“Saving Lives and Protecting Religious Freedom”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

The news reports of the start of a new Supreme Court term this week may well have triggered feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety in many of us, bringing us back to the announcement of decisions from the last term, most especially Dobbs, the reverberations of which are ongoing.

Today in America, abortion is illegal in thirteen states, some with minimal exceptions.   Some states criminalize traveling to a different state for an abortion, others subject anyone who assists someone getting an abortion to criminal charges, which can be brought by anyone and for which bounty is being offered.

Fourteen states are considered “hostile,” meaning that they are on a path towards prohibition or severe restriction, and three are “not protected” which means abortion is still accessible, though without legal protections.  Twenty of the fifty states do protect abortion:  nine are considered “protected” states, meaning that there are some limitations on access to care, and eleven states, including New York, have expanded access to full reproductive care.[i]

More than 100 bills restricting abortion access were introduced this year; some would establish fetal personhood, while others would ban particular abortion methods, allow medical providers to refuse care, restrict insurance coverage or restrict access to telehealth services for medication abortions.  Some bills await passage, others are being adjudicated in the courts.

At the same time, this summer we witnessed the people of Kansas rejecting a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have made abortion illegal.  Similar ballot measures may be forthcoming in other states; Michigan just included one for this November.

Sara Rosenbaum, a health lawyer and professor of public health at George Washington University, who signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in Dobbs analyzing “Medicaid’s role as the country’s leading health insurer for millions of vulnerable pregnant women, children, people with disabilities” recently commented, a  year later, that “the harms she and her colleagues laid out — particularly the disparate impact on marginalized people — are already beginning to come to pass. 

“We’ve never lived through anything like this.  We are now living in a world in which if my daughter was a resident of Texas or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Idaho or any of the states with these bans, I would tell her: Do not get pregnant… If she were a physician, I would tell her: Do not practice obstetrics or gynecology. You are suddenly in a world that is impossible to navigate, either as a patient or a physician. We have made the world completely unsafe for people who want to have a baby or who practice in a lot of states.”[ii]

The right to abortion is now dictated by geography and that poses tremendous danger to millions.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide:

“the Dobbs decision has resulted in a chaotic legal patchwork that, as of August 2022, leaves some 22 million US women of reproductive age living under highly restrictive laws more typical of low- and middle-income countries than of high-income countries…

Evidence from countries around the globe suggests that, although restrictive abortion laws in many US states are unlikely to substantially lower the incidence of abortion, they will likely increase the proportion of abortions done under unsafe conditions.”[iii]

With studies showing that one in four American women will have an abortion by age 45, you can do the math to determine just how many women’s lives are at stake (and that may not include all who can get pregnant, meaning those in the LGBTQ population who do not label themselves as women). 

I would imagine that this information is not new to most of you, nor is it the first time many of you have heard me speak about abortion rights.  Yet, on this most holy day of our Jewish year, when we recognize just how precious life is, when we fast and contemplate the very meaning of our existence, I feel compelled to speak to this topic once again because of this most dangerous situation in our country and because it is, for a number of reasons, so very much a Jewish issue, one that demands our on-going concern as well as action.

Our Torah reading this morning, taken from Parshat Nitzavim, near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, includes a covenantal affirmation ceremony with the younger generation of Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.  In exhorting them to follow the mitzvot, Moses reminds them that ultimately the choice is theirs: “life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse.  Choose life – so that you and children may live, by loving, obeying and staying close to Adonai your God.”[iv]

“Choosing life.”  In the context of reproductive rights, the language around choice to be “pro-life” was most cleverly usurped by the anti-abortion movement when it took form fifty years ago after Roe.  Judaism is very clear that the obligation to choose life in the case of a pregnancy, means choosing the life of the woman over the that of the fetus.  There are circumstances when abortion is not only permitted, but is demanded, because in Judaism life begins at birth and NOT at conception.

We learn this in Exodus, Chapter 21, which describes the case for damages when a pregnant woman miscarries as a result of being pushed. The responsible party must pay damages. If that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been life for life.

The Mishnah, codified in 200 CE, clarifies that life begins when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Up until that point, if the mother’s life is in danger, one must abort. As Jewish law develops, opinions vary on situations when abortion is called for: the most stringent legal opinions limit abortion to cases when the mother’s life is physically at risk, while others – even within the Orthodox community – will permit abortion based on the mother’s physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing.  One case in the Talmud required abortion where the woman’s child could only have her breast milk which was not available while she was pregnant.  The principle here is that the pregnancy is to be terminated to save an existing life.  Certainly, within Reform Judaism, which is predicated on the principle of individual autonomy and choice that is informed by tradition and conscience, we support the right of individuals to make this most difficult, personal decision, based on any number of factors that impact their lives and the lives of their families.

In Jewish law, the fetus is considered to be part of the woman and not a separate entity.  That is why when a pregnant person converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.   Rashi, the great biblical and Talmudic commentator of the 12th century, ruled that a fetus has no legal rights.  Even as a fetus is considered a life in development, Judaism rejects current notions of fetal personhood. 

Judaism teaches that human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  Therefore, all life is sacred and pikuah nefesh, saving a life, is our greatest obligation.   It is that principle that guides us in the debate about reproductive rights.  Today, protecting the lives of pregnant people means ensuring that they receive and have available to them, where they live, complete health and reproductive care, including abortion.  It means that medical personnel must also be able to treat their patients with all tools available to them and to provide their patients with their best medical advice.

The right to abortion is also a matter of justice.  As Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice:  “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” screams the Torah in Deuteronomy.[v] 

We cannot have a just society when women do not have full autonomy and control over their reproductive decisions, decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their families, when we are not allowed the dignity of being able to make these decisions privately, in consultation with our chosen advisors, without the threat of government interference.

We cannot have a just society where “barriers to health care place any individual’s autonomy, health, economic security, or well-being at risk.”[vi]

The populations hit hardest by current abortion restrictions are those who are already marginalized:  low-income women, who compromise 75% of those who get abortions; black and brown women; young people, 60% of women who get abortions are in their 20s; members of the LGBTQ population; and people with disabilities.  These are among the populations who cannot afford to travel cross country, who don’t have sick days available to them, who need childcare (59% of women seeking abortions already have one child), and who don’t have the financial resources to pay privately for safe reproductive services.[vii] These are the women whose lives are most at risk and the ones who may be forced to bear a child against their will. 

The danger of Dobbs extends past the physical, emotional and economic threats it poses for pregnant people.  Together with other recent Supreme Court decisions, it weakens that most precious wall that separates church and state in this country, the fundamental principle that ensures freedom for people of all faiths – or no faith – not to be bound by the religious beliefs or practices of another faith.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” guarantees freedom of religion.  The determination of when life begins is a matter of faith.  My faith teaches me that that life begins at birth and that the life of the pregnant person must take priority.   Laws outlawing or limiting abortion access deny my freedom of religion. 

Jews living in thirteen of the fifty states in this country are currently denied free expression of their religious freedom; they may soon lose that freedom in seventeen others.

But we are not powerless; we can fight for change and protect our rights and religious freedom.   Though we may be a minority, we can join in coalitions with others who support reproductive rights as part of a just society and believe in the preservation of the first amendment.

