Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Season of Our Newborn Joy

At the end of the Day of Atonement we petition: “Breathe into me of Your spirit, and I will live a new life, the life of an infant reborn.” And when the shofar blasts we look around at the nursery that is our prayer community feeling fragile and seeing fragility in others. We emerge from our houses of worship full of newborn hope.

It’s a season of great possibility and there is quiet joy in our fresh start. But there has also been pain inherent in our repentance. Now, the tenderness of relinquishing aspects of self has to be folded into the overarching sweetness of life. And the swell of our sacred year, with its flow from one holiday to the next, bears us on its course.

We are carried from otherworldly interiority back to bodily being, into the simple joy of sitting elbow to elbow with family and friends under an arbor decorated with the fruits of the season. The holiday that’s called “The Season of Our Joy” mediates between our deep internal work and resumption of our work in the world. As transitional as the sukkah is nomadic, this next holiday transports us from the shock of re-birth to the vigor of life through a series of reintroductions to the most basic joys of being a human being on this earth.
Today I am a woman plum pie copyin overalls making sugar cookie dough for my great grandmother’s plum pie, the one containing concentric rings of plums standing on end so the pie looks like a crown for the “Head” (Rosh) of the year. And my husband is a be-aproned man par-boiling cabbage for his mother’s stuffed cabbage recipe, the one he keeps in our recipe file in her ten pages of longhand. We have been to the botanical garden to load our car full of palm tree clippings. We’ve solved a simple engineering problem in our slight sukkah design modification. Soon our young adult daughter will come to sift through the box of decorations and we’ll indulge in some nostalgia as we laugh over the slightly mouse-eaten paper bag pumpkins our daughters made decades ago.

There’s no time to linger in the gestational womb that was Yom Kippur. There’s so much to do!
The current is fast and it’s moving me out of my precious transcendence but, even so, on into new stages of teshuvah, if I think of teshuvah as return. I am still in the process of returning to my serious missions in life, forgiven for my mis-deeds but not dismissed from my responsibility to follow through with my unique contribution to creating a heaven on earth. I am returning by way of this interim passage through engagement in my most elemental gratifications: my motherhood, being a partner and a daughter and a friend, being out of doors, using my ingenuity, building things, creating beauty, and preparing to feed wave after wave of the people I love most.

When I really get back to work I will have sat under the stars every night for a week. I will have experienced still more Days of a different Awe in a different House of the Lord. This is simchat mitzvah, the joy I experience allowing the mitzvot of preparing for Sukkot to nurture me in my born-again vulnerability, guiding me home, showing me, anew, my deep roots in domesticity, nature, and relationships.

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Posted on October 6, 2014

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Sukkot, Our Interfaith Hippie Re-visioning Festival

Oseh Shalom SukkahOn Sukkot, it’s customary to read Chapter 14 from the prophet Zechariah.

Have you read it? I mean, really read it?

If you have, you’ll know that Zechariah was an unusual thinker.

Zechariah hoped Sukkot could be an opportunity for shared healing after regional war. “The survivors of every nation,” he wrote, “will ascend to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the God beyond all armies, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot” (Zechariah 14:16).

Camping together, making music, cooking food, sharing customs and creating new ones at an annual week-long interfaith festival: that was Zechariah’s visionary plan for regional healing. We don’t begin with political dialogue, theological comparison, or even shared stories of hurt and joy. Instead, we simply practice together in joy, one week a year.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l picked up on Zechariah’s cue. “A dialogue of theology is mostly futile,” he said. “Theology is the afterthought of a believer. It begins with what we should finish with. How do you get to the primary stuff of belief? You show me your way that works for you, I’ll show you mine, and we can share!” (Deep Ecumenism workshop, 1998)

Of course, learning by mutual “showing” is not really that simple. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see right past what we are shown, because we wear many lenses of preconception over our mind’s eye.

We may generously see every religion as a way of approaching Godas we define God, that is.

Using our best compassionate psychology, we may imagine we know the full catalogue of existential questions that faith answers.

