Archive of Past High Holyday Sermons
Yom Kippur – September 19, 2018
Erev Rosh Hashanah – Sunday, September 09, 2018
Erev Rosh Hashanah – Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Wake Up and Show Up by Rabbi Copeland
It should have been the very worst of days. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church known for its harassment of Jews, gays, Catholics and anyone else on their seemingly random checklist of offenders was headed to Stanford, more specifically to Hillel, the Jewish campus center where I worked. While their hatred finds many targets, harassing Jewish and LGBT people are this institution’s pet projects.
We learned that they were going to demonstrate on a Friday morning at 8am, and wondered if any students on a college campus see that hour of the day. Since the group thrives on media attention, one proposal was to simply not grant them that victory. But we finally decided that to allow such a display of hatred to go unchallenged would be a cowardly silence. If even one student on the way to class that morning saw them holding a sign that read “Fags Can’t Marry” or “God Hates Jews” without any response, we felt like they would have succeeded.
Once we made the decision and put the word out, support from groups across campus flooded in, from the cultural, to the religious – to the musical. At 8am that chilly, January morning, about fifteen Westboro members paraded their LGBT and Jew hating signs across the street from Hillel. Over 1,000 students, faculty, and administrators stood on Hillel’s front lawn completely ignoring them. It was not a counter demonstration – we would not grant them their provocation. It was a celebration, really a party, that our inspired director, Adina Danzig dubbed, “Stanford United.” In my many years in campus work, I had never seen such an outpouring of love and solidarity. Many found themselves teary-eyed as we chanted a unity mantra:
“We stand united, and we pledge:
When we are no longer at Stanford, we will go to the home of those who are unjustly targeted – whoever they may be. We will speak out with them. I pledge to fight hate at my doorstep or yours.
We stand united, affirming respect and diversity.
We are Stanford United.”
The message was clear: we are a diverse group of people who even disagree vehemently with each other on any given day on campus, but when one group is attacked, we are all attacked. No one will have to stand up to hate alone. A highlight of the morning was a surprise visit from the wacky Stanford band, with the mascot, The Tree, bearing a sign that summed it all up nicely:
“Tree Hates Bigots.” Band members riled their bagpiper out of bed. He dramatically parted the crowd playing Amazing Grace in his bathrobe.
But my highlight came days before when an Evangelical pastor colleague on campus reached out to me. He called me offering to anonymously sponsor bagels for the whole crowd after the event. That’s a lot of bagels. With no credit. You’d think he would have wanted to make a statement to the campus -loud and clear- that Westboro’s views do not represent his church. But his only motive was chesed-lovingkindness.
Many students still report that this was their best day at Stanford, the kind of experience that solidified for them what community means. The church, ironically, had done us a favor. For years afterward, student leaders and administrators scratched their heads trying to figure out how to replicate or re-instill that sense of unity.
My experience with the Westboro Baptist Church occurred many years ago, yet it is this year that I keep mulling over those images in my head. I’ve struggled with whether the lessons I learned on that day are applicable to today’s situation-or if we are facing a different set of issues in a dramatically more complicated landscape.
At least two things can be extrapolated from that moment to this one: we need to “wake up” and we need to “show up.” On that January day, students literally had to “wake up” for each other by rolling out of bed. But they had to also be awakened at a deeper level before the alarms had been set. Our Jewish new year begins, and the most visceral way we are awakened at this time of year is by hearing the shofar. It wakes us up out of our complacency and with that haunting, primordial sound we are transported to another place in ourselves, an uncluttered self. Whether we have been literally asleep, existentially asleep or pretending we are asleep, we are forced out of our malaise.
The shofar’s connection with Rosh Hashanah harkens back to the ram caught in the thicket that we’ll read on Friday morning in the story of Abraham and Isaac. But that haunting sound wasn’t originally associated with the high holidays. We first hear of the shofar in the context of the revelation at Mt. Sinai in the book of Exodus:
“Amidst thunder and lightning… There was a loud shofar blast, and all the people in the camp trembled. … The sound of the shofar waxed louder and louder; Moses spoke, and G!d answered him in a voice [Ex.19].”
This group of people seriously needed to be awakened, or they would have missed the revelation that followed. And they trembled! Being awakened can be terrifying. Staying awake is even scarier. With the onslaught of global disasters, as well as national and local ones, staying alert is feeling like an all-consuming task. Allowing each sound to penetrate our souls is a constant decision.
Psalm 47 adds a layer of complexity to the shofar blasts: “G!d ascends [to the throne] with the Teruah, Adonai with the sound of the shofar.” A midrash on this verse tell us that the sounding of the shofar has cosmic significance. The shofar literally pulls G!d up from G!d’s comfortable spot in the Throne of Justice, moving G!d to the emotional, heartwrenching Throne of Mercy. So the shofar doesn’t only wake us up; it wakes up G!d. (Thanks, Rabbi Graff)
The shofar is a cry. It calls out with its staccato blasts, punctuating the air, “I am utterly broken.” Our anger and frustration combine with our losses of loved ones over the past year, illnesses, loss of relationship. It’s understandable to be heartbroken right now. But what do we do with that pain? What do we do now that we are, however unhappily, awake? What does “showing up” look like?
Let’s return to Stanford United: a clear demonstration of the value of showing up. Not to pick a fight, but to stand side by side. We have been debating in recent days against the backdrop of hate speech and violence on a much grander scale whether it’s always best to show up. Or if “showing up” can be just as powerful if we show up on the other side of town, or maybe it’s even better to show up with your pen instead (or on your computer signing petitions, writing letters, giving from your pocketbook, getting other people to open their pocketbooks, or fighting for justice in myriad other ways).