We can advocate for federal legislation in support of reproductive choice:

As the Women’s Health Protection Act seems out of reach for now, efforts in the Reform movement are focusing on the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (EACH) that would repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal insurance coverage, such as Medicaid, for abortions, with very narrow exceptions, thereby limiting abortion access for poor women.

We need to ensure that the broad protections and access currently in place in New York State remain that way, which is where our vote comes in!  There are efforts underway to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to our State Constitution.  It already passed in the legislature earlier this year but needs to pass another legislative vote before going to the ballot in the November 2024 election.  The ERA would protect New Yorkers from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, creed, religion and sex, and it will provide explicit protection of reproductive autonomy.

Al ta’mod al dam re’echa, “Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor reads.”[viii]  We will read this commandment from the Holiness Code of Leviticus this afternoon.  While we live in a state with expanded abortion protection and that welcomes and assists people from other states to come here for health care services, it is upon us to assist those who are not so fortunate.  A National Network of Abortion Funds has been established to ensure that patients get the care they need even when they have to travel far from home.  You can find out more about these funds and other opportunities to take action on the Women of Reform Judaism or the Religious Action Center websites.[ix] 

Local planned parenthood clinics are always looking for more escorts to help create a safer experience for their patients, who are coming to the clinic for any number of reasons, who must pass by protestors saying horrible things in an attempt to intimidate and frighten them. 

We must speak out on this issue, otherwise the only voices out in the public square, the only ones getting out the vote and speaking with their representatives, will be Conservative Christians and those who would like to suppress other religious voices.

We have an opportunity literally to be in the public square this coming Saturday, when there will be a Women’s March downtown as part of a National Day of Action, marking a month before the midterm elections.  The march will step off from the corner of Market and Main streets at noon and head to Waryas Park.  Our Civic Engagement committee is organizing a group to march together.   I will be joining them after services and encourage others to add their voices and presence.

In June the Supreme Court opened a door that has the potential to take our nation backwards to half a century ago.   Many states have already followed that path and others are prepared to follow.  Our individual rights, our religious liberties, are under siege.   It is hard to remain optimistic even as bright moments of hope do occasionally appear.  But ours is a people of great hope who despite overwhelming odds even of our very survival, has never given up, has never lost sight of that vision and promise of a better time, a world that is whole and at peace, that is yet to be.  Ours is the task to be God’s partner and take part in bringing that day about, to be relentless in our pursuit of justice.

And we have never given up on our commitment to the ideals of this great nation.  It is a long-standing Jewish practice to pray for the welfare of the country in which we have lived, “for in its prosperity you shall prosper,” taught the prophet Jeremiah.[x] Thus I close with part of the prayer for our country included in our mahzor:

God of holiness, we hear Your message: Justice, justice you shall pursue.  God of freedom, we hear Your charge: Proclaim liberty throughout the land.  Inspire us through Your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy.  Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish.  Let each of us be an advocate for justice, an activist for liberty, a defender of dignity.  And let us champion the values that make our nation a haven for the persecuted, a beacon of hope among the nations.

We pray for all who serve our country with selfless devotion – in peace and in war, from fields of battle to clinics and classrooms, from government to the grassroots:  all those whose noble deeds and sacrifice benefit our nation and our world.

We are grateful for the rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that our founders ascribed to You, our Creator.  We pray for their wisdom and moral strength, that we may be guardians of these rights for ourselves and for the sake of all people, now and forever.[xi]  


[i] https://reproductiverights.org/abortion-trigger-bans-take-effect-in-three-states-tomorrow/

[ii] https://19thnews.org/2022/09/100-days-since-dobbs-decision/

[iii] https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2022/08/undoing-roe-v-wade-leaves-us-global-outlier-abortion

[iv] Deuteronomy 30:19-20

[v] Deuteronomy 16:20

[vi] https://www.ncjw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Jewish-Values-and-Reproductive-Justice-.pdf 

[vii] https://www.guttmacher.org/united-states/abortion/demographics

[viii] Leviticus 19:16

[ix] www.wrj.org or www.rac.org

[x] Jeremiah 29:7

[xi] Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 286


A “Victim-Centered” Approach to Teshuvah

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

Video technology, such as zoom has had many positive impacts on our lives, including our ability to connect with so many people for these services who might not be able to attend otherwise.  Personally, I am also grateful for this technology for the learning that I have been able to do without leaving my study.  I honestly can’t remember if in the days before COVID my rabbinic organization, the CCAR, offered as many online webinars as it does now.  Especially in the weeks leading up to the Yamim Noraim, hundreds of rabbis took advantage of the opportunities provided to us to learn from and with colleagues and from experts in different fields, exploring various current issues and topics about which we might preach and teach during these holy days.

One such presenter, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, writer and scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, shared some new approaches to thinking about repentance.  She spoke about writing her recently published book, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, in the aftermath of the #Me Too revelations.  After engaging in multiple online discussions on the question of repentance, she decided to immerse herself in the writings of the major Jewish authority on repentance, the 12th century rabbinic scholar Moses Maimonides.  Her book applies that guidance to all kinds of situations –interpersonal relationships, public figures, institutions, even nations.

Maimonides’ steps for repentance include:  taking ownership of the wrongdoing, committing to change, making amends, apologizing and, finally, making different choices so as not to repeat that sin again.  Now, Maimonides’ steps for repentance are probably familiar to many of us. What I found different and really thought provoking in Ruttenberg’s book was the focus that she brought to the victim of the hurt.  For repentance to be effective, it must be victim centered.  All of these steps must be less about what it means for the perpetrator, the harm do-er, and more about the impact upon and needs of the victim.  On the one hand, this seems so obvious, and it probably was to Maimonides, but I fear that that focus is lost to most of us today, that we are not taking the needs of the victim of our hurt into account even as we may take on the steps of repentance.

Certainly, we do not see this in most public apologies – think back to the early days of #MeToo with men like Louis C.K. or Bill O’Reilly, who did not take ownership of their actions or acknowledge the hurt they caused.  Did Cleveland Browns Quarterback Deshaun Watson really take the needs of the women into account in his public statement: “I want to say that I am truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation.”

It is not uncommon for some Jews, while sincerely trying to follow the obligations of Yom Kippur, to go up to people they know with the following apology: “If I’ve done anything to hurt you in this past year, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”  Good intentions may be there, but without taking responsibility for their actions or having even an awareness of anything specific they’ve done, it is hardly a step in the process of repentance.

Then, of course there is the “I’m sorry if you were offended” in which the perpetrator takes no responsibility for their actions and, in fact, blames the victim for their hurt feelings.

So what does it actually mean to be “victim centered” in our repentance?

First, we do have to do the internal, personal work of acknowledging and owning what we have done wrong and committing to changing our behavior.  To be done seriously and meaningfully, these processes take reflection and time.

Only after we have done these initial steps in repentance, can we turn to that which ought to involve the one we have harmed:  making amends.

A key teaching on repentance is from the Mishnah, from 2000 years ago: “For sins between one person and another, the observance of Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until one has first appeased the person harmed.”[i]  Maimonides expands on this basic principle: “For instance, [if] one injures another, or curses them or plunders them, or offends them in like matters, [it] is ever not absolved unless they make restitution of what is owed and beg the forgiveness of the other.”[ii] Furthermore, he taught, that if one injures another physically, one “must pay damages on five fronts:  for the injury itself, the pain suffered, the medical costs, the time away from work, and the humiliation.”[iii] One can extrapolate from this premise to all kinds of situations and the different levels of restitution that ought to be made today.