We may speak idealistically of “universal” human themes, while unconsciously limiting the universal by gender, age, race, or nationality.

Too often, we employ what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic [interpretive lens] of suspicion.” Because we believe we know what truly drives all religious expression, we are suspicious of superficial differences. We look at differencesand sometimes right through differencesjust long enough to confirm our theories.

It is much more difficult to practice what Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic of recollection”to immerse ourselves in a practice, side by side with believers, and get a feel for what they receive. It’s difficult to let go of preconceptions, and it’s difficult to let go of fears.

The fears are big, and they are not mere fantasies. What if I see God their way, feel called to convert, and lose my entire family? What if I am overpowered by groupthink, and join a cult doing activities I will later condemn? What if joining a new group means I am supposed to despise the one that raised me?

Perhaps the fears would be lessened if we shared our practices within a structured ritual formatlike the one Zechariah envisioned for Sukkot. One week a year, we would gather in regional groups for interfaith campoutdoors at a campsite, if weather permits. Working side by side, we would negotiate the meals; schedule ritual prayers for all open to all; share musical traditions, children’s games, and daily camp tasks. We would agree on rules against evangelizing within or after camp. We would allow each regional gathering to develop its own unique flavor, its own signature traditions for this special week.

Yes, Sukkot Camp does sound a bit like a hippie festival, and maybe Zechariah, with his dreamy visions, was the 6th Century BCE equivalent of a hippie. However, this epithet might be a plus, if you think of the successful 30-year old Burning Man festival, and the smaller spin-off gatherings created by energetic communities around the world.

Hippie or not, Zechariah’s radical visions are celebrated in our tradition. Perhaps we could try to implement just one of his visions, creating a mini-multicultural city of Sukkot with intention and good faith, as we bypass ways of thinking that constrain us, and lay seeds for cooperation and peace.

Thanks to the Intention Gathering, and to Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Image by Oseh Shalom, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted on October 6, 2014

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Rabbis in Favor of Atheism

That’s not something you hear all the time, especially on the day leading into Yom Kippur, perhaps the most G*d soaked day of them all.  Now there are rabbinic colleagues of mine who are humanists and live and teach Jewish values in a framework that does not necessarily affirm the existence of G*d.  But the Rabbis In favor of Atheism I am referring to are not these rabbis and are not contemporary Rabbis at all. Nor are they atheists by any stretch.

A story: The Hasidic master R. Moshe Leib of Sassov taught that no attribute that was created was created in vain. His student could not resist challenging him:  “so what use can denial of G*d’s existence have.”  The master looked at him and answered: when some one comes to you and says they are in need you should not say “G*d will provide” but act as if in fact there is no one to act but you.

This very conversation was also attested to in the yeshivot, the study houses, of the Lithuanian Sages influenced by Mussar, a movement dedicated to spiritual refinement and relentless self-searching in lieu of purely outward signs of piety. The great architect of the Mussar school was Rabbi Yisroel Salanter whose personal acts of community service combined with pointed aphorisms to inspire a lasting heritage of life lessons.

One of his sayings that has become beloved by many is “the material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs…. With oneself one should privilege the soul above the body, but with others do not disregard the body…. do not rely on trust of G*d.”

Like Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, Rabbi Yisroel knew how easily one could lose sight of a key purpose of faith – not to concern oneself with other’s soul, but with their physical needs.

In fact, their insights arise from a deeper place in the tradition. The stirring chapters of Isaiah that are read on the morning of Yom Kippur.  At the very time when the people are fasting, intentionally refraining from the physical presumably to elevate the place of the spiritual, we read the great prophet’s words on behalf of G*d: ” Is such the fast I desire, a day to starve their bodies?…… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…. to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own flesh”

On this day, so coursing with spiritual imagery, as we release ourselves from the bounds of the physical world, we must be reminded, whatever our conception of G*d or G*d’s absence, the responsibility to act on the material needs of others is not in heaven but for us.

For those fasting, fast well and may we all be inscribed for a year of fulfilled needs and fulfilling actions.

