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Monday, October 4, 2010


Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5771.

Well folks, here we are once again reading the richest, juiciest, meatiest, stormiest portion in the Torah, the very first portion and the one to beat all portions. There is so much for us to talk about, so many sermons for me to give you, such pathos in the text as it teases out God’s stormy and difficult path from lone Creator of a perfect Garden of Eden world to regretful, angry, first time parent of the children who disappoint him. Think of the possibilities: we could talk about the majesty of the creation story with its emphasis on goodness and people being created in God’s image. We could talk about the tumultuous tale of Adam and Eve, the fratricidal tragedy of Cain and Abel, God’s deep disappointment with God’s creative experiment gone wild that leads God to wipe it all out and start again.

So what did I choose to talk about this morning in what will be an admittedly brief dvar Torah? A brief and often overlooked detail in the portion that I think says so much about the ancient and indelible nature of love, hope, and human perseverance. Let’s look together in Genesis, 4:25 (HEH, p. 29): “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, ‘God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,’ for Cain had killed him.” This verse is part of an early genealogical list that identifies the founders of cities, musical instrumentation, tool and weapon making. We would expect it to follow directly after the end of the story about Cain murdering Abel, his brother. However, it is more directly connected to the strange story fragment about Lamech and his two wives. Lamech is described as a man who loves to crow about his violent tendencies, so perhaps or verse about Adam and Eve’s new child Seth is well placed here: it’s theme of new life, especially after fratricidal tragedy seems to be a response to Lamech’s arrogant emphasis on violent death. Commentators on the Torah going back as far as the early rabbinic midrash, Genesis Rabbah, have a somewhat different take on this verse. Based upon later genealogical hints in the Torah, our rabbis assert that, after their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve refrained from relations for 130 years. Lamech and his wives were, in the rabbis’ imagination, also celibate. When Adam criticized Lamech for threatening the survival of humanity through not procreating with his wives, Lamech countered Adam’s complaint by accusing him of hypocrisy. With a “new and improved” sex drive and a new sense of existential urgency, Adam made love to Eve and they bore Seth, as a literal replacement for Abel, so that humanity could survive those early traumas of expulsion from paradise and of fratricide.

Taken together with these comments, Genesis 4:25 can be understood as more than a mere fragment in the book’s early genealogy of the human race. In the midst of many painful stories about the corruptions of human desire, our lust for power, and the murderous origins and results of familial jealousy, this verse returns Adam and Eve –and us- to sexual intimacy and reproduction as one of the most potent, hope filled responses to all of this human heartache. Somehow, despite –or perhaps because of- the tragic disruption of their family by their son’s murderous outburst against his brother, Adam and Eve managed to find each other once again in the mystery of sex, thus rebuilding their family and humanity. Is this because the human capacity to love is one of our greatest weapons against engulfing despair? Yes, I think so. This verse and its midrashim seem to be telling us that Adam and Eve used their physical and emotional desires for each other to fight despair at a personal and a universal level. They refused to allow their horrible grief to destroy them personally and globally.

Rochelle Krich, the renowned mystery author who is a child of Holocaust survivors, once spoke at our community Yom Hashoah program a number of years ago. She told the story of how her father’s entire family, including his first wife and children, were murdered by the Nazis. He survived the Shoah, came to this country, and began a new family, the one from which Rochelle is descended. When she asked him why he did this after so much personal trauma, he responded with deceptive simplicity: “Because I met your mother.”

Krich’es story is part of that even longer narrative, really the Torah’s counter narrative, to its first dark tale about our human impulses and their destructive capacities. Hiding just behind, but not too far behind, that dark tale is another equally powerful lesson: our impulses to love, to create, to heal, to hope and to build are the angels of our better natures, whether expressed sexually or otherwise. We would do well to cultivate those impulses, that have been given to us as God’s greatest gifts.

Shabbat shalom.


Dvar Torah For Day 2 Sukkot 5771.

For this morning’s Dvar Torah, let’s review the underlying reason for a simple halakhah that we have been observing when we wave the lulav and etrog. According to the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Code of Jewish Law, we hold the lulav in our right hands and the etrog in our left hands during Hallel, the waving, and the Hoshanot prayers. The reason for this according to the Shulkhan Arukh is that the lulav contains three separate commandments for us to perform, -taking possession of the palm branches, the myrtle, and the willows- whereas the etrog stands alone as a single mitzvah. Since the right hand is considered the stronger and more important one, and given the prevalence of righties in any population, it retains the honor of being the hand in which we hold the lulav branches, the myrtle, and the willow branches. Though I have no proof for this, I would not be surprised if the etrog is also reserved for the left hand because the etrog is a symbol for a person’s heart; the left hand and arm are closest to the heart, of course.

