we have committed through hardening our hearts to the need for change.

For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly.

For the sins we have committed through uttering racist words.

For the sins we have committed through acts of racial micro-aggression.

I am saying Al Chet

For the sins we have committed through the denial of the tzelem elokim (the divine spark) within Black bodies.

For the sins we have committed through segregating Black bodies from participation and leadership within our institutions.

For the sins we have committed in deceiving others by not teaching our children the worth, value and contributions of Black people.

For all these sins, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement.

For the sins of racism we have committed through passing judgement.

For the sins of racism that we have committed through baseless hatred.

For the sins of racism that we have committed through turning a blind-eye to pain and suffering around us.

For the sins of racism that we have committed by not seeing racism as an evil among us.

For the sins of racism that we have committed by not committing to end it.

For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement.[xi]

[i] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste:  The Origins of Our Discontents, p. 43

[ii] Aaron Lazare, On Apology, p. 41-42

[iii] Wilkerson, p. 349


[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.


[viii] Lazare, p. 132


[x] Wilkerson, p. 380


“Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5782

“Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere.[i]

The opening line of this reflection on Kol Nidrei found in our mahzor incapsulates the message of this prayer that has become so central to our worship on Yom Kippur.

Yet, Kol Nidrei is not really a prayer at all.

It is a legalistic formula said before a Beit Din, a rabbinic court represented by individuals holding Torah scrolls.  These ancient scrolls, our grounding, our moral anchor, bear witness to our testimony as the Day of Atonement begins.

The text of the Kol Nidrei itself, at least at first glance, seems rather bizarre and counter to basic principles we understand in Judaism:

All vows—

Resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation,

Sworn promises and oaths of dedication –

That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves

From this Day of Atonement until next Day of Atonement, may it find us well:

We regret them and for all of them we repent.

Let all of them be discarded and forgotten, abolished and undone;

They are not valid and they are not binding.

Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;

And our oaths – they shall not be oaths.

The origins of Kol Nidrei are unclear.   While folklore attributes it to the Marranos of the Spanish Inquisition, it is of much earlier origin, perhaps from a similar experience of Jews in Spain in the 6th century.  It may have evolved out of the ancient Babylonian belief in magical adjuration with a formula to cancel the oaths of demons that would cause harm.  Whatever its origins, it is clear that this prayer arose in response to the seriousness with which rabbinic law treated vows as laid out in the Torah.  Yet, there is no mention of Kol Nidrei in the Talmud.   The rabbis frowned upon this wholesale declaration nullifying one’s vows, an action counter to biblical laws.   The Babylonian post-Talmudic sages even referred to Kol Nidrei as a “foolish custom” and tried to eradicate it.  No such luck!  By the 13th century, Kol Nidrei was a given in the Yom Kippur liturgy.  The original version was actually in the language of the past:  all vows that we were not able to keep, let them not be binding.   In order to harmonize Jewish law which prohibits such annulment with the strong desire of the people for this prayer, the rabbis put the text in the future:  let those vows, promises and oaths that we are unable to keep, let those not be binding.[ii]

In either case, Kol Nidrei presents us with a moral dilemma.  Can we cast aside promises that we were unable to keep?  What is the value of our commitments if they can simply be nullified months from now?  This dilemma was most apparent to the early reformers, the post-enlightenment rabbis who were fighting for civil rights for Jews. Our word had to be trusted.  This prayer would fuel the fires of antisemitism, where Jews could be accused of not keeping promises.  Indeed, for a time, Kol Nidrei was absent from early Reform mahzorim, but by the 1945 edition of the Union Prayer Book, it was back in place, ambiguities and all.

Whether it is its haunting melody or the sense of tradition, Kol Nidrei has maintained a central place in the Jewish soul.  So much so that the service for the evening of Yom Kippur bears its name.  It is said three times so that no late comer should miss its words and holding the scrolls for Kol Nidrei is among the highest honors bestowed.

