Rituals are meant to provide orientation and grounding through the uncertain, ambiguous, and/or emotionally tumultuous times of life. This week’s torah portion, Tazria, starts by describing the rituals surrounding one of life’s most disorienting experiences: pregnancy and childbirth. After giving birth, the Torah teaches, a person should wait a period of time (thirty-three days for a male child, sixty-six days for a female child) and then bring an offering to the temple.
The Talmud (Niddah 27b) explains that the Torah is not just discussing pregnancies that end in birth; the Torah describes the case as one where where “a woman 'sends seed' (tazria) and gives birth (v’yaldah)”. If the Torah were just talking about people who give birth, it explains, we wouldn’t need the initial verb tazria; the verse could be simply “when a woman gives birth…”. The Talmud concludes that the offering is not brought solely after childbirth, but even if a person gave birth to “a pulpy mass which had dissolved, having become liquified like seed”.
The Talmud’s description is graphic and perhaps a little grotesque, but so are births, miscarriages, and abortions. The details of these events are frequently left out of public discourse, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t emotionally intense experiences in need of ritual demarcation. The Talmud's explanation helps us to remember that, no matter the situation, the end of a pregnancy can be extremely disorienting and is deserving of a sacred rite to mark the experience.
The Talmud's commentary also reminds us of the tendency of public narratives to conflate the experience of pregnancy with childbirth and to oversimplify the stories of pregnant people more generally. When this happens, the diversity of the emotional and spiritual needs of pregnant people are ignored.
There is much work to be done on many levels to be able to fully appreciate both the vastness of the experiences of pregnant people and their needs, no matter whether their pregnancies lead to births, miscarriages, or abortions. A crucial component is protecting the right to safe healthcare, including access to abortions. This week, an important step was taken in the Maryland legislation to protect reproductive rights: the Maryland General Assembly passed the Abortion Care Access Act. Still, there is much work to be done. I am grateful for everyone who advocated for this bill to pass, and I pray we all may be ready to take whatever action is needed next to support the fight for reproductive rights.
September 30th, 2021
Shanah Tovah. Happy Day After Labor Day. And Sh’nat Shmita Tova!
I imagine two of these greetings are familiar. Shanah tovah I wish you every year. Happy Labor Day, you might not hear from me every year, but it does happen every year on the first Monday of September, so I imagine you’ve heard it many times before. But Sh’nat Shmita Tova: what does that mean?
It means Happy Shmita Year.
Okay, what does that mean?
Shmita is the name for one out of every seven years in the Jewish calendar. In English, Shmita is often translated as Sabbatical. Sometimes Shmita is called the year of rest and is compared to Shabbat. It is called a Shabbat HaAretz, a Shabbat for the land. Six days we work, one day we rest. Six years we work, one year we rest. We don’t plant or prune. We harvest only what we need to survive. We let the land lie fallow. It’s a time where the normal agricultural order was totally upended.
When I have mentioned to people over the past few months that this coming year was a Shmita year, sometimes I have gotten the response, “Didn’t we just get through a Shmita year? Didn’t we just let our lives lie fallow? Aren’t we through this already?”
When I think about this past year, what has come to mind is not our texts about Shmita but rather our texts from Lamentations:
Zion’s roads are in mourning,
Empty of festival pilgrims;
All her gates are deserted.
Her priests sigh,
Her maidens are unhappy--
She is utterly disconsolate!
No one in casual conversation has actually said these words to me, but I feel like they might have. The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of the first temple. It describes the profound disorder, disorientation and dislocation that comes with losing the fundamental basis of our religion. What was Judaism without a temple? I think of it like an out of control wildfire raging through the land, a world totally transformed. Indeed, we continue reading in Lamentations:
He has ravaged Jacob like flaming fire,
Consuming on all sides.
Until the 20th century, it was commonplace for fires, caused by lightning or lit by indigenous tribes for various reasons, to shape and reshape the landscape. The fires were part of the landscape’s natural cycle. However, when there is fire suppression in an area—meaning, when people prevent fires from happening at all costs and put them out immediately—you end up with more extreme fires that fundamentally change the ecosystem. This was the policy taken by the US Forest service starting in the early 1900s: fire was viewed as the enemy of humans and forests alike, and wildfires were quickly extinguished whenever possible. The federal government promoted a policy called the “10AM Policy”: requiring fire departments put out all fires by 10AM the next day if possible, and if not 10AM the day after that. After about half a century of this policy, in the 1960s ecologists brought the country’s attention to the fact that by putting out all of the fires immediately, the landscapes were becoming far more susceptible to increasingly severe fires. The forests were filled with dead trees and other highly combustible material around, just waiting for an initial spark to set an entire landscape on fire. Since then, ecologists have continued to advocate for less stringent policies that allow more controlled burns to return to the ecological cycles of various forests so as to reduce the amount of exuberant fuels in the landscape and reduce wildfire severity.