What is less known is a variation on this halakhic rule, the minority opinion that a left handed person should reverse this order, by holding the lulav bunch in the left hand and the etrog in the right hand. Underlying this minority opinion is the halakhic concept of azlinan batar yamin didei: a leftie holds the lulav in the hand that is the right, or stronger, hand, for him or her, and not in one’s actual right hand. Though this is not common ritual practice today, Halakhah records this opinion as a legitimate option for ritual practice.

Let me stretch your thinking based upon this somewhat obscure bit of flexible ritual law. This idea that a leftie’s right hand is what he or she considers the right hand to be points to an important insight. Like righties and lefties, we are all wired differently. Each of us has different learning styles, personality strengths, disabilities major and minor, and ways of perceiving and knowing. Though at times, every person has to conform to the culture and modalities of the majority of society and fit in with its rules, force fitting the individual like a square peg into a round hole often produces no positive results, and is in fact dangerous to that person and his or her community. At times, we all act like righties, and at times we lefties have to be allowed to behave like lefties.

This is particularly the case with education. President Obama’s Race To The Top, his challenge to states to improve their schools in order to get large federal grants, has certainly sent departments of education in numerous states scrambling to prove a number of things to the White House. Everyone is trying to show that they can test students more often, demonstrate student and teacher success and failure based upon standardized testing, and standardize teacher training more rigorously. As a teacher, I am all for tightening standards for teacher training and tenure, as well as for strengthening student performance in our nation’s schools, especially for the purposes of making our students more competitive with the rest of the world. But I am fearful and skeptical about a mad nationwide dash to secure federal education dollars that may sacrifice emphasis on students as individual learners. Asian schools, especially the Chinese, often force teach their students in a cookie cutter fashion that emphasizes testing and conformity. That may produce a lot of students who can answer test questions and spit back information, but is it really a mark of educational success? What about developing critical thinking skills and appreciation of the world as goals of education? What about character development, moral reasoning, and becoming a thoughtful, active participant in democracy? Most important, what about the student who either because he is learning disabled or she is just different, learns and thinks differently: the student whose left hand is his or her right hand? Now, we are not China. Whatever Marxist critiques exist of our education system as a feeder for the great, hungry capitalist free market monster that demands worker docility and conformity, we are way ahead with respect to respecting individuality and free choice. Still, we need to be careful that in our educational race to the top, we do not go over the top in deemphasizing the unique gifts of individual students and teachers, even if they do not fit the standard marks of success as they are now being defined. Surely, even Halakhah, which generally favors communal conformity over individual predilection, understands that sometimes an individual’s left hand is that person’s right hand; that is where that person’s strength lies. Our politicians and educators would do well to remember that wisdom as well.

Chag Sameach.


Sermon For Yom Kippur, 5771.

What if you had only one day to live, and you were lucky enough to live it over and over? What if you had only one day to live and you were cursed to live it over and over? What would or would you not do with it? Imagine yourself able to live that one day any way you liked, with no concern for consequences or shame, for the next day you would awaken, and realize that it was the beginning of yesterday, an endless today. Imagine yourself unable to ever move forward with your life and learn from your mistakes, as you played that one scene of your life over and over again. Would you ever want to leave that playground of joyous moral depravity, unleashed from all moorings of conscience and guilt? Could you ever leave that prison of existential frustration and boredom, that supposed heaven of eternal youth that is actually a mask for hell?

These sound like questions of people who live entirely in the mind, rather than in the real world of everyday lives found in every new day. However, I want to suggest that they, in fact, reflect much deeper concerns about freedom and personal meaning that we human beings struggle with all the time. Do we ever get to do over the mistakes we make in our lives? Can we return to and relive parts of what we did and who we were, in order to redeem ourselves from mistakes? Are there ever second chances?