What is the power of its message?

In his book of spiritual preparation for the holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “Kol Nidrei is about speaking true – about the power of speech.  It is a gift to us from a time far back in our tribal consciousness when we seemed to understand these things better than we do now, when we seemed to understand the biblical warning that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths.” [iii]

Our words matter; words have power.  We learn that in the very beginning of our sacred text.  The vehicle God uses to create the world is speech: “And God said, let there be light.  And there was light.”  The psalmist taught us: “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” (18:21).   

We know the power of our words – how what we say can raise others up or knock them down.  We know the power of our leaders’ words – how they can bring people together or drive them apart; how they can incite violence or provide comfort and calm. 

In this difficult time of COVID, where life is literally at stake, we rely on the words of those in positions of power, be they elected or ascribed through media and other platforms; we rely on them to speak truth based on science and scholarship and not to spread false information that can, in fact, endanger others.

We bear responsibility for our words. Apparently, my grandmother didn’t always say the kindest things.  My grandfather often said, “Mariam, if only your ears could hear what your mouth is saying…”  Kol Nidrei calls us to think about and listen carefully to the words we speak.

“Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere.” 

“On Kol Nidrei we affirm that it is an absolute catastrophe, it throws the soul out of balance, to have our words out of line with our deeds,” wrote Lew.[iv]

Kol Nidrei calls us to lives of integrity.  

It is tradition to wear a tallit on Kol Nidrei, the only evening service where one does (unless one is in the role of prayer leader).

That is because of the Kol Nidrei. 

Remember, it not a prayer – it is a legal formula.  As it is forbidden to conduct any legal transactions on a holy day, the custom is to recite Kol Nidrei as the sun is setting, when it is still day and not yet night, a time when one would normally wear a tallit in prayer.

What makes a tallit a tallit?   The tzitzit, the special fringes, the strings that are inserted in the four corners of the garment and knotted in a particular way to represent the 613 mitzvot.

Some Jews also wear a tallit katan, a garment under their shirt, worn at all times, with the tzitzit in the fours corners.  It serves as a constant reminder to observe the commandments, because our words must be in line with our deeds.

The obligation to wear tzitzit comes from the book of Numbers and is included as the final section of the full v’ahavta, the prayer that reminds us that we take these obligations with us, when “when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up.”  We keep them as a sign on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.

In our regular prayer book, Mishkan Tefillah, opposite that part of the v’ahavta, there is a reading adapted from words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that conveys a deeper significance for the practice of tzitzit:

Life without integrity

is like loosely hanging threads,

while in acts of piety we learn to understand that

every instant is like a thread

raveling out of eternity to form a delicate tassel.

We must not cast off the threads

but weave them into the design of an eternal fabric.

Each day points to eternity;

the fate of all time depends upon a single moment.[v]

“On Kol Nidrei we affirm that it is an absolute catastrophe, it throws the soul out of balance, to have our words out of line with our deeds.”   Lew reminds us that it is integrity that keeps our souls in balance; Heschel reminds us that it is integrity that binds us together; that the fate of all depends on how we live and act in each and every moment.

Rick and I have recently started watching a series about a Danish Prime Minister.  It reminds me of West Wing or Madame Secretary, portraying the intricacies and challenges of political leadership.  In the opening episode, the main character, who is the leader of one of the parties vying for control, is given the opportunity to potentially unseat the current Prime Minister by confronting him publicly with incriminating evidence of what appears to be inappropriate use of government funds that was obtained by her aide in a rather unethical manner.  She will have nothing to do with that and immediately fires the aide.  She will not compromise her integrity for political gain.  Naturally, a rather sleezy head of another party has no qualms about using that information.  (The show is called Borgen and it’s on Netflix if you want to see what happens.)

Though the dilemma this character faces is of higher stakes because of her position, it is the same challenge that each of us encounters when we are faced with ethical choices.  Do our words, does the way we portray ourselves, match our deeds?

