By Ron Lezell
Entering the former U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, now called the Den of Espionage, I vividly remembered the images from November 1979 of the
pro-Ayatollah students smashing the gates and scaling its walls. Sixty-six American diplomats and embassy employees were taken hostage, 52 of them, often blindfolded and paraded in front of jeering crowds and TV cameras, remained there for 444 days before their release.
This reality of the contrast between the U.S. – Iran government relations then and now, with the way a rare American tourist is so sincerely welcomed, reflects for me the complicated and even contradictory feelings I had as a returning visitor.
Finding the Iranian people warm and welcoming, homes are as likely to have at hand works of the 14th century beloved and often-quoted Persian poets, Hafez and Sa’adi, as they are to have a Koran. In the modern, educated society that has largely been defined by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the 1980-88 Iran – Iraq War and economic sanctions, a visitor easily sees and feels life’s tensions and challenges on the streets. The totalitarian theocracy run by an anti-American, anti-Zionist, anti-Sunni Islam, conspiracy-filled, propaganda-spewing regime, does not in my opinion, impinge on the day-to-day safety of a Western tourist.
Tonight I’ll focus my brief remarks on the Jewish communities with which I’ve been honored to connect. I invite you to stay for a 12-minute slide/video show which I’ll show uninterrupted following the Oneg.
This week we celebrate Purim when we read from the Book of Esther of the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation. King Ahasuerus selects Esther as his wife not knowing her Jewish origins. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, discovers that Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, plots to kill the entire Jewish minority in the Persian Empire. Esther comes out as a Jew to Ahasuerus at a festive banquet and reveals Haman’s plot to exterminate her people. Ahasuerus makes the right call, saving the Jewish people, and killing Haman.
On a busy street in the city of Hamadan about 200 miles west of Tehran, behind a high gray fence, is a heavy stone-slab door leading to a 14th century tomb tower. Traditionally, this is considered to be the burial site of Esther and Mordecai. The tombs are much older than the tower, marked by a pair of large stones like the types that sealed off graves in ancient Israel. Inscriptions in Hebrew identify the tombs as those of Esther and Mordecai.
On ringing the bell, 80-year old Rabbi Rajad appeared, handed me a kipah and opened the heavy door into the tomb which consisted of an outer and inner chamber topped by a dome about 50 feet high. For more than 2,000 years this tomb has been a spiritual focal point for the Jews of Iran, their most important Jewish pilgrimage site, though there are now few visitors. Some of the Hebrew inscriptions have been repainted so often by people who likely didn’t understand them, that they now appear as Hebrew-looking jibberish. Rabbi Rajad’s broken Hebrew enabled us to communicate pretty well. Along with a tip for the free-admission visit, he was pleased that I also gave him a San Francisco Giants pen, as Lonely Planet mentions he’s an avid collector of foreign pens.
For the twenty centuries following Esther’s death, the Jewish communities of Persia and the areas of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, remained among the largest and most influential in the world. After the final dispersion of the Jews in Judea in the 4th century CE, the Jewish leaders of Persia became in essence, the supreme judges of Jewish law and practices.
The Jews of Persia remained an important cultural and religious presence in the Islamic east until the late 19th century, when they began migrating to the west, a process which accelerated in the second half of the 20th century, in particular following the 1979 Revolution.
During my visit in 2014 and on my return last December, I met in Tehran and Shiraz descendants of this rich, 2,500 year-old Jewish heritage. With up to an estimated 20,000 Jews, Iran has the largest Jewish population of any Muslim country with the possible exception of Turkey.
There are certain commonalities I observed between the Jewish communities of Tehran and Shiraz. While Tehran generally has economically wealthier Jews, both are centered, and within walking distance, of their k’neisah, or synagogue, a gathering place for their communities and where children often come for breakfast and Jewish studies before heading to school. The K’neisot are traditional, Mizrachi orthodox in practice, the younger people knowing prayer book Hebrew well and some of the older also knowing Hebrew as a conversational language.
Overheated and brightly lit with yud, hay, vov, hay over the ark, the service leader is on a bimah among the congregation, and the perimeter is lined with narrow tables and chairs. The women’s section is in the balcony or sectioned on the main floor.