There is a word for showing up that arises throughout our tradition that speaks to these complexities. We are asked at this time of year, “Ayeka?” Where are you? On this test, there is one correct answer! It is: Hineni. Hineni is literally, “hinei ani”—Here, I! the ultimate existential statement. “I am wide awake and ready for whatever the world throws my way. I am showing up. Presente!”
-G!d calls out in our Friday Rosh Hashanah reading: Abraham, Abraham! Abraham answers, “hineni!”
-G!d calls to Moses from the burning bush, and Moses answers, “Hineni!”
-Noah hears the horror that G!d is about to deal upon the earth with the great flood, and G!d here, says, “hine-ni.”
-G!d calls to Adam in the Garden of Eden after he eats some fruit, a perfect set up for an answer of “Hineni.” But Adam fails the test. He is explicitly “not” present. Adam says, “I heard you in the garden, and was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” At least he was honest.
Since most of us don’t carry around a shofar, how do we make sure we are Moses and not Adam? How do we wake up and show up?
We wake up and show up…by doing something. When we get overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, we often do nothing. A Jewish text, Pirkei Avot, teaches that, “it is not up to us to finish the job, but we aren’t free to run away from it either.” Each of us has a unique role to play in the repair of the world, and we are better at showing up if we choose one thing – you decide what. Early on after the election, a group of parents and grandparents from our predominantly Latino elementary school were overwhelmed with worry for the undocumented families at our school, so we organized legal workshops, educated people on their rights when ICE comes to their door, and helped families with limited English fill out passport paperwork for their American-born kids. Sunday, we are running a DACA renewal workshop. We chose one thing, and it helped us let go of the notion that it’s up to us to finish every job. But we have to do something. Hineni.
We can wake up and show up by recognizing with compassion, with rachamim, the internal and external battles we are all fighting. The level of unrest and instability, anti-semitism, racial injustice, threats to religious freedom, religious intolerance in the form of a Muslim travel ban, threats to women’s and LGBT rights including the transgender military ban, and healthcare are weights on many of our souls. The 13 attributes we sing at the High Holydays ask us to emulate G!d’s compassion. We also need to practice self compassion and show up for ourselves, taking care of our souls. We need to play and sing and waste time without feeling guilty about it. It is going to be a long haul, and we need to pace ourselves. Hineni.
Waking up and showing up can look different for different people. There are infinite ways to show someone that your liberation is bound up with theirs. While many of us listened to hours of speeches at Harvey Milk Plaza a few weeks ago in response to the planned alt-right rallies, thousands were dancing down the road at Dolores Park as an expression of their activism. And showing up is not only about assembling with the masses. For some, gatherings make us feel like our legs are praying. For others, our legs are aching. Our local Faith in Action community organizing leaders wrote recently: “…faith doesn’t only take place when we gather for worship–the life of faith takes place every day, in the ordinary moments of our lives. Our politics are strengthened when we gather for rallies… but our political lives also continue at home, at work, on the streets, in phone calls and meetings, and whenever we speak the truth aloud to a neighbor.” Hineni.
We can show up for someone who can’t do it for themselves. I attended a Faith in Action/PICO meeting of SF clergy people in the days before the planned alt-right rallies in the Bay Area and many of us couldn’t decide whether we should go right to the heart of the planned activity to “show up” against hatred. Some of our white, Protestant fellow clergy people said to the rabbis and Christian clergy of color at the table, “It’s not safe for you. You don’t have to show up. This time, let us show up for you.” Hineni.
We can wake up and show up by doing this work together rather than alone at home, and face-to-face in addition to online. I especially want to make a plea for us to engage in this work as a Sha’ar Zahav community. As religion in this country is increasingly defined by one set of beliefs and interests, we need to recognize the power we have when we speak out of our deeply held progressive religious beliefs, as a religious community. There is an extra bang to our buck when we speak out not only as SZ, but also with our community of multifaith friends from all over the Bay. How can we emulate that communal high we get when we’re at a rally, when we are calling our representatives, signing petitions, educating, reaching out to neighbors, organizing, and continuing to do our jobs that bring peace into the world – so we don’t feel alone? If the Jewish mandate to repair the world moves you, I invite you to join me and our social action team on the evening of October 2nd.
We will learn together. We will share ideas. We will make calls to our representatives. We will plan for the future – together. Hineni.
We can wake up and show up by bringing our whole selves, all the disparate pieces of our lives, together. On that day of Stanford United, the intersection of identities Westboro chose to attack highlighted for some of us who stood in that crowd that we often feel doubly othered; we are not only Jewish, but gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex or transgender. That small band of haters made it clear that day that Judaism and the struggle for LGBT equal rights are linked. One student’s sign made this point as it exclaimed: “The first friend I came out to was a lesbian Jew!” Westboro may have hoped I’d feel “twice cursed,” but I felt “twice blessed,” to quote the title of a book on being queer and Jewish that guided me through coming out Jewishly decades ago. That assembled crowd of 1,000+ was not largely queer or Jewish, and certainly only a few were both queer and Jewish, but they understood the magnitude of the moment for everyone in that community. The plight of one person or group is never theirs to bear alone. When we are part of a community, we feel the pain of hateful words on a placard even when they aren’t directed at us.
Here at SZ, many do not fall into those overlapping categories of queer and Jewish either, but we share a common understanding of what it means to be a stranger, and we appreciate each soul, in all its complexities and intersectionalities, as a unique expression of the Divine. Rooted in our Jewish and LGBT history, that consciousness, that sense of rising out of otherness, becomes our strength. Hineni.
Think about how you’re going to show up this year as I blast the shofar…
Please give me a tekiah!
Note: Jews typically do not spell out the name of the Divine to respect the power of names, especially holy names. I use a “!” instead of the traditional “-” to connote the awe – the radical amazement – we hope to feel in our lives no matter what we name it.