You probably already know that rabbis think about these questions a fair amount, especially around this time of year, when we come together with our congregants to face God and ourselves, and try to figure out the spiritual technology of repentance and growth. However my current interest in these questions derives only partly from Judaism and its holidays. I recently viewed–seventeen years late- a rather curious film that, since 1993, has become almost a cult classic: director, Harold Ramis’es Ground Hog Day. Citizen Kane the film is not; it is fairly light and stars the rather droll and goofy comedian, Bill Murray. However, upon closer inspection, the film possess an existentialist charm and insightfulness about second chances and freedom, by turning the questions I posed before into an interesting story. Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric, mean spirited, and small minded meteorologist who plods through the mental boredom and physical drudgery of his daily work at a local news station. The film opens with Connors leaving with his producer and his camera man on their annual trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on what he considers to be the soul deadening observance of Ground Hog Day: February 2, when Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog will inevitably see his shadow, thus predicting like clock work another six weeks of winter. Connors hates his job, hates his life, hates the people he works with, and hates the good folks of Punxsutawney who actually revel joyously in the celebration of their local culture and history. After a snow storm forces the TV crew to remain overnight in the town, Connors goes to sleep. Upon awakening and reawakening over what appears to be a succession of several days, he comes gradually to the conclusion that he has not woken up each time to a new day, but to the same day, February 2. Convinced at first that he is now truly imprisoned in a life not of his own making, he slowly recognizes that getting to do the same day over and over again actually liberates his darkest desires: he can be as destructive, rude, and sexually rapacious as he likes, because when he wakes up the next day, no one but him will remember what he has done. The next day is simply yesterday, rerun like a film clip played over and over again. As Connors’ indulgence in selfishness and stupidity wears thin, he attempts anything, especially death, which will allow him to escape the prison of the present day with all of its predictable sameness. Yet even death, the ultimate form of liberation, fails him in his quest to move time and his life forward: he can’t even die. As the film progresses, Phil Connors gradually begins to understand what will free him from eternity and allow him to grow. The endlessly replayed scene of his life on Ground Hog Day –symbolized of course by the endlessly boring life of the other Phil in the film- has one catch in it. He can change the scene day to day through how he behaves, not only for evil but for good. In a way that actually requires the skeptical viewer to set aside the film’s logic, he comes to know and affect positively the lives of the people of the town; he learns to treat the people he has abused more kindly; he figures out how to show his producer, with whom he is in love, that he can love her like a grown up who cares about people. Only when he finally gets this scene of his existence right, can Phil Connors break the surrealistic spell of his constant feedback loop of a life and go home.

Though Judaism recognizes the indestructibility of the soul after death, it also recognizes that we don’t literally get to live the same day or the same life over and over again. So, I ask: are the ideas found in this film Jewish ideas? From a Jewish perspective, is there no opportunity when we are alive to relive the past –as it were- so that we can reshape it? How irreversible are our actions and choices? Moses Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, took on these vital questions in his monumental book, Laws of Repentance, which is found in his compendium of Jewish law. There, he lays out what Judaism says about personal change, and forgiveness: how we reach them, and our beliefs about human freedom that underlie them. Listen carefully to what Maimonides has to say:

There is a difference between repentance and complete repentance. What is complete repentance? A person finds himself in the same circumstances of wrongdoing as he had been in previously: he has the opportunity to commit the same sin, to do the same wrong, but he decides not to because he is commited to behaving differently, not because he is afraid of getting into trouble or because he lacks the physical strength to do so. For instance: two people have an illicit affair. They find themselves alone with each other at the exact time of year and in the exact place as in the past. They both still love each other and their physical desire for one another is just as strong. They can easily resume their illicit relationship, but they refrain from doing so.

Maimonides took his idea about complete repentance from earlier traditions found in the Babylonian Talmud, the master work of Jewish tradition and law. A close comparison of his writing with this original source reveals that, in fact, Maimonides chose what appears to be the most extreme explanation of complete repentance found in the Talmud. The seemingly more realistic definition of complete repentance found in the tradition is that a person may find him or herself in circumstances similar to the one in which he or she had done wrong, but that person nevertheless chooses to behave differently. But to be in the same place, at the same time of the year, wanting to do the same things with the exact same person that we know are wrong? What are the chances that two people would be so motivated by desire or even true love to do this? Clearly, I am being somewhat facetious. We all know perfectly well that life is messy and complicated. The human heart follows its most passionate desires, sexual or otherwise- whether they are right or wrong- and we are well equipped with very powerful tools of self deception and rationalization that make it easy for us to justify doing what we know we should not do. Maimonides knew this too. I think he chose precisely this version of the complete repentance idea to make an important point about making choices and about teshuvah, Hebrew for repentance. Like our hero, Phil Connors, we may find ourselves placed repeatedly in the same situations over whose outcomes we think, or want to think, we have no control. “What a dream I’m having, what a nightmare this is! How did I get here again?” we ask. Our pain is real enough, as we struggle with the old impulses, the persistent sadness, the old addictions, the self deceptions, whose acting out we know will get us nowhere fast. They may make us feel ok in the short term, but they contribute to our self destruction in the long term. Maimonides is inviting us to look at the most extreme possibilities in human behavior precisely to teach us that, if you find yourself going back to earlier times and behaviors, you may not be able to undo what you did then, but you can choose not to do it again, now. Like Phil Connors, you may find yourself in the same life scenes of your complicated past, but you can change those scenes, and you can change them for the better in the future. As Maimonides explains it, complete repentance is really hard to do, and it may cause you excrutiating pain. You deserve all the love, support and compassion from others that they have to give you, as you are working on doing it: but you can do it….