Surprised that I was Reform and Ashkenazi, Jews I met understood “Reform” not as a movement, but rather to describe all non-orthodox observance. Reflecting their curiosity and ignorance of the subject, I was asked: “why do so many Reform Jews marry non-Jews?”; “do Reform light Chanukah candles?”; is it true that the Reform put tefillin on dogs?”.
Each evening at 6:30 except Shabbat, making use of the ever-present satellite dishes found in seemingly most homes, many Jews tune in to the Farsi language radio station originating from Israel to listen to the news from there.
In Tehran at the well-maintained Yusef Abad synagogue, Saturday services were so crowded and had so many boys chanting from the Torah, that Torah reading occurred on two separate bimahs. When each boy finished their chanting, ululating and the tossing of candies came from the proud mothers in the women’s section. This particular Saturday happened to be the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, a national Iranian holiday, so all the children were off school. This enabled them to come to services when they normally would only attend in such large numbers on Friday night.
Cream-filled pastries and juice boxes, served by men and boys, were distributed to the full congregation during a 20-minute break between Shacharit and Musaf. I was told that the generous amount of goodies was greater than usual on this Shabbat as it was provided by a couple married earlier in the week who were honored at services.
As I’ve come to expect, I was invited back to a home for lunch (in fact invited by several people) where I walked with family members, the men wearing kippot, something I didn’t see outside the synagogue I visited in Shiraz.
In Shiraz at the Rabizadeh synagogue, the walls needed patching and paint. Friday night services were filled with young and old, some looking in from the courtyard. One of the most enduring memories I have is of the chanting of l’cha dodi. Led by the children and chanted loudly by all, with emphasis at a spot in each verse where the children’s voices, raised in unison, seemed to shake the walls. I closed my eyes. I have a fantasy of a Spielberg-like documentary called “L’cha dodi” being made as the basis to show the Jewish and non-Jewish world the beauty and richness of this community.
Walking home with the same family I met two years earlier, I arrived to the aromas from the prepared food in the small kitchen and from pots on the living room steam heater. Welcoming Shabbat with Shalom Aleichem and Kiddush, tablecloth set on the floor, we began with fruit, nuts, fresh greens, grilled trout and flat bread, all eaten by hand. Infused by the homemade raisin-based vodka and wine, we danced, sang and drummed on kitchen pots. The meal continued, thankfully with utensils, which included rice-crusted dishes with layers of potato and chicken (they have a community shochet – a ritual slaughterer), fesenjun (which is chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce), eggplant, beans and vegetables, flavored with various herbs including barberry and saffron.
Following Saturday morning services and lunch at home consisting of Friday night leftovers, while the rest of the family napped, young cousins “S” and “E” and I went for a long walk through Shiraz. They pointed out the many Jewish-owned stores on a main street, most of which were clothing stores, closed for Shabbat. They wanted me to experience faloodeh, a dessert that originated in Shiraz, consisting of thin vermicelli noodles made from corn starch mixed in a cold syrup made from sugar and rose water served with lime juice and ground pistachios. We had a slight dilemma as the boys wouldn’t use money on Shabbat and, consistent with my entire visit with them, wouldn’t let me pay for anything as a guest. So how do I get the faloodeh? The compromise was “E” gave me his debit card and told me the pin code to provide to the vendor.
I shared the first and second nights of Chanukah with my “family”. I found it interesting that, while oil is lit and prayers recited each night, in both the k’neisah and in the homes, my experience did not include special foods nor was oil lighting necessarily a time for all family to gather around. In the k’neisah, the chanukiah was lit in a corner of the synagogue as a brief break during the ma’ariv service.
It was a great privilege to meet descendants of Esther and Mordecai. I deeply felt the warmth, familiarity and sense of truly being a part of the Jewish people.
Drash by Howard Steiermann
Typically, I see the world in two columns: Right or wrong. Yes or no. For years I have been working toward seeing the grey in between the black & white. While studying this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in which the Ten Commandments are revealed to the Israelite People, I recalled this storyà that everyone at Mount Sinai – no matter one’s age, gender expression or capacity – everyone heard the voice of GD according to their own ability to understand.
I retell this teaching to remind myself that life isn’t simply a set of rules; rather, life is made of up a broad spectrum of ideas, values and experiences.
In Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments, our covenant with GD. While reading them this year, I thought about how easily I fall into rigid patterns of thinking rather than seeing the gray. Then I recalled that there are numerous midrashim, or interpretations around the Israelite people’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments. Some interpretations say we were so reluctant that GD coerced us by holding Mt. Sinai over our heads, so that if we didn’t accept the covenant we’d become instant dust. Another interpretation is that all the other peoples of the earth were invited by GD first, but declined GD’s covenantal offer, and so it came to us quite passively. And some teach that the Israelites knew it was our destiny to be in relationship with GD, comparing the Ten Commandments with a Ketubah, the wedding contract between our People and GD.
It’s also taught that in spirit, all of us were actually there at Sinai. However, since my memory isn’t sharp enough to remember two or three millennia ago, I can’t say for certain which, if any of the three stories did happen. While I can’t give the one ‘right’ answer to how the Israelites came to be in covenant with GD, I can and do decide how I personally relate to that covenant by living my life through my actions, in how I treat others, and perhaps most telling, how I act when I think no one is watching.
Now, if you had to propose “rules to live by”, what would they be? Does the Golden Rule cover it all? Marketing gurus put forth that the Platinum Rule, “treat others the way THEY want to be treated” turns the focus to understanding what others want. The Platinum Rule reminds us that things that work for us do not necessarily work for others.
Similarly, I have found that the Ten Commandments as written in most English translations, doesn’t necessarily ‘speak’ to me as a Queer Jew living in San Francisco. So, how can I connect with this important piece of Torah text? Well, I love creating liturgy which speaks to my sensibilities. I base it in our traditions and the heritage passed down to us through the generations. I use language that resonates with my brain and thoughts which touch my heart. In this way, I strive to make the Torah, and Judaism, relevant to my life, today.
When I first started writing this drash I thought that I was going to propose commandments which ‘meant’ something to me. But as I studied, I realized that if I wrote ten new commandments, or five, or even one “new and improved” commandment, I would be weakening my connection with Sinai.
So, without rewriting history, or the Torah, here’s how I have reworded the 10 commandments for my 2017/5777 sensibilities. You can listen to mine, or think about how you might write them:
You shall realize that only the Source of All is worthy of worship
You shall not willingly bow down to another
You shall not lie while swearing you’re telling the truth
Keep the Sabbath in order that Sabbath may keep you
Honor all those who have touched your heart
You shall not intentionally harm nor murder
You shall not violate the agreements of your relationships
You shall not steal
You shall not lie when asked to bear witness, no matter the consequences
You shall not covet; as the richest person is one who is satisfied with what they already have
By rephrasing the Ten Commandments, they have become more real to me – more relevant. And by engaging with and connecting the words to my life, they help me navigate through the many shades of gray I am dealing with in this complicated world.
May we all be blessed with a Shabbat that recharges our bodies, minds and spirits. And may you come to understand that which has been revealed to you.
Yom Kippur 5777
Good morning. I am honored to stand before you, friends whom I have known for years and friends whom I have yet to meet. All of us stand together on the edge of a new year. In the words of William Shakespeare, “How fearful. And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!”
My mother had a magic formula for facing the new year. She declared that it was bad luck not to have all new clothes for all the services. And so every year she acquired a brand new supply of those grape-colored crepe dresses with matching jackets, the lapels covered in beads, by mail order from Lane Bryant. My father had to buy a new suit. I had to get dresses.
I still do this, but that is not the substance of my drash today. I would like to look forward with everyone to a new year in which we know there will be change and we wonder how to welcome it, whether or not it is welcome. I want to talk about how we can welcome it together, because that is where we will be — together.
We are simultaneously entering a new year in which we have, through a the 18-month strategic process that this congregation has undergone, resolved, among other things, to see the divinity in one another. This, I think, is something to look forward to.
But how, exactly do we SEE the divinity in one another? And how does it help us through change?
If you know me, you probably know that I have been working at Suicide Prevention for quite a while. People often ask what we SAY to someone who is in extreme pain or crisis to help them through this moment in time. I explain that we don’t SAY anything. We LISTEN.