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – Friday, September 22
Drash by: Deborah Levy
Hag sameach, and shana tova.
I’m happy and honored to be here, sharing with this community that has been such a support to me as I raised my two sons, such a validation of the way that I see the world, helping to lift them up to grow into such compassionate young men. This community was a big part of that.
As we do every year at this time, we read today the story of the Akedah, the binding of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac.
It is a horrifying story of a man tying his own son to the kindling – and not just any man, but Abraham, our first patriarch. Who was Abraham? ….. how could he possibly have thought this was the right thing to do?
The narrative details of the story hold our attention, while the power of Abraham’s faith moves us, and the visceral reality of the choice he seems willing to make leads us, if we let it, into meditations of our own choices and priorities.
Not just of what we are willing to sacrifice, but of what we actually are sacrificing in our lives.
What does the original Hebrew of the parsha tell us about sacrifice?
The most commonly used word for ‘sacrifice’ in Hebrew is קורבן – from the same root as the word קרוב, or ‘close to,’ so true sacrifice has the inherent potential to move us closer to God, to holiness, to redemption. The word is additive – sacrifice adds to our lives, more than we give up in the sacrificing.
In the Akedah story however, the word קורבן is never used – instead, Abraham is commanded להעלות his son – to raise him up, and that verb is used throughout the parsha.
In the historical context, Abraham may have conceived of the sacrificial act as “raising up” his son to God. These ideas were part of his world. But still: killing a son is killing a son. How could it be conceived that such an act might bring one closer to the divine?
Perhaps to soften the injury, throughout the Torah, whenever sacrifice is mentioned, God is referred to as “harachaman,” the merciful one (as opposed to the ruler, or the king).
Can we find some mercy in this story? Can we look with compassion at an elderly Abraham hiking up Mount Moriah, deliberately misleading his son about what he intends to kill on the altar?
There is another segment of this story, and in a lot of ways that other segment is the important part: In the end, Abraham doesn’t sacrifice his son. His hand is stayed. Abraham hears אלוהים מלאך, the angel of God, tell him that it’s time to pull back, to lift his hand. The Akedah is the binding of one of Abraham’s sons, not the sacrifice of the son.
From this moment in history forward, Abraham’s people, his descendants, will no longer carry out the act of human sacrifice, which at the time was taking place around the world in a number of cultures. In fact, this story is the first time in written human history where human sacrifice is rejected.
What a profound moment. The angel of God tells Abraham not to make that sacrifice, that the sacrifice he is making is the wrong sacrifice. This will not ברק Abraham, bring him closer, to his God. This is not what God wants. This heinous act will not raise up Isaac, nor will it raise up Abraham.
And so Abraham steps back from this sacrifice. He sees a ram, stuck in a bush, and he unbinds his son. He sacrifices – raises up – the ram, not a blameless act in itself but something else, not his son; a sacrifice more likely to lead him closer to the sacred.
What sacrifices are being made today that do not lift us up? Where should we be listening for that “still small voice” that Ina spoke of in her drash yesterday, and stay our hand?
I want to ask this question today, as a human being, a woman, as a Jew and as an Israeli.
I believe we are making far too many sacrifices that do not bring us closer to the divine.
I was in Israel this summer, for almost three weeks. It felt vibrant, alive and exciting, pulsing with energy – electric bikes zipping by, singing, dancing, theater all over Tel Aviv almost every night of the week. And people were smiling, talking to each other. While Jerusalem always feels more troubled to me, I walked through the Arab Market, went to the Western Wall, and stayed long enough to join 20,000 people at the Jerusalem Pride March. Coming home from the March, sweaty and covered in Hebrew rainbows, I asked an Orthodox woman which bus to take and we ended up chatting until her bus came.
More than 30 years ago, I lived in Israel for almost four years – over the course of eight years. In 1985 I became an Israeli citizen – which is called “making Aliyah,” from the same root as להעלות – to raise up.
Israeli citizens or not, as Jews many of us consider our relationship to the complex reality of Israel an important relationship. I am proud of my Israeli citizenship, but until this past summer I had allowed 13 years to lapse since my last visit. I went back to see what was real in my past, and to see how I might bring Israel back into my life, given who I now am, what I now know, and what Israel is today: I even wondered: Would I want to bring Israel back in?
I had friends and family to see – to check in with and see if our closeness still existed outside of facebook. I had memories to revisit, and there was, as always – a lot new in Israel – things I’d read about but not yet seen – a renovated flea market in Jaffa, new buildings, the weird and inadequate ramp at the Western Wall where all genders can pray together.
I also knew that I needed to face the now 50-year-old occupation. To this end, I spent a long, interesting, and upsetting day on a tour into Palestine with a group called Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who organize to literally watch the barriers and checkpoints. Their presence tends to calm the volatile situations, and their report-backs are read on a regular basis by several units in the Israeli military, and changes have been made based on their recommendations.
We drive northeast out of Tel Aviv, and the exciting vibrancy fades quickly into quiet dusty roads.
We see in multiple ways the effects on individual lives of one government running a security wall or fence through an area populated by another people. We see the encroachment and inequity of the Jewish settlements, and everything it takes to support them.
We visit an internal checkpoint: one where both sides of the checkpoint are Palestinian lands. We stand in the white-hot sun, watching the strange ritual.
My eyes move from the soft-faced Palestinian boy on his horse-drawn cart full of what look to me like junkyard treasures, to the blank face of the only slightly older Israeli soldier … the one who will ultimately turn the boy back, reject his request to continue on his journey and instead make the boy turn himself and his small horse around …. to hide behind a shed, in the afternoon heat, waiting for a shift change and hoping for a better result from the next soldier who takes command.