Except of course, for when you can’t… or you just plain don’t. Maimonides wrote with firm, rigid religious and philosophical commitment about the idea of human moral freedom, the bedrock of complete repentance. If you look in his book, Laws Of Repentance, you find him engaging in scathing attacks upon other philosophers, Jewish and non Jewish, who limit the extent of what we would call free will. For him, “a human being directs him or herself deliberately to any course of action or life that he or she desires.” End of discussion. Or is it? Remember that, in addition to being a rabbi and a philosopher, Maimonides was also a prominent physician. I am going to assume that as he saw patient after patient, Maimonides likely encountered and was affected by what any competent, sensitive physician encountered: plenty of pain, suffering and disease inflicted upon his patients by themselves and by others, repeatedly. He likely detected crippling physical and emotional traits in multiple generations of families; he likely recognized that they could not so easily be overcome, and that they affected people’s behaviors and lives; all of this hundreds of years before the world knew anything about DNA or the human genome, and well before the advent of psychoanalysis. And beyond Maimonides the rabbi, philosopher, and physician, there was yet another Maimonides: the one who understood from personal loss and grief that at times, our attempts to “just do it” or “just get over it” or “just decide to do the right thing” are fleeting shadows of wishful and na├»ve thinking. At the height of his leadership, fame, and intellectual acumen, when Maimonides could talk with easy confidence about the difficult but can-do path to complete repentance and personal change, his beloved brother and benefactor, David, died suddenly and tragically, leaving Maimonides impoverished and responsible for David’s bereft family. As Dr. Sherwin Nuland points out in his biography of Maimonides, the great rabbi revealed in some letters and even one medical treatise just how devastating and debilitating was his ensuing depression: we get a much more truncated, compassionate, limited picture from him of the capacity for a human being to make free, life affirming choices for personal growth. Certainly, we now know enough about clinical depression and so many inherited traits to understand well that their crippling influence upon a person’s behavior are not at all the same thing as a person’s free choice to continue to behave one way or another. However, my point is that Maimonides’ intense spiritual commitment to complete repentance and free moral choice was likely balanced in his own soul with his own personal and professional experiences that told him life is not so simple. Yes, we possess free moral choice, we can make decisions to stop making excuses for our behavior, and we can change; but in real life, there are things that hurt us or that are just beyond our control, partly or completely, that affect who we are and what we do. That is why in Jewish tradition, we talk about balancing judgment with mercy, both divine and human; that is why in Jewish law, you can ask sincere forgiveness from God and others even upon your deathbed, after a life of repeating the same ground hog day, day after day, and the forgiveness is there waiting for you. That is why I think Maimonides himself explicitly distinguished complete repentance and just plain old repentance. Listen now closely to another great teaching of his from the same Book, Laws of Repentance:

So, what is plain old repentance? The person who does wrong stops committing his sin, stops thinking about it, and he makes the firm mental commitment to never do it again, even to the point of making God, the One who knows all secrets, his witness to this effect. He expresses sincere regret for the past. Whatever he resolves in his heart he must also confess out loud.

Note what is missing in this teaching of Maimonides. A person looking to repent has to make every sincere effort, before God, himself, and humanity to do so. But nowhere in this passage did our teacher ever say that this process is some kind of an immunization against bad behavior down the road. Taking his cue from the Jewish tradition he followed and the imperfect, broken human nature he observed, Maimonides offered us a formula for breaking out of the cycles of pain we inflict upon ourselves and others that recognizes with compassion the power and the limits of our ability to change. Part one of that formula is all about apologizing and doing better towards those we have hurt. Part two –discussed by Maimonides elsewhere- is the often grueling, but healing response to repentance: forgiveness, of oneself and of others, even and especially when our hurt from the past and our often logical assumptions about people’s future tendencies fill us with anger and mistrust.

Yom Kippur ritualizes and concentrates this dynamic in one powerful day, whose echo we should listen for and respond to during the rest of the year. That is why we are here in prayer and here, living in the world. We are here because we are struggling to break the cycles –the groundhog days- of our behaviors and attitudes that we know hurt us and others; and we are here because we are struggling to forgive ourselves and each other for not always being successful at breaking those cycles. We are here because we are free, and God calls us to take responsibility for what we are and what we do as adults; and we are here because God knows well the nature of human nature, loves us all the more for it, and asks us to forgive ourselves and each other too. We are here because in remembering our loved ones at the time of Yizkor, we can appreciate them for their love and the good that they did, and forgive them for their imperfections, some of which may have scarred us; and we are here because in remembering them we know that we can learn from them what to do and what not to do with our lives, and act upon those teachings. Finally, we are here because our creation in God’s image always demands of us the dignity and courage of repentance; and we are here because being a loving reflection of God always grants us the opportunity to try over and over again, when our personal limits make us fail to live up fully to that reflection.


Dvar Torah And Torah Intro For Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5771.