For those in positions of power – any kind of power – the stakes are much higher as they hold a public trust.  We have witnessed too many times when integrity loses to ego, be it with elected officials, clergy, coaches, sports figures, producers, directors – the list goes on.  Primary, of course, are the immediate victims of their actions.  But society as a whole suffers as well when such trust is violated and we lose our faith in those upon whom we should be able to depend for truth and decency, those who serve as role models for our children.  When integrity is lost, the threads begin to unravel. 

Because absolute power does have the potential to corrupt absolutely, those in positions of power need “integrity checks” like the tzitzit.  The Torah calls for such a check for ancient Israelite kings:  they were required to keep a copy of the Torah by their sides at all times, to remind them of the law and their obligation to follow it, that they were not above it.

That didn’t always work, so prophets became the “integrity checks.”   

It was the prophet Nathan who called King David out for having an affair with a married woman, Bathsheba, and then sending her husband to be killed in battle after she became pregnant by David.  David admitted his wrong and paid the consequences and retained the kingship.

Later kings did not heed the words of the prophets.  Nor did the priests who became corrupt, nor did the people who followed the wrong role models.  Tomorrow morning we will hear the words of Isaiah who called the people to account for their hypocrisy, for fasting and afflicting themselves on Yom Kippur, calling themselves righteous, but closing their hands to the poor, turning their backs on the needy.  Ritual and prayer are offensive to God when not accompanied by acts of justice, compassion and righteousness.  Our words must be in line with our deeds.

Fortunately, in this country, we do have “integrity checkers” on those in positions of power:  a political system with its built-in checks and balances that must function independently of one another; a free press that enables investigative reporters to speak truth to power; paths for victims of sexual abuse or harassment to speak out.  And, we, the citizens, have a voice – through our vote, through protest – to demand accountability, to demand integrity.

Still, we know, that our human systems are imperfect — that they and we will fail at achieving our goals, our egos will win out sometimes, we will lose sight of the right path.  That brings us back to the conundrum of Kol Nidrei: we make promises, but we ask not to be held accountable for them?

Rabbi David Stern, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Dallas, TX, offers a compelling resolution:

“Kol Nidei raises, on our day of striving for moral acuity, the question of moral ambiguity.  On the one hand, the humbling message seems to be that we should stay flexible in the face of the world’s complexity.  But at the same time, what is the point of Yom Kippur if not to restore us to our guiding convictions?  How do we do both?  Similarly, even as Kol Nidrei grants release from the commitments we fail to keep, we know that chaos would ensue without some sense that we could hold each other accountable.

At the outset of the day when we seek to both confirm our moral horizons and to forgive and be forgiven for our moral failings, Kol Nidrei sets a deep spiritual challenge:  to hold our convictions with both strength and compassion, to pursue them with integrity and humility.”[vi]

Kol Nidrei concludes with God’s promise, “I forgive as you have asked.”

Let our speech be pure and our promises sincere.

Let our spoken words

— every vow and every oath –

be honest and well-intentioned.

Let our words cause no pain, bring no harm,

and never lead to shame, distrust, or fear.

And, if after honest effort,

we are unable to fulfill a promise, a vow, or an oath,

may we be released from its obligation

and forgiven for our failure.

May our speech be pure and or promises sincere.[vii]

[i] Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 19

[ii] Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ed., All These Vows:  Kol Nidrei, pp. 6-11

[iii] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 188

[iv] Ibid., p. 198

[v] Mishkan Tefillah, p. 237

[vi] Rabbi David Stern, “Night Vision: A Gift of Sacred Uncertainty” in All These Vows: Kol Nidrei, p. 212-213

[vii] Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 19

“A Path Towards Growth from the Trauma of COVID”

A Sermon for Rosh Hashannah Morning 5782

Where was Isaac?  What happened to Isaac after the angel stayed his father’s hand and he sacrificed the ram instead?  After the angel blesses Abraham he descends the mountain – alone.  Isaac, his son who was almost sacrificed, is not mentioned.