Ultimately, proper restitution must be determined in consultation with the victim of the harm.  What does she need?  What does he require to feel whole?  As Ruttenberg points out, “the focus is the mental and emotional needs of the victim, not the boxes that a perpetrator needs to check in order to be let off the hook.”[iv]

Having realized and taken responsibility for our actions, we may be so anxious to absolve ourselves of our guilt that we lose sight of the needs of the victim, even of his or her readiness to speak with us about the hurt.

While I am not a fan of public apologies offered by public figures, I was curious to see Will Smith’s apology about slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars that was posted online this summer.  He took a few months to process the events before he made this public statement.  In his statement, he did recognize that Rock is not ready to speak with him yet and offered to do so whenever Rock is ready.  I would hope that when and if they do speak, they will reach an understanding regarding steps that Smith can take to make amends.

Smith also apologized to other people who were hurt by his actions, including Rock’s family and other nominees.  When we hurt someone, those who witness that event are also victims; and, we never know when our actions could also trigger something deeper in a witness, bringing up a previous injury.  That is why in some cases, public apologies, especially for a public act, are appropriate (and Maimonides actually encourages public confessions) as long as they do not replace the personal apology and other work of repentance.

“Deciding the correct course of action must always hold the twin poles:” writes Ruttenberg, “the desire to be fully accountable and care and concern for the needs of the victim.  Certainly, we all, when we mess up, want to feel forgiven and absolved.  But real repentance demands that we concentrate not on our own emotional gratification but rather on repairing, to the best of our abilities, the hole in the cosmos that we have created.”[v]

It is only once we have done the initial steps of repentance:  accepted responsibility for our actions, made a commitment to change, and appeased the person we have wronged, that we reach the appropriate moment to apologize.    Without doing that hard work, we cannot really understand the impact of our actions on the victim and repair that hurt.

“.. a true apology must be an interaction that honors the full humanity of the other; it is not transactional”, teaches Ruttenberg.  “There’s a difference between saying you’re sorry because you realize that a thing you did had a bad consequence, and doing so because you really understand that you hurt someone – and that person’s feelings, experience of the world, safety, and self all matter profoundly.

A true apology is about trying to see the human being in front of you, to connect with them and communicate to them, to make it clear – abundantly, absolutely, profoundly clear – that you get it now, and that their feeling better matters to you.  Your apology is a manifestation of genuine remorse.  It demands vulnerability, and it is a natural by-product of all the work of repentance and transformation that you’ve been doing up until this point.”[vi]

That sounds like a pretty tall order.  And with so many bad apologies out there, it can feel pretty overwhelming to figure out how to apologize correctly, remembering that the focus should be “on what the victim receives rather than what the perpetrator puts out.”[vii]

After enduring too many ineffective and even insulting apologies over the years, two Jewish educators, Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman, decided it was time to find a better way.  They took a deep dive into studying Jewish teachings about apologies and overlaid a business model from the 1980s called “SMART” goals, designed to help ground aspirations in reality.[viii]  Note how this model centers on the victim of the hurt:

S – be Specific.  An effective apology must address the action that was hurtful.  “I’m sorry for what happened” doesn’t indicate ownership of behavior or awareness of it.  “I’m sorry I insulted you” does.   If you’re not sure what you did, take the time to ask the person.

M – empathize.  A sincere apology shows empathy for the victim of the harm that we’ve caused.  “I can see where that must have really made you feel lousy.”

A – accountability.  Our words must demonstrate that we are responsible for hurting the person, not that we’re sorry that they are hurt or upset.  This is where the “I” comes in.

R – reflective. We must take the time to be reflective before we apologize so that we actually address the issues of the hurt and commit ourselves to acting differently.

T – true.  Not only do our words have to be sincere, but we have to demonstrate that sincerity through our actions going forward by changing our behavior.

Hopefully, when one follows a SMART apology model and undergoes a process of repentance that is truly victim centered, their apology will be accepted, and they will be forgiven.  While a victim-centered approach also includes never pressuring someone to accept an apology, Ruttenberg does encourage the victim to be open to the sincere penitent:  “Just as we ask the perpetrator to actually see the hurt person in front of them, we could also ask the victim to try to recognize the hard, sincere repentance work that has been done, and to allow it to mean enough to settle accounts.  To see the full human being standing there, a sincere penitent.”[ix]

In the case where someone does not accept an apology, Maimonides teaches that the penitent should return with three friends to ask for pardon again.  If the person still refuses, they should return with those friends up to two more times.  Maimonides doesn’t indicate the reason for the friends.  On the one hand, they will serve as witnesses to the person’s apology.  Ruttenberg points out that as friends, they can offer the person the support that can be of help when making oneself so vulnerable.  They can also give feedback as to the person’s apology, how it might have been heard and suggest steps for improvement.

Sometimes this process does lead to a full reconciliation; in other cases, that’s not possible.  Indeed, there are some sins that may never be pardonable because they cause irreparable harm.  The Talmud offers examples such as slander, because one doesn’t know all the people who heard the remarks; or, a merchant who defrauds with weights and measures, because they can never know all of the people who they cheated to make amends.  We can certainly extrapolate to contemporary situations, especially on social media, where it may be impossible to do full teshuvah.

There may be another approach as well.  One of the Hebrew words for forgiveness is mechilah; it literally means to pardon or to remit a debt.  In a case where full reconciliation isn’t possible, where the hurt party is not willing or able to go back to the way things were before the hurt, they may be able offer mechilah, pardon to the sincere penitent and agree to put the event in the past so that both parties can now move forward with their lives.  Sometimes, that is the best we can do or hope for.

The steps of teshuvah, when done sincerely and with the needs of the person we’ve hurt utmost in our minds, are certainly not easy, but they are possible and can lead to healing for all parties. 

We can start to learn this path, even at a young age.  We teach it to the children in our synagogue.  One of the songs that has become very popular for young children tries to convey a message about sincere repentance.   Since it is sung by a group of children, it doesn’t get into apologizing for specific sins – hopefully, that follows in conversation with parents and siblings afterwards!

It is sung to the melody of Avinu Malkeinu:

I’m sorry for what I did wrong,

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try to be better, no matter whatever

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be.

I’ll try, I’ll try, to do what is right

And be the best that I can be.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’ll try to be caring, more loving and sharing,

Forgive me for what I did wrong!

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be,

I’ll try, I’ll try with all of my might

To do what I know is right.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong…

If we start with the premise of this simple children’s song and then move into SMART apologies, we will go a long way in bringing healing to our relationships and repairing holes we may have created in the cosmos.  May we have the strength, courage and wisdom to do so.

[i] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[ii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9, as translated by Danya Ruttenberg 

[iii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Personal or property injury 1:1 as translated by Danya Ruttenberg

[iv] Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, p. 41

[v] Ibid., p. 68

[vi] Ibid., p. 174 

[vii] Ibid., p. 41

[viii] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better

[ix] Ruttenberg, p. 179

“In response to the Leaked Opinion” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Wednesday night, I participated in an emergency call with the National Conference of Jewish Women (NCJW), organized in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.  The woman running the call first asked people to write in chat words to describe how they were feeling: outrage, anger, hopelessness, despair, fear.  (I asked people to share their feelings in the chat and in the congregation.)