It hurts to watch this. To see what my people, my country, is doing.
What are we sacrificing by maintaining this kind of a relationship with another people?
The opportunity to build trust. Our moral balance. These are not sacrifices that will lift us up. They will not bring us closer to anything divine.
Let justice roll down like water, said Amos.
How does water roll?
Most of Israel’s water rolls from the Palestinian Judean hills, down through Palestinian lands, into the aquifers and rivers of Israel. From the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, water runs into the Jordan River, which empties into the Dead Sea. Across the Dead Sea and up the shore, draining into the same aquifers, are the Jordanian watersheds that funnel the water flowing from the high plateaus of Eastern Jordan.
This summer, overlooking the receding Dead Sea, I breathed the hot air at the same Ein Gedi Field School where I stayed when I first visited Israel, age 15, in 1976. Miraculously feeling as strong and powerful as I was back then, I hiked the flora-filled wadis that water has carved through the white sandstone of the Judean desert, about 40 miles from where Abraham climbed to bind his son.
Hiking the desert mountains around Ein Gedi, I would come around a corner on the dry trail, sweating from the heat and from the climbing …… to see a pool of clear, clear, but brilliantly green clear water, usually with a visible soft pebble floor. Every time, I would drop my knapsack full of water bottles without missing a beat, immediately submerging myself with my shorts and my sandals and my scarves that are my protectors from the sun, with it all I sink into the pristine water and gasp from the clean, the fresh, the smile that I feel on my face.
In an instant, the cool water changes everything.
Can water cut through the stone impasses of pain, rage, and injustice that have built up in the past 70 years?
Can it lead us to step down from this mistaken sacrifice we are making?
Abraham’s willingness to do the unthinkable is troubling, but in the end, he didn’t do it. He heard this God that he was choosing to follow say no. Do not go through with a sacrifice that will change the very essence of who you are.
We too can step back. We can work for Israel to step back from the abuses the occupation engenders. Environmentally, around the world we can lift our hand, as Abraham did. Lift our hand from the overuse and abuse of our water resources and of so many of our natural resources.
If we are sacrificing our planet, it is the wrong sacrifice.
If we are sacrificing peace, it is the wrong sacrifice.
And, in the words of a current Israeli pop song,
צדק בלי שלום יבוא לא
peace will not come without justice.
Israel and Palestine draw water from the shared Jordan River basin, and from what are called the Mountain aquifers. Water in the area, as any transboundary watershed anywhere in the world, needs regional management, cooperation and joint efforts in order to equitably meet water needs.
Drawing borders is a zero-sum game: one side loses, one side gains. But water doesn’t work this way.
Water solutions are more likely to be win-win – and if they are not, they are lose-lose. Upstream or downstream, if there is more water and water treatment facilities for you, we both benefit, and if there is less, we both lose.
In Gaza, there is a wastewater treatment plant, but not the electricity to run it. Contamination of the Mediterranean shore threatens a cholera and/or typhoid outbreak that will not observe international borders.
Are we willing to make this sacrifice? Can we instead let justice roll down like water? Can we roll with the water, down, around, carving through the stuck places, towards justice.
Water is arguably the most solvable of what are called “Final Status” issues, which must be resolved before Israel and the Palestinians can move into a two-state reality.
Water and water treatment, and the people who currently lack adequate access to these, shouldn’t need to wait for the stalled peace process to inch forward. For one thing, Israel is now able to produce significant supplies of fresh water, using leading technologies developed in Israel for both desalination and re-use of water.
“Water Can’t Wait” is the name of a principal project of Ecopeace, the only non-profit organization that has offices (and co-directors) in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Ecopeace works towards healthier water resources in the region, and more equitable distribution of these resources.
No, water can’t wait; Indeed, it might be the best place to start.
As the Jordan River flows to the Sea, through lands beloved by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, it offers us something else besides cool water in an arid climate.
It’s something that transboundary water does all over the world. Settling international water disputes often leads to the settlement of peripheral disputes, as people learn to trust and work with each other – setting the conditions for dialogue instead of violence. Regional cooperation where there are so many shared interests provides a vehicle for trust and bridge building – something we need almost as much as we need the water.
The story of the Akedah shows us at our worst – Abraham being willing to sacrifice his second son – and at the same time, at our best – Abraham NOT sacrificing his son, rejecting human sacrifice …..
. . . so too if we look to water, if we see the water in our lives, we can see our worst – our abuse of this and other precious resources; our abuse of the power we hold in Israel. And at the same time, we can see the best in water – flowing across borders and boundaries, connecting disparate peoples and offering a focus for cross-culture, cross-religion, and cross-ideology conversations and negotiations. As Peter Paul and Mary sang in another era, We are all one river.
Just as God challenged our beliefs when S/he asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, and just as God ultimately brought Abraham back from that precipice, told him to find a replacement, another way to show his faith …… there are places in our lives that have led us to sacrifice too much. We have prepared altars from which it will be hard to turn back, and to which it may appear there are no alternatives.
But look off to the side there.
There is a ram stuck in the bush. There are alternatives.
There are alternatives to rigid mindsets, alternatives to bigoted, xenophobic leaders – yes, even in Israel, there are alternatives. There are alternatives to the occupation, alternatives to how we see Israel, how we talk about Israel, how we – in Israel and in San Francisco – draw close to the divine.
As we begin our new year of 5778, the story of the Akedah can remind us to ask ourselves: What kind of sacrifice might we each make in the new year that would be an aliyah – a raising up?
And where do we need to pull back, to stay our hand, to find alternatives – alternatives that will bring us closer to the sacred?