I have never been a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music and mystique, not because I do not like what he sings and stands for, but because I kind of missed the Dylan moment in American pop culture. Though Dylan continues to be an important force in American music, his greatest influence over the ears and hearts of America was likely in the 60’s and early 70’s, when I was a little kid. Nonetheless, when his music and lyrics speak to me, I know it.

In anticipation of the reading of the painful and complex story of the Binding of Isaac, I have been thinking of the opening stanza of Dylan’s song, Highway 61 Revisited, found on the 1965 album by the same name. The words sound better when sung, but no such luck today: I am going to read them to you.

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Dylan’s words at first strike us as pretty simplistic poetry. The rhyme scheme doesn’t appear to be very creative, and God’s dialogue with Abraham –who Dylan refers to as Abe in an overly folksy way- feels somewhat forced. Moreover, we have seen this midrash, this interpretation, before: the seemingly compliant Abraham of the Torah is turned into the protesting Abraham of later rabbinic legends, the one who opposes the awful divine decree that he murder his own son. But note how, at the end of the stanza, Dylan turns the biblical story- and its back story- of Abraham’s dialogue with God into something entirely unique, and actually quite sinister. Minnesota State Highway 61, which originates in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, runs for 151 miles along the shores of Lake Superior until it reaches the border with Canada. Legend has it that the great Blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and highway 49, in return for professional and artistic success. The Abraham of the Torah –a courageous yet enigmatic man of faith- is turned by Dylan into an abused man who would contemplate killing his own son for the sake of protection from the demonic, abusive God demanding such a horrible thing from him. That is why God tells him to kill Isaac, not on Mount Moriah, but out on the notorious Highway 61.

On one level, Dylan’s reading of God’s demonic cruelty that he draws from the Binding of Isaac is an overstatement. As bizarre and terrifying as God’s demand is, we the readers already know that God has no intention of allowing Abraham to kill Isaac. Our Torah portion makes clear: “V’Ha Elohim Nisah Et Avraham,” God puts Abraham’s faith and loyalty to the test only. Further, this is the same God who earlier in Genesis accedes to Abraham’s demand that God behave justly by not killing the righteous people along with the evil doers in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Knowing the context of Abraham’s encounter with God in this terrible story, we are perhaps more inclined to see God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in less extreme terms.

And yet, Abraham himself does not know these things. When we try to imagine Abraham’s experience as our own, to place ourselves in his shoes, we recognize that perhaps Bob Dylan’s take on our story is not so far off the mark emotionally. Can we not safely assume that, when confronted with God’s wildly cruel and capricious demands on the life of his son, Abraham feels like any other parent or in fact any other person who has feelings and a conscience? Literary theorist, Erich Auerbach, points out that the Binding of Isaac is a classic mimetic story: like a mime performing silently, it uses mostly action, no interior monologue and almost no dialogue to convey brilliantly the tensions and deep dilemmas posed by God’s and Abraham’s actions. It never tells us what Abraham is thinking or feeling. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: just because we have no direct idea about how Abraham feels in the story, does not mean that he has no feelings. We just need to imagine them and tease them out of the text with creative interpretation.

So, let me suggest the following as we read this awesome and terrible story. We Jews read it as a faith community on Rosh Hashanah because of its themes of self sacrifice and of hope despite despair, which are the perennial signatures of Jewish faith throughout the ages. We Jews also read it as critically thinking people of conscience who have no problem taking issue loudly with God when we perceive God not living up to the ethical standards that God demands of us. Yet we Jews can and should also look at this and our other great stories as rich works of art that force us to think about the fearful, stormy and often conflicting emotions standing behind our heroes’, God’s, and our own actions. They stir up in us the deep feelings of love, outrage, despair, desire and hope that make us fully human and engaged in dynamic relationships. These emotions are ultimately some of the enduring bases for Jewish religion: a jealous God Who makes impossible demands upon our loyalty, a people torn between loving God in return and wanting to be left alone, and the promise of a relationship between us that transforms us and the world.


Sermon For Rosh Hashanah, Day 1: 5771//September 9, 2010.

Shanah Tovah. Just a few minutes ago, we listened to Anschel Weiss sound the shofar for us quite beautifully. The blasts of the shofar give us such a mystically inspiring feeling because they transcend all words; they get to the heart of what people are feeling but cannot necessarily articulate. Several years back, Rabbi Kieval and I did a high holiday exercise with our USY youth group called “I Shofar That Emotion,” whose title is a kind of wordplay on the famous Motown hit song, “I Second That Emotion,” sung by the great Smokey Robinson. We brought in a variety of shofarot, the Hebrew plural for shofar, and –in keeping with ancient teachings- we asked the USYers to show how they would convey different feelings without using words, and only making sounds with a shofar. How could the blasts of the shofar help them to imagine voicing those deepest human emotions and anxieties that often cannot –and should not- be expressed in words? I want to try this exercise with you this morning, though we will have to improvise a bit, since I don’t have 700 shofars to hand out to everyone praying here today. Instead of blowing on a shofar, I invite you for just a couple of minutes to use your own voice and become a shofar. As we sound out each of the shofar calls with our voices, think of some feeling, some idea, some urgent insight or warning that you need to call out to someone else, or to yourself. Imagine, as the sound pours out of your throat, something important to which you want to give a voice, something that you need to have recognized.