The leaking of the document in and of itself is, of course, quite troubling as it is highly destructive to the integrity of the Court and its processes.

The decision itself is of great concern:

1.  it points to the increasing politicization and partisan nature of the Court;

2.  it undermines our faith in the Court and its commitment to preserving stated law, especially for that which has been in place for half a century – a principle also affirmed in the confirmation hearings of the most recently appointed justices; and

3.  there is real fear that stated law for other protections affirmed under right to privacy – the right to contraception, same-sex marriage – even interracial marriage – may also be overturned.

It is not hard to imagine states where conservative majorities gaining hold in legislatures –

states enacting laws curtailing rights of the transgender, would take the next step to reverse the right for same sex marriage.

It is no longer inconceivable in states where the influence of groups supporting white supremacist philosophy are gaining strength could reach the point of banning interracial marriage.

Did we think we would see book banning in public schools, limitations on what teachers could teach?  I call your attention to the upcoming Board of Education elections on May 17th where individuals supporting these efforts are running for positions.

These are all very real causes for concern and action.

But my attention tonight is on the essence of this potential decision, a subject which I know I have addressed a number of times before but current circumstances demand that it be addressed once again:  the implications of overturning Roe V. Wade for the rights of people who able to get pregnant (in addition to women, we must also include transgender and non-binary people), to control their own bodies; to have access to full, safe health care; to make one of the most painful, personal decisions of their lives in private, in consultation with loved ones, their medical practitioners, with those whom they choose for guidance  – without fear of government interference or retribution. 

While abortion is still legal and a constitutional right, if this draft opinion becomes a reality in a few months

  • 26 states could swiftly move to ban abortion–including 13 states with laws that could immediately go into effect. That means in half the country, people would no longer have power over their own bodies and their own lives.
  • 36 million people — nearly half of the women of reproductive age (18-49) in the United States — plus people who can become pregnant, could soon lose abortion access.
  • 58% of women 13–44 live in a state hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights.
  • 24% of people who can get pregnant in the US will have an abortion by age 45. *

In addition to the violation of the right to health care and choice over one’s body, overturning Roe v. Wade is also a violation of religious freedom as the government is imposing one religion’s belief over all others, including those that disagree with it.  It is a violation of my religious freedom because Judaism not only supports the right to abortion, at times it demands it. 

Judaism is very clear that life begins at birth, not at conception.  Our sacred texts, beginning with Torah, through Mishnah and Talmud and medieval codes, rule that until birth, the mother’s life and health must take precedence over that of the fetus.  Though a potential life, the fetus is not a living being, it has no rights, nor is it considered as something separate and apart from the woman.  Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.  Certainly, differences arise among the interpreters of Jewish law and between the denominations about how broadly one may define the mother’s health or the situations in which an abortion would be appropriate.  Our Reform movement has consistently taken strong stands in support of reproductive choice and access to reproductive health care.     

Reproductive rights are also a matter of economic and racial justice. We know that those with financial means will always have access to safe abortion, even if it will become more challenging and costly to obtain.  Abortion restrictions and bans disproportionately hurt those who already face discriminatory obstacles to health care, including Black, indigenous, and People of Color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, young people, people with disabilities, and lower-income individuals.  Time and again, our tradition demands that we take responsibility for the disenfranchised in society, “that we care for the stranger,” that we act with justice.  So many of these teachings are articulated in the very Torah portion we read this week, Kedoshim, the holiness code and re-enforced throughout the teachings of the prophets.

In the draft opinion, Justice Alito writes that this decision should be in the hands of the people.    While half of the states are poised to ban or severely limit access to abortion, poll after poll demonstrate that the majority of Americans favor reproductive rights.   83% of Jews support the right to abortion. **

I’ve been thinking about the disconnect between the people’s desires, state legislation and this monumental decision of the Supreme Court and I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare.  In this case, those of us who are pro-choice seem to be in the role of hare.  With the decision of Roe V. Wade, later affirmed in Casey in 1992, we thought we had won this race and secured reproductive rights.  But the anti-choice camp, from the moment they usurped the term “pro-life”, has been working hard like the tortoise, slowly, strategically, planning and moving forward – building a single-issue constituency, fiercely committed to electing local and national legislators who will, step by step, enact laws first restricting and now eliminating reproductive rights and, as we’ve seen, appointing judges who will support such legislation.  The majority in this country who support reproductive rights have been silent for too long.  Yes, there have been moments when we’ve raised our voices and marched in Washington, but we have not been there consistently.  And while I would never endorse being single-issue in our voting practices, it is quite clear that this issue has not been high enough on the agenda of those who support reproductive rights.

There are actions that we can — indeed, that we must – take to ensure reproductive justice for all in our country.

The Women’s Health Protection Act would essentially codify Roe, protecting the right to access legal abortion care across the country by providing safeguards against state bans and medically unnecessary hurdles.  Thought it passed in the House in September, it was defeated in the Senate in March.  A modified version of the bill, with changes in some of the language though not the guarantees, is being brought to the floor on Tuesday.   It is pretty clear that it will not pass – the filibuster has once again raised its head and there is neither enough support to overturn the filibuster nor to support the bill.  Nonetheless, supporters believe that it is important to move forward with the vote to have it on the record, especially for those Senators up for re-election.   Sen. Schumer and Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the bill and Sen. Schumer, as majority leader, is working hard to try to get it passed; they still need to hear from voices of support in their state.  Through the Religious Action or the Women of Reform Judaism websites you can send an email thanking them for their efforts.

While we can proudly say that New York is among those states that have enshrined reproductive rights into law, we cannot sit back on those laurels and ignore the lives and health of so many in our nation that are now at risk.   Our parsha, Kedoshim, reminds us of our responsibility to those outside of our own immediate circle, with that clarion call to “not stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds.”  Gov Hochul has invited anyone in need of an abortion to come to NY where they will be welcomed and cared for.  Our clinics will need extra staff and funding to meet those needs.  While thanking the Governor, we must also demand state funding to support that call.

The NCJW is organizing a Jewish Pro-Abortion Rights Rally in Washington DC on May 17th (the same day as our local school board elections, unfortunately).  Weather permitting and it is outside, it will be livestreamed.   We were also told that there will be rallies throughout the country sponsored by coalitions of abortion rights supporters on May 14th.  Please keep a look out and I will share any information I get.  Steps for further action will certainly be forthcoming.

Our most important voice as US citizens is the voice of our vote.  If we want to ensure reproductive justice for all in this country, we need to use that vote to elect leaders who will support and advocate for that essential right.