Both the destruction of the temple and the pandemic were unprecedented turning points in history. Huge, raging wildfires in highly combustible environments. In both cases, society was dramatically transformed in ways that we could never have expected. Sometimes we have this longing for the “beforetimes”, but we are living in an entire new ecosystem now. There is no going back.
But Shmita is not like this. Rather than being like a wildfire, I see Shmita as a controlled burn. Yes, it involves disorientation and dislocation, but in calculated amounts according to a natural rhythm. Shmita is not meant to be a radical, unpredictable disruption that causes a permanent shift in the landscape but should be a natural part of the environment’s rhythm. My friend Carrie Levine who is a fire ecologist in California taught me about the Illouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park, where there has been great success with allowing fires to run their course. As a result, there have been massive ecological benefits including including boosting plant and pollinator biodiversity, limiting the severity of wildfires and increasing the amount of water available during periods of drought.
It is the duty of policymakers to acknowledge that fires, whether we like them or not, are a part of our ecosystem, and it is not sustainable to advocate for shutting down every fire as quickly as possible if they are just going to cause greater damage later. Instead, fire ecologists and policymakers must make decisions that advocate for their highest values: minimizing danger and promoting a sustainable forest ecosystem.
We, here on the East Coast, might not live in forests and fires might not be our greatest source of danger, but our worlds are also precarious. Shmita is our method of making space for that precariousness, and of proactively giving ourselves space to look at that precariousness and to reorient our values in light of it.
Shmita in its Biblical context offers a vision of radical equality:
This is Shmita, what is sometimes called the most radical of all Jewish laws. For six years we dedicate our energies to the work needed to survive. We engage with systems that are maybe not ideal: agriculture, borrowing and lending money. In the seventh year, there was a letting go of the grip of those systems. Shmita literally means release.
This releasing is intense. It is disorienting. It might even be as scary as a forest fire; it poses a very strong counterculture to how Israelite agricultural society generally operated. And yet, it is meant to help people reorient around more fundamental values of social and economic equality and of obligation to care for the Earth.
In a midrash from Vayikra Rabba, Rabbi Yitzhak describes how hard it is to observe Shmita even when one is in the routine of doing so:
In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a
commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?
Even if we aren’t going to observe Shmita in literally this way, Rabbi Yitzhak reminds us how hard it is to give up our normal social order, especially when it is how we have organized our economic lives. Shmita leaves us with a profound sense of unknown as we look out at our lands without their normal borders, our fences. It asks us to see these divisions as temporary and asks us to face it with might. The invitation is to use this year to step away from the forces that get in the way of seeing our unequivocal equality with every other individual.
As I stand before you today at the very beginning of this Shmita year, I am not advocating for a strict return to Shmita practices of old, but rather that we explore practices that embrace the values that Shmita stands for.
There are many ways to do this, and the Jewish environmental organization Hazon, which has recently merged with The Pearlstone Retreat Center, has an initiative called The Shmita Project which is compiling and promoting ideas for how most meaningfully to bring Shmita values into our lives even as we live in a non agrarian society.
One additional Shmita initiative that I in particular want to lift up is a particular policy issue, the issue of Paid Family and Medical Leave which has been selected as a focus this year by Jews United For Justice and our very own Social Action Committee. This year, there is a piece of legislation that will be presented in the Maryland legislature called the Time To Care Act, which provides workers with paid leave when they are welcoming a new child, caring for an injured or sick family member, or caring for themselves. The Shmita cycle recognizes the tendency of societies to allow labor to take precedence over caring for loved ones in need. This bill, like the laws of Shmita themselves, seeks to restore a little of the balance. Paid leave keeps working families from having to choose between putting food on the table and taking care of a loved one. We have the opportunity this year to make this a reality for Marylanders. The Shmita cycle also recognizes that we can only control and plan for so much in our lives. Newborn children, injury, illness, or caring for others that we are in sacred relationship with, these all add in some unpredictability to our lives. Often though, this unpredictability, these moments where we show up for one another, can feel like what our lives are truly about. This legislation that could enable family members to better care for each other is one step to reorienting our society toward our highest values.
No matter who you are in society, whatever your social class or position, you deserve time away from work to care for your loved ones or for yourself without risking losing your job. This is what it means for our fences to come down, for our fields to be declared ownerless, and for our produce to be accessible to all. To know that it is not just some people in some jobs who deserve access to time to care for one another, but that truth is universal. Because in the end, we are all mortal.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire
My friend Hannah Coolidge is a firefighter out west. She once wrote:
But even as we accept or encourage the presence of fire in the landscape, this acceptance is premised on one assumption: that if a wildfire or prescribed burn “gets out of hand,” we’re prepared to put it out. And so even as the perspective on wildfire has changed dramatically over the last century, the job of wildland firefighters remains much the same: fires are burning as fiercely as ever, there are ever more homes built in areas affected by wildfire, and nobody wants fire in their backyard.
Embracing fire as a part of our ecosystems isn’t easy. Neither is accepting that sickness and death is a part of life. But this what we are called to do on the high holy days. But when we accept life’s precarity, we become better prepared to embrace the humanity of one another and to advocate for a more just world.