Listening is an exquisite art that needs to be developed. I stumble at it sometimes. Done well, it allows another person to reveal to themselves who they are, who they can be and how they can heal. And as Jews, we are — peculiarly — a nation of listeners. “Hear O Israel,” begins the watchword of our faith, not, “Look,” “Remember,” or “Shout.” It is, I think not an accident that so many of us are therapists of one kind or another. We are the people of the ear. We know that hearing heals.
In “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” the author, Garth Stein, posits the idea that dogs are beings who are practicing to become human. That this is who they will be in their next life. One of the main characters says,
“Here’s why I will be a good person. Because I listen. I cannot talk, so I listen very well. I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in in your car who suddenly grabs the wheel and turns you down a side street…Learn to listen! I beg of you. Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories.”
Of course this is not as easy as it sounds. There are certain obstacles to listening. Sometimes we talk to each other from a distance and our entire meaning gets garbled. Last week my husband assured me from the far end of the house that “Hope brings a turtle.” I had to go find him for the translation: “Hope springs eternal.”
Also, we are often only afforded the opportunity to listen to the people we really want to hear in restaurants that are rated in the newspapers with four firecrackers or a bomb.
But the biggest obstacles are technical. We have to learn the technology of listening. Here is what we teach where I work.
Listening means not instructing. Sometimes the very act of not giving the obvious advice can make little beads of blood pop out on your forehead. Instead, one commiserates and validates what has been confided. The Yiddish language is uniquely gifted with a two-letter empathic response to catastrophe: the word, “Oy!” If only this was included in more graduate level clinical curricula.
One can also respond by reflecting what one has heard without passing any judgement on it. Just repeating enough to let the speaker know the content has come through: “So you’re saying the motorcycle needs a whole new engine.” Or one can enter the quiz show I call, “Name That Emotion.” By helping someone attach a name to the emotion of that moment, we are giving them a certain power over it. “You feel abandoned.” gives a person the opportunity to tell themselves in the future that the abandoned feeling has come back, instead of reacting once more to what feels like a mysterious force.
Most people respond to really skilled listening by coming up with their own realizations and plans of action. And if you think back to a really catastrophic moment in your own life and list in your mind the people you trusted with information about it and the people you would never have trusted at all, you will usually see that the ones who did not give you advice were the ones in whom you confided.
How can we know that we are in the presence of someone to whom we should listen? There are four people who approach their need of us differently, just as there are four children at Passover who express their relationship to the story of Moses in Egypt differently.
One person bluntly says, “I am in so much trouble.” She may have said this many times before and so people can easily come to the point of ignoring her. She always means what she says and she always needs us to stop and listen.
A second person is not certain that he is worthy of help but will leave that decision up to forces beyond his control. He hints that he is in trouble very indirectly, but never really asks for help. You, yourself need to begin the conversation by saying three things: you have noticed something he said, you are worried because you care, and you want to help.
He has a cousin who is also uncertain of worthiness, but instead of hinting, acts this out by behaving in ways that ask for help. She may stop appearing where she is expected, give away belongings or pets, neglect her appearance. The fourth person takes unusual risks that may even be life-threatening. He may become involved in unsafe substance use, driving, sex or violence. Again, you will need to start the conversation.
Each of us when we are in trouble is also divine. Not only divine in ourselves but capable of engaging the divinity in everyone around us when they notice and hear us. And in doing this, I believe, we are also doing the work of Adonai. When we read the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah, of Hannah and Samuel, the priest, Eli, did not offer advice about perhaps becoming pregnant by taking her temperature on a regular basis, but rather simply said, “God has heard you.” And Hannnah named her child “Shmu-el,” a combination of the word for hearing, “Shma” and “El” for Adonai.
I believe that Adonai listens to us. After five Books of Moses during which there is a great period of talking, there seems to now be a great period of listening. Adonai does not offer unwelcome advice or steal one’s stories. There is simply the listening. I believe that if we are to listen to others, we should take advantage of the best listener in the universe as well to replenish own strength.
In fact we recognize this ability in Adonai when when pray during these Holy Days, “Shema Kolenu,” “Hear our voice, God of all of us.” We can try it again next week, I believe. Or the week after that. Who knows what would happen?
The great sage, Yogi Berra, once observed, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” We may not know what will happen to each of us personally in the year to come, as we peer over the precipice of change, but we do know for certain that each of us will be needed by at least one other person and that we can be part of the miracle of healing, this web of holiness.