I close with words of poetry, written in response to the leaked draft, by Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in LA.  It is entitled, “Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed” and is styled after the Viddui, the confessional prayer recited just before Yom Kippur.  In her powerful words, she reminds us of all that is at stake in this battle for reproductive justice:

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman with kidney disease whose doctors say her pregnancy is
life threatening,
the woman who has high blood pressure whose doctors say her
pregnancy may kill her,
the woman with clinical depression and suicide ideation who is criminalized for saving herself,

the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of heavy spotting,
the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of an irregular period,
the girl who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because she has only just started puberty,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman suffering an ectopic pregnancy who is called “murderer”
on her way to her appointment,
the parents who are told their baby will be born with anencephaly,
without a brain, and are called “murderers,”
the woman who is told there is no heartbeat and is called “murderer”
on her way to the clinic,

the woman who miscarries and is criminalized because she cannot
prove it was natural,
the parent who is told that if born, their baby will live in excruciating pain and won’t survive past infancy,
the girl who is ostracized, shamed and criminalized
while he who impregnates her is free,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the family who doesn’t have health insurance
and barely survives paycheck to paycheck,
the woman living in a rural, remote town who cannot afford
the transportation, hotel and time off for a procedure,
the partner who loses their job for taking the days needed
to travel over state lines for their spouse’s care,
the children who are not taught sex education and are not
given access to birth control,
the families who are not given paid parental leave or affordable childcare,
the woman who religiously took birth control to prevent pregnancy,
but the birth control failed,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman who is a victim of reproductive coercion
by a domestic abuser,
the woman who is impregnated as a victim of sex trafficking,
the girl who is impregnated through sexual violence
and then retraumatized by the court,

the girl who is overpowered by a relative or person of authority,
the woman of color who faces racial and ethnic disparity in medicine, and less access to quality contraceptive services,
the Ukrainian woman refugee who was raped by the same Russian soldier who murdered her children,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the mother who is imprisoned for acquiring misoprostol
to end her teen daughter’s traumatic pregnancy,
the mother who is imprisoned for having an abortion in order to better feed and care for her children,
the woman who is imprisoned for terminating a pregnancy
that was not conceived in love,

the daughter who suffers long-term agony from terminating her pregnancy in unhygienic environments, at the hands of untrained individuals,
leaving her to suffer vaginal and rectal tearing, future infertility,
uterine perforations, hemorrhage, sepsis, blunt trauma, poisoning, and ruptured bowel, the daughter who is too scared to ask for help and dies of torturous infection and blood loss from the rusty tools
of a medical charlatan, the daughter who doesn’t have any reason
to trust lawmakers and adults, and suffers excruciating, unnecessary death.

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

For all of our failures to protect you, our daughters, mothers,
partners and friends,
Don’t forgive us. Don’t pardon us. Don’t lead us to atonement.

* statistics are from the Guttmacher Institute

** from NCJW

“After Colleyville” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman, Shabbat Yitro 5782

Baruch Atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, matir asurim.

Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the universe, Who frees the captives.

This blessing is one that is said daily, as part of the morning blessings known as Nissim B’chol Yom, daily miracles.  It is also part of a prayer we will say tonight in the Tefillah, the second blessing called the Gevurot in which we praise God, who frees the captives.

Could any of us have imagined that we would be saying this blessing in thanks for a Rabbi and three members of a congregation, a small Reform congregation at that, making it feel even closer to us.

The world is certainly upside down when a sanctuary becomes the opposite of being a sanctuary.  As Deborah Lipstadt wrote earlier this week, “It is not radical to say that going to services, whether to converse with God or with the neighbors you see only once a week, should not be an act of courage. And yet this weekend we were once again reminded that it can be precisely that.”  (New York Times, 1/18/22)

A journalist for the Forward interviewed a number of rabbis about what they would say this Shabbat.  One rabbi in Detroit commented that she didn’t have to really wonder what to say, she already had sermons prepared.  After Pittsburgh, after Poway, after the Hanukkah attack, after Jersey City — here we are once again….

This was different; it was a hostage taking.  Thankfully all of the hostages made it out safely, though surely emotionally scarred.  This attack was of such a different nature that it even elicited debate:  was it an act of antisemitism or was it just terrorism?  Ultimately, the FBI did officially classify it as a terrorist attack against the Jewish community, an act of antisemitism.

There was an unusual twist from other antisemitic attacks which may explain, in part, the initial lack of clarify surrounding it.  The hostage taker, Malik Faisal Akram, said multiple times that he didn’t want to hurt the hostages.  This was not the kind of antisemitic attack to which we are accustomed.  He very carefully, intentionally chose a synagogue as the vehicle through which he believed he could get the release of Aafia Siddiqui, because as Rabbi Cytron-Walker recalled: 

“… it was basically the notion that Jews were more important in his mind than everyone else, and that America would do more to save Jews than it would for anyone else,” …. “That’s why he specifically targeted a synagogue. That ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ type of antisemitism — that’s why he focused on us.”

A very old antisemitic trope – Jews rule the world, the media, the banks, etc.

In what was a truly bizarre twist, the hostage taker’s very first demand was to speak with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan.  Why?  This was completely unclear to us for quite some time.  I thought that maybe it was because they might well have the most hits on livestream; therefore, that synagogue is perceived of as the most important.  One podcast I listened to pointed to the name of the congregation: Central Synagogue.  Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that Akram knew that she played the guitar; he “thought she was the most influential rabbi.”

After the hostages were all free, we heaved a sigh of relief, but only for a moment as the we were reminded, once again, of the sad reality that antisemitism is so pervasive, it is not going away any time soon.  As Lipstadt pointed out: At least for time being, American synagogues are coming to resemble European synagogues, with their high security and locked doors.

Pittsburgh was a wakeup call to realities of antisemitism in 21century America – on the left, on the right, internationally.  There are so many complicated layers to fight it and try to eradicate it.  Even as we do, we have to accept the reality that antisemitism will be with us for some time to come and address the challenges of learning to live with it.

How do we do that?

First and foremost, we must be prepared. Security is of paramount importance.

Even as the hostage taking was still unfolding, our president, Susan Karnes Hecht, and our housing chair, Alan Kaflowitz, were already reviewing our current procedures and engaging with local law enforcement who is paying attention. Police and local law enforcement are there for us.

Numerous times Rabbi Cytron-Walker and other hostages spoke about the importance of the active shooter training they had received, that it clearly saved their lives.  After Pittsburgh, many of you participated in training that we held here.  We will repeat that and are working through Federation to organize training sessions for our community.

Yesterday I attended a webinar sponsored by the ADL which had, as I later found out, 7000 attendees.  The speakers including ADL Executive Director, Jonathan Greenblatt, Rabbi Cytron-Walker and FBI Director Christopher Wray.  Director Wray spoke about the on-going investigation into the background of the hostage taker.  He also said something very important that I hadn’t heard before.   The nature of terrorist attacks has changed.  By and large, there no longer seem to be sleeper cells such as organized the  9-11 attacks.  Rather, they are lone attackers.  The good thing is that these attackers are generally less sophisticated.  The challenge is there is less lead time and fewer leads for investigators to follow.  That means that it is even more important for us to report anything suspicious; you never know when one lead may match up with another and help investigators prevent an attack.   

The FBI maintains a close relationship with the ADL and other Jewish organizations.  You should be familiar with the Secure Community Network (SCN), founded in 2004, under the auspices of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  It is the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish community in North America.   It provides threat information and crisis management; it offers guidance on security practices and procedures and trainings and education.  It serves as the formal liaison for the Jewish community with Federal Law enforcement

During the ADL webinar, Rabbi Cytron-Walker for the first time about why he let the guy in.  He appeared to be a person needing warmth and shelter.  The rabbi was with him until the service started, he was the one who gave him tea. He kept reading the man’s face and his actions, saw no hints of anything to come, of ulterior motives; no nervousness, he looked the rabbi in the eye.  Rabbi Cytron-Walker had lots of training, more than the average person, and in that moment, the man seemed ok.  You can be prepared and, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, sometimes stuff still happens.

Frankly, I don’t know that I would have done the same, that I would have let him in.  And it pains me to say that. 