"With what shall I bless you?
There’s a Friday night ritual where traditionally parents bless children. When, I had Shabbat dinner with Audrey Potter last week, I surprised and intrigued to hear the blessing that she offered her daughters. “May you be blessed to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Ruth, Harriet, Elena, Jane, and Kamala.” Her list included traditional names, the names of the matriarchs, but it also included the names of others that she wanted to serve as role models for her daughters (imperfect individuals still, just like the matriarchs). It felt so intimate to see some hints of Audrey’s values through the composition of her blessing, and to see this glimpse of the promise that Audrey saw for her daughters.
In parshat Eikev, there is also a moment of blessing, where God offers a blessing to the people: “[God] will love and bless and multiply you, blessing the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain, your wine, your oil, the offspring of your herds and flocks…”
What values of God’s are communicated through this blessing? What promise does God see in the people, and what might this sort of blessing evoke for its recipients? As moderns, even with our access to historical research, only have so much access to what this blessing might have meant to its particular recipients. Even standing in the room with Audrey last week, I have limited sense of what her blessing evokes for her, even less of a sense of what it evokes for her daughters!
Blessings are moments of deep connection and have the potential to create greater intimacy with people we live. This Shabbat, I invite you to take a little risk and offer a blessing to someone whom you might not usually. If you don’t know the person very well, I will share my strategy. I start by asking a person a question that I learned from the Talmud, “With what shall I bless you?” (Taanit 5b)
And if you leave a comment, I would be honored to also offer you a blessing!
Shabbat Shalom and wishing you each a week of blessings.
July 22nd, 2021
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu B'av!
“To love well is the task in all meaningful relationships” bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
In popular culture, love is often described as a feeling, an instinct. In romantic comedies, characters say “I think I’m in love,” upon meeting one another. But in the Torah, love is more than a feeling; it is an activity, an action. This week’s Torah portion contains a central text, the V’ahavta (“You shall love”) prayer. The rabbis of the Talmud interpret this text as to be teaching us how to love. The V’ahavta’s first verse reads:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
What’s the difference between your heart, your soul, and your might? Why do all three of the these elements need to be listed? Rabbi Eliezer gives one suggestion: he suggests that different people might find it easier or harder to love in different ways. One person, he suggests, might find that they have a more protective relationship to their property (his interpretation of what “your might” means) so they might be less inclined to give away possessions in acts of love. Someone else might find it difficult to perform acts of service for loved ones that require one’s physical body (his interpretation of “your soul”). We don’t all have the same inclinations of how to love: some of us are more heart, some of us are more soul, some of us are more might. In the framework of Dr. Gary Chapman, we all have our preferred love languages. (I’d love to hear: which do you think you are?).
But the text doesn’t say, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, OR with all your might.” It says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, AND with all your might.” From here we learn that loving requires us to engage with God, but really also one another, in all kinds of loving behaviors, both ones that come easily to us and ones that are more (sometimes much more) difficult. Loving is not an easy, instinctive task. It is also what our tradition calls us to do: love your neighbor, love the strange, love the orphan and the widow, love God. Heart, soul, AND might.
May you have a week of ahava, of love, and may you both give and receive it fully and deeply with your heart, with your soul, and with your might.
One of the people up for an Emmy for lead actor this year is Billy Porter for his role in the television show pose. Who here has seen this television show? I hadn’t heard of it before my housemates started watching it when quarantine started.
Pose is about New York City's undergroun LGBTQ ballroom culture in the late 1980s and early 1990 during the HIV epidemic. Many of the characters in the show face rejection from their families and then on top of that are living with HIV. Many of them are also African American and Latino so they are also dealing with racism. It is a very dark period, but the dance culture provides some comfort, some community, and some hope amidst despair.
As you might imagine, this show is very popular right now. The themes of dealing with the realities of widespread illness, the need to address a society taht still marginalizes LGBTQ people and people of color ring very close to home. But so does the need for hope, community, and comfort that the characters on the show find through their community.
This morning, I was listening to a podcast featuring one of the lead actors, Billy Porter, who has been nominated for an Emmy for his performance in Pose. At this point in his career, he is very successful, but in the interview, he described how it took a long time for him to get there. From a young age, he was told over and over again that he was not “masculine” enough.
“When I started coming to New York in the late '80s and trying to be in the business, you know, there was no context for someone who looked like me, you know?” he said.
It felt like he had nowhere to go.
In this parasha, Ki Teitze, we also encounter a character who is deemed to have no future: the afamed ben sorer u moreh, the wayward and rebellious son.
Reading this section of the Torah on its face value is incredibly painful. We read about how this child is deemed a glutton and a drunk. He is brought before the elders of the city and is stoned to death.