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Posted on October 3, 2014

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The Key to Success is Failure

“Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “  (in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,  by Dani Shapiro, p.3)

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There is an old saying, from the Yiddish that asks how should we define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek or tzedakah, literally means one who is righteous and just; it is usually used to describe someone who is wise and highly respected. But the old Yiddish saying defines the tzadik as “one who makes new mistakes.”

It was the great Jewish philosopher and expounder, Maimonides, in the 13th century, who taught that the final stage of teshuvah repenting for one’s mistakesis that, would we find ourselves in the same situation again, we would not repeat that mistake. Now, I know that a mistake is not the same as a failure.

Failure can be the lack of a desired outcome, even when we did our very best and didn’t do anything wrong. But the errors we make in lifeerrors of judgment, lack of effort, poorly chosen words, unethical choices … these are forms of failure. To err is human, but our ability to pull ourselves back from harmful patterns of behavior, to reflect on what has gone wrong, and to choose our response when we are aware of our failuresthis is a vital part of life’s journey. And our Torah and traditions teach us that this is an important part of our spiritual journey too, as individuals and as a community of faith.

Take, for example, the story of our first great patriarchAbraham. His journey from his homelandthe land of his father to a new place that God will show him is not just a physical journey. It represents the spiritual journey that takes him to a faith in one God, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life that is about establishing something that will go on long after his life is over.

Let’s take a look at how that story begins:

(Gen 12) God said to Abram, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”

Now, receiving a message like that could go to one’s head. All these promises of greatness, and bountiful blessingsyou’ve got to be something a bit special to warrant God’s attention in this way. Was Abraham God’s golden boy?

What’s interesting is what happens next in the story. Abram, we are told, leaves just as God has commanded. He stops near Beth El and builds an altar. And then…

(12:10) There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land. As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I realize that you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live. If you would, say that you are my sister. They will be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.”

Barely 4 verses earlier, God was promising Abram greatness and blessings. What must Abram be thinking at this moment… famine, entering a land with customs and practices that put his very life at risk? This is not the only time in Abram’s life that he will experience things not going as planned. The Mishnah, in Avot (5:3) tells us that Abraham experienced 10 testing times in his life. A variety of commentaries offer different lists of what the ten aresome are drawn only from the Biblical text and some also include events from Abraham’s life that we only find in rabbinic midrash.

We see in these stories that, even in the midst of the very start of the spiritual journeys that led to the creation of our people and our faith tradition, failure and struggle are integral to that story.

We may have a sense of mission, or a goal that we think we are aiming toward. We may be infused initially with great enthusiasm about heading toward our goal. But then life takes an unexpected turn. Like the famine that sent Abram to Egypt, we are starved of the means to immediately get to our perceived destination.

This can be about life in general, but much more frequently it is about the specifics of our lives. It might be about a new venture at work, or the implementation of a new strategy. We may have some clarity of vision but, just a short while into the project, we come up against challengespersonnel, resources, bureaucracy… and we have to take a detour, or reassess. Sometimes we can’t get to where we thought we were headed… at least, not at first.

What happens when we fail? What would keep us on this path of striving to live by such high ideals and ethics when we don’t always receive the reward of success and a life without challenge? Don’t we sometimes have days, or years, when we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about, when we see others around us, who don’t appear to be better than us, succeeding where we are failing? Don’t we get tempted, like the school child who isn’t willing to accept the lessons of failure, to cheat?

‘Look!’, we are told by the Rabbis of old, “at our spiritual ancestor, Abraham.” Not just one bad day, or one bad year, but 10 tests! Our spiritual life journey, even if we were the founding patriarch, does not teach us that a life of faith is a life of success. It teaches us that a life of faith is a life of resilience. A life in which we realize that we can gain wisdom from the downs as well as the ups of life.

Perhaps the key to success is failure. If by “success” we mean how much we progress up the career ladder, how much money we earn, how big a house we have, what exotic places we went on vacation, then I don’t think this is a lesson we want or need.