We are all trying to figure out the balance between two essential Jewish values: lance – hachnasat orchim, being welcoming, and pikuah nefesh, saving and protecting lives. 

So we will continue to keep our doors locked.  At the same time, we must keep putting messages out there that we are an open and welcoming community.

We actually had to do this early on with zoom.  We learned from one incident with zoom bombers that we couldn’t just post the links on our website.  We have a two-step process for those not on our mailing list.    Are there people who might have joined us and didn’t, perhaps.  Even so, new people have still found us.

Things that we can do to be proactive.  We can ask our government to act.  The service reminder email that was sent out today includes links for each of these actions:

1.  Demand that our representatives in the House increase funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to support security for houses of worship;

2. Demand that the Senate confirm Deborah Lipstadt as the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.  Although this is an international position and not a domestica one, it will send an important message that the US takes combatting antisemitism seriously and will encourage other governments to as well.

We must keep our eyes open; pay attention and report anything suspicious to the police.  The ADL asks that we report, on their website, any hate crimes as they are tracking and monitoring them.

In a webinar this summer, Jonathan Greenblatt said that, ultimately, antisemitism is best combatted through changing hearts and minds on local level not through legislation (though we need to do both).  We saw the tremendous support that Congregation Beth Israel received from the interfaith community in Colleyville, because the rabbi and the congregation were part of that.  We must continue to build and strengthen such relationships.

Above all, we cannot let fear paralyze us.  On the anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman, who delivered that oh so powerful poem that day, wrote an op-ed in the Times, in which she revealed that she almost declined invitation out of fear – fear of        COVID, fear of being attacked after January 6th. She thought long and hard and ultimately decided that she would not let fear overtake her; she owned her fear. She concluded her piece as follows:

“And yes, I still am terrified every day. Yet fear can be love trying its best in the dark. So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.

Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.

And the rest is history.”

Finally, our best response to antisemitism is to live fully and proudly as Jews.  In the conclusion of her book, Antisemitism Here and Now, Deborah Lipdstadt wrote “What is necessary for Jews to survive and flourish as a people is neither dark pessimism nor cockeyed optimism, but realism.  It would be ludicrous to dismiss as paranoid the concerned of those who react strongly to the escalating acts of antisemitism in recent times….. But at the same time, it would be folly for Jews to make this the organizing principle of their lives.”  She continued to tell the story of entering her synagogue with a friend and her five-year-old daughter.  As they entered, the friend said to her daughter, “Let’s say hi and thank you to the guard for keeping us safe.”  The little girl looked puzzled.  To her the synagogue was not a place where she would need protection; it was the place where she played in the playground with her friends, sang songs in the children’s service, where they came into the sanctuary to help close the service and get lollipops from the rabbi. Lipstadt continued, “My hope for my little friend is that as she grows up, her awareness of the dangers that may threaten her well-being at the synagogue or at any other Jewish venue will never overshadow the joys she finds here.

So may it be for us and for our children and their children after us.

It is with joy that we now turn to our Shabbat worship….

“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

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/08/us/robert-e-lee-statue-virginia.html?referrer=masthead

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/resolution-study-and-development-reparations-slavery-and-systemic

[viii] Lazare, p. 132

[ix] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/addressing-antisemitism-while-keeping-our-eyes-collective-freedom-and-racial-justice

[x] Wilkerson, p. 380

[xi] https://www.truah.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Al_Chet_for_Racism_Yavilah_McCoy.pdf

“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] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/post-traumatic-growth-finding-meaning-and-creativity-in-adversity/ — by Scott Barry Kaufman, 4/20/20

[ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/05/16/why-millions-of-employees-plan-to-switch-jobs-post-covid/?sh=43d5c2d311e7

“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

“No Justice, No Peace”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5781 by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

If you hadn’t been aware before her death, I would imagine that you’ve learned since about the multiple pieces of artwork Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had in her office with this famous passage from Deuteronomy.

In her essay in the book I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, Justice Ginsberg wrote:

“The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. …I [am] fortunate to be linked to that heritage and to live in the United States at a time when Jewish people residing here face few closed doors and do not fear letting the world know who we are. 

“For example, I say who I am in certain visible signs. The command from Deuteronomy appears in artworks, in Hebrew letters, on three walls and a table in my chambers.    ‘Zedek, zedek, tirdof –Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue!’  these artworks proclaim: they are ever-present reminders to me of what judges must do “that they may thrive.”[i]  

Indeed, the pursuit of justice marked Justice Ginsberg’s life and her career, most especially for women in her landmark court battles against discrimination based on sex. 

In her eulogy, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt from Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC spoke of Justice Ginsberg’s accomplishments:  “To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity or a clear path for education — and despite this, to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different — that is the job of a prophet.  It’s the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world, but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime.”[ii]

Through her life experiences, Justice Ginsberg knew the plight of the stranger, the feeling of one who is not seen.  Her commitment to the pursuit of justice, inspired her to pursue justice not only for women but for all who are the unseen in our society.

This summer the streets of our nation were filled with protests and the cry for justice for black lives.  Now again, there is the call for justice in response to the grand jury decision in Louisville that left no one accountable for the death of Brianna Taylor.   Black lives matter, they cry, because while, yes, all lives matter, the events of recent months have reminded us all too painfully that black lives have not mattered in this country, that they have not and do not receive justice, and despite legal steps taken towards equality, despite a black president who held office for eight years living in a house built by slaves, black lives still do not matter enough.  Sadly, King’s dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is far from realized.

Not when black Americans continue to experience the highest COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide, 3.4 times as high as whites;[iii]

not when one in every ten black males in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day;

not when the unemployment rate for blacks is more than twice that of whites;

not when the median wealth of black households is 1/13th that of white households;[iv]

not when unarmed blacks are about twice as likely to be killed as unarmed whites;[v]

and not when a black man is killed under the knee of a police officer who held it there for over 8 minutes, while George Floyd screamed for breath and cried for his mother. 

Floyd’s death was the tipping point that caused our nation to erupt in protest – black and white, young and old — protesting in masks during a pandemic because the status quo is simply no longer tolerable, the demand for police reform, among other changes, is so great.

It’s not just about justice for George Floyd or for Brianna Taylor or for Ahmaud Aubery or for any of those shot down because of the color of their skin.  It’s about the pervasive, systemic racial injustice in America that goes back now 401 years to… when the first African Americans were brought to these shores as slaves and the journey and discrimination that has endured throughout the generations of the descendants of those slaves – and expanded to all people of color.

Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof my faith teaches me. 

Justice, justice shall you pursue!

Justice, Justice – it is so important, so urgent, that the word is repeated twice.

And the text doesn’t say act with justice, it commands us to pursue justice.  It is not enough to observe wrongdoing, taught the rabbis, one must act to do something about it.[vi] 

We know what it is to be treated otherwise, to be the unseen, the stranger.  The very foundation story of the Jewish people is one of having been the stranger — the exodus from slavery in Egypt.  Annually we re-enact our liberation from bondage through the Passover seder so that we might rise from that table having internalized its message to cherish our freedom and fight for the freedom of all. “You must care for the stranger, because you were the stranger” we are commanded over and over again, thiry-six times in the Torah, more than any other commandment.  This story and its lessons are fundamental to our identity as Jews. 

And throughout so much of our history, we have known injustice, prejudice and hate, and with the rise of white supremacy in this country we have experienced that hate once again in the deepest and most profound of ways.  