The Talmud says that the reason for this unimaginably harsh punishment for a child is because he is being judged
עַל שֵׁם סוֹפוֹ
On what his future will be
“in the end he will squander his fathers property and seeking in vain for the pleasures to which he has been accustomed, he will take his stand on the crossroads and rob people, and in some way or other make, himself liable to the death penalty. Says the Torah, “Let him die innocent of such crimes, and let him not die guilty of them” ‘
Reading this text, we see are given a portrait of an individual with no hope of a positive future.
It was reading this section of the Torah that made me glad that I am a rabbinic Jew, that I believe in interpretation of the Torah over time, that I don’t follow Judaism that says that we follow what the Torah says on face value.
Eventually, the Talmud will basically legislate this category of individual out of existence.
בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות
The Ben sorer u’moreh never was and never will be.
Now you have to remember how drastic of a move this is. The rabbis are literally legislating away a law from the Torah.
For us, this might seem obvious. We are much more comfortable saying that the Torah is ancient and that we do not follow the laws exactly the way they are portrayed but this is foundational to what the rabbinic Judaism has become.
And here’s what I think it means:
It means that the rabbis decided that there should never be a person whose future is prejudged for them as irreparable. That we must always find a way through to hope.
We must always find a way forward, we must not make assumptions about the way that a person’s life will go, and if a future doesn’t seem possible, we must make it possible.
For Billy Porter, this was coming up against a culture where he was not allowed to not appear masculine and struggled and struggled to find roles where he could be himself.
In the podcast Billy Porter says, “What this experience with "Pose" has done for me is taught me to dream the impossible, to take my own glass ceiling off of my dreams and dream the stuff that I can't even see yet.”
Some of us may be facing personal senses of futurelessness right now, maybe some feel like they have to do with identity, some are just with the immense amounts of obstacles put in our way by the pandemic. We as a community need these things too.
But the story of the Rabbis and the Wayward Son tells us that we too need creative audacity and moral willpower
Billy Porter in the interview says, “The practice I believe is to learn to take off our own “glass ceilings”, to allow ourselves to dream big dreams, to feel hopeful about a future that is not yet entirely visible.”
Now, as a black effeminite gay man, when he says this, i know he does not mean that “you can do anything you want”
But in his TV show, Pose, he creates a community for people who were judged to not fit into society, a place for them to express themselves, a place to connect, a place to find solace from the stress of plagued communities and social isolation.
We, like the Israelites, are in a time of wilderness and obstacles abound.
In the time of Elul, as the high holidays draw near, the sense of an unknown future looms larger.
But we are not helpless and we are not dream-less. Let us not judge the future based on our perceptions of its ending. Let us come together and continue to imagine what might be possible and let us build it together.
In the book of Isaiah, God says,
הִנְנִ֨י עֹשֶׂ֤ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ עַתָּ֣ה תִצְמָ֔ח הֲל֖וֹא תֵֽדָע֑וּהָ אַ֣ף אָשִׂ֤ים בַּמִּדְבָּר֙ דֶּ֔רֶךְ בִּֽישִׁמ֖וֹן נְהָרֽוֹת׃
I am about to do something new; Even now it shall come to pass, Suddenly you shall perceive it: I will make a road through the wilderness And rivers in the desert.
As we struggle through this wilderness together, I pray that we are blessed with God’s readiness to try new things and with the Rabbi’s audacity and moral leadership.
Parshat Re'eh: Make Your Social Justice Practice As Structured As Your Prayer and Your Study
When I have free time, I will study.
How many of you have said this to yourself?
This is a line from Pirke Avot, a book of rabbinic teachings in the Mishna from the year 200.
It actually is phrased as if predicting that people will say this.
וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:
A pretty spot on prediction. 2000 years later, we are still dealing with procrastination. I saw this article in the New Yorker entitled “What type of procrastinator are you?” and here were the options:
There are lots of reasons we might avoid doing something that is good for us. The rabbinic tradition, unlike the New Yorker, though don’t go into the psychology as to why. Rather, they offer a solution: make a fixed time for your studies.
I love the fixed study opportunities we have in our community as a congregation:
Limuds on Fridays at 5:30PM and Sundays at 5PM
Parsha study for adults on Thursdays at 7:30PM
Parsha study for kids on Sundays at 10AM
Having personal study practices is also important and many people in our congregation have them. Debbie Steinig takes part in the practice of Daf Yomi, learning some Talmud every day. I have a couple friends that I study the Torah portion with and that I am also studying a section of Talmud with.
Having a regular schedule, our tradition teaches us, makes it more likely to get done.
I think this is why there is such an emphasis on regular prayer. Even in communities that people don’t pray three times a day, or even once a day, there is still a weekly service.
This is the heartbreak that we feel of not being able to meet together at our normal times right now. Our structure is disrupted. We have tried to do the best we can at building a new structure and while it hasn’t worked perfectly, since the pandemic we have met every friday night and every saturday night. We have done a pretty fabulous job of keeping our prayer schedule fixed.
But what does any of this have to do with our Torah portion?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, we learn about a few mitzvot related to the Levite. The levite is a special category of person because they, by definition cannot own land. They do receive other structural benefits in society, but they are ultimately dependent on the rest of the people to provide their food, just like strangers orphans and widows who also didn’t own land.