The next thing we learn, Sarah has died.   Abraham mourns and arranges for her burial.   Again, no mention of Isaac.  Not at her death and not at her burial.  The mother who doted on him, protected him, loved him unconditionally suddenly is gone and he is not there.

Isaac has disappeared from the narrative.  He re-emerges sometime later when his father’s servant Eliezer comes looking for him, bringing Rebekah to be his wife.  The passage of time is unclear, but Isaac seems to be, as we might say, in a “good place.”  He marries Rebecca and, as the text tells us, “He loved her and found comfort after his mother’s death.”  While there is no record of any further contact between Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and his half-brother, Ishmael, together bury Abraham.  The Torah is always so short with words; the mere mention of this event gives it value.  Perhaps, it is an indication that Isaac was able to achieve some closure in his relationship with his father and rebuild one with his half-brother.

Isaac becomes a very successful shepherd and digs anew the wells his father had dug that were stopped up by the Philistines.  He develops his own relationship with God, with whom he pleads on behalf of his barren wife.  They have twin sons, Jacob and Esau; unfortunately, Isaac does not appear to have integrated lessons about favoritism from his own childhood in his parenting of his sons, but that is for another sermon.

Since the Torah doesn’t offer insights into characters’ interpersonal struggles, one can only imagine how it was that Isaac was able to overcome the traumatic events of his youth and still become a highly functioning adult, husband and father, even if an imperfect one at that.

We do get a hint at what might have helped him on that journey.  When Eliezer finds Isaac, the text says “Vayetze Yitzhak lasuach basadeh”.  The meaning of the term “lasuach” is unclear; the phrase is most commonly translated as “Isaac was going out to stroll in the fields.”  Based on the use of the same term in the Psalms, the medieval commentator Rashi translates “lasuach” as “to pray” or “to meditate.” In either case, it seems that Isaac was in the habit of walking or meditating or praying in the evening.  One might imagine, therefore, that Isaac could have spent this time reflecting on his life, wrestling with his painful past and finding peace with it so that he was ready to start a new chapter. 

Some 20 years ago, two psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, noted that with appropriate reflection, support and guidance, trauma survivors can experience positive psychological changes from struggling with the traumatic events of their lives.  They named this phenomenon “Post Traumatic Growth” and observed five areas of growth:  appreciation of life, relationships with others, awareness of personal strengths, discovery of new possibilities, and spiritual life.  While people do not manifest growth in all of these areas, and not all at once, growth in any area is deemed positive. [i]

Perhaps we can view Isaac as a model of Post Traumatic Growth, successfully addressing the incredibly painful episodes of his youth, while finding ways to grow from those experiences so that he could lead a happy and productive adulthood, carrying forward the faith of his father and passing it on to a new generation. 

A pandemic is a traumatic event for each of us as individuals and collectively, for our country and, indeed, for the world.   To be sure, we have suffered different degrees of trauma.  Most of us are fortunate and can only sympathize with those who suffered the most devastating losses:  the deaths of loved ones, unemployment, loss of business, eviction.  Many suffered through the virus itself, some still battling the long-term symptoms, while others navigated the challenges of caring for loved ones who were sick.  In ways large and small, the past 18 months have upended all of our lives and we are not yet out of the woods. 

We long to return to life before COVID, but we know that we cannot for our world has forever been altered.   In truth, we don’t even have time to heal from this trauma as we must keep on moving forward, moving through it to keep functioning until we get to the other side of it.  Where will each of us be then?  How will we have been impacted by this pandemic?

Psychologist and HUC-JIR faculty member, Dr. Betsy Stone teaches a fundamental principle related to Post-Traumatic Growth: our goal ought not to be to reset to who we were; rather, to reset to what we are becoming.  By taking a Post-Traumatic Growth approach to living through this pandemic, we can move beyond our losses and frustrations, even as we must acknowledge and process them, and turn their painful lessons towards our benefit.  