When you leave shul today, as you look around at a new world, now one year older, in this new year resolve to see the water, something most of us have long taken for granted. From the watersheds in California to the watersheds in the Middle East – watersheds that see no political borders…. See the water. Connect with the water that is 70% of your physical self. Let water be your guide as you begin to see how water can be a tool for understanding and trust building, for achieving justice and perhaps even peace. Let us begin with water.
Blessings to us all, in these more-than-challenging times. May we hold onto the joy of optimism and the joy of effecting change towards freedom and equality, towards justice that rolls down like water, and towards water that is fresh and clean, and accessible to all. After all, we are all one river.
سلام / שָׁלוֹם
Shana tova. Deborah
Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre – Friday, September 29
Our Two Names: Yehudim and Yisrael, Gratitude and Struggle by Rabbi Mychal Copeland
Each of us has a name,
given to us by G!d,
and given to us by the planets.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the mountains,
and given to us by our walls.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by our longing,
and given to us by our love.
We learn from Torah that names are significant-they always tell us something profound about their subjects. It follows that a tradition that never has just one answer to any question doesn’t have just one name either. We have two names that have been in a dance together over centuries. Yehudim and Yisrael, Jews, and the Children of Israel.
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob marries two sisters, the matriarchs Leah and Rachel. Jacob has made no secret that Rachel is the one he loves. As Leah begins bearing, she names she chooses for her first three sons, Rueben, Shimon, and Levi, reveal in their meanings this complicated love triangle. What power she harnesses as she collects her pain and names each child reflecting her hopes for her husband’s love! When Leah bears a fourth son, however, something changes in her. She names him Yehuda, literally, “Thank G!d,” and says “This time, I am grateful to G!d.” And then she stopped bearing. Rabbi Harold Kushner describes Leah’s transformation in this way: “Now, with this fourth son, her mood changes from rivalry to gratitude…Her heartfelt prayer of thanks reflects her having grown from self-concern and a focus on what she lacked to a genuine sense of appreciation for what was hers.” (Etz Chayim p.174) She is grateful, thankful for this gift. We are the people of Yehuda, Judeans, Yehudim, Jews. The thankful ones.
Yet throughout the Torah, we are not yet called Yehudim. We are called by our other name, B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. This name emerges also in the book of Genesis when Jacob struggles all night long with an angel of G!d, and survives. In the morning, the angel changes his name from Jacob to Yisrael, saying, “You have wrestled with God and with men and you have prevailed.” His very being has changed, and the Torah teaches us that such a life transformation necessitates a new name-in this case, a name given by G!d. Throughout the Torah, beginning with the moment at Mt. Sinai when we become a people, we are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. We are wrestlers. We will fight until dawn in sacred struggle and we will survive.
We are Yehudim and Yisrael. We are the thankful ones, AND we are the ones who struggle. Ask yourself if you feel more comfortable with one or the other. I am not asking if you are a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person. But, do you tend to live your life more in gratitude or in sacred struggle? Or do the two dance together nicely?
Let’s begin diving into Yehudim—we are the thankful ones.
People ask me what Judaism is all about. (Yes this really happens! A standing on one foot moment!) My answer is that life is sacred and holy, and the practice of Judaism is really all about gratitude. It gives us daily tools to lift up individual moments as sacred.
We take nothing for granted. We don’t take for granted that we are not hungry, that our bodies work as well as they do, and that our breath is returned to us for another day. Liturgist Marcia Falk writes that a brachah, a blessing, is a reminder to appreciate a moment, to take it in (The Book of Blessings). Stop to make it sacred. To make it stand out amongst all the other moments of our lives. We also mark painful times, not so we can clean them up and make them appear like blessings in disguise, but so we can also mark them as sacred.
Built into the fabric of Judaism is the idea that we should constantly be thankful for what IS. One of my favorite prayers is: Baruch…she’cacha lo b’olamo. “Blessed is G!d, Creator of Time and Space, who created the world CACHA- exactly as it is”.
Contemporary teachers of Mussar, a Jewish ethical practice, have created gratitude journals and questions that help develop a practice of writing or taking time to think about those moments-every day. But our liturgy already invites us to do just that. Tomorrow morning, we will begin our service with a list of things we are grateful for -Bircot Ha-shachar. I find this one of the wisest gifts from the Jewish tradition we’ve been handed. I invite you to try every morning saying either one of these blessings or make up your own. Once you begin this practice, I can tell you from experience that walking through your morning without some dedicated moments of gratitude is likely to feel lacking, empty.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov. It literally means “to recognize the good.” Author MJ Ryan writes that, “Gratitude is like a flashlight. It lights up what is already there. You don’t necessarily have anything more or different, but suddenly you can actually see what is.” We decide whether it goes by unnoticed or if gets lifted up. We learn in our ancient Jewish practice manual, the Talmud, that we should say 100 blessings a day. That sounds overwhelming! But perhaps we were not to take it so literally. The teaching is that we should be in a constant state of praise. Not so it gets in the way of living life, but to deepen our experience of being alive. This mitzvah TRAINS us to stop and appreciate, to live with a gracious state of mind. We practice it every day, because on some days its easy; on others it feels like an unfair request. Even if things aren’t looking good at the moment, perhaps especially when we are suffering or see suffering around us, we are to stop and make a moment sacred and appreciate what there is rather than what there is not.
In Jewish tradition, we are thankful for both the exceptional moments and the mundane ones. In the morning prayer, asher yatzar (sometimes known as the bathroom prayer), we are thankful for our bodies, and recognize our inability to function when something is not working as it should.
Our gratitude practice is about recognizing subtleties. Our holidays teach us to lift up special times but also to notice what might go unnoticed. We celebrate Tu B’shvat, the new year of the trees, not when they are full in the spring, but in late winter just as the sap begins running through the bark. We wouldn’t notice it-that magnificent moment of potential- if we waited until it was obvious. Likewise, I have learned from yoga, my other spiritual practice, that if one toe is out of line, that subtlety can affect my entire body’s alignment.