In one law, the people are told to separate out a portion of their crop to be eaten during the festivals. Once out of every three years, though, that separated out section is not meant for festivals but rather is to be left in your settlements.
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.
This might look like it’s about the giving tzedakah in modern terms but in combination with a different mitzvot in this parsha, I think it is also about action.
We read that God requires that the landowners must not just celebrate but most also celebrate with their households:
וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֮ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ אַתֶּ֗ם וּבְנֵיכֶם֙ וּבְנֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַבְדֵיכֶ֖ם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּשַֽׁעֲרֵיכֶ֔ם כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין ל֛וֹ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃
you shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves, along with the Levite in your settlements, for he has no land inheritance; his land inheritance is with you.
I think for us, the obligation is beyond just giving food. It is about rejoicing together, building community together.
I believe the message for us today is that social action is not just about giving money but also about action.
And our social action initiatives need to be just as fixed our prayer and just as fixed as our study.
Perhaps that is in part a personal project for you. I care a lot about addressing injustice in the prison system. I actually signed up to be a penpal for someone who is serving a life sentence in prison. I plan to take half an hour every month before coordinating committee meetings to write my letter. I invite anybody who wants to to join me. That is one way that I am structuring justice work into my life in a way that feels manageable.
At points, we as a community have been great at this—volunteering at Real Food Farms, at Dee’s Place. But it’s time for us to establish our next step, to come together to work on an issue together, to form a new volunteer routine together as a community. Perhaps we should work together on a Get Out The Vote campaign before the election in November. Perhaps we should get behind Jews United For Justice’s campaign for police accountability. Perhaps we should commit to fighting food insecurity in Baltimore.
I cannot decide what this should be for us. We need to figure it out together. So I’m creating space for us to come together and identify what is important to us and what a reasonable sized fixed commitment might be for each of us.
So I conclude by asking: how should we structure justice work into the life of our community so that it is not just something we say we do but that we know we do because it is a part of our lives in a concrete, fixed, ongoing way?
And what is your part in making that happen?
Whether you are a classic procrastinator, a justifying procrastinator, or a meta procrastinator, this is not something we can wait on any longer. But we cannot wait until we have free time.
שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה
Perhaps we will not have free time.
November 28th, 2019
When we find out we are a beneficiaries from something stolen, how are we to react?
This question is nagging at me from several angles today. Thanksgiving reminds me that the land that I live on is stolen land. This week's Torah portion, Toldot, reminds me that I am the beneficiary of a stolen blessing (being a descendant of Jacob, who steals the blessing that his father Isaac intended for Jacob's twin brother Esau).
Both stories are full of pain, which makes it easy to want to find justifications for them. "How can I hold myself responsible for something that happened so long ago?" we might want to say. Or maybe, "MY people weren't the ones who did the stealing, so it's not my responsibility." Or even "We don't even know if Jacob really existed. How could the blessing he presumably received really be impacting my life today?"
These responses are cause further harm in (at least) 3 ways:
After discovering the theft of his blessing, Esau asks his father Isaac, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” but Isaac responds that the nature of the blessing is one of domination: “I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants.” One of the dangerous legacies that the descendants of a blessing of domination is a continued sense that we are at war with our siblings, that our only choices are to dominate or to be dominated.
I believe there are other ways to give and to receive blessings. Being blessed does not require dominance. Blessings need not be so scarce.
If Thanksgiving is a day where you recall the blessings of your own, individual life, I hope the day is filled with gratitude that helps you to get in touch with your ability to give as well as to receive.
And I hope that as much as possible, we seek opportunities to give blessings that need not be private, that cannot and need not be stolen.
By Rabbi Rory Katz
Rosh Hashanah 5780
When moving to a new home, my father used to say that the first thing he would do would be to set up his stereo. Only then would he be able to say, 'all right, here I am: home.' Once he had the Grateful Dead up and playing on his stereo, that’s when he would start unpacking.
When I was ten years old, I found out my family was moving. Wanting to be like my dad, I decided I would have to figure out what my version of his stereo would be.
I decided on my rock collection.
I had quartzes, pieces of mica, rocks I’d collected on family beach trips and many other kinds of rocks whose names I was sure I’d never forget, but which I don’t remember anymore. All of these I planned to unpack first. But where would I put them, and how would I know when they—and I—had arrived home?
It turns out that putting all your most precious possessions on a log next to a creek running through the backyard (this was semi-rural Pennsylvania) is not such a good idea. Most of Ridley Creek is covered in brambles and vines but I’d discovered this one little enclave a few days after my family moved in. There was fallen log there that was perfect for sitting on while I looked are the chipmunks and birds and wondered how to make friends with such strange, lively creatures, the only other creatures in the whole world who knew about my new special spot.
I was thrilled to have found the perfect home for my precious rock collection.
I was ready to settle down into my new home too.