We actually have some experience with such an approach as it is similar to what we do each year at this season.  While our focus during these Days of Repentance begins with reflections on the past and making amends for what we have done wrong, our attention is really on moving forward, recognizing that we are not stuck in that place.  With each new year we are called upon to reset to what we are becoming.

I cannot imagine that someone could be living through this time and not be touched deeply by the devastating loss of life.   The numbers and images are just overwhelming.  Surely, bearing witness to this pain and suffering, at some moment, each of us has experienced a deep sense of gratitude for our very lives.  So, we hug our loved ones a little tighter and stay in that place of gratitude briefly, then slowly we drift back into our normal patterns.

What if we could hold onto that sense of appreciation, integrating it in our daily lives?  Living with an awareness of the fragility of life can positively impact so many aspects of our lives, from how we relate to others, to exhibiting greater generosity for those in need, to taking better care of our world. 

It’s not by chance that the researchers included spiritual life among the areas in which one manifests post-traumatic growth.    In times of challenge, we can find the grounding in faith, in rituals, in connecting to something much bigger than us, that can help us to strive to make meaning out of chaos.  Early on in the pandemic, people of all faiths were drawn to their religious communities in numbers far greater than average attendance.  That was certainly our experience. True, in part it was the easy access of zoom or livestream, but so many of us sought community, we sought comfort, we sought strength in one another and in the words of our tradition.

Developing a spiritual practice like Isaac, who went out in the evening to stroll, to meditate, and/or to pray, is certainly a path towards become more mindful of the blessings of our lives.  

So much of prayer is about pausing to make us more aware and to give thanks.    When we say Motzi before we eat – we are actually stopping to say, “Wow, I am so lucky to have this food.”    Perhaps in our pausing we can consider all that went into growing and preparing that food and find ways to show our appreciation.  So, too, can we remember those who struggle for food and take actions on their behalf.

I spoke last night about our tradition of sharing simchas during Shabbat services and how doing so can give us hope.  I have to admit that pre-COVID I minimized the significance of this ritual.   Now I appreciate it as one of the most important elements of our worship when, despite the challenges we are facing, we can raise up and celebrate life’s special moments. 

During the Selichot program last week, we spent some time reflecting on our experiences of the pandemic.  One of the reflection prompts was to think about what we have missed.  For most of us, our initial response – family and friends — was shrugged off as a given and we moved on to other things.   More than anything this pandemic has reminded us just how precious are the relationships in our lives.  What joy we felt in those reunions!  We will demonstrate Post-Traumatic Growth if the painful memories of those forced separations motivate us to keep our relationships central, to focus more attention on them and not to take them for granted, to nurture those that need cultivation and strive to rebuild that which may be broken, to be more accepting of others’ flaws even as we learn to accept our own, perhaps letting go of things that in our new bigger picture may not matter all that much.

The forced isolation of COVID exposed us as well to the isolation that some people experience all the time.   We found ways to maintain connections, even when not being able to be physically present.  The significance of this outreach cannot be understated, especially for those who had to navigate loss without the support of and comfort from community.   

COVID has challenged us in ways we could never have imagined.  No doubt we have all discovered abilities we never knew we had or learned new skills that we had thought were beyond us.  We were forced to change how we did everything – how we interacted with others, how we worked, how we parented, how we shopped, how we played, how we helped others, how we relaxed, how we engaged with the world!   The list is endless and each of ours is unique.  Above all, we have all learned just how adaptable we can be.

All too often, many of us focus on what we cannot do or what we wish we could do.  Coming through this pandemic is an opportunity to lift up what we have accomplished, what we can in fact do and, even new skills that we’ve acquired.  These ought to be, in Stone’s words, our “COVID keepers,” that which we hold onto even when do we reach a new normal.