But if, instead, by success we mean how we respond in times of challenge and need to each other, whether we reflect on our failures or mistakes with humility and self-awareness, whether we continue to strive to be a mensch even when life is getting us down, and whether we aspire to be what some of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors defined as the tzadikone who makes new mistakes … if that is what success in this life looks like then, yes indeed, the key may lie in our failures, and the lessons and the resilience that arises from them.

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Posted on October 1, 2014

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Gratitude and Forgiving the Unforgivable

A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).

As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness.  Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.Gratitude, and Forgiving the Unforgivable

Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else?  Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for.  It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.

TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.

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Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical.  Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.

When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.

TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.

B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.

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Posted on September 30, 2014

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Dear Friend, May You Be Written in the Book of Life

“May you be Written in the Book of Life” is such a nice phrase to utter at this time of year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most years I don’t think much about it. It is easy to ignore the weight of the words when everyone in your life is healthy.

This year is different. A close friend is struggling with aggressive breast cancer. Instead of casually saying these words, I am fervently praying them on her behalf.

Book of LifeThemes of life and death wind their way through out the liturgy on the High Holidays. The Torah and Haftorah portions speak of the struggle to conceive and bring new life in to the world. The Unetanah Tokef prayer which wails, “Who will live and who will die. Who by flood. Who by fire. Who by hunger …” speaks plainly of the many ways we may die. Most years, I acknowledge these themes, yet concentrate most of my prayers on myself, praying to be a better person, mother, and teacher.

This year is different. This year I am praying for my friend. The mother of young children should not suffer from such a serious illness. It should not be this way.

The liturgy states that “repentance, prayer, and charity, will avert the severe decree.” I do not find this prescription useful in this case. She could do all of those things. I and many others could do all of those things on her behalf, and it might not make a difference because cancer is such an unpredictable disease.

So I sit in synagogue, and I contemplate life, death, and the meaning of prayer. Using the High Holiday prayers as a magical incantation will not cure her. I know this in my bones, and yet I am called to pray. The very act of reciting the words brings me comfort. I feel so helpless in the face of this situation. Yet, here is something I can do.

I can pray.

May you, my dear friend, be written in the Book of Life.

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Posted on September 29, 2014

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Leave Your Seatbacks in their Full, Upright Position

A minor cultural kerfuffle flared up recently about airline seats and the question of whether to recline or not.

On a United Airlines flight last month between Newark and Denver, a passenger installed a device called a “Knee Defender” which prevented the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. He was asked to remove it, he refused, flight attendants got involved, tensions escalated, the woman threw water in the man’s face and the flight was diverted to Chicago and passengers removed.

Now, I think we can all agree that the water throwing and the fighting is unacceptable behavior. The more subtle question that this episode raised is whether reclining one’s seat is acceptable behavior.

The simple answer is, yes. Sure, it cuts down on the legroom of the person behind you, and makes it more difficult for that person to use the tray table and especially a laptop (the complaint of the man on the Denver flight). But reclining is permissible, it is legal. After all, the seats are designed to recline. One can say that if the airlines did not want you to recline, they would not have designed the seats like that in the first place.airline seats

But that still leaves the question: even if it is our right to recline, should we?

Me, I’m a non-recliner. I will only recline my seat if the seat behind me is empty. And I don’t recline for the simple fact that that I don’t like it if the person in front of me reclines. The reclining-seat issue is for me one that is an illustration of Rabbi Hillel’s maxim from the Talmud when he summed up the entire Torah while his student was standing on one foot: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

There is a larger value at work here in the reclining-seat debate. There are a great many things in life that are within the realm of acceptable behavior, things that are legal, things that are by right ours to do. But just because we can do something, does not mean we should do it. Yes, I can recline my seat on an airplane. It is my right. But it does not mean I need to exercise it.

There is even a Jewish legal (halachic) principle that our tradition identifies known as lifnim meshurat hadin. Literally meaning “within the line of the law,” it defines extralegal behavior one demonstrates by acting in accordance with the spirit of a law and not just the letter, or by forgoing a privilege one is due for the sake of the benefit of another. When one acts lifnim meshurat hadin, one acts with compassion and kindness towards another, taking into concern the needs and desires of the other and not just of oneself.