And so my prayer for the new year full of changes is that we will become blessed with the ability to see and hear the divinity that is in each of us, and in each other. And that we will listen for it. And that we will hear it. And that we will be one.
Whether or not our clothing is new.
Rosh HaShanah 5777
by Rabbi Eric Weiss
We all love a story. Neuro-scientists tell us what our ancients also knew, that we are wired for stories. So here we are, with our new year, marking a core narrative of our very peoplehood, our very theological structure, at our very Communal being: Creation itself. I want to share with you two thoughts I have had about our common narrative and its impact, one using the text itself, and one about story altogether.
We read in B’resheet, the story of creation, “Ruach Elohim Mirachefet al Pnai Hamayim”: A wind from God hovered or swept across the face of the water.” The word that is translated as swept or hovered is Mirachefet. I don’t like that translation because it is not quite as precise as to what I believe is its spiritual intent in the story-form, because in English, helicopters hover and floors are swept. The word Mirachefet is a word of ancient Hebrew poetry and occurs in very few other places in the Torah but it does appear in Deuteronomy where it refers to a mother eagle, beating her wings in place, over the nest of her young, to feed them. And so I like to translate Mirachefet as “fluttering”, so that the sentence: Ruach Elohim Mirachefet al Pnai Ha-mayim, can be translated to: A wind from God fluttered across the face of the water.
Most of us may think of the sound of Creation as God’s voice saying “Let there be light” —but this sentence: Ruach Elohim Mirachefet al Pnai Ha-mayim, appears first. For this reason, I’d like to suggest that the first sound of creation is fluttering. And, because each of us is created in God’s image, that we all have this deep internal Mirachefet, this deep internal spiritual fluttering. Whatever language we speak, we mirror the text — fluttering first, then language. English, Spanish, Mandarin or Hebrew, all languages try to ultimately express our deep spiritual fluttering. Mirachefet. Born with this natural spiritual hunger, that I believe is as natural as the need for food, for shelter, for intimacy, we will do anything to satisfy it.
First, the fluttering, then the language. Some stories can’t wholly be told in words.
In my workshops on spirituality, I often ask participants to take the time to think and to talk about something that is spiritual for themselves. So, take a breath and reflect on this for a moment. There’s a good chance that what comes up for you is something that you experienced in nature. The color of the Mediterranean at dawn. A hike. Half Dome. Or you may even remember a piece of music or a transcendent moment in the theater. It may be this, here, our Cantor’s voice. It may be a moment of intimacy with your beloved. We have a variety of ways in which personally we experience something spiritual but at the core of any of these encounters is something about experiencing Awe, that sense that we are not alone in the world, that something more than ourselves is at work beyond us. For me, personally, my greatest spiritual attraction is to water, the ocean in particular. And I love to swim, and my doctor is pleased, but actually I love being in the water because it is the place I have spiritual alignment, even comfort. The same can be said for someone who settles into their favorite performance of their 2 favorite aria, settles into a favorite food; like maybe chocolate, cares for a pet, or breathes into someone else’s arms.
It’s Miracheft: the story that can’t wholly be told in words.
Flash to your ocean, to your aria, or the like, and think about this. We move through life chasing this Awe, striving to live in a place in which there is something more at work in the world than just our individual selves. Our internal Mirachefet moves us to deepen our capacity as a person, as a people, so that we can do good, so that we can offer the world new ways of being, and understand how we can make our world here, better, more whole.
I remember from my earliest recollections feeling that my own male-male attraction was how I was knit; that God wanted me this way. Today, I would say I am Gay by Divine intent. This is just one example of how I think our Mirachefet moves in each of us. This kind of deeper spiritual fluttering has bolstered me when other theological and societal messaging might have otherwise diminished me—indeed us.
And so, I think our natural spiritual hunger, our spiritual flutterings, our Mirachefet, has brought us to a moment in the arc of Jewish life, to a place of massive transition into new stories, into new paradigms of assumption, guided by our core need to satisfy our natural spiritual hunger.