Turning our world upside down and inside out, COVID did force us to do things differently and even to see aspects of our lives in new ways.  We quickly became aware of that which was most important to us, often because of people we couldn’t see or things we couldn’t do.  It took energy, creativity and planning to do most anything, so it became clear early on what we valued most.  A positive outcome from all of the isolation and forced limitations could be a renewed sense of our priorities; an awareness of our ability to adapt and change can open our eyes to see new possibilities, a willingness to explore making changes that can improve our lives overall.

Studies are showing a significant uptick in the number of people who are seeking to make a change in their professional lives due to COVID.  According to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, 1 in 4 workers is preparing to look for opportunities with a new employer once the pandemic threat has subsided.  Why?  Many of their reasons reflect Post-Traumatic Growth:  they feel stuck in their current positions and want career advancement; they want an employer who will provide benefits central to their economic well-being; they want flexibility in work schedules, including the option to work remotely part of the time; and they want a better work-life balance.  Some employers are taking note and re-evaluating current practices with an eye towards changes.[ii] 

We don’t have to make dramatic changes like a new job to experience post traumatic growth.  It might be as simple as realizing that little things that used to upset us just aren’t worth the anger or having more energy or discovering new interests.  Experiencing growth from trauma is not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes time, effort and patience.  

We are living through an unbelievably challenging time.  It is so hard to see beyond the hills we still have to climb.  We don’t even know the long-term effects that COVID will have on individuals as well as on our society.   It is quite understandable that these fears and challenges can overwhelm us.  However, if we can focus our energies and attentions beyond those fears and the losses and find ways to see and celebrate the gains and the ways that we have grown out of this experience, we will all be stronger in the end.

There is an ancient Japanese technique of fixing cracked pottery called Kintsugi that is a good symbol for Post-Traumatic Growth.  Some of you may have seen it featured in the Hulu dramatic series, “Nine Perfect Strangers.”  Rather than trying to hide the cracks, Kintsugi involves rejoining the broken pieces with a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum that actually highlights the cracks.  Ultimately, the repaired piece is a stronger, more beautiful new whole, even while owning its broken history. 

The word for whole in Hebrew is shalem; you’ll note the similarity to Shalom, meaning peace.  We find true peace when we can unite disparate or broken pieces into a new whole. 

May 5782 be a year in which we, our nation and our world can overcome and heal from the brokenness and trauma of this pandemic.  May we each find a new shalem that will be shalom, a peaceful whole that comes from renewal and growth.

[i] — by Scott Barry Kaufman, 4/20/20


“Holding on to Hope”A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashannah 5782

In the infamous words of the great Yoggi Bera, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Last Rosh Hashanah we were still absorbing the impact of COVID; but with the speed of the vaccine development and its availability, we thought we would surely reach herd immunity and that we would welcome 5782 under circumstances far closer to the “old normal” with most of us together in person, sitting next to one another, certainly not masked.  And yet here we are, not at all where we had hoped and expected to be.

It is frustrating and disillusioning.

Fear and anxiety have resurfaced along with masks and the Delta variant.

We are angry at the politicization and polarization of health and safety measures and the absolutely unnecessary continued loss of life.  We watch the rising death count, hospitalizations that have again exceeded 100,000; we hear the tearful pleas of hospital staff and sick patients. We know how to prevent this from happening – and yet it continues on.

We worry – will my child be safe in school? Will those under my care and responsibility be safe? Can I transmit the variant?

The happiness we felt from the simple joys of reconnecting with family and friends after so many months of separation has diminished in the realities of this prolonged pandemic.

How not to succumb to despair?

Unfortunately, ours is a people well versed in overcoming desperate circumstances.  Jewish history is replete with tragedy upon tragedy, destruction and expulsion, pogroms and genocide.   We have too many fast days and memorial days on which we commemorate these horrific events, both ancient and modern.

And yet, we have never given in to despair.  I am often reminded of the words of the early 20th French writer, Edmund Fleg, who penned a profound statement articulating his reasons for being Jewish, among them: “I am a Jew because every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.”