Reclining your seat on an airplane is an example of this. Maybe it’s a minor example, but an example nonetheless. And shouldn’t we be just as attentive to a minor case as a major one? Minor acts can beget major acts. If we are not mindful of the impact of the small things, we are sure to grow in our callousness and insensitivity. And truly it is not a small matter when we forgo what we are due for the sake of another.

Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah and the New Year. And as we mark Rosh Hashanah we also begin the period known as the “10 Days of Teshuvah” which bring us through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We examine the ways we personally have erred over the past year, and it is also a time to examine our interpersonal relationships and how we wish to be with one another.

So I offer this as a kavannah (intention) for this year. If your actions, even though socially acceptable and permissible, infringe on another even slightly, maybe make a different choice. Think through all the consequences of your actions, no matter how minor. Try to maximize the benefit of all those involved, and not just your own. Ask yourself, even though I could do this, should I?

And this year, leave your seatbacks in their full, upright position.

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Posted on September 24, 2014

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Choking on the Apple

gan eden friezeI wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.

And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.

I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independencebut not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.

We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).

Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animalsbut all life all over the worldand for all who are yet to be born.

And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.

And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”

Perhaps this yearand maybe alwayswe can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of oldfor ourselves and all living thingsl’olam va’edfor all time.

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Posted on September 23, 2014

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Apologizing for Our Parents’ Sins

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My husband and kids with my aunt and uncle on a rainy day in 2008.

My mother was born in Germany in 1939. She grew up there, emigrating to the United States in 1968, after she married my father. This was possible because my family of origin is not Jewish—I converted to Judaism in my late 20s. Throughout my childhood my family visited our German relatives frequently in the summer. My mother came from a large family, so there were a lot of people to see.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. By fifth or sixth grade, I was reading about it, and my parents made sure we learned about it. I was about 12 years old when, on one of our vacations in Germany, we visited the Dachau concentration camp site. I knew that my grandfather and my great-uncles were soldiers in the German army, and that one of my great-uncles was killed fighting in Russia. He was 18 years old. None of my relatives were members of the Nazi party, for which I am grateful, but none of them fought as resisters either.

As a teen and a young adult, I struggled with this legacy. In 2009, 10 years after my conversion, I wrote about my identity and what it meant to me. I met my husband in 1990. On his mother’s side, his family was also German, but they were Jewish. His maternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. Not all of his family got out.

My family in Germany welcomed my husband from the moment they met him, with open arms. There was never any sense of antisemitism from any of them, and when I decided to convert to Judaism, they were equally nonchalant about it. Over the years, I have asked a couple of my great-uncles about the war, and spoken to my grandmother about it, but it was not generally a topic of conversation with my aunts, uncles and cousins.

Then, last February, my husband and I received an email from one of my uncles by marriage, Onkel G—. He said his pastor had preached a sermon that asked the question of what Germans are to do about their past: Is it enough that they are aware of their responsibility and build memorials? The sermon really moved my uncle and made him think. He concluded his message to us by writing to my husband, “I know your parents and grandparents were particularly affected by the Germans’ Jew-hatred. I apologize for the crime which our parents committed.”

This is a man who never knew his father, because his father was killed in the war. I didn’t realize until he sent this email that no one in my family had said anything like this to us before. Onkel G— was a child during the Holocaust. He didn’t have to apologize for it, and my husband didn’t need him to do it. But the fact that he wanted to, and did, was deeply moving for us.

Nothing can turn back the clock. Every one of us who has harmed another or been harmed knows that. Furthermore, our tradition tells us that no one can forgive a sin that was committed against someone else. Nor can one atone for a sin committed by someone else. Nevertheless, a sincere apology for something we didn’t control, but that continues to have impact, can be meaningful.

Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening. May we have the strength both to apologize sincerely and to forgive. May you have a good year and sweet year to come.

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Posted on September 23, 2014

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Facing Loss at Rosh Hashanah

StengelThe images of the secular New YearTimes Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakersare all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanaha shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honeyare more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.

And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.

Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.

But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.

The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.

My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.

At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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