We are thankful for the gift of food- and by saying the brachot for our nourishment we are forced to get beyond the package we opened and think about where it came from, who helped cultivate it, who drove it to our convenience store. There is a prayer to say upon seeing a rainbow, for hearing good news, for hearing bad news, even for experiencing an earthquake. Upon seeing the ocean, for seeing people who look different from ourselves. Upon meeting with a friend who has recovered from a life threatening illness. Gratitude is the antidote to regret (something we will hear more about in tomorrow’s sermon). We don’t regret when we have been marking sacred moments along the way.
The the daily practice of noticing that could transform our lives, was built into Jewish practice almost two thousand years ago.
Who are we thanking, anyway? Is it G!d? Is it something else? One of the most common complaints I hear about Judaism is about praise in our prayers. The prayerbook is filled with heaping praise upon praise for G!d, and while some are able to enter into this language, many find themselves wondering about the nature of a G!d who needs such lauding. The kaddish is a good example—it’s such a poignant prayer in its original Aramaic, but I haven’t met one service leader who wanted to do it in translation: May G!d’s name be blessed, and praised, and glorified, and held in honor, viewed with awe, embellished, and revered…and on and on. The way I understand these prayers is that indeed it is partially about G!d—of course a G!d we all envision differently. But regardless of how theological we are or aren’t, it’s ALL about gratitude. Most of us don’t believe in a G!d that needs to hear praise, but rather WE need constant reminders to express gratitude. Meister Eckhart, the German theologian, wrote that “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘Thank you’, that would suffice.” He isn’t concerned with who you thank. Just say it. In the end, does it really matter? Perhaps for you it is G!d, or the miracle of science, or the mystery of life…Does any of that change how grateful we are to be alive in this instant? Does it matter what language we say it in? Our Yom Kippur liturgy will not let us push aside the stark reality that it will end. So we soak in every moment of being here. As one of the poems in our machzor muses, “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise…You’d think we’d never stop dancing.” (p.127, Lewis Thomas)
And now for the flip side. Some may be lamenting the time I just took to talk about gratitude because it was such a waste of time! Nothing was improved by spending time appreciating ourselves, our lives, or a moment that is already past. Our world is a mess. How dare we appreciate what it looks like? For you—we arrive at Yisrael, our struggling name. To be a descendant of Israel is to challenge the status quo, to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to demand that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “what ought to be will be.”
The machzor in our hands lists our transgressions from the past year to help us transform ourselves and the world we live in. Not I, but WE have acted wrongly…I don’t just want myself to improve. I need to improve you, too! I want everyone, everything to look more like it should. Like the Garden of Eden. It’s what keeps us striving, struggling, fixing…and complaining. We can be a kvetchy lot—just the fact that this is one of the Yiddish words that has crept into the English language tells us that we take on this adjective with such delight that it had to be carried with us into our new, ideal America. We are proud of it, because we know that to kvetch is to never give up hope that things can be better. And we are willing to put in the work to make it so.
In fact, for tikkun olam, repair of the world, to occur, it is clear that WE are responsible.
Where Yehuda was about appreciating this moment, Yisrael is about using everything we’ve got in this present moment to make things better in the next. Perhaps it’s why Jews have been so well represented in social change movements. We are never satisfied. Even if we spend a moment appreciating, we quickly jump ahead to thinking about how things could be more perfect. It could be something inherent in our texts (Jacob’s struggle, Abraham’s argument with G!d to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah), or it could be that being kicked around the globe for centuries has instilled in us a call to not sit still while others are suffering like we have. We are the quintessential “other” in history and align ourselves with every other “other.” Right now, that means there is little time to rest.
We embrace our collective sense of anxiety. What would Woody Allen do without it! My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Kligler writes that one of the things he loves about being Jewish is “the way we have taken our tenuous position in the world and developed a delicious sense of humor and irony about life’s precariousness.” We should cherish this response to angst. Own it-it is ours and we come by it honestly.
How it is that we are supposed to be in a constant state of appreciation for what IS… if we also believe deeply that nothing we or anyone else does…is ever enough? How do we live in the space of what Heschel called “Radical Amazement,” being in awe of life itself…if we revel in looking around and saying “Blah-this isn’t even a fraction of what it could be?” On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need right now to wake up and show up. But at a time when we are so distraught at the world around us, does that mean we have to be constantly dissatisfied?
Now we sit together on YK, and we vacillate between our two names. We spend time being thankful for having been granted another year of life when we know how delicate it is. And we spend equal time trying to figure out how we can transform ourselves and our world.
This teaching of our two names has resonated for me over recent years, but I am finding myself revisiting it at this moment in time with the particular challenges we are facing. What do we do when we feel caught between the two poles of gratitude and struggle? How do we hold both Yehudim and Yisrael in all the realms of our lives, from the personal, to the interpersonal, to our community and to the world at a time like this?
We always start with ourselves. On a PERSONAL level: Some of us are really good at beating ourselves up and horrible at appreciating who we are. Others have trouble seeing personal flaws and readily turn criticism outward onto others. How do we balance the impulse toward Yisrael: “I know I could be better,” and Yehudim: “I am really quite amazing!”? At the High Holydays, we work to transform ourselves. But we need to also appreciate the life we’ve been given and the uniqueness of who we are.
How do we hold both gratitude and struggle IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS: A suggestion for an exercise this season. Think through each of your important relationships. Ask yourself about Yisrael: where are they in need of mending, attention? And then Yehudim: what can you appreciate about them, even if they aren’t perfect?