Even in the darkest moments of our history, we have held onto hope. 

In the face of the rise of enemy nations around them, the ancient prophets held fast to God’s promise of redemption — if only the people would turn back to God, they would prevail.  When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, took over their land and exiled much of the population, the prophets continued to preach God’s word that the Jews would once again know the glory of Jerusalem. The author of Ps 126, living in Babylonian exile, held onto this promise that despite their suffering, God would restore their fortunes: “those who sow in tears, will reap with songs of joy.”

Indeed, they were able to return and rebuild the Holy Temple, only to have it destroyed by the Romans some 600 years later.  It was under the oppressive and cruel rule of the Romans that the sages infused the divine promise of kingship from the House of David with new meaning, connecting it to future salvation in the embodiment of a Messiah who would herald God’s reign.  They envisioned a time to come when all that was wrong in their world would be made right, when all of their suffering would come to an end.  Israel’s enemies would be defeated, the people would be reconciled with God, and they would return from the farthest corners of the earth to the Promised Land to live in spiritual and physical bliss.

Over the course of time, especially through long periods of oppression and persecution, the belief in the coming of a Messiah grew, adopted as a vehicle for hope that the darkness would end one day and the world would once again be made right.  Reform Judaism turned away from the notion of a personal Messiah, of a particular individual sent by God who would usher in this new day.  Instead, our founders envisioned a “Messianic Age,” with a more universal message, no longer tied to the return of a people in exile to its land, but to a time of world perfection, where all peoples would recognize the unity of God and the prophets’ vision of peace and harmony would be fulfilled. 

Whether it was the more traditional notion of a personal Messiah or the coming of a Messianic age, the essence of Messianism in Jewish thought can be summed up in one word: hope.  Hope for the future; hope for the possibility of change for the better.  Our worship services draw to a conclusion with an affirmation of that hope in the Aleinu prayer:  Bayom Hahu, on that day, God will be one and God’s name shall be one.  A vision of unity and peace for the world.

Even during the Holocaust, when it seemed hopeless that evil would be overcome, the Messianic dream was not abandoned by all.  Jews still prayed the words:  Ani Ma’amin:  I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah.  Though he may tarry, I still believe.”

One of the most well-known survivors who embodied this faith and became a living symbol of the Holocaust was Elie Wiesel.   When asked by one of his students at Boston University how he did not give into despair either during the Holocaust or in his on-going battles against evil and injustice, Wiesel referenced the great 18thc Hassidic Master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav who said, “There is no despair.  No matter what, do not despair!”  and then Wiesel told the following story:    Even in the Warsaw ghetto, during the war, Rebbe Nachman’s followers, the Bratzlaver Hassidim, said these words and danced.  One of them had lost his daughter days earlier.  They danced through their pain; they danced knowing it was absurd – but they danced.  To renounce despair is an act of will.  And it is the only way to continue and be able to confront, to resist, darkness.”[i]    “…my tradition is filled with hope,” Wiesel said.  “In spite of three thousand years of suffering and difficulty, it is a celebration.  I was fortunate to be born into this tradition of celebration and that gave me the strength to reject hatred, to reject despair.”[ii]

Judaism is a religion that celebrates life.  With blessings that begin from the moment we wake up in the morning, we pause to express gratitude for all that we have.  

There is “A time for weeping and a time for laughing,

A time for wailing and a time for dancing …”  

wrote Ecclesiastes over two thousand years ago; he reminds us to seek out moments for joy and celebration even in times of difficulty.

It’s why our communal sharing of simchas at Shabbat services is so important.   It comes right after the healing prayer and lifts our spirits, whether people are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries or a grandchild’s dance recital.  Whether we can be together through an internet platform or if we’re fortunate to be in person, it is important for our souls to find moments to lift up and celebrate.  These moments give us hope for a time when we will all laugh, when we will all dance, when we will all sing songs of joy.