I think the crux of Jewish identity development into this and the next century is going to be marked by this spiritual journey and then by the ways we link the personal and communal. A core spiritual activity will be caring. That is to say that we will become a part of something communal based on the ways we are able to care for others and others care for us. This will move the ways that organizations understand their rationale for philanthropy, for the ways we raise our Jewish children, for the ways we start to talk about our textual life; Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and all the ways we already engage in that grand rabbinic process of re-thinking, re-writing and re-formulating a Jewish life that will give us resilience by its very nourishment in day to day life, the celebratory, the routine, and the devastating.
And so this brings me to my second thought. Story. Bible story. Where really did it all come from, these words we read, re-read, re-write, contemplate continually? We like to say that they come from men. There is some female narrative woven in, there is a fascinating combination of fertility cult perspectives, ancient eastern notions, and of course what we call The Rabbinic Mind; as opposed to The Greek Mind. All of these elements, they are part of the arc of our human communal effort to live with, into, and build community. A community of belonging, a community of care.
But, this is what I want to offer. These communal stories, from the Bible to Modern Midrash, they have great sway over our own individual story. There are elements that subtly yet potently weave themselves into the fabric of our souls, individually and communally. But here is the rub, if the people who wrote the story did not include you, 3 then what is the story really. The literal story of Adam and Eve? Many of us just can’t relate. It doesn’t align to our lived experience. We just don’t belong in this story. What’s your, one’s, our, response? You weave yourself into the story out of insistence that you do belong, you push your way in, you prove where the male-heterocentric hegemony has missed the mark. And we even use language—like miss the mark—that is internally consistent to our very identity as Jews. But, what is that pushing to get in all about?
I don’t like to talk about myself very often, but my husband, Dan and my beloved colleague, Rabbi Eliot Kukla both told me that I have to give personal examples to help make this stick—after all the importance of story, and story that we recall, and insight we share, is partly in personal narrative, it is how we are wired, so here goes.
I came out in my application process for rabbinic school. I was admitted, and then, six years later, became the first openly Gay rabbinical student to be ordained. At the end of this road, I just wanted a job. I just wanted to be a rabbi. There is no amount of public acknowledgement that will keep you warm at night, no place in history that will give you love. That takes basic human capacity no matter who you are. I was and remain resistant to talking about myself in this way because here is the thing, when you push against and ultimately break a glass ceiling, purple or otherwise, you really have to be careful of the shards.
But, I always felt I was as well created by divine intent. And so what may appear a push was really just trying my best to satisfy my own mirachefet; my own natural spiritual hunger. I just wanted to be a rabbi as part of my continuing spiritual journey. And for me, whenever we publicize that we are the “first” of something we take a bow to what I think of as the heterosexual hegemony of hierarchy. But here is the thing, there is after the first — the second, the third, the fourth, and so on—until it becomes normative. This is not only true for individuals but true for organizations as well, like a synagogue.
I think the point is this: We are in this all together, communally, not just individually, trying to chase Awe, pay attention to our Mirachefet individually and communally, so that we bring good, become more whole. And so I want to do my best to bring frames of Awe to regular human experience, like illness, our last breath, grief. And by this, how we take our place inherently in the theological life of our people.
In our push to belong, we may, for example, stumble upon ancient text that the rabbis wrote that reveal a sophisticated understanding of physical gender expression. And we celebrate it, as we should, for the insight we can use now, for the affirmation, the Divine Seal of Approval, that even the Rabbis discovered ways that the story is not completely accurate. But still, we push. We push because we know, in the core story, we are not really there. Something else won out, we were subservient, not seen, dismissed, somehow a different ideal got portrayed.
And one consequence of this is that now, we rightly spend a lot of time pushing to escape the margins, to get in; into a career, into a field of study, into a higher rung of 4 the corporate ladder. And then, once we really do get in, into that career, into that job, or into that synagogue , we sometimes don’t know how to stop pushing, how to stop fighting, how to instead, just care, care for the wounds of everything from coming out to historic loss such as the AIDS pandemic. And rather, to just care for the new life that comes into our communal life with new children, new members, new ideas, new leaders, a new rabbi.
I realize we can all conjugate this out into so many conversations, so many ways of fundamentally changing the core text with which we fit the story to our very soul. But just in this short time together, I want to suggest this. Over these High Holy Days, when we think about the ways we want to do better, the ways we want to apologize, receive forgiveness from others — all the ways we arrive to Kol Nidre, ask yourself: are there ways you can more expansively understand the theological stories, their assumptions and how they might influence our personal stories? What really are the theological assumptions about forgiveness altogether that may not even fit our deeper spiritual needs?