I understand that, for some of us, this kind of exercise will feel silly, or hokey, or just plain uncomfortable. Certainly, if you choose to sit quietly and listen to others making these human shofar calls, that is fine. If closing your eyes as you are making these sounds helps you feel less self conscious, then close your eyes. However, I encourage you to try this spiritual exercise of imagining that your voice is a shofar. We are going to shout out the three basic shofar notes. I will start, then I invite you to repeat the sound that I make. We will pause briefly after each call. Here we go:

Tekiah! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
Shevarim! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
Teruah! (sound) Now you call. (pause)

I hope that each imaginary shofar call that you made called up important things for you that you need to voice. Now, if you are skeptically thinking that what we just did is nothing more than another fluffy, new age, feel good, touchy feely, pop psych meditation, think again. One Hebrew word in our tradition that is used to describe the sound of the shofar is Kol which literally means, “voice.” The shofar itself has a voice that is so simple, clear and uncluttered, it provokes very primitive, at times childlike, emotions in us. We hear its voice, and perhaps we feel that fear stirred up in us when an ambulance or fire truck siren wails ominously on its way to an emergency. We hear its voice, and perhaps we feel that aching compassion stirred up in us when a baby cries without consolation. We hear its voice, and perhaps we imagine shouts of rage between people fighting, moans of desire between people in love, the elated yell of two friends greeting each other after a long absence, or our own cries of desperation and protest to God and Man in the darkest moments of life. The shofar’s sound is an echo of each of our voices in every life situation. Jewish tradition alludes to this when it teaches that the shofar blast known as Teruah could be nine staccato blasts (blow shofar) like a person wailing, or three longer blasts, called Shevarim, (blow shofar) like a person sighing heavily in sadness. Originally, the number of shofar blasts required during Rosh Hashanah was a mere thirty, but over time the custom developed to blow a hundred notes on the shofar in public each day of the holiday. Later interpreters of Jewish practice explained the hundred shofar blasts by comparing them rather imaginatively to the hundred cries of a woman in active labor. Situated at that most awesome, painful, beautiful moment of helping her newborn to transition from the womb to being in the world, she cries out with the recognition that new life is beginning, and that all life will ultimately end. So too, as the new year is born, we listen to the shofar cry out in our behalf, as we cry out for life, and give voice to the sobering truth that mortality will catch up with some of us in the year to come, and all of us eventually.

When we consider the role of the voice and speech in the history of human evolution, we should not be surprised that Jewish religion would establish such a powerful connection between our voices, our deepest thoughts, emotions, and even actions, and the shofar. Jared Diamond, the renowned scientist and social critic, points out that even though modern human beings evolved and diverged physically from our cousins, the chimps, a million years ago, our great leap forward as full human beings only happened a mere forty thousand years ago: a blip on the timeline of human and natural history. What made this happen were evolutionary changes in our heads and necks that allowed us to use our voices to speak and develop language. Once we could speak and communicate with each other, human creativity and ability leaped forward, securing our place as the most powerful –and simultaneously the most destructive- of all species. Diamond points out that we share with our closest primate cousins almost everything in our genetic make up, except for this singular gift of meaningful speech. With it comes the almost limitless capacity to make free choices by being able to give voice to every thought and to understand and respond to the thoughts of others. But the dark, often demonic, side of this great leap forward is the monstrous human capacity to use our unfettered power to silence the voices of other people and other species. For example: I recently learned that cultures at war with each other have been committing acts of genocide for millennia, not merely since the 20th century. Another example: I recently learned that, well before they had contact with European colonialism and industry, native cultures from North America to the south Pacific islands were already mindlessly annihilating hundreds of species of animals for thousands of years in their quest for food, leading gradually to the slow deterioration of our global environment that we in the West have merely catalyzed. A final example: I recently learned that the current yawning gap between the powerful voices of the world’s wealthiest nations and the near silence and powerlessness of vast segments of Asia and Africa is due, not entirely, but in part to the blind accidents of history and geography. Societies in the right climates that were blessed with animals and crops they could cultivate, became the victors who have taken the spoils for thousands of years in a grossly uneven global competition for food, resources and power that continues today.