But six months later, Hurricane Floyd passed through our town and Ridley Creek flooded and my rock collection was washed away. Completely away. I was heartbroken.
After the flood, I avoided the woods. I especially did not want to visit the spot with the log and the bird and chipmunks along the creek’s banks between the brambles and the vines. I no longer knew how to connect to my new home, and I stopped trying to figure out how. I didn’t want to put any more of myself into this place.
Since that episode, I have made the same mistake many times. I have watched others around me make the same mistake too. When the woods take away from us something we care about—something we’ve invested ourselves in—we take ourselves away from the woods.
This season, we’re encouraged to engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh, or taking account of the soul. Perhaps someone or something has broken your trust. Maybe you entrusted someone with an object or a piece of personal information and they didn’t care for it properly. How have you reacted? Have you found yourself withdrawing from that person or thing?
Or perhaps you feel disappointed by God. As we sit together today, are you listening to the words of our prayers? Do they sound hollow? Or are you wondering—or even doubting—if you can still pray at all?
Sometimes it can be important to withdraw.
But sometimes, I worry that we withdraw too quickly. We assume that if something or someone doesn’t behave the way we expect it to, it is untrustworthy.
But sometimes that’s not the case.
In hindsight, when I think about my long lost rock collection, it’s not that Ridley Creek was untrustworthy. Ridley Creek did what all creeks do—it flooded. So in that sense, it was very trustworthy in that it behaved just like all creeks do. As a ten year old, I had unrealistic expectations of how the creek should react to a hurricane. My Cheshbon HaNefesh focused too much on my own experience, so I couldn’t take into account the full picture.
When we look at today’s liturgy, we may get the sense that we are supposed to look only at what we’ve done as individuals and what we want to do differently. But to take account of where we’re at requires us to take into account our surroundings, too.
According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of humanity, but interestingly, it is referred to as Hayom Harat Olam, the day the world was created. Why then is today not Hayom Harat Adam, the day that humanity was created?
I would argue that it seems like the significance of the day is not that humanity was created, but through the creation of humanity, the world was created. It seems as though the Olam, the world, was not complete until humanity was formed. This is not a day to look out at nature as if we are separate from it all, but rather, the beginning of our relationship with it.
(For those of you who have spent the past decades thinking that Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of creation and are now confused, I feel obligated to cite my sources. Rosh Hashanah being the anniversary of the creation of humanity is referenced in many midrashim including Vayikra Rabbah and Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, it’s in Rabbenu Bachya as well as in the Tosafot of Rosh Hashanah 8a-b.)
I hope the text scholars in the audience are now satisfied and for those of you for whom what I just said was a bunch of gibberish, you can start paying attention again now.
Rosh Hashanah also then marks the day that the first human had to figure out who they were in relationship to their landscape, their environment, their new home. Adam didn’t start out by setting up his stereo, or by lining up all of his precious rocks on the stream bank. But all of Adam’s initial actions did begin to form his relationships with his world, with God, and with Eve—by listening to God’s initial instructions to eat from all of the trees except the Tree Of Knowledge; by naming the animals one by one; and also by choosing to eat the fruit Eve gives him, ignoring the instructions that he had just heard. Moment by moment, action by action, Adam learns about himself and about the world around him. He could not learn about one without the other, and neither can we. As we learn about ourselves and simultaneously learn about our surroundings—that kind of learning is Cheshbon HaNefesh.
Having just moved here seven weeks ago, the theme of doing Cheshbon HaNefesh in a new place is hitting close to—ready yourself for the pun—home. I’m paying close attention to how I can integrate myself into this city—the land and the people—and also into Chevrei Tzedek. How do I fit in, and how do we all fit in with one another?
Now I may be the newest Baltimore resident in the room—unless, is there someone even newer than I am in the room? But even if you come from one of those families that has been in Baltimore for generations or even if you have been a member of Chevrei Tzedek from its very first days, these questions still apply to you. Because our landscapes--our city, our families, our relationships, our synagogue, the Jewish community more generally—all of it is always changing. Even my dad, who assuredly told me his stereo would always be the first thing he would set up in every new place he lived—my dad doesn’t even own a stereo anymore. He uses his iPhone and speakers. Like it or not, the landscape keeps changing, and we all need to look at it.
So today, take a look: what are your landscapes that you need to examine in order to do a holistic Cheshbon HaNefesh? Is it your family landscape, the Jewish landscape, the Baltimore landscape, the American landscape? What are the environments that you need to be looking at in order to understand your place? Only once you have answered that question for yourself can you really move on to examining how you fit into those landscapes this past year, and to thinking about what your role should be in the year to come.
The author and activist Barry Lopez writes about how people connect with a new place, and how a new landscape into a home. His words may serve as a helpful guide for us in our Cheshbon HaNefesh this year:
When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think to find a home, to sense how to fit a place. (From The Rediscovery of North America)
These words articulate a quiet attentiveness to the outside world that does not neglect the inner world. They help us remember that there is a certain egocentrism that can happen when too much of my Cheshbon HaNefesh becomes internal. That our ideas of what a place, a person, or a community, should be like can get in the way of what it actually is like. That the only way to learn is to listen.