Hope gave Wiesel the strength to protest against human suffering.   Hope is what can give us strength to do our part to bring about a better tomorrow. 

Hope won’t defeat COVID, but hope can empower us to act in ways that will. With hope, we can once again don our masks, frustrating as it may be.  With hope, we can donate to organizations that help those who have suffered economically from this pandemic, we can make chili for our turn at lunch box, we can donate for projects at the Morse school.   The list of ways that we can give others hope is endless. 

“Hope is a choice,” said Wiesel, “and a gift we give to one another.  It can be absurd.   It does not rely on facts.  It is simply a choice.”[iii]

Hope is contagious. 

The story is told of a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  It was once a great order, but over the centuries, through persecutions and the rise of secularism, its numbers had dwindled so much that there only five monks left in the decaying mother house – Abbott and 4 others, all men over 70. 

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut, where the rabbi from a nearby town would periodically stay as a place of retreat and contemplation.  At one such time, as the monks agonized over what seemed to be the imminent demise of their monastery, the Abbott decided to go visit the rabbi and see if, by chance, he might have some words of wisdom to help them. 

The rabbi welcomed the Abbott but when the Abbott explained the purpose of his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him.  “I know how it is,” he explained.  “The spirit has gone out of the people.  It’s the same in my town.  Almost no one comes to synagogue anymore.”  So the two wept together, studied Torah and talked of life.  As the Abbott prepared to leave, he thanked the Rabbi and expressed his gratitude that they had finally met after all these years.  “But I have failed in my mission in coming to see you,” said the Abbott.  “Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am so sorry.” The rabbi responded.  “I have no advice to give you.  I can only tell you one thing – the Messiah is one of you.”

When the Abbott returned to the monastery the monks asked what the rabbi said, “He couldn’t help,” the Abbott answered. “We wept together and we studied Torah.  But he did say something very cryptic as I was leaving—that the Messiah is one of us.  I simply don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks following that visit, the monks pondered the rabbi’s words.  “The Messiah is one of us?  Could the rabbi really have meant that one of us here at this monastery is the Messiah?  If so, which one?  Surely, he meant Father Abbott.  If it would be anyone, it would be Father Abbott.  He has been our leader for over a generation.

On the other hand, maybe he meant brother Thomas.  Certainly, brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Brother Thomas is a man of light!

Surely, he didn’t mean Brother Elred.  He gets crotchety at times.  But come to think of it, even though he can be difficult, when you look back on it, Brother Elred is almost always right.  Maybe the rabbi meant Brother Elred.

He couldn’t have meant Brother Philip.  Philip is so passive, he hardly ever speaks up.  But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him.  Yes, Brother Philip is there by your side.  He could be the Messiah!

Of course the rabbi couldn’t have meant me!  I’m just an ordinary monk.  But what if he did?  Could I be the Messiah? Oh God, not me – don’t let it be me.

As each of the monks wondered about the others in this manner, they started to treat others and themselves with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one among them might just be the Messiah.

Now the forest where the monastery was situated was a beautiful place and people still occasionally came to visit to picnic on its lawn, wander some of the paths and once in a while, someone would enter the monastery to meditate in its chapel.   The new aura of respect that mysteriously surrounded the monastery seemed to radiate out and permeated the whole area. People were drawn back to picnic, to play and to pray.  They began to bring their friends to this special place.  And their friends brought friends. 

After a time, some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more to the old monks.  Eventually one asked if he could join them; and then another; and then another.  Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving order, a vibrant center of light and spirituality – thanks to the Rabbi’s gift.[iv]

As we welcome in 5782, may we give one another the precious gift of hope.

[i] Ariel Burger, Witness: Lessons from the Classroom of Elie Wisel, p.125

[ii] Ibid., p. 126

[iii] Ibid., p. 186

[iv] The Rabbi’s Gift as told by M. Scott Peck