Theoretically, all human beings possess equal potential to make their voices heard –to plead and protest their case before family, community, society and the world, to attain and possess power, security, comfort. Yet, paraphrasing what the animals of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm taught us so cynically: some human animals have the tools, the luck, and the power to be more equal than others. This is the depressing, despairing truth about being human, a truth that is cemented by the sad realities of human greed, aggression and short sightedness. In the great cacophony of our planet’s many peoples, communities, classes, and nations, the voices of some shout down or drown out the voices of others. That is why this seemingly tame musical ritual of blowing shofar on the day commemorating the world’s creation grabs us by the soul and will not let us go. Every musical note blasted from the shofar represents a voice of some human being crying, shrieking the demand –“Here I am, don’t ignore me!-“ into the vast space between that person’s lips, the world’s ears, and ultimately, the attention of God. These crying voices abound.

There are the nearly silenced voices of countless women and girls in the developing world who are brutally repressed by religiously motivated terror, physical abuse, sexual slavery, and the status of chattel conferred upon them by the men in their societies. Read the unbelievable book, Half the Sky, by prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn, to learn these women’s stories and to hear their voices. Find out from them what you can do –as a Jew, as a human being- to give them back their voices through various strategies of empowerment and Western support.

There are the nearly silenced voices of disadvantaged children from neighborhoods no more than two miles away from us in our own city, who could just as well be dwelling in another galaxy. They brush shoulders with many of our children in the halls of the middle schools and the local high school, but the equalities and similarities mostly end there. How many of these children possess the deep potential to add their voices of creativity, insight, leadership, and courage to the ongoing dialogue of society? How many of them are born, will live, and die in voiceless, dead end poverty because of parental neglect, a subculture that tells them education is meaningless, the persistence of racism, and governments at all levels that don’t listen to them because poor people lack political clout?

There are the nearly silenced voices of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students, and fellow congregants who suffer quietly or wordlessly what the renowned psychiatrist and rabbi, Abraham Twerski calls the shame borne in silence: domestic violence at the vicious hands of family members and other people in positions of physical and emotional power. The old, emotionally numbing self deceptions that domestic violence and sexual abuse don’t happen in the Jewish community have been long discredited. It is time to listen much more carefully to the voices of the Hagars and Yishmaels who are right under our noses.

There are the nearly silenced voices of hundreds of species of living things the world over that are nearing mass extinction not because of natural selection but because of our environmental short sightedness. I am no Neo-Luddite. I believe and participate in the blessings that technology, science and industry have brought and can bring to the lives of every person on this planet. But biodiversity and global environmental health cannot continue to be the poorer cousins of progress; if so, we might as well say goodbye now to this planet on which our attempts at human advancement will become utterly futile, as we destroy the fragile, elegant balances of life and nature that sustain us. We, our captains of industry, and our leaders need to listen as one to those voices of warning. We are coming dangerously close to what the ecologist Rachel Carson called the Silent Spring.

There are the nearly silenced voices of the lonely people who live alongside of us in the midst of our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our public spaces. They appear to be at the center, yet they feel marginalized and ignored because of the deaths of loved ones, the ravages of divorce, our society’s polite obsession with privacy, and the devastating, uprooting effects of mobility upon families and communities.

You know, this year our synagogue theme is “100 Years, 100 Voices.” We are rightly and proudly celebrating our 100th anniversary of existence and achievement as a sacred Jewish community. Throughout this year to come and well into next year, we will explore the many voices – that is, the people and ideas- that have made our congregation a wonderful place over the last 100 years. Together we will explore 100 of the greatest ideas, values, practices, people and events that have made, and that make, Judaism and the Jewish experience so meaningful. I want to expand our theme a little bit: I want to challenge each of us to make this the Year Of the Shofar, a year in which we find some way to be a resounding, piercing voice of advocacy, of compassion, of protest, of caring for at least one other person or community. We will offer at least 100 different ways for you to find your voice within Judaism and this Jewish community this coming year, and some of them will be in the form of being a voice for others. For example, over the years, our congregation has been growing a collective voice in behalf of people in the wider community who cannot make their voices heard sufficiently because they lack the power and resources to do so. Get active in the programs of our social action committee, by bringing food to the synagogue next Friday afternoon as we kick off our Project Isaiah Food Drive prior to Kol Nidre. Find out about how they can help you to contribute to helping the poor and the homeless of our community, and to defending our global environment by guarding our earth, our water, our precious resources here at home. For a number of years, our congregation has been growing a collective voice in behalf of our brothers and sisters who cannot make their voices heard sufficiently because they are challenged by disabilities. Learn more about and help support the truly magnificent work that our preschool and religious school programs do to integrate children with special needs and their families into our school communities and into Jewish life. Make a commitment this coming March to volunteering at our annual seder for people with special needs. Many of our brothers and sisters spend their entire lives in group homes with tremendous personal challenges, at times neglected by their families and easily forgotten by the rest of the world. Imagine yourself helping to bring true joy and a sense of personal liberation to them through the celebration of Passover. But the congregation is not the only place in which to make your voice heard in behalf of others. Some say we are cursed by living in the state capitol, but I would ask us to think differently about this. The Capitol District is home to one of the largest centers of political and social activism in the nation, and our state government’s terrible health notwithstanding, our activist community is alive, robust and thriving. Pick one issue, one concern, one cause that you want to fit into your busy life, and make a difference in the lives of people who lack a powerful voice. You be their voice in your small, modest way. You be their shofar.