The common experience of being that stranger, the outsider, once brought blacks and white Jews together in the struggle for civil rights; once again, we need to be united in our common struggle against hate wherever and in whatever forms it appears.  Hate is never limited to one group, as Prof. Deborah Lipstadt has taught us, “the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive democratic, and multicultural society.  … Antisemism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities.”[vii]

In the aftermath of the Floyd killing and protests, I participated in a number of webinars through our Reform movement about combatting racism.  In one, a speaker made the following point:  Blacks have been fighting this battle for generations; if we want to be real allies, we have to commit for the long haul.  And we have to begin by listening; not jumping in with what we think the black community needs, but to listening to black voices.

And we have started to do just that.  Many of you were with us on the Shabbat immediately following Floyd’s death when we listened to the voices of two of our own members, Jasmaine Russo and Melissa Wall who shared their own painful stories and struggles with racism.  We showed a video that Jas had made and posted on Facebook where she shared her reactions to the events and stories from her life, among them what it feels like when time after time, people look past her for the nursing supervisor in the facility where she is the nursing supervisor because they assume the supervisor could not be black; and of the mixed feelings she was holding towards the police because it was the police who shot her unarmed cousin and it was also police who helped save her daughter’s life during an asthma attack.  Melissa spoke of childhood memories of how at age 4 a Santa had pushed her off of his lap because she was black and how she grew up learning the proper way to speak to a police officer, with head down and standing at a distance.  She told us of her mother’s utter shock when here in Poughkeepsie a police officer held a door for her and said, “Good morning mam.”

Later in the summer, on a podcast, I heard black poet and educator, Clint Smith, read part of a letter that he had written back in 2015 to a then imagined son.  I was moved and deeply saddened by what he wrote and share some of it now as it speaks so poignantly to being black in America: 


I want to tell you how difficult it is to tell someone they are both beautiful and endangered. So worthy of life, yet so despised for living. I do not intend to scare you. My father, your grandfather, taught me to follow a certain set of rules before I even knew their purpose. He told me that these rules would not apply to everyone, that they would not even apply to all of my friends. But they were rules to abide by nonetheless. Too many black boys are killed for doing what others give no second thought. Playing our music too loud, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, playing with a toy in the park. My father knew these things. He knew that there was no room for error. He knew it was not fair. But he loved me too much not to teach me, to protect me.

…. Many a Saturday morning, my friends and I would ride bikes throughout the neighborhood together. … We were a motley crew, an interracial assemblage of young boys that would have made the Disney Channel proud. … On one afternoon, we went to the field where we so often played football… This time, however, the field was closed. The fence bolted by a lock that could not be snapped. One friend, whose long, blond hair dangled gently over his eyes, tossed the football to me, and immediately began to climb the fence. I watched him: the ease with which he lifted one foot over another, the indifference of his disposition to the fact that this was an area we were quite clearly not supposed to enter. I remember hearing the soft, distant echo of a police siren. Perhaps a few blocks away. Perhaps headed in a different direction. I couldn’t be sure, but I knew better than to ignore it. He reached the other side, and looked back, beckoning the rest of us to join him. I held the football in my hand, looking at him through the chain link fence between us. It was at this moment I realized how different he and I were, before I had the words to explain them to either him or myself. How he could break a rule without a second thought, whereas for me any mistake might have the most dire of consequences…

I want you to realize that sometimes it will not be the things the world tells you, but the things it does not tell you. It will be the omissions, rather than the direct affronts that do the most damage. Your textbooks will likely not tell you how Thomas Jefferson thought that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind”; how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal left a hole just wide enough for black families to fall through while lifting the rest of the country into the middle class…. They will not tell you these things, and because of that they will expect you to believe that the contemporary reality of our community is of our own doing, that we simply did not work hard enough, that things would be different if we would simply change our attitudes, the way we speak, the way we dress.

With that said, do not for one moment think you cannot change what exists. … This world was built; it can be rebuilt. Use everything that you accrue to reimagine the world…

I pray that you never have to stand on the other side of a fence and know that it is a world you cannot enter simply because of your skin.”[viii]

I never had to write such a letter to my son or to my daughters.  In a just country, neither would Smith.

Listening to these voices, coupled with witnessing the horrific killing of Floyd and others and the protests that followed, my eyes have been opened anew to the realities of being black in America and to a deeper awareness of the privileges that I have simply because of the color of my skin.   I also came to a new understanding of the slogan so often chanted and held aloft at protests: “No justice, no peace.”  How can there possibly be peace – in Hebrew, Shalom, meaning wholeness — when there is the brokenness of racial injustice?  There can be no wholeness in America until there is equity for all. 

“Justice, Justice we must pursue.”  A first step in the pursuit of justice and healing is to gain greater understanding of what it means to live with racism, to listen to more black voices.  To that end, under the auspices of our adult education committee, we are starting a “Racism Reading Group” whose first meeting will be at the end of October.  We will read books and articles that explore racism.  All who want to engage in open and honest dialogue are welcome to join.  Please let Karen in the office know of your interest.  We are collecting recommended materials and welcome more ideas.  See the October bulletin and forthcoming newsletters for more details.

Even as this is a long-term project, there are immediate actions that we can take in our pursuit of justice in this nation.  This afternoon’s Torah portion, the Holiness Code from Leviticus, guides us on speaking out: Hokeach tokiach et amitecha, “Reprove your kinsman.”  Hokeah tokiach – again, the verb repetition for emphasis.  You cannot remain silent, especially when it is your kinsman doing something wrong.  We must speak out against racism, wherever we see it, beginning among those closest to us — calling out our family, friends or co-workers if they use racist language. 

Pursuit of justice also means partnering with others in joint efforts to combat racial injustice in our community and beyond.  One of the steps towards justice that our Civic Engagement Committee is taking right now is fighting attempts at voter suppression and voter list purging, aimed especially at people of color, by sending postcards reminding people in states most endangered to register and to vote.   Our Reform Movement has joined many other religious and secular organizations in this nonpartisan campaign led by the non-profit Center for Common Ground.  I’m so proud that our Vassar Temple volunteers have thus far sent out over 5,700 postcards.  If you are interested in participating in this effort, please contact Howard Susser or Marge Groten.

I know that these are just baby steps in what right now seems like an impossible dream of achieving racial justice.  But every journey begins with one hopeful step. Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, maintains a commitment to striving for this dream even against such overwhelming challenges in the conclusion to his book:

… racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying. There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.[ix]

Let us also take hope from the “prophet” Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was able to imagine a world far different from the one into which she was born and thereby made great strides towards making it more just.

Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof – strengthen us, O God, in our pursuit of justice so that one day there will, indeed, be justice and there will be peace.

[i] Judea and Ruth Pearl, Ed., I am Jewish:  Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, p.201

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/us/politics/ruth-bader-ginsburg-supreme-court.html

[iii] https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race

[iv] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/uncovering-my-white-privi_b_8191410?guccounter=1

[v] Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, p. 73

[vi] Leviticus Rabbah

[vii] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now, p. xi

[viii] Ted Radio Hour, original broadcast 05/01/15; https://ideas.ted.com/my-hopes-dreams-fears-for-my-future-black-son/

[ix] Kendi, p.238

“Accepting our Cracks”

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5781 by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Every year, we Jews get a do-over.  Like our GPS saying, recalculate – we get to find a new route.   Or pressing that button on our phone to restore it to its original settings.  We get a chance to wipe the slate clean and try again.  We begin on Rosh Hashanah (or if we’re really good, a month before that in Elul) to reflect on our actions, recognize where we’ve gone wrong, turn to those whom we’ve hurt – intentionally or not — make amends and then we are ready for Yom Kippur, now we can ask God to forgive us.  We look forward to a new beginning.  But then we start our worship with the most unusual prayer:  we ask God to forget any promises that we make if we’re not able to fulfill them:

Kol Nidrei

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.