How do we balance these in OUR COMMUNITY: At Sha’ar Zahav, we strive to hold them both. Yes, we want it to be perfect (I’m guilty of this!). But we also appreciate each other for lifelong friendship, a community where we can bring our whole selves.
Finally, how do we hold both Yehudim and Yisrael in OUR WORLD: Right now, we might feel like sinking into gratitude will cause us to forget for a moment the work we have to do. It won’t. I guarantee you-there will still be tons to do when you’re done appreciating what we have. Waking up and showing up is not all about the struggling Yisrael. We wake up and show up by being thankful as well. We won’t know what needs fixing tomorrow if we didn’t fully take in today how wonderful it was before it fell apart. If I was thankful for my body yesterday morning, I really feel today when it’s not right. If I said a gratitude prayer yesterday that I’m free, I feel it deeply today when my rights are being chipped away. I don’t have to wait until they are gone because I have been practicing appreciating every little, seemingly unimportant thing. Every subtlety. It is never a waste of time to stop and appreciate.
What power we harness when we choose a name for ourselves. In a community where so many of us, including myself – for one reason or another – have claimed our own names, I ask you to think in this reflective time, what name calls to you? Is it one of the names of our people, Yehudah, the grateful one, or Yisrael, the struggler? Or is it a different name, a small quiet voice that only you hear?
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the seasons of the year,
and given to us by our blindness.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the sea,
and given to us by our death.
Note: Jews typically do not spell out the name of the Divine to respect the power of names, especially holy names. I use a “!” instead of the traditional “-” to connote the awe – the radical amazement – we hope to feel in our lives no matter what we name it.
Yom Kippur Day – Saturday, September 30
Drash by: Elliot Sprehn
Good morning. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
I remember Yom Kippur the first year I was in San Francisco. I had relocated to the city from the east coast just a few weeks before and was uncertain of where to attend services. This was the first time I was doing it alone. All through my childhood I attended high holy day services with my parents. Each year we’d get dressed up, pack up a bag of food to donate, and head to the local high school where, perhaps foreshadowing my future involvement in Sha’ar Zahav, the Rabbi from the LGBT synagogue in DC would lead the service. I can still picture my mom hitting her chest and chanting the prayers. She’d cry and remember her lost father and brother. It was a holy day for her, one where she seemed to be more present than any other.
I too attempted to pray, but I was much better at being impatient and bored. Sometimes I would bring a toy to play with, other times I would wander the building looking for things to do. Once I found some switches in the hall to flip on and off. I stood there furiously toggling them, confused as they appeared to do nothing at all. Later my mom told me I had made all the lights in the sanctuary flicker repeatedly, right as the ark opened. She knew it had been me of course, because who else would be off getting into trouble like that? Thankfully she also thought it had been great timing.
Back in San Francisco that first year I agonized over having to take a vacation day just weeks after starting a new job. I struggled to figure out how to both go to services and get a shuttle to work afterwards. My mom had always urged me not to go to work on the high holy days. She emphasized how important the day was. But in the end I decided not to go. I just couldn’t make the timing work. I figured there was always next year.
The following year on thanksgiving my new bay area friends invited me to go to Vegas instead of heading home to be with my family. I nervously called my Mom to ask if it would be alright. I thought for sure she was going to lay into me with an incredible amount of guilt. It was her superpower, and I was prepared for the worst. Instead, she told me to go enjoy myself. That there’d always be more thanksgivings in the future.
I have great memories of that trip with my friends. I also have regrets. No, not from vegas, but because the following February my mom was diagnosed with cancer. The promise of there always being next year was gone. The unlimited future thanksgivings we had imagined became just two; she died a few weeks before what would have been our third.
During the two and a half years my mom was sick I went back and visited her nearly every month. Making such frequent trips took many sacrifices. I worked remotely, and often late into the night. But I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my mom before she was gone. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any important last times together.
One time I decided to fly back last minute to surprise her on Mother’s Day. I crept into the house, scaled the stairs, and walked into her room ready to enact my surprise. Instead, she was in the bathroom, apparently doing a word find, a common bathroom activity for her which could often take hours. After waiting outside the door for fifteen minutes I finally knocked on the door to hurry it along. Hiding in the closet as she emerged I jumped out and yelled “surprise!” She nearly fell over in excitement and yelled back “I could have died!” and we shared a hysterical laugh at the irony of the thought.
In two thousand thirteen, during what we’d later learn was a three week chemo induced fever, my parents visited San Francisco and we attended Yom Kippur services at a small congregation in Golden Gate Park. At one point, we were told to write down something we’re grateful for, and something we’re thankful to God for. Each piece was placed anonymously on the wall in the back of the room. I imagined my mom writing some kind of deep wisdom on hers. Something really important. After the service I rushed to the back and scanned over all the handwriting to find hers. When I found it I wasn’t disappointed. It read:
“I am grateful for being able to spend this, very possibly my last Yom Kippur, surrounded by my family and in this welcoming community of fellow Jews. I thank God for giving me this extra time on earth to ask for forgiveness for my many failures and to show my family and friends how very much I love them.”
A year later, during our first high holy day service with Sha’ar Zahav, Rachel and I received an urgent phone call that we needed to rush back east to see my mom. We left services early and were back in DC by the following evening.
When we arrived at the house she was in bed, too sick to stand. She could barely even open her eyes to look at us. I knew these were going to be our final conversations. What questions did I need to ask? What were the last things I needed to tell her?
Our first conversation was about how Rachel had recently proposed to me. We had discussed the prospect of Rachel and I getting married on her last trip out here. Incredibly, that trip had been just two weeks before. During that trip she had expressed concern that Rachel, the same person who was recently elected to the Va’ad, Sha’ar Zahav’s lay board, might somehow not be jewish enough! But, foreshadowing what she clearly knew was coming she had also bought us a decorative plate depicting a jewish bride and groom at their wedding. It was packed tightly in a bag and put on a shelf with very specific instructions to not open it until we were married. Back at her bedside I braced myself for what her response would be to the story of Rachel’s proposal. She looked up at us and smiled. Her only words were: “that’s interesting.”