So, as I find my place in my new city and new community, I’m trying to follow Barry Lopez’s advice to pay close attention.
In my first few weeks, I’ve been reading and collecting stories. I’ve met with a handful of you and started to learn about you and your stories, and hope to meet with many more soon. I’ve been meeting rabbis of other synagogues in the area as well as clergy from other faiths. I’ve met individuals from the Associated and its partner Jewish institutions. And two weeks ago, I met with Debbie Agus, one of the founding members of this synagogue, to hear the story of how Chevrei Tzedek came to be. Though it was a new story for me, perhaps remembering can also help us re-emplace ourselves in this special place.
Debbie told me the story of a Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house, which quickly become something much greater. “We were a bunch of friends who got together on Shabbat sometimes who realized that we had a dream of doing something bigger. We wanted to be more than a clique of friends. We wanted to hold services that didn’t meet in anyone’s house, so no one would feel like an outsider or like they were imposing. We wanted to meet in a place where anyone could feel welcome. And we wanted to be a real community that lived out our values together.”
The first of these values Debbie told me about was learning through doing, but to be honest, this was the value that stuck out to me throughout her story.
“We wanted to make the services ourselves,” she said. “some of us already knew how to run a service, some of us didn’t but were willing to learn. We wanted a rabbi, but we didn’t want that person to run everything by themself--we wanted the rabbi to teach and to help make sure we kept learning. We wanted to be a community of learners where we were all making the service happen and all of us were learning new skills along the way.”
Learning through doing was how they wanted to treat each other. From the start, this community strove to being a place all members contributed their labor to the many tasks that make a shul feel like a community: to welcoming newcomers, helping make a minyan at a shiva house, to prepping and serving food for kiddush, and cleaning up afterwards.
Learning through doing was also how they approached their social justice work. Different years, the focus was on different projects but all of them encouraged their members to dive deeply into learning about a social issue that they didn’t know much about before.
After the initial meeting, the founders spread the word about an interest meeting to gauge public enthusiasm for their idea. They put an ad in the Jewish Times. Hundreds of people showed up to that first meeting. Today, many of the original members have moved or found that their needs have shifted, but there are still a couple of members who were at that initial meeting--Barbara, Sharon, Joe... Is there anyone else I missed who is here today?
From that first meeting, there was clear interest, and time showed that people were not just casually interested--they had the drive to put in the work to make their vision happen, to turn their values into action. So soon the congregation was up and running.
I share this origin story with you not just because Rosh Hashanah is not just a day of origin myths that help us remember where we come from, but also because having a sense of where we come from will help us engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh together this year. Every time we do Cheshbon HaNefesh involves not just looking inward, but also looking all around us--to our pasts, out at our current surroundings, and even to our futures.
Turning to the present, looking around this room today, I can see that the dream of those who founded our community still captivates many hearts. These very high holiday services are only happening because so many of you contribute to making them happen through both flashy work and grunt work. So many of you contribute through kiddush, or visiting people when they are sick, or educating our kids, or making sure our donors get thanked. As we do our Cheshbon Hanefesh, we need to pay attention to--and fully appreciate--all of that.
Now, to turn to the future: today marks the 30th anniversary of the first High Holiday services that Chevrei Tzedek has every held. 30 years ago, Chevrei Tzedek’s first members were engaged in their own Cheshbon HaNefesh, trying to understand who they were in their landscape and how that might impact what they should strive for over the next year. Perhaps in five or ten or twenty years this community will be here for yet another new year celebration, and will, as part of their Cheshbon HaNefesh, take account of who you were today—what your dreams are, what values you are trying to live out, what big things you want to achieve and experience. In five, ten, or twenty years, what might the Chevreiniks of the future think of your accomplishments? Will you be someone they wonder, what must it have been like to feel what you are feeling, or hope or what you’re hoping for? Will you be someone who they’ll think, could I have done what they did?
As you do your Cheshbon Hanefesh this year, I pray that your dreams for yourself and for all of us may be big and bright, but not so bright that they distract from our context. I hope you will not treat your hopes like a precious rock collection and place them by a creek, so that we do not place our efforts and dreams in places where they are likely to get washed away by a flood.
Instead, let us start by paying attention—close attention—to the world around us. Let us approach it as Barry Lopez encourages us, with an appetite to learn about our environment once, to assume that the landscape has shifted since last year even without noticing. This kind of Cheshbon Hanefesh may take a little longer than this period that some say ends at the end of Yom Kippur and some say lasts until the end of Sukkot. But I hope you will give this the time that it deserves and that only once you have truly entered deep intimate and intelligent conversation with our context, then may you find the perfect place to put safely place your precious dreams and may you then find many opportunities live out your values amidst a year of fully dilated experiences.
Shanah Tovah U”Metukah
May each of you be blessed with a good and sweet new year.