This odd statement has puzzled many throughout the generations and there have even been attempts to replace it with something that seems more appropriate to the day than declaring vows we cannot fulfill null and void.    And yet, despite its rather curious message and the mysterious nature of its origins, not only has Kol Nidrei been retained but our evening service has become known by its name.  Its melody is so powerful that it has forever earned a place in the heart of the Jewish people.  We recite it three times to ensure that even the latecomers will hear its words.

There are numerous interpretations to Kol Nidrei.  One that I find most appealing, especially in the challenging times in which we find ourselves when we are all under so much pressure, is that Kol Nidrei gives us permission to fail.  It acknowledges that though we will try our best, there are times when we will surely fall short, that we will not always achieve our goals, despite our best intentions.  Failure is part of our humanity; unlike the angels, we are flawed, imperfect beings.  In making this public proclamation we pray that, if we sincerely try our best, God will forgive us when we fall short of meeting those promises, which we have made with the fullest intention of keeping.   The beauty of this prayer is that it gives us the ability to promise; where would the world be if we didn’t make promises to achieve ideals? 

Jewish legend has long associated Kol Nidrei with the Morranos, the hidden Jews during the time of the Spanish Inquisition who lived outwardly as Christians and secretly as Jews. Though scholarship has determined that the prayer is of much earlier authorship, this legend still holds sway.  In an essay about Kol Nidrei, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso relates a story she heard about a woman who grew up Catholic, but every Friday night placed two candles on her dining room table.   Before lighting them, she would turn the picture of Jesus that was hanging in her dining room to the wall; on the other side, she had placed a mirror.  At least once a week, as she lit the candles, she would see who she really was.  “At the beginning of Yom Kippur,” teaches Sasso, “we look in that mirror to see who we really are.   We come together on Kol Nidrei and we admit it.  We tell the truth. We hold up the mirror and look into it.  We make no pretense.  We wear no masks. (This was written well before COVID – she meant masks that hide our identity; not masks that protect our health!)  We admit that we are not all that we hope to be.  Once a year we acknowledge that we are not always at our best…”[i]   

Kol Nidrei urges us to look at our true selves, blemishes and all.  It forces us to acknowledge that we will not achieve all that we want to achieve or always be who we want to be.  It demands that we recognize our imperfections.  It is, in many ways, as one colleague said, “an anti-dote to self-righteousness.”

Admitting our failings is no easy task.  As we prepared to hear Kol Nidrei tonight, we read words from our Mahzor that affirmed just how difficult it is to admit imperfections and how we can draw strength by doing so together in community.

In response to Kol Nidrei, God promises:  S’lachachti k’dvarchecha – “I forgive, as you have asked.”  And with that knowledge, we can now move forward towards a new beginning – provided that we can also do what God has done: forgive ourselves.  You see, until we can forgive ourselves, we won’t actually be able to meet our goals, as we will be weighed down by feelings like guilt; until we can forgive ourselves for our flaws and imperfections, we will never be able to see beyond them to other possibilities that lie before us.   The following folktale illustrates what I mean:

A long, long time ago in India there lived a water bearer. He had two pots and a very long pole, which he balanced across his very broad shoulders. He would hang one pot from each end of the pole. Each day the man left his home with his empty pots and his pole draped across his shoulders and walked down the path to the stream. Once at the stream, the man filled both his pots with water.  Then he put the pots back on his pole, balanced his pole across his shoulders, and walked back home. Now what you should know is this: One of the man’s pots had a crack in it! And just as you’d expect, every time the man arrived home, the cracked pot was only half full of water.

But that didn’t change the man’s routine: Every day he walked down the path to the stream, collected his water, and arrived home with one pot full of water and the other pot half full. This went on every day, week after week, month after month, year after year.  The cracked pot felt sad and ashamed. Finally, one day, the cracked pot mustered up the courage to speak to the man. “Excuse me, sir. I’m so sorry,” said the pot. “And I really want to apologize and beg your forgiveness.” “Why?” asked the man. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“Over the years that I’ve helped you, I’ve never been able to deliver a full load of water for you. I’ve never been able to do my fair share. You work so hard, but because of my crack you never get the full amount of water. So your efforts are never completely rewarded, and it’s all because of me and my crack.” Hearing this, the man felt sorry for the pot. “Listen,” he said. “It’s okay. Really, it is. In fact, the next time we go to collect water, as we walk along, I want you to look out over your side of the path.” The pot agreed. The next day, the water bearer followed his normal routine, filling the two pots with water at the stream, and placing one at each end of his pole. Then he started for home. Instead of worrying about the crack and the water that was falling out, the pot did as the man had instructed. She looked out along the side of the path. And what she saw was amazing: fields of beautiful flowers!

The man stopped. “Do you see all those flowers? And have you noticed that these gorgeous flowers are only on your side of the path? It’s because I knew that water leaked from your crack, so I planted seeds along the way. That way, every day when we walked back up to the house, you watered the seeds. It’s thanks to you that we have these beautiful flowers growing along the path. Without your crack, we wouldn’t have these colorful flowers to brighten my day and bring beauty to the world. So I need to thank you. Thank you for being a cracked pot.”[ii]

In some ways, each of us is a cracked pot; none of us are perfect.  While, of course, we want to try to do our best and be our best, and improve ourselves where possible, there are some limitations and flaws that are just part of who we are.   It is only when we can accept them and forgive ourselves for them, that we can do for ourselves what the man did for the pot – find ways to turn those flaws into blessings.

We are all living through an extraordinarily stressful time.  No doubt, one day we will be able to reflect back on this time and recognize living in quarantine during a pandemic as among the top stressful life situations. Certainly, under these circumstances, it is easy for our flaws and imperfections to become magnified.  I would imagine that most of us are trying our best to be understanding of others, especially those with whom we live, and cutting them some slack.  Kol Nidrei comes to remind us to cut ourselves some slack as well.  If we can be generous towards ourselves, if we can recognize and forgive ourselves for our limitations and flaws, then perhaps we will be better able to see and appreciate our own gifts, just as we try to in others.

Granting forgiveness is not always easy, and often hardest when it’s directed towards ourselves.  May we draw strength from the perspective that Rabbi Karyn Kedar offers in the following poem:

Forgiveness is a process, a path without an end,

a bridge that leads to restoration

of what you have lost.

It is a shift in perspective,

a way of being.

Forgiveness is what you do to your soul when you

Choose to live in light rather than in darkness.[iii]

May 5781 be a year in which we choose to find the light.

[i] Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, “The Kol Nidrei Mirror into Our Soul,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidrei, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, p. 202

[ii] “The Cracked Pot,” as told by Rabbi Francine Green Roston in Three Times Chai:  54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories, ed. Laney Katz Becker

[iii] Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetery, And Mindfulness Practice, p. 66.\