In a few moments, we will listen to the shofar blasts of the Musaf service. Each set of blasts is specifically connected to the unique blessings recalling God’s universal dominion, God’s undying remembrance of us and all humanity, and God’s revelation of the Torah amidst the shofar blasts at Mount Sinai. As we listen to those notes, my hope is that we can imagine ourselves as shofarot, ready in mind, body and soul to meet this coming year with courageous voices whose echoes pierce the heavens and bring down the walls of oppression.


Do you remember this experiment with babies that you learned about in developmental psychology class years ago as an undergraduate? Place a brightly colored object like a toy or a bottle in front of a baby’s face. His or her face will of course light up, and if the baby has sufficient dexterity, he or she will reach out and grab it. Now, place a piece of cardboard in front of the object so that the baby can no longer see it. Before the age of about 12 months, the child will quickly lose interest, assuming that the object is no longer there, or perhaps was never there to begin with. From a year of age onward, the child will begin to look for the object, perhaps even growing sad, restless and whiny when he or she cannot find it. Developmental psychologists refer to this phenomenon as object permanence: the cognitive ability to hold something in your memory and even to be able to figure out logically where it may have gone to, when it is no longer in your sight. Object permanence is the reason why young children at a certain age love the game Peek-A-Boo: when I hide my face from the child with whom I am playing, that child knows I am still there behind my hands, and is eagerly anticipating my return. The great psychologist, Jean Piaget, was able to define formally the different stages of cognitive and intellectual development in the life of a human being. He called this earliest stage at which object permanence begins to develop, sensorimotor: from ages 0-2, we are trying to figure out the relationship between ourselves, our bodies, and the world around us. We begin life quite egocentrically, not understanding that we and the world are not the same thing, and that it does not revolve around us. As we grow older, we recognize that the world and its objects are separate from us, and that just because we do not see something does not mean it is not there.

I always think about these developmental insights when I come to the high holiday season and read this double portion, Nitzavim-VaYelekh. This is because of the haunting idea, hastarat panim, the hiding of God’s face, that is found in the parshah and in psalm 27, the psalm for the high holidays. In Deuteronomy 31, after Moses warns the people about the consequences for violating the covenant, God tells him: “…My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them…And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.’ Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.” Torah commentators are generally of two minds about what hiding God’s face is. Some, like Rashi, say that God is threatening to ignore the people and to refrain from watching over them. Others, like the early Targumim (who translated the Torah into Aramaic) say that God is threatening literally to remove God’s presence from the people. The first interpretation focuses on the psychological dimensions of God’s absence: the feeling that we are abandoned. The second focuses on the ontological –or spiritual- dimensions of God’s absence: the fact that God has abandoned us. Whatever the hiding of God’s face means, for the Torah, it is the result of the Israelites’ decision to worship and serve other gods, a punishment for their behavior.

Psalm 27 takes a different approach to the hiding of God’s face. After telling us that God literally hides him in the hiddenness of God’s tent (yastireini b’seter ohalo) from his enemies, the psalmist turns to God with plaintive desperation: “To you my heart says, ‘Seek my face!’ O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help, do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer.” For the psalmist, God’s hiding of God’s face is a source of terror, the adult spiritual equivalent of a child experiencing the most primitive separation anxiety when his or her parent walks away. There is no morally causal reason for the hiding of God’s face, no explanations are to be found in the individual’s behavior: after all, the psalmist is called God’s servant, hardly a term for someone who has sinned against God.

Whichever of these interpretations and contexts for understanding Hastarat Panim we connect with, we are still missing an important piece of the puzzle that the idea of object permanence can help us to find. Note what is implied in these both of these scriptural passages: the hiding of God’s face is real and effective because we experience it as such. Paradoxically, we are bereft and terrified at God’s hiddenness precisely because, like the child who has learned object permanence, we expect God to be there, always, behind the hiddenness. In fact, unlike the young infant who loses interest in the bright object behind a screen, we know that God is there, even as we seek God out in such desperation. So, whether we do wrong and alienate ourselves from God, or we just feel terribly disconnected and hidden from life, God is there always, and always waiting with love, patience, and compassion. Our perceptions of God’s fluid presence and absence are the result of our many experiences. Our deeper perceptions of God’s permanence lie just beneath them, waiting for us to take them out and affix them as wings that carry us home to God. Shabbat shalom.