Torah Portion: Vaetchanan
Dvar Torah on Deuteronomy 3:23-26
There we were in the land of Moav, on the 1st day of the 11th month in the 40th year of wandering in the desert.
Moses is standing before the whole people, recounting the voyage thus far.
At first, he reminds us of our victories over the Amorites and how we began to take hold of the land that would become some of ancient Israel:
So the LORD our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left.
At that time we captured all his towns; there was not a town that we did not take from them: sixty towns, the whole district of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan--
all those towns were fortified with high walls, gates, and bars—apart from a great number of unwalled towns.
We doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon; we doomed every town—men, women, and children--
and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns.
Thus we seized, at that time, from the two Amorite kings, the country beyond the Jordan, from the wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon--
He sounds like a typical war hero. His words echo descriptions of many other military victories and sound meant to instill hope as the Israelites prepare to conquer the land of Israel. As a meandering, vulnerable, recently-enslaved people his words probably made the people feel strong, powerful--all of the things they lacked when they were enslaved.
At the beginning of this week’s parasha, however, Moses’ tone shifts dramatically.
That is the name of this week’s Torah portion, meaning “And then I pleaded.”
It is not often we hear of military leaders pleading at all, especially if the pleas are ineffective. But here, we witness Moses not just pleading--we witness him RETELLING the story of pleaing before God, and ALSO how his plea is flat-out rejected by God.
Va’etchanan el Hashem
“And then I pleaded to God and said
‘O Lord GOD,
You who let Your servant see Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!
Let me, please, cross over and see the good land
on the other side of the Jordan.’”
It takes an extraordinary amount of vulnerability and a very special leader to be able to share their deepest desires before an entire people. For a lot of us, it’s hard to share our desires even in private, whether it’s a job you really want that you might not get, whether it’s a career or hobby you want to pursue but don’t know if you’ll be any good at, or whether it’s telling someone “I love you” who might not say it back
Moses, special leader that he is, not only has the vulnerability to express his deep desire to see the land on the other side of the Jordan to God, but he is even willing to recount that experience, as well as God’s rejection before his entire people.
It is hard to imagine having a leader in America today willing to show that kind of vulnerability before an entire audience. In today’s culture, Moses’ behavior would be very countercultural.
The Jewish community no longer has a leader like Moses, and will never have another leader like Moses. BUT we are all inheritors of his teachings--that is why we traditionally refer to him as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. And without a Moses to lead our community, we all must step into his legacy of leadership to keep us moving forward toward the Promised Land.
The first part of Moses’ leadership legacy is instilling a sense of hope and strength and power. To that end, I want to recognize the incredible leadership of the 35+ Chevrei members of all ages who participated in the protest in Howard County. Without your presence and your voices, fewer people would even know about the massive atrocities that are being committed against detained individuals in this country. By showing up and expressing your desires, you make change possible. There is much more work to do, but your example, gives me and I’m sure many others the hope and the energy to take the next step in stopping our government from violating the human rights of migrants and immigrants.
The second part of Moses’s leadership legacy is recognizing our vulnerabilities and our desires. The root of the Hebrew word for Moses’ prayer to God וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן is chet-nun-nun, which is the same as the root for the word “chen”, which is the Hebrew word for grace. According to Rashi, this implies that Moses made his request to God without making any argument or justification for why he should to enter the land. He does not reflect upon his qualifications but rather places his desire, simply and straightforwardly, depending on God’s will to grant him permission to enter the land or not.
As we move into Elul and focus on repairing our interpersonal relationships, in order to make deep shifts, we will have to look openly at where we stand with one another, and what we want to ask for from one another. We might find ourselves asking for forgiveness in a situation where we don’t think we deserve it. We need to take the risk of being open with our desires and risk not getting what we want. It’s very vulnerable and uncomfortable, but this too is a kind of leadership.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will make many supplicatory prayers. We will sing the prayer Avinu Malkenu, we will say:
Avinu Malkenu Chanenu,
Be gracious to us
Chanenu the same root, chet-nun-nun, as V’etchanan. Our prayer will follow Moses’ model, giving us a chance to get in touch with our deepest desires, whether we think we deserve them or not, whether we have any realistic hope of getting the thing that we want or not.
Part 1 of Moses’ leadership legacy--the instilling of hope, of strength, of power--that kind of leadership is all over the place in American culture. Part 2--the risking vulnerability--that is what is so countercultural. I’m proud to be joining a community here that is not afraid to be countercultural, to hold different values than the mainstream, and that not only CAN embrace a legacy of leadership that is just a little different than the mainstream, but that actually RELIES on its whole community to take on leadership to be the daringly whole-hearted enterprize that Chevrei Tzedek is.
Let us then step into the leadership legacy of Moshe Rabbenu, yes by instilling hope and strength in one another and also by sharing our visions and desires with one another, in all of their vulnerability.
Bit by bit, perhaps we can amplify a different vision of leadership, one that is as old as Moses would be if he were here, and is renewed with each leader who steps up.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.