B’resheet, it is also a story that holds we are not fully spiritually worthy. After all, there it is with Adam and Eve. The story itself though is the wrong story. Story, especially the story of a people, forms assumptions altogether. And so if we want to change assumptions, then we must fundamentally change stories. We must use our Mirachefet to formulate a new vocabulary, a new language, a new vision, so that what becomes common-place is a different frame in our chase of Awe, in our spiritual journey, both individually and as a people. If we have been harmed by a dominant assumption, then whose story are we even agreeing to use as we reflect upon issues of spiritual import, like being better, more whole, affirming Divine Intent?
Let’s push where it really matters, push at the theology, the language, and say bluntly : The story is wrong. All theology is inherently clumsy. It is not declarative, rather it is just the best we have, so far. It is our task to use metaphor, to use Hebrew primarily, to mold a relationship of caring, a relationship in which our natural spiritual hunger guides the ways in which we form values of care, like tikkun olam, words of care, like tzedaka, or frameworks of care, like mitzvoth.
But even as we use some familiar frames, we must say the story is off. God did not create only Adam and Eve. No serpent. No fallen, contrite woman. What if we just say that our mirachefet leads us differently?
Rather we Jews acknowledge at Rosh Hashana, that we are in the midst of a great and awe filled spiritual journey, fueled by our Mirachefet, our natural spiritual hunger, to care for the inherent worth of every one of us regardless of the language we have invented to describe ourselves. So, lets push differently, let’s declare a different story, a different normative—that God is crying at the ways we twisted Divine Intent, with the limitations of our language, with our poor metaphors. And, perhaps God is crying at our very adherence to hierarchy altogether. Let’s care for the ways each of us express our spiritual lives, in nature, in the arts, in our bodies, and let our ancient attempt with 5 prayer, liturgy, Torah, be the foundation that launches us, that brings a new story, yet to be written, but one that assumes Divine Intent among us all. We have Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi. How about Talmud Mirachefet, a Talmud of Care. We all love story. Let’s have at it.
Thank you deeply for this lovely opportunity. Shana Tova.
Rosh HaShanah 5777: Day 2
Rosh HaShanah 5777
by Jane Rice
In preparing for the High Holy Days I’ve been thinking about tests. My personal test, for example, to be able to “stand and deliver” on such an important day of the year! One I will remember, believe me.There are small tests and large tests. Sudden, quick tests or hard, protracted tests that require time and patience. We are surrounded by tests, those we step up to meet and those we never imagine or expect that loom and shadow us.
Here we are at the binding of Isaac. What is at the heart of this story about tests? Abraham, Isaac, and God. Abraham trusts, obeys, and would willingly sacrifice his beloved son. His actions result in the sparing of his son’s life. God blesses Isaac along with his descendants, securing Abraham’s place in the world and his future. Abraham’s acceptance of God’s test is a personal affirmation of his relationship to God. Theirs is a mighty covenant.
However, the power of God’s test of Abraham should not obliterate what Isaac comes to learn as a son. While we aspire to be Abraham, we are all Isaac to a degree. So, what does Isaac teach us? How does he operate in our lives?
Until the binding, Isaac is the every-child who learns by doing in the company of his father whom he trusts.
Imagine the angel’s command. “Abraham, Abraham!” The weight of two words. “Abraham, Abraham!” The exact moment Abraham holds the knife to his son’s throat. Isaac wide awake in his fear.
Consider Isaac’s state of mind. If God had not intervened, his own father would have killed him! How would you feel being Isaac? If God can choose to intervene, what about all the times he chooses not to? Who is he? Where is he? What kind of God is he? This is the question Isaac has to be asking. These are the questions we ask.
I feel for Isaac. I ask where is there protection from trial and tragedy? The point is we can’t know. Yet at a point, each of us dies. The certainty of death is what Isaac has to confront, even though he is spared this time.
Isaac’s test is shockingly harsh. If the binding of his son strengthens Abraham’s faith that God is his companion for life, could it also weaken Isaac with doubt? Perhaps Isaac’s trauma becomes his reoccurring dream. His doubt, an unfinished test.