Our last conversation together was me calling through the bathroom door asking if she needed help. She was so weak she had barely spoken for hours, then abruptly had jumped up and walked into the bathroom alone. I was so worried. I nervously paced outside the door. And then she shouted through the door, powerful as ever, “No, I can do it myself!”
These were not quite the last words that I’d been hoping for.
That night my whole family kept her company by sleeping on the floor around the room. It was like a solemn camping trip. There were no campfires or stories. Only darkness and waiting. Around 4am I crawled into bed with her and quietly sang the Mi Shebeirach. The following morning, she was gone.
In the days, months, and now years, that followed, I was saddened by the fact that she had never shared any final thoughts or wisdom with me. This was her last chance to tell me something really important! Was it really possible that she had nothing to say? I was further angry at myself for having wasted my opportunity by her beside to inquire about the many family members and stories of hers I had forgotten the significance and details of. All that wisdom was now lost forever.
Just a few months ago Rachel and I were cleaning out my parent’s house and stumbled across a large box. It contained huge stacks of books and piles of word find booklets. A note from my sister lay on top. It read: “Mom’s journals in margins. Don’t throw out!” For an hour I sat there and flipped through each book slowly reading her writing. Tears pouring out of my eyes, I could barely see the pages.
There was just a little note per day. At most a sentence, sometimes only one or two words. One read: “Elliott called, finally!” Good job mom, leaving a little guilt landmine for me. Another read: “Doctor says all rotten inside, no options.” It was dated shortly before her trip to see me just before she died. And then I noticed it. A smiley face on one page. And then one on another. And another. And I realized there was one for each time I had called her. My calls had been so important to her that each time, she had made a little mark.
Yom Kippur is a day, perhaps more than any other, where our people come together to think about mortality. Death is on our minds, in our words, and in our prayers. As we say in Unetanah Tokef: “Who will live and who will die, who will reach the ripeness of age, and who will be taken before their time, who will be at rest and who will be tormented…”
Until recently I was tormenting myself for all the missed opportunities; not just with my mom, but in my life, now, and in the future. What if that last conversation I had wasn’t meaningful enough? What if there was not another year? What if my last words are meaningless?
But what I decided this year is that my regrets here are misplaced. That the kind of torment I was experiencing is not the rightful purpose of Yom Kippur, or of any other day.
I had waited those last years for my mom to share some great wisdom. But in the end, what we had were a series of moments that were reflective of all of our times together. She knew the end was upon her, but it seems there was nothing she felt burning inside to share. From this I learned that even if you know that you’re about to die, you might not suddenly have a wealth of wisdom to bestow.
As my family has gotten older I’ve found myself stressed about trying capture every memory. Filled with worry that our last moments are going to be something profound that I cannot risk missing. Instead what I’ve realized is that even if the last interaction was an argument, it doesn’t negate that we had decades of happiness together.
Our last conversations are no more important than any other, are no more likely to be profound. Each conversation is equally important in the whole of our lives. Each is another chance to live by our promises today. Perhaps they’ll be significant like my mom’s Rosh Hashanah words written on the wall, or perhaps they’ll be silly with flickering lights and shouting through a bathroom door.
We can’t plan what parts of our lives will be significant, nor can we plan all the wisdom we’re going to give and receive. As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “We plan and God laughs.” The best we can do is live our lives and to be in the present, because we never know which moment will be the most important.
One of my most vivid memories of my mom is of her standing in front of the ark at Sha’ar Zahav reaching out to touch the Torah covers, admiring the denim, with a big smile. No words were spoken, and she likely didn’t even know I was watching. I didn’t know at the time that the moment was special. It wasn’t planned or sought out. It just happened.
This year I plan to let go of my torment and regrets, to stop seeking the perfect moment, and to reach out to the torah as she did. It’s there that I think I’ll find the words I’ve been looking for.
We believe everyone deserves equal access to what is holy. Our services are open to everyone – you don’t have to pay to pray! Of course, we welcome donations and support of any kind.
- We will be offering free professional childcare services this year.
- Family Service will take place at 10:00 AM with Rabbi Copeland and Cantor Bernstein on Yom Kippur and the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
- Children in childcare will attend Family Services. You are also welcome to join your child for the service part portion of the morning.
- Food is provided for children in childcare. If you just want to attend Family Services with your child, there is no need to signup in advance.
- Childcare for Yom Kippur is available 9:30am – 7:30pm
- Registration: Please let us know if you will be needing childcare so we can staff accordingly.
Rosh Hashanah Evening (Erev) – Wednesday, September 20, 7:30 pm, @Herbst
Rosh Hashanah Day 1: Morning (Shacharit) – Thursday, September 21, 9:30 am, @Herbst
Rosh Hashanah Day 2: Morning (Shacharit) – Friday, September 22, 9:30 am, @SZ
Yom Kippur Evening (Kol Nidre) – Friday, September 29, 7:30 pm, @Herbst
Yom Kippur Morning (Shacharit) – Saturday, September 30, 9:30 am, @Herbst
Yom Kippur Afternoon (Mincha) – Saturday, September 30, 1:00 pm, @Herbst
Yom Kippur Afternoon (Niggun/Chanting) – Saturday, September 30, 2:00 pm, @Herbst
Yom Kippur Late Afternoon (Yizkor/Neila) – Saturday, September 30, 5:30 pm, @Herbst
Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast – Saturday, September 30, Sundown, @Herbst