To travel, to move forward, diminishes distance, but it also tests the limit of their patience. To test and be tested over three days heightens what each of them faces. Abraham travels toward a distant mountain that God will make known to him. He is moving towards, and closer to, his relationship to God. For Abraham, God is ever-present. Indeed, God is within Abraham. Abraham’s intention is God-driven.
Isaac, on the contrary, goes through all the motions, walking with his father, praying with his father. He is present, but does he comprehend what’s coming? Is he naïve? When he asks how the sacrifice can happen without a lamb, he is putting the pieces together but doesn’t yet see the whole.
Nowhere in the narrative does God explain to Isaac what is happening. He leaves it to Abraham to explain. And Abraham says that God will see to the lamb, which makes me wonder what Abraham is actually saying. Is this his faith speaking? Is his patient obedience a form of deep faith? Can there be, in fact, no doubt in Abraham’s mind precisely when we are terrified of the violence of his intention?
Isaac is witness. The real, lasting shock to Isaac is that his father would have done it. By being spared, Isaac’s trauma is that he comes face to face with the fact that his life can end. How is Isaac expected to commit himself to God? He can’t. He is caught in the grip of learning about himself.
Because of Isaac’s vulnerability, our worry for him hangs in the silence as action unfolds. Imagine what he experiences!
Does this mean the hardest test for each of us is to open ourselves at the very moment we are inclined to give up, close down, or shut ourselves off? When we feel that the knife is at our throat?
By including Isaac, the story makes us examine intention. It also makes us question the boundaries of trust, and what it means to achieve understanding. The story takes place over three days. Distance here is the span between seeing and knowing. Time unfolds. Isaac and Abraham journey from lesser to greater insight.
Between what we seek and what we understand, imagine an arc of three bands. One for DOUBT (think of Isaac), one for HOPE (think of Abraham), and one for PATIENCE (think of us here in our world.).
I believe PATIENCE is the linchpin that lifts us from Isaac’s frame of mind, doubt. It moves us closer to Abraham’s powerful source of hope.
Patience in Hebrew is savlanut, which has the same root as the porter or person who carries a load. Patience is thus the ability to carry a weight. The binding burdens Isaac with new understanding that opens his eyes to inexplicable ambiguity. The moment his father would have killed him is also the moment Isaac has no answer for what is happening.
How patient Isaac had to be! Tests teach us. But patience helps us face the immensity of what we don’t know.
It is important to dwell on the interpretation of his dilemma.
Robert Alter says the Bible (and I would say this chapter in particular) conceives of the world as a place full of things to understand in which the things of ultimate importance defy human understanding. (1992 Alter, p. 22) This is the central paradox that brings us to this very story of Abraham and Isaac every Rosh Hashanah. Part of the immense power of the story is that we are made to feel how alone Isaac is in what he has to face.
Isaac helps us see what is human. He helps us see the importance of patience as we ourselves navigate our lives. How do we tolerate sitting with ourselves? Where are the answers? Whom do we ask? We turn our attention outward to life, conversation, and love. We operate within community to soften the impact of our own existence. Through community we build a sense of trust. Through trust we achieve a greater degree of patience. And through patience, courage.
For me when I feel especially tested, and without answers, I concentrate on patience. The small things like saying, “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry.” Or giving time or space to those who need it. To sit with a friend who is dying. Trying to be actively patient. Even being silent. Or remembering to say, I love you. Finding patience can lift us out of doubt when answers feel incomplete.
The point is we can give back in small, daily doses, and patience is our conduit from doubt to hope. Patience in small things strengthens us for the big tests we can’t foresee.
Our task is to interpret the future with hope—as a promise. We can’t always be Abraham. We can’t all be patriarchs! But Isaac, the boy, reminds us to be honest and say: I’m scared; I don’t know. Yes, there is Isaac in each of us.
Our truest test is to accept the existence of terrible paradoxes that thread this world and our relationships in it. Another test is for us to understand ourselves, which can only be done over time—with patience. “Abraham. Abraham!” Isaac is awake. He fastens us to ourselves in this world.
Let’s set out for an unknown tomorrow where there are tests and tests. Let’s call upon patience. Let’s be brave together in a sweet new year full of challenges. How many unfinished tests do you have? How many dreams?